Story — From the April 2014 issue
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Story — From the April 2014 issue
Mariama, you’ll never read this letter: if I sent it, our civil settlement would be invalidated and the district attorney would reopen the criminal case. I have no reason to send it, because I will never ask for your forgiveness. My offense was too great. I got away with it. I’m pleased to remain at liberty. Plus they say you’re illiterate. Yet we commonly recognize that some moral benefit lies in acknowledging our errors, even privately, in order to do penance and seek correction in our behavior. The more truthfully and fully and exactingly we do our accounting, the greater the value. As usual, then, it transpires that I’m acting on my own behalf.
If I could communicate with you, my principal intention would be to persuade you that I’m not a madman, though even writing this unsendable letter testifies against my sanity. I concede that my mind is not right these days, these days of disgrace. My mind was certainly not right at the time of our encounter. Although I was alert to what I was doing, I was also trapped within some kind of mental tunnel in which I was unable to perceive the outer world, or the constraints that usually apply to human relations. I had been in this tunnel — less metaphorically, a highly excitable and distracted state of mind — for the past several days, my thoughts careering against the passageway’s frictionless walls from one data point related to international finance to the next. Also, from woman to woman. I cannot, however, plead that I was not myself. The more closely I recall those actions and circumstances, the more convinced I am that in those terrible minutes my true character emerged. This is the character that would have been suppressed, or crushed or strangled or decapitated, the moment I declared my candidacy.
Before we met, Mariama, you were not one of the tens of millions of people around the world for whom the name David Léon Landau signified financial brilliance in the service of the public. After you were told who I was, later that day, the name still meant nothing to you, though years ago I was involved in writing the terms of the low-interest bond issue that secured a water-treatment plant in Guinea’s Fouta Djallon highlands, not far from your place of birth. I like to think that your lips were once refreshed by cool water gurgling from the village’s communal pipe, and that you sipped it thirstily and with pleasure. You may even have reflected at the time on the miracle of the liquid’s power and plenitude.
Power and plenitude: in the minutes before our encounter I was taking a shower, full force and very hot, fully steaming the wildly oversize New York hotel bathroom. The shower’s intensity did nothing to mitigate my erection, which was fueled by an overreliance on Viagra the night before and the night before that. (I will avoid inflicting my erections on you any further, except when unavoidable.) I wasn’t thinking of sex. Rather, I was brooding about the set of problems that seemed to define my life that morning. Chief among them was the European debt crisis and my crucial appointment with the refractory German chancellor the next day. I was also alarmed about a text message I had received that morning from a friend in Paris, suggesting that my political opponents had gained access to my emails. Only two days earlier, in Washington, D.C., another friend had delivered an urgent warning that I was being spied on by French intelligence — a warning, we learned later, that was clandestinely recorded. I turned my face into the water as if it were a liberating scour.
If you’ve taken an interest in the particulars of your own legal case (and you may not have), you will know that on the Thursday night before our encounter I attended what the papers have termed a “libertine party” in a suite at Washington’s W hotel with three of my friends and a few women. After the women left, we returned to the suite’s dining room, where the dinner dishes were not yet cleared, and compared notes over a rare bottle of Calvados, distilled in 1865 and bottled in 1912. The brandy, which had crossed the Atlantic three times, was a postcoital custom, a token of our friendship and our common pursuit. We spoke little, making mostly quiet comments about what we had shared. We raised glasses to the distinct qualities of the women we had been with — the infectious laugh of one, the globular behind of another. With good humor, alacrity, and sometimes astounding invention, the women had performed several preliminary sex acts with us and among themselves before accepting us as lovers somewhere within the suite’s tenebrous rooms and alcoves. More than a hundred apples had gone into the wide-hipped brown bottle; the apples tasted as fresh as if they had just been picked.
My friend Philippe, a regional police commissioner in France, tilted his empty glass toward the bottle, which remained on the table in front of the sofa, and said, “We should finish it now.”
Another friend, Marc, objected. “There’s enough for Rio.”
Philippe allowed Marc’s point to stand, but I guessed his baleful meaning. I rose from the couch, tightened the hotel robe around my girth, and walked to the window that looked out onto the memorial to General Washington. I wished Philippe hadn’t said anything. Despite the expense (mostly Marc’s) and the intricate arrangements (especially after we moved the party to D.C.), the thousands of miles several of us had flown to come here, the fineness of the meal, and the fabulousness of the women, these evenings were like delicate flowers, every petal trembling before the ardent touch.
Later, after Marc and our other friend, Josef, were gone, Philippe remained in the corner wing chair, bare-chested, an empty glass in hand. “You have too many enemies,” he said. “You’re about to have many more.”
I went again to the window. I wanted to throw it open, lean out, and get a lungful of American air, but it was sealed.
“They’re watching you, David. Whatever you do, whomever you’re with. Once you declare, it’ll be worse.”
“I know, they’re already digging under every rock. Le Figaro. Le Point.”
“The press is a nuisance, but you should worry about Sarkozy. He’s looking for every edge. I hear he has people in the DCRI, or the DCRI has people it can call on for him. It’s becoming dangerous, and not only for you. Everything’s at stake now. We have to stop.”
The DCRI is the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur, the French domestic-intelligence service. As a former government minister, I was aware of the agency’s surveillance capabilities, and I also knew the strict legal prohibitions against using them for political purposes. But Sarkozy was another Nixon. Those prohibitions would mean nothing to him.
I gazed down at the illuminated pink-and-white chessboard plaza in front of the Department of the Treasury, across from the hotel. I had passed over these tiles only a few hours before, en route to my appointment with the undersecretary. We had commiserated over the grim European numbers, aware that several lines of power ran, crackling, through his office, which looked out on a garden in which the geraniums and roses were in full bloom, and that this power was at our disposal if only we had the courage to use it. The power was still there tonight. I had sent a preliminary proposal to Timothy Geithner.
“It was a lovely evening, though, wasn’t it, Philippe? Those new girls were splendid. I won’t ask you where you found them. Very compassionate. Giselle has this little maneuver, a flick of the pelvis at the right moment . . . Exquisite. How does one learn that move? How is the technique transmitted from one generation of chicks to the next? I presume they don’t get it from their mothers. And the kitchen was very decent tonight, even if they had to be instructed.”
“Yes,” Philippe said, knowing he would get no further with me now. He had already told me that he came three times with Lucy, the miracle girl. Whatever was going to happen, in the next month or the following year, this was a very fine moment. Of course, I haven’t seen Philippe since then, and probably never will again.
Few downfalls in public life have been as well documented as mine. Electronic key cards recorded every time the door to my New York hotel suite was opened from the corridor and by whom, whether guest or staff member. Security cameras in the lobby, corridors, and employee areas tracked the movements of every person in the building. The time and duration of each phone call I made was logged. The timeline of my descent has been established right down to the second of impact. I have it before me, along with several books and investigative articles on the case and a floor plan of the suite.
Omissions in the record remain, however, leaving troublesome questions about the events of the day. The key cards don’t record when individuals leave hotel rooms, for example. If the New York district attorney had succeeded in bringing the case against me to trial, most of these omissions would have been addressed. Your testimony would have been pitted against mine. A new narrative would have emerged, giving each actor in the drama sensibility and motive. The criminal case collapsed because of doubts cast on your credibility that were mostly related to certain falsehoods filed in your immigration papers years ago, not to our sexual encounter. So the mysteries are still here, stalking me in the underfurnished rooms of my bachelor flat.
No one contests that there was a sexual encounter: my semen was found on your uniform top and mixed in with the saliva you spat onto the carpet. Yet I was prepared to argue in court that our sex was consensual — even if we had never met before, even though our entire romantic affair, from the first hello to the first stirrings of desire, the rites of courtship, the sexual act itself, and the sweet regretful words of farewell, had to be encompassed within a span of minutes.
After my arrest for sexual assault, I was held for four days at Rikers Island and then under house arrest in New York for more than a month. Once the district attorney saw that he wouldn’t win against my best-in-the-business defense team, I was free to leave the States — but with my job lost, my candidacy undeclared, and my reputation wrecked. My wife would shortly leave me, quelle surprise. Your lawyers filed a civil suit. We’ve now negotiated a settlement that will depend on both sides keeping silent about what really happened that day in the presidential suite of the New York Sofitel.
So the truth remains unvoiced and legally unvoiceable. If your lawyers or the D.A. knew that I was composing this account privately, my hard drive would be subpoenaed through the French courts. The civil settlement would fall apart. The criminal case would be reopened. Yet as dangerous as this confession may be to my freedom, I’m compelled to sit myself before this laptop and write.
The thought that everything depended on Angela Merkel reverberated across the bright hours of the morning after the Washington sex party, Friday. I went to my office to study the latest figures from Greece. They were appalling, promising severe hardship to real people. I exchanged phone calls with finance officials and private economists on three continents. Everyone was looking at the same fateful numbers, depositing them into the same equations, and getting the same distressing results. Contagion was probable: Italy, Spain, and Portugal were at immediate risk, and not even France was safe. I had virtually begged Angela to see me on Sunday. We needed to show the markets something before they opened on Monday. “Chancellor, please. We’ve come up with a plan. It’s effective, it’s comprehensive, and it’s politically palatable.” She had refused at first, insisting that Sunday was the day she reserved for her personal life.
Her personal life. This was an abdication of power. Millions of personal lives would be ruined if the correct measures were not taken within the next few days. I scorned her fear, her manifold hesitancies, and her sluggishness, which I had come to know well. She was like a peasant farmer, some Kleinbäuerin, guarding her stash of 6 percent unemployment and her 3.1 percent ten-year bond yield in the cellar while famine ravaged the land. If she would only bring her potatoes to market . . . Of course I didn’t tell her the inconvenience I had gone to, forced to move up the sex party a day, and from New York to Washington, in order to accommodate our Sunday appointment.
The only way forward was for Europe to buy the crappy Greek debt; the figures involved were relatively small, €60 billion, about the same as Lower Saxony’s direct indebtedness. Greece’s creditors would have to take a haircut, but they’d survive.
Angela would claim the constitution forbids the German government to lend beyond parliamentary control, but there were ways to get around that. I had studied the relevant articles and consulted with friends in the Berlin judiciary. I had spoken, behind her back, with the power brokers in her party. I knew I could bring the banks on board and sell it to the other European leaders. Everything was manageable, as soon as that stolid, dreary woman was ready to exercise the power with which she had been invested.
A car took me to Reagan Airport as I beat down a rising tide of anger. Everything was manageable and everyone made everything hard. Sarkozy would try to smash my head in even as he took credit for the plan. The lazy, lying Greeks would squeal at austerity while I saved them from privation. They’d send thugs out onto the streets. The IMF’s directors were ready to pounce if anything went wrong. Angela would put on her stern face, show resistance and anger and who knew what kind of Ossi passive aggression. She would have to be romanced.
Meanwhile, even my friends were reining me in, trying to refashion me as a conventional political candidate, captive to conventional sentiment. What to say. Where to appear. Which gimcrack ring to kiss on the wrinkled hand of which constipated fool. Philippe was right, of course; I knew we’d have to stop getting together once the campaign began. Once I declared — then I would no longer belong to myself. I would belong to the Party and certain proprieties would have to be observed.
If I declared . . . A part of me sought the presidency as I have sought other offices, only because I knew I was the best person for it. Urgent measures had to be taken for France’s future, and for Europe’s; I would assume the commitment to achieve them. That was my strength. I recognized that most men shunned challenges and difficulties: I rushed to them. Other men minimized risks; I coolly weighed them against what could be achieved. They feared being shackled by responsibility; but for a man like myself responsibility was not a restriction: it was the key to personal freedom. Responsibility gave me license to exercise my intelligence, my resolve, and my talents of persuasion.
That was on one hand; the other hand grasped at a multitude of slippery ambiguities. My actions in the next twenty-four hours would suggest to many that I never wanted the presidency at all.
At Reagan, passing through check-in and security, I was nearly vibrating with conflicting aspirations. As if Terminal B were an enormous vagina, slick and firm — pardon me, Mariama, but that was the image that came to mind — I was surrounded by womanhood: travelers, busty TSA cops, and, moving in small packs, tight-skirted stewardesses, who effected a twinge in my lower groin area, as their grandmothers had on my first airplane flight, to Nice on a family vacation when I was nine. At security, women were removing their shoes, slipping or even hopping out of them no differently than they might have in the bedroom. I couldn’t help but believe, for a moment at least, that they were doing it on my behalf.
As I approached my gate, I spied a woman in a tight red sheath dress and matching heels and knew, as I knew many things, that I could have her. Her dress stopped not quite mid-thigh. She milled with the other passengers waiting for their rows to be called. First class was boarding now, but I didn’t join the queue. I couldn’t see her face. I didn’t know whether she was pretty or plain, and when I reached the waiting area she shifted her stance and turned her head, as if deliberately defending against my scrutiny. There wasn’t enough time to invite her for a drink in the Delta Sky Club. Unless of course I persuaded her, with the promise of a first-class upgrade, to catch the next flight.
The thought tormented me: I was on a tight schedule. I was getting into New York late and meeting my friend Claudette. I had some phone appointments Saturday morning and lunch with my daughter at noon, and then I had to catch the 4:40 p.m. flight to Paris. From Paris on Sunday, after stopping home to see my wife, I was flying on to Berlin. I did not need any entanglements right now. The girl was still appealing, though. That turn away from me, on her pretty red heels, showing the curve of her delicate behind, could have been an act of deliberate coquetry. I loved that. You must wonder how I could be so smart and yet think so recklessly.
This was, however, exactly the man I was, the man I am today, the man who would save the European economy and the man who wanted to fuck this woman silly — or at least have her masturbate him in first class, under a first-class blanket, as a giggling Filipina in tight stonewashed jeans had once kindly done, from Vienna to Amsterdam. And this man — me! — was getting older: I was sixty-two, conventionally, restrictively, thought to be too old for these passions and these games, but I would age only further, and these pleasures would further recede from my embrace. I was surrounded by those who wished to rush deprivations at me: my wife, my sister, my (former) doctor, who demanded that I cut back my consumption of salt. I decided to approach the woman. Success often depends less on good judgment than on one’s decisiveness.
Not every man has my determination, but every man is just as concupiscent, whether he’s married or single, getting it regularly or not. He may be the perspiring comb-over with a somber, heavy-lidded demeanor, or the goofy, buck-toothed busboy whose bedroom is postered with images of footballers, or the wise, soft-spoken rabbi, or the hideously maimed war veteran. Every one of those men who is heterosexual is watching you and your sisters, Mariama, surreptitiously or candidly, judging the outline of a breast and then extrapolating, or assessing a tush, an ankle, or a pair of full, vermilion lips. The turn of a head and its momentary reveal of a long, slender neck give us a deep and abiding pleasure, regardless of what happens next. Count on it.
The woman in the red sheath was fewer than thirty feet away, but other passengers and their carry-ons stood between us, almost deliberately, I thought. I picked my way around them, nearly tripping over some toddler of indeterminate sex. The woman remained beyond my reach. The plane’s back rows were called and the passengers frantically assembled themselves into a sloppy queue. I was blocked again. The woman went through the gate and vanished into coach without showing her face.
I concede that not every man is as preoccupied as I was, and I’m not always this way: the sexual restlessness rises and subsides. I can only speculate about what triggers it, or why this peculiar temper was so overwhelming that weekend. The previous night’s revels were still fresh in my mind, of course. My sorrow at their conclusion was fresh, too, as was the awareness that they might never be repeated. Philippe’s cautions weighed on me. So did Angela’s skittishness about the Sunday meeting.
When I entered the cool, subtly lit lobby of the Sofitel, I was immediately aware that it was populated by beautiful women, all of them made up and coiffed like Hollywood stars. Some were evidently guests, lounging cinematically on the overplush upholstery. Others wore crisp black uniforms, their hair tied back severely, and with no less elegance they glided across the marble inlaid floor. But now, reflecting on my arrival, I also recall one or two crew-cut, earpieced men in the shadows, witnessing my entrance. They didn’t look like bellboys.
The VIP concierge was waiting for me, beaming. I suppose you know her. I acquired her first name from the enameled bijou pinned a few inches north-northwest of her pert right breast. Her left seemed quite pert, too, by the way.
“Adèle,” I said.
“We’re pleased to see you again,” she said, dimpling. After I checked in, she offered to show me to my room.
I was aware that this courtesy was obligatory, but it could have been something else too. In the course of our noiseless, lubricated ascent to the twenty-eighth floor, I let her know she was being appraised. She smiled in return, showing those winsome dimples again, and I thought to myself, a possibility.
“I was last here in March,” I said.
“That you recall makes me inordinately, inappropriately happy.”
But when we arrived at my floor and entered the presidential suite, the woman proved elusive. She walked me through the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, and the bedroom and demonstrated the function of the wide-screen television, and every time I tried to block her she passed around me as if I were not there at all. Before I could close the door to the suite, she wished me a pleasant stay and left, without giving away the slightest suggestion of haste.
I wondered if there was significance in her recollection of my last visit. The room-service or housekeeping staff may have talked. Mariama, you may have heard certain rumors, too, or started them, if you were the housekeeper assigned to clean the suite. That rainy March morning, even with the women gone, enough underthings had been left behind to stock a small boutique. I recalled now that here in the dining room, not once getting up from her knees, Claudette had fellated three of us, one right after the other.
I checked my messages, washed up, and looked at my messages again. Queries flooded my inbox from finance ministries all over the world. I answered the most urgent of them with assurances that I would address every issue in Berlin.
Now I was alone in a suite that had been fashioned for sex: a king-size bed, two sofas, a bar, plush rugs, and a view of Manhattan that warmed the loins. It was early evening. The city’s skyscrapers were still illuminated within the embers of the fading workweek. The two rivers, slightly different shades of slate blue, extended on either side of me, specked by tiny tugs and ferries. That’s what you get for $3,000 a night. We had planned a leisurely, long-weekend bacchanal here, but then the crisis intervened. I could have canceled the reservation and stayed in a less expensive room, or simply not come to New York. I hadn’t because I never like to give up the potential for sex.
Claudette couldn’t meet me until ten. She lived a complicated life, of which I was not the most tangled complication, at least not at that time. She had a husband in Paris, older than me and physically abusive, with whom she holidayed in Miami every winter. He knew about me; an American boyfriend, also married, was clueless. Her sister in Lyon was chronically in debt. Claudette herself was afflicted by some irregular immigration status, which I could have remedied with a single phone call, but she declined my help. Perhaps she feared that she would have had to disclose further complications. I’ll never learn now what they were. Sweet, quick-witted, sperm-hungry Claudette: I haven’t spoken to her since that weekend either.
I descended to the lobby, ignoring the concierge, and went into the street, into the lusty New York springtime. It was eight p.m. and the sidewalks coursed with alluring women of all races. They met my searching eyes. Some were unaccompanied. I had no plan for these hours, but every moment of eye contact, every wordless exchange, provoked another review of possible strategies and tactics.
I felt completely at home. I’m one of the tens of millions of people, including nearly every Parisian, who live outside New York but consider ourselves New Yorkers, either because of time spent here or familiarity with the city from films and books or simply because we embrace its spirit of cosmopolitan, mercantilistic, street-smart, class-jumping, opportunity-seeking liberty. We keep MetroCards in our wallets. We support the Yankees. We defend our favorite West Village restaurants, even if they closed fifteen years ago.
My whereabouts from eight until early Saturday morning would remain undiscovered by the prosecutor, who may not have been interested in them anyway. They were, for me, hours of a rather typical New York evening. I meandered, my turn at each corner dependent on the direction of the walk sign. I bought a hot dog with sauerkraut and relish. I gave directions to a lost backpacker. Tearing off a piece of the frank, I smiled appreciatively at two women in short spring coats, meeting their husbands I guess, well made up for their Friday-night dates. Their smiles in return were blindingly full-toothed. I was casting my line, mostly out of restlessness, knowing that I would be seeing Claudette soon enough, yet also keen to determine what else was within range of my barbed hook.
After a while my stroll brought me to the sidewalk outside a scarf store. I peered through the glass door at the three young women inside. The store owner clearly had a specific taste in girls — leggy, angular, small in the chest, and long-necked — or perhaps these are the physical types of women that most vigorously suggest the need for a scarf. Tonight I was the only customer, and each salesgirl smiled at me in her own way: the first, a smirky, crooked turn of her mouth; the second with pursed lips; the third with a toss of her head. Each smile made its own promise.
I know something about scarves, and in fact the night before we had used a couple to tie down one of the new girls. She had squealed like a teenager, which she may have been. Now I walked slowly by the vitrines, ignoring the more modestly priced items on display outside them.
“Good evening, sir!”
The greeting emerged from the pursed lips, which were slightly chapped. The gamine’s pixieish, close-cropped hair was jet-black, and her eyes were wide and alert.
“And to you, my dear. It’s a splendid evening. Almost too splendid to be shopping for a scarf. I wonder why I came in.”
“Are you looking for something specific?”
I caught her eye and held it for some time.
“Yes, I certainly am,” I said.
She didn’t flinch or blush, to her credit.
I paused, letting her further consider what I might be looking for, and then I said, “Something in a square silk twill, dip-dyed. Hermès or Lanvin, perhaps.”
“Do you have a particular color in mind?”
“No,” I said, and then added in a murmur, “something rich.”
With deft, careful movements, she removed several scarves, which I asked her to model. She took the time to drape them neatly around her neck and fold them one way and then another. She turned so that I could see them — her — from every angle, each pose languorous and beguiling. The last scarf, an electric blue precisely the same color as her lacquered nails, appeared to ignite a cool glow in her eyes. She smiled, knowing she looked very fine and knowing I appreciated her fineness.
“Do you like it?” I asked.
“It’s lovely,” she said, checking a mirror, and then she grinned, her vanity winning out over her reserve. This smile was more attractive than the pursed lips with which she welcomed the shop’s customers.
“Please wrap it then.”
Her long fingers manipulated the fabric and tissue. The scarf went into the box folded as crisply as a newly printed banknote. Under my steady gaze she may have been slowly comprehending, half in embarrassment, for whom the scarf was intended.
She gave me the bill, for $410. I barely looked at it before handing over my AmEx Centurion, the anodized-titanium black card, an advertisement for sexual prowess if ever there was one.
“I suppose your shop will close shortly,” I said while she ran the card through. Shopgirls are usually impressed with the black card or made anxious by it. Often they have never seen one before or may not know they exist. They call their supervisors. This girl made no sign of surprise. She may have been preoccupied by the meaning of the scarf. Would she refuse it? Would she be enticed? “I also suppose that at the end of a long day even the most charming and attractive sales associate will require a drink.”
A woman balances herself on a precipice, a football, a tightrope, or a rickety chair. She may or may not decide to fall.
“That’s a good guess,” she said after a pause. Now she gave the name embossed on the card a closer look. “You’re David Léon Landau. Of course! I should have recognized you.”
“You should have?” I signed the receipt.
“I’m studying at NYU’s Stern School, in the core business program with a concentration in finance. We talk about Greece every morning. I bet you do, too.”
“That’s also a good guess,” I said, taken aback by the turn in the conversation.
“I wouldn’t count on the Germans. Merkel’s very sensitive to public opinion, especially after losing the state election in Baden-Württemberg. I can tell you right now, she won’t bail out the Greeks.”
“That’s not what we’re asking her to do,” I replied, somewhat defensively. Our critics would have called the proposal a bailout. Our success would have depended on defining the plan as something entirely different.
“She’s already facing a constitutional challenge for last year’s rescue package,” the girl said. “She’s defending credit guarantees to Ireland and Portugal and has to be worried about Spanish bond rates. Meanwhile, Greece isn’t technically excluded from the capital markets yet. Athens can use the time to think about the consequences of leaving the euro.”
By confirming that I would be making a proposal, I had already told the shopgirl more than what had been reported by the press.
“Those are significant consequences, for Germany and the world. All the more reason to devise a comprehensive solution,” I said, precisely what I intended to tell Angela, in precisely that same soft, stern voice. The girl wasn’t buying it. I offered my hand coolly. “I’m very pleased to meet you. Good luck with your studies.”
“Thank you,” she said, indifferent to having lost the drink and the scarf in the heat of macroeconomic analysis. She was a hard, bright young woman and fully self-possessed, never a real prospect. She had her own agenda. Adopting a bloodless professional register, she added, “Please allow me to send you my curriculum vitae. Next month I get my bachelor of science with honors. I’m looking for a position in an international lending institution.”
We exchanged business cards and I left the shop with the scarf in a box in a little white shopping bag.
Claudette finally arrived at Les Chiffres a little before ten, in heels and a sheer black micro, and I was not the only man at the bar riveted by her entrance. I gaze at her now. From the wreckage of my career, with its abandoned file cabinets and confiscated computers, I’ve managed to rescue a series of photographs that I can study and savor in my solitude, spread across my dining-room table. They show Claudette in different states of undress, some of them on her own, some with a variety of sexual partners, some at the Sofitel. Now we kissed softly on the lips, like an old married couple.
“Sorry I’m so late,” she said. “Michael’s wife had to go in for treatment and he wanted to see a movie. Some romantic comedy. It was okay.”
“I wish you could have come to D.C. last night.”
She threw up her hands. “Impossible. I had work today. Anyway, it sounds like you brought in some fresh talent.”
“We did,” I said. “Philippe found them. Real players. They started us off with an old-fashioned strip show.”
She giggled. “And then it became totally depraved.”
“Wish you were there.”
“David, I’m getting old.”
“Don’t be silly. If you’re getting old then . . . ”
“You’re a man. A ridiculous old goat of a man, but nevertheless. What were they, twenty-two, twenty-three? I can’t keep up with that.”
This was true, about both of us. Claudette still made heads snap, and she still craved romantic adventure, but she was forty. And, yes, I am a ridiculous old goat of a man, but that night was not the night I wanted to hear it. I was still troubled by the scarf girl’s glib analysis, which didn’t acknowledge the immensity of what was at stake. If the euro failed there would be no simple reversion to national currencies. The northern economies would most likely retain the currency union while the southern nations drifted into crisis and indigence. The skinheads would take power in one country after another. Twenty years after the last division of Europe was erased, a new line would be drawn, a fault line that promised another century of brutality. My proposal was a problematic long shot, but this weekend, in the hours leading up to my meeting with the world’s most powerful woman, I had to think of the plan and the man who devised it as something like heroic.
Claudette realized now that she had said the wrong thing, and she turned pensive. I let the moment grow, as a deterrent to further raillery along those lines. We watched the crowd. Les Chiffres was one of the most reliable and understated sex clubs in New York, with soft jazz and subdued, flattering light. The cover was $300, keeping the crowd upscale and purposeful. Some trim, stylishly dressed couples shuffled around the tiny hardwood dance floor.
Claudette left me while she cruised and a chanteuse lumbered through the Carla Bruni songbook. With no private room on-site, Les Chiffres was suitable only for introductions; the bathrooms were patrolled. She invited a man to dance, and then, at the end of the song, his date. She was auditioning the couple for my benefit. They knew they were being auditioned and that I was watching. They looked my way several times. For the next song, Claudette moved on to another man and woman, while I pondered the BlackBerry resting inside my jacket. I didn’t know whether Geithner had returned my latest text. I needed one or two important commitments from Treasury. In a venue where strangers approached each other with the most intimate propositions, where women paraded in artful undress and the leer was accepted as a gracious compliment, looking at your phone was considered intolerably discourteous. Claudette returned. I asked, “What do you think?”
“A slow night, I’m afraid.”
I looked around. The banquettes were filled, several by guests in animated conservation that I longed to be part of. The women were pretty — too pretty to be DCRI, I thought, and then reconsidered. The intelligence agencies could have stepped up their game since the Nineties, when I was last in government. I was conscious too that I may have been exaggerating my concerns. Philippe had heard vague rumors, not seen any evidence. The idea that I was being spied on in New York now seemed far-fetched.
“How about the redhead? She has legs like a racehorse.”
“The guy’s too hairy. Not my taste.”
We spent another forty minutes or so at the bar, watching other couples make assignations. Even though Claudette was by far the most attractive woman in the room, no one approached us.
At the same time I was easily the oldest man in the room and the only one in a business suit — a hand-tailored suit of Italian linen, but nevertheless these were the same clothes in which earlier that day, sweating and grunting, spitting and groaning, I had wrestled to the ground the unwieldy numbers that underlay the disintegrating Greek economy. This was important work, important for Europe and the West. These were the labors that made possible, for instance, the existence of this club, a venue for the exercise of sexual freedom within a society whose affluence made it tolerant of individual choice and secure enough for intimacy between strangers. Yet I felt foolish for coming, decrepit and needy, foolish for the entire day of women-hunting, and immensely fatigued. I leaned my head on Claudette’s shoulder.
A town car took us back. I checked my phone once we were in the vehicle. Geithner had texted, finally, but the response was equivocal. I wouldn’t be able to nail him down until after I spoke with Angela.
Claudette leaned close and kissed me tenderly, wrapping her hand around the inside of my leg. The gesture reminded me that we were returning to the Sofitel and I would be getting my reward: a piece that was in fact superior to any other I had set eyes on that day (though the scarf girl was a close second). But my restlessness was only amplified. If some of Les Chiffres’s guests were DCRI, pictures may have been taken, revealing my dishevelment. Perhaps the driver of the car was DCRI. He had arrived suspiciously soon after the hostess called. Claudette moved her hand up and I stiffened in the minute it took us to travel two city blocks. I had taken my Viagra in the men’s room, just as Claudette, similarly foresighted, was removing her panties in the women’s.
We didn’t speak as we slid into precoital anticipation. No surprises would present themselves tonight: we were too much like any other long-term couple that had shaped their lovemaking around the contours of their predilections, aversions, capabilities, and disabilities. Twenty-Ninth Street. Thirtieth Street. Thirty-First. Claudette released her grip. With her eyes closed and her skirt pulled up, she was intently fingering herself. The driver may have been watching in the rearview mirror, DCRI or not. She may have positioned herself so that he could watch.
Claudette was preparing for the moment we entered the suite. In the early, hopeful throbs of self-stimulation, she probably wagered that we wouldn’t make it to the bed. We didn’t. After our wordless elevator ascent, in which I sniffed and kissed her hand, the door’s closing thud barely had time to echo off the neighboring, less libertine doors on the twenty-eighth floor. I threw her down to the carpet in the foyer. She landed on her shoulder, gasping. I dropped my pants.
This is how I prefer to have my women, and how they sometimes prefer it, too, without the feints and hypocrisies of seduction, without the significant looks and the lame jokes, in a sudden strike, a jump, a rage — a coup de foudre, a thunderbolt. This was how I had planned to take the red sheath girl in the airport and every other female I had encountered that day. Perhaps, because of the frustrations of the day, I used more force than was necessary. Briefly, before I fell on top of her, Claudette lay on the carpet stunned.
Later, when she emerged from the shower, she joked about her fall, though I could tell she was annoyed. I kissed the bruises. She left around four a.m. with the blue scarf tied around her neck, as would be recorded by the security cameras. The scarf suited her well, as if I had selected it with her neck in mind.
This brings us to Saturday, and then to my undoing. Thank you for bearing with me, Mariama — and since I’m not permitted to correspond with the actual Mariama, whom I last saw fleeing my suite in tears, I address the Mariama who hovers in the disturbed atmosphere above my laptop, the Mariama whose image occasionally flickers on the interiors of my eyelids. In this account of my conduct, I have tried to be completely candid. I wonder if you’re shocked, or whether you’ve seen men behaving much worse (in fact, it has been established that you have), or whether my power and wealth make me such an alien creature that my sexual deportment holds no more interest for you than, say, that of a mollusk at the bottom of the Atlantic.
Mariama, this account necessarily centers itself on my own preoccupations and actions, but I recognize that your days have been no less dramatic than mine. Through press reports and my lawyers’ research, I’ve studied the particulars of your difficult life (which I’ve made more difficult, though also different, with a new aboutness). I know that you’re unmarried and that at the time of our encounter you lived with your teenage daughter in the Bronx, in a tough neighborhood largely inhabited by other immigrants from West Africa. I know too that many of the flats in your building, and probably your flat, too, are subsidized by a charitable agency that provides housing to people with HIV infection. I presume you’re infected: your history demands it. And reaching these New York streets required struggle and guile, some of which would be uncovered by the legal process, to my lasting advantage.
On this bright spring morning, as you rode the subway into Manhattan, you must have dwelled on certain exigencies in your own life. Perhaps you were thinking of your daughter. I’m aware of the challenges: boys, crime, keeping up her school grades. I myself have four daughters, acquired over three marriages.
I never slept that morning. After Claudette departed, I sat at the desk in my underwear, studying the proposal. From time to time the assimilation of nitric oxide within my penis’s corpus cavernosum led to an inflow of blood and I became hard again. In the past two days I had slept less than two hours and swallowed three Viagras. I wished Claudette had stayed or that my wife were with me, or that they both were. I ordered breakfast and tried to revive my spirits by reviewing our early-morning lovemaking. Once she recovered from her fall, Claudette had been no less ferocious than I was. My right shoulder was raked by long, deep scratches. In the coming days, after my arrest and incarceration, I would watch the marks’ gradual erasure with rising dismay. Within a week every sign of our caresses was gone.
My BlackBerry inbox was full of unread mail and texts. New data about Greece shortly arrived and demanded to be loaded into my calculations, threatening to upset the already listing rescue boat. I went down the queue. Most of the senders were from international lending institutions or European finance ministries. But several hours deep I recognized a name from another context, attached to a woman I had become acquainted with at a reception in the Petit Palais. She was a researcher in the UMP, Sarkozy’s party. She had deflected my gallantries on several occasions, though not, I concluded, categorically. We had kept in touch.
It was a strange and alarming text. She wrote that the UMP had apparently obtained at least one email that I had recently sent my wife through my BlackBerry. The researcher hadn’t read the message herself but had overheard colleagues saying it was related to what she tactfully called my “personal affairs.”
This was, I realized, just what Philippe had warned me about. This was proof: I was under surveillance. Sarkozy was indeed employing the DCRI against me, a violation of law, principle, and common decency. My fantasies about the DCRI agents the night before had not been fantasies at all. I was furious, in part because I had been shown to be naïve. Although the president was my political opponent, I never really believed he would go after me personally.
Every email and every text that I had written in the past week seemed to scroll before my eyes. Secret financial data. Communication with world leaders. Plans for the Thursday sex party. Endearments. Blandishments. Cajoleries. I fell into a trance as I realized all the forces that were being raised against me. There was only one person I could call in this situation: my wife. She was home in our apartment in Paris. We didn’t need to exchange pleasantries.
“My phone’s been tapped!” I cried. “Sarkozy’s goons have at least one of our emails from last week.”
“Oh dear!” she said, her inflection sympathetically echoing my distress. I immediately felt better. She always knew how to pitch her responses to my travails, and also to my triumphs. She knew too about all my little vanities. She was my best friend, which makes her recent departure from my life, in a pall of mortification, the most tragic element of this entire affair. All right, you may not agree.
“Oh baby,” I said, sighing.
“Oh honey. Are you sure? Did they hack your account?”
“I don’t know!” I paused to think about it. They would have had to penetrate the IMF’s servers. “No. They must have gotten into the phone itself.”
I instructed her to call my friend Victor, a public-relations executive who handles certain political problems for me, including those having to do with security. He has his own contacts in French intelligence. Only a month before, in what I thought was an overabundance of caution, one of his men installed an antibugging device in the BlackBerry. The only way it could have been disabled was by being physically removed.
“See if they’ll come over tomorrow before I fly to Berlin. I want them to break the phone down to its circuits.”
She said she would serve hors d’oeuvres. “By the way,” she added. “Which phone are you calling from?”
For the next twenty minutes, after we abruptly ended our conversation, I stared at the treacherous BlackBerry. Now, and not for the first time, I felt ambivalence and an actual revulsion toward my involvement in politics. I was reminded that this kind of aggressive, sordid behavior is a regular feature of political life. The men and women of power, whether they’re Sarkozy or Merkel, Obama or Putin, are elementally no more than warlords, dedicated to their own survival and the domination of others. If they could murder their opponents, they would (and sometimes Putin does). Perhaps this is hardly a revelation for someone from Guinea, a country once ruled by military dictators, Mariama, and I know it’s a perspective shared by most people around the world. Criminality behind the façade of politics is a regular trope of popular culture. But I was squarely within the political process, I went into politics for love of country and a belief in humanity, and for me the abuse of power still provokes outrage.
I looked at my watch. I had a lunch date with my daughter Jeanne, who studies at Columbia and wished to introduce me to her fiancé. I was ambivalent about the lunch and the fiancé‚ and couldn’t remember where we were meeting, but the date had been made weeks before. After shaving, I rushed to take a quick shower.
The violated BlackBerry was still on my mind, as was my blunder in calling my wife from it, the Greek bailout (though we were not going to call it that), and my appointment with Angela, as were the indignities that the campaign was about to impose on me. I stopped soaping myself, paralyzed by anger. When I considered the limitations on my freedom of action my temper began to rise. I knew I was being irrational, yet I felt now the weight of the world’s many conspiracies. All my virtues — my intelligence, my idealism, and my passion — were being used against me.
It was then that I became aware of my erection, my stupid, heavy, boring erection, rising blindly between my legs, unbidden and unneeded. Go away, I thought. It was not the good, golden erection of youth, keenly animate, hypersensitive, throbbing, searching, yearning. No, no, it was a soulless sixty-two-year-old over-Viagraed dick. Go away! I touched it and there was no more feeling than if I had touched my elbow. I didn’t think of masturbating. I was in a hurry, after all. I didn’t yet realize how I might be delayed.
Now certain noises in the suite made themselves known to me. According to the later investigation, based on the key-card records, a room-service employee had arrived at 12:05 p.m. to take my breakfast dishes. He left. The shower was still beating down on my head. I shut it and began toweling off. Within a minute, at 12:06, the door to the suite opened again. When I heard that, I suddenly remembered the BlackBerry.
“Housekeeping!” you sang.
My first thought was that I had again foolishly left the phone unattended. After my indiscreet call to my wife, the DCRI knew that I would be having it inspected. They could enter the suite, find the phone, and take it. “Hello!” you repeated. “It’s housekeeping!”
Hurriedly emerging from the bathroom, still dripping, I saw at once that the phone was unmolested. It was still on the night table. You stood nowhere near it. Again my fears were allayed, or shown to be overstated, or a chimera, or a figment.
You apologized. I hadn’t even looked at you yet.
Your voice is lovely, Mariama, and I knew at once that you were an immigrant from French West Africa. My erection, which had only slightly subsided since I came out of the shower, now returned full force, full height, and full hardness, as big, I think, as it’s ever been, after everything it had been through the previous several days. My hand accidentally brushed against it and the organ responded, finally, with a certain echoing murmur.
This was not the first time I’ve surprised a chambermaid, only rarely before have I done it without intention. This was probably not the first occasion on which you’ve been surprised. I’m sure most male travelers, even if they will deny it, have discovered the pleasing frisson that comes from presenting oneself naked to an unsuspecting hotel domestic. Sometimes the thrill rises from the strangeness of the situation, from finding oneself completely unclothed, yet in this situation it’s the clothed person who finds herself vulnerable. In her sleek or frilly costume, sexually suggestive regardless of the style, the maid always steps back, her eyes downcast, submissive and demure, and she apologizes for her intrusion. Her involuntary cry of astonishment often suggests something carnal. The surprise runs both ways. Until he steps from the hiding place, the hotel guest has no idea what the chambermaid will be like: large or petite, young or middle-aged, from the developing world or from Eastern Europe. He will imbue his own apology with charm and mastery.
And this time there was the fabulousness of my penis, which hovered between us as sharp and full of intent as a spear. It was no longer stupid or boring. Empurpled, elevated, its delicate features in high relief, the phallus radiated heat and desire. The sight of a bared breast or another intimate female body part will sexually arouse almost any man, regardless of the woman to whom it belongs; in many situations it will stand as an invitation he can’t resist. For a much smaller number of women, the presentation of an erection, especially one of noble proportions, serves as the same kind of incitement. Claudette is one of those women. My wife was once. Standing before you — the BlackBerry forgotten, proof yet again that the male reproductive organ may employ certain cogitational faculties and override others — I hoped to discover that you, too, belonged to that select sorority.
You and I alone know what happened next. I won’t linger over the unfortunate episode, and when I return to it the only purpose will be to clarify the record.
Every year nearly 3 million girls and young women in Africa and the Middle East undergo a procedure in which portions of their external genitalia are removed. This usually involves the severing of the clitoral hood and the clitoris itself; the severing of the clitoris and the inner labia; or the complete excision of the clitoris and the inner and outer labia, followed by the closing of the vaginal opening, with a small hole left open to allow for the passage of menstrual blood. These measures are often performed by traditional practitioners, without the use of anesthesia — in some communities the task falls to the local barber. According to Amnesty International, whose report has lain open on my desk for weeks, “broken glass, a tin lid, scissors, a razor blade or some other cutting instrument” may be employed. The practice is perceived as a rite of passage, further distinguishing women from men, especially in those communities where the clitoris is considered a vestigial “male part.” The operation “purifies” a woman, preparing her for motherhood (though in the case of the third, most radical variation, sometimes called “pharaonic circumcision,” the opening has to be surgically widened before childbirth). The practice’s defenders call it vital to cultural identity, a heritage passed on from grandmother to mother to daughter. The principal purpose, however, is to minimize the potential for female sexual pleasure. In Guinea, according to the U.S. Department of State, 98.6 percent of all girls undergo the procedure.
This is what I’ve reconstructed from the public record and my lawyers’ diligent investigation: Mariama Fofana, a native of a Fulani-speaking village in the Guinea highlands, was circumcised when she was seven, an operation for which she thanked neither her mother nor her grandmother, and which she refused to allow to be performed on her own daughter. Her principal motive in fleeing her homeland, an escape that demanded considerable courage, was to protect the girl from genital mutilation. Although she never experienced sexual pleasure herself, and grew up in an environment in which female sexual pleasure was a dangerous contradiction in terms, Mariama took life-threatening risks and suffered hardship in recognition of the fact that sex was her daughter’s birthright.
Other people’s pursuit of sexual pleasure has brought Mariama nothing but misery and sickness. When she was twenty-two and already a mother, soldiers entered the village shop where she worked. They brought her and another woman to a local prison. The women were raped there. This may have been the occasion during which Mariama acquired HIV. Another possibility is that she was infected by her husband. He would eventually die of AIDS. The actual HIV infection rate in Guinean adults is probably higher than the official figure of 1.7 percent. Antiretroviral drugs are unavailable beyond the country’s main population centers.
Widowed, illiterate, and impoverished, Mariama sought a more humane life for her child in the sanctuary of the West. The sanctuary is heavily guarded, of course; from the outside, it looks more like a fortress, with high-tech, weaponized ramparts. Every day thousands throw themselves at its walls in leaky boats that wash up on the beaches of the Mediterranean, or by trekking through the American desert, or by boarding airplanes with vague dreams and papers that will be contemptuously scrutinized — dreams and papers both.
The documents Mariama presented to the officers at JFK were falsified, in the name of another woman. We don’t know what she had to do, or sacrifice, to acquire them, or to what extent she trembled under the officers’ examination. Once she reached the relative safety and experienced counsel of other West African immigrants in New York, she applied for political asylum. To improve her chances — and the asylum process did seem cruel, arbitrary, and crooked — she was advised to embellish her story. Desperate to remain in the States, she transformed herself and her late husband into opponents of the military regime. She invented another, even more brutal attack, this time a gang rape in retaliation for her political activities.
The prosecutor’s discovery of these lies, which had nothing to do with what happened in the Sofitel, would impeach her credibility about what did happen in the Sofitel. These lies would save the hotel guest accused of sexually assaulting her.
As the son of Jews who had their own cultural heritage to transmit, the guest was also circumcised. This is a much less consequential procedure for a man, with unknown harm and uncertain benefits. The foreskin seems to serve no biological purpose. The effects of circumcision on sexual pleasure have not been determined conclusively by medical science, despite decades of ingenious experimentation.
My emphasis on sexual pleasure may seem perverse, but the impulse and opportunity to make love for one’s own amusement is a defining quality of civilization. Education launches young people into an adulthood free of parental control. When they move to urban places, their choices about where to work, live, and make purchases confirm their independence. Civilizing manners and protective legal structures allow women to join the company of men safely. Then they may choose whom to love. They employ contraceptive technology to separate their sex lives from their role as childbearers. Mutually gratifying intimacy becomes a respected value. In a world whose history has been dominated by communal identity, whether familial, tribal, or national, the right to sexual pleasure defiantly affirms the primacy of the individual. When the International Monetary Fund lends a troubled nation money for economic development, the institution is clearing the way to a freer, more joyous, and more loving sex life for its people.
The hotel guest’s was probably the first circumcised penis that Mariama ever saw. She must have been horrified. Whatever revulsion she may have felt toward his mutilated organ could only have intensified when he tried to put it in her mouth.
Mariama, I’ve already suggested enough about our encounter to indict me, extradite me from France, convict me, put me away for years in a New York prison and, on the civil side, bankrupt me and my ex-wife, whose lawyers have not yet succeeded in fully shielding her assets.
Yet the full narrative, the whole truth, continues to elude me. I rise from my desk and pace across the room. I gaze onto the rain-blackened cobblestones of Montparnasse. I return to the laptop. I play with words and then with Word, changing typefaces as if I may discover the one designed for reviled ex-politicians charged with two counts of criminal sexual acts, one count of attempted rape, two counts of sexual abuse, one count of unlawful imprisonment, and one count of forcible touching. I’ve tried altering the color of the type as well.
In my frustration and impatience I’ve now transferred this commentary out of Word to another program, the one with which I compose and send emails. I’ve pasted everything I’ve written so far under the address and subject lines. It feels much more like a confession this way. You probably don’t have an email address, but your lawyer does. I’ve copied it from one of his professional communications to my lawyers. I’ve typed his address in the to: line, to see what it looks like. It looks hazardous.
Now, as I pause to consider the rest of the day of our encounter, I play with the touch pad below my keyboard, gliding the cursor across the screen. The arrow inevitably approaches the pink send button, circling around its edge in a gentle caress. When the arrow passes over it, the button reddens as if it were a nipple. I caution my index finger not to double-tap.
By the time I made it to the restaurant, my daughter was glowering. I apologized, fully earnest. About to reach inside my jacket pocket for the phone, I said I could stay only briefly before I had to catch a cab to JFK. “In that case,” Jeanne replied, as sternly as my first wife, her mother, would have, “don’t even think of checking your mail.”
The fiancé made no impression, and I couldn’t tell you which species of animal provided my lunch or what was the subject of my conversation with the two young people, or whether I thought they were truly in love. (They soon disengaged, unable to withstand the corollary gusts and squalls that blew around the hurricane of my arrest.) While the fiancé explained his studies, I reflected on my encounter with you. I had been a brute, of course, and I already deeply regretted it. Looking down at you on the other side of my engorged penis, I had seen desperate fear in your eyes, and still I forced myself on you. Philippe was correct, I had to stop this behavior. I was out of control. And then, in a grave error, I picked up the cash (yes, that cash, that only you and I know about).
I paid for lunch, kissed both of them on their cheeks, and hailed another taxi. Before the vehicle had traveled a block, I finally went to check my phone. But the jacket pocket was empty. The shock was nearly as great as if I had found the sleeve empty, too.
I took a spare phone from my briefcase, called the lost phone, and received a message saying that it was out of service. I knew, of course, that it was most likely at the hotel. I used it while you were in the room, to return a call from my daughter. Then what did I do with it? Did I lay it on the unmade bed? It probably fell and bounced out of sight under the bed.
No, no, no, you idiot. You left it on the windowsill!
I was already late for my plane. If I returned I risked missing the flight. Now a full hour passed in congestion and construction detours. The driver impulsively switched to blocked lanes, allowed other cars to cut in front, and missed the turnoff to the Van Wyck — making me wonder if he, too, was DCRI. I was faced with a serious dilemma. It was imperative that the phone be returned. The device had access to the IMF’s classified technical data, and, most important, the evidence of tampering was nestled among its chips. Made public, this evidence would be my best defense against my opponents, and possibly, if the bugging mechanism could be traced all the way to the Élysée Palace, it would bring down Sarkozy. I’d walk into the presidency unimpeded.
At the same time, Mariama, yes, I was aware that I had behaved very badly at the hotel. I thought I would have to reserve a room somewhere else the next time I came to New York. I may even have begun to dimly sense that some sort of legal cloud might be suspended over my last twenty minutes in the suite. Someone could have heard us. You could have told somebody. My head spun as I tried to balance the recollection of my offense, the consequences of losing the phone, and the political benefits that would accrue from recovering it. I understood the good, practical reasons for not trying to contact the hotel that afternoon.
But I needed the phone and my concerns were only abstractions, the result, I presumed, of overthinking the situation. I had taken chambermaids before and never had a problem. With that last happy thought in mind, I called the hotel, identified myself, and explained about the lost device. I realize now that I was not asked to repeat my name, not once, nor asked where I might have left the phone. Instead, I was directly transferred to what I was told was Lost and Found. The gentlemen there said he would look for the BlackBerry and asked for my current location and the number of the phone I was calling from.
As I know now, the employee, surprised by my call, was being coached by a fast-thinking New York City detective. While I was having my forgettable lunch, you had cried out to your floor supervisor that you had been assaulted. With great difficulty, over a full hour, your co-workers persuaded you to put your trust in the law — something that, in the course of your life, had never once recognized your humanity. They called 911 for you. But even before the police arrived, certain other employees had entered the presidential suite and searched it, according to the key-card records. They evidently discovered the BlackBerry — and that was the stroke of pure luck they would be seen celebrating on the hotel security cameras a few minutes later. The men did not reveal the phone’s recovery to the police. They still deny it, and they say they can’t recall why they were high-fiving and embracing each other. They also deny any connection to French intelligence.
My own detectives have investigated the possibility that you were involved in a conspiracy to retrieve the BlackBerry on the DCRI’s behalf, either with or without your knowledge. They have studied every possible scenario; not a single one is as plausible as the simplest, in which, in the rush to check out, I left the device behind. It wasn’t the first time I had misplaced a phone.
As I reached the airport, another individual, saying he was from the hotel’s front desk, called to say he had the phone in his possession. My suspicions were not raised. He said he’d deliver it to me at the airport and asked for my flight information. Please hurry, I said, unaware that I was designing my own trap, constructing my cell at Rikers Island bar by bar. He assured me that the plane would be held if necessary. Given my official status, of course it would be held, I thought. I decided that a hundred dollars would be a sufficient gratuity.
Believing that the BlackBerry would soon be returned, I looked forward to a nap, if only for a few hours. The previous several days had been difficult ones, and I was still facing Merkel on Sunday. We boarded the aircraft. I took my seat in first class and noted with satisfaction that the traveler in the window seat was a dark-haired European woman in her thirties, her lipstick and eyeliner sharply applied. She didn’t smile, but that could be corrected.
When the door to the plane was finally reopened to admit the man from the hotel, the sound of air rushing in was as soft as a kiss.
Our common history began with a kiss, though you can’t possibly remember the kiss, not with everything else that happened in the next twenty minutes. I’ve probably forgotten elements of the encounter, too, though what I do remember is painful enough and sufficiently criminal. As you may have observed, I’ve hesitated to address our time together. The public record is silent about these minutes, except for the statement you made to the police, a less morally ambiguous narrative of the affair. The correct narrative will hardly acquit me, but to comprehend my actions and yours, I will have to review the events fully, with all their intricacies and qualifications intact.
When I emerged from the shower, you were crossing the doorway into the bedroom. You stopped suddenly, once my motion was visible from the corner of your eye. In accordance with the script, with which I was already familiar from similar encounters in Buenos Aires, Moscow, and Phnom Penh, you looked away and recoiled as if from a rushing train at the edge of a subway platform. You cried, “I’m sorry, sir! I didn’t know you were here!”
If I were following the same script I would have simply covered myself, apologized in turn, and left you an extra twenty when I checked out. But in my excited anticipation, and perhaps concurrently experiencing several other confused mental states, I had forgotten the towel. In fact I was still wet, dripping on the bedroom carpet. Despite the resolve with which I was about to act, my thoughts were multiform and quicksilverish. Before I crossed the space between us, I recalled again all the forces that were arrayed against me, including the stubborn Angela Merkel. Tomorrow she would declare that she could not ask German taxpayers to subsidize Greek indolence, which was pure political boilerplate, when what was needed was to steady the markets — including the German stock exchanges, which had been declining all week. Now forex options were taking a hit. I wondered if a mechanism that narrowed the euro zone’s interest-rate spread would make the plan more acceptable. It’s very possible that when I saw you before me, Mariama, full-bodied, round-eyed, unaffectedly styled, and unrevealing, I mistook you for the German chancellor herself.
Even with my erection waving in front of you like a baton, our first contact was with my lips. You shrieked and turned away. My mouth came down on the back of your head. Your hair was surprisingly soft, as if it had just been washed. I squeezed your breasts, each of them entombed within a matronly brassiere, and I slid around you into the vestibule to shut the door to the suite. I returned.
“My darling, there’s nothing to be sorry for,” I said, taking you by the shoulders and pushing you onto the unmade bed, still sweetly ripe, I think, with Claudette’s scent.
“Please, mister!” you said, struggling in my grip.
“Just listen to me.”
I gave you a smile and my full warm-eyed regard. Later news reports suggested that you’re an unattractive woman, stressing your excess weight, your troubled complexion, and your unfashionably flat hair. The idea was that you were a person unworthy of sexual attention, which I would publicly dispute if only I had the chance. No, Mariama, don’t pay heed to the belittling passersby. Physical features and style are superficial elements of romantic appeal. Men and women bear within them something deeper, more personal, more occult, and more wonderful: indestructible beacons of compassion and animal need. That is the source of our beauty. Every person is worthy of sexual attention. Our fundamental human dignity demands it.
“I will come back later.”
I said, “Please, dear, give me the opportunity to persuade you.”
“This is wrong,” you said firmly.
“How would you know, if you don’t allow me to present the data?”
I gently stroked my erection, just inches away from your face. From this gesture came an upwelling of sweet sensation.
“I can’t afford to lose my job!” you cried, and you bolted for the door. I grabbed you by the shoulders and pulled you back to the bed. You resisted, of course, but not with all the muscle that you could have applied. You’re several inches taller than me, and perhaps thirty pounds heavier. You recognized that I was a guest, staying in a suite reserved for the rich and powerful. You feared that you might hurt me, even minimally — and then you would certainly lose your job, your single toehold on a notch cut into the sheer slate walls of the New York canyons, the only possible shelter for you and your daughter in a hostile world. I was aware of these considerations, but I also judged the deficit of force to be a kind of partial acquiescence, or at least an opening for negotiation.
“Ha-ha,” I said, adding, with I suppose telling insouciance, “I’m more likely to lose mine!”
I shoved you down against the edge of the bed and brought my penis in front of your face. You whipped your head away. My erection brushed your cheek several times. I couldn’t get it between your lips, though.
Then you pushed hard against my lower chest, slamming me against the wall, and the edge of the dresser caught my side. The pain was brief but enormous. My erection was not diminished. The pain may have keyed it up, reminding every nerve of the life-giving, life-defining richness of physical sensibility.
You paused, frightened by the violence of your reflex.
“My supervisor’s in the hall! She’ll hear us!”
This was a bluff, but now my BlackBerry rang. We both turned toward the device, which lay on the night table beside us, as if someone else had indeed come into the room, and we waited for it to finish.
I couldn’t help myself. I looked at the phone. Could it be Geithner? No, the call had been from my daughter. It was already past noon; 12:13, according to the BlackBerry records.
I turned away from the phone. “I’ll pay you!”
“I’m not like that!”
“A thousand dollars,” I proposed. You’ve never revealed this to the prosecutors. You may have never revealed it even to your lawyers. I said, “Two thousand dollars!”
You took off down the windowed hall toward the bathroom, hoping to lock yourself inside. As you know, however, it’s a very large suite, large enough for a small reception, and sometimes a sex party, and I caught you before you could reach it. I pinned you against the wall and groped under your uniform dress while you cried, “No, no, no!” and tried to push me away. I caught the elastic band and pulled down your pantyhose. You can imagine my surprise when I found another pair beneath it.
I had never encountered a second pair of pantyhose before and would have never expected one on a warm spring morning in New York. The encasement of your sex in so much nylon convinced me only that it was a greater prize than I had suspected and perhaps, I thought, in the madness of the moment, greater than any sex I had ever known. I reached under the second pair, almost expecting a third, and at last found that hoarded, already heavily contested treasure, your vagina.
You shrieked again and knocked me away, but I pushed you down to the floor, against the wall. You leaned back, threatening to kick me with your heavy black shoes.
“Wait a minute,” I said, panting.
I stood over you menacingly, still with the phone in my hand and my dick in your face. I thumbed the return-call button. The time was 12:15.
My daughter picked up immediately. “Where are you?”
“Delayed at the hotel, dear. I’m sorry, where’s the restaurant again?”
You moved as if to escape, but I came in closer to your head, my legs on either side of you, my torso blocking you from rising or rolling away. Unsmiling now, I locked my eyes with yours, communicating my resolve.
“Dad! McCormick & Schmick’s, on Fifty-Second Street! Between Sixth and Seventh!”
I tried to stifle my groan. With hundreds of sophisticated, distinctive places to eat in New York, she’d picked a chain restaurant.
“We went through this already,” she complained. “You wanted something near the hotel. Remember?”
“Right,” I grunted.
“The reservation was for noon.”
“I thought twelve thirty,” I lied.
“Noon!” she repeated.
I stroked my cock again, to ensure that it was hard, an unnecessary precaution. I leaned one of my knees into your shoulder, keeping you there. It must have hurt, and in fact an MRI would later show a ligament tear.
“Order some appetizers, I had some business. I’m seeing Angela Merkel.”
“I’ll be there in a minute.” I disconnected.
If we had gone to trial, the thirty-six seconds occupied by the phone call would have been decisive in my defense. My lawyers would have argued persuasively (they are very high-priced lawyers) that you could have pushed your way past me and fled the suite. They would have called expert witnesses; they might have produced a reenactment. My defense team would have told the jury that you remained to consider my offer. Shrewdly anticipating this argument, you told the police that my assault was completed and that you had left the room before I returned the call to my daughter. That would have been within seven minutes of your entering the hotel suite. Because the key cards don’t record exits, my lawyers would have said, there’s no evidence that you left when you say you did.
“Two thousand dollars,” I repeated, reaching around a curtain to put the phone on the windowsill. The drapery immediately fell back to conceal it.
“Noooo,” you keened, your eyes gone glassy.
“Do it,” I said, and I grabbed you by your hair and pulled your head back. I made a mental note to retrieve the phone later. “Do it! I’ll pay you,” I repeated.
This time I succeeded in forcing my penis into your mouth, but for no more than twenty seconds. In my state of excitement, heightened by our scuffle, that was all I needed. Oh darling, I can summon to memory every ridge and contour of your tongue and palate. My ejaculation was hardly powerful or voluminous, or even a pleasant physical sensation, but it produced a quickening of my spirit, a release against constraint, and a perception of control over the course of events that had been absent from my every other sexual climax of the previous two days.
When I was done, a delicate spider’s filament of saliva and semen spooled out between the glans and your lips, our last contact, and you began to spit. Some of the semen spilled out around the sides of your mouth. The tears ran down your cheeks unevenly.
You stared past the hand I extended to help you up. I gave you another moment. Then I walked into the bedroom to the dresser and opened my wallet. Before I could finish counting out the hundreds, you ran from the suite, your steps pounding hard on the carpet. I left the money on the night table.
Mariama, you must recognize that I was fully conscious of the magnitude of my misconduct. Regardless of the defense my lawyers would have successfully advanced, I knew that you never consented. A man with four daughters, a man who loves women — desperately, of course, and frequently to his disadvantage — I tasted remorse as bitter as the ejaculate that you were still trying to clear from your mouth. The depths of my depravity were now fully plumbed, I told myself. Hurrying to dress and to brush my teeth, I swore that I would never do anything like this again, at least not while I was running for office.
I took my bag, including yesterday’s well-used underwear and shirt, but forgot to retrieve the BlackBerry from the windowsill. The money still lay on the dresser, a stack of hundred-dollar bills fluttering in the air-conditioned breeze. My mind raced from the thrill of our encounter to the urgency of my lunch date. I wondered if I should leave the bills. You were emphatic in your refusal to take them. If the $2,000 simply remained there, it would serve as evidence of my wrongdoing, or at least raise questions. Just as I left the suite, I scooped up the cash and returned it to my wallet.
A mistake, of course. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I had already turned my mind to the question of how to reach McCormick & Schmick’s. Without thinking it through, I had taken your refusal of payment at face value. I descended to the lobby, where security cameras showed me exiting the elevator at 12:27:06.
Meanwhile, the hotel’s key-card records show that you returned to the presidential suite at 12:26, seconds after I left. You had apparently been hiding down the hallway, waiting. Another minute passed before you exited the suite and reported the assault to your supervisor, tearfully, just as she arrived on the twenty-eighth floor. The prosecutors would find it odd, even inexplicable and then suspicious, that you went back to the suite.
What happened in that minute?
I know what happened in that minute. You were thinking that perhaps you wouldn’t report the assault, in your innocence fearing that you would be fired for your improper relations with an important guest and your forceful resistance against him. You may have thought that your immigration status and your daughter’s would be jeopardized. Perhaps you would lose access to the antiretroviral drugs that keep you alive. You then entertained second thoughts about my offer. Two thousand dollars is a lot of money for someone in your position. You had already earned it, whether willingly or not.
But upon entering the bedroom you discovered that the money was gone. All that you found in the presidential suite was an unmade bed, against the edge of which I had pushed you, the hallway down which you had been pursued, the place where I had torn your pantyhose and grabbed at your vagina — the red-hot center of your misfortune — and the wall at the end of the hallway in which you had been forced to perform oral sex. Gobs of my semen and your saliva glistened at the tips of the carpet threads. You stared at the night table, surprised at your conviction that the money would be there. Of course it wasn’t there. In that moment everything that had transpired in the course of your life, all the crimes that had been committed against you, was being made evident — the circumcision, the rape, the infection, and countless other sorrows that come from being a woman in the developing world, plus my sexual assault. Now you were being mocked by the naked night table. On this day you had not only been assaulted, you had been robbed. This was a nightmare, this was a catastrophe, this was something that you thought would never happen to you in America. Of course you were upset. In that same minute your floor supervisor arrived. It would have been impossible not to cry out.
So Angela Merkel kept her Sunday free after all. I imagine she weeded her garden. On Monday the markets declined sharply, and by the end of the week they had crashed across the board. Standard & Poor’s lowered Italy’s credit rating. Portuguese bonds fell to junk status. The European debt crisis continues to eat away at the well-being of millions of people on the Continent and around the world. Slowly, painfully, sullenly, the Germans have agreed to half measures considerably less effective than the plan I would have advocated had I not been locked in a cell on Rikers Island. Their bailout will cost far more than mine would have, especially if it had been executed at once — suddenly — before the brutal damage was done. Official unemployment in Greece is now over 25 percent. Governments have fallen from Dublin to Prague. Many decades will pass before we see a restoration of Europe’s confidence in its democratic institutions, if they even survive. Fractious and impoverished, and on courses that are unsustainable in every direction, the rest of the world will suffer from our loss of leadership. Europe may be a ridiculous old goat of a continent, but it is also the repository of the world’s most vital humanist values.
Perhaps not every detail in my account is accurate. If, in fact, it were possible to contact each other, you might jog my memory or clarify certain aspects of your actions and responses. You would then remind me of the personal consequences suffered by you and your loved ones. I would be obliged to more fully acknowledge them. I might then speak of my wife’s devastating grief. We would exchange confidences. Perhaps then I would devise the correct words in which to begin to formulate an apology. Until we correspond, I can reconstruct the narrative of our encounter only imperfectly, incompletely, and inconclusively, unable to find my way back to the right and just. The send button still hovers at the top of my screen. It throbs beneath the touch of the arrow. Its heat is transmitted through the touch pad. I could double-tap it now. The email would strike your lawyer like a thunderbolt.
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