Violet lived in apartment 1C, a tiny studio, the smallest in the building. She’d moved there because of the building’s proximity to Prospect Park and because the rent was inexpensive, and because the building was beautiful. She was a college student, and she had convinced her parents to let her move off campus if she found a place that wasn’t much more than the dorm. That was a difficult thing in New York, but a friend from high school found the place and the two sharing the studio was just cheap enough.
Brooklyn was a long way from home. Home was Texas, and Texas was awful. Extra awful for a short girl from a big Chinese family who no one seemed to know what to make of. New York was worlds better.
The only thing she missed from home was the wild open spaces. That’s why she knew she needed to be by the park. She went there every weekend, and in the winter, when there was a break in classes, she went there almost every day.
She came to Prospect Park every day with sad eyes and a notebook. Violet, with the smooth chocolate brown hair held back with a pink barrette and the huge liquid eyes that were almost cartoonish in size. Violet, who was barely five feet tall and, in her own opinion, was built far too much like a young boy to be found beautiful by anyone. Violet, who longed to be a curvy starlet like Sophia Loren, but would never be more than a flat-chested mouse of a girl, and desperately tried to hide herself under sweaters and long dresses.
The accordion player came to the park every day as well and played songs of love and longing. When Violet listened to the sound and the way it echoed in the nearby stone underpass, she felt like she was by the Seine.
When it got very cold, Violet would bring hot chocolate to keep her hands warm. She only drank it once her hands had sucked up the heat, and it was merely warm, smooth, rich sweetness.
She was twenty. She was drifting through life in between a teenagehood that seemed to last forever and the adulthood that loomed ahead of her.
Sometimes it was only the accordion player and Violet in the park, and he would stop playing, sit back, and smoke cigarettes for hours. She watched him and marveled at how much he seemed to enjoy smoking. He would take long pulls and hold them for a minute, then blow the smoke out in slow bluish gray clouds while looking intently into the glowing red tips of his Gauloises.
He was probably fifty, with longish wavy hair that was once brown but now mostly gray and even some white. He seemed perpetually unshaven, and his clothes were layers of what looked like 20-year-old garments. Clothes as old and she was. He always wore fingerless gloves and a long black scarf.
When people were around, he would only play standards. The only one she really liked was La Vie en Rose. When there were only a few people or tourists from France, he would play old French songs Violet had never heard, and the tourists would sing along, and Violet would be transported.
Violet found herself wondering about the man. He had occasionally said hello in his thick Parisian accent. She wondered why anyone would leave France. She imagined he left because of a woman. Some passionate affair that was so intense that when it ended, he couldn’t stomach even being in the same country as her.
She imagined him as a passionate, romantic man who was broken by love.
One day she came to the park, and the man seemed a bit more dour than usual. Violet usually dropped a dollar or two into his hat and gave him a smile. That day she dropped five.
“Merci. Pardon, you are always here, and so am I. We should introduce. What is your name?” he asked in English that was far more broken than she had imagined it being.
“Violet,” she said, trying not to be meek but still sounding like a whisper.
He repeated it, and it sounded prettier from his cracked lips. Vie-oh-let.
He held out a hand in a worn gray fingerless glove. His fingers were dirty and yellow from cigarettes and playing. She took his hand, and he pulled her’s to his mouth and kissed it, his lips warm and his stubble rough on the back of her hand. Violet pulled her hand back and then wondered if she had done it a little too quickly. She didn’t want to be rude to the man.
When he had said her name, he had given her a very particular look. It wasn’t exactly a nice look. It wasn’t the look musicians in a park usually gave Violet. She remembered many times walking through Central Park with her parents and passing the saxophone player and his kind smile. The little jazz trio and their warm thanks when she flipped a quarter into their trumpet case. This was a very different smile, and Violet realized it was because she wasn’t a little girl skipping through the park anymore, as much as she felt like one.
She smiled back weakly and went back to her bench to read her book, suddenly uncomfortable being the focus of his attention.
The next time she saw him in the park, he waved to her. “Vie-oh-let!” he said in his deep hoarse voice.
He played something different; it sounded more raucous. There were whirling melodies and harsh notes. It sounded like a bohemian song, and then Violet recognized parts of it. It was an old burlesque song– the kind women would strip to.
Violet watched him play, and his eyes were closed, and he was laughing. There was a story behind that laugh.
When he opened his eyes, a few people had come into their little section of the park, and so he went right into “Speak Softly Love,” a crowd favorite, though he watched Violet the whole time.
After the tourists left, he waved for Violet to come over to him. He’d never done that before, and she was dubious. She thought about ignoring him, but that seemed rude. She walked over and sat on his bench, but far from him.
“My name is Henri.”
He laughed and took out a cigarette.
“Do you smoke?”
Violet shook her head, no.
“Why do you come here every day?” he asked as he lit his cigarette and inhaled the blue smoke deeply.
Violet shrugged, but he eyed her, still waiting for a response.
“Are you a writer? I see you write things.” He pointed at her notebook with his somewhat dirty hand.
She looked down at her notebook and thought about the question.
“I am a writer,” she said simply, though it took courage to say the words aloud.
He smiled and gave her that hungry look again that made her uncomfortable.
“I have a roommate. Philip. He is an ass sometimes, but also a good friend to me. He is a writer. We live in a piece of shit apartment, but it is in the city. It is up in Harlem. His is every day with the writing. Tap tap on his computer.”
Violet smelled the smoke, and it was both repulsive and intriguing. There was something dangerous about Henri.
“What kinds of things does he write?”
Henri smiled and laughed a little, smoke coming out of his mouth in little bursts.
“He writes… how do you say it… eh… I forget the English. He writes about fucking.”
Violet’s eyes went wide. Henri swallowed every ounce of her shock with his smile and gaze.
“Forgive me, that came out… more crude than I meant.”
Violet tried to laugh it off, tried to give him a look like, “Oh, I’ve heard worse.” Somehow she doubted it worked very well.
“What do you write, Violet?” he asked as he looked around and then took a little dented flask from his jacket and took a long pull from it.
“Poetry, mostly,” she said with eyes wide, looking down at her notebook again.
He laughed again, slow and gravelly, and then in an almost different voice altogether–one that was strong and noble–he said, “Mainte fleur épanche à regret. Son parfum doux comme un secret. Dans les solitudes profondes.”
She met his eyes, and he seemed handsome then. Old and rough and strong.
“I took some French, but I don’t know most of what that means. Something about a flower?” She asked.
Again, his laugh.
“I don’t know the English words, but yes, a flower. The sadness of a flower that comes to bloom and no one is there to smell its sweetness.”
Her cheeks felt warm, and she stood and smiled and wished him a good day.
The next week he called her to sit with him every day. He read some of her poems. He asked her what songs she liked and played them for her. The gaze of desire sometimes flashed, but more than anything, he seemed happy to have company.
One day she said she wanted to learn to play the accordion. He laughed loud and thought it was a brilliant idea.
“This is a very old and very complicated accordion. I have another, though. It is smaller, it would fit you. I tell you what. Maybe you give me a few dollars, and you can borrow it, and I will show you the basics, no?”
She wasn’t completely serious, but now the image of her sitting in the park with a barret playing a little squeezebox seemed both charming and hysterical. It seems so completely unlike her. She nodded her head and smiled.
His laugh boomed, and he clapped his hands.
“Excellent! I will give you my address, and you can come and get it tomorrow before we come to the park, no? Maybe if you learn well, you can accompany me!”
She was unsure that she wanted to go up to his apartment. She hardly knew him, and he was an old man, and he lived in Harlem. She’d never been above 110th Street except once when she visited the Cloisters with her aunt.
Still, as he wrote down the details, every logical argument seemed to die at her lips. He seemed so very excited and so very happy, and he probably needed the money badly. She took the card he wrote the address on and slipped it into her notebook, and promised she would come the next day at ten in the morning.
And so it was that she held her purse close to her chest as she rode the A train higher and higher until she got to a place that hardly looked like Manhattan anymore. With wide eyes, she examined the large low building and the multicolored bodegas, and a man riding a bicycle covered Christmas lights and speakers blaring salsa music.
The building was old–the year 1911 was carved in the cornerstone–but seemed to be in good shape. When she got to the door, she wondered if it was too late to forget the whole thing and leave. She didn’t know what was waiting for her in the apartment, but it could be bad or even dangerous. She was thinking about how she would have to find a new park when Henri opened the door.
“Vie-oh-let! Come in, come in,” he said, taking her arm and ushering her into the apartment.
The place was neither as dingy and disgusting as she feared nor as interesting and full of character as she hoped. A somewhat different Henri than the one she knew in the park showed her around. He was scrubbed and groomed, and gone were the layers of old clothes. He wore a pair of somewhat frayed brown slacks, a worn blue dress shirt, and a charmingly oversized cardigan.
He pointed out the molding on the wall that he’d recently painted and the chandelier he’d found in the garbage and rebuilt and polished. All the while, his eyes were hungry, and his hands kept finding reasons to touch her arm, her back, her hair.
Lust was a fickle thing for Violet. There was something handsome and knowing about Henri. His accent, his demanding eyes. More than anything, his desire for her was the most attractive thing. Perhaps there was also the fact that he was even older than her father. He was a street performer. He was so many kinds of wrong and very much not the sort of person she should be alone within a house above 110th Street. The danger was a bit intoxicating.
“This is Philip’s room,” he said, opening the door to a dark room of cracked white paint and a mattress on the floor. Books were piled two or three feet high all along the walls, and balanced on them were bottles of whiskey, sheaves of paper, notebooks, and various other detritus.
There were a few hundred books, and she could see one closet filled to the brim with magazines. It was the sort of room she could dive into.
“Can we go in?” she asked, her body pressing softly against his.
“Sure, he doesn’t care. He’s in New Jersey until Sunday anyhow.”
The sheets on the bed were dark blue, and there were ashtrays and half-full glasses of brown liquid scattered around the head and foot. The sun came in four thick cubes of light from the paned window, and each fat beam sparkled with floating particles of dust.
Violet walked in and leaned over, then got on her hands and knees on the bed, and looked at the books that lined the walls and dotted the floor.
One pile was French–Flaubert, Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Sartre, and every book the Marquis de Sade ever wrote. Then there were Russians, Spaniards, a pile of glossy fetish books from Germany, a small neat collection of pornographic Japanese graphic novels. She found a large old version of the Kama Sutra and opened it to vivid and complex diagrams of various types of coupling.
She felt Henri kneel on the bed next to her as she read, then his hand on her back. She looked at the book or at least kept her eyes pointed at the pictures, as his hand slid down to her bottom. He sighed, and she stiffened. His hand moved to her leg, then back up to her ass.
She imagined what she looked like, bent over on her knees, leaning on her elbows, looking at a book about ancient sex acts. Turning her head a bit, she realized she didn’t have to imagine because there was a dirty mirror propped up against the wall to her side, and it showed her whole body, as well as Henri, from the neck down, groping her.
She imagined turning to face him, to kiss him, to seduce him, but the seduction was already done. She imagined doing so many things, but her body didn’t seem able to do anything but stay put. She thought it would be lovely just to stay there in the room full of books and let the old Frenchman touch her, and so that’s exactly what happened.
As she watched in the mirror, he pulled up her summer dress and then pulled down her tights and underwear. It was pretty, the blue tights, the light blue cotton panties, and then the cool cream of her thighs and bottom and then the cerulean of her dress.
“Are- are you a virgin, Violet?” he asked, his hands trembling as he stroked her thighs with his rough fingers.
She wanted to answer, but only a croak came out. She shook her head bit her lip.
“Quel dommage,” he said to himself before his fingers slipped across the softness of her pubic hair.
Getting up on her hands and knees, she wondered why she was wet. Was it the wrongness of this whole situation? Was it just her body’s natural reaction to being touched?
When one of his fingers left her and came back slick with what she assumed was spit, she tried and failed to stifle a small high pitched whine of pleasure. Then his thick, slightly rough, middle finger was pushing slowly into her and her eyes closed as she gave in to him.
“Oui,” he said, and then, mumbling in French, he pulled at her clothes until she helped him strip her down.
Looking back at the mirror, she saw her own frightened eyes, her petite body, her slight hips and bottom, her breasts no more than thick brown nipples atop inconsequential bumps.
She saw the old man worship her body. His hands trembling as he ran them over every inch of her skin. She thought she looked beautiful like this, with this fully dressed man bent over her form, his stubbly cheeks pressed against the small of her back, and now two of his fingers trying to push their way into her tightness.
His hands were greedy, and that made things easier for her. She let him pull at her nipples, drag his hard fingernails over her stomach and back, kiss her neck, and groan into her skin. She didn’t have to be a part of it; she only had to be the object. Only when his hand reached for his own belt did she tense again. He had asked her nothing, but waited for her to give him some semblance of consent–submission, desire, something.
“You-you have to use a condom,” she pushed the words out.
“Oui!” he almost shouted, then he fumbled around his roommate’s room and found a box of the things.
She was hypnotized by her body in the mirror. She liked her eyes, with her eyeliner dark and thick, with her lithe nude body and her hair making a black curve across her cheek. She liked the way her ass looked when she arched her back and stuck it in the air.
Then she saw Henri enter the cinema of the mirror-scape. She watched it like a movie. She saw his pantsless form. Gray hair on his legs and crotch. His penis was thick, ridged, daunting. He looked almost comical, slipping the condom on it, but when he grabbed her hips, there was nothing funny about the feeling of pressure against her sex and the fear that gripped her.
She wasn’t a virgin, but many of her little adventures had been so much like this—older men, dangerous situations, the overwhelming silence and stillness that came over her.
He spat on his hand again and smoothed the wetness over her. His fingers absently found spots that made her wince with pleasure. He watched her and rubbed, laughing crudely when she mewed and pushed back at his hand.
“Ah,” he marveled, “le chat… Elle veut, no?”
Then once more, his hardness pressed against her sex, splitting her, but this time he would not be satisfied with rubbing. He pressed, and his hands clenched on her hips, and millimeter by millimeter, he was inside of her. And when he was inside of her, it was a white fire that made the fear bubble over with the pain and get all mixed up with the want.
When he fucked her, it didn’t matter what she wanted, and as she turned and looked into her own eyes in the mirror, she marveled at him. He pulled off his shirt, and his chest was surprisingly muscular. He gritted his teeth and looked like a machine as he pistoned in and out of her.
The image seemed so far away from the bright burning of it. Still, looking was making her hotter. The wrongness suddenly washed over her in waves, and she writhed against him, feeling like a dirty young slut. She wanted that feeling suddenly. It made her slicker, and that made everything better, and before she knew it, she was pushing back at him.
His cries built quickly, and his little moans almost choked him. Then suddenly, his pounding became frenzied, and she knew he was coming.
She watched him gasp and shudder and thought about how she did that. Her body and her beauty did that, and that was something.
After he slipped away and she heard him washing up in the bathroom. She dressed; looked around some more. She very much liked the little room full of books, and she wondered about the man who lived there.
When she found Henri in the living room, he was back in his layers of old suit jackets and pants and his long scarf.
“I’m sorry, I am very late, come, you leave with me?” he asked, suddenly seeming both more familiar, like an old friend, and more formal, like someone who didn’t just fuck her.
She left with him. He awkwardly embraced her and then walked towards the subway. The accordion he talked about, if it ever existed, was forgotten. She felt like a silly girl. She felt sad, but in some real way, she felt adventurous.
A random cab pulled up, the driver seeming to know she didn’t belong on that street. She jumped in and headed to her favorite cafe. She drank tea inside of a warm, sweet-smelling place and wrote it all down. She pieced together the whole thing– the clumsy seduction, if that’s what one could call it.
She thought of the park and how, like Eve, she could never return to her little Eden. Still, there were other Edens and other Adams and, in the end, far more apples.