She was French. Marseillaise, actually, like the national anthem. The nerve center of her beauty resided in her being French. I was in love with her nationality, a second face with perfect features cast over the first like a semitransparent film, but with the charm of the great classics. Her name was Roxanne and she was shorter than me, slimmer than me, more intelligent and nobler than me. She was more educated, too: a PhD in literature with diplomas in English, German and Italian. On top of all of that, she was magnificent on the piano. She had one at home in a large room that I pompously referred to as the piano room and where she played long pieces from memory. She was, as Mom would put it, from a good family, and this being-from-a-good-family showed on her like a coat of varnish. In fact, it showed in every single gesture, no matter how insignificant. For example, she had a particular way of moving her chin when opening the door, lifting it very slightly to one side while casting her eyes down, and I always felt like she took for granted that someone would step aside for her. It’s hard to explain – but it was obvious when I saw it. She was a climber and though at the time I couldn’t imagine my life without her, the moment I saw her naked body, I decided all my future lovers should have loved climbing in their past. Her muscles were perfect, thrumming and covered in supple, impeccable skin. Her every position in bed was an anatomical study in red chalk – improbably precise and as exciting as a first visit to Casa Buonarroti. I remember her stomach – quiet and commanding like a tortoise shell – and the tensed arch of her arms, her ass, her thighs and her calves – compact like thinking skulls – all centered on me and my pleasure alone, on reaching the summit of my pleasure. Never before nor since have I spent so many nights screwing. By that I mean whole nights, five or six or seven hours of relentless fucking, mostly with her on top. ‘Talk to me in French,’ I would ask. And she’d say some things I understood and others I didn’t have to understand. It was enough just to listen to her, to let her words penetrate my body, softening it in strange and unpredictable ways. Her voice shook me violently, consumed me, a wisp of hair singed by a cigarette ember. My body shrank and coiled at once, assaulted by her accent like a doughy maggot being pricked by a pin. As I write this, I relive it, and millions of my cells pass along buckets of glowing water to put out goodness knows what fire. Fast and blind. My heart flares up, damaging the pleural membrane, which is so unaccustomed to playing along. Roxanne. When I met her, she’d just bought a professional camera. I envied the camera for spending all day in her hands, white with slender knuckles and polished tips. Before playing the piano, she used to splay her fingers over the keys, and it was as if they were simply resting for a moment, both contained and laid out, like a row of matching surgical tools before a very delicate intervention. Then she would subtly flex them and move them according to instructions from a series of neck muscles triggered milliseconds before her fingers. I listened as the sound of the piano strings penetrated me like her words, shaking me and giving rise to inexplicable surges and a sort of self-indulgent jealousy. I followed the unintelligible movement of her fingers as they drove the composition toward the moment when it would finally die out. She adored Satie. ‘It’s easy,’ she said. And over and over she played ‘Je te veux’, the first ‘Gymnopédie’, and the second ‘Nocturne’. ‘They’re so long,’ I’d grumble. And she would laugh and retort, ‘They’re only three minutes,’ then play them again. And I renewed myself in that image, of my French piano-playing lover. But every second I died. And it was a very dignified, respectable way to go.
‘So, what’s it like with a woman? In bed, I mean.’
It’s half past twelve and it’s taken my sister two whole servings of almond chicken and fried rice to let her hair down. Or maybe it was the Coke. She hasn’t had any in more than three years. Slow-acting poison, she calls it. But tonight is special. Not everybody has a lesbian sister to comfort them after a breakup. Tonight’s heart-to-heart will be a real treat – irresistibly modern, maybe even obscene. My sister can’t help picturing herself as the lead in a popular TV series. Playing the sister of the lesbian is quite the role; it offers a seal of respectability. ‘Do you want Nestea?’ I ask her before dinner. She throws me a thunderous look, as if she’d just decided to go into business with the Mafia. ‘Screw it, I’ll have the Coke!’ she says, thrilled. Screw it! ‘Careful it doesn’t go to your head. You’re not used to such strong beverages.’ My sister doesn’t know her way around a can, so I transfer the Coke into a tall glass that she takes from my hands with a wanton gleam in her eye. The poor thing feels funny, she’s used to getting her beauty sleep. But great things are afoot! ‘What’s it like’ – enticing inquiry – ‘to fuck a woman?’ I swear this is the first time she’s ever uttered the word ‘fuck’, plumb-drunk on Coca-Cola. ‘So that’s what you wanted to know?’ I ask with a dash of cruelty. I flat out refuse to suffer fools, even when they try to make an effort. ‘You know that’s not true!’ she cries. I concentrate on the guest room and nothing but the guest room, crucial as fingernails. ‘Shall I tell you another story?’ She nods with a headful of eyes and the aspartame-laced smiles of a pampered girl who will never, never ever indulge in another can of Coke. ‘All right,’ I consent. The tactic works. ‘Have you ever heard of action painting?’ Now she shakes her head. ‘Jackson Pollock?’ I insist. ‘No.’ ‘Okay.’ I walk into my room and bring out a book of Pollock paintings. It’s tremendous; images like these make me re-evaluate my love affair with death. ‘This is art? A child could have made these!’ my sister blurts. ‘But a child didn’t.’ The woman must be dumb. Thick as two planks. This guest room is costing me a tidy sum, but what else can I do? Where else can I go? The sweet-and-sour prawns are affecting my ability to think, but I have another go. I’m sure that with some effort I can pluck a plastic flower from the dunghill, a plastic flower that will satisfy the dregs of curiosity of the poor aborted lesbian lurking in my sister’s brain. ‘This is an action painting,’ I begin. ‘Action painting is the product of impatience.’ She pulls a face like a cricket. ‘Around the mid-twentieth century, there was a period when artists were no longer being challenged. For centuries, they’d struggled with a series of problems: motif, depth, form, color, realism, fidelity, light . . . everything! In other words, they’d run out of lines of inquiry. And then Pollock rocked up with his huge, unplanned canvases stretched out on the floor, and wham!’ ‘Wham?’ ‘Look at this.’ I show her Number 3, flip pages, Number 5, flip pages, Number 34, a superb piece with that horrific red-thinking head and its two yellow hemispheres. ‘Look,’ I tell her. ‘Clear, simple manipulation of raw material! Pure experimentation! Pollock splattered canvases driven by the spontaneity of the moment. A work of art isn’t only the end result – it’s art in time, art in real time, in action, as simple and impulsive as a drawing by a child. But there’s a sophisticated concern below the surface, an interest in process – life’s immensity concentrated in that process. Do you get what I’m saying?’ ‘Sort of.’ ‘All right. So now you sort of know what it’s like to fuck a woman.’
Seven months had passed. Enough for it to have metastasized? I had no idea. The mole’s growth had slowed. The bottom edge of its beautiful contour had blotted. Once a deep black, it was now a faded brown, consummated in a series of tiny specks that no longer formed part of the raised cluster but existed as solitary, pigmented entities hovering a few millimeters below what could still be considered the mole. To be safe, I canceled my appointment with the dermatologist and started the process from scratch. Ahead of me lay ten more months of waiting, ten months for the altered cells to migrate – not downward, but deep inside.
I always suspected that Roxanne was more suicidal than I was. That she would die first, I had no doubt, but most of all, that her desire for death had hardened within her into a formative whole. I was also convinced that she would die a more elegant death. Someone inside her was burnishing every single thing she did, every measured word she said – but who? Catalan phrases strutted out of her throat wrapped in French-accented mink, but with a lowly, port-like fragrance that I attributed to her Marseilles roots and which drove me wild. In her mouth, Catalan sounded the way it should sound as a perfect language. Any word that I said immediately afterward was a faded daisy in comparison, a silly little flower. I’ve never spoken as sparingly as I did with her, and I’ve never enjoyed the lead-in to a conversation quite as much. Whenever she opened her lips with a click of the tongue that recalled a book whose pages lay open under a strong wind, my heart would turn so slick it became an organ out of control. Every beat, every deliberate whiplash of life was trapped inside it. And it wasn’t just my chest, either. Every part of me flared up under the influence of her words. ‘Què vols sopar?’ she’d ask. And she would say it just like that, in italics, because she had the ability to apply font to speech. She did it every time, and without realizing. It made me dizzy. ‘Encara queda Camembert del que vaig portar ahir?’ And I was reduced to aftershocks of pleasure, at whose epicenter was the word ‘Camembert’. I tried my best to say something, stressing the paroxytones in an effort to appear interesting. ‘Of course. I had salmon for lunch so we could have the Camembert for dinner.’ Lies. Big. Fat. Lies. I’d had sausage and beans, except I couldn’t be with Roxanne and also be someone who ate sausage and beans. Absolutely not. I would have sausage for lunch, air out the apartment, take the trash down to the dumpster, and claim I had salmon. Because even though salmon isn’t Camembert, it belongs to the same part of the pyramid as the foods I used to save for days when I wanted to treat myself, as Mom likes to put it, before I met Roxanne. This never made sense to Roxanne, whose whole life was a treat. Roxanne often had croissants for breakfast – flaky on the outside, insides soft, buttery, and still warm. She bought them from a bakery four blocks from her house, where they were held for her. She drank coffee like I did, but not just any old coffee. She had her coffee delivered from a shop where it was ground sur place seconds before being packaged. She didn’t have ordinary ham; she had smoked ham.