REPLAY
by Ken Grimwood

 

EIGHT

Jeff just didn’t much give a shit after that. He’d done all he could, achieved everything a man could ever hope to – materially, romantically, paternally – and still it came to nothing, still he was left alone and powerless, with empty hands and heart. Back to the beginning; yet why begin at all, if his best efforts would inevitably prove futile?

He couldn’t bring himself to see Judy again. This sweet-faced adolescent girl was not the woman he had loved, but merely a blank slate with the potential to become that woman. It would be pointless, even masochistic, to repeat by rote that process of mutual becoming, when he knew too well the emotional and spiritual death to which it all would lead.

He went back to that anonymous bar he’d found so long ago on North Druid Hills Road, and started drinking. When the time came, he again went through the charade of convincing Frank Maddock to place the bet on the Kentucky Derby. As soon as the money came in he flew to Las Vegas, alone.

After three days of wandering the hotels and casinos he finally found her, sitting at a dollar-minimum blackjack table at the Sands. Same black hair, same perfect body, even the same red dress he’d once ripped in a moment of shared impatient lust on the living-room sofa of her little duplex.

‘Hi,’ he said. ‘My name’s Jeff Winston.’

She smiled her familiar seductive smile. ‘Sharla Baker.’

‘Right. How’d you like to go to Paris?’

Sharla gave him a bemused stare. ‘Mind if I finish this hand first?’

‘There’s a plane to New York in three hours. It makes a direct connection with Air France. That gives you time to pack.’

She took a hit on sixteen, busted.

‘Are you for real, or what?’ she asked.

‘I’m for real. You ready to go?’

Sharla shrugged, scooped the few chips she had left into her purse. ‘Sure. Why not?’

‘Exactly,’ Jeff said. ‘Why not?’

The sweetly harsh scent of a hundred smouldering Gauloise and Gitane cigarettes hung in the air of the club like a rancid fog. Through the haze, Jeff could see Sharla dancing alone in a corner, eyes closed, drunk. She seemed to drink more this time around than he’d remembered; or maybe it was just that she was keeping pace with him, and he was drinking more now than he ever had. At least the liquor made him gregarious; there were half a dozen people at his table tonight, most of them ostensibly ‘students’ of one sort or another, but all more interested in the city’s never-ending night life than in their books.

‘You have these clubs in US, hein?’ Jean-Claude asked.

Jeff shook his head. The Caveau de la Huchette was a Parisian jazz cavern in the classic mould, a rock-walled dungeon full of music as smoky and pungent as the cigarettes everyone here seemed to exist on. Unlike the newer discotheques, it was a style that would never catch on in the States.

Mireille, Jean-Claude’s petite red-haired girlfriend, gave a wry and lazy smile. ‘C’est dommage,’ she said. ‘The blacks, no one likes them in their home country, so they must come here for to play their music.’

Jeff made a noncommittal gesture, poured himself another glass of red wine. America’s present racial troubles were a major topic of conversation in France right now, but he had no interest in getting involved in that discussion. Nothing serious, nothing that would make him think or remember, held any interest for him now.

‘You must to visit I’Afrique,’ Mireille said. ‘There is much of beauty there, much to understand.’

She and Jean-Claude had recently returned from a month in Morocco. Jeff kindly didn’t mention France’s recent debacle in Algeria.

‘Attention, attention, s’il vous plaît!’ The owner of the club stood on its tiny stage, leaning close to the microphone. ‘Mesdames et messieurs, copains et copines … Le Caveau de la Huchette a le plaisir extraordinaire de vous présenter le blues hot … avec le maître du blues, personne d’autre que – Monsieur Sidney … Bechet!’

There was wild applause as the old expatriate musician took the stage, clarinet in hand. He kicked things off with a rouser, ‘Blues in the Cave,’ and followed that with a soulfully sexy version of ‘Frankie and Johnny.’ Sharla continued her solo dance in the corner, her body undulating with the visceral thrust of the music. Jeff emptied the wine bottle, signalled for another.

The old blues man grinned and nodded as the second number ended and the young crowd roared its appreciation of his alien art form. ‘Mercy, mercy, mercy!’ Bechet exclaimed. ‘Mon français n’est pas très bon,’ he said with a thick black-American accent, ‘so I just gots to say in my own way that I can tell y’all knows the blues. You heah me?’

At least half the audience understood enough English to answer enthusiastically. ‘Mais oui!’ they cheered, ‘Bien sûr!’ Jeff gulped his fresh glass of wine, waited for the music to carry him away again, to wipe out all the memories.

‘Well, all right!’ Bechet said from the stage, wiping the mouthpiece of his clarinet. ‘Now, this next one is really what the blues is most about. You see, there’s some blues for folks ain’t never had a thing, and that’s a sad blues … but the saddest kind of blues is for them that’s had everything they ever wanted and has lost it, and knows it won’t come back no more. Ain’t no sufferin’ in this world worse than that; and that’s the blues we call “I Had It But It’s All Gone Now”.’

The music began, deep-throated sounds of evanescence and regret in a minor key. Irresistible, unendurable. Jeff slumped in his chair, trying to blot out the sound of it. He reached for his glass, spilled the wine.

‘Something?’ Mireille said, touching his shoulder.

Jeff tried to answer, couldn’t.

‘Allons-y,’ she said, pulling him to his feet in the smoke-filled nightclub. ‘We go outside, to breathe some air.’

A light drizzle was falling as they stepped out onto the rue de la Huchette. Jeff raised his face to the cool rain, let it trickle across his forehead. Mireille reached up, put a slender hand on his cheek.

‘Music can hurt,’ she said softly.

‘Mm.’

‘No good. Better to … comment dit-on “oublier”?’

‘“Forget.”’

‘Oui, c’est ça. Better to forget.’

‘Yeah.’

‘For a while.’

‘For a while,’ he agreed, and they set off towards the boul’ Mich to find a taxi.

Back in the living room of Jeff’s apartment on the avenue Foch, Mireille filled a small pipe with crumbly brown hashish and an equal measure of opium. She sat beside him on an Oriental rug, lit the potent mixture, and passed the pipe to him. He inhaled deeply, relit it when it went out.

Jeff had smoked a joint now and then, mainly in his first existence, but he’d never felt such a deep rush of blissful calm as this. It was, as Malraux had described the opium experience, ‘like being carried away on great motionless wings’; yet the hashish kept his mind active and open, kept him from drifting off entirely into dreams.

Mireille lay back on the carpet, her green silk dress rising to her thighs. The rain against the window beat an insistent cadence, and she lolled her head in a rhythmic circle to the sound, her lustrous russet hair falling now across her face, now upon her naked shoulders. Jeff stroked her calf, then her inner thigh, and she made a soft murmur of acquiescence and desire. He leaned forward, undid the front of her dress, slid the smooth fabric away from her girlish breasts.

There on the floor they used each other’s bodies wordlessly, almost furiously. When they were done, Mireille filled another pipe with the opiated hash, and they smoked it in the bedroom. This time they came together languorously beneath the down-filled blanket, their legs and arms entwining with newly familiar ease; and later, as the bells of Saint-Honoré d’Eylau called early Mass, Mireille climbed atop him once again, her slim hips riding his in playful joy.

Sharla let herself back into the apartment with the drab dawn. ‘Morning,’ she said as she opened the bedroom door, looking spent. ‘You guys want coffee?’

Mireille sat up in bed, shaking her tousled hair. ‘With perhaps a little Cognac?’

Sharla pulled off her wrinkled dress, fished in the closet for a robe. ‘That sounds good,’ she said. ‘Same for you, Jeff?’

He blinked, rubbed the drug haze from his eyes. ‘Yeah, I guess.’

Mireille got up and padded casually to the bathroom for a shower. When Sharla came back with the breakfast tray, the little redhead was sitting on the edge of the bed, still nude, drying her hair. As they sipped their coffee laced with brandy, the two women talked pleasantly about a new lingerie shop on the rue de Rivoli.

A little after nine Mireille said she had to go home and change; she was meeting another friend for brunch, and didn’t want to show up at the café wearing last night’s silk. She kissed Jeff goodbye, gave Sharla a quick hug, and was gone.

As soon as Mireille had left, Sharla cleared the coffee cups from the bed, pulled back the sheets, and moved her warm tongue down Jeff’s belly. He was limp when she took him in her mouth, but soon grew hard again.

Jeff never asked where Sharla had been all night; it didn’t really matter.

The Mediterranean lapped gently against the pebbly beach, its quiet waves a whisper of eternity, of changelessness. The scent of a fresh pot of bouillabaisse drifted from one of the cafés nearby. Jeff was getting hungry; as soon as the girls finished swimming, he’d suggest lunch.

The weather had broken for a week or so in early July, and they’d taken Le Mistral south with Jean-Claude and Mireille and the rest of the crowd. They’d all been drunk by the time the train got to Toulon, where the eight of them boisterously crammed themselves into two taxis for the forty-three-mile ride to St Tropez.

The little fishing village had undergone a major upheaval in the past six years, since Vadim and Bardot had discovered and popularized it as a youthful alternative to the more sedate, old-money Cote d’Azur resorts of Antibes and Menton; but, lively as it already was, the town was still free of the suffocating hordes of tourists who would make it all but unlivable in the decades to come.

A shadow crossed Jeff’s half-closed eyes, and he was pressed to the sand by a pair of smooth female thighs, someone sitting on his rump. Sharla? Mireille? Then the woman’s naked breasts brushed his back, caressing, nipples stiff from the sea breeze.

‘Chicca?’ he guessed, lifting one hand up towards the girl’s hair to feel how long it was, how thick. She shook her head away, giggled.

‘T’es fou,’ the girl teased, clamping his thighs more tightly with her own and pressing her breasts flush against him: smaller than Sharla’s, fuller than Chicca’s.

‘Couldn’t be Mireille,’ he said, reaching back to pat her taut little ass. ‘Much too fat.’

Mireille let forth a stream of curses in French, and punctuated them by lifting the waistband of his brief trunks and emptying a cup of iced lemonade inside. He rolled her off him with a yelp and pinned her on her back in the sand, arms struggling playfully against his grip.

‘Sadique.’ She grinned. Jeff freed one hand long enough to shake the ice out of his trunks, and she grasped his cock through the thin cloth. ‘See?’ she said. ‘You love it.’

He wanted to take her there and then, her hair loose and wild, her breasts and belly glistening in the sunlight, the slight swell of her crotch outlined through the white bikini bottom. She slid her fingers down the front of his trunks, squeezed him harder. He drew a sharp breath.

‘People around,’ he said, voice strained.

Mireille shrugged, her hand working steadily on his penis. He glanced up at the crowded beach, saw Sharla walking towards them, her own bare breasts swaying, her arm around Jean-Claude’s waist.

‘Mireille,’ he whispered urgently.

She ground her sandy hips against his, kneaded him harder, faster. He couldn’t stop it now. He shut his eyes and moaned, and there were lips touching his own, a tongue probing his mouth, one set of nipples against his chest and another pressed to his shoulder, hair and breasts and mouths and hands … He came, with Sharla kissing him as Mireille brought him to orgasm; or was it the other way around? And what was the difference, after all?

‘Everybody work up an appetite, hein?’ Jean-Claude said, laughing.

Jeff told Mireille that evening, in the garden of the hotel, after they’d all shared several pipes of opiated hash and Sharla had wandered up to one of the rooms with Jean-Claude and Chicca and another couple. The drugs helped to loosen his tongue, and the secret that had burned within him for so many years now burst forth of its own accord; Mireille just happened to be there when it did.

‘I’ve lived this life before,’ he said, staring at the late-setting sun through the pine trees of the Résidence de la Pinède.

Mireille crossed her bare legs in a lotus position, her white cotton dress billowing on the grass around her. ‘Déjà vu.’ She smiled. ‘Me, too, sometimes I feel that way.’

Jeff shook his head, frowned. ‘I mean literally. I mean – not this exact life, here with you and Sharla and everything, but …’

And it spilled out, all of it, a tumble of words and memories he’d hidden for so long: the heart attack in his office, that first morning in the dorm room back at Emory, the fortunes made and lost, his wives, his children, the dying, and dying, and dying yet again.

Mireille listened without a word. The lowering sun backlit her hair, turning it the colour of flame, and left her face in deepening shadow. At long last his voice trailed off, defeated by the incredibility of what he had tried to tell her.

It was dark by then, and Mireille’s face was impossible to read. Did she think he was mad, or recounting an opium dream? Her silence began to erode the cathartic relief he had felt in telling her.

‘Mireille? I didn’t mean to shock you; I –’

She rose to her knees, put her slender arms around his neck. The tight curls of her copper hair pressed softly against his cheek.

‘Many lives,’ she whispered. ‘Many pains.’

He held her slim young body tightly, breathed long and deep of the crisp, pine-scented air. Scattered laughter drifted towards them through the trees, and then the clear, sweet, buoyant sounds of the latest Sylvie Vartan record.

‘Viens,’ Mireille said, standing up and taking Jeff’s hand. ‘Let’s go join the party. La vie nous attend.’

They all went back to Paris in August, when the rains started again. Mireille never said anything more to Jeff about what he’d told her that evening in the garden at St Tropez; she must have attributed it all to the hash, and that was just as well. Nor did Jeff and Sharla talk openly about the group sex and the drugs that were now part of the normal routine of their lives. Those things had happened; they kept on happening. There was no reason to discuss them as long as everybody was having a good time.

One of the new couples who periodically drifted in and out of the scene introduced them to a partouze in the rue le Chatelier, a few blocks north of what would continue to be called Place de l’Etoile until de Gaulle died in 1970. The partouze, one of several that had flourished in the city since the twenties, was a well-run, sumptuously appointed establishment: glass-encased antique-doll collection in the parlour, thick maroon carpet to match the walls, which were hung with fin de siècle prints … and three uniformed maids to serve the thirty or forty naked couples who wandered and frolicked through the place’s two floors of well-equipped, very large bedrooms.

The St Tropez crowd began frequenting the partouze every weekend. One night Jeff and Sharla had a threesome with a coltish American starlet new to Paris, who would soon be known more for her radical feminism than for her acting; another night, Mireille and Sharla and Chicca held an impromptu contest to see which of them could be first to have sex with twenty men at one party. Sharla won.

Jeff was amazed at how quickly this unceasing roundelay of casual public sex with beautiful strangers had grown to seem perfectly normal; he was struck by the fact that such activities could go on without the slightest fear of those plagues from his own time, herpes and AIDS. That carefree sense of safety gave the decadent proceedings a retrospective air of innocence – naked children at play in the Garden before the Fall. He wondered what had happened to the partouzes, and their counterparts in America and the rest of Europe, in the eighties. If they’d survived at all, they must be rife with disease-inspired paranoia and guilt.

The eighties: a decade of loss, of broken hopes, of death. All of which would come again, he knew, and far too soon.

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