Beer & Roaches in Bastille
It was ten to midnight in Paris. 2015 was due to expire at the top of the hour and only the hardened and the foolish were out hitting the bars of the Bastille district.
My fiancée and I had decided to ignore the foolish at a packed Australian pub and instead headed for a seedy local joint called "Objectif Lune." The bar's name was the only Tintin reference to be found inside because both the decor and clientele seemed to be doing their best to belong in a 1980's Luc Besson movie: Leather jackets, punk hairdos, graffiti on the walls, shabby multiethnic chic all around.
We ordered two shots of the local plonk with Belgian beer chasers. You can always get Belgian beer in Paris, even in the grittier bars along Rue de la Roquette (that street with rows of bars, sushi joints and cafés that runs from Place de La Bastille to Boulevard Voltaire and eventually ends at the main gates of Père Lachaise Cemetery). My fiancée seemed to have Père Lachaise on her mind that night, as she kept talking about its many illustrious guests, including Jim Morrison and Chopin, between sips of her Belgian Saison.
"Jim Morrison actually died of an overdose in an apartment building within walking distance of here" she said loudly, trying to be heard above the 80's French punk rock blaring from the speakers.
The bartender served himself a shot and raised a glass as the clock chimed midnight. Paris' annus horribilis had just come to an end. An Irish couple and a group of Parisian Arab girls at the bar hugged us and each other and then continued chatting away quietly among themselves. It was too soon to celebrate anything, but all of us, in a way, felt that we were out in order to not give up our freedom to celebrate. The foolish and the hardened together for one brief moment. We were the cockroaches who are supposed to survive a nuclear blast, only that nuclear blasts were now becoming practically routine. Only six weeks before, a group of terrorists had massacred people just like us at the Bataclan Theater and in cafés not far from where we now raised a glass to celebrate the last New Year's Eve party in Paris.
Sometime after midnight, we walked outside into the now busy Rue de la Roquette. The Arab girls at the bar had mentioned that the Metro was free for the night. We'd stepped into a river of brave and foolish souls that suddenly decided to leave the apparent safety of their bedrooms to take the Metro to the 11th arrondissement and venture down its Boulevards as a final act of defiance. We continued walking against the current of foot traffic, getting further away from Place de La Bastille, until we reached a corner café called La Fée Verte. It was definitely a green fairy sort of night, unseasonably warm for January and still young (the night, not us particularly).
La Fée Verte
In spite of the crowds outside, the bar at La Fée Verte was almost empty. The staff wore colorful clown wigs in a last ditched effort to stir a sense of cheerfulness, but they weren’t fooling anyone. At least their green liquid was just the thing we needed to help us ease our strange feeling of survivor guilt.
The girl behind the bar pulled out a pair of absinthe glasses and spoons as we settled in our stools. We knew her from previous visits but she tried her best to pretend not to know us (while failing miserably at it). She was originally from Morocco and learned English in our hometown of Los Angeles, so we'd bonded over that. My fiancée smirked dryly as she sat on the stool next to mine to watch the ritual. The Morrocan girl grabbed a bottle from the counter and poured green spirit into a pair of absinthe glasses. She grabbed two flat silver Absinthe spoons with stylized holes and placed them atop the glasses, followed by sugar cubes, one for each spoon. She then set the glasses and spoons under a Belle Epoque water fountain with tiny copper taps. The Morrocan girl adjusted the taps like a nurse fixing a patient’s drip until the drops landing on the sugar cubes ran at a perfect rate. We watched in fascination as the green absinthe slowly turned milky white and the sugar cubes melted into nothingness.
We sat in silence and sipped our drinks, the milky white liquid tasted of aniseed and wormwood but it helped lift the general gloom around us, even if just for a bit.
“I think I need to go to the Bataclan.”
My fiancée’s words hung in the air like the last milky droplets of absinthe on her glass.
“When? Tonight?” I asked incredulously.
“I just want to pay my respects,” she said. “I’m done pretending that it didn’t happen and that we didn’t lose any friends…”
I knew her too well to respond with a retort. It wasn't "friends". Just a friend. Moreover, the friend in question was an ex from college that she hadn’t seen in 10 years, but that was beside the point. The whole thing would have hit home anyway. We had begun to think of the area around Bastille and the Voltaire Metro station as our little piece of Parisian home. Just far enough from the tourist trap cafés of the Trocadero and Champs Elysees, but not quite far away enough to be in the outer suburbs, where the beauty of Belle Époque Paris dissolves into a mid 20th-century dystopian nightmare of concrete flats.
A dark woman wearing a white Spanish shawl draped over her shoulders came into the bar with her arms full of red flowers. Monica, my fiancée, motioned to her and whispered some words in French. Euros were exchanged for what looked like at least a dozen roses individually wrapped in cellophane. Monica's French was good; she could at least pass for French Canadian on account of her Montreal-accented French. She'd swapped sunny Southern California for the rolling vineyards around Lyon as an exchange student during her last year at UCLA, followed by two years in Montreal working in movie production. That's where she met Jean-Jacques, the dead Frenchman.
Monica drained her absinthe and rushed outside, flowers in hand. I asked for the bill and the Morrocan girl handed it to me in a small silver tray with a small cupcake wrapped in cellophane. "Happy New Year" she whispered in her heavy accented English. I didn't have to ask her what flavor the cupcake was, I knew its main ingredient. "Merci", I replied as she gave me a fiery look. "Go to her", she said impatiently as I turned around to follow Monica out. Rue de la Roquette was now completely packed with revelers as if the veil of sadness that had descended over the city six weeks before was allowed to be lifted for just one night.
Monica walked a tad unsteadily in her riding boots. She looked like the thinking man's indie rock chick wet dream with her 1950's style hipster granny glasses, a vintage motorcycle leather jacket, and knee-high black boots over tight jeans. Her snow white skin and jet black hair made her look like she'd just stepped out of central casting for a 1960's mod girl moped gang movie (if there's such a genre).
I followed Monica along the closed and darkened stores of the Rue Popincourt, knowing better than to say anything at that point. I held her hand as we continued along the narrow street towards the bright lights of Boulevard Voltaire up ahead. Monica balanced her dozen roses in one arm as if holding a baby. We'd been living together for four years, engaged for the last two of them, but something had always gotten in the way of setting up an official marriage date. Either our careers or her mother's illness or whatever else conspired against it. Having to relocate from Los Angeles to Belfast to work on a TV show for the last two years certainly hadn't helped. The culture shock of Belfast coupled with 18-hour workdays had strained us and our relationship. This trip to our apartment in Paris over the New Year's break was supposed to be our way to reconnect with the city we loved and with one another, but since the massacre of six weeks before we were as broody as the rest of the city.
As we entered Boulevard Voltaire, we could see a small crowd surrounding the burnt-out and still smoldering shell of a police van. Parisian firemen in their shiny metal helmets were putting out the last of the flames, as a police detective interviewed the shocked neighbors. Normally a fire-bombed police van was treated like an everyday occurrence in Paris, particularly in the further away suburbs of brutalist flats that surround the city, but nerves were frayed this close to the Bataclan. One of the neighbors was crying. She was an old woman in a nightgown. A policewoman comforted her. It seemed that the van had exploded right under her balcony.
We passed the scene in silence. Nothing was shocking anymore; it was the end of the world, and everyone knew it.
The Square du Bataclan was dark and silent. A small group of people milled about, reading the mementos and homemade posters pinned to the iron railings of the improvised candlelit memorial. It was a heartbreaking scene, with flags from several countries, and handwritten messages in several languages and photos. Hundreds of photos, of young people smiling for the camera in the months, days or weeks before being cut down in the prime of their lives.
Monica kneeled and placed the flowers on the sidewalk, next to a colorfully painted acoustic guitar onto which someone had scribbled in black felt-tip pen: "This machine kills terror. Love is all we need. Rock n' roll will never die".
I turned away from the Square du Bataclan and faced the venue. It looked like a building after a fire, dark, boarded up, and stitched up with police tape. A large white sheet covered the main entrance as if the venue itself had also died, but was still lying on the sidewalk, waiting for the coroner's van.
Come on Baby, Light My Fire
"We always talked about coming to Paris and going to a punk rock show." Monica's voice was faint and hard to hear due to the two-tone wail of a Parisian firetruck barging up Boulevard Voltaire. Perhaps another Police van was on fire somewhere. It felt as if the whole world was on fire.
"He was the only man I've ever loved," continued Monica, "I mean, really, truly loved...You never forget your first anyway".
I let her words hang in the air. Her exquisitely pale face framed by strands of jet black locks pouring from under her winter beany was damp with tears as it flickered in and out of sight in the dark and candlelit corner where we stood.
I knew why she was trying to hurt me with such statements, so I tried my best not to take the bait.
"Come on, let's go. You've done your part, paid your respects. Besides, it's the absinthe talking..."
"You'll never understand how I'm feeling right now. Come to think of it; you never understand how I feel most of the time", she yelped, rejecting my hand with a swiping motion of her arm.
"Are we back on that trip now?"
"It's not a trip...sometimes I really feel like you're...I don't know…emotionally autistic".
"Emotionally autistic? Why? Because I'm not ready to fawn over some dead guy whose only claim to fame is that he...he deflowered my fiancée?"
"Oh, so you're using big words now? Deflowered? Really? Who uses that word anymore? Why don't you go full Jane Austin on me and call it 'taking my honor?’”
"I'm a writer, sorry if I know how to use words in the English language."
"A sitcom for cable TV hardly counts as the great American novel."
"Calling the show a sitcom is like calling Les Misérables light summer reading".
"Whatever...You're no Whit Stillman, no matter how much yuppie angst you force into that stupid TV show. Jean-Jacques was the man you'll never be...and while we're at it, why don't we just use the 'correct nomenclature'. Monica started using air quotations. I knew I was in trouble when she started quoting The Big Lebowski. "He didn't just" (more air quotes) 'deflower me', he FUCKED me, you hear, he fucked me a lot, and It was GOOD..."
"Why are you doing this?"
"Do you have to ask?"
"I thought we had agreed not to bring it up tonight, to let this be our 'Last night in Paris...'"
"Agreed to what? To forgive and move on and forget? Forget that while I was back in LA, burying my mother, you were back here fucking, yes let's not get all Jane Austin about it, the word is (air quotes again) 'fucking' that slutty Moroccan waitress from La Fée Verte."
"You've lost your mind."
"Oh? So I've lost my mind? Did you ever consider my feelings? 'Oh, her English is soo good' you kept saying the first time we went there. Hope her blowjobs were as good as her syntax."
"I knew it was a bad idea to go back there...I told you so. Your idea of a 'Last New Year's Eve' in Paris together as a couple, pretending it's all hunky dory, even though we both know it's over, is as bad as it gets".
"I just had to see her with my own eyes again. I wanted to see what kind of whore sleeps with an unavailable man while his fiancée buries her mother. I think you'll find her picture right next to the definition of 'Monster Cunt' in the dictionary.
"You know as well as me that I never, quote end quote 'fucked her'. Never happened. You were back in LA; we were shooting in Belfast all month, I couldn't get away cos of all the re-writes...we'd been working 18 hour days. I finally got 2 days off and decided to come to our place here, but I just couldn't stand being alone without you in our apartment. I was emotionally distraught about your mother too you know. We'd had that long Skype call after you came back from the funeral and I was really drained. Contrary to popular belief I have feelings too, you know. I remembered La Fée Verte from our trip last summer...when I went in there, sex was the last thing on my mind...I figured that a whole bottle of absinthe was the only cure for my depression. Who would have known that half a bottle in a bunch of assholes would decide to shoot up half the city."
"Oh, so you happened to stumble upon the one bar in Paris where we both had commented that the waitress was hot? Of all the bars in Bastille, you walk into that one...and not only that, you just happen to invite her back to our apartment...yes 'ours' let's not forget that. Next time, if you're going to pick up some bar floozy, take her to a sleazy hotel, where she belongs, not to our home. Oh, I just remembered, there isn't going to be a 'next time' because I'm moving back to LA as soon as this season wraps. You can stay here and sleep with all the slutty bar whores that you want".
"I never slept with anyone...I mean we did sleep, but not together...Not in the way you're thinking. I was too drunk to get home. She listened to me at the bar. All I did was talk about you, that I wanted to be in LA with you but couldn't. Then the shootings started, it was out by Place de La Republique, but people started rushing into the bar in a panic, then some plain clothes cops showed up and told them to close the bar down and to keep us all inside. We were trapped inside the bar for hours. I kept taking swigs of absinthe, straight from the bottle, half expecting that the terrorists would shoot us right through the closed doors at any moment. By the time we felt safe enough to leave, the Metro wasn't running, so she gave me a ride home in her car. I was falling off my stool by that point."
"They have taxis in Paris you know..."
"Not that night. The Metro was closed so taxis were taking people out to the suburbs, it was absolute chaos. Took us forever to drive up to our place in La Defence."
"Even if I choose to believe you, why then did she have to come up to our apartment?"
"I was having a hard time putting the key into the lock. She had to help me upstairs".
"Did she also help you put your key into her lock? Wow! Did you 'rattle her lock’ too?'"
"Don't be silly. She came upstairs, and we talked. Smoked some hash. That was it. I needed an emotional connection that night. I couldn't stand being alone. Everyone was convinced that the world was coming to an end."
"Emotional connection? Wow, that's a good one. Most people, when they're depressed, call their therapist, or chew some Prozac. Besides, emotional cheating is still cheating...In any case, you know very well that it's all bullshit. I found her panties under the bed, 'our' bed let me remind you. Did she need to take her thong off to give you 'emotional support'? Fuck you and YOUR emotional support. Where's MY emotional support? You should have been in LA with me. Not here with some whore."
"What panties? Those are your panties, remember when we first rented the apartment we celebrated with a bottle of Veuve and a trip to that lingerie store up in Pigalle? You ended up running around the apartment, swigging champagne, the thong must have ended up under the bed that night".
"You think I wouldn't recognize my own panties. Besides, what woman leaves her panties behind in a stranger's apartment? I tell you what. A total whore. She was marking her territory. Well, now she can keep you. I'm done".
Monica took off running down the boulevard, directly into traffic. A Peugeot screeched to a halt just inches from her. I ran after her and hugged her where she stood while the Peugeot owner beeped and cursed at us in Parisian slang.
"I love you, Monica. You are the best thing that has ever happened to me in my life." I whispered in her ear as traffic and curses started to move all around us. "I'll do anything to make it up to you. Anything."
Monica looked into my eyes. She was deeply hurt but had a strangely determined look on her face.
"I mean it, I will die without you."
"Then go die. I'm going to jump the wall of Père Lachaise Cemetery and find Jim Morrison's grave."
"But why?" I knew that my answer was weak. But it was all I had.
"Why? There must always be a why? How about because the Doors were an LA band. I'm from LA. Jim was an American in Paris, I'm an American in Paris...but the real reason, if you must know, it was something that Jean-Jacques and I talked about a lot but never got to do. We would get into these deep, philosophical conversations about the meaning of life and of 'Come on Baby, Light my Fire', only that he pronounced it 'Bebe'. We made plans to come to Paris, catch a punk rock show and then jump the wall of Père Lachaise at night to sing to Jim by candlelight. After tonight, I don't want to have any unfulfilled plans anymore. Look at all the pictures on that corner", she pointed back to the improvised memorial on Square du Bataclan. "Each and every one of those pictures represents millions of unfulfilled plans. I don't want unfulfilled plans in my life anymore!"
With that, Monica pushed herself away from me and ran back onto the sidewalk. I followed her closely as she walked fast towards Voltaire Metro station and Rue de La Roquette, the street that leads directly to the gates of Père Lachaise Cemetery.
“Monica wait. Do you want to sleep in a French jail? Because this is exactly how you end up in a French jail”.
“Jail? Don’t be stupid. What self-respecting French cop will be working at two in the morning on New Year’s Day?”
"We've seen tons of cops tonight!"
"I don't care, I'm going"
With that, she took up running uphill along Rue de La Roquette, towards the dark stone walls of Père Lachaise up ahead. It was at that precise moment that I realized that I'd never loved a woman more than I loved Monica that night.
Stay tuned for part 2