What a charade, my family. A painted merry-go-round with one tune, made in Germany, made for my mother. Her devotion to home and hearth exacted
a price. If we didn’t perform properly she erupted in cutting criticism. If we betrayed her standards of decency—by complaining to friends about the family, for
example—she fell into a pained silence that could last for days. In my teenage years, the threat of her disappointment taught me that love was an effort and compliance an
Looking back now, how early was I aware that my mother controlled everything, even my father? As a child already? My
father—the discreet royal consort, my sister and I her doll princesses. She was wearing the pants, demanding,
commandeering, while her “better half,” my father, catered to her, indulged her and shut up. I watched his discrete victories,
like calling me Luise, the name he wanted me to have against my mother’s will. He liked to trace his family line back to the
Prussian Queen Luise, a claim my mother resented and refused to believe. But he kept calling me by his pet-name (picked up by
Frantisek and the friends who called me Lou.) I knew it was his secret male privilege to get a part of his daughter away from my
mother, to fantasize having me all to himself.
Masculine, feminine. How arbitrary those points of view were. It was all make-believe, a mere fantasy, shifty
as a mood. In my coming of age I had taken femininity to an edge, pretending, protecting my mother from myself, and then stepped out, leaving my ballet slippers and
everything else behind.
I leapt at the branch of a sycamore bent low over the river bank, letting the rain drops splash over my face and hair. Feminine, not feminine.
The same kind of fantasy declares “Paris is a woman,” makes me the lover and her the beloved. Paris, a woman in perpetual
performance, brilliant, showing me—as she did everyone—exactly what I longed to see. Like Claude, The Treacherous, in her uncanny ability to guess my desires. But
there were other similarities, too. Like a curtain coming down between acts, Paris could make you a stranger, an outcast, from
one moment to another, with a shift of mood or weather, you never knew what. An indifference shutting you out cold while
everything exciting was still there at arm’s length, if only you could grasp it.
Claude had disappeared from view. It wasn’t the first time we had been cooling our affair. No explanation. No warning. How
many weeks? Five, six? We had never gone longer than a fortnight. What was she waiting for?
A Bateau Mouche was chugging up the Seine toward the Pont des Arts, ferrying along the warm-wet glow of a private party,
now disappearing under the bridge on its way upstream to the Quai des Grands Augustins, Quai des OrfĂšvres, melting into the haze.
I flipped the butt of my cigarette into the river and continued along the quay toward Notre Dame. Passion was a roller-coaster,
you just had to hang in there.
I was whistling Ferrando and Dorabella’s love duet when someone whistled back at me like a mocking bird. It was a good
-looking guy sitting on a bench with provocatively spread legs, presenting his packet. I grinned at him.
“Hey,” he said, “in the mood for a tĂȘte Ă tĂȘte?” Of course he didn’t say tĂȘte Ă tĂȘte, he said an obscenity that sounded just like
“Perhaps, if you were Mozart.”
I said it in my normal woman’s voice. At night, with my long legs and the long stride I have adopted, I am rarely taken for a woman.
The world of the night is an unfair world. Men are everywhere on the go, hanging out around the pissoirs and
bushes, on the benches in squares and along the quays, ready for some adventure. How many women are just as awake at this moment, barely past midnight, and in the mood for a
little excitement—if only there was something out there catering to them. But what? Little tea huts around the Tuileries with a sofa and a candle? A
row of tents along the banks of the Seine, adorned with colored flags to signal sexual preferences?
A clicking-rolling sound approached from below the Pont des Arts. Out of the shadows a narrow figure rushed up with rowing
movements – a girl on roller skates, sporting a phosphor-yellow cocks-comb. She stopped sharp in front of me and stared at me with smeared mascara eyes.
“Got a cigarette?” she said with a brazen voice.
“Sure do.” I pulled my cigarette case from my leather jacket. I
usually prepare a few “active” cigarettes for a theater night in order to avoid having to roll them at intermission. The young
woman blinked when I opened the case and held it out to her. She suspiciously peered at my face, the silver case, my hands – then she got it.
“Can I have two?” she said with eager, childlike trust.
“Go ahead.” When she had fished out two of the last four cleanly rolled cigarettes from the case I asked, ”Anything else you
“Got fire myself,” she grinned. With a brief military salute at her
cocks-comb she added, “Have a good day, pal,” and rolled off clicking along the cobblestones. A moment later someone
whistled. A young guy with a similar hair-do rolled out of the shadows and followed her. I heard them laughing as if they had just cracked a big joke.
I was strangely touched by her salute. What had she seen in me that would link us as “pals”? She had no idea that I’d been a
rookie like her once, pretending to be invincible when I strolled through the city by day and by night, convinced that Paris belonged to me.
At first I, too, had a companion. Blue was a musician from Guadeloupe
who lived in a collective with friends of mine. He used to play a mournful saxophone in the metro and at night, on a fresh high, set out to wander.
I accompanied him and listened to his stories from the Caribbean Islands. Childhood stories about his grandmother who took him with her to the graveyards to talk with the
dead. He told me he understood the cooing of the pigeons on the roofs.
I told him about Gertrude Stein’s pigeons on the grass alas, and he
assured me Gertrude was a great Shaman who understood them, too. He kept a privileged dialogue with God. When I smoked some dope and read a few pages of Castaneda I had no trouble
keeping up with him. I’d been smitten with Paris even before I got there; I couldn’t wait to make it mine. Without a second
thought I slipped into the nomadic life style of Blue. I cut my hair and adopted his garbs – Jeans with a short Jeans jacket, T
-Shirt, tennis shoes. He sometimes introduced me to friends and clochards, and from the moment one of them took me for a guy
he used my father’s pet name, presenting us as “Brothers Lou and Blue.” We got a kick out of it.
The last traces of youthful fat disappeared from my face. It happened that the women at the bakeries and cheese shops in
my quartier greeted me, “Bonjour, Monsieur.” I was twenty-eight when I became invisible to the ordinary world of men. No
more cat calls or marriage proposals coming at me. The eager looks up and down my body now came from gay guys in the
metro or in the streets, and I quickly learned to enter the fantasy game their eyes invited. When I exchanged a few words with
them on occasion, I dropped without effort into the deeper voice I used in my conversations with Blue. I kept the tempo of his
walk and the length of his steps long after losing sight of him.
A good year ago, my friends told me that Blue was back in Paris. Some young theater company had engaged him for a play. We
went to see the performance at the Biennale des Jeunes Artistes, a festival for young theater folk, where the play got attention,
and there I met Claude and the rest of her troupe. Shortly after the end of the run Blue disappeared again – I figured he had
taken a boat back to Gouadeloupe. But sometimes during my night wanderings I continued to be “Brother Lou” and felt his
smooth gait next to mine as if he’d been one of Jean Genet’s dark angels, forever chosen to protect me.
If my mother could see me now, I used to think. It was as if the city took me in and peeled my old skins away. Still, there was
always another remnant of the Good Girl to be shed – an obliging smile, a readiness to turn my eyes away. Don’t look! The
classical motto of so-called innocence as soon as there is anything interesting to see. Anything sexual, louche, forbidden.
How is a girl supposed to take her place in the world if she isn’t allowed to see the world? I found out soon enough that a woman
who can’t look also can’t desire. She can only entice in order to be desired. Women’s eyes are passive eyes; they wait for
something to enter them and blow their minds.
I continued walking, feeling the ease of my stride. Had I wanted to, I could have stepped right into the gaze of that stranger in
red and made her look at me, stop her in her tracks and take her by the arm: Let’s get out of here! I was free. My life was anything
I wanted it to be. An adventure. A coup de thĂ©Ăątre. A loge with bordello-red chairs and velvet trimmings.
What if someone started an opera revolution that dedicated the first loge on the right in every opera house to women’s own
purposes? Women are not eager, after all, to slouch on park benches, hang around pissoirs or crouch in the bushes at night,
in the cold. I imagined what it would be like to plunge some more hesitant lovers into the fantastic tumult of the orchestra.
What the battle cries of Wagner’s Valkyries might trigger in some of them…
I was approaching Notre Dame. The cathedral looked like a dramatic stage set gleaming in the haze. A limo stopped at a
night club; I watched a gaggle of girls in sleeveless taffeta dresses peel out and run up to the line of cars that were looking for
parking. They didn’t have the least trouble running and skipping in their flimsy footwear, as if they’d worn stilettos since first grade. They were clacking excitedly
across the wet pavement, sweeping up the taffeta skirts around their legs as they ran.
Cover photo by Catherine Conway Honig