By JIM CRACE
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX Copyright © 2003 Jim Crace
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-374-22730-6
Every woman he dares to sleep with bears his child. So now it is Mouetta's turn. Whispering and smudging his ear with her lipstick, her breath a little sour from the garlic in her lunch, she confirms her first, his sixth, pregnancy His sixth at least. She's "passed the urine test," she says-an unintended play on words which she acknowledges in the matinee darkness with half an optimistic smile. The doctor thinks she's twelve or thirteen weeks. A baby's due by May. It's early days.
Mouetta feels, of course (before the morning sickness and the backaches start, before the lifetime of anxiety and love), that her pregnancy is a personal blessing. The raven of good fortune has chosen her. It has alighted in her yard and she's been brushed by its great wing. No other adult explanation matters to her for the time being. She is the lucky one. This is her miracle.
They sit together in the cinema, that drafty art house cinema down on the wharf, their elbows touching and their jackets spread across their knees, to watch young lovers on the screen, young actors making love, or seeming to. She wishes Lix would speak to her, do something more than press her forearm with his own, a kiss perhaps. But he's a film buff and an actor himself. "Silence for the colleagues," he usually insists. He won't ever speak, not once a movie has begun. Perhaps it's just as well, this winterish afternoon, the perfect weather for the cinema, that he will make her wait until The End before he answers. He wants to say he feels besieged. Another child? He only has himself to blame. To be so fertile is a curse.
Lix could never say exactly when the pregnancies began. They always took him by surprise. Mouetta's pregnancy as well. Especially hers. He had been privy to her ovulation dates, those gaping opportunities when intercourse was ill advised for teeming alpha males like him. They'd not been careless, had they, at the wrong time of the month? Twelve weeks? He counted back the weeks and counted back the times they'd had sex. Still no clues. The days were fused and distant. How could he ever tell which time, which place, had fathered this new child? Mother Nature doesn't ring a bell. Whatever other noises might be made, the egg is punctured silently. If only he could call on chemistry and then biology, unsentimental disciplines, calculating, tidy, and precise. They could pinpoint for him (had they the mind) that careless and productive day in his beleaguered, complicated life, could specify the hour, even. Science has the answers every time: it was 2 a.m. or thereabouts on August 18-the week of the Banking Riots, three dead already, the city devalued and deranged, and interest rates "settled by decree" at a quarter of one percent-when Lix's latest child was conceived. Conceived's a charmless and misleading word, too immaculate and cerebral, too purposeful and too hygienic, to truly represent the headlong thoughtlessness, the selfishness-that night, especially-of making love. (Headlong for him at least.) It is a strangely cold and scientific word as well. No passion. You'd think some calm technician had been employed to fit a tiny battery of genes. Conceived suggests a meeting of like minds, dedication, diligence, technology and not the rain-damp, springing seats in the front of Lix's gray Panache where no two minds and no two thoughts achieved on that occasion even the briefest instant of concord or shared a common cause. That's one of the reoccurring oddities of sex, where it falls short, again, again. Opposing poles attract when lovers magnetize. His north of lust, Mouetta's south of love. Cross-purposes. And, surely, not a grand and proper way for children to begin. This child.
Sometimes our city, our once famous City of Kisses with its deep parks, its balconies, and its prolific and disrupting river, like any other city, seems to have a climate of its own, a window of clear sky, perhaps, unshiftable for days, or more commonly a random storm attracted to the concrete and the bricks while all the countryside around is calm. That August night was such a night. Vague summer winds till after ten, too many stars, oppressive in their multitude, but then the concentrated local rain, clearing the streets and sidewalk cafes, and breaking up the wayward, trouble-seeking crowds, few of whom had thought to arm themselves with hats or raincoats or umbrellas. Though folk rhymes promise us that Storms at night/Blow out the light/Conceal the killer/Blind the King, wet weather doesn't truly favor assassins and Molotovs, or fires, or leafleting. The revolution likes it dry.
The theater had not been busy all summer. Times were hard and tickets, though subsidized, were still not cheap or fashionable. Molière's Tartuffe, updated as a New Age satire, with songs, dance, and video, was not much of an attraction, either, even though the cast (including "Lix," the celebrated Felix Dern, in the lead as l'Imposteur) was "glittering" by regional standards and all the notices-in magazines and newspapers that, against the logic of the age, had sponsored that summer's Stage and Concert season-had been dutifully enthusiastic. For once, that Thursday evening, he could leave through the foyer without too much danger of being waylaid by an autograph bibber, a theater limpet, or-worse-an ancient friend or colleague it might be difficult to ignore. He was hoping for the sole company of his wife. It was their second anniversary.
As yet the rain was only light, drumming plugs of smoke and steam out of the coals of braziers at sidewalk stalls where kebabs and roasted beets were sold to retreating theatergoers, but making little impact yet on all the distant mayhem in the streets. The brick-trapped wind delivered its reports of chanting crowds, the sirens of what could be fire engines, ambulances, or the police, and, occasionally, the detonation of dispersal grenades or smoke bombs. But the protests had been restricted largely to the city boulevards on the east side of the river where many of the institutions had their offices and where, if you could trust as evidence the daily lines of chauffeured limousines, the savings of the townspeople had mostly disappeared. The narrower streets, known as the Hives, on this side of the river, near the market halls, had not been targeted. No one wants to burn down bars and restaurants these days (except the police). Yet the back ways near the theater were not their usual carefree selves. The army, armed and keen to start an argument, had been deployed to break up demonstrations. The surplus, unarmed militia, the bail conscripts (who'd chosen public service rather than jail), and the civic police, in and out of uniform, had set up barriers throughout the city to turn back traffic, check IDs, and generally put a stop to everything. The kind of people who seemed likely protesters or immigrants or undergraduates or bitter, newly minted bankrupts were lined up at the back of army buses with their hands on their heads, like kids, and-a recent police procedure to keep a suspect quiet-their identity documents held between their teeth. Try remonstrating with a booklet in your mouth. The best you'll manage is ventriloquy.
Lix looked a likely candidate. Not bankrupt, obviously. And not a student. But artistic. Intellectual. Dressed like a writer or a lecturer, at once shabby and elegant. He was known to the militia and the police, from television work and films. Who'd fail to recognize that celebrated granite head, those expressively nervous beryl eyes, that cherry-sized, cherry-shaped, and cherry-colored birthmark on the ridge of the bone below his left eye? They waved him through. They cleared a way for him. He wished he'd brought a jacket. Then he'd turn its collar up, against the rain, and hide his famous face, his famous blemished face. It would be a change to go unrecognized, once in a while, not to be greeted on the street by strangers as if he were a neighbor or a cousin. For that, he had to go abroad these days, to theaters and studios in Britain, France, America, and Italy, where his success had not been shackled yet with any intrusive fame. He wanted the applause and the bouquets, the prizes and the statuettes, the fees, but he'd enjoy, as well, some public anonymity. For one so fertile and flamboyant, for one so arrogant in costume, Felix Dern, the showman, was-offstage-surprisingly shy and timid. That was, in rising middle age, his major flaw, his main regret-and also his saving grace.
He met Mouetta in the back room of the Habit Bar, the city's best-kept secret-or so the newspapers and radio had been saying for a year or more. He was obliged to stop and be polite at one or two tables before he'd crossed the excited, overcrowded room to hers. The Habit Bar could always boast a celebrity or two, other than himself, particularly journalists and heroes of the left and particularly when there were protests and comrades to support across town by eating out in reckless solidarity. You'd never catch a politician there or someone ministerial or military, except in disguise, wired for gossip. Even the waiters and the chefs, it was claimed, were impeccably progressive. The meals were progressive, too. No boycott goods, no shed meat, no reactionary wines, no condescending sauces. The Habit was the place to come if you were on the left and indiscreet-and, incidentally, not hard up. Its motto should have been, according to the shanty boys who touted for scraps and coins on the terrace outside, "One meal for the price of six." Its nickname was the Debit Bar. And so its clientele were Debitors and not Habituals.
Mouetta was not alone. Her cousin Freda was sitting opposite in Lix's chair, her back against the room, but unmistakable-and dangerous. She shared an ancient, awkward history with Lix. Awkward for Mouetta, too. Her hair was up, of course, coiled and clipped in place by an ocher lavawood barrette. She had the longest neck-and the heaviest earrings-in the Debit, and that, for such a restaurant where short-necked diners were a rarity and jewelry was always immodest, was quite a boast.
Lix had been wondering all evening, even as he labored through the Molière, his thirty-eighth performance of the play, what Mouetta might be wearing for their anniversary. For him. A skirt or dress, not trousers, if there was a God. And buttons down the front. And musky, ancient perfume as a sign that she had not forgotten what the night might signify. But now, as he excused himself a passage past the backs of diners' chairs, through smoke, through kitchen smells, through wine-induced curses against the army, banks, and church, he could not take his eyes off that long, cousin's neck and when he did-he shamed himself with his disloyalty, with his nostalgia, perhaps-it was only to look down beyond her chest, her modest chest, into her lap where her fine hands were crossed and resting on, of course, what else? her uniform-a loose black skirt.
It was a photojournalist with Life magazine who, in 1979, when Lix was in his first term at the theater academy, came up with the phrase the City of Kisses to replace the more alluring, truer title given us by Rousseau, the City of Balconies. That was the year of khaki skirts and tunic tops, when all the brighter girls were feminist, and rudely militant in bed. The photographer was one of fifty sent to Fifty Cities of the World to record the flavor of the place on one particular Sunday. His picture essay concentrated on our city's better-looking girls-and all of them were kissing. A boyfriend kissed, full on the mouth. A girlfriend chastely kissed in greeting from behind on the high loop of her ponytail. A grandma blessed by her granddaughter's lips. A teenage mother with a child. A puppy kissed. A couple kissing at the swimming pool, their hair like weeds. It was a city doing little else but kissing, you'd think. In a way, that is exactly how it was that year. But famously; the photograph that truly caught the spirit of the place, so Life would claim, the photograph that sold countless posters and, for several years, was responsible for packed hotels and the resurrection of our red-light district, was taken at the Debit Bar. A woman in a Cuban beret applying lipstick to a glass of wine with her red mouth. Reflected in the glass, two men, their own mouths gaping and both encircled by the kiss.
Life could, of course, have photographed this essay anywhere. They kiss in Rome and Paris, too. They kiss in Tokyo. The whole world osculates. Yet this was public kissing, and unusual for us. That was the year the postwar ban on all public demonstrations of affection, even in the theater, was lifted. Using your lips became the simple evidence of progress. We all made up for those lost opportunities. We had the kisses that our parents missed. That was the year, indeed, when Lix first kissed in earnest-and inadvertently provided us with his first child.
There was still a framed copy of the original Lipstick poster in the lobby of the Debit on the night of Lix and Mouetta's anniversary, the first evening of the riots when interest rates seemed so much more relevant than kissing. Lix did not perform his usual playful pout for it when, a minute after midnight, he left the bar. He was exasperated. His wife and her cousin had sabotaged their anniversary. He'd planned a little hand-holding, some eye contact, some drinks, a light exciting meal, no garlic certainly (actors and lovers should not be "cloven-mouthed"). He'd hoped that he and Mouetta would go home to bed quite soon. Well, not "to bed," perhaps, but somewhere on the way to bed. The car. The hall. The study couch. The stairs? The stairs had always seemed a tantalizing possibility.
His evening on the stage had been, as usual, both stressful and arousing: the uncritically approving dimwit audience in their subsidized seats, the dressing up, the liberties that actors take, the swish and odor of the actresses had been a stimulant. The fear of "drying and dying" mid-speech provided the anxiety. As did (more recently) a shaking hand which, his doctor had assured him with the backing of some tests, was not early-onset Parkinson's as he had feared (or "toper's wobble" as one gossip columnist had suggested) but simply nerves. Late-onset stage fright.
That evening Lix's tremor had been especially undermining. Tartuffe had held a very shaky book, and then had spilled a glass of wine. Lix was infuriated with himself. He needed to unwind. He was, of course, still partly in character even though the shaking had disappeared the moment the curtains closed. An immersion actor such as Lix cannot shuck off the emotional raiments of a play as easily as he can shed the costume. Performance always leaves its mark, for an hour or two at least.
Excerpted from GENESIS by JIM CRACE Copyright ©2003 by Jim Crace. Excerpted by permission.
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