Portraits of America #4: The Girl With A Thing For Napoleon

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This is my core friend α.

She is featured in many of my posts. She moved from Kansas City to New York four years ago, with the objective to stay for five years and reevaluate her love for the City then.

We’ve been on numerous adventures together and shared a considerable number of flats in various places. I legitimately thought I knew everything about her until the Napoleon breakout.

The conversation accidentally shifted to Napoleon at dinner tonight, and I described him as an imperialist dictator. α said that Napoleon was not French but Corsican, and that he managed to conquer the world despite his height. She has a “fascination by his brain, passion and physical body.” In her own words:  “I am intrigued by his obsession with Josephine, his complete narcissism, and his outfits. I also find him attractive in some of the paintings.”

She dressed as him for Halloween last year. She named herself “Napoleon Bones Apart” and added a collapsy skeleton part to her costume to justify the pun.

She piqued my curiosity. What was the reason behind that unusual passion?

α explained that it was a childhood thing. When she was a kid, her mother told her that one of her ancestors was serving in Napoleon’s army, or that he was close to Napoleon in some ways. The link is not clear.

Her child imagination made the shortcut to the belief that her ancestors were affiliated with Napoleon, and that she was therefore a descendant of Napoleon herself.

She used to walk around telling that story to whoever would listen because she was taking pride in having someone famous in her genetic background.

She grew up with that belief ingrained in her mental family constellation and developed a gentle obsession for him. Even as an adult.

That also makes me related to Napoleon in some way now. I am going to start walking around saying: “I am sharing a flat in Brooklyn with this descendant of Napoleon.”

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‘SF’ May Refer to ‘San Francisco’ or ‘Science Fiction’

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An evening of October 2013, my dear friends α and H dropped me at Kansas City train station after legendary mac & cheese at McCoy’s. I hugged them long on the platform. I told H: “See you in a few weeks!” because we were meant to catch up in Iceland shortly after (but she never made it as Beau, her fiancé cat, was on the verge of death). I told α that I knew I was going to see her sooner than we thought, and that was long before our New York Spring adventure even blossomed in my mind.

I left these sad little faces and got on the Amtrak train to San Francisco for 2 days of trip across the Far West. Some Mormon couples were on my coach, I couldn’t stop staring at them. I wanted to ask for a picture with them but I was feeling self-conscious with my campy tasteless & over the top outfit (which is my regular style.) And I am sure they get comments from idiots all the time so I wasn’t going to be one of them. I was genuinely fascinated though. Mormons are so vintage.

I had never been to San Fran but I had been fantasising about it for ever, because of the queer culture, Harvey Milk, the Beat Generation, and “The Princess Diaries“. I was secretly hoping for the “you-belong-here” revelation during my San Fran initiation.

I had arranged to be hosted by a guy found on CouchSurfing called β³. But as I had no phone and was travelling for 2 days and 1 night, it was a bit of a gamble to know if I would have a place to stay when I was arriving in town. Before I boarded the train, he had given me the address of a Contact Improvisation dance jam happening in Oakland where I was supposed to meet him.

When I got at Oakland station, it was night and there was no cab, no bus, and generally nothing. I had no phone. I hanged out a moment outside the station praying for a miracle which finally happened. A taxi driver called by someone half an hour before had seen that I was hanging out and came back after dropping out the other person to make sure I had found my way. I gave him the address of the dance studio, but he couldn’t find it. He let me use his phone to call CouchSurfing guy I had never talked to before. The guy picked up immediately. At least, he existed.

I landed in the dance contact jam looking around for β³, trying to recognise him from his CouchSurfing profile picture. Every time I was engaging in a dance with a guy, I was like: “Are you β³?” They must have wondered if I was on some kind of off the beaten path blind date or something.

β³ finally showed up after the class and warmly held my hands. We drove to his place in the San Francisco Bay.

He pushed the door and a whole new world opened to me. I felt like in a Sci-Fi movie. β³ was living in a warehouse with a mezzanine. In the middle of his living room, was sitting a big outdoor heated swimming pool surrounded by little palm trees, like an indoor jungle. He explained me that he was an aqua therapist and that he was giving sessions in his home.

I wandered around the open ground floor to come across a huge bondage painting hanging above his bed. I started slightly panicking wondering what kind of stuff the guy was into. I played it super cool: “I love this painting! Who’s the artist?” My panic increased a couple of levels when I saw a few boxes of Winchester bullets near his night table. I thought that if there were bullets, the gun wasn’t far. Simultaneously, I wasn’t scared at all because I had a good feeling above everything else. I knew I was being crazy though.

β³ explained me that on the side of his aqua therapist activities, he was a sex worker and a dominatrix for gay guys. How interesting! He also told me that he was in an open relationship with a woman 10 years older than him, who wasn’t around at the moment. He proposed me to go with him to a “Play party” on the Saturday night, my last night in town. I didn’t even really know what a Play party was. I was experiencing the most overwhelming first few hours I had ever spent in any city. Everything was just so weird but presented as effortlessly natural. I supposed it was just the way it goes in San Francisco, and I tried to sync in with it and find the weird natural. “OK, I said. I will come with you. I am curious.” I told him that I am nothing close to straight though, just to get it out of the way. He didn’t give any importance to it.

I gave him the stinky French cheese bought from CostCo in Kansas City before I got on the train. He proposed to show me what aqua therapy is about. I agreed. “Do you mind if I am nude?” he asked. “Yes”, I thought. “No”, I said. Then, I forgot about it. I realised that I was a bit uptight for claiming to be the quintessence of open-mindness. The aqua therapy session was super relaxing, he just moved me around in the water and I had to surrender and abandon my weight.

Then, we watched a movie inside the pool. There was a plastic bench to sit in the water (which is a struggle because of gravity so you can’t really focus on the movie, but well.)  A video projector was playing an arty dance movie on the wall. The whole thing was so surreal that I kept making notes of everything in my head, thinking no one would possibly believe all this.

β³ and I slept in the same bed, just like that. Why not? He hugged me all night. It was strange in the absolute, but nothing can really be labeled strange in San Francisco.

CouchSurfing is the most amazing invention of the 21st century.