Close to our home there was a shop that sold sewing machines, where I used to go day after day and spend hours on end. The owner was a young boy, Eugen, who had just completed the compulsory military service and had found a way to make a living in the city by opening this shop. He had a sister, one year younger than him: Clara. They lived together in some slum somewhere and during the day looked after the shop; they had no acquaintances, no family.The shop was, in fact, a simple private room, which had never before been rented out for commerce.The walls still preserved their typical sitting room painting, with violet lilac wreaths and discolored rectangular traces where paintings used to hang. In the middle of the ceiling there still hung a bronze lamp with a dark-red majolica calotte, and the edges decorated with acanthus leaves made of green faience. It was a heavily ornamented, old and obsolete but imposing object – something that resembled at once a funerary monument, and a veteran general parading in his old uniform.The sewing machines were carefully arranged in three rows, in between which two wide aisles ran to the back of the room. Eugen made sure to sprinkle water on the floor each morning, using an old can with a hole in the bottom. The streak of water was very thin and Eugen handled it deftly, drawing skilled spirals and eights on the floor. Sometimes he signed his name and wrote the date. The painting on the walls obviously required such delicacies. At the back of the shop a folding screen made of boards separated a sort of dressing room from the rest of the room; a green curtain covered the entrance. That is where Eugen and Clara spent their time and had lunch so they did not have to leave the shop during the day. They called it the "artists' fitting room" and one day I actually heard Eugen say "It's a real 'fitting room'. When I go out into the shop and talk for half an hour just to sell a sewing machine, am I not playing a comedy?"And then he added, in a more philosophical tone: "Life in general is nothing but pure comedy."Behind the curtain Eugen played his violin. He kept the scores on the table and stooped over them, patiently deciphering the tangled staves as if he were unraveling a many-knotted ball of thread to get a single thin thread, the musical piece. A small oil lamp burnt on a chest all afternoon, filling the room with a dead light, and projecting on the wall the enormous, decomposed shadow of the violinist.I used to go there so often that in time I became a sort of furniture-guest, an extension of the old, oilcloth-upholstered sofa on which I sat motionless, an object that no one paid attention to and that inconvenienced no one.At the back of the fitting room Clara used to freshen up every afternoon. She kept her dresses in a little cabinet and looked in a cracked mirror propped up against the lamp on the chest. It was such an old mirror that the silver layer on the back was gone in places, so that here and there you could see the actual objects on the other side mingling with the reflected images, like in a photograph with superimposed negatives. She sometimes took off almost all her clothes and rubbed cologne on her armpits, raising her arms shamelessly, or on her breasts, by putting her hand under her shirt. The shirt was rather short and when she bent forward I could see her extremely beautiful legs in the well-stretched stockings. She resembled from head to foot a half-naked woman I had once seen on a pornographic postcard that some boy, who sold bagels, showed me.She provoked in me the same indistinct swoon as the obscene image had done, a sort of void gaping inside my chest, together with the most terrible lust that squeezed my crotch like a pair of claws.In the "fitting room" I always sat in the same place on the sofa behind Eugen, waiting for Clara to finish freshening up. Then she went out into the shop and, in so doing, she passed between her brother and me through such a narrow place that she had to rub her thighs against my knees. This is the moment I looked forward to day after day, painfully and impatiently. It depended on a whole series of circumstances, which I weighed in my head and hunted for with exasperated and extremely keen sensitivity. It was enough for Eugen to be thirsty or in no mood to play his violin, or for some customer to come into the shop, for him to leave his place in front of me and make enough room for Clara to pass without having to touch me.As I came up to the door on my daily visits, long antennae sprouted out of my body feeling the air, seeking to capture the music of the violin; if I could hear Eugen playing a huge tranquility enveloped me. I would open the door quietly and announce myself as soon as I stepped in lest he should think it was a customer, and interrupt his playing for a second; during that second the inertia and mirage of the melody could suddenly end, and Eugen could lay aside his violin and not pick it up again for the rest of the afternoon. This, however, was not the only unfortunate occurrence possible… While Clara went on with her toilet, I would strain my ears to hear the faintest noises and pay attention to the slightest movements out in the shop, for fear they might turn into the source of the afternoon's disaster. It was possible for Eugen to cough lightly, swallow a little saliva and suddenly announce he was thirsty and decide to go the confectioner's for some cakes. It was these minutely insignificant occurrences that became the huge, monstrous trigger of a wasted afternoon. The whole day then lost its significance and, instead of spending my night leisurely reliving (lingering for a while over each detail in order to "see" and remember it more vividly) the moment my knees brushed against Clara's stockings – exploring, chiseling, caressing the memory –, I would writhe about in my sheets unable to fall asleep, eagerly anticipating the next day's encounter.One day something completely unusual happened. The occurrence, which initially had the appearance of disaster, ended with an unexpected surprise, but so suddenly, and owing to so trivial a gesture, that all my subsequent joy resting upon it was like a pile of heteroclite objects maintained in balance by a magician.With one single gesture Clara changed completely the contents of my visits, enriching them with new meaning and new emotions, like in that chemistry experiment when a single fragment of crystal dropped in a red liquid instantaneously turns it an amazing green.I was sitting on the sofa, as I always did, waiting impatiently, when the door opened and someone came into the shop. Eugen left the fitting room immediately. Everything seemed lost. Clara was still freshening up, oblivious of everything, while out in the shop the conversation showed no sign of drawing to an end. And still, Eugen could come up before his sister finished dressing.I was painfully watching the two simultaneous events unfold – Clara's toilet and the discussion in the shop – thinking they could either continue concurrently until Clara came out into the shop or, to the contrary, intersect in the dressing room like in those movies where two train engines speed towards each other, and they will either crash or pass each other depending on the last-minute intervention of a mysterious hand turning the points, or lack thereof. During those moments of anticipation I was clearly feeling the conversation take its course while, in a parallel dimension, Clara continued to powder her face…I tried to change fatality by taking my knees closer to the table. For them to meet Clara's legs I would have to sit on the very edge of the sofa, in a position which would have looked comical, if not downright bizarre.It seemed to me Clara was watching me in her mirror and smiling.She soon finished rounding the contour of her lips with carmine and passed the brush over her cheeks for the last time. The perfume spreading inside the fitting room made me dizzy with lust and despair. The moment she passed me by something happened that I had least expected: she rubbed her thighs against my knees like she always did (or maybe overdoing it a little? but that was clearly an illusion) with an indifferent air, as if nothing were going on between us.There is such a thing as a complicity of vice, deeper and more easily created than any deal sealed with words. It instantly runs through your whole body like an inner melody, and utterly transforms your thoughts, your body, your blood. In the split second when Clara's legs touched me, new expectations, new hopes grew large inside me.With Clara I understood everything from the first day, the first moment; it was my first complete sexual affair. An affair full of torments and expectations, full of anxiety and frustration, something that could have looked like love if it had not been just a simple continuation of a painful eagerness. Clara was calm and whimsical to the same extent to which I was impetuous and brazen; she had a violent way of teasing me and derived a cruel satisfaction from my suffering – a satisfaction that always preceded and was part of the sexual act itself. The first time this thing I had wished for so much actually happened, her provocation was so elementarily (and almost brutally) simple, that in my mind the plain sentence she uttered, and the anonymous verb she used, preserve to this day some of their old virulence. I have only to brood on them for a while for my present indifference to wash away, as if corroded by some acid, and the sentence to regain its violence. Eugen had gone into town. We were alone in the shop, silent. Clara, in her afternoon dress, was sitting in the shop window with her legs crossed, intent on her knitting. Several weeks had gone by since the episode in the fitting room and a sort of severe coolness had grown between us, a secret tension which, on her part, manifested itself by an extreme indifference. We could face each other without a word for hours on end and still, in this silence, a tempest was brewing, a perfectly secret understanding. I was just waiting for the mysterious word to break through the conventional wrapping; night after night I concocted dozens of projects which the following day stumbled on the most elementary obstacles: her knitting, which did not suffer itself to be interrupted, the lack of a more favorable light, the silence in the shop or the three rows of sewing machines, too rigorously arranged to allow any major change in the shop, not even a sentimental one. My teeth were constantly clenched; there was this terrible silence between us that inside my head assumed the evidence and contour of a scream.It was Clara who broke the silence. She spoke almost in a whisper, without taking her eyes from her knitting:"If you had come earlier today we could have done it
. Eugen went into town right after lunch."Until then, not a shadow of a sexual allusion had ever crept up between us and all of a sudden a few words summoned forth a new reality, as miraculous and extraordinary as a marble statue springing out of the floor among the sewing machines.I was near her in a split second, took her hand and caressed it violently. I kissed her hand. She jerked it away."Leave me alone," she said angrily."Please, Clara, come…""It's too late now, Eugen will be back any minute now, leave me, leave me."I was feverishly fondling her shoulders, her breasts, her legs."Leave me alone," Clara kept protesting."Come, now, we have time," I was begging."Where?""In the fitting room… come… it's fine in there."And as I said "fine" a warm hopefulness invaded my chest. I kissed her hand again and forced her up from the chair. She resisted me, shuffling her feet on the floor.From that day onwards, our afternoons changed their "habits"; it was still about Eugen, Clara and the same sonatas, but the sound of the violin became unbearable to me and my impatience was hunting for the moment when Eugen went away. In the same fitting room, my anxiety became different, as if I were playing a new game on a board set up for an old one.Once Eugen left, the true waiting began. More difficult and more agonizing that before: the silence in the shop grew into a block of ice.Clara would sit down in the window and knit: this was the "beginning", and without a beginning our affair could not take place. Sometimes Eugen would go away and leave Clara in the fitting room almost naked; I thought this would speed the succession of events but I was wrong: Clara would not admit of any beginning but the one in the shop. I had to wait uselessly for her to finish dressing and come out to open the afternoon book at page one, behind the shop window. I would sit down on a stool in front of her and start talking to her, asking her, begging her a good while. I knew it was in vain; she only rarely gave in and even then would use some trick, in order to deny me full permission:"I'm going into the dressing room to take some powder, I have a terrible headache; please don't follow me."I would pledge myself not to and follow her in a heartbeat. And then there started in the dressing room a genuine fight during which, obviously, Clara was meant to give in. She would then collapse on the sofa as if she had just stumbled on something. She would put her arms under her head and close her eyes, apparently asleep. It was impossible for me to change the position of her body one inch; I had to wrench her dress from between her thighs as she lay on one side and lie next to her. She offered no resistance to my gestures but did not make them any easier, either. She was as immobile and indifferent as a block of wood and only her intimate and secret warmth signaled to me she was attentive and she "knew". It was about the same time that I consulted the doctor who advised me to take quinine. The confirmation of my initial impression that there was something rattish about the man came one day in the fitting room, in a completely absurd and surprising manner, as I said.One day, as I lay close to Clara tearing her dress off in excitement, I felt something odd moving about in the room and – led rather by the obscure, but sharp, instinct of the extreme pleasure I was about to experience and which allowed no other presence than by my senses – I guessed some living thing was watching us.Startled, I turned my head and spotted on the chest, behind the powder box, a rat. It stopped dead in its tracks on the edge of the chest and looked at me with its little black eyes in which the light of the lamp cast two glossy golden drops which pierced me deeply. For a few seconds it stared into my eyes so sharply that I felt the look in those tiny glassy dots bore through my brain. It seemed to be cooking up some heavy invective to throw at me, or maybe just a reproach. But all of a sudden the fascination was broken and the rat darted away, hiding behind the chest. There was no doubt in my mind the doctor had come to spy on me. The same evening, as I swallowed my daily dose of quinine, my guess was reinforced by a perfectly illogical argument, but valid to me nonetheless: quinine was bitter; on the other hand, in the fitting room, the doctor had witnessed the pleasure Clara sometimes bestowed on me; as a consequence, and in order to establish a fair balance, he prescribed to me the most unpalatable medicine there was. I could hear him nibbling his theory: "The biggerrr the pleasurrre, the bitterrr the drrrug!"Several months from my consultation the doctor was found dead in the attic of his own house: he had shot a bullet through his brain.My first reaction upon hearing the sinister news was:"Were there rats in that attic?"I needed the certainty.For the doctor to be really dead, a whole army of rats had needs to assault the body, dig into it and retrieve the rattish matter the doctor had borrowed during his lifetime in order to exercise his illegal "human" existence.
by M. Blecher (1909-1938)