Extract from We’ll Never Have Paris, edited by Andrew Gallix and published by Repeater Books in May 2019.
She said she “liked the idea of an American in Paris.” Romantic, she said. But she ate syllables and the word comes like: “rustic,” her tongue curling a little noose. Lynch z’ie foreign dip’zong! Friction seppuku, an air-raid siren. Notes like from a dog whistle, pinching scales through the fashionable gap-tooth of her upper rows. Irresistible.
Especially when she breathes. Especially in Trocadéro at night, where we’ve always hated Germans, and in my family, still do. She was one, half naked under a bright neon-red Pepsi Cola LED sign attached to the wall, and she had no idea what she was talking about.
We were catching our breath still: one of us was panting, one just sighing but rapidly, so. You blend into places. You don’t take things too seriously. You peel off a limb, bits and pieces. You enter a pool, get out of the pool. The water you take with you: you don’t like that water. You shake it off like a stray, there-there. You wrap yourself in blankets to suffocate the fire; you trade wet for the itch and a roll in the grass.
For me, there was no other way to make love. If there was one, she didn’t seem to know about it or care. It was the silence afterwards, stung. An unusual silence — a somehow personal one. And war every night waiting out that she’d break it:
“I thought you fell asleep.”
“Look at this picture.”
“If you like dogs so much, get a dog?”
“C’est toi mon chien.”
About dogs, she was vocal about liking them. If there were a dog in the street and she thought you were watching, she’d approach the dog just to show you, or something. She trafficked in luxury vehicles and self-analysis, and had a playlist of conversation readymade for the bakery, Vavin, Veronese.
I remember sometime around her seventeenth year, her parents objected to nose jobs, so she sold her BMW, and paid for one herself. She explained that surgery in small-town Germany is no small cross to bear, how she’d dealt with the experience, how she’d prevailed (this was in line at the bakery). Then, she waits for your surrender — just picks at the almond croissant, small bites.
“Brave of you.”
“Well, now I regret it.”
And on and on, processed and repurposed — no feelings, instead packageable facts. Transactional trauma, a virtues ledger. And about bakeries: once or twice a month, she’d bring home bagels and lox; this was extremely pandering of her. You’d have to take really large bites. You’d have to spit nothing out.
In France, Germans speak French. A lot of people do, Verfremdungseffekt. In Hebrew, there’s no word for that. We’d walk the Canal Saint-Denis and I’d scan the window menus, look at the prices, calculate. Once we were seated, she’d somehow find a “special,” or something in fine print, or she’d combine a dish or two or three — in the end, she’d have to chip in for the bill. That day, she’d have the steak, where I’d eat mostly bread, between our dates, to afford the lies that I’d told.
While that morning’s another story entirely: I’d laughed during lovemaking, and this was the final nail in the coffin. You can’t redo these things ever.
You stand instead to attention: zu Befehl!
You do sex in a serious way; this is a serious time. You give your partner your undivided attention. You stomach that attention’s a word for what it’s not. That it’s not the thing; it’s every other thing your brain’s fucking off about — then you get to get the erection; sometimes you get to keep it. The cerebral cortex does that.
It blocks out the hum in the room. The beats of blood pulsing in your neck, your heartbeat. You’re dying. The cotton fabric lightly resting against your skin. Black Blazer, Button-Up, Banana Republic, $59.99. Miraculously the world melts away, and now you pull focus, the little lens in your mind’s eye stopping down, to the one thing you do, and poorly at that. Women. And that, my boy, is all that you do, l’man ha’Shem.
I have to look around the room sometimes, too. I have to look down:
“Non, mais regarde!”
After sex is the part she seemed to like the most. She reveled in silence, but only then. She was analytical at night, while I lived in constant fear of laundry. What remained of her fashion sense — Michael Kors Leopard Calf Hair Mini Skirt, $312.28, Gucci Marmont Belt Black $299.99, either a red or blue one Juicy Couture Long-Sleeve Tee — these careful statements now just bunched at her hips, like a loincloth collage. I wore the rest of her makeup on my neck and my shoulders, and wondered if her eyes were closed, really. She love-talked in French, but the oui came like wee, so to American ears, you’re less stud than spinning teacup. Then in postmortem she’d caress and say: Mmm? Over and over, as if she were asking me a question. If I would reply to her: Mmm? Or if I would reply: Mmm. or Mmm!? She’d just reply, by going: Mmm? to me again. As if I were the one who had asked her Mmm? to begin with — which, I have to say, I hated about her more than anything else.
“Tu veux que je m’en aille?”
“Did I say it wrong?
“It’s just better that way.”
“Do you want me to go?”
“Hahaha,” she said.
But I had no sense of humor. I hadn’t told a joke deliberately in some forty years. I was who she thought I was; she just didn’t know it. That’s why I always looked away when she looked at me too closely.
Here, I break off to go fetch the towel. I had to clean myself off. That’s your job after sex. You’re a man and your ecstasy makes garbage. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. You’re a housewarming guest in the valley; your cocktail’s spilt on the new crimson Bombay, $3990. You pat at it kind of. You wait for the help to arrive and take over, for the host to spirit you away, Hé hé hé héééééééééééé! Donari, non non nonnnnn, t’en fais pas Donariiii, pas de soucis Donariii, allez!
But here, no one comes. No one saves you from your fluids, your vulgarity, your Jewishness. You sit patting forever and ever and ever — she’s kept her eyes open. She wants to see to the task’s done. Your disease is one thing, your kin’s another entirely. It almost hurts my feelings in retrospect.
“Water if you like.”
Music was playing from a gramophone in the other room. The music was inappropriately modern or unironically not.
“How old is this music?”
“It has a USB port.”
“I said music.”
“1960’s, I said.”
“I want to go out.”
“I’ll walk you home then, come on.”
We dressed individually, separate rooms. It was fall/winter and we needed long socks, heavy scarves, gloves and coats. I wore mostly black, while she wore blacks, reds, a purple headband.
I locked the door behind us with a heavy gold latchkey, the old-fashioned kind still in use in parts of the Latin Quarter. We set down the corridor together, the stairwell, mostly in silence. I put the gold latchkey in the brown tote that she’d taken, shaped like a hand, so that I wouldn’t lose it. It had a fancy silver zipper that I was always scared that I’d break, because the corner fabric was tearing. I offered to carry the bag for her but she declined.
Outside on the street, South Montparnasse, there should have been all the familiar sights, or smells at the least. Paris smells like many things, but our street Rue Le Verrier, especially in the fall, had the papery taste of a library. That night, there was no library, but smoke, instead. Paris had grayed out, and all you smelled was smoke. You didn’t smell a fire, and truth be told, I didn’t know that smoke had a scent. It does: it’s metallic. It smells as if an army tank were parked in the desert, hollows out like a prune, and now is slowly evaporating into vapors. That night in Paris, to stand on the street was to breathe in those vapors.
Yulia couldn’t tell if it was her imagination, but I could. She saw a tank on the boulevard transforming by virtue of the prism into a mirage on the sand. She told me: I am hallucinating things. Nervous, I agreed with her mostly — really I knew. For I saw the same tank go, too. I watched an armored caravan melt pavement before the Archangel Saint-Michel with my eyes — it rolled north toward Châtelet, as the now toy-sized Citroëns scrambled to make way.
And escorting the machine on its flanks was a column of very matching solders. The tank’s camouflage itself was not matching; it wasn’t the right camouflage for urban, more jungle camouflage, instead. To me, this suggested that the French had had no time to prepare.
Yulia scanned my expression for clues, but I had none. I was busy searching French airspace above for an operation. I could see only stars and commercial flights in the sky. We walked a few blocks toward the high ground of Edgar Quinet, where there was a restaurant, Tournesol, that we fancied. We took one of the outside tables that lined the restaurant, intent on ordering tea, being normal. But of course the waiter didn’t come. Instead, he was on his phone, flailing about, talking to colleagues, to patrons, to passersby.
“Ah, monsieur! Monsieur, s’il vous plaît!”
He gave me such a look. When Yulia wasn’t herself looking, I physically checked around my eyes — that they were intact, that they weren’t bleeding. I didn’t know if bleeding eyes were a sign of insanity, but had they been bleeding, I’d have assumed that they were such a sign. Then when she did finally look at me again, I only looked away.
I wiped my glasses off by using the bottom right corner of my shirt, which first made them blurrier, but when you do it right, eventually it makes them less. Then I looked past her, over her shoulder, toward northern Paris. That was the last time Yulia looked toward me for answers.
It was the Sabbath and there were many Chassids running away. We saw many birds flying in the opposite direction. Yulia wasn’t speaking anymore. I asked the waiter:
“When will we find out what’s happening here?”
“Can’t you see for yourself?”
I looked out into Paris, but everything, except for the tank column advancing, looked normal.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Look at the Tower!”
The Eiffel Tower was very far away, at that point. You had to stand on something to see that north into Paris. You could stand on a bench and maybe see it. The waiter was standing on a table. I stood on my chair.
And in the distance, I found it. The Eiffel Tower was on fire, and it wasn’t just a little. It was burning like the wicker man in a pagan sacrament. From base to the top of the Tower, flames took to every direction. They were mostly orange, but there were also blues and yellows.
“Was there a terrorist attack?” I asked.
“No,” he replied.
“But then, what?”
Probably there wasn’t an answer. I put my hand on Yulia’s hand. Neither of us cried or anything. We just watched and waited for the Eiffel Tower to fall, or to slowly wither away into nothing. I didn’t know how long it might take. Should we leave the restaurant, head west through the police state, and try to get closer to the scene? How close do you need to be to watch the Tower fall down? What does it matter if you’re close or if you’re not? Already I couldn’t remember what color the Tower had originally been. Like a moth, you don’t remember the flame, you go to meet it. But the longer we watched, the longer nothing happened at all. The Tower burned and burned and burned. None of its pieces fell off.
Donari Braxton is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker and photographer. He has received support and awards from Sundance, TriBeCa, NPR, IFP, Film Independent and Berlinale Talents, amongst other institutions. Out of My Hand, the narrative feature that he wrote and produced, premiered at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival. He was later nominated for the John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award for his work on the project. Most recently, he was awarded the San Francisco Film Society’s KRF Grant & Fellowship for his new feature in development, Above. Outside of his feature endeavours, his images, editorials and shorts have frequently been featured in such publications as GQ, Details and Playboy magazines. http://donaribraxton.com/