Pink by Brianna Frentzko
The last man Karl would ever love was an American. Tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed, with a rippling, hairless chest and a taut ass. His lover was the sort of man who could have been cast in the lead of any of the Humphrey Bogart films but wouldn’t be because he was almost too classically handsome to feel relatable. He’d come to Lorraine for schooling, to perfect his language, and he’d stayed until the Nazis were nearly at France’s gates. David. His lover’s name had been David.
Karl doesn’t look like David. If he were ever offered a role in a film it would be as the gangly sidekick. He’d be the boyfriend dumped halfway through. The clueless intellectual. He still hasn’t gained back all the weight he lost, and he thinks he looks even weaker than usual under the dull lighting of his bedroom’s red lampshade. Karl buttons up his shirt: white, clean, good. Red tie. He remembers bunny rabbit rhymes, over, under, around. Perfect. And then the nondescript gray suit with its golden buttons. His black glasses. The beret that makes him feel more Parisian. Because he lives in Paris now, not Lorraine. Before he’d have worn a purple or pink tie. He’d have kept a carnation in his pocket, like Oscar Wilde. But that was when he lived in Lorraine, before the war. It was before a lot of things. Now he makes his appearance as bland as possible. He is asexual, without passion, passive, utterly unremarkable.
Looking into the mirror, he compares himself at thirty to himself at twenty. The Karl of long ago has more merits, a twinkle in his eye and a quiet grace. The Karl of now looks deadened, pale, a ghost. David would never mistake the Karl of now for the Karl of then.
He remembers that evening, the last evening they were together, when the news had come that France was conceding defeat. David had been sitting beside him in the old apartment, with the couch still moldy and the stink of contraband tobacco sweet in the air. They listened to the radio, and he, Karl, translated the German into French, and David automatically translated French into English. The radio, Karl, David. Everything was said three times. Three times. They heard it three fucking times. Sometimes, for some reason, he wonders if David would have stayed if he’d only heard it once. Would he have tried to ride it out? Dismissed it? Perhaps they would have ignored it.
David heard it three times, and he left France the next day. He didn’t come back to Europe until the Americans sent him as a fighter pilot. At least, that’s what the letter sitting on Karl’s desk tells him. The letter he opened just last night when he’d come home from his job at the Louvre. The letter on the desk is written in blue ink with a right-slanting hand, beautiful characters completely at odds with the strong bulk of David. He’d always thought their handwriting should be flipped; David should have his scratchy, thick scroll, and Karl should have the flourishing As and looping Ls. They’d joked about it once, before they’d been lovers, when they’d just begun to tease and flirt on ink and paper, and the most they’d ever touched each other was one time holding hands under the cover of darkness in the new picture house while watching Gone with the Wind.
Looking at the familiar, beautiful construction of blue on white, Karl still can’t understand how David had managed to contact him after all this time, how he’d managed to navigate the broken fragments of identity left to Karl in order to find an address. Of course, he isn’t entirely sure how and why David assumes he is still alive. No one else is talking about what happened to people like him—not the Americans or the Brits, and certainly not the French or the Germans. But David must know. He must have known the moment that France capitulated. That was, presumably, why he’d fled. Left Karl alone.
That wasn’t fair. David had asked him to come to America. Karl glares at his reflection, trying to provoke the mirror to reflect some emotional depth, but his eyes still look like they’ve been plucked out of a wooden doll and stuffed into his flesh. David had asked him to come. It isn’t fair to blame David. It was Karl who had lacked the courage to flee.
He reaches out to the desk and gently picks up the letter. Slowly unbuttoning the three golden buttons of his gray suit, he reaches into his interior pocket and places the letter there. Karl has no idea what he wants to do about the letter, but he doesn’t want it far from him. He re-buttons his suit. Adjusts the beret. He looks businesslike. Walking over to the door, Karl picks up his briefcase and heads out of his apartment.
Since moving to Paris and finding his job, he has walked this route every day except for the weekends, and then he walks the route, but only as far as the pastry shop on the corner of the street. He goes down the back staircase, comes out through the heavy black door onto Circe Street, and then turns left. He walks until he reaches the Seine and keeps the busy honking and swerving automobiles to his left, watching them vie for control of the road while motorcycles careen through them all. He stays on the sidewalk on the far side of the river so he can smell all the scents wafting from the cafes on his right: cinnamon rolls, coffee, and crepes with strawberries and baked brie.
Today, like yesterday, he stops at Café de Seine and buys a croissant and a coffee with two sugars and so much milk that it is almost white. He sits and eats. Finishes after seven minutes. Heads back out to the sidewalk and keeps walking along the river. Skips over the pothole in front of DePu’s flower shop. Turns right, following the river around the front of City Hall. Shivers slightly in the March air. Now he can see the gallery, the Louvre, in the distance. Not too far. Soon he’ll be in his basement working with the fragile paintings from Britain and Germany and even Russia. The paintings that need to be fixed because they are partially burnt or waterlogged or torn in two. Never anything from Paris, of course.
His stride slows abruptly because the woman in front of him has stopped moving and he needs to turn to get behind her and around, but the man at her side has stopped suddenly as well, and he’s—the man is gorgeous. Wild black hair, stubble on his cheeks, strong build. He wears an elaborate black coat, and his scarf is a soft pink. Karl tries to ignore the color of the scarf and the way his hands start shaking at its sight. He places his hands gently in his pocket and stares straight ahead, trying not to notice the man. But he can’t ignore him because it’s the first time since he’s come to Paris that he feels a stirring down there where there hasn’t been in so long. So he stops, bending as if to remove something from his shoe, letting the two continue in front of him and pretending not to watch them as he follows.
They are walking along and then, suddenly, they are kissing. They are kissing in the middle of the street like it is the most natural thing in the world. His arm around her back, hand on her shoulder and her hand on the small of his back and their eyes closed and . . . and . . .
Karl stops. Turns. Looks right at them as they draw apart. They both turn to another man sitting at the table. He has a camera. He is smiling. A picture. Kissing in the middle of the street. For a picture. For a fucking picture. And . . . and they just . . .
Karl keeps walking, but his eyes are blurring the street away until it looks as soft and unreal as film on a camera. He remembers the woman, the one with the breasts so large they looked like buttocks with little pebbles of pink. Her hair black and curly. Eyes wide. Pupils dilated. Straddling him and rocking against him until he thought of David’s blue eyes and strong chest and finally, finally grew hard. Her riding him. Fucking him. The guards watching. Feeling the welts on her naked back. Sweat. Dripping water on his chest. The woman was crying. Her big breasts bouncing. And all he heard as he finally came was the laughter. The guards laughing.
He sits, shaking violently, at a café table, breathing in the smoke from the cigars and the petrol fumes and the river and willing himself to stop shaking. His arms fold around himself and he can feel David’s letter in his interior pocket.
“Sir, sir, do you need—”
Karl is shaking his head, but tells the very concerned waiter to bring him some water. The two men smoking at the table beside him are looking at him as well. When the waiter returns, he sips his water slowly, willing his body to warm up and his hands to stop shaking, praying that he isn’t crying. He feels beneath his glasses, but there are no tears. They beat the tears away quickly. Or the dogs licked them away when they . . . he’s forgotten how to cry.
Two lovers embracing on a street. Kissing. As if it is nothing. A man wearing pink as if it doesn’t matter, means nothing.
He sits for a long time. He doesn’t understand. The walls he has constructed in his mind are as high and twisted as the barbed wire he doesn’t want to remember. He doesn’t understand why the walls are breaking down. Why the walls between the Karl of before and the Karl of now are slipping because of a letter with curly blue scribbles and a couple kissing like it’s nothing on the street. The walls breaking. The walls between the Karl with the pink triangle on his lapel and the now-Karl: him. The now-Karl who puts on the same gray suit with the three golden buttons every morning, walks out of the apartment with the red lampshade, walks along the Seine until reaching the Louvre, restores paintings until five, and goes home to the red lampshade. The Karl who isn’t a man anymore because they took that away when the prostitutes didn’t work. The Karl who has eyes like a doll. The Karl who came out after they’d killed the other Karl. The survivor-Karl who had left because France didn’t have the laws of Germany and they couldn’t imprison him like they did some of the others. The Karl who had never returned to Lorraine. The Karl who had come to Paris and built walls.
The men smoking have brought him tea. They tell him they’ve seen soldiers like him before. Shell-shock, they call it. He doesn’t tell them he wasn’t a soldier. They pat him on the back. He does up his tea. Two sugars. So much milk it’s almost white. His sips the tea. Warm.
Karl unbuttons the three golden buttons on his suit and takes out David’s letter. A kiss on the street.
He sometimes wonders who told. They’d thought it would be safe, that one last time in the train station when David was leaving. Before that, they’d been discreet. No one had known. The kiss at the train station had been chaste, soft, a goodbye. It could have even been mistaken for two friends, not . . . and everyone was panicking and running to the train and there were people everywhere and the steam rising and . . . and how had anyone noticed? People were fleeing France, fleeing because France had not wanted its paintings to be burnt and waterlogged and ripped apart.
A soft kiss on the platform. His last kiss.
His hands are steady. He sips more tea. Then, slowly and methodically, he rips up David’s letter into smaller and smaller pieces. The breeze takes his white and blue confetti, carrying the remnants of the letter across the cobbled street, catching in cars and cracks and on men’s boots, and some pieces making it all the way to the Seine to drown. Tonight he will write a letter to David Norman of Baltimore, Maryland, telling him that he has reached the wrong person. Karl is insulted by the implications of the letter he received, and never wants to be written to again. He will write that Karl Amar died behind barbed wire with a pink triangle across his chest. As all faggots should.