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The Collection

She slides it into her mouth.

 

She lets it grow heavy, take on warmth, breadth and shape, push against her palate, weigh upon her tongue.

 

Immobile lips, minute internal contractions: her movements have grown less frenzied.

 

She thinks of paper flowers that unfold when placed on water.

 

She moves away, and contemplates the erect penis.

 

 

*

 

 

Uniform sky, a dove-grey canvas stretched between the tower blocks; cars roll in an unbroken line across the horizon; at regular intervals, the varnished brown of a streetlight interrupts the alignment of the trees; cops glide by on bicycles, eyeing up the wedding boutiques: banal geometry which Jeanne matches with her steps, her breathing and her thoughts.

 

She walks up the boulevard.

 

But she changes direction, crosses, and the broken angle of her path is sharp enough to puncture the space like a nail that catches on a piece of fabric and tears along its length. The city falls apart, loses its abscissas and ordinates, creating a maelstrom of sky, trees, streetlights, bicycles, dresses. The sign on the corner of a pharmacy liquefies, flows down, mingles with the electoral posters, becomes sluggish, slips into the dead leaves, turns the tarmac over, swallows the clothes rails at Guerrisol and the iron shutters, consumes the pavement. Jeanne sinks down.

 

A dizzy spell, people assume, when she leans against a shop window – inhales, exhales – while the smooth coldness of the glass goes through her shirt and freezes her shoulder blades – inhales, exhales – while she closes her eyes and tilts her head backwards – inhales,

 

it’s always when she tilts her head back.

 

 

*

 

 

Jeanne has drawn the curtains; the light, grown green, has filled the room like water.

 

Jeanne listens to the noises of the hotel – lift moving up along its cables, doors slamming, groundswell of a vacuum cleaner. It is nearly midday, the tourists have left to perform their role on the squares of Paris, their rooms are empty, the management is resuming its authority. A trolley of miniature shampoos and towels approaches, slows down, but the room is protected by the card hanging from the door handle which commands in red capitals, ‘DO NOT DISTURB’. The trolley continues its advance. Soon its creaking fades away into the carpeted distance. The lift freezes, the doors are closed for the day, the vacuum cleaner quietens. Calm descends on the room, so Jeanne concentrates on the enclosed space, on the coming and going of her hand, on that of her lips, and on that strangled breathing that filters down from above her.

 

She plays her tongue across the compact penis. Her saliva follows the contours of the veins, soaks her fingers – which she holds tight at the base of the penis, their joints rendered smooth and white by the pressure – forges a path between the hairs and weighs down their curls.

 

As though trying to gain purchase on a slippery rock, the man puts a hand on Jeanne’s shoulder. She shakes herself free, and fastens her lips tighter. At the corner of her field of vision, behind the man’s pelvis, an aloe vera plant carries out static contortions: bed, lamps and chairs float, aquatic.

 

 

*

 

 

It’s always when she tilts her head back. A dizzy spell, people assume: how could they think otherwise, seeing her back pressed against the facade, her hand stirring the air, her slightly bent knees, her head tilted back, the disorder of the body which seems ready, with one sudden fall, to rejoin the earth, a vertical plunge like a tower collapsing in on itself? A dizzy spell, people assume, unaware that she falters without feeling faint, that she knows the means to reach an end and that, always, as soon as she tilts back her head, a masculine voice – sometimes seasoned and self-assured, sometimes cracking before it is even raised – asks her, Are you OK?

 

She does not give his face, size, shoulders and stomach the slightest glance, for nothing in the outward appearance of a man ever foretells his penis.

 

 

*

 

 

She is constructing a memory palace that, as it fills with new penises, becomes intricate with corridors, annexes and outbuildings. The number of doors is always growing.

 

She could have taken photos and made a collection from them; she could have kept a notebook of tallies or sketches, used a spreadsheet or private diary as a back-up, she could have confessed her memories, more or less retouched, to others; she could have forgotten them. She preferred to construct a palace.

 

Each room of the edifice accommodates the memory of a particular penis and ensures its remembrance. Jeanne only has to cross the threshold and she rediscovers the shape, the form, the particular warmth, the density, the smell of the penis; the elasticity of the tissue and its colour when drawn tight and when slackened; the smooth or glistening appearance of the head; the network of bluish blood vessels; the shaded areas; the wrinkled fingerprint skin of the testicles; the growth pattern of the hairs.

 

While the rooms retain the complete memory of the penises, nothing else penetrates: the man disappears, his image consumed by Jeanne’s magnified gaze.

 

She accumulates, but looks for nothing; she is not searching for a penis that would surpass all others and give meaning to her explorations, imposing their limit. She collects without comparison, adds without judgement, showing neither preference nor disdain. The layout of the palace ensures the democracy of the set-up, and Jeanne is not subject to sudden passions: not even for an instant will any new acquisition be favoured over the others.

 

 

*

 

 

Jeanne sees no need for love affairs to smooth events into a more palatable shape; she takes the sex, without deadening its shock. Her sexual geography is composed of places where bodies pass with their personalities undiscernable: shopping centres, public transport, boulevards and avenues. She avoids spaces devoted to and devised for advances, flirting and seduction: bars, nightclubs and lounges, where sex is won through subterfuge and territorial reconnaissance, where each gesture and word is directed towards an end which it would be judged vulgar and impolite to make explicit. Circumlocution, nonchalance and compliments are all essential requirements.

 

Where does she take the bodies that she encounters?

 

Not the shelter of covered porches, no entrance halls of sleeping apartment buildings, car parks, toilets, swimming pool changing rooms, telephone boxes, offices, lifts or stairwells: she rules out communal or public spaces of fantasies.

 

She doesn’t take them back to her place, any more than she follows them to theirs: a home would carry the imprint of the quotidian. The objects would be assimilated entirely within the narrative of a life, their assembly producing an impression of unity destined to express a past, a present, aspirations for the future; to exhibit tastes and emotional attachments; to distil a negligible, but corrosive, intimacy.

 

Once, in the very early days, she faltered at the entrance of a red-brick building. At that moment, a man came out. He had offered to help her; she had agreed to go up with him. The sound of the door has since stayed in her head: a lock with three bolts to unfasten, which resisted, allowed itself to be gently forced, then gave way noisily, relieved to be defeated. The apartment: beige carpet, large cupboards, a fold-up bed – which the man insisted on unfolding, but not before offering Jeanne a glass of water – two windows opening onto a park, window boxes that held no flowers, the distant sound of children below, a smell of spices, pale yellow bedlinen. These elements composed a whole that some would call a life, and others an existence, but this ensemble, whatever its name might be, evaded the collection. The man’s penis was fused there. In Jeanne’s memory, its colour merged with the pale yellow of the sheets and the beige of the carpet, its curve shattered by the oblique light slanting through the glass of water, its silence disturbed by the children’s screams that rose up fitfully. Thus encumbered, it was unable to pass through the palace doors and instead followed the direction of ordinary memories. Today, Jeanne would not be able to describe it. Yet she remembers the glass of water, the cupboards, the park, the bare window boxes.

 

By excluding all other possible locations, only hotels offer the neutrality required for Jeanne’s activities. She has become an expert in them; her map of Paris is dotted with addresses that she recognises instinctively. Hôtel Agate, Hôtel Prince Albert, Hôtel Prince Monceau, Hôtel Coypel, Hôtel Nord & Champagne, Hôtel Edgar Quinet, Comfort Hôtel Lamarck, Seven Hôtel, Park & Suites Prestige Paris Grand Bibliothèque, Adagio City Apart’Hotel Montrouge, Ibis Budget Paris Porte de Vanves, Mercure Paris Porte de Versailles, Hôtel Kyriad Italie Gobelins, Hôtel Kyriad Bercy Village, Hôtel Kyriad Montparnasse, Hôtel Magallan, Hôtel Fiat… She likes their rooms, which belong to nothing except their number, 12, 208, 5 or 43, unearthly spaces, instantly taken over and fictitiously possessed. She likes that you need only enter to give yourself up to the wildest behaviour, to the tenderest intimacy or the crudest obscenity, exposing to the anonymous bedroom walls things that you would never reveal to your most loyal confidants. She likes that you leave, that you return the key to reception and, immediately, the erasure of every trace of you begins. The sheets are washed, the towels changed, the fingerprints sponged away. The cleaning absolves the room from all affiliations, ensuring its availability and its amnesia. The image of bodies that had, only a few hours before, been close to ripping the sweat-soaked sheets, is dissolved in an emulsion of bleach, submerged and siphoned away with the dirty water. The next client will uncover a perfectly new and virgin world.

 

Jeanne appreciates these clear-cut arrangements, the perfect repetitiveness of hotel rooms: each object there offers a serial guarantee, even the decorative innovations. If she discovers a bouquet on a bedside table she reassures herself that, as evidence suggests, in the neighbouring room an identical bouquet is arranged in an identical vase, set down on an identical table, and that would be the case for the next room and the next and the next again, as though a single room had been designed then placed between two mirrors and infinitely replicated. Jeanne examines the multiplying blush of the flowers until they disappear into an indeterminable vanishing point. Satisfied, she double-locks the door and, hand on the bolt that confines her in the room with a stranger, reads sotto voce the small notice posted on the back of the door: ‘BREAKFAST €12, TOURIST TAX 60 cents, ANIMAL SURCHARGE €4; SECURITY INSTRUCTIONS IN THE EVENT OF FIRE; EVACUATION MAP; “You are here”.’

 

For her, these grey words are the hyper-discreet heralds of debauchery in a standard hotel room.

 

 

*

 

 

There was a beginning.

 

That day when Jeanne’s eyes focused upon the coppery glimmer of a man’s flies.

 

Metro Line 13. A dogged accordionist struggling against the jolts of the carriage. A man, sitting opposite her, at whose crotch she stares, and who is petrified by her gaze.

 

The woman sitting to the man’s right senses danger: her attention skims the surface of the man’s face, establishes its layout and identifies the place where the landscape breaks with its ordinary topography. It is happening at the corners of his eyes. His gaze is too remote, frozen and trembling at the same time. The woman’s eyes drift towards what is holding his attention: Jeanne, her eyelids lowered, eyes like searchlights, a look which lingers, which presses and sinks further into the folds of dark blue cloth and seems to draw down the teeth of the zip one by one. The man dares not bar her way. He could, quite naturally, shield himself with his hands, cross his legs, cover himself with part of his coat, but he remains motionless, divested of his rights over his own penis.

 

The woman squirms, would like to change seats, drag the man away with her, pretend that they are getting off at the next stop and so must stand up immediately in anticipation, for the carriage is packed and otherwise it will be impossible to make their way through to the doors. But she is transfixed like her husband, held prisoner by the system of immobilisation maintained by Jeanne’s narrowed pupils.

 

When the train brakes at Saint-Lazare, Jeanne lets go, rises, and is gone. The couple remain sitting, drained and silent. They hold that silence, postpone the first words, suspend their criticisms – the edges of which are vague, the surfaces grey – unable to settle upon a single adjective. Of course, they will speak, but first they make the most of having said nothing, of not knowing, for a moment, what the first intonations will be, the first investigation that will launch the spiral of badly chosen words, discordant voices, offensive questions, old resentments, tactlessness and paranoia. They know that their grievances are insoluble, since they are impossible to formulate and justify. They know that no amount of discussion will allow them to reach an agreement, that they will never share a mutual understanding of the event, but will occupy two camps, former allies who from that point on suspect the other of having played an active role in the massacre that has just decimated their troops. If a truce is concluded, there shall never be a peace treaty; an imbalance remains, a doubt, a suspicion. They used to walk together so well, but from now on they will only be able to hobble along.

 

Jeanne walks alongside the white-tiled walls. She follows the insignia for Line 14. Fast, precise steps, arms and shoulders swinging like a metronome, her chin raised; up to this point all is well, and the episode has been so deeply absorbed into the vaguest levels of her consciousness that she would be astonished to learn that she stared at a man’s crotch for four stations. It is as though the image never touched her brain. But the process has been set in motion and, though slow, it is inexorable.

 

She comes out onto the underground piazza where Line 14 links up. The space widens out, natural light showers down and dissolves the electrical precision. The hard tiles melt into a smooth wall of creamy shades, the degree of reverberation alters, sounds no longer travel down the axis of corridors but liquefy into layered rumblings that disintegrate in the depths of the escalators.

 

That’s when the image hits.

 

Jeanne comes apart.

 

She leans against the wall; inhales, exhales; the cold goes through her cotton jumper; she tilts her head back, looking for purchase, and abruptly the din shrinks to a single point: a man who stops and offers her his help.

 

She takes him to a hotel.

 

She leaves twenty minutes later, his smell on her hands, a bar of soap in her pocket. She resumes her journey where it had been interrupted, calls the doctor’s surgery, tells them she will be late, apologises, thanks them for granting an extension to her appointment, confirms her imminent arrival, apologises again, hangs up – a bar of soap in her pocket, his smell on her hands.

 

Lulled by the alternation of tunnels and metro stations, she believes in the exceptional. From this murky moment of hormonal delirium, she will fashion a late-night anecdote for when parties empty out, when just a close-knit circle remains and when, in order to keep the group together, to stay just a moment longer sitting in the same light, people tell secrets to try to amuse the others. This anecdote, certainly, will be the perfect bargaining chip. It has the means to provoke both astonishment and curiosity. The audience will be hers; time will pass and nobody will make the slightest attempt to leave their seats. It will be up to her to provide the signal to leave. People will clamour, striving to know just a morsel more but, faced with her resoluteness, they will let her leave. Some of them will call her up the next day to continue the conversation.

 

Gare de Lyon – EXIT LEFT – pale neon lights. Jeanne stares at the tropical garden caged by glass walls. Dark, mordant greens; droplets of water on the branches; leaves that are upright or drooping, bushy or flat like the oars of small, agile boats; glistening stamens, grey earth. Real plants mingle with plastic facsimiles, but the brief halt at the station and the reflections in the glass make it impossible to distinguish the real from the fake.

 

The metro resumes, Jeanne does not realise that a new system of memory is taking form, that the anecdote will become a way of life and that her stories will remain unconfessed. Soon she is unable to summon the voice, face, size or weight of that first man. Only his penis continues to appear to her. A dark, brown penis, which grows lighter towards the mound of the head where it becomes translucent, like an electric night light in a child’s bedroom.

 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Nina Leger was born in 1988 in Antibes. Her first novel, Histoire naturelle, was published in 2014. Her second novel, Mise en pièces (The Collection), won the Prix Anaïs Nin. This is an extract from The Collection, which will be published by Granta in August.

Laura Francis was born in Bristol in 1992. She studied in St Andrews, Paris and London, where she now lives. This is her first translation.

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