Johanna

Chapter II of Aubade


Later that night I came to Johanna’s drunk and unsettled. This is how we began again, our second affair, nearly three years after I left without warning in Marcel Sembat. It felt a mistake from the start, but we kept on as lovers until the dissolution of Aubade City. Johanna! If not for Kincaid, you would have been the object of our fixation. Spurned beauty of Aubade! Noble and loving Johanna, who sat gashed across the eye at La Cueva when Kincaid refused to be saved, who carried the child into Gordie’s arms. Johanna, who in cockroach-haunted rooms nursed Ingo’s pathology after Maryse—her closest friend—left for Earth Two, never to return. Johanna, of whom Guirguis writes, “she was the only unselfish among our spate of egoists, yet of her selflessness she had no control.”

Writing her into these pages can only be an attempt to absolve myself. This is not to say Johanna failed to break my weak defenses—she did easily! Only that I invited her to do so out of nothing more than the desire for change, for something preferable to the unkempt child’s lives I strung together in Chutney, Midtown and below the Large Shipyard with Gordie. My hopelessness in life’s responsibilities drove me back to Johanna, whose charity to everyone but herself is fanatical.

Her skin was of a two-toned almond color—shelled on the arms, hands and face, unshelled on the chest, so rarely was she shirtless. The reason for this was a recurrent pityriasis rosea which blotched her midriff in several places for weeks at a time. She walked always as if being judged for good posture, and had the kind of face which a smile seems to cure; when sitting in deep thought, she looked afflicted. A pattern of obesity in her family inspired her to stay fit, while a pattern of alcoholism did very little to dissuade her from Galliano liqueur, the favorite drink of her father.

“It tastes like his memory,” she often said, “vanilla-anise and citrus. Though he smelled like his instrument.”

He was the character in her life with which every memory and new idea had to reconcile itself. He never made the transit from Old Earth, never had the smallest desire to, even after Johanna left fleeing her mother, his ex-wife. By then he had imprinted his life like text onto the rue Legendre, and every euro which leaf-like floated downward into his palm impressed him deeper into the stone there. He was a first-rate clarinetist playing with a second-rate quartet called The Men of St. Denis. He stayed just north of Paris with a severely alcoholic, much younger girlfriend, who enabled his addiction by proving he had not yet reached the worst of it.

For someone so keen to smile, Johanna had a traumatized air. This came, I think, from a grave overestimation of her father’s love, or a misunder-standing of its quality (a mistake she seemed eager to make again with me, for even the pain he caused was dear to her). “The evenings are very dangerous now,” she told me once, near the end. “Gordie must be in terrible spirits at the Shipyard, where it’s worst. I can only imagine what [the child] makes of all this looting, the moaning of those turned away in his backyard. They number in the thousands! I read it yesterday. What a sour first impression of humanity!” She sighed and looked in their direction, thinking of some gift to bring them. “Kincaid says he is violent toward both of them, but she hasn’t seen them in months. I know. I saw him two weeks ago and he calls me once a week. It’s so dangerous down there.”

I said, “How often do you see him?”

She smiled into her food. “Please,” she said, “I could never sleep with Gordie. All this incest has to end somewhere.”

I took this to mean that she knew about Kincaid and I, but how could she know? Had I been reckless? Maybe Kincaid spoke of us to others as one speaks of a new hobby. In truth, Johanna knew nothing, only suspected. Being honest, she was free to accuse anyone of anything.


Two years since Aubade and Johanna, Kincaid, Ingo, Maryse, Gordie, Guirguis — the city itself! — have lost all respectable detail. I can barely remember the clothes Johanna wore, or the baubles and pictures she placed purposefully about her rooms over Portsmouth Bakery. I can see in my memory only two of the books she read by bedside lamplight (Just Kids by Lori Holte and Early Poems of the Aubade Ontological Society), though I laid awake through the reading of several. All I have is this selective memory and Guirguis’ diary, itself an artifact of recollection.

What I remember is the concrete bike path along the Attun Canal at sunset. We’re riding back from Katzen-Mutter Park where we picnicked on the grass with Maryse and some others. I remember an older French man, a rival for Johanna’s attention, whose hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Never did I feel so young than when Johanna spoke French to other men. My own charm was of the coarser Aubadian kind, yet for its roughness it was aggressively quick, like card magic. Riding back to our apartments in Marcel Sembat, she pulled apace with me and we stared at each other in between cautious looks down the path. In my memory of this moment her face is cast in an expression of longing, the face a pedestrian makes waiting for a traffic light to change. So angled were our bicycles that we might have fallen into a kiss and formed an odd triangular riding contraption.

The sluggish, pea-green canal wound under several bridges, whereupon the path made small ninety-degree turns that forced us to regain control of ourselves. A series of locks rerouted us onto the street by Kael Faro Circus. Later Johanna cited this ride as one in a number of moments when she expected me to admit feelings for her. At the time I found her impossible to read, and the arrangement we had with Maryse, Sanjay and the rest in the Denfert Rochereau was precious and, I felt, rare. If I kept silent it was to protect the ease of our happy company. Maybe that stinks of rationalization. Likely I was scared of Johanna reciprocating my feelings, of losing another precious thing: the romantic desire which cools on being met with itself. This was years before I met Gordie and Ingo, years before I worked with Guirguis and Errol at the embassy, years before Kincaid.

A dubious flickering of memory tells me that my bicycle was faulty near the lower gears and would regularly lose its chain. It tells me the concrete of the path was the color of khaki, and that it was to be assumed the levees had also begun as this color before the water’s filth stained them feldgrau. Lines of grey foam adhered to the banks where the water level had dropped after recent rainfall. Trash pieces accreted to one another like newly forming planets and spun lazily downstream. There was nothing appealing about the Attun Canal, which ended its four mile journey near our home in Marcel Sembat. It would be dishonest of me to assign a smell to it, for I did not take the time to record it then, only I know it was not pleasant on hot days. Coming up Denfert Rochereau the quay populated suddenly with cobbles the size of dinosaur eggs. We dismounted and walked the rest of the way and here the memory charges into nebulous black.

Back then I often walked the cobbled quay to the market at Dezobry to get wine or bread for dinner. Our neighborhood had the attitude of some others I have known which hang similarly on the boundaries of large cities like cysts or blisters. Young people were swarming the area to escape the rents of Midtown, but this had only just begun and the locals acted out their resentment by cat-calling yuppie women on the jetty. As one walked by arguments might suddenly escalate to the level of shouts and yawps, so that it felt any wrong step could collar you into that energy.

Johanna and Maryse would scream some profanity and assure me it was the only way to deal with them. Where they found this bravado I don’t know, but it made me the more nervous as any retaliation would have been mine to deal with. I am a coward, it ought to be said.

All of us had come from white-collar families, most from Old Earth—the Americas or Europe. Only Florent was born on Aubade. Being a child of two of the first settlers, he lived on a stipend. But our way of life was not by any means the standard; on the contrary, blue-collarism was like a religion in Aubade City. So many of its inhabitants were the children and grandchildren of those who built the very streets from nothing, from the dead planet’s iron dust. For this reason even those who came from money were careful not to let it show (save for those who lived out by the Coast, in the hermetic New Lake Fens). Especially in Marcel Sembat, the working man was a holy figure. His deep-set eyes, his stiff cotton sleeves. He could stretch out a “fuck” for twenty seconds telling you how rough it was.

Johanna, who was raised in southern France at Gourdon, felt a kinship to this tribe and affected a workingclass attitude in much of what she did. It didn’t matter that her parents were both IT professors with tenure. Growing up in the country was enough of a credential, she thought.

Ah! This line of thinking is helping me to recall her wardrobe: yes, she wore several crewneck sweaters of varying shades of light grey down to white. Their only points of contact were at the shoulders and breasts, otherwise they hung loosely as far down as her knees. The more I think about it the more it feels like a uniform, an artifact of this identity which she chose because it occupied an unoccupied space in our group. Maryse, on the other hand, had no excuse for her cosmopolitanism and pretended none. In this and other ways they were ironic variations on each other. Though Johanna exhibited a more decent personality, one you would perhaps more likely wish for in a friend, Maryse’s sincere pretentiousness was easier to be around. It was that she could do nothing about it, almost to the point of innocence. She was incorrigible, while in Johanna’s modesty and true kindness one always detected self-planning.

When I first moved to Marcel Sembat, months after coming to Aubade, I lived with Maryse on the first floor of the triplex that at one time or another housed all our friends of the period. Johanna had been living on the second floor of that place for some time with an animator called Sanjay who spoke very little English and was attending the namesake university of Khaybar. When I moved in with Johanna, some twenty weeks later, Sanjay and I became close despite linguistic barriers. We communicated through the culinary arts. Sanjay was a terrific cook. He taught me several native recipes of his home in Caen, most of which I have now forgotten, save for a few seafood dishes which became standards of my unspectacular diet. (These days, of course, on my tiny freight-ship drifting idiotically between distant stars, my diet is unspectacular by necessity. What I would give for a meal by Sanjay!) For almost a month I assumed that he and Johanna were lovers and it was that assumption which fueled my initial attraction to her. That she was unattainable, or rather that she had been attained by someone so discreet and unassuming as Sanjay, seemed a waste of her confidence and beauty. Arrogantly, I spent many of those first days and weeks trying to upstage him. Using her better grasp of English, I made jokes at his expense that only she could understand. Fool I am! He would not have understood my hostility even had he spoke the language!

Our home, situated at an acute angle to the canal, was often sardonically referred to by Richard as Place d’Enfer for its approximation to the street on which it was located, Denfert Rochereau. On the top floor—the attic, as it was known to the four of us—Florent, an out-of-work painter, lived with the seventy-five-year-old Richard, a retired laborer and alcoholic turned hobbyist. They rarely got along. Florent was an emaciated man of his middle-thirties at the time, who kept several large, unfinished canvases around the apartment in perpetual preparation for a gallery show that never came. Mostly he painted detailed scenes of mass revolt, demonstrations and rallies from critical events in history. Because of this his pieces were frequently crowded with thousands of people, the precise, exhaustive drawing of which invariably outpaced his devotion to the subject. There was something singular about the collection nonetheless—his depictions of squares and plazas in Constantinople or Cairo or Khaybar featured, to a painting, a distinctive ovular emptiness, a fading-away, in the center of the canvases where he refused to continue working on miniature people. “You’ve hit on a style despite yourself,” I told him during a game of chess, and encouraged him to submit the paintings to local dealers as they were. But Florent couldn’t cheat himself, idealist that he was.

The canvases were an ever-present nuisance to Richard. They seemed to multiply at an alarmingly rapid rate. It was one thing that they had overtaken their small dining area; it was another to find them in the bath! The two men had terrific, nonsensical rows over this issue, for Florent, like Sanjay, spoke very little English. Johanna, Maryse and I often snuck up to their front door to eavesdrop on these fights, which sounded like someone haphazardly spinning the dial between two radio stations:

“I feel no moral obligation not to burn these, Florent.”

Vous n’avez aucun respect pour processus!”

“No obligation at all.”

Qu’est-ce que tu dis?

“You’re miserable about all this,” Richard went on. “You’re behavior never varies. Let’s burn it together!” From the door, where Johanna was translating for Maryse and I, we heard the flick, flick, flick of Richard’s lighter, followed by his dry, asthmatic laugh.

Etes-vous fou?!

This moment I can remember with tactile clarity: Johanna crouched low by the hollow steel door, listening. Her hair—like ink spilled carelessly out of a soda bottle then frozen—curtained her face from view. I had one forearm on the door, the other across Johanna’s back. My right hand hung slackly and awkwardly over her right hip, instead of grasping which would have been too much of an embrace. There was an intimacy in our postures which exceeded, and by some margin, all the contact we’d had up to that point. Maryse spread her elbows like butterfly wings across my back and laid her head sideways on the scoop of my neck, as if she was listening to the subtle activity of my spine and not the fight. Her weight fed pressure to my arm on the door, which slowly lost its color and began to shake. I was anxious not to put any weight on Johanna, fearing that it might betray some secret which I was not yet ready to admit. What a lover’s fear! You might imagine the three of us, hunched there and spying, as the sculpture of one organism. No doubt the adrenaline I felt, the fear and deep consciousness of joy, is why I remember it so clearly, why even now the small globes of Maryse’s breasts seem to press on my back, why the apple red door invades my vision like some cinematic overlay. Am I presumptuous enough to say that moment is firmly of the past, and not occurring still?

Johanna said, “Florent is threatening to pour water on Richard’s bed!”

The image of us is an apt one, so inseparable were we in those first months. Maryse and Johanna took me into their love without delay, foregoing the courtships on which people usually insist. After this I could never again suffer those who persist in being guarded and enigmatic. (Kincaid may seem like an exception to that rule, but in time you may feel that the opposite is true.) Indeed it was a defining feature of Ingo, Gordie and all those who we fell in with later, that they could not help but confess their deepest anxieties to you at once. Of all our friends I was the most earnest executor of this mandate; my experience with Johanna and Maryse shortly after moving to Marcel Sembat convinced me of its importance, as a skeptic is gradually convinced of the existence and excellence of God.

Weekends they brought me around the city to gallery shows or cafes in Dezobry and Midtown, or we walked the streets south of Marcel Sembat where the French influence gave way to the North African decadence of Khaybar. The bubble domes of that region seemed wrought of pure light at midday; one could not stare at them for long, though they seemed to demand a gaze. These were the tallest buildings in the lower half of the city (visible from as far north as The Sick Zone) and they indicated the disquieted place where the southern boundary of the terraform demarcated livable space from unlivable. There, as in the north by New Lake Fens, as in the West by Kincaid’s apartment in the Attun, a number of streets lay outside the boundary, a ribbon of abandoned apartments and shops, a solemn and distressed diorama of all that we didn’t know and may never. From the viewing platforms of those mosques and citadels one could still find an unobstructed view down into the Vale of Athymy. It was not quite as impressive as the view from the Corniche (or so I’ve heard from Florent and others), but Johanna and Maryse once took me there to watch the great moon rise above the world. “These were once shoulder to shoulder with tourists,” Johanna said, shivering into my chest. “Now barely a dozen come each day, teenagers or Sick Men or romantics like us.”

How beautiful it was, the moon, taking nearly a quarter of the horizon at its diameter. Reflective ash so white it looked like a giant punch-mark in the universe, a great peephole into purgatory.

We dined the following evening by lantern light in our little garden, while high overhead the night sky glossed green. It was chilly in Marcel Sembat and the rushes of evening wind induced us to move closer into in a kind of huddle. Our consciousness had already been lulled by the cheese-rich meal Sanjay prepared for us with the help of Johanna and the quivering, gothic songs of Richard as he kindly washed our dishes in the overhanging kitchen. Conversation opened and closed like a fan—suddenly enlarging its confines into ethical debates about the Sick Men or the far-off fate of Aubade City. Launches streaked by in the higher airs, keeping up their relentless shuttling from New Lake to Khaybar. All along the sky they whined like plaintive little rock-doves or whistles against the wind.

And you’ll feel the star as eyes,” sang Richard, “and feel a finger on your brain!

Florent rolled a cigarette laced with hash and we played a game, but I can’t remember what it was. So frustrating! These missing pieces of information plague me like a lost set of keys. I am made painfully aware of all the data we record in a moment, in an evening, for I can see lantern light leaping onto our faces as the wind pushed the flame this way and that. I can hear Sanjay laughing and Maryse laughing and I can feel Johanna’s head under my chin. But what was the game? It was some kind of formula, some kind of lyric, which we took turns singing funny variations on. We were stoned and laughing and in love with one another, and what lingers most is my own contemporaneous recognition of that moment as a happy one. It’s as if I knew then that the sensory data would be lost in time, and so sent my future self a broader message: “Remember this as happiness.”

After everyone else went to sleep, Maryse, Johanna and I went up to Johanna’s room to listen to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl. She had just bought a record player from Old Earth and borrowed the album from a friend at the design boutique where she worked. The girls had never heard it before. Maryse laid prostrate on the bed, Johanna and I on the hardwood floor. Our hands flirted with each other in a sliver of terraform light. Roger Waters commanded us to breathe, but I could find no oxygen in that room. Even then I was scared to kiss Johanna, even then the pleasant status quo of our friendship demanded to be preserved. By the end of “Time” Maryse had exited the room. We crawled closer like paralytics on the floor. She kissed me. Clare Torry screamed her part in “Great Gig in the Sky,” and I began the slow process of falling out of love.


A year later, Johanna was pulling at love-me-love-me-nots in Katzen-Mutter Park. “Nature says you don’t love me,” she said.

I said, “You forgot to pull the last petal off the stem.”

“The last petal is the answer,” she said.

“No,” I said. “You keep going until there are no petals left. That’s how love-me-love-me-nots work.” She said I was avoiding the point.

“Nature has nothing to do with love,” I said, and she got angry about that.

Later I wondered when exactly she had got it in her head to fight about this. Before taking up the flower, to be sure.

It’s unfair to say the fourteen months we spent together in Marcel Sembat (I moved in with her shortly after Sanjay left for Earth Two) were nothing but a deterioration of my initial lust. Johanna deepened my appreciation for so much in that time, not least the intimacies which only lovers can know. As Guirguis writes, “A man becomes more of himself when he relaxes into a long love. The everyday compulsions that are so much a part of him, yet hidden from the world, those obsessions which he can’t say are real unless another corroborates their existence—these are loosed upon our lovers, demons made angels. Before this a man is like a child with a poor vocabulary, unable to declare himself.” Out here, in empty space, I have thought so long about this passage. It describes almost exactly the feeling I had in those lovely months with Johanna. Mornings I would climb around the bed like a spider, twisting her white coverlet into knots, retching guttural sounds and making hideous faces as she choked with laughter. All the wordless questions about being a physical creature in the world I could explore with Johanna, that great subterranean muck of “unacceptables.” In this sense Guirguis is right, love unfolds us, yet I could not shake the feeling, particularly in our final months, that even those aspects we let only each other see were, like everything else, affected.

Kincaid understood this implicitly, I am sure. It’s why I would have pained Johanna at her bidding if she asked it of me.

That afternoon in Katzen-Mutter it was too hot for arguing. Gentle blankets of wind swept the hillside but it only helped if you were very still. I had been reading The Plague by Camus and all the pages were warped with thumbprints. It was a ragged old paperback I’d bought in Midtown a day after our first kiss and the binding was in bad shape.

We laid in silence for a while, then dusk came and cooled everything off. I did cartwheels in the grass. She laughed and said I was beautiful. I tackled her because I couldn’t take it any longer. We kissed and made a pretzel of ourselves. She said we probably look like a native Aubadians. I started making alien noises. Malbec spilled onto her quilt but she didn’t care. I said it was my fault and she kissed me again. Soon our kissing became aggressive and I was squeezing her head so hard I was afraid I might hurt her. I couldn’t help it. She pulled at my shirt and I let her take it off. I did the same to hers. As we made love I was thinking about thinking about the moment in the future. I focused on not coming until she did and then fell back onto the grass, sweating again. I threw the wine bottle into a patch of nettles. She picked up the quilt and we walked home.

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