There seemed to be no end to Ackys thirst. We left the Café Escurial
staggering, having drained two bottles of plunk, and yet Acky wanted to scare
up more wine. "Im done for the night," I told him, but he wheeled
on me, eyes wide, nostrils flaring. "The suns not close to coming up
yet! How could you be done for the night!" We staggered on. Half a block
later, he spun on me again and jutted a finger at my chest. "The nights
not done with you!" he hissed.
with so many other things involving Acky, my only option was to surrender. He
was like a severed electrical cord, whipping about, spitting sparks, zapping you
in the ass. You had to grab on with two hands, become a part of the circuit, and
everything would be all right. Id only met him a few weeks ago at an art
gallery opening, but wed hit it off. He was an out-of-work photographer,
subsisting by running a crappy porno site on the internet; I was an out-of-work
musician, scraping by tutoring English to corporate executives. Wed both
washed up in Paris because of some gnawing, unspoken feeling that loveor
at least sexual releasesimmered just below the surface of the city. So far,
wed been disappointed. My girlfriend, Isabelle, was out of town with her
husband, holed up in their summer house on the coast while he finished a novel.
Ackys girlfriend, Nicolette, was a stripper at a dive in Pigalle, and she
had a habit of disappearing for days. We would have been better off, the both
of us, having no girlfriends at all.
Acky (short for Akira) was strutting. His black hair flapped between his shoulder
blades. From the side, he looked like a rail-thin and breastless girl. His delicate
features and pale skin defied gender; only the thatch of stubble on his chin revealed
his sex. I walked along a pace behind, imagining he was my badass Japanese girlfrienda
momentarily exciting idea, until the streetlights lit up his goateed face. I was
carrying my trumpet in a leather satchel, because Id been practicing down
by the river when Acky showed up to drag me out for a booze-up. Who was I to say
We bought more
wine, and we walked. Down the quiet sidewalks of St. Michel. Along the high fence
of the Jardin de Luxembourg, where the plane trees stood pantomiming in the dark
and the fountains had long fallen silent. Along the dead boulevards crisscrossed
by late-night taxis, down into the Thirteenth where the metal-shuttered storefronts
were looped with graffiti, some of it in Arabic, or else some new spraypaint lingua
franca. We talked in annotated toasts: "Heres to (X) because of the
time she (Y), which almost killed me because of (Z), but everything was okay because,
blah blah blah, etc." And fifteen minutes later, with the toast complete,
we clinked bottles and drank. Through such a conversational patchwork, I filled
Acky in on Mina, my ex-wife, and the disastrous meltdown that shot us both into
extended orbit very far from one another, and how most of the time I didnt
think about her, and how a lot of the time I could believe that everything had
happened to someone else and not to me, and my memories of it were just like my
memories of fictional characters in movies. "Well always have Paris,"
me a full city block to get that one. "Casablanca," I said, when it
dawned on me. "But Mina was no Ingrid Bergman."
youre no Bogey." Acky came to a stop, cocking his head at me. "Shes
why you dropped the trumpet, right? What did she do, spank you with it? Scar you
no. Scar, yes. I cocked my head too, figuring out how to tell it. Two paces worth
of sidewalk lay between us, our shadows twinned in the streetlights. I hadnt
told anybody. Who would I have told?
been trying to get pregnant, Mina and I. It finally worked. She was three months.
Then she got an abortion. Dont ask me why, because I still dont know.
She might not even know. She was just like that. Shed kick and scream
for something, drive you out of your fucking mind with I want a fresh mango!
or something like that, till youd have to drive to the supermarket in the
middle of the night just to buy a goddamn mango. Then when you got home, shed
be asleep and you couldnt wake her up, and the mango would rot in the fridge
for a week and stink the whole place up."
"Are we talking about mangos, or babies?"
talking about Mina. She decided she didnt want it. She went to a clinic
and had it cut out. Told me about it later."
was shaking his head, watching his shoes. He took a swig, tipping the bottle sideways
into the corner of his mouth where red droplets streamed down his chin and dripped
into the hollow at the base of his throat. Then he raised his head and met my
eyes. "And the trumpet?"
it off the balcony."
threw it off the balcony?"
was either the trumpet or Mina. I already had my hands on the trumpet, so I hucked
me, weighing the possibilities of cracking a joke, or wondering whether I was
making the whole thing up. I watched him right back. "Eleventh floor,"
I went on. "I found the thing early in the morning, smashed flat by a bus
or something. I bought that horn with a years worth of gig money."
buy a new one?"
my cheek over that. Some things make sense only when theyre sewn up inside
of you, half-formed and unspoken. As soon as you put them into words to tell somebody,
the whole idea unravels and you end up sounding like youd never given any
of it a thought. But tonight my blood was full of wine, and the words seemed to
rise out of me like torn bits of cork. "I was done with everything, Acky.
I felt dirty. I wanted to get clean. Does that make any sense?"
didnt respond, just watched me with a knitted brow. He started walking again
and I moved into step. We were going slower now, stuck in the molasses of the
moment. "So did you get clean then?"
I think. I feel pretty clean now. Except for the fact that youve gotten
me shitfaced against my will."
dirty about that. In fact, red wine is the cleanest substance I know."
may be, but the fact remained that I had planned to stay off the stuff. It was
getting to the point that booze had become institutionalized in our relationship,
so I couldnt imagine hanging out with Acky without guzzling some kind of
alcohol. Would I have to give up Acky along with giving up booze? And was there
any point in giving up either one? I was exaggerating again. Its not like
I was a chronic drunk. I didnt drink on the clock at work, and I didnt
drink for breakfast. I only drank to mark events, whether it was with friends,
celebrating camaraderie, or alone, celebrating loneliness. So what could it possibly
harm? Acky was giving me a strange look now, from the corners of his eyes, and
with a slanted grin. He nodded at my satchel, where the trumpets mouthpiece
poked out of the zippered mouth. "Come on."
swung the bag behind my back. "Nah. Id wake up half the world."
on. People need to be woken up. The suns on the way up, anyway."
dont know why he thought that, because the night was as inky as ever, but
it was probably close to five in the morning. A weariness throbbed in my legs
that I hadnt noticed before, and I wanted to turn around and head back the
way wed come. Acky stayed where he was, watching me over the sidewalk. "Come
on," he said again. "I got a closet Charlie Parker here, and Ive
never even heard him play." He said it with the Boston brogue turned way
up, "Chah-ly Pah-kuh."
played sax, my friend."
of the hand. "Whatever."
looked around. Not a single lighted window anywhere. We were on a street Id
never been down before, in a neighborhood I didnt know. The Thirteenth?
The Fifteenth? The buildings that towered over us were dark slabs, like Stalinist
government bunkers, and the trees along the sidewalk seemed skeletal in the night,
untouched by springtime. It was possible to believe that there was no one around
at all, and that these buildings held nothing but metal desks and filing cabinets
and creaky chairs on casters, all dormant and hushed under the clicking of some
timeclock in the shadows. The idea of that made me think of Marianne Jardin, the
banker, who I tutored in English conversation three times a week, and who wanted
me to take a job as her "personal assistant." Her office was a sleek,
airtight chamber, where the sheetglass desks and granite endtables and leather
caesars thrones lay silent under the chicking of yet another timeclock,
waiting for the first stirrings of executives in the fresh dawn. People putting
their elbows to their desks, lifting the phone receivers, punching numbers, entering
passwords into computers, pouring scalding water into stained mugs and stirring
in NescafÈ, one, two teaspoons. I would be one of them. Either with Marianne
Jardin or in some other office, it wouldnt be long before I was one of those
people, inhabiting my very own office furniture. After all, tutoring conversation
was never going to sustain my habits or pay my rent.
suddenly stuck me as vitally important that I was standing on a dark street outside
a galaxy of offices, stumbling drunk and carrying a trumpet, instead of lying
in bed waiting for an alarm to go off. I felt like a grizzled prophet, just returned
from the desert, stewing with wicked visions that twitched at my lips. I unzipped
the bag and took the horn into my hands, brought it to my mouth. My girlfriend
Isabelle had given me the horn just last week, as a parting gift, so Id
have something to press my lips to while she spent the summer basking on the beach
with her damn husband. Thoughtful of her, Acky watched me with a grin, and actually
took a step back.
brass put a cold kiss to my lips. I hesitated, starting up the gears. Something
bright and cold, hard bop, enough to stop a timeclock. I ripped out a quick trill,
like water splashing off the floor and back into a glass in a backwards movie.
The notes peeled into the night, ringing off the stone buildings and dispersing
under the clouds. Acky let out a whoop. Another trill, this time punching a half-step
higher, then repeating: the opening to "A Night in Tunisia." Hard bop,
at a hundred miles an hour. With only my foot tapping accompaniment, I tore through
the tune, bursting from one line to another, getting way ahead of the rhythm,
and speeding up my foot to compensate. Acky threw his head back and laughed as
I blew faster and faster, raising the horn into a forty-five degree angle and
blasting at the streetlights. The street reverberated with noise like a machine
gun assault, with the baying of dogs ringing from scattered points. Windows began
to light, first one then another, all along the block. Figures appeared in silhouette
behind curtains, peering around the edges and down into the street. So they werent
offices after all. "Que-es ce quil fout!" came an enraged
voice from somewhere overhead. Acky and I ran. I tucked my horn under my arm and
took off, legs pumping and searing, towards the end of the block. We shot through
the intersection without even looking, and kept running all the way to the end
of the next block, where we came up against the bulbous glass case of a closed
newsstand, leaning and panting and giggling. I let the horn dangle from the loop
around my pinkie. "That sounded beautiful," Acky said, breathless and
hombre. Felt good, too."
that one of your improv things?"
A Night in Tunisia. Dizzie Gillespie."
it got to do with Tunisia?"
knows, but its a rocking number, isnt it? Sort of jazz-meets-punk-rock,
especially in the Art Blakey version." I flashed my hands about, pantomiming
the breakneck tom-tom beats, and making wet cymbal splash noises with my mouth.
The whole thing had revved me up, sent the wine in my blood coursing over my nerve
endings like rapids in a rocky stream. "Acky, you got any smokes? I need
paced a half circle in the sidewalk in front of me. "You know what, Julian?
We could hitchhike our way to Tunisia right now and be there before sundown tomorrow."
He flashed a Lucifer smileteeth like orange coals in the streetlight. "How
want to hitchhike to Tunisia? Right now?"
shrugged. Then he gazed off down the sidewalk, as if Tunisia were visible down
the street a few blocks distant, just beyond a boulevard where traffic rustled.
"Im up for almost anything," he said, almost too soft to hear.
"You know that."
what would we do in Tunisia, Acky? Know anybody there? Got any connections?"
In line with my new theory of Acky, I was taking everything he said at face value.
He shrugged again,
still looking down the street towards the vanishing point. "Well fish.
Drink gritty-ass Arab coffee. Maybe find some dusky maidens. Muslim, of course.
Or maybe Jewish. Theres a bunch of Jews in Tunisia, I understand."
we couldnt do or find right here in Paris. Except go fishing."
song wasnt called A Night in Paris, was it?"
theres plenty of songs about Paris, too. How about . . ." I puckered
up and tootled out the opening bars of "April in Paris."
threw up his arms and turned to me. "Come on, Julian! Im trying to
make something happen. Neither of us has any reason to play it safe. Were
totally untethered men. Do you know what I mean? Whos waiting up for you
tonight? Wholl notice if you dont show up for three days? Or three
me, evidently waiting for an answer to what sounded to me like rhetorical questions.
I let him wait. I wasnt going to respond. Suddenly, his eyes flashed. He
clapped his hands once, loudly, and stomped a foot that smacked on the sidewalk.
"Baby!" he yelled. "Forget Tunisia! Lets hitch to Cootchie-coo,
or wherever the hell it is. The town Isabelles run off to."
That place. Its in the south, right? On the coast?"
how long can it take? All night in a tractor-trailer? Half the distance to Tunisia!"
Ackys eyes glimmered, half-squinted with the smile that had split his face
into a jack-o-lantern. My first instinct was to squash the idea, wave my arm in
dismissal, turn away from him and change the subject, stomp out the foolishness,
but there was also that question I hadnt answered, which continued to hang
in the rafters of our conversation: Whos waiting up for you tonight?
We had by this time walked nearly to the edge of the city where the pÈriphique
separated Paris from the hellish suburbs. Highrises on the other side of the freeway
stood dead and expresssionless in the night. Smokestacks farther in the distance
silently belched white vapor into gunmetal clouds. We stared out from our vantage
on the rise of an entrance ramp, shivering as the wine evaporated out of our blood
and the chill of the deep night set into our bones. The idea of crossing the boundary
and actually leaving the safe circle of the city all at once seemed foolish and
doomed. We were literally begging for passage into a landscape of concrete bunkers,
factories, tract housing and disaffected immigrants. All the charming details
of French culturea sidewalk bench on every corner, a helpful gendarme who
salutes you when you ask for directions, a coven of old women in a bakery who
all coo "Bon Jour!" when you jingle through the doorwould be nostalgia
once we left the city. Replaced with the culture of trans-European truckers, motorway
rest stops, twenty-four hour convenience stores, vacuum-sealed processed foods.
My heart thumped in my chest. We stood, Acky and I, at the entrance ramp, our
thumbs cocked into the airstream where semis and step-vans and darty private cars
all accelerated past, buffeting our hair. Protests lay on my tongueits
so late now, I mean early, and look how depressing this highway is, well
be stuck with a doped-up trucker wholl refuse to stop, and I dont
really want to leave the city anyway, at least not like thisbut Acky kept
his eyes on the oncoming traffic, and I didnt speak. My thumb, in a silent
betrayal of the rest of me, hung there in tandem with Ackys. A semi slowed,
pulled onto the shoulder, and we went running for the passenger door that popped
open by itself. That was the beginning of the summer: the vision of that door,
upholstered inside with quilted red vinyl, swinging open high above our heads
in the sodium glow of the highway lights, Acky climbing the step ladder past an
enormous front tire, grasping for a handhold, me following after. Even before
I could slam the door, we were low-gearing down the ramp and I was astonished
to see, through the vast windshield, the brightening of the sky at the horizon,
as if wed just climbed up out of the night and into the morning. "Salut,"
grunted the driver, flicking his eyes from one set of mirrors to another to another
as we merged into the traffic flow, engine upshifting and roaring alive. It was
the morning of June 21st. Summer had dawned.
Acky did all the talking. I knew Id have to return him the favor eventually,
because he was surely as exhausted as I was, but it was clear that the trucker
had picked us up for conversation, and Acky spoke for both of us. I leaned against
the door, head pressed to the window, watching the industrial landscape and half-hearing
Ackys elaborate stories as my eyes slowly drooped: we were jazz musicians,
but wed gotten so drunk at last nights gig that we got lost and couldnt
find the van the rest of the band was traveling in; theyd left without us.
We had to be at another gig tonight in Perpignan but all our money was gone because
of these two whores that we didnt realize were whores until they started
demanding money, but neither of us could remember anything reliably, blah blah
blah. The trucker listened, nodding and grimacing, as if he heard variations on
this same story from assorted hitchhikers day after day. The trucker, wiry thin
with round Gandhi glasses and a sugar coating of white whiskers all across the
lower half of his face, nodded reflexively and uttered platitudes at pauses in
Ackys yarn: "I dont know about where you all come from, but where
Im from, if its not one thing its another," and "Well,
they got a name for people like that," and "What comes around goes around,
you can be damn sure of that."
ended up dreaming some version of Ackys tall tale. A brassy gig, tumblers
of whiskey refracting light on a round table, a smoky room with low black ceilings,
the legs of a woman in a glittery short dress, her hand on my crotch as music
blared and my hard-on throbbed, then wandering in the streets looking for the
van, or a taxi, or my lost trumpet, and not finding anything but still lugging
around my throbbing member which just wouldnt die down. I opened my eyes
and found a hand there in my lap, gripped onto the lump in my crotch like it was
one of the padded handholds of the truck cab. It was Acky. His face was turned
to me on the seatback, with his mouth half open and breath whooshing raggedly
through his lips. He was passed out, with his hand gripping my penis. I pulled
his hand away, dropped it on the seat between us, and stole a glance at the trucker.
His eyes aimed straight ahead on the road. Daylight had bloomed all around us,
and everything lay pale and half-misted in a fresh veil of humidity. The stereo
cranked out something familiar, the music that had rattled around jazz-like in
my dream, but it wasnt jazz. It took me half a minute to get my brain straight
before I recognized it: Led Zeppelin. French truckers listen to Zep? If its
not one thing, its another. I hadnt heard so much as a note from
the monster rockers since Id turned 18 and left the American suburbs, but
the sound of it now sent me on a nostalgia express tour of teenage smoking-and-drinking
days. I cracked a smile out at the corduroy fields that wheeled past my window.
My lips moved with the words, so effortless was the remembering. Why dont
you take a good look at yourself and describe what you see / and baby baby baby
do you like it?
laughed out loud at the amphetamine pique in the singers voicebaybay!
baybay! baybay!and the trucker snatched a glance at me. "You like
the hard rock?" he said in English. I answered in French, to put an end to
any notions of casual English practice, saying, "It takes me back to when
I was a boy."
he said, reverting to French. "All boys like hard rock. Its how you
know youre a boy. Now, these kids who listen to nothing but rap, or whatever
its calledyou know what I mean?now, wheres the identity
in that? Theyre all going to be confused one day. Can you imagine
them listening to their rap twenty years later, and still thinking its good?
Theyre wasting themselves."
wasnt exactly sure who they might be, but it was a good bet
he was talking about the generation of suburban hoodlums who were quickly skewing
French culture towards rap and baggy clothes. There was no doubt in my mind that
they would one day experience an identical nostalgia when listening to the music
of their youth from the frontiers of middle age, no matter what that music had
been. Humans are just built that way. But Monsieur Trucker didnt seem to
be interested in genuine social inquiry, he just wanted to state his views and
be ratified, so this was my response: "Yeah." Meanwhile, Jimmy Page
and Company continued to rock hard, sealing our collective boyish-cum-manliness
in our red quilted capsule as we sailed over the road. Ackys hand lay curled
on the seat beside my leg, and the blood still hadnt completely drained
from my thang. I shifted around, discreetly adjusting myself, and cupped my hand
to my chin to watch out the window. France, fertilized by generations of dead
soldiers, flashed by.
breakfast at a truck stop: packaged croissants and coffee out of a pump-action
thermos, American-style. We ate leaning against the foot ladder of the rig while
the trucker gassed up. Acky didnt say anything about his crotch-grab, and
I wasnt going to bring it up. A few weeks ago, hed invited me into
bed with him and his stripper girlfriend, Nicolette, and hed watched with
glittery eyes while she sucked me off. But the contrived arrangement had made
me queasy, and I ended up sneaking away to finish myself off on the couch. Had
the invitation been her idea? or his? The thought had slithered through my mind
many times: that Acky was cruising me, making passes, flirting in a winky, ironic
way. It didnt bother me. Why should it? I wasnt having much luck with
the women in my life, so the sliver of the idea poked the back of my mind: why
not try it with a man? The idea had never occurred to me before meeting Acky,
and I certainly wouldnt be leaning against the chrome accoutrements of a
semi tractor at a truck stop in central France thinking about it now if it werent
for the fact that Acky was right here with me, exuding his Acky vibes. In fact,
it was more likely that labels like straight and gay and
bi just didnt apply to him, who seemed more like a constantly
growling stomach, ready to consume anyone or anything that came across his path.
Or maybe all New Yorkers are that way?
Acky chose that moment to light a cigarette.
were standing in a fucking gas station!"
looked around, startled, as if hed only just noticed. Then he shrugged,
took a deep drag, and offered it to me. "Ive heard diesel is less flammable
took a hasty drag myself, then dropped the smoke to the tarmac where I smashed
it with my foot and kept it pinned there under my heel. The trucker, coming around
the fender, saw me exhaling two jets of smoke from my nostrils. "Are you
idiots smoking?" he barked.
sir," I said. "I just have a little cough is all."
glared at me as he continued across the tarmac to the cashiers booth, fingering
blindly through a wad of Euro notes. They say you can differentiate the new bills
not only by size but also by texture; I figured youd have to have a lot
of contact with money to be able to develop that skill. Then, like a lightning
flash, I thought of Marianne Jardin, all the decimals worth of currency
that flashed here and there across the globe at the keystrokes of her fingers.
It was Wednesday morningmaybe ten, maybe eleven oclock?and she
was waiting for me to walk into her office and lead our weekly lesson. "Aw,
fuck," I said. Acky raised his eyebrow. "I forgot about Marianne. Shes
waiting for me."
Have I heard about her?"
not a her, shes a Ms., and shes waiting for an English
lesson with me right now. I completely forgot. Im regressing into an irresponsible
schmuck, and its all your fault."
fault? Fuck you. Were here right now because you cant be without Isabelleor,
at least, you need to know exactly whether or not you can be with her.
Leave me out of it. Im just along for the ride."
the tarmac, I spotted a pay phone in the vestibule between the set of doors leading
into the cafeteria where wed just bought our breakfast. "Give me a
minute," I said, and jogged my way across the pavement. I passed the trucker
on his way back to his rig, and gave him a friendly nod of the head, which he
met with only a flicker of the eyes. The phone card in my wallet was only good
for a couple more credits, so I slipped into the cafeteria and bought another
at the counter. In a great victory for order and goodness in the universe, I had
Marianne Jardins card in my wallet, and dialed her office number long distance.
The secretary patched me through, and then she was rustling in my ear. "Allo?"
I said, with all the spatula-flatness of my best American accent. "How ya
Julian! Youre ten minutes late. Are you canceling?"
minutes is all? I was in the timeless zone of sleep deprivation, and lucky to
have pegged it so close. "No, no, not canceling. I just thought we could
do a phone lesson, since thats one of the skills you need to practice."
rang with laughter, and I picked up the curious chuckles of someone else in the
room with her. She covered the receiver with her hand and said something in a
diplomatic tone and then was back, in her best English. "Julian, Im
impressed. You probably just wake up from so much exaggeration you participated
last night. But you manage to call to your lesson, to keep your word. Am I right?"
or less, Marianne. Now. Can you tell me why youre interested in public relations
work?" This was the game we played. We pretended that she was at a job interview
with some stodgy middle manager at a British corporationthe kind of place,
like Lloyds of London or the BBC, that she aspired to work inand I
barraged her with mind-numbing job interviewese. My advice was invariably American
("Say as many buzzwords words as possible," "Stare at the bridge
of their nose," and "Never show hesitation or uncertainty"), and
may have been wholly inappropriate for the subtle formalities of British hurdle-jumping.
Nevertheless, she learned her lessons front to back, and if England wouldnt
have her, shed be primed for a power-interview at Goldman-Sachs. Of course,
I didnt possess an ounce of experience in any aspect of finance or communications,
but I had gone through plenty of interviews, and could at least advise her about
the trick questions they planted, like "If you had to describe one personal
weakness or shortcoming, what would it be?" The trick was to sneak in the
back way and say something like, "Well, sometimes I think Im just too
organized," or, "Im so much of a team player that at times
I dont focus enough on my own priorities. Thats a real weakness
of mine." And the interviewers eyes begin to sparkle.
Marianne was working on a long-winded and precise answer to the question Id
asked her, which Id already forgotten. I watched Acky across the tarmac
as he backed away from the semi, holding my trumpet bag and his plastic grocery
sack. The semi roared to life with a tip of the smokestacks lid, and the
truck rolled in a low-gear growl away from the diesel pumps. Acky turned his back
on it and walked slowly my way. By the time he got to the vestibule where I was
sealed in a glass no-mans-land between inside and outside, the semi had
merged onto the motorway, and Marianne had reached the end of her soliloquy. "Excellent,"
I said, "but youve got to get to the point faster. Remember, youre
looking the guy straight in the eyes the whole time, and if you talk too much
hell start to feel uncomfortable. He wants to feel like hes in control,
after all." I said this into the phone, but looking right at Acky, an arms
reach away, who stood smirking at me. He set our things down at his feet on the
rubber mats that stretched underfoot, and made an exaggerated shrug. We were rideless
and stranded in God knows what part of France. With a hand cupped over the receiver
I whispered to Acky: "Hold on, just a couple minutes."
heard me. "Are you with somebody?"
Yes. Im not at home, actually, Im in a truckstop somewhere between
Paris and Orleans, I think."
didnt even know you had truckstops in France. Im impressed."
course we have the truckstops! How do you think the truckers go from place to
place, if they have nowhere to stop?"
went on like this, for a half hour more. I had to send Acky inside twice to buy
new phone cards, then switch them in the middle of the conversation. In the end,
I paid more in phone cards than I earned giving the lesson. We arranged for another
telephone lesson on Friday morning at the same time, if I hadnt made it
back to the city by then. I had no pen to write it on my hand, no string to tie
around my finger, nothing to remind me of the appointment. I was half certain
that I was headed into some black hole of unfathomable pleasures and pains, set
a-spin between Acky and Isablle, and that my mind would be in no position, come
Friday morning, to remember to call Marianne Jardin for our English lesson. But
I promised. "Until Friday." And then hung up.
We were stranded, but not seriously. Semis were coming and going like clockwork,
and it took us less than ten minutes to get another ride. This time we got a Spaniard
who wanted to talk, but in Spanish. He rattled on in monologue while Acky and
I, squeezed together in the couch-sized front seat, nodded and laughed and said
"sÌ" and "no" at what felt like appropriate moments.
We were hauling onions, the driver explained, and which we understood with his
pinched-nose, watery-eyed pantomime. He was apparently making jokes about how
onions make you cry, even if youre a man and you shouldnt ever be
seen crying. He thought this was so funny that he laughed until he shed tears,
and this fact seemed to trigger even more hilarity, until Acky and I were laughing
ourselves to tears as well, not having any idea why. France deepened. The fields
got thicker and greener, and the motorway curvier, until we were crossing gentle
hills where it had been flat and straight before. The morning mist had burned
away, but a haze of humidity remained, and I sat against the window and sweated
into my clothes. I could already smell myself, a combination of sour wine and
sweat and coffeeor was I smelling Acky? He was pressed up against me, like
a teenage girlfriend in the cinema. Like this, France flung itself past us.
arrived in Perpignan in early evening. The Spaniard driver tried to explain to
us some drama involving a woman named Guadalupe, which had something to do with
three inches worth of money and the propriety of his rig, which was why
he couldnt take us any further down the road. He dropped us at a square
in front of the train stationwhich Salvador DalÌ had for some reason
proclaimed the center of the worldand roared away. The sun had
just slipped behind the Pyrenees, and Venus glared like a flaw in the sky. Acky
and I decided to explore Perpignan. We set off walking into the city, going down
a long boulevard of bakeries and appliance stores and athletic boutiques where
Arab youths in nylon warm-up suits milled around under the awnings, peering up
and down the sidewalk with hooded eyes. We came to a broad plaza in the center
of town where a crenellated brick castillo flew the red and yellow Catalan flag,
and I knew that Isabelle was nearby. "She always said she was Catalan, not
French," I told Acky, who didnt know or give a damn about the difference
between the two.
wheres Kickapoo?" he said.
Another hour down the coast."
wandered the medieval streets of the old town center, and eventually sniffed out
a wine store. This place served vino tinto straight from the keg, and you had
to bring your own bottle. We bought a liter of orange juice at a corner store,
guzzled it for the vitamin C, then rinsed the jar in a fountain where marble cherubs
frolicked among a foursome of stone dolphins leaping synchronously with frothing
water spewing from their mouths. For a handful of coins we filled the juice jar
with wine, screwed the cap on, and set off again into the streets. We lost ourselves
immediatelysomething that hadnt happened to me in Paris in years nowand
circled back around until, providentially, we found ourselves in front of the
wine depot yet again when our jar was nearly empty. Filled up. This time, we turned
left where before wed turned right, and vice-versa, and in this manner we
stumbled upon a long alameda of cobblestones and tall palms, lined with thickets
of bushes and benches cast in concrete made to look like tree trunks. The sun
was long gone and the park looked deserted, although we heard the hissing of whispers
in the bushes, and glimpsed hunching shadows between the glowing perimeters of
the lamp lights. Perpignans night stalkers had come out to spirit around
in the shadows. For one night only, we were among their ranks. We sat on a bench
in one such shadowy spot, and passed the jar back and forth. "Are you expecting
her to be glad to see you?" Acky said.
wasnt. I was expecting her to be angry, that I would be so audacious as
to turn up at her private family retreat where her husband was writing his idiotic
novel. But in another way, I wasnt even expecting to show up at all. All
day, Id had the feeling that wed never make it, that something would
come in the way. So I said this: "I dont know."
laughed, a snort. "Well. Thats confident."
is like that. You never know what shes going to do or say. One day its
one thing, the next day its something else."
shes human, like the rest of us."
hummed. A siren dopplered past on a hidden street, illuminating chimneys with
red and blue light, then faded away. "Sometimes I think shes intentionally
driving me crazy. To keep me at a distance, you know."
shes married to someone else. What do you expect?"
didnt answer that. I didnt want to talk about it, not with Acky. He
and I werent suited to confessions of intimate details. With Acky, I felt
I needed to be larger than life, and to hell with the nitty-gritty. Cut to the
chase. "Why did you grab my crotch this morning in the truck?"
looked at me, half-twinkling with mischief, half-speechless with genuine surprise.
His mouth worked, ready to speak, then silent. Finally, "Did I do that?"
woke up and you were in mid-grope."
From the glimmer in
his eyes, I knew that his innocent act wasnt even half true. "Maybe,"
I said, "you were dreaming of Nicolette?"
sighed, shaking his head. "I dont dream of Nicolette. I have her in
reality, so why would I dream about her? You, on the other hand, are dream material."
dream material? What does that mean?"
was digging his last Gitane out of the crumpled pack that poked like a folded
ascot out of his breast pocket. He lit up, inhaled deeply, and passed the cigarette
my way. "Remember, Ive seen you naked," he said. "I know
youre very skinny, and you have a long white belly, and a good-sized wang.
And I have this image in my mind, you know, of having you. The way Nicolette had
you that night."
night of the threesome, when hed watched with glittery eyes. A bottomless
tingle sparked in my gut. "How did Nicolette have me?"
sucked you off." He said this while meeting my eyes. Hed talked like
this to other guys before, I was sure. And now he was doing it to me. I stood
up and paced across the cobblestones. My guts had gone electric with a feeling
I couldnt name, but that felt like a collision between horniness and absolute
terror. I still fingered the cigarette. I smoked it down to a nub and flicked
the glowing butt over a hedgerow where it arced like a shooting star into the
shadows. "That was my last smoke, ya prick," said Acky, throwing up
hadnt realized that we were starving until we found a corner store and wandered
the aisles grabbing tins of tuna, jars of olives, wheels of camembert, vacuum-sealed
croissants, crackers and miniature chocolate chip cookies. We bought a real bottle
of wine, a couple liters of water, and two more packs of Gitaneswhat the
hell, I was going to take up smokingand wandered the streets with our bags
bumping our knees and our heads inclined for lighted hotel signs. The Hotel SimÛn
occupied a narrow sliver of a row house on a side street where not even a streetlight
burned, and we dropped a couple of bills on a fourth floor room with two balconies
and a view over the castillo where the Catalan flag rippled in spotlights. Traffic
on the street below resounded in the room like feedback through an amplifier.
We spread our tins
and wrappers all over the double beds, Acky on one and me on the other, fingering
the food and washing it down with gulps of wine. A breeze stirred the curtains
and cooled our foreheads. Paris, that unmovable chunk of rock, had dissolved in
the morning fog, and left us with this: night in Perpignan. We left our shoes
by the door, peeled our socks off, stripped down to boxer shorts and tee shirts,
shuffling around with creaking bones like old men after a climb up a staircase.
Acky stepped onto one balcony and I stepped onto the other. He leaned over the
railing, letting his hair spill into empty space. It reminded me of Isabelle,
her hair unfurling over her naked shoulders and into my face, the whispery sound
of it. In fact, from the corner of my eye, I could imagine that it was Isabelle
on the next balcony, just out of reach, dangling her hair into the void as a substitute
for jumping into it herself. But beyond the hair thing, there was no common ground
between Acky and Isabelle. One was the negative of the other, opposite in every
way, sharing only the silhouette.
smoked one cigarette after another. A kind of high set in, a light-headedness
that increased with every swallow of wine. I was a hot air balloon, moorings slashed
and rising adrift. If, theoretically, I had to choose between Acky and Isabelle,
which way would I go? Without a doubt, Isabelle was the one I wanted. I could
crawl inside of her and live cozily into old age. But what did that matter if
she was out of rangeand married? Acky was right here, flesh and bone, next
to me, and that had to have something to do with the electric tingle in my gut.
Clouds moved fast
and low and tinged yellow with city light. Acky had slipped inside and sprawled
onto his bed amid the crumpled remains of dinner, but I stayed on my balcony smoking
another Gitane and flicking ashes down into the cone of streetlight below. When
I finally ducked under the billowing curtain into the room, the light was dim
and I could just make out Ackys shape on his littered bed. He was naked
and pale, spread-eagled, and yanking his hard-on. Muscles sinewy with strain,
snaked with veins. Eyes closed, biting his bottom lip with teeth that glimmered
in the half light. He was going slow, squeezing hard, and groaning in rhythm.
I got hard in the space of two seconds, and let out a noise that sounded like
a whimper. Acky cracked one eye open; a black pupil glittered at me for a second,
then disappeared again behind quivering lashes. "You cant stop me,"
he mumbled. "Thiss been brewing all day."
said it like Id only caught him smoking a cigarette where he shouldnt
be. But he was right: itd been brewing. That was what the electric tingle
was. I pushed my shorts down and took myself with a strong grip, stroking all
the way from the base to the head and back down. Oh yeah. This is what they meant
by "A Night in Tunisia," or as close as we can come. Acky began to speed
up, moaning more stacatto, and louder. His free hand
into his groin, grasping the dark thatch and digging his fingers in, and I watched
like I was hypnotized. He sounded like he was sandpapering a banister, grunting
now. I was just waiting for him to explode. Would he shoot into the ceiling? Over
his head? Would he hit me here, at the foot of the bed? I wanted it to happen,
a geyser of light, setting the room ablaze like a roman candle, leaving an afterimage
of burning stars on my retinas.
a convulsion, he shot off. A thin string arced over his stomach and pooled onto
his chest. His hips bucked once, twice, then settled and swayed into the tangled
sheets. A long breath shuddered out of him. His chest and hands glistened where
theyd been stained with pearl jam. "Ah," he said. Then his eyes
unpeeled and found me where I stood at the foot of the bed.
wasnt finished yet; I hadnt reached the point. With his eyes on me
and his own moment come and gone, I was no longer hidden in the wings but suddenly
center stage. The spark of inspiration left me, and I felt myself soften. "Do
it," he said in a raspy voice. He propped his head up on the pillow and drew
a finger across his chest, through the puddle hed left on himself. I pressed
myself against the wall, closed my eyes and bit my lip. The plaster on my back
was cold and moist with lingering humidity, and something about its fleshiness
turned me on. I sped up, moving my hand in a blur, squeezing myself the way Acky
had. When I opened my eyes, he was right in front of me, kneeling on the edge
of the bed and leaning forward to watch, half a meter away. Something boiled inside,
and I popped. A lick of pearly white jumped into the air and fell to the floorboards
like the first fat drop of a summer rainstorm. A vista opened up, all white light
and spraying fountains, then fading almost instantly into the shadowy terrain
of the hotel room. Muscles burned. My hand went wet and warm over the knuckles,
sticky. Ackys face, upturned, watched and smiled. My legs were suddenly
too trembly to stand on, and my heart fluttered in my chest like an insect in
a lampshade. "Boom," Acky said in a whisper. I slid to the floor and
sat there, splayed. We watched each other, and the echo-chamber roar of the traffic
below served as a substitute for what we might have said.
later, I crawled into my bed. Acky was already asleep in his. The crispness of
the sheets felt like diving into an outdoor pool cooled by breezes. I kicked my
legs to loosen the tightly tucked covers, and sprawled to touch the four corners,
hands and feet. A bubbly elation tingled in my chest. My feet throbbed, my throat
burned, my back ached from dozing upright in the truck, and my stomach grumbled
from the mishmash of garbage Id chowed for dinner, soaked with cheap winebut
this was all surface trouble. Deeper, at the root of things, there was a glow.
It was possible that Id never felt better in all my life on earth. I revisited
the image of that thin string shooting over Ackys chest, his body tensing
with wiry muscles set to burst, veins pulsing, bones shuddering, eyes squinted
shut and mouth working silently. Then I fixed on the opening triplets of "Tunisia,"
that rapid-fire jabbing, a-splash with cymbals. Hard bop, at a hundred miles an
hour: words to live by. My chest heaved, flooded with summer air. Traffic burred
and lashed outside our room. Acky, near me in the dark, breathed. The heat of
my tensed muscles gave way to a floating warmth, and then an unbound coolness,
and I was free. Im certain I dreamt of nothing and no one at all.