Kelly Kiehl is an MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University, and her fiction has been in Blue Monday Review, Defenestration, Devilfish Review, and TINGE Magazine.
We found it impossible to live in Paris and not be haunted by the fact that the Mona Lisa would hang in the museum halls long after we died: small as a postcard, big as a millennium. We rode home in those grimy double-decked Metros after work, listening to the harmonies of metal doors yawning open and traveling fiddlers bow-ing their staccato pleas for remembrance. Daily, we spilled from the Metro doors like steam, thinking on our walks home of etching our birthdays into the human skulls of the catacombs miles below our feet; thinking of the Eiffel Tower
looming taller than our gravestones, the gargoyles atop Notre Dame squinting to read our epitaphs.
It began at the Louvre, among those most remembered. We started to reach out with our markers to ink ourselves into the bathroom stalls above rolls of toilet paper and soap dispensers. We made crude carvings of our own names in the gift shop, on tables that sold magnet-sized Caravaggios for ten euros. After we stopped in the bathrooms to make sure our names had not been washed off by museum janitors, we’d visit the Mona Lisa, treasure of the mobile-phoned paparazzi. We would push our way to the front of the room, lining up behind the velvet rope barriers.
We watched her as she contemplated the newest theory on her identity and thought, yes, yes, that might be me. I might have led that life. We shed a single tear for her, for the canvas wrinkles and cracks that have warped her face into elephant skin. We were unknown and she was unknown and she asked us, who am I? and we said, you are the one who never chose how to be significant. She asked us who we were and we said, we are the ones who are just as known as you. We left her then, itching to embed ourselves into somewhere new, and as we left we glanced back at her through the crowd and their pixel screens, and we found that she was the only one who looked truly alive.
Not long after our misty sleeping thoughts became waking compulsions, a store called ENGRAVE opened on the Shanzelize. It was an opening like Paris had never seen. Their business was in “artistic permanence,” created by highly experienced Body Altars. ENGRAVE store sold out of all fifty-seven shades of Never Fade Lipstick in the first day, and emptied their storage rooms of Do-It-Yourself Scarring Kits (complete with scalpel and gauze) within hours. Soon ENGRAVE stores opened all over the city, blooming weedy like Black-Eyed-Susans in midsummer. The Altars tattooed for free if the customer agreed to let the Altar incorporate the store name into the tattoo, and so the city crawled with breathing ENGRAVE advertisements. The Altars branded parents’ faces into the silky skin of newborns; they carved lover’s names in elegant calligraphy into the bleeding wrists of the heartbroken. They sold markers with ink so permanent that when used on the skin, the ink seeped into every pore and vein, coloring the blood fluorescent, and they sold personalized branding irons big as rubber stamps for burning names into city walls and sidewalks.
The woman who was imprisoned for defacing the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles was called Gretel Von Dorsten. We disliked her particularly forgettable face, but loved her for the artistic freedom she’d given us. Gretel had purchased the most popular shade of Never Fade Lipstick (Perennial Plum) from ENGRAVE. It was her wedding day and she’d taken the tube to the palace and wrote GRETEL + KURT 4EVER in cursive lipstick letters in the middle of the Hall. Her love reflected in every mirror of the Hall, glinted in the crystal of the chandeliers, shined in viscous streams of sunlight spilling from thick windows. A tour guide tackled Gretel for vandalizing the palace, an older man who probably believed in authenticity. We envied Gretel’s martyrdom and protested outside the palace as a group of scientists that specialized in art preservation attempted to clean the vandalism from Versailles’ mirrors. Our signs said let them eat paint, and artistic freedom for all. With each of their attempts to clean the historic mirrors, Gretel and Kurt’s love only shone brighter. Kurt posted Gretel’s bail, and the two divorced three months later.
After the Gretel incident, Paris became a gallery of artistic fusion: the architectural achievements of the past melded with the immediacy of our own thoughts, the need to impress our stories on something of recognized significance. Our own importance eroded all remaining respect for Paris’ history. We blanketed the city in our autobiographical epitaphs, multiplying like cancer cells until they rose heavy as snowfall to Paris’ knees, her hips, her collarbone. The sidewalks said, don’t h8 me cuz u ain’t me. The brick buildings in alleyways said, bethany wuz here.
We carved ourselves over the warriors depicted at the base of the Arc de Triomphe; stories of war and bravery became triptychs of our morning coffee, afternoon tea, and evening crumpet. We collapsed the bridge over the Seine with the weight of the padlocks we placed on its bars to symbolize our sixth-month eternal love. We plunged into Monet’s Snow Near Honfleur with a kitchen knife, right in its snowy gray center, and then we cut up all of Monet’s Water Lilies like pieces of cake and ate them.
We served the painting on flimsy paper plates bending with the weight of oil and canvas, and before we stabbed our forks into whatever it meant to be remembered, we learned what the cross section of a Monet looks like: like the pastel water lilies smeared with gentle blues and whites and greens sat like earth’s crust on top of angry and amoral tectonic plates of red and black oils. We scraped the lilies off like frosting to expose the streaks of red beneath splattered like a Pollock, the ubiquitous black base coat covering the entire canvas like skin; like a monochrome modern art piece that a bearded artist calls Window II because he sees all the fears he’s ever had in a canvas painted black.
We filled the empty labyrinth of the Louvre with our own etchings after all of the remaining art had been airlifted from the museum. We brought milk jug-sized candles to Notre Dame’s cathedral, set them atop the penny candles of the dead, and burned them for our own souls. We branded our fingerprints and silhouettes and shadows in the metal at the base of the Eiffel Tower. We gathered the human remains of the catacombs and burned them in a bonfire, dumped the ashy and mountainous remains into the Seine with garbage trucks, just so we could be the only ones Paris held in her heart. The Seine dried up into human slosh and we danced in that river of the dead in the light of a moon that appeared each night to witness our stories, in the presence of stars that had travelled for more than our lifetimes to be with us on that October night.