Le Soir Qui Tombe

Years ago, I experienced a peculiar evening. My life is far from eventful, and the few significant occurrences I do remember have been sucked for all they're worth in my books. There are, nevertheless, among their number some which, for a variety of reasons, I couldn't bring myself to write about, since it's only theoretically true that "everything's for sale" when you're a writer. In reality, reticence and scruples of all kinds make you leave out some apparently insignificant fact, which nonetheless (as your very scruples bear testimony) may be a tunnel leading to the more tender strata of your inner being. We are not the social interface we refer to as "our person": someone beneath, an incomparably vaster entity, repeatedly controls, shapes, censures our thoughts and actions. On the afternoon of that day I spent in Paris I had seen at the Centre Pompidou an extensive André Breton exhibition, used in actual fact as a pretext for a display of surreal imagery of such proportions that its like is not often to be seen all gathered together in the same place. I was accompanied by the friends I was staying with, a young couple mixed in more than one way, since they happened to be representing two different races, two different religions and arts, and – what's more – two extremely contrasting physiognomies. I would watch her face reflected into the glass of some Delvaux painting and she seemed to belong there, blending effortlessly with the naked blonde women waiting (for whom?) in a deserted station. She was their spitting image except for her violently cut hair ending abruptly above her nape. And her clothes, naturally, including the famous male shirt, black, which she had been wearing for most of the week I'd been staying with them. How this Romanian girl from Sibiu had come across the Algerian she was living with, I've no idea. It was, of course, through her that I'd come to know them, at the recommendation of a mutual friend, herself a musician. He was a Berber proud of his ancestry, assumed in the form of a shimmering dark red velvet bonnet topped with blue satin, which I suspect he never took off. Otherwise he was, just like her, a good laugh, easy-going, not what you'd call hard-working… impossible to tell how he made his living. For I very much doubt it was by acting. Not (to be fair) that he claimed to: I don't think Othello – the only part I could picture him playing by stretching my imagination – was being staged often enough in the Paris of those days… from the entire exhibition one painting alone stayed with me. I must have a screw loose or something: at times I happen to fall so deeply in love with a painting that I'm positively considering breaking into the museum and taking it away. This time it was Magritte's "Le soir qui tombe": a broken window, long pointed shards standing erect below it, with the setting sun refracted from them at various angles… We then went into the throbbing city (it was high season, when Paris reeks of urine and lobster), ransacked a couple of "Tatis", had a relatively early supper at a restaurant called "Le Levant" (my friends wanted to surprise me, as my book "The Levant" had just been published), where they even took a photo of me under the oversized yellow sign, and after wandering happily through the maze of the metro we arrived home, where the evening had long since tumbled in through the window… I've been wondering ever since whether that night I was unfaithful to my wife. And I still don't have the foggiest notion. Yet these days I don't care half as much as I did back then, the day after, on the plane taking me back to Bucharest, or at the airport, when I was clasping my wife in my arms. Or the following night for that matter, when during our lovemaking I replayed the whole scene in my mind, and it was all I could do not to dissolve into tears. I was on the point of blurting out everything that (hadn't) happened, but I was suddenly reminded – though it wasn't quite the same thing – of Cortázar's story in which a couple (a man and a woman who love each other) decide to enact a former fantasy: they go to the seaside and, deliberately, sleep each of them with a stranger, on the same night. They never mention that night again, neither the day after, or on any other occasion, yet they are practically unable to get over it – ever – and their relationship is consequently ruined… They had chosen my last evening with them; they might have talked it over at length. Could be they had it all planned during the previous nights, in the dark, fondling each other as they gave free rein to their fantasies. Or it was, perhaps, common practice with them; perhaps it was common practice with lots of people over there. We drank on that July night vast amounts of grappa, which might explain my failure to realize they had neglected to turn on, as they usually did, the lamp hanging low above the table. Neither did I suspect anything unusual when, long after it had become almost impossible to discern their faces in the dark, we took our glasses and moved over to their bedroom, which up to that point I had only glimpsed when the door happened to be left ajar: the corner of a bed with striped sheets, blue and yellow, in a jumbled heap. As we went on talking about Resnais and Brassens and Bernard Buffet, it was not until she (for a moment I was tempted to use her real name), still talking about some ballet master or other, tore her blouse open to expose the areolae of her breasts, that I grasped what was going on. The Algerian turned to me with a laugh and asked how about making love to his woman, both of us. He obviously took my acceptance for granted, as he wasted no time waiting for my formal agreement. He peeled off her blouse and spread her on the bed, darting his hand under her mini skirt as he lay next to her. Dazed as I had never seen her before, the blonde girl pried herself loose from her lover's lips for the time it took her to look me in the eye and urge me in Romanian: "Come on… don't be a fool…" I was sitting in a small leather armchair, next to the bed, glass in hand – I later stood it on the floor – and couldn't believe it was all taking place in reality (granted, the reality of Paris, yet by no means a dream or imagination) my being in that story, seeing how that fellow was stripping himself down to his nigrescent nakedness, how she was stripped down – as I'd only seen in magazines – to black fishnet stockings, and above all I couldn't believe that I only had to say the word in order to participate in the proceedings of the deeply disturbing, exquisite sex night in progress. What was I supposed to do? I was unable to consider the consequences to any reasonable extent because I was already shaking with anticipation. I do believe it would have all been settled there and then if I had as much as started to unbutton my shirt, if I had signalled my consent with the merest hint of a gesture. It was not me who had to decide, though. It was all decided for me by that vast entity beneath my personality, the one mentioned earlier on, the very same that in the erotic dreams I'd started having one year before, as soon as I got married, prevented me from being unfaithful (yes, even there!) to my wife. The moment I would have my arms round the ravishing, fabulous, ardent, inviting woman in my dreams, draped in her ample auburn hair, and I was contemplating her in all her intimacy, ready to enter together the passionate routine of lovemaking, something was bound to happen: the door would swing open, and a host of people would suddenly spill in, or my head would roll off my shoulders, or, pure and simple, taking a closer look between her thighs, I was struck by the sudden realization that she was as smooth as a doll down there, or, even worse, that she was a man… As long as I was in love with my wife, I was – to my despair – literally unable to be unfaithful to her even in my dreams. It was beyond me to join in the proceedings of that night. Yet I did linger on, in the amber light of the lamp draped over with a discarded silk top, lingered on for hours on end, avidly taking in every detail of what was going on in that bed, at a loss as to whom I ought to thank for the bizarre, dark gift being offered to me. I saw her contorting herself on purpose into the most submissive positions, I saw her challenging me impudently with her eyes as she was kneeling during the most luscious of tortures, I saw her pleading with me to draw closer to her mouth, her lips tumescent with desire. I saw the scarlet traces flourishing on her golden skin in the wake of fingers. I saw a bead of sweat rolling into the shell-like cavity of her navel. I heard her Romanian words, rough and obscene, screamed at the top of her voice when she could no longer hold back from screaming. I saw her coming to rest on one side, still impaled, yet slowly sinking into the sheets, like a minute puddle evaporating on scorching-hot asphalt… I saw her, in the end, heavily rising to her feet and disappearing into the bathroom, hand cupped between her drenched thighs… When she returned, I was no longer there. In the morning I found both of them at the table, having coffee like on any of the six mornings of my short holiday in Paris. The usual paper – many of its sections discarded on the floor – usual croissant, usual crowd speeding by past the window. Were they, in their turn, making efforts to behave normally, or was it that they simply didn't care? I took a brotherly leave from her, as we pecked at each other's cheeks in the doorway (while thinking that in my life I would know few women, if any, in greater intimacy), and he drove me to Orly in his Barbie-pink Fiat. Once there, we shook hands and slapped each other's shoulders. Bla bla bla. Next time I'm in Paris, I should go back to them to put me up. Au revoir. Au revoir. That's how that kind of things work, I keep telling myself. They either happen or they don't. And it's not up to you if they do, but…God knows, it's up to the circumstances…or whatever… I will never know how that night would have turned out had I had more to drink, had I been less in love with my wife, and, who knows, had I not been, just a few hours before, so paralyzed by the magic of Magritte's canvas with the sun falling from shard to pointed shard and cutting itself in their edges… from The Whys and Wherefores of our Love for Women, Humanitas, 2004

by Mircea Cărtărescu (b. 1956)