Well, I've decided to tell stories about all the place I mentioned in an earlier post, and I've determined Paris would be a place to good start. It's not one of my favorite memories, but it's good for the telling.
I've been to France twice - once for an hour or so stop in Nancy on a car trip with my brother, mother, and brother's spouse, and again to Paris for a long weekend. A very, very, very long weekend.
I should explain a little about the circumstances that led up to my long weekend in Paris. It came at the end of my time in Russia. I'd been in Moscow almost four years, and, despite the possibility of private sector jobs to keep me there, I wanted to return home. Moscow had changed rather dramatically during my years there. When the Soviet Union fell, there were quiet waves of violence that ushered in the Wild West gold rush days of ugly oligarchy that still govern Russia's capital city. I use the term "quiet waves of violence" because I don't think much was heard about it in the West. But there was a dramatic increase in murders, abductions of foreigners, mafia hits, sexual assaults, and weird attempts at bribery by underpaid police through threats of beatings or bogus blood tests with rusty old needles carried in sweaty wool uniform pockets.
The little kiosks by my apartment building had started stocking and selling handguns along with their usual fare of Snickers bars, champagne, and condoms. I heard gunfire at night on the street, and I was - although too cool to admit it - terrified of walking down the ill-lit hallway of my apartment building because getting to my door meant walking past the garbage chute alcove, which had open access to the dark emergency stairs. I sometimes heard people scuttling around those stairs late at night, and I had visions of being mugged or worse (much, much worse) leaving or coming home. I actually developed a bit of an OCD during those last months there, returning to my door to make sure it was really locked almost every morning. To this day, at times of great stress, I will do the same. It's my Moscow OCD that I keep sublimated, for the most part.
During that last year, a friend of mine - a French-Armenian businessman - asked if he could stay in my apartment while his was under renovation. This was to be just for two or three weeks. I could handle that. I had known him for years at that point and enjoyed his fun company. Two or three weeks was no big deal.
It became a matter of months, though. The "two or three weeks" I would find out was just another one of his constant stream of unstoppable lies. His apartment wasn't being renovated. He had lost the lease.
I used to be a fairly naive person, but exposure to people like P., the businessman from Paris, turned me into a much more wary - and much more savvy - person. But it wasn't a pleasant process. Over time, I would find that he had some serious problems - clinical depression, bulimia, a sex addiction that was probably a result of childhood trauma from his older brothers peddling him to pedophilic men in the rough Paris Arab suburb where they lived, and an addiction to prescription sleep and pain pills. Back in Paris, he ran with a fast, rich, and pretty set of people - movie directors, models, trendy restauranteurs - but in Moscow, he clung to me, probably for safety. I didn't learn about his problems - and his rampant lying - until the last week he was under my roof. He was making my life hellish at home, and when he left his journal sitting on my coffee table, almost begging me to read it, I did. I know it was wrong, but his increasingly bizarre behavior was just killing me.
I don't speak French, but after four years of being around French speakers in Moscow (and having some modest ability with languages) I could read it with a fair degree of understanding. In the handful of pages I read, he spilled out how he just couldn't help lying to me. When he was back in Paris, he would sneak away from his Chanel-clad friends out to the suburbs to turn tricks like he had been forced to do as a child. He told his family he was straight, but was, in fact, gay. Usually my gaydar is pretty good, but sometimes, there is a fine line between gay and a Parisian fashion hound who carries a man bag. Go figure. Why he felt he could not tell me he was gay, I don't know. I'm pretty comfortable around people, gay, straight, whatever. I assumed he knew I had no issues with anyone's orientation. But I think he was so caught up in his own game of lies and subterfuge, he couldn't even be honest on that point.
When I was away on trips outside of Moscow with friends, he was bringing strangers home to my apartment for anonymous sex. I suddenly realized why my bedroom was often strewn with roses when I'd come home. What might have been seen as a lovely sentiment was really just to cover the smell from person or persons unknown he was banging in my bed while I was away. My disgust was beyond belief.
When he came home that night, I fessed up. I had read his journal. He gave this sarcastic laugh - he'd left it out on purpose, hoping I would read it. "I knew you were smart enough to read French," he hissed. He wanted someone to know what a dark person he really was. I told him he needed help, and he needed to move the hell out of my apartment immediately.
That night was the birthday of a mutual friend - the friend who had, in fact, introduced me to P. She had no idea he was messed up. She also didn't know he was gay. Nor did her family. She had a conservative Armenian upbringing in France, and, in truth, her parents thought he might be a good candidate to marry their lovely daughter. P. had been engaged once, but his fiancee broke it off. He would not ever say why. After reading his journal, I can only imagine she came home to find him bonking some guy in their bed. Maybe even for money. Who could say? All I know is that his ex and my friend both dodged a bullet coated in toxic waste.
So, on that birthday evening, P. declined to go out with us, knowing that I knew his unpleasant secrets - and that I wanted him gone by the morning. My friend and I returned to my place after a nice dinner out only to discover that P. had put the chain on the door inside and then taken a sleeping pill. Pounding on the door, throwing rocks at the window, phone calls... nothing woke him. My agile friend even climbed over to my kitchen balcony (a dizzying feat fifteen stories in the air) and screamed at him in her most aggressive Armenian. That still did not wake him. She and I spent a cold night huddled at my door, smoking cheap cigarettes to stay warm. Keep in mind, I don't smoke. At all. But this was what all the old Soviet cops did to stay warm as they stood post outside our building. It worked, although it was one of the worst nights of my life. Moscow was not a place where you could just run off and find a hotel room. (Still isn't -- Moscow is now the world's most expensive city. A mediocre hotel room will run you in the high hundreds.) And I simply could not go knock on a friend's door and tell them what had happened. It was too embarrassing. "Hi, I've been duped into housing a troubled lying part-time male hooker who's locked me out of my apartment. Can I come in?"
I felt bad for P. that he had such tremendous problems with addictions, an eating disorder, and abuse at the hands of his family. But that he had used my home as his personal brothel and constantly lied to me? I didn't feel bad for him on that count. I was just pissed off, beyond belief.
The next morning, all P. had to say when he finally opened the door was "Je suis désolé" and, I swear to god, he tried to stuff fifty bucks in my hand. What an ass. I told him to get out of my home, and he promised he would be gone by the time I got home from work. For once, he kept his promise. There was no sign of him left (except for the hair he constantly shed on my bathroom floor - shudder, shudder) in my home. I breathed a sigh of relief, and he left Moscow for an extended stay in Paris. He sent letters and made phone calls saying he was seeing a therapist and he was getting his life back on track. He would make it up to me some day. I should come to Paris and he would show me his city and apologize.
This episode with P. had stuck the big fork in me. I was done, kids. I realized it was time to leave town. My contract was ending, and I wanted to shake the shadows trailing me. P. called one last time, sounding very sober and calm for the first time in ages, saying he was sincerely sorry for all the grief and the lies. Would I consider coming to Paris for a weekend on my way out of Russia? He would be my tour guide to all the City of Lights had to offer. He even laughed that he would see his therapist twice on the day that I arrived and would make sure to be on his very best behavior for me.
But that, my friends, was just another lie. And I would have to kick myself all over again for my continued naivete...