The scribble on the back of the photograph reads “Colette,” but this is not her real name. Josie Arlington has all her girls pick French aliases, believing that it will attract a better class of customer. And it’s true— there are men who feel that an hour with a Suzette or Jeunesse will lendtheir indiscretions a sort of old-world civility that a common Storyville Jane would only render cheap and guilty. But she introduces herself as Colette even in her free hours, and her friends never press her for the truth. They’re all opium and whiskey artists, and prefer a mystery to an investigation, as a rule.
There are a few men who beg her for it. They are new in town, have slender pianists’ fingers, accept her disdain like a sacrament. Bellocq is one of these, though he will never admit it.
The day he comes to take her portrait, she is bruised vivid purple under her mouth and around her left eye. He knows better than to ask how, but as he sets up his camera—catching the light, the bed frame half in focus behind her—he feels a shameful rush of joy to find her this way.
Afterwards, he stands naked in his darkroom. Naked by necessity, since it is only his clothes draped over the windows which render it dark at all. He pores over her face, slowly emerging on the paper. He nearly ruins it, holding it under the solution too long, waiting for her secret. But it’s like she sees his searching and hates him for it. He drips sweat into the tray of liquid, and she glares at him until he gives up. The bed, the bruises, the strap hanging from a freckled shoulder, only serve to emphasize her opaque and undefeated eyes, which he cannot meet.
It’s only among women that she never attains the status of myth. The others at Arlington’s resent her pride, her vanity, and especially her habit of passing the worst men off on everyone else. And yet, when she comes to their doors on still nights, they let her in. It’s rare that anything actually transpires; mostly she just stares at them in the dark, lips parted, as if a question is perched there, as if they confound her, too.