Years ago in Paris, I was sleeping head-to-toe with a friend named Jala Amirfar. I hoped that if I made the bed with hospital corners and a decorative foot runner, she’d understand that there were better arrangements available to us, but Jala had a firm sense of how things ought to be. She’d clutch her pillow and disappear headfirst under the blanket just as I turned out the light, and while my eyes adjusted to the dark, I’d hear the hiss of the cheap flannel sheets sliding out of the mattress’s grip and feel the burst of cool air on my toes. She always fell asleep immediately after repositioning herself. I’d lie awake, sometimes for hours, considering the situation and knowing that certain conclusions were unavoidable.
Jala considered me trifling. She was from Iran by way of Edinburgh. Like many students in Paris, she had come a long distance to brood in optimal conditions. Her coat pockets were filled with tattered notebooks, and I would find her sitting with the gypsies who sold scarves outside the university. “They’re the real artists in this city,” she said to me once. “And no one even knows they’re here.” She often made singular discoveries like that, and I was a good listener who could appreciate contrariness for its own sake.
This was Jala’s long dreamed-of year on the continent, and I wasn’t at all the kind of man she intended to sleep with right-side-up in Paris. The first time we met, outside the Place Monge cafeteria, she asked me for a lighter, and I told her a story about my childhood asthma. I was American and short on money, and it must have seemed like I was always rushing off in the direction of some cheap meal or else looking cheerful about having found a museum with free admission. But we had three classes together and became friends in that fast and easy way that students do when they’re far from home. We swapped notes and studied for exams, and at Christmas, when all the French students left the city, we went to the movies almost every afternoon. That spring, she began staying with me one or two nights a week because service on her train, the nº 11, was interrupted for track maintenance and because she knew just a few other people in town and none of them well. From the first, she insisted on sleeping in that mixed-up way, with the sheets in disarray and her white-socked feet beside my chin.
Demeaning as our routine was, I was glad to have Jala so close, and believed that I could complicate her views. On nights when she stayed over, I played Jacques Brel albums, scattered around empty wine bottles, and made claims with an off-handed air, as though she were getting to know the real me: that I had attended reform school in some rural outpost, that I was planning a trip to Budapest, that I went to dog races at the Stade Municipal and once saw a greyhound shot. Jala’s eyes were black and brutally adept at conveying disinterest.
One evening, when there were signs on the metro stairs and the bus shelters announcing repairs on several lines, I was late coming home and found Jala on my doorstep. The nights were still cool, and she seemed to expect an excuse or an apology. I told her that I’d been in an old bookshop. “The hours slip away from me,” I said. “I lose the whole world when I’m there.”
I don’t remember where I’d really been. At a market nearby they would sometimes fry the leftover scraps of white fish to sell in sandwiches, and on those nights I would have my dinner at the stall while the other customers and the mongers taught me words for the different parts of the fish. But I’d become accustomed to speaking this way when Jala was around, to being surprised at the sound and meaning of what came out. The lies had no great strategy behind them. I was just feeling my way down a dark hall.
“I didn’t know you like to go to bookshops,” she said and took a step in close. Because of how we slept, I didn’t often have the chance to observe her so squarely. Strands of hair were falling loose from behind her ears, which were pink from the cold. Her lips were parted and there was Nutella on her breath or in the air around us. “Which ones do you like?”
“The oldest shops,” I said. “You can’t hurry that sort of atmosphere.”
She nodded, as though she understood precisely what this meant, and I must have been at least tempted to ask her to explain it to me. “Maybe you could take me along some time,” she said, “if I promise not to spoil the atmosphere.”
The next week, I spent every afternoon looking for a bookshop. Someone had given me a guide with a section on “literary secrets,” and, lacking for patience and better advice, I worked my way through the list. But there was something wrong with each place. Bright lights, impatient shopkeepers, sections on design and décor. These weren’t the spots where a sulking loner would lose himself or the world, and if he did, he wouldn’t boast about it to a girl like Jala. Finally, I came to the last recommendation, the attic reading room at Shakespeare & Co., which of course wasn’t a great literary secret, since even I knew about it, but at least had dusty books and was accessed by a ladder.
I was spent of ideas and found myself in the attic several days in a row. There were places to sit, and notwithstanding the backpackers who posed for pictures with the Shakespeare bust, it could be a comfortable place. There was only one other regular at the time, an old man who worked on a typewriter at a schoolboy’s desk beside the window. The corner was exclusively his, and this struck me as something modest I could aspire to while I waited for a plan. I chose a military-issue cot along the wall and began to think of it with some pride of ownership. The old man would nod hello when I came in, and I spent hours wondering whether all this might somehow be enough to impress Jala.
One night in the attic, after I’d been visiting for over a week, the old man came over to me. Strangers have always felt comfortable approaching me this way, without pretense or introduction, and even in Paris, I was often stopped on the street and treated harshly when I didn’t know the way to the nearest bakery or metro station. But the old man was almost bashful. He smelled like sandalwood aftershave, and I could see from his eyes that he wanted to confide.
Without a word, he kneeled down, emptied a fiction shelf book-by-book and unpinned a photograph from the wall: a black and white image of a man in an undershirt, wrapped in a striped blanket and stretched out on a cot. It was my cot, and the same blanket was folded at its foot.
“Kerouac,” the old man said, seeing me hesitate. He whispered, like the backpackers would find the name too provocative. “That’s some cot you got there.”
I looked closer at the picture. There was something grizzled and skittish and heedless about the face.
“He used to work right over there,” the old man said, pointing at his desk. “Same as I work. We’ve got a nice little setup, don’t we? Plum.”
He seemed to savor the pop of that final word, but I didn’t even have the sense to agree. I was already busy scheming. Jala would know about the bookshop and the attic and the writers who used to stay overnight, but it was my cot, and with an artful sequencing I could show her that it had once been Kerouac’s cot, too, and really, that ought to mean something to a girl who came halfway round the world to wallow on riverbanks, who kept a diary, who looked at her reflection in shop windows to see how French contorted her mouth, who had for friends only a few gypsies and me.
I asked the old man whether he would be there again tomorrow. He was reshelving the books, and when he looked over his shoulder, I was struck again by the welcome in his eyes.
“Where else are we gonna be?”
The next day, Jala and I met outside the university. The nº 11 train was still down, and I told her that I needed to make a stop on the way home. We walked down the Place du Panthéon, which wasn’t direct, but was steep and cobbled, then along the quai, where the crowds pressed us so close together I thought she might take my arm.
“Is this your secret bookshop?” she asked when we came to the storefront. She rarely allowed any inflection in her voice and I could never be sure whether her tone was mocking or sincere.
“There’s a book haunting me,” I said. “I need to finish it.”
We pushed through the crowded retail floor and climbed the ladder. I told her that the cot was mine, and she sat cross-legged beside me reading a chapbook, with Kerouac’s blanket wrapped around her legs. There were no tourists that night, but the old man was in his usual spot, making a pleasant racket on the typewriter. He would look over his shoulder now and again, and when he saw that we were still there he would nod happily.
“I think he might be a monk,” Jala said, whispering. “He’s copying out Bibles.”
At this, the typing stopped. The old man’s eyes scanned the room until they reached the shelf where the photograph was hidden, and I moved closer to Jala, believing that my new friend and I had an unspoken agreement to reenact the unveiling. But when he stood and began toward us, I realized that perhaps I hadn’t taken his full measure. With the desk and the typewriter in front of him, he had a respectable look. Elegant, even. But I saw now that he was a little unkempt, a little damp, and that there was something unusual about the way he clutched his sheet of paper.
“I’ve written a poem,” he said.
I tried to ask whether there was something on the wall he might like to show us, an artifact of some sort, but he spoke over me.
“My poem’s about the two of you.”
He began to recite. It was an admirable reading voice, really. Confident and weary, the hint of an old New England accent. And at first, the poem really was about the two of us. There was a line about a “star-bless’t husband,” which I took to be me, and I felt that, after all, this was alluring in its own way and might speak to something in Jala.
But the second verse took a sharp turn. The husband was forgotten, and the focus shifted to the poet himself. I can say now that it was the better verse, the allusions more concrete, the rhythm pounding. The gist was that after finishing up at the bookshop, the old man intended to visit the public showers on the other side of the Jardin des Plantes, where he would masturbate while thinking of Jala.
Before he could begin the third verse, I jumped up from the cot and forced him across the room. I remember how Jala perked up at this, how I felt the urgency of being watched by her, and how the old man noticed my trembling. I tried to push him against the desk, but he held upright and shot his hands into his pockets. He seemed comfortable. Jaunty, almost.
“That’s some cot you got there,” he said. “Plum setup for the both of us. Absolutely plum.”
It felt like minutes went by while I tried to speak. I couldn’t force him any further and I couldn’t match the insult or the lunacy. I looked over my shoulder and saw that Jala was already beginning to lose interest. Everything was moving too quickly. She opened the chapbook and began looking for the line where she left off. Seeing in her that familiar indifference, my resolve sputtered away.
The old man understood how it was and grinned. His eyes and teeth were yellowed. “Kerouac’s cot. Kerouac’s blanket. All his.” He rocked back on his heels and peeled down the front collar of his shirt, where the flesh was pocked with a dozen red dots. “His fleas, too.”
The gesture was so disdainful, so grimy, and I was at such a loss, that I could only skulk away. I lifted the flea-sodden blanket off Jala’s lap and dropped it to the floor. She seemed happy enough to be leaving. Probably she’d visited the attic reading room her first week in town. All that time spent scouring Paris for something black and tortured and bookish, and I was more trifling than ever. On my way down the ladder, I caught a final glimpse of the old man, reveling in the filth, reaching over to his windowsill and beckoning the jays in the linden tree to sing, as though that godforsaken room were filled with nothing but good cheer and Parisian spring.
In bed that night, after I turned out the light, Jala didn’t reposition herself immediately. The hospital corners and the decorative runner were intact, and there was a faint light from an apartment across the courtyard.
She began to talk, maybe more than she had since I’d known her. She told me about bathhouses at home and the sinewy little men who worked all day in the steam. Farsi love poems she’d heard declaimed in public squares when she was a girl in Shiraz. The punishments for sexual deviants and the pity she had felt. “Can you imagine what they would do to an old lech like that?” she said. “He’d either get killed or become a cleric.”
I was unaccustomed to pillow talk of any sort, and she seemed even to be making an effort to charm. My breathing quickened while I listened to the stories, and I began to sweat. At that time, lust tended to rush up on me in much the same way people would on the street, with that abrupt frankness and the expectation that I give directions to a place I’d never heard of. I searched for ways to cross the narrow space between us, but the sheets were tucked so mercilessly and there wasn’t a way of moving beneath them that felt right.
And then alongside lust came the histamines. First, a flutter on my arm, so light I could almost ignore it. But the flutter became a series of pricks that pulsed across my chest. Jala and the wine we’d drunk before bed and the image of the old man’s pocked breast were conspiring to boil everything beneath my skin.
I wriggled free of the sheets and crossed the dark apartment to the bathroom, where I stripped down and examined myself in the mirror. There was nothing but pale, chaste skin, while only ten feet away, on the other side of the door, was the opportunity I had been waiting for. But I stepped closer to the glass and believed I could make out the first faint outlines of flea bites, and imagined that in the pivotal moment, amidst the confusion, my aroused blood would go rushing in every direction and fill in the hollow mounds like a hundred tiny erections.
By the time I was finally calm enough to leave the bathroom, Jala was asleep, with the sheets pried loose, the runner in a sad heap on the floor, and her feet beside my pillow. I lied awake thinking how little I knew about her and how there would never be another moment when she would tell me about the steam baths in Shiraz.
The next morning, Jala went looking for a bus, and I stood for what seemed like a very long time in that same spot before the bathroom mirror. The ache of the squandered chance was gone, but now there was a new sensation. Eight bites on my stomach and chest. They were real and irritable, and when scratched, each one shot a stinging pain across the full grid.
I’d never been inside a French pharmacy. Notwithstanding the antiseptic green cross over the door, the shelves were packed with makeup and anti-aging salves, and all the shopgirls had skin like creamed meringues. I almost turned back out the door, but by this time, the itch was becoming unbearable. I was flush and slick from the effort of not scratching and from the embarrassment of having come. But there was one girl in a sky-blue apron who looked heartier than the others, so with downcast eyes and all the dignity I could muster, I called her madame, lifted up my shirt, and asked for help.
Given my state, she might have called security or shouted me out the door herself, but instead she laughed sweetly and came closer. With a rustic accent, she explained that there was no cause for panic, that these were simple bites of the kind one finds every day on a farm. She ran her fingers over the marks and said, “t’inquiète pas,” looking up to see that I understood she addressed me as a familiar.
A blue bottle, almost the same shade as her apron, was produced from behind the counter, and she began to mime the course of treatment on herself. A dab of cream, a fingertip touch, and a gentle puff of air on each spot. Every gesture was precise and generous. For a moment her plump body was a musical instrument being tuned in anticipation of a great concert. I searched for the words to tell her, but at that age I knew so few of the right ones in any language. So I emptied my pockets and she helped me count out the sum, coin-by-coin.
The nº 11 train was running that night, so I was alone, dabbing and blowing. Too tender to sleep, I left the apartment and began to walk. Down the narrow lanes and across the river, through the Marais, past the nightclubs and the kosher butchers and the gated courtyards, until I found myself in Belleville, where Jala lived. Somewhere in my school notebooks, I had her address written down, but I realized, looking over an unfamiliar square, that I had never been to her home. I didn’t even know her street. She was somewhere near the Jourdain station, the same as a thousand other people, maybe more. Crossing over the canal, the wind riled up my itch, and by the time I reached the river, the sun was coming up and the first trash barges were out on the water.
I kept applying the cream just as instructed. Every four hours, I tried to be delicate and loving and to purse my lips before blowing. But new bites were sprouting up, and the original eight seemed invigorated by the cleanse and by the night air. I spent hours looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, and I couldn’t help feeling that where the skin was pink and raised it belonged to someone else. That any moment the first bite would appear on my jaw, then another on my cheek and one on the bridge of my nose. That soon there’d be nothing left to recognize. I kept watching my reflection, not because I wanted to see the progress, but because some part of me was resigned and sentimental and believed that this was farewell.
On Monday, I was still there. But when I saw the sharp juvenile bumps piercing through the surface, I finally acknowledged that I was dealing with more than an irritation. I’d been infested. At the thrift store run by the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, I bought two pairs of pants, two shirts, and a worsted wool sweater, then went home and put all my old clothes into a garbage pale in the courtyard and lit them on fire. They burned quickly and made a sweet black smoke. One of my neighbors, an old widow who lived across the way, was watching from her window and sipping at something in a crystal glass. She nodded gravely at the fire and seemed to agree that life demands many sacrifices from those who would love.
After the fire, I went to the university to see what had become of Jala. We had a class together that day, Libertinage and Eighteenth-Century Letters. In my weakness, I imagined that she would be evicted from her building for bringing in fleas and would move into my apartment, where we could live and scratch together in a shadow of bliss. But I watched her for an hour, while the professor yammered on about the sovereignty of the senses, and not once did she scratch or fidget or even turn to see me suffering.
With a chain of rashes and twenty-six bites running nape to navel, I went back to the bookshop. The old man climbed into the attic at nightfall, breezy and clean, direct from a session in the public showers. He looked me up and down and seemed to approve of the thrift store outfit. Save for a cardigan in place of his tweed jacket, we were dressed alike.
“It’s a stubborn breed,” he said. “Dogged as any I’ve seen. They get fond of a body. But I’ve got a way, if that’s why you’re here.”
He winked and lowered his collar to show me his healed skin. I wanted to be angry with him, but managed only a muffled, “Please.”
“Acquiesce,” he said. He pulled out the chair in front of his typewriter. “Stop struggling. Spend the night. Might be inoculation, might be pity, but it works.”
I was willing to be led. I sat very still, trying not to feel the fleas bushwhacking across me. Eventually, I slumped down and let my arms hang. It seemed like weeks since I’d slept comfortably. Maybe I hadn’t known a peaceful night in that city.
“That’s right,” he said, watching me like a star pupil. “Let go.”
At eleven, a woman from the shop came up and asked whether we would spend the night. Without answering, the old man followed her down the ladder, and a moment later I heard the definitive clank of a padlock. The room was dark, but the lights from the street and the cathedral reached my desk, and I felt that while the blackness around me was alive and teeming, I might be left alone as long as I stayed in that faint sphere of light.
To pass the time, I began a letter to my parents, whom I hadn’t called or written in months. But a typed letter seemed an ominous way for a son who wasn’t a fugitive or a madman to reestablish contact after so long, so I scrapped the sheet and, after wrestling for a time with the carriage lever, loaded a new one and typed out “Dear Jala.”
I’d tried so many other routes—the invented past, the search for a bookshop, sharing my bed in unnatural ways—that I thought a love letter could do no worse. It went on for several paragraphs about the footbridges we had crossed together and the sidewalks where chalk drawings dissolved in the rain, until, even in my desperate state, I couldn’t deny any longer how empty it all was. I ripped the paper into strips and tossed them out the open window. Some stuck in the tree branches, others fell into the gutter, and I felt a great comfort knowing they could never be pieced back together.
In the plaza below, the waiters were closing up for the night. I leaned on the windowsill, listening to them chat in that rapid, woeful accent they have in the capital.
“She wants someone with a car. She hates the scooter. She gets cold so easily.”
“What are you going to do? You can’t afford a car. And where would you park it? Who has a car in Paris?”
“That’s what I told her. Does she want a Parisian or does she want a car? Anyway, if you don’t mind finishing, I’ll leave now. It’s a long walk.”
“You didn’t ride the scooter?”
“I was bringing her into the center, and she refused to ride. We took the train.”
“But it’s too late for the train. You’ll have to walk an hour just to find a bus.”
“It’s pleasant enough to walk at night. And I should consider this thing. I need to decide what to do about the scooter.”
“Sell it to me. Or give me the woman. Whichever you prefer.”
Through the leaves, I could make out glimpses of the waiters, the one struggling with a knot at the back of his vest, the other tilting a heat lamp onto its wheels. I imagined what the next hour held for them. The hangdog walk across the river, the damp rag on the tables, each brooding over the loss or gain of a scooter or a woman. I felt in comparison like an unforgiveable imposter and was grateful to be locked away in that attic. Thinking of my bed at home, I was ashamed. The sheets, tucked so carefully, the whites of Jala’s socks, and the space between our misaligned bodies thickening like concrete. I searched my chest for the sharpest bite, and, taking it between my fingers, squeezed. The cold pain rushed up and down my body and it seemed that I was feeling certain parts—tendons, ligaments, entire limbs—for the first time. I wanted to call down to the waiter, to point at the parts and to ask him, like a child, the names of each, but it was late and the man was trying to finish his work, so I sat back in my chair and watched him put away the last of the lamps.
When the plaza was quiet and empty, I began a new letter. I read it several times but never felt the need to revise, and even now I have a distinct, if not perfect, memory of it.
I think of you when I’m in the shower. At a certain point it’s a relief just to tell you something true. In the mornings, when you stay over, I always wake up before you, and in the shower I get rid of all the night’s tension and longing with a beautiful tug at myself. I have hot water and good pressure and I don’t feel ashamed for a second. I think of you and it feels wonderful. I hope this doesn’t offend you, but if it does, I don’t think I’m to blame.
With the letter still in the typewriter I dozed off and enjoyed a ten-hour oblivion. I woke to the little jays in the linden tree and the sun already halfway up the cathedral’s steeple. A steam radiator had started in the night, and I’d worked up a sweat while I slept. The same woman who locked me in the night before came up to say hello, and I sat with her on the bench outside the shop, sharing a cup of coffee while the tourist boats idled along the riverbank.
Before leaving, I asked her for a stamp, and she offered to mail anything I might have, so I took out the scrap of paper where I’d scribbled Jala’s address and gave it to her with the letter. It seemed a good enough solution to leave the matter in her hands and to walk away unburdened.
I cut across the little garden, past what they say is the oldest tree in Paris, and caught a bus speeding down St. Germain, an express bus that simply roared through the tired old city. I knew that the bites would be gone in a day or two, as the old man said, and while they lasted, I wanted to go back to the store with the green cross over the door and the shopgirl with the rustic accent, to show her my stomach, to feel her charity, and to say anything that came to mind, if she would only run the soft backs of her fingers over my marks again.