The apartment expanded the boundaries of bad taste. The moment she opened the door to let me in, I felt the bad taste breeze into my nose, through my larynx and into my lungs. Bad taste smelled. Not many people realised that, but the odour it gave off could be damaging if not lethal. In that short instant before I stepped inside and stumbled upon a living cat or a dead puppy, I groped for the pockets of my coat in search of two black gloves. The gesture was automatic, sustained by memories and years of habit. My pockets were empty. They only contained a few random coins soaked in blood and an old mobile phone with an ever depleting battery.
“What’s your name again?” I asked.
“Claire”, she said, laughing at something or other.
I whispered that name to myself. Claire. For some reason, Vienna made French names sound so tragic.
Outside the bar in Ringstrasse, I saw her drinking red wine and listening to some lawyer with a dry face and a bald patch. Observing them from a distance, I tried to imagine a bigger mismatch, thinking that in our golden years we could have done him in thirty seconds. She stared into her glass, the cold redness of her drink. This wasn’t a date and I would not have to kill him. The man was pushing that hopeless middle age when certain women no longer bothered. The moment he finally understood this would be rape or nothing, he went inside and left us alone. You know that situation when there are twenty people around and you are ten metres apart and have never seen each other before, but in actual fact you are alone with this person. It is intimate. It is awkward, and very soon one of you will break the silence and start talking about Mozart or Freud or Klimt or some drunk sleeping on the side of the road. Out of those four, the drunk would be preferable because later that very night you could drag him to your place and feast upon his body.
“I like your accent”, she said. “Cologne?”
“Yes”, I replied. “You are good”.
She was a redhead. Brilliant and disastrous, like all redheads, and there I was offering her another drink. “Redheads are special”, my father said in that rare moment of indiscretion, back when I was fifteen and with no taste for anything other than coke and tomato juice, “Kissing a redhead is like drowning in the beautiful sea”. Cigarette smoke drooling out of his mouth, his hands dirty from factory work, he spoke to me about kissing a redhead. The words stuck with me, and now that I came back with a new glass of red wine, I almost repeated them to her. But a roll of laughter coming from inside the bar cut me short and saved me from ruining the moment. Or, indeed, the evening.
I passed her the glass and she grabbed it with both hands like a warm lantern in a severe snowstorm. She threw her head back a little and her thick red lips parted to give me the idea, the taste. I caught a full glimpse of her milk-white teeth. Oh she was ready, she was up for it, and this could be a very long night. Millions of nerve terminals erupted with joy as I looked at her neck. She was good, but she was one of them.
“Won’t last for long”, I whispered, baring my teeth slightly, so that she could also get the idea, the taste. My teeth: I had to be careful not to give away too much.
“Pardon?” she asked.
I did not whisper it this time. Instead, I chose to remind her of the day we went to see Les Émigrés. That was five years ago, when police were breathing down our necks and each time we heard a siren go off in Vienna, we thought we only had a few moments to say our last goodbye. But that night we had tears in our eyes from laughter. The play had nothing to do with it. It was her left stocking, which had shrunk to the size of a sock. It got loose, and each fifty metres now we had to stop and wait for her to roll it back up under her skirt. Then it got loose again, and she had to repeat the trick while I covered her with my body beside every fence and lamppost we encountered. My desire, mixed with my laughter, went up and down with each slight movement of her fingers working their way up and down her white leg. In those moments I wished I could do that again, completely certain that I would miss the artery and not destroy her Persian carpet with an improvised blood fountain.
She smiled now, but not too genuinely. Somehow, the memory did not seem too amusing and she wished to forget. In the meantime, late April was getting nippy, so I suggested moving inside. Or perhaps go to my place? Or to hers?
“Not yet”, she said. “Later. I want to know you better”.
Well, where do I start? I could begin with a day in late autumn when I bended over in front a beggar in that lonesome street on the outskirts of Cologne where you never walked alone. We called it Pfeifenstrasse, or Whistling street, because of all the whistling we thought we heard there. But something drew me to this tall hooded man who accepted the money and then bit me on the neck and changed my life forever. I was sixteen.
She told me her name was Claire, and I said Lyon, randomly, and she said Marseilles. Her eyes had this strange illusive expression, like they were covered by contact lenses that blocked all outside world. It looked to me as if she could only see what was happening inside them. A memory or, better, a dream whose meaning you had to guess. French redhead in Vienna, that’s what I thought of her. The dream, bright and shapeless, kept slipping away. A middle-aged lawyer stood no chance, but what about you, playing snowballs with her in the backyard of a small church, her hitting you full in the face and then laughing about it for the rest of the day? Did that bring you closer to the ultimate truth so well hidden behind the deceptive plainness of her black dress and the red lips colder than the Arctic snow and the red hair she once told you was black soaked with blood?
Blood. Pools of blood that we barely even noticed. And yet my hands were always clean, because of the black gloves. We did them in five minutes, maybe seven, and each time she used her silver dagger to finish them off. Those who were not us. Those could never become us. Those in particular who mixed red and green and had the sense to put Dali next to Monet. Those who were the sorry purveyors of bad taste.
“Silver dagger”, she said, woken by the memory. “I’ve lost that”.
“Like I’ve lost my gloves”, I said.
In the meantime, her teeth clinked into the edge of the glass, and I said perhaps we could consider… She was beautiful, the prettiest redhead in Vienna. But no, she wanted more, or perhaps it was me who wanted more, and the busking jazzman playing on the other side of the street reminded me of those evenings when we were lying on the floor in my room listening to Beethoven’s sonatas.
Well, Claire had this thing. Each time she got her prey, she called me in the middle of Beethoven’s Adagio cantabile. That’s piano sonata no.8, second movement. There is a slight change of pace there, and the sonata comes alive. I closed my eyes and the phone rang. I got out of bed, even if we were going through another break-up and I wasn’t alone. Even if it was Betty or Vivian or someone else, some tragic blonde whose name I forget and who no longer interested me once the sex was over. But me and Claire… Blood brought us together, yet again, and I went downstairs to pick up the phone. It was Claire, of course it was, shouting to me the name of the bar or the apartment where I had to be as soon as I could. In the meantime, it was time for Rondo - allegro to roll down the stairs and make me wince. I never liked that part. Such an unfortunate counterpoint to the second movement. Adagio cantabile, Claire’s favourite musical piece ever.
We began to walk slowly to her place, silently, defying the noise of nighttime Vienna. The way she walked, it was slower now, it had lost some of its intensity. I wondered if she had forgiven me for that evening in late August when the police came in as she was going about her business, oblivious to the outside world. Oblivious to them. To those five police officers (oh, they came in numbers) who were standing at the door taking in the scene. What did they see? A few shots from a low-budget horror film? A room that looked like a huge piece by Jackson Pollock who only used red colours? They did not see me, away at that time, in a different part of the city, with my telephone dead, with another girl I would not kill.
“What’s your name again?” I asked.
“You are drunk”, she said, laughing at something or other. We closed the door behind us, and suddenly I felt a familiar tingle in my teeth, something I had not felt in a very long time.
Living cat or a dead puppy. Oh God I hated this place. I despised its mess and that wallpaper with flowers she claimed she loved. Black and white posters of pop-stars that looked so clichéd and out of place. As out of place as the CD which I’d bought for her years ago, in the hope that Beethoven’s second movement would begin playing and Claire would call me on my ancient mobile phone and start shouting a name of a bar where I had to be in ten, fifteen minutes.
Betty stood by the mirror. She was combing her hair, revealing her neck, exposing it to me. Oh the tingling. The tingling was becoming unbearable.