They stopped on Boulevard de Clichy at a bar, and then wound up at L’Ane Fontaine, one of the famously sordid bathhouses in Pigalle. It was right down the street from the Moulin Rouge. This bathhouse, like many in the area, charged a steep fee at the door. Then the bored man at the desk handed out towels, sarongs, locker keys, and a handful of condoms. From there, you could spend time at the bar—with seriously overpriced drinks—and watch porn on the surrounding screens. After that you went to the Jacuzzi, the sauna, or the private rooms. Well, mostly private. Sometimes people liked an audience.
Not Corinne, though. The mirrors that hung inside the chamber already made her feel even more naked. Residual sounds of the porn playing on the hallway televisions leaked in. They slid in like shadows and crept into the ear. Fake moans and grunts assaulted Corinne. The added noises from other occupied chambers only made things worse. She couldn’t fathom why anyone would want others to walk in and join, or voyeurs privy to their sex. A dozen of Henri’s eyes looked at her, and that was enough. It was more than enough. He loved Pigalle, but she didn’t really understand why. It was seedy and full of tourists, ejecting them from peep shows like pus from a wound. Corinne hated tourists. She was often mistaken for one, which added to her discomfort. Her father was from Morocco, and the inherited dark hair and tan skin labeled her a foreigner in her own city. She was often complimented on her accent, as though she had struggled to learn her native language. There was never a struggle in her response. Such insults were met by a click of the tongue and a tirade, usually. The racism was bullshit, but everyone had some sort of bias—she was guilty too.
But Henri turned back to her and she focused on him. He didn’t mind that she looked foreign, just as she didn’t mind that he was married. But when he turned to her tonight, Henri looked much older than forty. He would be an old man before her, with sagging flesh and a receding hairline. His sandy hair was already thin when she ran her hands through it. She didn’t like to think about getting older, either; in a few years she would be thirty and expected to settle down. What would Henri look like then?
Perhaps they both drank too much tonight, Corinne thought. She was feeling maudlin, and Henri couldn’t get hard. He pulled back to try for a while, before letting her use her hand. Was this a precursor of what was to come? Or not to come. Henri was getting upset about it, and her assurances didn’t help. If anything, it incensed him. His hand in her hair tightened, before coming to rest firmly on the back of her head, pushing down. Corinne had never been forced like this before, and she had half a mind to scold him, but she couldn’t really articulate it at the moment. Her thoughts were hazy from the alcohol, and the joint they’d smoked together in a side alley before coming to L’Ane Fontaine. He should be nicer to her, though, she thought. But his sweaty fingers clutched her dark hair, keeping her bent over. The smoky incense on this floor clogged her nostrils and she gagged for a moment, unable to breathe. Henri pushed her down further. Her chest felt tight, and she thought she felt something coming, but it wasn’t Henri. Vomit spewed from her mouth as she gagged again, covering his lap with it.
“That wasn’t me,” he said thickly, before he looked down and blinked in shock.
“It was me, sorry,” she murmured, wiping at his lap with the sarong she’d thrown off before. Corinne felt some in her hair and along her chin, and knew she’d have to wear that sarong back to the locker room. She felt horrible and dirty, and just wanted to go home. “I have to go, I’m sorry,” she apologized, moving away from him—he’d let go in shock. Henri looked up at her, his expression confused and a little angry. Were his cheeks turning red, or was that the glow of the room? He made a small, angry noise as he grabbed for a towel to clean up. Corinne slid off the mat and wrapped the stinking sarong around her quivering naked body. Before he could say anything—to ask her to stay or yell about ruining the night—she left. Even though she wiped off most of it in the changing room, she still felt acutely aware of the sludge-like residue clinging to her. All Corinne wanted was a shower and to forget this ever happened.
It was late when Corinne returned to the apartment. The metro turnstiles clanked and locked for the night behind her. Despite all of the fun going on in the ninth and eighteenth arrondissements, or districts, she lived on the Left Bank, all the way down in the fourteenth off of the Porte de Vanves station. It meant a twenty minute metro ride and at least one transfer, but she made it home safely. In this part of Paris, this late, there were mostly just vocal drunks or homeless people—either on the platform or in the cars. They oozed desperation the way certain frogs secreted poisons, rattling a cup of change. The echoes of “I’m hungry, s’il vous plait” haunted the tile station walls. There was also the lurking threat of someone with a knife, just around the corner to mug random passersby. She had never been mugged, although her roommate Sophie had been, once. It was best not to linger at night, particularly in the outer districts. They never had any problems in their apartment, thank goodness. The front and hallway doors had codes to stop anyone with ill-intentions, and the concierge lived on the first floor. An old, eccentric woman, their building’s concierge collected Japanese waving cats and the portraits of famous dead people. Colette bumped elbows with Jean-Paul Sartre and Coco Chanel, while André Gide stared bespectacled and bemused at his neighbor Georges Braque. The concierge’s apartment was cluttered and the door was always open, so she could catch thieves sneaking in while watching an episode of Plus Belle la Vie. It was late, so luckily Corinne didn’t have to make small talk while slinking back to her apartment.
“Ça va, Sophie?” Corinne called when she opened the door. It was a general greeting, unlike the warning call that she had company. Sophie had a flair for casual nudity around the apartment. In the end, Corinne had insisted that she at least wear underwear when in the living room.
“Ça va,” Sophie replied. Her voice was muffled by the bathroom door. She came out after a moment, still running a comb through her thick, damp hair. “How was it? Did you go to a new place?”
“I’m going to get a shower; can you make me a kir?” Corinne asked, evading the question for now.
“Merde, girl,” Sophie breathed, shaking her head. “You’re trouble. Yeah, I was going to open a new bottle and make one myself.” They joked that kir was the poor person’s drink; unable to afford good wine, they would buy a cheap white and a bottle of syrup. A measure of syrup went into the bottom of the glass—they both liked redcurrant—and then the wine. The two liquids would meet and the kir turned a hazy pink.
“Thanks.” Corinne was glad that her roommate was being helpful, especially when she was feeling frustrated. Maybe she would have more than a glass before she went to bed. “Roll a bedo too.”
“I’m already on it,” Sophie assured her. Sophie was the queen of rolling the bedo, a joint with a mixture of hash and tobacco.
When she walked into the bathroom, she washed her hands, idled in front of the mirror for a moment. Getting to the shower, however, she stopped dead. “Sophie! Get this thing out of here!” Edging closer to the tub, she looked at it. A dildo. It was flesh-colored and long, held to the wall of the shower by a suction cup. Corinne didn’t want to touch it herself, nor did she want to run into it while showering. Her usual strategy with Sophie’s toys—ignoring them—wouldn’t work. Gingerly she grabbed a hand towel and pulled the thing off. It resisted, and then pulled free with a loud squelch. Corinne set it on the sink, but it rolled and flopped into the white bowl, making a slapping noise against the porcelain. Refusing to touch it again, Corinne moved away from the wiggling dildo in her sink and started the shower. She glanced back into the sink and saw it was still rocking gently; quivering like it had a pulse. “Are you fucking some putain in the shower and leaving her toys behind?” Corinne demanded from no one. The noise made by the shower was too loud for Sophie to hear her, even if the door was opened.
After she came out of the shower, her jet hair was a roiling mass of tangles. Hopefully it would dry before she fell asleep, but it was unlikely. At least she had scrubbed herself thoroughly, as though to banish more than just the stink of vomit. Still covered by the towel, Corinne hurried into her bedroom. She preferred to be dressed when confronting Sophie.
“You can’t just leave your fucking toys out like that.” Corinne returned to the living room and saw Sophie waiting for her, lounging on the sofa. Her brown hair was pulled into a messy ponytail, and her hazel eyes widened in surprise; she wasn’t expecting any kind of fight tonight.
“Which toys? You never mind,” Sophie countered. She had poured two glasses of kir, and they sat on the coffee table. Most likely she had already drunk one glass, or maybe she had been drinking before.
“The dildo that was attached to the shower wall, you putain,” Corinne replied hotly. We are not all like you, she meant to add.
“I’m not a fucking whore.”
“Well, you’re fucking like one.”
“I take that as a compliment.”
“Well will you at least take your fucking toy back and put it away next time? It’s in the sink,” Corinne informed her.
“Fine. Fine, n’importe quoi.” Whatever, she said. It doesn’t matter. But it did matter; Corinne was tired of picking up after her roommate. But Sophie handed her the glass of kir and waited expectantly for her to take a sip, as though it erased all disagreements with a silent contract. While Corinne sipped at her kir—there was too much syrup in this one—she watched Sophie pick the book up once more. The large thin book was meant to decorate a coffee table, showing off modern artists and the Pompidou Museum, but no one ever looked at it. Sophie called it her “rolling desk,” the book she used to cut the hashish on, then roll her joints. This one turned into a fat, squat little thing, but Sophie’s thin fingers pushed and prodded and squeezed in deft movements. She wore a lot of silver rings, big and garish, and they flashed among the crumbling brown of the hashish and the fluffy tobacco. When it was complete she held up the joint, smiling, and handed it to Corinne. It was another one of her ways of apologizing for the dildo—usually the one burdened with the creative task of rolling it got to savor the results first. The joint was perfect, but Sophie was so practiced that she never rolled a bad one anymore. Corinne snagged it from her roommate’s fingers, and picked up a lighter from the coffee table. When the smoke hit her lungs, she relaxed, feeling the tendrils of a buzz creep down her arms—it was seamless, but she knew smoking would only make her throat hurt worse by the end of the night. Vomiting was hard enough on her esophagus. Leaning back on the sofa, Corinne exhaled in Sophie’s direction, ending in a cough. The other woman wore a loose-fitting shirt and boxers, though there were red welts coiled around her thighs. She glanced down and saw the same marks snaked around her ankles.
“Did you do a bondage show tonight?” Corinne asked curiously. She wasn’t sure if this was for fun or for a performance.
“Yeah, it was part of the Impakt Festival. I was all trussed up like a goose on Noel.”
“I’m sure you were.” Corinne didn’t go to her shows; she’d never been to any of them. Sophie was into bondage. Using scarves to keep your lover’s hands busy was one thing, but this, this only caused dread to rumble in her belly. It sloshed inside her, refusing to be idle while Sophie described the exotic show and who was in it. The tightness of a studded leather collar marked her first, followed by the rope. Sophie had shown her this knot they tied around her breasts, dancing around pinched, pert nipples.
“He’s a cock, you know,” Sophie said after a long moment, returning to Henri and his cheap infidelity.
“Yeah, I know,” she replied. Corinne knew this objectively, but it didn’t help at the moment. All she could think of was Henri’s untidy sandy hair, and how it would look almost red in the sauna. She liked the way his aftershave smelled like citrus, and the way his jaw locked and jutted in the throes of passion. He would always make a face that looked pained, but she thought he looked open and vulnerable. What did his wife think? In her mind, Corinne saw an unattractive woman—she was American, so she pictured her fat—and someone who didn’t know the first thing about loving Henri. But that was because of her bias. It was a strange position to be in, but ultimately it was her husband that made the decision to go out and party, to sleep with other women.
“But his wife is a bitch.”
“All cheating husbands have bitchy wives,” Sophie replied wisely. “Why else would they cheat in the first place?”
“N’importe quoi,” Corinne said with a shrug. Whatever. But she knew it was true. “Marriage is overrated,” she told Sophie. Her roommate agreed; Sophie could only get a civil union certificate with a female partner, though it was essentially the same. At least, she didn’t really see the difference. Corinne had always thought of marriage as a religious ordeal, and her parents were atheists. Sophie would argue with anyone the importance of equality. But in the three months they had lived together, nearly a dozen girlfriends had come and gone. Some were in the porn business as well, and others were fans of her work. ‘I always see something attractive about everyone,’ Sophie told her once. She believed there was no such thing as a straight woman. Corinne disagreed. At first she didn’t think it could work, living with a porn actress. But they made it work. Corinne ignored the toys and wanton nudity. Sophie had the hash connection and never tried to sleep with her.
“Come with me to the Techno Parade,” Sophie asked suddenly. “It’s in two weeks. We should go check it out.”
“Why?” Corinne asked. What was there to do at the Techno Parade? It was crammed with people every year, from St. Michel all the way to St. Germain. Last year there had been a riot and the gendarmes resorted to arresting dozens and brutalizing more. There were thousands who flocked to the wide, cobbled streets that started at one monument and ended at another. The St. Michel fountain was the starting point, and it was already notorious for pickpockets and drug deals; Corinne wished the giant St. Michel would trample everyone. The twisting, fighting Satan could wait. Besides, the music wasn’t even that good, and so loud it could burst an eardrum. As it went on, the parade snaked its way to Place d’Italie, crossing the Seine. All of Paris could hear it, she imagined.
“I’m going to support Marguerite, that director friend of mine,” Sophie informed her.
“Why is she there?” Corinne asked, but immediately knew the answer. “Is one of your porn groups up to something?”
“Just handing out information and stuff.” Sure you are, Corinne thought. I bet it’s another sex workers demonstration, like the last one.
“Maybe. I might be busy.”
“Visiting Henri?” Sophie asked. “What happened tonight? You looked upset when you came in.” She scooted closer to her on the sofa, placing a hand on her knee. It made Corinne feel a little awkward.
“Nothing,” Corinne said dismissively. “Well, I found out he has a son.”
“Prick. Just like Sarkozy,” Sophie declared. She jabbed her thumb in the direction of the large political poster from the 1960’s, that read: SOIS JEUNE ET TAIS TOI. Be young and shut up. Sophie always said that Sarkozy was doing the same thing to all of the French youth. In reality, it was because Sarkozy passed a law that forbade “passive prostitution,” which meant being in certain areas while wearing revealing clothing. Now that he was running for president, Sophie always found a way to bring him up, predicting he would ruin the lives of sex workers everywhere.
“So will you come?”
“Sure, if only to make sure you don’t get arrested,” Corinne said pointedly. “The police will be there, you know. Don’t do anything illegal.”
“I won’t,” Sophie promised.
“None of your social activism crap.” She meant it; Sophie had a knack for getting out of trouble, but all it took was one protest too many to land in jail. The other woman would lose her job at the nightclub and Corinne would have to foot the bill for rent. It wasn’t something they could do on their salaries; Paris was expensive. They both barely made a living as it was, and this apartment was cramped with only one bathroom, no balcony, and less than a hundred square meters.
“None,” Sophie agreed. “It’ll be nice to just check it out.”
“With the other drunk teenagers, spilling beer everywhere and pissing in the streets,” Corinne said dryly.
“Exactly. It’ll be a good time,” Sophie told her.
“Then I’ll come with you.” She wanted to spend less time with Henri, anyway. A distraction would serve her well.
The day of the parade Corinne got off the metro and exited near Place de la République, where the Techno Parade was supposed to pass through at 3:00. It was packed with people, either pushing up or down the stairs leading to the street. The aimless, drunken wandering of the crowd was disorienting at first, too. If Sophie hadn’t found her first, Corinne was sure she would’ve drifted away. The booming in the distance was supposed to be exciting, but it was like thunder in the rumbling. It would only get worse, and she didn’t want to stay too long. Groups of gendarmes lined the edge of the street—all in full riot gear. Visors were down and the plastic shields were up, but she was afraid they would bring out the batons if fans became rowdy.
“I’m glad you’re here!” Sophie said excitedly, grinning broadly. She was wearing a tank top that promoted the anniversary of some feminist porn award, and had been handing out fliers for a show. The top she was wearing was tiny; baring midriff and showing most of her breasts, the top could pass for a handkerchief. It was a great way to tempt the curious tourists into visiting someplace daring on their vacations. They did a lot of business after events like these, so a lot of people in the porn industry handed out fliers. Corinne was used to it, even before she met her roommate. The curiosities of Pigalle were always at the top of any visitor’s list. One of her American students mentioned that it was often called Pig Alley by soldiers during WWII. It was an apt nickname. Everyone was drawn to Pigalle, like a pig to shit. The neon lights were bright and alluring, and men would stand at the entrances of shops and peepshows, trying to “hook” anyone they could into spending a few euros on true French debauchery. Tourists here would be looking to spend a night living whatever Parisian fantasy they could conjure up. Sophie handed a flier to a girl with flamingo pink hair, giving her an easy smile.
It had been the same easy smile that got them to move in together, Corinne remembered. A mutual friend had introduced them, during a women-only party at a nightclub. It was called Crazy Cows Night, and mostly full of lesbians. Corinne had been hit on relentlessly until Nadége found her and brought her to the bar. Sophie was surrounded by younger dykes, some looking butch with leather and piercings, others femme and wearing polka dot, vintage dresses. She attracted all types. They were introduced, and yet other women called out to her, using the name “Molly Minx.” When she admitted not being familiar with the other woman’s work, Sophie was shocked. She convinced the bartender to “show her work,” and gleefully pointed out her favorite scene to a surprised Corinne.
“That’s me peeing on the stage in Berlin!” Sophie had declared, thinking it to be a fine accomplishment. Corinne could hardly disagree, at least when it came to having the guts for such a performance. Sophie had never had a problem with exposing her body for anyone to see and enjoy.
She was flaunting her body here today at the parade, letting the pink-haired woman ogle her breasts. There were leering men nearby as well, and from the way Sophie jumped she imagined someone had pinched her. Hotheaded as always, Sophie turned and began to yell at someone. Before she could intervene, there was a looming, repetitive boom, and the crowd shifted like a wave in anticipation. The buses were coming down the boulevard, and the thump of bass followed. Corinne lost sight of Sophie as she tried to move through the crowd—one drunkard spilled his cup of beer on her, and people pushed at the shoulder to get a view of the square. The gendarmes tried to keep everyone back, but there was shouting and suddenly beer bottles were flying. They were aimed at the riot shields, but Corinne worried about broken glass. The crowd pulsed against the gendarmes, and Sophie saw a group of people break through and run to the middle of the square. Barricades had been set up to block access to the monument of the republic, but they swarmed over the barricade and began climbing.
“Liberté! Égalité!” The cry went up, and more bottles began to fly. The gendarmes began pulling out and using their batons. Long and cruel, they beat back people mercilessly and shouting colored the air. Corinne saw a group of people at the monument continue to climb up…and spotted Sophie among them. Damn her, she thought. She had promised no crazy activism, yet there she was. Her roommate had passed the barricade and climbed atop a metal lion near the base of the monument. Her peers climbed higher, shouting something and throwing things at the police response. Sitting astride the metal lion, Sophie threw her top off and bared her breasts to the thousands of spectators. She threw her fist in the air and screamed something.
A group of gendarmes moved toward the monument, but the buses were coming through. Loud, thumping music blanketed everything. More shouts went up and the crowd writhed like an angry viper. A woman ran into Corinne, stumbling to get away. Corinne could only watch as the music blocked out the shouting, but she saw projectiles launched. Her throat and eyes were burning; they must have started using tear gas. She wanted to get away from this place, but she didn’t want to leave Sophie. Topless women climbed statues and waved at the buses. It became an island of rowdy girls, shouting indistinctly as the police tried fruitlessly to bring them down. They simply climbed higher. Sophie threw her shoes at a gendarme, shaking her fist at him. Her breasts jumped with movement and her hair whipped around her face in the wind. She was beautiful, Corinne thought. Even if she would get arrested today. She had the fierceness of someone who had a purpose, and her passion was admirable. The more Corinne thought of Sophie’s activism, the more she focused on that bare torso, those bouncing breasts.
Corinne blearily looked around, hearing someone come into the apartment. The clock on her nightstand said it was late—or very early. “So-Sophie?” The yawn shook her like a dog, sending ripples down her sheets. She had returned from the riot, throat burning, after the gendarmes started rounding up the protestors. A cup of tea and dinner helped with the aftereffects of the tear gas, until she fell asleep curled up in bed.
The other woman’s response sounded just as tired as she was. Despite the temptation to go back to bed, Corinne climbed out and wandered into the living room. “Is everything all right? I thought you were arrested…” She trailed off when her roommate turned around. She sported cuts and her clothes were torn. A bruise blossomed along her left cheek, sending tendrils to her eye socket. Rooted in a stare, Corinne couldn’t look away. “Oh, Sophie.”
“It’s all right,” Sophie assured her, giving a too-wide smile and shrugging. “I got a fine, that’s all. They arrested a lot of people yesterday, they probably didn’t want to do all the paperwork.”
“It’s not all right,” Corinne insisted, closing the gap between them. She reached out, almost touching Sophie’s battered jawline. “Fucking pigs, they did this to you.”
Sophie shrugged again. Corinne often forgot that her roommate was used to getting arrested; she herself had never gotten so much as a citation for littering. Leaning forward, she enveloped Sophie in a hug. The other woman stiffened in surprise briefly, before her arms wrapped snugly around Corinne’s waist.
The jangling phone startled them apart.
“Who’s calling at this ungodly hour?” Sophie nearly spat, glaring in the direction of Corinne’s room.
“It’s Henri,” Corinne replied guiltily. “He’s been calling since yesterday.”
“You didn’t talk to him at all?”
“No, I couldn’t,” she told Sophie honestly. “I’m so sick of him, and the bathhouses. I hate being his mistress.” Corinne was vaguely aware that her voice grew louder with each syllable, trying to drown out Henri’s desperation.
The phone abruptly died after one last, shrill gasp.
They both looked at the phone suspiciously, expecting it to erupt again. “I’m going to bed,” Sophie warned, “and if he keeps calling, I’ll answer the damn thing and give him a piece of my mind.”
Corinne smiled at the reemergence of her roommate’s attitude—she had started to worry that the gendarmes beat it out of the other woman. “Thanks,” she told Sophie simply. This time, it was Sophie who came in for a hug. After a moment, Sophie’s head slid downward to rest on her shoulder, pressing a kiss to her shoulder with her hair spilling everywhere. Corinne didn’t pull away, but instead felt compelled to run her fingers through those wayward, gentle tresses. She liked it when Sophie squeezed her arms around her, thin and clever fingers finding bare flesh to explore.