An unexpected tear in your translucent veneer of safety. You feel the blood rushing out of your limbs as it bottoms out from beneath you.
Sometimes you need a hammer to come down on you to remind you of your post in this world. To sever any notions of security or connectedness to the artifices of your own making. To obliterate all the expectations which are built on those artifices, so that you can start from zero again.
Flashbacks of all the poignant moments of heartbreak in your life. This is one of them. This time, your only surprise is the swiftness with which the sensation dilutes itself. It’s as if you were standing at the bottom of a lake, watching the entire scene play out above the water’s surface. The moment of clarity is brief, interrupted by the slightest ripple overhead which obscures the image until you’re no longer sure of what you’re looking at.
In the end, you’re left wondering whether it happened at all.
I’ve just finished my crappy croque madame at a tourist trap of a bistro named after some predictable French cliché which I’ve already forgotten. I don’t feel like heading home yet and the wind is bearable tonight. I turn down Boulevard de Clichy and retrace my steps from two years ago when I stayed in this neighborhood.
The buildings and the scenery are the same, but they don’t welcome me as they did back then. My solitary presence is conspicuous under the menacing glare of the illuminated signs and my muscles tense as the breathy mantras grow louder around me.
“Vous êtes trés charmante, mademoiselle. Où allez-vous ce soir?”
I don’t usually feel the need to keep my guard up in Paris, considering the diligently enforced social codes of politesse compared to those of New York (or the flagrant lack thereof), but this neighborhood is different. All political correctness aside -which I gladly leave in the States, this is where the scum of Paris congregate at nighttime to relieve their frustrations.
The hollows of their cheeks and eye sockets are blackened under the neon signs overhead, and I catch glimpses of their weary eyes in between the rhythmic blinking of the lights. They are looking straight at me. Sometimes they blink in synchronization with the lights. Blink-blink. They are searching haphazardly for something, anything.
Two years later, I am unforgiving of their indiscretions and my perception is colored by an unyielding, distancing judgment.
Nonetheless, the energy of this street drives me forward. I clutch my camera against my stomach and walk on.
This street makes for amazing photos. It’s so perfectly cliché, like a movie set on some B movie from the 80’s, set to a soundtrack of languorous saxophone notes weaving through clouds of blue smoke. The viewer accompanies the drunken protagonist with the aid of strategically shaky camerawork, as he stumbles back to some dump of a motel.
I raise my camera up to shoot the entranceway of a peep show stall when a tall figure stops in front of me. I look up at him. He’s a lanky, goofy looking guy with a wide, slackened jaw. Some people’s stupidity is branded onto their faces like a permanent reminder of how they were left behind in the evolutionary scheme. I feel the muscles in my face contracting with disgust. His breath smells of tahini and alcohol and he stares at me as if waiting for something to happen.
I take a swift step to my right, trying to pass him and he shuffles in front of me. A triumphant look on his face.
“Get the fuck out of my way, asshole.”
“Faaack? Elle m’a dit quoi? Faaaack?”
The guy sounds like a verifiable retard in either language.
I shove past him and rush ahead, taking quick strides. Then I feel it from behind. Cold liquid splashing onto my shoulder. Onto my Isabel Marant coat. The unmistakable stench of stale beer. He must die.
I whip around and the siren goes off in my head. I make a beeline towards him and he stops smiling for a second. His hand clutches the empty plastic cup limply at arms length, as if to disassociate himself from the deed. He takes a step back but then stops. The smirk resumes on his face.
A young woman bolts out of the peep show lobby entrance and steps between us.
“Tire-toi!” She sounds like she means it.
The man lingers for a second, eyeing me steadily, then turns back down the street. The woman gestures for me to walk on. She turns around to make sure he’s gone, and then falls into step with me.
“That’s my place, so everybody knows me here. Nobody tries that with me.”
I can’t place her accent, but it’s heavy and musical. I’m touched by her generosity and I thank her. She shrugs. I peer at her sideways. She’s tall, black, her hair pulled back with a silk scarf, showcasing her dignified face. She’s wearing a tan leather bomber and tight jeans tucked into cowboy boots.
“Where are you going? I walk with you.”
I explain that I live several blocks away and that I’ll be fine. She walks me to the end of the street and I thank her again. Her kindness has neutralized my distaste for Pigalle’s inhabitants, if just for a moment.
Turning back onto Rue des Martyrs. I’m determined to get some good photos tonight. Every corner lends itself to a rich story full of colorful, albeit predictable characters.
This street in particular houses nothing but “hostess clubs,” a cross between strip clubs and lounges where “hostesses” lure men in to partake in exorbitantly priced bottles.
I stop in front of one frosted window where I can make out the shape of a seated woman through the silhouette of a pole dancing motif cut out from the surface. She’s leaning into the counter talking to someone, and she suddenly freezes. She’s seen me.
She jumps out of her seat and runs out of the bar.
“Connasse! Arrete!” (Slut! Stop!)
I’m pretty sure you’re the whore, but who’s checking.
She runs towards me and grabs my wrist. A second hostess runs out and stands on the other side of me. She seems to be more amused than the first woman, whose face is contorted with rage.
“Efface-la!” (Erase it!)
“D’accord, d’accord. Desole.”
I show her my monitor as I erase one of the two photos I took. The second hostess giggles. I look up at the first hostess. She’s a woman in her mid forties maybe, bleached blonde hair and eyes rimmed with thick eyeliner. Her plump body is encased in a tight dress bearing her breasts like two bumpy ice cream scoops atop a white tube. Her makeup has settled into the lines underneath her eyes, a fine web mapping out her angst.
She eyes me suspiciously as her friend giggles on, and they swiftly retreat back into the bar.
“Connasse!” She mutters.
I’ve had enough of this neighborhood for one night.
Lamill Coffee, Silverlake California.
It’s late afternoon and I’ve lost track of how long I’ve been luxuriating in the Southern California sun. I’m half heartedly reading Nabokov’s Laughter In The Dark, glancing up on occasion to peer into the clear warm space over Silverlake Boulevard. The air surrounding me is still and the faint buzz of cars passing by coaxes me into a semi lucid state. My eyes glaze over as the palm trees and colorful houses perched high atop the hills meld into a vibrant, indefinable mosaic.
I hear them before I see them. Their sharp punctuations pierce the air like steel needles- at once chipper and whiny as their crescendos fall at the end of their sentences. I recognize enough of the words to be Korean as my stomach clenches and I sink back into my seat.
Two women briskly pass in front of me on the sidewalk, one in her forties and the other in her mid twenties- possibly mother and daughter. The clicking of their rhinestone encrusted heels is rhythmically synchronized and efficient, offering no sign of excess movement. The women are accompanied by a young man in his early twenties, sulkily trailing behind. All three are dawning the trademark designer sunglasses. Fendi, Gucci, and Armani- logos brazenly displayed at their temples, emblems paying homage to the godfathers of their nouveau riche standing.
They seat themselves at the table next to mine and delve into enthusiastic chatter. The conversation is dominated by the two women who speak in high pitched, hen-like tones, their sentences anxiously overlapping with each other. Something about someone’s son graduating from Harvard Law…He married a no good, uneducated girl without a career…Her parents didn’t come from much either…
I focus my eyes back onto my Nabokov, but my stream of concentration is perforated by the persistent staccato jabbing of the sound waves next to me. I insert my index finger into my left ear- an old filthy habit, in an attempt to drown out the noise.
“What country do you think she’s from?“ It’s the older woman’s voice.
“I don’t know… It’s hard to tell. Chinese, maybe?”
Three beige circles to my left turn to face me. In my infallible peripheral vision, I see them greedily scanning me in that familiar, almost comically conspicuous manner I’ve grown wary of.
“No, she’s mixed with something.” The young man deduces. His voice is startlingly loud and his intonation swerves sharply as he speaks. It’s that accent which my parents haughtily ascribe to those of the less cultivated classes. Juh-lah-do. Roughly translating to “bumblefucks.”
“I can’t see her face from here.”
I wince at the sound of a metal chair scraping against the asphalt as the older woman pushes it back to get up. She lights a cigarette and walks over towards me, stopping two feet in front of my table, facing me dead on. I turn my head away from her and my long hair forms a dark curtain between us. She audibly snarls.
“Well, she sure thinks she’s something special.”
I check my instinct to shoot a death glare her way- reminding myself that I’m in California, not New York. I take in a sharp breath, attempting to suppress my utter distaste beneath my gut.
A waitress walks over to their table.
“Omm…I like a latte. A ommm…ice latte.” The older woman’s voice is gravelly and her tone hesitant.
I think of Margaret Cho’s mother.
Omm Margaret, it’s mommy. Are you gay?
“And cheesecake. You have cheesecake?” The young man barks. He’s just as loud in English.
The waitress walks away and two of the three beige circles turn back to me.
“Tsk. The way girls dress here. Look at those shorts. It’s like underwear.”
I stretch my legs languorously in front of me and thrust my feet onto the sidewalk. I’m starting to enjoy the annoyance my appearance is causing these women.
“She’s not bad, actually.” The young man laughs under his breath.
“Shut up.” The younger woman snaps.
I marvel at the petty cuntiness of the scenario.
To be continued..