Pardon My French

When i arrived in paris by train, I tried to place a call to a friend, someone I knew from my home city. Surprisingly, there was a phone service with a human attendant in the train station. I gave the phone woman the number I wanted to reach, and she dialed it.

Suddenly, she started yelling “Occupé!” at me. I thought she was telling me to get lost, so I started to walk away. She yelled more loudly and pointed at the phone. Slowly, I came to understand that occupé meant “the line is busy.” Presently, she put the call through.

* * *

My friend came in a car to pick me up. He had the car for his job; he ran errands for a commercial production company. As he drove, I watched green rectangles and monumental buildings swing through my field of vision.


Revolucion, photograph by Cédric Monot
Revolucion, photograph by Cédric Monot

Soon, we arrived at the commercial director’s home: a converted storefront near the Bastille. The apartment was large, with a spiral staircase connecting floors. I lugged my backpack up the steel steps and laid it in my friend’s bedroom.

When I looked for food in the kitchen, I found a baguette and some pâté. The baguette was the thinnest bread stick I’d ever seen; its diameter was that of a U.S. quarter. Moreover, the pâté came in the smallest tin I’d ever seen. Undeterred, I popped the top and dug at the pâté with a spoon, then spread it on a disk of bread.

* * *

a young woman was staying in the same place. I didn’t know what she was doing there. When I first saw her, she was watching a television show. The characters were college students who kept losing their pants and falling down.

One time, my friend played a game with the young woman. He lay on his back, held her hands and pushed against her stomach with his feet, so her body was balanced over him. Then he laid her on her back and knelt between her legs. He put his hands behind her knees and lifted her pelvis toward him. They stayed that way for a while, rocking. I wondered if this was the French version of Twister.

* * *

I thought paris was small, but actually only the amount of ground I covered was small. I would walk from one point to another and think that I’d gone from one side of the city to the other. The reality was, I’d passed only from one district to another.

The place I visited most often was the adult strip of the rue Saint-Denis. The shops there showed films that played continuously. If you stayed past the end, the clip would loop back to the beginning. The effect was one of perpetual sexual activity.

I found an aggressive vignette featuring a black-haired woman wearing leather boots and a headband. I was convinced she was a Native American. I imagined that she’d been separated from her tribe. Off the reservation, she was confined to a small room, with only a sawhorse as furniture. This was not her lucky day.

The problem was, the film was only about ten minutes long, so the repetition soon grew tiring. After the third loop, I couldn’t watch another round of brutal activity.

* * *

I went back to where I was staying. The baguette and pâté had been eaten, so my friend and I went to a restaurant. The problem was, we couldn’t read the menu. We guessed at a selection and ended up with a plate of snails, which were not bad, not at all. They had obviously just been harvested from a damp lawn. I could taste the dew.

Later, we found a better place to eat: a cafeteria. The food there was plentiful, varied and cheap. In addition, the place was located near the rue Saint-Denis—a big plus, in my opinion. At one point, as we sat there, my friend asked me for some coins. “I need them to open the stall in the men’s room,” he explained. “There’s some action back there.”

“What do you mean by ‘action’?” I asked.

“A guy met my eyes with his eyes. You know what that means. Do you have any change?”

“How much?”

“Two francs.”

That, I knew, was about 50 cents. I gave him the coins. I didn’t mind. I was off to the rue Saint-Denis.

* * *

Another time, my friend and I were sitting in the apartment with the main tenant, the commercial director. The two of them were smoking a hashish-and-tobacco cigar and talking about someone they knew, Annie, but her name was pronounced Ah-NEE.

“I stayed the night with her,” my friend said, “but she scraped me with her nails, and I got an infection.”

“She’s a bitch,” the director said, grinning.

I helped them finish the hash cigar, and all of us meditated on Annie.

* * *

Later, my friend and I went to visit Annie in her apartment across the river. Her place was luxurious, with a polished wood floor and a grand piano. Through the large windows, we could see a park with trees and the Eiffel Tower.

Annie wasn’t unfriendly or friendly. She just sat there with us. “There are two kinds of people,” she told me, “intellectuals, and those who follow their instincts.

“I’m the second,” she continued. “I can meet someone on a train, get off at the next station, have sex with him, and get back on the train.”

“I followed her here,” my friend explained to me. “She’s the reason I’m in Paris.”

Shortly, I left the apartment, but my friend stayed. I hoped Annie would not scrape him again with her nails.

* * *

When i finally took the subway, I noticed that the trains ran quietly. They didn’t shriek with the sound of metal against metal. My friend told me that was because the trains had rubber wheels, and I believed him. I imagined that the tracks were flat, and wide enough for tires to pass over. I didn’t look closely as a train went by to see if it had steel wheels—which, of course, it did.

The trains didn’t shriek with the sound of metal against metal. My friend told me that was because the trains had rubber wheels, and I believed him.

I took one of the trains to meet a French couple I knew from New York. But when I got to the address they had given me, they were not home. Someone I didn’t know was there, but he was hospitable. He served me a greenish-yellow liqueur. I disliked the taste but drank it anyway. Unable to converse, I sat in the small, unfamiliar apartment for a long while, sipping at my glass of chartreuse, nodding occasionally at my host, but the couple I knew never showed up.

* * *

Back at the storefront apartment, I got the young woman to sit while I drew her portrait. Her face filled a page of my sketchbook. I thought it was a perfect face, but on second look, I could see its flaws. The mouth was too wide, the eyes, too big. Those distortions, however, might have been due not to my model but to my own lack of skill.

At night, my friend brought out an envelope of drugs. “It’s Paris-brand junk,” he said. “It’s stronger than what you get in New York.”

I sniffed some of the powder and immediately felt sick. I ran to the WC, but by the time I got there, the wave of nausea had passed. Feeling all right, I returned to my friend’s room and lay down. Again, I felt the sickness, so I got up and returned to the WC. I repeated this pattern, of getting up and lying down, for most of the night.

* * *

In the daytime, I went out walking. I still believed I could get anywhere I wanted on foot. I walked to the cathedral in the middle of the river. The structure had flying buttresses and craning gargoyles. The animals’ heads stuck out on long necks, ready to spew boiling oil on anyone who approached.

I wanted to go into the cathedral, but a private event was being held. It was my last day in the city. I walked around the outside of the structure, looking at the buttresses and gargoyles, enjoying the flow of the river and my freedom from Paris-brand junk, then went back to where I was staying.

* * *

The next day, I had to take a train to another city. The train ran all night, and there were no seats, so I slept standing up. I leaned against a wall and dozed until my knees buckled. Before I fell over, I woke up. Then I leaned back and dozed again.

In a waking dream, I saw two women behind the glass door of a nearby compartment. They were sitting on opposite sides of a small shelf-table. One of them was holding a carrot with a Band-Aid wrapped around its middle. She pointed at the bandaged root, and her companion looked at it closely. The carrot was large and well wrapped. The companion gestured in turn at the erect carrot, and both women started to laugh uncontrollably. The first woman held the carrot over her head and waved it while both women pointed and giggled.

As the train covered ground, the names of towns changed. Mulhouse became Mulhausen, Bale became Basel, and la Suisse became Schweiz. At first, I really thought I was getting somewhere. I thought I was entering a different country. But soon enough, I realized I was still in France.


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