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  • Pierre Smith Khanna

L'Appartement


They met again by way of a birthday.

Ella, a pretty blonde who, despite of - or indeed owing to - being oblivious to her natural beauty (she had a charming face adorned with tender hazel eyes and a body whose shapes would flatter even the plainest of girl) had a callous attitude as if she’d lived through the Prague Spring. She’d been sharing a room with Nataša for the past four years, together with their friend Josh in a nice flat in North West London. The two girls had become best friends, constantly teasing each other and trying to get the better of the other when given the chance.

Luc had, the night before, sent Ella a message to wish her a happy birthday - the first time he’d got in touch with her since he broke up with Nataša - and by consequence with their flat - eight months hence. In response he received an invitation to her birthday drinks whilst he happened to be in the park one afternoon with his best friend Frank.

“T’as des plans pour ce soir?”

“J’en avait oui, mais je les ai annulés quand j’ai sus que je venais te voir.”

Replied Frank with a wink. They had just spent the last hour throwing a frisbee around and had now sat in the grass out in the sun.

“Pourquoi - t’as des plans toi?”

“Ella vient de m’invitée à son pot d’annif là, pas loin du parc, je lui avait dit que je viendrait. T’es chaud?”

Frank smiled. Of course he’d be up for it. The desire to sleep with Ella - the girl said to be ‘untouchable’ in this particular group of friends - was on his mind ever since she’d invited him out for a drink about a year ago (a drink which led to nothing seeing as Frank was with his girlfriend at the time. As he still is in fact. But an idea, especially an exciting one, once emerged, is difficultly dislodged from one’s memory, and often does no more than ferment, duly digging its own little berth in the sea of thoughts).

“Ça serait bien si Nataša n’était pas là...”

“Comme ça tu pourra draguer les autres c’est ça?”

They smiled and looked at each other with conniving eyes.

Nataša wasn’t there. Luc entered the pub’s little beer garden and was happy to see Josh and Ella there, and with Frank by his side he felt on top of the world. Conversation and alcohol were flowing. Luc asked for news from Nataša and wasn’t surprised to hear that she’d be joining them once she’d finished work. He was so joyful (and presumably somewhat tipsy) that he almost forgot the eight long months which had lapsed. Nataša hadn’t forgotten them, but was equally happy to see both Luc and Frank - the latter whom she’d last seen probably a year or so ago.

The warmth of their embrace and the words exchanged in that small garden were quite some distance away from those silent and contrived moments during the few coffees they’d shared since breaking up. “We’re friends” they’d told themselves “After all, that’s how we met”.

That evening, Luc found in her all the tenderness and magic which cloaked her face, and her shimmering eyes which fixed themselves upon his with her juvenile smile revived something in him. He looked to Frank who was sat opposite him, next to Ella:

“Si je restes-ici je ne saurai me retenir.”

“Pour ma part je m’amuse assez bien là.”

He had his hand on Ella’s thigh, and hers on his.

“Je vois ça oui. T’es au courant de ce qu’il va se passer j’espère?”

Frank gave him a quizzical look.

“Elles vont nous inviter chez elles là...”

Frank smiled - that same conniving smile as before. A contagious smile.

“This can’t be good” thought Luc. For the first time that evening he seemed to realise that he’d drank more than his fair share of alcohol and in the process had come a lot closer to Nataša, semi-unwittingly renewing ties which he thought he’d well and truly cut. He looked at Frank for a moment, and told himself that for some reason all would end well. Au pire on se retrouvera tous les deux dans un merdier.

All five of them left the pub and walked up the small hill leading to Ella, Nataša and Josh’s apartment. Nataša had cycled straight from work, and had locked her bike up to Luc’s, to the left of the entrance. Walking out the pub to the right, Frank, Ella and Josh took it upon themselves to keep walking to the effect that, coming out last, the old couple found themselves alone in the street.

“They didn’t wait for us?”

“Very kind of them to have abandoned us!”

Added Nataša.

Each one unlocked their bike and strolled along the pavement pushing their bikes by hand. It was just past midnight. They’d hardly walked 40 meters that Nataša turned to Luc and asked him for a hug. He leant his bike against the barrier to his right and pressed her against himself. Nataša’s pink racing bike she’d purchased for a bargain in some market was now in between these two bodies - apparently without hindrance - and simply melted into their embrace. With an arm around her small waist, Luc held her head against his shoulder with the other and softly caressed the back of her neck and her short hair. They stood there a while, sharing such a genial and tender moment, feeling so close to one another, before returning to their walk. On their way up they stopped to buy a few drinks, then, when they got to the top of the hill, a mere 200 meters from the apartment, Nataša put another question to him:

“Have you slept with anyone?”

He couldn’t lie.

“Yes.”

Silence.

“So was it good?”

Luc looked her in the eye, exasperated.

“No. How d’you want it to be?”

Another silence. He doubted she’d slept with someone but obliged himself, for lack of anything else to say, to ask her the same question:

“Have you slept with anyone?”

She didn’t reply.

A few steps away from the apartment, after they’d passed the church whose spire was lit up from below by a yellowish light, Luc felt the steely tide of angst rise within him. The night’s fresh air did nothing but stifle him. He walked mechanically behind her, followed her around the hedge which separated the house from the pavement to set down his bike with her own and through the first door into the lobby so common to London houses which have been split into flats.

“Is it someone I know?”

“No.”

He found the question ridiculous. Qu’est-ce que ça changerait?

“She’s not important. I’ll never see her again.”

They stood rooted to the spot in the entrance, atop the old Victorian tiling which gleamed under the sole lightbulb hanging over their two wretched heads.

“How could you do this to me?” She asked him. Her lips quivered and she forced herself to contain her tears - doubly disarming coming from a girl with such a steadfast, unwavering character. Luc pressed her anew to his chest and felt her tears seep onto him. Shame welled up in him, weaving itself to the rage he was already acquainted with, the one he imposed against himself as an act of vengeance for the pain she had suffered on his behalf. He had left her while she was still in love with him. Shame was one emotion too many for him; as if he’d betrayed her by sleeping with another girl simply to assuage his sexual impulses. He must have slept with a handful of other girls, all the while knowing that it would be impossible to recreate the intimacy he’d known with Nataša, but it had never occurred to him that for this he’d feel ashamed.

“Shall we go up?” Asked Nataša while wiping her eyes.

“No. I want to have a cigarette.”

This seemed to him to be a good idea - to Nataša too seeing as both of them began rolling themselves a cigarette. Luc walked back outside and sat on the pavement, leaning against the small wall at the foot of the hedge. He had the stupid desire to punch something and felt his jaw clench as he contemplated the hurt he continued to inflict upon the girl he had so loved. “This was a bad idea” he thought to himself as he heard Frank’s laughter float out of the window upstairs which gave onto the street. Putain. He suddenly yearned to get up and roam the streets at night.

“So was it good?”

Encore cette question.

“I already told you it wasn’t.”

Silence

“Sex is something sacred for me. I’ve had opportunities... But I didn’t want them. I still love you Luc. Surely there’s always a point of no return...”

Luc turned to her.

“Nataša, I can’t hurt you anymore. I made my decision. That was my breaking point.”

“Don’t touch me then.”

She gazed blankly ahead of her. The weight of her words resonated in the drabness of the night. He mumbled some pathetic apology, finished his cigarette in silence, and they got up and customarily walked upstairs to the apartment.

Having not the least inclination to begin any conversation, Luc entered the living room - a large space furnished with a big sofa-bed, a coffee table and a table with four chairs beside the windows which gave onto the street - with a blank expression on his face. He gave a similar look to Frank - who until then had thought that all was going well downstairs - and sank into a corner of the couch, picking up the guitar he’d brought a while back as a house-warming present. This was the first time he’d put foot here since November - it was now July. How familiar this couch was to him. He improvised some blues melody - in the same key as always - and thought of nothing. Nataša had lit herself a cigarette by the window and beckoned him to join her. Frank and Ella were sitting next to him; Josh had retired to his room. Luc went to smoke with her.

Then she whispered the most unlikely sentence:

“D’you want to have sex?”

He was just finishing his cigarette. He decided to put it out, walked towards the coffee table oposite the couch and drank a few swigs of beer, and artlessly left the room, closed the door behind him and settled down in the adjoining room - the girls’ bedroom. Décidément j’ai trop bu ce soir. J’ai réussi a y résister pendant si longtemps et là. Là je cède comme un con.

Next door, Ella cautioned her friend:

“Don’t come see me in tears tomorrow eh? I say this to you as a sister would.”

“No worries.”

Nataša entered the bedroom, closing the door behind her. He was lying down on the futon spread out on the floor and watched her walking above him. She turned off the light, leaving on a small bedside lamp and came to lie by his side. They held each other in their arms, holding each other as if to make sure the other was really there, that they really had bodies capable of being embraced. She undressed him, lay on top of him and they kissed at last. A weight was lifted off their shoulders with that embrace. Their lips clung to each other for an eternity, as they cupped their hands around one another’s face, caressing their hair, shoulders and necks... She sat up for a moment to take off her tank top and he proceeded to take off the rest. All of a sudden he lifted her off himself, swivelled and pinned her down. Their eyes fixed each other.

“Don’t you think this is a bad idea?”

“We’re just giving the other two some space.”

She retorted lightheartedly.

“I can’t promise you anything Nataša... If I get back with you it’s to ask your hand in marriage, you know that. You told me yourself.”

She laughed.

“I don’t find that funny. I’m serious.”

She smiled back at him. He couldn’t bear it any longer. Qu’est-ce qu’elle est belle. They started madly kissing again. She pushed herself back on top of him and whispered:

“Let me rediscover your body.”

He consented, and of course reciprocated. What fun they had these two youths! As did the other two next door for that matter, despite Ella’s conscience which inhibited her from going too far, knowing full well that Frank was still with his girlfriend.

Luc and Nataša made love like wild animals, pausing from time to time so as to grasp the totality of sensations which were running through their bodies, touching one another, hands sliding across their sweaty skin, caresses made with such tenderness Luc thought he’d fallen in love again. Je t’aime. Putain, je t’aime Nataša. The act of making love produces strange things. When two people interlace to the point that they no longer know whom belongs to whom, they no longer know what is going on in the world nor even their thoughts - solely vaguely conscious of a supremely light sensation fused with a profound reverence for the person with which one is. Is this love? What’s certain is that Luc had not found this feeling anywhere else. He stopped himself however from making a declaration of love that night. The two climaxed at the same time and collapsed together onto the futon. How happy they were!

Luc put on his jeans and decided to get some water from the kitchen which gave onto the living room, taking the opportunity to find out how things were going next door. He knocked on the door and walked in, finding Ella in Frank’s arms, sprawled out on the couch in front of him. “C’est bien, c’est tout ce que j’avais envi de voir.” He said with a big smile, and walked past to serve himself a glass of water. They laughed. Glass in hand Luc was about to leave when Frank said:

“Y’a une demi clope là si tu veux.”

“Pourquoi pas!”

He went to pick up the leftover cigarette by the window and lit it up. Frank put on some clothes and came to join him.

“T’as intérêt à la baiser mec. Sinon tout ça aurait été pour rien.”

“Tu penses que je fais quoi pendant que t’étais parti?”

Replied the libertine Frank. Nataša had by then entered the room and came between the two friends. She gave Frank a hug and took a drag of Luc’s cigarette while she was at it. “I’m gonna go brush my teeth” Luc stated as Ella was readying to brush her own. They both ended up in the bathroom facing the mirror, Luc was rubbing his teeth with his finger while Ella examined his back which was covered in scratches.

“Have you seen the state of your back man!?”

Luc shrugged. Essai de faire mieux avec Frank! He contented himself with whistling her as she bent over to spit in the sink and gave a little tug on her knickers. She turned around with her finger raised and glared as if to murder him, which only made the joke funnier for Luc and he burst out laughing. All four met back in the living room where Nataša had prepared a sumptuous bed for Frank and Ella. “Oooh!” exclaimed Ella. “I was busy while you were brushing your teeth” replied her friend. Swell. The two unlikely couples bid each other good night and Luc went back to his futon (he’d brought it at the same time as the guitar so that he could sleep beside Nataša who otherwise shared a bed with Ella) with her. The made love again like before, Nataša taking the opportunity to add some more marks to his back - which he loved - and they fell asleep forgetting to close the blinds or switch off the lamp.

The next morning Luc was woken up by the bright sunlight coming through the window illuminating the futon and heard Frank’s voice behind the door, speaking to Ella. “What’s the protocol?” he asked. “Just knock” came Ella’s reply. Luc smiled and pretended to sleep; he felt like snoozing. “Get up!” shouted Ella with her hardened air. Nataša’s little head briefly poked out from behind Luc’s and promptly went back to sleep. Frank squatted next to his friend with two coffees in hand. Luc opened his eyes to thank him, without an inclination to actually get up - it was only nine-thirty after all. Frank understood and left them alone, closing the door behind him.

It didn’t take too long for the smell of coffee to bring Luc back to his senses and he propped himself up on his elbows to take a sip. Nataša turned around to him and he poured coffee into her little mouth as if to a child. She was like that in the morning, either childlike or bad tempered - not that the two are mutually exclusive. He took her into his arms, without wanting to think about the likely dreadful consequences of the night they had just spent together, and choosing to appreciate the present consequences - that is to say to be able to wake up in the morning beside a naked woman with whom he felt so comfortable.

One by one they went to the bathroom to brush up and hurried back to hide beneath the sheets as quickly as they could, as if their dream would crumble if they actually woke up. Luc felt that, like him, she didn’t want their evening to come to an end, and kissed her sweet cheek, softened by slumber. She replied with a déluge of kisses and they made love one last time. “Good morning” she said with a smile, still lying atop him before they’d even caught their breath. “Good morning!”

They got up at last, and joined Frank and Ella next door. Luc prepared coffee while Nataša was busy making fried eggs. Josh walked in the living room and greeted them all with a big smile before setting off for work. He knew full well how the evening had concluded and was all the happier for it. In fact they were all happy - as much in the morning as in the evening - such was the affectionate and gleeful atmosphere which suffused the apartment that morning. The elements had their say in the matter too: it was a marvel of a day, clear skies enabled the sun to show itself in all its splendour. We forget at times how London can embellish itself if only the heavens allow it!

Having eaten their breakfast together, the four friends decided, as if compelled by an irresistible force - perhaps that same force which encourages the spirit of youth to express itself without fear and with such heartfelt enthusiasm - to go to the park and play table tennis together. Thus they spent the rest of their morning and finally parted a few hours later, gently embracing each other in the shade of the trees.

...

Frank et Luc se retrouvèrent enfin seuls - et en remarquant qu’ils terminaient l’aventure là où elle commença ils se mirent tous les deux à rire. Bien que c’était incroyable, tel fessait parti du probable. Ils rentrèrent avec une mélancolie particulière - comme si en dépit de la douleur l’on pouvait néanmoins apprécier la beauté même du moment. J’irai jusqu’à dire que cette beauté, cet esprit jeune et libertin, provient d’une sérénité céleste, d’où il suit que l’on devait apprécier ce qui venait d’avoir lieu. Le cœur troublé peut-être, mais n’est-ce pas inévitable?

#Essais

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© 2020 by Pierre Smith Khanna