On the radio, a doctor was insisting that the more someone makes love, the better that person will become in every domain. I cracked up. My mockery had no effect on the man, who persevered in his catechism. He reminded us that the human body is a mechanism and compared it to the elevated metro line in Taipei. Years earlier, a flaw had been discovered in the construction of the concrete pillars supporting the just completed metro line. Well, this metro had run without passengers day and night to keep it from rusting. According to the doctor, a similar constraint governed the sexual body: use it or lose it.
Listeners could call the station to share their experiences. I dialed the number and surprisingly quickly found myself talking to an operator who asked for my comments on that day’s topic. I sad that the redoubtable and ultramodern conventions of our time were inescapable but that, naively, I was nevertheless amazed to find them on a respectable radio program. I proved that it wasn’t true, this business about becoming a better person by making love more often. For example: Saint Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Buddha. And what about a companion who’s been hostile and exasperating for hours, ignoring your devotion, humiliating you in front of others, cursing your very existence, who then tries to make up again on the cheap? You wind up having to go along with this willy-nilly – and hating him. That’s good for your health, is it? I said, “Why valorize the concept of a sex life simply because it is a sex life? There are oodles of inner dispositions and exterior circumstances involved. What would make a person better would be not to believe a word of this doctor’s canonical pronouncements.”
I suggested, “Leave people the treasure they possess: their indescribable equilibrium.” Indescribable, I emphasized that. “Which, by the way, is why no word can encompass the absence of a sex life for people who are simply waiting hopefully. We say ‘chastity’; that’s not the right word. We say ‘abstinence’; that’s not the right word. ‘Asexuality’ is not the right word. So stop. Enough of this nonsense.”
The operator was a young man, I could tell by his voice. He told me he was sincerely sorry, but what I had to say was too complicated, they couldn’t put my call directly on the air. He did hope that I had enjoyed listening to the program on that station, which was delighted to offer me, in recognition of my faithful listenership, a makeup case from Clinique. . .
After a few months, my friends became curious about me in the same way I had been about Charles the priest. I was already a journalist, meeting lots of people through my profession, and I lived as part of a pack. Sometimes there were ten of us at a simple impromptu weeknight supper. And almost all of us went in pairs, so my solitude could not pass unnoticed.
One couple, Vionne and Carlos, were the most tenacious. It’s incredible how much of a ruckus a couple can kick up. At first they admired my courage; I’d been able to feel like a heroine. Those halcyon days were over. Now barely had they said hello when they’d ask me if I’d found someone. I’d shake my head – and they’d pitch a fit of amazement, pressing me to explain how that was possible: Was I doing all that was necessary? They’d check out what I was wearing with a knowing air. No dress was cut deeply enough. My hair was too messy. I had to show more leg. And stop being such a pal. And the heels – why wasn’t I wearing heals? Carlos had a theory that heels were a decisive index of a woman’s accessibility, since no woman perched on them can take off at a run. And it’s true that if I compared myself to Vionne – Vionne’s long lustrous locks, Vionne’s staggeringly high heels – I must admit that of the two of us, it was Vionne who attracted men, Vionne who already had one – and a Spaniard to boot.
I had noticed this when my father died: no convalescence is allowed to last too long. People tolerate your inactivity for a while, but alas, that can cease overnight. You are still grief-stricken; they have finished mourning your loss. Same thing now: my freedom had to be paired with availability, or else it became a disorder. I pleaded my cause with vigor. I certified that I was just fine, a feeble argument I attempted to shore up by alluding to (my fantasy) of Robert Redford’s love for me. They were appalled. Luckily, thanks to Axel’s warning, I’d kept mum about hugging my pillow. They would have crushed me. The Redford thing alone drove them crazy.
“You’re sleepwalking!” they told me and glanced disappointedly at my flat-heeled boots. What good would it have done me to inform Carlos that Coco Chanel had worn the same ones, that they came from Church’s English Shoes (founded in 1873) in Paris, that they were bespoke (a restyling of a men’s model), and that I’d waiting nine months for them?
If there was a party, everyone in turn would come sit next to me to regale me with how he or she thought I should live and what I deserved to have. What it boiled down to was that I should live like them. Elvire, one half of a tightly knot couple, would forget that her husband was clinically depressed. Guillaume, married to a harpy, maintained that if one laid low and said amen to everything, things worked out. Maria, fed up to the teeth with her children, wanted me to have my own. Assia loved women but was killing her mother. Patrizio had bruises on his shoulders from his chronically jealous wife. Not one of them could stand my singleness, because it could have been theirs. And a marginal couple, Sabine and William, doleful swingers, who absolutely had to stay together to have someone to swap – even they found me peculiar. I was discovering conventional behavior in the most liberated milieus: broad-minded people, against any form of censorship or constraint, who boasted about how they pushed boundaries. Well, I blasted them back in the other direction, and they flung their hands up. They had ingested the most useless hodgepodge of drugs, blitzing themselves so completely that they’d forgotten I’d seen them do it, whereas I was mainlining the purest of ideals, of the very highest quality – and this shocked them.