Professor Schreiber told him history happened in cycles. One thing happens, something reacts to it, it all disappears from consciousness only to return later. Think war, think human follies, he said.
His mother came to the United States to escape the communists. It seemed fitting, then, at least to Ben, that—years later—he would leave New Orleans and fall in love with a communist in France.
The communist was named Michel, and Ben was stunned by his ruggedness and energy. There was a wildness in him, in his eyes, especially, that made him seem out of place in a city as sophisticated as Paris. He could not have belonged to the world he inhabited, a brightly lit bookstore on the Right Bank.
That Wednesday night, Michel stood behind the counter, talking intimately with a girl who must have been maybe Ben’s age, twenty-two at the most, with short bobbed hair and a light spotting of freckles that did not make her look unattractive. Michel wore a beard that made him look older, though he couldn’t have been that old. Ben pegged him at no older than twenty-five or twenty-six.
They were laughing, the two of them, at something funny one of them had said. It was so funny the girl had to cover her mouth with both hands and catch herself from falling backwards. Suddenly, the girl looked at her watch. Her eyes opened wide.
“Tard, tard,” she kept repeating as she gathered her shopping bags. “Late, late.” They pecked each other on the cheeks, and she ran out the door.
Ben had planned to stay in the city for three months. An entire summer. He had graduated in May and with loan money he was in Paris before he knew it. He chose Paris because after reading Henri Murger—a used hardcopy of La Vie de Bohème in English with yellowing pages—he knew Paris was where he was meant to be. And then there were the news reports always announcing riots and protests over little things—an increase in stamp prices, taxes, changes in school curriculum. Parisians, he was sure, cared more than Americans, who were too content for their own good.
Professor Schreiber told him that, too. The professor was an older man, in his fifties, Ben later learned. He was the type of man who wore tweed jackets over t-shirts of rock bands—Black Flag, Sex Pistols, the Ramones—with khaki slacks and dress shoes, though no socks, Ben noticed. Schreiber was ethnically German, born in France, and taught literature at UNO.
Ben had met him even before thinking about going to college. He was reading Madame Bovary in a Royal Street café. The edition was French. He couldn’t quite make out the meaning, but his personal philosophy was that of some adventurous diver’s—you jumped in and if you drowned, you drowned, but how lovely it would be if you floated!
The book sparked a conversation.
“Est destinée à blâmer?” Schreiber started, pulling out the chair across from Ben.
“What?” Ben was taken by surprised.
“Is fate to blame?” Schreiber replied. “Was Emma’s death inevitable?”
Ben closed his book. “I can’t read this now,” he said. “You spoiled the ending!”
“But since we’re talking about fate...”
They talked until their coffees became cold, Schreiber questioning Ben, testing him, Ben felt, and Ben answering back more times than not with questions himself.
After an hour, the professor told Ben, “You’re an intelligent young man.” It was the first time anyone had called him that: intelligent and young man. It felt different from when people used to call him a smart boy, though it nearly meant the same thing. “Don’t waste a life,” Schreiber said, handing over a business card.
With Schreiber’s help, Ben got into Delgado Community. In two years, it was Schreiber who also helped him into UNO, where he would only have to take four semesters’ worth of classes to complete a degree. Grateful, infatuated to a certain extent, Ben took a class with the professor every semester. From “Introduction to Literature” to smaller seminars with names like “Class, Race, and the Contemporary American Short Story” and “Reading Gender in 18th and 19th Century Pastoral Fiction.”
When Ben was nearing graduation, Schreiber sat him down in his office.
“Don’t get a doctorate. It would be a mistake—certainly, a grave mistake,” Schreiber said. He was always talking like that; Ben had yet to meet someone else who talked like him. “No, I won’t write you a recommendation.” Here, the professor paused and sipped his soda, a diet caffeine-free Coke. “You should travel. There’s a whole world out there to see. That’s the best way to learn anything.”
Ben decided: there were many reasons to go to Paris.
He would travel to the city and find a job and settle down and live there and write—write what, he hadn’t a clue! A portrait of expat life or the Great American Novel or something. He was waiting to be inspired, though he found himself in bookstores like Chariot Rouge—with its charming hand-painted store sign, its book carts scattered on the sidewalk, its café serving pastries—more often than not. It surprised him that, a month of living in the city, nearly every other day sitting at the tables of his favorite bookstore, scribbling fragments or else skimming the pages of a book he had no intention of buying, he had just noticed Michel.
At closing time, while the customers slowly emptied from the store, Michel and the manager re-shelved books, rang up customers, and wiped down tables. Ben stayed and fingered the same pages of an anti-war novel he’d been reading for three days.
The manager whispered something to Michel and pointed to Ben. Ben went back to his book, anticipating the tap on the shoulder, the notice that they were to close in cinq minutes, those lips saying cinq minutes, and those fingers pointing to a clock or the door or a watch. Ben heard footsteps.
Then, “C’est trop tard. C’est presque minuit.”
Ben cleared his throat. “Cette,” he said, holding up the book.
Michel smiled and took the book with him to the cash register.
“A good one,” Michel said. When Michel spoke English, Ben noticed his accent, the way his words glided in a way a native speaker’s words wouldn’t, like he was preparing to sing. “Tourist?” Michel asked Ben.
“I just moved here,” he corrected Michel. He felt like he should have added something— where he was from, why he was in Paris, what brought him to the bookstore today. He dug into his pockets and fished out a few crumpled Euros.
“New Orleans,” Ben said. Then as if to clarify, “America.”
“I have friends in America,” said Michel, smirking. “Have you heard of Peter Johnson?”
“You must know Pete Johns, then?”
“I’m just joking with you. I do not know any Americans.”
“We’re not that bad.”
“You’re not that bad.”
Ben blushed and took his book. When he was out of the store, he realized he’d forgotten his change. The bookstore lights flickered out. The manager locked the door.
“Fuck,” he told himself. He took out his wallet to count his money. He had to be careful, he thought. The cost of living here was high. Everything was nearly double what it was in New Orleans. In addition to that, he hadn’t a job.
He began walking. When he arrived to the sublet flat, he stopped himself. It was too early. The Austrians hated when he came home early, though he didn’t understand why they should have a problem; it was his place, too. They were a boy and a girl, a couple, who came directly from Graz. Like Ben, they were artists, too, though not writers. The boy was a photographer, the girl a singer. Ben was excited to room with other artists. He believed they would be carefree, exciting, passionate: bohemian. Instead, they were sloppy and hostile.
“Bean,” they called him, “Why don’t you go see the city more?” They smiled crookedly and spoke slow English, the words slurring into one another and then yanked in different directions. “Yes, Paris is a beautiful city.” “They call it the City of Light.” “You can only see the light at night.” Afterwards, the girl said something in their language to her boyfriend. They didn’t bother whispering.
Ben and the Austrians had not gotten along since that first week. They hated to see him home, their shared flat too small for even one person. It was a lack of intimacy they had in such a space, Ben came to understand.
That night, he had promised them he would stay out longer. “Don’t wait up for me. I’ll be out late, mes amis,” he said, though he was sure they didn’t consider themselves his friends.
Ben looked up at his room’s window. The Austrian girl was leaning out. She was wearing underwear, but not pants or a shirt. She held the curtains to her chest, but they were paper-thin and Ben saw her small breasts anyway. She let a cigarette fall, he sped up just in case she saw him. She wouldn’t have understood that Ben would have rather seen her boyfriend. He was younger than Ben and he was beautiful. But they came from Austria, he told himself. It would have been an entire mess.
Because it was a weeknight, those who were out were walking home from their jobs, the homeless, or no-good teenagers. And then there were the foreigners, the insomniac expatriates, who had nothing else to do in a city they did not know.
In America, Ben felt like a foreigner, too, but in a different way. He couldn’t have explained it. In New Orleans, he couldn’t have explained how he and his family got there. There was a boat. A wind led them this way, all of them except his father, who was “left behind” for reasons unsaid. They lived in New Orleans, but actually outside of it—in Versailles, in the swamps, where nothing grew and no one else lived.
The story was more complicated than that, of course, but he simplified it in order to wrap his head around the entire situation and as an easy way to answer, where are you from? Here, there was some choice in the matter. No matter how different he was in France, he chose to be here.
He walked into a convenience shop and bought a pack of cigarettes and a soda. The cashier, a brown-skinned man in a turban, was talking into his cell phone and held it on his shoulder as he counted the money. Outside, Ben lit up the cigarette and coughed out the smoke.
He was disappointed in Paris. He wasn’t sure what he thought it would be. He had thought of independence and liberty. A European paradise of writers and artists and thinkers. He knew the risks he took. He would be poor and there would be challenges of communication, but he’d find others, he was sure, like himself and they’d all be poor but happy.
Instead, the nights were cold, the cobbled streets smelled like urine, and the average Parisian was rude and just as idiotic as any American.
His first week in Paris, a beggar ran away with his backpack and with it, his wallet, a pen, a French-to-English paperback dictionary, a plastic key chain in the shape of the Eiffel Tower, and a diary that was nearly full. Ben walked two blocks and found it dumped in a trashcan. The wallet was gone, everything else remained.
When Ben finished smoking and found himself at a park, he sat on a bench and threw away the rest of cigarettes. Murger lied, he thought. Schreiber had misinformed him. Madame Bovary was right: France was a bore. Lying down, he thought that Paris, for all its European sophistication, was not that different from New Orleans.
Everything was clear now. This was no place for him. He would leave, not immediately, but soon enough. Somewhere else he would go. But he would not stay here.
“C'est le gars à la librairie,” Ben heard someone say. He opened his eyes and sat up quickly, looking around. Three silhouettes under streetlights. Hoodlums, he thought. “It’s you,” the same voice said.
Ben readied himself to run, but when the figures came closer, one of them looked familiar. Michel, the bookstore boy.
Michel came closer and patted Ben’s face. “You afraid?” he said. “Did I scare you?”
“Non,” said Ben. “I was just lying down. You surprised me. That’s all.”
“You shouldn’t dors in the streets. It’s dangerous.”
“Michel,” said one of the other hooded men. “Qui est-ce?”
“Un chinois?” said the other.
“Non,” answered Michel. “American?”
“Oui,” said Ben.
“Américain,” said Michel. The others let out a sigh jokingly as if in relief.
Ben looked at his watch. It was one. He had been asleep for two hours. He checked his pockets to make sure he still had his wallet, and finding it there, he let himself relax. Then he said, “I have to go. Good seeing you again.” He began towards his flat, but Michel pulled at his arm.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “We’re not unfriendly, we’re communists!” He laughed. The other men did the same, loudly.
Ben began to leave, but Michel ran to catch up to him, and to Ben’s surprise, took a step in front of him, effectively stopping any other forward movement.
“The night is young, mon ami,” Michel said. “Que faites-vous ce soir?”
“Going home, I guess.” Ben replied. The Austrians should be asleep by now.
“Going home!” Michel scoffed. The words came out like spit. Then he chuckled. “Il est trop tôt. La nuit est jeune! Nous sommes tous les jeunes! Come, come!” He grabbed Ben’s arm.
The boy’s strong, Ben thought. He tried to move, but Michel’s grip was tight. He couldn’t have run if he wanted to. A smile came to his face.
“Where are you taking me?” he asked Michel.
The other two left Michel and Ben alone. Michel lived fifteen minutes away. It was less of a proper flat than an abandoned apartment complex. A piece of plywood with condamné painted on it blocked the entrance.
Michel opened the door. “A perfectly good building,” he said, “left here all alone.”
Ben strained his eyes. There was no electricity, possibly. He saw the shadows of a wardrobe, boxes, a table, and on top of that, piles of something. Michel closed the door and Ben jumped as the dark enveloped them. He blinked quickly, trying to adjust it.
“Something to drink?” Michel asked. He took out a lighter and pressed down on it several times before a flame jumped up and quickly disappeared.
Ben took out his book of matches and handed it over. Michel swiped a match against the book and a small flame appeared in his hand. He took a few steps forward and lit a candle.
“You live here?” Ben asked.
“Oui.” Michel took Ben’s hand. “Avec mes amis.”
Together they walked, stepping over piles of books, bricks, and boxes, and then a row of glass bottles. Michel led Ben to the far side of the room, where there was table and, on top of it, a plastic cooler. Michel let go of Ben’s hand and dipped his own into it. There was the sound of water splashing.
“Merde!” Michel said. He fished out a bottle and handed it to Ben. “Wait,” he said. Michel took the bottle back and laid the capped top against the table. He held the cap in place with one hand and pulled the bottle away with the other. The bottle cap popped off and rolled onto the floor before settling with an echoing tin tinkling on wood.
“Salut!” said Michel.
“Salut!” Ben repeated.
“To new friends!”
After the beer—two or three or four bottles more plus some type of hard liquor—they fell into bed passionately, or as passionately as two drunk men could. Afterwards, Michel got up to wash himself, in a bathroom, from a tub of collected rainwater, because the building had no plumbing.
“We have our ways,” Michel said, though Ben was too tired to remember all that was said.
Ben told himself he would never fall for Schreiber. Schreiber was a married man. Ben would only allow himself to be infatuated. The difference between infatuation and love is the difference between observation and action, he told himself.
His first year at UNO, after two years of knowing Schreiber, Ben became aware of his attraction to the professor. For once, someone who matched him—no, exceeded him—intellectually. It made him feel challenged. The man had also become more of a friend, someone to confide in. Schreiber knew his history, his struggles.
Ben told Schreiber he grew up fatherless. His father, a schoolteacher, had been stayed behind in Vietnam after the war. Because of this, Ben said, he had been looking for a father figure for the longest time, and this was the reason he never felt at home anywhere. That is, he never had a home to begin with. Home was a mother and a father and a sibling or two and a pet dog. He never had any of that. It was why he kept looking for something like that, he said, an abstract blanket to keep him war and safe, he theorized. He said, he would go somewhere only to become so dissatisfied and disgusted with the place, he would storm off in a rage. He felt continually disappointed and let down. He was a victim, he felt—a victim and a consequence of history.
Over his second Thanksgiving break at UNO, sitting alone in his dorm room, Ben realized the truth about his life and his inability to cope with it. The thought made him sad. He wondered if he was thinking correctly. He reached under his bed, where he kept his liquor, usually bought with a fake ID or else without question, and drank.
Finishing the bottle, Ben ran out of the dorm and took the bus to Schreiber’s home in the Garden District. For a second, he felt silly for going to the professor’s home. It was Thanksgiving night after all. But he had to tell Schreiber something. It was urgent.
At the professor’s door, he knocked.
“Dr. Schreiber,” he called out. At first, no one answered, but eventually, Schreiber came, wrapped in a blue terrycloth bathrobe with matching slippers on his feet. The air wafting out felt warm. It smelled of cooked meat and pumpkin pie spices.
“Dr. Schreiber,” Ben said. He was losing his voice. He could barely hear himself. He tried to speak louder. “Dr. Schreiber. I have something to tell you. Something about fate.”
“Do you know what time it is, Ben?” the professor said. “Do you know what day it is?”
“But I have something to say. Something to tell you.” He held onto the doorframe. The world was spinning. The house, he felt, was on the cusp of melting. “Something,” he said again.
“Why don’t you go home?” Schreiber said.
“I don’t know,” Ben said. “I don’t know what’s home. You’re my home. I was meant to meet you. Fate. We were talking about fate.”
“Maybe you should sit down a bit,” Schreiber said, his tone changing from anger and shock to worry.
“Fate,” Ben said.
Schreiber closed the door and guided Ben to the steps of his porch.
Ben looked up at Schreiber. “You’re my home,” he said. “All my life, I’ve been alone. No one understands. But you! You understand.”
“Maybe you should—” Schreiber said.
Reaching over, Ben touched Schreiber’s cheek and leaned in.
Schreiber moved away, got up, and pulled Ben to his feet.
“Not that way, Ben. I am not that way. I am not like that,” he said. The professor began leading him down the steps. “You should go home,” Schreiber said.
At first, Ben didn’t understand. The professor repeated himself several times before Ben was at the edge of his yard.
Ben shook his head. “But,” he kept saying.
“Go,” the professor said. The professor walked back inside, closed the door, and turned off the light.
In the morning, Ben felt embarrassed. He could not face the man again. He would have to leave the university. But Monday came and school resumed. The professor never mentioned the incident, yet he knew—they both knew—what had transpired.
His last semester, Ben knew he had to go away. He felt compelled to flee. The professor had recommended Paris.
Paris, Ben thought, Paris, then, it would be. It was destiny.
When Ben woke up, one of the boys from the night before, one of Michel’s friends, was shuffling cards. The sound seemed louder than it should have been. The boy said good morning and then to Michel (still lying in bed, half-awake from the look of it) said something about using the shared bed for sex and about rules and agreements and Michel mumbled sharply, “Baise les règles!” and the other boy replied “Baise-toi!” the word said firmly with a sly yet still serious smile.
The other friend, sitting with a bottle of beer, said they should go get breakfast. At this, Michel stood up and stretched his limbs.
“Room 110!” Michel said.
“Room 110!” the others said in unison. They packed up their cards, their cigarettes, their beers, and ran to the doors.
Room 110 sat across the hall. It was the same layout as the other apartment, but less cluttered. It seemed freshly painted and indeed, Ben found a bucket of paint in the corner along with brushes and a roller.
In Room 110, they sat around a kitchen table and passed around bread and jam and cheap wine by a window that looked out onto the main street. Someone rode by with a bicycle. Birds flew on and off the ledge of the window of the building across the road. They did this without a sound.
“Who is this boy here?” one of Michel’s friends asked.
“This is an American,” Michel answered. “Ben,” he said.
The boy shuffling the cards introduced himself as Mateo. His curly brown hair made him look boyish, but the dark circles under his eyes told of hard nights, troubling times. Still, he smiled. He was twenty-three and a Spaniard by birth, but had come to Paris two years prior on a whim, hopping aboard a train and jumping off after they found him.
Across from Mateo sat a Russian named Sergei. Sergei was twenty-five and wore thin wire frame glasses. His hair was red and wavy. At university, Sergei read about the Soviets, how the Revolution had failed miserably, and learning of this and seeing the conditions now, he felt disappointed with his people.
“The Soviets didn’t try hard enough,” Sergei said.
Mateo said something about the general dimness of Russians, and Sergei pushed the table forward, knocking Mateo over playfully. Only Russians could make fun of Russians, he said.
Everyone spoke French, though bent with different accents. It sounded, Ben thought, of a bus depot or an airport, a place full of travelers trying to find where they needed to go. He could barely keep up.
Mateo took out the cards again. “We want to change the world,” he said. He shuffled the cards and dealt them. What they were playing, Ben didn’t know. He picked them up anyway.
“What do you mean?” Ben asked. “How do you change the world?”
They did things, they said, for the betterment of society. They protested; they wrote pamphlets; they stole from grocery stores, department stores, and gave what they stole to the poor. Mainly themselves.
Once, Michel, Sergei said, broke into parliament at night. He was arrested, of course. He convinced the police that he was drunk and they let him stay in jail until he seemed sober enough.
But they weren’t lawless, violent, fou.
Sometimes, for instance, they were a band. They played an acoustic guitar and tambourine in Place de la Bastille to bring awareness to revolution. Mateo ran into another room and came back with a guitar, strumming a few chords and singing off-key.
Ah! ça ira, ça ira, ça ira
Le peuple en ce jour sans cesse répète
Ah! ça ira, ça ira, ça ira
Malgré les mutins tout réussira!
It was a revolution song, Mateo said. Did he like it? Something by Edith Piaf. A little song by Edith Piaf. The Edith Piaf, Mateo said, as if there were multiple Edith Piafs roaming the streets, singing revolutionary songs. Ah ça ira. Ah ça ira…it will be fine, it will be fine. Because it will be. Because they believed it. Because they suffered.
“We’ve all suffered,” said Sergei seriously now. They’ve never been in a war, but they’ve gone hungry, thirsty, sexless. And they’ve seen things—the very nature of humanity and human evil and what people were capable of doing and what people were incapable of having, which was, in the end, they theorized, the cause of all evil. They’ve seen it all and they concluded: they wanted no more suffering. For themselves. For the world. For the universe!
L'univers, Ben repeated in his head. Pour nous-mêmes, pour le monde, pour l'univers!
They passed a hand-rolled cigarette around. When it got to Ben, he inhaled and let the smoke out slowly. As it passed his lips, he tasted something earthy and green and it put him at ease and made his muscles relax. He didn’t cough this time and it made him proud. He was becoming French, he thought. No, Parisian. Life was beginning again. Here and now, what he had been waiting for.
“What makes you communists?” asked Ben finally after the cigarette went around the circle a second time.
“It’s the belief that all men are equals,” said Sergei. “You and me, we’re the same. We’re all the same.”
“Except for those no good putains in the government!” Mateo exclaimed. He jumped up, joyous, and positioned himself in a fighting stance, hands up, legs ready to leap. “We should make them do work for us! Show them what hard labor is! If not, we ship them all to—”
“Siberia!” said Sergei.
“Siberia!” Michel repeated.
“Siberia!” everyone said. They lifted hands in the air and cheered and Sergei stood with his hands on his hips and danced as if “Siberia” was his cue. He fell down clumsily when he was done and took a drink of his wine as the others clapped—Bravo, bravo, bravo!
“And then we start from scratch,” said Mateo. “We’ve suffered so much! This is what we deserve! We deserve this much! At the very least!”
Outside, the sun had risen. Ben heard cars starting, the squeak of doors opening, the hacking cough from an old man or woman. The birds, Ben noticed, were gone. The window behind the ledge was open. A woman was leaning out with a rag.
The Spaniard gripped Ben by the shoulder. “Mon ami, we’ve all suffered here. Tell us, how have you suffered?”
How had he suffered?
The words repeated themselves in Ben’s head, the sound swirling. He had suffered, that was for sure, yet how—how had he suffered? How could he explain coherently and in a different language? He took a sip of his drink and thought. He went deep into his memory—a labyrinth, he imagined, of infinite clean hedges—trying to find the moment he was most disappointed, most mad at the world. The images flashed in his mind’s eye. There were so many, but to pick the one—that was the challenge. He saw hues of flesh, mouths moving, windows gazing out into night.
Then finally, it struck him. He thought it was silly, but he said it aloud anyway, in French, sloppily, in an accent as heavy as a boot.
“My father,” he began. Mon père. “Mon père was left behind in Vietnam.” Au Viêt-Nam. “When we came to the States, my mom made these videos to show him what life in America was like. She did this for years,” he said. “For years.”
The others nodded.
The fog in his memory lifted. Suddenly, the scene played itself in front of him. There— on a couch—there they were, he and his brother and his mother. But the sound? Where was the sound? The mouths were moving but there was no sound. Mute. His mother stood up and began to walk towards the camera and before she reaches it the scene disappeared and reappeared. Replayed.
Ben continued. “At the end of the videos, she’d point to the camera and tell us to say goodbye to our dad. I was still little back then, but for whatever reason, for the longest time I thought our dad lived in the camera. I thought my dad was the camera.”
To this day, even, Ben thought, every time he heard the word “dad,” he felt the bulky plastic buttons touching his fingers and heard the spinning sound of a camcorder in his ear.
Another memory. Ben is young. Four or five. The video camera sits in his lap. The video slot is opened and his hand slides inside, where it grabs for something. He peers inside, looking. Where are you? The mouth moves. The fingers move. The eyes stay steady. Where are you?
The wine came to him again, and he emptied it into his glass.
“A few years ago,” Ben went on, “my dad died. My brother and mom, they board a plane to Vietnam. When they come back, my brother says our dad was married to this other woman. This small, quiet, fragile woman who taught poetry and didn’t have children or couldn’t have any children. I don’t know. Anyway.” Where are you? “My brother said they lived comfortably in this big house with marble floors and photos of the places they went to together and potted plants in every corner, all healthy and green. Also, a lot of food. They had giant meals each night. Nothing like we had growing up.”
Where are you?
Ben looked out the window. Where exactly was he in the city? Where was his apartment? Did it matter? He finished the rest of his wine, stood up, and shook his head.
“What I’m saying is that he didn’t even try to find us,” he said. His head throbbed. His hands felt hot.He didn’t understand what he was saying anymore or if it made any sense.
“My dad was a bastard for not coming with us,” he concluded. “I think that’s what I’m trying to say. I think that’s what I mean. My dad was a bastard. That’s all he was. All he’d ever be. Just some bastard.”
The others lifted their glasses high in the air cheerfully.
“À bâtards!” they sang. “To bastards!”
Ben would stay with them for the rest of the week.
They spent the mornings with wine and coffee and conversations. They went to work in the evenings—Michel a bookseller; Mateo, a busboy; Sergio, a professional beggar. They kept their money in glass jars, plastic cups, bottles. Communists didn’t trust the bank. The commune money was only used for certain things like weapon supplies, revolutionary literature, and food. Communists wanted revolution, but they also needed to eat.
Ben and Michel became quiet lovers, though all four of them shared the same bed, like mice, like children. They had the one floor of the building. The rest of it was falling apart. There was a hole in the roof. The staircase was missing steps. But one day, Michel was hopeful, they would clean it all up, make it inhabitable. It would become a free hostel.
The apartment was all they needed. They were self-sufficient. They had fire, food, shelter; they collected rainwater. They would survive. They would thrive.
Within two weeks, Ben left the Austrians. They would miss him, they said. He had been so kind. Michel was happy to have not only a lover, but also, more important to him, another revolutionary.
“You will join us, no?” Michel asked one night, his head on Ben’s shoulder. “Join us, the communists?”
Ben thought it funny. No one in America would have so happily called themselves communists. He wondered what his mother would think, his mother who ran away from the Việt Cộng, barefoot peasant revolutionaries that changed the course of a country and, in turn, the lives of millions. What would all those people think of this?
“Oui,” Ben said, “bien sûr.”
He lay back into the bed and closed his eyes.
A few seconds later, he thought he heard his mother’s voice saying something—something important, something to be remembered and kept. But when he opened his eyes, there was only the wall lit by moonlight, a breeze rustling the curtains, a warm arm on his chest.