Heraclitus wrote that you can never step into the same river twice. I have been thinking about this a lot recently while reading Olga Tokarczuk’s fragmentary travel novel Bieguni. The English translation is called Flights which is not a particularly accurate translation. There are an journeys in this book, journeys of different kinds, journeys by train, by boat, by plane, journeys in time. Journeys of escape that are also personal journeys. Even tourists with their suitcases and wallets stuffed with privilege are often escaping something. And in the middle of these journeys there are lengthy digressions on the preservation of human remains, beginning in 17th century Holland and carrying on to modern day plastination, the presentation of dead bodies as art. Art as the denial of the aesthetic of sex.
The living body changes, time is its solvent. The aesthetic of sex is an aesthetic of decay. Sex is the land of rivers that flow remorselessly on, taking our lovers with them as they head for the sea of death and oblivion. It is also the land of erotic adventures that never happened, of the times we failed to step into the river and knew immediately we never could again.
It is July 1985. Graham is on the overnight train from Innsbruck to Vienna. There is just one other person in the compartment. She introduced herself as Estelle, from Bloemfontein. And, as white South Africans did, she assured Graham that she was not a racists.
“Everywhere we go,” she said with a sigh, “no one likes us.”
“Are you surprised?” thought Graham but resisted the temptation to say this.
They talked, about travel mainly, and Estelle accepted his offer of a beer and then another. She moved across to sit next to him. She pressed her knee lightly against his to test his reaction. He didn’t flinch. Encouraged, she placed his hand on his knee. They had another beer, and when he went out into the corridor for a cigarette she joined him.
“I am a social smoker” she said “but only a social smoker.”
She held her smile until he offered her a cigarette. When they had finished she leant into him for a kiss and he responded. Beer, cigarettes and a faint hint of sweat. Graham was getting hard but he pulled away. It was the thought of the unlocked compartment, the thought of well….Bloemfontein. He had caught a glimpse of her surname in her passport. Van der Merwe. Afrikaner. They were the worst weren’t they? Racists with black servants. She probably had a maid who had to curtsy before her. But he knew this was all rationalisation. The truth was, she repelled him.
Graham woke up at 4 o’cock tired and sweaty, metallic foulness in his mouth. He looked over to Estelle. She snored and tossed and turned. not waking up until the train rattled through Hutteldorf on the outskirts of Vienna. They parted without a word.
East Berlin 1981
I have a flag. The state flag of the German Democratic Republic. It is Saturday 2nd May. There are flags everywhere. You can buy them in Centrum Warenhaus on the Alexanderplatz. They have different sizes, and plastic sticks to put them on are extra. I buy a medium sized flag without a stick. I have lunch at the Zillestube, I have coffee and cake in the revolving cafe of the TV tower and return to the West with a pile of the classics of Marxism wrapped in coarse, grey paper. And the flag. I used it as a tablecloth until my landlady told me she wasn’t happy with it.
It was nearly 10 o’clock. Time for bed in the bustling youth hostel on the banks of the Rhine. Peter had been talking to Annette there on the wall as they drank Coke from bottles, for two hours. He was tired, his German was becoming ragged but…..Annette had forgotten about her friends in the school group she had come with. She took his hand and led him away to a spot behind the bushes. She pulled him close, kissed him. Peter responded, this was not the first time he had kissed but, at 17, the first time had felt raw passion from the other person. He squeezed Annette, enjoyed the softness of her body, pushing his tongue deep into her mouth. She pulled herself free, took off her T shirt, unhooked her bra and Peter saw for the first time breasts, large breasts hanging down, large aureoli and in the middle nipples that stood stiff and proud. She unbuckled her belt and began to slide down her jeans.
“Willst du mich ficken?”
He began to feel week at the knees as Annette’s jeans came down, her knickers and he saw, as if in a blur, her slit, her bush. She was aroused, she wanted it but he only felt fear. He mumbled something about an early start, a long walk the following day.
He lay in his bunk and masturbated to her. He saw her at breakfast the following morning but she ignored him. He hadn’t seen her crying and would he have cared if he had?
I never knew her name, I don’t think she even looked at me. She got on the Metro at Miromesnil with a friend and got off alone at Strasbourg St Denis. Our respective journeys through spacetime coincided for just 20 minutes but I was fascinated. I don’t think I had seen a woman like her before, in her 20s but with the lines from the corners of her mouth to the nose that come from speaking French. Her dress, the way she carried her bag, the way her hair was dishevelled but actually not, the way she spoke, yes, the way she spoke. I listened closely to catch what words I could. Later I practised in front of the mirror. That night I lay in bed and thought about her. I did not fantasise. I did not masturbate. I just wanted to be her. I still do.
David met Susie when he was working in Germany and, finding it hard to make friends, they clung to each other to avoid being stuck in their respective bedsits gazing at the wall. One rainy Saturday afternoon he had invited Susie round. He had bought a selection of cakes from the local bakery, he made filter coffee and his attic room suddenly had a homely smell it had never had before. As he only had one chair, they sat on the bed, leaning against the wall. They munched Pflaumenstreuselkuchen and crumbs fell onto the duvet but David didn’t mind. The small space brought them closer together. legs pressed against each other. Susie didn’t seem to mind this at all. David pressed a bit more. He had thought a lot about Susie, how she was nice but boring, not seeing the irony in how own lack of self awareness. And those big, heavy glasses she wore! Then again, the lips, Susie had full lips that he just wanted to kiss. He leaned across and gently took her glasses off.
“Why did you do that?”
“I want to see your face. I think you’re very pretty.”
David pulled her towards him, paced his thin lips on her full lips, and pushed his tongue into her mouth as the lips parted. Susie responded and they rolled over. She put a hand on the back of his head and pressed to lock him in the kiss. David felt he was getting hard, he slipped his hand inside Susie’s knickers and fumbled to find her slit. He pushed a finger in. She was wet.
He felt his cock getting hard, the bulge in his jeans called for release. With his free hand, he unbuttoned his jeans, started to wriggle out of them. Then Susie pushed him off.
“I can’t do this David. I really like you, I could even love you, I think, but I can’t.”
“What’s the problem?”
“It’s not you. It’s my faith. I promised God that I would remain a virgin till I marry. It’s not that I wouldn’t, you know … with you…because I know I would like to and it would be nice. If you were my husband. ”
“I am sorry Susie I had no idea. Are you not angry with me?”
“No I am not David. I think you are a really lovely guy. I do. But it wouldn’t be right. Not yet. ”
She gave him a hug.
When Susie had gone David pounded the wall with his fists.
“God, God, God! Why do you do this!” he shouted and saw, to his astonishment, that he was crying.
He met Susie fleetingly at Derby railway station several years later. She had her four young children with her, she looked tired. They spoke briefly. Susie had devoted her life to her family, what little spare time she had to the church, and her husband, an elder of the church, had left her for another woman. They both felt regret but neither of them could say it. The unspoken mutual feelings weighed heavily on the conversation and it was a relief to them both when David realised he was on the wrong platform for the Nottingham train and had to run off up the stairs. As his train pulled out he avoided looking out for her. This was not a second coming of the river. That much he knew.
There was a time before selfies. We were approached on the Karntner Strasse by a young woman holidaying on her own and asked to take a photograph of her in front of the Stefansdom. We obliged. Later we headed out to Gasometer to eat. I liked Gasometer because it is not coffee houses and kitsch. Not a slice of Sachertorte in sight. As we ate, my partner mentioned the woman again as if feeling sorry for her.
“Maybe we could have invited her to join us?”
I could only think that I admired her for just getting out there and having a holiday and not worrying because she hadn’t got anyone to go on holiday with. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to many people. It is not a disease. I was just wishing her great sex. That happens on holiday too.
“I bet she’s somewhere having more fun that she would with us” I replied.
It had been a bit of a red letter day for Caroline. She has been to the hairdressers in the morning.
“There’s enough to style” said Laura. “I think you’ll like it.”
And she blowed and brushed and busied herself as Caroline sipped her tea.
“Have a look” said Laura with a smile. And Caroline looked in the mirror and liked what she saw. Her hair was still shortish, still grey but it had been shaped nicely and had the beginnings of a short bob.
“I like it.”
“You’re not putting that bloody wig back on are you? Are you Caroline?”
“No Miss” said Caroline and they both laughed.
As she left the salon Caroline did a jig of delight.
She was still on a high that evening when she met up with friends for a night in Birmingham’s Gay Village. Drinks and food at ‘spoons, pool and lager and karaoke at The Fox, a cigarette in the garden and she fell into conversation with Amy.
“You’re lovely” said Amy taking a second cigarette from Caroline. “Can I add you on Facebook?”
“Yeah, of course.”
They both took out their phones and conducted the modern friendship ritual. Caroline was feeling a new confidence and wanted to chat some more but Amy stood up and said
“I’m off to The Village now, meeting a few friends.”
It was nearly five hours later that Caroline pushed her way through the crowds to find a space in the garden of the pub to sit down and light up. It was only after she at down that she realised that she was sitting next to Amy.
“Hello again” she said.
“Hi” said Caroline realising that the night’s drinking was taking its toll, the fizzy lager and the shots that her friends had been buying all evening. They were still going strong and were doubtless looking to see it through to closing time at 8 am. Caroline was thinking of going home. She had had enough and was making a mental note to be careful in the future when it came to going out with 20 something lesbians. It had been fun though.
She felt her head being grabbed and turned round to look Amy in the face. Amy loved in and kissed her, forcing her tongue into Caroline’s mouth. Alcohol had removed her inhibitions and she responded. She ran her arm behind Amy pulled her closer, thrust her own tongue into Amy’s mouth. Her head began to swim, she was hard, she cold still manage an erection despite the hormones, she was glad she was wearing a loose fitting summer dress that hid the bulge, she wanted Amy, wanted her so much, wanted Amy to finger her, to……
Amy unbuttoned Caroline’s dress, reached inside and took a breast in her hand, kneaded it, moulded it in her lovely warm hand, before tweaking the nipple. Caroline yelped in surprise but found the pain quite pleasant. Amy undid 2 more buttons, reached behind to unhook Caroline’s bra and, as it fell, moved her hand inside the flapping dress to suck at Caroline’s nipple, twisting it with her lips, flicking it with her tongue, making Caroline more and more aroused.
“Come on” said Amy “let’s go to the loo, I so fucking want to go down on you.”
She stood up, grabbed both of Caroline’s hands and pulled her to her feet. Caroline stood there, her left breast hanging out, hair dishevelled, frantic with desire for this woman, fuzzy headed with drink to the point that she was struggling to stay on her feet, but clear headed enough to know she couldn’t go through with this.
“Sorry Amy I can’t. I so fucking want you but I just can’t!”
She ran, falling out of the door, her dress still open, her breast still hanging out.
A doorman grabbed her arm and steadied her.
“Are you OK love?”
“Are you sure?”
She went to the corner of the street and rested against a wall. She buttoned up her dress and lit a cigarette. As she smoked she gathered her thoughts. It was now nearly four o’clock and the summer night was getting chilly. She hailed a taxi and jumped in.
The taxi drive off. Caroline didn’t look back at the throng outside the pub. She looked resolutely forward, at the dark shadow of the driver, the red numbers changing every few hundred yards on the meter. She began to cry.
Boston, Massachusetts 2000
In the year of The Big Dig there were people in Boston worried about the future of Little Italy in the city’s North End. Tucked away on the far side of Interstate 93 on its rickety looking green viaduct, almost a town beside the city. But when the road disappears into a tunnel, when Little Italy is opened up to the rest of Boston, the acid of property developers’ money will surely dissolve the area’s character. The works continue. The contractor’s boards are painted with the coats of arms of Italian cities. It seems like a defiant gesture. Our meal is too. We find a trattoria, sit with plates of pasta, tomato salad, a bottle of red wine. We are enjoying slow food in the land of the Big Mac.
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air
The last time I was in Berlin the Palast der Republik, the home of the puppet parliament of the German Democratic Republic, where I had once eaten lunch and bought a newspaper, was an ugly twisted metal frame. It was an eyesore and its final removal, a week after I left, was a blessed release. Cities change. Cities evolve. It is as if the moment you leave you have never been there. One minute after your plane has taken off, the city has changed. I have Austrian friends who have a collectors’ approach to sightseeing. Been there. Seen that. Done that. “Abgehakt” as they say in German. I don’t think they realise the futility of the freezing of motion as if the frozen moment is all that matters. They remind me of those sad men who keep a notebook of all the women they had had sex with. Or claim to have had sex with.
The sex we never had is no less real than the sex we had. Or rather, the sex we had is no more real. All the bodies I have loved have been dissolved by time, made anew or not, remade as ageing parodies of what they were. Mine too, and let’s face it, mine has changed more than most. Consider the vaginas I fingered, the clits I tongued, the glistening bellends I took greedily into my mouth. They are no more. Every single cell dead, replaced by new cells, regenerated but decaying, changing even as they appear to stay the same. But decay is inherent to the aesthetic of sex, it is the art of bodies in flux.
And Finally Plastination……
I write, not to freeze sex in a moment, but to hint, offer fleeting glimpses, and let you, my readers, engage with me as you wish. Because only the act of reading, being in the moment of that reading can make that sex real.
I once thought about being plastinated myself. Any part of me, or even all parts of me, just not my genitalia. Let all my partners come and enjoy my sinews, my muscles like taut wires, as lifeless as the steel cables of a suspension bridge. Let them enjoy me without the parts of me they most enjoyed, or were destined not to. That river has already flowed on to the sea.
A post for Wicked Wednesday. Click here for more wickedness