He didn’t like the way she talked. At least she was young and didn’t need to be told she was stupider and prettier than she thought she was. Her ignorance had a sentimentality less fucking annoying than the smugness he projected on those with more time in this life. He usually cared deeply about whether another cared deeply; or could be coerced to; not here. She was 20 something years old. It wasn’t her fault she didn’t know who the hell Chris Hanni was. Her Afrikaans sounded forced and ancient. The language seemed like someone had plucked a 16th Century Dutch book of prayer and a gang of well-meaning drunks had tried to construct an Esperanto with it. He switched from Dutch to English. He still didn’t like the way she talked. The Kronenbourgs and the numb of tobacco smoke combined with the softness of her waist under his hand muted his itch though. There were either five or six people in this gable apartment. A big broken clock bathed the room with yellowed light from the security cameras outside. It was a ridiculous appropriation of space, all heights and angles and internal sickness of the cornice and the eaves, illuminated by the practical impersonal box of the housing project next door. It wasn’t a great place to be for anyone.
Remy wondered if the strangers there felt any less alone in their brutalist box than he did in the drafty confused tenement he found himself in, the likes of which the strangers or the strangers’ forbearers had no doubt escaped from. Probably not, he thought. It wasn’t even his home and he was leaving tomorrow. The projects were probably built as part of an urban planning dream: modern blocks of tidy apartments surrounding lawns and playgrounds, social centers and stores. He had no idea from where he sat what was left over there. He wasn’t even French on his papers. He unlike them, could pass as Parisian without compulsory service, taxes or any kind of buy-in – the great 18th Century joke of French Republican citizenship – a political fact devoid of concrete elements, a daily plebiscite no one had time to vote in. Frenchness was a political not biological fact. But his receding wavy hair, his blue eyes and light complexion made him blend enough in the abstract to represent it in as full a manner as any abstract could possibly demand. The picture in the paper of the kid who torched the police car the previous night had the same Stephane Gontard shoes on even- but that Arab had papers that said he was French and gave him a name as unpronounceable as Remy’s features were pronounceable. Remy felt homeless all over again.
He tried to kiss the lesbian sitting on the other side of him. He thought for an instant it’d stop the incessant chatter about the best clubs in Johannesburg and how being a Cape Colored somehow made one more adept at smoking marijuana. He really just wanted to throw some change into the situation and maybe get a reaction from the South African. The lesbian responded making sure to neither prolong nor make an issue of the social impropriety. She kissed him back and made an audible moan only he could hear. The foil worked well enough to right the room well enough. Her tattoos and hair and t-shirt slogans, not to mention the books strewn across her mattress and floor, convinced him her identity project was well enough along to not be threatened by the likes of him. Remy got up to fish through the fridge for something to drink, adding credence to the fact that the nothing that happened was actually nothing.
One night in this arrondisement was never enough but always too much. His flight off this continent was tomorrow, or five hours away. He smelled bad and his teeth were slimy. He took another swig of the beer he found. No one was conscious of the fact that it was a bad idea that he was here, least of all him.
“Want to go out on the fire escape and really see the city?”
“No.” Remy said. Pushing himself through a window was the last thing he wanted to do at the moment.
“I’m not asking.” The South African looked exasperated.
“Actually you were.”
“Listen man, you fokken poes, you bought me shit vodka all night at that club, made me walk up 100 steps to come to this stupid place. You told me you’d tell me a story about bicycle racing, and all the time I thought you were some kind of nice guy or at least a rich guy, and you do look like you must do some sport that doesn’t involve lifting or punching. Wat kyk ja?”
“Jesus Christ you sound like a dirt farmer from Zottegem,” Remy muttered under his breath. He was careful to pronounce Zottegem in the most perfect school boy Dutch he could. If he wasn’t any better than this girl he’d show her he at least knew how to fucking talk.
“I was just asking you at what you were looking. I’m not trying to make you angry. I don’t even know your name.”
In a confused puddle of drink, sex, and pity she went to embrace him. He tensed and looked away. The lesbian was across the room fingering through Paris Vogue while a blonde with a page boy haircut he hadn’t noticed before stroked the lesbian’s hair. He couldn’t tell if the periodical was at all serious. Maybe they were involved in the fashion industry. There were plenty enough of fabric swashes and spools of thread and other evidence to suggest it.
“You want a story about bicycle racing? Well here it is. It isn’t what you think it is and you haven’t ever even thought about it. You’re not entitled to an opinion on it the same way I’m not entitled to an opinion on a non-dimensional Reynolds number as it relates to fluid dynamics.” He already felt the cold that her yet unspoken response would throw on him.
“That makes you feel very intelligent then; making other people feel stupid by saying nothing. Fok jou. Who the bloody hell are you to take me with anyway? I do not like Paris and you are the only person I spoke with in my own fokken taal for three fokken weeks I’ve been here. I like you less than when I didn’t even know you…and that isn’t like me at all.”
He wasn’t going to argue her semantics. She was distraught and not making linguistically logical sense even if human meaning had never been better expressed. The sprinkled Afrikaans made it all about her. He felt guilty for being the principle in this stupid story. Nothing ever happened when he was the principle in a story.
“What do you want?” he said as kindly as he could.
“I want a story about bicycle racing.”
He boosted her up onto the ledge so she could step out on to the fire escape. He took off his coat and passed it to her through the window and pulled himself through. The haze and gloom and hope of the whole city was out there in those lights. He asked her for a cigarette and thought about a story not about him; one where something happened. He sat down next to her on the iron lattice and was silent and still.