Tuesday, May 15, 2012

 “A mind enclosed in language is in prison.”
—Simone Weil

Paris, When It Sizzles
For Virginie Pirlet Denamur

Lana Cook regarded the heavily embossed, chalk-colored antique faience platter held aloft by her old friend and host, Frida Famosa. Frida’s smallish fingers, each one dramatically bejeweled, gripped it tightly as she lowered it to a table covered in ivory damask linen; another imaginable treasure unearthed at Les Puces. One hardly noticed Frida’s chewed fingernails. Lana kept her own nicotine and paint-stained hands out of sight and fiddled the crochet lace edging of the tablecloth.
Frida’s perfume, a palliative honeysuckle, mingled the sweet fragrance of milky white freesias—Lana’s favorite—set in graceful arrangements around the table. Golden bangles at Frida’s wrists rang like cowbells in the French countryside. Black vintage Dior draped her petite frame. Charcoal-colored hair, wound into old-fashioned plaits, crowned her delicate features. Looping her neck were multiple strands of pinkish seed pearls; her carefully drawn crimson lips a triumphant moue. Frida was, in a word, parfait.
 “Un plat typiquement français,” Frida trilled, “pour notre invitée d’honneur.” She smiled prettily at Lana. Frida’s voice evoked La Habana, a tuneful parade along El Malecón, the ancestral home of her father.
Philippa Punch, a friend of Lana’s from London who had joined her in Paris, sat beside Lana. Her deliberate, mouse-brown bob jerked imperceptibly as she tilted her head, lowered her chin and savored the main course: “Cela sent délicieusement bon,” she murmured. Before Philippa could translate, Lana snapped: “I got it.”
Lana regarded woody chunks of meat suffocated under a cream blanket and managed a wilted smile. Veal stew. It was veal, fucking stew. What part of no meat did Frida not get? Lana chewed her lip and thought, “This is what torture smells like.”
Alain Durand—handsome, silver-haired and branded with the round, bookish spectacles of the literati—rose from his seat at the head of the table. Alain’s 19-year-old daughter, Anne, shushed a boyfriend at least a decade older than she, halting, temporarily, a quarrelsome susurration. “A toast!” Alain raised a glass of red wine, a pinot noire from Sancerre or Alsace.
He was Frida’s lover; the man Frida expected would father her child. Lana rejected that sense of dynasty, of trusting a smaller self to reinvent her world. She’d know when to stop.
Alain grinned at Frida—husky, gleaming teeth—and to Lana it looked like a victory sneer.
“To our American friend,” Alain proposed.
Crystal goblets came together, reflecting candlelight like a shimmering ruby bouquet. Alain smiled broadly at Lana. She was fair-haired where Frida was dark, and she was big-boned. Lana dressed at will, never a second thought about what was acceptable. She was persuaded to lipstick years ago by Frida; the one capitulation to make-up that Lana still embraced. She was straightforward and men often misread that. To Frida’s dismay, Lana had no compunction about solitary dining in restaurants. “You will be seen as a woman alone. In Paris, that’s death,” Frida warned.
“To Lana,” Alain proclaimed loudly. The seduction unnerved her. The room reverberated with the ferocious possibility of shattering glass. “To Lana,” they chorused.
The wine was delicious, light and fruity. A plate heaped with rice and saturated with stew was placed before her. Lana briefly entertained the idea of an ostentatious challenge. She might remind Frida of a lengthy telephone call just before she’d left New York. She had been to West 57th Street to see an exhibition by the political artist, Sue Coe. The work—a surrealistic blood bath—was monumental and life changing. The exhibition was called Dead Meat; images Lana would never forget. “I’ve stopped eating meat,” she’d told Frida, “Won’t touch the stuff.”
There had already been enough tension. Alain had been out all night. Lana never fully understood his position at Air France, only that he could be called for an emergency at any time, night or day; that he was some kind of troubleshooter.
She’d known Frida for over eleven years, having met her soon after Lana’s divorce. They had been introduced at a dinner party on Manhattan’s upper west side, at the home of mutual friends, Manu, a Basque writer, and his wife Mimi. Lana’s ex had been a doctoral student in Mimi’s lab and neither woman missed him. Manu and Mimi had conspired to bring the two young women together. “You have a lot in common,” they told Lana. Then, Frida lived in the Marais. The first time she’d visited Lana's apartment, the bookshelves, paintings, the tools of her trade and the comforting disorder of the artist’s life prompted her to say: “I feel I am at home.”
Over time, the writer and the painter had seen a lot of each other in New York and Paris. Three years before, Frida’s odd procession of lovers had ceased and Alain moved in. Lana liked him very much at first; thought Frida had finally got herself the man of her making. His daughter, Anne, came with the package, bringing her peculiar teenage rebellion.
Frida, the writer, was also a magician, possessed of a mentalist’s ability to predict soon-to-be desirable quartiers of Paris. She bought and sold like a seasoned trader on the floor of the stock exchange, upgrading a few steps ahead of the developers who followed artists from one undiscovered zone to the next, like dogs in heat. The arrival of Alain seemed also to halt that quest and they remained at the multi-terraced duplex at the top of Belleville.
Alain abided Frida’s ministrations, and her attention to re-sculpting his exterior, with humor. She selected his clothes and styled his hair in the relaxed manner of the cultured Socialists of the day. The tortoise shell eyeglasses, he’d admitted to Lana, had no magnification. He appeared at Frida’s side for book signings and cocktail parties, becoming more at ease in her literary world. Women openly appraised him, adding to Frida’s pride at her accomplishment. He had a study now.
Unlike her father, Anne furiously rejected Frida’s attempts at re-fashioning a preference for plain sweaters and torn jeans. That she eschewed makeup and jewelry confounded Frida. Anne’s friends, when they met Frida, found her laughable; a bedizened bourgeois throwback who wrote biographies of obscure women artists.
Anne left Belleville and crossed the Seine. Movie posters of Jean Luc Godard and Agnes Varda came down; Che Guevara and Carlos the Jackal disappeared. Her bedroom in Belleville became the unmistakably masculine study that smelled of leather and oil paintings and books—all of Frida’s choosing.
Lana had breakfasted alone in the kitchen directly below the study, which served as a guestroom. Alain returned like a sleepy-eyed tomcat, satisfied and indifferent at the same time. Frida appeared and Lana watched as they discretely and cheerfully avoided each other. Frida did not ask and Alain revealed nothing. Instead, he’d made small talk with Lana, practicing his English, wondering aloud when she would take advantage of the privacy and bring a lover back to the apartment. “You are een Pareese so you ’ave to ’ave a lover!” Lana laughed, as she often did, at Alain’s reference to her love life. Dinner was discussed, Alain given charge of the shopping with a specific reference to a particular wine—white, as it turned out—that Frida had requested.
Later that morning on the terrace adjoining the study, Lana relished a rare burst of unadulterated sunshine before inhaling her first Gauloises of the day. Parisians had returned from their holidays and refilled what summer had emptied. The city thrummed. She’d turned 42 in August. This trip was her birthday present to herself. She ran her hand through freshly washed hair. Maybe she could, despite Frida’s protest, bring off a shorter haircut.
Below lay the treasure that was Paris, spread out like the spilled contents of a fantasist’s drawer of whimsical bibelots and steampunk collectibles. In the far distance the Eiffel Tower pricked the horizon like a tiny tin toy. How lucky she was to have friends here. Until she’d met Frida, Paris was where Lana, dressed in a patchwork denim miniskirt and platform sandals, stood at the top of the stairs at Sacre Coeur over a decade ago, and from behind rose-colored granny glasses symbolically waved goodbye to her marriage. She still had the white butcher’s coat she’d bought at Les Halles. When she’d asked the man what the hood was for he said: “To keep off the blood.”
A heated banter rising from the kitchen had interrupted Lana’s reverie. Baffled ambivalence rose sharply to shrill accusation; the kind of manic French that Frida, who spoke a passable English, usually avoided with Lana. She recognized Alain’s voice. Frida would have had to reconnoiter when Alain returned from the shops. He was not backing down. It was something to do with the wine.
“Alain! C’est la tradition.”
“Je ne te comprends pas.”
“Blanc avec le veau. Nous ne sacrifions pas la tra—.”
“Tradition idiote. Vous devriez vivre avec votre temps Frida.
There it was, the telling, vous.
Molten gloom had swept across the sun and the sky turned leaden. Lana had dressed hurriedly. She’d stopped at the kitchen. “Do you need me? I thought I’d go see Wings.” Frida’s startled look belied her cheerful response. “Ah, Wenders, your hero. Of course, go. We are fine.” Alain cradled a bottle of wine like he might a woman’s back. “Bring back a lover, Lana,” Alain admonished. “What’s for dinner?” Lana asked. A surprise, she’d been told.
A few hours in a darkened theater in the company of witnessing angels had returned Lana to the apartment, keenly blissful.
She’d found Frida and Anne chipping away at an old argument. Alain mixed drinks while Anne’s boyfriend maintained a studied sulk behind his cigarette. The only part she’d caught of Alain’s introduction was that he worked in Jack Lang’s office and had something to do with the Fête de la Musique. He’d glanced at Lana, a smoky inspection: enemy or accomplice?
And then Philippa Punch had arrived from London, bringing her peculiar head mistress style, a jokiness that had the quality of a scold. They had not seen each other since Philippa left New York. Lana’s warm greeting, even after nearly a year, had been kept at arm’s length. Philippa, instead, had appraised Lana’s uncomplicated style, the relaxed linen jumper Lana had adopted—the costume of a painter—and she’d cracked: “Are you wearing your canvas now?”
Philippa had been quick to engage Frida and Alain. “Bonjour, enfin, nous nous rencontrons. Je suis une vieille amie de Lana. J’ai beaucoup entendu parler de vous mais elle vous avait gardé pour elle,” Philippa eyed Lana, like a journalist who had scored a hard won interview, “…jusqu’à présent.”
On learning that Anne was starting at L’Institut d’études politiques de Paris, Philippa had redirected her inquiry. “Ah oui, Anne, Sciences Po. Je suis très impressionnée!”
Philippa had stubbornly adhered to an accurate, though soulless, French. Lana managed reasonably well with the language, but she was far from fluent. Over the years her French had improved in fits and starts when she’d traveled to France or attended an entire series of any French film festival in New York. Lana pressed Frida not to resort to English when she was in Paris, but, as in New York, Frida prevailed and English it was. Ignoring a long-term friendship that had somehow managed to survive the language difference, Philippa had deliberately corrected Lana’s French and balked at any English spoken. When Frida had explained that they all relished a chance to practice English, Philippa replied tartly: “Elle devrait parler français.” “But we are easy here,” cried Frida. “Nous sommes en France,” Philippa insisted. “C’est mieux pour elle.”
Lana had borne it all with tempered good will, buoyed by herb-colored aperitifs. They had all been standing before Lana’s portrait of Frida. It was a moody statement of Frida, the writer, painted when they’d first met. It was a portrait Frida said she treasured, and which had pride of place above the piano. Philippa had finally crossed the line, effectively shutting Lana out of a lengthy conversation, when she’d declared, in English, that Frida’s comments were too complicated in French.
“She says you made her older than she is,” Philippa quipped, finally. Lana’s look of consternation confused Frida until Anne whispered something to her. “Non, non,” Frida cried. “Je citais Picasso. Il a dit: Vous verrez, elle finira par lui ressembler….” She pressed Lana’s arm. “I adore this painting. I say I will grow into it. And I am.”
Lana inspected the dinner plate before her. No point in bringing up the veal, adding insult to injury. She resolved to ignore Phil’s earlier impertinence. Instead Lana picked over the Blanquette de Veau, spearing nuggets of carrot and mushroom until there was only the meat, which she pushed aside.
“Lana, tu ne manges pas de la viande?” asked Philippa. Lana rejoined with an infuriated glare. Philippa, taken aback, stuttered: “Sorry. No harm—”
Distracted by Alain’s interruption, Lana addressed his request and recounted her introduction to Philippa a few years before. There had been a gallery opening on Prince Street. In an indifferent fusion of English and French, Lana told them how she’d organized the after party for the painter at a Mexican restaurant on nearby Broadway. Philippa was a friend of the guest of honor; another Brit. Lana discovered that Philippa was teaching at Dalton, on the Upper East Side, around the corner from Lana’s studio. “I’m not exactly shy, so I ordered pitchers of Margaritas,” Lana remembered, grinning. “Someone joked about that, would there be enough?” She paused for a moment. “And then Phil said, ‘She’s American. If there isn’t enough she’ll just order more. That’s what they do.’”
“I did?” Philippa scowled. “I don’t remember that.”
Anne’s lover—Denis Hervé as it turned out—scrutinized Lana. He threw himself back from the table in an attitude reminiscent of a cocky protagonist in a Godard film, sucked deeply on a cigarette and indicated to Lana, a possible ally. She nodded and he tossed a pack of Camels. Denis stabbed the air with his smoking hand. “C’est meilleur, non? We can speak any way we like. We ’ave no language police.”
In the decompressed interim before the salad and the cheese, Lana took her cue from the two men and, overriding Philippa’s disapproval, she dragged deeply on an unfiltered Camel. Champagne followed wine. Stories emerged from laughter, protestation, and cigarette smoke, like some ephemeral Book Of Lives, until Lana asked about the demonstration she had wandered into on her way back from the film. Denis explained that it was an ongoing protest against political repression, for the students killed at Tienanmen Square.
“Still?” Frida asked.
Met with appreciable silence, Frida quickly changed the subject to the most controversial topic of the day: La folie des grandeurs.
“Mitteramsès,” she scoffed.
“Non! Frida, la Pyramide est magnifique,” Alain retorted. Anne agreed: “You ‘ave to come into the present Frida, like Mitterand.
“It doesn’t fit, that’s it. Passe-partout,” Frida insisted.
“We’ll see tomorrow, eh Phil?” said Lana.
Slow crawling cheeses, like Brie and Camembert, and crumbling wedges of blue-veined Auvergne appeared. Alain stabbed the Coeur de Neufchâtel with comic thrusts. Lana caught Frida’s unmistakable wince.
Alain, less steady now, raised his glass. A grin, like a carnival clown logo, distorted his face. “Frida, mon coeur…”
“C’est assez!” Frida laughed tightly.
Lana withdrew her grudge and threw her arm across her friend. “C’est bon de vous…hum…te revoir, Phil.” There was the familiar stiffening of shoulders.
They rose from the table as if on cue, while Lana lingered. She toyed with a small vase of freesias, inhaling the peppery sweet breath of the tiny bulbs. Some things stay with you forever, she thought dreamily, like the scent of a favorite flower. Looking around she saw the rooms were bigger now with costlier ‘finds’ from the flea markets, but still so much like her friend.
Frida wrote at a little table in a corner of the living room near the ground floor window, which opened on to the street. Copies of her books in French and Spanish stacked neatly along the windowsill, biographies of women artists, written from the inside, as her critics described. Souvenirs—those artifacts of memory—lay everywhere. One had only to admire any one of them to be graced with a fascinating story of a known artist—a painter or musician or another writer. Ornately framed photographs, like silent, overdressed guests, crammed every tabletop. There were photographs of the two of them when they’d first met. Frida in full skirt and embroidered shawl; Lana in miniskirt and tights—in all black.
Instead of the usual after-dinner seduction of danceable Cuban music, Lana heard the voice of Haydée Alba from the living room.
Frida was transformed by music, especially the Cuban artists and the early recordings of Sierra Maestra. She was a spontaneous singer with a gay, operatic voice. As a girl, she’d known that when music filled their rooms in Paris, her father could no longer abide melancholy.
Lana recalled, with pleasure, her introduction to Alba’s music. For three months Parisians had appropriated the streets of Buenos Aires. She recalled, as well, Alain’s dogged pursuit of her friend. He courted Frida from the start, disregarding the peeved look of the woman on his arm. Lana remembered the feeling, as if she had been watching a betrayal play out in real time. Memory is like the tide. You never know what it will return to the shore.
“I think you mean red meat.”
Lana, startled, looked up. “Boeuf!” Frida emphasized, “Not the white meat.” “Doesn’t matter,” Lana said. “Pas des differences.” “Okay,” said Frida. “We are good?” “Oui,” replied Lana. “Of course. We are good.
They stood for a moment before Lana cheered: “Let’s dance! Let’s all go to that club!”
“Le Tango?” Frida laughed. “La boîte à frissons.”
“I forgot that. The box of shivers,” Lana chuckled.
“It’s late,” Frida said. “Ce n’est pas certain.”
Lana goaded them, but Anne and Denis were already taking their leave. Alain yawned and Frida lowered the music. “Alain, I think Lana wants to, how do you say, party?”
“I’ll go by myself,” Lana insisted.
“You ’ave to be careful Lana,” Alain warned, “It’s late and the Metro—.”
“I’ll go,” Philippa piped. “We’ll get a cab.” Philippa decried the notion that she, too, wanted to dance. Left on her own, she said, Lana would do something foolish.
“Hang on,” Lana said, and rummaged through her bag. She plucked a single decorative chopstick from items she’d bought earlier and pierced her long hair quickly knotted atop her head.
She grabbed an oversize linen jacket; soft shouldered, with deep pockets, the color of wheat and bearing the shape of her. “You still have this!” Philippa cried. “Yes,” Lana declared. “I’ll wear it until it falls off me.” Philippa eyed Lana, unabashed. “Won’t be long then.”
The taxi moved swiftly. Streets blurred from one to the next along the broad boulevard heading for the 3rd. Lana relaxed into the movableness of the passing night scene while Phillipa, bolt upright, prattled on to the driver in French. He willfully ignored her, rarely easing up on the gas.
“Feeling better, Phil?” Lana asked.
“English, Phil, s’il vous plaît,” Lana sighed. “Lowered the shoulders a bit, I mean.”
“What did?” Phil asked, frowning.
“Dinner, wine,” said Lana. “You seemed tense when you arrived.”
“Me?” Philippa choked. “You were a bit bothered. What’s with the no meat thing?  Just like that? No withdrawal?”
The cab swerved around Place de la République.
“Almost there,” said Lana.
“Your friend is lovely,” Philippa offered.
“She would go dancing at the drop of a hat once, or as you would say, chapeau.” Lana recalled, for Philippa, a memorable scene of Frida upbraiding the DJ when he’d leapt to disco at midnight, when she’d come for the salsa at the same club they were headed. She’d got her salsa back, though. “You couldn’t drag her away from a dance floor,” Lana mused.
“This is okay here. I think,” Philippa said, and paid the driver.
They stood at the bottom of Rue Volta. The departing cab took with it the last ambient noise on the street, leaving them in darkness that fell over their shoulders like a damp towel. Buildings crowded the narrow streets with romanticized stoicism, where even the curbs were swaybacked. An ancient half-timbered house appeared under a wan streetlight. It was a dark, not necessarily grim, but aphotic corner of a fairy tale.
As Lana approached an unlit, unmarked doorway Philippa commented that it was a weeknight, that maybe it was closed. “No, this is it,” Lana said, and found a bell. A small rectangular window at eye-level slid open. A door appeared in the black patch on the wall and they entered a dimly lit corridor that led to the bar and a dance floor. Nothing had changed. There were the familiar red banquettes, the lurking expectation of the picaresque. An Afro Cuban beat sensuously nudged couples around the dance floor, while others engaged in low conversation over drinks at surrounding tables. Lana and Philippa were directed to the coat check where Philippa promptly surrendered her jacket and headed for a table.
“Votre manteau Madame?”
“Non, Je suis bien, Lana replied.
The hostess persisted, indicating Lana’s jacket.
“C’est ok,” Lana said, returning a smile.
“Vous devez enlever votre veste, Madame,” the hostess replied, less gently. C’est la règle de la maison.
Lana shrugged and shoved her hands in the pockets. “But, but, this is my look. C’est mon look!”
Without a second thought, the hostess conceded Lana’s point. “Ah, excusez-moi Madame. Bonne soirée.”
Lana swanned through the macaronic chorus of Africans, Spaniards, the French and the English. Lana suspected she was the only American in the club.
A formidable and very handsome Black man stood before Philippa. He shrugged in exaggerated disappointment.
“Excusez-moi,” Philippa said, “Je viens d'apercevoir mon ami. Peut-être plus tard?”
Not likely, Lana thought. Before the man could withdraw, Lana piped: “I’ll dance! I mean, je danserai.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Do you speak English?" Lana asked.
“Non,” he replied. “Ça n’a pas d’importance.”
“No,” Lana said, “It doesn’t matter. You’re right.” She let him lead her to the dance floor.
The music seemed to have no end and no beginning, a seamless roll from one wave to the next, varying only in tempo. Lana noticed that Philippa was engaged in conversation with another couple so she turned her full attention to her dance partner. His arms were like tree trunks and she felt like a doll. At any moment she might be tempted to hop on his considerable shoes and dance as she used to with her father when she was a girl. She stopped only once, to slide her jacket to her waist, tying it tightly. The man guided her effortlessly and they sailed around the dance floor, a synergetic pulse.
Lana noticed another couple as seemingly mismatched. The woman was tall, dark-skinned, voluptuous and turned out in a figure hugging flame red dress. Oversize gold rings, as delicate as sound waves, swung from her ears. Her partner was a head shorter, at least. He wriggled around her, making her laugh, always just slightly under the beat. His copper-colored hair was pulled back into a ponytail. He wore tight jeans and cowboy boots, which curled at the toe. His skin was an even paler reflection of Lana’s.
Lana finally begged a respite. Her long hair had come undone and spilled onto her shoulders, a mermaid rising from the deep. At the same time, the other couple separated and Lana’s dance partner enveloped the woman in an intimate, familiar embrace.
Philippa introduced Lana to Michelle, an American, and her husband Victor, a native Parisian. She was a self-described, frothing-at-the mouth trade unionist. Victor, clearly besotted with his garrulous American wife, was an editor of political journals. They were, as it turned out, friends of the redhead, whose name was Ian Russell. He was a bass player from London, on a holiday jaunt after touring with his band.
“They were just telling me about the Fête de l'Humanité,” Philippa offered. “The one that Denis…?” Lana asked. “No,” Philippa corrected. “That was the Fête de la Musique.”
Michelle laughed heartily. “An easy mistake. Ian hasn’t been yet. You two should go while he’s still in Paris.”
“Right,” said Ian. “Stray Cats played, you said. Cool band.”
Philippa yawned. It was late and she was tired.
“It’s early, actually,” Ian said. “Nearly four. Pecker up lass.”
Rejuvenated, Lana exclaimed: “I could go all night. You know what I’ve always wanted to do? Sacre Coeur at dawn.”
Philippa rolled her eyes, exasperated.
“I’ll be fine, Phil,” Lana said.
“We have time,” Ian said. “To walk, I mean. If you’re up for it?”
“You speak my language,” Lana laughed.
“Let’s get cracking then,” Ian said.
Victor assured Lana they would get Philippa to her hotel. “We have to be home before the kids wake up,” he offered.
“Dogs,” Michelle explained.
Ian and Lana waved as their friends, tucked into a compact deux chevaux, drove away. The sky was still black as pitch, like the split second of blank screen before the film credits roll. A dubious moment passed between them. Ian remarked that his friends treated their dogs like children. Lana asked: “Do you want kids?” Ian replied emphatically: “Never.” He asked: “Do you?” “No,” Lana said.
They stood quietly in the now indecisive dark as couples emerged like sleepy-eyed rabbits from their burrow and scooted around them. Ian grabbed her hand. “Okay?” Lana cocked her head and stared at him for a moment. “Yes, I think I am.”

The writer is deeply grateful to Virginie Pirlet for her patience and her impeccable French. Additional help comes from Vicky and Michel Maubrey with no less appreciation and love.

PARIS, WHEN IT SIZZLES is an original short story by Linda Danz.
STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. © MAY 2012.

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