A Lot of Carrefours
Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition: 2021 First-Place Winner: Nick Henke for his story: “A Lot of Carrefours”
A Lot of Carrefours
The thought that Maurice might know Pierre had crossed my mind before my fears were confirmed. It seemed likely that they might run in the same circles: both secondary school theater teachers in their early forties living in the same corner of the 11th arrondissement. Both gay, both with live-in boyfriends in tow who they always said they were about to marry but never did. Both of whom took a quick liking to me.
It was this sort of perverse fantasy I liked to weigh: imagining that Maurice, by simply uttering Pierre’s name, would bring him back into the flesh-and-blood world, taking away the little shred of safety I felt in the distance his place in memory provided. Part of me sensed that the fact of Maurice knowing Pierre was coming. Or at least felt it was conceivable, I guess, in the same way that you could imagine the dramatically worst thing that could happen when you get coffee with an ex six months after a blowout breakup. Veneer of politeness shattering. Screaming. Tables flipped. That sort of thing.
I had just finished what felt like a pathologically-meaningless bachelors in Gender Studies in Boston, and convinced myself that going back to Paris was an innocent desire. Though the image of myself as an educator provoked visions of hanging from a rope in a university bathroom stall at 37, I jumped at the teaching fellowship. I remember hitting send on my application, pausing, and breathing. I opened Pierre’s Facebook page and looked through his pictures. I closed it, and clicked around my desktop until I found a picture I had taken of him on the beach the weekend he brought me to his family’s vacation house in Nice. Then I tried search keywords on the internet for a porn clip of two teenage Czech boys giving each other head in a public restroom that Pierre once showed me. I couldn’t find it, powered my laptop off, put it in the back of the closet, and put my head in my hands. I tried to see how little I could breathe until I got tired enough to lie down.
I was told in June I got the teaching position, went to New York in July to apply for my visa, and in September, I returned to France. I decided, finally, not to tell Pierre I was back. We wouldn’t run into one another. I imagined what I would do if we did. Whether I would pretend not to see him. Or bolt away, even. It wasn’t out of the question.
Maurice and I met as colleagues, both teaching in the western suburbs of Paris at the kind of lycée where students received thousand euro Montblanc fountain pens for their twelfth birthdays and apartments by the Sorbonne for their eighteenth. I saw him for the first time out in front of the main building smoking a Camel. He was a bit round, but tall—nearly taller than me—and carried his weight with a kind of pleasure, gloriously not in his twenties. His body seemed delighted with its own corpulence.
“Ah. The new American teacher in the English department.”
“What do you want with Paris?” he asked blandly, puffing.
“Oh, you know,” I sighed, and looked away. “Trying to resolve my all my…? Freudian complexes. I guess.”
He straightened up and looked at me a little too steadily. “How old are you, nineteen?”
“Yeah, more or less. I’m twenty-two.”
“So a little more.”
I tried not to smile. “That’s mean. I liked being nineteen.”
“You know the oldest students here are only four years younger than you. There’s a high possibility of some very insistent flirtation from the girls. Or the boys. Perhaps you’ll get a love letter.”
“If I do, I’ll make you a copy and get it framed.” I almost didn’t notice him look at me as I walked past and into the building.
A distant family friend had a room in the 7th that I was living in, on the Rue de Grenelle, a few blocks away from the Champs de Mars. In all, it was about twice the size of the twin bed, but it was free: the friend was planning on rehabbing it the following summer, and told me I was welcome to stay until then.
There was no heat, and the water from the tiny spout euphemistically called an “Italian shower” in apartment listings came out cold. I bought a rice cooker and ate lentils and vegetables cooked in the steam tray. There was no refrigerator, so I couldn’t buy food other than what would keep in the medicine cabinet. My razor next to the antidepressants next to the olive oil. The bathroom on the floor was broken, so I peed in the shower or walked down to the Eiffel Tower and waited in the line with drunk German tourists at 10pm to use the toilet before I went to sleep. Then I would lay on my bed and think about who I was going to spend the year with.
I suppose I had an unspoken agreement with myself that when I came back to Paris I would have a different object of desire. I imagined that I would meet a French girl more capable and well-adjusted than me from somewhere like Nantes or Lyon, and that we would have a healthy relationship with robust pastimes. We wouldn’t drink with abandon, and we wouldn’t do drugs you needed needles or your nose for, and there wouldn’t be a voice in the back of my head wondering if I was facilitating something.
In theory, Maurice did not pose a threat. There was a safe platonic distance. I was too young for him, and he was about to marry his partner, and I had intentionally dropped enough references to girlfriends that he knew my sexual party line. Theory is tremendously comforting.
During the Toussaint Vacation in November, Maurice invited me one afternoon to the new exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. It must have only been the third or fourth time we had seen each other outside of the high school. He had insisted that I chaperone outings to the theater with him, and so I had gone with our Versailles high schoolers to a surprisingly moving play about anonymity in the digital age at the Vieux Colombier, then a soulless Norwegian drama at the Odéon, and finally a new production of Angels in America at the Comédie française. Maurice had been right: I was much closer in age to the students, and when we walked back to the Métro after the curtain, I would inevitably find myself fading into the adolescent crowd. Maybe I wanted to. I hardly played an actual role as a chaperone; I met them at the theater, where Maurice handed me my ticket and we took whatever seats the students hadn’t filled. At the third production, I found myself next to Laure, an 18-year-old in Maurice’s Acting and Movement class. She watched the play with a program balanced on her lap, inched her foot closer to mine as I moved mine away, and joined the others after the curtain.
The exhibit Maurice proposed was a Francis Bacon retrospective that was getting a lot of hype, the kind of thing that people at apéros insisted you must go to. There were six or seven rooms, all painted different shades of pale plum, which added significantly to the whole affair’s ghoulish effect. Halved and quartered bodies best described as flesh objects leered at us from the monumental canvases. Straight edge windowpanes melted into filmy, wet shadows over warped dimensions.
As much as I hated to do it, I spent most of the exhibit culturally signaling: who and what x reminded me of, which artistic movement y evoked. It was my worst habit: I knew better, but still felt a reflexive, nervous urge to convince Maurice that I was well-read, well-traveled, well worth his time. We named dropped back and forth while I wondered if this made him feel as miserable as it did me.
We would separate and look at different works in the gallery, then come back together, arriving in front of the same paintings. Maurice would make drippingly cerebral comments about composition or form or figural displacement that made me wonder if he (or anyone) had ever had an actual human feeling. Was the best option this sort of intellectually-forced titillating sensation, like unenthusiastically choosing to marry someone for their “good qualities?”
By the end, he had worked through the usual suspects in terms of compliments Europeans can give Americans—“you aren’t like the others,” “you have a surprising amount of culture, considering,” “and you aren’t even from New York!”—and he had begun to be ever-so- innocently more tactile. Our coats curiously brushed against one another, and at one moment, when I tried to say something cute about a video of Francis Bacon at work in the studio, he laughed and put his head on my shoulder. I reflexively pulled away, and in the second I met his gaze his face had already managed to move from shock to annoyance.
I have since wondered whether Maurice would have said anything if I had warmed up to him a little bit more in that moment. But I didn’t, and he did. As we left the last room of the exhibit and entered the gift shop, he paused to look at a book, blocking my path. He picked up the paperback, gazed over the spine in my direction, and in an innocent voice, popped the question.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you: Do you know Pierre Boudreault?”
We sat across from the museum at a cafe-tabac that looked out over the Fontaine Stravinsky, by the movie theater where Pierre and I had once seen a documentary about male prostitution in Bulgaria.
A waiter brought Maurice’s coffee and my beer and left the receipt under the ashtray.
“So how did you and Pierre—“
“How did we make the connection?” he finished.
“Well, I started talking about this young foreigner I was working with, and eventually, your name…”
“Ok.” We sat in silence for a moment and watched two pigeons fighting over a piece of pizza. “What, well…”
“What?” He was pleased with himself. His eyes were getting piggish.
“What did he say?” I asked pitifully.
“That you knew each other.”
“That it’s been a while,” he added with a flutter of his eyes. I looked away. “So…how did you know each other?
“We were friends.”
“Very close, I hear.”
“We saw a lot of each other for a while.”
“And you got along with his boyfriend—what’s his name? The dour-looking one?”
“Enzo. Yeah. We were on good terms.” He looked at me. “No, I mean, we were friends,” I lied. “Just never that close.”
“Never as close as you and Pierre.”
I swallowed over what must have been the beginning of a tumor in my throat. “Right.”
Maurice looked away from me with a pretentious, meaningful air. “I heard about you a few years ago.” When I didn’t say anything, he continued. “Just that Pierre was running around with this young boy, that they just couldn’t leave each other alone. So, you were the boy.”
“I wasn’t that young.”
Maurice was really laughing now. “You’re still that young. Obscenely young. Perversely.” He gave me a look that tried to be coquettish but was too excited to pull it off. “And that magazine you two made together? With the photos of you? Unforgettable.”
Then there was that other strange coincidence. After I left Maurice at the cafe, it occurred to me that the first time I went out anywhere with Pierre it had been there, at the Pompidou. That he had invited me to this big exhibition on the Beat Generation in the same museum, in the same gallery space, even. That it was only after the expo, at a similar nearby bar, after the first Marlborough and into the first pint of Kronenbourg when he started smiling a little too insistently into my eyes that it occurred to me what we were doing there.
Nothing happened that evening when Pierre and I first met, but I came back already feeling him sticking to me. I’ve thought about that moment often since, about that animal fear that came with the first time in what would be a long series of moments involving Pierre giving me that look.
Maurice and I didn’t get together again after that day, and I’m sure there were a million different pretexts for this of which I can still convince myself. Our schedules didn’t really align since he spent most evenings with his fiancé-boyfriend, an investment banker who worked all of the time. I was spending more and more time holed up in my little room. And so on.
I started using dating apps. I would go out for drinks with girls, and we would usually go to their apartments somewhere in east Paris, inevitably off of the canal or near Nation. Not eating for the day before would give me something to focus on other than why I was there. It felt nice to feel empty and when I was naked it felt nice to feel thin. They would ask what was wrong while we had a last drink, and I would leave before the trains closed. At some point, the scales tipped, and drinking four or five cans of Heineken while watching American television on my laptop at my desk became more compelling. Out of my window, the head of the Eiffel Tower peaked out over the buildings and sparkled on the hour behind my screen.
I took the train out of Paris on Saturdays and got inconsequentially cheaper groceries at Créteil Soleil, the big shopping mall near the Mairie. I bought rice and beans and Nescafe and ham and cheese at Carrefour, and told myself it was all I could afford.
When I first came to Paris my French was bad and I thought Carrefour was a proper name for the supermarket. It must have been in the beginning of that second year that I discovered it meant crossroads, intersection. The kind where you meet the devil and the kind where you get in a traffic jam on the bus from Montparnasse to Montmartre. No one knows each other and of course everyone you would ever meet has known one another for years. There’s no world in which they couldn’t. Anyone who thinks Paris is still the butcher and the baker and the Friday morning market is lying to themselves. It’s all just Carrefours.