The Impossible Event By Michael Washburn

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We fought our way through the crowds in the heat. In the hazy yellow-brown streets around the famous museum, guys sold Cokes from trunks full of ice, but you had to wait so long under the leering, spiteful sun, feeling the push and pull of sweaty bodies on all sides, that a Coke seemed a paltry reward. Matt, Piper, and I had given up trying to break through the crowds blocking the Rue de Rivoli, and had ended up trapped and miserable on streets where merchants were trying to fleece tourists. The day before, we’d gone right from the airport to our hotel and thence to the Eiffel Tower, where they’d lasted twelve minutes before losing interest. While standing on line, they’d gotten into a spat with a British woman who said she and her family were visiting the monument for the first time since 1979 and could we please show a bit of respect. What a wonderful time everyone was having in this magical place.

We fought onward through the crowds and heat. I promised my friends that matters would improve when we hooked up with a former roommate of mine and the two backpackers who were hanging with him. But honestly, that prospect didn’t interest me nearly as much as looking up the address and phone number of a writer I’d had genial conversations with, two summers before, when I was an intern at a publishing house preparing to release a translation of one of the writer’s novels. In the meantime, I had to keep my two friends from getting too bored. There was no way I could afford this trip without dividing the costs.

“So, where are they?” Piper said.

“Where are who?”

“You know who. The celebrities and the cultural figures you said would be all around. Show me.”

“Yeah, where are Charles de Gaulle and Jeanne d’Arc and Brigitte Bardot and Jean-Louis Trintignant? Point ’em out so I can go shake their hand,” Matt joined in.

“Would you both shut up!”

Piper’s rising anger was evident as he pushed and shoved and slid and twisted through the bodies in our way. Normally I didn’t mind his company at all. He was never dull. Finding his first name, Daniel, far too prosaic, he went by his surname. He was a writer himself, or at least he told people he was, and to him, having tales to tell was the end that justified all of life’s frantic activity. Matt was a big, shambling guy with a mop of curly coal-black hair who liked to sit in cafés downing pints and watching women pass on the street. There hadn’t been too many opportunities, but we were slowly making our way to another arrondissement.

“Hell of a bright idea, coming here at one in the afternoon,” Piper said.

“Indeed,” Matt said.

“Let’s just get the fuck out of here and find someplace to chill and the first round will be on me, okay?”

I’d made a pretty terrible mistake, admittedly. I had thought that besides the wonders of the museum, which we’d been unable to get to, it would be kind of interesting to grow so immersed in the babble on the streets coming from the convergence of so many Britons, Italians, Poles, Swedes, Danes, Gypsies, aunts from Sioux Falls, beefy blond dads from Brisbane, descendants of contestants in Romanov drinking contests, scions of the Indian technocratic class that had long since moved on from working in Glasgow’s corner groceries.

I had not expected the baseball caps. I’d underestimated the monotony with which you have to keep seeing the same kitsch, Fodor’s guide books, pins showing the tricolor flag or the Arc de Triomphe or Joan of Arc or De Gaulle or somebody, and a look of dumb, gaping unknowing—I won’t dignify it as curiosity—spread over face after face after face. The crushing, terrifying proximity of all these bodies moving or failing to move through ancient grids of stone and mortar. The babble, the heat, the stench.

Soon we’d head back to the airport, where we’d crash on the floor like bums and lie around, miserable, eating candy bars, hoping last-minute cancellations on transatlantic flights would allow us to make use of the cheap vouchers we’d bought back home. Each second had to count, now.

“So where are they, man?” Piper repeated.

“Will you shut up!”

At last we made it out of the area around the museum and into less congested streets further north, a few blocks east of the Jardin des Tuileries. We found a café on a fairly quiet street, with a couple of tables out on the sidewalk, right between a clothing store and a music school. Soon we were talking pretty excitedly about the parts of the city we had yet to explore. Every few minutes, the passage of a young woman into or out of the café made Matt look up with interest. I was starting to have fun, sitting there in the breeze drinking a pale, frothy Bière de Garde, exchanging crude jokes. Then of course Matt’s inner dickhead had to speak up and he began asking again why I hadn’t had better sense than to bring our little party to the area around the Louvre.

“Was it because it’s, like, just one of those things you’re supposed to do when in Paris? If you try to take us anywhere near the Eiffel Tower again, I’m gonna fucking rip you apart.”

“You guys. You know you couldn’t have handled any of the logistics of this trip on your own. You’d lose your vouchers and your luggage and you’d ask the cabbie at the airport to take you to Sevastopol. You’re like two kids,” I said.

“I only lost one of my vouchers, once, and it wasn’t my fault,” Matt replied.

“I’ve never lost anything. Don’t project Matt onto me,” Piper put in.

“Never mind. Let’s think about tonight. A lot of the clubs around here are owned by U.S. chains. You guys want to hang out in an authentic Parisian café?”

During the cab ride to the hotel, I’d spotted a place that piqued my curiosity. They’d never have found it on their own, but it was a place I thought we could all appreciate and it was within walking distance of the hotel.

“Are we gonna connect with Andy later?” Piper wanted to know as a girl with long golden hair, in a black chemise and a scarlet dress that stopped just above her knees, brought drinks to our table.

“He’s hanging with those two kids from South Africa and probably getting some action right now,” Matt said.

I made a point of getting our check before we could really get ripped, lest the remaining two-thirds of the day should turn into a streaming surreal misadventure. We took a cab to the hotel, a plain two-story building three blocks north of the Champs-Élysées, where we showered and put on fresh clothes and downed mouthwash. Matt didn’t look quite so off-putting when he pushed his coils of dark hair back behind his ears and got them to stay put. As for Piper, he had a crew cut and a physique women often noticed. His t-shirt, which he’d slid down behind his gleaming square belt buckle, stressed that figure nicely. He made me think of a Marine with a tender side.

We filed out of the hotel into the warm evening, and my friends followed me the three and a half blocks to the café. It was a bit like the place we’d been earlier, but longer and wider, and with framed photos of Sartre, Genet, Cocteau, Simenon, and writers I have to admit I didn’t recognize, lounging in cafés and scribbling away or just looking pensive. Also, the bar was an island protruding from the back of the place with chairs on three sides. Though this place had the capacity to serve thirty to forty, I guessed that as the night wore on they’d move the tables and chairs from the front area to make room for dancing. There were beautiful women at the bar and a few of the tables.

We got ourselves a table and began drinking aggressively. I was wondering how to tell them that I knew a writer here in the city and they were welcome to come with me to his flat and they might actually enjoy it. If they were looking for an antidote, an opposing experience to the pre-packaged tourist crap, this could be their ticket. So what if they’d told me in the past that literature, and my beloved Dostoyevsky, were irrelevant to the present age. That the writer I knew, Gérard Drumont, might be too busy to entertain us didn’t enter my mind at all.

Pretty soon, we’d gotten a nice buzz and I was entertaining my friends with an account of a Lovecraft tale, “The Music of Erich Zann,” which is about a man who’s been trying in vain to track down the Rue D’Auseil. The protagonist has been on this street himself and has witnessed amazing events there, but the street is not on any map of the city and he looks for it in vain.

“Oh man, I can’t wait to hit the streets tomorrow. Check out neighborhoods and streets that people who’ve lived here their whole lives don’t know jack about,” Piper said.

“Yeah, don’t let me drink too much, ’cause I don’t want to be bedridden all day. I want to get out there and explore and get lots of pictures to take back. And I’ll show ’em to people and they won’t be able to guess where I was,” Matt said.

Matt got us a fresh round. We drank and laughed and talked over a couple of hours, until I happened to notice someone get up from one of the stools at the bar at walk toward the exit. This left a vacancy right beside an exceptionally attractive woman with straight dark hair and smooth pale skin. I had the oddest feeling. It was like I’d seen her years before, on a nude beach or someplace where it was legal to be naked. But where could that have been? The sense that I wouldn’t have blanked on her identity if I hadn’t gotten so wasted already made my frustration acute.

The woman didn’t seem to mind when I slid onto the stool next to hers. I ordered another drink, fidgeted, stared at my hands, expecting the man who’d been sitting here before to come back. Then I made the leap.

“Excusez-moi madame, mais je crois que tu ressembles à une actrice que je connais très bien.”

She turned to me, with a playful indulgent look, and then she passed judgment on my spoken French by responding in English.

“Don’t tell me I remind you of Sharon Stone,” she said.

That would have been provocative indeed. The version of Basic Instinct that showed at Cannes and in European theaters offered an even more explicit look at Sharon Stone than what American audiences got to see. Already this stranger had anticipated a good many things about me and our exchange was off to an awkward start.

“Ah, no. And please forgive my accent. I was actually thinking of a French actress, Élodie Bouchez. An exquisitely lovely woman.”

This brought a smile to the stranger’s face, but there was something guarded in her look, making me think maybe I’d dropped the effort to talk in French so abruptly that I came across as a dirtbag who’ll try anything once. And this lady’s hair wasn’t even the same color as Sharon Stone’s. Did we Americans all have Sharon Stone on the brain?     “Well I’m not really very familiar with Élodie Bouchez and as far as I know, she’s known mainly for her TV roles,” the woman said.

I could have crawled back to my friends’ table and hidden underneath it in humiliation, but for the smile that spread now over this stranger’s smooth features.

“She’s in films too and I think some of them are quite good.”

“Oh, so your judgment is so much superior to mine, then.”

“No, I didn’t say—”

“Perhaps you should express yourself in French, little boy. You’re quite eloquent.”

I let this facetious quip pass.

“All of this was just a roundabout way of saying I think you’re extremely beautiful. If I’ve made the wrong impression and I’ve offended you, then let me pay for your drink and leave you alone.”

Up to this point, her smiles had not revealed any teeth, but now her lips parted to reveal two exquisite unstained rows. Acutely conscious of every little thing I did, I gaped like an idiot at her beauty.

“It’s getting noisy in here,” she said, before picking herself up and gliding toward the street, still clutching her mixed drink. Perhaps I shouldn’t have followed her.

As I passed by the table where I’d left Matt and Piper, I took in their backs as they stood talking to a trio of young women from one of the nearby tables. When the woman and I stepped outside, a bracingly cool wind swept over us. Still with our drinks in hand, we crossed the street and stood on the modest hill at a fence with a wide flat rail, looking down toward the Champs-Élysées and the river. I’d barely set my drink down on the rail when a man moving up the street behind us asked me in a gauche, West Coast surfer dude voice for a light. When I shook my head, he muttered something under his breath and proceeded up the street.

Only now did it occur to me to ask this young woman her name.

“Mathilda May.”

Mathilda May. Here was none other than a woman I’d watched on a screen ten years before, in the summer of 1985, in Tobe Hooper’s space opera Lifeforce. During most of her screen time, she parades around completely nude. That experience left me stunned and I did what boys that age do. More recently, during my visit to the Vendée in the summer of 1992, I’d entered a little shop in the square of an ancient village and her smooth, voluptuous features made an irrepressible appeal to my mind and soul from the cover of a film and television magazine. I bought the magazine, carried it around in my pack, and took it out at odd moments, feeling on some level that to see those deep brown eyes, that knowing smile, threw up a bulwark in my mind against any suggestion that I wasn’t using my time in France well. Now, to my stupefaction, an absolutely impossible event was unfolding.

“Mathilda, the first thing I want to say is—”

“You’re my number one fan?”

“God, no. I wish you wouldn’t judge all of us by what a few people do, it’s exactly the kind of logic we’re never supposed to use—I’m sorry, I don’t know how I got started on this. Does everyone in your family have eyes like yours? You’re beautiful. Exquisite.”

“Why would you express yourself this way to someone you just met?”

“I can’t help it,” I gushed, thinking she’d like this answer.

“Or maybe you think this is what you’re expected to say. A real panty-dropper, is that what you say back home?” she asked, in a voice so neutral she could have been an automaton.

“Oh, no. I’m saying this because it’s my honest reaction, is that so”—I almost said fucking but my tongue leap-frogged the word just in time—“hard to believe?”

“No, I suppose not. And you’re not nearly as drunk as some of the men who’ve approached me this summer.”

“Well, look. A lot of men do summon to mind a phrase of Duchamp’s, or an equivalent of it, in the presence of a Frenchwoman. Elle a chaud au cul.  I’m not hiding from the truth. But then there are people who are genuinely interested in culture. And I daresay the Louvre gets more customers on an average day than your sex emporia.”

I didn’t want to be talking about polarizing stuff right now, but I thought I’d just be insulting her while proving her point if I dodged the topic.

“I know, I know, they go to see the Mona Lisa. This ‘culture’ that they’re after isn’t always even French. It’s here and it’s come to define us but it’s not something we made. It’s all just part of the tourist apparatus,” she said.

“I know, I know. At least I’m not lying to you, Mathilda. And some Americans do like the fact that Europeans have a more relaxed attitude about sexuality. Like people in Quebec. I’m sure you know what they call Montreal. The Paris of North America.”

I was flailing now and it was pathetic. But I hoped that having addressed her concerns, I could seize a chance to steer the conversation another way and ask about her parents, her siblings, her loves, how she took her coffee in the morning, anything

She laughed. It was about as expected as a sniper’s bullet.

“This is what so many of you think. Come to Paris where we know about living and we are so refreshingly without a Puritan attitude about sensuality. ‘Take a Walk on the Wild Side,’ right? Enjoy all the deviant pursuits. And that’s France. I take it you’ve never read François Mauriac?”

“Not recently,” I fumbled. My preferred answer when I didn’t wish to lie or add to my humiliation.

“Are your parents in church every Sunday, like my parents?”

“Well, they haven’t been quite so good about it lately. I’m curious about your parents. And I’m not just saying that to ‘build a rapport’ with you—”

“You’re really not just trying to get into my pants? Really?”

“Please, Mathilda. Please. ‘Talk a Walk on the Wild Side’—let me tell you how much I hate Lou Reed. Let me tell you what I’m really into.”

“Look, I really think you’re trying to impress upon me, without stating it in so many words, that you’re not like a lot of Americans who’d come on to me in these circumstances. You’re smarter and more cultured and you’re here in Paris for a reason. Is that about right?”

Her words sounded cruel but her look wasn’t without mirth.

“Well, you know, I did recognize a few of the writers on the walls in the café back there. Not all of them, of course.”

“Did you recognize Pierre Louÿs?”

“No.”

“Have you read La Femme et le Pantin?”

“No. I could’ve lied and said I read it years ago and forgot about it.”

“More false modesty. Do you know what the title means?”

“Of course. The woman and the puppet.”

“How can I describe this novel to you? It’s about a woman who turns out to be exactly what she appeared to everyone except the narrator. I suppose you’d call it a ‘quintessentially French’ novel for its whimsical and bittersweet romance.”

“So what happens?”

“I don’t want to ruin it. What can I compare it to? Have you read John Le Carré?”

“Sure. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.”

“That’s exactly the book I was thinking of. At the start, some of the characters observe a terrible phenomenon from a distance. Then at the end, they’re internal participants in the same kind of thing they witnessed from afar.”

“That’s terribly abstract. I don’t follow.”

“I couldn’t tell you more without spoiling it. Just understand, you couldn’t find two novels more different in style and tone and sensibility, but they have this narrative twist in common.”

“Tell me the end. I don’t mind.”

A flutter of motion several dozens yards off in the night caught the star’s attention. A man with thick dark hair in a leather jacket and faded jeans approached. Obviously they knew each other well and he was glad to see her, but not so thrilled at my presence. He struck me as a drug-dealing lowlife. She couldn’t possibly want him to be her man.

“If it’s any consolation, don’t think that I’m awfully impressed with most of the French men I meet,” she said.

I quickly reached into my handbag, took out a paperback copy of Camus, tore out one of the nearly blank back pages, scribbled my name and the name and phone number of the hotel on it, and handed it to her. With a deft movement she thrust the paper into a pocket without looking at it and walked off. If I’d called out, I would have interrupted the conversation already underway with the man in the black jacket.

But nothing could blunt the sense of having caught this amazing woman at a transitional time in her extraordinary life, a moment of sublime openness. This gave me a bracing feeling that evoked my sense of awe on seeing that pale face peering out from the magazine cover years before, but the thrill was fiercer than anything I’d felt before. That guy in the leather jacket was nothing and nobody. Mathilda May was going to call me.

Piper appeared beside me, clutching a half-full glass of merlot.

“Matt’s got so much to talk about with people,” he said.

“Is Matt getting it on with those girls?”

“They got kind of annoyed at us. They said they’re so fucking sick of American tourists.”

I didn’t care. I’d met Mathilda May, at what I took to be a transitional time in her personal life, and my own life would never be remotely the same.

We went back inside. It turned out the two girls Matt and Piper had been talking to were both British and they wanted to go clubbing. So we did. I got really drunk and danced awkwardly and threw up a couple of times in a stall of the club where we spent most of the night, a place with music (early ’80s pop) you could have listened to anywhere on the planet. I think Matt was the only one who had a good time, thanks to Sharon Stone-esque grinding performed against him on the dance floor.

The next morning, after we’d downed gallons of water in our hotel room, I persuaded my friends to come with me to visit Drumont. The writer lived on a residential, pleasantly shady street in the 18th arrondissement, at a nice remove from the crowds. When I rang the buzzer outside, an elderly female voice ushered our little party inside. The sharp odors of newly waxed floors greeted us as we climbed two flights amid noises from military shows beloved of patriotic octogenarians.

When the pale green door on the third floor parted from its frame, the face that greeted us beneath fluffs of white hair looked every bit that of a retired professor, with lines from having pored and brooded over millions of pages. The man seemed startled that I’d brought two friends. But he let us into the airy space where the beige paper covers of hundreds of Gallimard editions stood jammed together on shelves. The white of Folio editions and the multicolored friezes of dozens of Livres de Poche checkered the monotony of the more respected imprint. Here on these shelves were dozens of authors I admired and many more whose names didn’t ring a bell. Manuscripts bound with clips or rubber bands also took up room here.

Once we were inside, he was as polite and mild-mannered as I remembered him being on the phone. For the benefit of my friends, Drumont kindly switched over to his halting English. He didn’t introduce us to his wife, but invited us to sit down on a couch across from the desk where he wrote. Gazing at us across the desk, Drumont asked a number of questions of me, mostly about my tastes in literature and music. Then he asked which of his works we liked the best, studying our faces with interest. I named one of his early novels, Le Corbeau, along with his most recent, Les Collines Rouges, newly released stateside in translation.

My friends badly wanted him to elaborate on his work, but clearly to Drumont that was impossible without their having at least read this or that. To Drumont, it was sad. Here were children of men and women who’d nurtured hopes for them and spent vast amounts of money for them to pass through educational structures developed over millennia.

Yet Drumont was indulgent. He was more than happy to turn the floor over to my friends and allow them to talk about their studies. He seemed mildly taken aback at their delay in responding. Then Matt blurted that pop music was “growing up” faster than most people realized. Just look at bands like R.E.M., The Smashing Pumpkins, The Cure.

Drumont looked at me searchingly. Now Matt spoke up, saying that Drumont’s importance was something surely anyone could recognize and it was magnificent, it was awesome, that people gave Drumont credit where it was due. Now the author stopped fiddling with the pen on his desk and sat there staring at my friend, as if he couldn’t engage with Matt’s words enough even to feel puzzlement. I know I should have seized control but I was briefly so transfixed with Drumont’s look that I couldn’t speak.

Piper asked the host whether this was not, in fact, one of the few cities where people became so immersed in what they read that they allowed a writer to become a forceful, immediate physical presence, where the public appreciated literature’s ability to capture extremes of brutality, as Hemingway had done in his depictions of bullfighting, mud, gore, and death. It was clear from Piper’s look that he thought his equation of the writer’s role with slam-dancing was the cleverest thing anyone had ever come up with, but above all its value was that Drumont must instantly relate to it. At this point, Drumont grew visibly bewildered, lowering his face toward the pen clutched in his wizened fingers and reverting to French. We barely heard anything he was murmuring as he sat there with a pained look.

Drumont rubbed his tired eyes, made a V with his hands, and sat there propping up his ancient head on the desk. His wife came bustling out of one of the smaller rooms at the back, took his wizened left forearm in her hands, and seemed to be feeling his pulse for a moment. She whispered in his ear, then gave us a look suggesting we didn’t want to know what she was thinking.

In my mediocre French, I told Drumont that my friends hadn’t meant to be rude or to project a certain defiance with regard to their cultural tastes. They were just trying to make conversation in the ways they know how. I told him I could be a pupil, a mentee, a disciple. Perhaps he could share his insights into one of the authors whose work graced his shelves. Lots of Americans have heard of Camus and Sartre and Saint-Exupéry, and some of them have even read those guys, but I was particularly curious about Pierre Louÿs, I told him.

With another sigh, Drumont gazed in resignation across the desk. La Femme et le Pantin is a novel with contemporary resonance, he explained. Perhaps we had heard the saying that a man chases a woman until she catches him. It is as true as ever. The woman of the novel’s title, Concita Pérez, lures strange men into a scheme to keep the guy she’s actually interested in, André Stévenol, after her. She talks and flirts and even seduces men in the presence of that one genuine love interest, so as to keep his passions high and act as a catalyst to a cycle of perpetual pursuit. If Concita Pérez should happen to talk to you, poor stupid American, the worst mistake you can make is to think she might actually like you. It’s all a ruse. Just possibly, I’d run into a woman like her, Drumont said. Perhaps I already had. It might even be a woman with a super-rich paramour who puts on airs, tries to look bohemian, in his efforts to keep her interest.

Drumont’s look grew indulgent, even a bit whimsical, as he finished this account, but it was clear his wife wanted us to leave now.

When we hit the quiet street once again, humiliation worked on our faces almost like sulfuric acid. I thought our cheeks and eyes would dribble away and run into the gutter, or they might dash my brains out against the white stone of the buildings we ambled past. I felt so small and humble, so pitiful, as we made our way through the bright hot streets back toward the crowds.

###

glasses

Michael Washburn

Le Studio NYC

After studying literature and history at Grinnell College and the University of Wisconsin, Michael Washburn moved back to the East Coast to work in publishing and journalism. His fiction has appeared in many journals and magazines, including Rosebud, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Concho River Review, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Stand, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Weirdbook, Hellfire Crossroads, and Weird Fiction Review. Michael’s story “Confessions of a Spook” won Causeway Lit’s 2018 fiction prize.

Michael’s books include The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We’re Grownups (2019) and Stranger, Stranger (2020).

Image by Frank Meitzke from Pixabay

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Unlike many other Arts & Entertainment Magazines, STORGY is not Arts Council funded or subsidised by external grants or contributions. The content we provide takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce, and relies on the talented authors we publish and the dedication of a devoted team of staff writers. If you enjoy reading our Magazine, help to secure our future and enable us to continue publishing the words of our writers. Please make a donation or subscribe to STORGY Magazine with a monthly fee of your choice. Your support, as always, continues to inspire.

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Unlike many other Arts & Entertainment Magazines, STORGY is not Arts Council funded or subsidised by external grants or contributions. The content we provide takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce, and relies on the talented authors we publish and the dedication of a devoted team of staff writers. If you enjoy reading our Magazine, help to secure our future and enable us to continue publishing the words of our writers. Please make a donation or subscribe to STORGY Magazine with a monthly fee of your choice. Your support, as always, continues to inspire.

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Sign up to our mailing list and never miss a new short story.

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Unlike many other Arts & Entertainment Magazines, STORGY is not Arts Council funded or subsidised by external grants or contributions. The content we provide takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce, and relies on the talented authors we publish and the dedication of a devoted team of staff writers. If you enjoy reading our Magazine, help to secure our future and enable us to continue publishing the words of our writers. Please make a donation or subscribe to STORGY Magazine with a monthly fee of your choice. Your support, as always, continues to inspire.

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Sign up to our mailing list and never miss a new short story.

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