Private Screening

Go to the table of contents —by Laure Mi Hyun Croset Lire cette page en français

When I first saw her, she appeared to me as if she had escaped from a dream. I schemed like a mad man, but well enough that I managed to get a mutual friend to introduce me to her. She said, “Call me Duchess.” She was not laughing and the look on her face silenced any question I might ask. I stuttered a rapid, “at your service” and offered to go get us something to drink. I wanted to get out from beneath her simultaneously serious and wry expression. I returned with a glass of Chablis for her and a double Talisker for me.

A little drunk, we wandered together through town. Then I walked her home, stopping just in front of her building, hoping she would invite me in for a last drink. Her face split into a smile, she bowed and then, suddenly, I found myself faced with a passcode keypad, inhospitable to any possibility. I tried to remember how, in an American TV show, burglars had used flour on a similar device and made their way into a building. I nearly used my last half-gram of cocaine while chasing after this luminescent young woman, but the thought that she would bestow that mocking look upon me had me putting my stash back in my pocket. I went home, more excited than despondent.

I showed up at all the parties where she might be and spent my rent on bottle after bottle of champagne, but I was far from complaining: these were investments in the woman of my dreams. After about fifteen vain attempts, I finally saw her—sheathed in a stunning skin-colored chiffon dress that despite its many flowing panels gave the impression that she was naked. She smiled when she saw me but did not interrupt her discussion. She seemed to know everything about film. I decided I must absolutely get in touch with my friend who had done his thesis on Italian neo-realism. I did not want to look foolish next to this woman I had decided to marry.

Finally, I was able to get close to her and we discussed baroque music. Fortunately, she was cultured across several disciplines, because, in contrast to her, who claimed an eclectic taste, I considered myself to have more of a singular focus. I was an accomplished specialist of the 17th century. I should really say, “I had been” because at the moment I wasn’t much of anything, at best a specialist in parties. And even then, I didn’t know anything about current musical genres despite the explanations of some of my friends who prided themselves on playing DJ on the weekends. I knew that electro was softer to my ears than techno, but I think I also liked it more because the girls who listened to it were infinitely more attractive than those who listened to less melodic musical styles. But none of this mattered—if Duchess had liked djembe, I would have taken her to African music concerts. I would even have appreciated that her tastes ran far distant from mine, because it was unthinkable that we were of the same world. In truth, she was so fascinating that she seemed unreal. I noted the discreet looks that the smallest of her gestures incited. Never before had I met such simplicity combined with such distinction.

We left the party to dine together at a seafood restaurant. I found it highly disconcerting to watch her swallow her oysters with such ardent grace. I was so happy that I left her half of mine, even if usually I make it a point of honor that everyone gets their fair share. I was expecting to find her frivolous and libertine, but instead she was serious and determined. This struck me as exotic and pleased me. Again, she left me in front of her carriage gate, only this time she planted a kiss on my lips before disappearing in a pirouette.

This time I wrote down her address and sent her a letter inviting her to get in touch at her leisure to go see a film. I took pains to discover which films I could propose. I was ready when she called. We went to the Cinémathèque for a Jacques Doillon retrospective. When we left the building, she seemed very upset. She told me she came from a humble background. She had come into her own through her sheer force of will, a self-made girl. I admired her entirely but I was obsessed with one thing—I wanted to know her first name. I knew that as long as I didn’t know it, I would not understand the true identity of this woman that I loved. She told me she had selected her nickname to give herself the courage to rise up and that she could not tell me her real name because revealing it would feel like a step backwards. She had buried her past.

It was late but as soon as I got home, I called our mutual friends. Some of them were annoyed but I didn’t care, I absolutely had to learn the name of my beloved. No one knew it because she had only recently come to Paris for her film studies. She had immediately gotten everyone to call her Duchess and no one had dared ask her what it was she wanted to hide. It must be said that her nickname fit her like a glove. She was like a little duchess from the country, fresh and wild like the trail of perfume that followed in her wake.

I wanted to call the department where she had studied, but I quickly realized how foolish I would look as well as the impossibility of the task. The administrators would not know any duchess and I had no other clue.

Our relationship developed slowly. I tried every trick in the book to discover her secret. I became irritable, and my friends who were used to think of me as sophisticated and playful watched me become so snappish they advised me to stop seeing this succubus immediately. She was slowly destroying me. I fell into such a melancholy state that Duchess took pity on me and decided to console me by finally sharing her bed.

I made love to her furiously, giving her names in my head like Marie-Antoinette, Hermione, Oriane, and more and more glorious names, mixing fiction and history without the slightest scruple. I bit her lips so hard that she gave out a little cry. I came violently and finally I felt sated. In the moment, I could not have cared less about my previous concerns. She was mine and this was enough. Delighted with my renewed calm, she whispered into my ear, “Claudette”. I was half-asleep and asked her what on earth she was talking about. She answered me with a sliver of irritation, “It’s my name!” Flabbergasted, I asked her to repeat it. She did. I was frozen. To give myself some time and in an attempt to waylay my disappointment, I asked her then for her last name. “Grandjean,” she said, reddening. I was completely stunned. There was nothing left to do. I picked up my jeans, my Cardin shirt and my ascot, I threw them on hastily and closed the door silently behind me.

—Laure Mi Hyun Croset, writer; translation by Michelle Bailat-Jones /

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