Drink, Grovel, Fuck: Ring of Light
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
During my first days in France, when I still had a shine on, I shotgunned messages out on Parisian OkCupid, advertising myself as an American travel writer looking for a cultural experience. Eventually I got a response, a lady named M. suggesting a visit to Victor Hugo’s apartment. Although I was physically exhausted, spiritually abraded, felt fat as shit, still suffered from hooker PTSD, and didn’t give a flying fuck about Victor Hugo, I needed something to write about. I had no desire to do anything else in Paris and had already cashed in my “introspection about non-activity” chip; the travel blog was the only external force keeping me from shriveling completely into myself, and it necessitated novel activity. So a blind date it was.
M. was not immediately attractive: pretty in a witchy sort of way, thin but of non-apparent shape. We absorbed our mutual disappointments — that OkCupid comedown — entered the apartment, looked at best-guess reconstructions of Victor Hugo’s decor, genuine bric-a-brac, paintings of Quasimodo and Esmeralda. M. explained that there was too much light in the rooms now, everything had been designed for the murky interiors of the 19th century and looked garish under electric bulbs.
She was disappointed with the experience. I liked this about her.
It was just late enough to start drinking, so I suggested we adjourn to any nearby bar. M. nursed her wine dishearteningly as we discussed her background in French literature and film studies, France’s deeply entrenched social problems, and our shared belief that an imminent cataclysm would tank the world economy. I tried to order more wine for myself but the waitress completely ignored me, which M. remarked as characteristic of Parisian service. M. herself was not wild about Paris, having moved there from alpine climes to pursue a second graduate degree in web design. She was fluent in English, but given the oddness of my speech patterns and verbal tics I couldn’t be sure if she completely understood much of what I was saying.
M. invited me back to her apartment, where her seven roommates were having an all-day brunch party. She lived in the Brooklyn of Paris, outside the ring of arrondissements. It would be an opportunity to see where the working young lived and what their lives were like. I hesitated; I was sick of new experiences, and also couldn’t tell what kind of invitation it really was, and depending on her intentions, whether or not I was even attracted to her. But, again, I needed copy for this post, and if I went home I’d be left writing 1,000 words about having a panic attack when the wifi in the apartment went out.
We hardly spoke during the cab ride to her place because we were strangers and I don’t think either of us really knew what we were doing.
The apartment was empty. M.’s roommates had taken off for a pro-bicycle demonstration back in the city proper. I swallowed a precautionary Viagra in the bathroom and M. took me on a walk to a ridge, through a massive public housing project, near a burnt-out car, where we could view all of Paris as the lights blinked on, and where I decided she was attractive.
Back in her room, she put on the Twin Peaks soundtrack and we laid on the bed. I asked for a French kissing lesson and M. obliged.
I hadn’t encountered someone that good at making out since my Mormon girlfriend in high school, who had had to route all physical yearning through the mouth.
We removed our clothing. Her body was beautiful and she said I looked like a viking. She had an amazing way of applying a condom. For a moment I escaped into the present, awed at the positive sensation of life. But then my long-simmering fear came true: I couldn’t feel anything physically — due to nerve damage, barebacking feels like wearing two rubbers, and actually wearing one with M. acted as John Thomas Novocaine. I went soft. She evinced no judgment or disappointment. I showed her the scar down my spine and told her the story of my injury. She told me how she had tried to kill herself two years prior, had to change lives, cut ties, switch cities. We both survived. That’s why we were both there in Paris that night. Except for whatever I didn’t understand about her (who goes home with foreign drifters on the first date?) and whatever she didn’t understand about me (who inveigles people into nude dialogue for copy?).
I agreed to meet M. again two nights later for dinner in Little Tokyo. Somehow I was nervous, which I didn’t understand given how uncharacteristically calm I was on the first date. I actually brainstormed things to talk about ahead of time so I wouldn’t seem boring, performed several activities M. had suggested so I would seem attentive, even though I was done with Paris and couldn’t wait to leave. But these actions weren’t even necessary; a natural conversational rhythm sprung up as she ate ramen and I drank sake. She wrote poetry and had translated a Virginia Woolf novel. She considered Paris a gray city, where artists had to pretend to be depressed, and people thought she was daft because she smiled too much. Baywatch was called Alerte à Malibu in France.
I told M. that we had to go back to my apartment because I needed to continue fighting the combo washer-dryer unit into actually drying my clothes. She gladly acceded to this obvious ploy so I swallowed a chunk of Viagra on the sly and got us into a cab. M. criticized the apartment’s decoration as bourgeois-boheme. We drank a glass of wine. I asked her if we could resume French kissing lessons and M. mocked me for being so polite and told me that I had to take hold of what I wanted in life, had to make my own story, which I then did, batching my craven need for narrative with the quenching of emotional and physical parch. I couldn’t keep it up again, Viagra apparently futile against the condom, but it felt incredible just to touch her. She let me finish myself on her chest — the only way I could complete a sexual encounter involving prophylactics — and said that it made her feel like a goddess.
I wanted to cry because I knew I didn’t deserve this absolution, genuine or placatory.
I began to get nervous as the closing of the Metro approached; was she planning on staying over? I’d be up until three in the morning even with the assistance of wine and Ambien and she didn’t need to know that, didn’t need to know a lot things. She started playing with my replacement camera, asking practical questions about the model, delaying, I didn’t know what for (my sudden terseness and pacing made it clear that I needed her to leave), reminding me of the night of the call girl, how contaminated I was. Finally I announced that I would walk her to the subway and she collected her things. As I was climbing the steps back out of the Metro a guy grabbed my ankle, and while I was batting him off another guy tried to slip my wallet out of my back pocket. After I’d caught on to their routine at the last possible second they both cracked up and tried to hug me. I went home feeling incredibly strange and vulnerable.
I saw M. again two days later, my last night in Paris. We had dinner at a French bistro. Something had changed. Long pauses accumulated. We resorted to showing each other pictures of our dogs. We ended up back in the apartment, where I had a gastrointestinal emergency for ten minutes while M. sat alone on the couch. I skipped the Viagra; it was barely working anymore and I didn’t want to get limp in her again, have that be the anticlimax of our micro-relationship. She asked me when the blog was going up. I told her it had been spiked indefinitely. I could feel that I was supposed to touch her, but I believed she wouldn’t want me to if she knew the full story of my time in Paris, that I had betrayed her before I met her, had permanently soiled myself.
I kept blathering, blathering, blathering. I realized I was being an idiot and kissed her. She said she had to go because the Metro was closing. She let me lay my head on her chest while the last song on The Rip Tide finished and I used everything I had to stop myself from sobbing.
M. kissed me goodbye at the Metro entrance and asked me to send her the ugliest postcards I could find. I said I would but already felt myself trying, failing to do so in the future.
I got my copy. May she never read it.