glbtq: the online encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer culture

A Night in Tunisia
A. C. Koch

There seemed to be no end to Acky’s thirst. We left the Café Escurial staggering, having drained two bottles of plunk, and yet Acky wanted to scare up more wine. "I’m done for the night," I told him, but he wheeled on me, eyes wide, nostrils flaring. "The sun’s 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 night’s not done with you!" he hissed.

As 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. I’d only met him a few weeks ago at an art gallery opening, but we’d 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. We’d both washed up in Paris because of some gnawing, unspoken feeling that love–or at least sexual release–simmered just below the surface of the city. So far, we’d 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. Acky’s 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.

Tonight, 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 girlfriend–a momentarily exciting idea, until the streetlights lit up his goateed face. I was carrying my trumpet in a leather satchel, because I’d been practicing down by the river when Acky showed up to drag me out for a booze-up. Who was I to say no?

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: "Here’s 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 didn’t 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. "We’ll always have Paris," cracked Acky.

It took me a full city block to get that one. "Casablanca," I said, when it dawned on me. "But Mina was no Ingrid Bergman."

"And you’re no Bogey." Acky came to a stop, cocking his head at me. "She’s why you dropped the trumpet, right? What did she do, spank you with it? Scar you for life?"

Spank, 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 hadn’t told anybody. Who would I have told?

"We’d been trying to get pregnant, Mina and I. It finally worked. She was three months. Then she got an abortion. Don’t ask me why, because I still don’t know. She might not even know. She was just like that. She’d kick and scream for something, drive you out of your fucking mind with ‘I want a fresh mango!’ or something like that, till you’d have to drive to the supermarket in the middle of the night just to buy a goddamn mango. Then when you got home, she’d be asleep and you couldn’t wake her up, and the mango would rot in the fridge for a week and stink the whole place up."

Acky: "Are we talking about mangos, or babies?"

"I’m talking about Mina. She decided she didn’t want it. She went to a clinic and had it cut out. Told me about it later."

Acky 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?"

"Threw it off the balcony."

"You threw it off the balcony?"

"It was either the trumpet or Mina. I already had my hands on the trumpet, so I hucked it."

Acky watched 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 year’s worth of gig money."

"Couldn’t buy a new one?"

"Didn’t want to."

"Why not?"

I chewed my cheek over that. Some things make sense only when they’re 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 you’d 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?"

Acky didn’t 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?"

"Eventually, I think. I feel pretty clean now. Except for the fact that you’ve gotten me shitfaced against my will."

"Nothing dirty about that. In fact, red wine is the cleanest substance I know."

That 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 couldn’t 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. It’s not like I was a chronic drunk. I didn’t drink on the clock at work, and I didn’t 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 trumpet’s mouthpiece poked out of the zippered mouth. "Come on."

I swung the bag behind my back. "Nah. I’d wake up half the world."

"Come on. People need to be woken up. The sun’s on the way up, anyway."

I don’t 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 hadn’t noticed before, and I wanted to turn around and head back the way we’d come. Acky stayed where he was, watching me over the sidewalk. "Come on," he said again. "I got a closet Charlie Parker here, and I’ve never even heard him play." He said it with the Boston brogue turned way up, "Chah-ly Pah-kuh."

"Bird played sax, my friend."

Flick of the hand. "Whatever."

I looked around. Not a single lighted window anywhere. We were on a street I’d never been down before, in a neighborhood I didn’t 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 caesar’s 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 wouldn’t 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.

It 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 I’d 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.

The 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 weren’t offices after all. "Que-es ce qu’il 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 flushed.

"Thanks, hombre. Felt good, too."

"Was that one of your improv things?"

"No. ‘A Night in Tunisia.’ Dizzie Gillespie."



"What’s it got to do with Tunisia?"

"Nobody knows, but it’s a rocking number, isn’t 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 a cigarette."

He 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 smile–teeth like orange coals in the streetlight. "How about it?"

"You want to hitchhike to Tunisia? Right now?"

He 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. "I’m up for almost anything," he said, almost too soft to hear. "You know that."

"And 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. "We’ll fish. Drink gritty-ass Arab coffee. Maybe find some dusky maidens. Muslim, of course. Or maybe Jewish. There’s a bunch of Jews in Tunisia, I understand."

"Nothing we couldn’t do or find right here in Paris. Except go fishing."

"The song wasn’t called ‘A Night in Paris,’ was it?"

"But there’s plenty of songs about Paris, too. How about . . ." I puckered up and tootled out the opening bars of "April in Paris."

Acky threw up his arms and turned to me. "Come on, Julian! I’m trying to make something happen. Neither of us has any reason to play it safe. We’re totally untethered men. Do you know what I mean? Who’s waiting up for you tonight? Who’ll notice if you don’t show up for three days? Or three weeks?"

He watched me, evidently waiting for an answer to what sounded to me like rhetorical questions. I let him wait. I wasn’t 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! Let’s hitch to Cootchie-coo, or wherever the hell it is. The town Isabelle’s run off to."


"Right. That place. It’s in the south, right? On the coast?"

"Somewhere down there."

"So how long can it take? All night in a tractor-trailer? Half the distance to Tunisia!" Acky’s 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 hadn’t answered, which continued to hang in the rafters of our conversation: Who’s 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 culture–a 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 door–would 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 tongue–it’s so late now, I mean early, and look how depressing this highway is, we’ll be stuck with a doped-up trucker who’ll refuse to stop, and I don’t really want to leave the city anyway, at least not like this–but Acky kept his eyes on the oncoming traffic, and I didn’t speak. My thumb, in a silent betrayal of the rest of me, hung there in tandem with Acky’s. 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 we’d 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 I’d 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 Acky’s elaborate stories as my eyes slowly drooped: we were jazz musicians, but we’d gotten so drunk at last night’s gig that we got lost and couldn’t find the van the rest of the band was traveling in; they’d 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 didn’t 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 Acky’s yarn: "I don’t know about where you all come from, but where I’m from, if it’s not one thing it’s another," and "Well, they got a name for people like that," and "What comes around goes around, you can be damn sure of that."

I ended up dreaming some version of Acky’s 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 wouldn’t 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 wasn’t jazz. It took me half a minute to get my brain straight before I recognized it: Led Zeppelin. French truckers listen to Zep? If it’s not one thing, it’s another. I hadn’t heard so much as a note from the monster rockers since I’d 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 don’t you take a good look at yourself and describe what you see / and baby baby baby do you like it?

I laughed out loud at the amphetamine pique in the singer’s voice–baybay! 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."

"Yes," he said, reverting to French. "All boys like hard rock. It’s how you know you’re a boy. Now, these kids who listen to nothing but rap, or whatever it’s called–you know what I mean?–now, where’s the identity in that? They’re all going to be confused one day. Can you imagine them listening to their rap twenty years later, and still thinking it’s good? They’re wasting themselves."

I wasn’t 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 didn’t 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. Acky’s hand lay curled on the seat beside my leg, and the blood still hadn’t 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.

Late 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 didn’t say anything about his crotch-grab, and I wasn’t going to bring it up. A few weeks ago, he’d invited me into bed with him and his stripper girlfriend, Nicolette, and he’d 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 didn’t bother me. Why should it? I wasn’t 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 wouldn’t be leaning against the chrome accoutrements of a semi tractor at a truck stop in central France thinking about it now if it weren’t 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 didn’t 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?

Incredibly, Acky chose that moment to light a cigarette.

"Acky, we’re standing in a fucking gas station!"

He looked around, startled, as if he’d only just noticed. Then he shrugged, took a deep drag, and offered it to me. "I’ve heard diesel is less flammable than gasoline."

I 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.

"No, sir," I said. "I just have a little cough is all."

He glared at me as he continued across the tarmac to the cashier’s 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 you’d 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 decimal’s worth of currency that flashed here and there across the globe at the keystrokes of her fingers. It was Wednesday morning–maybe ten, maybe eleven o’clock?–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. She’s waiting for me."

"Marianne? Have I heard about her?"

"She’s not a her, she’s a Ms., and she’s waiting for an English lesson with me right now. I completely forgot. I’m regressing into an irresponsible schmuck, and it’s all your fault."

"My fault? Fuck you. We’re here right now because you can’t be without Isabelle–or, at least, you need to know exactly whether or not you can be with her. Leave me out of it. I’m just along for the ride."

Across the tarmac, I spotted a pay phone in the vestibule between the set of doors leading into the cafeteria where we’d 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 Jardin’s 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?"

"Marianne!" I said, with all the spatula-flatness of my best American accent. "How ya doin’?"

"Oh, Julian! You’re ten minutes late. Are you canceling?"

Ten 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 that’s one of the skills you need to practice."

She 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, I’m 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?"

"More or less, Marianne. Now. Can you tell me why you’re 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 corporation–the kind of place, like Lloyd’s of London or the BBC, that she aspired to work in–and 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 wouldn’t have her, she’d be primed for a power-interview at Goldman-Sachs. Of course, I didn’t 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 I’m just too organized," or, "I’m so much of a team player that at times I don’t focus enough on my own priorities. That’s a real weakness of mine." And the interviewer’s eyes begin to sparkle.

Meanwhile, Marianne was working on a long-winded and precise answer to the question I’d asked her, which I’d 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 smokestack’s 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-man’s-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 you’ve got to get to the point faster. Remember, you’re looking the guy straight in the eyes the whole time, and if you talk too much he’ll start to feel uncomfortable. He wants to feel like he’s in control, after all." I said this into the phone, but looking right at Acky, an arm’s 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."

Marianne heard me. "Are you with somebody?"

"What? Yes. I’m not at home, actually, I’m in a truckstop somewhere between Paris and Orleans, I think."

"A truckstop!"

"I didn’t even know you had truckstops in France. I’m impressed."

"Of course we have the truckstops! How do you think the truckers go from place to place, if they have nowhere to stop?"

It 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 hadn’t 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 you’re a man and you shouldn’t 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 coffee–or was I smelling Acky? He was pressed up against me, like a teenage girlfriend in the cinema. Like this, France flung itself past us.

We 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 couldn’t take us any further down the road. He dropped us at a square in front of the train station–which Salvador DalÌ had for some reason proclaimed the ‘center of the world’–and 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 didn’t know or give a damn about the difference between the two.

"So where’s Kickapoo?" he said.

"Collioure. Another hour down the coast."

We 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 immediately–something that hadn’t happened to me in Paris in years now–and 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 we’d 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. Perpignan’s 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.

I wasn’t. 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 wasn’t even expecting to show up at all. All day, I’d had the feeling that we’d never make it, that something would come in the way. So I said this: "I don’t know."

Acky laughed, a snort. "Well. That’s confident."

"Isabelle is like that. You never know what she’s going to do or say. One day it’s one thing, the next day it’s something else."

"So she’s human, like the rest of us."

Crickets hummed. A siren dopplered past on a hidden street, illuminating chimneys with red and blue light, then faded away. "Sometimes I think she’s intentionally driving me crazy. To keep me at a distance, you know."

"Well, she’s married to someone else. What do you expect?"

I didn’t answer that. I didn’t want to talk about it, not with Acky. He and I weren’t 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?"

He 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?"

"I woke up and you were in mid-grope."


From the glimmer in his eyes, I knew that his innocent act wasn’t even half true. "Maybe," I said, "you were dreaming of Nicolette?"

Acky sighed, shaking his head. "I don’t dream of Nicolette. I have her in reality, so why would I dream about her? You, on the other hand, are dream material."

"I’m dream material? What does that mean?"

Acky 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, I’ve seen you naked," he said. "I know you’re 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."

The night of the threesome, when he’d watched with glittery eyes. A bottomless tingle sparked in my gut. "How did Nicolette have me?"

"She sucked you off." He said this while meeting my eyes. He’d 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 couldn’t 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 his hands.

We hadn’t 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 Gitanes–what the hell, I was going to take up smoking–and 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.

I 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 range–and 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 Acky’s 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 can’t stop me," he mumbled. "This’s been brewing all day."

He said it like I’d only caught him smoking a cigarette where he shouldn’t be. But he was right: it’d 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 hands wandered 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.

With 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 they’d been stained with pearl jam. "Ah," he said. Then his eyes unpeeled and found me where I stood at the foot of the bed.

I wasn’t finished yet; I hadn’t 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 he’d 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. Acky’s 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.

Sometime 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 I’d chowed for dinner, soaked with cheap wine–but this was all surface trouble. Deeper, at the root of things, there was a glow. It was possible that I’d never felt better in all my life on earth. I revisited the image of that thin string shooting over Acky’s 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. I’m certain I dreamt of nothing and no one at all.


©1997-2002 Blithe House Quarterly / All Rights Reserved