AUTOPSY OR, THE HOUSE OF YOUTH (LIKE A RUSSIAN MOUNTAIN)
by J.M. Parker
I kept a hand-written note, on creased but still clean typing paper, wedged into the pages of a book
You’ve got the tv program and today’s newspaper―
some white wine in the fridge,
and the end of a bottle of red one on the table,
and another one and pastis in the kitchen―
I don’t know what time I’ll be back
but until that moment
I kiss you―
Also, if the phone rings
let the answering machine answer―see you―
I’d kept a photo of the two of us grinning while cutting up a dead rabbit to put in a stew, after which, as I remembered, we’d sat on Fred’s couch, and I told him I had a boyfriend in America. “I love him,” I’d said, “But he isn’t in love with me.”
“Without love, it’s like a day without sun,” Fred said―and this had sounded romantic, or even sympathetic.
After pulling his note out of the pages of that book and then a phone call, I stood in the atrium of Fred’s office, looking up at his desk. Fred sat at a monitor, smiling at something on his screen until he glanced down to see me. “Sorry I’m a little late,” he said downstairs, meaning he was sorry I’d been standing in the lobby in view of his colleagues instead of waiting by the door, as he’d suggested.
It was gray outside, boats along the canal St. Martin battened down for winter, tarps sagging with water. In French, as in English, people are expected to ask each other how they are on meeting, then to reply pleasantly before inquiring all over again more methodically. If they’re interested. We were. Sitting down in a café, Fred talked about Abriel. “Abriel is complicated,” Fred said. “I’m complicated myself. It isn’t easy for complicated people. Every week is like a Russian mountain.” Fred made up-and-down movements with his hand, I supposed to illustrate the shapes of mountains in Russia.
Two years earlier, Abriel’s name had come in the same moment Fred taught me the French word for “magpie,” one morning, sitting on the couch. As Fred explained that Abriel had spent the night in the courtyard downstairs trying to call, a magpie had landed on a chimney outside, catching my attention. “What is it, that bird?” I’d asked, and Fred told me. I’d never seen a magpie. “They’re fascinated by bright things. To steal them,” Fred said, explaining the magpie’s personality. I’d thought of the two of us there on the couch with the sun and coffee, of Abriel waiting in the courtyard, and of a long-tailed bird who steals bright things that catch the light. “Look,” Fred had said, “With Abriel, things have been getting more serious lately.” Then Fred had put me on a train and we’d said goodbye.
Will you have wine? Fred asked.
Up to you, he said.
I don’t mind.
A carafe, then.
We sat discussing our story, discussing how we felt about it, the way you’d talk about a film or a book and what you thought of it. Fred didn’t mind if you looked at his face, but if you looked into his eyes, he shifted them slightly so they changed their way of looking to something more blank. If you persisted, he looked away. “You look a bit sad,” he said.
“You always say that,” I said. Then there was a silence between us, after this reference to an “always” that covered only a few distant days. I waited to see what he would do with that silence.
“I wonder,” Fred said, “What you think about us.”
“Us?” I asked. His face puckered in disgust at my pretending not to understand.
“It was two years ago, wasn’t it?” he said.
“When we met. Was it October?”
“Yes,” I said. “It was in October.”
“I wonder what you think about that now?” The strangest thing happened now, something that hadn’t ever happened to me before and hasn’t since: without moving in the least, my line of vision suddenly fell perfectly level with the tabletop, so I saw everything on it, our plates and glasses with their sharp outlines, from their undersides. It was difficult to draw away from this vision, but his face above it all waited for an answer.
My answer, completely unplanned, was completely familiar. “I came back to Paris because of the sentiment I had here with you. Now I’m here, and never see you, and miss you.”
He sighed. “I didn’t know your thoughts then. I wasn’t sure of you.”
“You didn’t expect me to stay, so you took me to the station and put me on a train.”
“Yes, it was like that,” he agreed. “But you are here now?”
“You can call my office when you want to have lunch.” Full of wine and caffeine and energy, I walked across the canal, wanting to think. Fred and I had always been honest with each other. It felt good to say the truth.
I put my hands behind my head on a park bench on the other side of the city, watching a tiny black poodle walk alone across the wide dusty paths and, for the first time, saw I wanted something that wouldn’t be simple to get and that if gotten, wouldn’t be because of anything I did myself to make it happen. A low fog made everything close grainy, everything faraway closer. An hour with him made it easy to remember how he made his coffee, the cup he drank it from, the noise he made falling asleep. Above the Champ de Mars, Eiffel’s tower stood, clipped from a painting, pasted over the chestnut branches, hanging there. The drug-like sense of everything being an option intensified: an option for happiness, an option for sadness, one of a thousand spaces somewhere in between. I’d fallen in love with Fred two Octobers ago. This fascinated me.
That autumn two years before, backpacking across Europe, I’d prepared for France. Handing my passport to the receptionist at the youth hostel, I’d been the only person in line who spoke French. “You are American?” she’d asked. “Yet you speak French?”
“Yes,” I’d said, “I’ve also recently purchased a métro pass―want to watch me smoke a cigarette?” I put Paris’s neighborhoods on different sections of my tongue, moving them around slowly―sweet, salty, sour, bitter. I’d drunk watery lattés and eaten greasy croissants at the youth hostel, found Shakespeare & Company full of American divorcées with loud purring voices, and Gertrude Stein’s house in a street where gusts of wind brushed the granite facades, pouring along ankle-level, like a beach. From Montmartre, the sun withered behind the city, the clack of roller blades passing up through the trees. A Paris sunset.
I took the subway to the Marais, feeling foolish and happy. In a bar, two men stood together laughing, one stout with glasses and a pasty complexion, the other shorter, blond, a silk blazer hanging off his shoulders, shaking as he laughed. After a beer I said hello. The men exchanged a startled expression which read―a foreigner! The blond, curious, stepped closer, clearing his throat, turning his face up into the light so you could see it. It was a nice face, drawn around the mouth with a smoker’s wanness. Turning to his companion in a furious whisper that seemed to generally establish shock between them more than to seek a response, he turned back to me. “Tu parles Anglais?”
“Oui. Pourquoi? Mon français, c’est mauvais?”
He turned to his companion again before answering. “Ah, non! Your French―it is vary, vary good!” He’d taken some care in selecting his clothes, you could see, his hair neatly brushed: a professional. They both smiled. He turned back to his companion, who was making a blowing noise with his mouth, then to me.
“My name is Frédéric,” he said. “This is Jean-Pascal.”
“Max,” I said, putting out my hand. Frédéric and Jean-Pascal had had a little chuckle together. Max: the monosyllabic glamour of the American first name―yes, a real American. Frédéric shook with laughter.
“We are going to another bar,” he shouted over the music. “You might like it. A bar for―les artistes―yes? You will come?”
At the bar for artists, glaring, middle-aged men and goateed boys with glasses danced slowly, foot to foot. A mustached Turk in a baseball cap looked on, shuffling his feet now and then. Jean-Pascal and I danced. Frédéric got drinks. I stood holding mine to my lips, watching Frédéric pound the floor with his shoes, scrunching his shoulders under his blazer. After a while I sat down and he sat beside me.
“Sleepy?” he said. Green eyes. Eyebrows flecked with blond.
“Oui, un petit peu.” I said, mimicking his pronunciation.
“Can I take you home?” he asked. We looked out to where Jean-Pascal was dancing by himself.
“He’s having fun,” I said.
“Yes,” Frédéric said, “Jean-Pascal likes to dance.”
Outside, the street quiet and dark. He hailed a cab. “My things―” I said, “Mes affaires―sont à l’ostello―à la . . . la maison de jeunesse, the house of youth, non?”
“Oui, oui. Où est ton auberge, your things?”
“Bastille,” I told the driver, kissing Fred, then remembering that we’d already kissed in the bar. Frédéric waited in the cab as I came downstairs with my bags, smoking, a hand hanging out the window. “I never waited for a boy in a cab before,” he said, bemused. “I didn’t know how long to wait―one cigarette, or two . . . three.”
“Was I long?”
He nuzzled me. His hair was the softest thing I’d ever felt. “Richard-Lenoir, s’il vous plaît,” he said.
The next morning, children played in his courtyard. Women called across balconies as they hung out their wash. The sun through the skylight came across Fred. I went to test his shower, smelling like a tourist―paté, beer, dust, and smoke. Fred climbed down from the loft, taking me by my shoulders to dance on the tiles in his bare feet. “Je t’aime,” I’d said. Then Fred was prostrate on the couch with a cigarette, ashing into the blue ashtray.
“Je t’aime,” Fred explained, isn’t a phrase one unleashes on a new-found lover. “Je t’aime” is très serieux.
The second time I called for lunch, it rained again. The canal boats’ plastic tarps dripped and sagged. He wore the same brown turtleneck, face red from the cold.
We ordered plats de jour, getting warm. “Abriel is jealous now,” Fred said. “I always tell after I’ve seen you, but never before we meet.” He paused. “When I describe you, I must make you out to be rather the ideal boy.” I smiled, hating myself―easy flattery. “With us, it’s always like a Russian mountain. Last month we broke―I think the same in English―‘broke up’?”
“Two weeks not seeing each other.” He paused, lit a cigarette, offering me one. “I was happy with you,” he said, going off in a slew of French he must have been saying for its own sake, seeing I didn’t understand. Rain spattered in waves across the window behind him, a pure gray, as gray as the city looks from an airplane window in winter. Normally his eyes were so sharp that I was surprised every clerk in every store, every waiter, every person on the street, didn’t realize how amazingly alive he was and jump on him, all at once. Looking at me carefully now, his eyes went dead, with nothing in them.
“Listen.” I’d had too much coffee now. That we only had an hour together―and how much time apart after that―terrified me. “If it gives you trouble, I don’t want to see you anymore. But if there’s anything in your heart that gives you any indication that you feel something similar to what I do, please think about it.” Unsure what I was saying had been true half an hour before, it seemed true now. Fred picked up his glass and set it down again. “The last time you asked what I thought of us, you didn’t say what you thought,” I said.
“I would ask you not to ask me that. Let’s eat our lunch. You’ve hardly given me a moment to think.” The waitress came for our plates, and that was the end of it.
At the third lunch he explained that he had a tank of fish that were slowly dying. He and Abriel lay in bed watching them swim. Every few days another dead body had to be scooped from the surface of the water. It was Abriel’s birthday recently. I said it was my friend’s birthday, too. What day, he asked. Ah, well, that was also Abriel’s birthday. But he couldn’t understand why his fish were dying.
“Did you get your tank new or used?”
“Did you clean it before you put the fish in?”
“No. Perhaps it is that.”
“I have sympathy for the inhabitants of your aquarium. Because you killed some of me, too.” Learning a language, drunk on the options of things you can say, you sometimes say anything that comes to your head.
“Oh? I killed some of you?” Fred smiled, turning away, the smile still on his lips, enjoying it to himself for a moment.
“What did you do after I left?” I asked.
“There’s no sense talking about that.”
“I’ll say what I did,” I said. “I sat in that train for five hours, feeling sick. Once the train stopped, I walked all over whole cities feeling sick. Then I took another train, a lot more trains, and buses, and a plane, feeling sick some more in all of them. I bought a bottle of Pastis, drinking it every night to make myself sick again. After a while, I didn’t miss you anymore. I just made myself sick.”
“I didn’t mean to make you sick,” Fred said. We were quiet for a while.
“Abriel is in Province,” he said finally. “I don’t know if he’ll come home tonight. I hope not. He always wants to go out, and I love to go to bed early. I like to get up Sunday morning―at ten, say, or eleven. Abriel isn’t easy to live with. But I’m very difficult, too.”
“I never thought so.”
“Oh, yes. I’m always afraid of losing someone. If they say anything―for example, Abriel and I were at a restaurant, and I asked, ‘Are you happy?’ and he said, ‘Happy about what?’ and I”―Fred pulled a sad face, glancing back over his shoulder like a scolded dog. “I can be sad for no reason. Just sad. I’m very difficult to live with, I’m afraid.”
“You were never afraid to lose me.”
“No. Perhaps because I knew I would. There’s some irony for your story,” Fred said, putting his glass down. “Does your friend travel very much, too?”
“Tonight he leaves for Strasbourg.” Our eyes met without either of our faces saying anything.
I thought he might call; I thought I might call him; but I didn’t see him again for two years.
He was “content de me revoir”―de m’avoir retrouvé, he corrected himself, explaining that content, a strong word, which most people used to mean “satisfied,” meant “fulfilled.” Our original fifteen days together―he’d counted them―had been a dream. At three in the morning on the Boulevard Sebastopol, our hands in each other’s pants trying to hail a taxi, Fred said he was falling in love with me. I wasn’t falling in love. I was already in love. He was my destiny, Fred said. I’d been pretty close to thinking it was my destiny to be with someone else, I told him. That wasn’t my destiny, he said. I should get myself used to that idea, Fred said. He’d been alone, mostly alone since Abriel left, and wasn’t ready for me yet. But if I went back to America for three months, he’d be ready when I came back.
Over the months I was gone, I received notes like this:
I’m a little drunk
I’m not going to say anything now because you will think I say that because
I have a lot of things to tell you
you will see if you ask me…………..
you have to ask yourself questions concerning abriel, ask me, I will answer
and you will see that you REALLY are in my heart and in my LIFE
I love you and it’s not a joke
as Carmen would say, “et si je t’aime prends garde à toi”
I had no particular questions to ask. He wrote back: “Why don’t you write? Did you meet someone else?” I sort of had.
We agreed to meet in New York. This story doesn’t have a happy ending. Imagine it like this:
A guy gets off a plane with that dopey, expectant look people getting off planes have, waiting for a face to come up out of the crowd at them, too shy to look at every head in the terminal, the whole fluorescent-lit crowd, the features of each a pang of disappointment. Imagine the guy walks past the crowd, his gullible ears perked up, waiting for his name to be called, like a half-hopeless dog, steeled for the surprise. At the back of the terminal, he pretends to be just a guy in the crowd, watching the heads coming off the plane from behind. Imagine him walking toward the exit, that same goofy half-grin on his face making people want to smile back at him, though they can’t because he’s avoiding all eye contact like hell.
Imagine that half-grin gone by the time he stands outside, his jacket collar (someone else’s) tugged up to his ears (he thinks leather jackets look good on him), smoking cigarettes and scanning the inside of each passing bus. He’d never fly into Kennedy in a million years if it wasn’t that the guy he’s supposed to meet found a cheap flight from Frankfurt and was afraid he wouldn’t find the hotel. But with construction at the airport, finding an address in Manhattan is easier than finding the right terminal at Kennedy, it turns out, because the hotel’s night staff tells him his friend the European checked in two hours ago and is waiting for him at the bar next door. There he is, not looking him in the eye.
He’s since sworn never to travel with the French again. For all their railing against American-style homogeneity, they want everything the same wherever they go. Any fluctuation―in coffee, food, prices, smoking regulations―becomes an item to deconstruct.
They drink beer sitting up in bed, sleep coming fast, that nice effortless kind you learn to appreciate, curtains left open to a view of barren Midtown wasteland. Imagine that last night in a cab or a bar, when Fred said he wasn’t in love anymore. “But touch me,” Fred said in the cab, “Like that,” the cab speeding up the avenue, past a statue he’ll see years later, then again more years later, and again after that, first with pangs, then with simple familiarity.
Imagine, when things start going wrong, he calls someone else who lives in New York. Imagine, one night when things start to go wrong, he meets this someone else in front of a theater, goes back to his apartment, explaining nothing of what is going on in a hotel room twenty blocks south and saying nothing to Fred when he comes back to it. Imagine the next morning he gets in a taxi and leaves Fred eating breakfast on a Broadway terrace.
Imagine a long line of gauzy curtains against a bay window the size of a ship’s prow, someone else asks, “Why did it end between us?” And imagine he can’t really think of a reason.
J. M. Parker’s fiction has appeared in Roanoke Review, Segue, Foglifter, Gertrude, and SAND, among other journals, and been reprinted in Best Gay Stories 2015. His novel Seattle or, In the Meantime was recently published by Beautiful Dreamer Press. He lives in Salzburg, Austria, where he teaches creative writing and American studies.
Cover Design by Karen Rile