I step into a baby clothing store on a whim, looking for a gift for a friend who’s just given birth. The shop is cheerful and whimsical, with a fluffy pastel cotton-candy interior. I’m a bit disoriented in this foreign world of cutesy teeny-tiny fashion.
Smelling fresh carrion, two black-clad saleswomen croak “Hello” and descend upon me. They bare their teeth into something resembling a smile.
One of them, an older woman with deep-set eyes, indicates the rack for newborns. I peruse the adorable clothing, realizing a simple onesie costs 55 euros…
I have no time to fake a polite exit before the dark-eyed woman re-materializes in a cloud of heavy perfume and the oppressive stink of 30 years’ worth of cigarettes and red wine. There’s something sinister about this husky-voiced woman with stingy hair and George Washington’s wooden teeth, cooing at me with a saccharine voice.
“How old did you say the baby was?”
“Uhm, about 2 months.”
“So it’s NOT a new baby then!”
“I guess not…”
“Et, c’est dans quel pays?”
My eyes narrow in confusion, and my mouth is parted–I’m breathing discreetly through my mouth.
Quel pays? What country? What kind of trick question is this?
She repeats herself, cartoonishly enunciating “Quel PAYS?” Her gray teeth stand out against the spackle caked on her face; she looks like a 20’s vaudeville clown.
“No, no, no…” Her colleague joins in behind, and they are now both braying at me, in tandem: “Pays, pays, pays…” All that’s missing here is an undead barbershop quartet to complete this ghastly spectacle.
What did I do to gain entry to this hellish dog and pony show?
“The south of France…?”
“Oh, voilà! You know, we only ask because every region’s weather is different, every season is different, which you must keep in mind when shopping…” Her smarmy response disgusts me, and their logic has me stumped. I don’t belong here in this farce. I respond with logic that might speak to them:
“Well, this is a travelling baby. You know, the kind of baby that travels all over France with her parents, so any kind of clothing would be fine… At any rate, thanks very much for your help, have a great day!” I chirp and fly out of the store.
The air outside is heavy and oppressive, offering no relief from the burning that stings the back of my throat. I feel foolish, destabilized, unsettled. Despite their bizarrely condescending behavior, I still suspect the fault lies with me and my insufficient French.
It’s time to retreat home. I’ll buy the gift another day.
My own little slice of hell.
It’s the morning business rush; the 9am-ers position themselves along the platform, discreetly eyeing the competition.
The train wheezes into the station, and all order is lost. Herding themselves in front of the door, they commit the cardinal sin of train travel: Never impede passengers trying to exit. Those poor saps barely escape before the herd lumbers on, in search of fulfilling their primal need to sit down. The tense scuffling of feet, exasperated sighs, desperately roving eyes and sudden acrobatic manoeuvres at the sight of an empty seat… I have to admire the organized chaos.
In summertime, add in oafish commoners with ill-fitting cheap sunglasses who lug too much baggage onboard, along with their cross-eyed hyperactive children. Solo travellers scurry on to find an empty pair of seats, plop down, then protectively seat their hardside luggage next to them. I walk by, and they avoid eye contact.
It’s a 15-minute ride. I think I’ll survive if I stand.
I try to read, but I’m distracted by the flutter of conversation around me. Banal conversation, rehashed. Kids, weather, job. I burrow deeper into my book.
Suddenly I catch a whiff that offends my senses, emanating from the miserable latrine. My nostrils are burning. Good God, have these people no shame? Passive-aggressive territoriality at its lowest. How dare they subject the rest of us to the injustice of smelling their beastly morning constitution? Is this what freedom looks like? Forcing others to suffer the indignity of inhaling their ungodly coffee-fueled evacuation…
We approach our destination, and these bovines elbow discreetly toward the door. Self-important squares need to be the first off the train. Underlying message: “I’m more important than everyone else here.”
Indeed, we are at the center of our respective universes. Every morning at 8:24am, there are a hundred supremely-important universes fighting an imaginary battle for a prime position on the livestock transport line.
The herd shuffles forward, hooves clacking in the urgent rush. A self-herding mass, headed straight for the abattoir.
My heart bays: I don’t belong here.
The first logical thought is that they’re there to show fabric transparency and thickness. But are there that many women who go braless that the nippled mannequin is necessary? And if it’s a question of pert nipples potentially ruining your next family photo, why don’t male mannequins have nipples?
Do they up the resale value?
In case of emergency, use mannequin torso to break glass?
Perhaps they’re the product of a 40-year-old virgin at the mannequin factory on a dare:
“Say Mickey, there’s rumors flyin’ around that you’ve never had yourself a dame.”
“Screw you Tony, I been with plenty ‘a broads. Look, I even know where the nipples go.”
Or is it a shoutout to all those dadboners out there, to throw them a piece of PG eye candy? You know the kind of male specimen: uptight, high-strung with ergonomic sneakers and high-waisted jeans, responsible polo shirt and fanny pack, keepin’ it Christian. The ones that hate their job, but love their family… at least, when they’re not dreaming about what they could have done with their lives. The kind of male specimen that accompanies his wife while shopping, holding her bag, waiting patiently for her while fantasizing about revving the station wagon engine and leaving her nagging ass in the dust. He’s sitting like a good boy, when out of the corner of his eye, a tight little number catches his eye. A quick glance around confirms, nobody’s watching. He lets his eyes dip down to admire the pert perfection of the daringly stylish mannequin. He admires her figure, reminding himself that it’s not infidelity if she’s made of plastic. His heart beats a little faster, he licks his lips, and dusts off his former signature move; coquettishly, he winks at her. No response; she’s playing hard to get. No matter, he thinks. I’ll be back next week, my sweet.
Hey, everyone deserves their little slice of happiness.
And that’s why mannequins have nipples.
July is long gone, and now I’m face-to-face with another birthday.
I’m 29. One year before the big 30. On a side note: when I lived in Korea, 30 was the magic number: after 30, a woman’s shelf life supposedly reaches its expiration and you creep into that undesirable “spinster” territory if you’re unmarried. 30 is that round magical number where everything changes, and you’re supposed to have a fire under your ass, to get moving and accomplish those life goals you’ve been putting off until “later.” Well, as a 29-year-old woman, I’m acutely aware that this is the time of my life; I’m in my prime, and there is no magic switch that will be flipped in one year. I’m taking things at my speed, doing what I want to do at my own speed, with no one but myself to answer to. This is the freest and most empowered I’ve ever felt. If this feeling follows me into my 30’s, that’d be one of the greatest privileges I could hope for.
Around the time of the New Year and my birthday, it seems to be the season for reflection. Perfectly spaced, twice a year, the time to take stock.
In the past year, or indeed since I arrived in France a year and a half ago, I’ve learned to speak French, become a freelance English teacher, gotten PACSed (in other words, signed into a legal partnership), found a good job where my coworkers call me on my birthday to sing me Happy Birthday, rekindled my interest in writing and drawing, succeeded (FINALLY) at having an herb garden, and started to delve into cooking more seriously (as a seriously pleasurable hobby, that is).
I’ve also lost friendships, hit my lowest emotional point, rebounded from that point, and evolved more than I ever have before.
But most of all, I’ve learned how and where to educate myself outside of the classroom. I’ve learned that it’s okay not to be a complete island. And I’ve started to research my family history, which is so much richer than I could have imagined, as well as the complex and fascinating history of Puerto Rico and Cuba. Having an intimate knowledge of where my family comes from is both empowering and valuable. For me, learning about the history of colonization, political and even musical and culinary history is a responsibility that I hadn’t fully realized the importance of.
It has simultaneously cemented my heritage: I am, without question, 100% Latina. I come from a mixed lineage of Spanish conquistadors, African slaves, perhaps even French settlers and the Tainos. The first time someone told me I didn’t “belong” with my family was when I was 9 years old, and now twenty years later, I can say with assurance that I do, in fact, have a place. And it’s my job to claim it.
Now that I’ve got a clearer idea of who I am and what I want to say, it makes me more open to writing and sharing information with whoever is there to receive it.
Last night, shortly after midnight we saw the International Space Station zooming across the sky over France. A bright speck that moved so quickly from one end of our horizon to the other, that we barely recognized it before it disappeared. And I can only imagine, to the people onboard the ISS, we looked like a dark patch of night; to them, we were less than specks. Makes me think about my whole infinite-universe-gives-us-ultimate-freedom theory.
I suppose I’m a speck that accepts its speck-hood and wants to enjoy its speck-sized glory while it has the chance.
As a little kid, I used to look up into the infinite night sky and feel hypnotized; It was as confusing as it was magnificent. (Of course, my fascination with outer space had nothing to do with the fact that I was convinced aliens existed, and they were headed right to my bedroom to bring me to my doom…) At a time when I was trying to figure out the world around me, and discover what reality meant, the blackness of space was incomprehensible. Out in the infinite vastness, I couldn’t even see anything that looked remotely familiar from my science class. We learned about our solar system with coloful diagrams that showed the other gigantic planets in comparison to Earth. Yet when I looked up at night, I saw nothing but tiny pinpricks. The magnitude of the galaxy was stupefying, and also oddly calming.
I remember asking myself, “If space is infinite, and Earth is nothing but a grain of sand in comparison to everything else, why do we matter? Why do our mistakes, our stress, our rules mean anything? If we’re nothing but grains of sand, why can’t we just do whatever we want? In the end, it means no difference to the universe.”
This thought followed shortly after : “If the universe is infinite and we will never be able to explore all of it, then how do we know for sure that aliens don’t exist?” Hey, I can’t disagree with my little self—I still think I had a point. My parents, however, weren’t so amused with my logic and how it related to aliens—they just told me I had an overactive imagination. See what they had to deal with ?
But the idea that maybe we don’t need to be governed by rules or stress or obligations that we create ourselves is something I forgot along the way. I am now a grown-up governed by made-up rules, and more often than not, I forget to look up at night, relax, and reclaim a bit of comfort in feeling free.
This memory popped into my head during my French literature class, of all places. We were discussing the philosopher Camus and his interpretation of the meaning of our existence and its absurdity; we try to assign meaning to our existence through systems of belief, but it had no inherent meaning to begin with. We can become conscious of the lack of meaning of our existence, realize that this makes us free, and thus we can make the most of our time here by living with passion. Cool. As we discussed how this philosophy plays out in absurd anti-theater by Ionesco, my brain clicked. These guys were writing about an idea that resonated with one of my earliest difficult questions about life.
Of course, Camus wrote about existentialism and the Absurd after witnessing the horrors of World War II, and my little brain tickle stemmed from an irrational fear of killer aliens. So I can’t take any credit for originality, but all the same, it’s comforting to reintroduce myself to this idea, like I’ve come full cycle. I’m only a little less confused about this life thing than I was when I was a kid, and after all I’ve been through to get here, it’s funny how revisiting an old unanswerable question is enough to shed some light and give me hope.