PLAYING TENNIS WITH KAFKA
copyright © 2002 all rights reserved
"At the moment of orgasm... All at once we have merged with the food chain and for a split second we realize that there is no difference between the eater and the eaten."
- Kirby Olson, The Food Chain: The Ideal Pet
From the very beginning Chantal and I were destined to be an erotic combination. Our lives were to be entwined. Artists and intellectuals, together we were like charged electricity.
When we first knew each other, this intense, small but powerfully built, auburn-haired pocket amazon was a dancer. Now she had become France's top modern dance photographer, her unique books, exhibitions and posters dominate the field. She was a fiercely independent, strong-willed woman who never compromised and always took chances.
Chantal took great pride in her still tightly muscled anatomy. She liked to take off her clothes, lie invitingly spread-eagle on the bed. Head forward, arms and legs outstretched she showed off her small, but nevertheless voluptuously proportioned rear view, a graceful neck, strong back and firm ass buttressing well-tapered legs and arched feet. As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things" (Romans 10.15.). Squatting over her, I'd merge parts with her, then lower myself covering her torso with my own, fitting together, as we'd both squirm and flail about like fish out of water. With a heavy, ruminative air she'd murmur a favorite fancy. "Mmmmnnn. Let's go wandering together in the alleys of Prague someday. Ahhhaaaaaa."
The other week (or weeks/months ago) I was mixing some sounds preparing for my weekly rock 'n' roll radio program. The phone rang. And rang. Finally, I pressed all the buttons stopping the equipment, lowered the headphones to around my neck and picked up the receiver. It was Chantal.
"Why haven't you answered my notes?" I asked.
"The answer is cancer!" she replied with resignation.
In the less than a year since we saw each other last, she had had two unsuccessful operations, followed by radiation therapy. Then her whole body was taken apart and put together again in a complete bone-marrow transplant. She was only in her late forties and it sounded like the final countdown. Very confused, of course, asking -- why me? And afraid, yet happy to discover she was surrounded by love from friends and family.
Obituaries seem to have become the growth literary genre of the nineties. Death watches the new spectator sport. People dropping off, passing on, all over the place. Not all of them gracefully. Like a former patron of mine from the London daze. This soul-sick multimillionaire (a minor item of his holdings included two Shakespeare first folios) had died recently all alone in a low bed-and-breakfast south of the Thames, aged circa forty-four.
"I don't think I'll live to benefit from reduced fare travel on trains," I heard Chantal say, "so why don't we rendezvous in Prague this summer."
It was a courage you can't refuse. When people are sick their friends gather around the bed. Yet nobody bothers to get into the bed with them.
Since Wilhelm Reich there is an enormous amount of sex information for young people, some of it very good. And recently in our aging society, there is much concern about sex and the senior citizen -- mostly about dysfunction, however. What about those harvest years in between -- let's say from thirty-nine to fifty-nine? There falls the shadow.
By this time we know technique, about caring and are not troubled by impotency or fear of heart attacks. The crisp salad days are over. Yes. Nevertheless, our juices are still flowing, as mountain streams renewed by autumn hurricanes. Almost everyone has been married at least once, or is living in some form of open relationship. When we are young, we don't want continued connections out of mere convenience. Now we want all sexual adventures to be convenient. Consenting adults to the max.
In the first youthful phase of our sex life we learn to love and not pretend that we know what love is. In the third part, as seniors, we defend the meaning of our life and we will be wise. In these middle years, we enter into relationships as a loving person, knowing we will die. It's not romance we are looking for, but wonder.
For long trips, I find a coach preferable to the railway. If for no other reasons than one can see a bit more of the countryside, get out, stretch, and also eat while not moving.
I got to Prague first, very early in the morning, on an inexpensive all-night bus from Amsterdam. There was a marked difference with last year, when I first visited this city. Advertisements on the subway. The street moneychangers were no longer honest. Public transport had gone up four hundred per cent and food almost as much. The cost of items like packaged soup was overprinted with new prices. Everywhere there were automatic dispensers for western condoms. Commie condoms, which I had had the occasion to use in the past, were like going in wearing a wellie, in itself a sufficient cause for getting rid of the ancien régime.
I met Chantal at the late-afternoon train that had carried her avec couchette from the Gare de L'Est. After a warm greeting, we took a taxi to a small-furnished garden flat I had rented in the Liben district, a northern hilly part of the city overlooking a bend in the river. Russian champagne was waiting cooled in the fridge.
Although ill and almost fifty, Chantal had a waif-like beauty, large eyes widely set apart and a thin poutish mouth. She carried herself with the assurance of a teenager, her Paris polka dot silk blouse clinging to her body moved around her small breasts. She telegraphed expectancy. There was an amused but uncertain expression on her face. Her hair, a moody honey color, was different, much shorter, thicker, flecked now with patches of gray.
"Mais oui, chéri," she said, shrugging her shoulders. As if answering my silent, curious stares, Chantal paused, finished the glass of bubbly and shifted around uneasily on her seat. "Yes. The good thing about my disease is everyone tells me how good my hair looks."
I was suddenly turned on by the thought of what it would be like to have sex with her when she was completely hairless (above and below), the side effect from the radiation treatments. We reached out for each other. Touched hands. Fondled each other on the greenish plastic kitchen bench, stood up and walked across the flowered-linoleum floor into the bedroom. Like so many Czech rooms it was decorated in a combination of brown and orange colored curtains and walls, wainscoted with slats of heavily varnished garish yellow pinewood. It had two metal-framed single beds. Above each, a framed illustrated press view of the Tatra Mountains.
We did our best to overcome these less than lyrical surroundings. She dropped her clothes. Standing in a black bra and panties trimmed in lace and a single strand red coral necklace, she began undressing me. Her skin was lightly scented with eau de rose.
"Let's touch first and talk later," Chantal said.
When I was naked she slid to her knees and took me on her tongue. First, dry chaste kisses on the head, the shaft, then long and wet metronomic licks starting from under my balls.
When I stirred she got up and pulled me across the room onto the bed. I found myself carried away by her gift of spirit and could think of nothing but to get inside her and hold her still. But she began moving, first shimmying out of her panties, and unhooking her bra. Her hands touched my pectorals, traced the vault of my thorax, dug into the flesh of my hips, her nails hurting a little. I felt her fingers on my thigh, her hand slowly molding the long bulge of muscle. Then grappling my body, both of us planting kisses, caressing with hands and knees whatever was available in this flurry of flesh. At one point sucking each other's toes.
Facing each other again, I squeezed Chantal's tiny body so her narrow breasts buried themselves in my chest and felt her sex envelope and hold mine. As I entered her, I felt vaguely irritated. She moved harder and harder against me, scratching my back and crying sharply until I found myself rushing to explosion without a motion.
I didn't register in that moment what she had done, only that when I had finished she lay still for the first time; and the confusion was gone from my mind.
The next morning I realized Chantal had etched deep blood-filled scratches on my back. I didn't think I could reject her pain and desire.
Like all tourists, we wandered through the streets of mystical Prague, Europe's most spookishly beautiful city. We watched the mechanical last judgment go through its paces on the famous fifteenth-century astronomical clock on the fairy-tale Old Town Square and walked around the corner to the house of Franz Kafka. He who believed the meaning of life is that it ends.
"No wonder he was crazy," I said. "Living so close to that. Skeletons dancing on the clock every hour. Having to hear it chime all the time as he was growing up."
"Yes. But not everyone who grew up like that became such a great writer." Chantal pulled a single-page folder out of her bag. It was a Guide to Kafka's Prague. "According to this map," she said, " we can go to the city swimming pool where he often went to swim with his father as a young boy. Or visit the court where he played tennis."
What could it have been like to play tennis with Kafka? Did he spin his serve? Did he rush the net? Or rather did he rely on a good backhand? Did he have tantrums at a line call?
Instead, we walked hand in hand toward another part of the river in the direction of Josefov, the Old Jewish Ghetto. We paid our respects at the Synagogue and Cemetery, the monuments of prodigious Rabbi Loew. The original story begins in the sixteenth century. Using a long-lost formula from the Kabbala, this rabbi is said to have made an artificial man from clay -- the so-called Golem -- to help ring the bells and do other menial work. Nevertheless, this being wasn't a full man; it was animated by a sort of vegetable half-life. A human creature on a sub-human plane. A humanoid. What life it had, so the story runs, was only derived from an alphabetic counting and calculation of a combination of letters. A word drawn on its forehead each day, that drew down to itself a vortex, what can be called the divine spirit of the universe, YHWH Elohim Emet meaning God the Lord is Truth. However, this newly created being erased the letter alef from the word emet ("truth"); leaving the word met ("dead").
The creation of a Golem was then in some way an affirmation of the productive and creative power of Man and a warning about positivist hubris. It came to life only while the ecstasy of its creator lasted. The experience of being alive for the fleeting moment, but not beyond it. Like the orgasm, a magical re-enactment of the creation, producing a sublime state of consciousness that can make each of us a God. It is not a petite mort. Quite the contrary, it defers the sense of mortality. The science of combination of number and sex both repeat, on however small a scale, the work of creation. A neo-biogenesis of protozoa. The myth of fashioning life from nothing.
Chantal scribbled something on a piece of paper and placed it with the other messages of hope tucked into the carved spirals on the tomb of Rabbi Loew. I couldn't bring myself to ask her what she had written.
As we watchfully strolled through the narrow lanes, Chantal took photographs, mainly studies of the angular shadows on the wall and also a kind of documentary of what we began to refer to as the "mythic banana." Until a couple years ago the banana was unknown in the East Block. So now, everyone was on a banana binge, bananas over bananas. Selling them, buying them, eating them and completely filling up litter bins everywhere with nothing but piles of banana skins. Very strange, I thought both the Golem and the banana are produced without seed.
At last, we reached the river. The bright early summer day had brought with it a congestion of promenaders. Celebrating the new democracy, the sides of the Charles Bridge were lined with booths selling things. Buskers in military uniforms sang anti-Communist songs. I bought a poster showing Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Hitler all in bed together. The caption read: Politicky Gruppensex. Here, as in other Soviet block countries, the free market has become an exciting and frightening jungle economy. The Wild, Wild East. The Far East of the West. The anomaly of the oriental market prevailing over the anomie of boardroom strategies. This was not another chance, but the same chance all over again.
Chantal paused at one of the many tables offering hand-made crafts and bought a pair of red garnet earrings, a locally mined gem and an extremely good bargain. We stopped and leaned over the wide, squat sandstone balustrade, between the looming statues. The swans and rowboats floating, and the sound of mouth organs, drums and guitars.
Assuming a studious tone, I remarked, "My guidebook says the Moldau flows into the Elbe and the Elbe into the North Sea and that this bridge is held together with a cement mixed with fresh eggs and wine from all the cities of Bohemia."
Chantal licked her upper lip and looked down at the placid water. Then she turned and looked at me. Our eyes locked for an instant, then Chantal looked down again. "Do you know what they should be selling here?" she asked.
"Brilliant! A million-dollar idea. Inflatable Golems in all sizes. It could be bigger than Mickey Mouse," I said enthusiastically. Laughing uncontrollably at the idea I almost fell off the bridge, just at the spot where the legendary St. John of Nepomuk was thrown into the water in this city of heretics. Heresies and defenestrations. Regaining my balance, I elaborated our daydream: "It could be sold as both a religious fetish and a sex object. I see it now. We could have a huge hot air Golem-balloon floating above the city."
Carrying on we crossed the river. Suddenly, the crowd thinned.
Both of us were dazzled by the sunny gaudiness of the baroque St. Nicholas Church, a symbol of Jesuit wealth dripping with gold. From there we huffed and puffed up the steep hill to Hradcany, that oriental-like complex of palaces, galleries, churches, convents, ministerial buildings and residences from where centuries of successive governments have administrated. Then down 'The Golden Lane', a little village of houses and laboratories in the midst of a castle complex. Built for alchemists by Rudolph II -- Rabbi Loew's patron -- it guaranteed that these mystics would be nearby, close at hand to take part in state decisions. Then wandering haphazardly, downhill, and back toward the river, through zigzagging labyrinthine alleys, we emerged, appropriately enough, on a small eighteenth-century square dominated by the American Ambassadorial residence of Shirley Temple Black.
Prague is the Good Ship Lollipop.
One evening we went for an early dinner at U Kalicha (In the Chalice) on Na bojisti; a side street undergoing restoration and gentrification -- like so much of this city -- in the Nove Mesto. It was here that the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek (1883-1923) came for eating and drinking and getting inspiration for his modest world-famous hero The Good Soldier Svejk, the novel that begins in this cafe.
Although we hadn't made reservations we were lucky to get one of the smaller wooden tables near the door. Quite to my delight the cafe-restaurant was preserved in its pre-World War I atmosphere. Almost nothing had changed. Czechoslovakia is home of the original Big Bud, but I ordered a large glass of the most excellent tasting, heady amber-colored Pilsner Urquell. Chantal had a glass of fruity yet dry Moravian white wine. For dinner, we both took roast goose and dumplings with sauerkraut, a meal whose colors were similar to much of the interior decoration in this land, and settled down for a deep gossip.
"If France would have an election now," Chantal said, "Le Pen would have twenty per cent of the vote. He draws a lot of support from the people of our generation who are dissatisfied with bourgeois politics. Who feel immigration is invasion. Like having foreigners billeted in your house without permission. The American Indians couldn't stop emigration they say. And look what happened to them. Now they live on reservations. Also his party's excellent environmental program has a strong appeal.
Chantal scanned the full restaurant, carefully appraising each and every man from behind expensive French sunglasses. Turning back toward me she said, smiling, "Young Czech men look okay, but by middle age they all look unappetizing. A married friend of mine took a lover on holiday. He was fifteen years younger. She assured me, when you taste boy-flesh it can be difficult to recover. But I don't like young men. Their bodies are too hard. Besides, I prefer longer, stable relationships. When we were young we lived in a frenzy. We didn't know whether the next step would toss us over the precipice, or bring us to heaven."
"Youth," I protested cynically, "is not exclusively the age of folly."
We finished dinner and ordered more to drink. Chantal said she felt very proud when Le Monde published a full-page photo of hers as a cover to their Cannes Film Festival Special issue. I spoke of liking sleazy magazines.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Well, I get published in so-called serious literary and art magazines. Last year though I got a particular warmth in getting an article in a glossy, full-color specialist publication; it's exclusively about women who shave their pussy, or their head. The feature-stories have the fascination of all obsessions. It's hard to dismiss out of hand language of such poetic strength. The photos readers send in are... Well, for me, they are an expression of populist surrealism, a kind of dada of the people's will."
Chantal was shocked by my levity. "What about Proust, Bataille, Céline, Artaud, Anais Nin?!?"
"What about them?"
"Would they have published their work in magazines like that?!?"
"Actually all the writers you mentioned were sexually kinky. They would jump at the chance."
Women do not appreciate sarcasm, alternatively blasted and blessed as the lowest form of humor and as the most profound expression of grief. This trope and perhaps other things too, made Chantal annoyed. But it also underlined a distance that was developing between us. Alternatively, possibly it was only Chantal creating neutral ground between herself and the living universe, a compensatory comfort in her distress and a bulwark against her increasing disillusionment. We became ashamed of our growing hostility. It made us vulnerable.
Our last night at the small apartment Chantal appeared from just having taken a shower. The radio was playing Antonin Dvorak's haunting Romance in F Minor for Violin and Orchestra. I looked up from writing a poem about how, that in the absence of any standards, Andy Warhol gets equal billing on the posters of post-communist Prague along with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Vaclav Havel. She advanced, gliding across the room, an aphonic form of continuity in space, then stopped and stood poised, on little feet, like a dancer anticipating the next move, denying the last. She had removed the make-up from her face, which now shined and made her look even more juvenile. She was wearing snow-white cotton pajamas that exaggerated this; square cut in the Japanese style. I liked middle-aged women who had the cool passion to play the Madonna. I also liked, even loved, Chantal.
Love is not the communication of bodies, but of personalities, souls, who communicate through bodies, that is, through love-making, and who thereby express their own changes and their perception of the beloved. Love is the gift of oneself to another person and this is the highest idea we can entertain about love, and love-making another attribute of the deity as revealed through nature and nature's laws. Bob Black wrote in The Abolition of Work: "The optimum sexual encounter is the paradigm of productive play. The participants potentate each other's pleasures, nobody keeps score, and everybody wins." We love because it is absurd, an anarchic conquest of everyday reality. As I announce often on my radio program: "Love is a twelve bar blues/Love is your blue suede shoes/Love is a drawn sword/Love is its own reward/Love is like a piece of gold/Hard to get, difficult to hold."
I removed my reading glasses, capped my fountain pen, rose from the table and took a few steps across the tiny room. We kissed standing up, near the two-toned enamel stove in a second-world kitchen that looked like a stage set left over from "I Remember Mama" -- a '50s television series about a Swedish immigrant family in America. We traded saliva. I felt Chantal's firm shape through thick cotton. The contours of our bodies merged and she pressed herself against me, moving with animal rhythm. She unzipped my fly.
"Do you want me to masturbate you with my feet?" she asked.
We were both fully clothed, except I was hanging, limply, from my pants. Chantal sat down, extended her legs, and tickled me with her toes. Then grasped me between her callused feet, rubbing in an unsyncopated grinding motion.
One of the things that always seemed to unite us was a liking for sixty-nine. Some do. Some do not. For us this speaking in tongues was a gourmet's delight, the desire for intimacy within a continuous reciprocal sensation and not a crescendoed catharsis.
Nude again. I spread her thighs with my elbows and her ass cheeks with the palms of my hands. She grabbed me by the root and plunged her mouth over whatever she wasn't grabbing with both hands. We sucked. Contemplated our scattered sparks. Leisurely. Both of us licking and nipping. Chantal, I remembered, liked a hard, vigorous tongue tip against her clitoris. We formed a union of opposites and the etheric energy coruscated through us. Stand by! Stand by! The rocket was ready to fly. We zipped it; we dipped it. We ripped it; we tipped it. We flipped it; we whipped it. We rided and glided. We took off for a star and the moon was not far. If we knew the word that would change the world, we would shout it repeatedly, over and over again above the trembling bed.
I disengaged, tossed her around on her back and concentrated on her until she tensed arching her back, driving into my mouth and giving into the high-pitched short squeak of shuddering relief.
She came up to me. We kissed each other's mouth, and eyes. Chantal started clawing my back again. I smacked her hard, and sharply, on her backside a few times very quickly. She stopped.
I was on my back. Chantal faced my feet showing me her straight shoulders, rising from her narrow waist like a fan. She made me harder. Kneeling, holding me with thumb and forefinger, she rubbed the fleshy mushroomed tip against her growing moistness. Then plop! She sat on me.
"Have you read Henry James yet?" she asked, over her shoulder, inserting her wetted index finger into my rectum. She flexed the muscles inside her vagina, seesawed her bottom as I watched her pump up and down, up and down, like in a close-up of a porno film.
"This is what it feels like to read Henry James."
Curving two fingers inside my ass, she touched my prostate and started tapping it.
I wasn't sure I liked this. "Is this safe?" I asked, vibrating in successive, indefinite parentheses of what, if I might say, was -- in this instance and possibly in certain fictional others as well -- a pleasure of gritty aridity evaginating into inescapable lush greenness from an unvisitable past.
Matching my earlier flippancy, Chantal cynically parried: "The only safe sex is when you leave your credit cards at your friend's house."
We fell asleep curled up together on that narrow single bed. By tacit agreement we had kept our appointment, sealed our bond and now knew we should part. Chantal seemed to have many lovers at this time. In each, including me, she would be remembered in our loins, always.
Chantal was going to stay in Prague a few days longer then visit the picturesque cities of Tabor, Pilzen and Karlovy Vary before going back to France. She had assignments to make photos of dance groups at the Avignon Theater Festival. I was going to Warsaw. Taking advantage of their newly convertible currency, a friend of mine there wanted to involve me in his book publishing and distribution business.
We embraced with fuzzy laxness on a platform of the train station. No tears. Was this the last time we would see each other? She said:
"It's life, I mean-- it has worked out well for both of us, hasn't it?"
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
lives in Amsterdam where he is a slum landlord, a serial bigamist and epiphanizes on Radio 100
(99.3 FM) as Dr. Doo Wop every Friday evening. He latest book is an art monograph, Impossible: The Otto Muehl Story
(New York: Barany Artists, 2001). When winning a coveted Erotic Oscar as "Writer of the Year 1998" -- awarded at the Sex Maniac's Ball in London this story "Playing Tennis with Kafka" was cited especially for its women-friendly attitude.