Les Halles, sing-songed the automated voice on the Métro, a beat too long between words. The fast shuddering halt of a train that knew its purpose—doors opening, doors closing; a mechanical act nevertheless imbued with eroticism to me, watching the surge of bodies entering and leaving. Les Halles. I sat in the narrow plastic seat and clenched violently—a last gasp stifled—spasming as if possessed; another hidden orgasm in a city where I should have been luxuriating unabashed, in layers of mythical literary and actual sex. Instead I was coming alone in the Métro, in a crescendo of solitude. There is a line in Henry and June: ‘Writers make love to whatever they need’. Love seemed like a puzzle piece that did not belong to the rest of me; I do not know if I was making love to myself in the hope that I might understand my life, the distant poles of desire and its opposite that I seemed to both inhabit, or because I wished to be a writer, another impossibility. The only thing I could do was to conjure the fantasies and act as if they were real—as real as the ebbing shudder of my swollen heat and the waning image of the man seated next to me, no reader, indifferent to the Paris in my beloved books. To be alone when someone is with you is the loneliest feeling of all. We were there at the beginning of the end; frauds in the city of love.
Paris exists within two amorous dreams for those who do not reside there: pristine hotel rooms, the duvet-thick quiet broken by intimate laughter, tourists expecting to be intoxicated by love literally in the air; or its dirtier shadow, illicit delight, a carnal feast within walls and on surfaces permanently marked by the bodily signatures of pleasures past, a guestbook of ecstasy. If I daydreamed in vain of the first, what I craved with a desperate ache was the second, the kind of fucking that overloaded the senses with its greed: the great sexual ego Henry Miller stunned by Nys in Quiet Days in Clichy, her Renoir body his animal match; clever enough to take his cock, ‘Ca c’est quelque chose’, as well as all his money with her cunt and her charm. We go to Paris reverent: as if the city was a heart in a reliquary beating with the words of writers instead of blood, in the hope that to be here will be enough to grant us the kinds of love we, too, desire. If we believe in this form of divinity it is because to be unable to define the ache within us would be more unbearable than the ache itself.
I was no Nys or even Nin, married while finding adventures with other men. I read and despaired at how I could almost smell the scent of sex on the pages of these books, the entwining of writing and carnality, how the heart of its orgasms was always Paris: a sexual epicentre whose tremors I imagined I could feel across the Channel, living in a non-descript, new-build house in Kent, on an estate ubiquitous with its duplicates. My sheets were not like the ‘massive red silk eiderdown, covered in dubious stains…’ as they were in Duroy’s love nest with Madame de Marelle in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami, only pale blue cotton, streaked with the ghosts of my late-night, secretive orgasms; stolen while someone slept unaware next to me, oblivious of my desire for other men and women. If my sexual life was based on fantasies from literature they were no less powerful than reality: they enveloped me in pleasure I hadn’t known in years, the softness of my clit under my fingertips becoming blurred with the turning of pages—fingers sliding off, a book falling, an ending.
I took my furtive pleasures in crowded public spaces as I wandered the city as if alone those few days, a pilgrim-voyeur not looking outward but inward to what could have or should have been: relief in the privacy of sexual gratification, without the guilt of silence of that room and the other person it held, impossible to touch, as was I. ‘I could come with anybody just now’, said Hugo, Anaïs’s husband, as they gazed aroused—another kind of reverence—at two women putting on a private sex show for them, a tangle of flesh and heat. So could I, but there was no one; because of it, I chose to come with everyone, where everyone was, the inverse of what the Paris of romance and sexual desire on the page meant.
I wondered if passengers could smell the animal change in my body as it peaked, the musky sweat that gathered under my arms and between my thighs; if there was a glimmer of recognition at my lips now swollen and reddened beyond decency, the way I tilted my neck upwards slightly as if I were offering it up to be bitten; if my unspoken litany of just fuck me, please fuck me right now jolted into the thoughts of fellow passengers like a stray radio signal. I wanted someone to intercept it, look at me, know what it was I needed and longed for—too damaged both physically and mentally to give or receive anything those six long years with someone, but without touch. I wanted someone to feel those dirty vibrations in the Métro carriage—dirty only because they were not within those pristine, duvet-quiet rooms—and give me a sign that they, too, were moved by the force of my hermetic desires; held in a kind of reliquary but wept over by no one but myself.
Those few days I stayed in Paris that first time, Métro line 4 became almost Pavlovian: I would stare out the window into the darkness, or else at other passengers, the floor, the black accordion-like rubber sections between carriages which flexed when the train went around curves while I slipped into a lustful reverie, listening to nothing but the automated voice that came at intervals: Saint-Placide. Saint-Sulpice. Odéon. Châtelet. And on. It was a metronome to my building arousal; where I could not use my fingers to press my swelling clit, inflections of words replaced them. Sssaint. Odéon. Les Halles. Shh…âtelet. I pretended the lilting, dancing, clipped letters—drawn out or bitten with relish, at other times hissing with a disciplined sibilance—were an aural stroking of my hidden, yearning flesh. The fragments brought back a long-buried memory of reading e.e. cummings’s poem ‘Doll’s boy’s asleep’ when young, curious about the haze of sex in the words I read:
you take his mouth
for his eyes are mine
I learned later that he was living in Paris a couple of years prior to the publication of Tulips and Chimneys, and I murmured lines out of order in my head between the slow call of stops—their solitary, intimate wisdom becoming suddenly clear to me:
his lips drink water
but his heart drinks wine
Les Halles. Les. Halles.I used those words to cover my quick breath, and then I stood, imperceptibly shaking, too-aware of the wet cling of soaked panties to my fur. Catching my reflection in the glass before the doors opened: face impassive but pupils dilated, still dreaming like Doll’s boy. Just fuck me now.
I walked out into the crowd—legs trembling, cunt still aching, looking in vain for my Paris.
Les Halles—once a grand food market immortalised in Zola’sThe Belly of Paris—is now an ugly covered mall, or it was at that time. You had to go through the Forum des Halles upon exiting the Métro train to get outside, and once in the open it was full of restaurants, keeping the ghost of the market alive. I was disappointed the first time I walked through, wanting only to see overflowing stands of produce as far as the eye could see. There were still some shops that offered consolation, and so I devoured the sight of ripe cheeses, green and red-brown piles of mâche, feuille de chêne, and frisée, the scent of newly-baked baguettes in standing baskets.
I fingered leaves and soft fruits unseen, inhaled the hay and animal scents of unpasteurised cheese and the underlying, almost unconscious one of rotting food—because where there is fresh rotten follows. Everywhere I looked reminded me that my desire was growing and blooming but only to wilt and decay, its one use to re-fertilise an imagination that was my only nourishment.
No fingers pressed into my flesh as if testing a sun-warmed piece of fruit or skimmed through my dark fur, wet with moisture like newly-plucked lettuce; no nose waited by my skin to smell that ripeness that silently sent the message I’m ready … open me, devour my cunt; no teeth bit into the soft flesh of my inner thigh as if it were a delicacy to be savoured. I conflated food and sex because there was no sex, or no fucking, but always food in abundance. ‘When he reached the markets night was falling, and there was a suffocating smell. He bent his head as he once more returned to the nightmare of endless food …’ To Florent in The Belly of Paris, the market that first saves him ends up destroying him—a wondrous, monstrous thing that feeds on the people it itself feeds. I was aware that I was looking for a Les Halles that perhaps existed only in my imagination; if I did find it, that meant I was too far gone to be saved, to come back to pleasure with another person. But looking at food was like looking at bodies in their infinite naked variety, and I was ravenous in every sense—looking for myself in that plenty, all the while knowing that where I lay was in a rotting corner pile, undesired.
At the end of Jean Rhys’ unfinished autobiography, Smile Please, there is a section of words she had planned to somehow use—her death meant that they remained fragments. They speak with astonishing rawness of the emotional weight that presses on us all at times plainly on the page, the heart exposed. ‘I never once thought this is beautiful, this is grand, this is what I hoped for, longed for.’ She was speaking of London, although she goes on to say she did feel those things (positively) in Paris. When I read that, a horrible ache surged through me again—those words the twin to what I felt and was unable to articulate sitting in loneliness, coming alone in that Paris Métro seat. It seemed like all my desires, all the things I’d read and longed for, died at Les Halles that day; or perhaps, unlike Doll’s boy, I simply woke from my dream. For a few years after I remained convinced that I was past tense, fictional; I could write myself because I wasn’t real, only a character on a page. In its way that was reassuring: I existed more wholly trying to piece together the story of me than I did when I searched for who I really was in the non-existent market, or pleasuring myself long ago on that train.
Why do we read of Parisian love and then go to Paris like travellers on a pilgrimage, going forth in hope and returning in despair, knowing now that love is suffering and that the promises of the page are not for us? Are only some few destined for that true divinity? The rest of us drift like ghosts between states of ecstasy and heartbreak, but always going back to the word; the faith that what exists in written happiness can be ours too, to live perpetually high, at the peak of joyous orgasm, the moment of I love you. We are forever pilgrims, forever wandering; cummings’s brief lines sum up what it means to look for love in Paris and never find it—a lifetime’s journey, itself a kind of life.
for every mile the feet go
the heart goes nine
Image: Tomoé Hill