"Paris When It Drizzles"
From Plato's Garage
My memories of Paris have taken on a postcard banality. They can be found in the form of snapshots which I keep on deposit in my memory bank under the account named "Europe, 1984." Monuments rising up over traffic snarls, old ladies in floral dresses shopping for vegetables in an open market, three Southeast Asian girls sitting against the mirrored walls of the McDonald's on the Champs Elysees. Two grease-stained construction workers in hard hats sleeping side by side on the subway. Women in lilac-and-black tailored suits feeding pigeons in a gravel-lined park, in the last year the French could have claimed with certainty that they were the best-dressed nation in Europe. I didn't carry a camera that gray September because I thought in my extravagantly arrogant teenage way that experience was denigrated by physical, visual representation such as photographs. But experience loses its impact over the years, and now I wish I had realized that taking photographs was only a way of thinking ahead to the time when my own images might need a little refreshment. But only my walking and metro-taking memories have gone static and worn. My one memory of traveling by car in Paris runs in my mind like a film loop when I think of it, and the scenario reads something like this:
SCENE: PARIS, SEPTEMBER 1984. Under a cloudless gray sky, ROB sits in a small Left Bank cafe with black lacquer tables and Chinese red chairs, obviously thinking very deeply while writing meaningless observations in a pretentious, leather-bound journal. On the sidewalk directly in front of the cafe, a tall, lean man in tight leather pants and a black turtleneck whom we'll call Jean Baptiste (JB) saunters back and forth, glancing at his watch. Every few seconds, ROB gazes up in intense reverie and, completely by happenstance, follows JB with his eyes. JB begins to smile back, then laugh. After a few passes, JB stops by ROB's table, leans down, and says something in French. ROB can tell it's a question by the tonal rise at the end, but does not understand a single word. ROB then proceeds to act as if he does, in fact, understand, and nods yes, returning JB's smile. JB walks off, and ROB watches his back get smaller and smaller as he heads down the street.
CUT TO a few minutes later: ROB hears a car honking its horn in the street. He turns to see JB leaning across the passenger seat of a Nile green Citroen four-door sedan and waving at him. ROB smiles vaguely and JB gestures for him to come to the door. JB says something else in French, which ROB again does not understand, and pops the passenger door open. ROB says something in English that JB does not understand, and when he receives no reply, he naturally gets into the car and closes the door. JB clamps his right hand down over ROB's left thigh as he guns the car from zero to fifty in three seconds flat. ROB laughs nervously. JB releases his hand from ROB's thigh to turn on the cassette player, and clamps it back down even harder. Through the quadraphonic speakers embedded in the leather-lined interior, Soft Cell sings their dance-club hit, "Sex Dwarf," which becomes the topic of the first two-sided conversation our characters will share.
ROB and JB sing along in completely different keys: "Sex dwarf, isn't it nice -- luring disco dollies to a life of vice?"
They laugh, and JB releases his hand from ROB's thigh again in order to make a few quick turns in the south part of Paris, which lead them to a wide street lined with office buildings that taper off in vanishing perspective to the horizon of the darkening sky. Set on a straight, steady course, JB reaches over and pulls a black cloth and a red rubber handball from the glove compartment. He hands them to ROB and says something in French, which ROB does not understand. ROB says something in English that JB does not understand. JB grabs the black cloth and holds it up in front of ROB's eyes, drops it, the picks up the handball and pats it against ROB's mouth. ROB uses his tiny French vocabulary to instigate yet another two-sided conversation:
ROB blindfolds himself with the black cloth and puts the handball in his mouth. His first reaction is to take pleasure in not having to pretend he speaks French and not having to look at JB, who has been growing less and less attractive by the minute. The screen goes black, and as ROB settles back, a wavering image of the last thing he saw before he put the blindfold on shimmers out of the darkness: The concrete skeleton of a high-rise with rusty steel snakes curling from the spines of its corners, bright yellow paint stripes connecting its vertical lines of windows, lit by the separate clouds of acid blue produced by dozens of fluorescent flood lamps. It shimmers in the frame for a few seconds, unnaturally bright, and fades away again.
The following SCENE is represented in amazing TACTOVISION, which uses fiber-optic technology to wire the entire theatre floor and each theatre seat with sensory perception transmitters. THE AUDIENCE feels what ROB feels as they watch him sit in his seat, blindfolded, handball in mouth:
Every bump in the road is magnified tenfold, sending sharp, tingling shocks through the soles of the feet that sizzles as they rise up the backs of the legs. As the car pitches gently from side to side, each jostle becomes a severe jolt. When the car speeds up from the standstill of a red light that has turned green, the body is drawn back into the seat, which gives way with a pleasant softness and hugs the shoulders and waist with its padded leather convexities. A syrupy calm surrounds the entire body in its gently-rocking cocoon of automotive volition.
CUT TO several minutes later: JB is driving the CitroŚn up a curving driveway in front of a modest, modern house that is all straight lines, elongated eaves, white walls and sporadic rows of thin, vertical windows. He stops the car in front and takes the blindfold off ROB. ROB lets the handball fall out of his mouth into his own hand, and rubs his eyes with his other one.
JB leads ROB into the house, which is decorated in sparse, post-Bauhausy kitsch, with swooping leather chairs on steel frames, soft-cornered plexiglass tables and silver torchere lamps arranged upon an expanse of nubby, industrial gray carpet. A large Doberman Pinscher whose ears have not been clipped pads up to ROB and sticks its nose directly into his crotch.
The following SCENE plays out in quick-fading vignettes:
JB leads ROB upstairs. He pushes ROB onto the bed and strips his pants off. He ties ROB's wrists to the chrome-plated bedposts. He disappears, and returns wearing a leather thong and two silver-studded armbands. He has slicked his long, curly hair back with water so that it is matted tightly against his skull. He then straddles ROB as if he's about to do a push-up on top of him, but hovers instead, and spits in ROB's FACE. He growls something in French that ROB does not understand. ROB scrunches his eyes closed, and JB continues to spit -- on his face, his stomach, his feet, and everything in between. They do not touch.
CUT TO: The small digital clock on top of the steel filing cabinet that serves as a nightstand. It glows bright red: 2:34. ROB sits up abruptly. His hands are no longer tied to the bedposts. His body feels taut in patches, the ways it does when viscous fluids dry on the skin. JB is nowhere to be found. ROB gets dressed and goes downstairs in the darkness. He finds a wall switch and turns on the living room light. IN the adjacent kitchen, he goes through a little pile of cards and papers that is sitting on the counter to see if he can find something with JB's name on it. There are many names, but ROB can't tell which one is his. The pinscher pads up to him, rams its jaw against his leg, and swings around to lap up some water out of its bowl. ROB looks through every room in the house, and finds only impeccably clean white surfaces interspersed with metal and glass. After peeing, he walks out the front door and looks back once, then twice, as he follows the driveway to the road and turns left.
I happened to be going the right way, and it was a surprisingly short and pleasant walk into Paris proper. I don't know, maybe it took a couple of hours or so, but it was the middle of the night and the only sounds were made by the occasional car whooshing by or the clicking toenails of a stray dog prancing on the other side of the slick street. Time passed quickly in this minimalist, liquid environment. It must have drizzled while I was in the guy's house, because everything had a moist, saturated sheen to it, and there were hazy halos around the streetlights. I stopped for a minute or two in front of the skeletal cement high-rise that had taken up my last moment of pre-blindfold vision on the way out, and looked up at it, staring into the blue glow of the floodlights until my eyes burned.
I had been taking the train to Cannes every odd night, and back to Paris every even one, using my prepaid first-class Eurail pass, sleeping in the comfortable lounge compartments because I couldn't afford even the cheapest Paris hotel I had found. But now I had actually managed to spend the night in Paris, and I sat on a bench in the Tuileries watching the sky turn a faint tangerine as the sun rose behind a feathery fan of clouds. I started nodding off as the first early-bird tourists and business people strode across the park in long diagonals from different directions, so I walked back down to the street to get some coffee.
From there on in, the remainder of the vacation reverts back to snapshots, and I flip through them quickly: Me sitting next to a rooster on a Spanish train, me walking up a steep hill full of quaint houses in Lisbon, me lost on some bridge in Venice in the middle of the night, me watching a Pan Am employee take my Walkman apart to check for explosive devices before I board my return flight. I don't remember any of these things vividly, and I don't remember what my drizzly encounter with ol' JB felt like at all. In fact, I was as close to numb as any living person could be in those days. I only felt safe, in fact, in this potentially dangerous situation and many others, because I had sealed myself off so completely from the outside world that very little either negative or positive got in.
My drizzly night in Paris owes its survival in my memory only to my careless willingness to put myself in the position of being forced to feel the sensual richness of my blindfolded ride in the olive green Citroen. It was the first time anything had made my mind shut off automatically, and it became a kind of meditation -- fifteen minutes during which I was allowed simply to be, focused on a sense rather than a thought, letting myself be driven. It made me see for just a few minutes that my whole life had been one long blindfolded car ride with a stranger in a foreign city, and I knew that at some point I would have to take the wheel if I wanted it to change. I think about that moist night when I try to meditate (emphasis on try.) Sometimes I think I am finally driving now, all sense operable and responsive. Other times I think I'm still on that lost, blind ride -- it's just that someone has taken the rubber ball out of my mouth.