My girlfriend calls me, tells me, “Paris is on fire.”
“Excuse me,” I say as I lift my head from the dampened dark pillow I was resting my head on in our basement. The skin of the house seems to slime toward me, moving forward then backward in a state of perpetual imbalance, as I wait for her to correct herself.
“Paris is on fire,” she repeats with a sense of boredom at the repetition.
“I don’t believe you. That’s absolutely ridiculous,” I insist over the unmistakable roaring waves of voice that splash through the cell phone receptor.
“You don’t believe me?” She asks. I can tell she’s hurt as I spurn her words away in distrust. “Would you believe me if I showed you?” My phone vibrates against my ear as her voice goes away. My tongue is slightly numb at the thought of the city of romance burning down.
“Hang on,” I say. I pull the phone from my ear and gaze down at the incoming message—no surprise it’s a text from my girlfriend—and it is certainly a picture of Paris. And it’s being burned to the ground. I cannot believe my eyes; my eyes reach that fundamental breaking point where you’re hoping you’ve got it all wrong, the sun in front of the moon, total eclipse you stared at a second too long and you lost sight of things for a moment. But it’s there. Paris just a burning mess of strawberry daiquiri flames and sandy grained twangs of fire. The entire city burning, or waiting to be burned; the people being soaked up in the sponge of the brimstone. For a second I lose myself looking at the barbecue wrapped bodies in the picture and I know how awful it looks – even from the safety of this sweat soaked bed.
But I’m set back at ease at the fact that I know that I don’t really care that people I don’t know are dying or that a city I’ve never been to is burning. I realize if my girlfriend dies I’ll get to say that I loved her more than I was capable of; I can tell people how the glimmer in her eye has settled in my bones and made me weak but stronger all in the same breath. People will weep for her while secretly weeping for me.
“…Believe me now?” My girlfriend is saying as I pull the phone back to my ear.
“Just hang on,” I say. I pull the phone from my ear again and return to the picture. I have to; I’m mesmerized. I’m studying the outline of every person, trying to find something to care about, some essence that I can attach myself to.
There it is, I think; in the back of the picture is a slender ribbed woman with Cinnabon brown hair that is kept in a particular twist on the top of her head. She is sitting at a black grated table smoking a cigarette as fear sneaks up behind her. In the picture she stands up and curtseys at me. She has a thick white cotton sweater on, which I imagine must be the worst clothing to wear amongst the flames, but even as she moves about the photograph the sweater never bears her midriff.
She has this sex appeal; I recognize the longing in this woman’s heavy shoulders. She has a pencil moon blue skirt that sharpens at her ankles. I’m in love with her and out of love with her in the same moment.
Tensed and repulsed.
“Is that woman…” I start to ask but pause hoping my girlfriend will fill in the blank. She doesn’t. “Is that…Audrey Hepburn?” I ask.
“Actually it is,” my girlfriend says rather unremarkably.
“What the hell is she doing there?” I ask.
“Besides dying?” my girlfriend teases me. She lets loose with a smirk, “Audrey Hepburn is a prostitute now.”
I’m overtaken with sadness; the same sadness that starts some place underneath the surface of my bleach blood skin but comes through by welling up in my eyes whenever I have sex that seems rounded off and pointless. That sadness I feel when I imagine my dead mother standing over our naked bodies filled with shame at how useless our sacks of skin have become.
“It’s a real shame,” I say. “She could’ve been something special.”
“If you think that’s bad you should look at this,” my girlfriend says.
The phone vibrates against my jawbone again. It’s another picture. I look deeply at it. There’s a man with a heavy-skinned face and leather-black hair who is pantomiming, dancing, finding his way amongst the flames. The man is arched on his tip toes with his right hand reaching toward the sky trying to pull the rain drops out of the clouds. His finger tips barely graze the air. To me he looks like how old men are supposed to look, right before they die.
“That’s Fred Astaire,” I say.
“It is,” my girlfriend confirms what I already know.
“He’s dancing,” I say. “Why is he dancing?”
“He’s not only dancing,” my girlfriend says. “He’s singing too. Listen.”
My phone blinks at my face in silence; I imagine my girlfriend extending the phone out, a life preserver for Fred Astaire’s voice. I’m not disappointed to hear the sound of him singing, his flat champagne voice coming to me, “Nothing was ever meant to be—open your eyes and see—you need to give—give up—give up on your dreams.”
I’m the bruised knee of a four-year-old child in the shade of a tree in his (or hers) parent’s backyard crying out to no one for no reason at all.
The phone goes silent again before it’s back inside of my girlfriend’s mouth, “You won’t believe what is happening now.”
“What, beautiful?” I ask.
“Nothing’s beautiful,” my girlfriend says misunderstanding me. I can hear her crying inside of her head. Her head all full of smoldering make-up and her face of mucky moss, dripping into my heart muscles, causing it to tense and relax and tense again. “It’s Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, they just died. They just died underneath the Eiffel tower together. They are charred to their very atoms.”
I feel the romance die in her throat.
“It’s alright,” I say. I think there’s comfort in that. “Haven’t you always wanted to live in a city that has a love like that?”
“Doesn’t matter to me. I’m going to die here too,” she says. I know her tears are solid cubes of ice.
“But you’ll look beautiful while doing,” I say. I think the platitude will change that truth; although I don’t think she believes me. She can feel the Cheshire-cat grin casting a shadow across my face.
“There’s something I need to tell you before I die,” my girlfriend says. “I have always been able to imagine the world falling apart.” I can see her now: catching fire without a spark, her face dipping deep into the pit tinder, and her face being cradled by the heat. I want to believe in her; believe her for absolutely no reason at all. I know that’s all anyone has ever needed.
“It’s hard not to,” I say.
“It’s not hard to…fall apart?” She asks.
I know the inevitable is going to happen. The inevitable is always going to happen.