The Last Time I Saw Paris

Bill Burkett
20 min readSep 9, 2023

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. — Ernest Hemingway

No one ever said it better than Hemingway. The City of Light is always with me.

Some excerpts from my Paris notes: the first time I saw Paris was the day before Christmas Eve 1965. Four of us GIs on a three-day pass from Germany rented rooms in a hot-sheets hotel in Pigalle a block from the Moulin Rouge, agreeing we were so horny we should go straight to the famous wellhead of sex. I thought them more experienced. No male of twenty-two could have been less experienced.

I was sitting next to Goldman in his beat-up ’50 Volks when I saw the Eiffel Tower framed between two banks of roofs down a twisting market street. Morgenstein and Novak crowded forward from the back seat to see too. For me the sight evoked a powerful emotion akin to coming home.

Goldman took charge of our little band and designated the morning of Christmas Eve for sightseeing. The four of us left our Pigalle hotel in a mad rush that I found silly: Goldman and his Instamatic, Morgenstein and his Leica, Novak and his Polaroid. They thought I was crazy without a camera. We covered La Tour Eiffel, Notre Dame and L’Arc De Triomphe in a steady drizzle. It was like Parcheesi with cameras. The muddy, crowded carnival of Pigalle seemed a brave, pathetic, hopeful tourist trap to me. I liked it a lot. I grew up around Florida tourist traps.

At early dusk the lights of Pigalle began to sparkle, footlights for an amazing, erotic parade of prostitutes, revealingly clad even in the damp cold evening. To my dazzled view they offered a sexual cornucopia of every hair color and skin tone and feminine shape in the world, shivering in flimsy attire under awnings and doorways. I couldn’t help gawking. I was a twenty-two-year-old virgin and ashamed of it.

Here I was, a real GI, a graduate of Military Police school with a NATO Secret Clearance and a serious Cold War job. But still a virgin. I was determined to do something about it.

I was disillusioned when my allegedly experienced companions failed to take the lead. They never approached one single prostitute. Eventually I realized they were not as seasoned as squad-room bravado suggested. Aching with frustrated lust, I tried to persuade them into one of those live-sex venues that lined the street, each promoted by carnival-like barkers who swapped friendly backchat with the prostitutes between pitches to the throngs of tourists.

What I said was I wanted to prove it was all a hoax and nothing sexual would happen on stage. But my secret hope was just the opposite. Filmed pornography had not yet flooded the world. I needed technical guidance to illustrate the erotic words of Henry Miller, Grace Metalious, D.H. Lawrence and Agnar Mykle.

My companions refused to go. They balked at the required price of admission: an expensive bottle of purported champagne for each stage-side table. I didn’t have enough money to buy one by myself and was afraid to go in alone anyway.

Next I wanted to get in one of those sidewalk boxing rings on Pigalle, featuring club fighters who promised you 500 francs if you could stay in there with them for two minutes. Juste Deux Minutes. Work off some of my frustration and earn enough money to brave the fleshpots alone.

I had my hands on the ropes and one foot on the edge of the canvas when Goldman clamped me in a damn MP come-along hold and marched me off surrounded by the other two. I don’t know what they were afraid of. I knew how to handle my fists and take a punch if I didn’t know the first thing about getting laid.

I sulked. One of my favorite novels, Lasso Round the Moon by Agnar Mykle, said for every Norwegian trying to have an adventure, there was another Norwegian running after him to stop him — for his own good. I thought sourly Goldman would make a pretty good Norwegian of the second type. When they began debating whether to go see Mary Poppins or Thunderball, opening in theaters that evening on the Champs, I screwed up my courage and left them. I almost waited too long.

Most of the whores had been swept off the streets by the weather. The one I finally approached had a transparent dome umbrella to protect her hairdo from the sleet and one of those European string shopping bags full of groceries: loaves of bread, a wheel of cheese, a bottle of wine.

She wore a sleek dark sheath with a hem just above the knees that showed off nice legs, but her attire was far more conservative than the flimsies I saw earlier. She walked like her feet hurt in those high heels. The way she cocked her head at me, unsmiling, when I said “Combien?” gave me an ugly turn. Maybe I had picked on a civilian headed home from an office job.

Then she sighed, and named her price: twenty francs. I thought that was five bucks, and I had five bucks. She offered to make change! When I declined, she gave me a real smile. She led me to a Pigalle hot-sheets hotel. I gave ten francs to the concierge for a room key and towels.

The great mystery finally was about to unfold.

What a letdown. She folded her plastic bumbershoot and slithered out of her dress, shucked her bra and knelt in front of me before I had my belt buckle undone. With the efficiency of an Army medic, she unzipped and examined me, a literal short-arm inspection. I passed muster and she went to the little bidet every French hotel room had. She lathered a wash cloth and wriggled out of her silk panties, demonstrating by sign language she was washing just for me.

Then she beckoned me over. Like magic, her soapy fingers went from clinical to erotic. My cock responded with alacrity. At a virginal twenty-two with a nude, attractive woman cupping my laden balls and smiling up at me, my brain couldn’t catch up with my body. I kept thinking there should be more to it.

She patted me dry, led me to bed, pushed me onto my back, straddled me, and inserted tab A in slot B. No condom; for the first time I felt the liquid clench of vaginal sheathing. Before I could appreciate it, she impaled herself fully and then was off to the races.

She rode like a maniacal jockey, with what sounded to my jaundiced ears like phony groans of gasping passion. Before I could complete the metaphor she had me in the final turn. I crossed the finish line in a blaze of sudden heat from my groin. She slumped on me, panting.

A deep, unreasoning sadness rose like a dark tide.

Was that all there was to the grand mystery? She levered herself off, still breathing hard, and posed fetchingly at the bidet, one foot up on it, to clean up. When she glanced back at me, her eyes widened comically. She came back and took hold. I was only twenty-two after all.

“Encore?” she inquired. “Maintenant?”

“Non, merci.” The engorged flesh was willing. But my brain wasn’t.

“C’est c’a.” She was dressed and gone before I sat up.

I walked nearly vacant streets in the bitter wind for a long time before I wandered back to my hotel. The great mystery had unfolded, and I was bitterly disillusioned.

But on Christmas Day at the USO on the Champs…

The Canadian kept after her to promise him a date next weekend. She wasn’t buying it and it was so obvious she wasn’t that I was embarrassed for him. When he excused himself for a bladder break I told her I’d better be going.

“No,” she said. “Don’t go now.” The way she said it did peculiar things to my insides.

“Why not?” I said. “You two have some things to work out.”

“No.” She shook her head imperiously. “He and I have nothing to work out.” She leaned forward, holding me in her dark eyes. “You,” she added. “You and I have things to work out.”

When the Canadian came back, his growing desperation was explained. He had to catch a NATO bus in less than a half-hour to go back to his post outside Paris. He was running out of time to secure a date. And no way he wanted to leave her with me.

He had no luck at all. She tucked her arm under mine with complete familiarity and smiled at him and said we would walk him to his bus. Suddenly we were the couple and he was the outsider. The very idea caught me so by surprise I could hardly breathe. The NATO bus had a regular stop right around the Etoile from the café. It was already loading when we got there. She shook hands with him and said goodnight and tucked her arm back in mine. I will never forget the forlorn expression on his face framed in that bus window.

But I forgot it then, instantly and completely. Because she was right there in front of me in that snug black coat with the fur collar, her hair tucked up in a scarf against the cold rain. Her eyes were bright as stars in the reflection from spotlights on the Arc. While I was no longer technically a virgin I wasn’t sure what to do next.

We walked kind of aimlessly and looked at Christmas displays and the derelicts. The bums on their park benches all seemed to have a jug of 50-centime skull thumper and they all looked happy. She danced away in front of me, moving lightly backwards, gazing at me, smiling gravely.

“What?” I asked.

“I am memorizing you,” she said…

We walked some more and paused at a map shop. Lighted world globes were on display, and her delight was infectious. We pressed our noses to the window side by side, trying to find our respective spots on the globes. And there was Florida, easy to see. On the adjacent globe, Israel. She linked her arm with mine, pressing close. “An omen,” she said.

“Ships that pass in the night,” I said.

Our reflected faces were very close. Mine was shadowed by my hat. I saw her turn to study my profile. “Explain.”

So I told her it was a phrase the matriarch of my family used to describe chance encounters, like ships from different ports en route to different destinations exchanging Morse signals at sea.

She hugged my arm more tightly. “But sometimes ships can sail along together for a brief time, yes?’

My throat tightened. “Yes.”

She led me happily down the street, not letting go. Couples were running and dancing from the sheer exuberance of being alive and together. Our shadows moved together as one beneath the streetlights, the shadow of a couple. I felt like I should be running and dancing too.

But I still didn’t trust it. Paranoia about women blended with spy-novel plots: the USO approach, the handoff by the alleged Canadian, her ostensible infatuation with me. Was my lowly spear-carrier role as keeper of military secrets of enough interest to the Sovbloc to spring a classic honey trap on me?

She led me into Place Victor Hugo because I said I was a writer. There was a Metro station there. She let out a little cry and said she had forgotten it was there. She didn’t want it to be there. Because now I had seen it I would leave her…All I saw was her. She faced me beside the Metro steps, gloved hands in mine, and said the outer logic invented by Greeks must be honored in some things. A woman, she said quietly, cannot say take me in your arms and love me.

“That is for the man to do.”

To say your heart stops is only a saying until it does, on a frozen midnight Place in Paris, waiting for your answer. I had never even kissed a girl before…

How long does eight hours last? That’s all we had from our first kiss until I had to leave for Germany. We didn’t waste a minute of it. In memory it was eternal.

It was very hard to fit myself back into dreary Army routine. I was a changed man and my heart was still in Paris. Even the little German dry-cleaner who did our uniforms knew: “When you came back from Paris you were so full of love,” she said wistfully. By the time I could badger the Army into a transfer to France, she had completed her studies and gone home to Israel…

I knew she was not in Paris anymore. But svelte women among thronging crowds along the boulevards, whose heels rang on the pavements as hers had, haunted me. If a woman was a similar height with hair dark as the Seine under streetlights, my foolish heart would lurch. If she walked with a dancer’s grace it was worse.

This particular raining night — it always seemed to be raining that spring — a woman fit so closely I stumbled when I saw her. Dark hair around her shoulders, tossed by an errant breeze, though I only saw my vanished lover’s hair that way when she took it down and took me to bed. But the resemblance arrested me mid-stride.

Frenchwomen always were acutely attuned to attentions of men. She made eye contact. I averted my gaze. She closed the space between us gracefully. Peripherally it was a ghost walking. She spoke to me. In French of course. Her teasing voice broke the spell — the voice was different. I heard pourquoi but not why she asked why. I guess my raincoat, old fedora and soft suede shoes looked native. She said something else. I gave it up. “Parlez vous Anglais?”

She cocked her head. “Americain?” When I nodded, she said “I ‘ave un peu Anglais. Porquoi you stare, Americain? I am pretty, non?”

“Oui,” I said. “You remind me very much of someone.”

She puzzled it out looking up at me. Her face lit: “Une copine! Oui?” Saw my bewilderment. “Votre amour? Comprenez-vous?”

That I could get. “Yes — oui.”

“Où est-ce qu’elle est?” She paused. “Where — is — she?”

“Far, far away.”

Her lips formed a cute moue. “Au loin? Pauvre de vous.”

I could get most of that. “Merci.”

Lights along the Champs made rain drops sparkle in her dark hair. Taxis bleated. Crowds parted around us. She said un peu soul. Small soul? Poor soul? I shrugged. “Lone-ly,” she said slowly. “A little, n’est ce pas?”

“A lot,” I said. “Beaucoup.”

She winked. “Je pourrais vous aider.” I shrugged again. “I — can — ‘elp.” She smiled brilliantly, took my arm. “Vingt francs.”

For God’s sake, she was a hooker. The ratio of working girls in female pietons always seemed high even on the Champs amid airline offices and movie theaters, not far from Le Figaro. I had just left The Blockhouse on the Etoile, the NATO photography office that processed film for me. She arched her brows and tugged.

“Alors? Allons nous amuser!” Suddenly we were walking. She threw her laughing face to the rain, almost skipping. Right size, right shape. Right hair. It felt eerily familiar. Lovely features not the same, but her exuberance was. She happily dragged me against a flashing don’t-walk light at a passage pieton, free hand up imperiously to stop traffic. Amazingly, rain-wet cars braked with a sibilant hiss of tires. A taxi objected with blaring horn. She flipped him off insouciantly.

She chattered and clung, smiling up at me. One of the strangest walks of my life. I was in Paris, walking with a professional doppelganger of my lost love. My first visit to a working girl had been all business, depressing. This was like Henry Miller ramblings about happy whores.

Was I really doing this? My dead great-grandmother whispered in my head: A stiff dick ain’t got no conscience.

She led me down a side-street to a discreet hotel. Exchanged banter and air kisses with the towel-keeper. I forked over the requisite ten francs for towels. One time and I knew the drill. What was different was his friendliness. He shook my hand! In the room with its inevitable bidet, she took my face in still-gloved hands and kissed me. I was astonished but kissed her back, now I knew how.

She murmured approval, divested her gloves and raincoat. Tousled her thick hair, shaking out water droplets. Then reached for my tie, expertly slipped the knot and lay it aside like I was a gift to be unwrapped. Unzipped herself, slithered out of her dress and gestured for me to undress. I complied. She removed her black bra and panties and kicked off her heels, leaving just garter belt and black nylons like something out of a men’s magazine. The effect was visceral.

My boxers could no longer contain my tumescence, rearing through the slot like a cobra. She knelt. I expected the brisk short-arm examination of my previous working girl. But no; she hefted it admiringly. Gave me a squeeze. Pre-orgasmic fluid leaked from the stretched foreskin. She pushed it back and gave me a quick lick. I trembled. She laughed with delight.

Elle a de la chance, votre amour!” She stripped my boxers. “Maintenant, aller au lit avec moi.” She led me to bed, not by the hand. I hadn’t been drinking so didn’t understand lit (leet). Got the with me part. She tugged me into bed. Whispered “Il est grand!” I’d not been in France long enough to expand my high-school French. She wrapped arms around my neck. Murmured, “Faire l’amour avec moi.” I understood with me and love.

My brain buzzed without benefit of alcohol. Dazed by how ready I was, enchanted by her demeanor, her form superimposed on a vision of the woman who made me a man in this city.

She was wet and hot and ready. She groaned when I bottomed against her cervix. My neck hair lifted. Four months ago I learned that sound past all forgetting. She wrapped legs clear around me. Held me to prevent withdrawal. Relented just enough to permit slight lifting, pulled me deep again, laughing and gasping, nibbling my neck. We found the primal rhythm: nipping teeth, cascading laughter, gasps. And below, squeezing little convulsions each time I paused on the down-stroke.

My pauses seemed to make her crazy. She bucked, pulled my hair, murmured a steady stream of French. Trying to trigger me. No, no, sister — I been to the mountain. Learned Agnar Mykle was right. A man delays to satisfy a woman.

She got wilder. Bounced me around like 190 pounds was nothing. Dug fingernails in my back. In a distant corner of my mind I made a note my skin was chafed by nylon-clad legs; get rid of them in future. The chafing stopped when she opened her legs and drove heels into the bed. Almost lifting me, not as powerfully as my lost dancer. The move was my unequivocal signal. I unloaded. She cried out. Felt like she drew blood from my back. If she was acting, she deserved an Oscar. Where had the sweat come from that stung my eyes?

I stayed sheathed, twitching with aftershocks. Her cunt gripped each time I twitched. She reached up to caress my eyes free of sweat. She was breathing hard, eyes bright, no longer laughing. She looked content. Had I held long enough? Had those spasms been orgasmic? No way to know. No way to ask.

From my one previous working-girl experience I expected her to disengage, clean up and dress. Instead she put arms around my neck and kissed me, slow and strangely intimate. It was like closing a circuit. I still was twenty-two, after all. My cock swelled in her. She was awash in our bodily secretions, slippery, friction reduced. No deterrent to John Thomas, as Lady Chatterley’s lover named his cock. Being me, I was embarrassed. Wasn’t the going rate twenty francs a fuck? Wasn’t this like sneaking through the chow-line twice for another glass of milk?

She murmured and shifted. I must be crushing her while I built a new hard-on. I moved onto my side, almost coming loose — but she came over with me, pushed me on my back, straddled and drove down. Just like that my erector set was complete. She leaned her hands on my chest, hips pistoning, laughing again through the swirling curtain of her hair — her breath caught when I took her breasts. Her nipples nudged my palms like hot flint.

Despite copious lubrication I didn’t last as long this time. Lifted her like a bucking bronco when I came. No idea if she did. Finally caught my breath as she curled up beside me, head on my shoulder, petting my sweaty face, giggling and murmuring. Most went right over my head. “Votre copine est…une femme chanceuse.” I had to look it up.

She was in no hurry, unlike the previous working girl. We were not annoyed by an impatient towel-holder as other GIs had warned. She went to the bidet and brought back a warm soapy cloth to wash my finally diminished cock. A quick fond kiss made it twitch.

She giggled. One way or another I got dressed — remember her refastening a rumpled stocking after she cleaned herself at the bidet — and she tucked her pretty self into clothing with economic speed. Made a pass at makeup and lipstick in the mirror. Ran a comb through her tangled hair. Good to go.

Downstairs I got European air kisses. She bid au revoir and slipped behind the counter with the towel-holder, who took her coat and patted her shoulder. Looked like she was in for the night. I trudged back up the Champs toward Rue Marbeuf’s NATO establishment. There was a cheap snack bar and a shuttle to the Gare where I could catch the Fontainebleau local.

Looking for a ghost, I fell in with a living woman full of irrepressible joie de vivre who restored my faith in Henry Miller’s tales about happy Paris whores. My body — even the light sting of scratches on my back — felt vibrantly alive. My brain tried to rationalize.

Best I could devise: a happy working girl was to real lovemaking as target practice was to hunting big game. You got to feel the gun go off. Verify accuracy. But neither paper target nor prostitute plumbed your soul.

Soixante Neuf dans Paree

When DeGaulle kicked NATO out, I took a week’s annual leave to say goodbye to Paris. The day before I was scheduled to leave I was in a hot-sheets hotel just off the Champs-Elysees, learning pronunciation and practice of soixante-neuf from a slender young blonde who had recently come up from Brittany to make her fortune on her back.

I hadn’t been certain I had enough ready cash for a final lay, but when I saw her diffident approach to a well-dressed businessman near the Etoile, and how disappointed she looked when he turned her down, I asked “Combien?” Lo and behold, her asking price was within my limited means.

When we got to the hotel, a bit of comedy ensued. It developed I still had been converting dollars to marks and she quoted francs. Damned if she didn’t ask the towel-keeper for change so she wouldn’t overcharge, second time a Paris working girl was so considerate. Second time I said keep the change.

She was so fresh and attractive and innocent-looking, so thrilled to have made the sale — so honest! And I was still very young and inexperienced. No longer technically a virgin, my education was sadly lacking. I fixed on one gift I had not known how to give the woman who loved me to manhood in this city. I mustered my nerve and my high school French to ask for instruction in soixante-neuf.

“Soixante-neuf?” Her voice ascended the register in astonishment.

“Oui, s’il vous plait.”

In stumbling phrases, I conveyed my ignorance. She did not make fun of me. But she was incredulous an American would admit ignorance in anything. I gathered Americans weren’t big on cunnilingus either, not with a working girl.

She was sweetly solicitous as we began my lesson and she saw I was deadly serious. It was my first dive into what Henry Miller, in Paris before me, likened to a coral reef where a porpoise could nuzzle with delight. I imagined a sea-tang in the wetness beneath her Venus Mons.

She was patient with the language barrier. Patient with my clumsiness when I was distracted by her oral ministrations at the other end of the known universe. We switched to straight cunnilingus before we fucked. Ultimately, I got the hang of the thing. She became unprofessionally ardent, grinding her Mons against my mouth so hard she bruised my upper lip.

She spent a lot more time with me than the usual working girl did those days. The towel-keeper eventually tapped on the door to make sure she was all right. And I suppose to remind her other customers were waiting.

As we dressed, she embraced and kissed me tenderly, like a lover. She invited me to meet her at a nearby sidewalk café for breakfast. That was certainly out of the ordinary. I was immensely flattered. Her face fell when I told her I would be on a plane to America tomorrow. She seemed genuinely sad.

I had known GIs who relished their prostitute girlfriends, most notably a former Hell’s Angel who commanded the devoted affections of the so-called Queen of Pigalle. The Queen was a local legend, known to have scratched and clawed other women who made a play for him in some bistro while Korsaw leaned back and enjoyed the show. She was a working girl, and even screwed other GIs in our unit, but that was just business. The Queen of Pigalle loved only Korsaw.

Just my luck, on my last day in Paris, to find an honest working girl so unjaded she took pure pleasure in her work, and might like to have a GI boyfriend. But I had a plane to catch. I would have to deploy my new-found intimacy with Venus Mons in another country. I knew whatever transpired, my gentle teacher would remain a sweet memory of youth in the City of Light.

Postscript

As it turned out I could have had breakfast with the cute blonde. I had another whole day plus in town due to military mismanagement. Directly from 1966 notes:

Situation Normal — All Fucked Up. Here we go again. The inefficiency of the Army’s attempts to evacuate France under DeGaulle’s edict have conspired to leave me stranded in Paris with my cash running low. They checked me out of the transit hotel and had me cooling my heels all day until they finally concluded they could not shoehorn me onto today’s flight stateside.

I wound up pre-processing for another flight tomorrow and wondered if I would be sleeping on a park bench with the winos and their fifty-centime bottles of skull-thumper. But the Army found me a room in the Hotel de Paris — one of many Hotels de Paris. This one at 51, Avenue Du Maine, a two-star establishment with clean rooms and private baths.

The salon is spacious with couches and chairs and an escritoire, all done up in red and black leatherette beneath a quaint bronze chandelier. The hunting prints on the wall include riders and Walker hounds baying a European elk…A wide picture window opens onto the tree-lined boulevard, beyond which a massive multi-story building is being constructed.

Paris seems to be building everywhere — and building upward, above the old low skyline. Jackhammers and rivet guns and rumbling cement and gravel trucks form cacophonous counterpoint to the incessant bleat of taxi horns and click of high heels. The fresh raw odor of new construction blends with old stale ozone from Metro gratings.

Paris roars and thunders and beeps and clops and laughs and propositions twenty-four hours a day. I stood in the doorway with the petite chien belonging to the proprietaire to watch le passage des pietons: bearded students, chic women, many hommes serieux in tailored business suits with the self-important comportment of men involved in building and running this new Paris.

Then there are the whores, icons of old Paris. I am developing a special fondness for these. Down here in Mont Parnasse they go to work early, 1600 hours, and shout their wares like fishwives to the serious men.

These are not nearly as slender, well-built and lovely as the ones assigned by their pimps to patrol the Etoile for tourists, but some of them compensate with sheer Renaissance size, proportion and laughing enthusiasm. But I fear I am too low on funds to consider a farewell fuck.

No matter how many times I count my money I have only thirty-four francs to my name, for a taxi to the Littrez embarkation center tomorrow and the twenty-five-franc head tax France charges to permit you to leave the country.

After Paris has had her way with you for a week the big electric board at Orly that reports departing flights loses its appeal.

That large-framed redheaded whore on the corner is very stimulating. One imagines a delightful Henry Milleresque romp. She quoted me twenty francs. Would the Army pay to get me out of France and take it out of next month’s pay? I wish I had the courage to find out.

Tomorrow is scheduled to be my fourth airplane ride, second ocean crossing. Tomorrow my soul could be required of me and I will die screaming, frightened beyond sanity by a dizzying plunge into infinity. I am not so much afraid of flying as I am of crashing.

Placing myself totally within control of scientific theories of lift and propulsion inside an aluminum tube, umpteen thousands of feet above umpteen fathoms of shark-filled salt solution, scares the hell out of me. You cannot help but imagine the unendurable shock of metal falling on solid water, human paste along crumpling bulkheads; searing flame that you feel crisp you into charcoal. It is a form of whistling past the graveyard to avoid these things by envisioning them. I sure wish I had an extra twenty francs…

But I didn’t. And that was the last time I saw Paris.

--

--

Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.