It was both commanding and discreet at the same time. It was not the sort of place one would immediately assume was a hotel. It looked like any average European apartment building, really. In fact, the only thing that differentiated it as a hotel was the fact that emblazoned near its rooftop were the words Grand Hotel Cravat (not to be confused with Grand Budapest Hotel). Yet if you walked past it in the day, you would never notice the moniker looming above. It wasn’t until nighttime that the demon-red glow of the letters could really make an impact.
For Françoise, passing by the hotel most every day of her life as a child growing up in Luxembourg, she never would have imagined what an imposing role it would play in her “adult” existence. After her French-born father abandoned her mother when Françoise was just seven years old, Françoise’s older sister, Marianne, at fourteen, decided this would be the best time to run away to Paris (perhaps privately hoping to find their father there and beg him to take her back). Although Marianne felt guilty about abandoning her soeur, she had to remind herself that she was not the one responsible for bringing Françoise into the world. That was on her mother. As such, she should not be beholden to anyone. She was a free agent. As we all secretly were in this world. The thing about people who get disappointed or abandoned by their families sooner in life is that they see past the veneer of a “familial bond” being anything other than yet another scam perpetuated by the societal need for “politesse.” Marianne refused to play that game any longer. And yet, still experiencing a pang of remorse for leaving behind innocent, helpless Françoise, she told her that she could come find her in Paris one day, when she was “big enough.”
“I’m big now,” Françoise heart-wrenchingly objected.
“No, cherie. You’re not quite yet.” And with that, she patted her sister on the head and crawled out the window, looking back to blow a final kiss before saddling Françoise with the task of informing their mother that yet another loved one had decided she wasn’t worth sticking around for. It was a scar that at last pushed her over the edge. And when her madness prompted her to try sticking Françoise’s hand in the fireplace as a punishment for getting it dirty, shouting, “I’ll burn the filth off of you!,” the screams of the child compelled a neighbor to get involved and report Françoise’s mother. And sure, that freed her of an unstable matriarch, but it also left her totally sans famille.
As with many girls who end up in an orphanage, Françoise was prone to gravitate toward anyone who would give her the time of day. Because no one in the orphanage itself actually would, she took to the “nice man” that would skulk by the fence in the farthermost corner of the garden where Françoise liked to spend her hours away from everyone else. Her first interaction with Gaspar was something she initiated. She was feeling whimsical that day, and the man in the black cape and fedora seemed sophisticated enough to be able to buy cigarettes. So she called out, “Monsieur! Can you bring me some Gauloises?” Not expecting him to pay her any mind (just as nobody else did), Gaspar turned his head, sizing up this small creature for the first time. He grinned at her and approached the fence. “Aren’t you a bit young to be smoking?”
“Are you ever really too young to do anything?” Françoise returned with an unwittingly coquettish tone. It was an innuendo that would get any man hard (being that all men were perverse fiends obsessed with prepubescent snatch).
Trying to hide his arousal, Gaspar confirmed, “Maybe not. I guess I could do this favor for you. But what will you give to me in return?”
“Whaddya want?” she demanded, tired of this dancing around.
Gaspar pretended to think about it before offering, “Nothing—for now. But one day, you’ll owe me something. It could be anything, at any time. And in exchange for your obeisance, I will bring you all the cigarettes you could ever want until I get you out of this godforsaken place.”
This made Françoise stop shuffling her feet, shocked to find that there might be someone who could free her of this prison. She double checked, “You—you could get me out of here?”
“In due time, ma petite.”
Such an epithet should have instinctively made her recoil, but at age ten, she was still too naïve to understand his lechery, try as she might to appear “refined” by smoking.
A full year went by, with Gaspar visiting far more often than required to replenish her cigarette stash. On one of these occasions, he felt bold enough to reach through the fence and fondle her chest. So stunned by the action, she just stood there, not knowing what to do or how to react. Like all men, Gaspar took her lack of reaction as a sign of enjoyment and so continued to do it with even more ferocity, daring to then reach his hand down and stick it up her skirt. Preteen girls being what they are, it was easy to feel a wetness that further corroborated Gaspar’s belief that Françoise was truly taken with him.
After this encounter, Gaspar visited the orphanage one day not by the fence but by actually going inside and requesting to adopt Françoise. She didn’t know why, but this news gave her a sinking feeling she didn’t think would ever go away. She suddenly realized that maybe she actually was better off alone here in the orphanage. And yet, the nuns were only too pleased to be rid of one of their “old” children, having given up hope on Françoise from the outset.
Once Gaspar had Françoise in his legal clutches, it was all over for her. Her fate as his property was sealed before she could even try to Houdini her way out of it. She never stood a chance. And so, that’s how she found herself, so many years later (though she was still a mere twenty-one years old), as a “high-class” prostitute constantly meeting her clients at the Hotel Cravat. It’s not that she chose it, it just so happened that all of the out-of-towners “on business” (whatever that means) tended to stay there. Although she was initially ashamed that the hotel staff could always recognize her, it was easy to get over when she realized that pretty much every other woman there was a “regular” as well. Some of them also “belonged” to Gaspar. Though she tried upon a few occasions to strike up a “rapport” with them, they all seemed to view her as nothing more than competition. And so, she threw herself into the job. That, in the end, was all she had to cling to: her “work.” Fucking.
While the rooms of the Hotel Cravat were nothing to balk at, she felt only repulsion every time she was in one. It made her skin crawl and then itch, as though her epidermis was trying to shed itself so her body could start all over again without any of the sense memory of these foul “johns” on top of her. Though usually it was she on top of them, because they were all too plump and lazy to be bothered. She sang for her supper, there was no question about that. And most of it went to Gaspar anyway.
One day, when she had handed yet another grotesque percentage of her income over to him, out of nowhere he decided to tell her, “You know chouchou, you’re getting a bit long in the tooth. Maybe we ought to invest some of this money in a little…lift.” As he said “lift,” he placed his thumb at the outer corner of her left eye and smushed it. “I’ll schedule something.”
Françoise knew that whatever he “scheduled” would be an entirely dicey operation procured at the lowest possible cost. A true endangerment to her very being. What’s more, she did not think she looked “old” at all. And was highly offended by his comment. Maybe she looked “wizened,” at best, but who wouldn’t after all the dick that had penetrated her since the time she was thirteen (that is, when Gaspar wasn’t “conditioning” her with his own even before that point)?
After the encounter with Gaspar outside the hotel, she walked the five minutes to Lady Jane, where she sat alone drinking a glass of red wine. She felt anonymous enough, for she was always sure to change which bar she went to each night to leave enough space between the days to come across as both a non-alcoholic and a non-regular.
The bartender, unfortunately, seemed to recognize her, sending her a fresh drink every time she finished one. She was finally starting to get scandalized by his interest in her and decided to drop down a hundred euros on the table in defiance and leave. She supposed Lady Jane was out for a while. In fact, all of Luxembourg was “out.” This was the epiphany that dawned on her as she tipsily ambled toward the Alzette, a somewhat lengthy jaunt that had no effect on her in her current state. Her black stilettos crunched against the pathway that ran parallel to the river as she decided to stop and stare into the water, wanting the calming effect of its flow to reach deep inside her heart and tell her what to do next. Of course, she already knew what she should have done long ago, and that was: go to Paris and find Marianne. Yet she was afraid. What if Marianne rejected her? Françoise simply could not handle another emotional blow like that. Worse still, what if she was subjected even in Paris to the kind of “blow” that applied to her need to prostitute in order to survive?
This jumble of thoughts distracted her so that she forgot herself entirely, slumping over the embankment and falling right into the water, which was only too eager to sweep her up in its current. Rather than being jolted out of her reverie by the freezing temperature, she giggled to herself, thinking, “Well, maybe it will take me all the way into France.” She supposed, once more, “Destiny” would decide for her.