This is an excerpt from my first novel, now available through Thought Catalog books. It’s called The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions While Wearing Sunglasses, which was the original title of The Matrix when it came out in France. It’s about moving to another country to escape your problems, which is (apparently) a bad idea.
If you want to find out why, you should buy it. This is about me trying to have sex with people in Paris and failing at it. It’s astounding the number of things you can fail at without even trying.
I started picking up more shifts at Marlowe and Brothers to get out of the apartment and get angry about the incompetence of American tourists, rather than the incontinence of my roommate. If nothing else, it gave me a chance to brush up on my French, which had barely improved since arriving in Paris. Despite being surrounded by the language, everyone insisted on practicing their English with me as a way to show off their always flawless skills, and when I would speak back to them in French, they would look at me quizzically, as if I were saying it backwards. “Don’t worry about it,” they would reassure me. “We can just speak English. We love speaking English.”
It also didn’t help that no one around me seemed to open their mouth when they spoke French, as if the country were completely populated by ventriloquists, so I could never understand Jacques’ or Anouk’s friends when they spoke to each other. Wherever I was, I was the odd one out and a curiosity, the friendly pooch who thought he was a member of the family. At Marlowe and Brothers, few of the guests spoke French, so my linguistic spleen finally had some other sad organs to hang out with.
Instead of attaining fluency, I only got good at stacking well-known American novels, explaining to people that, yes, I spoke English and doing lots of pointing for the non-English tourists. “Ou est science-fiction?” could be answered with a simple finger, the universal language of inadequacy.
But every once in awhile, I’d strike up a conversation with an interesting local or a sexy tourist just passing through — ones I would try to dupe into thinking I was attractive, bohemian and cool. As an awkward bisexual male with social anxiety, I had lots of opportunities to fail at this endeavor. My favorite customer was a Londoner and staunch Austenite who expressed an interest in Marcel Proust and the classics but left with an armful of Gary Shtyengart, Zadie Smith and Nick Hornby after we found out we shared a love of the movie High Fidelity.
However, I realized I’d forgotten to ask her name, which is a bad habit of mine. She said it was Nell and stuck out her hand, just like in the movie version of our falling in love. I then replied: “Oh, Nell. I love that name. Like the movie, Nell!” She was silent, so I just assumed she hadn’t seen it. So, I explained that the movie was about a wild child who shows her breasts to strangers and struggles with acclimating to a society where people don’t flash people in public and spin around while singing in their made-up, forest people language. “It has Jodie Foster in it.”
Sensing this hadn’t been the smartest way to elicit her sexual interest, I moved on from my plot summary and told her my name was Nico — the name Marie, my host sister, had left to me. “That’s so awesome!” Nell shouted. “There are tons of Nells.” “I had never met another Nell in my life, I thought to myself, but considering she was the one with the name, I decided to take her word for it. Besides, I had only had my name for a month, so what did I know? I had no room to judge.
Snapping back from my internal monologue, I responded by shooting our conversation in the face. “You could always kill all the other Nells,” I told her. “Like Jet Li in that movie where he has to take out all the other Jet Lis…so he can be the one.”
She looked incredibly confused and had one of those looks on her face like she couldn’t possibly think what to say to me. So I decided to do the right thing and send Nell back to the wilds of Paris. I shook her hand, pointed to the science-fiction section and went back to The Grapes of Wrath.
This was a constant issue I had in Paris, a city in which I was completely unable to trick anyone into having sex with me. Anouk insisted that I hook up with her friend Benoit, a tiny, elven man with floppy hair who seemed to frolic everywhere he went. Benoit was very, very into me, which he broadcast as if he were advertising it on the side of a bus, and this made me not into him in the slightest. Where was the mystery, that excruciating period where you obsessively wonder if he likes you and if he happens to be thinking about you at the same time, while you both gaze at an obnoxiously large moon that’s clearly a painting in the sky?
They always say that it’s sexier to wonder about being kissed than to be kissed, which makes me think that they need to be kissed by the right people. However, without the chase, the appeal was gone. Without pain, there’s no pleasure. French men made it too easy, and the come-on was almost always incidental. A man at an outdoor bar I went to with Anouk and her friends introduced himself by grabbing my butt. A handshake would have done quite nicely.
However, it had been more months that I would have liked since I had sex, and being in the “City of Love” made me horny. I blame the baguettes. So I asked him over to watch Midnight in Paris with Anouk and me when I found it streaming online. In a city where I constantly felt lost, it was nice to have a familiar map to which I could return.
When we asked Remy if he wanted to join, he informed us that Woody Allen movies were “chick flicks” and only girls watched them here, instead of nebbish intellectual males who dream of bedding unattainable women far out of their attractiveness league. What a difference an ocean makes.
I shrugged Remy off and checked in with Benoit to make sure that the movie was cool with him, who responded, “OMG, I loove Woody Allen!” I instantly knew I was making a huge mistake.
Never one to abort a mission, I shaved my chest to at least put in a little effort, changed into clean pants and made some hummus, because I felt like I should feed him something. I had bought too many chickpeas from a discount grocery store and needed something to do with them before they went bad, because everything that came from there spoiled instantly. The store was like Aldi, but not quite so fancy — a place where they don’t give you carts, bags or any service whatsoever. You may as well be buying your food from the Russian government, but it sure is cheap. I also purchased tomatoes and asparagus that looked like it had recently been fresh, all of which was chopped and blended into a sexy chickpea tonic, perfect for attracting mates.
When the movie started, so began the gorgeous opening sequence, a miniature tone poem composed of recognizable Paris landmarks. We huddled together as Woody Allen revisited much of my itinerary since I had been in Paris — from the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. If I wanted to impress him, I might have pointed out each one I’d been to, which might not be awe-inspiring to a local but indicates a thoroughness that could be desirable in a future sex partner. At this point, I was just going to go with whatever I had.
Maybe it was the wine or maybe I’d been hanging around French people too long, but I couldn’t think of anything to say to indicate my sexual value. So I pointed to one of the still images and blurted out, “Hey, I peed on that building!” I didn’t know the name of it, discovered during one of my evening strolls, and this seemed as good of a way to identify it as any. In a place where they numbered most of the districts instead of properly naming them, you had to take matters into your own hands. You became your own Adam, whether or not Steve bothered to get biblical with you.