A summer in Paris

Kevin Breathnach

Kevin Breathnach

In the summer of 2007 I lived with two friends, Brian and Conor, in a second-floor apartment close to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. At first we spoke in French, then in English, next in whispers, and finally not much at all.

Perhaps if Brian had got his own room things would have worked out better, but he didn’t. We figured two bedrooms would be enough. An old couple met us on Rue Saint-Maur and let us into the apartment. We handed over enough cash to cover two months of rent plus the deposit and they presented us with two sets of keys plus a bottle of Chopin vodka. After they left, we drank the elegant vodka straight and pretended it wasn’t as disgusting as normal vodka. Then the day caught up with us. I slept where I fell but took care to fall precisely. I got the master bedroom, Conor got the corner bedroom, and that was that.

I don’t think it ever occurred to me to feel sorry for Brian, folding his bed out from the couch every night, folding it back in every morning. He was in the same class as me, had made the same friends. I liked him but we weren’t close. He had read books I had not yet even pretended to have read, and all he seemed to see in most of them was error, bad faith and banality. At Dublin airport he was forced pay a considerable surcharge even after the embarrassing spectacle that saw him forced to re-shelve Michel Foucault’s Dits et écrits: tome 1 (1.23kg) in my bag, and tome 2 (1.25kg) in Conor’s.

One night not long after we arrived in Paris, I asked both Brian and Conor what date their birthdays fell. Conor hesitated, not because he was embarrassed, but because he was about to embarrass us. ‘Today,’ he said at last. He had turned nineteen almost unannounced. I would have felt bad for not giving him a gift if I hadn’t been so taken with his reticence. Conor, I realize now, was not fashionable, but he carried himself in such a way that I presumed he was. Even still, I remember being surprised at the ease with which he was able, on one of our first nights out in Paris, to hook up with another guy. We were not in a gay bar, it didn’t seem like he’d made a particularly concerted effort, and yet there he was on the other side of the dancefloor, all set. When later that evening I told Brian I was heading back to Rue Saint-Maur, he said perhaps we should wait around for Conor. I think I frowned: Really? He looked back across the room; then, after a pause, he said he supposed not. On the walk home, for the sake of saying something, I said the guy Conor had hooked up with looked a lot like Tony Adams. I don’t know if he knew who Tony Adams was or what he looked like, and when I think of it now the guy looked nothing like Tony Adams, but Brian seemed pleased by this remark.

During the day we mostly sat around reading whatever books we’d brought or bought, but often we just read newspapers. I got through more newspapers in Paris than I ever had before or would again. It was something to do as a group. Together we would take a red pen to the work of a particular Irish Times literary critic, underlining what we perceived as errors of grammar, judgement and tone. Together we would scoff at the half-understood but no doubt bloated rhetoric of L’Humanité. Together we would fail to identify a single correct answer to the crossword in Le Monde. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. Sometimes at night we would go to a bar down the road and sometimes Conor and Brian would go to a gay bar instead. Occasionally I would join them, but usually I’d stay home. On such nights, I would inevitably get drunk alone, jerk off to a copy of French Playboy I’d bought in a kiosk several streets from our apartment, then sit by the window in silence. During the day Conor spent a lot of time sitting in the same place; I used to look at him looking and wonder what he was looking at. There was nothing much to see at night in any case. Once in an email I told my girlfriend, Sarah, who was spending the summer in Montreal, which by her accounts seemed far more eventful than Paris, that I’d seen two guys stealing a car. I have no recollection of this happening. Probably it was a lie.

After two weeks of living in Paris the most complex thing I’d told a French person was what I did not want in my sandwich. We were growing restless. At the laundrette Conor asked an old woman if there was a cinema nearby. Her gaze fell just beyond us, stayed there. A row of industrial dryers spun one way and then another. ‘Autrefois’ was all she said.

I can’t remember who saw the notice in the back of L’Humanité advertising a get-together hosted by the youth wing of the French Communist Party, nor can I picture the moment when the tone in the room turned from one of derision to one of suggestion, but I know that at around five o’clock the next evening all three of us set out in the direction of the French Communist Party’s headquarters. Despite our collective struggle to bring 3,474 pages of untranslated Foucault on what was essentially a holiday, none of us at the time could lay much claim to political radicalism. Walking a little nervously from the 11th arrondissement to the 19th, we attempted to construct three consistent, properly sourced political backstories, as if making our way not to a social event but to our own show trial. We needn’t have bothered, of course. When we got there, it seemed that our willingness to socialize with members of the French Communist Party, to sign the petitions of the French Communist Party, to ourselves become members of the French Communist Party, was enough to convince all involved that we were broadly speaking sympathetic to the French Communist Party. In a room which I now remember as closely resembling a GAA disco, there was a lot of quiche and a little dancing. Conversation, such as it was, focused mainly on the politics of everyone’s parents, which tended to be one of two things: strongly pro-Communist, or strongly anti-Communist. Before we left we agreed to celebrate Bastille Day cooking crêpes in a French Communist Party truck in a banlieue défavorisée. I tried to make a joke about how my strongly anti-Communist parents would really hate this plan, but I don’t think anyone was listening.

On the way home, we passed the hostel on Rue La Fayette where a few months before, on a midweek break during which everyone contracted food poisoning and someone lost their passport, the three of us had with two other friends taken cocaine for the first time. I would be more willing to identify a sense of irony or play in our decision to snort the lines off a Henry Miller novel if it had not been my own deadly serious idea. Conor and I shared either end of a top bunk that night. As our three other friends hurled violently into buckets below us, he kept trying to tell me about Susan Sontag and I kept trying to listen. It was a difficult address to keep up with. In the summer of 2007 we would make several attempts to get high again, but none of us was yet sufficiently clued in to know where we’d be likely to come across cocaine or anything similar. Really, it doesn’t bear thinking about how much time I spent walking around crappy indie clubs asking for bonbons, a slang term I’d found for ecstasy which even then I sensed was older than the people I was asking, and so had probably recovered its original meaning. Have you any sweets? Any goodies? The possible interpretations range from the cryptically insulting to the crudely flirtatious, but to most it seemed merely ridiculous.

If I tended in those weeks to hang around bars in a mood of growing disconsolation, to walk home through Paris at night, and to think of myself walking home through Paris at night, was for now still enough to make me feel better. One night when we got home, Conor and I had sex. It was not an especially comfortable experience. I did not know what to do in the matter of subject, object, even verb. I had trouble relaxing and feared I’d shit myself if I did. Yet it was also without question the most exciting and significant event in what had until then been a very slender sexual history. Certain of its images seem now too cinematic to have happened as I remember them. The bluish charge of moonlight on our bodies. The silhouette of his head working up and down the silhouette of my dick. The slight sway of half-closed curtain just beyond us. There is no reason to distrust these images more than any other – the window undoubtedly was open, often the light did fall like that – except that the tone they evoke seems so much at odds with what I remember against my skin. I remember that kissing Conor’s stubble felt like kissing my own father. I remember being thrown by the unfamiliar angle of his dick as I wanked it. I remember that when he put his dick in my asshole, it hurt and kept hurting. Either I told him to take it out after a few minutes or he sensed I wanted it taken out. I know I was embarrassed and even a little ashamed at this, but mostly I was disappointed that what I’d wanted did not seem, for the moment at least, physically possible. I started to suck his dick as a matter of urgency; and when finally he came on my face and my hair, we both laughed.

I had never been attracted to another man before, had never thought about gay sex with anything other than a vague squeamishness I knew to say nothing about. I don’t remember it clearly, but in the days that followed I was probably somewhat troubled by the idea that I could be gay. Yet there was at the same time a part of me that found the idea of what had happened not a little glamorous. The next day Conor looked up from whatever he was reading by the window. He told me that his asshole had been sore for a few days the first time he had taken it. He told me that if mine was still sore it would not stay sore forever. We both smiled, continued reading. There was about Conor’s remarks an insouciance which I liked to believe I had overnight acquired as well. Around Conor, perhaps I had. Our interactions did not become newly charged or strained; our relationship continued much as it had before. I was at ease.

At least that’s how I remember it. The written evidence tends to suggest otherwise. The written evidence tends to suggest a mood of uncertainty and panic. Partly out of guilt, but mostly as a misguided attempt to cover my back if things ever got out, I sent emails to Sarah in which I said that Conor, with whom she too was good friends, had made and continued to make advances on me, despite the offence I claimed to have taken. In fact the opposite was true. I had taken Conor’s hand. I had made a move. I wanted him.

Recently I had the uncomfortable experience of re-reading those emails. Sent every day from an internet café up the street, they comprise a litany of lies, exaggerations, belittling remarks about the person I was writing to (whom I claimed every day to love), and unwarranted insults about her friends, my friends, pretty much anyone I came into contact with. I complained about Sarah’s weight. I complained about the behaviour of the homeless people on Rue Saint-Maur. I complained about the act of lying. The references to Conor were tinged with a level of homophobic innuendo I would have righteously condemned in others. My half of the exchange presents a portrait of a young man with an extremely high opinion of himself but no sense of what that self might be. There are no redeeming features in it. What seems to me the most brilliantly delusional aspect is that I intended to have this knowingly dishonest and personally insulting correspondence bound to give to Sarah as a gift.

Conor and Brian were by this point not speaking to each other. All communication passed through me, and I would filter it in whatever way I felt was least likely to result in Sarah finding out I’d slept with Conor. At times I spread deliberate misinformation. In Brian’s company I acted as though nothing had happened. I remember one day we talked at length, longer it now seems than we had ever talked alone before, about Racine, about Madame Bovary, about a short story he was writing in which three figures had become involved, I think, in a love triangle. Oddly, it did not occur to me at the time that he could be writing about our own situation, and so I am not sure what to make of this final detail. Either it is an invention of memory, or the summer of 2007 had become one in which I was no longer capable of recognizing myself in even the shallowest of subtexts.

We did not celebrate Bastille Day with the French Communist Party.

What I remember now is night. Some of Conor’s friends had arrived in Paris, and some of them had other friends still. We were practically a milieu. We all went out to a restaurant, or maybe just to a bar, and I complained to an attractive English girl with a managerial role in Shakespeare & Co. about the state of her bookshop’s essay section. I’m not sure if she was supposed to be impressed by this; in any case she wasn’t. Next time only Conor was invited. He became involved with a French guy called Thomas. Some nights he would come home and some nights he would not. I do not know if Brian believed I was asleep when late at night, with Conor still out, he would pace our ill-lit apartment, attempting to sing the deepest, most guttural parts of Parsifal, a recording of which had come free with a weekend edition of Le Monde. The story of Parsifal is not one I was familiar with, but there was about his singing a sadness I found almost unbearably moving. It was as though all the force of his lonely erudition had found subtle expression in this otherwise disgusting sound. From my room I coughed as hard as I could, hoping he would stop.

At around this time I began to buy new clothes; smaller, darker clothes. As I made my way to town one afternoon dressed all in black, wearing a pair sunglasses I’d found in the apartment, tilting my head in such a way as to give the impression that I was critically appraising the city’s architecture, attempting to make eye contact, such as it was given the sunglasses, with pretty American tourists at Notre-Dame, before calling in at last to Shakespeare & Co., where still I did not remove the sunglasses, I felt like Lou fucking Reed. The English girl was there, ordering stock; remembering my criticism, she asked what essayists I thought the shop so badly needed. I looked at the essay section and was alarmed to realize I did not know the name of a single essayist not already represented on the tiny shelf. No sooner had I become conscious of how ridiculous I must have looked wearing sunglasses inside than I realized I was no longer in a position to take them off. ‘Let me give that some thought,’ I said. Thoughtfully I strolled around the shop for a minute or two, moving up and down the fiction shelves but failing to identify even one novelist I was sure wrote essays too. I returned to the till, having no alternative. ‘What you need,’ I said finally, as if coming at the issue quite inventively, ‘is other books by the same essayists.’ I left without being asked to elaborate.

One day on a metro near Opéra I realized I was sitting opposite Thomas. I could see that he wasn’t sure why he recognized me and it was a while before one of us finally said hello. The air grew heavier then. Neither of us could think of anything else to say. I noticed that he had nice hair so I asked where he usually got his hair cut. He smiled, he might even have blushed, but he would not tell me.

The next time Conor was naked in my bed, it was partly Brian’s doing. A mutual friend, Annie, had come to stay for a few days. Brian was very close to Annie and her visit meant a lot to him. He was insistent that Annie be given her own room; Conor would have to sleep in my room. It did not happen as a matter of course. I turned the lights off and we lay there a while doing nothing, whispering about this or that, perhaps half-waiting for Brian to fall asleep in the other room. Yet from the moment one of us stirred, things unfolded in a manner I remember as more or less indistinct from the first time. I sucked his dick, he sucked my dick. Once again I had trouble relaxing. At some point I sensed Brian was up. I could hear him outside. I got worried. More than that, I got dressed. I left Conor in my bed, I lay down in Brian’s bed, and, partly because I figured he would sympathize and partly because I thought it would cause him to become attracted and thus beholden to me, I pretended to become very distressed, managed almost to cry, about what I said I now knew was the reality of my homosexuality. He said that he would say nothing. I said that I was very grateful to him. I did not say that I wished him dead.

When later, to one close friend or another, I began to reveal what had happened in Paris as yet another exotic facet of my fascinatingly complex personality, I would always lie about this second night. I would say that since Conor fucked me the first night, I fucked him the second night. In fact I’m no longer sure we fucked at all the second time, but if we did I’d have taken it. I knew that Conor did not like to be fucked, and although I suppose I’d have liked to fuck him at some point, I think I’d have preferred to learn to take pleasure in being fucked by him. Yet, on a level I was not entirely conscious of until recently, it made me uncomfortable to think that my role had been only to be penetrated. It seemed to homosexualize me – to feminize me – to a degree that the story I’d come to tell myself about myself could not accommodate. I was unable to position myself as the object of homosexual penetration within a narrative in which I would try everything once unless I convinced myself that at some point I had tried being its subject too.

The domestic situation grew predictably worse, my emails to Sarah more outlandish. I found it difficult to sleep at night. Eventually I booked a flight home; I would leave in two weeks’ time, earlier than the others. It was not until these last days of summer, when I would disappear from the apartment on my own, walking with no intention but to tire myself out, that I began to get a sense of how little I had come to know the city. I was not even certain, for instance, which side was the Right Bank and which was the Left Bank, though naturally this had not prevented me from telling Sarah several weeks previously about the small independent ‘Left Bank’ cinema we’d found. There, in happier times, all three of us had paid to see a documentary about someone called Jacques Vergès, a famous defence lawyer for alleged terrorists and war criminals. The room was empty except for us and, a few rows ahead to our right, a thinly coiffed old man wearing dark sunglasses. If you titled your head to the correct angle, it was possible to see the distorted reflection of the film’s images in the convex of the old man’s shades. It was not, as far as I could understand, a humorous film, but he chuckled softly throughout nonetheless.

On the night before I left, I was still awake when Conor arrived home from wherever he’d been out. He knocked on my door: C’est moi. I told him to come in. He did not seem at all drunk as he began taking off his clothes. He stripped down to his boxer shorts, and then no more. He got into bed. I could feel that he was hard and so was I, but together we just lay there, at rest, not sleeping, not saying much at all. Occasionally one would tighten our hold on the other, then it would fall loose again. In my room we lay like that for a very long time. Light crept through the curtains and I remembered a few days before, when Conor had been sitting beside the window in the living room as he often did, and this time I asked what he was looking at. He did not answer immediately, and when he did it was a question. He asked if I could feel a sense of anticipated nostalgia for the view. I looked out at the street and the supermarket and the purplish glow of evening and the car I had not seen stolen. I said I did not understand the question.

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