Now Sylvain was taking acting classes. I hadn’t known that he was interested in acting during the time we saw each other in Annecy, just after the Bac’, at a time in our lives when our future studies were the number one preoccupation.
We went out a few times. Once we went to pick up two friends of his, young women one of whom I was told was the daughter of a book publisher. For unexplained reasons she gave me her apartment key to keep and we went to see “200 Motels”, the cult film about Frank Zappa on a US tour. There were no subtitles and I was eager to understand American spoken but the only phrase I understood was “penis dimension”.
After the film we hung out for a while then went home with the last subway train around half past midnight. I found her parents’s address in the phone book and went to the post office to mail her key key because she hadn’t asked for it when we parted and I had forgotten I had it. A few days later she wrote asking for her key and explained that she had snuck out the night we went out together, and that she had been forced to wake her parents up when she returned because I had not given her key back, making me responsible for her misadventure. I replied that I had mailed her key first thing Monday morning but she replied that she never received it. So I had the chance to meet the daughter of a book publisher (now that I wasn’t trying to write literature) and I had blown it.
Some time later Sylvain invited me to attend an acting class. The class took place in a nondescript room that had no stage area and was lit with fluorescent tubes.
Guy Vassalwas a theater and TV-film director with roots in the south of France. He specialized in historical dramas that occurred in the region, and in particular the controversies surrounding the Cathars and the Albigenses. He had collaborated with Stellio Lorenzi. There were about ten students in the class.
Sylvain introduced me to one of them who was a friend. His name was Jean-Luc Poudens. Sylvain invited me to go out with him and Jean-Luc one Saturday evening and Alice granted me permission to stay out late. We had dinner and afterwards Jean-Luc invited us to his pad in the 1st district, at the Louvre subway stop.
Back in the old days when rich people had live-in servants, the sixth or seventh floor at the top of the buildings, under the zinc roofs, were divided into small bedrooms for the help, with a common toilet and a common shower. One reached that area by a narrow service staircase that communicated on each floor with the back of the kitchen. Every apartment owner in these buildings therefore, owned also one or more of these “chambres de bonne”. Since the disappearance of live-in servants, these rooms that rarely had any running water, or sometimes only cold water, no kitchen and no bathroom, have been rented -cheap- to students. Jean-Luc lived in one of these.
It was painted in a dark, psychedelic color with Indian cotton prints and silk scarves draped here and there. The lighting was soft and indirect, except for a few candles. He lit up some incense, whose smoke swirled graciously and gave off a scent that evoked sexual and mystical ecstasy. He had a powerful stereo system and played records by King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, the Doors, Pharoah Sanders, Frank Zappa, to name a few. I was thrilled to listen to good pop music and Jazz, and on a good sound system. It was actually the first time in my life that I could hear such music at my leisure. I relaxed into the experience. Then Jean-Luc officiated the confection of a French-style joint, handling jewel-incrusted boxes and a gleaming brass platter, mixing the herb with tobacco, glueing together three translucent sheets of rolling paper (two lengthwise at an angle, the third one across), rolling up a narrow piece of thin cardboard to make a filter, and then rolling up the papers into an oblong cone. He lit up and inhaled deeply, religiously, then passed the joint to me without a word. I had never smoked marijuana before and, always willing to experiment and feeling that the circumstances were right, I had a toke and waited for the effect. I didn’t think I was in danger of being solicited for sex by these two men because Sylvain, whatever his orientation, had never expressed any sign of sexual or emotional attraction towards me, so I felt safe with him.
I liked how the marijuana made me feel. I liked the music even more when I had a buzz so I had a few more tokes and took the subway back to Levallois around midnight. Alice let me in around 12:45 AM no questions asked. I was relieved and thought she was very understanding, in stark contrast to my parents who, just two years earlier, wanted me to be home by 10PM.
Since I had liked the evening at Jean-Luc’s the three of us met again for more of the same. I felt the two guys were the only ones who were happy to see me so I enjoyed being with them. One night Jean-Luc gave me a pill that looked like a tiny candy. He said that it was acid. I didn’t think he was serious so I put it in my mouth. It tasted like these anise candies that you can buy almost anywhere but after I swallowed it I was worried. What if this thing had actual mind-altering properties? I became hypervigilant to any alteration in my visual and auditory perceptions, afraid to lose my self-control. Nothing happened but I was so afraid that I remained speechless, motionless, curled up on my stool, shaking and shivering all night. I didn’t want to go back to the Perrets with this unknown substance in my body so I stayed at Jean-Luc’s until ten the next morning without feeling sleepy.
I expected Alice to remonstrate. “Where have you been? With whom? What did you do?” She would have been justified. After all, she was responsible for me, for my safety and my well-being. I consider it is no small matter for a nineteen year-old woman to découcher (sleep away without prior warning) but amazingly Alice didn’t say anything and acted as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
I hated myself. Worse, I horrified myself. I never wanted to take a chemical drug and I had done it anyway. I was a druggie. It never occurred to me to blame my two pals. Blaming other people had been trained out of me so if anyone was to blame, I blamed myself. I put some weird purple eye-shadow on, some lipstick with a clashing hue, repeating to my reflection in the mirror: “You’re a druggie, you’re a druggie,” and went back out without Alice saying a word. Walking in the quiet neighborhood on a November afternoon with my strange make-up, I was trying to tell the word: “See, I’m a druggie. You and I don’t belong in the same world. My world is the world of the druggies.” I really felt I had swung to the other side of the fence and that there was no turning back.
Another night, Jean-Luc lay down on his bed and asked me to come and sit near him. He unbuttonned his fly, took my hand and put it on his penis. He had an erection. I didn’t dare move my hand and left it there. Jean-Luc asked me to describe his penis and, suspecting a trap, I immediately conjured up the image of a mushroom instead, and answered: “Red with white spots,” without realizing that, applied to a penis, it described the symptoms of some venereal disease. Jean-Luc pushed my hand away angrily and buttoned himself up with an expression of disgust.
There had always been something a little fake with Sylvain, in the way he looked at me with a fixed stare when he spoke to me, as if he were trying real hard to persuade me, and also in the way he laughed and joked, which seemed a little forced. But he was the only one who wanted to see me so how could I be choosy?
With some thirty years hindsight, I wonder if when he gave me an innocuous pill while saying it was LSD Jean-Luc wasn’t attempting to provoke a psychotic state through mere suggestion. It is a fact that suggestion can be so powerful that it triggers physical symptoms. So if I had been gullible enough and if I had swallowed the pill without tasting it, I could have hallucinated and “lost it” just because I believed that I had ingested a hallucinogenic substance. I would then have been hospitalized in a mental institution, the toxicological tests would have come up negative and I would have been diagnosed psychotic, schizophrenic or some other incurable mental disease. Like Alice and Hélène’s brother André Paulin who had been living in the nuthouse all his adult life, whom they never visited and of whom they never spoke.
* * *
André, Alice’s husband, was a handsome man in his forties. His short black hair was brushed back and enhanced a wide forehead. A short mustache ornamented his fine red lips. He had a Meridional complexion, that is, a permanent little tan which gave him a healthy look. He was of good height and his body was slim but not skinny. Just right. He never paid attention to me, our eyes never met. He was always in a good mood, unlike my parents who were subject to unpredictable mood-swings. So there existed in the world men who didn’t have a chip on their shoulder? Just for that I loved him. He drove his Mercedes fast and daringly. I couldn’t help having a crush on him but I never let him know. He was my godmother’s husband and I didn’t want to betray Alice. But I was always happy to see him when he came home at night, never complaining of his work. After putting his slippers on he horsed around with his sons in the living room. I was there to let L. have her room to herself for a while. I looked at him unobserved and thought “This is the man who cheated on his wife.” It surprised me because he seemed so dedicated to his family.
On a Sunday André wanted to go the the Mitry-Maury aero-club where, I was told, he was learning to pilot a plane. It was the first time since I’d been living with the Perrets that I heard of André’s hobby. He asked who wanted to go with him and nobody answered except me. He had me take my “air baptism”, that is, my first flight, with him sitting to the right of the pilot allegedly as the co-pilot but doing nothing but talk, since these little planes do not need a co-pilot, and I enjoyed seeing from a low altitude the countryside where fields, forests, rivers, hills and valleys unfolded magically in glorious fall colors. One could even see the cars on the sinuous country roads and people as small as ants. I felt a little queasy when the pilot did a few acrobatics at the end of the flight but overall was enchanted by the experience.
Was the religious connotation of the “air baptism” in association with André a subliminal message that he was a good guy?
Now, after ignoring me for two months, he wanted me to learn how to fly a plane. He brought me a pile of used books on aerial navigation and meteorology. I wasn’t interested. Besides I didn’t have the money to pay for flying lessons, and I didn’t think that it would be correct for him to pay for them when he had four children to support. I knew that I wouldn’t live in his household for long and that if I gave in to his pressure and started to learn, I would stop learning as soon as I left.
One day he took me aside and in a conspiratorial tone asked me to go with him to the aero-club the next Sunday but not to tell anybody about it, not even Alice. I don’t remember how we managed, anyway it was not difficult to go out a few minutes apart. The trip to the aero-club took about half an hour but he never asked me a single question about myself. Now that we were alone together I forbade myself to have any sexual thoughts about him, I was even a little afraid of him but there never was an overt sexual situation between us. To the contrary, as soon as we got to the club he ignored me completely. He left me alone waiting for him in the office while he spent all the time shooting the breeze with other men who seemed to be old friends. I went with him three or four times and he didn’t fly once.
During the week, when I was alone with Alice, she mentioned in passing the name of Mitry-Maury as if it were a well-worn name and referred to her husband’s alleged hobby in a tone that suggested that she had been tolerating it for a long time as a harmless eccentricity. Even the children mentioned Mitry-Maury with familiarity.
But hiding from Alice my secret rendez-vous with her husband started to weight heavily on my conscience, even if nothing happened. So one day, after André had asked me again to go with him on the sly to the aero-club the next Sunday, I told Alice everything and started weeping and sobbing uncontrollably, saying that I didn’t want to go anymore. Alice’s face was expressionless and she made no reply.
Since I was sixteen or seventeen, I expressed my self-rejection by refusing to accept my shoe-size. I bought my shoes one size too small and suffered the predictable consequences: horrible pain and blisters. I wouldn’t be surprised either if this self-imposed pain was in the same league as the auto-mutilation that gets more attention nowadays from the public and the mental health community. But whereas self-cutting is an overt way of expressing one’s psychological distress, a call for help, buying shoes one size too small is not a call for help. It is a covert way of acting out one’s emotional misery. It offers plausible deniability, the smart criminal’s golden rule. It was another proof that I had learned my lesson well at my parents’ knees. In a Freudian sense, it simply meant: “I can’t go on this way.” Anyway, I did it again.
I bought a new pair of shoes and the blisters on my heels and toes became infected. The trouble that had just stopped on my sex organs reappeared at my feet. I couldn’t go out because I couldn’t wear shoes and I lay on L.’s bed for several days. This time Alice took action and made an appointment for surgery at the American Hospital next door. Having experienced knee surgery at age 37, I know the inside of a surgical room. So why when I was nineteen was this dangerous infection surgically treated not only in a corridor, which is a non-sterile environment, but even more amazingly, while I was reclining on a gurney that was half-in, half-out of an elevator? Was this another unconscious sexual signature, while it was only meant as a mark of disrespect for my person?
My sister Elisabeth and Theo Geisel were married at my parents’ house just before Christmas and my feet were bandaged at that time, as some photos attest The Perrets didn’t come. Mamy, my father’s mother, gave François a drum set for Christmas and I sang and played the guitar while he played the drums. Only music made me forget the horror of my life. Since Mamy had spent that kind of money on him, I was convinced that my brother was very gifted and serious about becoming a professional drummer and I was happy for him and encouraged him. As he proved in later years, he was only lackadaisical about it, and the drum-set gathered dust in the attic. Then he sold it.
It was during this wedding-Christmas-New Year family reunion that my parents informed me that I had to go and live in the studio in St Mandé. I hadn’t told them what had happened at the Perrets, my secret but sexless outings with André, my confession to Alice, so I was left to make the cause-and-effect connection by myself. Since nothing was said, I had no opportunity to plead my defense.
My Solex motor bicycle was delivered to me from my parents’ house and since nobody offered to help me move I took it that I was blamed for the outings with André, and the bicycle with a weak motor in front was for the purpose of moving from the north-west to the south-east of Paris. I was glad to leave the oppressive atmosphere in the Perrets’ home and looked forward to living by myself, although I didn’t like the studio and the remote neighborhood it was in.
In a good mood I filled my big travel bag. Alice was waiting for me at the door with a blank face. I told her I would have to come back one or two more times. She opened the door for me without a word. I took the périph’, the beltway, riding on the slow lane with my Solex purring along. Got to my new digs, emptied the bag, took the périph’ back, filled the bag, took the the périph’... three round trips that took about 45 minutes each way in cold January weather. Every time Alice opened the door like a zombie, with a blank face and without a word. Not even when I left for the last time did she say anything. I never saw her again. I did the three trips holding the big, heavy bag behind me with one hand lest it tipped over, cars and eighteen wheelers zipping past me. It was only several months later that I learned that the frail motorbike I was riding wasn’t allowed on the périph’.
Every time I got to the store-studio I shook my head at the ungodliness of the address:
69 avenue Sainte Marie.
copyright 2003 by Brigitte Picart
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