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and all the very sexy dead
In a cemetery in Paris, there’s a statue on a gravestone that is famous for its penis.
Pere Lachaise is basically Fiona’s backyard. She’s wearing a bright red coat and looks like a beacon in the cold, under the sharp blue sky. Just ahead of us, her coat is a flag at the top of a ship, or the umbrella a shuffling group of tourists might follow, huddled like wooly sheep through a crowd. The sunlight picks out the color and clings to it. It’s fall but almost not anymore; the leaves are yellow and disappearing off the trees, papering the cobblestones and pressed down by passing feet, made part of the ground.
Everything in this city is beautiful, I mean really, every single thing. If I didn’t make an effort not to, I would get run over by every car, walking around with my mouth open all the time, standing in the middle of the street, staring at how the sun pours down the buildings. The color of the sky seems as intentional as the long boulevards that meet in mathematically perfect vanishing points. It all reads like an old oil painting, declaring a thesis in beauty about the justness of an angry god.
I have never been good at being here. When I was younger and also when I was not really all that much younger, I would always try to make best friends with the prettiest girl in any room. Maybe I thought it was possible to be a plus one to beauty, that if I leaned in close enough—across the dark, under everyone else’s conversation, whittling a loud party down to a single low voice—I could be given the password, invited into the secret rooms. Maybe I thought that if I stood next to something, people would mistake me for it, that I might become indistinguishable from that to which I made myself proximal. It never worked. I fell in a kind of love with a lot of people and was searingly jealous of them. I hurt people needlessly, or got hurt myself, and remained only more awkward in my own body and behind my own face, wearing myself like clothes in the wrong size. I hovered at the edges of beauty, at the last place where the light reaches, on the thrown circle’s perimeter.
Being in this city has always been like that; trying to be up close to beauty only reminds me of my distance from it. At night, on the large avenues, all the cafes light up red like an emergency, a universe of ambulances converging. Every street corner is a party; warmth spills onto the sidewalk from doorways in an orchestral hum and build. Everybody is ordering wine and smoking cigarettes and wearing the right coat and the right scarf and the right shoes. Everybody brings their dog to the bar in the early evening. The light hangs onto the buildings here like it owes them something.
We went to the cemetery because I wanted to make a secret little memorial for Lee, who loved Paris, and France in general, and good wine, and cigarettes, and rich food like they have everywhere here where the street corners smell like heated butter, all the things that she couldn’t have for the long years at the end of her life. She never stopped talking about French red wine; in the grip of dementia once, close to the end, she got out of the apartment and walked all the way to the other side of Manhattan, to a building where she had lived fifty years before. On the way there, she bought two bottles of red wine. She hadn’t been medically able to drink wine in over a decade at that point, but that night she was free, ferrying herself back into the past, when she could have everything she wanted, the world rich with vices, red light spilling out of every door.
Here and now in the cemetery, it’s the end of fall and everything is dying. I suppose that isn’t really specific to the season, though, in a cemetery. In every direction the stones are dusted with yellow leaves; they form a soft, mournful, carpet on the ground. My dad used always said his favorite sonnet was that one about the end of autumn, number 73, that time of year thou mayst in me behold, when yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang. Sixteen rhymed lines talk about loving someone more as they age, desire highlighted by the specter of approaching loss. I made Aaron read it at my wedding, on a night when I felt like no one would ever get old.
I say that love is about death all the time, and sex is about death, and I know both of these statements are true because they’re obvious, but it’s easy to say them when I feel far away from it. It’s easy to go to a cemetery on a beautiful day. It’s easy to wiggle my shoulders and talk about how sex and death are the same thing when I am in what I can tell myself is the middle of my life, long before the leaves start falling, when I am facing down nothing. The sun is starting to set and people are gathered through the little avenues and in the areas that open up to the sky, where the light pours in and turns everything gold.
Fiona offhandedly explains graves as we pass them. There’s a statue of someone whose name— Victor Noir—makes him sound as though he’s famous, but he isn’t, not really, except here. His figure in repose is rendered in loving detail, wearing his best clothes, made as beautiful as possible. Victor Noir’s statue is verdigris green except for a huge bulge in his pants, where the metal is rubbed to a gleaming golden brown. We stop at his grave and stand awkwardly on either side. Fiona tells me that it’s good luck to touch the statue’s penis when you visit the cemetery, but neither of us touch it. She says he died young, at twenty-one maybe, in a duel. How do you end up with a memorial like this and whose idea was it, we ask, whispering because it’s a graveyard but laughing because we’re talking about dicks. A beautiful French girl hears us speaking English and asks, in English, if we can take her picture with the grave. When Fiona says yes, the French girl hands us her phone and climbs atop the statue, flagrantly straddling him. We take several photos, and we applaud for her, and all of us laugh, and we give her back her phone and we walk away.
Fiona says that actually a lot of the gravestone statues here are oddly sexy, marble cut to look like diaphanous garments over supple skin, faces rendered in expressions of romance and longing, made more beautiful than they were in life. We wonder whether that was just what was fashionable, thirst traps before cameras, leaving instructions make me look as hot as possible. Once you start seeing sexy graves here, it’s hard to stop. We keep walking, pointing them out to each other as we go.
It’s easier to love things when you know you’re going to lose them, when they’re scarce, when time is running out. It pushes all the other worries, the daily imperfections, the itchy places where the corners don’t align, to the side. The sonnet about yellow leaves is about loving someone more when their obvious beauty is gone and old age has replaced it. Instead of beauty, love is buoyed up by urgency, to love that well which thou must leave ere long. Everything in the cemetery is rendered beautiful in death; everyone wants their last chance to be the hot girl.
We find Gertrude Stein’s grave, the thing I came here for, at the end of the afternoon, when we’re losing the light fast. Her name is faded down to where it’s almost unreadable, and her grave is crowded with pebbles, on top of the headstone and all along the low marker in front of it, so that it looks like a gravel basin, waiting for something to be planted. Her date of death is incorrect, and Alice’s name is even harder to find, hidden on the back of the tombstone.
The cemetery is closing, so I quickly write a tiny note for Lee—who played Gertrude Stein in numerous theater versions of Stein’s life, and who was compared to Stein constantly— and fold it up and put it under a pebble on top of the headstone, just as warning bells start clanging all around us. A security guard drives up and tells us in severe French that we must leave in five minutes or “you will be locked in all night with the dead!” I imagine the ghost of Victor Noir walking around all night, showing all the other ghosts his brass-rubbed dick.
On the fast way toward the gates out back into the city, we pass Oscar Wilde’s grave, or see it in the distance, down the wing of a long avenue in the other direction. When I was twenty-two and heartbroken I went to this cemetery for the first time. It was before the glass barrier was erected in front of Wilde’s grave, and so the stone, at face level, was covered in lipstick kisses. Dozens of people had put their mouth on a gravestone and left traces in pink and red and orange and purple. Near the front of the stone, someone had scrawled in crimson lipstick, “I wish you were here right now!!”
I remember I loved it, but I mostly loved it because I thought the person about whom I was heartbroken would love it. It meant that I would have a reason to contact him when I got back to my computer that night. Fifteen years later and that’s what I think of when I see the rearing angel on Wilde’s grave in the distance; someone I loved briefly and stupidly, and haven’t thought of in years, and how I was once young and terrible and hurt, how everything felt unreachable and nothing felt urgent. If I had had a statue made of me to be preserved for ongoing time back then, I would have asked for the sculptor to make the statue much hotter than I was. I would have wanted to finally be beautiful.
When people we love die, we post photos of them looking young and hot. I make fun of it and I do it again myself anyway, instagram piling up all of these memorials to the fuckable dead. I distrust beauty right up until I also use it as this same kind of marker. I too have wanted to force myself into the visible; I too have wanted to grab the lights and turn them full force onto the thing I believe matters. When Lee died and I posted about it, Jess texted me that Lee was such a hunk when she was young, and I felt like somebody got it; I felt more seen in grief than from all the loving messages other friends sent. I couldn’t explain why. It’s the same way people post photos of their parents being young and hot, and everybody feels weird about it, and then does it again anyway, as though it were a ritual that summoned something back to life.
Touching Victor Noir’s bulge is supposed to be good luck, to bring fertility, or good sex, or marriage. We want so much from the dead, posting them on the internet and setting them up in cemeteries, forcing them into the rictus of beauty for all eternity. We demand they do so much for us, believing in luck and in ghosts. Even after people are gone, we force them into our stories, enlist them into our petty little living whims. I wish you were here right now.
Someone has probably already cleaned up the note I left for Lee, or will have by the next morning. I imagine Alice and Gertrude sitting on the edge of their unremarkable gravestone, smoking a joint and making fun of all the sexy ghosts swanning around being hot. I imagine Lee sharing a bottle of good French red wine with them. Fiona says that during the lockdowns, people would come here to have secret parties, pretending to run into each other by accident while respectfully visiting the graves, and happening to have a bottle of wine, and oh no we’re having a picnic I certainly didn’t mean to have a picnic but oh no but oh well.
I wish I had a bottle of wine, or that having a bottle of wine still made me feel the way a bottle of wine is supposed to make you feel; I wish I had a longer day; I wish I didn’t know better about anything. I wish it were a month earlier and I was here to watch the whole bright progression as the leaves change color and turn and fall. I wish I could go back, and back further, and do everything differently, and sit here young and stupid amongst the graves with a bottle of wine, and kiss, and feel like part of it, where everything dead is beautiful, where loss is about sex, where we are rushing toward the harvest, and not yet burning the fields. I wish you were here right now, I think about the person I love, who is here right now, holding my hand as we walk out of the cemetery.
The lights fracture and coalesce from beyond the exit gate. We reach the street crossing and the avenue beyond it as night sweeps in and eats up all the yellow leaves. Bright starry lipstick reds are waiting right where I left them, all that beauty rushing in and asking what I am going to do about it. I put myself near it, without hoping to be mistaken for it. Everything is beautiful and everything is dying and everyone wants to be remembered for being hot. Back beyond the gates, the ghosts are all locked in with each other, everybody clamoring to be looked at, everybody wanting to be made permanent by beauty. Cops idle near their cars, gesturing everyone out at closing. Thomas and I follow Fiona’s coat into the city. Nobody gets locked in with the dead.
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