Valentijn Hoogenkamp – Adoring Louis Claus
‘Imagine being haunted by the ghost of a flower.’ Ali Smith
[Pages 9 -11]
Summer came and I cut off my trouser. Louis Claus turned up at school in a clown costume with a red-and-green diamond pattern and a limp ribbon that kept the white neck ruff in place. The heat of the impending summer holiday had already filled the classrooms and I wasn’t the only one staring at him as he waited outside the maths room for the bell. His outfit was made of nylon, patches of sweat darkened his armpits, but he stared straight ahead with a triumphant smile on his face.
‘Are you going to a party?’ Kelly asked.
She was part of the army of girls whose name ended in Y, all called Wendy and Cindy and Mandy, pretty like my old Barbie dolls. Louis struck up a conversation about homework, and so forced her to ignore his clothes. By the time we’d all found our seats in the room it already felt more than normal that a boy who’d spent his entire first year being handsome and smiley was now decked out like a clown. During the break I overheard someone say it was a bet and my admiration dipped, but later I heard that his grandmother had died and that this was Louis’s way of celebrating life. Kelly claimed that he didn’t have any underwear on underneath. Very punk. We were desperate to understand why Louis was doing what he was doing, but when a final-year student, who was smoking outside, asked him about it, all he said was, ‘Why not?’
Because we were fourteen, Louis. Because our peers were keeping a beady eye on what we wore and how we behaved, and we didn’t have the sense of perspective to realise that after secondary school we’d never see most of them again. Besides, you sweat like a pig in a nylon outfit, in June, even with the collar gaping open and your chest hair peeping out. I had to sit on my hands to stop myself from reaching for that chest hair, gleaming dark and conspicuous on his clammy chest. I wanted to detangle it like an old-fashioned telephone cord.
‘You get off on him, don’t you?’ Juicy summed things up. Juicy wanted to talk about nothing but sex and chain smoke cigarettes, and before I knew it I was talking about sex, too.
‘Louis is so handsome,’ she said, ‘my cunt’s gushing wet, like a swimming pool.’
Which made me think of chlorine and noisy kids hogging the slide. Juicy had been suspended from school because she kept having nosebleeds in class. Our form tutor claimed it was because of her marks.
The trees are on fire. A man in an orange vest keeps the curious locals at bay by spreading his arms like Jesus. He happens to have long hair and a beard as well. One of Jesus’s colleagues is unrolling the fire hose.
‘Yobs,’ he says for all to hear, and by that he’s not referring to the residents’ children. This act of vandalism was probably committed by the squatters who recently occupied the empty Chinese restaurant in the middle of the new housing estate. The young trees are tied to stakes with rubber bands. The branches are crackling, sagging, reflecting in the silver strips on the vest worn by Jesus, who’s asking whether anyone saw anything. I saw my mother, this morning, crying in the shower, one hand holding on to the tiled wall. Her hair was dripping and so were her tears. I saw a message from Louis telling me to come over right away, and on my way there I saw a man rubbing his crotch up against a dustbin, drunk first thing on a Saturday.
‘No, didn’t see a thing,’ I tell Jesus. ‘Can I pass now?’
‘Shoes off,’ Anita Claus shouts from the living room.
It wouldn’t be the first time my stilettos drilled small dents into their wooden floor. From the outside, the houses in this neighbourhood look like shoe boxes, but behind the Claus family’s front door it’s all pale wood and delicate white curtains. Photos, taken on their travels, hang on the walls and green glass vases filled with sunflowers decorate the dining table. Anita is smoking among the vases. The ashtray is full.
‘Louis is upstairs,’ she says.
I climb the shiny worn steps in my socks and pause halfway up the spiral. Anita’s bleached hair, which she wears piled up in a bun, is streaked with grey. The ash cone of her cigarette drops into her lap. Without a glance she flicks it away with her nail and takes another drag.
Louis’s attic room smells of Louis, of his sports shirts and the hash he hides in a film canister, of the incense to mask the smell of hash. Of my blood, because I once got my period on the air mattress. Of our sex, on his desk, on the bed, on the inflatable, in front of the mirror. Whenever we stay up here for more than twenty minutes, Anita shouts that we should come down to eat.
Louis is lying on his bed, in a square of sunlight, his arms over his eyes, so I can’t tell whether he’s been crying. His feet dangle over the edge of the bed. He has long arms, long legs and golden fuzz on his chin. There’s a narrow strip of space beside him on the mattress; I snuggle up against him.
‘I had my first acting class this morning and it really sucked,’ he says.
‘What did you have to do?’
‘Play a love scene with a chair. Not with some invisible person on a chair, but with the chair itself. So I stroked it and kind of rubbed up against it, but how are you supposed to love a chair?’
‘When I was eleven I wanted to forge a special bond with a loan pony at the riding stable. I tried to wrap my arms around her head and whisper secrets into her ear.’
‘A horse is meant to have really good hearing,’ Louis says.
‘There you go, that explains it. Daisy would jerk her head away from my arms or she’d step back so I’d be nearly flattened against the stable wall. I might as well have spent my time polishing a scooter.’
He moves his arm, his eyes are red. ‘It’s my dream, you know?’
‘No. What is it about becoming an actor?’
‘You get to show yourself,’ he says.
‘Oh, yes, for sure.’ He pinches my arse. ‘Packed theatres, applause, you get taken seriously. I mean, watching someone like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, how cool is that? Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs, where he does that dance in front of the hostage who’s tied up and then cuts off his ear?’
He hums the song and rolls on top of me, over my arm, so I yelp in pain.
‘What did you do, sweetie?’
His name, Louis C., is written on my forearm in large red gashes. Isadee started it. She cut ‘W’ for Wesley into her wrist with a scalpel in biology. Kelly used a Stanley knife during science. Cindy already had lots of cuts in her arms, each one of them an ‘I’, she said, because she’s in love with herself. Louis rubs the scratches to erase them.
‘Promise you won’t do that again. Jesus, you love me loads, don’t you?’
‘More than you loved that chair.’
His face darkens. ‘They said I should show more of myself. But this is who I am.’
I have no idea what he means by that, and so I offer my half-open mouth. With his eyes closed and his tongue out, his face comes closer. He kisses me until I disappear.
‘You ok?’ he asks with his tongue in my mouth.
From downstairs Anita yells that we should come and have lunch.
The Bride Wore Tears
Please, spare me, I want my mother to stop being everywhere. The last time she visited me at home I didn’t know it was the last time. I was still living in my third-floor flat. After climbing the stairs, she sat panting on the sofa. I brought her a loo roll for the sweat on her forehead and made her a cracker with avocado, cheese and cayenne pepper. Without looking at me, she put the squishy paper back in my hand; the bin was too far for her. The wad was shaped like the palm of her hand and fit in mine.
Don’t filter yourself, was the advice from a friend whose mother had already passed away. You won’t get a chance to say or ask anything afterwards.
‘Mum, did you ever think I might be gay?’ I asked.
She was lying, eyes closed, on the sofa, which she thought was shabby because I’d dragged it in from the street. The tracksuit she was wearing had no zips, just elastic in the bottoms. A smart tracksuit with flowers in which we ended up burying her.
‘No,’ she said without opening her eyes. ‘I never did. Never ever. Not about you and not about your sister either.’
‘I’m thinking of exploring.’
‘I wouldn’t if I were you. It’ll end in tears.’
That was the moment I decided not to introduce Destiny to her before it was too late. Our tea was getting cold. I put the kettle on again and accidentally picked Sleepy Time herbal tea when we were already very tired. With two hot cups in my hand, I went and sat down on the floor beside the sofa, close to her bony feet.
‘Mind you, you used to play with boys all the time, but that’s because nobody had told you that you were a girl. And you kept cutting your long hair; I buzzed it all off to teach you a lesson. That’s when the butcher thought you had leukaemia and gave you an extra slice of sausage.’
Liver sausage. I remembered. We used to play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the sandpit in the school playground. We’d run and shoot and roll around in it, ambushing each other and yelling, ‘bang, you’re dead’. And you and you and you, because you’re never too young to be shot at. One day I came home covered in sand and my mother said that it was weird that I only ever played with boys, that I should make friends with a girl. So I chose Jessica, just a bit taller than me, with slanting eyes and a bowl cut. Hand in hand, we walked over to the sandpit and squealed, ‘we wanna join in’. Mickey stopped mid-somersault and put his twig down.
‘No way, there’s only ever one lady on the team.’
I burst into tears, and Jessica let go of my hand in shock. She screwed up her face and took a step back, wiping her hand on the air as if to rid herself of the blubbing. If at that age, six years old, I’d understood why I was crying, I’d have said:
‘I can just as easily be Rafael. Or Michelangelo or Donatello or Leonardo. I can fight, too.’
‘Maybe the ladies can be the bad guys?’ Mickey squeaked.
‘Would you have helped me through a divorce?’ mum asked from the sofa. ‘Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Kelly’s mum. She actually got divorced after her diagnosis, she didn’t want to die in that house. I went over one time and you could barely move once you stepped inside. That husband of hers was a hoarder.’
‘Of course I’d have helped you.’
‘But you’re not the least bit practical. Your sister, she is, but you’re not.’
‘We’d have helped you anyway.’
She looked out of the window, at a pigeon balancing on one leg on the anti-bird spikes.
‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘yeah, you would have.’
When I was nine, my dad took me to Délifrance where I got to pick a cake. I opted for a slice of glazed fruit tart with grapes that looked like cow eyes and pinged away from your fork. When he asked, ‘What do you think I should do?’ my answer was a wholehearted ‘get divorced’. Like I’d seen on television, with parents stressing that it wasn’t their children’s fault.
‘Why don’t you take a mistress?’ I suggested.
‘I don’t know where I’d get the energy.’
The cappuccino left a foam moustache on his lips. I was gutted that I couldn’t think of any other options, gutted that he felt so dejected yet still gave me his macaroon when I already had cake.
‘She can’t hear you when she yells like that, when she goes into the garden or walks out the door. You keep talking, but she doesn’t get any of it, so you’d better wait till she’s done yelling,’ I said.
‘That’s so smart of you.’ He took my hand across the table, his wedding ring felt lukewarm. ‘You’re so smart.’
Louis’s face, the size of a truck, comes rushing towards me from the cinema screen. The camera zooms in on his puckered lips. He mutters her name, over and over and over again. Those lips I kissed a thousand times. They left glistening traces on my forehead, my arms, but especially my mouth, making me feel like my heart was in my throat. The actress with the bobbed hair fends him off, she hasn’t yet forgiven him for what he did to her earlier in the film. He pulls his head back with the stunned look of a hurt child.
‘I love you,’ the voice-over whispers. ‘I’ll never be that young again.’
The backs of people’s heads are visible above the plush seats. Destiny would never have chosen a film with just a single female character. She’s a dedicated follower of Alison Bechdel. A story must feature at least two women who have a conversation that doesn’t revolve around a man. But it’s Olivia’s birthday, so she got to choose, and she loves romantic comedies. And my girlfriend. When she gives Destiny three air kisses, it’s plain to see that they used to sleep together.
For no apparent reason Louis is suddenly lying in a coffin. His film mother, dressed in black lace, is sobbing. She’s far too young for this loss and must have had her son as a teenager. They didn’t skimp on the rain machine or the gospel choir. The whole time he had his eyes open in the film, I felt intensely embarrassed. About my greasy hair, about how long it’s been since I worked on a painting and about the pair of underwear I’m wearing that I’ve twice turned inside-out and worn again. Louis’s cheeks are sunken and his hairline has receded. The teenage boy who took my virginity is balding. It had been over between us for a few years when I was sitting on the toilet in a disco, my ears thumping, wondering if I was going to vomit. Louis was staring at me intently from a poster on the door, still wearing the necklace I’d given him.
His unexpected death sets a chain of events in motion: his film mother embarks on an affair, her family falls apart. She processes the loss while having sex with her lover. If I cry at all during sex it’s with relief. When Destiny looks at me, jerks her hips and widens her eyes into two black suns, something inside me melts, a fist in my belly that relaxes after years of clenching. During our first night together, I made an awkward attempt at complimenting her and said something about ‘girls like you’.
‘There’s no such thing as a girl like me,’ she said. ‘You’ve simply internalised all that stupid misogyny you grew up with.’
We were lying in her bed and I tried to unsay my words and at the same time undo all of my ideas about smoky eyes, about smoking in bed in nothing but a thong and cowboy boots. About drinking whisky and nodding politely when my date told me he liked to watch bukkake porn. Always laugh with them, be a good sport. Destiny described my way of dancing, with my hips and butt in her crotch, as very heterosexual.
Having checked that my pyjama top isn’t buttoned up the wrong way, I walk back to our table. They’re waiting for me, my friends (her friends), and I hoist up the waistband of my jogging pants. Olivia’s hoarse voice reaches me through the plants.
‘You always fall for the strays.’
Karolien says that Destiny ought to think about herself for a change.
‘I’ve no idea what she’s like when she’s happy,’ Destiny says. ‘She’s so, so…’
‘Des, can you hear yourself? You think you can handle it, but I’m telling you…’
‘Whenever she tells me something about her family, I don’t know whether I’m allowed to laugh.’
‘Like what?’ Edgar sounds eager.
‘Her father secretly slipped antidepressants into her mother’s coffee.’
I reappear from behind the plants, pleased to see them startled. Destiny holds out her hand and pulls me down onto the banquette beside her. I love her and I’m so, so…. Outside, behind the elegant lettering on the window, a figure is smoking. That shock of recognition has hit me before, when a certain type of blond guy walks in front of me in the street, but then when I go faster to catch him up it’s never him. Hands cupped around his cigarette against the rain. Less white blond, more dirty yellow, and with too much wax in his hair. I can feel the cold drops slide into his collar and down his neck.
‘Look, there’s that actor,’ I say.
‘What, where? Oh, yeah. It’s that pretty one from the film we just saw,’ Olivia says to Karolien.
‘It’s Louis Claus. We grew up together.’
‘Why didn’t you tell us earlier?’ Olivia asks. ‘Don’t you want to go and say hi?’
‘We’re no longer friends. We used to be, but…’
‘Did he know your mother?’ Edgar asks.
‘Perhaps the two of you can talk about her? If you want to, that is?’
‘If you feel the need,’ Destiny says.
Caught in her gaze, I get to my feet. Straightaway Olivia fills the space on the bench by sidling up close to Destiny. My winter jacket, which is actually too warm for this time of year, leaks little feathers on the carpet when I saunter to the exit.
‘I’m sorry my mother was always so mean to you. I think she just couldn’t stand the fact that you’d sussed how unhappy she was.’
His lips are chapped and chafe against mine. Every bit of dry skin is a little needle. He kisses me solemnly on my forehead and next to my eyes. The specks of saliva cool rapidly.
‘But your mother is alive. You can still say all those things to her.’
In response he wraps a hand around my throat. Hands, teeth, tongue, he wastes no time. He reaches for my breasts and finds the pyjama top, hesitates, but doesn’t stop, just fumbles with the buttons.
‘Do I stink?’
‘No, you smell good.’
He lifts me up, I can’t because, you know, there’s a stain and it’s me, but first he peels off my sweatpants and then my striped pyjama bottoms. Oh God, he’s trying to save me again in the only way he can think of. Why does he always move so fast? When I fantasise, I’m sitting on a piano teacher’s lap, the bulge in his trousers growing while I touch the keys, a Bach sonata, the murmuring stream (I bet there’s a Bach piece by that name), and we both ignore his hard knob, but I feel the friction when I play the higher octaves. Louis’s fingers force themselves inside me.
‘Why did you wear that clown costume?’
‘That time in school.’
He wipes his wet fingers on the brick beside my head.
‘It had red and green diamonds. It was synthetic as hell.’
He starts laughing and whispers in my ear that the costume had been in the dressing-up box at home and the idea had been to rehearse a role he’d devised for himself. He wanted to find out whether he’d get away with it; he wanted to be an actor and didn’t want to belong anymore, like me, except that I cut off my trousers, which, with hindsight, was the wrong thing to do because when you’re half-naked you belong to everyone, and all the stories you read about promiscuous girls are always about lust and never about fear, never about saying yes because you’re alone with someone behind a closed door, someone who could get nasty when you say no, and you’re alone with that person so if you’re going to scream it might as well be with pleasure.
‘I wish I’d worn a clown costume,’ I say.
Translated by Laura Vroomen