A Murdered Darling

Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.
–Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, generally misquoted and misattributed to Faulkner.

Here’s a darling I had to kill. I was trying to put this scene in Lion Eyes, but it just didn’t advance the plot or really have anything to do with the book, so it had to go. It is of course fiction, but it’s based on a place that really exists, and when I wrote this, I lived just down the street from it — and walked into it  innocently one evening  with my date. I no longer remember what parts of this are true and what I just made up, but I reckon it’s pretty faithful to reality. The discerning tourist may also appreciate this, then, as a Paris nightclub review.

Paris, 2005

Let me explain to you about Emeralds. Emeralds is a nightclub on the rue Dauphine that caters to two, and only two, kinds of guests. Exactly half of them are middle-aged Frenchmen. Now, one thing I should explain about the French: They know their Bordeaux from their Beaujolais and their foie gras from their terrines de sanglier, that I’ll grant you. But when it comes to rhythm, they don’t know from nothing. Once I went to see Ray Charles at an outdoor amphitheater in the medieval city of Carcasonne, down in the Southwest. Great concert. There’s nothing like Ray. But that’s not the point. Point is, there be Ray, on stage with the Raylettes, and man is he cool in his dark shades, jerking and swaying to the beat, be-bopping and scattin’, smiling so bright his teeth catch the stage lights and sparkle. Ray’s snapping in time to the music, crooning and jiving, waving his body back and forth like a dandelion rustling in a stiff breeze; he’s singing all the greats like Hit the Road Jack, and Georgia, and the Raylettes are grinding it, tracing figures eights in the air with their fleshy hips, shaking that booty, workin’ it; they are getting down. And there’s the whole audience of French people, sitting politely in their seats, so rigid you’d think their spines had fused. They don’t snap their fingers or nod their heads in time or hum along; they don’t yell Sing it, Ray! They don’t get up and dance; they don’t tap their feet or thrust their chins or sway in their seats; they don’t holler Amen to that, Brotha! They’re like granite. The stick is so far up their asses it’s like a trellis holding up a hothouse orchid. Now don’t get me wrong – they love Ray. As much as they love any music. If you listen closely, you can hear them talking among themselves, pronouncing Ray “très, très bien.” But the French, what can I say? – they’re Ice People. They don’t have soul, they ain’t got rhythm, and they can’t dance. They’re sitting there in front of Ray Charles, for the love of all things holy, and they’re stiff as Popsicle sticks. Good thing Ray’s blind, I thought. If he could see this it would destroy him.

Now, this phenomenon is true across the board. You go to an expensive nightclub in Paris like the Buddha Bar, the underground cavern that used to be cool about five years ago, the one with the two-hundred foot giant Buddha and the six million candles? Looks like a cross between Angkor Wat and some nightmare scene out of Heart of Darkness? Same phenomenon. The women wear low-rise leather jeans and tiny little beaded black tops with pushup bras, and they’ve got thin little bracelets stacked up around their wrists, and they look great, but they don’t move, and if you stare at what they want you to stare at they shoot you dirty looks. Hell, they shoot you dirty looks no matter what you do. The guys just stand the at the bar, striking these Jean-Paul Belmondo poses, all disaffected and alienated from society or whatever, showing off their five-o’-clock shadows. They’ve got their leather jackets on, and they’re smoking one unfiltered cigarette after another, and you can tell they think they’re looking pretty stylin’ – in their minds they’re bling-blingin’ and big pimpin’ and all that, if they knew how to say that, which they don’t. But actually, they look like total stiffs.

Anyway, the guys at Emerald’s aren’t anywhere near cool enough for the Buddha Bar – which isn’t cool in the first place. These guys are on the late side of forty, maybe pushing fifty, and not one of them is in shape. It’s like part of the cover fee – you have to have a paunch, maybe even a big jiggly spare tire to get in. They’re dressed like middle managers out for an afternoon of golf. They’ve got short-sleeved white shirts on, the kind you’d wear with a pocket protector, and it looks like there might be stains under their arms. Or maybe they’re wearing polo shirts and jeans that don’t fit properly over their saggy middle-aged asses – the back pockets are way too far apart, because the jeans have to be that wide just to make it over their hips. They’ve got no rhythm, no jive, no soul. They look like exactly what they are: middle-aged Directeurs de Marketing, software technicians at Crédit Agricole, brand managers for some vacuum cleaner company with its headquarters in Lyon. There’s one guy sitting on a fuzzy velour armchair who looks like the French version of Dick Cheney – stern, plump, bald head, sour face, jowls – and there’s another guy standing at the bar with a jutting inverted parabola of a nose, obviously a sense organ of exceptional sensitivity to grape and tannins. His bushy wiggling eyebrows match his splendid waxed mustache, which curls at the tips à la Hercule Poirot. Look who’s coming out of the bathroom, shaking his hands dry! It’s a younger guy, say forty-five, in a cotton-blend shirt with a zipper at the neck that catches directly at his mouth because he doesn’t have a chin. He works for La Poste, from the looks of it, some kind of mid-level bureaucrat, he’ll be retiring in ten more years on a credible state pension. Over near the coat check there’s a stooped elderly party with bags under his eyes and the worst combover in the history of combovers. And sitting on the couch near the dance floor you see someone’s favorite Grandpop, a roly-poly Father Christmas of a man with a watch fob in his breast pocket. He’s nursing a glass of cheap champagne. In his lap there’s a magnificent 19-year-old Senegalese hooker.

You heard me right. All the men have a Senegalese hooker, actually. At least one per customer. Because that’s the other kind of client at Emerald’s. The only other kind of client. African goddesses. Regal, contemptuous, six-foot-tall Nubian princesses fresh from the Savannah. No, I don’t get it either. No one does. To imagine these women you’ve got to put your mind right in the grassy plains of the Okavango Delta. You’ve got to envision the elephants watering themselves in the lagoon, and the huge blood-red sun, big as half the sky, setting over a grove of mangosteens, a flock of swirling kingfishers darkening the horizon. There she is, rising up amid the impala, the zebra, the giraffes, the lechwe, the tsessebe. There she is, in nothing but a woven loincloth, copper bangles round her neck, a plate through her lower lip, savage tribal markings slashed across the stoic broad plains of her face. An elaborate headdress crowns her magnificent shorn head; her cheekbones are impossibly high, her nose flat, her lips fleshy, her senses sharp as she listens intently for the sound of rustling in the scrub. Her skin is gleaming, polished ebony. She is all taut muscle and sinew. From her firm young breasts to the proud striated muscles in her flexed legs, she is youth and strength, magnificent, a powerful mass of coiled energy, ready to spring into action and race after her prey, to bring down a gazelle with her bare hands. Her waist is narrow, her legs are long, her arms and shoulders ripple with muscles. She is lean, without an ounce of spare flesh, but her buttocks are high, hard, perfectly spherical globes. She is carrying a spear. Except for some reason, tonight she’s wearing four-inch stiletto heels, hot pants and a conical bustier, like Madonna, and she’s in a nightclub in the heart of Paris, sitting on the paunchy lap of a middle-aged French guy with a flabby white ass, a combover, and a nose that looks like it should be sniffing a cork. Weirdest fucking thing you ever saw.

Nothing happens there until about one in the morning. Even at midnight the place is still empty. You wouldn’t know it was anyplace special from the outside – it’s just a door, set off the street and covered in green velvet, with a discreet sign that says “Emerald’s Club.” Underneath that an even more discreet sign says, “The most Parisian of African Nightclubs.” But if you look at the drink prices, posted outside, you notice that they’re absurdly exorbitant: 20 Euros for a mixed drink, 200 Euros for a bottle of champagne. A tough-looking, cadaverous Somali stands outside, eyeing the newcomers fishily. He’s not a bouncer, precisely, so much as your first racial clue. Then you walk inside and you notice that something’s definitely up. There’s a photograph of the young Mohammed Ali on the wall, and all employees are young black men: the waiters, the bartender, the coat check guy, they’re all black; they’re all dressed in tuxedos and they look like Louis Farrakhan’s bodyguards. But all the customers are white. The employees look at the customers with undisguised contempt. Not resentment, contempt. Their faces are saying, “Buddy, do you know what she’s used to back home?” There are no white women in the whole place, not one. Once, some hot blonde chick with blue eyes walked in there with her date. By accident, I’m sure. She and the white guys stared at each other in mutual puzzlement – no hostility from the men, they were happy to have her there, they just couldn’t figure it out. They were looking at her the way you’d look at a woman who wears a nun’s habit to a nudist beach – their eyes said, there’s nothing wrong with wearing a nun’s habit, if that’s your trip, but why on earth would you want to come here of all place? She figured it out pretty quick. She and her date left right away, after paying every cent of the 40 Euro bill for their two nasty little shot glasses of cheap rum. That’s just not the kind of place where you tangle with the waiters.

The décor is kind of an old-fashioned glitterball disco scene. Everything’s covered in velvet, but everything’s gloomy and old and tatty. There’s weird decorative stuff hanging from the ceiling. I have no idea what it is, but 1974 keeps calling and saying they want it back, now. It’s very dark inside, but not so dark that you can’t tell that some things in there are just plain white. For a nightclub in the heart of Paris, it smells of Eau de Developing World, and not just because half the clientele comes from there. It’s got that shabbiness, that sense that when something there wears out, no one can afford to replace it. There’s nothing chic about it, nothing yuppie or bobo or BCBG or avant-garde. When you go to the bar they don’t hand you a fancy drinks menu with cocktails like Blackberry-Basil Mojitos and Screaming Orgasms (you’ll not wanting be wanting to purchase those at the bar, anyway). All they have is cheap gin, cheap vodka, cheap rum, and that 200 Euro champagne. You can get tonic or Coke to mix it with your drink. It’s extra.

Until one in the morning, there’s nothing doing. A dozen or so white men sit next to a dozen or so African princesses in those velour armchairs, drinking. The men look nervous, and the women looked bored to tears. No one tries to make conversation with their dates. They just sit and drink and stare into space, nodding in time with the music. But the music is great. It’s African. It makes you want to get up and dance. No one does.

Then, at about one, the place begins to fill up. All of a sudden all the empty velour chairs are taken, and the women – only the women – begin to head for the dance floor. And man, can these women dance. They’re smooth, sensual, arrogant. They wriggle, leading with their booties – they draw circles within circles with their booties, like those Spirograph toys you played with as a kid, faster and faster, energy shimmering though their bodies like water in motion. And these women are dressed, whoa, they are dressed. One spectacular creature’s hair is covered in a bright yellow bandana, tied above her forehead in a big knot, fixed with a big ruby broach; her head looks like a sculpture you’d see on top of Tutankhamen’s tomb. She’s wearing huge gold hoop earrings and tight black pants, the highest of high heels and a top that laces in the back like latticework and shows off her arms, her back, her shoulders, her breasts – and those stay up by themselves, without a bra, so solidly affixed to her chest that they don’t even jiggle when she dances. She’s wearing a half-dozen gold bracelets on each of her arms, but they’re on her upper arms, highlighting their defined musculature. No white woman could ever look that good in those bracelets. She’s a cross between Selena Williams and Iman back in her prime. She knows it. She turns her face to the wall and her back to the white guys, and pumps her high, round rump into the air. That’s the key selling point. All the women do that. They hide their faces and sway their backs and push out their rumps and shake ‘em. And the guys watch, for about a half hour, forty minutes, transfixed by this rumpy-pumpy show, they watch those asses grinding and shimmying, and the expression on their faces is a mixture of shame and sputtering horniness and utter, dorky blanchitude, a quality that is the exact opposite of negritude, and a word that must be added to the English lexicon just for Emeralds.

Then comes the moment everyone’s waiting for. The first white guy gets up the nerve to go out on the floor! And what kind of courage must that take? You know the waiters must have a nickname for the first dancing white guy of the night. What do they call him, the Sperm Whale? The Sperm Whale cautiously leaves the pod, fearful at first, but gaining confidence, coaxed on by the outstretched arms and lewd grins of his tempting African plankton. At last he’s on the dance floor. He’s there. The first one. And what does he do? Well, first he just stands there like a dork, and he looks around, and he gives the high-five to his buddies, all proud, then, realizing that he’s supposed to do something, he kind of thrusts his hips spastically, and circles his hands around as if he’s cleaning a window with two sponges. He doesn’t look like he’s having fun, that’s for sure, and whatever he’s doing has nothing to do with the music. That’s okay, the ice is broken, and soon he’s joined by the rest of the whale pod – one after another, they lumber up to the dance floor and begin to wiggle their paunches and soap their windows. And the crowd gets thicker and fuller, and more men arrive, and more hookers arrive, and they’re flirting and dancing, and the first physical contact between them is when the guy grabs her ass. Always her ass. And you watch this, and you think, what could these men be thinking? Do they imagine, in their fondest hopes, that they could satisfy creatures like that? The arrogance! Do they reckon that these women are like Naomi Campbell, and they’re like Robert DeNiro? Well I’ve met Robert DeNiro. I know Robert DeNiro. And you, Sir, are no Robert DeNiro. The sight of these fleshy, middle-aged, unmusical French men trying to get down with these leonine, regal, exquisitely athletic Africans is just about the most hilarious and tragic thing you’ll see in this lifetime.

Ah, Emeralds. Ah, humanity.

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