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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Bienvenue A Paris, Part 1 (Chapter 5)


Paris, Place de la Nation

“Bienvenue a Paris” was all I understood of the French from the flight attendant’s announcement as the plane taxied to the arrival terminal at Charles DeGaulle airport. I had the window seat, and looked over at JM sitting next to me. I grabbed his thigh and looked deeply into his big brown eyes. If he had any apprehensions, they weren’t showing. All I saw was an overwhelming love washing over me as he held my gaze.
“Here we are. Nervous?”
“I’m not sure…excited, mostly.”
“We begin a new life together this morning.”
I looked up and away toward the air vents overhead. “I know.” Exhale slowly…

There was a long queue at the passport counter, and we had to separate. JM was quickly processed, while it took me almost a half-hour of waiting my turn. He waited off to the side and we passed furtive glances back and forth. My interview was accomplished in less than sixty seconds and took place almost entirely in French, of which I understood about every three words. But anticipating the questions ahead of time, I had my answers carefully rehearsed. Only one question needed to be queried in English:
“How long will you stay in Paris?”
I blinked and lied “Deux mois. [Two months]”.
The clerk studied my picture, folding my passport this way and that before closing it and placing it on the counter and saying “Bienvenue a Paris” with a bored indifference.
I smiled and nodded, slowly putting my passport in my back pocket. JM was waiting by the door, a beaming smile lighting up his face.

Waiting for us among the crowd on the other side of the door was a short, dark hairy man about thirty, a rolled-up newspaper in his hand. He zipped up to JM and they began speaking excitedly in the fastest, slurriest least comprehensible French I’d ever heard. The tone was one of annoyance and displeasure, flavored with impatience. But the exact wording was as unfamiliar as if they’d been speaking an African dialect.

They started walking quickly down the hallway toward a moving sidewalk, leaving me fishing for a cigarette and my lighter. We had not been introduced, and the guy with the newspaper seemed not to even acknowledge me. Striking the little steel wheel of my Bic lighter and sucking eagerly on my cigarette, I started running after them.

I caught up on the moving sidewalk, the two were still arguing about something in their parisian patois, hissing and snorting with serious faces.
“You left me.”
“No”, Jean-Marc replied in his normal voice, “You stopped.”
My eyes searched the newspaper-guy’s face, attempting to make eye contact, but failing. “Je m’appelle Bucko”, I smiled and stuck out my right hand.
“Salut. Bernard.” His blank eyes passed over my face without resting and his grip crushed my hand.
He then turned back to JM and continued jabbering as if I weren’t there.

My luggage proved to be a real problem. One of my bags was an oversized, tubular, zippered affair that was tightly packed with layers of my New York wardrobe. I paid a surcharge of $125 for it back in Boston, as it weighed 85 kilos (187 pounds) by itself, and was just one of six bags and two crates (one containing my paintings, the other my drawings and sketches). I had presumed that we’d be greeted by someone with a car as Carlos and my sister Tani had driven us to Logan. I was confused when we passed a row of cabs, crabwalking and backtracking to move my mountain of shit between the three of us, and stood in the warm summer morning sun at a curb hundreds of feet from the terminal.
“We’ll wait here.” JM said, huffing and puffing, dragging one of my bags along the pavement.
“Wait for what?” I was sweating freely.
“Le bus.” JM’s voice was cool and annoyed.
“Bus? Why don’t we take a cab?” I pointed to the row idling by the door.
Bernard scowled, JM hooted. “A cab is too small for your bags plus mine, and will never fit the three of us. Besides,” he looked very seriously, “One must economize now.”
I sat down on an oversized zippered black leather bag containing nothing but pairs of $300+ pairs of shoes and lit another cigarette, squinting in the sun. My French was too limited to argue, and I was already exhausted, having hardly slept in the previous thirty-six hours.

The bus was of the motorcoach variety, with pairs of oversized seats coupled next to the windows. JM and the driver had a heated exchange before cash was passed and we were allowed on. The driver had threatened to dump us back on the curb if my luggage prevented one person from sitting down, but the bus remained less than half-full. JM offered me a window seat, but the ride was mostly on superhighways, so aside from a few unfamiliar cars, there wasn’t much to see until we exited the Perif at the Porte de Bagnolet, at the easternmost edge of the city. I looked anxiously for some familiar landmark, but saw nothing but long rows of cheap red-brick and cement apartment buildings that looked suspiciously like housing projects. The Eiffel Tower was nowhere to be seen.

It wasn’t until we had turned onto the Cours de Vincennes that anything remotely resembling my expectations came into view. Everything looked grimy and smudged with exhaust fumes, from the flaking stucco to the buzzing neon, and I was reminded suddenly of those long dreary stretches of First Avenue in Manhattan from Gramercy Park to Murray Hill. Before I had a chance to comment to JM (who, at any rate, was lost in conversation with Bernard), the bus pulled up to a series of shelters and stopped, and JM announced that we had arrived.

I grabbed as many bags as I could and lumbered down the empty bus, past the scowling driver and out the narrow door, followed by JM and Bernard. I made a quick count (my eight, plus JM’s two) for the umpteenth time and looked around. Just ahead was the biggest rotary I’d ever seen, flanked by two tall, square columns the height if a rowhouse, and a large statue in the center, circled by a constant flow of tiny cars. The place was faced by an irregular assortment of buildings, some modern, some Belle Epoque, most nondescript.
“Here we are. La Place de la Nation, your new home.”
“We live there?” I asked, pointing hopefully to an ornate apartment building off in the distance.
“Good God, no,” JM snorted as Bernard snickered, “We live on the other side of the place. Let’s go!”

We repeated our earlier crabwalk, going twenty feet with some bags before stopping, putting down the load, and going back for the others. It took over thirty minutes to cross the place and walk one block down one of the boulevards pouring into it from the other end. JM started down a small side street, pausing to point out a small blue sign attached to the building on the corner: Rue des Immeubles Industrielles, the Street of the Industrial Buildings. Our street was one block long and so narrow that it was entirely darkened by the shade of the buildings opposite. The buildings all matched identically, with no variation beyond the offices filling the street level between large double doors faux-painted to look like golden quartered oak. The windows were all the same size above the arched mezzanine, with the same X-shaped grilles over the lower portion. JM stopped at number nine and keyed a series of numbers into the keypad to the right of the door, which clicked and was pushed open. Pushing a bag to hold the door, he collected the remaining bags down the street. I had my 85 kilo monster on my back, with a crate of paintings dragging along with a combined effort of my knees and free hand. Letting the bag drop and roll into the shadowy foyer, I stood at the entrance.
“What,” JM asked pointedly, “Are you waiting for?”
“It’s dark.”
“The light is on the left.”
I let my hand trail across the wall in sweeping motions, but felt no switch.
“Zut!” Bernard went immediately to a small rheostat and twisted it sharply in a clock-wise motion, impatience in his voice, “Et la voila.”
The foyer was cast in a dim yellow light. A row of mailboxes animated the left-hand wall. A steep winding staircase with a black metal railing curved up sharply against the back wall. The blue floor tiles were dirty, old and cracked. Against the wall opposite the mailboxes were several plastic trash receptacles on wheels. Our voices echoed and the light timer buzzed insistently.

We made it up the stairs, three flights, with all the bags, in several trips. The light timer clicked off, leaving us in an inky, total darkness until I took out my light and made my back to the entrance to twist it around once again. As I rounded the last landing with the final bags, I found that one of the walnut faux-painted doors had been opened and held back by my infamous shoe bag. I heard their voices off in the distance, so I stepped across the threshold and walked in, calling out.

JM beamed as he met me in the windowless, tiny foyer, lit by bare lightbulbs hanging from wires off the glossy white walls (first note: get sconces).
“Let me show you around.” He was inordinately proud. Backtracking toward the door, he opened a hollow-core door perpendicular to and less than a foot from the entrance. With a flourish, he announced “La salle de bain”.
I peered into the smallest bathroom I’d ever seen, lit by a tiny casement window which had been opened out and a lightbulb (cousin to those in the foyer) hanging from the ceiling, at least six feet over our heads. Straight ahead was a type of run-off drain pitched fifteen inches above the tiled floor, no more than thirty inches square and circled by a white plastic shower liner. Next to it, and directly under the window, was a small oval pedestal sink. Behind the door (which almost grazed the run-off drain in its sweep) was a very tall toilet, the flush located by a chrome button in the center of the tank. Hanging about four feet over the john was a miniature hot-water tank, no more than twenty inches in diameter and thirty-six in height. The walls and ceiling were painted in a reflective, high-gloss bright white, the fixtures and floor in a matching bright white. I nodded dumbly when JM asked me if I liked it. Words just didn’t come.

Crossing the foyer and walking a few steps in, we came upon an opening that revealed the kitchen. Tiny crimson octagon tiles covered the walls to a height of six feet, terracotta tiles covered the floor. Straight ahead was a large double sink of mid-century provenance, its cabinet some type of dented metal painted the same reflective white gloss as the walls and ceiling. Behind the sink and running below it by almost a foot was a pair of long thin windows painted shut looking out on an air-shaft perhaps eight feet from end to end. An ancient single-doored fridge wheezed to the right. The cabinets were an ugly brown wood and had louvered doors. I looked around and nodded: primitive but serviceable.

The living room was at the end of the foyer. Perhaps thirty feet long by twenty feet deep, it was a large, bright room, with three French windows against the right-hand wall looking out on a courtyard. Going to the window closest to me, I turned the oval handle and pulled it open. About sixty feet out was a white stucco wall punctuated by three windows identical to ours, repeated down one level and up three. The wall to the right was the same, the one to the left was made up of an aggregate of rough stones and cement and rose to the full height of the courtyard. Looking down, the “floor” was made up of an enormous, tent-shaped skylight. I listened to snippets of music, a crying baby and the occasional whirr of powertools as I leaned on the wooden rail of the window grille just outside. Turning around, I surveyed the furniture (dreadful but minimal), dark burgundy pile carpet that covered everything underfoot, and one lone piece of art on the far wall: a naked men’s torso, rippling with muscles, seen from behind, weight shifted to one leg to maximize the gluteus. It was loosely painted in garish, unreal colors and seemed very home-made, but was professionally framed nevertheless.

“Et voila la chambre…” JM brought me to the door of a tiny, dark bedroom, the windows looking out on the same air-shaft as the kitchen. In the far corner was a block of foam cut in a large rectangle and covered with cotton sheets covered with small blue anchors. Straight ahead was a large two door armoire made of particleboard and finished in white melamine. Next to the door was a matching five-drawer chest outfitted with white plastic handles. I smiled as JM scanned my face looking for a reaction.

“Everything is great,” I said, withholding any catty judgment. Soon enough, I thought to myself, we’ll be able to change everything out. Roche-Bobois this wasn’t, but I was too tired to think, and suggested we take a little nap. At first JM seemed disappointed, but he was at least as fatigued as me, and, after all, Paris would wait for us to enjoy a few hours’ snooze. I looked back toward the living room and saw Bernard stretched out on the hideous grey velvet and vinyl “Click-Clack” sofa. They exchanged a few words and we retired to the bedroom, peeling off our clothes and snuggling close.
“Is he staying here?” I asked.
“Just to take a nap. Bernard has been up longer than us and lives outside of Paris.”
Too fatigued to ponder anything further, I closed my eyes and blacked out.

I hadn’t been asleep more than three hours when I rolled over and found myself alone. Shaking off a yawn, I stumbled to my knees and off the foam slab. Looking over at the alarm clock on the chest of drawers, the time read 13:03. I understood it to be a bit after 1:00 in the afternoon, but had never seen a twenty-four hour clock before and found it odd. “Another adjustment”, I said to myself out loud and opened the door. Starting out into the living room, I suddenly felt exposed in my nakedness by the three windows and proximity of the neighbors across the way, so I fumbled for my underwear and pulled them on, hopping from leg to leg. Thinking of Bernard, I looked to the couch, but it was empty, with no sign of either of them except for Bernard’s newspaper curled up on the ugly matte black square parson-legged coffee table. Thirst scratched at my throat, so I padded barefoot to the kitchen for a drink.

Passing into the foyer, I heard Bernard’s voice coming from the bathroom, followed closely by that of Jean-Marc. The tone was hushed and intimate, not the irritated sound their conversations had had earlier that morning. Rounding the corner, I peered past the door. Bernard was standing by the sink, flicking the plastic tube of a hypodermic syringe, needle glistening.

To be continued…

11 Comments:

At Tue Aug 23, 04:06:00 PM GMT+10, Blogger David said...

My dear Bucko...Oh how my heart ached when I finished reading this segment of your story...From the airport to the horrible apartment sounded exhausting...and was I'm sure. What a terrible disappointment it must've been to discover you lover intended sticking a needle in his arm...I have been there....My dear departed lover, David, was a junkie. Something that oddly enough brought us closer together but ended his life pre-maturely.
But as you have demostrated again...your writing and your story are superb...Thank you for sharing yourself with us..How courageous and in such spendid details. Bravo..Bucko...Bravo!!!

 
At Wed Aug 24, 08:08:00 AM GMT+10, Blogger Bucko said...

David-

The story gets curiouser before it becomes clearer. Drugs would be a great explaination for JM's compulsions, his compartimentalization, his isolation, his constant bargaining and half-truths. It took two years for me to peel back the artichoke and find the thorny heart. Each step broke my heart, but neither my spirit nor my love were at any time diminished.

I am honored that you have chosen to reveal David's difficulties (as well as you own) and in no way diminish you experiences or loss when I say that JM's demons ran very deeply in many directions, not the least of which was a very addictive personality.

Please keep following along-

Love,
B

 
At Wed Aug 24, 01:47:00 PM GMT+10, Blogger Dionysus said...

Bucky'O "Fantastic" what a true talent you have to be able to capture the essences of your past and putting them down in such a beautiful way for us all to share, after reading it twice I found myself wanting to read more. So hurry up with part 2 please =D

 
At Wed Aug 24, 03:32:00 PM GMT+10, Blogger ronnie said...

Oh My!

 
At Wed Aug 24, 08:23:00 PM GMT+10, Blogger Matty the Damned said...

Once again darling, a triumph!

MtD

 
At Thu Aug 25, 08:01:00 AM GMT+10, Blogger Bucko said...

Part deux is on the way...

Bisous,
B

 
At Fri Aug 26, 09:27:00 AM GMT+10, Anonymous herman2725 said...

Please Lord,
Do not keep this gifted man from writing.
What an amazing memory and an eye for details.
And what a true romantic gifted soul you are.

bisous

hermie

 
At Sun Aug 28, 05:34:00 AM GMT+10, Blogger Bucko said...

Ah, Hermie-

I am temporarily waylaid by a hurricaine, but fear not. One my own computer's back on line I'll post chapter 6. It is almost finished-

Des tres gros bisous-
B

 
At Thu Sep 29, 12:35:00 PM GMT+10, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bucko- I have been waiting on Chapter 6 for ages (damn hurricane!)!!!!!!!! Your poignant story and your skillful writing have made me check for a new chapter everyday! Thank you so much for sharing!!!! XOXO

 
At Sun Nov 06, 12:48:00 PM GMT+11, Blogger Bucko said...

Anony-

Your long wait is nearly over. Beginning next week, I'll have a month to devote to writing, and I hope to reconnect with my writing muse and pick up the tale again.

Thanks, and gros bisous,
B

 
At Wed Aug 22, 02:24:00 PM GMT+10, Anonymous Kelly said...

Hugs!!!
Kel

 

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