That knock at the door wasn’t a client. It was Sid. I saw Chantal pull her head back when she opened the door, and then I saw Sid standing there. It was just a quick look since as soon as she saw him Chantal pushed him back and stepped through the door out into the hallway with him, closing the door behind her.
Of course I knew better than to get up or interfere. Chantal took things in hand and she’d manage the encounter. She’s very good at managing encounters, even, I’m sure, with Sid. Whatever there is to report to me, she’ll report it when she’s done with him. I don’t see her letting him in to see me, but I have to say I felt myself puckering up underneath, on the plush crimson covering of the piano bench, wondering what was going to go down.
It seems a short eternity, and I’m beginning to fear for Chantal, when the door opens and she reappears, none the worse for wear. She looks determined, that fierce Chantal look I sometimes, only sometimes, see, when a client has done something she disapproves of. I think Sid would merit her disapproval now no matter what he said or did, so there’s that look.
Before she can even come to me or beckon me to come to her, there is another knock at the door. She snorts and casts her eyes up at the ceiling. But this time, when she opens the door, it is the client, and Chantal shifts into her welcoming mode, as if nothing has happened. I envy that about her. She can shift gears in an instant, and no one’s the wiser she has.
Once the client is set up with the girl who has been expecting him and they’ve gone off to her room, Chantal comes to me. I keep right on playing, it’s a Gershwin tune, and she sits down beside me, the older clothed lover next to the unclothed younger one. I can feel her warmth against my thigh.
“So what did he have to say?”
I don’t take my eyes or fingers from the keys or the sheet of music in front of me and keep right on playing.
“What do you expect him to say, chérie? Of course, he is so very sorry for what he did to you. He practically cried crocodile tears, and he might have, if he wasn’t so inebriated. I could smell the booze on him. And whatever else he was using.”
“Sid said he was sorry? You know, Chantal, he almost never says he’s sorry for anything. Ever. I’m shocked.”
“Don’t be. When people say they’re sorry for doing something like that, what they’re really saying is they wish you hadn’t run off as you did. Or that they didn’t get caught in it, whatever it was. They’re not sorry at all. If they were sorry, they wouldn’t have done whatever they did in the first place.”
“You’re probably right, Chantal. It’s not like the first time he was a bastard toward me.”
“Probably right? Probablement? Chérie, you can bet your bottom euro on it, he’s not sorry at all. And what does it matter even if he is? Does it make your nose any less broken? Make him less of a brute than he is?”
“No, I guess not. So what else did he say?”
“Of course, he said he wanted you to come back. He said he’d never punch you like that again. He said he’d make it all up to you. He’d give you whatever you want. ‘Give you,’ like that is a fine for acting like a shit toward you! It’s not what he said that matters, chérie. I can tell you all that before he even opens his mouth, it’s so predictable. It’s what he didn’t say.”
“What didn’t he say?”
“He didn’t say, ‘Chantal, I’m a fucking prick who doesn’t deserve a girl like Rosie, and if she never forgives me and tells me to go fuck myself, she’d be too kind.’ That’s what he should have said. But, bien sûr, he’d never say that. He’d be too afraid you might take him up on the offer.”
“You’re a hard woman, Chantal.”
I’m still playing the piano the whole time, mind you, and never taking my eyes from the music or the keys. I sense Chantal’s presence next to me, it’s almost overpowering, but I can’t stop or look her in the eyes. Not now.
“I’m not hard, chérie. Je suis réaliste. C’est tout. And perhaps one day you’ll learn, as I have, and you’ll be realist, too. You’ll see that reality and hard are perhaps the same. The same, and different.”
“I’m not sentimental, Chantal, if that’s what you mean.”
“I’m not talking about sentimentalism, mon petit oiseau. It has nothing to do with it. I’m talking about what is true, what is real, and what is just merde. Shit or, as you say, bullshit.”
“Yeah, Sid’s pretty good at that. Bullshitting. That’s for damn sure.”
“So you start to see the truth? At least that.”
“Well, I knew that before. From the beginning, really. But if I could see the truth maybe I’d be a totally different person in a totally different place. I don’t know. Did he threaten you, Chantal? Or say anything like that?”
“Threaten me? Tu rigoles? I would have kicked his ass all the way down the stairs and called the police. I told him I wanted you to report him to the authorities but you refused to do it.”
“Omigod. What did he say to that?”
I pick up the tempo on the keys a bit. My little heart is beating a mile a minute.
“He said he was glad to hear that since you knew better than to do something like that.”
“That sounds like a threat to me.”
“Maybe it is, but he knows he can be kicked out of France, or worse, at any time. You, my sweet young foolish thing, ma fille stupide, hold the keys.”
“You really think so, Chantal?”
“I don’t think so, pet. I know so. Sid is no different than a million other bullies. You think I’ve never had to deal with a Sid before? I could tell you so much, Rosie.”
I know it sounds ridiculous, after all that’s happened, but I feel badly thinking of Sid as a bully. After all, he’s the one who saved me from my former life, from my life with my parents. It’s not like he kidnapped me. I begged him to take me. Still, the deal didn’t include a broken nose and making me turn to the streets to survive. At least I didn’t think so.
“Would you, Chantal? Tell me so much? I know practically nothing about you. Yet I feel so close to you. You seem so together, so sharp and sophisticated. Will you please tell me your story? It might help me write my own.”
Later, when the first and the second and the third clients have gone, when Chantal’s other girls have put on their street clothes and left, bidding Chantal a fond bonne nuit, when I’ve practically run out of tunes to play and I’m barely able to sit up straight at the keyboard, Chantal takes me into her bed.
Now we’re both naked, and she’s set out a tray of fromage and baguette and vin rouge on the bed, and after we’ve both taken some nourishment and some refreshment and we’re feeling a little sated and more than a little tipsy, she takes me in her arms and holds me against her soothing body and then looks in my eyes and, without me asking again, begins to tell me her story.
“Chérie, I was une fille much like you. I didn’t grow up in Paris, but in some little place in the South, a place we in France call une ferme, a farm, a stinking little village made up of pig farmers in their smelly coveralls and their fat, provincial wives, and children who will grow up just like them.”
“Really, Chantal? I never would have guessed.”
“If you could have guessed I would be poor at presenting who I want you to see. But it is in the South where I found my love of sunflowers, such as in your dream.”
“Right. Oh, you remember that? I’m so happy.”
“Well, if I wanted to make you sad, I could tell you how my parents were killed in some tragic automobile accident in the fog on a narrow road at night. But that would be a lie. The truth is, they didn’t know how to raise a girl like me, and neither did they have the means. I was one of nine children. Neither the oldest nor the youngest, but certainly the black sheep, le mouton noir, of the family.”
“You? A black sheep? Now you’re really messing with me.”
“I am not. When I was 12 – I think an age you know well – they sent me to live with my uncle and aunt in Lyon. They thought my father’s brother and his wife would know better what to do with me. And in some ways, they did. My uncle would come in my room at night, almost every night, and rape me – he was my first – and my aunt would enforce that I do the housecleaning when I was not in school or doing my school work. And otherwise she would pretend that nothing was amiss with her husband, even though she knew well what was going on two rooms away.”
“I didn’t tell you, Chantal, but my first experiences were with my dad, though he never fucked me, just touching and stuff. I actually enjoyed those times. It was when things were good between us. Before my mom got to him. Sid was my first, my real first. And he raped me, that first time. This is really amazing.”
“That is a good word for it, ma chère. Amazing. It’s certainly that. Well, at some point I decided I needed to leave, and that was when I found a man who would come by near the school in the afternoons. His name was Julien, and he was very charming. We talked, and he’d take me for coffee and sodas, and I knew he wanted me as more than just a little friend, and I didn’t care. He was my way out. He told me he lived in Paris and was visiting Lyon, where he had a sick mother, but when he kissed me the first time, in the shadows in a local cafe, I knew I had to go with him. And I did. That is how I got to Paris, when I was 14. With Julien.”
“Did your aunt and uncle, or your parents, suspect you were with him? Did they try to find you and get you back?”
“There was nothing they could do. I was very careful, as was Julien, and when we left Lyon for Paris we left no tracks. I think they all knew I held the keys, like you do now, and I don’t think they even tried to find me. I was a free woman, at 14, and with a kind man who loved me, or at least the idea of me, and living in the most exciting city in the world. How Paris seemed to me, coming from the dirty little place I did.”
“Chantal, what happened? What happened to Julien?”
“Oh, we’re still friends. He comes by sometimes – you might have seen him – but, you know, things don’t stay the same. I grew, I changed, I became restless. He kept me as a bird in a cage. A middle-aged man with a teenage girl. There were too many questions to answer. From others. From me. And he didn’t have the strength to answer them. We became conflicted, like an old husband and wife. And finally one day the door to the cage was left open, quite by accident, and the young bird flew away.”
“Sad? No, necessary. At least Julien had the grace to know that, and he let me go. It was hard for him. In truth, it was hard for me, too.”
“Where did you go, Chantal? What did you do? It sounds a lot like me now, except Julien didn’t bust you in the face.”
“No, he never did that. He always was kind to me. And he still is. I can thank him for that. But for awhile I was, how do you say, a runaway? Not unlike you, ma choupette. I even lived rough on the street for awhile, subject to you can’t imagine what. For almost two years I was on my own. And when I was just 19, that was when I met my current benefactor, Simon, who set me up in this apartment, in this business, and who taught me whatever, by then, I didn’t already know about being a madam and a whore, how to run a business like this, how to deal with men, how to deal with other whores. He’s a very smart man, and I am more fortunate than I can say that I met him. Simon is my investor and my mentor. I cannot be more grateful to him.”
“Chantal, I had no idea. About any of this.”
“Of course not, dear Rosie. How would you have known?”
“No, of course not. But what about what you told me? About your pride, and dealing with guys like Sid?”
“Do you think I was not full of pride, at every turn? I knew more than my mother and father – I can say, I did, certainement – and my aunt and uncle. And when I left Julien, I knew I was so smart I would just make my way. I did, of course, but it’s not something I want to repeat. And then Simon was forced to break my arrogant ideas, how I knew more than him. What an idiot I was. I didn’t have a Sid in my life, happily, but I’ve dealt with lots of Sids. Even Sid, himself. Remember, he was one of my customers before I knew about you. Maybe it was my uncle who was my Sid, the threats he’d make to me to ensure I stay quiet.”
“I’m totally amazed, speechless, really, Chantal. Thank you so much for sharing all this with me. I understand better now why you’ve told me the things you have.”
“You think you know, chère. But you don’t. You are but at the start of your path.”
“Oh, crap, don’t say that. I’m already worn out.”
“You feel worn out now, but you don’t know how much is to come. This is why I tell you, chère, you hold the keys. You don’t need to be une prisonnière. You don’t have to stay in the cage Sid has put you. In truth, you put yourself in that cage. Now comes the question, and it is not just me asking it, it must be you, too, asking it. What will you do?”
“You have to know, Chantal, I ask myself that question all the time. It’s taken over my life since I left the other night.”
“Then, ma chérie, answer it. It is your choice to make.”
For now, for tonight, my answer lies in the hills and valleys of Chantal’s verdant body, in the delicacy of her lips, in the unspeakable softness of her flesh, in the subtle sweetness of her nectar, and that is where I seek it.