Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Greetings Begin from Afar
They were a few steps before the entryway when the door was flung open. Being deep inside his head, Benoît hadn’t noticed. However, Danielle did. She watched as his face went from bland to confused as he became aware of the woman coming out of the building. She was smiling at him. His first thought was that she was entertaining some sport. Amusement, at his expense. She held the contact in passing. From the depth of the sincere look, he realized the imagined thought placed in her head had been his projection, and stumbled taking a step because of it. Innocence. The smile was only a friendly greeting.
Danielle had observed the shared contact. It was amusing, thinking her husband could be such a silly sap. With feigned naivety, she asked, “And what was that about?”
“Hmm?” he said, thoughtlessly. His attention had remained with the woman, who was now on the sidewalk.
Having glanced back, she touched at her long straight hair, pulling it behind an ear. A bit more sway was put into her motion. The hedge was there. Before disappearing behind it, a long last look was cast at Benoît. It shifted into a wink at Danielle before she passed out of view.
Danielle gave him a moment before asking, “Well?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do I mean?” She caught at his arm. “That connection. That moment you just shared. A 100 watt light bulb would have provided far less illumination.”
“I have no idea what you are on about.”
She stared at him, looking from one eye to the other. They stood before the entryway. The wind blew a gust through the trees hanging over the street. The force of the movement caught at them.
He said, “Trees are darkening. The Spring leafing is about done.”
She turned back to him, incredulous. “It’s fine if you don’t want to answer. Words are not always necessary. Honesty is though. With me, of course. But also with yourself, Benoît.” She paused, before adding an afterthought, “I don’t mind. You know that, right?”
“Yes. You have made your position clear to me. Repeatedly.”
“Repeatedly? Yeah, OK. I own that. Therapist.” She turned to the doorbell panel. Names were hand printed beside each button, in various illegible script. It was that kind of building, she thought.
Benoît glanced at the hedge in hope of the woman’s reappearance. Perhaps she had forgotten something?
“I don’t find his name here.”
“There is no ‘Thierry.’”
He turned away from the street with a small disappointment, and pointed at a button, “Here. This one.”
“There is no name.”
“Yeah. He’s lazy about that. Thinks people will leave him alone if his name isn’t at the door.”
“Really?” Before he could answer, she pushed at the button. A shrill buzzing was heard from within the building.
She was about to push it a second time when the intercom crackled, “Hello?”
“It’s Danielle and Benoît.”
The door buzzed open. She pushed through.
Once inside, she stopped. There were stairs. On the wall, a few mailboxes. Beyond them, a door.
In a rising tone, she asked, “Where’s the lift?”
“There isn’t one.”
She huffed a breath.
“He’s only on the sixth floor.”
“How many floors are there?”
“There’s less street noise up there.”
An indignant breath before the first step was taken.
“Thierry says the stairs are good exercise. Keeps his fitness up.”
“His flat has a patio.”
“Sorry. I hadn’t thought about it. You could have waited at a café for us.”
“It is fine. I can use the exercise too.”
“What? These buns of steel?” he said, trying to distract her.
“Enjoying the view back there, are you? I’ll have you know, it takes work to keep the tone,” she said, and proceeded to land a solid slap upon the tight material.
He touched at her lingering hand, joining the wobble. “The dress is tight against your nude curves—without any lines. You showed me. I appreciate.”
“Good that you do.”
The rest of the climb up was silent but for her boots clip-clopping upon each tread. His gaze had remained hypnotized by the rocking motion going on before him.
Her thoughts were on what was going on in his head at that moment. And what about before, at the door so far below? He was embarrassed when she pressed him about the encounter. Was he confused about the overt interest passing from an attractive woman, and the reflexive response invoked? Had she interrupted his processing? Or, was it just the sudden loss of blood to his brain? Guys.
Reaching the sixth floor, they found the door ajar. Energy and impulsiveness defined Danielle. She pushed though the doorway without slowing down. Benoît followed, closing the door quietly behind.
She called out, singing, “Thierry? We’re here. We’ve summited.”
From deep inside the flat came a voice, “Back here. Not quite ready yet.”
She said, quietly, “Why am I not surprised?”
Thierry appeared from a doorway across the room. He was dressed in a shear robe tied loose. His face was half shaven.
“Please, go out on the patio. Sit. Enjoy. There are spirits in the sideboard. You know where everything is, Benoît. Help yourselves. I won’t be long.” He disappeared before they could greet him.
“Late to his own funeral.”
“Now Danielle, it is his birthday. He can be late if he wants.”
“Every day is his birthday. We have reservations.”
“They’ll keep. I told them about the occasion when I booked. He’s known there. They are familiar with his fluid timing.”
He steered her out the french doors and onto the patio. “Would you like something? There are all kinds of apéritive possibilities. Perhaps a kir?”
“That’s fine. Thank you.”
“Crème de cassis, or de pêche?”
She was looking out beyond the building, and hadn’t heard him. The view had immediately captured her attention.
Returning with their drinks, he said, “I thought you would like it made with Pama. That is your favorite.” Their glasses touched.
After the first sip, she brightened. “Yes, pomegranate liqueur is best. I am sorry”—sliding closer—“for being difficult. Something is going on with me. I don’t have a handle on it yet. That’s disturbing. But, it is no excuse. Sorry.”
“Always the therapist. Don’t be so hard on yourself. It is not such a big deal. You are fine, dear. Really.”
“No. I’m not. Let me own this, OK?”
He looked into her eyes. They were smiling, but there was just the slightest bit of sadness around the edges. She loved him; that was clear. He began to kiss her lightly on the lips, which ended with their foreheads touching, eyes closed.
He whispered, “I accept. We need each other.”
“Not just that. We fulfill each other. And because we do, I will make it up to you.”
The words surfaced as code, bringing an image along. “Maybe a bit less enthusiastic than last, OK?”
She reclined, pressing into the couch; her arms draped along the back. When he didn’t respond, she pulled him in, playfully laughing, “Aah. Was I too rough with my doggie?”
He relaxed into the sidelong embrace. His head nestled on her shoulder, as required. Her neck was in need of kissing, so he did that before rediscovering the shoulder.
Playing a sigh, he said, “Sometimes, my love, your exuberance is a bit scary.”
“Don’t give me that. I know you. You like it like that. The progression, tender to rough, gets you off. I didn’t hear the safe-word once last night. Fess up. Tell me.”
“Wherever you take us, dear, I anticipate my role. I follow.”
“The good dog you are.”
“My needs are as open to you as yours are to me.”
Those were the words she needed to hear. She took a deep breath and sighed out, “You know me so well.”
That was true, he did know her. An arm explored to find her waist. Neck kissing resumed. In response, her posture melted further. More was opened, beckoning further attention.
She huskily whispered to him, “You like the plan for Thierry? Wasn’t master clever?”
“The design you and your sister came up with was genius inspired.”
“She’s taken to you as well. On her next visit, when you greet each other, I want you to tell her that. Those exact words, whispered. I want to watch her take you. You are to do this with her.” As she spoke, his other hand was led to where it was required. Her posture adjusted accordingly. “You will know what’s to be done. Use the time productively. While you two make me wait, I will enjoy the view.”
“By your command.”
“Well spoken, my love puppy. Don’t tease further. Finish it now.”
When Thierry managed his entrance, he found the couple nestled into each other in a slight state of exhausted undress. They were quietly involved in the sunset colors. His steps had been silent, not wanting to disturb them immediately. He stood behind the couch soaking up this new memory of his friends and the sunset. They remained motionless in their moment until he spoke. “I do enjoy the light’s fade to black, don’t you?”
The both jumped, turning to find him there. Danielle moved to rebutton the dress, but not so much in a rush as to deprive Thierry an extended view above and below. While her top was still open, she said with a calm voice, “Birthday Boy! Don’t you look nice.” She sniffed at the air while the last of the buttons were done up. “Smells nice, too.”
Standing, Benoît said, “Happy one, Thierry.” They shook hands.
Danielle came around the couch and did the cheek kissy thing. “Nice that you shaved. You have such a handsome face. It was a shame to hide it behind all that scrubbiness. I like this much better.”
She had remained close to his face while speaking. Her breath caressed its nakedness. Unconsciously, he took a step back. Consciously, she took a step forward.
Benoît recognized the maneuver. He came around the couch to rescue his friend. His arm found Danielle’s waist and pulled her into him. She exaggerated the movement, bringing a moment of unbalanced silliness.
His hand wanted to give her nude ass cheek inside that tight dress a slap. Insight told him this was a gateway reaction she had contrived. To frustrate her plan, he said, “Shall we go? Our table awaits.”
With a pout, she said, “Yes, dear. We know your tastes.”
After locking the door and starting down the stairs, Thierry’s thoughts fluttered otherwhere. He mused about Claire, who had scurried off just before Danielle and Benoît rang.
In the early afternoon, she had knocked on his door complaining of being bored without her partner there. Josephine had abandoned her: gone out of country for a business call with a client. Could she come in? Would he be so kind as to make her a coffee?
Her appearance today had been a surprise. When they had met before, he hadn’t the opportunity to talk much with her. Josephine was always the effusive center of attention. She would dominate conversation, directing it to her direction. Lots of interesting ideas bubbled around in her head. It was a fascinating ride, while they could keep up. Claire and he would resign to smile at each other as Josephine metaphysically disappeared off into the distance. It was a secret joke they shared. Those evenings would end too soon, leaving them having barely spoken a dozen words in a row to each other. When the women parted with the customary cheek kisses, Josephine would move quickly on. It was Claire who would linger, her hand at his face as she drew away. After the door closed, the silent house felt vast. He would put extra effort into the clean-up to delay contact with the awaiting bed—much too cold and empty with just himself.
On occasion, he had met Claire in passing on the stairs. A few words were spoken. It was clear both wanted for more, but there always seemed to be some time pressure driving them apart.
Today though, it had only been them—the entire luxurious afternoon. When he opened the door to find Claire standing there resonating with energy, he knew at that moment they were both lost to the other. The realization left him dumbstruck. It was the artist who whispered in his ear what was required. The words that followed were uttered impulsively, as though someone else was speaking. He asked if she would pose for him.
“Do you have experience with that?”
She looked at him coyly before responding. “I do! All right, I will pose for you if you promise to behave yourself—behave as a gentleman.”
“I don’t know what it means to be a gentleman, but I assure you, I am a professional.”
“Sure, well, that’s what the last guy said. His glowing assurances turned out to be mostly pretense though. He was a bit of a cad.”
“That is not me. You have seen my work.”
She looked at him a moment, evaluating. “Gosh, but aren’t you the serious one. This is me having a small joke,” she said, punching at his shoulder. “And just so you know, I did him anyway. But that”—drawing closer—“was my decision. Gave him a ‘be careful for what you wish’ one-time encounter.”
Intimately close now. He breathed in the sweetness of her breath.
She allowed the moment to linger, enjoying his enjoyment, before saying, “All right, Mr. Spontaneous? Let’s do this.”
Her flirtation had pushed him out of balance. He moved to reclaim personal space. His intention had actually been professional. Blustered, he said, “Great! It will only take a moment to set up.”
A mischievous grin came to her. Its origin was sourced from the stimulation effect she was having upon him. Her intention had been to rattle his cool demeanor, break out of the passive game ritual they had fallen into.
“On our way,” she thought. “About time.”
He paced the floor, delaying, trying to regain his lost thoughts. After a few there–and–backs, he said, “All the gear is in cases. I haven’t unpacked it since the last outing. We’ll only need a couple lights and the reflector. Yes. Won’t take but a second. Just hang out on the couch. Relax yourself. Stay natural.”
He, and the visibly uncomfortable bulge, went into another room.
While imagining the adjustment necessary, she called to him, “Not that there’s a hurry. I’ve got all day.”
“I’ve friends coming over in the early evening. They are taking me out to dinner. It’s my birthday.”
“It is? Well, Happy Birthday, Thierry.”
“Whoops!” was followed by the sound of a case falling against the floor.
“You OK in there? Need help?”
“No. It missed my foot. I’ve found everything. My assistant does a great job packing. It’s me who gets forgetful where everything is.”
He walked back into the room with a light stand in each hand. “I couldn’t find the reflector at first. She left me a note, knowing I wouldn’t remember where things were, and end up undoing her careful organization.”
Claire smiled serenely at his entrance.
“She’s quite dedicated”—coming around to the front of the couch—“Oh!” His eyes opened wide. The stands were reflexively put down.
“Sure you don’t need help?”
Catching himself, he said, “No. Ahem. Really, I got this. You just continue to relax.”
She cat-stretched, and purred, “Your couch is really comfortable.”
He smiled briefly, and went back for the rest of the gear.
“Do you have any mineral water? The coffee has left me a bit thirsty.”
“There’s a crate in the pantry.”
She got up and padded across the room as he came back in.
She turned and asked, “Want some too?”
Trying not to stare. “Sure. Thanks.”
The reflector was pulled open in its stand. The flash pods were adjusted. He checked the camera lens before deciding to give it a quick cleaning.
“Here you go,” she said.
“Put it on the side table over there, please.”
She padded back to the couch and plopped down.
He checked the lights again. And reconfirmed the camera settings.
Looking at him expectantly, “So how would you like me?”
“Thinking… Ahmm. When I asked you to pose, I didn’t mean without clothes.”
“Oh! Presumptuous of me. I am a silly girl. So, that really wasn’t a line?”
“You honestly didn’t have some kinky roleplay in mind? Ulterior motive?”
“Do you like how I look?”
He moved the camera to his hip with the lens at her. “Ahmm, ah, well yeah.” The lights flashed as the shutter clicked.
“Good. I will pose for you. Josephine will be so envious. She had wanted you to shoot her since our housewarming party.”
“When she pressured me into showing albums of my work?”
“Yeah. She cajoled until you caved. Believe me, you had no chance.”
“I had come to that realization.”
“Anyway, her loss at not being the first. Serves her right, selfish woman, leaving us here alone. And, so bored too!”
“Nice, that playful pouty look. Could you bring your hair over the shoulder? Drape it long across your chest. You have such gorgeous hair.”
“Great. Turn your hips just a bit more. Yes. Perfect.”
The banter had carried on through the afternoon. The late sun brought more color warmth light into the room. A few more pictures were taken.
Stepping back, he said, “I think that went well. You have a natural sensibility in front of the lens. A presence.”
“Do I? I hadn’t thought about that.”
“There’s a confidence projected. It shows in how you carry yourself.”
“Ahh. Now that is something I have thought about. That’s a stage thing, people watching me. I used to be terrified to the point that I dreaded going out. It had become a complex. Fear of making the smallest mistake was interfering with my performance.”
He had been pacing the room. She reached out for his hand, stopping him in front of her. “It has taken a lot of work, but I think I am getting there. Thank you for the compliment. It was Josephine’s doing. She would appreciate hearing your observation.”
She squeezed his fingers before releasing him. He began to break the gear down, piling it by the wall. While he worked, she wandered over to the open door; the air felt cool on her skin. Turning back to him, “I really like your patio. Can we go out there? Is there time before the friends arrive?”
Her form was silhouetted by the doorway. Striking, he thought, the awareness of her posture. A short internal struggle commenced before he could answer. “Sure. The light is starting to turn. I think it will be a lovely sunset.”
After the gear was put back into their respective cases, he joined her.
“You are comfortable with your body.”
“My nudity, you mean? Yes. You’d think my parents were hippies. They weren’t though. Chalk it up as a side effect of Josephine’s deconditioning program. Sometimes she complains that maybe it was a little too effective—that my late-discovered nudity predilection boarders on exhibitionism. But, it works for me. I like the feeling.”
After stretching an arm behind to pillow her head, she asked, “What about your parents? Did they teach body shaming?”
“No. They instilled an appreciation of form. I learned the flow of movement: stillness can be expressive. An entire story can be told in the pose of a single frame. This is what I strive to achieve in my compositions.”
“If I could interrupt a moment before you go off on a monologue—”
He mouthed the word back.
“—heh–yeah, which I’m sure would be fascinating. I would be fine if you’d like to join me, remove your clothes, I mean. Shared nudity makes people equals. It does not mean we are going to have sex, or something. But that would be OK if you wanted to. So, don’t be embarrassed if something is already happening. That would be a compliment.”
She took a visible breath; her eyes flashed. “Right, that’s out there now. Just thought I would let you know my thoughts, in case you were unsure.”
“Yeah. Now that we aren’t working, I was thinking it was rude of me not to have offered you a robe. Me being clothed, and you remaining not, was awkward. I was trying to work out the words to not sound creepy.”
“Hah! No. You aren’t creepy. Far from. I was picking up that you were uncomfortable. So, please.”
“Be right back.”
“Could you bring me some more bubble water, please?”
“K. Just a sec.”
She settled into the view. The big clouds just above the horizon were glowing bright around the edges. They looked suspended, as though the sky was a painting.
“Here you go,” he said, refilling the glasses on the side table.
“Thanks.” She couldn’t help herself but stare while he poured out the water. He flashed her a smile and sat, reclining into the couch.
“Now don’t you feel more comfortable?”
“I do! Inside and out.”
“You caught me staring, sorry. It’s just that, even relaxed it is, ah…”
“I know. That’s OK. As you said, it is a compliment. Your curves certainly had an afternoon’s worth of attention from me. The camera was well aware of your presence. We’ve explored the large curve begun at your breast, the flow through to your hips, and continued along your slender legs.”
“Wow! Look what you have done, Mister. Such words of artistic caress have made me blush. I actually am!” She took his hand and drew it to her. “I am glad to have provided poses you could work with. Ah, if only Josephine could see us now.”
“She could, with a camera present, you know.”
“Ooh! Kodak moment! Make it so. Please!”
“Back in a jiff.”
He returned with a small camera mounted on a miniature tripod.
It was set on timer delay.
“Ready? Let’s do a sultry look for her.”
“Then a silly one, OK? She is gonna be so jealous.”
“Yes. Jealous of the time missed—that she wasn’t here with us.”
“Oh. I see.”
“You didn’t think she was jealous, body possessive, did you?”
“Well, for a moment I wasn’t sure.”
“Sorry I didn’t make that clear earlier. We aren’t like that. You good with the camera?”
“Yes. One more picture—you solo. Hold it just like that. Relaxed, but with that intensity piercing out from your eyes, right through the lens.”
“You got it? I’d like more water, please.”
“You are a mermaid, aren’t you? You gave it away from drinking so much water.”
He picked up her glass and went in. Alone for the moment, they both recognized their play was quickly approaching the point of No Return.
She called out, “Being a mermaid would be fun. I would make a great Siren, don’t you think?”
He came back out and handed her the glass. “The stuff of legends,” he said. Eyes followed up her arm, along the shoulder, over chin and lips, to her eyes watching his.
“Thanks.” A big gulp and the glass was left half full. He waited for her attention to return.
“Sorry. I was staring at the compliment again. There’s a reaction. Can you blame me? Ahem… Right. My water consumption. Yes. I am hot blooded, which means I tend towards the sweaty side. Thus, my frequent nudity. QED.”
“Yeah. Guilty. Guess you should know about that. Hanging around me and Josephine, you were bound to find out sooner or later. Now’s the sooner.”
“That explains the coverings on the seats in your flat.”
“Yeah. Josephine keeps us hygienic.”
“So I got a naturist couple living below me.”
“Well, she’s not as impulsively disrobing as me. But, yeah, you do.”
“We’ve friends as well.”
“Clever, Monsieur Artist. But from the look of the compliment, I am really starting to become quite worried. Is that a natural reaction others have commented upon?”
While she had been distractedly staring, he had been looking deeply into her face, orbiting the eyes. He was still doing that as the conversation took a natural pause. The quiet washed over them, while he processed. She deferred, anticipating to receive his advance.
Suddenly, he said, “I would like to shoot you professionally. Would you be interested in that?”
“What?!” she exclaimed. Action, not words were what had been expected. A flush appeared on her chest. It expanded to her face. There was something obviously happening, but what was expected had him confused.
Attempting to disguise her surprise, she tried to be silly. “You mean like me having signed a paper, little stacks of boring papers would appear regularly—the kind with pale colors and big numbers upon them?”
Her words flummoxed him. He stammered out, “Something like that, yes. The arrangement can be flexible. It would be”—she had taken his hand again and was squeezing it hard—“to your needs. Ahem, I left the memory cards from the shoot today by your clothes. On the counter. They are yours.”
Her grip was really starting to hurt.
“You are sweet, Thierry.” She released his hand and drew back.
He remained looking at her.
After a moment, she realized he was awaiting her response. “Well!” She sat up on her knees. “Let me think about this. Hmm… Jazz musician by night. Model extraordinaire by day. Sounds like a super hero’s CV, doesn’t it?”
He was still quiet.
“Beauty treatments claimed as business expenses. Even the epilation!” Her hands roamed, checking status. Satisfied, she said, “Yeah. I’d like to try that.”
“You have a natural talent before the lens.”
“Ah–ha. Yes. Stage presence.”
“OK. Let’s do this. Bring me the contract now. I want you to keep the pictures we made today. Help me build a portfolio.”
He was off the couch and immediately returned with a clipboard and pen.
The words were read carefully. While she did that, he looked at her as a woman—her physical beauty. There was a stirring that became externalized. Before he could check up, it carried quickly too far. The arousal became obvious.
Still reading, a finger skimming the lines, she said, “It’s OK. I like your eyes on me.” She glanced at what was present before her, and then back at the form. “Don’t be embarrassed. I’m not.”
Her hand flashed, leaving a flowing signature behind. “Fair enough,” she said, handing the clipboard back to him.
“You honor me, Claire.”
The continued smile was her answer.
A clock in the distance chimed the hour.
She looked at him feigning a frown, “Aww. Pumpkin time?”
“No! Really?! Shit.”
“Well, hey! Thanks for the coffee.” Unwinding her long legs, she stood. “And the lovely compliment.”
Walking to the door with a pile of clothes in her arms, she said, “You know, I was serious about that offer, but time went by too quickly to act on it.”
“You poor guy. Look at the state I’ve left you in. That’s gonna be a distraction all evening long if you leave it like that. Tell you what. If you are not too tired when you come back in, why don’t you give my door a knock on your way up the stairs? I’m up late.”
“You will, won’t you, scruffy?” She ran the back of her hand across his cheek hair. “Yeah, you will. Now go take care of yourself before your friends arrive.”
She took a step out the door, but then turned and kissed him on the lips. “Till then, I’ll be thinking about you. You should think about me. Ciao!”
She turned and disappeared, trotting down the stairs. There was the sound of her door opening and closing.
Following Danielle and Benoît down the stairs, Thierry mused about Claire. It would not be fair to say it was her fault he wasn’t ready when his friends arrived. That was all his doing. What had started out as a spontaneous modeling session had progressed until he had to put the camera down. The suggestive poses made her intentions clear. Without Josephine there as a distraction, the energy between them continued to build. When they parted, she had told him to think of her. He did, before disappearing into thoughts of what they had yet to share. And, was she at that moment perhaps acting upon the same? The possibility consumed him.
After thoughts became release, he prepared to act upon the next suggestion: to shave off the beard scruff. The pain was a distraction that brought an idea, a suspicion that she had orchestrated their roleplay. That there wasn’t time to consummate the eventuality almost seemed a move in the game. If he wasn’t already going out with friends, perhaps there would have been an appointment demand upon her that introduced the postponement. Was there any possible option of free-will that ended with him not knocking on her door later tonight? He thought not. It was a perfect storm they left each other with when she scurried off just before Danielle and Benoît rang. The razor’s action began to reveal detail of a hidden face.
The chief released the trigger, extinguishing the torch. The boiling sugar relaxed into the crispy hard firmness of Crème Brûlée. One was placed before each patron.
Folding up the tray-stand, the man moved to depart. Thierry touched at the arm of his smock. “Thank you, Matthieu. The menu was spectacular.”
“It is my pleasure to cook for you, Thierry. For you all,” he said, gesturing. “And the ambiance? The pictures. You like?”
“I like the matting. They did a fine job in the accenting.”
“It is just framing from a local shop. Otherwise?”
“Concerning the content? It would be vain for me to comment upon that.”
“They are your photographs.”
“Are they all photos?” Danielle asked. “I thought some were paintings. There is such a surreal air to them.”
Benoît, “‘Such can be the mood when one’s muse captures imagination.’ That’s what you told me, right Thierry?”
Thierry smiled briefly at his friend before turning back to the chief. “Matthieu, I will perhaps have some new shots for you. My friends have given me a stay at a spa in the Alps. Perhaps the air will prove inspirational. Something unexpected, the result.”
Danielle’s hand found Benoît’s thigh. She squeezed fingers into his flesh. He adjusted himself in an attempt to relieve the sudden pressure.
Moving to depart, Matthieu said, “We will all benefit from their thoughtful gift. I look forward to the review of this new series. Now please, enjoy your Brûlée.”
They each cracked the sugar crust with a spoon back, opening the dessert.
Thierry, “That really was a thoughtful gift. So expensive. I know of the Chamonix–Mont Blanc region. But Hotel Clair de Lune au Soleil, I am not familiar with. ‘Moonlight in the sun?’ What kind of spa is that?”
She said, “It’s a cross between Roman and Irish.”
“You have been there?”
“A friend has. She really liked it. Found it rejuvenating. Came back looking like years of stress had melted away.”
“Yes, that must have been nice. Though, it is the high mountain air I’m looking forward to. Misty mornings. Might there be standing water? A lake nearby, perhaps? I must do research.” His eyes became glazed as thoughts explored in the distance.
She watched the transition, fascinated. Turning to Benoît, her grip explored further; in response, his seat stiffened. He looked nervously around the restaurant. An elderly lady smiled back at him. A companion looked up to follow her glance.
Speaking to the absent man, Danielle said, “Don’t know, Thierry. It’s the Alps. Always something to explore, I’m sure. Something old,”—Benoît gasped—“something new. I have expectations.”
His way was made up the stairs. The fifth floor found him standing before the neighbors’ door. From inside came a faint sound of music. The tune wasn’t familiar. Something progressive. Jazz-like, but different. The progression refused to end up as expected. After listening for a while, he sighed, not wanting to disturb the delicate music. He knocked on the door. A few notes carried further before the sound stopped. But for his breathing, the stairwell was silent. It became even more so when the light timer clicked off. Now it was silent and dark. Reflexively, his hand waved toward the pale orange glow of the light switch; however, he stopped short of pressing at it. The absolute black was seductive. Better to remain sightless. But the orange was actually providing some illumination, though dim. So, technically…
And then the door opened.
“There is Thierry, standing in the dark. Enter, please. Join me in the light.”
They did the cheek kissy thing, which almost seemed a bit odd, but for the reflex.
“Before you wonder. Yes. I have been nude since the unasked–for–disrobed modeling session, but for the etiquette demands of a brief journey out—supplies did require replenishing. An unavoidable interruption. Told you how I am.”
“Yes. You did. Sorry, did I catch you in the shower?”
She dabbed at herself with a small towel. “Sweaty. I was practicing this run in preparation for the next gig. There’s a tendency to kinda get lost. Were you waiting long?”
“No, no. I had just knocked. You came right away.”
“Ah good… Want to see my studio?” Without waiting for an answer, she led him through the flat and into a side room. “It’s small, but functional.”
He followed into a room which really wasn’t that small. The walls and ceiling were layered with sound deadening acoustic panels. The floor was soft and squishy; it was covered with a woven carpet. Shoes and socks had been taken off at the door. The floor texture felt soothing.
“This is what I wanted to show you. See?” She pointed to a shelf fixture protruding from the wall. On it was what looked like an ordinary lava lamp. The melted wax was flowing in hypnotic shapes like such lamps do.
“When someone knocks at the door, or buzzes at the entrance, the light strobes: on and off, you know? It makes a rising wind-chime noise too. Otherwise, I would be clueless. This room is pretty much soundproof, no matter how hard somebody knocked.”
“Yeah. Pretty cool. Josephine made that for me after friends refused to visit if it wasn’t arranged for her to be here. She is clever at inventing things. As handy with duct tape as she is beautiful.
“Sometimes I still play dumb and ignore the lamp. I can be frustrating like that, just so you know, ” she said, touching his fingertips. “But not tonight. I was expecting your knock at my door. Get my reference—wink–wink, nudge–nudge.”
The touch expanded into his palm. “My, after that distracting afternoon, what an impossible time trying to concentrate. Took such a while. Had to have a discussion with an old friend, or two…”
She stroked his arm. “That was more innuendo, in case I was being too unclear.”
He shifted his footing in response. Trying to maintain eye contact, he said, “At the door I could just barely make out there was sound coming from inside. The tune you were playing was wonderful. Some fusion? I hadn’t heard anything like it before.”
“Disappointing if you had known it because I just made it up. A brand-new construct.”
She released him. “Close the door. I’ll play the ending for you.”
Sitting with the guitar, she looked expectantly at him before saying, “Now I’m still cleaning it up, so there might be some roughness. But the structure is about right.”
He sat on a high stool. After he settled, she began to play. From the first cord the tone had a loud, full presence.
She continued to look at him. A smile flashed and then faded neutral as her eyes glazed over. The playing progressed. He found her sightless stare unnerving and looked instead at her fingers working the fret board. Then her other hand, playing pick-less, bare fingers against metal strings. The intonation was fascinating. It pulled him in. Colors appeared. Definition formed around each cycle.
Suddenly, she rested, leaning back. The piece was finished. Beads of sweat had formed on her skin.
There was silence. It reminded him of the stairwell’s dark.
“You are the first to hear that. I made a recording earlier, but it hasn’t been sent to the band mates. Thought I might want to fiddle around a bit more; however, I think I’ll leave it.”
“That was really wonderful, Claire. The color carried me away.”
“Thank you,” she said, standing. “I’m really sweaty. Usually there’s a fan in here, but it was bothering me earlier, so I put it out. There’s always one on me on stage. Mermaid, right?”
She wiped the guitar and stood it on a free stand. “There’s a connection between us. You feel it too.” He was looking at the other guitars when she came up behind, encircling him. “Hmm…” she cooed. His arms layered hers.
She asked, “Practical question first, OK?”
“STI check current?”
“Oh. That question.”
“That is important. Josephine and I are checked regularly. If you aren’t, we’ll have to wait. I know a clinic where you can get it done tomorrow.”
“It is OK. Had my check-up recently. I am safe with my partners. Also, I am snipped.”
“Good to know. I don’t usually fluid bond, but…” Her hand explored down. “Jeez. This is gonna take some getting used to. I am kinda small. Be patient. Josephine is—”
“Gonna be so jealous.”
“Exactly. Come, you. Shower with me. I want to wash the sticky off.”
He turned and met her kiss.
Taking his hand, she led him out of the studio. The swaying of her long straight hair was a delight. It tickled at his arm.
Looking back over her shoulder, she said, “And please, do lose the clothes, Birthday Boy. You are permitted, naturally.”
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