Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La danse au Moulin Rouge, 1890. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Every summer, my mother would take me and a friend to Salisbury Amusement Park to eat fried dough with cinnamon and powdered sugar and go on the roller coaster until we were sick and then get our minds blown by the 2001 Space Oddity dome, which spun us around in complete darkness while a narrator intoned about galaxies and time warps. But best of all: every hour, on the hour, the Solid Gold Dancers jogged out of a pit in the center of the fairgrounds and, sweating under the August sun in full gold lamé, would kick, spin, leap, and boogie for fifteen minutes while disco music boomed (those loudspeakers carried barely any treble, which made for a peculiar version of disco). Sunrays glinted off the sequins and I was hypnotized. It all jumbled together in my mind, the sensations, the nausea, the ecstasy. That gold-flecked feeling of 1979 faded away until thirty-five years later, when my French husband, Bruno, took me to the nightclub in Montmartre that started it all: the Moulin Rouge.
I walked through red velvet curtains into the past and straight onto the set of the sweetest magical movie flop of my youth, Xanadu! Roller skates, a swimming pool rising up out of the stage where we could see women dancing underwater. In costumes made of diamonds and skin. I was in heaven. The show lasted two hours. It had everything: a fantastic light show and sound system, constantly changing sets—a castle, a pirate ship, a circus, a London street corner at the turn of the century, a … a Chinese opium den?
Even though the women had naked boobies, they still looked like angels. I think angels do have naked boobies, now that I’ve seen this show. And there were so many of them! A teeming flock or herd. Singing and kicking and dancing. Costume changes for every act. A personal favorite was the giant red-feather puffballs with legs sticking out. No arms, no head, just a big red puffball on legs. One act featured good-natured Siamese twins, another strongmen who balanced whole humans on a single elbow, wow! At the Moulin Rouge, clowns are bare-breasted along with the angels. And I shouldn’t have been surprised that in France, one clown act per nightclub experience was not enough … there had to be two.
Naked boobies in Versailles. Photograph by the author.
There are few things in life I just cannot understand or stand, and my husband’s passion for the sad clown is one, and it’s such a big part of our life. On our second date, he took out his clown nose and put it on. He said, ominously, “You can say anything when you have this nose on.”
My clown name would be American McNasty.
Upon my announcement that Bruno was a clown, there followed a shocked silence.
“I’m afraid of clowns,” the American husband at our table said.
“He’s afraid of clowns,” the wife confirmed. “I’m drunk,” she added, just giving information. Every table got an exquisite bottle of champagne, and she’d chugged it while I’d been transfixed by the beauty.
For the final act, everyone came onstage: clowns, strongmen, mermaids, roller skaters, red puffball heads, turn-of-the-century London streetwalkers, and angels, arm-in-arm in a line, doing an increasingly frantic cancan as the music crescendoed along with our hearts until the moment we just couldn’t handle any more, and the velvet curtain blessedly dropped. A collective sigh rose like a giant feather, and then came a thunderous applause and foot stomping. After which we filed dazedly, spent, out of the theater into the peculiarly light Parisian night.
A shaved tree in Versailles. Photograph by the author.
Bruno didn’t exactly hate America. Not like England, which he very exactly hated. From a teenage vacation to our shores forty-five years ago, he had formed this idea of us as made up of equal parts Coca-Cola, air-conditioning, white teeth, and “everybody friendly and excited”—that last bit said in the tone with which one would read medical symptoms off WebMD when trying to determine the nature of a family member’s illness. It took two whole years to convince him to come experience my homeland with me.
Wanting to give him the most American first day possible, I arranged for us to arrive on Halloween—a holiday the French don’t celebrate because it’s “commercial.” They prefer, say, Bastille Day, which features a parade to commemorate a bunch of people hundreds of years ago storming a prison and setting free the seven inmates, who all went on to get killed in a riot the following day. This time of year was also good because I wanted him to see the leaves changing colors, which happens in France, too, but the foliage in France is sparser, more … curated. The French plant their trees in rows and then sometimes they shave them into rectangles! Driving down the street in France in fall, you don’t get the feeling you do in New England—that you’re Moses and God parted the sea for you except it’s a sea of fire. A giant sea of fire.
As we moved further away from the airport in Boston to New Hampshire down double-yellow-line roads encroached by trees of all different heights and widths and raggedyness, Bruno’s normally squinty eyes got bigger and bigger. “I feel like I’m in every one of your American movies right now,” he said. “Wild and free, like the legend. Soon a car following us will appear in the mirror, and there will be the chase, and then the big explosion.”
I had a similar sensation upon first arriving in Paris, except in reverse, and I was in a book instead of a movie. Everything was concentrated and old and unfriendly and tasteful and civilized and well done and planned—even the doorknobs. Even the buttons! Everything tiny and tasty—a tiny coffee from a tiny man at a tiny table, and it was the most perfect coffee you could ever imagine, and I was the only one who spilled, like a big dumb animal. And when I bent down to wipe up my mess, I saw that even the metal feet of the tiny table were pieces of art carved long ago that would last forever. One time I overheard a long and tortuous conversation where a Frenchman tried to convince another Frenchman that nothing exists, and my bulgy eyes got squinty.
The first real American “meal” I introduced Bruno to (not counting the gargantuan chocolate chip cookie wrapped in plastic we purchased at a gas station) was a Dunkin’ Donut decorated with a black-frosting spider on an orange-frosting cobweb and a “spooky” drink with a curly straw adorned with a plastic goofy Dracula face on it. He sat seriously in his professorial sweater and his glasses and his, well, French face; he ate and drank it to the end, and then he gave his assessment. “It’s more surprising than scaring. It’s all the same texture, only the chemical sugar or the chemical salt changes the taste. It acts like food: I swallow it and I will shit it. But it is not food.”
Next I took him to a dive-bar strip club in Bedford, New Hampshire, which I first visited at the age of sixteen with my father. He had just gotten out of prison, where he learned how to do commercial refrigeration repair, which is what we were doing at the club. Bruno comes from a big family and old money, and I come from mostly just one sickly mom and no money. So it’s a view into another class as well as another culture we offer each other. The Moulin Rouge called me back to the heaven I disappeared into in my youth to escape the rough edges—any condition is bearable as long as you sing and dance it. But I’m not ashamed of the rough edges. They gave me a sharp eye with which I can find innocence and a sort of maternal benevolence in people and things that may appear to be anything but. Cheap, creepy doughnuts and windowless buildings with (probably) cheap, creepy patrons felt like the pathway down which to lead Bruno into the strange beauty of my childhood.
It was early afternoon, so it was just six girls in various Halloween getup, the bartender, and us. Bruno had never been to a strip club before. Bruno is a seducer. Sex for him is communication, emotion, a tango. Me, not so much. I’m an erratic dancer, pretty erratic emotionally too now that I think about it, and way too goofy for sexy talk. I just dive into sex like I do everything else, with my enthusiasm making up (I hope) for any lack of skill. Bruno had seen burlesque, of course, but it didn’t do much for him. The body without the relationship was just not his thing. And the prospect of a lap dance made him feel squeamish. He had friends who would go to prostitutes, but not in the sense American men do. These were more like mistresses. There was repartee, dinner, sometimes even no sex! I think in France it’s almost impossible to see women as objects, and just everything is more fancy and more distant. In France, taking your clothes off is an art form. You don’t just grab an artist and stick a euro in their garter.
As Bruno seemed nervous, I suggested he order a drink. He picked a Tahitian cocktail and it was served in a kid’s plastic beach bucket, just a giant amount of alcohol over a giant amount of ice (this bartender had no way of knowing how offensive ice is to the French) with a can of Truly sticking out of it. Bruno was saddened. “This is too high a level of aggression,” he said.
He then explained to me what a Tahitian drink should be like, could be like, and I explained to him that we don’t really notice these kinds of details. We are not concerned with presentation, and we don’t savor. The idea is to get drunk. “But why?” he asked. I shrugged. There is no real answer to that question—about anything in America—except to ask back: Why not?
The girls did not swarm us. They were content to huddle together like penguins keeping their mostly naked pelts warm with each other’s body heat. A Black girl in cat ears and a tail ventured out to do a few spins on a pole. Another girl pulled up a chair to face her, yelling out terms of endearment and ranking her performance with superlatives. They were both laughing.
“The whole day’s been like this,” the bartender told us. “No one.” The day shift is rough.
I asked Bruno if there was anything like this in France.
“We have places like this, but not the mood. The mood of being lost in life, in the belly of a ghost ship. And we don’t have the way of being nice to each other, the women.”
Another girl took over the pole—this one blonde and blowsy, with big strong thighs and small natural breasts and a bit of a belly. She wore cowboy boots and a fringed skirt and nothing else. She seemed nice. Looked like she had a kid or two. I said to Bruno, let’s pull up some chairs.
Hanging from the pole like a bat, she asked us how we were feeling. I explained that it was Bruno’s first time. She seemed to feel that was marvelous. She was making a lot of eye contact, chatting, smiling, even laughing. She lifted up her skirt and slapped her own ass in our faces, which made us laugh. “You guys are fun,” she said. It felt genuine, intimate—we were just hanging out making each other laugh. She bent down and massaged my shoulders. Holding eye contact. It was pleasant, not dirty—like petting an animal, or your pet petting you. Telepathically, she said, “We’re friends. We understand each other. Life is hard. Let’s smooth the way.”
I had supplied Bruno with two hundred dollars in fives, and I gave him a poke. He held one out to her hesitatingly. She gave a sideways judo kick that stopped just short of his face, and held the leg at that angle until he gave up on waiting for her to take it from him, and stuck it carefully in her boot. We stayed with her for the next three songs until all the fives were gone.
Our girl was the best representation of my roots I could have hoped for—of how much humanity rough edges have to offer. She just did it, did her thing, against bare, dark walls—no backdrop at all, no spotlights changing colors, no costume change. She made something out of nothing, with her physicality and her generosity. She held nothing back. She poured all of herself out onto us all at once, and just kept on pouring.
When I think of her—how she blends crass and top-class in one bold spirit—is when I really miss America. Because it’s what I know in my bones, and that’s the only thing I can’t find in this beautiful, beautiful country I now call home.
Back in the car, after the club, Bruno was smiling, a sight I don’t often see. He was in a dream. “Is it possible the friendliness is real? People could be that nice?” he wondered. “It was not sexual, but sexual, too. Like life. It was life!”
After that I took him to a honky-tonk where the stools are in the shape of butts. You put your butt on a butt—now that’s my idea of humor.
Lisa Carver published the nineties zine Rollerderby and has written twenty-four books, including, most recently, No Land’s Man. She lives in Montmorency, France, with a bunch of stepchildren and animals.
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