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David Keith

The Usual Rues, Boulevards and Jardins

Here we are, Claire and I, walking down the famous Champs Elysées! On my birthday! Actually I don't really like the Champs Elysées. It's too grand. But still it sounds cool, doesn't it, to say I turned thirty on the Champs Elysées? We go into this astrology shop which promises you a star chart in fifteen minutes. I tell the guy, I'd like a star chart, please. "Your place of birth?" He is proud of his English, I can tell. I am an English teacher, and I know how to read these nonnative speakers. "Guam, USA," I tell him.

"What state?" he asks.

"Well, it's not a state, exactly, it's an island in the South Pacific."

He clickety-clicks on his computer. "But you are American, no?"

"Yes," I explain. "Of course I'm American, but . . ."

"Then what state were you born in?"

"Look, it's a little complicated, I guess, but the place where I was born isn't part of any state. It's a territory, you know, in the South Pacific, like, uh, say, Fiji. Fiji's part of France, right? Like that. I guess."

He clickety-clicks on the computer. He is getting frustrated. I am sorry I was born in such an unusual location, but it is on the planet, after all, it has coordinates, I deserve a star chart as much as anybody else.

Fifteen minutes have come and gone, and all the fun has been taken out of it. Claire is bored and so am I. We should have done the rowboatBois-du-Boulogne option, rather than the Champs ElyséesArc de TriompheJardin des Tuileries hike. "Ah, yes," says the French guy. Clickety-click. "What is your date of birth?"

"Today, thirty years ago."

"Ah, bon, bon. And at what time were you born?" he asks.

Good question, I think. How should I know? Ten? Noon? Four o'clock? It's a mystery to me. "Does it matter?" I ask.

"You don't know the hour of your birth?"

He throws the book down. "I take so much time with you to find your Guam and you don't know your hour of birth!"

There we are leaving the shop. Fuck him. Is this what they mean when they say the French are unfriendly? I never bought into that line. I get along fine in France, but once in a while, you know.

Here we are sitting at a cafe on the Rue de Rennes. Juliet Binoche walks right past us. She is beautiful and I know Claire thinks so, too, in fact Claire kind of looks like Juliet Binoche and we just saw The Lovers of PontNeuf and that very night Claire and I came home and had sex. I kind of suspect, or maybe fantasize, that Claire is attracted to Juliet Binoche in a hot, sexy, French-style bisexual way. Paris fills my head with these crazy ideas. We eat crepes. I always get mine with Nutella and coconut. I never eat them any other way. I am not sick of Nutella and coconut yet. Claire always gets hers with cheese. Claire is looking good, but we're getting bored again. Bored! On my birthday! In Paris! This is not allowed!

I talk Claire into taking in a strip show on Boulevard St. Denis, and it is the single most foolish thing we have ever done. First we try to pretend we are being cool, projecting this ironic attitude. The theater is dark and it is full of ugly fat men in suits, and a few ugly women, too. On stage there is an ugly Asian woman in her forties at least, wriggling this way and that. The music is this sick, stupid, fake-Seventies disco. When she is done dancing there is halfhearted applause and the curtains go down and to our horror the lights are turned up in the hall. I notice there are a few other youngish-looking couples besides Claire and myself, and for a second we entertain the possibility that this might actually be an erotic adventure. For that second, we are not bored. The lights go down again and the curtain opens and there is a set that looks like a living room and there is a naked woman pretending to be a housewife dusting and this repairman comes and pretty soon they are going at it live on stage, as the neon signs outside promise. Claire and I hold hands and I wonder how she sees it. I think she is curious, a little. But mostly I think she is being a good sport because it is my birthday and this was my idea and she probably thinks I am really turned on, which I'm not. The scene goes on and on. After a while a man in a suit pretending to be the husband comes in and catches his wife fucking the repairman and they yell in French for a while and the audience occasionally laughs and the husband makes these comic asides to the audience and pretty soon he joins in and all three of them fuck for a while longer. I don't want to leave before they are through because I don't want to give in. I don't want to admit the disappointment of it. But I also don't want Claire to think this shit means anything to me. Claire just sits there, a good sport, I'll grant you that, but she gives me no signals. She takes no initiative. What do I want for my birthday, baby? I want to see you make a decision, how about that?

When all else fails, there's always the Latin Quarter. There's walking along the Seine, you know, there's looking at and generally being near the Notre Dame cathedral. So we do that. We've done it a million times before, it's not special, but it's dependable. Watch the people. Kid with a funny haircut. Lady with a tattoo on her face looks like a cover for Heavy Metal magazine. Caricature artists of every race and nationality, all drawing the same kind of pictures. We walk through the crowd in front of the cathedral and watch some kids doing skateboard acrobatics. The kind that make no sense to me, all the jumping and scraping and hopping and falling down. Even when they succeed at the little trick they are practicing, it is this graceless cloppety-scrape maneuver that depresses me to watch. Whatever happened to rolling along? Going fast? Why has skateboarding changed so much since I was a kid?

It is the first time in my life I have ever heard myself think in this way. I feel I have earned it, turning thirty. The kids today, I think, and shake my head. I hear a group of American voices, college girls, and I look at them. They are using all the manners of speech that we expatriate Americans are unfamiliar with. Lots of "likes." "I'm like" this and "It's like" that. They are eating Häagen Dazs ice cream cones and wearing orange and blue sweatshirts and shorts and tennis shoes and white socks. This American boy near me throws a full can of Heineken at them, it lands at their feet and splatters their knees, and he yells at the girls, "Eat shit and fucking die, cocksucking Syracuse bitches!"

What? I ask myself. He doesn't like their college? Attends a rival college, does he? Couldn't he just steal their mascot? Does he have to be Charles Manson? Kids today. Little psycho probably doesn't know who Charles Manson is.

We walk over to the English-language bookstore and kill some time there. It is getting towards evening. It is musty and chaotic in the bookstore, designed so that any book you pick up is like this neat discovery you have made, this rare find. So we do that thing, pick up books and put them down again. I have to be careful because if I express too much interest in a book, I'm afraid Claire will take it as a hint and buy it for me. I don't know why, but I don't want her to do that. Good forty-five minutes there and neither of us wants to really buy anything. We come out of the bookstore and run smack into Kiopf.

Kiopf is this really strange character I met on the private lessons circuit. It's a pretty small community, once you get into it, and it's common to share students and pass on numbers and so on. After a while your paths will cross. Kiopf always reminds me of Hamlet for some reason. It could be those white silk shirts with those ballooning sleeves and his tight black jeans, or it could be his tendency to talk in soliloquy, or maybe it's his romantic, indecisive nature. I spend too much time with him, and I begin to think before the evening's out somebody's going to get stabbed. We run into each other quite literally, but Kiopf theatrically improvises and greets us French-style, which means he kisses. First he kisses Claire one, two, three times according to French custom, then, and this is hard for me, please understand, he kisses me one, two, three times alternating cheeks according to French custom. Now I am an expatriate and everything, and I know I'm supposed to have seen it all, but certain things are hard to get used to. My embarrassment is compounded by the fact that Kiopf is American, too. There is no alternative but to up the ante, as it were, and meet his forced enthusiasm with more enthusiasm, to bury our embarrassment and boredom in this way. It is a cycle that will not release you, however, and before long we find ourselves following Kiopf on his evening rounds.

It is around nine or so and we get in his funky Peugeot and race across town to a bar near the Gare du Nord that I have never been to. Kiopf explains that this part of town is where most of the people from Brittany live. So? So you can get the best beer there, and it is the most fun. The folks from Brittany are more like the English or the Irish than the French, they prefer beer and whiskey to wine, and they get good and blitzed late at night and it's a good time.

Kiopf tells us we're going to get together with Estelle later on, and this is fine with us. Estelle is Kiopf's girlfriend. We like her partly because Kiopf is easier to handle when she is there to absorb some of his intensity. Plus she can make fun of him when we want to but are too polite to. They are an interesting couple because from what I am able to gather, they really are fugitives, of a kind. Among the expatriates I've met, many of them have the oddest backgrounds, often somewhat sordid pasts. Estelle is from the States, but grew up in Europe and the Middle East, going to international schools. She went to this private college in the East and married some joker who, like her father, was a State Department type of guy. They had a kid and a respectable life in D.C. when she met Kiopf. What she saw in Kiopf is a mystery to me, but somehow, the magic of love did that thing that it does, and she left her comfortable world for Paris with Kiopf. Kiopf left something back there, it's unclear what, but there's a damaged, abandoned life with his name on it back in D.C.

Kiopf is off at another table, talking fast French with some of his friends. Everybody in here is wearing ugly black shoes, clownlike, and black sweaters and ragged blazers. They do kind of look British, like soccer fans, with those ugly scowls permanently in a "fuck off" expression. They are speaking French but I think I hear the word "fuck" every so often. With Kiopf gone, Claire and I are alone long enough to try and decide what we want to do, whether we are into this. But Claire and I have a problem. Under the best of conditions, we fail to understand each other. For one thing, we are so diplomatic that we are wishy-washy, so our conversations are like, "I don't know, what do you want to do? Is this OK with you? We can stay, go, whatever. It's OK with me. It's up to you." All that gets said, and I still don't know what she wants. It's a small thing. A couples' thing.

Kiopf comes back, smoking a cigarette and carrying three more pints of ale. "So," he says. "How is Claire?" Claire smiles and doesn't say anything. "Is Claire having a good time?" he says to her. She smiles and remains silent. He turns to me. "And Raymond? Is Raymond doing all right?" He laughs the robust laugh of a larger man and I laugh with him.

"So, how's your novel coming?" I ask him, thinking this is a bullshit question. I remember Kiopf telling me once he was writing a novel. I didn't believe him, but he did say it, so I thought I could fake like I cared. I don't mean to be antagonistic, here, but there are head games going on all the time with Kiopf, and without meaning any harm, I figure the best way to keep the upper hand is to out-psyche him. He doesn't appear to know what I am referring to, but he thinks fast and begins improvising.

"Good. Pretty good," he says, but before he gets a chance to stumble, the group of friends he had been talking to passes us and greets us. Kiopf gets up and they speak in French about I don't know what, except they say "Plus tarde," and I know this means "later." They start the kissing routine, which always slows down an exit, and I am worried I am going to have to kiss total strangers good-bye. I am spared, happily. I wouldn't have minded kissing the girl, she was kind of cute, in an urban biker kind of way, but I remain seated and they leave. I am beginning to wonder if Kiopf is all that thrilled to have us along.

Before his friends are out the door I say to him, "Listen, if you had plans to go out or something, we can just, you know, move along."

Kiopf begins flapping his arms, crying out, "No no no, don't be silly. We're just getting started here. Come on, let's go see Estelle." We get up and leave and I realize that Kiopf has paid for all the beers.

"Hold up, man, how much was the bill?" I say, pulling out my wallet.

"You're being silly again, Raimondo. Forget it. It's your birthday."

I have no patience for this game. If he wants to be magnanimous, more power to him. Ever since I came to Europe, I've been losing that argument. I can never pay for myself when I go out with people. I figured with Kiopf, another American, we could be reasonable about it, split the bill like Americans do. But Kiopf has soaked up all those tiresome Continental conventions, so he wins. I am tempted to needle him about his novel some more, but I figure he's just being nice.

Kiopf gets in the driver's side, and Claire gets in the back seat, and I start to get in the front seat when Kiopf goes, "What are you doing? Aren't you going to keep Claire company?" So I get in the back with Claire and Kiopf seems happy to be our chauffeur. Soon we pull onto a side road alongthe Avenue Foch and slowly cruise it. Kiopf is checking out the whores, most of whom look like middle-aged housewives. Claire and I watch the prostitutes from the back window as we slowly roll past them. We are not bored. Kiopf talks to one, we can't see her, out the driver's side window. We roll up a bit further. The headlights of a car behind us shine in on us, and I think we are blocking traffic. Kiopf doesn't care. Kiopf is craning to check out each and every girl. He is hissing and making odd clicking noises with his teeth. Claire and I are silent during this. We find ourselves affecting that ironic attitude from earlier today. It didn't work then, and it's failing us now. Except that then we were trying to disguise our boredom and embarrassment. Right now, I can't say for sure what we are trying to disguise, but it's neither boredom nor embarrassment. We stop for a moment and a girl leans in through the passenger's side window in front of us. She and Kiopf speak in French quickly. She glances back at us. I hear them say numbers and the word américain and the month of September.

She gets in and we race back into traffic. The two of them speak in French and mostly ignore us, which in a way is a kind of relief. Strange, but she appears to be younger than she looked at first. I thought it was the other way around with most prostitutes. For one thing, she is obviously wearing a wig. A very fake blonde wig. And her make-up is so thick it makes her skin look worn and aged, but close up you could see how firm and taut her skin is, especially on her neck, just below the make-up, and her arms and hands. She is wearing a tight, short, yellow dress and silver earrings and silver bracelets and silver necklaces. She looks back at Claire and me and says something in French to us.

"Pas français ici." One of my longer phrases. "No French here."

The girl gives us a long perplexed stare, and then turns around. I feel we have been dismissed. She has dismissed us! I have no idea what Kiopf is up to here, and I am starting to get impatient. Claire is silent. I don't think she is brooding or sulking or unhappy. I am not too worried about her, but as I said, I am getting no signals. I feel like whatever happens will be my responsibility. Choices that get made, things that get acquiesced to. So I am impatient with her too. Kiopf hasn't spoken a word of English since we picked up the girl. And as we drive, I notice we have crossed the Seine a third time, we have all fallen into a silence. I read somewhere that in Venice, sometimes you have to cross the same bridge twice to get where you are going. But this is Paris. Just when I am about to lean forward and say "Look, my friend . . ." Claire makes literally her first unelicited comment of the evening. She says, "We saw Juliet Binoche today."

She says it so quietly no one can understand her. At that instant, we pull up in front of Kiopf's building in the Thirteenth Arrondissement. We all pile out of the Peugeot and onto the street. It is the Rue des Renuers, sort of a Skid Row. It is a decidedly working-class district, and on this particular street there is a Salvation Army and there are a few hostels. It is an area where the bums, the drunks, and all the rest of them can sleep on the street and not be hassled, at least not by the police. They can eat cheap at the Salvation Army, so once they stumble onto this block, they don't usually stray too far from it. It's a sight to see, and it's not actually as scary as some other parts of Paris, because these are the classic hobos, drunks of a previous generation. These are not the degenerate psychos, the delinquents, the thugs.

We step over a few of them on the way to the door of the building. We walk up one flight and the girl Kiopf picked up stops in front of the first apartment, Apartment 1A. This building is old and decrepit, the interior of the stairwell is wooden and narrow and not especially linear. The girl fumbles for her keys, finds them, and proceeds unlocking the many bolts. When she unlatches the final latch and cracks the door open, I sense that someone is there. She turns to us and to Kiopf says, "Merci de m'avoir ramenée. Bonne nuit, Kiopf," and she kisses him, one, two, three innocent kisses, and then she turns to us and this time there is no getting around it, she kisses Claire one, two, three times and then she kisses me one, two, three times, all in accordance with French tradition.

"Bonne nuit."

"Bonne nuit."

"Au revoir."

"Au revoir."

We go up the worn green steps four more flights to Kiopf's loft. Kiopf has a great apartment. It was once an elegant attic apartment, as elegant as they ever got in this neighborhood, and after the building kept getting sold down to shittier and shittier owners, it got more abandoned and neglected until it reached just the right fermentation for a tenant like Kiopf to come in and see its layered, neglected charm, knock out the walls, put in a basketball court parquet floor, a few Japanese screens here and there, and voilà.

"This is nice," Claire says. I have been here but Claire has not, and she moves about the flat looking at all the unusual effects and quirky arrangements displayed here and there, the cactus, the four-foot-high marijuana plant, the art books, the CD collection, the postcards on the desk, the paintings on the wall, the crystal pyramid on the coffee table in front of the sofa, where I sit down and watch her. Kiopf has disappeared behind a screen. Claire goes "Huh" now and again in recognition or appreciation of some item or other. I, too, enjoy visiting the homes of other people, seeing how they live, seeing what they choose to surround themselves with, seeing what they choose to advertise about themselves. Comparing their choices with my own. Kiopf appears to have accumulated a good deal of stuff from museum gift shops. In fact, Estelle works at the Louvre bookstore, which could explain the replica of the mummified cat on the bookcase. At least I hope that is what explains it.

"Look at this, Ray," Claire says. She is standing at the window looking out. I go over to have a look. "Isn't it nice?" she says. It is a great view of the Rue des Rentiers, a good spot from which to observe the movements of literally dozens of drunks simultaneously, in case you ever get tired of seeing them just a few at a time. There is no special pattern to their movements, I was disappointed to note. I thought maybe the bird's-eye view would reveal some dancelike logic to them. But anyway this isn't what Claire meant for me to see. It's a healthy slice of the Paris panorama. It's a clear, warm night and in addition to the Rue des Rentiers, we can see a few boulevards shimmering and twinkling, we can see the tall things, you know, the Tour Montparnasse, ugly but tall and all lit up, and the Eiffel Tower. We can see the moon up there, a narrow sliver, which marks the first day of a new Islamic month.

"Fi camar, maffi flus. Maffi camar, fi flus," I say, like I always do when I see the new moon. It means: "If there is no moon, then it is payday. But if you can see the moon, then it is not payday." Sounds better in Arabic.

"Hey, hey, none of that," Kiopf says from the other side of the screen.

Claire and I never tire of catching new angles on the Paris sky, just as we never tire of playing the new moon game. One of us is always the first to notice the moon, in an unexpected part of the sky, at an unexpected hour of the day, and we excitedly call the other's attention to it, and we look at it as if it were an angel or a miracle, and we look at each other and we look at it, happy.

Kiopf comes up behind us and places his arms around us and looks out the window with us.

"Look at that," I say, indicating the moon.

"Wow," says Kiopf. This, too, is part of the game, in a way, the disappointment we feel when we point out the miracle to someone, and they see nothing in it.

"Hungry?" Kiopf breathes heavily in our ears. I am wondering if this is the scene where I stab him. Where is my dagger?

We break away from the huddle and Claire and I try our nonverbal consensus check. The signal she gives me is a raised eyebrow and ready-for-anything expression.

"Yeah, kinda," I say. "What, uh, what do you have in mind? And where is Estelle anyway?"

We move to the sofa. When I see that Kiopf intends to sit between us, I hesitate and sit on the chair instead, and he and Claire sit down together. I can never get a clear make on Kiopf. Sometimes it's his fagginess that turns me off, but I'm smart enough to know it's not that simple with him. He has a kind of lizardy sexuality, I would say, which is restrained most of the time and yet still rather overt.

"Estelle is out," he says. "We won't be seeing her tonight."

We don't say anything for a moment. We try to understand. Is there pain in his voice? Delight? Is this a game?

He puts his hand on Claire's knee. "Hungry?" he says. I am sure that if I had been sitting there he would have put his hand on my knee.

We go out to a funky little restaurant in the Seventh, one I never would have found or heard about. Kiopf is good with restaurants, clubs and bars. I still haven't figured it out. Paris is full of great restaurants and it's easy to be satisfied with your choice. But Claire and I usually eat at ethnic restaurants, Lebanese or Moroccan or Thai. We rarely eat actual French food at French restaurants. I couldn't tell you why. So it is nice to go out with someone who knows his way around these places.

This place is small and crowded. The tables are long and you sit on a bench and there is no way to have a table just for your party, so you squeeze in there next to another group of diners. At first, I don't like this. Coming from America, I always look for the booths, but there is no such thing here on the Continent. Even so, you at least want your own table in a discreet little corner somewhere. This is one reason I never would have chosen to come here. But the atmosphere is jolly, which is nice coming off those tricky, maudlin moments back at Kiopf's.

The folks at our table greet us merrily and immediately start including us in their merriment. They pour wine in our glasses before the waiter has a chance to bring us any. We are the only Americans in the place and we sense that the novelty we bring with us has enhanced the general cheer. Kiopf does the talking on our behalf and here he is in his element. The chaos seems to soak up his eccentricity so that he seems almost normal to me, or rather, I can be entertained by him without feeling threatened. I don't know why I should feel threatened by him, come to think of it. Look at him go, hamming it up. He's harmless.

Claire is laughing and laughing. I always forget what a night person Claire is. She will just get going long about midnight. She is still shy, but she is more animated and right now she is radiating. To my astonishment, she has begun to speak, in French, to the woman next to her. I knew that Claire had studied French (more than I can say) but I have never, ever before this night heard her speak it. But there she is, chattering. I can't hear a word they are saying, except that I can occasionally hear the woman correcting her pronunciation, or providing a word.

Without ever having taken our orders, the waiter appears, it is the first time I have seen him at all, and he carries us our dinners. He puts a big plate of fried fishes in front of me. The fishes still have their tiny little heads on them, but this is a Continental practice I have no problem with, unlike many of my countrymen. Claire leans over and says, "Don't ask for ketchup." She has said it more loudly than I have ever heard her speak in public, and everybody in earshot laughs and laughs.

The man across from me says earnestly, "Would you like ketchup?" nodding affirmatively, wanting me to say yes.

"No, but maybe a little barbecue sauce," I say, embarrassed that Claire has made me look like a goofy American, but laughing just the same. The man doesn't understand my joke and is about to get up and tell the waiter to get me some ketchup, but Kiopf and the man's wife pull him back down and distract him. I squeeze a lemon over the fish and eat them. I notice most people are eating the heads, Kiopf included, but here I draw the line. I will look at the heads, but I will not eat them. So I cut the heads away and cut the spine away and eat the rest. I even eat the bones because they are so thin and tiny.

The wine is free-flowing and very good. I don't drink a lot of wine, usually, but I am happy drinking this. It isn't the kind that would give you a headache, and it isn't the kind that makes my jaw sore (I don't know why, but certain wines make my jaw ache), and it isn't going to make me pass out, and it isn't sweet and it isn't cheap. It is perfect, perfect wine. After they take away our plates, they bring us a second dish, a half of a boiled egg with a heap of mayonnaise on top, and a single, flat piece of lettuce on the side. It is exactly the kind of dish people think of when they think badly of French food. Claire and Kiopf and I laugh when we see this. We eat it, it's fine, a perfectly decent half of a boiled egg and an excellent house mayo.

I begin to feel like I am in a movie. There is so much noise and the color is so rich-the amber light, the Edith Piaf songs-Kiopf is being weird and the French people are being French. I am happy to be with Claire, happy that we are not bored anymore. I am inside here looking out. Out at the people, out at my glasses, my nose, and my hands. I look out at my smile, out at my wisecracks, my second thoughts, my discomfort, my fear. Where am I if it is all out there, all of it? There's my heart, man, right there, floating there, beating. I'm not looking out from my heart, I'm looking out at it. How does that work?

I look out at the waiter carrying me a cake with strawberries and cream, with candles on it. I look out at the wonderful people singing me "Happy Birthday" in French. I watch myself overjoyed with emotion and I watch myself blow out the candles. I watch myself kiss Claire and I watch myself kiss Kiopf. I marvel at my capacity to be disjoined and still function. From back here, offstage, it's an inelegant affair, like the cloppety-scrape of the skateboarders, but, out there, where my heart and the food and the people are, I know I am doing fine.

David Keith lives and writes in Syracuse, where he edits HOOTENANNY magazine.

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