It was a relief to be out in the air. A slight, refreshing drizzle came at me as I drove home. But instead of
continuing toward Montparnasse I found myself turning back toward St. Germain and the Seine. In a few minutes I had crossed the river and was at the Porte St. Martin, the quartier where Aicha’s Hotel Violet was located, at the heart of the garment district. I was making a left turn off Rue du Faubourg St. Martin when I was almost hit by a car. Had I overlooked the red light in my Courvoisier and hash haze? I was sharply awakened by screeching brakes, then the car, a grey CitroĂ«n, glided past me. I saw a shocked face staring at me, pale, with black slanted eyes, and for a moment I thought I had seen Claude.
What was I doing here?
The area was dead at night; most of the little wholesale fashion boutiques with Algerian, Jewish, Moroccan names
were shut down without any lights in their window displays. Most were locked behind chain curtains and rough metal shutters. The usual piles of empty fabric rolls and discarded
clippings were stuck in boxes and garbage cans on the sidewalks. I parked in a side street and walked over to the hotel. Apart from the frosted Art Nouveau windows with dim light
shining through from the lobby, the hotel seemed lifeless. It was even hard to read the name at night, written in flowery filigrees above the entrance door.
Hotel Violet was one of the oldest, dustiest Art Nouveau hotels in Paris. It was owned and managed by
Aicha’s father, a pied noir, an Algerian Frenchman. Aicha occupied a maid’s room and makeshift kitchen at the end of a hallway on the top floor,
directly adjacent to a big bathroom with two doors. One door opened to a hotel room that was laid out entirely in red; the other, usually locked, led to
Aicha’s hallway. Film crews liked to use the hotel for scenes from the Belle Epoque, but when the rooms weren’t sold out Aicha’s friends had the privilege of
spending luxurious nights at the Hotel Violet. And as Aicha was a genius in organizing she usually managed to keep the bathroom—and with it the red room—available.
I stopped in the entrance, peeking in at the sleepy lobby
with its leather club chairs and dimly lit reception counter. The night concierge was probably already asleep or watching soccer
in his backroom. Just as I was debating whether to walk in, a taxi arrived and a group of men piled out. They looked like Middle
Eastern business men, in fine, tailored coats and cashmere scarves. They entered the hotel in a jovial mood and I watched
them chat with the night clerk who disappeared and reappeared with a stack of brochures which all of them discussed at length. I
could probably have walked in unnoticed, quietly climbed the stairs and walked down the carpeted floor of the hallway to the door with the number 72…
Clearly I was not in my right mind. It occurred to me that at
any moment Aicha could show up, wandering in or out. Aicha and the other members of the theater group loved to pile up in
Aicha’s tiny abode, smoke dope and climb out of her kitchen window to a primitive roof terrace from where one could count
chimney pots around an almost full circle. At any moment, another cab could arrive and bring Claude along to spend the night with her new lover…
I withdrew to the bar across the street and had an espresso by the window, where I could keep an eye on the hotel. The bar
was as sleepy as the lobby; the bartender hardly gave me a look. He was toweling off his glasses, taking me for an ordinary hotel guest, I supposed, ready to head
out for the red-light district a few blocks over, at Strasbourg–St. Denis. A pleasant Arab woman’s voice was moaning from the speakers.
I took a slow draw on my cigarette, tempted to go ask if the red room was available. What if I
rented it for the night? It wasn’t beyond my means. I had recently added another radio station and a German luxury
magazine to my contacts. I could afford my sprawling cafĂ© life and a few extravagances.
I often find hotel rooms more erotic than private rooms.
Private rooms easily chain one’s imagination with their clutter. Everything in the red room except the ceiling was red. The walls
were covered with crimson damask; the plush carpet was burgundy, the bed made up with a comforter, sheets, and pillows in scarlet.
I am sure it was during our first night in the red room that I
got obsessed with the mystery of Claude. Onstage, where I had first set eyes on her, her movements had seemed edgy, explosive
the way they had to be according to the violent theater style that was en vogue. At the same time, she appeared disconcertingly
relaxed, so that I had indeed thought of a wild cat at first—a lynx. When I got to know her, she kept surprising me with her well
-trained muscles, the sudden determination of movements I hadn’t anticipated and couldn’t always follow as easily as a tango
step. She also puzzled me with her willfulness when she insisted on some stratagem of costumes or clothes which she would not
let me take from her, unyielding as a cat, even in the throes of passion.
That night, I saw her naked on the red sheets. She was lying
stretched out on her belly, her face hidden in the bend of her arm. I took in her broad, beautifully rounded shoulders and
strong neck. With hardly a waist, her back curved into a small, muscular ass. Seen from behind, with her jaw-long black hair,
she could as well have been a boy—painted by the German expressionist Otto Mueller.
We started out as usual, wrestling for predominance.
Perhaps she let me win. I turned her on her back, restrained her, and was on the point of conquering the boy. With her half-willing
, half-mutinous movements to and fro on the satin sheets she seemed to be passing through a dark red sea. There was no boy or girl. She was a dolphin on my hook. Her sleek body was
fighting its way upward to the break of light. This time her face wasn’t hidden under a pillow. Her slightly trembling eyelids
revealed a small, wet slit of her slanted eyes. And when I saw how she held her breath, when I saw her eyes roll backwards, I
crashed, as my German friend Tanja would say, “like Satan into the lilies.” This, this I wanted to see. Again. And again.
Where had Tanja found this crazy expression? When the
devil crashes into lilies, the matter has biblical weight. Without Claude, I was driven from paradise. How could another woman,
no matter who she was, be a match for us? I stared at the hotel entrance, the dim lobby, the dark emptiness of the street. No, I
wouldn’t go over to the hotel and risk being recognized by the night clerk or leave a trace for Aicha. I wouldn’t lose my head after a wasted night of waiting.