Write what you know, they said. Six months ago, I didn’t know much of anything beyond the bitterness of life and the stench of death. Now, I know a little bit more. I know love, lust, ecstasy, and heartbreak.
Her name was Adrienne.
. . .
Six months ago, I found myself in a dusty, cramped office space, standing in front of a heavyset man with a handlebar mustache. His girth reassured me; he was eating well, which meant he could afford to pay well. “Do you have examples of past works?” he asked me.
I winced. “I’ve never been published before, but my father is a well-known author—Pierre Badeaux. Perhaps you’ve read something of his?”
He scoffed. “Are you seeking employment for your father? If you have no experience, I cannot hire you.”
“I trained under him for years. I know how to write,” I insisted.
He pulled at his mustache. “Very well. I happen to be in need of an erotica writer. Write me something, and make it good. I’ll pay you one centime per word. If I like the story, the job is yours, at the same rate.”
“Erotica?” I stammered out.
“Oui, our magazine has a mainly male readership. They like a little bit of spice in their weekly reading. Maybe you can offer a unique perspective, as a woman. With a name like Juliette, I’m sure you can write about love, yes?”
I nodded. For one centime per word, I could write about anything.
. . .
I soon discovered that I could not write about sex. After all, how does one write about something one has never taken part in? No, I’m not ashamed to admit that in March of 1945, I, Juliette Badeaux, was a virgin at 19 years of age.
For the sake of my writing, I set out to remedy my lack of knowledge. This meant reading as much erotica as I could get my hands on. Unfortunately, my mother had run a tight ship before her passing, so despite having four brothers in the house, there was not a scrap of indecent literature to be found.
Instead, I turned to our local bookstore, owned by a white-haired old man who was probably too deaf and blind to be operating the store on his own. This turned out to be an opportunity for me, as I was able to spend long stretches of time flipping through books in the restricted section before he noticed me and shooed me away.
Finally, I was able to piece together a 1983-word short story.
. . .
Monsieur Boulanger twirled one end of his mustache as he read, then set the paper down. “This is not bad, but it is a little...stiff. Mechanical.” My heart sank at his words. I really needed this job. “Now, I’m thinking maybe you could do better if you put more of yourself into your writing. I want to see more emotion, more heat.”
I nodded vigorously. “I can do that, if you give me another chance.”
He chuckled at my apparent eagerness. “I don’t have another writer lined up yet, so I’ll give you one more try. This story is only good enough for half price, but make the next one better, and you’ll receive full payment.” He slid a crisp 10-franc note across his desk.
I opened my mouth to argue—he had promised me one centime per word, after all— but then decided against it. I would make up the difference soon. Clutching the bill tightly between my fingers, I left his office in search of experience.
. . .
The bar was full of patrons, some drowning their sorrows in a tall glass, others looking for the same thing I was. I had purposely come late at night, when inhibitions were loosened and everything had fuzzy edges. I took a seat at the bar and glanced around at my prospects. It wasn’t long before a man sidled up to me. He was older than me, but not yet middle-aged. If I were to guess, there was a decade between us.
“Would you like a drink?” he asked, smiling in a way that he probably thought was charming.
I nodded, and soon a glass of whiskey was placed in front of me. I had just taken my sputtering first sip when his hand was on my thigh.
“What’s your name?”
“Juliette,” I answered, before I could second-guess the wisdom of revealing my true name to a stranger.
He smirked at that. “Are you looking for your Romeo tonight?”
I rewarded his unoriginality with a smile and shrugged.
“Come home with me,” he said in my ear, his mouth close enough for me to smell the alcohol on his breath.
“Let me use the restroom first, and then we’ll go,” I told him.
. . .
I left the bar through the back exit. I shook my head at myself, wondering why I thought this would be a good idea. There had to be another way to get this job without prostituting myself. As I wove through the dark back alleys that would lead home, flashing lights drew my attention. They belonged to the only establishment in the city besides the bar that was still open at this time, Madame Lefleur’s House of Pleasures. Not very subtle. The place had seen quite a lot of action in the wake of the wars. People had decided now was the time to start living.
Before I knew it, the bell on the door was ringing, announcing my arrival. The woman behind the desk recited, “Three francs for thirty minutes, five for an hour,” without looking up. I wondered if this was Madame Lefleur.
Having entered the house, I couldn’t think of a suitable reason for leaving. My silence caused her to look up, her gaze raking over me. “You’re not one of the regulars,” she said, pausing. “We have enough girls already, and you’re too skinny anyway.”
My face reddened as the meaning of her words dawned on me. “I’m not here to work for you.”
“Ah.” Another once-over. “Three francs for thirty minutes, five—”
“Yes, I know,” I said, cutting her off. “What about if I just want to talk with one of the girls? No sex involved.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You pay for the time and the room. I don’t care what you do in there.”
I hesitated before placing my 10-franc note in front of her. “Thirty minutes, please.”
A stack of bills was handed back to me. “Room 4, you have Adrienne.” She went back to whatever she was doing before.
At her clear dismissal, I wandered down the hall, noting the numbers on the doors. The sounds emanating from some of them made my ears burn, and I increased my pace. Room 4 was tucked away at the end of the hall, the separation from the other rooms making me feel slightly better. Now that I was here and had already spent my money, the only thing left to do was knock.
The door opened to reveal a woman in red lingerie with a hand on her hip. “I’m Juliette,” I squeaked out before she pulled me into the room.
“Adrienne,” she said, stepping back to look at me. “You’re new. And young.”
Adrienne was stunning, with tousled waves of chestnut hair, sparkling brown eyes, and a wide smile. Whoever came up with blond hair and blue eyes as the standard for beauty was absolutely wrong. Her clothing hid little of her hourglass figure, and I took in all the smooth skin on display.
She pushed me towards the bed, distracting me from my observations. “What do you like?” she asked.
“I, er, I just want to talk,” I said.
Her posture changed. “You’re paying for a conversation? Not enough friends?”
“No, that’s not it.” I took a deep breath. “I want you to explain sex to me.”
Adrienne burst out laughing. “You would rather spend your time talking about sex than having it?”
“I got a job writing erotica,” I explained, “but I don’t have the right words. I was hoping you could give me details, tell me what it feels like.”
“What it feels like?” She looked thoughtful. “Have you ever felt passion before?”
“I’m passionate about writing,” I told her.
“What about attraction?”
I blushed. “I think so. I think you’re very pretty.”
She smiled. “Have you ever been so attracted to someone that you just wanted to tear their clothes off? To have them? To consume them? I imagine that’s the type of passion your readers want to read about.”
I had never wanted to consume anyone before, but my face heated at the way Adrienne spoke of such things. I shook my head.
She regarded me carefully, then asked, “Have you ever kissed anyone?”
The answer was yes, there was that one time with a boy from church. An unnoteworthy kiss shared chastely behind a tree after he had invited me for a walk in the park. “Not really,” I said.
“Can I…?” She gestured to her lips.
I nodded mutely, and then her hands were on my face, her mouth covering mine. It reminded me of that chaste kiss all over again, but then her lips started to move. Warmth blossomed everywhere, and I tried to catalogue the various sensations I was feeling. When her tongue slipped into my mouth, my mind stuttered to a halt.
A knock came at the door and we broke apart. “We’re decent,” Adrienne called.
Madame Lefleur poked her head in. “Your time is up.”
I nodded, gave Adrienne a bashful smile which she returned brightly, and headed out the door. On my walk home, I relived the kiss over and over in my head. I told myself it was so I wouldn’t forget how it felt when it came time to put it down on paper. I must have been quite flushed when I reached my house; luckily, there was no need to conceal the signs of my earlier indecent behavior. The only other person who still lived there was my father, and since mother’s death, he had remained locked up in his room, absorbed in his writing.
As I lay in bed, staring into the darkness and unable to sleep, I knew I would return to Madame Lefleur’s House of Pleasures.
. . .
I went back the very next night. “Is Adrienne available?” I asked.
Madame Lefleur nodded and took my three francs. “Room 4.”
Adrienne lounged on the bed and I sat cross-legged by her feet. “Am I the first woman you’ve kissed?” I asked her.
She shook her head no. “We get all sorts of clients in here.”
“Oh,” I said, oddly disappointed. “So you’ve also had sex with women then.”
“What’s it like?”
“Different, but not in a bad way. Warmer, softer.” She looked thoughtful. “Although I guess you have no point of comparison.”
Her hand was on my thigh, and I wondered how it could feel so much better than when the man at the bar did the same thing. “I could show you, if you’d like.”
I hesitated before nodding. Her hand withdrew from my leg, and I felt the loss.
“Lay down,” she said. “Let me take care of you.”
I did what she asked, and then her body pressed into mine. She began by placing a kiss on my neck.
. . .
The next day, I visited Monsieur Boulanger with another story. He skimmed over it and then cleared his throat. “Yes, this is better. It’s an interesting angle, the romance between two women. The job is yours.”
I grinned broadly, accepting the bills he slid across the desk. “Thank you! I won’t disappoint.”
He opened his mouth, looking unsure. “Maybe next time you could add in a man. Our readers enjoy a little ménage à trois.”
I nodded. “I can do that.” I left the building twenty francs richer and knowing exactly where I wanted to spend three of them.
. . .
Adrienne became my muse, and the visits with her became a ritual. I saw the money spent there as a good investment for my future work.
“You gave me extra change,” I told Madame Lefleur one evening.
“Adrienne said to give you a discount. Half off.”
“Oh,” I said. “Thank you.”
She waved her hand. “It comes out of Adrienne’s paycheck, not mine.”
I nodded, unsure of what to do with this information. But then Madame Lefleur went back to whatever she was always doing, and I had a beautiful woman waiting for me…
. . .
“Can I see your writing?” she asked me one night as we lay together on the bed in a tangle of weary limbs and sweaty skin. We held hands, and my thumb traced the fine bones of her fingers.
“If you’d like,” I said, knowing I couldn’t deny her anything. “Do you like erotica?”
“I’m not sure. I like romance. Do your stories have happy endings?”
“The characters usually end up satisfied,” I hedged.
She smirked at that.
“I’ll bring you some stories next week.”
She smiled and kissed me. “Thank you, love.”
. . .
“You’re a very talented writer,” she told me as she answered the door.
My chest swelled with pride. “Oh? Do you think so?”
She nodded. “Yes, me and the other girls all think so.”
I frowned. “The other girls?”
She nodded again. “We read your stories together.”
“Some of those stories are about you and me!” I objected.
She only laughed. “It’s nothing they haven’t done themselves. Besides,” she continued, “Marianne is the only one of us who can read. And she’s fussy about it, charges us each half a franc per reading.”
“I can read to you,” I offered.
Her eyes sparkled. “I would like that. You have a very nice voice.”
I blushed. “Do you want me to now, or—”
She silenced me with a kiss. “Next time. For now, I am interested in reenacting one of your stories. The one called La Femme Irrésistible.”
. . .
I visited her four times a week. Sometimes we just talked, sometimes we had sex, and a few times, I think we made love. My writing was the best it had ever been. I was happy with the arrangement and willing to ignore the fact that there were others who shared Adrienne’s bed. Then two weeks ago, things changed.
I went up to the counter and dropped my money there, like I always did. Instead of picking up the bill, Madame Lefleur said, “Adrienne isn’t here.”
I was confused. Adrienne hadn’t mentioned taking a break. I hadn’t even been aware that the girls left the house, although they must have had nights when they went out on the town. “When will she be back?”
Madame Lefleur looked at me with pity that I didn’t understand. “She left. She won’t be working here anymore. A rich businessman fell in love with her at first sight and proposed. She went back to Calais with him.”
“Oh.” I was a writer with no words, as my entire world came crashing down around me. Emotions warred within me—shock, betrayal, anger, and so much pain. How could Adrienne leave me? Then I remembered what I had forced myself to forget for the past few months, that she was not mine, and her body was not her own. I suddenly felt sick. Had I just been one more person paying for access to her body, purchasing the right to unwanted touches? I don’t know how long I stood there, but eventually, I picked up my money and turned to leave.
“Juliette,” Madame Lefleur said as I reached the door. I paused, wondering how she knew my name. “She wanted me to tell you that being with you wasn’t a job for her.”
. . .
I don’t know if this letter will shock you, disappoint you. I suppose some of it must have been quite strange to read. If anything, I hope that you will be happy for me. I found love like yours and maman’s. I also hope that you will understand what I must do next.
You should know it was your advice that got me to this point. I was only nine years old when you first told me to write what I knew. Now, I’m going to listen to another piece of your advice: to follow my heart. I’ve saved up enough money for a one-way train ticket to Calais. I don’t know what I will find there, but I need to at least look.
I know you’ve been struggling with writer’s block since maman died, but you will need to write to feed yourself. I’ve kept some money for you in the safe, which should be enough to get you by for a few weeks. If you go to the intersection of Soufflot and Toullier, there’ll be a publishing office where you can find work. Ask for Monsieur Boulanger and tell him you’re my father.
I believe I will come back some day, one way or another. Until then, stay well and wish me luck.