In the year 1966, I spent my twenty-third birthday on a truck crossing the yellow plains of the Punjab. My happenstance companions: three other sunburned backpackers — two males and one female. And we killed the time by trading stories of our adventures hitching the length of the “Great Grass Road” from Europe.
At the Indian border, however, near Amritsar, the authorities refused to let me in without a visa. When I enquired where I might obtain one, they informed me that the only consulate in Pakistan capable of issuing me an Indian visa was in Karachi, a thousand-mile hitchhike to the south. From there, I learned, I could book passage to Bombay by sea.
I was not particularly disappointed by this news, for I had already come nine thousand miles from Paris, most of it over rough roads, so what was another thousand miles? Besides, I had long since learned that I could count on every detour in my travels to provide me with new adventures.
I bade adieu to my travel mates and turned to cross back over the no-man’s-land between the Indian and Pakistani borders. Escorted by two young Indian soldiers, I made my way for several yards along a tall fence lining the frontier.
And it was there I saw you first.
You were hanging on the fence, smiling at me.
After months of the Middle East and Central Asia, I had grown used to desert sand, dun-drab hills, dusty camels and donkeys, and grimy-robed denizens. Now, from out of nowhere, comes this fresh, pretty, blue-eyed breeze in a sleeveless summer dress.
“D’ouvenez-vous, monsieur? Where are you from, Sir?”
“California,” I reply, stopping in my tracks, winking at my grinning, indulgent military escorts. “And you, Mademoiselle?”
“Bruxelles. I saw you at the border post and I followed you here,” you say, with only the slightest, most seductive accent in English. “I was impressed by your detachment, your insouciance. Anyone else would have been bitterly disappointed and caused a big row, but you simply kissed your girlfriend goodbye and–”
“She’s just a friend, a hitchhiking mate.”
“Well, anyway, you seemed so philosophical about it all.”
By now, I have approached the fence, with the blessing of my guards, and I am hanging on the wire, with my hands very close to yours.
“I was intrigued by your beard and your backpack, your well-traveled air,” you say, echoing another pretty girl, at the other end of the Great Grass Road. “Have you been at it long?”
“Yes, quite long. From California to Argentina. Africa to Europe. Then here”
“You’re going all the way round the world?”
“I’m going around the world backwards.”
“You mean. . .”
“I can’t exactly put it into words. It’s probably more metaphorical than factual. Maybe it’s just a way of reminding myself that I’m. . . that I’m doing it in my own unique way, not the way other people do. Or maybe it’s a kind of Confucian logic — circular logic? Maybe I’m going around the world to find out where I’m coming from. You know what I mean?”
“Yes, I think I do. And you know, in that case, I think I might be going around the world backwards, too. Except, I’ve got a bit of money from mon pêre, tuvois, my father, you see? So I don’t have to auto-stop. Mostly I take trains and buses. Sometimes even planes. I must say, the idea of hitching through South Asia is really quite frightening to me. But it might be fun in a place like Japan, don’t you think?”
By now, my military escorts are starting to get restless. Realizing that time is short, we glom onto every word, peering deeply into the other’s eyes, trying to size each other up in the few moments that we have left.
There can be no question but that it’s instant, it’s reciprocal, and it’s been made doubly compelling by the time element, the fence separating us, and the fact that we might never see each other again.
Now my escort is tugging at my sleeve, and you and I are suddenly almost desperate. We grope for each other’s hands through the fence and come within an inch of kissing.
“Where are you headed next?”
“I’ll drop you a line in care of American Express, okay?” you ask breathlessly, as they start to lead me away. “Let’s hitchhike around Japan together; what do you say?”
“Let’s do it!”
“What’s your name?” you shout after us.
“Eduardo Brawley! What’s yours?”
“Eugènie Van Leiden!” you scream, jumping up and down behind the fence. “How do you spell your last name?”
I spell it out for you as loudly as I can, but I am not sure you get it, for by then we are quite a distance off.
Of course, this only makes it more romantic. So all the way down to Karachi along the scorched plains of the Indus River Valley, I go over and over our meeting in my mind.
The little frock that you were wearing was so clean, so fresh – an off-white traveling dress, light cotton for the tropics – and it fit so nicely round your firm high breasts, your tiny waist, your swelling hips and long legs. Your ash-blond hair hung just above the shoulder, I recall, and it was so shiny and shampooed that it bounced up and down every time you nodded your head. With your translucent, blue-veined skin, your round cerulean eyes and long white lids, your tipped-up nose and rosy cheeks, your pale lips and pointed chin, you looked like a time traveler, a girl who’d just stepped out of a Flemish painting.
“Are you some kind of artist?” I asked at one point; but I was merely flattering you, for what you really looked like was an artist’s model from the Renaissance.
“I’m a classical pianist,” you replied, speaking quickly, urgently, yet enunciating every word very precisely. “I just finished six years of hautes études at the Consérvatoire de Bruxelles, and this trip around the world is my graduation gift.”
Yet there was something very sensible and practical about you as well: That traveling frock, and your neat white sneakers. Your handshake, so firm and dry. And your name, Eugenie, so impossibly outdated, so Empire, that it had a kind of old-fashioned charm.
In Karachi, I expect nothing, and therefore I am especially delighted to find a note from you awaiting me at American Express. Like all the notes I have received, from all the girls I have known, I stick it in the appropriate page of my journal. I have kept it there these many years, and I have it before me now:
Cher monsieur :
C’est moi, Eugènie.Te rappelles-tu?You remember me? Eduardo, it occurs to me that you know absolutely nothing about me, nothing of my likes, dislikes, personal tastes. I love late Renaissance, Orlandus, Lassus, Palestrine, Baroque in Germany. In this century: Stravinsky, Prokofieff, Bartok, Hindemith. I also love traveling, and I absorb everything, enough to last a lifetime. I adored Old Delhi, the Taj Mahal, and so many other things. Why can I not just come out and say what is on my mind? I can’t stop thinking about you. Do you feel the same way? Yet how can it be? We only met for a moment.
I fire off an answer to you expressing like sentiments, requesting a meeting in Bombay, at American Express, at a specific hour in two weeks’ time.
In the Port of Karachi, I run into another backpacker named Sissy Thorssen. A spectacular redhead with the opaque eyes and sleepwalker’s gait of a heavy drug user, she says she’s on her way to Goa to meet some business friends. Though I have no doubt as to what her business is, it does nothing to put me off. Indeed, in this era of “Peace & Love,” in this part of the world, I would be surprised if she did anything else.
We quickly confer and decide to book deck passage together on the Indian ship Sabarmati, bound for the Rann of Kutch, Bombay, and Goa. To save money, and to see a bit of the country, I will disembark in the Rann of Kutch, and make my way overland to Bombay. Sissy will stay aboard for the leg to Bombay and Goa.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of our platonic three-day voyage across the Arabian Sea, aside from the eerie effects of Sissy’s stash of Afghan hash, is at the very end, when three long, graceful, swallow-sailed boats come flying out to meet us in the Rann of Kutch and pick up passengers for the shallow-draft port at Kutch Mandvi. They make a beeline for us, as if they will crash directly into the bulkhead. Then, at the very last instant, and in perfect coordination, they jerk their rudders full right, drop sails, and bounce gently up beside us, buffered by the backwash of their own wakes.
Blowing a kiss to Sissy, I toss my rucksack into one of the boats, jump down after it into a veritable sea of flesh, and we skim off across the dirty brown waters of the estuary.
Walking, hitchhiking, and riding rupee buses, I spend the next three days making for the railhead at Ahmedabad. This is the India I had thrilled to, when I imagined it in California: Hindus, naked and devout, performing their ablutions in unclean rivers. Lean black sadhus and rickshaw wallahs squatting in the dirt. Bony white Brahma cows wandering the byways. And everywhere masses of sweating Indians. Crowding, bumping, jostling, they swarm over every square inch of real estate.
Other backpackers have told me that one need never pay for a ticket on Indian Railways. You just rush the train along with the swarming natives, climb up on the roof, and hang on for dear life. But I refine the technique. I dress in my best (having long since found it expedient to keep a clean white shirt and bush jacket rolled up in my backpack) and find a place in first class. When the conductor comes round, I say, in my rough approximation of a posh Brit accent, “Frightfully sorry, old chap, but I seem to have misplaced my ticket.” The older conductors have been around since the days of the Raj, and it is apparently second nature for them to accede to the wishes of someone who speaks that kind of upper-class English. Whatever the case, it never seems to occur to them that a pukka Sahib such as I might possibly consider breaching his code of honor. In short, I ride into Bombay in style.
I check into a cut-rate Salvation Army hostel in the port district, near Fort Point and the Gateway to India. My room is dorm-style, a bargain at ten rupees a night (fifty cents American), and I bed amid lean young backpackers like myself from every corner of the globe. As always, we rapidly exchange notes on our travels, and obtain useful information from fellow wanderers moving in the opposite direction. We offer few tips on scenic areas, museums, art galleries, or cultural activities, for we are not so interested in sightseeing per se as in putting a lot of cross-country kilometers under our belts, experiencing Third World life up close and personal, and marveling at our own daring-do. Confronted by a huge, bustling, modern city like Bombay, we tend to float, to indulge ourselves in a bit of well-earned R & R. The world is very large when you look at it on an atlas, but our world is so small that sometimes it seems like the head of the proverbial pin. We are the wayward angels dancing upon it, and we keep bumping into each other all the time. Two of the backpackers I run into at the hostel, a pair of muscular Israelis, I last saw in Santa Cruz, Bolivia; and several others I crossed paths with on the Great Grass Road from Europe.
Two mornings later, I hurry to American Express, at Church Gate.
And you are waiting for me, Eugenie, just inside the door.
In a blue Lacoste polo shirt, a tan polished-cotton skirt, and white tennis shoes, you are such a perfect picture of preppy Euro perkiness that I instantly commit it to memory and never forget.
You are so excited to see me that you nearly dance across the marble floor to greet me; and the perfunctory buss on either cheek that is de rigeur becomes a lingering kiss that sets the middle-aged patrons gaping. You smell so good that I could eat you on the spot.
We stroll hand-in-hand to an English tea shop near St. George’s Church, chatting and laughing about absolutely nothing, seat ourselves at a corner wicker table, order a pot of Earl Grey, milk, honey, butter and scones, and put our heads together.
“I have imagined so many things,” you say, fixing those azure-hued eyeballs upon me, entwining your cool long fingers in mine. “I’ve built it up in my mind to such an extent that it’s like this whole great edifice that I’m afraid is top-heavy and will soon just collapse and come tumbling down on top of me.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
“It happened the first instant I saw you. I don’t know how, but I knew immediately that you were the one. It was like un coup defoudre, you know. It just hit me. But afterwards, on the way to Delhi, I could not trust my instincts, and I started to doubt, to tell myself what a silly girl I was.”
“I had no doubts at all,” I say, lying through my teeth. “But I hear what you’re saying.”
“So now we just see what happens, right?”
“Right, but I tell you what, Eduardo. I think I need some time to sort it all out in my mind. You know what I mean? Now that I’ve seen you, jeperdre la tête, tusais? I am freaking out. Feel my heart. You see? It’s beating so hard I’m afraid I’m going to have a heart attack. Maybe we should just call it a day.”
”Go home to our hotels and reflect. Put our thoughts in order. Write each other a letter explaining how we feel. Meet tomorrow and exchange them. Qu’est-ce que t’enpenses? What do you think?”
“Of course,” I say, squeezing your hand. “I ask only one thing before you go. In the lobby of the Salvation Army Hostel they’ve got an old Baby Grand, the bequeathal of an Anglo-Indian lady. It’s not perfectly in tune, but I’d like you to play it for me. Just one piece. Whatever you like. Would you do that for me?”
“Avec plaisir, mon coucou.”
So we go back to Fort Point; you play Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze on the rickety old piano, and I have never heard anything so lovely in my life.
I see you home to your little hotel near the Prince of Wales Museum, and retire to my thoughts, principal among which is: What am I going to do with this girl? I haven’t got any money!
I have a talk with my cohorts at the hostel and discover that there actually is a way to earn money in Bombay. Apparently, there’s a Goa-Indian named João de Mèndes, a man of unsavory reputation, who lives out near Breach Kandy and recruits young foreigners as money-changers for the tourist trade.
Late that afternoon, after the heat has subsided a bit, I ride the bus around Malabar Hill to Breach Kandy, near Mahalaxmi Temple, and present myself to João at his office across Marine Drive from the European Racket & Bathing Club. João — or “Himself,” as he’s known in the neighborhood — turns out to be monstrously fat. He sports a huge, grey, upswept walrus mustache, and is quite witty and well-spoken in Indian English.
After brief introductions, he accepts my application for employment and gives me a quick background talk:
“Here in India, you see, one can only exchange foreign monies for rupees at official government sites. The catch being that they are offering a mere half the going rate. This is our opportunity, as the rupee is virtually worthless on the international money market, and rich Indians are desperate for dollars and European currencies. Foreigners are likewise wanting, for they are not obtaining full value for their legal tender. Yet money-changers of the Indian race, rightly or wrongly, are being handicapped by highly untrustworthy reputations. This, my dear pale-faced fellow, is where you are coming in. You will be getting a five percent cut on all the foreign monies you are exchanging, plus room and board, courtesy of yours truly. What are you thinking of this?”
“I’ll take it. When do I start?”
“Why not right now? We are conveniently locating just across the street from the biggest sport club in Bombay. It is open exclusively to Caucasians (apparently they are not wanting their ‘waters muddied,’ if you will excuse the jest), for which reason it is always full of fastidious tourists, plane crews, charity workers, visiting professors, UN people, and permanent foreign residents. And they are all, as you say, ‘ripe for the fleecing.’ You must simply be waiting outside, catching them as they are coming and going. Any questions?”
“No, sir, I’ll get right at it,” I say.
And I earn five hundred rupees, quite a considerable sum in those days, that very day.
The next morning, when I go to meet you at your hotel, Eugenie, there’s a note in French awaiting me at the reception desk.
I have left Bombay. Understand me. I am too embroiled to commence. You see, it’s not that easy – a dream constructed over years. Is this joy or terror? Will you create me or destroy me? Give me some time, Eduardo. I’ll meet you in Calcutta on 25 janvier. I’ll leave a note at American Express. C’est moi, Eugenie.
Oddly, your letter is a relief, for I have felt something of the same. Not to mention my embarrassing lack of funds.
Nevertheless, I have too much experience of lovers’ games to let you off the hook that easily, so I write you back c/o American Express in Madras, where I know you’re going next:
You have killed me, Eugènie. It was so dishonest. How could you do it? I will be in Calcutta, but can I trust you to be there as well?
I work for “Himself” almost a month. It turns out that he’s not only a money-changer, but also a bootlegger, a dope dealer, a gunrunner, a loan shark and a pimp. At the same time, he’s a devout Catholic, an usher at the local Goa R.C. church, and attends services daily. He is, moreover, the owner of a large compound near Cuffe Parade that consists of a home for him and his huge extended family, a distillery, a restaurant, a brothel, and a warehouse for his contraband. Yet he prefers to sleep not in his home but outside on the sidewalk because, as he says, “It’s the only place for beating this confounding heat.” He shares this preference, or necessity, with thousands of other Indians in Bombay, who clog the sidewalks and even the side streets with their prone bodies at night. Thus, the “room” that I was offered “gratis” turns out to be a space on the sidewalk beside Himself, his pushers, his bootleggers, his foreign money-changers, his rickshaw wallah, four of his whores, his two German Shepherd dogs, his three-wheeled motorcycle, and whatever itinerant beggar or sadhu who turns up. In the night, we pass around “The Gun,” a powerful opium water pipe, and sip at bottles of “Country,” the potent local moonshine. Meanwhile, Himself’s wife Maria, and his daughters Angela and Tereza, sleep within the precincts of his vast firetrap of a wooden house, under finely woven mosquito nets that sway like ghosts in the gusts from the ceiling fan. Out on the sidewalk, the air is like a hot, wet blanket. Breathing is like inhaling sulfur direct from the source. Liters of sweat pour off our par-boiled bodies. Vast coordinated formations of mosquitoes circle and dive in waves to buzz-bomb every square centimeter of exposed flesh. Our feet hang over the narrow sidewalk, dipping into the ripe sweetness of the Bombay gutter. Great gray rats, the size of cats, play footsy with our extremities. Sick babies wail into the darkness. Husbands beat wives. Himself’s harlots air their privates beside us. And the high-pitched, otherworldly voices of female singers ululate their Hindi sorrows from dozens of portable radios at once. At dawn, when Bombay awakens, its work-bound citizens come stepping over us in such hordes that they intrude upon our slumbering bodies, providing us with unwanted glimpses up their dhotis and robes.
Yet incredible as it may seem, waking on the sidewalk each morning I find myself immeasurably excited by the romantic adventure of where I am, and what – impossibly – I’m doing.
Meanwhile I keep my nose clean, my mouth shut, and save every rupee I earn. By the time I take my leave, on a First Class Indian Railways sleeping car by way of Agra, Delhi, and Benares, with a brief smuggling run to Kathmandu at the behest of Himself, my pockets jingle with rupees and I am in fine fettle.
On the appointed date, I arrive in Calcutta and check into the Sikh Temple, near Bara Bazaar. Like all Sikh Temples everywhere, it has a generous open-door policy for foreign hitchhikers and backpackers. I take a quick cold shower in the stall in the courtyard, change into my pukka best, check my backpack in the beadle’s office, and hasten toward American Express on Strand Road for my third meeting with you, Eugenie.
“Do I love you, or just the idea of you?” I keep asking myself on the way, my heart and mind racing in unison. “Am I deceiving myself out of loneliness? Once I obtain your love, will I value it less?”
Just as I am walking into American Express, your rickshaw pulls up in front.
“Eduardo!” you shout, and I dash back down the stairs three at a time to sweep you into my arms.
“Oh, but you leave me weak,” you gasp, and your knees give way.
You go down on your knees before me again that night in your hotel, before we ever make love.
“Be good to me, Eduardo Brawley,” you say, weeping, clasping your arms about my naked loins.
I raise you up and kiss your tears away, but I wonder for the first time whether I can trust your sincerity, for some of your gestures and actions seem affected, even melodramatic. And it strikes me that there is something very important about you that I do not know yet, something with which I might not be altogether pleased.
I want the first night to be so perfect, to fit all the romantic scenarios that have sustained me across India. I want soft colors, a melting into the rhythm of love. But you want to talk nasty. You want me to tie you up and spank you. Lost in your own pleasure, you do not look at me when we have sex. Your eyes roll back in your head, and you see nothing. It’s like you’re doing it with yourself. And when you really get hot, it’s not like you’re making love at all, but having a fit. Although this might be exciting to a casual lover, it frightens and disillusions a poetic soul like myself, who has centered all his dreams on you.
Yet it is only our nights that I hate, for all our days are golden. We awaken happily in the mornings and tramp about, seeing the sights, kissing and giggling like a pair of honeymooners.
We fly to Burma a few days later. After a peek at the Golden Temple of Rangoon, it’s on to Bangkok for obligatory visits to the Floating Market, the Royal Palace and the Temple of the Sleeping Buddha. A week later, we hop a train to the Cambodian border, a bus to Siem Reap, and a taxi to Angkor Wat.
I recall with particular pleasure a time, commemorated in a photo that I still have, when I am standing above you on a grassy hillside, with the crumbling, mysterious temple of Phnom Bakhenga behind us. Two great walled terraces fall away before us, grey with tropical years, their images reflected in a vast lily-covered moat. With your camera in hand, you are looking up at me, smiling as sweetly and innocently as a little girl. About to snap my picture, you exclaim, as if it has just occurred to you, “Maiscommetu es beau! But how handsome you are!”
The next day we ride the six kilometers from Siem Reap by pedicab, the leisurely pace suiting us perfectly. We sniff the air, smell jasmine and fresh new leaves. Turn to sniff each other.
“Mmmmm. . .”
“Ditmoi, Eduardo, what shall we name our children?”
“Of course,”I say, trying to imagine the most beautiful, evocative French names I can: “Tristan and Cybele.”
“Mon dieu, how did you know? I picked those names out when I was twelve years old!”
Later, we find a hidden arbor, to the rear of the bulbous temple of Banteay Kiday, and lie together on the ancient pitted volcanic floor supine, not touching, staring for long minutes at the writhing, slithering, entwined black banyan roots that hold up the crumbling stone ceiling, and the long, fat,live snakes that slither among them.
“My God, Eduardo, how did they do it?”
“This magical architecture.”
“Haven’t a clue. I’m a lover and a poet, not an engineer.”
“Right, you’re a poet and your feet show it: They’re Longfellows!”
“Oh, Jesus, where do you get these stupid American jokes? That went out with my grandfather.”
“Didn’t I tell you? I did my senior year in high school with an exchange program in the United States.”
“No, you didn’t! Where did you go?”
“Oh, my God! No wonder you’re so screwed up!” I tease, and grab for you, wrestle you over on top of me.
We make love on the temple floor, scraping our bodies raw, yet I tell you I want it to go on forever. You respond with all your heart, and I see pure, uncomplicated love in your eyes. We are so filled with wonder at our own state of bliss that when we notice a little caretaker man peeping at us through the banyan limbs we do not even protest.
Everything is perfect until we go to bed at night.
It’s not that it’s unexciting. You are a frenzied and fearless lover, always interested in novelties, and absolutely nothing is off-limits or taboo.
God knows, I am no prude; but I just cannot get my head around it with you. I hate to admit to double-standards, yet the truth is. . . I’m a bit old-fashioned when it comes to the girl I want to be my wife.
In sum, you are everything I have dreaded all my life, everything I have secretly desired. You thrill me beyond words and scare the wits out of me. I want romance, and you give me fever. You taste better than anything; but you taste, ultimately, of my own death.
We spend Chinese New Year in Singapore, awaiting the arrival of our ship to Japan. There is a big party in the dining room of the Southeast Asia Hotel — where we’re registered as man and wife — with a Malay rock band, free Dim Sum, and a seemingly endless supply of champagne. Everyone calls us Mr. and Mrs. Brawley, and we are madly in love.
Not knowing how unused to spirits you are, I let you drink too much champagne. You seem perfectly normal, having a wonderful time, until it hits you suddenly and you turn into a comic drunk. Burping and hiccupping, you leap onto the bandstand, elbow the gaunt little lead guitarist aside, sing a lewd French song off tune, do an outrageous Bump & Grind, and pass out in my arms.
As I sling you over my shoulder and start up the stairs toward our room, everyone – English, Chinese, Malay, and Indian – stands to clap and cheer, “Bravo, Mrs. Brawley! Happy New Year!”
The instant we get in the door though, you vomit all over the bed and pass out. I bathe you, clean up the mess, and watch over you, marveling at your Renaissance beauty, the innocence of your breathing, wondering where you will take me.
Then you wake up, still drunk, but in a confessional mood. And you tell me of all the many men you have slept with, in mind-altering detail, including the ones in India that you had while I was out of touch: An American hitchhiker very much like me. A handsome hotel clerk. A plump and prosperous Anglo-Indian businessman of sixty-five. A married French couple.
“Any sodomy with animals?” I ask. “Any pedophilia? How about necrophilia?”
“Don’t be fresh; I just want to be open with you.”
“Save it for your fellow freaks,” I say, and you do not take kindly to that at all.
As we board our ship, the Cambodge, the next morning, the second officer, a ruggedly handsome Frenchman with a beautifully blond Van Dyke, is there to greet us. Or rather, he ignores me and saves all his charm for you.
The Cambodge is the flagship of the Méssageries Maritimes Line. Méssageries Maritimes is the last company in the world to offer Fourth Class or Steerage passage. I am booked in Steerage, of course, but your father has paid for your passage in Second Class. Passengers of the lower orders, like me, are not granted visiting privileges to the other classes on board, but you can come down to Steerage anytime you like. It is nine days, however, before you condescend to grace me with your presence.
“I’ve got something to tell you,” you say, grimly, when you finally arrive.
“If it’s about Yellow Beard, save your breath,” I reply. “I already guessed.”
“You must understand, Eduardo. You hurt me more than anyone ever before. I am not a freak. I’m free, that’s all. Free! What did Anaïs Nin say? ‘All but freedom, utter freedom, is death.’ I needed someone mature enough to understand me. You are still an overgrown boy, full of absurd romantic notions. With him, for the first time in my life, I felt . . . fulfilled.”
After you have vented your feelings, you suddenly change your tone. You take my hand and put it to your cheek. You gaze at me soulfully, and say, “You don’t hate me, do you, Eduardo?”
“No, I don’t hate you,” I say, but at that moment I resolve to bide my time, and then to give you what you so obviously want and need.
After a stop in Hong Kong, we land in Kobe, leave the ship together, and take a train to Kyoto. We check into the same youth hostel, near the Tofuku-ji Temple, and go out for tea in a little coffee house at Sanjusangen-do called The Muse. It is very cold and snowy outside, and the Muse, with its Classical European music playing softly in the background, its wooden floors and walls, its roaring fireplace, and its windows overlooking the river, is actually quitecozy. The pinewood of our corner holds us in, contains us, as if it were our own squirrels’ nest, and all our nuts were gathered within, on this chill afternoon in early spring. We sip coffee, draw on our cigarettes, listen to Rachmaninoff, and the fire burns red. Smoke curls around us. Music encircles us. And the grey outside presses to get in.
“I love the woody, reedy quality of old Japanese buildings, don’t you? The shwoosh of stocking feet on polished wooden floors. Shoji doors sliding over tatami mats. Everything made of rice paper or straw or pine.”
“Yes,” you say, “nature is always just around the corner, it seems.”
“How do you feel about me now, Eugenie?”
“I still love you,” you reply, pausing to draw on your cigarette and blow out the smoke. “But it’s remote. I don’t need it anymore.”
Later we visit the Nishi Honganji temple and sit cross-legged on straw mats that are like ice. Though it is bitterly cold inside, incense fills the air. Not far from us, a pretty Japanese girl kneels before a large altar, bowing, crying, and praying intensely; but I cannot even begin to imagine what kind of Oriental sorrow has got to her. Probably something to do with a man, I decide.
You sit cross-legged beside me, your eyes far away, and I feel the weight of the huge temple pillars, each hewn of one gigantic pine tree, all around us. Though the atmosphere inside is frigid, it is somehow weighty, expectant. The wide paper windows above us glow white from the sun behind clouds.
“I thought I was pregnant,” you say, as we leave the temple. “That’s why I stayed away from you on the ship. I hated you for getting me that way, for cutting my life short, for chaining me down with your mooning and spooning and sniffing about.”
“I don’t hate you, Eduardo,” you say gaily, lighting up another cigarette. “I just got my period this morning!”
When night falls, we stop at a noodle shop near Yasaka Jinja and have Nabesoup to fortify us against the cold. Later, over some hot sake, I pull out “Proverbs from Hell,” by William Blake, which I happen to be reading, and read the following quote to you. I read it as if it has just come to me spontaneously, but I have already thought it out very carefully – a fact that does not escape you for an instant:
You never know what is enough
until you know what is more than enough.
You laugh, and then point to another (apparently contradictory) quote a few pages on in the same book:
The road of excess
leads to the palace of wisdom.
And we both have a little giggle about that as well.
Walking toward the hostel we are feeling great, actually capering in the street. I find myself to be tremendously excited, as I often am after this kind of sexual defeat. We stop for a goodbye kiss on the corner, and you look at me tenderly, but this time I will not be seduced.
“Eugenie, there’s something that I’ve wanted to give you for a long time.”
“Yes?” you say, smiling, as if expecting a gift.
“Something to repay you for everything you’ve given me, something you really deserve.
“What is it, Eduardo?”
“This!” I say, and I slap you across the face.
Your head snaps back. A patch of bright red spreads across your cheek. You shake your head, as if in disbelief.
When you open your eyes – your lovely Flemish Renaissance eyes – I can read pain, bewilderment, and at last understanding there, just as the artist might have painted it.
“Bam!” I go to myself, smacking my fist in my hand as I lie sleepless on my futon in the men’s dorm that night. “Bam! Did I hit her! Boy, did she deserve it! Bam!”
Curiously enough, despite the violence of our parting in Japan, we maintain intermittent contact over the years. In the mid-Seventies, when I come through Paris, where you have settled, we arrange to meet for dinner. You are as beautiful as ever, and engaged to a South African diplomat, you say. The wedding is in six months, and you will move with him to Capetown within the year.
“You’ve got no objections to marrying a representative of the Apartheid regime?”
“Merde!” you say, “you’re not going to get ‘holier than thou’ on me, are you, Eduardo? After all the scams you pulled in India?”
“Okay, promise me one thing, then, just for old time’s sake.”
“That you won’t name your kids with him either Tristan or Cybele.”
“Oh, have no fear of that! How did we ever think of such puerile, jejune appellations, anyway?”
“Fine, whatever you say. Now, what about your career as a pianist?”
“That’s over. I work at the South African Embassy now. That’s how I met Jan, my fiancé.”
“What do you do there?”
“I’m in the Public Relations Department. I’ve got English, French, and Flemish, which is the same as Afrikaans, so I’m really kind of indispensable to them.”
“What happened to your other career, your music?”
“You want the truth? I simply wasn’t good enough. You know what Saint Thomas Aquinas said? ‘Only three things are needed for beauty: wholeness, harmony, radiance.’ The consensus seemed to be that I hadn’t enough of the latter.”
After dinner, I half-expect you to ditch me, but you want to know if I’m up for a stroll along the Seine. Down on the quai, on the Île de la Cité, with the river gushing below us, and the lights off the Palais de Justice playing on its eddying surface, and the barges and tourist boats floating by, we mellow toward each other despite the tension that we have felt all evening. We even walk along hand in hand for a while, just like old times. Then, almost before either of us realizes it – “a quickly extinguished fire is quickly reignited” — we find ourselves pressed up against a stone wall under the Pont au Change, kissing passionately, tearing at each other’s clothes, heedless of passersby. I bite your lips. I bite your nipples through your blouse. You find bare skin under my shirt and dig into my back with your nails. I pull my trench coat around us, jerk up your skirt, and right there, under the bridge, with gawking pedestrians strolling by, we make love.
“Oh, I feel so humiliated!” you cry, when we are done. And, racing up the stairs to the Quai de la Corse, you disappear into the Cité Metro station.
Yet, the very next day, we are at it again in my hotel.
Perhaps to make up for the violent passions of the day before, or perhaps as a parting gift to me, you make love sweetly and gently this time, the way I have always wanted.
“The weird thing is . . . none of it was real, was it?” I say, as you are leaving.
“Oh, for God’s sake, Eduardo! The whole thing was a childish illusion, a passing fancy, a holiday romance. ’Le temps des lilas et le temps des roses ne reviendra plus.’The time of the lilies and roses never comes again.”
“So what’s all this about?” I demand, jerking my head toward our unmade bed.
“It’s about memories,” you say, gazing up at me tenderly, holding my hands in yours. It’s about a fleeting youth we shared. It’s about the impermanence of all things. It’s about goodbye.”
“Yes,” I whisper, eyes shut, as I close the door behind you.
Our feelings have evolved to the point where, for once, and only at our final parting, we are in perfect harmony.