From Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner. Copyright © 2008 by Rachel Kushner. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY. Originally appeared in BOMB Issue 96, Summer 2006, as “The Strange Case of Rachel K”.
Blue lights flip on. Smoky haze drifts above the tables.
“Introducing, from Paris, zazou dancer Rachel K!”
Rachel K steps from behind a Chinois screen. She is draped in black chiffon and a cascade of rooster tail feathers that glint metallic green under the lights.
The Frenchman remembers zazou. It was a jazz thing during the war. Girls in chunky heels and fishnets, with dark lipstick and parasols. Or maybe it was berets—he can’t recall. Boys in zoot suits, an unseemly glisten of salad oil in their hair. They were bohemians who struck poses near the outdoor tables at the Café de Flore, begging cigarettes and slurping the soup people left in the bottom of their bowls. The point of it was more than just poverty. It was a form of protest. But by the time the zazou were being rounded up by German patrols, he was far away from Paris. Marching waist-deep into a cold apocalypse with a panzerfaust over his shoulder.
The Tokio marquee had said French Variety Dancer, but watching her through his aubergine-tinted dictator’s glasses, he senses immediately she isn’t French. Whatever she is or isn’t, she looks like a liar and he likes liars. He imagines there is someone for whom honesty is a potent seduction, but he is not that sentimental someone. Seduction, he knows, is a slew of projections, disguises, denials. What can you claim to accurately know about anyone, much less a stranger to whom you’re attracted? And yet you can claim, accurately, that a person is evasive and that their evasions interest you.
This Frenchman, a certain Christian de La Mazière—ex-Charlemagne Division Waffen SS, minor aristocrat, memoirist, and traitor to the state of France—had taken an airplane from Paris to Havana the day after he heard about the coup. He caught a limousine from the airport, then ran a bubble bath in the sunken marble tub at his suite in the Hotel Nacional. Ordered a split of Perrier-Jouët, two boiled eggs, and a saltshaker. Ate his light lunch and headed for the Cabaret Tokio.
He sat in the back of the Pam-Pam Room and watched Rachel K’s show, her golden sartouche whipping like a lasso as she swung around a pole, no less graceful than a ballerina, though ballet dancers were like porcelain figurines, elegantly molded and coldly unsexed, while Rachel K was warm-looking, soft-contoured flesh. A gaudy spill of platinum hair and those barely bobbing firm-jelly breasts that are not only rare, a happy coincidence of genetics and luck, but utterly time-sensitive, existing only in a slim window of youth. Youth was no miracle, he knew. Or it was a banal miracle. And yet he loved the blunt perfection of young flesh. Unreflective, knowing only its own moment-to-moment existence. She had a narrow face, dark eyes, the full lips and large teeth of a Manouche Gypsy or a German Jew. Zazou—of all things! The framing made her seem oddly knowing, despite her blunt and stupid and perfect flesh.
La Mazière watched her kneel before the blue lights and smile coyly for the men at the front tables. They were serious and stoic, and he understood that the cabaret was their church, her show an engrossing sermon they took in with naive and absolute faith. He was serious, too, but while the other men watched her with awe, an exotic creature as mysterious as conical rays of divine light coming through a stained-glass window, he’d immediately seen something he was sure they could not. She’d gauzed her person in persona, but he sensed the person slipping through, person and persona in an elaborate tangle.
He studied her with detached desire, in no hurry to get closer. He was patient, almost perversely so. The delay of pleasure, after all, was a more refined and intense category of pleasure.
He began going to the Tokio nightly, showing up just as it was her turn to dance. He sat in a shadowy back corner of the Pam-Pam Room where the tables were always empty. He had a clear view of the stage as well as the hallway that led to the private booths, where drunk and enthusiastic businessmen clumsily swatted the booth curtains out of their way and ducked in with girls who wore sly, proud looks on their faces, the men and the girls each thinking it was they who’d triumphed over the other. He watched the Tokio bartender, a man with downturned eyes that made his face melancholy, like a song in a minor key. He observed as the sad bartender ritually played canasta with two bored and customerless dancers, girls whom La Mazière guessed had no choice but to bide their time waiting for specialty clientele. One was much too thin, with an unappealing, shovel-like pelvis. The other, maximally fleshy and six feet tall, a regular giantess. One evening, after watching the giantess lose at canasta and circulate the room twice, approaching him on both sweeps, La Mazière dug out a couple of pesos for a lap dance. He suspected Rachel K might notice he’d bought company, though it was part of the game for him to pay attention to everyone in the room but her. For two weeks now, he’d avoided her gaze, and she’d avoided his. Because what he waited for felt inevitable, he could sample a giantess, get her squirming and giggling and moving her brown Caribbean hips in just the right way, and do it with full concentration.
The girl on his lap slowed to a steady gyration, her eyes closed. He sensed she might have taken the liberty of falling asleep, but her sleepy movements were no less effective. Her skin was perfectly smooth, her sequins glinting splendidly under the colored cabaret lights. He imagined that she and probably all the girls in the club, despite their showgirl glamour, were from the filthy ring of desperation that surrounded the city. If its center was staked with neon-pulsing casinos, on Havana’s outskirts were miles and miles of slums with no electricity, no running water, and smokily typhoid trash fires. It was a combination he relished, sometimes preferring his high- and his low-grade pleasures mixed instead of pure. Proust’s Marcel bequeathed his aunt Léonie’s couch to a bordello, and whenever he visited the place to tease “Rachel, when of the Lord” (but never buy her services), he was unnerved to see tarts flopped on its pink velvet cushions. A favorite detail of a favorite literature, and yet La Mazière knew what Marcel didn’t, that there is nothing more perfect and appropriate than pink velvet plush flattening under a whore’s ass. La Mazière didn’t care if he reclined on luxurious furniture in the lobby of the Ritz or in a squalid Saint-Denis cathouse. Ate his steak at Maxim’s or at a colonial outpost in Djibouti, a backwater of salt factories and scorching temperatures on the bacterial mouth of the Red Sea. Properly seared steak is everywhere the same. He had even argued, adamantly, that a juicier cut could be eaten in Djibouti, not naming out loud the special ingredient that tenderized the meat: contradiction.
The Pam-Pam Room dancers had mostly left him to himself at his lone back table, having pegged him as quirky, disinterested, and cheap. Until he got the giantess gyrating on his lap. The next evening, girls fluttered around him. They thought he was German and kept saying, “Das ist gut, ja? Das ist gut?” He nodded, smiled distantly, and said, “Ja, gut” in his French accent. He ordered a rum drink with crushed mint and morphine crystals dissolving in a slush of ice. Sipped his drink and stole looks at Rachel K as he tickled the girl on his lap, who erupted in giggles. The girl straddled him. Took his tinted dictator’s glasses and tried them on. Placed her hand on his crotch.
“Das ist gut?” she asked, smiling, pressing with her hand, his tinted glasses slipping down her nose.
“Ja,” he replied, “gut.”
Three weeks after the coup, La Mazière watched on the television in his hotel suite as Batista made his official acceptance speech. Perhaps the president had waited thinking the memory would fade that there wasn’t any election. He was a mulatto with soft features, a faint severity straining his smile, a mean streak that couldn’t quite be suppressed. His general’s uniform was littered with medals and badges, stripes and ribbons. Those guys could never resist. Soon the people would be calling him “Bottle Caps,” which is what the Dominicans called President Trujillo. La Mazière thought of Darnand pinning his French decorations—“bonbons”—to his new Sturmbannführer’s uniform, when he became de facto head of the Vichy Milice. Medals Darnand had won fighting the Germans on the Maginot Line, pinned under his new silver-stitched SS insignia.
Batista smiled and made his face handsome. “I am a dictator with the people,” he said.
Prio was now in exile. Batista home. Everyone switching places as the chips fell. Darnand and the entire Vichy government fled to Germany, but the stakes were so much higher. Darnand, Laval, Pétain. These weren’t small-time factotums from a banana republic and there wasn’t any Miami, a place to cool their heels and wait things out playing canasta under a lanai. Darnand was captured. Brought to Paris. Executed.
That was a dark time. La Mazière preferred the early, glory days in occupied Paris, when royalists and scum roamed with pockets full of cash, La Mazière among them, savoring the hushed feeling of the curfewed city at dusk, riding through the streets in a black Mercedes under the violet-blushing emptiness of the Parisian sky. What had he cared the city was “annexed”? Or that Hitler surveyed the Champs-Élysées and visited Sacré-Coeur? The nightmare of the 1930s, of working-class people and their “paid” vacations invading the Côte d’Azure, was finally over. France had been heading for socialist ruin. Maybe the Germans, he’d believed, were what they needed to finally stamp out the vile ideas of the so-called Popular Front. Parisians blamed the Germans for the tanks that burned on the outskirts of Paris, covering the city in grease and ash. They blamed the Germans for their own quick and miserable defeat, for the toxic soot that coated the cherries on their trees. But they’d brought this failure on themselves. The soot was from their own captured tanks, French tanks. They could contemplate why Germany was strong and France was weak as they ate shoe leather and burned furniture to keep warm. La Mazière never had to eat blighted cherries or boiled shoe leather. As part of the new elite of moneyed riffraff, he lived extremely well, dined at Le Boeuf sur le Toit and Maxim’s, which did booming business, packed for all-night parties of crystal-clinking pandemonium. An impossible time, that time in Paris. Impossible as it was happening.
The television switched to footage of Batista stepping off a plane and kneeling to kiss the tarmac, apparently overcome with love for his country.
Perverse, he knew, to compare occupied Paris, people like Darnand, with this little republic and its General Bottle Caps. And yet something about the place activated familiar sensations, a mixture of dread and privilege, with Americans in shiny Cadillacs instead of Germans in Mercedes. But Havana was so much sultrier, starrier. The girls were purple-mouthed. The cinema palaces had retractable roofs. There was no notoriety and no shame, and instead, a power shuffle that was an open call to opportunists. A new president who reeked of insecurity. An old president in exile, eager to return home. Both would be looking for help. La Mazière could help them.
And there was this girl, a Gypsy or Jew, and either way she couldn’t disguise it. She seemed formed from his own memories and longings, and yet unknowable. A cipher in pasties, painted like a doll. She had a stained, gloating air about her, like the girls who’d ridden topless on carousel horses at Fifine’s on the rue Saint-Denis. The carousel revolving at a slow, erotic keel, the girls floating up and down like lithe, buttery-bodied centaurs. Later those same girls ate veal with German officers, while most of the population stood in ration lines, waiting for bread so moldy and stale they had to chop it with an ax.
“Das ist gut?” The Tokio girls asked him, no idea who he was.
“Ja,” he answered, and honestly, “gut.”
He was at his table in the back when Batista showed up at the club with several bodyguards who hustled him to a private booth down a roped-off hallway. This was predictable, politicians in titty bars. And yet it surprised La Mazière to see Rachel K escorted beyond the rope by Batista’s security detail, and led into the general’s booth. It surprised and intrigued him. Soon it would be time to finally break the wax seal on their silent conversation of glances.
The next evening, when she passed near his table, he stared at her coolly. In her cycle of periodically eyeing him, she was forced to meet his gaze.
He nodded almost imperceptibly.
She came toward him.
“You’re an ambassador or something?” she asked.
Her voice, to his great relief, was slightly low and calm. A high and squeaky voice could have ruined everything.
La Mazière said yes, exactly, an ambassador, but they both knew it was a lie, that ambassador was a code for something complex and possibly unspeakable.
He took a moment to examine her. The plump mouth. The chemical blond hair. She was wearing black fishnet stockings—La Mazière could see their pattern in the dim blue light. He liked the diaphanous allure of fishnets. They were an enticement in the guise of a barrier, like a beaded curtain hung over a doorway says “come in,” not “stay out,” its beads telegraphing that what’s inside is enchanted and special. He touched her knee, and to his surprise, her skin felt slightly cool—bare and smooth. He ran his finger up her thigh carefully, as though drawing a line on dew-frosted glass. It left a skin-toned smear in the cross-hook pattern of her fishnets, which apparently were made not of thread but of ink.
“An illusion—a painting,” he said, and looked at her with a bemused smile. He had a vague memory of Parisian women wearing paint-on stockings during the war. But that was all over. This was 1952. The girl had made her own perverse style out of France’s wartime scarcity. He was impressed. And what was supposed to be an enticement, a fine membrane of netting that begged not just “remove me” but also “rip me to shreds” could not be ripped to shreds. It could be removed, of course, with water and soap, but such a ritual, without the purpose of gaining sexual access, would have no meaning. Why bother, when he could have her as she was? Her stockings were as material as the sun shadow of chain-link fence on a prison wall. He thought of Inge, the German girl with whom he’d toured the Rhineland before enlisting in the Charlemagne Division. Little Inge, who insisted he tear through her intricate cat’s cradle of garters and stays, girdle, corset, and underwear. He would burst through snaps and panels, and tug tight-fitting elasticized garments down around the German girl’s knees, dismantling underwear fortifications to penetrate the frontier of her pretend virginity. Sometimes he became impatient, pried his hand into her underwear and jerked the crotch panel to the inside of her thigh, to clear the way. The tearing sound of unforgiving fabric would cause Inge to let out a little moan, as if the fabric itself were the delicate folds of her innocence. With paint-on stockings, there was nothing to burst through. No garters, stays, or snaps. Only flesh.
Rachel K nodded, yes, that she’d painted them on. “They were perfect, too—until you marked me.” She extended her legs to survey her work. “They took me all day to finish.”
“You spent an entire day painting your legs?” he asked, amused.
“Some girls spend hours plucking their eyebrows,” she said. “Burning sugar cubes and dropping them in absinthe.”
He nodded. “And you do this instead.”
“I do lots of things.”
“I’m sure you do,” he said. “It does say ‘variety’ dancer, after all. French variety dancer, no less.” It was a style of flirting, exposing her fabrications to provoke her into new ones.
“Maybe my dance is French-style,” she said. “But it’s more than that. My grandfather, Ferdinand K, was French.”
“K could be a number of things, mademoiselle,” La Mazière said, touching her cheek with the back of his hand. “But K is not French.”
“They said he was French.”
“Actually, my mother.”
“And she was—”
“A nothing. A stranger who left me here when I was thirteen.”
La Mazière said thirteen seemed rather young for a debut in her line of work. Not in the Tropics, Rachel K replied, where girls reach puberty at ten. She told him how the Tokio dressing room attendants had draped her in spangles, pom-poms, and gold sartouche trim. They were kind, middle-aged women with smoky voices and thick masks of makeup. They’d crimped her locks and painted her mouth in lipstick imported from Paris, a reddish-black, like blood gone dark from asphyxiation. Covered her breasts with tasseled pasties and put her onstage in the Pam-Pam Room. Voilà. Here she was.
She and her mother had ducked into the Tokio from the blinding sun of midday Havana. You’ll be better off, her mother said. Cuba was a heartless place owned by men in New York, and it made more sense to part ways than wander the streets together, pathetic urchins that no one wanted to help. It was so dark inside the club that Rachel K could barely see. They waited at the Pam-Pam Room bar until a manager appeared from a back office, trailing cigar smoke. He breathed audibly, and in his labored breath she understood that he’d taken her on. That was ten years ago. She’d been at the Tokio so long now it was a kind of mother to her. It gave her life a shape. Other girls passed through. They regarded cabaret dancing as momentary and sordid, always hoping for some politician or businessman to rescue them. Because the Tokio gave her life a shape and never sent her fretting over imagined alternatives, she was free in a way the other girls weren’t. She had longings as well, but they weren’t an illness to be cured. They were part of her.
Sometimes it seemed her entire adolescence had been lived in the dressing room mirrors of the Cabaret Tokio. She’d spent hours gazing into them, locked out and wanting to get inside, where the world was the same, but silvery and greenish, doubled and reversed. The same, but different. When she was alone in the dressing room she’d press her cheek to the silver and look sidelong into the mirror, hoping to catch a glimpse—of what?—whatever its invisible secret was. She had faith that there was some secret at the heart of invisibility, even if faith meant allowing for the possibility that there was no secret, that invisibility had no heart. If she knew the mirror’s secret, she’d know how to pass through to the other side. To a greenish-silver province that was her world, but reversed.
Now it occurred to her that she never looked at mirrors as mystery spaces anymore. Maybe she’d passed through without knowing it.
“You have friends in high places,” La Mazière said to her. “The president makes his grand entrance, with full security detail—”
“Who says they’re friends?”
“Ah. How right you are. Friendship is built on loyalty. Not services rendered by a coquette.”
“Friendliness is a service. In any case, I preferred the old president, Prio.”
“But of course. ‘Democratically elected,’ a man of the people—”
“I didn’t vote for him. He was a friend. But he’s gone, and I’m not hearing any violins.”
La Mazière smiled. “You’re too busy cavorting with his enemy.” He had his two hands clasped around her thigh, a garter belt of human fingers banding her leg. “If this was Paris, after the”—he paused and made quotes with his fingers—“‘Liberation,’ they’d shave your head, mademoiselle.” He stroked her coarse blond hair with the attention of a hairdresser assessing locks he was about to shear.
The French women who’d cavorted with Germans couldn’t hide their Nazi trysts any better than their ears, while La Mazière had woven incredible fabrications and spent his jail time in a luxury cell. His labor assignment, organizing the warden’s formal dinner parties. Until a yellow telex arrived, pardoning him after only five years.
He was grabbing locks of Rachel K’s hair and running them through his fingers, pulling firmly at her scalp.
“Friendliness is a service,” he said. “Of course. You need privacy. Ease of mobility. People get in the way, don’t they?”
They really did, she thought. Even Prio. Near the end, he came around too often, and she felt a wearying boredom in having to keep fixing herself into the same persona, something familiar and consistent he could recognize.
“Friendship,” La Mazière said, tugging her hair to angle her face toward his, “is a barbaric concept.”
He was looking at her, and she had the funny feeling that if time and everyone suspended in its viscous grip were just then frozen, only the two of them would be left as they were, sentient and unfrozen.
“What do you like to do,” he asked, “besides paint your legs?”
All men at the Tokio asked this. What do you like? It was part of the tête-à-tête of her profession, but what the men wanted was something from a limited variety of set responses: I like pleasing you. I like squirming on your lap. I like being coquettish and slutty. Giggly and deferent. I like to fantasize about a man just like you watching me take
my clothes off. I think about it when I’m alone, and I have to put my
own little girl hands in my underwear, just to stop the longing to be on your lap. Gullibility was beside the point: hearing these things was a performance the men were paying for. They didn’t really want to know what she liked, and it never would have occurred to her to tell them. But she figured that the Frenchman, with his bemused half smile, was too clever to want such an obvious put-on. He seemed to understand flirtation—real flirtation, and not a bluntly performed simulation of it. She suspected that if she said “I like squirming on your lap” he’d laugh his head off, and at her expense.
“I like those few days of the year when it’s cold here, at the end of hurricane season,” she said. “It’s cold enough you need a sweater. And at night, blankets. But I don’t fall asleep with blankets over me. I leave them down at the end of the bed and make myself fall asleep uncovered. When I wake up later in the night, freezing cold, I reach down and pull up all the blankets.”
La Mazière pictured her making herself fall asleep cold and uncovered in order to feel warmth with more intensity. He couldn’t help but imagine being the warm body that smothered this petite girl, cold and naked, on a mattress. Though he didn’t want to be just the warmth, he realized, but the cold as well. What preceded, in this fantasy, was him stripping the bed and leaving her shivering in nothing. Maybe underwear. Him making her cold, and then warm.
He looked at her face, so obviously middle European. “I think you should tell me your story,” he said. Not that he didn’t believe the orphaned-at-a-burlesque-club tale, but he wanted something else. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted a made-up story or a true story, or even what the difference was. People talked about character, a defining sort of substance. But deception was a substance as well, as relevant and admirable as what it concealed. If it concealed anything, that is.
“Okay here’s a story,” she said. “A man named Ferdinand K came over from France. He worked in cinema, met a girl named Irene, my grandmother. They had a baby—my mother—the nothing. Then they both dropped dead of venereal diseases. My mother, the orphan, was a street urchin. I don’t know who my father is. I told you the rest of it already.”
“You’ve told me circumstances. Not story.”
“Okay, fine. Maybe you should tell me your story,” she said, catching his eye through the tinted lenses, “Ambassador.”
He smiled as if to say, No problem. Watch me give you nothing. “I’m Christian de La Mazière. And okay, I’m not an ambassador.” He paused. “I’m a journalist.”
“You’re lying,” she said.
“There is that possibility.”
“And you know what else? I have a feeling you dismiss lowly ‘circumstances’ because you’re not willing to cough up your own story.”
“Why should I divulge what is meaningless?” he said. “A banal dossier of ‘this was my grandfather, I was steered into this or that profession.’ My existence is free of those tedious things.”
“I bet the opposite is true. I bet your ‘tedious’ past is a prison.”
“It isn’t a prison,” he said. “You’ll see.”
If only it were tedious, he thought, but didn’t say out loud. If only.
In fact it was sordid and remarkable to have been an incidental SS. Left with no war, no army, no country, only floating memories of medals and Maxim’s and going to fight the Bolsheviks, thinking Fascism was better than Stalin and that he was fighting for heritage and class, and then knowing that he wasn’t. That it had nothing to do with politics or ideals, only passion. Of course, there were some with ideals. Not him. Even if he had conviction—you might call it rare—the conviction to enlist at the Hotel Majestic on a stifling, hot August day in 1944, hours before the Allies rolled in. He’d explained his story as best he could in his memoir The Helmeted Dreamer, making his way, chapter by chapter, through the reasonings and events of his life like rows of a shark’s teeth. When the memoir came out he garnered instant cachet, coeds and housewives practically lining up to sleep with a remorseful former Nazi. Overtures to which he responded with special gratitude, though these engagements were marked by a poignant and troubling intimacy.
Why he enlisted, he still wasn’t sure. He had tried to explain his Huguenot and royalist heritage, a fight against cowardly defeat, against so-called Allies who murdered thirteen hundred French sailors at Mers el-Kábir, in one devastating blow. The impression that the German Army made on a demoralized country and its disheveled, ruined military. The thrill of German boys loitering in the lobby of the Ritz, their muscles pressing up against the perfectly creased fabric of their well-fitting uniforms, anxious to polish his boots. But how to make people understand what had really been at stake? The magnificent glimmer of a traumschloss—a dream castle—and the dream of a glorious Europe. Two great nations, France and Germany, flowing into one historic river, heirs to the rule of Charlemagne. And there was pride, the issue of pride. Rather than manufacture a despicable fiction about having worked all along for the Resistance, he’d chosen honor. The women, especially, were sympathetic to this reasoning. Women always preferred bravery to cowardice, regardless of politics or ethics.
In the end, these reasons, even reason itself, were beside the point. It had been a pure sacrifice, empty of reasons. A bigger, more grand self-erasure. On his way to enlist on that hot August day, the war already lost, he saw people shuttling into the Velodrome. He won’t deny that he saw them being led inside. He was a helmeted dreamer who waited in a German uniform while Marshal Pétain, their “brave leader” of a crumbling Vichy regime, dozed in his chambers. Pétain in his kepi with the scrambled eggs braid, who refused to see them, the few who were ready to keep going, the only people—correction, the only person—with the conviction to fight to lose, to test nothing but extremes. They all caved, and Pétain slept in his kepi with the scrambled eggs braid.
He was a man who had to go it alone, fight with conviction and for nothing, a dream castle, with men who didn’t speak his language. The only one who didn’t cave.
And so here he was, at a burlesque club below the Tropic of Cancer, in a damp city where dreams were marbled with nothingness.
She’d disappeared. He was so lost in thought he hadn’t noticed.
It was time for her show. The blue lights flipped on.
“Introducing, from Paris, zazou dancer Rachel K!”
Rachel Kushner lives in Los Angeles and is a coeditor of the literary and art journal Soft Targets. She writes frequently for Artforum and is a contributing editor to BOMB. Telex From Cuba is her first novel. She is currently working on a new novel, about the lives of American artists and Italian terrorists in the late 1970s.