Sometimes I have dreams in which I become capable of extraordinary things. I dream I am a professional ballet dancer or an Olympic gymnast or an M-to-F transsexual married to Joe Biden (actually, this last was rather upsetting, as none of the other Georgetown wives would have lunch with me once they’d heard I had a penis), and I feel small and empty when I wake up to discover that I am still just me.
The Bastille Day party in the streets of Paris was like one of those dreams made real. After a mere six to eight glasses of government wine, I was speaking French with an eloquence and fluency I have never achieved before or since. Unlike government cheese, which gives you stomach cancer and, when squashed into spherical form, provides a handy and biodegradable alternative to a Super Ball, government wine was an elixir of verbosity and insight. This, I thought, was the wine of philosophical discourse and political debate, the wine of Voltaire and Descartes, of Sartre, Derrida, Foucault and Debord.
“If only they’d served this wine in the exam room of my SAT II’s, I might have had a real chance at life,” I said. Sadly, I chugged the rest of my glass, spilling some of the dark purple liquid down my neck.
“Take it easy,” said Stacey. “It’s only 8 o’clock, and we haven’t eaten anything yet.”
About halfway through bouteille nombre deux, I struck up a conversation in French with a group of equally sozzled graduate students.
“Speak not of Simone de Beauvoir to me!” The force of my exhortation caused me to teeter slightly. Serge, one of the students, was standing beside me. I grabbed his shoulder for support, and the top of his balding head grazed my clavicle. There are two major types of Frenchmen, I’ve found: the heartbreakingly gorgeous Alain Delon types, whose bee-stung lips and limpid eyes leave them with few options in life other than posing languidly in Versace ads and illegitimately impregnating people like Halle Berry; and then there are these crinkly little Ewok people who have no compunction about dandling their nicotine-stained fingers in and around your cervix in public, preferably without your consent.
My new friends fell squarely into the latter category, apart from the one named Fabrice, who was easily 6-foot 9-inches, with a face like Andre the Giant. But they were friendly, they had somehow commandeered a full case of magical wine, my cervix had as yet remained unfondled, and I was on a roll: “It is Gustave Flaubert who is the one true writer of feminism of France. Yes, it is true, he is making the punishment on top of Emma Bovary, but also he is saying it is the bad of the society that he is making atop her this punishment. It is necessary for one to wait for the writer who calls himself Ibsen for to allow the sin of a woman it is to be also her salvation. But too bad! All the men of Scandinavia are being very terrible in the doing of the sex.” Triumphant, I let go of Serge’s shoulder and lurched back against the railing of the bridge.
Serge laughed. “OK. But, chérie, we are students of mathematics. We don’t study literature.”
I scoffed. “This is nothing to me.” I pulled the cork out of another bottle of red wine and poured about a third of its contents down my throat. “I have more to be talking. Simone de Beauvoir, she is talking very beautiful about the feminism. But in the true life? She is washing the underpants of Sartre and then she is making of the tears when he is doing the sex with the others of the women.” Even in French, I was beginning to detect in my speech the vaguely Southern twang that creeps into my voice when I am very, very drunk. “A woman who is true feminist, she is not doing of this. Hear me, Benoit! Me, I do not care that you are erotic”—Benoit had tiny eyes, set high in his forehead like a Modigliani painting, while the tip of his nose almost reached his chin—“but I am not doing the washing of the shit from the underpants of a man!”
I finished the rest of the wine and smashed the empty bottle against the cobblestones, for punctuation. The shattered glass sprayed my legs, leaving a spatter of tiny red spots of blood against my bare skin. “I am not even washing of the underpants of me!”
“Are you OK?” asked Stacey.
“Are you kidding? I’m just getting started,” I proclaimed. “Now, which one are you going to fuck? I think I’ll take the little one, unless you want him. You know, since you’re both small.”
She stared at me strangely. “No,” I amended, “you’re right. We should be in love with them first.”
I don’t know how long we stood drinking on the bridge. Around bottle number six, I hit the wall. By the time it was agreed we should be moving on, I had lost my full command of any language.
“Where?” I slurred, for the 14th time, as we descended the steps into the Metro, sloshing wine from a paper cup down the front of my sundress. “Where we go to?”
“We are going to the ball,” said Benoit, in English. “The ball, the party of the… the man of fire. You know? With the water, he extinguish of the fires… from the trees he is rescuing the small poor kittens…”
“I think we should go back to the hotel,” said Stacey. “We can just get a cab.”
“No!” I shouted. my cup was empty now. The spilled wine stung the tiny cuts the broken glass had left on my legs. “Don’t be crazy! This is what we’re here for. We’re going to the fucking ball!”
I knew I was naked before I knew I was awake. Naked and swathed in a coarse fabric of an unfamiliar blue. Oh God. What the hell was the matter with me? I hadn’t actually meant to sleep with that tiny Frenchman. It was supposed to be a joke, just a joke, like the time at dinner when I said I would do four shots of balsamic vinegar, no hands, for $15. Although afterward, when I lay moaning in agony on my bare mattress as the acid churned mercilessly through my insides, that hadn’t seemed so funny either.
Alors. One must persevere, even though it sometimes seems most practical to kill oneself. I propped myself up slightly on an aching elbow and scanned the ground for my clothes. The floor was linoleum, gleaming whitely under the glare of reflected fluorescent light. That was unexpected. Who had linoleum in their bedroom? Or fluorescent lighting? And who slept in a bed that was this narrow? Or this high off of the ground? Or on wheels?
The sheet was tucked up tightly under my armpits, smooth and uncreased as though done with great care. At the top, stamped in fuzzy black ink, was a name: Hotel-Dieu de Paris. Hotel? This was not our hotel. The hotel I had checked into had carpeting and was lit by floor lamps with soft, flattering bulbs. Had we changed rooms? Outraged, I sat all the way up and lunged for the phone by the bedside, intending to call down to the front desk to complain.
That was when I noticed the IV sticking out of my left hand.
From Everything Is Going to Be Great by Rachel Shukert; published by Harper Perennial, 2010.