The Seine was lapping up high, swollen and excited from the rain storms of the past days. The illuminated Gare d’Orsay across the river threw a lick of polish on the cobblestones of the quay. My marriage to Frantisek seemed like a story lived by someone else. My imagination had been stirred by women as far back as I could remember. A little girl with a dark page cut mesmerized me at age five because she was half French and her parents had a marble statue in their garden in Berlin, where I grew up. I remembered a children’s ballet from that time, the little girls dolled up in brocade as in a painting by Velázquez. I was permitted to touch one girl’s crinoline dress, entering a magical realm I never completely left.
The fairytale of femininity…
What made it so fascinating was that I was never entirely part of it. I was and I wasn’t. I was in love with the tale but I didn’t fit the bill, no matter how hard my mother tried. There wasn’t a day in my childhood and youth that wasn’t touched by the dream my mother, my older sister and I were supposed to share—graceful manners, beauty, charm, all difficult to define and difficult to escape. My parents didn’t have money after the war, but my mother, cook and baker par excellence, was ambitious and endlessly creative. Throughout the fifties, she tailored entire wardrobes, ball gowns and coats, making us look like members of a social class she was determined to join. We sometimes joked that she would also make our shoes if only she had time. My knack for being a trickster must have originated with my mother. While she baked and bustled and hosted, my sister and I smiled, curtsied, and pirouetted in apparent unison. Our planet of womanly virtues was graced by admiring visits from “outer space”: my father circled around us at a distance, but always brought his favorite toy, a camera. His big, leather-bound photo albums filled a prominent space in the bookshelves and fed my mother’s hunger for family stardom.
What a charade, my family. A painted merry-go-round with one tune, made in Germany, made for my mother. Her devotion to home and hearth exacted a price. If we didn’t perform properly, she erupted in cutting criticism. If we betrayed her standards of decency—by complaining to friends about the family, for example—she fell into a pained silence that could last for days. In my teenage years, the threat of her disappointment taught me that love was an effort and compliance an inescapable deception.
Looking back now, how early was I aware that my mother controlled everything, even my father? As a child already? My father—the discreet royal consort, my sister and I her doll princesses. She was wearing the pants, demanding, commandeering, while her “better half,” my father, catered to her, indulged her and shut up. I watched his discrete victories, like calling me Luise, the name he wanted me to have against my mother’s will. He liked to trace his family line back to the Prussian Queen Luise, a claim my mother resented and refused to believe. But he kept calling me by his pet name (picked up by Frantisek and the friends, who called me Lou). I knew it was his secret male privilege to get a part of his daughter away from my mother, to fantasize having me all to himself.
Masculine, feminine. How arbitrary those points of view were. It was all make-believe, a mere fantasy, shifty as a mood. In my coming of age I had taken femininity to an edge, pretending, protecting my mother from myself, and then stepped out, leaving my ballet slippers and everything else behind.
I leapt at the branch of a sycamore bent low over the riverbank, letting the raindrops splash over my face and hair. Feminine, not feminine. The same kind of fantasy declares “Paris is a woman,” makes me the lover and her the beloved. Paris, a woman in perpetual performance, brilliant, showing me—as she did everyone—exactly what I longed to see. Like Claude the Treacherous, in her uncanny ability to guess my desires. But there were other similarities, too. Like a curtain coming down between acts, Paris could make you a stranger, an outcast, from one moment to another, with a shift of mood or weather, you never knew what. An indifference shutting you out cold while everything exciting was still there at arm’s length, if only you could grasp it.
Claude had disappeared from view. It wasn’t the first time we had been cooling our affair. No explanation. No warning. How many weeks? Five, six? We had never gone longer than a fortnight. What was she waiting for?
A Bateau Mouche was chugging up the Seine toward the Pont des Arts, ferrying along the warm-wet glow of a private party, now disappearing under the bridge on its way upstream to the Quai des Grands Augustins, Quai des Orfèvres, melting into the haze.
I flipped the butt of my cigarette into the river and continued along the quay toward Notre Dame. Passion was a roller coaster: you just had to hang in there.
I was whistling Ferrando and Dorabella’s love duet when someone whistled back at me like a mockingbird. It was a good-looking guy sitting on a bench with provocatively spread legs, presenting his packet. I grinned at him.
“Hey,” he said, “in the mood for a tête à tête?” Of course, he didn’t say tête à tête, he said an obscenity that sounded just like it.
“Perhaps, if you were Mozart.”
I said it in my normal woman’s voice. At night, with my long legs and the long stride I have adopted, I am rarely taken for a woman. The world of the night is an unfair world. Men are everywhere on the go, hanging out around the pissoirs and bushes, on the benches in squares and along the quays, ready for some adventure. How many women are just as awake at this moment, barely past midnight, and in the mood for a little excitement—if only there was something out there catering to them. But what? Little tea huts around the Tuileries with a sofa and a candle? A row of tents along the banks of the Seine, adorned with colored flags to signal sexual preferences?
A clicking-rolling sound approached from below the Pont des Arts. Out of the shadows, a narrow figure rushed up with rowing movements—a girl on roller skates, sporting a phosphor-yellow cockscomb. She stopped sharp in front of me and stared at me with smeared mascara eyes.
“Got a cigarette?” she said with a brazen voice.
“Sure do.” I pulled my cigarette case from my leather jacket. I usually prepare a few “active” cigarettes for a theater night in order to avoid having to roll them at intermission. The young woman blinked when I opened the case and held it out to her. She suspiciously peered at my face, the silver case, my hands—then she got it.
“Can I have two?” she said with eager, childlike trust.
“Go ahead.” When she had fished out two of the last four cleanly rolled cigarettes from the case, I asked, “Anything else you need?”
“Got fire myself,” she grinned. With a brief military salute at her cockscomb, she added, “Have a good day, pal,” and rolled off clicking along the cobblestones. A moment later someone whistled. A young guy with a similar hairdo rolled out of the shadows and followed her. I heard them laughing as if they had just cracked a big joke.
I was strangely touched by her salute. What had she seen in me that would link us as “pals”? She had no idea that I’d been a rookie like her once, pretending to be invincible when I strolled through the city by day and by night, convinced that Paris belonged to me.
At first I, too, had a companion. Blue was a musician from Guadeloupe who lived in a collective with friends of mine. He used to play a mournful saxophone in the metro and at night, on a fresh high, set out to wander. I accompanied him and listened to his stories from the Caribbean Islands. Childhood stories about his grandmother who took him with her to the graveyards to talk with the dead. He told me he understood the cooing of the pigeons on the roofs. I told him about Gertrude Stein’s pigeons on the grass alas, and he assured me Gertrude was a great Shaman who understood them, too. He kept a privileged dialogue with God. When I smoked some dope and read a few pages of Castaneda I had no trouble keeping up with him. I’d been smitten with Paris even before I got there; I couldn’t wait to make it mine. Without a second thought I slipped into the nomadic lifestyle of Blue. I cut my hair and adopted his garbs—Jeans with a short Jeans jacket, T-shirt, tennis shoes. He sometimes introduced me to friends and clochards, and from the moment one of them took me for a guy, he used my father’s pet name, presenting us as “Brothers Lou and Blue.” We got a kick out of it.
The last traces of youthful fat disappeared from my face. It happened that the women at the bakeries and cheese shops in my quartier greeted me, “Bonjour, Monsieur.” I was twenty-eight when I became invisible to the ordinary world of men. No more catcalls or marriage proposals coming at me. The eager looks up and down my body now came from gay guys in the metro or in the streets, and I quickly learned to enter the fantasy game their eyes invited. When I exchanged a few words with them on occasion, I dropped without effort into the deeper voice I used in my conversations with Blue. I kept the tempo of his walk and the length of his steps long after losing sight of him.
A good year ago, my friends told me that Blue was back in Paris. Some young theater company had engaged him for a play. We went to see the performance at the Biennale des Jeunes Artistes, a festival for young theater folk, where the play got attention, and there I met Claude and the rest of her troupe. Shortly after the end of the run Blue disappeared again—I figured he had taken a boat back to Gouadeloupe. But sometimes during my night wanderings I continued to be “Brother Lou” and felt his smooth gait next to mine as if he’d been one of Jean Genet’s dark angels, forever chosen to protect me.
If my mother could see me now, I used to think. It was as if the city took me in and peeled my old skins away. Still, there was always another remnant of the Good Girl to be shed—an obliging smile, a readiness to turn my eyes away. Don’t look! The classical motto of so-called innocence as soon as there is anything interesting to see. Anything sexual, louche, forbidden. How is a girl supposed to take her place in the world if she isn’t allowed to see the world? I found out soon enough that a woman who can’t look also can’t desire. She can only entice in order to be desired. Women’s eyes are passive eyes; they wait for something to enter them and blow their minds.
I continued walking, feeling the ease of my stride. Had I wanted to, I could have stepped right into the gaze of that stranger in red and made her look at me, stop her in her tracks and take her by the arm: Let’s get out of here! I was free. My life was anything I wanted it to be. An adventure. A coup de théâtre. A loge with bordello-red chairs and velvet trimmings.
What if someone started an opera revolution that dedicated the first loge on the right in every opera house to women’s own purposes? Women are not eager, after all, to slouch on park benches, hang around pissoirs or crouch in the bushes at night, in the cold. I imagined what it would be like to plunge some more hesitant lovers into the fantastic tumult of the orchestra. What the battle cries of Wagner’s Valkyries might trigger in some of them…
I was approaching Notre Dame. The cathedral looked like a dramatic stage set gleaming in the haze.
We would need to divvy up the acts for the use of the first loge on the right: the romantic-morbid lovers would clamor for the last act in which the heroine dies of consumption, kills herself, is killed or buried alive. Nothing could be more enticing when la petite mort was at stake, the “little death” of orgasm, as the French call it. My newly discovered Dorabella, in fact, was quite a revolutionary. No hurry, no sticky sentiment, not even names. Simply waiting until the right opera is on the program and the last performance comes to an end…
I started up Blvd St. Michel. Shakespeare & Co was illuminated, probably after a reading. At the corner store of the boulevard, Gibert Jeune, with its thousands of second-hand books and paperbacks outside under the yellow awning, students were still browsing. A few young women were hanging out with them, visibly less interested in the books, their umbrellas tucked under their arms.
A limo stopped at a nightclub; I watched a gaggle of girls in sleeveless taffeta dresses peel out and run up to the line of cars that were looking for parking. They didn’t have the least trouble running and skipping in their flimsy footwear, as if they’d worn stilettos since first grade. They were clacking excitedly across the wet pavement, sweeping up the taffeta skirts around their legs as they ran.
LA COUPOLE, MIDNIGHT
On Blvd Montparnasse the night was in full swing. Cars were parked right down the middle of the wide boulevard, between the Dôme, Le Select, La Rotonde, and La Coupole. There was a merry chaos of valets and people, some in evening attire, flagging down cabs, stepping in and out of honking cars and limousines, shouting, laughing. I felt drawn to my night hangout like a sugar addict to her favorite bakery. I scanned the crowd inside La Coupole, groups of revelers piled in between the frescoed columns; tables loaded with bottles, Champagne coolers, glasses, plates. Waiters in long aprons zipped in and out of the kitchen swing door, large pewter trays hoisted on one shoulder, stacked with oyster pyramids on ice. It was the post-midnight speed, driven by alcohol and big tips. The rest of the day the waiters would be loitering at the tables for a chat. They knew their clientele. Legs crossed, leaning confidentially onto the tables, one thumb hooked into an apron string, they would be as oblivious to impatient patrons as to the couples huddled too closely in the corners of the leather banquettes.
There were tables not set for dinner at the side of the bar where the view over the vast hall was limited. I ordered a glass of Champagne in honor of Così and the soon-to-follow last act of Arabella. I drank to the old adage that sex is best when there are no names attached. Well, sometimes. Anything is true sometimes.