There I was, in my blue dress printed with white flowers, the short flowing sleeves a bit reminiscent of fairy wings, the cinched waist that perhaps evoked a corset. I hadn’t been sure about the length of the skirt, but it fell just right with the twenties-style black heels that were starting to slowly torture my feet. My accessories had been chosen carefully: a necklace of chunky white beads, and a black fabric flower perched in the hair that fell over my left temple.
Madame, the woman I'd lived with when I first came to Paris, was wearing a tan-colored two-piece pantsuit and black patent-leather sandals with a band in a geometric design that ran up the tops of her lilywhite feet. She was using a lace fan, which reminded me that I have one, too, and made me remember a time not long ago when I'd always brought it with me. Nowadays I'm more likely to just sit miserably somewhere and sweat. Building up endurance.
We chatted for a while and then made our way into the Opéra Bastille’s cavernous theater. Our seats were good, near the stage, yet not so close as to be spat on by the singers. They performed “The Barber of Seville”. This production was notable for its set design: The story had been transported to an exotic country – perhaps, some suggested, a subversive version of present-day Afghanistan. There was so much lushness of color in the first scene’s dunes and pre-dawn sky, and in the later scenes’ false interiors, that we gasped as one setting changed to another.
After the show, we went to have coffee at a nearby café. I hadn’t seen Madame in more than two years, and there’s no excuse for it. She told me about her life now. She has a new roommate – not a student this time – or at least, she wasn’t a student when she first started living there. But this new girl, my replacement, is full of ambition and plans.
“She’s studying to become a nurse’s aid,” Madame tells me. “She says it’s not an important job, and that she won’t be wealthy like her sister. But I told her, ‘Look at your sister. It’s not her money, but her husband’s. Never, never depend on a man.'”
We both nod knowingly.
Madame has a right to nod: a single mother at a time when that wasn’t common or favorably looked upon, she struggled and sacrificed and took on many jobs before becoming an English teacher. She never had any handouts or help.
I think that in Madame’s eyes, I seem to be doing pretty well, too: a very busy business English teacher with too many projects to enumerate, who’s gone to operas several times over the years, and has on a dress that Madame deems “elegant”.
When I’d sat down next to her at the start of the evening, she’d reached out to touch one of the diaphanous sleeves, and exclaimed, “Oh, it’s synthetic!”
“Yes,” I’d told her openly, “I got this dress for ten euros at a market.”
But there were other things I didn’t say.
I didn’t tell her, for example, that if I'd ceded after little arguing and let her pay for our coffees, it was because my bank account is so low I’m counting centimes. I didn’t tell her I’m living with a sort of slow-burning terror in my gut; my boyfriend is out of town until Sunday night, and fairly cut off from the world, and if any emergency were to come up, and I needed cash immediately, I would have no way to get my hands on it without delay. He would have left some money for me, but I haven’t told him what’s going on, either.
I’ve never hidden my financial situation from the world before. It’s much easier, after all, to let people know you’re not working with a huge budget – and I have to admit, I feel a sort of pride that I’m able to live well with little money. But this time, for some reason, I can’t bring myself to say anything, not even to the boyfriend, who probably wouldn’t be bothered by it. Still, I feel like I don’t want to let him down. Or maybe it’s myself I don’t want to let down. And I know that soon I’m going to have to give him some disappointing news: he’ll probably have to take care of most of our expenses during the upcoming trip we’re going on with my family to Tuscany.
I’m ashamed, especially because this financial issue is completely my fault. Why can't I work harder, why I can't I go out and get a better job, or take on more hours? A lot of it has to do with my IBS, but years ago, I was braver, more motivated. I feel like, as I've grown up, I’ve gotten worse in many ways, instead of better.
I nervously touch my necklace, which comes from one of the more expensive stores you’d find in any American shopping mall, and which couldn’t have been bought by me; it's a recent birthday present from a childhood friend (who once told me supportively, “You’re good at being poor.”). The shoes I have on aren’t a vintage shop find, but could have been; they look like they’re from a century or so ago, and are about that age in contemporary shoe-years -- I wore them to my Junior prom, and they’ve been with me through some other formal occasions, as well as job interviews, funerals, and the occasional costume party, for a decade and a half. The opera tickets themselves were an unexpected gift from a student, who found out she couldn’t make it, and offered them to me.
“I’m having a great time,” I tell Madame, “but I’m really sorry – I think we might need to start heading home. The Metro’s going to close soon.”
Although it’s after midnight, it’s a shame the night has to end now, when we still have a lot to say to each other. But if I don’t make the Metro, I can’t afford a cab.
We take up our purses and leave.