I flunked out of business school. My parents weren’t pleased when I went to live with my cousin and his wife in Montparnasse. But they had made me his guardian since I was a little boy. It was only natural that I follow on with him later in life as a second fiddle.
I gave up a prestigious university education to mop toilets and serve overpriced drinks to tourists. It was not the future they had wished for me, but they lived in an old France. It was a France where an education could guarantee a nice government job with a set salary, periodic union strikes, and hours of stamping papers. It was something well-respected, if not even a little enviable. But that’s not the France I grew up in. Government jobs required a stamp on a paper for the privilege to sit on a waiting list. But to make it past that required the grace of a patron in power. A little nepotism to grease the squeaking wheels.
I’d feel castrated in this life if I didn’t take girls back to their overpriced hotels and raid their mini-bars. Being a bar tender was a thoroughly underrated profession.
As far as social standing went, it was always very, very high. My Cellu-glasses—known colloquially as Cellus—with an average rating of 4.6 stars, rang with approvals. I served women their favorite pink cocktails, and with a quick click on their earpiece, they would rate me five stars, raising my social standing on the web. Sure, their boyfriends sometimes gave me a one-star rating, but that was no matter. For a discount, a free drink, or a better ration of booze to flavoring, the ladies would be willing to elevate me to a standing that their professions as lawyers, accountants or homemakers would never see. The more they drank, the higher they rated me. The drunker they were, the more they wanted me. I learned early on to love intoxicated girls.
After my nightly service to these willing clients, I’d go back home at the break of dawn. I wouldn’t stay in bed a second longer, because it was the only time Paris was ever beautiful. It was the moment before our Cellus darkened to block out the harmful rays of the sun. You saw the world as though you weren’t wearing them at all. Since no one else was awake, a flash on the glass wouldn’t interrupt me as it listed the passerby’s name, and his or her social rating.
At that time of day, it wasn’t bright enough to see that the bridges were covered in graffiti that ranged from profoundly political, to the prolifically pornographic. Billboard signs with flashing, florescent lights advertising pharmaceuticals, fashion, and a “France of the Future” that would lead the world in social networking technology would light up during the day, singing jingles and selling slogans. In the darkness, they were dimmed to let the residents sleep.
Several years ago, a man driving at night crashed, and they concluded that the blaring lights caused him a seizure until he drove headlong into the pylons. The irony was that his he smashed below a sign that advertised an epilepsy treatment.
The cold air covered the scent of the homeless who shit like dogs under every tree, or the smell of alcohol-laden urine at every corner. During those holy minutes of daybreak, even the cops seemed reasonable. Paris cops, after all, had their priorities—protect tourists, beat down demonstrators and harass anyone who wore political slogans.
“Unrest,” as our President Tila Maneau liked to say, “was a matter of security.”
As if the political slogans caused the unrest, not the other way around.
Sunrise was a glorious moment. My moment. This bliss that only lasted a minute or two. I would pick a song on my Cellu, tapping the empty space in front of me at the holographic list of my favorite songs, and the ones they recommend for me, would scroll on the glass. In another dimension, where people don’t know what Cellus are, we must look like cats batting at invisible dirt that only we can see. I liked the oldies. Their melodies lasted longer – sometimes up to four or even five minutes. Some guy called Leonard Cohen had one called Hallelujah, that lasted seven minutes! Some people don’t think songs should last more than two, but I don’t agree.
If I ever decided to commit suicide, it would be at that second, looking at the world as a pure human with no screens and no advertisements coming from the walls. I’d throw away the glasses, I’d unhook the earpiece from my ear, and strip down naked so that I could feel like a human. I would cry a broken Hallelujah, then jump into the water. They would fish me out of the river like L’inconnue de la Seine.
Thoughts of suicide were common among the French. Everyone knew how they would do it. Some opted for dramatic fantasies of burning themselves in front of the tourists at the Eiffel Tower. Others wanted to go peacefully in their bed. More common among my age, was a coke-filled orgy, dying in a final gesture of hedonism.
The government wanted us to feel bad about these thoughts. They told us that we were so entitled that we didn’t even know what real suffering was. They were right. We didn’t know suffering. We didn’t know happiness either. But our Cellus gave us pictures of it in their flashing advertisements. Even sex was becoming less common, especially since you could lie in bed and have tits cover the screens and beat off in a vibrating flesh bag. No seduction, no awkward conversations or possible rejections. If only they were all waiters – they wouldn’t have such problems.
How could we French not be unhappy? We traded Matisse, Renoir, Manet for modern bourgeois-bohemian artists in baggy pants, smearing walls with their fecal matter to protest fascism. These talentless finger painters with half-shaved heads owned the Cellu broadcasts, newspapers, and universities. The shit-smearers hung their art in the Musée d’Orsay, next to Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin and Pio Kegaard.
As I watched the skies turn from pink to light blue, I knew that the artificial lights would buzz on, and the morning announcements would flash in front of my eyes.
With a crack, the current returned to the cables running beneath the pavement. Light climbed the walls and filled them with the neon colors selling sneakers, jackets, and happiness just a Cellu-payment away. My poverty was more depressing when the image of affluence was all around us.
That is why France was unbearable. It was also why these foreign sluts were worth it. They lived in a world that believed in a Paris that hadn’t existed in the last century. If I could still smell them on my fingers, then the honor of the country was not dead.
Vive La France! After a conquest I could walk triumphantly back to my cousin’s two-bedroom apartment and fall asleep in the kid’s room. The kid slept in it at night, and I could inhabit his Spiderman sheets during the day.
When the hum of these advertisements were in full swing, the daily alerts came to my vision and in the corner of my eye, I saw the headlines as it was read to me by Sally, the generic feminine voice of the Web: General strike on the railways. All metro travel is suspended until further notice. USA President Barron Trow takes office. The trillionaire made his fortune in his pornography production company, which he has officially signed over to the care of his daughter, Meryl Trow. General mockery in the USA has gone viral internationally, to the chagrin of the Yanks who still claim to be the beacon of Human Rights…
Ha! As hard as it is to be French, at least it is less embarrassing than being American. What a long-standing, failed experiment in democracy that was.
All citizens are reminded that public displays of divisive politics are now sanctioned…
By the time Sally’s voice left my ear, I had climbed the seven steps to my door. I didn’t remember how I got there, or what I had seen along the way. I was in a Cellu-Trance, guided by the arrows in my glasses which led my steps back home. I put in the key, turned the latch, and opened the door. I entered into the kitchen, which was so small that we couldn’t eat in it. By the sink, I could span out my arms and touch from wall to wall. The tiny window looking out into the street stared at a brick deemed too inconsequential for adverts. The ceiling was water stained, and hopefully wouldn’t develop mold. There was also a perpetual feel of humidity caused by the weather and the cooking. The air stagnated in that kitchen, and the oil that burned into the air seemed to stay there, seeping into my skin.
My cousin’s wife, Tonje, was making coffee and handed me a cup as I squeezed passed her, between the kitchen counters, “Good morning, François. Did you have a good night at work?”
“I had to wade in the waters of England.” She hated that I spent the night with these women.
I walked on to the living room, my occasional bedroom. A double sized bed was on a platform held six feet over the ground. The mezzanine hovered over a small couch. When I slept up there, I couldn’t sneeze without smacking my forehead on the ceiling. The kid was still in bed, so I was sleeping on the mezzanine today.
The groggy four-year old came out of his room, wearing little sweatpants with the drawstring tugged tight to fit his slender body. His mother handed him the heel of a baguette, and he came to sit with me on the living room sofa. If school was open, I’d take his bedroom for the day, and save myself the discomfort of the squeaky mezzanine.