We meet in a bar. Paris, France.
The place is gaudy and macabre, high pressed tin ceilings and a dark wooden bar. This whole city is still obsessed with the twenties, there’s a plaque on the wall that says Fitzgerald used to drink here.
The bartender looks like someone you know but can’t name, they’ve got warm eyes. And I’m a boy with an easy smile and dark curls, sipping whisky in a loose-fitting button up. Voice low in timbre, high in mirth, a subtle hint of southern accent lingering in it’s tissue. I might offer to buy you a drink.
We’re the only ones here, talking with meaningless ease, both of our heads slowly fogging with an alcohol laced delirium. After a while a comfortable peace settles over us, the kind that comes from chatting to a stranger in a bar. Communication is transient, effortless, the moment is suspended in time. In the morning, it would have never existed.
When you ask me to tell you a story, and you will, here is the one I will tell you.
It is about two boys. One of them is me. I will give you a moment to sit back, to imagine it, picture me at sixteen. You’ve probably got it wrong.
I was a demon of a boy with dark eyes and a cruel smile, too smart for my own good. Gritty and sweaty and adolescent, filled with a senseless, aimless, teenage rage. My nose crooked to the left from one too many breaks and a fresh scar carving a harsh, red line across my chin.
You’ll notice the scar now, stark white and harsh against the rim of my glass. I will reach out to touch its edge, self-conscious.
The other boy was a Raphaelite painting, Michelangelo’s David, magic. Picture him in vignette, rosy with the glow of a mid-century painting. Imagine him with curls, eyes rimmed with pink and coloured the same shade as forget-me-not flowers. He had hands that curved and held and caressed. He was careful, he was wondrous.
They were in love and it was not okay.
Let me set the scene. They were two bright spots in a sea of breathing plants, the world around them an eddy of green. Imagine the taste of the air, like spring water, sharp and clear and cool and easy. They were beautiful, trailing beside each other with loosely linked hands. One of them, me, wore a gun on their shoulder. Winchester model 70, a hunting rifle with a cherry wood stock and a leather strap.
They were in love.
Maybe you stop and ask me if this story has a happy ending. I will smile, take a drink.
There was a dog as well, weaving carelessly through the two boys’ legs, twisting his leash around the softer boy’s wrist. An old, loping mutt with greys growing in around his snout and ears. Blind and deaf with old age.
You want to ask me his name, I smile and remind you about the gun.
Yes, the boy with the gun. Me, once upon a time.
He dropped to his knees in the earth, knocked the stock into his shoulder. Waited,
watching, and breathing while the other boy, the angel, tied the old dog to a tree. He’d stopped, pressed a slow careful kiss to the top of the mutt’s head.
All three of them breathed, slowly, together. One boy joined the other, praying in the dirt, knees caked in mud. The dog sat, patient, waiting.
I think you’ve figured it out by now. I’m sorry, but you should always assume the dog will die. And the dog did die, with a yelp and a gunshot and a hard wince.
And the boy who is me pressed hot tears into his lover’s shoulder. And he, a saint, held me in the dirt, rifle discarded.
‘Toby,’ I whisper, ‘the dog’s name was Toby.’
You are probably upset, and I am too. There is a long silent moment where the ending sinks in again, for both of us.
‘Are you a dog person?’ I ask, and when you give your answer I will nod and order us each another round. And we, together in meditation, drink.
When the sun starts to come up, we leave the bar and walk along the Seine. Paris is romantic, lovely in the pale morning light. Some artistic god has painted the skyline in shades of pink and blue, I trace the outline of small wispy clouds with my fingernail.
I let you point out my tattoos, one by one, and make up reasons for all of them. In turn you tell me about your mother.
We could be a scene in a movie. Each of us trading questions and answers, secrets and lies. Did I really break my arm in second grade, or does it just add texture to the scene?
There are ugly parts of this moment as well, the smell of the river is noxious and unhealthy. The kind of smell that fogs and crowds and boxes in until you can’t remember a time in which it didn’t engulf you.
The setting is bittersweet.
As the city comes alive slowly around us, you will ask me about the boys again.
I will stop, we will watch a couple kiss on a nearby footbridge, and then I will sigh.
I’ll remind you that there is no happy ending. That they were in love, helplessly in love, and that was not and never will be okay.
But you ask me to tell you the rest anyway, so I will.
I’ll tell the ways they are forced to grow out of youth and into calloused adulthood. Young men with stained, scratched hands from work in cotton gins and mechanics shops. Both maturing into spitting images of their fathers. The way their mother’s worried over weddings and engagements. But they were still so helplessly in love, however unallowed it was.
On a New Year’s Eve a few years ago, they’d kissed under a lit-up magnolia tree at the stroke of midnight. Licking the taste of rum off the inside of each other’s mouths, each other’s resolutions.
Stolen moments and stolen time.
Three days later he took his daddy’s rifle out to the backwoods and shot himself, like a dog.
You will try to think of a good answer, a comforting word. Don’t, there isn’t one. And finally, you will ask me in the harsh morning light why I am in Paris. City of love.
I will tell you all the ways he haunts me. How I still felt the beat of his gentle heart lying in bed at night, ghost of his lips against my own.
I am still a devil of a boy, a young man now, and I am running away. From memories of eyes blue like clear lake water. From hands pressed hot on ribs. From his mortality. From the love that settles in the pit of my stomach like a heavy stone.
We don’t get a happy ending. Him and I. Any of us.
You will tell me what a terrible story that was. And I’ll nod, I know.
Around us, Paris wakes up, and goes on.
Grace Harvey is a Brisbane based, Roma born, fiction writer with a love for telling stories. Her work focuses heavily on characters and concepts of morality. Currently, she is pursuing a degree in creative writing at QUT and completing her manuscript, Son of Morning. She has performed at the QUT lit salon and has her work in Issue #2 of ScratchThat.