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1. For Something Better

In Seville, they rented a car.

Michel had asked Anna to go see Zurbarán’s portraits of women before they left for Ronda.

“He didn’t just paint monks, you know. His young saints look as fresh as his fruits and flowers.”

* * *

The morning was already hot. They traveled through a cheerful countryside. Everywhere, they saw blinding lines, merging, dissolving. Sometimes donkeys would emerge from a cloud of dust. The hills, little by little, became cliffs. Soon there was nothing but corniches and ravines.

They stopped in a posada and ordered two ham omelets and Spanish rice (with vegetables and peppers). Two hours later, they were driving through the open mountains.

The outskirts of Ronda appeared. The car scaled the cliffs. Michel and Anna did not speak. The city’s narrow, bumpy streets struggled to accommodate the car.

* * *

The sun was already high.

In the hotel room, Michel was lying down, shirtless. He was smoking a cigarette. The blinds were half-open. What the hell was he doing there smoking American cigarettes in a Spanish room?

Anna was looking forward to spending these few days with Michel in the angelic heat.

Yet she already felt that her fervor could not overcome her budding indifference. She was no longer a young girl who dared leap each morning into a sparkling day. She felt that these moments, still very pure and very beautiful, were already slipping away.

* * *

At the end of the day, once the heat had fallen a bit, Michel and Anna took a walk. It was the time of day when everything seems perfect — which is very important for lovers, isn’t it?

From the Puente Nuevo, they towered over a gorge where torrents of water flowed. In the mercadillo, they visited the eighteenth-century plaza de toros, with its Doric columns and wooden benches. Anna told Michel she didn’t like bullfighting. He showed her the epitaph of Curro Guillén, who died in the arena on May 22, 1820. They took each other by the hand and found themselves in the saddleshops, with their harnesses, alforjas, and mule collars.

That night, they dined outside, beneath a trellis. Michel told himself that this happiness was a body dissected alive. When they returned to the hotel, they were exhausted, as if they had swum for hours.

Anna had a dream that made her uneasy. They bought peaches in the mercadillo, and as she went to wash the fruits in the fountain in front of the Santa Cecilia Church, the water was suddenly filled with green and blue snakes that coiled themselves around her forearms.

* * *

Another afternoon spent in siesta. They were waiting like two prisoners in a black peace. Michel’s eyes were closed. His hands, resting on his legs, looked dead. Anna watched his peaceful face. She found him handsome, with his high cheekbones, well-drawn lips, and disheveled hair. She dreamed of the scorching, abandoned plazas of Ronda and laid a kiss on the forehead of the sleeper. She was naked. Her shoulder was white, like the houses of Ronda, suspended in the void.

I’ll have to tell my friends everything, thought Anna. No matter what, the idea of everlasting truth never leaves me.

On the ground: a French newspaper, crumpled. This heat, this silence: like religious music. The question was whether everything the atmosphere contrives ends up one day in the minds of men.

Not a sound from the street. Under the linen, the sleeper’s body barely moved. Michel’s left eyelid twitched. She watched his sleeping silhouette. Little by little, she replaced the image of the lover with one of a tranquil adversary, until there was something menacing in Michel’s expression. His body had turned slightly to the right. Anna noticed the marks on his upper left arm, probably traces of an old vaccine. The kiss she had laid on his forehead . . .

Her bare feet stomped on the newspaper. She saw herself in the mirror of the rickety wardrobe and noticed she had gained weight. She put her hand on her thigh. Then she threw her head back and messed up her luxurious brown hair. Perfect gestures. No witnesses.

Suddenly, her expression changed. The corners of her mouth fell. An observer would have been surprised at the sudden change in her expression. She rummaged through Michel’s jacket. She went back to the sleeper, pointed his gun at the white sheet, and fired three times. The shots were quieter than she’d expected. She imagined three large raindrops falling on a corrugated metal roof. She took a travel bag and closed the bedroom door. She didn’t see a single soul on the staircase or at reception. No one’s siesta seemed to have been disturbed. Outside, the light was blinding. She looked, while walking, for her sunglasses. The heat engulfed her, and she almost collapsed.

* * *

Driving toward Seville, Anna was trying not to think of anything besides the difficulties of the road. She had rolled the windows down. The air whipping her temples couldn’t dislodge the fact that she was returning halfheartedly. Insects were smashing into the windshield. The road was narrow and bordered by trees. Anna stepped on the gas and soon caught up to a truck. The back of the truck was rattling, too close. Dusty license plate. Loose trailer cover. She switched gears and told herself that her expulsion from Eden was in fact an opportunity. She hadn’t finished passing the semi when three bloody marks smeared across the windshield, forcing her to desperately let go of the wheel.

2. An Angel in the Night

I’m a screenwriter. I’ve been working all day on a film adaption of my friend Pierre’s novel Impetuosity. Pierre’s a famous writer. A man of the world and the universe. For my part, you can read my name in the credits of some forty films.

The streets of Paris are deserted. The night is light as an underskirt. If you blew on it, I’m almost sure you could see the day. The night reminds me of this actress’s legs in the last film I worked on. My Porsche 911 purrs on the wet asphalt. I’m very careful because in rainy weather people don’t know how to brake.

Tonight, I’m having dinner with Pierre. He’s flying to Switzerland tomorrow. He told me to pick him up and then we’d go to a restaurant on l’avenue de New York.

A few raindrops silver the windshield. A red light stops me. The florist is still open, so I’m early. The avenue is empty, and the meager streetlights illuminate the wet branches of the planetrees. I slam shut the car door and take a deep breath.

The staircase is still just as vast, the handrail as polished. I walk up to the second floor instead of taking the elevator. I don’t like temporary coffins. I ring the doorbell. Two minutes go by. I hear footsteps, and Charles, the faithful servant, opens the door.

“How are you doing, monsieur?”

“Very well, Charles. It’s night.”

“Indeed, monsieur.”

Then Pierre takes me by the shoulders and kisses me.

“I’ve just come from Madrid,” he tells me.

“The Prado?”

“No. Countess Guadalhuce, who was so tender with Abel Bonnard . . . I’m taking you.

I stroke one of the cupboards taken from Beijing’s imperial palace and ask for news of Irene, who’s staying in Switzerland.

“She reads a book a day.”

Here we are in the night, in the rain. The car jumps and Pierre smiles. Place d’Alma. I park on a dead-end street. Pierre is wearing a striped suit and a bright bow tie. We look at the streetlights. The sky is weighed down like a full belly.

“Who was it who said the night was always more or less complicit in the most shameful parts of ourselves?”


A gust of wind freezes us. Those crazy virgins better hide their lamps.

In the restaurant, the ambience is white and gold. A table is reserved for us. Pierre puts our two menus together, and we talk about the adaption of his book.

“And your producer?”

“He just wrecked his car! He told me the film should be a wild meal.”

He shakes his head and puts down his fork. Boats of sadness sail through his eyes. I think of the girl who’s staying with me. I forget her name. I think it’s either Ariane or Agalé.

“Don’t tire yourself,” Pierre tells me. “Go to bed early, read, and drink tisane.”

That’s exactly what I’d like to do. We leave the restaurant. Pierre’s talking about the Armenian convent in San Lazzaro that Proust visited. The Porsche roars to life. I turn on the heat. I suggest to Pierre that we cruise by the Invalides, Montparnasse, and return by l’École militaire. We’re silent. The night rolls its hips. We’re prisoners of a dream. The engine is running smoothly. Somewhere Lilith is spying while hiding her face.

“You know, I have to change my car, but the next one shouldn’t be longer than four meters so I can easily park,” Pierre says.

He’s always been a car guy. I think of the old advertisement for the Voisin sedan — four seats and ten horsepower — that can be found on the backs of some of his books.

We’ve arrived. I thank him. He waves his hand and cries to me: “Watch the time!”

Now I am alone. It’s unacceptable to be alone in the night. I scram home, hoping the actress I invited over is waiting for me. I’m going to tell her about Pierre, his smiles, his placidity, his books full of sparkling phrases. The Porsche swallows the roads. It’s not raining anymore. I stop the car near a courtyard. Sadly, the trees are not in bloom. I have the heart of a young man. I rush up my stairs.

She’s not there. The stereo’s still on. The ashtrays are overflowing. A wrinkled necktie on the couch. What a mess! I sit down at my desk and leaf through my work for the day. Forty more pages! But the night is blond with pink dimples. Impossible to string together words on pages white as the moon.

I get up and grab the phone. I call Marina. She won’t go with me to All or Nothing, and she has no desire to watch me play poker with bad people until sunrise. Hmph! Let her go back to sleep in her enormous bed with a box of chocolates! And what about that blond woman with the bloodred lipstick I met at a bar? I wrote her phone number down on the back of an envelope. She told me she was a novelist. Ah! Here it is.

“You didn’t go out tonight?”

“No, I’ve been tidying up at my place.”

Laughter was caught in my throat.

“What’s the matter?”


Speed is a tree that hides the forest of despair. I rush back downstairs. The trees are still not in bloom. The headlights brutalize the cars. Burning eyeballs of silent film actresses. I step on the gas and hope for everything. “Calm down,” Marina likes to tell me. In the end, I’m alone, horribly alone, despite the success and the movie stars who kiss me. I whirl around in the invisible, like my Porsche does in the streets of Paris. The fantasies I uphold in order to protect myself in fact strip me and break my heart.

The street is silent and blurry. I close my eyes. I dread being swallowed up by inadequacy and fraudulence. But the night is always the night: a fire that no folly can extinguish. A red carpet adorns the staircase. Fourth floor.

“You’re beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

Pistachio rug. Her lips still fascinate me; her perfume torments me.

“Make yourself comfortable.”

The living room is nice, dimly lit. My nerves are like wheat bending in the storm. It’s one in the morning.

“Do you want something to drink?”

“Yes . . . some tisane.”

She disappears, and I hear her say: “I have lime, mallow, mint, chamomile, verveine.”


She returns with a full tray.

“You’re so kind, miss.”

She’s wearing well-fitted black pants, a red camisole, and patent-leather shoes. She looks like a young woman from the ’30s.

“Have you read Impetuosity?”

“I really like that book. The scene in the square in Verona. The argument in the mountains.”

“I just had dinner with Pierre.”

“Oh! You know him?”

“He’s a family friend. I’m working on a film adaption of that book.”

Her green eyes are irresistible. Honest and sparkling.

“Would you like a slice of rhubarb pie?”

So different from the dark Marina, whose childish vanity impedes her desires, for fear of appearing to obey those of others.

I just want to get things rolling. I listen to her. Her lips open and close. I no longer want to know anything about my past. She sits beside me. I’m going to say: “Let’s go to Venice, on the morning train.” My hand trembles near her hip. I stand up, furious, go to the window, and open the curtains. The sky is overcast, and all the apartments are dark. Masks fall.

“Are you doing okay?” she asks me.

My imagination adds capital letters to events. It’s as if this hot encounter has been doused in fresh water. I’m no longer lost in the desert. Virtue moves on tiptoe.

“Come back, sit down.”

I sink into the couch and cross my legs. I feel like I’m coming to. She’s talking about the Vermeers in the Frick Collection, about calla lilies and Mademoiselle Irnois. I put my hand on hers. Her eyes call my eyes. My fortress of pride is crumbling. A clock sounds three times. She breathes softly. Serenity bathes her face.

I dare to take her in my arms and touch her lips. The lips being of grace, and of light falling from the sky.

3. Cherubs

Thankfully it rained. The day had been hot, too hot. Valeria was walking beside Longo. They distracted themselves by watching red and blue lights floating in the waterlogged gutters. Longo had decided to take Valeria somewhere you could have a good time.

After a while, she told him her feet hurt and that he’d promised they would take a taxi. He offered to carry her on his shoulders.

Less than five minutes later, they stopped at a green door. Longo rang, and a young woman let them in. She led them down an endless dim corridor. They arrived at a room where naked girls were smoking and fluttering their eyelashes. Longo asked Valeria to choose one. She decided on a skinny little brunette with hairy forearms. Longo pulled by the arm a blonde with opulent breasts.

All four went to sit around a table. A server brought a menu. Longo snatched it and ordered champagne. The girls dared not speak. Valeria swallowed her flute and complained about the air-conditioning. Longo pretended to listen to the music. The brunette stroked the blonde girl’s thigh. Longo felt frustrated and looked at Valeria.

The brunette pouted. She wore long, dangling earrings. Her somewhat concave face did not lack intelligence. The thick-thighed blonde winked and exhaled the smoke from her cigarette. She suggested Longo and Valeria order more champagne. Valeria, who appeared to be falling asleep, seemed to agree. She handed her bag to Longo.

Longo cursed the humid, sticky heat. He found the place sinister and the girls cranky.
Valeria stood up with difficulty and headed for the bathroom. Longo rummaged through her bag and tossed a five-hundred franc note on the table.

“You’re not leaving, are you?” said the brunette.

Longo took two notes from his wallet, folded them carefully, and handed them to her.

When Valeria returned, the girl took off her cheap bracelet and gave it to her. Oddly, the big-breasted blonde assumed an air of superiority. Longo approved of the circumstances standing in the way of desire.

Outside, the rain had resumed. Longo looked at the strange shapes dancing between Valeria’s face and his own. Valeria had bags under her eyes. Her eyes seemed to be moving toward her temples. She looked pale. The rain could do nothing to this agonizing happiness.

This trip had been a way for them to finally stop saying: “Go down there and try to get a little something out of it.” A game to make him say: “Ultimately, we didn’t waste that much money.”

They still believed in this little fairy tale. The drug was a pagan god. The rain was accumulating traces of forgiveness. They’d have to lighten up a little. “You promised me I wouldn’t have to walk,” said Valeria. She threw her arms around Longo’s neck. The bracelet the brunette had given her fell into the black water of the gutter.

Michel Bulteau

Michel Bulteau is a French poet, essayist, musician, and filmmaker. He has written more than sixty books and is a character in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Dectectives.

Austyn Wohlers

Austyn Wohlers is a writer from Atlanta currently living in Baltimore. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, and other publications. She is also a musician.