Fiction · 06/10/2015

The Boy at the Embassy

The boy at the Panamanian embassy in Paris was being replaced. Ambassador Tania Carrasco Gonzalez, who represented Panama in Morocco and Finland as well as France, didn’t care anymore whose son he was, whose grandson, or that his cousin was the Minister of Culture or that her granddaughter found him adorable. The boy simply couldn’t add numbers — his only task — nor keep from spending over five euro on a roll of toilet paper that was always purchased last minute at the corner store (that knew just how to bilk the boy and saved up the extra charges to send the owner’s niece to Euro Disney). Her office was often out of t.p., as he’d use it to dry his hands, and the shortage was most often discovered by the Ambassador herself, who screamed as she hovered over the toilet and shook herself dry.

Time and time again this kind of thing happened to the boy, since he understood efficiency to relate only to proximity and not to her goddamned coño or goddamned budget.

What the Ambassador didn’t know was that Paris was, after all, his father’s idea and not his own. After the boy had dawdled the summer at a beach house his parents never officially gave him the keys for, they forced him on the Ambassador and the city of Paris during one of the coldest winters on record. They sent him huge sweaters he abhorred but draped over his suit beneath a large black parka. Torrential rains penetrated the two pairs of socks he wore, so the boy took to wearing women’s pantyhose beneath his slacks. Rashes covered his skin. He’d jerk his shoulders and legs against his desk to scratch, causing a tick in the Ambassador who jumped each time she glanced this movement.

The boy’s attempts at knotting a scarf a la the Parisians resulted in a bunching under the parka’s shoulders and gave Gilles the doorman his morning entertainment.

Still, the Minister begged Ambassador Carrasco Gonzalez to keep him on, as did a range of prominent foreign affairs officials who she was shocked to learn knew the boy’s name. She was not shocked they didn’t accept her offer of a personnel trade.

On the day she fired him (using as her excuse a cut in staff though he knew she had Luis in her pocket), the boy didn’t waste time blaming himself. He interpreted her hurriedness as distraction and completely missed what seethed beneath, as it took three weeks of nightly calls to the Minister (Fuck it! I can’t dry my coño!) for her triumph. Pushing cash into his hand, she informed the boy that his apartment was funded through the end of the month when his parents expected him back in Panama City, not the Farallón coastal house. He glimpsed Luis’s back as he watched the embassy’s entrance from across the Avenue de Suffren, somehow in awe that he could be replaced until a Parisian taxi honked deep into his right eardrum and reminded him of the blasted city he was now stuck in.

Despite the thick wad of euro in hand, there was nothing the boy really cared to consume or own as a souvenir of Paris; the wet memories were enough. He hated baguettes and kept his mother’s (well, Gloria the cook’s) tortillas in the freezer to reheat every time he missed home. He’d been with the ambassador to all the musées, had the unexpected perk of encountering a very special waitress — whose descent he could not recall, whose name (Annabella) he did, who spoke enough Spanish to make out with him during another bore of an event when he ignored the collections, the past he was supposed to carry on as currency or class. He was often cooed at, thought trés adorable by all the local girls and the expats of Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica, Venezuela, and Bolivia, who hung together in small, incestuous numbers. Which was why the euro didn’t matter to him as much as reaching Mrs. Villareal’s apartment on Rue de Grenelle.

Military guards were at their patrols again. The boy maneuvered past the giant black armored gendarme, entered the familiar code at the building’s entrance, and knocked on the Villareals’ door.

I’m not letting you in, Mrs. Villareal said, after the maid cracked the door and alerted the lady of the house before bustling back to lock herself in her room, away from the things she knew he and Mrs. Villareal were going to do.

The boy pleaded, repeated the Ambassador’s directive, and smiled though he made it sound like a whine: They’re sending me home.

Isn’t that what you want?

It went on like this until they made love, like always. Her on top but facing away; he stroking the indent of her spine as she liked. As she weaved into him, the boy thought about those rambling films where nothing ever happens — seemingly always French films, he cursed — where characters were meant to hold you the whole time and at the end he’d ask his film going companion: So what happened? His dates, who knew un peu Espagnol, would either giggle, if very insecure, or explain, if kind. The intellectual ones mistook his question for an invitation to a battle of wits, which lasted longer than the damned movies. Or a few, the ones brave enough to look right through him, suddenly found little interest in his company and offered the cursory 1-2 cheek kiss. Goodbye. Finis. Those were the girls he kept texting while at his desk, even as the Ambassador stood over him, waiting, yet again. Seeing through him, yet again.

The boy ripped off the condom, chagrined, and when he was back on Rue de Grenelle he had to decide: was this the last prophylactic he’d need in Europe? Should he wait until he returned to Panama? Only in his home city was he a catch, able to get away without the rubber, sometimes begged to. He was a step on the ladder for his lovers, some Canal Cargo Company Owner To Be. Just a boy they watched to learn how to fill his desires. He still wore the suits his father demanded. Shirts tucked in, buttoned to the top, jacket worn regardless of heat and preceded by a cologne assigned by the family’s perfumer.

The boy stomped through a puddle — puta madre! — but he was not with the Ambassador anymore, had nothing to fear, no one to represent. So he said it aloud and enunciated, without shame he couldn’t say it in French. He looked up at the Eiffel Tower, which he’d avoided all these months despite its proximity to Mrs. Villareal’s. A drizzle began and the cuff of his slacks grew wet in the rainwater’s splash with each step. A never-ending stream of foreigners, trying to record how exciting Paris was, trampled this long yard of the Tower’s. The Louvre, Notre Dame, La Vie En Rose, and this stretch of metal were so deeply planted in even a foreigner’s and his, a non-believer’s, brain that familiarity was confused with destiny, ownership, and a pursuit of an elusive, imaginary happiness — like an inheritance the boy never believed existed. They’d speak in the language he’d heard so often, the language of the chase: in photos and with sentences loaded with borrowed meaning, constructed in the kinds of fantasies where a character goes to the Greatest Place — like Paris — and it is always love, like a tonic, that ends their story, as if the air and light over there vs. over here was sprinkled with a gold dust to lift matters that crushed them back home. These tramplers took photos from every angle in case the Tower was a balloon about to leave the ground, escaping their reach and memories. They’d pretend to be standing against the sky with that Tower, as if it was their best friend in the world, the photo securing that comfort and the fact that I WAS HERE. Just as important. Alive. Wet, the boy thought.

He shook his leg and craned his neck to stare at the crisscrossed iron that rose to define Paris and France. Did the world really come together here, joined like a magnet by this antenna? Or did it disperse from this place, like a hum that squeezed every bit, every visitor into one transmission, something that was already in him, something he was supposed to feel and had yet to find?

As he grew close, the boy made out shimmering gold letters in a line across the planks, before the iron rose in prayer to the sky. The letters spelled names — Petiet, Daguerre, Wurtz, Le Verrier, and soon there were so many to absorb that they blended into their frame — which, with the bronze color of a Tower he always assumed was silver, caught him by surprise. The boy had never looked so close at any one still thing. He’d passed on each tour of countless paintings and each mention of whom slept-ate-thought-wrote-shit-killed-themselves here. Like everything else in Paris, he glimpsed the Tower mostly at night, its lights beckoning the Seine with a constant stream of bulbs, signaling new arrivals.

To go from one capital to another, the boy knew, was not to know a country. What would let you know the boy would be a drive to the coast. For on the coast there were no cologne mandates, no musées that inserted the past on the present. The sandals were ones he chose and the girls were harder to come by so that in the silence he had his first chance to know and perhaps confront himself. The roads were quieter as were the people, waiting and working on what they had to say. And it wasn’t because they were simple. It was because there wasn’t an artifice of towers or buildings or roads, marquees or mass iconic imagery to decorate the void of what haunted them. Each brick and bulb in a city renewed whenever you arrived to recycle others’ words and meanings as your own. The divides between those that pressed on in such flurries in the capitals and those that hustled their way in the shadows was less obvious on the coast and countryside. Or maybe his memory of it was all wrong.

It is we who are foreign, the Ambassador always said. We who must adjust.

But her letters were so submissive to the boy. She was an apologist for the invisible crime of being a small nation, a country that had to be explained and translated, like a person you haven’t met yet, don’t trust for they haven’t the celebrity, the big screens that proceed them and call their name as if to say: WE MATTER. Call us Panama! As if she was ashamed of their own names and hesitant in a shadow, waiting to be called on. So letter after letter he took out all her begging that the Finnish XYZ or Moroccan XYZ or damned French XYZ would acknowledge her existence, her well meaning nation and its products and beneath that, its just-as-deserving nature.

The boy crossed the bridge in search of a metro with its wicked dripping letters when he heard it: Spanish tourists, emphasizing their consonants. He smiled as rain smacked into his eye.

May I take your picture for you, the boy asked, and they were grateful even if he couldn’t fit the whole Tower into their background. Even if the photo was better zoomed in only on them.

Happy to finally use their native tongue, they asked about the X (Sorbonne), the Y (Pere Lachaise), the Z (the cheese!), all next in their chase. The words fell off him into the crevices of the bridge, between the rain that pooled. He couldn’t pronounce or find his way to anything on the map they unfolded and brought to his chin. And he claimed he meant only to offer direction when he swung his arm and dropped their camera straight into the Seine.

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N.T. Arevalo’s at work on stories based in Bosnia-Herzegovina, one of which received Honorable Mention in Shenandoah‘s 2014 Bevel Summers Prize. Find her at www.arevalossketches.com or, hopefully, back on the stoop in Paris with Ines and Hugo, listening and talking story and justice.