As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Every morning at 8:45, one of my clocks plays the Meistersinger Prelude theme on a set of silver chimes, and I wake up. I lie still for another 15 minutes, staring at the pipe and the lamp on the bedside table, and at the photograph on the wall behind the lamp, of Gül, a young woman I have never been able to forget.
At 9:00 sharp, I light the lamp’s oil-sodden wick. Aching with anticipation, I wait for the clear flame to come up, sunk back on my pillow, the pipe clasped in my left hand. I often fondle it and lick the cold, hardened pill on top of the bowl.
A few minutes later, I roll over and smoke, all in one long drag. I lie back, holding my breath to a count of 40, the euphoria of the day’s first indulgence illuminating my entire being.
An unmarried woman, I live just round the corner from the Royal Saint-Germain; it’s my boudoir, so to speak. At exactly 9:30 every day, the doorbell rings, and a waiter from the Royal appears, bearing a silver tray with one croissant, sweet butter, coffee, hot milk, and Le Figaro, which I scan for theater and book reviews over breakfast. I’ve declared a moratorium on the Ben Barka affair, and I don’t care what Sartre says about it. I’m not interested in the doings of Che Guevara. Nor do I share Ho Chi Minh’s optimism that the Yanks are going to be out of Indochina in the next three years, say by 1970.
The coffee aroma, the bakery smell and the whiff of fresh newsprint never fail me. I have no appetite in the morning. These smells bring me back to life. At all other hours, the apartment, which like the house itself was built by Dulac, an associate of Gaudi, in 1904, smells of two things only: blond Virginia tobacco and opium. Pall Malls have a honey smell that never goes stale. I can’t endure the stink of Gauloises, et cetera. “I say, Max, it’s like smoking the anal hairs of an Egyptian peasant,” my friend Dédé, Dédale de Saint Maur, used to exclaim, until I begged him to desist. Then Dédé’s wife Gismande (my mistress as of a year ago yesterday) has tried to invade my place with scents like vetiver. There again I draw the line. Gismande occupies the guest bedroom. I sleep with no one. I never receive her before noon, either. At 12:00 sharp, Gismande knocks and comes in for her first pipe of the day, after I have had time to bathe, dress, and smoke three or four myself. Then I am ready to make one for her.
This morning while awaiting the stroke of 9:00, I tried to imagine the contents of my police file. One day a few years ago, during an interview with an inspector in a fourth-floor office at the Préfecture, I saw the outside of my folder. Peach-colored and tied with a pale green ribbon, it was surprisingly slim. I had rather expected it to bulge like a telephone book.
I had been summoned to appear because of an anonymous crank letter that denounced me (a) as an opium smoker, (b) as the notorious “Max,” a lesbian with a special foible for pubescent girls, and (c) as a UFO zombie reporting to my alien handlers in their flying saucer via a transmitter secreted in my wisdom tooth.
The inspector handed me the letter. Its writing was childish, with carefully formed loops and the i’s dotted with tiny circles. My thoughts flashed back to the pair of truants I had chanced to meet one afternoon after a matinee at the Pagode, Jacqui and Toukit. I introduced myself: “Maxine’s the name, Max for short.” I was intrigued when after five minutes the girls offered to boost recent jazz from the new record shop at Saint Germain des Prés where a manager had insulted me the week before. “They have to be catalogued,” I objected, “one doesn’t just collect at random.” “We can do shorthand,” Jacqui boasted, “and we type more than a hundred words a minute.” I hired both of them. Within a week, they were coaxing me to teach them how to smoke. Then I noticed that a tube of codeine tablets was missing. I fired Jacqui and Toukit. I knew where they were going, I told them. I was in the street myself at their age.
To the inspector I only observed that the letter had to be the work of a very sick individual. “That goes without saying,” he replied and showed me out with a handshake and a wink.
I could only speculate as to what other information might be included in my dossier. It must have contained the fact that I was an orphan. That my mother had died having me. That she had been the youngest of three daughters of Etienne Bernard, whose Trotsky book had raised a hoo-ha at the Sorbonne in 1929. That my father Colonel Duhautier had earned the Croix de Guerre in the war of 1914, and that, as a still-young, childless widower in 1930, he had become the black sheep of his Catholic Royalist family by marrying the Jewish professor’s daughter in a love match unprecedented in 300 years of an illustrious family history. That as a result of his clandestine pro-Allied activities he had been tortured to death by the Gestapo in 1943. That I had lived in the streets throughout the winter and spring of ’43/’44, only to be rescued just before the Liberation of Paris by the notorious Dédale Aristide de Saint Maur—who throughout the German occupation had led a double life, that of a gilded youth often seen with the likes of Charles Trénet and Jean Cocteau while at the same time rendering important services to the Gaullist branch of the Résistance—25 when he first picked me up, having mistaken me for a boy. That at age 15 I had hired the Salle des Plantes and delivered a lecture in a zoot suit, “Defense and Illustration of Pedophilia,” for which I was arrested and fined, having been put up to it by Saint Maur. That I had subsequently used Saint Maur’s lawyer to represent my claim on the Bonn government for damages in the deaths of my father and the two aunts whom he had designated as my legal guardians. That I had won a favorable settlement of my claim and had been living on a sizable tax-free pension ever since. That I was seen almost daily at the Royal Saint-Germain and, since the publication of my radio play, chez Lipp, as well as at the Petit Pavé, often with Saint Maur, though we were not generally reputed to be lovers. The outside of my folder read (Mlle) DUHAUTIER, Édouarde Maxine; 43, rue du Bac; Profession: Writer, Born 3 August 1931, Hôpital de la Pitié, Paris.
In my opinion, a year and a day is long enough for anything to continue. This will be Gismande’s last day here. Dédé will be coming with his car at 11:00, for a couple of pipes with me and a bonjour madame to his wife when she appears. Gismande will also have a pipe or two, then go for her soak. She is regular as clockwork. At 23 she has a good body, enjoys looking at herself in my ceiling mirror, often falls asleep in the tub, and is never ready to go out before 3:00.
The bathroom is where I began to discern fatal flaws in Gismande the same day she moved in. We had just taken what was to be our first and last shared bath. While toweling her down afterwards, I discovered that Gismande was heavily infested with crablice. I had to ring the pharmacy. We spent another suffocating hour in the bathroom. Hadn’t she realized? I asked. Gismande replied that she had never even heard of morpions, save as a peculiar term of abuse. She had certainly never laid eyes on one.
“Never heard of crabs!” I shouted.
Gismande cocked her head to one side in a pout. “I don’t suppose there is any need to warn your husband,” I continued. She shook her head.
For a few seconds, we stood there without saying anything. Then I asked her to join me in my room for a smoke as soon as she was dressed. People are under the impression that I am easy-going, because I would rather smoke than deal with conflict. Given my bent, I was unprepared for what followed.
I had put on my dressing gown and the Moroccan slippers I wear around the house, and was pacing back and forth between the bedside tray containing my smoking gear and the glass cabinet in the next room, where I keep my collection of 70-odd pipes, trying to make up my mind which I ought to offer to Gismande as a gift. I settled on a double-jointed one that could be unscrewed in two segments, which if dismantled with its bowl could ride unnoticed in a pocket, a model commonly known as a traveling pipe. Taking its plum red stem in both hands, I dismantled the pipe, noting, with a satisfaction that had never diminished over the years, the shininess of its silver fittings and the elegance of its tightly threaded joints. I dropped the segments in my pocket, intending to reassemble them in front of Gismande as soon as we had smoked.
Gismande had already entered the room. Wearing a white sailor suit, she sat cross-legged at the head of my bed, staring at the photograph of Gül. “Max, the day I saw this,” Gismande said, “I knew I turned you on.”
No one likely to make such comments had ever been admitted to this room. Never mind the fact that Gül and I had never done anything but kiss, even on the few occasions when I slept with her at the hotel. She had been preparing to leave for Germany with her Turkish friend, a black marketeer. The Germans were still in Paris. I was 14 and had just met Dédé de Saint Maur. I had been coughing a lot. He arranged for me to enter a clinic where all the patients had flower names. Mine was Bouton d’Or (Buttercup). They removed half of one lung. The very next day, Dédé taught me to smoke in my hospital bed. He brought opium daily thereafter. The doctor did a paper on me. It seems the medicated smoke not only anesthetized the surgically wounded tissues, but other, as-yet-unknown alkaloids present in the opium worked to accelerate healing, at least that is what the doctor, also a smoker, theorized.
Two days before the operation I said goodbye to Gül at the hotel. She was packing her things in a cardboard suitcase and a carpetbag that had to be strapped shut with a belt. Twice she thanked me for my friendship and the second time choked on the word. She fished out a handpainted necktie that could have belonged to a pimp, together with an old prewar edition of Le puits de la solitude (The Well of Loneliness) by Radcliffe Hall, which had fallen to pieces. Tears filled her eyes as she knotted the book’s two halves with the tie. I never saw Gül again. The Turk died in Hamburg during an air raid, but of Gül there was no record whatever.
Opening the book, I found Gül’s photo. I told Dédé Gül had saved my life; he had the picture framed.
I could think of no suitable reply to Gismande, who had by now shifted her attention to my lacquered smoking tray. Behind her fair head loomed a black-framed screen forming the back of the bed, which was painted with a Tibetan hell scene, in which grimacing demons subjected still-unliberated souls to yet another turn of the karmic screw, a scene I always miss when smoking because turned the other way, my pipe aimed at the lamp and Gül’s photo in its silver frame behind it. Gismande was right. She had indeed reminded me of Gül.
In spite of myself, I remembered the glimpse I had had a half hour before of Gismande retreating naked from the bathroom.
“Now I want you to pay close attention,” I said, “to the precise amounts I use.” I opened the jar and reached for the needles.
“I want to learn,” Gismande murmured. Just then a detail I had never noticed in the curve of her hip drew my hand up into the flat of her belly, under the sailor shirt. Extending my thumb downward, I felt the beginning of her hair, a bit past the waistband of the trousers. With a slight quiver, she took a deep breath and leaned back, her legs spreading, her face in three-quarters profile with a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. I opened her pants and was immediately put in mind of an erotic description by Verlaine at his most perverse, in which he has a lesbian marveling at the skin inside her friend’s thighs:
Smoothly white as a milkwhite rose, and pink As a lily under a purple sky …
A few minutes later, she whispered, “I like your finger better than most people’s mouths.”
We had not taken time to strip but only opened our clothes; now Gismande reciprocated. I was incredibly wet. “You never guessed what a cunt lapper I am,” she said. I found it impossible not to surrender to the pleasure flooding me to the marrow of my bones. I made believe it was Gül’s tongue instead of Gismande’s. I found myself staring at the photograph. I imagined Gül’s image expanding, breaking through the frame, entering the room to pick me up in an embrace I would never come back from.
I woke up with my face in Gismande’s lap. The lingering odor of insecticide aroused me. I began licking her organ. Then, separating its labia between my forefingers, I looked inside. The exterior parts were of an almost translucent smoky lavender like the stems of certain mysterious plants I had seen in the woods the day I turned 13. I had been all alone in the country house where my father had raised me as a son, dressing me in boy’s clothes. The Germans had arrested him in Marseille the day before. A friend telephoned the family lawyer, and he in turn instructed the housekeeper to pack me off to my mother’s two older sisters in Paris. My father had provided for this; it had been the best he could think of.
For weeks I had been riding Banzai every day. That morning I galloped him down a cart track through the southeast corner of our property and was unexpectedly swept out of the saddle by an inconvenient branch and knocked unconscious to the ground. I awakened to the dank smell of a clump of ghostly pale, waxy, leafless plants growing on the patch of dirt into which my face had been projected by the fall. I stuck out my tongue and licked the violet-gray flute of earth-ooze nearest to my nose, had a vision of myself turning into a mushroom, and passed out.
I revived, only to discover that my wrist was broken, and nearly swooned again. Back at the barn, Banzai was in his stall. I smeared my wrist with blue linament, sobbing as only a child can sob, for the irrevocably lost time of life when I could pretend that I was a boy and actually believe it.
I arrived in Paris with my arm in a sling. Before I got my wrist out of the cast, the old ladies had a dressmaker measuring me. The news reached us that my father had died. We dressed in black. My aunts smothered me in hearts and flowers. The better part of a year passed. One winter afternoon, on my way in from a bookshop that had become my second home, I was intercepted in the courtyard by the concierge who told me that my aunts had been arrested. I left immediately, and a week later met Gül. She had been living in the streets ever since summer. She took me under her wing.
That was many years ago. Gismande brings it all back. However, as I smoke increasingly, I find myself taking less and less interest in Gismande, while at the same time my reveries involving Gül grow ever more absorbing.
A warm baritone voice rumbles: “Follow thy fair sun, unhappy shadow … ” I am looking up into Dédé’s enormous round face and unfathomable eyes. Soon he and I will be driving out to the flea market to call on a man who wants me to see a Second Empire wristwatch. At 4:00 we will return here to fetch my smoking things and close the apartment. Then off to the country, to arrive before dark in plenty of time to prepare a gras-double, our favorite supper. The meat is already packed.
Gismande will stay at the château when Dédé accompanies me to the clinic four days hence. The patient is kept in a deep sleep for three weeks. During that time, Gismande will move her things out. We’ll all be friends, a happy family.
I don’t want this cure. Dédé’s doctor, a withered, chain-smoking gnome in thick bifocals and a white smock, talked me into it. This son of Aesculapius addresses me as “madame.” “Madame, for the next six months at the very least, abstinence will be your ticket.” He thinks addiction is like malaria. One brings it home from the colonies. It’s in the blood.
Just now I thought of an alternative to the cure. Dédé and I would murder Gismande. It would be simple. Gismande takes massive doses of vitamin C daily before her bath. I could refill the capsules with double-strength gardenol. Then, once she was asleep in the tub, I would turn on the bathroom water heater without lighting the gas.
That would be a switch on another possibility that has been haunting me ever since a recent afternoon when Gismande asked me if I didn’t think she might be Gül’s double. I asked her if she would like me to kick her to death slowly. She laughed and walked out of the room. The conversation continued in my head. I imagined Gismande saying that if Dédé were to die, she would inherit, and the two of us could look forward to a lifetime of discreet pleasures.
Time and again I harked back to this speech, until I almost believed that Gismande had actually pronounced it. I wondered if she might not in fact have murderous designs on both Dédé and me. I fancied a conversation with Dédé in which I would report Gismande’s proposal. He and I would arrange for her to die in the tub, then take the body out to the country and bury it in quicklime.
But before any of this came to pass, something even crazier might happen. I might go through Gismande’s papers (which, it did seem very odd when I came to think of it, I’d never once seen) only to discover that she was, in some inconceivable fashion, not a mere double or revenant or incubus, but, in very fact, Gül herself in person, metamorphosed into a monster, no, an angel of unmitigated carnality, forever well and young. Then we would rush to the bathroom, Dédé and I, to find it full of gas, but Gül would be gone. There would be a note scrawled in lipstick: “Sorry.”
Treading on air, as it were, we would drive out to the château. Then, as we unpacked, Gül would suddenly walk in, and the two of them, Gül and Dédé, would turn on me.
All my life I have surrounded myself with strictly 1900-style Art Nouveau things. I cannot imagine living any other way than in silence and darkness, with clocks, books, pictures, and pleasant smells.
On the bed next to me, Dédé is working with the pipe and needles. I have always been in awe of Dédé’s protean trick of mind. True to his name Dédale, he has an inventor’s hands and understands flight. He is the only source of the opium I have smoked, and where he gets it I have never known. He is friends with the Prefect. He takes care of my clocks and arranges the mechanism of my life. The pipe is trained over the lamp. In the silence I can hear the opium cook. Dédé inhales it at a drag, then lies still. I picture a sea lion resting in the sun.
David Rattray is a writer and poet who lives and works in New York City.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.