by Michael Donohue
(CW: Mentions of suicide)
I’m not a very good drunk. I tend to open myself up to people and situations that I wouldn’t do in a sober state. Which could be a good thing for sure, but it normally sees me sharing my life story with taxi drivers at four in the morning who would much rather be listening to the radio. Not being a frequent drinker either, it doesn’t take a lot to get me in that first state of intoxication when your body mass lightens and the world transforms into soft focus. Then there’s that moment when you’re offered another by more seasoned drinkers who sense you might be on the verge of ‘making a show of yourself’; and they’ll have the satisfaction the next day of saying that you can’t ‘hold your drink’, a crime in Ireland on a par with paedophilia.
I was still in this first state of intoxication when I passed through the doors of my favourite gay bar in the Marais. It was usually half-empty and managed to avoid the more commercial side of the gay scene, where bars act as mini-clubs and are only a precursor for moving on to somewhere else with even louder music. The walls often had an exhibition with erotic themes by a local gay artist. That night it was the turn of chubby gays who were shown bathing, sucking each other’s toes and one crawling up the Eiffel Tower, which was depicted as a phallic symbol. The bartender, who usually greeted his regulars by kissing them on the lips, forwent the opportunity in my case but was courteous enough not to keep me waiting. As I was leaning distractedly on the bar counter, a young guy, probably late twenties, sidled up beside me. He wasn’t trying to get the bartender’s attention and I couldn’t think of any reason why he’d choose to stand there, other than for me to buy him a drink. This was difficult. If I offered to do so, I risked being met with a look of disbelief that I thought he would be interested in an old queen. That would hurt. But there was also the pride element where I wouldn’t want it assumed that I, an older person, was gagging to bed any chicken that crossed my path. And the young don’t realise that, while many young people avoid older people, many older people avoid them because they don’t want to be reminded they’re old! He smiled as soon as he caught my eye and I recognised years of life experience in his emerging crow’s feet that perhaps dwarfed my own. I returned the smile out of social politeness and also secure that I wasn’t going to be humiliated. He used that most effective conversation opener by simply asking how I was. The directness threw me off-guard because the truth was that I was terrified. Having landed in middle age without a partner or a career of note, I was as lost as someone who was going out into the world for the first time; in fact, I had gone out into the world and come back empty-handed. It was not the kind of answer you give to a stranger in those circumstances, even if you are tipsy, so I merely replied that I was a little bored.
He said he was bored too as he’d just come back from Miami where he’d been enjoying the hospitality of a friend in his luxurious oceanfront home. When I asked him what he did for a living, he told me he was in the process of doing an MBA in International Business but was taking a break to help a friend with a start-up. He also wrote occasional articles for an online fashion magazine and reported for Spanish Vogue during Fashion Week. If that wasn’t enough, he also assisted with the marketing of a club night a drag queen friend of his hosted. I was impressed but aware that none of these were a regular source of income and he was, to the man on the street, basically unemployed.
To keep the mood light, I complemented him on his English but was informed, indignantly, that he was Maltese. Even still, I suspected Maltese was his first language and English a near but poor relation because he sang his way into every sentence with an ‘um’ or ‘ah’ to give him time to organise the syntax. His accent was also affected, elongating his vowels for grandiose effect: the word ‘Voooooogue’ sounded like it was taking off into orbit. I also detected at one point a slight mid-Atlantic drawl, then at another an upper-class English clipping of phrases, and overall there was excessive eloquence in the Indian tradition. I would defy any linguist to identify that he was Maltese, having a truly international accent, a twenty-first century addition to the genre.
His love life was similarly obfuscated. When I asked if he was single, he avoided answering directly and detailed how he’d been involved for two years with an English lawyer, who was now back in the UK. He showed me a photo of them together as if trying to prove they were still an item. He then mentioned that he was in the throes of an affair with a wealthy businessman (straight and married) who was about to take him on holiday to Greece. The businessman had recently bought him a silver chain with a shark’s tooth pendant which I had to admire – more evidence. Then there was his first love who was in the process of moving from their home town to Paris and who would be living with him in the foreseeable future. Again, when I unraveled all this – and it was becoming more difficult with the alcohol – he was single and just as desperate as the rest of us.
At some point the bar started to fill up and a guy quite naturally came between us to order a drink. It would have been rude to continue speaking over him, so we shut up and focused our attention on him like children presented with a new toy. He didn’t shy away from the scrutiny but turned it back on us by complimenting my friend on his jacket as if continuing a conversation that was already in progress. And so we proceeded as a threesome, only stopping to marvel at the fabulous cocktail our new friend ordered. Not to be outdone in fabulousness, my Maltese friend ordered a similarly elaborate concoction, and I followed suit since that was the way we were going.
I had no problem distinguishing our new friend’s accent as it couldn’t have been much stronger in his native Russian. He was in his early thirties but had the air of someone much older, which made sense when he told us he was a hotel manager. Small in stature, he compensated with exaggerated movements, holding his drink as if making a permanent toast and making sweeping hand gestures that dismissed political systems, nationalities or famous personalities in one foul wave. It wouldn’t be fair to say he was ugly, but he didn’t tick many of the boxes Winckelmann put forward as tenets of classical beauty. Maybe he was aware of this because his oversized azure glasses and powder blue cotton suit were more representative of his personality than any attempt to enhance his natural features.
He was full of stories. He’d just had some unruly American guests at the hotel who then had the audacity to leave an unflattering review online. So he wrote a response telling them, and everyone else, exactly how obnoxious they were and that they weren’t invited back! He’d recently had a near calamity when renewing his working visa. Faced with two immigration officials, one white and one black, he knew if he got the black official he could be on his way back to Russia (he didn’t do political correctness). Just as his number was called for the black official, he switched it with the person behind him on the pretense that he had to rush to the toilet. He got his visa renewed.
He was in the middle of a divorce. He didn’t divulge the reason for the split but was now embroiled in a war with his soon-to-be ex over their apartment. They’d bought the central Paris flat eight years ago for a song and, after extensive refurbishment, it was now worth double what they’d paid. The thing was, in another five years, the way the market was going, it could be worth double that again, so neither wanted to vacate what was a dynamite investment. If they held on to the property jointly and rented it out to someone else in the meantime, they would be unable to make a clean break from each other. So they were still living tortuously together, waiting for the other to cave in. I was thinking that the apartment might ultimately keep them together. Greed is a wonderful thing.
It must have been after three when we stumbled through the exit. It was starting to drizzle but we hardly noticed, insulated in our intoxication. None of us knew where we were going and we sauntered along, knowing there was probably nowhere to go at that hour. At one point my Russian friend played an Edith Piaf song on his iPhone, while my Maltese friend took me in an embrace and waltzed me down the street. As the lights reflected on the glassy footpath, I could have almost believed we were dancing on an enchanted stairway to the stars. Before we knew it, we arrived at my Maltese friend’s bus stop and exchanged contact information. We waved him off, looking a little less fabulous surrounded by immigrant workers, part of a shadow army heading to their menial jobs.
My Russian friend led me down a side street to an all-night café nestled between a taxidermist’s and a nail salon. The kind of local dive that foreigners avoid; the mismatched tables and chairs were scattered haphazardly, while faded posters for theatrical productions long since closed littered the walls. There were a couple of petty criminal types at one end of the counter, and an older man, possibly an insomniac, staring at nothing in particular at the other. The young waiter, whose gigantic feet seemed to carry him further than intended, hurried about unnecessarily. When he backed-up to our table, he informed us that half the menu was unavailable so we ended up ordering a couple of dishes he recommended.
As we waited for the food I could feel an awful emptiness descending. It was the kind of emptiness I was feeling a lot then and may have been the reason I was drinking. I tried to explain it away originally on the grounds that I was single, or not having children, or a career I could love like a child. But it was deeper. Born from existential sources, I was, in effect, looking into the void, the nothingness at the center of everything that renders life as meaningless and bores a hole in your belief system. And there was nothing to do but sit there and let the wave of nothingness blow through me, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake that I was unable to clear up with the clichés and truisms that had formerly sustained me.
My Russian friend started to reminisce about Moscow, which prompted me to ask him why he chose to come to Paris. He said he’d always been attracted to French culture and had won a medal in high school for being the best French speaker in his year. The impetus to make the move occurred after he relocated to Moscow and spent a miserable year being bullied by his manager in one of the larger hotels. The underground gay scene also proved hostile; but he could see now that it was as much to do with his own insecurities as anything. He laughed when he related that he would avoid guys who were too queeny, unaware he was as big a queen as any of them! To cap it all, he ran into financial difficulties when his mother’s health deteriorated and he had to take out a sizeable loan for her care. To cut a long story short, he decided to take his own life. There was a storeroom at the top of the hotel that had a raised platform with a wooden beam above it, which made it perfect for a hanging. The night before he planned to do the deed, he walked around Moscow saying goodbye to his friends and family in his mind as the city moved by him like a dream. It was the most peaceful he’d felt in years, which perversely made him think he was doing the right thing. At about seven in the morning, he arrived at the hotel and was greeted by his manager with some condescending remark. Hardened in his resolve, he headed straight for the storeroom. When he opened the door he found a hotel guest, who he’d booked in the previous evening, swinging lifeless from the beam. He got such a fright that he ran home and booked a flight to Paris.
Not surprisingly, this shocking story jolted me back into a sober state or at least one where my faculties were reawakened. The image of the hanging seemed to chime with the grotesqueness of the scene around me: the dingy décor screaming for a make-over, the stick figures clinging to the drippings of the night, the remains of the reheated food. My friend grew solemn and quiet, and there didn’t seem to be a lot to say after his story anyway. I decided to go and offered to walk my new friend home, but he said he wanted to hang on for a while to avoid his soon-to-be ex leaving for work. The waiter cleared our plates and I paid my portion of the bill, which was cheaper than expected.
Native Angeleno, Zanny Jacobsen is an art and architecture historian. She holds a BA from the University of Edinburgh and an MA from the University of York.