The Men in Paris Always Wanted
She was singing at Cocteau’s new club for all the beautiful people. The man was on holiday with friends, saw her, wanted, just like they all did.
They always wanted to haunt the older parts of the city by day, shiny new ghosts with blue serge suits and alligator shoes. In the Ile de la Cité, they visited Notre Dame and the Saint-Chapelle. In the Tuileries, they walked to the Place de la Concorde. They would try to impress her; this is where the nobles lost their heads during the Revolution, they would say. She would nod, wide-eyed, pretending this information was new to her. She would hold her tongue and think of new dresses, of champagne and raw steak.
The men always wanted to spend nights in the shiny new parts of Paris — the nightclubs and the cafes and the modern art exhibits and the wonderful Theatre de Champs Elysees. They took her to see Picabia’s Relache, and she loved it more each time — the bright lights a great trick on the audience, the strange filmed images of the bearded ballerina, dancers carted round the stage in wheelbarrows, and men in tuxedos undressing onstage to reveal polka-dotted underthings. It’s a terrific joke, she said, but the men were never so sure; Dada was fashionable but they thought they might be the butt of the joke. They were even less sure when Picabia attached himself to her rather too firmly at the nightclub later on. A new one tonight, he’d say, and she would laugh, although Picabia was his own kind of fool, a different kind than the tourists of course. She was amused, mostly. It was a good way to be; an American in this city ought to be mostly amused.
At dinner tonight, Cocteau told the same story he always told, about the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps. Brilliant chaos, said the dapper little man to her left, smiling. Like the pagan gods themselves were taking over.
And when the performance was finished, Cocteau continued, myself and Stravinsky and Nijinsky and Diaghilev — we all drove out — in the early morning, it was so late! — to the Bois de Boulogne, Diaghilev madly quoting Pushkin between sobs as the sun climbed into the sky.
It’s not true, whispered the little man, still smiling. He’s been spinning that yarn for years — don’t you believe it.
She slipped the little man her room number under the table. She’d seen him before, a boxer? she thought. His nose looked like it had been broken long ago, and he was always the funniest, quietest person at the party.
But it is a lovely story, said Picabia. Diaghilev gave ballet the jolt of life it needed, brought it back from the stone dead. They say it is because he killed his mother being born that he had such melancholia, but it brought passion to all of Paris, all of the world.
I also killed my mother being born, she said, and they all made sympathetic noises. The man she’d come with tried to follow along. He was red-faced and frustrated. Let’s leave, he finally said, the way the men always did when the French stopped speaking English. Vous pouvez parler à votre mere, the woman to her right said to her excitedly.
Talk to my mother? I’m sorry, what do you mean?
Cocteau laughed. This weekend, we all go to Saint-Brice-sous-Foret for the weekend. You should come with us — there will be a séance, and we can summon your mother for you. Or any of your family, if you like.
No thank you, she said, and shivered. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but even the possibility struck her as terrifying. All those people, waiting on her past. She had no past, and no future — that was the only way to live. The past was poison, the future a blank. The present had silk and gin, if you knew how to smile and use a little chemical straightener. Better still if you could sing and dance, the way she could.
Will Breton be there? asked Picabia, and when the woman nodded, he turned a deep and alarming shade of purple. Breton! That merde embulante! Le maudite fauche, he should drink his own piss! But he was interrupted as one of the young men at another table, clearly dead drunk, threw his big bulk over the man beside him. Only minutes ago, she’d been watching them, amused. They’d been talking animatedly, no anger, excited, perhaps, the little flourishes in their gestures getting wider and wider. Now one friend gave the drunker one a terrific punch in the nose, and the drunk collapsed like a heavy sack over the table, his blood dribbling over the damaged duck. An outraged waiter went for the manager, but by the time he came back the two men were kissing
each other’s cheeks and embracing effusively. They joined in heaping abuse on the poor waiter, and the waiter shouted back, his cheeks flapping indignantly, and the manager finally shook his head and handed the bleeding gentleman a napkin for his nose. What can you do, he seemed to be saying. He was laughing, and then the waiter and the two gentlemen were laughing, and then the whole table was laughing, a loud avalanche of sound, drinks flowing, men, men in evening attire, men delighted with the world, with being men in Paris, men delighted with being men, delighted by other men being men, the whole of the twinkling crystal on the table echoing with their heady delight in it all. The man she was with was laughing along with the rest, happy they were finally speaking a language he could understand.
She turned to the little man, and she saw he was not laughing. She put her hand over his. Tonight, she said. In an hour or so. Bring a bottle of good wine and a deck of cards, and don’t bore me. He nodded softly, and the man she was with grabbed her arm.
Stop talking to other men, he said. You’re mine tonight, you’re bought and paid for. He was drunk.
I’ve been bought and paid for before, she said.
We should go, he said, and she nodded.
You’re right. She reached into her pocketbook, pulled out a handful of bills, flung them into his lap. Your money back, monsieur. With interest.
He stared, his face flooding pink, red, mauve, and she left him forgotten and furious and walked out the door. She left the men and met the Parisian night, glowing like obsidian
glass before her. She sailed through the soft night air, swaying just a little, the music and drink knocking about inside her hips, her thighs. When she arrived at her hotel, she tipped the concierge as usual and asked him to send up some fresh fruit — strawberries and cream. She slipped off her heels and unrolled her stockings. She slumped, exhausted, over the gilded damask, waiting for the knock. Her beads jangled gently under the cool breath of the fan.
When the little man arrived, he’d shed his mustache. His face was clean as a boy’s. Or a girl’s, she corrected herself, stroking the soft peach fuzz on the cheeks and chin, kissing the mouth like a small ripe rose. Thank god, she said, and laughed when the little woman flung off the suit jacket, smirk over her slim flute of champagne. They climbed up on the bed and pretended that there were no men at all in Paris, no men wanting anything, anywhere in the world tonight.
Amber Sparks is the author of several short story collections, including The Unfinished World and Other Stories, and the upcoming I Do Not Forgive You (Liveright, 2020). Her essays and fiction can be found widely in print and online, in places like The Paris Review, NYMag, Granta, and Tin House.
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Art (modified) Walery Public Domain