Finalist for the 2020 QUT Allen and Unwin Writers Prize
This work contains explicit sexual content.
“The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful. We are not then taunted as in the summer by the longing for shade and solitude and sweet airs from the hayfields. The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves. As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room.”
Virginia Woolf, ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’
Everybody who’s been to Paris has something to say about it: it’s overrated; it smells like piss; it’s rude, unfriendly, and overpriced. I find that in keeping one’s expectations set to a default low, the world has no choice but to continually exceed them (the antithesis of a hype-girl, I know). I’d already seen someone shit in the Edinburgh high street and sat next to a man with his dick out on the Piccadilly tube; the bar for Europe1 was low. Keeping all of the above in mind, this rule applied tenfold on my virgin tour to Paris.
But the moment my boots tripped over the pavement of Avenue de Friedland, I was enraptured. The lingering erotically infused stares of strangers; the million-dollar (or million-euro) daddies treating sugar babies to caviar and Champagne at Chez Pitou; even the persistent way hagglers jangled tacky miniature monuments in my face at the base of the Eiffel Tower — I was head over heels for all of it.
Parisians weren’t rude so much as they were upfront. After months of navigating England’s genteel sensibilities and 12 different ways of saying ‘no’ without actually saying ‘no’, I welcomed the frank nature of the French with open arms and European kisses. Here, it was as simple as a brisk ‘non’ followed by zero explanation as to why, as if everybody were saving their energy for conversations far more serious and important. Hot. Trés intellectuel.
A week of deep-throating baguettes and les fromages passed and I was kissing the friends I’d arrived with goodbye; tears on our cheeks and rain in our hair (so French, I’m almost gagging). We’d been travelling together so long at this point that we knew each other’s thoughts and bowel movements as well as we knew our own. We wouldn’t be together again until we were back on Australian soil, still many months and many adventures away for all three of us.
My last night in Paris was to be solely for me. One-on-one time with the city of love and light. There was only one way to do it: spend money I didn’t have, and I spend money I didn’t have hard. Oysters and champagne I couldn’t pronounce for an A-list aperitif; linguine vongole and bottle of red for main; and an evening performance of Funny Girl at the Theatre Marigny in lieu of macarons for dessert—Ladurée isn’t worth the line nor the euros.
The streets around the Marigny split off in every which way. I watched my fellow theatre-goers slip from the intimacy we’d shared whilst jammed together for two hours and into their respective arrondissements. The red light from the neon Funny Girl sign blinked down on me, alone again in a now eerily deserted Paris. Home for the week was a hostel in Belleville, a far flung neighbourhood spread across four different arrondissements on the outermost edge of the city. Most people believe Paris’ highest peak is in Montmartre at the top of Sacré-Cœur, but it’s actually tucked away in sleepy little Belleville at Parc de Belleville. From where I was standing, it was an hour and a half walk. The Metro workers were on strike and after a day spent burning holes in my pocket, a €60 Uber was out of the question. I slipped my noise cancelling headphones on, pumped Indochine on loud, lit a cigarette, and marched into the monstrosity of the city with the confidence of both a drunk and a local. Très, très Français, et très, très tragique.
Twenty minutes later, the green and gilt copper domes and statues that crown the Palais Garnier peaked over the rooftops of the 9th arrondissement, radiant even when lit up by the amber and artificial nightlight of the street. Built in the style of Napoleon III—that is, stupidly and gloriously abundant in ornament and reference to other styles—it commands attention. The history is just as, if not more, arresting than the design. At an evening performance in 1896, a seven-tonne chandelier broke free from its counterweights and came crashing down on the audience, injuring many and killing one. The fatal accident fuelled local rumours of a deformed man who allegedly lived on the edge of a cistern beneath the opera house’s foundations, the same cistern that is today used by the Parisian fire-fighting department for underwater training. “The opera ghost!” reported the newspapers, “It was the opera ghost!” A refrain and legend that would later become immortalised in Gaston Leroux’s 1909 novel The Phantom of the Opera.
When my attention for the Garnier and its history expired, I turned over the possibility of other secrets pulsed beneath the city’s surface and continued carrying on home to Belleville.
With my back to the street, I stood on the stoop of a Monoprix and cupped one hand around a cigarette, manically clicking my lighter with the other. In real life—life in sober, little Brisbane—I wouldn’t smoke, but even the staunchest fall prey to the glamour of puffing nicotine into the cool, Parisian night air. Someone coughed behind me. Once, twice, then a third time—more pointedly—trying to catch my attention.
An outstretched hand held a lighter to me. “Merci,” I said, leaning in. He was maybe a few years my senior, with heavy, thick eyelashes like a cow and pretty brown eyes which watched me while I waited for the tip of my cigarette to catch. When I leant back I caught him winking at me in the flicker of the flame.
Was I being seduced? Was it a French thing? Maybe winking meant ‘thank you’ here. Maybe I was just a stupid, drunk, lonely foreigner abusing the romantic reputation of this city at every chance I had. Needless to say, after spending 30 days straight sleeping butt-to-butt with my girlfriends, my body was desperate for the company and attention of men.
He squeezed my arm and turned into the street, but before rounding the corner he threw a glance back over his shoulder to me, a devilish smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. Hooked and beguiled, my knees quivered like jelly on a plate in motion. I threw caution, stranger danger, and street-smarts to the wind and followed this perfect stranger into the cobblestoned alley, where I would probably be mugged, slain, left for dead. CURIOSITY KILLED THE TOURIST or DUMB AUSSIE THOT: BEHEADED AND PENNILESS the headlines would read above a snap of me caught punch-drunk and stumbling on CCTV.
But the man was nowhere to be seen. I did a double-take, trying to remember how much wine I’d splurged on in my excess, and then I heard a heavy, iron door clang shut. I moved toward the sound. Was I crazy? Exhausted from travelling, from street walking in a foreign city, from gorging on heavenly goods?
All I could see was a large, black door, sans handle. Placing both palms on it, I pushed. Nothing. I pressed my fingers into the cracks between the bricks surrounding it, searching for some secret, disguised doorbell. Still nothing. After walking away several times and returning back to the door I’d all but forgotten the man from earlier, instead consumed with uncovering the mystery of this entryway. Then something behind it clicked, and I tumbled from the street into a small, dark room, just big enough for me, the bag over my shoulder, and the tall, leather-clad gentleman who greeted me.
I knew exactly what I’d stepped into the second I saw his vinyl biker cap and assless chaps. I might have been plain drunk, but I wasn’t plain stupid.
When I was freshly 18, I sat on the steps of a church in West End, watching men come and go from a small, blue door in the adjacent carpark. Some of them wore business suits and straightened their ties on exit, others wore scraps of athleisure, tight t-shirts, and tube socks. Outside, they shook hands and patted one another on the back before stepping into separate cars or flagging down buses going in different directions.
The small, blue door was what I’d come for that day. I was merely buying time on the church steps, trying to visually distance myself from the locale across the road by association with St Mary’s, taking the time to hype myself up while I sussed out the patrons. After what felt like the longest forty minutes I’d ever spent sitting, waiting, and, effectively, perving, I embarked on what would be the first of many forays in the subculture of cruising. On the other side of the door was a booth—much like the one my drunk ass had just stumbled into in Paris—where a young concierge of sorts stood guarding entry to another door, one which barred unwelcome visitors from the rest of the venue with a padlock. Every cruising club has its own Cerberus guarding the gates to what waits on the other side, the one in West End was thinnish except for a muffin top that pressed the front of his white, ribbed wife-beater singlet. I’d expected a muscle daddy in head-to-toe leather with facial piercings, not that I had anything to compare him to. Instead, he reminded me of the boy that used to serve me at VideoEzy; nice; kind of awkward; probably about to recommend The Butterfly Effect for the twelve-hundredth time.
“Do you know where you are?” he asked me when I handed him back the slip with my personal details.
I nodded yes.
“Alrighhhht,” he said, his tone one of disbelief, like a sibling waiting to prove you wrong. He stepped out of his booth and un-padlocked the door, “Follow me.”
He showed me to a locker room, gave me a towel, and told me to relax. “Most of the guys in today are regulars. They’re all pretty easygoing and can take a hint if you’re not interested, so don’t do anything you don’t wanna do. I don’t think they’ll be your type,” meaning they were mostly older gentlemen, “but you’ll be popular.” Then he left me to undress.
I didn’t fuck anyone that day and nobody fucked me (yet somehow I still managed to get crabs). But he was right, they ate me up and I loved every second of it. It was like IRL Grindr, sans preference settings. You couldn’t swipe past someone for being too old, or too fat, or for having a crooked smile. Sounds like a recipe for disaster—randy men roaming around on the hunt for cock—but without the distance and anonymity of the Internet, people were kinder.
By the time I got to Paris I was a seasoned thot. This time I would make every cent of the cover fee worth it.
The gentleman ushered me into a corner of the next room, where I was told to strip and empty my belongings into a black plastic garbage bag which he set on a stool beside me.
“Bring this to the bar when you’re ready,” he said, and disappeared.
I stood there for a moment, feeling the heat of eight sets of eyes watched me from the bar; four hot—hot—Parisian hunks sat sipping beers, looking like everything I’d ever wanted to be when I grew up. They were like lions, naked and bulging in all the right places, nonchalantly licking their chops and sizing me up to see if I was worth their time or energy. Usually cruising bars offered locker rooms where one could disrobe with more grace and privacy, or at the very least provided a towel to wrap around the waist in exchange for your clothes. Here, it was all guts, all glory. So bloody French. I already hated my body, but I hated it 12 times more with their eyes scrutinising every last inch of me as I did my best to wriggle out of my jeans, long-johns, and four different thermal tops in the sexiest way possible.
“Your drink token, monsieur,” said the bartender when I handed him my sack of clothes and dignity. He was the same gentleman who’d given me entry.
“Merci,” I said feebly, cupping my pink bits and blushing.
Although I’d spent the past seven hours getting loaded on booze I couldn’t afford, I was suddenly back in a stone-cold sober state of mind faster than it takes to say ‘gay sex orgy’.
I handed my drink token back to the bartender almost immediately and ordered the only drink I recognised/could pronounce, “Un Heineken, s’il vous plaît.”
Remembering I was butt naked, I instantly regretted ordering a pint of beer. How does one forget they’re butt naked in a room full of archetypal studs? Maybe I was plain stupid. My inner-monologue turned into a tirade of barking orders: chin up; back straight; tummy in; bum out; be hot—as if by mentally contorting my body into these shapes I’d morph into one of the dreamboats skulking beside me at the bar. Nevertheless, I swallowed my Heineken before the pint-glass had a chance to leave a ring of condensation on the countertop. I’d need a lot more than a 5% lager before getting down and dirty with the complete 10s around me.
“Première fois?” whispered a pair of wet lips in my ear. I turned my head to meet the gaze of two nipples. In a moment of clarity, I clocked every goose-bump, every kinked hair, crowding his small, tan areolas. “Mes yeux sont là en haut,” said the lips north of the nipples. I followed a pair of fingers that jokingly gestured upward to a set of dark, brown eyes. The man from outside. I blinked at him.
“Uhh—Je ne parle pas bien le français—désolé,” I said apologetically.
He tutted. “Euh, américain?”
I groaned. Why always American before Australian? I’d even cop British over American. Fuck’s sake. “Do I seem American?”
“Non.” His gaze slid from my eyes, over my body, and down to my left hand, which I was still using to fiercely protect my loins from the searching stares of our naked comrades. “Just lost.”
He dragged me through a large glass sliding door that opened into an outdoor smokers’ area, and for the second time that night, put a cigarette to my lips and lit it. The smokers’ was a small, sunken box hidden from street view by a tall stone wall. With space to finally breathe and let my belly hang free, I took in the layout of the bar properly for the first time. It was a small space with a small dance floor, the only thing that distinguished it from other gay bars was the presence of naked bodies. Naked bodies with fantastic asses. I watched the men inside mill around the bar, occasionally leaning in close to another to say something over the music. Then one would disappear to the corner of the room, where there was a staircase I hadn’t noticed at first, spiralling downward and out of sight into the depths of Paris. One could only imagine what was going on down there.
Our chatter slipped between broken English and broken French. He was from Lebanon, he said. He’d come to Paris two years ago. I asked him if he’d been home since. He hadn’t. I said I’d only been away from home for six months and I already missed it.
“Do they have places like this where you’re from?” he asked.
“Some baths, some saunas,” I said. “And in Lebanon?”
“Ahhh, it is not so bad in Lebanon, but there is nothing like this,” he said, flicking a crackle of embers toward the goings-on on the other side of the glass. He said in Paris he could do what he wanted, wear what he wanted, fuck who he wanted. In Lebanon being gay was fine, not great, but okay. In Paris, it was an unearthly pleasure. I had to agree. Even on the streets, there was a lack of censorship. Everything was just there, in your face.
Another muscular figure cracked the glass door and broke through the nicotine haze. His chest was impressively hairy—I’m talking seventies porno hairy. I wondered if it kept him warm from the winter night pressing down around us.
“Comment allez-vous?” he said, pulling a cigarette from behind his ear. Great, I thought, More smoke. My balls are going to reek of tobacco for days.
“Ahh, tres bien,” purred my Lebanese accomplice. They spoke in French for some time, all the while keeping me in their gaze. Seventies Porno Guy had left the door ajar when he slipped in, and I noticed everyone else inside had gone downstairs. Even the bartender was gone. I felt the stale and boozy breath of my comrades closing in around me as they traded whispers and sighs, their bodies sandwiching mine between them. Every vein from my toes to my eyeballs thrummed with electricity. I knew something was about to happen—was already happening. But despite being butt-naked, wasted, and high on the liberties that come with being a foreigner, I couldn’t make the first move. What if I’d made a fatal error and they were actually trying to squeeze me out of the equation, not lock me into it with their beautiful, hairy bodies. I was through with words—we could barely understand what the other was saying at this point. I’d have to take physical action. I locked my focus on Seventies Porno Guy’s eyes until he broke his chatter with our Lebanese friend to return my gaze, then I took a deep breath, looked down at his cock, hesitated, and pet it like a baby kitten. I never knew where I stood with cats. He laughed and scratched the back of my head firmly and tenderly, and he stiffened in my hands. The Lebanese boy—the man that started it all—buried his face in my neck and sighed deeply. Go time.
We were a daisy chain of bodies—thick, thin, brown, white, hairy, smooth—moving as one through the emptied upper floor like streams converging into a river, closer to the precise of those stairs that spiralled downward into the bowels of the bar.
The room downstairs was unhandsome, drank, and upfront. On a large, black, leather bed in the centre, three men with disinterested expressions lounged lazily and stroked their cocks. They glazed over us, perhaps taking an intermission from the action that sang from the walls around us. The dimly lit foyer of sorts opened up into even dimmer passages. The boys led me through dark and zig-zagging halls where disembodied penises bloomed from glory holes in varying degrees of firmness, and through archways I caught glimpses of naked torsos hanging in leather straps amid chandeliers that had seen better days and voyeurs who stared come hither at us as we moved deeper. Though sparsely furnished, the rooms teemed with life—animal forms pulsing with the restless and insatiable horniness that afflicts those damned to Dante’s Second Circle.
At the end of a hall, we came to a room with mirrors for walls and ceilings. With my breast aflutter and my drunk and weary head swimming in cries of men in pleasure and pain, I shed my skin and gave myself freely.
Drunkards limped home, intermittently steadying themselves against graffitied brick to turning the contents of their night out onto the Parisian floor, and short, stout, swollen men with rosacea and black sacks under-eye sat smoking on crates outside of three-quarter closed roller-doors. I weaved clumsily between them at full speed on my electric scooter, ass jiggling from the broken pavement underfoot and the early hours of the morning stinging my cheeks.
1 The UK were yet to sever ties with the EU.
Tom Linkins is a bad gay, an okay cook, and a non-fiction writer. He is an editor for the QUT Literary Salon, and editor, contributor, and co-founder of www.roodmood.wtf.
Follow him on Instagram at average.tom and Twitter at homosaid.