Helena Hoogenkamp – Adoring Louis Claus
‘Imagine being haunted by the ghost of a flower.’ Ali Smith
[Pages 9 -11]
Summer came and I cut off the legs of my trousers. 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 classrooms were already full of the heat of the impending summer holidays 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 having a party?’ asked Kelly.
She was one of the army of girls whose names ended in Y, among them Wendy and Cindy and Mandy, pretty like my old barbie dolls. Louis started a conversation about homework, so forcing her to take no notice of his clothes. By the time we’d all found our seats in the classroom it already felt more than normal that a boy who’d spent his entire first year being handsome and smiley was now wearing a clown costume. During the break I overheard someone say it was a bet and my admiration took a hit, but later I heard that his grandma had died and that this was Louis’s way to celebrate life. Kelly claimed that he wasn’t wearing any underwear. Very punk. We were all really keen 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 lacked 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 when the collar gapes open and your chest hair peeps 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 sex and smoke cigarettes the whole time, 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.’
That made me think of chlorine and noisy kids blocking 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, by which he’s not referring to the local residents’ children. This act of vandalism was probably committed by the squatters who recently took over 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, while she held onto the tiled wall with one hand. 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 up against a dustbin, drunk on a Saturday morning.
‘No, I didn’t see anything,’ I tell Jesus. ‘Will you let me through now?’
‘Shoes off,’ Anita Claus shouts from the living room.
It wouldn’t be the first time my heels 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 stand on the dining table. Anita is smoking among the vases. The ashtray is already 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 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. And of my blood, because I once started my period on the air mattress. Of our sex, on his desk, on the bed, on the air mattress, 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 hair on his chin. Beside him, a narrow strip of mattress is free, and I snuggle up against him.
‘I had my first acting class this morning and it was really crap,’ 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 tried to forge a special bond with a loan pony at the riding stable. I wanted to wrap my arms around her head and whisper secrets into her ear.’
‘A horse is meant to have really good hearing,’ Louis says.
‘Perhaps that explains it. Daisy kept jerking her head away from my arms or else she’d step back and flatten me against the stable wall. I might as well have spent my time polishing a scooter.’
He shifts his arm, his eyes are red. ‘It’s my dream, you know?’
‘No. What happens when you become an actor?’
‘You can show something of yourself,’ he says.
‘Oh yes, absolutely.’ He pinches me in the buttock. ‘Packed theatres, applause, being 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, love?’
His name, Louis C., is written on my forearm in large red gashes. Isadee started it. She carved ‘W’ for Wesley into her wrist with a scalpel in biology. Kelly used a Stanley knife during science. Cindy had lots of cuts in her arms already, and she said they were all ‘I’s, as she’s in love with herself. Louis rubs the scratches to erase them.
‘Promise you won’t do that again. Jesus, you really love me a lot, 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 eat.
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 roll of toilet paper 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 wad of paper back in my hand; the bin was too far for her. It was shaped like the palm of her hand and fit in mine.
Be unfiltered, a friend whose mother had passed away earlier advised me. You won’t be able to say or ask anything afterwards.
‘Mum, did you ever think I might be lesbian?’ I asked.
She was lying on the sofa, which she thought was dirty because I’d found it on the street, her eyes closed. She wore a tracksuit that had no zips, just elastic in the pants and a sweatshirt with an elasticated collar. A dressy tracksuit with flowers in which she was eventually buried.
‘No,’ she said without opening her eyes. ‘I never thought that. Never ever. Not about you and not about your sister either.’
‘I’m thinking of exploring.’
‘I wouldn’t if I were you. It will 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 really tired. With the two hot cups in my hand, I went and sat down on the floor beside the sofa, close to her skinny feet.
‘You used to play with boys all the time, but that’s because nobody had told you that you were a girl. 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 the sand, waited in ambush and yelled, ‘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 it was weird that I only ever played with boys, and that I should find myself a girlfriend. So I chose Jessica, just a little 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-roll and put his twig down.
‘That won’t be possible, 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 I’d understood at that age, six years old, why I was crying, I would have said: ‘I could 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. ‘Kelly’s mother has been on my mind a lot lately. She went ahead and got divorced after her diagnosis, because she didn’t want to die in that house. I went over there one time, but once you stepped inside you could barely move, that husband of hers was a hoarder.’
‘Of course I would 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.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘yes, you would have done.’
When I was nine, my dad took me to Délifrance where I got to pick a cake. I went 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 had been a wholehearted ‘divorce’. I used to see it on television, with parents stressing that it wasn’t their children’s fault.
‘How about 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’s yelling like that, when she goes out into the garden or walks out the door. You keep talking, but she doesn’t catch a word, so you’d better wait until she’s done yelling,’ I said.
‘That’s so clever of you.’ He took my hand across the table, his wedding ring felt lukewarm. ‘You’re so clever.’
Louis’s face, the size of a lorry, rushes towards me from the cinema screen. The camera zooms in on his puckered lips. He mutters her name, over and over again. I kissed those lips 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 stick up above the plush seats. As a dedicated follower of Alison Bechdel, Destiny would never have chosen a film with just a single female character. A story must have 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.
Without any apparent cause 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 and 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 the underwear I’ve already turned inside-out twice so I could wear it again. Louis’s cheeks are sunken and his hairline has receded. The teenager who took my virginity is already balding. It had been over between us for a few years when I was on the toilet in a disco, my ears thumping, wondering if I was going to be sick. 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 of me melts, a fist in my belly that relaxes after years of having been clenched. During our first night together, I made an awkward attempt at complimenting her and said something along the lines of, ‘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 too straight.
After I’ve 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 pull up the waistband of my jogging pants. Olivia’s hoarse voice reaches me through the plants.
‘You always fall for the waifs and strays.’
Karolien says that Destiny ought to think about herself for a change.
‘I have 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 all, but I’m warning 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, and I’m gratified when they’re startled. Destiny holds out her hand and pulls me down onto the banquette beside her. I love her and this is what I’m like. Outside, behind the elegant lettering on the window, a figure is smoking. I get that shock of recognition every time I see a particular type of blond guy walking ahead of me in the street, but then when I walk 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 boy 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, I mean?’
‘If you feel the need,’ Destiny says.
I get to my feet, caught in her gaze. Olivia immediately fills the space on the banquette by sidling up close to Destiny. My winter jacket is too warm for this time of year and leaks small 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 didn’t like that you could see 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 doesn’t waste any 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 title), and we both ignore the hard bit, but I brush over it when I play the higher octaves. Louis’s fingers force themselves inside of 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 completely synthetic.’
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.
Translation Laura Vroomen