“Catching Knives,” by Bailey Holtz

Apr 20th, 2019 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

Blaise Frick-Durant was a nineteenth century French author, whose defining personal and professional attribute was that he only had half a nose. The other half had been severed off by the rogue boning knife he had launched into the air during an ill-advised knife trick demonstration in the company of the young female he had invited to his chambers and whom he, as written in his diary, hoped to “keep warm in the folds of my culottes.” Blaise made his living writing gruesome yet captivating profiles on Parisians with physical handicaps. As hostile as readers would be to such exploitative reportage today, in the mid-nineteenth century, they had no qualms over reading about men with no legs, women with no arms, and the children with no spines, who slid every morning to the breakfast table like serpents.

Carolyn had written her undergraduate thesis at Princeton on Frick-Durant. Her peers, prim white women with aspirations of running travel blogs, sneered. “Is that the guy who wrote about people who eat with their elbows? Why?” “I thought I ought to try to write something original, rather than merely reframe the same uninspired American perspectives on Camus or Proust,” returned Carolyn without blinking. The girls, all of whom were writing about Camus or Proust, looked at each other. Her advisor beamed.

Nine months later, that same advisor recommended Carolyn for a “prestigious” position on the research team of a “distinguished” French professor at the Sorbonne who was writing the first book about Blaise Frick-Durant. Carolyn would soon learn that these descriptors merely indicated that the subject so obscure as to be unknown to most academics, and that the professor was so cocooned in his Ivory Tower as to be virtually non-functioning. 

So, that winter, Carolyn found herself in a small, chilly attic classroom in a distant corner of the Sorbonne, sitting around a table with the hodge-podge of individuals—all women—connected to the project through their scattershot knowledge of the life of Frick-Durant. At the head of the table sat Bertrand Montlaur, the distinguished professor, a rotund, mustachioed man draped in a saggy sweater, who seemed, for all intents and purposes, to be asleep.

As Carolyn settled in, she became aware of a growing noxious vanilla scent, and a sharp-angled figure crashed with a metal-on-metal “clang” into the chair next to hers. The woman introduced herself as Annie, a recent Kappa Kappa Gamma graduate from the University of Georgia.

“Hey,” she said to Carolyn from the center of a mane of blonde hair. “You wanna wingman for me this weekend? I have a date with this French guy who sells luxury sailboats. I could use someone who actually speaks French to translate, cause I sure as fuck don’t.” As if by magic, she produced a stick of Chapstick out of nowhere, and smeared it thickly across her lips.

Carolyn turned to look at Annie. “What’s your connection to Frick-Durant?”

She rolled her eyes. “My dad knows Quasi Modo over there,” she said, indicating Bertrand, who, at that moment was rattling himself into sentience like his Gargoyle companions on the roof of Notre Dame. “And let’s just say it takes eight to ten weeks for syphilis medication to work, which is about as long as I’ll be here.”

After Bertrand had led a brief introductory meeting and swiftly—more swiftly than might be expected of a man of his frame—exited the room, cigarette already poised at his lips, Annie tried again: “So, how about it, can you be my interpreter? He’ll buy us free drinks and maybe even a yacht if we play our cards right.” She pulled out her tube of Chapstick once more, which, Carolyn now saw, she kept lodged between her breasts.

Carolyn rose. “That sounds truly unmissable but I have a history of being too loose around men. I need to control myself.”

Annie looked Carolyn up and down, dark eyebrow sharply arched. “Oh. . . okay.”

The next Monday, Annie slammed her bony butt into her chair with another inexplicable clang.

“You fucking liar,” she announced triumphantly. “Last week, when you said you were a huge slut. That was a joke.”

“You got me.”

“Come out this weekend. I’ll find you a boy.” She twisted her mouth into a grotesque approximation of a smile. “The yacht guy from last weekend told me all his friends have huge boners for Americans . . .”

“I think I’ve gone temporarily deaf. No point continuing this conversation . . .”

“You could be getting laid all the fucking time! You just gotta get out there! Seize life by the balls!” She grabbed both Carolyn’s thighs and shook them violently, then pulled her Chapstick out from her breasts and spread wax triumphantly across her lips.

A week later, Carolyn arrived early and sat in a different seat on the other side of the table. No one was there yet except Henry, Bertrand’s assistant, a translucently pale man with a mud-brown non-haircut and small, utilitarian glasses Carolyn guessed he had owned since middle school. Carolyn nodded politely at Henry, who blinked in amazement at having been acknowledged, smiled bashfully, but said nothing. More my speed, thought Carolyn, as she settled in. A moment later, though, a synthetic rose scent spread like poison through the air, and Annie threw herself into the seat next to Carolyn’s with a jarring clang. “Do I look like a total mess?” she demanded, flipping her mass of blonde hair across her tiny skull, revealing a sea of dark roots.

“Yes,” replied Carolyn.

“I was out all night with this guy who sells crystal. I’m so fucking exhausted. No pun intended.” Carolyn glanced at Henry, who was suddenly intrigued by the spring of his pen.

“What part of that was a pun?” asked Carolyn.

“The fucking part. We fucked.”

“Don’t you have syphilis or something?”

“It’s not contagious anymore. Plus, we only did butt stuff.”

Henry choked on his pen, and Bertrand, who had just entered, slapped him good-naturedly on the back a few times, sending his beanpole frame into shuddering vibrations. “I think,” Bertrand wheezed as he lowered himself into his overworked rolling chair, “we now come to the infamous night of the knife incident and Bertrand’s liaison with Geneviève Tauber.” The room came swiftly to attention. It was generally anticipated that this would be the only discussion of any real interest to anyone.

On the far side of the table, someone gagged dramatically. Bertrand directed his attention toward Angelique, the women’s studies Ph.D. candidate.

“Would you like to start, Angelique?” asked Bertrand sweetly.

“Of all of history’s unapologetic predators, this prick might just be the worst of them,” she said through gritted teeth.

BEE, the conceptual artist who had once done a performance piece involving Frick-Durant’s work and granulated sugar, looked up from her doodle of a dog eating a plate of spaghetti. “I don’t think he’s as bad as Attila the Hun, or Henry the Eighth . . .”

“Wrong!” roared Angelique. “He lured a young, innocent woman into his chambers! He made her watch,” and here she creased her face into a mien of true repulsion, “knife tricks. Knife tricks are the most boring of all magic tricks! He was a monster.”

Bertrand looked unimpressed. “Perhaps, Angelique. There may be more to this, however.”

Before she could respond, Henry put up an image on the antiquated overhead projector. It was a drawing of Geneviève, the young woman who had been in the company of Blaise that night. The nineteenth century Frenchwoman appeared in the anime style of Sailor Moon, with gravity-defying hair and a long, triangular mouth. Her giant eyes were purple, and on her hand-drawn face she wore an expression of unholy ecstasy. From Henry’s look of searching approval, Carolyn felt confident of the identity of the artist.

“She looks kinda like you,” snorted Annie under her breath at Carolyn, and punched her in the side of her breast.

“We have been led to believe,” croaked Bertrand, waving his short arm vaguely at the projected image, “that Blaise lured young Geneviève into his apartment and there subjected her to magic tricks of the most hideously unimpressive kind. But I would like to posit that the opposite took place.”

Angelique scoffed loudly. “You think that Geneviève performed knife tricks? Everything I’ve read supports the notion that Geneviève had never even been interested in magic, let alone attempted to learn tricks . . .”

“I did magic for a sorority talent show once,” Annie chimed in. “I made my shirt disappear. I basically just took it off, but people were very impressed.”

“I am saying,” interrupted Bertrand, “that it was Geneviève who was pulling the strings, and that Blaise was merely a pawn in the plan of a master seductress.” The atmosphere in the room shifted noticeably. Hungry glances were exchanged between the women. To have been on the research team of a non-fiction best-seller about an unlikely nineteenth-century feminist trailblazer? All the fellowships, grants, and residencies they ever dreamed of, would finally be theirs. Only Angelique remained sullen. “What was her goal?” she demanded. “Why do this?”

“That is for you to find out. You are the research, team, no?” Bertrand smiled and leaned back in his chair, looking up at a billboard on the side of an imaginary highway. “Perhaps the logline could be: ‘How a shrewd seductress of superior intellect seized control of her life and used her wits to ensnare her male victim in a web made of his own ego and vanity: The Geneviève and Blaise Story’! Michelle Obama and Cheryl Sandberg would claw each other’s eyes out for the privilege to write the first blurb!” Bertrand slid out of the room leaving behind a faint thread of cigarette smoke, and a thousand empowered female dreams, lingering in the air. 

As they packed up, Annie said to Carolyn: “Sorry I can’t stick around and talk. I have a date with this guy who works for the Louvre. He’s gonna give me a tour of their archives or some shit like that. Hopefully I can get brunch out of it.” And with that, she was gone, leaving a trail of putrid rose odor lingering.

The rest of the group chatted gaily as they filed out, but Carolyn hung back. Across the table, Henry was lovingly folding up his drawing of Geneviève. She watched for a moment, then drew a deep breath.

“Henry,” she began, startling him so much he dropped the drawing, yelped and bent quickly to pick it up, patting dust off the paper. “Sorry. Hey, I was thinking, I hardly know you, and I’d love to learn about your academic work. Are you free to grab coffee?” Henry froze and looked up at Carolyn with wide eyes, the figure of Geneviève swooning between his moist palms. “I’d love to!” he spluttered. He ducked and swung his backpack onto his back so forcefully it knocked him off balance briefly. He steadied himself, then descended into a mock chivalrous bow so deep, the backpack slid forward and he had to throw his arms out to catch himself on the floor. From this position he gurgled, “lead the way, madam!”

Over the course of the week, Carolyn and Henry spent many hours together, though never past six p.m., because the evening was Henry’s “destress period.” “I’m sort of a nervous nelly,” he admitted to her before dropping a whole crêpe on his shirt. “So I need to be at home and sit in silence for a few hours.” He peeled the crêpe off his chest like a leech. “You still want this?”

Their encounters were irreproachably innocent, and to a bystander, they would have appeared as work colleagues on a lunch break, or perhaps as friends on a backpacking trip, due to the massive backpack Henry lugged around at all times. Yet between them flickered a flame to which Carolyn tended with the emotionless calculation of a seasoned outdoorswoman. She soon became learned in the ways of flirtation and seduction, which turned out to be far easier than she’d expected. She succeeded in inducing Henry to buy things for her. On Wednesday, she pointed out a small ornament in the stall of a Christmas market vendor, which Henry eagerly offered to gift her. Rifling through his coin purse, however, he could only come up with half the cash. “And I don’t carry cards because I have a hedonistic streak that I need to keep in check.” He bought her a pack of matches instead.

Carolyn also managed to look the part of winsome lover. She wore makeup, put some effort into her hair, and learned her best angles. As she gazed out the window of the Café des Deux Moulins on Thursday evening, the setting sun casting a lustrous golden light on her face, Henry leaned across the table and purred, “you see the dead pigeon, too. I’m so glad we have the same concerns about urban sanitation.”

And finally, she mastered the subtle art of seductive texting. On Friday, Carolyn wrote “Rembrandt exhibit at petit palais?” She received the following reply:

“Good morning, Carolyn.

Thank you for contacting me. The meaning of your message is unclear. Are you asking if aforementioned exhibit takes place at the Petit Palais or elsewhere? Are you investigating which exhibit is currently on at the Petit Palais, and positing that it could be Rembrandt? Please respond with clarification.

If this entire message was sent mistakenly, I urge you to bring your phone to a specialist, who can show you how to properly lock your device, preventing future loss of time and money (it can cost up to $1.20 to send text messages overseas). I will also call in 2 minutes to confirm your phone has not been stolen or hacked. If you are being held hostage, I will listen for heavy or shallow breathing, and will contact the authorities as the situation necessitates.

If, however, this message is to be read as an invitation to attend the Rembrandt exhibit at the Petit Palais with you, then I consider myself honored and flattered, and eagerly await your suggestion of time and place, as well as the opportunity to explain the importance of proper sentence structure to you.

In hopes of your swift reply,


The next Monday, Carolyn walked whistling into the empty conference room and sat in a new seat altogether. She and Henry had plans to go to the Eiffel Tower that day, provided Henry could “firmly grasp your arm, in case vertigo sets in,” which Carolyn viewed as a veiled attempt to hold her hand. She wasn’t even bothered when Annie charged into the room more forcefully than usual, and clanged loudly into the seat next to Carolyn’s, bringing a cloud of what smelled like sugared mango along with her. Carolyn steeled herself for the barrage of obscene tales from her weekend, but they were not forthcoming. Annie just sat with arms folded, her serpentine eyebrows downturned, her mouth crimped into a sullen pout.

The rest of the group entering was similarly downcast, and Carolyn wondered what had gotten into everyone. Maybe she was seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses for the first time, she thought smilingly to herself. She glanced at Henry, who himself wore a look of anguish, as he tried unsuccessfully to unroll his sleeves, which, under his large down jacket, had snuck up his cheese stick arms.

Bertrand entered and lowered himself into the chair at the head of the table. “So,” he began innocuously. “What have we found out this week?” Carolyn now remembered: they were supposed to research Geneviève. She looked guiltily around the room, but all eyes were averted and no one spoke. Finally, Angelique blurted, “Well, you blew it! You tell us there’s a feminist narrative here, but it’s just the opposite. I should never,” she added through gritted teeth, “trust men when they say they have women’s best interests at heart!”

“She was a thief,” chimed in BEE. “She was arrested a week after the knife incident for trying to lure a bishop up to a hotel room and make off with his miter.” The other women grumbled their support.

“Now old Blaise is the knight in shining armor, and Geneviève is just another vampish bottom-feeder, pick-pocketing and getting midnight abortions . . .” began Angelique before she was cut short by a piercing whine. Annie, who had thus far merely lain in her chair as if dead, now sat bolt upright, a look of sorority-sanctioned violence in her eyes. All quickly looked away and slowly picked the conversation back up. Annie slumped back in her seat and mumbled to Carolyn: “I’m late.”

“For what?”

“No, my period’s late. I might be pregnant.” She paused, then added, “again.”

“Oh. Can I do anything?” asked Carolyn uncertainly.

“Yeah, you wanna reach up there and pull out the ball of multiplying cells from my uterus?”

“No thank you.”

Annie sighed heavily. “If you could go back in time and tell me not to have drunk sex every night, that would help.” She reached into the back of her pants, pulled out a small metal flask, and took a swig.

“So that’s what’s back there . . .”

“I’m not an alcoholic,” Annie said preemptively. “It’s antibiotics. I have a problem swallowing pills.” She put her head in her hands, and her small shoulders sagged. “I can’t believe this. When will I learn?” The misery in Annie’s voice almost moved Carolyn to put a hand on her back. But she wasn’t sure if the syphilis was still contagious, and so retracted it.

Angelique meanwhile was concluding her assault on Bertrand. “. . . she was just a con woman. This is all your fault!” she spat.

“This is not my fault,” responded Bertrand nonchalantly.

“Yes, it is!” insisted Angelique. “You misled us into thinking this would be a feminist narrative! J’accuse!” She pointed a shaking finger at Bertrand.

“I did not mislead you. I merely suggested the possibility.”

“You knew! Now that you’ve disarmed us, I suppose you think you can write whatever patriarchal bullshit you want! Well, not on our watch!” Angelique slammed a rallying fist on the table, but the women merely steadied their cups of water and remained silent. 

Bertrand heaved himself out of his chair. “I do not know what you are talking about, Angelique. My only concern is the truthful documentation of this event.” He reached for his cigarettes and lit one, the smell of smoke quickly filling the cramped room. “And now, I have a meeting with the publisher to discuss titles. I am thinking, A Knife; a Strife; a Life—How One Man Lost His Nose but Not His Dignity: The Blaise Frick-Durant Story. Please continue working if you’d like.” He slammed the door behind him, leaving a cold silence in the room. The only sounds to be heard were Henry’s creaking footsteps as he walked to the overhead projector, discreetly removed the image of Geneviève, and pocketed it.

After the meeting, Carolyn and Henry made their way to the Eiffel Tower as planned. Henry chatted happily during the elevator ride about his plan to sell his portrait of Geneviève online, but Carolyn was silent. The door opened and they stepped out into the cold. They were the only people there on a frigid, overcast Monday morning. “Wow, look at that view!” said Henry, making his way to the sheet of cloud that almost completely obscured the city.

“Guess what,” he called back to Carolyn, who followed him slowly. “I don’t have vertigo!” He put his arm on her shoulder and smiled through the hole in his balaclava. “I think it helps that I’m with someone who’s so grounded and down-to-Earth.” Carolyn smiled meekly at him, but his eyes had closed and his jaw had dropped open. Carolyn thought perhaps the vertigo was having a delayed reaction, but realized after a moment that he was expecting her to lean in for a kiss.

“Listen, Henry . . .” she began, extricating herself. She glanced over the side of the tower. If he pushed her off in a fit of rage, she’d definitely be killed. Then again, she’d probably be able to pin his featherweight body to the ground before he did much damage. Inhaling deeply, she began: “I’ve been disingenuous with you. I’m not attracted to you romantically or otherwise. I just wanted to see if I could seduce you.” Carolyn looked at her feet. “I guess I wanted to prove that I was a powerful woman and that I could be the master of my own destiny. It seems very stupid now. I’m sorry if I misled you.” She shot a glance up at Henry, whose face bore no expression at all. After a moment, he turned and looked out over the clouds.

“Hooey,” he said. “I really thought this would go differently.”

“I know, and I’m so sorry I don’t actually want to date you. You’re sweet and you should be with a nice person . . .”

“You’re right. I should be with my wife.”

Carolyn turned slowly to face him. “Who?”

“My wife. Milla.”

“I didn’t know you had a wife.”

“She’s a neurobiologist at the university.” Henry said miserably. “She’s perfect. She used to model for Nivea. She speaks fluent Finnish. Everyone loves her, men especially. I wanted to prove to myself that I, you know. Had game, too.” He ripped off a mitten and threw it angrily over the railing, but the wind blew it back in his face. “I’ve been a complete cad!” he howled. “She never even looks at other men, and here I am, pursuing a lady to make myself feel like a big shot!” He hung his head inside his balaclava, now a convenient symbol of his shame.

There being nothing left to say, they descended the tower in silence. Back on the ground, Carolyn turned to Henry.

“Nothing happened, so we can just put this behind us, right?”

Henry shook his head. “I’m going to tell Milla about it. She’s forgiven worse. I once let a female sales associate help me look for jeans at Gap.” With that, Henry turned and walked across the esplanade. From behind, the arch in his back caused by his backpack was not visible, and he appeared, for once, to be standing upright. 

Carolyn herself turned the other way and headed back to campus. She wanted to go to her favorite café, where the servers didn’t give you a look when you ordered three pastries. As she walked, Carolyn’s nose picked up a saccharine odor, but it wasn’t until she was body-slammed against a wall and Annie’s face was within syphilis-transmittal distance, that Carolyn recognized it as bubble-gum.

“Guess what, bitch! I’m not pregnant!”


“Turns out I’m not even fertile! Syphilis does that to you sometimes. So we’re celebrating tonight! Annie tossed her head toward a slender French man standing behind her, looking bored. “You wanna come?! His name’s Frère or Jacques or some shit. I bet he has friends.”

Carolyn declined politely, and watched Annie drag the Frenchman down the street before turning toward the café, where she looked forward to, more than anything else thus far during her stay in Paris, sitting alone and eating as many pains au chocolat as she wanted.


Bailey Holtz is a Chicago-based writer and performer. She spends a lot of time not getting paid doing improv and writing comedy sketches, and a little time getting paid making productive contributions to society. She was raised in Zurich, Switzerland, and speaks fluent German and French. She hopes this is not the most interesting thing about her, but she suspects that it is. 

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