Difficult to describe precisely, the taste of that eighth or ninth cigarette of the day, a mix of ozone, blond tobacco and early evening angst on the tongue. But he recognized it every time. It was the taste of lost love. Alex started smoking again whenever he lost a woman. When he fell in love again he would quit. And when love died, he’d light up again. Partly it was a physical reaction to stress; partly metaphorical — the substitution of one addiction for another. And no small part of this reflex was mythological — indulging a romantic image of himself as a lone figure standing on a bridge in a foreign city, cigarette cupped in his hand, his leather jacket open to the elements.
He imagined the passersby speculating about his private sorrow as he stood on the Pont des Arts, mysterious, wet and unapproachable. His sense of loss seemed more real when he imagined himself through the eyes of strangers. The pedestrians with their evening baguettes and their Michelin guides and their umbrellas hunched against the March precipitation, an alloy of drizzle and mist.
When it all ended with Lydia he’d decided to go to Paris, not only because it was a good place to smoke, but because it seemed like the appropriate backdrop. His grief was more poignant and picturesque in that city. Bad enough that Lydia had left him; what made it worse was that it was his own fault; he suffered both the ache of the victim and the guilt of the villain.
His appetite had not suffered, however; his stomach was complaining like a terrier demanding its evening walk, blissfully unaware that the household was in mourning. Ennobling as it might seem to suffer in Paris, only a fool would starve himself there.
Standing in the middle of the river he tried to decide which way to go. Having dined last night in a bistro that looked grim and authentic enough for his purposes but which proved to be full of voluble Americans and Germans attired as if for the gym or the tropics, he decided to head for the Hotel Coste, where, at the very least, the Americans would be fashionably jaded and dressed in shades of gray and black.
The bar was full and, of course, there were no tables when he arrived. The hostess, a pretty Asian sylph with a West London accent, sized him up skeptically. Hers was not the traditional Parisian hauteur, the sneer of the maître d’hotel at a three-star restaurant; she was rather the temple guardian of that international tribe that included rock stars, fashion models, designers, actors and directors — as well as those who photographed them, wrote about them and fucked them. As the art director of a boutique ad agency, Alex lived on the fringes of this world. In New York he knew many of the doormen and maître d’s, but here the best he could hope for was that he looked the part. The hostess seemed to be puzzling over his claims to membership; her expression slightly hopeful, as if she was on the verge of giving him the benefit of the doubt. Suddenly her narrow squint gave way to a smile of recognition. “I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you,” she said. “How are you?” Alex had only been here twice, on a visit a few years before; it seemed unlikely she would have remembered. On the other hand, he was a generous tipper and, he reasoned, not a bad-looking guy.
She led him to a small but highly visible table set for four. He’d told her he was expecting someone in the hopes of increasing his chances of seating. “I’ll send a waiter right over,” she said. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you.” So benevolent was her smile that he tried to think of some small request to gratify her.
Still feeling expansive when the waiter arrived, he ordered a bottle of champagne. He scanned the room. While he recognized several of the patrons — a burly American novelist, the skinny lead singer of a Brit Pop band — he didn’t see anyone he actually knew in the old-fashioned sense. Feeling self-conscious in his solitude, he studied the menu and wondered why he’d never brought Lydia to Paris. He regretted it now, for her sake as well as his own; the pleasures of travel were less real to him when they couldn’t be verified by a witness.
He’d taken her for granted — that was part of the problem. Why did that always happen?
When he looked up a young couple was standing at the edge of the room, searching the crowd. The woman was striking — a tall beauty of indeterminate race. They seemed disoriented, as if they had been summoned to a brilliant party that had migrated elsewhere. The woman met his gaze — and smiled. Alex smiled back. She tugged on her companion’s sleeve and nodded toward Alex’s table. Suddenly they were approaching.
“Do you mind if we join you for a moment,” the woman asked. “We can’t find our friends.” She didn’t wait for the answer, taking the seat next to Alex, exposing, in the process, a length of taupe-colored, unstockinged thigh.
“Frederic,” the man said, extending his hand. He seemed more self-conscious than his companion. “And this is Tasha.”
“Please, sit,” Alex said. Some instinct prevented him from giving his own name.
“What are you doing in Paris?” Tasha asked.
“Just, you know, getting away.”
The waiter arrived with the champagne.
Alex requested two more glasses.
“I think we have some friends in common,” Tasha said. “Ethan and Frederique.”
Alex nodded noncommittally.
“I love New York,” Frederic said.
“It’s not what it used to be,” Tasha countered.
“I know what you mean.” Alex wanted to see where this was going.
“Still,” Frederic said, “it’s better than Paris.”
“Well,” Alex said. “Yes and no.”
“Barcelona,” Frederic said, “is the only hip city in Europe.”
“And Berlin,” said Tasha.
“Not any more.”
“Do you know Paris well?” Tasha asked.
“We should show you.”
“It’s shit,” Frederic said.
“There are some new places,” she said, “that aren’t too boring.”
“Where are you from?” Alex asked the girl, trying to parse her exotic looks.
“I live in Paris,” she said.
“When she’s not in New York.”
They drank the bottle of champagne and ordered another. Alex was happy for the company. Moreover, he couldn’t help liking himself as whoever they imagined him to be. The idea that they had mistaken him for someone else was tremendously liberating. And he was fascinated by Tasha, who was definitely flirting with him. Several times she grabbed his knee for emphasis and at several points she scratched her left breast. An absentminded gesture, or a deliberately provocative one? Alex tried to determine if her attachment to Frederic was romantic. The signs pointed in both directions. The Frenchman watched her closely and yet he didn’t seem to resent her flirting. At one point she said, “Frederic and I used to go out.” The more Alex looked at her the more enthralled he became. She was a perfect cocktail of racial features, familiar enough to answer an acculturated ideal and exotic enough to startle.
“You Americans are so puritanical,” she said. “All this fuss about your President getting a blow job.”
“It has nothing to do with sex,” Alex answered, conscious of a flush rising on his cheeks. “It’s a right-wing coup.”
He’d wanted to sound cool and jaded. Yet somehow it came out defensive.
“Everything has to do with sex,” she said, staring into his eyes.
Thus provoked, the Veuve Cliquot tingling like a brilliant isotope in his veins, he ran his hand up the inside of her thigh, stopping only at the border of her tight short skirt. Holding his gaze, she opened her mouth with her tongue and moistened her lips.
“This is shit,” said Frederic.
Although Alex was certain the other man couldn’t see his hand, the subject of Frederic’s exclamation was worrisomely indeterminate.
“You think everything is shit.”
“That’s because it is.”
“You’re an expert on shit.”
“There’s no more art. Only shit.”
“Now that that’s settled,” said Tasha.
A debate about dinner: Frederic wanted to go to Buddha bar, Tasha wanted to stay. They compromised, ordering caviar and another bottle of champagne. When the check arrived Alex remembered at the last moment not to throw down his credit card. He decided, as a first step toward elucidating the mystery of his new identity, that he was the kind of guy who paid cash. While Alex counted out the bills Frederic gazed studiously into the distance with the air of a man who is practiced in the art of ignoring checks. Alex had a brief, irritated intuition that he was being used. Maybe this was a routine with them, pretending to recognize a stranger with a good table. Before he could develop this notion Tasha had taken his arm and was leading him out into the night. The pressure of her arm, the scent of her skin, were invigorating. He decided to see where this would take him. It wasn’t as if he had anything else to do.
Frederic’s car, which was parked a few blocks away, did not look operational. The front grill was bashed in; one of the headlights pointed up at a forty-five-degree angle. “Don’t worry,” Tasha said. “Frederic’s an excellent driver. He only crashes when he feels like it.”
“How are you feeling tonight?” Alex asked.
“I feel like dancing,” Frederic said. He began to sing Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” drumming his hands on the steering wheel as Alex climbed into the back.
Le Bain Douche was half-empty. The only person they recognized was Bernard Henri Levy. Either they were too early or a couple of years too late. The conversation had lapsed into French and Alex wasn’t following everything. Tasha was all over him, stroking his arm and, intermittently, her own perfect left breast, and he was a little nervous about Frederic’s reaction. At one point there was a sharp exchange which he didn’t catch. Frederic stood up and walked off.
“Look,” Alex said. “I don’t want to cause any trouble.”
“No trouble,” she said.
“Is he your boyfriend?”
“We used to go out. Now we’re just friends.”
She pulled him forward and kissed him, slowly exploring the inside of his mouth with her tongue. Suddenly she leaned away and glanced up at a woman in a white leather jacket who was dancing beside an adjoining table. “I think big tits are beautiful,” she said before kissing him with renewed ardor.
“I think your tits are beautiful,” he said.
“They are, actually,” she said. “But not big.”
When Frederic returned his mood seemed to have lifted. He laid several bills on the table. “Let’s go,” he said.
Alex hadn’t been clubbing in several years. After he and Lydia had moved in together the clubs had lost their appeal. Now he felt the return of the old thrill, the anticipation of the hunt — the sense that the night held secrets which would be unveiled before it was over.
Tasha was talking about someone in New York that Alex was supposed to know. “The last time I saw him he just kept banging his head against the wall, and I said to him, Michael, you’ve really got to stop doing these drugs. It’s been fifteen years now.”
First stop was a ballroom in Montmartre. A band was onstage playing an almost credible version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” While they waited at the bar, Frederic played vigorous air guitar and shouted the refrain. “Here we are now, entertain us.” After sucking down their cosmopolitans they drifted out to the dance floor. The din was just loud enough to obviate conversation.
The band launched into “Goddamn the Queers.” Tasha divided her attentions between the two of them, grinding her pelvis into Alex during a particularly bad rendition of “Champagne Supernova.” Closing his eyes and enveloping her with his arms, he lost track of his spatial coordinates. Were those her breasts, or the cheeks of her ass in his hands? She flicked her tongue in his ear; he pictured a cobra rising from a wicker basket.
When he opened his eyes he saw Frederic and another man conferring and watching him from the edge of the dance floor. Alex went off to find the men’s room and another beer. When he returned, Tasha and Frederic were slow dancing to a French ballad and making out. He decided to leave and cut his losses. Whatever the game was, he suddenly felt too tired to play it. At that moment Tasha looked across the room and waved to him from the dance floor. She slalomed toward him through the dancers, Frederic following behind her. “Let’s go,” she shouted.
Out on the sidewalk, Frederic turned obsequious. “Man, you must think Paris is total shit.”
“I’m having a good time,” Alex said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I do worry about it, man. It’s a question of honor.”
“At least we could find some drugs,” said Tasha.
“I don’t need drugs,” Alex said.
“Don’t want to get stoned,” Frederic sang. “But I don’t want to not get stoned.”
They began to argue about the next destination. Tasha was making the case for a place apparently called Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill. Frederic insisted it wasn’t open. He was pushing L’Enfer. The debate continued in the car. Eventually they crossed the river and later still lurched to a stop at a club beneath the Montparnasse tower.
The two doormen greeted his companions warmly. They descended the staircase into a space that seemed to glow with a purple light, the source of which Alex could not discern. A throbbing drum and bass riff washed over the dancers. Grabbing hold of the tip of his belt, Tasha led him toward a raised area above the dance floor that seemed to be a VIP area. Conversation became almost impossible — which was kind of a relief. Alex met several people, or rather, nodded at several people who in turn nodded at him. A Japanese woman shouted into his ear in what was probably several languages and later returned with a catalogue of terrible paintings. He nodded as he thumbed through the catalogue. Apparently it was a gift. Far more welcome — a man handed him an unlabeled bottle full of clear liquid. He poured some into his glass. It tasted like moonshine.
Tasha towed him out to the dance floor. She wrapped her arms around him and sucked his tongue into her mouth. Just when his tongue felt like it was going to be ripped from his mouth she bit down on it, hard. Within moments he tasted blood. Perhaps this was what she wanted, for she continued to kiss him as she thrust her pelvis into his. She sucked hard on his tongue. He imagined himself sucked whole into her mouth. He liked the idea. And without for a moment losing his focus on Tasha, he suddenly thought of Lydia and the girl before Lydia, and the girl after Lydia, the one he had betrayed her with. How was it, he wondered, that desire for one woman always reawakened his desire for all the other women in his life?
“Let’s get out of here,” he shouted, mad with lust. She nodded and pulled away, going into a little solipsistic dance a few feet away. Alex watched, trying to pick and follow her rhythm until he gave up and captured her in his arms. He forced his tongue between her teeth, surprised by the pain of his recent wound. Fortunately she didn’t bite him this time; in fact she pulled away. Suddenly she was weaving her way back to the VIP area, where Frederic seemed to be having an argument with the bartender. When he saw Tasha he seized a bottle on the bar and threw it at the floor near her feet, where it shattered.
Frederic shouted something unintelligible before bolting up the stairs. Tasha started to follow.
“Don’t go,” Alex shouted, holding her arm.
“I’m sorry,” she shouted, removing his hand from her arm. She kissed him gently on the lips.
“Say goodbye,” Alex said.
“Say my name.”
She looked at him quizzically, and then, as if she suddenly got the joke, she smiled and laughed mirthlessly, pointing at him as if to say, you almost got me. He watched her disappear up the steps, her long legs seeming to become even longer as they receded.
Alex had another glass of the clear liquor but the scene now struck him as tawdry and flat. It was a little past three. As he was leaving the Japanese woman pressed several nightclub invitations into his hand.
Out on the sidewalk he tried to get his bearings. He started to walk toward St. Germain. His mood lifted with the thought that it was only ten o’clock in New York. He would call Lydia. Suddenly he believed he knew what to say to her. As he picked up his pace he noticed a beam of light moving slowly along the wall beside and above him; he turned to Frederic’s bashed-in Renault cruising the street behind him.
“Get in,” said Tasha.
He shrugged. Whatever happened, it was better than walking.
“Frederic wants to check out this after-hours place.”
“Maybe you could just drop me off at my hotel.”
“Don’t be a drag.”
The look she gave him reawoke in him the mad lust of the dance floor; he was tired of being jerked around and yet his desire overwhelmed his pride. After all this he felt he deserved his reward and he realized he was willing to do almost anything to get it. He climbed in the backseat. Frederic gunned the engine and popped the clutch. Tasha looked back at Alex, shaping her lips into a kiss, then turned to Frederic. Her tongue emerged from her lips and slowly disappeared in Frederic’s ear. When Frederic stopped for a light she moved around to kiss him full on the mouth. Alex realized that he was involved — that he was part of the transaction between them. And suddenly he thought of Lydia, how he had told her his betrayal had nothing to do with her, which was what you said. How could he explain to her that even when he bucked atop other women, it was still her who filled his heart.
Tasha suddenly climbed over the backseat and started kissing him. Thrusting her busy tongue into his mouth, she ran her hand down to his crotch. She took his earlobe between her teeth as she unzipped his fly.
Alex moaned as she reached into his shorts. He looked at Frederic, who looked right back at him and seemed to be driving faster as he adjusted the rearview mirror. Tasha slid down his chest, feathering the hair of his belly with her tongue. A vague intuition of danger faded away in the wash of vivid sensation. She was squeezing his cock in her hand and then it was in her mouth and he felt powerless to intervene. He didn’t care what happened, so long as she didn’t stop. At first he could barely feel the touch of her lips, the pleasure residing more in the anticipation of what was to follow. At last she raked him gently with her teeth. Alex moaned and squirmed lower in the seat as the car picked up speed.
The pressure of her lips became more authoritative.
“Who am I?” he whispered. And a minute later: “Tell me who you think I am.” Her response, though unintelligible, forced of a moan of pleasure from his own lips. Glancing at the rearview mirror, he saw that Frederic was watching, looking down into the backseat, even as the car picked up speed. When Frederic shifted abruptly into fourth, Alex inadvertently bit down on his own tongue as his head snapped forward, his teeth scissoring the fresh wound there.
On a sudden impulse he pulled out of Tasha’s mouth just as Frederic jammed on the brakes and sent them into a spin.
He had no idea how much time passed before he struggled out of the car. The crash had seemed almost leisurely, the car turning like a falling leaf until the illusion of weightlessness was shattered by the collision with the guard rail. He tried to remember it all as he sat, folded like a contortionist in the backseat, taking inventory of his extremities. A peaceful, Sunday silence prevailed. No one seemed to be moving. His cheek was sore and bleeding on the inside where he’d slammed it against the passenger seat headrest. Just when he was beginning to suspect his hearing was gone he heard Tasha moaning beside him. The serenity of survival was replaced by anger when he saw Frederic’s head moving on the dashboard and remembered what might have happened. Hobbling around to the other side of the car, he yanked the door open and hauled Frederic roughly out to the pavement, where he lay blinking, a gash on his forehead.
The Frenchman blinked and winced, inserting a finger in his mouth to check his teeth. In a fury, he kicked Frederic in the ribs. “Who the hell do you think I am?” Frederic smiled and looked up at him. “You’re just a guy,” he said. “You’re nobody.”
This story was first published Dec 16, 1999
©1999 Jay McInerney and Nerve Publishing