Traviata On The Grass

excerpt When I first met her, she said she adored Pablo Neruda's poetry and La Fontaine's erotic fables, which are un petit secret délicieux and, once a month, she would listen to a fragment of Le Petit Prince, interpreted by Gérard Philippe. She also told me about Frieda Kahlo, whom she admired unconditionally, and about her black Steinway with its shiningly polished lid.At that time, I lived in the Quartier Latin, at 9, Rue du Pot de Fer, in a studio with a high ceiling traversed by wooden beams. Only the public toilets on Rue Mouffetard have been renovated since the time when Hemingway would go downtown for a coffee and milk, in Place Contrescape, half a century ago. This narrow street intersects Rue Mouffetard, a 'must see' in all tourist's guides for its groceries de toute la France. Apart from this tiny detail, the place didn't change too much. The moveable feast was still moving on.She lived in a studio across the street from my place, on the third floor. Rue du Pot de Fer is quite narrow, so there was a mere couple of meters between our windows. Before knowing her, I had seen Toto, her cat, who, annoyed by his master's grasses matinées, used to slink between the window and the blinds and to chase the pigeons on my kitchen sill, gesturing funnily.The mysterious tenant who, as I was to find out later, always returned home well after midnight and went to sleep at the wee hours, I met on a weekend, about two weeks after she had moved in.It was a bright and merry spring Sunday; only some white fleece left by a jet plane tainted the blue clear sky. It was well after lunch and she had just woken up. She opened the windows and, eyes half closed, waved hello to me. She wore a silver-striped man's pajama. The shirt was at least two sizes bigger than her and she had rolled up the sleeves. I waved back and we exchanged greetings. She went to the bathroom and came out changed to a burgundy kimono and sat at the piano. Without looking up the notes, she began to play an allegro piece, I guess it was Mozart.Then, after a month, I ran into her on the street. She had been grocery shopping, and she carried two big bags. I invited her for a coffee at the Irish bar round the corner. She looked at me surprised. Then she smiled and said maybe it was better if we went up on her terrace, where there was a superb view and we could sunbathe. I briefly stopped by my place, took a shower, changed my shirt, grabbed two bottles of beer from the fridge and then rushed to her building and climbed the wooden stairs up to the fifth floor. The banister of the narrow staircase seemed as loose as a baby tooth about to fall. She was right, the terrace looked like an oasis amidst a desert of concrete buildings in the crammed Quartier Latin. Yuccas, dwarf palm trees, a decorative lemon tree with waxy and dusty leaves and several pots with ficus plants filled the place. She had already changed to a pair of black jeans and a dark blue tee shirt. A red mohair pullover was hanging loosely on her back. It was only then that I noticed she wore glasses, which only made her more attractive."Isn't it cool up here? The plants belong to Madame Yolande from the fifth floor, she gave me the key to the terrace." She introduced herself, extending a hand with fine, elongated fingers. Her name was Virginie, she told me; she added that she worked as cultural editor for a local radio station; she worked long hours and dedicated most of her spare time to the surfing of the internet or to piano playing. I told her about the cat at the window and she laughed. "That's my Toto, he's absolutely adorable". Then she poured coffee from a pink pot with white polka dots and she also began pouring her family story, as is we were longtime friends. Virginie's father, the only man she loved more than anything in the world, had died in a car accident. "It was absolutely stupid. He was obsessed with speed, like all the young men. My mother is a remarkable woman. Maybe you'll meet her one day. My father was the only man in her life. She loved him desperately. Theirs was one of those love stories you read about in Harlequin novels you buy in the train station. They met on the stairs of Saint-Louis Cathedral, in Port-de-France. It happened in February, carnival month in Martinique, a time when men and women cross-dress. He was climbing the stairs of the church, and at that moment she came out the door. My father donned a flouncy red dress with train, paired with a straw hat with wide brims. My mother wore a tight-fitted white suit, with her hair pulled back in a knot, and a top hat. She stopped by and told him that the spring to come would undoubtedly have the color of his eyes. My father answered that this might have happened only if he could mirror in her eyes every single morning. So romantic! I heard this story so many times it has become an animated gif in my head. My mother was a beautiful woman. The car accident disfigured her face, but her eyes remained untouched.""You have dark eyes, men must be silly-putty in your hands…you heard that a zillion times, I guess…""Thank you, you're sweet. I have my father's eyes, only his were green. I have siblings, you know, a sister and a brother. My mom is colored and my siblings are both white, only I came out métisse.""Do you see them often?""Not really. My brother lives in Martinique and I visit him rarely, on vacations. My sister married to a Belgian from whom she's getting a divorce now. The jerk has been cheating on her for five years. With a hairdresser, you know… my sister is a doctor and they have three wonderful kids. In the beginning she tried to ignore it, and put great efforts to rescue her marriage, but, in the end, she gave up. Anyway, she's young, beautiful and smart; she can remarry anytime she wants. Well, I bombarded you with my stories. Why don't you tell me your story, for a change?""Not at all, you're such a passionate story-teller it's a pleasure to listen to you. I work in computer science as a researcher. I've been a post-doc in the bio-informatics lab in the Curie institute for over a year. The lab is close by, on rue d`Ulm, it is a five-minute walk from here."Then I told her about the computer-simulated genome project and about the theory of phone network: each gene is a distinct interlocutor who can virtually communicate with any other gene. The direction and the nature of the dialogue depend on the state of the network at a given moment. I spoke about how I took my PhD in England, about Edinburgh, about the long rainy evenings when I was mousing data, my eyes glued to the monitor screen, listening to Led Zeppelin."The study of the genome is very catching; it's a mysterious game whose ultimate challenge is to find its rules.""You sound so serious, I'm impressed, serious people always attracted me. Your work must be equally complex and passionate.""You're making fun of me…""No, not at all, only that I find pleasure in completely different things: a glass of red wine, the sand sifting through my toe fingers, the smell of pencil shavings in a sharpener, a Nocturnal by Chopin played on a full-moon night, you know, this kind of kitsch; then, people like you fascinate and embarrass me, mainly because they seem so different, so far away from me."You know, last Sunday, instead of my usually morning workout, I rushed out of bed, drank my coffee, put the cup on the floor, than bang! Back into the bed, doing my own research. Don't you dare laugh at me!"What would be more interesting than to count and categorize your beauty moles and then name them: Astarthea on my left arm, then Hortense on my right shoulder. Then you name your left foot toe fingers: Arin, Ezor, Seril, Toman, Zofer; what could be more interesting than to invent names for veins, arteries, tendons, the hairs on your arm, the wrinkles on your knees and the barely visible circles around your navel?"I have always wondered why I should remember the names of remote lakes, cities, rivers, waterfalls and mountain peaks. It is more than likely that I'll never set foot in those places, while my body, well, that's a different story. I was born with it, I will die with it. I can't change it, that's a fact. So, I find it a lot more interesting to get to know it in its most minute details, inch by inch, swelling by swelling, wrinkle by wrinkle. It's more natural to explore it. I have it handy, visible and completely unknown to me. Do I sound narcissistic?"I guess you can call it that way, you can call whatever you want, but I find it more fascinating to study my left pinky than I don't know what obscure idea."On the other hand, I believe it's commonsensical to know the number of fillings in your mouth rather than recite the number of dialects spoken around Lake Tanganyika."This is why on one of the walls in my bathroom I have this huge mirror; thus, I can examine my body in the entire splendor of its intimacy. Do you think I am obsessed? I admit, I am possessive with my body. I feel a tremendous pleasure to dwell in it."I have no other possession than this body whose geography I explore; nothing apart from this body with its sensations, its constant humming, its jammed roads, its archipelagoes of scattered thoughts.""I don't think you are obsessed at all. You, women, are far more sensuous than men. In addition to that, you have better tactile and kinesthetic sensitivity. It's in your brains, Mother Nature had its own agenda with you, and this must be a plus on an evolutionary scale." "You, women… we, menMother Nature had its own agenda, brains, a plus on an evolutionary scale. Professor, sir, these theories are hyper-boring. What's a man or a woman? Do you think that it is only the physical appearance that counts? You can live in a woman's body with the mind and soul of a man and viceversa. These classifications are artificial. All human beings become androgynous when they masturbate. For several minutes they are simultaneously man and woman."Let me tell you something: several years ago I went skiing. I remember one night: I was in bed, under the covers. I had turned off the light and opened the window, to see how it was snowing outside. Inside, it was pleasantly crispy. All of a sudden, I caught my feet unawares: they rubbed each other to keep warm; they tried to keep as wide a contact surface as possible. I remember I was shocked then, I felt as if I witnessed incest: my body caught in the act of autoeroticism, caressing itself. And I was peeping, like I was at some pervert show."I felt like an intruder into my own body. This is why, when I have some spare time, I go on an expedition, like last Sunday."Maybe the tenderness we think we feel for others is nothing but disguised tenderness for ourselves. Maybe the very act of caressing is nothing but a sign of deep selfishness: I caress, not only for the other, but mainly for myself, I feel his or her skin touching mine. Am I caressing my partners or am I caressing myself with their help?"Thank you for inviting me for a coffee, I was really eager to meet my serious and hard-studying neighbor. I have to leave now. I promise we'll talk more next time. Actually, next Sunday is my birthday; we go to Bois de Vincennes to listen to Traviata on the grass. You may come, if you want. And don't you fall in love with me!"She smiled and rushed out. I didn't have the time to utter a single word.Too late. There was nothing I could do to not fall in love with her. Her warning only speeded up the process. I boarded for a journey, too. I was on a journey around the world, like Phileas Fogg, only the name of my world was Virginie. I woke up in the morning and I spied from behind the blinds: I spied on her drinking coffee while she was reading Le Monde. Then I watched her from my window; always late, she was running in the street to the subway station in Place Monge. I felt shivers up my spine when she sat at the piano and played a tango or a classic piece, in accordance with her mood on a certain day. I was struggling with this budding love like Jacob struggled with the angel. I swayed to and fro in torment like Jonah, begging for redemption in the wet darkness of my Leviathan. Too late. I was clinging to the vertical walls, ineluctably attracted by the eye of the maelstrom Virginie. Too late, I was in free fall.Then we celebrated her birthday. Traviata on the grass. In the hot air, the voices, amplified by the high power loudspeakers cuddled the crowd in a cocoon of vibrations and passion. I sat on the grass, leaning on an elbow; I changed the red wine for champagne, which I was drinking from a tall plastic flute. Virginie had brought baguettes, two small wheels of camembert, Alsatian sausages, salmon pâté, a homemade potato salad, fruit and a pineapple tart. I was feeling dizzy. The party, which I had eagerly been waiting for a week, the encounter I had dreamed so painfully had reserved me the pang of a painful illumination. Apart from me, Virginie invited only women. On this occasion I found out that she was a lesbian. Suzanne was her girlfriend. They chirped gaily, like sparrows, ignoring me completely. I was embarrassed.During the intermission, Suzanne turned to me suddenly:"Virginie told me you are a researcher. Which are your chances of being awarded the Nobel?""Same as winning the lottery without buying tickets," I answered, a bit surprised.Suzanne was tall and blonde, very thin, with a bony, boyish pelvis and an almost flat chest. Her eyes were dark grey and her face fine but severe. Her low voice tonality made me lean towards her to make out what she was saying, with all that noise around."You must be very frustrated then, this is the only carrot that makes you, researchers, move on. Anyway, I liked your answer; at least you can make fun of it.""What are you doing for a living?""I'm making money. I studied psychology. Before, I worked for five years as a psychologist in a company that produced electronic equipment. Now, I have my own business, I buy and sell companies. I realized it was much more rewarding to deal with meta-trading.""And are you happy with it?""Oh, definitely, money is a very powerful aphrodisiac. Besides, I won't be doing this for the rest of my life.""What else would you like to do?""Writing is my passion. I have published three volumes of poetry and one of short stories. Then I stopped. After I earn a million euros, I'll return to literature.""You seem very determined to have it your way.""Isn't this the only way to check whether you won or failed? Otherwise you can't tell victories from defeats at the end of the day."Virginie was heartily debating Les particules élémentaires with her other friends, Stella and Armande, so she didn't follow my conversation with Suzanne. Then, she hugged Suzanne and, biting from an apple, she said:"Suzanne, Claude is a very serious boy. Did he tell you about his work at the Curie?""Not yet, but we have plenty of time. We are still on philosophy of life and plans for the future."The singers came back on the stage, so we had to stop our discussion. It was twilight now and the stage was lit by yellow reflectors. The air smelled of dust and marijuana and the mosquitoes began to attack us. I couldn't focus; the excess of pathos in the voices of the singers bored me and I almost fell asleep towards the end. We said good-bye, Virginie left with Suzanne and I returned home alone.The encounter in Bois de Vincennes guillotined me. Virginie barely acknowledged my presence there; she looked at me once or twice, absent-mindedly. I didn't know why she had invited me in the first place. I was a total stranger to her. Suzanne was beautiful, smart and powerful. A very determined woman. What could I offer her? My daily neurosis and my hesitations? Except for love, I had nothing to give her. And Suzanne seemed very smitten with her, too. Why would Virginie have chosen me instead of Suzanne? A bitter smile colored all these thoughts.I didn't see her for a while. I was very busy with my activity at the lab, sometime I worked on weekends. I had recently discovered a basketball court in Jardin du Luxembourg and I went there as often as I had some free time. It was crowded with mostly black players. Sometimes I waited for over an hour to get access to the field. The players knew each other and it took me a couple of weeks to be accepted by the group. Now, when they set the teams, they always picked me among the players. The winners remained on the playing ground. One day, I saw Virginie jogging. I called her, she came close and watched the game until it ended. She applauded any time I scored. My team lost the game."I had no idea you played so well!""You're flattering me.""No, I really enjoyed it. You and your team mates played too individualistically, each one tried to score on their own, I guess the other team passed the ball a lot, maybe that's why they won. I haven't seen you in a while, are you angry with me or something?""No, not at all, I am just busy. I am working at an article.""Serious as always. Maybe you stop by one of these evenings, we can sit and talk. Maybe I will play the piano for you."After a week, I stopped by. It felt weird to be inside the apartment I always watched from the outside. I felt I was on a stage. The space was generous, aerated, the walls covered with manually woven Persian rugs. She had several African chairs, and a squatted coffee table. There was a copper tray with an engraving in Arabic on the table. Then a futon covered with a blanket decorated with hunting motives from the Tassili caves. A black piano, piled with music scores, completed the setting. She showed me her family album. Her mother was a beautiful woman, no doubt about that. All of her relatives looked nice and kind. At the end of the album I saw many black and white nude photos of Virginie's. She was posing on a leather couch. She had a well-proportioned body: elongated thighs, delicately-shaped breasts. Her long and curly hair made her look like the serpent tamer from Rousseau Le Douanier's painting. I don't remember having seen any photo of her father."These nudes were made by a professional photographer who fell in love with me.""Even more suspect if he didn't. You know, I was very shocked when I found out you were a lesbian.""What does it seem so weird? Women are so delicate and caring. To me, it's very natural to make love with a woman. I had my first relationship with one of my mother's friends. I was fourteen. One day, when my mother was not at home, Sophie sat next to me on the couch and told me I had the most beautiful hair in the world. Then she began to caress my neck, my breasts, then, slowly, very slowly, she went down to my inner thighs. I had no idea of what was happening to me, it was the first time I felt that, my body opened like a flower kissed by dew. It was painfully pleasant."Then, in college, I had a colleague, Jean-Luc; we were like two young animals, we made love where it struck us. Jean-Luc was a good friend and the relationship with him seemed a game. Then along came Ludovic, whom I married. Ludovic is an extremely attractive man. Many women must have envied me. He had perfect taste, he was an interior designer. He still owns this posh store in Place des Vosges. Ludo was mad about me. He threw an extraordinary wedding party; he bought me a fabulous dress by Nina Ricci, he invited some hundred guests; the bouquet alone cost some thousand francs. Then, honeymoon in Hawaii, but, you know, I was overwhelmed, with his highbrow Parisian family, his house in Neuilly, his manly instinct of possession, I felt like a doll, like a trophy. I was very young then and I needed space, I needed air, I needed to live. I didn't want myself bought with dresses, meals at upscale restaurants and exotic holidays. This wasn't love, I don't think he loved me, but certainly, there was a lot of heat in our relationship.""Is there any difference between love and passion?""Of course, passion is like an illness of the soul, passion is the sister of death, hence all the crimes, the cheap dramas, the madness, all this never-ending circus. Passion is like a tunnel through which you march blindfolded. Love is different, it's like a field spangled with flowers. Love is like the sky, like the ocean, it's endless, unfathomable. No man could give me this. Most of them are possessive and proud. Women are mere objects to them. You know, I was very frustrated, I was looking for something else. I felt there was something else out there. I left Ludo after three months of marriage. Then I met Suzanne. There's magic between us. I was on a plane to Martinique to visit my brother. She sat next to me, I was smitten." Virginie smiles coyly:"Love at first touch, you know… I feel so calm; everything went naturally, smoothly between us. It's been five years now, and she wants us to get married.""Do you?""I don't know, my marriage with Ludo traumatized me enough and then there's something else: I want a child very much. My childhood in Martinique was the happiest time in my life. My grandma on my mother's side raised me. Her house is on a hill on Saint Pierre harbor. The town was almost completely destroyed on May, 8, 1905, when the volcano Pellée erupted. All the inhabitants perished, with the exception of a tailor, who hid in a wardrobe and a local notorious drunkard, Louis Cyparis, protected by the thick walls of the prison where he had been incarcerated a day before for disorderly conduct. In 1923, French authorities ceased to register the place as a town. Now it is a humble hamlet, with some 5,000 inhabitants. To an adult, the view of the burned ruins must have been very depressing; to us, kids, it was a source of endless adventures. We played among the ruins all day long. I love children. Anytime I visit my sister I feel so happy. Children are a miracle. I want a child very badly; I want to hug it, to tell him or her stories. I'd love to play the piano for my kid. I love women; to me, a woman's body is the most beautiful thing in the world, but I am also a woman and I must have a child to feel fulfilled. When I imagine the sensation I may experience knowing a child is growing inside me, I shiver with delight. It's an almost organic pleasure."At that moment, I kissed her. Her lips were moist and warm and her skin soft, like baby skin. I kissed her, long, again and again. I loved kissing her and she loved it, too. I played with her tongue: I sucked it methodically, like a lollipop; then I tasted it, like some sweet and juicy fruit. I kissed her lids, her eyebrows, her tooth gums, the corners of her lips, her chin. I titillated her ear with my tongue, I kissed her neck and each of its cervical bones, I kissed her long and silky hair that smelled of jasmine, I buried my face in her hair; and then we kissed again, hidden by the bell of shadow of her dark locks. I was holding her tightly around the waist with my right arm, while my left hand caressed her breasts under the tee shirt. She seemed completely ravaged. (…) Paul Doru Mugur (b. 1969) is a writer, translator and editor. In 2000 he founded Respiro (, a multi-lingual quarterly cultural magazine. At present, Respiro has 15 editors and it has been acknowledged by the written press in Romania as one of the best cultural internet magazines. He studied medicine in Romania, France and the United States. Currently, he lives in New York where he works as a physician.

by Paul Doru Mugur