The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner

BOMB 96 Summer 2006
096 Summer 2006 1024X1024

The blue lights flippes on. Smoky haze drifted above the tables.

“Introducing, from Paris, zazou dancer Rachel K!”

 

The marquee said Rachel K, French Variety Dancer, but the French Nazi had known immediately she wasn’t French. Whatever she was or wasn’t, she looked like a liar and he liked liars. He imagined there was someone for whom honesty was a potent seduction, but the French Nazi was not that sentimental someone. Seduction, he knew, was a slew of projections, disguises, denials. What could you claim to accurately know about anyone, much less a stranger to whom you were attracted? And yet you could claim, accurately, that a person was evasive, and that their evasions interested you.

He’d watched her show several nights in the Cabaret Tokio’s Pam-Pam Room, when he finally decided to break the wax seal on their silent conversation of glances. He stared coolly, continuously, wearing a colonial dictator’s eyeglasses, with heavy tortoiseshell frames and aubergine-tinted lenses. In her cycle of periodically eyeing him, Rachel K was eventually forced to meet his gaze. He nodded almost imperceptibly. She came toward him and plopped onto his lap like a child.

“Are you an ambassador or something?” she asked. She thought his suit looked expensive. His crisp, white shirt cuffs seemed somehow dignitary-quality.

The French Nazi said yes, exactly, an ambassador, but they both knew it was a lie. That ambassador was a code for something complex and possibly unspeakable, a word they both saw with quotes around it. Rachel K was wearing black fishnet stockings. He could see their pattern, even 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 put his hand on her knee. Her skin felt slightly cool, bare and smooth. He ran his finger up the inside of her thigh carefully, as though drawing a line on dew-frosted glass, leaving a skin-toned smear in the cross-hook pattern of her fishnets.

“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 scarcity, and he was impressed. And what was supposed to be an enticement, a fine membrane of netting that begged not just “remove me” but “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 chainlink 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 in order to penetrate the frontier of her pretend-virginity. Sometimes he became impatient, pried his hand into her underwear and simply 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.” She’d used a sable cosmetic brush and a pot of liquid mascara, drawing lines that crossed at angles to make diamonds, her foot lodged on the windowsill of her kitchenette. Like prayer, it was a quiet, obliterative meditation that opened up an empty space in her thoughts, a not-her. But it wasn’t prayer, and she wanted the space of not-her to remain empty, rather than fill with the presence of god.

“You spent an entire day painting your legs?” he asked.

“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. He came to Cuba to film the Spanish-American war.” Her grandfather, Ferdinand K, had gone east to film not the war but the hardwood fires. Forests of campeachy, purpleheart, and mahogany that had been burned to make way for sugar cane, fires so magnificent and hot they cracked his camera lens. He’d decided it was safer to stay in Havana and construct dioramic magic tricks. And so he blew up the USS Maine in a hotel sink with Chinese firecrackers and then sold the reels as war footage.

The French Nazi examined her in the dim blue light. She had a narrow face, dark eyes, the full lips and large teeth of a Manouche gypsy or German Jew. “K could be a number of things, mademoiselle,” he said, stroking her cheek with the back of his hand. “But K is not French.”

“They said he was French.”

“They?”

“Actually, my mother.”

“And she was—”

“A nothing. A stranger who left me here when I was 13.” She and her mother had ducked into the Tokio from the blinding sun of midday Havana. 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 that it was a kind of mother. It gave her life a shape. Other girls passed through, 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, Rachel K 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 who she was, and it was these very longings that reinforced the deeper reconciliation to her situation.

The French Nazi said 13 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, pompoms, 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.

Sometimes it seemed that 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 sidle up and 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 the 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.

 

“From Paris, zazou dancer, Rachel K!” the announcer calls into the microphone. There’s a clatter of applause.

The French Nazi 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 Café La Flore, bumming cigarettes and slurping whatever broth you left in the bottom of your soup bowl. It wasn’t about poverty. It was a style of dissidence. 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 accompanist touches a few keys on the piano, the beginning of an old-fashioned danzón. Rachel K floats out from behind a Chinois screen, draped in black chiffon and a cascade of rooster tail feathers that glint metallic green under the lights. The partition and a satin chaise longue transform the stage into a girl’s private dressing room, a feminine alcove of upholstery, unrobing, and mirrors with an audience of men watching intently as she drops her feathers and chiffon on the chaise, and steps forward. A tropical wraith with chemical blonde hair. Blue lights illuminate her white skin, white like a body filmed underwater. A body glimpsed across a night-lit swimming pool, or in the glaucous depths of dreams.

The “variety” of her dance comes after the show: discreet hotel room trysts, unlike the blatant commerce that goes on everywhere in Havana, at all times of day, behind bed sheets strung across vacant lots. She eludes the term “whore” with the smoke and mirrors of “demimondaine.” Girl of the underworld, an in-between space, a twilight, neither light nor dark, but a shimmering, aqueous blue. She makes a life out of twilight.

Even in her real privacy, in her dressing room or in her alcove apartment, she is never purely alone, but playing the part of alone for some invisible watcher. Her stage partition and parasol are even the same Chinois print, so that walking to buy cigarettes or milk she can’t escape the feeling of standing onstage, dropping the green-glinting feathers in a fluffy pile, a loose feather or two detaching to float by itself. The boundary between her private life and public life has blurred, as has the boundary between engaging her body only in intimate pleasures with people she trusts, and using it as an object she owns. She suspects these boundaries are delicate and probably can’t be repaired. But this is on some level a relief, to a girl who believes only in the present, and certainly not in guilt. There’s no use in fretting, or attempting to fix what cannot be.

 

She often went to the Hotel Nacionál, to suites flocked in satiny white, with dictators, diplomats, Americans, and on one occasion Havana’s Cadillac dealer, Amadeo Barletta Barletta, an Italian even shorter than she was, with burning eyes, ravaged skin, and currency so freshly minted it seemed like game-board money.

It was in one of these satin-flocked suites that the French Nazi stayed. This Frenchman, a certain Christian de La Mazière—aristocratic playboy, memoirist, ex-Charlemagne Division Waffen SS—took a jetliner from Paris to Havana and then a limousine from the airport. He bubble-bathed in the sunken marble tub at his suite in the Hotel Nacionál. Ordered a split of Perrier-Jouet, two boiled eggs and a saltshaker. Ate his light lunch and then headed for the Cabaret Tokio. He sat at a table in the back of the Pam-Pam Room watching Rachel K dance, her golden sartouche whipping like a lasso as she swung around a pole, no less graceful than a ballerina. But ballet dancers were like porcelain figurines, elegantly molded and coldly unsexed. Rachel K was warm soft-contoured flesh. With a gaudily feminine spill of platinum curls, and those barely bobbing firm-jelly breasts that are not only rare, a happy coincidence of genetics and miracles, but utterly time-sensitive, existing only in a slim window of youth. She spun her tassels left and then right, then one left and one right, miniature roulette wheels swirling in two directions. De La Mazière watched her kneel before the blue lights and smile coyly with her plump Manouche or German Jewish mouth 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 as she jiggled her body in the blue light, he sensed the person slipping through, person and persona in a kind of elaborate tangle. With her French theme, her mannered charm, he detected a creature whose mode was duplicity. He knew this mode. It was his own.

He studied her firm-jelly breasts, the silver sequins of her G-string, and her blue-pale skin with a kind of detached desire, in no hurry to get closer. He was patient, almost perversely so: The delay of pleasure was its own special and more refined category of pleasure. He didn’t offer to buy her a drink after her show. Didn’t even let her catch him staring. 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, and where he had a clear view of the stage, as well as the hallway that led to the curtained private booths. He enjoyed watching drunk and enthusiastic businessmen clumsily swat the booth curtains out of their way, duck 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 down-turned eyes that made his face melancholy, like a song in a minor key, as the bartender played canasta with two bored and customerless dancers, girls whom de 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 pushing six-feet, a regular giantess. After watching the giantess lose at canasta and then circulate the room twice, approaching him on both sweeps, he dug out a couple of pesos for a lap dance. He suspected Rachel K might notice he’d bought company, but that was all part of the game. 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.

 

“From Paris!”

Rachel K steps out. Opening notes float from the piano. The blue lights are angled toward her, mounted on the lip of the stage, and in them she can see mostly a screen of curling smoke, and through the smoky screen, the men in the front two or three rows. The lights block her view of those in the back but those in the back don’t matter. The men near the stage lay down bills, and it’s for them that she dances.

She drops her feather boa on the chaise. Feathers that are cheaply dyed, and stain her fingers and the back of her neck a faint corpse-gray.

“Zazou dancer, Rachel K!”

If she says she’s from Paris, she’s from Paris, is her sentiment. Being from Paris means filing her nails to a point and lacquering them in Hemorrhage Red. Drinking beer with grenadine. Carrying a parasol made of rice paper, with a Chinois pattern like her stage partition—a peacock, lotus, and reeds. Wearing painted-on fishnets, dressing like a zazou in short skirts and stacked wooden heels. Eating mouthfuls of cocaine. Douching with champagne. She believes that people are born every minute of their lives, and what they are in each of those minutes is what they are completely. Zazou, and from Paris, are things she does. Things she is by virtue of doing them.

An executive of the United Fruit Company, a Mr. something Stites—she couldn’t remember his first name and simply called him “you”—took her east to Oriente in his private plane. She’d been hesitant to go. He seemed like a person who was dangerous because he didn’t know which parts of him were rotten, or even that he harbored rot. “All this belongs to us,” he said, as they hedgehopped over green cane fields. “300,000 acres. Those are our boats, anchored off shore there. You see them?” Maybe he wasn’t dangerous after all, she decided. He simply wanted a showgirl to marvel over his sugar empire. They landed at company headquarters and she ran through a canopy of banana groves near the airport, trees with long, flat leaves, taller than she was and loaded with dank and heavy clusters of bananas, a strange purple flower dangling off the end of each cluster. She put her hand around a banana stalk. “They’re full of water, pure water,” the executive said. It felt like a chilled human limb with a cold pulse.

The girls had mostly left de La Mazière 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 began fluttering around him. They thought he was German and kept saying, “Das ist gut, ja? Das ist gut?” De La Mazière nodded distractedly, smiled 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, whose white body moved past his table, her little-girl hand in the grip of some high-level politician’s. A Latin tomcat, foppish, with his white dinner jacket, his combed and polished mustache, a wristwatch whose diamonds caught the club lights and sent out angled glints. The politician had been standing in a half-circle of bodyguards, checking his watch. Waiting, as it turned out, for Rachel K. She and the politician—the president, de La Mazière later realized—disappeared into one of the special curtained booths off the Pam-Pam Room. De La Mazière distracted himself by ordering another drink. He tickled the girl on his lap, who erupted in giggles. She straddled him. Took his tinted dictator’s glasses and tried them on. Placed her hand on the crotch of this French SS officer—memoirist, minor aristocrat, dreamer of extremes. “Das ist gut?” she asked, smiling, pressing with her hand, his tinted glasses slipping down her nose. “Ja,” he replied, “gut.”

Marcel bequeathed his aunt Leonie’s couch to a bordello, and whenever he visited the place, to tease Rachel of my Lord (but never buy her services), it unnerved him to see tarts flopped on its pink crushed velvet cushions, even if there was maybe nothing more perfect and appropriate than pink velvet plush flattening under a whore’s ass. De La Mazière was different. It didn’t matter to him whether he reclined on plush furniture in the lobby of the Ritz or in a squalid St. 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. A traitor satisfies his tastes, gets his high-and his low-grade pleasures wherever he can. In Havana, de La Mazière found occupied Paris all over again. Amidst its nude and adorned girls, morphine slushees and luxury hotel suites, he sensed a vague but unshakeable dread darkening the reverie and lawlessness. Despite the city’s obvious, surreal wealth, he sniffed wretched poverty. Tall and neon-pulsing casinos staking the heart of a metropolis ringed in desperation: miles and miles of neighborhoods with no electricity, no running water, and smokily typhoid trash fires. It was occupied Paris, with Americans in Cadillacs instead of Germans in Mercedes. A sultrier climate and starrier nights, purple-mouthed girls, a cinema palace with a retractable roof. They even had Obelisk and Olympia books on Calle Belga, and obsolete French pornography—not sequestered in L’Enfer, on the top floor of the Bibliothèque Nationale, but displayed at the bookstalls, their pages riffling in the damp ocean breeze.

And there was this girl, with the face of a Manouche Gypsy or German Jew. Like a drug that binds to what’s already in the wiring, she seemed formed from his own memories and longings. And yet unknowable–a cipher in pasties, painted like a doll.

Rachel K was leading President Prio, “Handsome,” she called him, as if it were his name, through the Pam-Pam Room to his own VIP booth. He was not, in truth, so handsome, but he was president and vain. She and Handsome passed the mysterious Frenchman’s table. A Frenchman who might have been, in fact, quite handsome. He seemed confident, amused, self-contained. A perfect loner. He’d been coming back, and each evening he was there, his presence distracted her, like he knew that she knew that he was watching her, though pretending not to, and his gaze colored her every movement. Just walking through the room, she was performing for an audience of one attentive Frenchman. It was strange, like he was whispering something and she could hear it even if she couldn’t translate into language what he said. She sensed a tacit agreement between them, that they would continue for some time with this ritual of him watching her and pretending not to, whispering a silent message more voluminous, airy, and complex than language could transmit. She felt sure it was better to draw out the spell than risk breaking it prematurely. And anyway, she was with Handsome, her favorite of the revolving door of presidents. They sat together in a private booth, and he gave her an opal pendant and a silk dress with a secret pocket. She kissed his mustache and let him practice his soliloquies on her.

President Prio liked to have a good time. He was a man of low ambition and lofty ideals. The press ridiculed him for his expensive and ribald tastes: caviar, Russian vodka, and 14-carat toilet flush handles. Photos had been leaked of him and his brother Tony jumping over the lime-upholstered sofas in the Green Room of the president’s palace, in pursuit of young girls clad in short-shorts. The accompanying newspaper article told of his notorious white parties. Prio was demoralized, humiliated, persona non grata with even his own cabinet ministers. A popular radio personality, Popo de La Cruz, ranted night after night about Prio’s corruption and vanity, so that people wouldn’t forget. Tony moved to Venezuela and started a construction firm. Prio only went out in dark sunglasses, flanked by bodyguards. His wife wore a black illusion veil, had them sewn to the inside of all her pillbox hats. The two of them and the children got in and out of polished Buick limousines as quickly as they could, turning away from the photographer’s flash.

“How about a walk. An ice-cream cone?” Prio said to Rachel K, the evening he gave her the pendant and the dress. They were sitting in Prio’s private booth, decorated like a Roman grotto with panorama-print Classical scenery, plaster figurines, and purple-leafed wandering Jew tumbling down the walls like ivy.

She hadn’t expected a walk, an ice cream. She’d expected go to the palace Green Room and cooperate fully. But his tenderness—opals, dresses, ice-cream cones—was part of why she liked him best, of the revolving door of presidents. Not because he spoiled her, but because he could be embarrassing and sentimental.

They left the club and went to nearby La Rampa, a grand avenue of deluxe sundae parlors where the rich strolled and licked. Exclusive confection boutiques that would later be replaced by an enormous State-run ice cream emporium, a concrete spaceship that gave away 25,000 bowls of government-issue vanilla and strawberry every day. A drab and massive enterprise that would be the future government’s elaborate fuck you to the rich, to the presidents and their prostitutes, who’d strolled and licked along La Rampa in Havana’s diamond days.

Prio chose chocolate chip and she guava, a fruit that tasted deliriously unnatural. More like feminine poisons, perfume or shampoo, than something you were supposed to eat. They were strolling and licking and window-shopping along La Rampa, Rachel K laughing at Prio, who looked unpresidential, she said, with ice cream in his mustache. A member of his dark-suited security team, who normally walked a few paces behind, approached and tapped Prio’s shoulder. The man leaned in and whispered something. Prio, still with ice cream frosting the tines of his mustache, blanched. He turned to Rachel K. “I must leave you now,” he said in a shaky voice. “Lelo here will take you back to the club.”

That night of strolling and licking on La Rampa was Prio’s last night as president. With the military’s cooperation, an army general named Batista staged a coup. “Easy as ordering a birthday cake from Schrafft’s,” Rachel K heard an American at the Tokio remark. One moment, Prio was on La Rampa, laughing and window-shopping, while his wife and children slept in their cream-colored sleigh beds. And then suddenly he and his family were huddling in the piss elegance of the Dominican embassy, booking airline tickets out. Batista had telephoned from Miami, promising to buy all the army officers new uniforms, and in return they gave undying loyalty. Surrounded the palace with tanks. People talked about the coup as the end of so-called democracy. Until later in the week, when the American ambassador endorsed the new government, celebrating Batista as business-friendly and a hallmark of a new era in Cuban-American relations. Prio settled in Miami and pursued a career as a stage actor. He might have been relieved, as Rachel K suspected, to have the presidency stolen from him and to pursue his long-held dream of becoming a stage actor. She herself didn’t care about politics. Though on a personal level she preferred Prio to the new president, a greedy man who knew how to manipulate people, but never had anything interesting to say.

De La Mazière was at his table in the back, watching the bartender with the face in a minor key play canasta with a dancer. The bartender won, but his face remained dolorous, as if winning were a burden, one more sad duty to perform. This was a few days after the coup. De La Mazière wondered about Rachel K, who she’d visit with now that Prio had fled the island. His pick would not have been a small-time gangster-leftist and his younger brother. These two entered the club and waited by the bar, awkwardly, as if they’d never been inside a place like the Tokio. Rachel K led the gangster and his brother to a booth in the back of the room. This gangster was increasingly well known. An instant enemy of the new State, he’d fired his gun on the plaza of the university in protest of the coup. The police had fired back, and then Batista shut the campus down. The younger brother had his notoriety as well, if in a different way: he was queer as a three-dollar bill, with hair on his upper lip so pre-pubescent it looked like cupcake crumbs. The three of them stayed in the booth for what seemed to de La Maziére like quite a while. When the curtain finally opened, he watched them file out. The gangster and his brother each shook Rachel K’s hand, as if one of them had just sold the other a used car, or a piece of real estate. Formal handshakes among a gangster, faggot, and a variety dancer. It was certainly peculiar.

The next evening de La Mazière was watching television in his hotel suite, as Batista made his acceptance speech. 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, every color of stripe and ribbon. He looked ridiculous. De La Mazière thought of Darnand with his French decorations—”bonbons”—attached to his new Sturmbannführers uniform. 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. The television cut to footage from the day before, this Cuban army general stepping off a plane from Miami and kneeling to kiss the tarmac, apparently overcome with love for his country. Home after his exile. Prio now in exile. The army general home. Everyone switching places as the chips fell. Darnand fled to Germany, but the stakes were so much higher. He wasn’t a small-time factotum from a banana republic, and there wasn’t any Miami, a place to cool his heels and wait things out playing canasta under a lanai. Darnand was captured. Brought to Paris. Executed.

A memory bloomed in de La Mazière ‘s mind of the earlier, glory days in Paris. Armistice follies and occupation fun. Civilian elites like himself, bourgeoisie, scum, and profiteers roaming with pockets full of cash. The particular, hushed feeling of the city at dusk, the violet-blushing emptiness of the Parisian sky. Riding through the streets in a black Mercedes while destitute people traveled on foot, begging and scavenging. What had he cared the city was “annexed?” Or that Hitler, “le grand Jules” they called him, surveyed the Champs-Elysées and visited Sacré-Coeur? It was a free-for-all, the old social distinctions collapsed, a place now structured less on class and more on cleverness, the gray market, the black market, privilege, and opportunism. Controlled by profiteers, royalists, and moneyed riffraff. Le Boeuf sur le Toit and Maxim’s did booming business, packed for all-night parties of crystal-clinking pandemonium. German boys loitering in the lobby of the Ritz, their muscles pressing up against the perfectly creased fabric of their uniforms, anxious to polish your boots. Their sergeants, stripped to the waist, sun-tanned on the steps of the Louvre. At Fifine’s on the Rue St. Denis, girls rode topless on carousel horses like lithe, buttery-bodied centaurs, the carousel revolving at an erotic, slow keel. An impossible time, that time in Paris. Impossible even as it was happening.

But he didn’t want to return to those days, just certain parts of them. He didn’t want to wait for hours at the Vichy palace while Pétain refused to see him, de La Mazière standing at attention, a Frenchman in a German uniform. And though he’d won a frozen meat medal, he’d as soon eat actual frozen meat than fight Bolsheviks again, in the heavy snows of Pomerania. A place of misery and death, where his regiment was pulverized and scattered and he became an animal, eating raw horseflesh and sleeping in the snow. He understood painfully well that you couldn’t recreate a moment of ignorance, a luminous bubble winking in the folds of memory. A bubble that he later saw had floated in a tide of darkness. All he could do was keep going until he found a bubble somewhere on the map. In Havana there was no war, no snow, no shame. There was, instead, softness, flesh, and decadence masking some kind of horror, like makeup over a bruise.

 

Earlier on the evening that de La Mazière and Rachel K finally spoke, she’d been entertaining Batista. Batista in his medal-glittering uniform, a dictator wonderfully “with” the people. De La Mazière had watched as she and the president, surrounded by thugs, passed through the Pam-Pam Room to a VIP grotto.

“You have friends in high places,” de La Mazière said to her.

“Who says they’re friends?” she asked.

“Ah. How right you are. Friendship is built on loyalty,” he said. “Not services rendered by a fille de joie. But you and the former president, Prio, I think you were friendly.”

“Friendliness is a service,” she said. “He’s gone, and I’m not hearing any violins.”

De La Mazière smiled. “You’re too busy cavorting with his enemy.” He had his two hands clasped around her upper 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 reached up and stroked her coarse blonde 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 de La Mazière wove incredible fabrications and repatriated with little problem. Spent his jail time in a luxury cell, his labor assignment: organizing the warden’s formal dinner parties. Until a mysterious yellow Telex arrived, pardoning him after only five years. Returning to France had been in a sense the same as leaving to fight against it: both were thresholds of radical disconnection. Twice now, he’d burned all his papers and identification. Twice, crossing a threshold had promised an instant crumbling of his own past.

The Frenchman was grabbing locks of Rachel K’s hair and running them through his fingers. He pulled firmly at her scalp, but it was a pleasant sort of firmly, a gently-firmly.

Friendliness is a service,” he said. “Of course. You need privacy. Ease of mobility. People get in the way.”

They really did, she thought. Even Prio. Near the end, he came around too frequently, and she felt a wearying duty to keep fixing herself into something familiar and consistent that he could recognize.

“Friendship,” de 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 was just then frozen, only the two of them would be left as they were, sentient and unfrozen.

“It’s funny, I must have been mistaken,” he said. “I remembered your hair as quite a bit longer. Even last night.” It was above her neck. He knew he wasn’t mistaken. He was being coy.

“I cut it,” she said. “Bleached hair doesn’t have full value.” But the truth was that she’d overvalued her hair. In every fantasy she had, every impossible scenario that floated into her mind, she always had waist-length hair. As if long hair were part of a tendency to indulgence, delusion, impossibility. And so she’d bladed it to her chin that morning, long platinum hair gone into the trash. Slumped and lustrous, like a discarded wig.

“What do you like to do?” he asked, “besides cut your hair and 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 a limited variety of set responses: I like pleasing youI like squirming on your lapI like to fantasize about a man just like you watching me take my clothes offI think about it when I’m aloneand I have to put my own little girl hands in my underwearjust 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 surely 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.”

De La Mazière thought of this girl making herself fall asleep cold, naked and uncovered in order to then feel warmth with more intensity. He couldn’t help but imagine being the warm body that smothered this petite girl, cold and shivering 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 Manouche gypsy or German Jewish face, this girl with her ink-laced legs and her K name, so obviously middle European. Among giant-sized strippers, tomcat actor-presidents, gangsters, and homosexuals. Still, she stuck out.

“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 covered. If it covered anything, that is. He had great empathy for affects and evasions.

“Okay here’s a story,” she said. “A man named Ferdinand K came over from France. He worked in cinema. Met a girl named Aloha. My grandmother. She was young. Younger than I am. They had a baby—my mother—the nothing, and 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.”

She looked slightly hurt. “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.

“I suppose I am.”

“And you know what else? I have a feeling you dismiss lowly ‘circumstances’ because you’re not willing to cough them up.”

“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,” she said. “I bet you live in a prison of your ‘tedious’ past.”

“It isn’t a prison,” he said. “You’ll see.” And then he fell quiet, as if her accusation had sent him drifting into contemplation.

If only it were tedious, he thought at her, but didn’t say out loud. If only. In fact, it’s sordid and remarkable to have been an incidental SS. 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 I was fighting for heritage and class, and then knowing that I wasn’t. That it had nothing to do with politics or ideals. Of course, there were some with ideals. Not me. But I had conviction—you might even call it rare—the conviction to enlist at the Hotel Majestic on a stifling hot August day in 1944, when the war was already lost. Why I enlisted, I’m still not sure, but a reason was beside the point: It was a pure sacrifice, empty of reasons, a bigger, more grand self-erasure. On my way to enlist, I saw people shuttling into the Velodrome. I won’t deny that I saw them, being led inside. I was a helmeted dreamer who waited in a German uniform while Pétain dozed in his chambers. Pétain in his kepi with the scrambled eggs braid, who refused to see us, 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. I’m a man who had to go it alone, fight with conviction and for nothing, with men who didn’t speak my language. The only one who didn’t cave.

Fair enough, he thought. She’s no more mysterious than I am to myself. And so here I am, in a burlesque club below the Tropic of Cancer, in this damp city where dreams are marbled with nothingness.

 

It was time for her show.

The blue lights flipped on. Smoky haze drifted above the tables.

“Introducing, from Paris, zazou dancer Rachel K!”

Rachel Kushner lives in Los Angeles and is working on a novel, tentatively titled Spirit Loves a Colony. Other excerpts have appeared in Fence and in Soft Targets. The Strange Case of Rachel K is also the name of a 1973 Cuban film about a pre-revolutionary Havana dancer who was mysteriously murdered.

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Originally published in

BOMB 96, Summer 2006

Featuring interviews with Bernard Piffaretti, Liz Larner, Tony Oursler, Kimiko Hahn, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Park Chanwook, Anthony Coleman, Jesper Just, A.R. Gurney, William Forsythe.

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