Cleo drives fucking fast.
“You’re not a vegetarian or something are you?”
Lights. The moving, discreet blocks of other cars, all carrying other human beings presumably, whizz past in an anonymous blur, effortlessly distanced in the loose, late evening traffic.
“Because I want meat tonight. After a day like today, I need blood.”
Cleo flashes a wolfish grin at me in the rearview mirror.
I’m the faintest of the faint-hearted, so I’m surprised to feel a strange floating elation in the place of the queasy alarm that should be my normal reaction to our breakneck rush. Instead, I find myself arrested in a kind of pleasant suspension, spiced up by the occasional jolt of centrifugal torque.
“I grew up on a farm, you know.”
“You don’t look like it.”
“No, of course not! But looks, that’s what they’re for: to tell the story you want people to believe. They’re rhetorical.”
And out of the blue, Cleo lets loose a loud, artless chortle—surprising both of us.
“Do you always talk like that?”
She is charming, of course, and genuinely spontaneous. But all the same you can’t help but feel that there must be an element of congenial deliberation in her manner: a special care to make you feel like you are somehow in cahoots together—parties to some benign conspiracy.
“A slightly louche fount of continental wisdom, I guess. But maybe it’s just the accent.”
“You’re funny, Charlotte.”
Or as if she recognizes you, and knows that, like her, you’re in on it: the secret joke. And you, well: you can’t help but feel gratified, and pulled in by her warmth and her mildly unsettling charisma.
“But so, you grew up on a farm?”
“Yes, and I used to kill the chickens and the rabbits to eat them. Tchack! Like that. And I helped when my uncles slaughtered the pigs, once a year. You have to go fast, fast. But even then they scream. It is really horrible, because they know. They are terrified. But then you have saucisson and andouillette and chops and things for months. So you kill them. It was my father and my uncle who did it. Do you think it gave them bad karma or something? I think no—just good sausage.”
In Cleo’s marvelously assured hands, Sebastian’s dowdy ancient Volvo, borrowed for our midnight run to the 24-hour supermarket, was somehow transformed into a kind of sleek vector—albeit one smelling of old leather and stale pipe smoke—capable of translating us seamlessly to our new target coordinates.
“I would find that difficult to do, I think. But I’m up for steaks if you like. Actually, I’m up for pretty much anything.”
Watchful, easy, fully in control, Cleo projected the sort of confidence that I imagine great military generals must inspire: you just knew that nothing as mundane as a car crash would ever get in her way, that she was somehow immune, and that, by a mysterious transitivity, while you were in her presence, this immunity extended to you as well.
“I think I’m a bit smitten with you.”
“What does it mean, ‘smitten’?”
The road stretched out in silence, in a continuous variation of lights and darks, the colors shifting as the different types of streetlights alternated—some casting dull warm halos, while others flooded the night with a dazzling, cool glow.
“That I’m like, in love with you a little.”
“Well, something like that anyway. Is that a weird thing to say?”
As the engine hummed, the night seemed to unfold in front of us—extending itself to make room for our progress.
“No, no. But are you a lesbian?”
“No, not at all.”
“I didn’t think so. Me neither.”
With a smooth sweep, Cleo shifted gears as we pulled down into surface streets.
“Don’t worry, I don’t want anything from you. I just had this… unusual feeling. So I came out with it, instead of keeping it in. I’m not really able to do that anymore. Keeping things to myself, I mean. It’s a long story. And now, I’m fucking unstoppable.”
“You said that already.”
“It must make for a difficult social life.”
“It kind of does, actually.”
We drove under a highway overpass, passing by a billboard advertizing some product I didn’t register. It featured a striking, glamorously sexy young woman’s head: a shorthaired brunette with perfect skin, smiling in a predatory way at a cherry she was presumably about to devour.
“But it’s normal, you know.”
“To fall in love with me.”
“Oh yes. Everybody falls in love with me, at least a little.”
“Is that a fact?”
“I was cursed by a gypsy when I was a little girl. And ever since, I’ve been ‘sticky’ like that. People don’t usually say it right away though—so casually, like you. That’s all. They try to hide it for a while instead. They write novels about me. They paint my portrait over and over, and say that I’m their muse—how do you say that in English, ‘muse’?”
“Yes. Also, sometimes they go crazy.”
“Are you serious?”
“Does it really matter? And anyway, we’re here—”
As we pulled into the supermarket’s parking lot, and the Volvo came to a stop, it took a moment to get used to the sensation of stillness, and to emerge from a hypnotic flow of motion.
“—so now we have to concentrate on something really serious: choosing something to eat!”
Cleo cut the ignition and we got out to face the store’s bright lights, which dispelled the midnight gloom with their promise of bounty.