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All Alone in Paris
Also, at the movies.
Recently my husband went out of town for a baby shower and I went to the movies by myself. Going to the movies by oneself is one of the singular pleasures of life, along with eating dinner in a restaurant by oneself and traveling by oneself. To be clear, I love going to the movies, period, almost any movie at all, and love to go with actual people. I love to see horror movies with my husband, who is deeply unflappable and laughed every time I leapt and shrieked during a recent screening of Smile (a surprisingly deep horror movie about trauma), and I love seeing whatever the chatted-about movie of the moment is with my sister. When we saw Don’t Worry Darling she turned to me during the credits and said, ‘Well, we’ll never get those two hours back,’ but I liked it all very much! It’s not often a movie has such lush, mid-century modern eye candy, Florence Pugh (<3), an epic I’m-Dancing-As-Fast-As-I-Can tap dance from Harry Styles and a feminist plot. Why are we so much harder on a movie that dares to take on a feminist theme? Now, when I saw Stepbrothers with my dear friend Beth, those are two hours I still mourn the loss of.
I also love eating in restaurants, period, including with actual humans. Last night I ate at a Cheesecake Factory here in Sacramento, California, where I am for the holiday that shall not be named. I ate with my husband, and his old friend Jose who is like the kind of gay a network could build a whole television show around. He is tall, and handsome, and one of those gays who does not let up with the hilarious quips, whose classic gay self-defense mechanism of being absolutely hysterical seems to be working very well. Jose ordered some sort of chicken and pasta dish from the Cheesecake Factory that was so huge, one could easily take it home, portion it into little Tupperwares, and eat it throughout the week. Such a plan transformed a rather pricey meal into a very affordable week-long menu, and made me think of those old people who have figured out their retirement dollars go further if they spend the rest of their lives on a Princess Cruise. My son was also with us. He took two bites of his pasta and laid down on the bench seat and closed his eyes. It was late. We tried to understand what the governing aesthetic of the rather dark and shadowy Cheesecake Factory is. Las Vegas? It was the best we could come up with, but there is an amazing piece about this question and more, written by brainiac art critic/comedienne Christina Catherine Martinez, and if you don’t live in LA you might have missed it so check it out. Even if you’re not familiar with the blissful horror of the Americana at Brand shopping mall, it’s a hot take on gross architecture, capitalism and other fun subjects.
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I also love traveling with other people. I’m here in whatever Sacramento for a solid week, visiting with my husband’s family, as well as checking in with my ex-in-laws. I have found, as a divorced person, that it is important to maintain my sweet connection with my ex-family, not only for the sake of my child, which would be enough, but also because I like these people, and have put in such work getting to know them, especially my ex-mother-in-law, who is a suspicious, bitterly funny Scorpio woman. I have worked hard over the past decade to win her affections, and I believe I have and I am not willing to give them up just because my ex sought greener pastures. The mother-in-law I had before her (I am on my third gay marriage, readers, and, as we know, the third time is the charm) was so obsessed with me I do believe she liked me more than she liked her son. She was bereft when we split up. I would enjoy regular brunch dates with that ex-mother-in-law, and so when I first met my most recent future-ex-mother-in-law, I was under the illusion that I was finally the sort of person (woman?) that mothers loved, and this lady would be thrilled to meet me and so, so psyched that I’d deemed her offspring a fit mate. Alas, no. She eyed me up and down and barely spoke to me the first night we met. My then-partner’s best friend tried to make it better by listing my accomplishments, but it only served to worsen it, as my accomplishments, seen through the harsh gaze of my future-ex-mother-in-law, only looked frivolous, shallow (‘She’s been to Paris Fashion Week! Tell her, Michelle!’).
It took years, but by the end my now-ex-mother-in-law and I were going for mani-pedis and hitting the Goodwill Black Friday shopping event together; I shall forever fondly remembering her running over to me holding a Christmas sweater not only hung with tinsel and pearls but featuring a heavy, dangling ceramic angel smack in the middle. Reader, I bought it.
I like all of this togetherness, and am looking forward to playing my part of the host couple tomorrow, when we welcome my husband’s 93-year-old grandmother, who is sharp and quite funny, sweet with our son, partial to root beer floats. I’m happy we get to do a mini-holiday dinner with my ex’s family, sans ex, to shore up the notion that yes, everything has changed, but the affection and history we have with one another doesn’t need to. Me and the kid are going to go see Wakanda Forever and hit the local bowling alley. I love all of this and I love when I get the chance to do all of these things alone, all by myself.
Many years ago, still smarting from a breakup that was, like, over a year old (what can I say, I’m sensitive/mentally ill), I took myself to Paris for the winter holidays. I was able to do a housing swap with some French queers: Wendy was dating my friend Lynnee and flew to the Bay Area for the holiday; I got her room. Wendy’s roommate Amee also went to San Francisco, and stayed in my empty room. I had a whole flat to be melancholy in, in France! It was at the very top of an apartment in Pigalle, and the window looked out onto the Sacre Cour. In the mornings I made stovetop espresso and got super wired, eating muesli and working on the singer/superstar Beth Ditto’s memoir (Coal to Diamonds). I had planned to sort of wrap myself in loneliness, and did have a sorrowful stroll along the Seine, a solo visit to the Eiffel Tower to send a postcard to my sister from the post office located far above the city. But the French are so convivial, such incredible hosts. Wendy had told her friends, a gaggle of queers younger than me, that I was all alone in Paris, and they came to my aid, totally ruining my dream vacation of solo ennui and private existential crisis. I was forced to join them in their messy polyamory, engage in surprise sex parties, fall in love with someone’s boyfriend, watch all the butches transition to men before my very eyes, usually during a drunken revelation at about 3am in someone’s smoke-filled apartment. I ate little more than bread, cheese, chocolate and cigarettes. My new friends did not understand my concern about how much I was smoking; when I expressed the need for a counter-acting facial they snapped, ‘What? Do you think we are ugly?’ in their fucking adorable French accents. Of course I did not think they were ugly; I was snogging nearly all of them. They were at this gorgeous moment in queer coming-of-age, not only as individuals but as a scene, where they had externalized desire and were making a big show of how sexy and wild they were. I had lived through this once already, in my 20s in San Francisco during the 1990s, but I had been too shy and had not enough game to participate as much as I would have liked. I could not believe I was getting a second chance. And all these queers were possessed of a very 1990s queer fashion, which was extra strange but also wonderful. I did many things I would have been far too embarrassed to do back in San Francisco, like orgies and spontaneous public sex right in front of the people we’d just had dinner with. It was a special moment, suspended in time. These people were all partaking of the extreme, socialist holiday breaks the French provide their citizens, and so like me they had no place to be, and we could stay up all night chain smoking, having sex and debating the limits of personal freedom - like what about that guy who opted to cut off his cock and let his lover eat it? He’d consented to it - should there be a problem? I loved how passionately my new French friends argued about things like this. I loved how quick they were to burst into passionate tears, even if it was the wine. I, too, often felt on the verge of tears, improperly moved by some internal passion, and I believed I had found my people, that it was the French part of me - for I am French! - that gave me this trouble, and that it in fact was not trouble, it was only that I was sadly stuck in America, where such big feelings were shunned.
After I left Paris, my new friends all went back to work. The magic moment dissipated. People had fights, broke up. The friend group, which had felt anchored in something true and timeless, disbanded. I felt even more lucky for the miracle of my timing. Amee returned from her visit at my home in San Francisco, disgusted with Americans. No one had feted her; no one had asked to show her a good time. In the kitchen, my roommates had scarcely nodded at her. Such rudeness was unforgivable. Newly understanding of European hospitality - my new friends had even thrown me a good-bye party, titled Bye-Bye, Cheese!, inspired by my obsession with the stuff, and not only did everyone bring an incredible array of fermented, rotten, smelly delicacies, a total stranger showed up with a briny crate of oysters from Brittany and spent the night happily shucking them for us. Anyhoo, newly understanding of French joie de vivre, I felt super bad for Amee, stuck in San Francisco with no love and care. But, I also understood that, prior to this visit, I, too, would have ignored the French person in the kitchen. It now seems outrageous to me - a visitor from a foreign land! A queer, no less! And you do not take them by the hand and bring them towards fun, towards food and drink and sex?! The monstrosity of American culture is a continuous revelation.
When I got the chance to go to the movies all alone the other night, I went to see Triangle of Sadness at my local indie theater. I got a large popcorn and dusted it heavily with both the nutritional yeast and the Trader Joe’s Everything But the Elote seasoning I keep in my purse. I also bought a box of Junior Mints, and during the movie inhaled a bit of the mentholated center and had such a coughing fit I felt super-duper bad for everyone in the theater who surely believed they were contracting more and more Covid with each honking choke. I really liked Triangle of Sadness. I could have just as easily seen anything playing that night and would have enjoyed the immersive experience of losing myself in a story, not to mention a dinner of nutritional yeast and popcorn. But this story was all about how absurd and awful rich people are, and the transactional experience of gender under capitalism (and, maybe, in some way, the inevitability of capitalism, as when the residents of a luxury cruise find themselves stranded on an island after the yacht is exploded by pirates and create a simulacrum of the society they’d just been blown out of, albeit with rearranged roles). I think it was worth the price of admission just to watch the rich people, sickened with a stormy sea, puke and shit their brains out, rolling around in fecal muck being barfed up by swamped toilets, sliding in their slippery shapewear, all to a death metal soundtrack. Over the top? So very! I find that over-the-top revenge scenarios against the capitalist patriarchy put only the smallest dent of glee into the armor of anxiety the system got me in, as did Don’t Worry Darling’s slap at Qanon incels and their retro brethren. The problems are huger than the fantasies of a couple of filmmakers, but my psyche needs all the support it can get.
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