The Accusing Beret: Chapter 3

The author, in Paris. (Photo cred: DK Lee)

But that was years ago! Fuck all those people! I had left that place behind and changed who I was and was free from making those same old sad stupid mistakes ever again!

Or was I? I would learn — the long way — that… well…

The morning rain fell over Montmartre. Shielding my eyes against the overcast light, slanting chiaroscuro from the ceiling’s slanted window upon my garret’s unmade bed, I felt for my partner. Ah, yes…

I had none. My bed remained empty, unkempt, cold. Falling back upon my Harrods pillow, I let out a groan and tried to collage my night together. Yes, I had blacked out, but when? Daniel… We kissed — or, more accurately, I kissed him. But then — I fucked it up, evidently. How? Damn it — that’s right.

‘Let’s get out of here,’ he had laughed.

Finally. The only words I wanted to hear. ‘Your place?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ he replied.

And he brought me to a fuckin’ protest. Against what, who knows — some company in Algiers that was, well, in Algiers and a company. I thought the whole thing was ridiculous.

‘What are these people doing?’ I whispered. ‘It’s 3 in the morning!’

‘It’s 5 o’clock somewhere,’ Daniel answered.

‘So what are we protesting?’

‘Colonialism.’

‘I thought that was over.’

‘Of course it isn’t,’ Daniel scoffed. ‘I mean, it’s… Haven’t you seen The Battle of Algiers?

‘You’re asking me if I’ve seen a battle?’

‘It’s a film. About freedom fighters in Algiers using terrorist tactics to defend themselves against the French colonialists.’

I was alarmed. Terrorists? But my Daniel was so beautiful… how could he support terrorism? It struck me that I really had no idea who the hell he was at all. And Algiers — wasn’t that where they filmed Casablanca?

Either way, Casablanca this was not. A crowd had gathered outside some municipal building — I was new in town, who am I to pretend that I knew anything about its federal buildings, or cared to — with picket signs and all. Demanding revolution. Singing Foucault. Soliloquizing Derrida. You know the scene: rain, megaphones, students, passerby. The smug ones shocked me the least. The apathetic pedestrians, the most. Why? They were me, of course. What could be more shocking than yourself, reflected, passing by, not giving a damn? And how did I react? I got defensive, of course. Would this be my political awakening? Certainly not. I was too cynical for that. Or so I told myself.

I did my best to try. I admired the protestors — my romanticism, broadly defined, obliged me to — but they frightened me. And here we reach the takeaway: my priority was romance and art, not revolution. Well, well — in short, I was afraid. I clung my copy of T. S. Eliot close to my delicate breast. Daniel watched, sad-eyed and disappointed like a (gulp) father, as I receded from the madding crowd and re-joined the so-called normal people. Is this what I wanted? Who was I? Where was I going?

These freedom fighters, they thought they had it all. That, more than anything, is what made me hesitate before joining their ranks. Human psychology! What had the previous century taught us — the Soviet Union, the French Revolution before that — about the danger of revolutionary thinking? Heads in guillotines, bureaucracies on the rise, no sense of irony. And it was the 90’s. Wim Wenders had dropped angels on Berlin. Juliette Binoche was a babe in blue. We were doing so well! The world had reason to congratulate itself! Art — yes, art! — could finally breathe, free from all that jingoism! Europe had seemingly saved itself, saved the world, or at least America had, but that’s what allowed St. Louis girls like me to flee here, and meditate on our botched civilization, the broken teeth of Queen Elizabeth and Adam Smith’s madcap invisible hands conducting our collapse into jazzed out narcissism!

What was that? Listen to me! What am I thinking? I shook my head. I sighed. I fastened my beret. I walked the Seine. I dreamt of love. What kind of love? Ah, yes — a very certain type. I didn’t give a damn about anything. I had grabbed a man, didn’t care whether or not he’d understand — ah! There it is again! Rhyming in my thoughts. How could I stop? Why — why not — was I in love, after all? Did I want to join Daniel, really? What did I prioritize: Algiers or his eyes? Well, well — I remained alone. He was a perfect man, unsettlingly — an Aryan ideal, almost. What was I clinging to, in loving him? What did he symbolize, as a person? To be in his arms, what would that mean? And what could he be to me? But I had no need to ask. Walking past the society of the spectacle along the rue de ____ (the name escapes me, now — the equivalent of Bond St. in London — who cares), I eyed Fendi and Gucci and Prada and all the beautiful things I had been raised to wear.

Yes, my parents poured such finery upon me. You could tell merely by glancing at me: delicate beauty such as my own could only be the product of an aristocratic upbringing — or the approximation of one. My father, a banker in the strictest midwestern sense (dark woods, college clubs, no eye contact, the long drives to school when he would listen to Christmas music in May, secretarial affairs, overheard lovemaking aboard the bathroom floor), insisted my brother and I be raised as aristocrats. That is, to wit: we would acquire no practical skills whatsoever. Cooking, lifting objects aside from silverware, basic survival skills — we would never stoop to such tasks ourselves, since surely we would always have servants to perform such tasks for us. A noble goal, in a way, but it crippled my brother. The poor thing, no surprise he wound up firing my father from our family company then drove it into near-bankruptcy, before — at the insistence of our in-house attorney — selling it at the last minute to a global international for a slim loss. What an idiot. He was beyond ineffectual, a weakling, doggy paddling in our father’s wide wake, and last I heard fitting his mistresses into various hotel minifridges sprinkled along the Dalmatian Coast. Nená (my pet name for him, ever since a vacation we took to Estonia when I overheard a young boy in a Tallinn square shouting at his friend, ‘Nená’, with earnest abandon) had succeeded in attaining a level of wealth and decadence which our long-suffering parents and even I surmised in astonishment. Finding a landline — a London red phone booth God or their superior placed on the Quai d’Orsay — I called him.

Don’t ask how I got his number. I’ll tell you anyway: one of our aunt’s lovers — the very same who got me the job with the assassinated attaché — was in fact the father of my brother’s latest conquest, a petite vaguely Central European woman with nesting doll eyes named Eatvonka. She was like that bombshell from La Dolce Vita, or a European Marilyn Monroe (an Ur-Monroe, if you will) — but whatever she was, she was (if only for the time being, and only inside his head) Nená’s. Her father had provided their hotel’s address to me — the affair was no secret to the families of both lovers, and viewed from each end of the Atlantic with equal cynicism — and instructed me to contact them in the event of an emergency or excuse to inconvenience them. After three rings, punctuated by the ghostly reverberations of Serbian bombs along the line, I heard that distinct Midwest twang come through.

‘Yo,’ Nené said.

‘Nené,’ I answered.

‘Karina? Why are you calling?’

‘I’m just chillin’,’ I replied abstractly, my eyes wandering between the Parisian passerby. ‘What’re ya up to?’

‘Gotcha. Eatvonka and I were just about to go out.’

He always did this. He hated confrontation. I couldn’t talk with him about anything. Instead he would lose himself in dreams — another woman, another country, another project.

‘Have you talked to Dad?’

‘No, why? Have you?’

I had him. If only for a moment, he’d be worried, yanked out of his delusions, to whatever degree. But I’d always been able to push him around like this, bully him. I had always been stronger. That’s why I went into the arts, and he followed our father into business: he ultimately aimed only to please him, whereas I searched for the ineffable. But the more I struggled to find a response to his question — the question of whether or not I had spoken to our father — the more I doubted whether or not there was much difference between us after all.

‘Karina?’ he asked, impatient.

‘No,’ I answered. ‘No, that’s… why I called.’

At last, his voice betrayed a hint of worry. ‘What is it? What’s going on?’

I had no clue what I was going to say to him. I was winging it. My whole life had been thrown out of wack. What did I tell him? ‘The attaché has been assassinated.’

‘Who?’

‘The attaché for the Belgian Embassy in Paris. My employer.’

‘He was killed? Jesus. What happened?’

I mapped out the specifics of the case, nothing more. ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got plenty of money, and shouldn’t be in any danger.’

‘Are you sure? What if they, like, come after you?’

‘Why would they? I was just his assistant.’

‘Do you have any information that they could use against you?’

I frowned. I realized that Yes, I did. But I wouldn’t tell him that. Instead, I brought to talk to its close, and Eatvonka’s urgings helped me. At last, I asked,

‘How long will you be in Dalmatia?’

‘That’s not for me to decide,’ he replied, then hung up.

I envisioned Eatvonka pulling him by the arm out their hotel room and down to the beach. The waters of Croatia are so clear you can dip under the surface and see all the way to Gibraltar. Why had I called him? The only reason I ever did: sentimentality, nostalgia, my humanity, my weakness. That’s all family had ever been — not only my own, but also the prospect of making a new one. If I joined the crowds of Paris, would that lead me to my new family? Is that what I wanted, really?

So I set out to find my dream man once again, but this time pursued other priorities first: I would join the revolution, cloak myself in the tricolored flag, oppose corporations in Algiers –

But! Ah! I had work! The bell rang. I had stepped inside the restaurant, before opening. No one was there, aside from the man I had spoken with beforehand — what was his name again? He was my boss now. How absurd, that fact — him, my boss, even though I was probably worth more than he would ever make in a lifetime. Not that I would ever tell him that. Who would I tell? Daniel?

The man approached me. “You go in the back. In the kitchen. Customers arriving in ten minutes. Long day for you today.”

He was right. Longest day of my young life, and it wasn’t even the summer solstice. I labored in that sweatbox for eight hours — me! a young woman of means! I will not sate your sick fetishes by regaling you with the tales of that ungodly day: how I battled the onrush of plates from the front, haranguing them into the industrial-scale dishwashing machine lovingly named Bertha (after, I was told, the owner’s old plow truck) while “Crash into Me” blared from a boombox on repeat. At the beginning of the day, I’d hated that song. It struck a bit too close to home, for me: the popiness, the earnest singer-songwriter-love thing, the complete absence of irony. Memories of middle school flooded back, past selves I’d rather forget, which amounted to all of them. Yet the owner — whose name I still could not recall — insisted that the song slug on, weighing down my laboring further and further. There was another woman working alongside me — her age was indiscernible, her language Arabic (was she from Algiers? I wondered), her hands callused — whose example I flailed to follow. Truly, Amar was a maestro, with unwashed plates though also with her voice, which — just as my exhaustion was reaching its apex, thirty minutes into the day — roared out the chorus to “Crash into Me” in perfect Arabic.

Perhaps it was the discord between the English song and Amar’s overpowering Arabic accompaniment. More likely it was my despair that compelled me to join her in truly unintelligible English by yelling — shouting, really — yodeling out my own take on the song’s lyrics, until our voices overpowered the music itself. Customers stood and stared. The owner owned, unfazed. I don’t think Amar even knew what she was doing. She occupied a plane higher than me, I was certain — a place of greater authority, romance, and daring than any I’d known. But I did not idealize her. Rather, I merely appraised my own standing — how low it had seemingly fallen, yet also the avenues I had opened up for myself by stepping into this role. My shift was clocking by quickly, now — soon I’d be free, with the late afternoon lounging before me. What to do, what to do? I’d be back tomorrow, 9am — but until then… what to do?

There was a protest march that evening, beginning outside the Algerian embassy and leading all the way to the President’s mansion on the ______ (who cares?). In the meantime, Paris remained an abstraction for me, though its watercolors, tender scenes of passion, and refinement had recast themselves into brutalist, battling tones of counter-revolution and rebellion. I went to the library and read. Angrily. Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. “In every age, among the people,” he wrote, “truth is the property of the national cause.” So how was I to reach the truth? I would have to redefine it — or, more accurately, catch up with the resistance’s definition. At the march, then, I would find truth. Right?

Who cares how I spent the time in-between, really? I read, I walked, I dreamt. All alone. But when I turned to find the throng outside the embassy, yes — this time I joined the people, and remained amongst their ranks. Alas! I had forgotten a cardboard sign. So be it. It was my first time, and these were good people — surely they would be gentle with me. And they were! What can I write about my reception, the outpouring of love around me, the joy of joining the march? Ah, this was before the internet, my darling, before smart phones and yet after nostalgia, at the time. True, I did not feel completely at ease: I was solitary by nature, prone to questioning and averse to believing, so throwing myself headlong into a movement went against much of what I stood for. And yet. And yet. And yet. The cause was just. Of course, there were some strange characters there. But no matter where on the political spectrum you fall, you are bound to find yourself with strange bedfellows.

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Teacher / Writer based in Oakland, CA.

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Matthew Hennigar

Matthew Hennigar

Teacher / Writer based in Oakland, CA.

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