It was a Sunday afternoon, much like this, when I first met Germaine. I was strolling along the Boulevard Beaumarchais, rich by a hundred francs or so which my wife had frantically cabled from America. There was a touch of spring in the air, a poisonous, malefic spring that seemed to burst from the manholes. Night after night I had been coming back to this quarter, attracted by certain leprous streets which only revealed their sinister splendor when the light of day had oozed away and the whores commenced to take up their posts. The Rue du Pasteur-Wagner is one I recall in particular, corner of the Rue Amelot which hides behind the boulevard like a slumbering lizard. Here, at the neck of the bottle, so to speak, there was always a cluster of vultures who croaked and flapped their dirty wings, who reached out with sharp talons and plucked you into a doorway. Jolly, rapacious devils who didn't even give you time to button your pants when it was over. Led you into a little room off the street, a room without a window usually, and, sitting on the edge of the bed with skirts tucked up gave you a quick inspection, spat on your cock, and placed it for you. While you washed yourself another one stood at the door and, holding her victim by the hand, watched nonchalantly as you gave the finishing touches to your toilet.
Germaine was different. There was nothing to tell me so from her appearance. Nothing to distinguish her from the other trollops who met each afternoon and evening at the Cafe de l'Elephant. As I say, it was a spring day and the few francs my wife had scraped up to cable me were jingling in my pocket. I had a sort of vague premonition that I would not reach the Bastille without being taken in tow by one of these buzzards. Sauntering along the boulevard I had noticed her verging toward me with that curious trot-about air of a whore and the run-down heels and cheap jewelry and the pasty look of their kind which the rouge only accentuates. It was not difficult to come to terms with her. We sat in the back of the little tabac called L'Elephant and talked it over quickly. In a few minutes we were in a five franc room on the Rue Amelot, the curtains drawn and the covers thrown back. She didn't rush things, Germaine. She sat on the bidet soaping herself and talked to me pleasantly about this and that; she liked the knickerbockers I was wearing. Tres chic! she thought. They were once, but I had worn the seat out of them; fortunately the jacket covered my ass. As she stood up to dry herself, still talking to me pleasantly, suddenly she dropped the towel and, advancing toward me leisurely, she commenced rubbing her pussy affectionately, stroking it with her two hands, caressing it, patting it, patting it. There was something about her eloquence at that moment and the way she thrust that rosebush under my nose which remains unforgettable; she spoke of it as if it were some extraneous object which she had acquired at great cost, an object whose value had increased with time and which now she prized above everything in the world. Her words imbued it with a peculiar fragrance; it was no longer just her private organ, but a treasure, a magic, potent treasure, a God-given thing - and none the less so because she traded it day in and day out for a few pieces of silver. As she flung herself on the bed, with legs spread wide apart, she cupped it with her hands and stroked it some more, murmuring all the while in that hoarse, cracked voice of hers that it was good, beautiful, a treasure, a little treasure. And it was good, that little pussy of hers! That Sunday afternoon, with its poisonous breath of spring in the air, everything clicked again. As we stepped out of the hotel I looked her over again in the harsh light of day and I saw clearly what a whore she was - the gold teeth, the geranium in her hat, the rundown heels, etc., etc. Even the fact that she had wormed a dinner out of me and cigarettes and taxi hadn't the least disturbing effect upon me. I encouraged it, in fact. I liked her so well that after dinner we went back to the hotel again and took another shot at it. "For love," this time. And again that big, bushy thing of hers worked its bloom and magic. It began to have an independent existence - for me too. There was Germaine and there was that rose-bush of hers. I liked them separately and I liked them together.
As I say, she was different, Gennaine. Later, when she discovered my true circumstances, she treated me nobly - blew me to drinks, gave me credit, pawned my things, introduced me to her friends, and so on. She even apologized for not lending me money, which I understood quite well after her maquereau had been pointed out to me. Night after night I walked down the Boulevard Beaumarchais to the little tabac where they all congregated and I waited for her to stroll in and give me a few minutes of her precious time.
When some time later I came to write about Claude, it was not Claude that I was thinking of but Germaine ... "All the men she's been with and now you, just you, and barges going by, masts and hulls, the whole damned current of life flowing through you, through her, through all the guys behind you and after you, the flowers and the birds and the sun streaming in and the fragrance of it choking you, annihilating you." That was for Germaine! Claude was not the same, though I admired her tremendously - I even thought for a while that I loved her. Claude had a soul and a conscience; she had refinement, too, which is bad - in a whore. Claude always imparted a feeling of sadness; she left the impression, unwittingly, of course, that you were just one more added to the stream which fate had ordained to destroy her. Unwittingly, I say, because Claude was the last person in the world who would consciously create such an image in one's mind. She was too delicate, too sensitive for that. At bottom, Claude was just a good French girl of average breed and intelligence whom life had tricked somehow; something in her there was which was not tough enough to withstand the shock of daily experience. For her were meant those terrible words of Louis-Philippe, "and a night comes when all is over, when so many jaws have closed upon us that we no longer have the strength to stand, and our meat hangs upon our bodies, as though it had been masticated by every mouth." Germaine, on the other hand, was a whore from the cradle; she was thoroughly satisfied with her role, enjoyed it in fact, except when her stomach pinched or her shoes gave out, little surface things of no account, nothing that ate into her soul, nothing that created torment. Ennui! That was the worst she ever felt. Days there were, no doubt, when she had a bellyful, as we say - but no more than that! Most of the time she enjoyed it - or gave the illusion of enjoying it. It made a difference, of course, whom she went with - or came with. But the principal thing was a man. A man! That was what she craved. A man with something between his legs that could tickle her, that could make her writhe in ecstasy, make her grab that bushy twat of hers with both hands and rub it joyfully, boastfully, proudly, with a sense of connection, a sense of life. That was the only place where she experienced any life - down there where she clutched herself with both hands.
Germaine was a whore all the way through, even down to her good heart, her whore's heart which is not really a good heart but a lazy one, an indifferent, flaccid heart that can be touched for a moment, a heart without reference to any fixed point within, a big flaccid whore's heart that can detach itself for a moment from its true center. However vile and circumscribed was that world which she had created for herself, nevertheless she functioned in it superbly. And that in itself is a tonic thing. When, after we had become we had become well acquainted, her companions would twit me, saying that I was in love with Germaine (a situation almost inconceivable to them), I would say; "Sure! Sure, I'm in love with her! And what's more, I'm going to be faithful to her!" A lie, of course, because I could no more think of loving Germaine than I could think of loving a spider; and if I was faithful, it was not to Germaine but to that bushy thing she carried between her legs. Whenever I looked at another woman I thought immediately of Germaine, of that flaming bush which she had left in my mind and which seemed imperishable. It gave me pleasure to sit on the terrasse of the little tabac and observe her as she plied her trade, observe her as she resorted to the same grimaces, the same tricks, with others as she had with me. "She's doing her job!" - that's how I felt about it, and it was with approbation that I regarded her transactions. Later, when I had taken up with Claude, and I saw her night after night sitting in her accustomed place, her round little buttocks chubbily ensconced in the plush settee, I felt a sort of inexpressible rebellion toward her; a whore, it seemed to me, had no right to be sitting there like a lady, waiting timidly for someone to approach and all the while abstemiously sipping her chocolat. Germaine was a hustler. She didn't wait for you to come to her - she went out and grabbed you. I remember so well the holes in her stockings, and the torn ragged shoes; I remember too how she stood at the bar and with blind, courageous defiance threw a strong drink down her stomach and marched out again. A hustler! Perhaps it wasn't so pleasant to smell that boozy breath of hers, that breath compounded of weak coffee, cognac, aperitifs, Pernods and all the other stuff she guzzled between times, what to warm herself and what to summon up strength and courage, but the fire of it penetrated her, it glowed down there between her legs where women ought to glow, and there was established that circuit which makes one feel the earth under his legs again. When she lay there with her legs apart and moaning, even if she did moan that way for any and everybody, it was good, it was a proper show of feeling. She didn't stare up at the ceiling with a vacant look or count the bedbugs on the wallpaper; she kept her mind on her business, she talked about the things a man wants to hear when he's climbing over a woman. Whereas Claude - well, with Claude there was always a certain delicacy, even when she got under the sheets with you. And her delicacy offended. Who wants a delicate whore! Claude would even ask you to turn your face away when she squatted over the bidet. All wrong! A man, when he's burning up with passion, wants to see things; he wants to see everything, even how they make water. And while it's all very nice to know that a woman has a mind, literature coming from the cold corpse of a whore is the last thing to be served in bed. Germaine had the right idea: she was ignorant and lusty, she put her heart and soul into her work. She was a whore all the way through - and that was her virtue!
They are still in bed, windows open to the morning coolness. Her face has no make-up, her skin no shine. She has a cheap look in the morning, young, without resources. I imagine they wake at the same instant, like actors, like the cat in the cafe which opened its eyes to find me staring through the flat glass. Her breath is bad. My images are repeating themselves—there's nothing I can do. They crowd in on me. They come again and again, I cannot struggle free. Besides, there is no place to go, they would follow me into dreams.
“Bonjour,” she says. She kisses his stiffened prick.
“He never smiles,” she says, looking it in the eye.
“Sometimes,” Dean murmurs. Her mouth feels warm. I try to find darkness, a void, but they are too luminous, the white sky behind them, their bodies open and fresh. They are too innocent. They're like my own children, and they illustrate an affection which has little reason to, which in fact does not exist except that she—at the very bottom it is her only real distinction—she knows how to make things come true. Her mouth moves in long, sweet reaches. Dean can feel himself beginning to tumble, to come apart, and I am like a saxophone player in a marching band—in love with a movie queen. Soft-eyed, lost, I am tramping wretchedly back and forth at halftime. My thoughts are flailing. The batons flash in mid-air. The whole stadium is filled. I am marching, turning, marking time while she slowly circles the field in a new convertible. I am a clerk in her father's brokerage. I'm the young waiter who sends bouquets of flowers. I am a foreigner who answers the telephone wondering who can be calling, and it is the police. I cannot understand at first. They have to repeat it several times. There is an instant when my heart turns to lead: an accident. A motorcar...
There is a rise on the road to Sens and then, suddenly, a hundred meters further on, the skid marks, tar-black. The road curves. There is broken glass, motorcycles, people gathered around the wreck. The ugly underside of a car is showing, turned up to the sky. The wheels are motionless. A gendarme in white leather gauntlets is waving drivers past. People bend over to look beneath the wreckage. There is no haste. Everyone moves with deliberation. Only a few children are running on the grass.
“It's a Citroën,” Dean says. A motorbike is crushed beneath it. They pass slowly. Now they can see the feet of someone laid out near the trees. On the pavement are dark runs of blood.
“They're always in accidents,” he says. “I don't understand it.”
“They're very fast,” she tells him.
“Citroëns? They're not so fast.”
“How do you know? You don't even drive.”
“They always pass us,” she says.
I know this road well. It leads to les Settons, the lake where they go to swim. Anne-Marie stands in the shallow water. She has earrings on and a necklace. She bends her knees to immerse herself and then swims like a cat, her neck stiff, her head up. After a moment she stands up again.
“You must teach me,” she says to Dean.
He tries to show her the deadman's float. Breathe out through your mouth, he tells her. No. She doesn't like to wet her hair.
“You have to.”
“Come on,” he tells her. “You can't learn unless you do.”
She shrugs. A little puff of contempt—she doesn't care. Dean stands waist-deep in the water, waiting. She doesn't move. She is sullen as a young thief.
“Take your earrings off,” he says gently.
She removes them.
“Now do what I say. Don't be afraid. Put your face in the water.”
She doesn't move.
“Do you want to learn or don't you?”
“No,” she says.
They put their clothes on behind the car. No one else is around. Near to shore the surface of the water is broken by weeds. The leather seats are hot, and when Dean starts the engine small birds skim out of the grass and out across the lake.
They eat in Montsauche in a little auberge. Sunday. Everything is hushed. Dean sits looking out at the street. It's a silent meal. Afterwards there is nothing to do. He feels as if he is taking care of a child. He is thinking of other things. The day seems long. They drive—Dean takes the top down and they head towards Nevers, the wind curving in, the sun on their backs. He begins to grow sleepy. They pull off the road.
They lie down under the trees. Pines. It's very quiet. The dry cones click in the breeze. The shadow of branches is laid across their faces. Dean closes his eyes. He is almost asleep.
“Phillipe,” he hears her say.
“I would like to make love in the woods sometime.”
“You've never done that?”
“Strange,” he says.
He lies. “Yes.”
“I have never. Is it nice?”
“Yes,” he says. It's the last thing he remembers.
When he wakes, he feels cold. He sits up and rubs his forearms. His skin is creased from the grass. A few dry pieces are stuck to him.
They walk aimlessly, Anne-Marie brushing the back of her skirt a little, down to a stream. There's a small, iron bridge. They stand in the middle of it. Beneath them the water moves slowly. In places, clear as reflection, one can see the bottom. There are fish in the shadows, completely still. The water flows around them.
“Do you see them?” she says.
Dean is dropping pieces of twig. They meet the surface gently, drift away.
“We could catch them,” she says.
The pieces are light. They seem to float down from his fingers.
“Do you like to fish?” she says.
“It's too cruel,” he says.
“They don't feel.”
“How do you know?”
“Oh,” she says, “they don't.”
The fish linger, aligned with the flow. A few drift across the pale flats where the water is clear, pass to a deep menstruum, vanish.
“Why catch them?” Dean says. “They're happy.”
“Until they are eaten by a brochet,” she says.
“Well, that's what I'd be,” he says. “A brochet. Live in the river.
“They would catch you.”
No. He shakes his head.
“Not me,” he says. “No. I'd be a very smart brochet.”
“All right,” she says. “And I will be your brochette.”
The water is moving very slowly. Dean throws a small stone. The surface dissolves. I will be your brochette. It is really a quiet, domestic life they are engaged in. Suddenly he perceives this. The phrase pierces him like wire. She smiles. She begins to grow beautiful once more. It is always mysterious how she can change. By evening, in the Etoile d'Or, he can hardly take his eyes from her. She has fixed her hair and made up her face. She butters a piece of bread for him.
“Ça va?” she asks. She knows.
“Ça va,” he says. He nips at her finger. The oestrus of night comes down over him like a hood. He can feel it descending, changing his flesh. They climb the stairs. She goes first, as always. Her calves flash before him, turning away, rising on the narrow treads. Her key opens the door. Dean's prick begins to stir, and as he doubles the pillow later and she rises on her elbows, his mind is already cut loose and wandering as if he cannot keep himself together. He is thinking of what it will be like without her. He cannot repress it. Like the cough of a sick man, a weakness rises to frighten him, an invisible flaw, and he embraces her with a sudden, dumb intensity. Her back, even the word for it is beautiful, dos, lies beneath him, the back she never sees, the smooth intelligent back upon which, like a table, he has gazed for so many hours. He rears in the darkness to admire it. He had forgotten. Every minute of the day seems to have converged. He wants to slow them, to have this sweet ending last.