Sometimes Marrying a Mystery Means Marrying a Racist
"Parisian Honeymoon" by Ross Feeler, an original short story recommended by Electric Literature
INTRODUCTION BY BRANDON TAYLOR
Ross Feeler’s “Parisian Honeymoon” opens with a rhetorical question of such startling horror that it threatens to end the story before it even begins: a woman asks her new husband if he’d kill a Muslim. It is a point at which I almost want to stop reading, but I keep on because it isn’t fiction’s job to make us comfortable. There’s no mandate that characters behave in ways that reaffirm our moral vision of the universe. People say fucked up things every day, after all, and the world keeps going. Still, I pause.
In some ways, “Parisian Honeymoon” is an archetypal story: a newly married couple goes to Paris for their honeymoon. But Ross Feeler has pinched this narrative in interesting, specific ways. The atmosphere in Paris is tense following a recent terror attack (a mass stabbing). The narrator and his wife Alison are not young and idealistic—they have entered marriage with a kind of weary knowledge of themselves and their own faults. This is the second marriage for both of them. Their passion is quiet, almost mundane, except that it’s shot through with peaks of sexual excitement.
This lends the story a kind of ironic heat, a bit of humor that ratchets up slowly, as Alison asks in increasingly precise and increasingly convoluted ways if the narrator would be willing to kill a Muslim. To protect her. It’s the kind of thing that you hear about sometimes, the ways in which white women weaponize the societal idea of their vulnerability against marginalized people. It brings to mind Emmett Till. It brings to mind the videos that permeated social media in which white women vandalized and stole from a community mosque, or called the police on black people for existing in public or for even entering their own homes. It brings to mind Botham Jean, the unarmed black man shot in his own apartment by a Dallas police officer after she mistook the apartment for her own. All of the ways in which people have been mangled and murdered and dehumanized for the sake of protecting white female virtue. In reading this story, I felt something click into place. This is it, I thought. This is how that conversation goes.
The narrator is uncomfortable at the question, at the incitement to violence. He resists it. Tries to distract or placate her by getting her to engage in their honeymoon, in their new life together. But if he parries her hypotheticals about the murdering of anonymous brown men, she rebuffs him sexually, and he begins to doubt his own masculinity. There is a great moment in the story when the narrator recounts killing a deer and feeling sick about it as he realizes what he’s done. But this sickness at the loss of a life only deepens his sense he has failed to fulfill the masculine role that Alison wants him to.
As the story goes on, Alison prods, and the narrator evades, and he grows more frantic to please her, resulting in an ending that alarms and shunts the story into a new moral valence.
This story brings to mind the discomfort I feel when I read Flannery O’Connor. The way she dwells in the mundanely evil spaces of the human heart. Ross Feeler has written a contemporary horror story, one that exposes people for the everyday monsters that they are.
– Brandon Taylor
Senior Editor, Recommended Reading
Sometimes Marrying a Mystery Means Marrying a Racist
by Ross Feeler
It’s a strange thing to be overlooking Paris from the rain-dampened steps outside the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, a little love-struck, and have your new wife lift her nose out of her paper cup of wine to ask, “Darling, could you kill a Muslim?”
Strange, to be sure, but it happened to me two days into my honeymoon with Alison.
The previous week, a pair of religious fundamentalists had stabbed seven people, including one American tourist and two French school children, on the Metro. Five of the seven had died. At the time of the attack, I’d offered to cancel the trip. “And let them win?” Alison had said. Our travel agent, who was also my second cousin, had reassured us of our safety and rattled off comforting statistics, citing obscure reports whose validity I never confirmed. Still, the terrorist attack had given Alison nightmares. In one dream, she watched a U-Haul park outside of the home we were in the process of purchasing. Rather than hauling in our furniture, the movers carried in hundreds of backpacks, wherein Alison found the dismembered bodies of murdered children.
“All those backpacks,” she said now, to jog my memory.
In the shadow of the grand church, I picked up a half-crushed Kronenbourg can some vagrant had left behind and deposited it into a waste-bin. I told myself that Alison’s altruistic impulses had been derailed but that, in a matter of seconds, she’d see her error. After a moment I sat back down beside my wife and poured the last of our red wine into my cup.
Alison placed the empty bottle on its side and with a finger set it rolling.
“You just don’t get it,” she said, and with each word she spoke, the bottle descended another step. “They hate us.” This wasn’t just about the Metro attack. Even as we’d shopped earlier that day, in a Champs-Élysées supermarket, she’d heard talk of violent protests. In the halls of the Louvre, she’d been so deeply impressed by the abiding beauty of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People that she’d felt a kind of maternal urge to hold the entire museum to her naked breast. Later, while purchasing a sparkling water and a postcard of the aforementioned painting from an on-site café, she had spotted a brown man in a skullcap whose torso seemed unnaturally thick, “as if wrapped in a dynamite.”
As she said dynamite, our empty wine bottle exploded somewhere below.
“Can you imagine Liberty in a burka?” she said.
Again, I ignored her question. Sometimes silence is the best medicine.
This was not one of those times.
Back at our Montmartre apartment, Alison failed to respond when I placed my hands on her ample hips and settled my chin—which she’d once deemed “adorably cleft”—on her right shoulder. I waited for her to turn her wine-stained mouth to mine, for a humid embrace followed by a love-tumble onto the king-sized bed. She said something in French, a language she’d learned in college decades earlier and of which I have only emergency phrases memorized from guidebooks.
She brushed my hands off her hips. “Imagine,” she said, drawing back the comforter as we ventured into the realm of hypotheticals, “imagine if that man had blown up the Mona Lisa.” She sighed and crawled into bed. She opened up her paperback thriller, sighed, and set it back down without reading a word. “I’ll have nightmares about the museum,” she said. “I know I will.”
Within a matter of seconds, she fell asleep.
The brevity of our courtship had made premarital cohabitation inconvenient if not impossible. This did not bother me. She worked early; I slept late. Until now, we’d shared a bed only when making love or if one of us had drunk too much to safely drive home.
Alison slept noisily. Her lips made a puh sound with each exhalation. When she adjusted her head on the pillow, which happened frequently, she mewled like a cat. Soon she’d torn the corners of the fitted sheet away from the mattress, and the fabric bunched beneath my bare shoulders. These problems were compounded by my overactive imagination: I envisioned the nightmares she must be having, scenes of violence I had no way of stopping.
Though I had books of my own, I reached for Alison’s novel on the bedside table; I could just read by the street lamp shining its faint light through the window. The epigram, from Tony Kushner, called love “a magnificent rose smelling faintly of blood.”
I don’t care for thrillers.
I did not sleep.
The next morning, banished from the cramped bathroom where Alison was applying more varieties of make-up than I knew existed, I escaped to the balcony with a cup of coffee and a travel guide by Rick Steves, who offered not one solution to my marital unease, but who did list several options for authentic crêpes on a budget. I memorized a few more phrases in French—Can you speak more slowly please? Come with me!—and watched as school children passed along the sidewalk holding hands.
Across the road, on a neighboring balcony, a lanky, olive-skinned man stepped out of his apartment with a cigarette and a newspaper. He had a long, pointed beard, and as he took his seat, he glanced toward me. He did not smile as an American might, but he gave me a look of recognition and, I thought, kindness. Then he lit his cigarette, opened his paper, and began muttering to himself as he read.
A moment later, Alison appeared beside me, better looking and better dressed than I, in tight, dark-washed denims and a blue blazer with gold buttons double-columned along the torso. Never before the honeymoon had I seen her in such outfits, and I complimented her.
“A good traveler assimilates,” she said, and glanced toward the bearded man.
“Have a seat,” I said. “I want to tell you something.”
In a previous marriage, I’d been forced into couple’s counseling. The bonding strategies described had made no difference in that relationship, but, determined not to fail again, I had recently revisited some of my therapist’s advice. If you feel like you’re losing the battle, she said, take off your armor and hand your enemy a weapon. Vulnerability and openness solve more problems than emotional warfare ever can.
Unable to meet my wife’s eyes, I stared at our neighbor as I told her about my teenaged hunting disaster, when I’d shot a deer nibbling corn beneath a feeder. Afterward, I’d dragged the doe half a mile over dirt and cactus and rock, and by the time we’d hefted the carcass into my uncle’s truck, the fur had been scraped from the back of the animal’s head. Worse still, I’d aimed poorly, and the shot had entered the deer’s right flank and passed through its entrails. Intestines uncoiled out of the exit wound, emitting a sickening scent. In celebration, when the animal had been processed, my uncle had invited all of my extended family over to share in the kill. He’d chicken-fried the venison and heaped it onto my plate. Everyone in the family had waited for me to take the first bite.
“And when I took it,” I told Alison, “I tasted raw sewage.”
“He’d cooked it badly?”
“Everyone got seconds. But I could only taste the bullet that had ripped apart the doe’s insides and the food my food had half-digested. A taste like death.”
“And so next time you shot the thing properly, through his—what, his heart?”
“Lungs would be the correct shot,” I said, “but there was no next time.”
“You gave up?”
“And one other thing: I don’t really care for the Mona Lisa. It’s one of those paintings that’s so ubiquitous you can’t really see it.”
“Darling, why are you telling me this?”
“I’m not a violent person,” I said.
She considered this for a long moment. A wisp of smoke from our neighbor’s cigarette reached our balcony. Alison coughed. Then she said: “I don’t think we ever know what we are, exactly. I think we’re always finding out.”
That afternoon, as we approached the entrance to the Musée Rodin, Alison nodded toward an old, fragile-looking black man. He stared at a half-eaten sandwich with demented intensity. In the hard-up, the lonely, the defective, I sometimes glimpse my own capability for failure. A few bad choices, and I too might be a haunting passersby outside of museums.
“I see a man like that,” Alison whispered, “and wonder: What if some maniac beheaded The Thinker?”
I briefly mentioned the connection I felt—but this worked opposite of my intention. Rather than momentarily extending compassion to this man, she retracted it from me, and took off walking. We passed through the museum, first the garden then the galleries, in silence, until we approached a crowd, in the center of which stood a sculpture called The Kiss, a life-sized depiction of two naked lovers, mid-embrace. A guide commented on the statue in French, and instead of trying to understand, I soaked up the scene’s explicit sensuality.
When the crowd had dispersed, I slid between Alison and the statue, kissed her, and, mimicking the lovers’ pose, pressed my right hand into her left thigh.
She bit my lower lip, gently at first, then with increasing pressure.
A guard cleared his throat.
As she pulled away, Alison said: “They’re in hell.”
Only then did I read the English translation of the placard, which described a scene from Dante’s Inferno: Two lovers slain by the woman’s cuckolded husband were damned to eternally wander through the afterlife.
“But who knows,” Alison said as I caught up, “maybe the kiss was worth it.”
For the evening, she’d made reservations at a highly-Yelped, traditional French restaurant called A la Biche au Bois, and as she got dressed at our apartment, I again stepped out, hoping to escape the toxic reek of hair spray.
This time, our neighbor had beaten me to the balcony, and across from him, at a table, sat a teenaged boy, to whom the man spoke loudly, authoritatively, but with compassion. Twice he reached across the table, touched the boy’s face, and said something soft and inaudible. The boy nodded. After a while the man handed the child a cigarette.
The boy lifted it to his lips and inhaled.
He coughed violently—a sound drowned out by the father’s laughter.
As a younger man, married for the first time, I had the conviction that I’d been denied some essential knowledge of adulthood—some rite of passage. My father was clunky, awkward, and prone to detonate intimate moments with mis-remembered quotations from screwball comedies.
I silently drank my wine and watched the scene on the opposite balcony.
Alison was, like me, near the midway point in her journey through life, and it never bothered me that the age she advertised (forty-one) did not align with the age listed on her driver’s license (forty-seven). Mystery thrives on such small deceptions. Neither did I mind how little I understood her career as a Customer Success Specialist for a tech company. I found my own job unworthy of conversation; I assumed she felt the same. She earned a good deal of money, checked her email frequently, led a team of underlings, and made time for me. More information than that might prove gratuitous.
What I did, however, abruptly find disturbing was the fact that, by my calculations, we’d known each other for approximately one percent of our lives. As two divorcees, we had met through a website, dated briefly, and married with minimal ceremony. Still, I’d felt then that we knew each other, that we essentially were the same kind of lonely and loving. Only now did I consider that while I might know Alison’s deepest self, I did not know what to make of her supposed fatigue or of love’s relationship to violence.
I did not even know how to fall asleep beside my wife on our honeymoon.
For a moment I thought this neighbor, about whom I knew nothing, might be capable of leaning across the railing, stretching over the street, and whispering some secret of existence into my ear.
“He makes me nervous,” Alison whispered, suddenly appearing behind me.
She looked at me as if the question were absurd.
“I don’t think he’s Muslim,” I said.
“That’s the thing about belief: You can never tell.”
“He’s smoking. Can Muslims smoke?”
“They can burn buildings but not tobacco?”
“Let’s go,” she said. “We’re taking the Metro.”
I did not tell Alison I had never ridden on a subway before.
I assumed, from the way that she spoke, that we’d be entering some kind of cultural exhibition—that the train cars would be brimmed with women in burkas, men muttering in Arabic, entire tram cars kneeling on prayer rugs.
The reality was worse. The crowd into which we stepped made me feel like a particle—a piece—a fragment—which fit into a larger collective over which I had no control. The identities of the passengers, religious or otherwise, bothered me less than the quantity. I could hardly move. I could hardly communicate: Apologizing in English earned me nothing more than a confused look from the short, angry-looking woman into whom I’d bumped. The smell—here a whiff of urine, there of perfume—sickened me. There were no seats to be had. I hung onto the overhead strap for balance as our train left the station. With my hands over my head, I thought about how open my body would be to an attack—how easily a psychopath could target my vitals. At each stop passengers exited only to be replaced by more passengers. I felt like a cat fallen into a garbage compactor. I kept trying to make myself smaller. The air tasted of poison, and I breathed in and out quickly, as if toxic oxygen, like dropped food, had its own five-second rule.
Then, one stop from our own, as passengers exited, Alison threw her arms around me. Her pelvis pressed against mine. She slid her hands over my back pockets.
Suddenly I could breathe.
Merged with Alison, my existence in the crowd became real. One person was nothing, but a couple could mount a mutiny. As the train started once more, its momentum seemed to surge through me. A set of tracks, I realized, had been leading me to just this place at just this moment. My destination was Alison, whose nose nudged my cheek as the car shook to a stop at our exit.
Inside A la Biche au Bois, Alison ordered for both of us. Well into a bottle of wine, I said, “Darling, what made you grab me like that?”
“Love,” she said, as though reading my thoughts.
I took her hand.
“When you love someone,” she went on, “you want to protect them.”
“The crowd,” I said.
“That man on the train—” she said.
“That thief,” she said. “He smelled like a gutter.”
“I didn’t see—”
“He was about to steal your wallet,” she said. Something about his stature, and the way he puppeted an empty sleeve, had tipped her off.
I believed her. She understood the culture and the language better than I; she would understand the gestures better, too.
Still, it left me sad, aware of all the dangers I failed to recognize, and, for the first time, I felt homesick for America, where I could always climb inside my own vehicle and lock the doors.
The food arrived: baskets of bread, a pot of steaming beef stew which we spoon-fed each other, mashed potatoes swimming in butter, and escargots—all of it excellent, paired with good wine. Yet my stomach felt queasy. I felt as if I’d left my insides on the train, and soon after we’d finished eating, I found myself weaving through the tables in that tiny restaurant, passing beneath a large set of mounted antlers, and ducking into the bathroom. Sweat stood out on my forehead. Above the mirror there was a painting of a countryside in which fawns, still covered in spots, grazed beside their mothers. I went to the toilet and afterward washed my face in water from the faucet.
When I returned to the table, Alison told me she was proud of me for facing my fears.
“I don’t think I’ll make a habit of riding the train,” I said, “but this once, with you—”
“I meant the deer.”
“I told you earlier,” I said, “I never did hunt again.”
“You’ve been studying French for weeks, I assumed you knew—” She paused. “Knew where we are.”
“A la Biche au Bois,” she said. “The doe in the woods.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We just shared the venison stew,” she said. “You kept it down. Don’t you see? It’s never too late to gain courage.”
I felt another wave of nausea crest and crash. “You tricked me,” I said.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“The matter with me?”
“First you ask me that homicidal question, then you poison me. For god’s sake, when you married me, you knew who I was.”
“We marry a mystery.” Alison said, half-draping her cloth napkin over her hand, and cleaning beneath her fingernails with an escargot fork. “Life is change. I want to protect you—from others, from yourself. I want you to protect me too. That means more than just staying up late at night, drinking wine by yourself on the balcony. Never lying down beside me. Don’t forget: You committed to a mystery, too.”
With those words, she dropped her fork and stood up from the table. I thought she meant to make her own trip to the bathroom, but instead, she walked right out the front door, turned left, and disappeared.
I struggled to communicate with the waiter, until finally he brought over another waiter, this one more patient and with better English.
Alison didn’t return.
Outside, in the middle of a foreign country, lacking the language, a map, my wife, I felt utterly lost. A couple on a moped sped past in the tree-lined street. Already I could hear people back home laughing: The marriage didn’t even last through the honeymoon! The sound of their laughter drove me into every restaurant or bar within a four-block radius, searching for my wife.
Inside a dimly lit café, I momentarily mistook another woman for Alison. They wore the same coat, had the same gray eyes. Even their noses were identical, tiny and turned up at the end. I’d already placed my hand on her shoulder when I saw a tattoo of a blackbird on her inner wrist. To make up for the mistake, I bought the stranger a cocktail. I bought one for myself as well.
Eventually I flagged down a taxi, but when the driver asked for my address, I blanked. “Sacré-Coeur Basilica,” I told him, and he took me to a street below the church.
As I ascended the stairs, I again heard laughter. I high-stepped over a broken wine bottle. The laughter grew louder as I climbed, and for a moment, I thought perhaps this was the voice of God, coming from the church, reveling in the absurdity of his creation. Another flight up, I heard two distinct voices laughing.
Then, at the top, I saw Alison, smoking a cigarette, sitting in the darkness, conversing in French with a pale, young man, no more than a child really, in a black T-shirt, tight jeans, and Nikes. He wore his hair short on the sides, with a tuft of bleached hair on top.
By now I was sweating, a little drunk, and angry, and coming out of the darkness, I must’ve cut a strange figure against the skyline, because the boy rose to his feet apprehensively. He looked scared—an expression I recognized, even identified with, and that made me hate him all the more. Alison said something in French. The boy’s face softened.
“Hello,” he said. “We were just talking about you.”
“Fuck off,” I said.
He looked at Alison. “I don’t—I don’t understand.”
“Get the fuck away from my wife,” I said, and slipped my right hand into my pocket.
Again he looked at Alison, who shrugged and ground out her cigarette.
“I do not think you are a good man,” he said, and took a wide berth around me.
As he slunk into the darkness, I asked Alison: “Since when do you smoke?”
She began to laugh, to laugh and to kiss me. Instantly my anger melted into desire.
Back at the apartment, we had the kind of honeymoon sex people get married just to experience. I felt like a teenaged boy, if a teenaged boy knew what to do once he undressed.
But even exhausted with love, I could not sleep. I ate a chocolate bar on the balcony. I drank more wine, watching foot traffic. I felt a little drunk by the time I heard a door open on the street below.
Across the road, our neighbor stepped onto the sidewalk. He lit a cigarette. After five or ten paces, he stopped. He squatted. I imagined, hazily, that he might be unrolling a prayer rug.
He placed his cigarette between his lips to free his hands and tie his shoes.
Our positions recalled for me the hunting experience I’d had with my uncle: The man knelt broadside like a doe at a feeder. It sickened me a little, and yet, I let the encounter play out in my mind. When I’d killed the deer, my uncle had explained the process as natural. People needed food, the deer provided food. In the same way, a sort of intricate logic suggested itself to me now. If this man meant to kill schoolchildren, if he meant to blow up museums, if he meant to fuck my wife, then, as a man, I had no choice but to see him as a body. I imagined his anatomy. I imagined the dual, wet lobes of his lungs. I imagined a rifle scope crucifying my field of vision, centered over the man’s ribs, beneath which his internal organs lay vulnerable. I imagined pulling the trigger and seeing him slump and dragging his corpse over the cobblestones.
The man stood, retrieved his cigarette from his mouth, and resumed his walk.
The following day we visited Edith Piaf’s grave at the Père Lachaise cemetery. We hummed “La Vie en Rose.” We lunched at a nearby restaurant, where I had a fried-egg sandwich with white cheese and sliced ham. Alison ate hard French bread slathered in butter. When we returned to our apartment, we drank wine, made love, and lay awake talking about our pasts. About the people we’d been, the lives we’d led. We lamented the strangeness of middle age, the feeling that we had been children playing in a field who had dozed off and awoken with achy knees.
“I’d do anything for you,” I told her.
Alison never again mentioned the Muslim question.
She bought me a Mona Lisa keychain with a bottle opener on the bottom.
But I could not stop thinking about the hypothetical man and his hypothetical crimes. It boiled down to preventative justice: killing to avoid a crime. And say this man’s son had been with him? Would I kill the child, too? It sounds absurd, I know, but I lay awake the entire final night of our honeymoon contemplating this, the consequence of it. If a man could be killed for his beliefs, for the possibilities that they engendered, what might I be guilty of? Earlier in the week, I’d indulged impolite thoughts about a waitress. I have a weakness for women in stockings.
Better not to linger on the idea, I decided now. Better to focus on my wife, our marriage, the foundation we were laying for the life we would build together.
Love ended the discussion, as it does, eventually, end all discussions, the last word on a world of idiocy and hate.
On the runway at Charles de Gaulle I read a New York Times article about a native Iowa woman who had been acting as an ISIS recruiting agent on Twitter. In the featured photo, she had blonde hair, green eyes, and pearl earrings; she was wearing a Victoria’s Secret PINK t-shirt. The Face of Radical Islam? the headline ran. Without meaning to, I imagined choking her as she kicked my shins. I wondered whether my fingers could penetrate her skin and sink into the cords of her throat.
Sleeping beside me, Alison looked completely at ease, lost in pleasant dreams.
The stewardess, informed that we were returning from our honeymoon, brought us very bad champagne that I nonetheless drank quickly. Once we reached cruising altitude, I got up to encourage my circulation—my mother died of an embolism—and to go to the restroom.
If the pretty Iowan could be ISIS, I thought, walking up the aisle, who was outside the realm of suspicion?
Not the businesspeople with laptops on their fold-out trays.
Not the mother reading to her toddlers.
Not the wide-eyed tween peering out the window.
I looked at a sedated Jack Russel Terrier with a mixture of fear and distrust.
I loved Alison. I wanted to protect her.
But could I kill the college-aged boy fitting pillowy black headphones over his ears?
Could I kill the grandmotherly woman unwrapping the foil from her stick of gum?
In the tiny lavatory, listening to the great plane hum, I decided that if I had to, I could. I could batter the pilot, take the plane down, sacrifice the innocent people, if it meant saving Alison—if it meant saving us. I could open the hatch and push out the stewardess with her attractive British accent and the bald baby sucking his pacifier and the acned adolescent in constellation-covered yoga pants. I could watch them tumble into oblivion without blinking, and I could crash the plane into the side of a building, and I could die without remorse.
Somehow this did not seem like enough.
The flushed toilet made a violent sucking sound. I washed my hands.
The true test would be killing someone who exactly resembled Alison. Not a likely scenario but also decidedly not impossible: I’d already seen her doppelganger in a Parisian bar.
I sipped her champagne and stared at Alison’s eyelids. I had a hard time imagining Alison as a corpse; when I succeeded, envisioning her skeletal remains in a gold-buttoned blazer, I had a harder time reining in my heart rate.
The cabin lights dimmed.
The stewardess brought one more plastic flute of champagne.
I watched Alison breathe. Her left index finger began to twitch, and I placed my palm on her knuckles. Then I picked up the pen with which I’d been doodling—mostly images of wine bottles and rudimentary birds—and gently pressed the nib to her neck, right beneath a thick artery, until a blue spot appeared. I pressed harder, a little harder yet.
I withdrew as she began to stir.
“Why are you smiling like that?” she asked, blinking and then pawing at her neck.
I kissed the crease that a headrest pillow had imprinted on her left cheek. “I’ve made a decision,” I said.
“Quit smiling like that,” she mumbled.
“I feel light. Like a bubble in a glass of champagne. Like The Thinker when he finally stretches his legs. The Mona Lisa when she blinks. Like—”
“Darling,” she said, “go to sleep.”
And then, finally, I did.