An Excerpt from Love Doesn’t WorkBy Henning Koch
June 05, 2010
My world is limitation, my whole life has been limitation from beginning to end. I’ve got used to it; the first time I saw a woman naked I looked at her and thought, “My God, it’s not what I thought!” And when I went to the ‘obligatory’ places for the first time – Venice, Paris, Barcelona – they struck me as self-conscious arenas designed for the tourist to come and buy a post card. Consumed, empty theatres.
At any rate, when I woke in the morning in my friend’s house, I wasn’t prepared for the utter brilliance of it all. He had bought acres of derelict houses in a tumbledown medieval town in Sardinia. Somehow he had managed to persuade the authorities to let him knock them all together and build a big white pod that dwarfed everything else in the town.
All his architectural ideas were invested in that building.
There were stark concrete terraces with overhanging Tibetan eaves and carved dragon’s heads; arrangements of terracotta pots with flowering plants; teak decking… plunge pools of fragrant juniper wood imported from Finland… a library with built-in bookcases; a secret door to the music room… a snooker room where the green baize of the table was always brushed, the symmetrical polished balls pristine as a Derbyshire tea-set… over-looked by a donnish bar stocked with every conceivable malt whisky – a vulgar touristic map in the background, framed in dark wood, displaying “The Great Whiskeys of the Auld Country.”
All told it must have been a thousand square metre house… or should I call it a complex?
“How the heck did you get planning permission for this?” I asked him, and he laughed with that anything-can-be-done expression of his that came out of the land of his birth, California.
“Never ever ask an architect how he swung the fucking planning application,” he oozed, almost breaking into an oily sweat at the thought of his triumph. “If against your better judgment you do ask, don’t have any illusions about getting the truth, because you won’t get it, okay.” Then, before I could respond, added: “You know… sometimes decay works in your favour! I told them this street would fall down if nothing was done. My builders saved fifteen houses adjoining this building.”
“So that’s the truth, then?”
He lowered his voice. “Plus I offered an anonymous donation to the municipality… That’s the truth.”
“If you have money there are no problems, only solutions…”
There was something petulant in my voice when I said that. I was a penniless Londoner, flown in to visit my big-shot friend. He had always approved of me, said I was a “genuine phoney” which of course he stole from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He’s not concerned with originality – he’s a straight-talking Jimmy from Sacramento and nothing ever went wrong in his life.
“That’s not quite true. Money is simplistic, kind of like a lens.”
“Well, you see life through it. Which means, if you have money you’re looking through one lens, and if you don’t you’re looking through another. But neither of them are true.”
“That’s profound, Jimmy. Profound. But I still don’t understand what the hell possessed you to live here… What do you do here? Don’t you get bored?”
We were sitting on a terrace outside his library; an incredible number of swifts and swallows darting over the tiled roofs below us, screaming their hearts out as they tumbled with great daring through the air.
Just to make things even more scenic, we were drinking green tea out of Chinese hand-bowls. People like Jimmy always employ interior decorators with an ill-disguised hostility towards handles and… I don’t know… tablecloths…
“I don’t live here… I would never live in south-east Sardinia, for Christ’s sake,” said Jimmy. “And yes, I do get bored here, but it’s good to be bored sometimes. It’s necessary.”
“Because your brain needs to rest. Sometimes you need to sit here thinking: ‘Screw this place, screw the birds and the sea, I need life, I need people, I need something to happen!’ Then you go to Paris, or Madrid, find yourself a pretty girl and take her for dinner, enjoy the conversation… know what I mean? If you’re always right in the middle of the action it wears you out… it ends up killing you. Here I do nothing, I see no one… it’s kind of like a health spa for me… plus it’s the only time I ever get to see my wife.”
“Oh yes, your wife… Am I ever going to be introduced?”
“Don’t worry. You will be.”
“I’m just a bit curious. All fairly recent, isn’t it?”
“I first ran into her about… six months ago.”
“That’s what I mean.”
“One minute you’re Mr. Normal living in New York and carving out a career. Suddenly you meet la femme and you build yourself a Sardinian palace. You must be spending money like water… but you seem to have more money than ever.”
“That’s the way money works.”
“Not for me it’s not.”
“Yeah, but you don’t understand money, Chuck… you think it’s a finite resource, but it’s really not. Everywhere you look there’s a fucking pile of money just waiting to be picked up, you just have to decide if it’s yours… or someone else’s. Money doesn’t need to run out. Ever. You have to recycle it… spend it… and then make it come back to you…”
“Fascinating, Jimmy. Bloody fascinating.”
“So you want to meet my wife?”
“I wouldn’t mind.”
“She’s pretty spectacular. But not what you’re expecting.”
“What am I expecting?”
“American woman. Good body. Yoga, macrobiotic diet, full of Californian sincerity… ultimately not interesting. But a great body, which acts like a counterweight, even though half of it is fucking genetically modified. It’s always much easier to be interested in an attractive person, don’t you think? You end up playing this game with yourself, laughing at yourself, telling yourself what a simple guy you are… because you’re prepared to put up with this dead-head… who’s kind of dumb but nicely predictable… and beauty has its own intelligence. You know what I’m saying?”
“No. You married a dumb woman because she’s beautiful?”
“No, no, no. No! I told you, you’ll never guess what she’s like. You won’t know until you meet her.”
“Okay, when am I going to meet her?”
“Listen Chuck, have another drink, something stronger than green tea, okay? Something like a caipirinha, ask the girl downstairs to mix one up for you, she knows how to do them. Then sit in the whirlpool for a while, there’s one on the terrace right outside your bedroom, sit and watch the swifts until you start getting slightly bored. Okay? Boredom is good, remember that! It sets you up for a good evening. Then put on some clean clothes and come down to the dining room – that’s one level below. We’ll be waiting for you…”
“What’s her name?”
“Where’s she from? That’s a man’s name.”
“She’s British. Well, Indian British. Punjabi parents.”
“Right. Archie… Where did you meet her?”
“Does it matter?”
“Okay. So I won’t tell you then. Go and have your bath.”
“Do I smell?”
“Yes you do. You’re a typical Brit. You arrive off a plane, you get out, you travel for another four hours in a taxi, you arrive, you crash, you get up in the morning, slum around in a dressing gown, and by lunchtime you still haven’t had a shower. Go and have a shower. Please.”
“How do you know if I showered?”
“I know everything that happens in this house.”
I watch him slouch off.
I do what he says. I go to my room, I sit in the plunge pool, I watch the swifts and have a drink and start getting bored. The room is stark, not even a television. Just a bed, a lamp recessed into the wall, a cupboard also recessed into the wall. One insanely uncomfortable chair made of moulded birch. Big doors onto the terrace partially shaded by overhanging eaves, again with carved dragons. The terrace is sharp-edged, the plunge pool reaches to the edge so when you’re in the water you feel you might tumble off. Peering down, you see another angular terrace just below, also with a pool, this one with dark green plants all round it, lending more shade.
Sardinia is a very hot place. I top up my glass with whisky from my suitcase, cheap stuff, too aromatic really for this heat.
Bloody swifts make a racket, but at least they keep themselves busy. This is good, better than London.
For a moment I forget myself, and it’s a blessing. I believe some poet once said we should concentrate on being as opposed to doing. So I won’t tell you what I do for a living. All I will say is, I’m in the arts and I’m a genuine phoney.
Jimmy has been a friend for over twenty years.
When I say “a friend” I mean he’s someone I can say what I want to. He’s there and nothing surprises him… except doing good for its own sake. This he does not believe in. Jimmy actually enjoys immorality with a passion. I reckon he was brought up by a strict Catholic mother… whose greatest sadness was her loss of maidenhead. I must ask him some time…
“So you’re Archie?”
“I’m not the cleaner.”
“Ha-ha! I’m Jimmy’s friend.”
“I hope so. Otherwise what are you doing here?”
“Most people only come to stay ‘cause they’re looking for something to bitch about,” Jimmy threw in. “Klaus is not like that.”
“So I see.” There was a pause while she pointedly transferred her attention to me. “Are you German?”
I felt slightly unnerved by her. Too damned charming, too much sex appeal. I swallowed my nerves and tried to sound casual. “No. I just had cruel parents with a strange taste in names. Call me Chuck, everyone else does.”
Archie’s eyes were very dark and they emanated great dark pools of consolation. That was her ruling emotion – consolation. It made me want to dredge up some long-gone hurt, and tell her all about it. She would have consoled me.
She was wearing a long red dress covered in tiny mirrors, cut very low across her magnificent orbs, with a hint of glistening black brassiere – a whiff of the wild country…
I was not, I hasten to add, lusting over my friend’s wife. I was aware of her qualities – which is entirely different. Whenever I felt myself quickly tearing my eyes away from what she revealed, I felt her consolation washing over me. And a wistful, knowing smile; aware of the fact that men are hopelessly, mechanically drawn to a well-made woman, even if that woman is a merciless harpy.
Archie, incidentally, seemed perfectly pleasant and not a harpy at all.
“So what do you think of my wife?” Jimmy blurted out.
By now we were sitting down, and the serving staff had just plonked down big white plates with carpaccio of tuna and exquisite arragosto tails.
I smiled and replied, with my mouth full: “I never use the third person when the third person’s sitting there…”
“He means grammatically…” Jimmy explained to his wife, who frowned at him.
“I know what he means.”
“But, to use the third person, I think she passes with flying colours.”
“Why are English guys always feeding you bull?” Jimmy said, with an uxorious glint at his wife.
Archie twinkled back at him, too obviously affectionate to my mind. When a woman loves a man she tends to be sceptical towards him in public. “The English are so good at platitude, they spend their lives in it. They get embarrassed if you stray off it…”
“Fuck! The platitude of Englishness.” Jimmy shook his head. “Makes me glad I’m American just for a change…”
“Look” – I managed to cut in – “the English are very passionate people. It’s just we’re passionate about saying as little as possible. We’re passionate about being reserved…”
“English men make the best lovers,” said Archie, revealing a slight coarseness. “They’re so repressed that they end up being dynamite in bed… they go off like sodding warheads.”
“Anyway, you’re English,” I told her, with a nod towards Jimmy: “Don’t let him make you the foreigner.”
“When you marry an American who has no country, you learn to deconstruct yourself. It’s even easier when you’re a second-generation immigrant.”
“And you’ve done it, have you? Deconstructed yourself?”
“Of course. I get to swan around in nice dresses while staff serve me delicious food. Next week we’ll be in our flat in Paris. Jimmy will be off working somewhere… I think it’s his shopping mall in China. Do you know where I grew up, Chuck? In Southall. You know where that is?”
“Of course. Best curries in London.”
“Yes. The best curries… may well be so. And that’s about it. Unless you want a cheap sari.”
We ate. The windows were open, and swarms of swifts kept up their screaming as they darted over the tiled rooftops. I lit a cigarette without asking – guest’s privilege – and sat quietly watching a sculpture in the middle of the table. It occurred to me that it was probably a Henry Moore. A circular figure with a hole cut diagonally through the bronze. About forty centimetres high.
Jimmy put down his fork, drained his glass of wine and looked at his wife.
“We haven’t told him the most interesting thing about our marriage. Have we?”
“We haven’t. No. Is it so interesting?”
“Yeah. It’s unusual. I’d go along with that.”
They looked at me. I stubbed out my cigarette.
“My wife’s a nice-looking woman, right Chuck? Most guys would think we have a great sex life, lots of action every night, no wonder we’re always making an excuse to get an early night. Right?”
“But we don’t…” Archie said. “Don’t have a sex life.”
“Do you want to rephrase that, honey?” said Jimmy, insistently.
“We don’t have a normal physical relationship, and by that I mean…”
He interrupted: “Do you mind if I get to the point?” He turned to me. “We’ve developed a concept of non-sexual intercourse.”
I looked from one to the other. “So is this why you invited me down? To help you sort it out?”
There was a silence before Jimmy burst out fulsomely: “Told you he’s great, Archie, you can always rely on him to say something fucking great like that! No, you stupid son-of-a-bitch!”
We smirked at each other, although to be honest, I was feeling a bit puzzled. In the end I felt compelled to fish for information. “Why did you marry if things weren’t working… physically?”
“You don’t understand,” said Archie. “We have the best sex I’ve ever had. It’s just we don’t touch each other. At all.”
“It’s kind of a mental thing,” Jimmy filled in.
“Sex is too predictable,” said Archie. “Totally externalised… not holistic… at all…”
I turned to Jimmy, and for an instant, I saw the sadness in him, revolving slowly like a dying star throwing out its wavering beams. Aha!
After the late lunch, I made an excuse and went to lie in my plunge pool. Vacantly, yet with thoughts circulating in my mind – much like the vultures I saw over the yellow mountain at the top of the valley.
As I floated there on the still surface, I said to myself, call me a simpleton, but if I had a wife like Archie with lovely dark eyes and beautiful thick eyebrows, and a sensual mouth like a jewelled half-moon, bright pearly teeth and long slim arms, her whole body light brown and velvety, fronted by swelling breasts, all borne up by legs of good length but not of the spaghetti variety (personally I have never liked women with limbs like pasta) I would certainly look forward to lying in bed with a book, looking up as she undressed, peeling off her garments one by one and then tiredly climbed into the bed, revealing her soft waist, curving hips and dark bifurcated triangle. I would wrap my arms round her, and we’d both start looking for release in each other’s bodies. I would watch her eyes swooning as she gradually lost touch with the night, the particularity of us lying there, the damp soft air, the frogs croaking outside from pools and the mosquitoes wailing like miniature pipes.
It would be just like that. If I had a wife, I mean. But in fact I never had a wife of any description. Loneliness holds far fewer perils than anything thrown up by togetherness – as exemplified by Jimmy and this gin-trap into which he had so willingly inserted his foot. Mental sex, what sort of nonsense was that? He just had to be suffering, surely? Sure enough, he’d met the woman of his dreams. But this fabled meeting with the love object is not the end, rather the beginning of the quest. Archie had actually led him into a terrible adventure. Now, although he was bound to her, she was denying him her body, whilst at the same time consoling him and softening the loneliness of existence with her charms. He, brave fool, was putting a brave face on it. Why were women so corrosive, so dangerous to a man’s happiness?
All I could do was to lie there and, in Jimmy’s words, listen to the swifts until they started to revolt me.
I was filled with imminent boredom.
This boredom continued all day without cease. The streets, empty but for old women in black glad-rags working at their lace-making in the doorways… or leaning over bowls of still-steaming, white ricotta cheese. No activity, no youth, no vigour, just the regularity of the tolling bells, the furtive priests; and moss sprouting between the paving stones.
The plunge pool became my refuge, my blessing. I lay prostrate in it, a long-suffering look on my face. Amazing as it sounds, Heaven does not always conform to our expectations. It does not, for instance, necessarily take the form of a Le Corbusier vision of stark lines, cool vistas and high-density concrete; nor does it have a New Tibetan influence of over-hanging hardwood eaves and carved beams. In the end, modern architecture is an attempt to overlook the basic human reality. Whether we like it or not, we do not dwell in the halls of Olympus.
As I lay there looking up at a pair of elongated carved dragons above my head, I suddenly heard a sound from the terrace below. Because of the angle of the eaves, the sound bounced with perfect clarity – I was, in effect, “eaves-dropping”. It was a woman’s voice, probably Archie’s.
I listened intently.
“Thank you, angel…”
That was all she said for a while, but there was emotion in her voice, a nuance that any man immediately recognises as sensualised gratitude.
“Yes… good… you are finding it… There! Oh God!”
Finally I couldn’t contain myself any more. I paddled to the edge of the plunge pool and peered down at the oasis on the terrace below. What did I see? Not Archie on a beach towel, semi-naked and writhing under Jimmy, vulpine, bursting with virility. No.
In fact, what I saw was Archie wearing a chaste white toga fastened at her shoulder with a golden clasp; her frizzy hair fixed on top of her head, revealing the curvature of her spine, and a graceful arched neck. Jimmy, meanwhile, was in a thick-towelled dressing gown, a rather unfetching little number, dark blue with a sort of striated pattern down the sides.
They were facing each other across a small teak table.
Placed in the middle was the Henry Moore sculpture I had seen earlier, at lunch. Jimmy was stroking it with his hand.
As he did so, Archie rolled her head and closed her eyes. Jimmy then gently pushed his hand into the hollow, stroking the edges with his fingers. Archie reacted with a sharp intake of breath:
I had seen enough. Quickly I withdrew and lay in a state of incomprehension, breathing a little too hard. There was a measure of panic, even.
The boredom had gone and now I missed it.
“So that’s what you do? You kind of touch a sculpture, and she imagines you’re touching her body?”
“Sure. The sculpture is just an aid, it doesn’t have to be a sculpture. She doesn’t imagine it, she actually feels it… with intensity…”
“I really didn’t mean to spy on you but…”
“Listen, man, sex behind closed doors has never appealed to me. It’s a hundred times more interesting if someone is watching…”
“I wasn’t watching! I just glanced over the edge…”
“We knew you were there.”
“Sure we did. Can I tell you something? We’re kind of high on this thing, we’ve invented a new way of having sex; we want to tell the world, it could be our greatest achievement.”
“What would Billy Graham make of you, I wonder?”
“He’d hate us. We’d put him out of a job.”
“He’d find a way of damning you. Adultery is in the mind, that’s what he’d say.”
“And he’d be right.”
“Jimmy, do you never just feel like getting between your wife’s legs and fucking her normally?”
“No way. Not at all.” His American, sincere eyes. (Architects are mad people.) Then he kind of blinked self-consciously and said: “Chuck, are you attracted to my wife?”
“No. Of course not.”
“Do you find her attractive?”
“Well she is attractive. And very… bright, too.”
“Thanks. Because we have this problem.”
“It’s kind of… a weird one.”
“Well… she wants to re-examine the physical side, but not with me. She says it would introduce a note of grossness in our relationship, and mental sex would never be the same again…” Silence fell. I knew what was coming next. I waited. “So we were wondering if… you’d be willing… to lend us your body for a couple of days…”
“When you say ‘us’ you don’t mean…?”
“Don’t worry, you have my personal guarantee there’d be no three-way action. In fact I’d go away for a few days to give you guys a bit of seclusion.”
I waited a good minute, then blurted out: “Jimmy, I have to say this is totally insane. I mean, what the hell are you getting involved with, this whole mental sex thing… isn’t it just some stupid idea you came up with because…?”
“Just give me a yes or no, Chuck! I don’t have time to discuss it. If you don’t want it, if it’s too weird for you, we’ll find someone else, it’s just very hard finding people who are sane like you. Archie likes you, she says she could try this with you. That’s another plus. Sex is a powerful force, it throws people around, makes them lose focus… I don’t think it has that effect on you.”
I shrugged. “To be honest I can’t even remember the effect it has on me!” Then, after another long pause, added: “So you think sex doesn’t move me?”
“Not at all… not at all… but, in the end… I think you know it’s just a function of the body, right? I think you’re examining its importance in the same way we are. Sigmund Freud said successful creative people sublimate their physical urges.”
“Yes but… Freud was insane… and an Austrian.”
“Will you explore the question? With Archie, I mean. She’s approaching this whole thing as an experiment.”
I surprised myself by agreeing, without dwelling too much on it. Not like me at all.
“Listen, Chuck, I won’t embarrass you by sticking round. And probably I won’t see you when I get back; I’m off to China and I’ll be out there for a while. So, yeah, sorry we haven’t spent more time.” He got up and moved towards the door, then stopped and looked round. “Thank you. Did I say that?” And, with a little wave, he was gone.
My errant friend. Thanking me for generously offering to give his wife a good shafting.
The awkward part would be Archie. Or so I thought. But she turned out to be the just the same as Jimmy. Matter-of-fact and grateful for my willingness to play a part in the experiment.
Her eyes were still consoling. Now those eyes seemed to say, Please take me, do what you want.
“Are you okay with everything?” she asked for the umpteenth time.
“I suppose so.”
“You do want to go ahead with this?”
“Yes, but please… stop talking about it like some sort of project. I’m not like you, Archie, I don’t have this mental sex thing going on. I make love normally, the only unusual thing here is that I’ll be making love to you. And it’s a bit of a mind-fuck, if you don’t mind me saying. But… if I can help, I’d like to…”
“Don’t think of it like that, Chuck… Don’t live the taboo… You have to get on the inside of the emotion… Okay?”
Good Lord, this woman had spent too long in America! I stared at her, frowning slightly, then tried to lay bands on my disquiet. “When do you want to start?”
She touched my hand intimately. “This evening. We’ll have a light supper at about six, then we’ll rest for a half hour and meet here on the terrace afterwards.”
“One thing, Chuck.”
“Try to remember that I will be working through a number of different sexual attitudes.”
“How do you mean, attitudes?”
“You’ll see. I won’t be myself… not quite.”
“Like a role-play thing? Will you come in wearing black leather and thigh-length boots?”
“Would you like me to?”
“No. Not at all. Just wear the red dress you wore last night…”
She smiled knowingly. “I thought you liked that. Good.”
I did almost have to sigh with delight when I saw her, because she’d conspired to look exactly as she did last night. Women understand those things. Her hair was up, revealing that soft arching neck with the soft earlobes pierced by gold rings; even the tiny piercings excited me, the way they broke through the soft rotunda of flesh. Her lips were slightly tensed – sexually excited or just plain nervous?
“So. Here you are. In your entirety” I said.
“Not quite”, she said: “Remember, flesh is a veil.” Then, with a smile. “If you come over here we can sit down… Feel free to take a closer look at me.”
I moved closer and sat down beside her.
No longer forbidden fruit, she now seemed a woman like any other, certainly beautiful, but otherwise perfectly ordinary. And when she leaned back and smiled at me like that, I felt a slight element of coercion, which reduced my engorgement to a certain extent. She immediately noticed.
“You prefer me when I am evasive,” she said.
“I suppose so,” I admitted, shocked at my own audacity. “The only truly desirable woman, for me, is the virgin; the maid…”
We sat in silence. Then she shook her head. “You see. Words are such a turn-off.”
“I find they can have an aphrodisiac effect too, they…”
She leaned forward, deftly placed her mouth over mine and started slowly pumping her tongue in and out as she kissed. She maintained this for about a minute, then put her hand on my crotch; I felt my penis withdrawing slightly. She massaged, and it slowly responded. “Do you like it when I’m the instigator?”
“That’s not an answer.”
“If you’re going to take the lead, be assertive.”
“You mean, open your flies and get it out and suck you off?”
“If you like,” I said with a puzzled frown.
She slid down on the floor, unzipped me; and fellated me until it became necessary for me to issue a little cautionary note. She ignored this and seemed to wait for me to come; as I did so, she kept her eyes firmly drilled into mine, apparently savouring the whole experience; then, with a determined look, swallowing. Good Lord!
She rolled onto the sofa and rested her head in my lap. “That was the first part,” she said. “I can file that away now. For later use.”
“Mental sex?” I was still hyperventilating.
“Correct.” She looked at me. “I may never need to suck cock again for as long as I live.”
“Must be a relief to you. What will Jimmy have to say about that?”
“Jimmy’s very satisfied. He says since he met me he’s had the best blowjobs of his entire life.”
After a few minutes she started peeling off her clothes. She was as exquisite as I had thought. Her dun skin was velvety, and down below, her dark hair that had been carefully shaved to reveal a dusky, sensitised ridge.
Before long she was straddling me, revolving on her powerful haunches and grinding herself against me. Surprisingly, I was revived instantly. I felt her pubic bone, her sharpness against my crotch. I’m not sure, but I think we came together. As I shot my bolt, I felt her contract; so that as I grew larger she grew smaller in the very same instant; and in this way, we contracted and expanded together. Like grasping at a slippery fish.
After savouring this feeling for a while, I began to withdraw, only to find that her vulva had this uncanny ability to slither, to tighten itself and enclose my prick in a velvety grip.
I don’t mind saying, at that time I was a man of forty-four, but never in my whole life had I had two such powerful erotic experiences in one day.
Yet however hard I worked, Archie never seemed quite satisfied. She would roll onto her back, parting her legs as if to cool the super-heated gates to her musk-scented kingdom.
At one point when I was brazen enough to suggest we might take a coffee-break, maybe also with a few biscuits or a leg of lamb or something, she grinned at me and said, “Fine, but first I could go for another go…”
I felt myself glaring at her, in disbelief. “I can’t believe you haven’t had enough! Don’t you ever get tired?”
“What are you going to do, Klaus? Give me a good horse-whipping for being a woman? Yes, I like fucking, I actually like fucking with you. Amazing, isn’t it? I’m really enjoying myself.”
“Enjoying!” I echoed, doing my best to hide a flush of male pride; then added, “So am I, but enjoyment is so very easy; anyone can do it!”
“Oh poor old Scrooge!”
It was at this exact moment that she did the thing I had been dreading. Pitied me, I mean… For never living to the full, for always holding back; I was the man locked up in his metal case; the man peering out of his armoured eye-sockets; making love through a tangle of electrical cables, circuit-boards and personal organisers.
Touching my cheek with her dry, cool palm, she murmured in a consoling voice: “Miserable Chuck, he can’t accept the good things life lays at his feet…”
Her gorgeous amber-hued eyes glowed at me benignly; I felt I had never seen anything quite so beautiful in all my life. I inclined my head and pressed my lips reverentially to her hand. I was praying, in fact, that I would recover from this experience; that I would still be Chuck, unchanged; and above all, that I would not develop feelings for her.
Awkward things, feelings…
These routines continued for several days. To begin with, it was all heady and new; I didn’t need any encouragement, I almost felt I was receiving an education. There was nothing she didn’t want to try, as if ticking things off an imaginary list.
I found myself confronting a sort of prurience in myself – confirming something I had always known, namely that I am no sexual explorer. For instance, it gave me no great pleasure to have to penetrate her anus, whilst she straddled the floor like a dog and exposed her odoriferous rump. Call me a prude if you like, but I have no great regard for such practices.
In the evenings, after these sexual marathons, we ate plenty of beef and seafood and salad; then slept like Trojans.
After a week I was exhausted. On the seventh day I had no real desire to see her at all. The mere sight of her made me feel like a galleon slave at the approach of the Empress. She was aware of this.
Finally, we had the post-mortem.
“I think your feelings for me have abated somewhat,” she said.
“Yes. I’m tired, I suppose.”
“It’s so much more than that, Chuck. Isn’t it?”
“Yes. It’s exhaustion.”
“No. It’s matter.”
I looked at her, interested in spite of myself. “What do you mean by that, Archie?”
“The inherent imperfection of matter.” She flashed a sudden smile. “The old Cathar problem. The body is the abode of the incarcerated soul, doomed to wait for its release… every sexual act, even within the bonds of marriage, is a spiritual transgression.”
“Are you serious…?”
“The way I see sex… is… it’s a degrading act between two people looking for misplaced ecstasy. At the end of the day the unfortunate by-product of sex is another imprisoned soul subject to the very same pull of Lucifer… and thus the World of matter prolongs itself… like an alcoholic who can’t stop drinking…”
“Does sex really have to be so very degrading? I mean, are you sure you’re not exaggerating all this. Is it really so bad, so awful..?”
Archie pursed her lips. “Look. For a week we fucked each other’s brains out. Now what? What is there between us?”
“No. When you met me you thought me wonderful. You said so to Jimmy. You admired me. Now I’m no longer any use to you. You don’t even like me particularly…”
“I do like you perfectly well, Archie. It’s just that you’re not really my type… plus you do have to take into account that you’ve taxed me a bit, this week. And… it’s all been very impersonal, hasn’t it? Which is a bit odd, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“Actually, Chuck, you have to be much more accurate in your emotional life if you want to avoid the fate of millions of your fellow Englishmen.”
“And yours!” I filled in irascibly.
She nailed me with her eyes and spoke slowly. “This is the way physical love works. Physicality and love are contradictory forces. That’s why me and Jimmy are going to last… all our lives.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something? Archie – you’re a woman, you’re flesh and blood! You can’t live by all these weird ideas…”
“I can try…”
That was the last meaningful conversation we had that week. Soon after I was packed and gone, not without a certain relief, I might add.
The trouble with these kinds of experiments, however consensual, is that they tend to destroy friendships.
I didn’t see Jimmy and Archie for about a year and a half after the events I have related; then I bumped into Jimmy in Berlin, at an art fair. By then I knew the salient facts: Jimmy and Archie had divorced, and Archie had spent several months living in Sai Baba’s ashram in India, before coming back to Europe, a broken woman weighed down by dubious spiritual baggage.
“Were you disappointed when it all screwed up?” I asked him.
He looked at me, a reluctant smile on his face. “No, I was relieved. I was sick of… you know… that whole obsessive thing about sex. Men want sex but once they have it, it’s not so important any more. Women have a healthy respect for sex, they know it has the power to enslave them in one way or another. Once they give in to it, they start analyzing the experience; they’re better than us at figuring out what it means to them. Women are players, they analyze the game stats. Men just want to win and get it over with…”
“How is Archie?”
“Oh. Fucking crazy! We took this mental sex thing as far as it would go. Then one day I wanted some proper sex. I admitted it to her… she went nuts… said our marriage was over… filed for divorce…”
“Must have cost you a bit?”
“It did. I lost the house in Sardinia. She’s living there now. I’m still picking up the tab… She’s pretty well going nuts, I reckon…”
“Poor Archie,” I said, surprising myself. “So do you miss it… your life there… Sardinia?”
“Not really. To be honest, I couldn’t stand the place. All those stinking old ladies in black dresses. And the priests tip-toeing around like fucking perverts. Fucking creepy, Chuck… wasn’t it?” He looked at me, thoughtful for the first time. “What about you? Any last thoughts about Archie?”
His question set me off. At once I was back in that bed by the window, the low sunlight pouring in; Archie, her honey-coloured skin, the little soft hairs round her belly-button. I felt myself hardening at the very thought of her. Of course I didn’t admit so much to Jimmy.
“Yup, I’d like to see Archie some time. I grew to like Archie, but…”
He smirked, distinctly ill-at-ease now; whilst trying to cover it all up under his usual bravado. “She told me you didn’t like her very much at all. Actually.”
“You were relieved to get the hell out of there. That’s what she said.”
“Yeah but it was hardly a natural set-up, was it? You go and see your friend, he introduces you to his wife, then you spend a week exploring every sexual practice known to Western man…”
“I guess the situation was… slightly weird… yeah… we lost the plot… and you were a real sport about it, Chuck…” He looked up and nodded at a good-looking blonde making her way towards us, a ferocious grin on her fake-tan face. “Oh, there’s my new wife… right there… you want to meet her?”
“No offence, Jimmy, but… I’ve got to go, if you know what I mean.”
“Don’t worry, Chuck. This one likes fucking. Physically and in ever sense. And… by the way… I wouldn’t let her anywhere near you!”
Before I could slip away, she’d pulled up in front of us – Californian, with a good body, a frightening level of earnestness and an interest in yoga and macrobiotics. All this came out in the first two minutes.
“I feel we’ve met somewhere before,” I said.
“No, no, no!” she cried, grasping my arm fiercely as if to compensate for having nothing to say. “You’re getting me confused with someone else out there. And I’m very typically Californian, I mean this is real blonde hair, ha-ha! I don’t have so much about me that… you know… stands out.”
“Oh I don’t know about that,” said Jimmy, grabbing her rump mischievously.
She shrieked with delight, baring her teeth in a way that would have provoked an attack among chimpanzees. Then said to me, without irony: “He’s so cute! I just love these Danny de Vito types. Short, overweight professional types…” Pecking him on the cheek, she confided further: “He’s the kind of guy who can’t leave the airport without buying you a diamond stud…”
Jimmy looked at me. “So,” he said, “where are you off to in such a hurry? Can’t you stay and have dinner with us at least. Come on!”
“Yeah!” his wife cried. “Come On! Have Dinner With Us!”
“I’m sorry.” I threw Jimmy a crooked look. He looked old, tired, gone to seed, with thrombotic cheeks and watering eyes. “I’ve got to get home and pack.”
“Oh yeah, where you going?” the wife wanted to know.
Their faces dropped like blinds when I asked Jimmy: “It’s been on my mind for a while… Would you mind awfully if I paid a visit to Sardinia?”
Congratulations on the book!
Particularly liked this line: “People like Jimmy always employ interior decorators with an ill-disguised hostility towards handles…”
Thanks, Marni, really glad you enjoyed it! I wrote this a couple of years ago now so when I read it, it doesn’t really compute any more. It’s a long excerpt but the real meaning of the story unfolds in the second half – this is in fact the title story of the collection, and more of a novella than a short story I suppose.
I will be reading from this story collection in the US this summer… bit nerve-racking…
I loved this story. What a wonderful job you have done writing it!
It’s hard to pick a passage, but this following one blew me away:
“As I floated there on the still surface, I said to myself, call me a simpleton, but if I had a wife like Archie with lovely dark eyes and beautiful thick eyebrows, and a sensual mouth like a jewelled half-moon, bright pearly teeth and long slim arms, her whole body light brown and velvety, fronted by swelling breasts, all borne up by legs of good length but not of the spaghetti variety (personally I have never liked women with limbs like pasta) I would certainly look forward to lying in bed with a book, looking up as she undressed, peeling off her garments one by one and then tiredly climbed into the bed, revealing her soft waist, curving hips and dark bifurcated triangle. I would wrap my arms round her, and we’d both start looking for release in each other’s bodies. I would watch her eyes swooning as she gradually lost touch with the night, the particularity of us lying there, the damp soft air, the frogs croaking outside from pools and the mosquitoes wailing like miniature pipes.”
This is when Klaus/Chuck loved Archie from afar.
Hi Irene! Long time “no see”.
That’s an interesting comment. Yes, when he loved her from afar and still could see her inwardly as an imaginary creature and not a particular one.
The readings are going ahead end of August and early September in the US. Don’t know quite where they will be, but would love to meet you and your family. I know I will be in New York, Boston and some other places.
There don’t seem to be many readings in Miami for some reason.
Lots of people who read and really nice weather.
(Plus, you could stay with us!)
Yes, I know… it’s a real pity… but you never know, I am going to Memphis I think… which is getting closer to the south… Anyway I’ll make sure I’ll come next time, would love to meet your family, they look like a merry bunch!
Well, we are a merry bunch, but the only part of the bunch in Miami Beach is me and Victor! That’s okay, though. We’re merry enough for the lot of them!
Yeah, Henning. I gotta chime in here. This is wonderful stuff.
Makes me want to go to Sardinia! 🙂
Thanks Brad… you’d be more than welcome here! The place is empty for most of the year, and you can just walk down the beach and watch the rollers coming in. Bit like California I guess, except no roller-blades, just donkeys.
In fact, I’m trying to find a place to stay in New York from end August to 16th September without taking out a second mortgage. If any TNB writers out there would like to swap their NY pads in this period for my house in Sardinia, please get in touch.
Pass it round, please, pass it round!
Compelling reading Henning – your writing has a wonderful rich flavour and delightful to discover, should make for a fascinated audience! Good luck. Im sure it will all work out brilliantly. Look forward to reading more.
Would happily swap my house in Poole for yours, only its the on wrong side of the pond..
That’s sweet of you to check out my story. Encouraged by your reaction! Maybe I will be doing some readings in the UK later, not sure yet. Would love to see the Mendips again, although I expect they are full of TV people now, when I went there they were sleepy and remote.
Have been keeping up with your tango postings.