I reviewed the directions my neighbor Volker had written out for me, periodically checking back and forth between them and my pocket Métro/RATP map as the train sped towards the Bastille station. Volker, who lived in the apartment across the hall from where I was staying during my research sabbatical in Paris, had told me that he visited this bar at least once a month, and he'd assured me, though we'd only had a few conversations and hadn't discussed my particular bar tastes, or tastes in men for that matter, that I'd like it. For a moment I wondered if I should get off at the next stop and try to find my way to one of the other bars I'd picked out myself, or even just go back home and read through the lone paragraph that I'd written based on three weeks of archival work on Louis XIV's edict of 1685 -- which had become the code noir -- and the regulation of slavery and black bodies. I could see its opening sentence as if it were now sitting on my lap: "The question of the humanity of any human being should never be a question." The thought of the next sentence, from which I couldn't summon a single word, and of the paltry few that followed and failed to fill out even half a page sank my spirits, so I refocused my thoughts on my destination. Evenings out had always recharged me back in Chicago.
The train, meanwhile, had reached Bastille station so quickly I realized I could have walked from the apartment. It was only a few blocks to the rue Keller. I'd yet to visit this section of Paris and wondered which arrondissement it was. I noted the addresses, but I'd gone too far, so I retraced my steps. There it was: no sign, only a blackened iron façade. As Volker had suggested I rang the doorbell. The door opened and I went in.
At first glance HARD looked as shallow and dark as similar bars had, when they existed, in Greenwich Village, with the same sort of rough décor and years-old house music filling the space, but unlike the Manhattan bars, this one had an obvious back bar, geared primarily towards sex, like the bars in Chicago. Instead of having to muscle my way past a doorman and then slice through a heaving mass, I paid the cover and found only a handful of middle-aged Frenchman, in leather and uniforms, standing or milling about. It looked so empty I wondered if I'd gotten there too early. I checked my leather jacket and patted my pants pockets: my wallet, keys, business cards, and the two condom packets were still there. I wasn't certain, though, that I'd be opening them. I decided to order a Pelforth and just get a feel for the place.
As I stood at the bar, which ran along the left side of the room, I was glad that I hadn't taken up Volker's offer to make my first trip here with him. The very thought of his globe-like head bobbing animatedly in front of me, spitting out bromides in his crisp, British-accented English on the sexual hang-ups of the French and Americans, would have set me on edge within minutes. I also knew that he'd try to join in on any action I found myself getting into, or use the pretext of our being here to initiate something, since that increasingly appeared to be the subtext of all our interactions. Almost every other thing he said to me, in fact, seemed to be a double entendre, a come-on. Perhaps I should have felt flattered that I was being pursued, and so ardently, but in truth I had begun to find him annoying, and planned to tell him so when he returned from visiting his elderly mother in Munich.
I was also glad I'd been vague about my plans with my co-worker at the online site, Yasmina, who in just three weeks had become my closest friend. Maybe she knew about HARD, but if she didn't, she'd have done whatever research it took to learn everything there was to know about the bar. I could even see her pressing me to let her come along, perhaps to write an article on it for the Website, or sociologize about the enduring spiritual libertinage, or poverty if viewed from another perspective, of our generation of gay men. She'd be standing here beside me, possibly sipping a white wine and trying to take notes, and in a very short time, she'd be gagging on the smell of leather and cigarette smoke, urging that we leave. I decided as I stood there that I'd tell her about it, though I'd make sure to add that I couldn't detect even the faintest trace of female energy. It was a resolutely male space. I was sure I could even smell the pleasure as well as poppers from here at the bar.
I didn't feel nervous at all, or even unsure. I hadn't been to many cruising bars or sex clubs or saunas by myself in the three years since Rodney and I had become a couple. During those fallow periods when we'd hardly slept together, either because of overwork or under-communication or just a lack of desire, or after we'd fought, or on conferences trips in cities where I assumed no one would recognize me, I'd ventured to a few, but I'd been to none in Paris. I didn't know the particular etiquette of this place, or of Parisian bars and clubs in general, and though my natural tendency was to worry, I was striving to be cool and enjoy myself. I relaxed and sipped my Pelforth.
A short, stocky olive-skinned bald guy, wearing only a harness and tight black jeans, walked up and stood in front of me. He was staring. He strongly favored an Italian-American high school classmate of mine whom I'd had a crush on for a while: the same dreamily lidded brown eyes, the same squarish chin covered by a fine, dark layer of stubble, the same pouty, moist lips. A napkin of dense black hair fell between this guy's pink nipples and onto his round stomach. I sipped on my beer and smiled at him. He gestured towards the curtained room, turning in that direction. I wasn't sure if I was ready to go in there, so I nodded and held up my beer before taking another sip. The curtain swallowed him up.
The attractiveness of this man made me think of Rodney, with his similarly shaved dark-brown crown and shadow beard and nappy pelt of chest hair, and I started to grow angry again. Why wasn't he calling me back and only selectively replying to my e-mails? What was he up to back in Chicago? He had been badgering me for two straight weeks about my meeting other people, and initially I'd chalked it up to separation anxiety, and jealousy, and certainly anger that, despite his knowledge of how necessary this stay was for me and my career, I had still gone through with my plans, but the last phone call had struck me as pure projection. I was sleeping with every man I met, but was he? And why had he become all but unreachable? In the argument we'd had two days before I'd gotten on the plane to Orly, I'd told him clearly that he would wait for even the slightest pretext before…I could see him sitting at a table in one of the bars on Halstead Street, lighting up a Camel or waiting for some twink to do it for him, sighing with relief that he had a justification to this man that his boyfriend had abandoned him, I'd gone overseas and screwed up everything we'd created together, that everything was over between us….
The thought made me dizzy, but I refused to hold my rage. I was here, by myself, and I wasn't going to apologize to anyone, I wasn't going to think about Rodney or my problems at the archives or my non-existent research or anything else. I wasn't going to think at all; I would operate by feeling alone. I ordered another Pelforth and went back to checking out the bar.
Just then a lean, swarthy guy in a white sailor's cap and navy pea coat walked in. When he pulled it off, I could see he was wearing a white tank top, cargo fatigues and boots. His forearms and biceps were massive. His gaze met mine. He was also bald, in the clean-shaven style I'd noticed many Frenchmen chose. I wondered if he was, or had ever been, a sailor, though I realized I had no idea what a French sailor's outfit looked like. On his left bicep a large tattoo danced about. It was one of the few Kanji characters I recalled from my hellish year of undergraduate Japanese: it meant Life. Life looked at me intensely and ran his hands over his crotch, which was beginning to tent. I smiled back at him and looked around the room. I mouthed, Un moment, to finish off my Pelforth, but before I could he too disappeared into the back room.
I sat my empty bottle down on the bar. The sandy-bearded bartender asked me in English, Another one? Just then, the Mediterranean in the harness emerged with a tall, shirtless, very dark-skinned man. Sweat covered both, but the perspiration sparkled on the tall man's hard chest, stomach and arms, which were as sleek as eggplants. He sported a short afro and goatee and like me, leather pants, though his fit more loosely, as if he'd borrowed them or had lost some weight. Even with their bagginess I could see the outline of his erection, which slid down his thigh. I ordered another beer and observed them.
They were speaking in French, the shorter guy quite animatedly, the tall man with obvious deliberation. I couldn't pick up any of what they were saying nor their accents, because their voices were too low, but I figured the black guy probably wasn't American because his French was too fluent; I wondered if he was from the Caribbean. Given how dark he was, I surmised that he could possibly be African. His glistening skin transfixed me, as did his manner of speaking and his mannerisms, which were gentle without being dainty. I leaned a little forward to see if I could at least pick up his name.
As they conversed, the white guy kept looking over at me, and every so often he blew me a kiss. His friend, his back to me, didn't appear to notice, and did not turn around. The taller man traced his hand over the shorter man's bald crown, under the harness, and down into the back lip of his jeans. Then they tongued for a bit, groping and hugging closely, which excited me. I heard voices and glanced towards the coat check area. More people were filing in, most of them in jeans, leather, rubber, or uniforms, including a tall, gray-haired man in a black flight suit, and a skinhead couple who looked like twins. I found none of them more attractive than the pair beside me, and decided to make my move. But when I turned back to them, they had vanished.
I sat my unfinished beer down, determined to discover what was going on in the back room and if possible, find the pair. The back room was much darker than the outer one, and smelled of sperm and lube. Just past the curtain, to my right, I saw in a sling a very pale, heavyset man taking the fist of a lean but muscular, thatch-headed white man stripped down only to leather shorts and boots. With each thrust, the man in the sling threw his head back and whinnied Plus! Several guys stood around the pair, watching, plying each other's nipples, slowly jerking each other off. To my left in a cage I could see a knot of bodies, slick with sweat and writhing like snakes. From somewhere else wet flesh clapped together. Invisible lovers' grunts were rhythmic and ecstatic.
I moved forward through the violet shadows, which induced a feeling of delirium, I saw men clustered along poles, the edges of cages, the wall. I was totally aroused now, and scanned in every direction for the couple, or Life, the sailor. But I didn't see any of them. My bladder was throbbing. I returned to the outer bar and asked the bartender where the bathroom was.
Au -- how you say, corner? He pointed towards the back right corner of the bar, through the backroom.
Once again in the darkness, I pushed my way forward. I felt bodies brush against me, hands caress my arms and thighs, squeeze my crotch. I wanted to piss before I did anything else. In the bathroom, I unzipped my pants and before I could go, a slender guy in a rubber tank top and jeans wedged himself between the commode and me. S'il vous plaît, Sir, he whispered. I shook my head. He didn't move. Bouge, pour qu'on puisse pisser, I barked. He crawled to the side, scurried out.
I was relieving myself when I felt two large hands reach under my arms and pinch my nipples through my t-shirt. I moaned. Then lips parted my dreads; teeth grazed my neck, my upper back, my shoulders. I let my pants drop to the tops of my boots. The fingers, which were thick and knotty, played along my sides, my stomach, my thighs. I turned around. Facing me was a muscular bronzed man, a head shorter than me. A Kangol cap sat tilted back atop tiny black curls. His nose appeared to have been broken many times. I immediately thought: boxer. Then beautiful. He had pulled his tank top up behind his head so that his torso was visible; veins covered his muscles like an elaborately woven web. Indigo Arabic calligraphy crossed the crevice between his taut, hairy pecs. He leaned forward, his crooked, flared nose grazing mine, and we tongued for a while. His fatigues fell past his knees. Our dicks jousted against each other's, forming a sticky X.
I pulled off my t-shirt and knelt down. I took his short but heavy sex in my mouth. Non, he said, and lifted me up. He wanted to kiss some more. I was surprised, since most of the men I'd encountered in such clubs in the past had wanted to do anything but kiss, but I obliged happily, enjoying it. We stroked and ground against each other. Then he knelt down, spread my legs wide and took me in. He ran one hand between my thighs to my buttocks and I leaned back against the toilet, caressing his face in my hands. He was so expert that I was almost ready to come, so I pushed his head back to stop him. I tried to kneel down again but he repeated Non, spinning me around with one motion as if I weighed nothing. I remembered the condoms in my pockets, and tried to bend down, but he was now flat against me, his chin on my shoulder, his stomach in the crook of my back, his dick straight up between my crack. He slid a finger inside me, then another, tuning me from the inside out, and as I grew moist, I jacked myself to his rhythm. Then he began to grind again, biting my shoulders and working me with his left hand. I closed my eyes and our bodies became such delicate music together that in no time, together, we both came.
After we put our clothes back on and cleaned up, I led him back to the front bar. I had a taste for dark rum.
Qu'est-ce que vous voulez boire? I asked, pointing to the row of liquor.
Je bois pas, he answered, que d'eau et de jus. Only water and juice. I asked him if he spoke English. He shook his head, only a few phrases, Whassup son, we chillin, son, one, and not much more.
Qu'est-ce vous appelez-vous? I asked.
Moi, je m'appelle Saadi. He was 24, he continued, a native Parisian born to Moroccan parents. He'd been boxing since he was a teenager but his nose had been broken so many times that he'd been told by the last physician he'd seen, after a bad nosebleed, to stay out of the ring. He'd served in the French army and hated it. In fact, he hated France and wanted to move to the United States or Canada.
Et moi, je m'appelle Jamal. J'ai 34 ans, I said. Je suis des Etats-Unis.
Mais -- Jamal -- tu es aussi musulmane! he said, flashing his angled, white teeth.
Non, non, I replied, I wasn't a Muslim, only my name. Mon nom en seul, I repeated. He nodded slowly and smiled, so I wasn't sure if he understood. I told him I was from New York, but I'd lived for many years in Chicago. I didn't mention Rodney. In the light I could see we were almost the same complexion. I wanted to know what the tattoo on his chest, which was now hidden beneath his t-shirt, translated to.
Alors, Saadi, que signifie…? I couldn't recall the word for tattoo, however, so I pointed to and then touched his chest, drawing my finger across it.
But he answered, Jamal, then said Shee-cah-goh, extending each syllable as if he hadn't heard the New York part, or my question. Why, he wanted to know, was I in Paris? Was I a reggae musician, a rapper? Saadi gently ran his fingers through my dreads and tugged on them. Smiling, he told me, J'aime beaucoup hiphop.
J'étudie l'histoire, I replied, with some hesitation. A professor working on research that I could only do in Paris, on race and slavery in the 17th century. But I'd also had gotten another job in Paris, I added, with an Internet company. He nodded and smiled again, as if he weren't sure exactly what I'd said. Maybe it was my French that he didn't understand. I moved my hand, which was still on his chest, to his lips, then to the sharp curve in his nose and wanted to go on doing so all night if I could.
Est-ce que tu veux m'accompagner chez moi? I asked softly. We could continue the conversation at the apartment, make love. I was already hard again and I could see he was too. I assured him that it wasn't far, only in the Marais. He shook his head. He had to get back home. He lived with his two older brothers and their families in a project in the suburbs and they'd be waiting for him. I wanted to see him again, so I asked the bartender for a pen, and I wrote down my number on one of my cards. Saadi took it and tucked it into his back pocket.
Jamal Chicago, he said once more, and then, Mon nouveau frère.
He got his white puffy coat from the coat check and returned. Pointing to his now-covered chest and looking almost solemn, he said, Inshallah. I nodded as if I understood, though I didn't. Whatever God wills, he said quietly. I touched the cleft in the shirt again, and for a few seconds he lay his hands on mine. Whatever God wills, mon nouveau frére. Then he walked away, waving and glancing back, a smile slowly stretching his mouth as he passed through the door.
It was then that I noticed the couple I'd gone searching for in the first place. They were standing beside me, the man I'd named Life sandwiched between them. The white guy in the harness was smiling at me and now the tall brother was grinning as well. He extended his massive, ringed hand. I took it and he lashed me towards them. He and Life both pointed towards the backroom, and though I considered going back in for a second, I replied politely in French that I was tired, but definitely next time. The brother tenderly stroked my jaw and chin, then kissed me directly on the lips. We kept at it for a long while, and when we finally pulled apart, he began kissing his friends.
I gulped down the last of my rum and headed home.
©1997-2004 Blithe House Quarterly : all rights reserved