Curiosity about the ruckus and the new neighbour had me peering shirtless fresh from the shower, and wrapped in little more than a towel. My toothbrush still 'a la bouche' as I gurgled through the foam, "You need some help?"
"No, I think we're good. Thanks." Angelo ignored the puffing and huffing of his labourers and didn't seem fazed by the semi-naked 30 something dripping toothpaste on the floor.
" I'd love a glass of water though? They haven't turned on the utilities in the flat yet."
"Done" say I. And retreat behind the door, wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and grab a T-shirt.
That's how we met. Simple, easy. Two men, neighbours in a refurbished 17th Century Parisienne apartment building, with pipes so rusty they banged when you turned on the hot water. Rooms so small, you couldn't swing a cat. Just as well, he was fond of his cat. We clicked, right there on the fifth story landing.
The moving day over, I invited him in for a drink. A 'welcome' to the neighbourhood kind of thing, with no more intention than to be friendly. Again I was caught out, wearing little more than cargo shorts and still bare-chested in the warmth of the evening. The noise of the street rising like tropical mist and the voices of those bustling in the thoroughfare tainting the relative quiet. He came dressed immaculately, standing in the doorway with a chilled bottle and a winning smile. A picture of sartorial elegance in jeans and a loose, collared shirt. An unnecessary cashmere sweater draped around his shoulders and tied in a knot. Looked like he'd be more at home in Monte Carlo than the backstreets of St Denis. The ensemble completed with matching light brown leather belt and shoes. I took the cigarette from the side of my mouth and shook his hand.
"Martin Montalbert....good to see you again. Come in mate...All settled?"
He nodded and passed the Sauvignon which was dispatched without aplomb, and poured into two huge Reidel glasses. Something very civilised about sipping from such awesome receptacles. The fine glass so liquid, you could bend the rim with a squeeze between your forefinger and thumb.
We sat on the balcony overlooking street. He kicked off his shoes. Our legs outstretched and feet resting on the railing. The cafe below bustling with after-work punters. The prêt a porter pushers jostling cling-wrapped clothes on mobile wardrobes. The hooker outside the porn shop being ignored by passers-by and the burlesque club across the street barely awake in the early evening.
The sauvignon icy, the brie runny, we introduced ourselves more thoroughly. Me, the widower next door who was left too young by a woman who drove too fast. Without children, my career now replacing my love life. Him, starting fresh in a new city. Although he didn't explain why, other than he was sick of the parochialism of the country and felt a little misunderstood with his cosmopolitan ways. He had a knack of conversing yet revealing little. Being men, we don't probe, just accept.
There was something about this tall but mousy man. He had a feminine beauty about him, made obvious by waxed eyebrows and full lips. Betrayed by broad shoulders, like those of a swimmer, and a distinctly triangular body. The face of an angel. Girlish with flawless skin and the absence of five-o'clock shadow. Sweet, serious with the hint of mischief behind his eyes.
With a bottle between us and the sun setting, we shared tales of when and what if, triumph, loss, regret and dreams. Me regretting not getting back on the horse. He, lamenting the love that he'd yet to find. More importantly we spoke of new beginnings. This was a turning point and a city change for us both, as we clinked glasses and slowly became inebriated. It was a wonderful few hours before he rose and said farewell.
"We should do this again."
He spoke softly but sincerely, as he walked through the door. Not waiting for me to say yay or nay. It was days before I realised he'd left his shoes tucked under the tiny table on the balcony. I smiled and brought them inside and placed them by the door. If someone leaves something behind, they want to return. I was hopeful. He was the kind of man I could call friend.
"I'm in entertainment," he'd said when pushed, but offered little more.
"What sort of entertainment?"
"Theatre, I'm a performer of sorts, but let's not talk about work," and with that, no more was said. I'm not one to define people by their occupation so I just let it slide. Such were our times together. Great conversation but the avoidance of the personal. Mutual respect for privacy.
"I wouldn't have asked but I know few people in Paris. I'll explain everything when I return."Inside the envelope the key to his apartment and 50 Euro for my trouble. Dutifully I wandered next door to scope things out. His apartment was immaculate. Two chocolate coloured couches facing each other in the small lounge room with faux fur throws loosely but carefully thrown across their back. A low coffee table in-between creatively strewn with fashion and lifestyle magazines. Light voile curtains billowing in front of a partially opened window allowing the hum of the city to permeate. A window seat beneath its sill, lined with sweet-smelling geraniums, no wait...I know that scent.
The sly dog must have had a woman in here before he left. The fragrance of her, still present. The same worn by the woman I once loved and lost, and a sundress draped across one of the sofa arms. A pair of red patent stilettos parked parallel at it's base.
Don't know what it is about other people's places, but I felt the urge to pee and headed for the bathroom. Female toiletries on the small glass shelf above the sink. Bal A Versailles perfume in its characteristically ornate bottle, the source of the wonderful scent. Soft beige towels folded to perfection on the stool beside the shower and a woman's apricot silk wrap hanging from the hook on the back of the door. This was weird. I'd never seen her come or go, let alone notice that she'd virtually moved in. Took a slash in the loo and flushed. Opened the vanity looking for the soap. It was laden with cosmetics and Clinique skin care. She had good taste, expensive taste and obviously a passion for taking care of her complexion. Cylindrical bottles of Premarin whatever that is, lined neatly on the top shelf. I fed the cat, now sitting on the windowsill examining my every move, glanced once more with a wry smile at the red shoes and locked the door behind me.
I'm slightly worried about my new found acquaintance. He hasn't called, is well overdue to return and I've run out of cat food. This combined with the curiosity about the blonde with the red patent shoes puts an idea into my idiotic head. The shoes. I grab the tan leather with the pretext of 'returning' them to their rightful owner and rap on the door of Angelo's flat.
I'm not a man who's easily shocked. I'm not a man who came down with the last shower but as the door opened far enough to extend the safety chain, I saw a face I found familiar but barely recognised. The door suddenly shut and I could feel the thud of her back against it. I swear I could hear her take a breath before the door opened fully this time.
"Er Hi. I'm Martin....from next door? I thought Angelo might be back, he left his shoes at my place. "
I must have looked like a right royal twat standing there with a sheepish and slightly lovestruck expression, proffering another man's footwear to a woman I've seen once before and never met. She smiled and asked me to come in.
"Do I know you?" Shit where did that cliched line come from.
"I think you might," she sauntered over towards the window wearing nothing but the silk wrap that had previously hung on the bathroom door. She placed her index finger into the soil of one of the geraniums to check for moisture, "You looked after them well," she cooed as she turned full frontal and faced me. "Martin, it's me....Angelo."
The hard-on I'd been developing quickly became flaccid.
"What? Don't be ridiculous."
By now I'm wearing the expression of an incredulous lover. One who's just discovered his wife in bed with another man. I know the look. Shit I've 'had' the look. She turns towards the window and the profile's distinctive but the chin's different, the cheekbones more refined. The outline of her body beneath the sheerness of her wrap unmistakably female.
"Martin, it's where I've been. It's what I've done. I couldn't tell you until you could see for yourself."
I'm still holding the shoes, now loosely held by a limp grasp as I scrape my tongue metaphorically from the floor.
" I would have told you but thought you might be disgusted. Might not keep an eye on things for me....."
Angelo walks over towards me and takes the shoes. "Thanks Martin, I'd forgotten I'd left them."
As she bends towards me there's a further glimpse of the body beneath. Firm breasts, soft skin and that tantalising fragrance. "Oh..." she whispers, "The name's Christianne. I've never felt like a man. Never been able to cope with being a man. That's why I moved to Paris," she's smiling, a sad smile, no trace of that mischief I'd seen in Angelo. "I began gender reassignment before I moved in, this is the final result. What do you think?"
"Well I guess you won't be needing these any more then..." The shoes are dropped beside the patent pumps as if they're meant to be together.
"Actually I do need them, they're my right of passage."
Tall, elegant, slightly masculine in her angular body but what a body. Tanned, firm, beautiful. She's the kind of woman that you'd love to brush by and feel her outline. The softness of the feathers on her costume, the fullness of her breasts against your chest. The girl can dance, long legs, well-muscled and an arse to envy. The corniness of the performance involving a stationery chair, fades into oblivion when she comes on stage singing in that sultry but sexy voice.
"ça va Martin...you came!"
"You were awesome." I meant it, she was beautiful, sexy, talented but above all feminine.
"Thank you Cheri, I'm so glad you came."
This was the last time Christianne took the stage. I just wanted to see her, just once. Her new life was about to begin, as was mine, and burlesque was not factored in. Her body was not one to be shared any more.
The man with the Raybans still watching as his lascivious thoughts remain unspoken. She rises elegantly from her crouching position and walks towards him, the lingering fragrance of Bal A Versailles as tantalising as her sashay.
"Bonjour Martin," she whispers as her hand languidly slides across his cheek and down the curve of his neck. He rises and puts his arm around her waist. She tilts her head with feminine coy.
"All done?" he asks.
"All done..." the words lost in the connection of their lips.
Written with great difficulty, for The Tenth Daughter of Memory "The Curious Case of the Brown Shoes"