Stuff I Write, Stuff I Like

Stuff I Write: La Petite Butt

In Uncategorized on April 11, 2013 at 7:57 pm

What is this ‘butt’?” Constance wants to know, but she says “boot.”

Constance is from France. Her real name is Ursula. Ursula goes by Constance when she’s in the States. It’s easier on Americans, who think anyone named Ursula must be a Disney villain.

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We’re in a dressing room, trying on bathing suits. All around us, other women are doing the same thing.

“How does my butt look?” one says.

“Does my butt look big?” another one says.

“Is my butt hanging out of this?” one says, and another says, “Oh dear God.”

Constance is in a bathing suit the size of a sandwich baggie. Her butt is tiny and firm as a coconut. She twists and squints, tries to examine herself from behind as the fluorescent lights buzz and snap overhead.

Constance says, “What is this fuss?” She says, “A butt is a butt.” She says, quieter, “Americans,” and sounds like she’s flicking mosquitoes.

Then she looks at me as if to say sorry, as if to make me, with my own big American butt, exempt.

I am here to find a suit that will not make me look like a beached manatee. I think Constance is here because she’s doing observational research and wants to understand:

a) American women’s obsessions with body image;

b) The trauma of bathing suit season in these United States;

c) The cultural significance of this.

Significance, signified, signifier — all those French ideas American literature professors push on poor graduate students.

Constance studied Latin at the Sorbonne. American literature professors, Constance says, are stupid imperialists. Americans, Constance says, can never understand existentialism. Americans, Constance says, understand ice cream.

“I am never eating again,” a woman in the dressing room says, “ever.”

Constance sighs in French, all breathy world-weariness.

Constance says everything Americans think is French is not French — French vanilla, French manicures.

She shows off her own nail tips, red with the moons left clear, tiny test tubes half filled with blood.

Constance tells me, “You have hair like my mother,” and she holds a bit of my hair, twists it around one of her red-tipped fingers. I think she’s going to say something nice but she says, “My mother used a cigarette to burn the ends.”

Constance is beautiful as a paint stroke. She’s brutal as a virus, but I like her. She’s honest. The limits of language make it difficult for her to lie in English. I don’t know about her French.

The times I’ve been in France, I apologized a lot. My manners were, I think, good because I can’t say much more than merci and pardon and champagne. I, like many Americans, am mostly monolingual. I speak American English with some passable street Spanish and a spattering of words that can help me find bathrooms and beer in many countries.

In France, people treated me as if I were a child, innocent and clueless. I wore denim overalls to dinner at the Eiffel Tower and the maître d’ out of pity gave my friend and me a window table. I got my foot stuck in a Metro door — despite the signs featuring a cartoon rabbit with a big throbbing foot that was supposed to illustrate that the doors, in fact, did not bounce back. Another subway rider helped pry me loose. Then he patted me on the head like a French poodle.

For the first time in my adult life I was not responsible for my own failures. I liked this very much. I pointed to coffee — signified, signifier — and someone would hand me coffee. I pointed to menus and food appeared. If I wanted to navigate a grocery store, I followed someone who looked like he knew what he was doing. I bought the same cheese, the same wine, imitating every movement as if I were one of the mimes I saw in Luxembourg Gardens and which I presume are both French and existential, though Constance might say otherwise.

The cheese could have been the French equivalent of Velveeta. The wine could have been Mad Dog. It didn’t matter. I was happy. At the checkout, the cashier would help me sort my cash. Nearly everyone seemed kind.

If I could speak better French, or if I wasn’t so afraid to try, I’m sure I’d come across as more myself, and I’d be much more difficult to tolerate.

I have no idea how Constance’s personality translates back home in France.

When are people most themselves — with the power of language or without it?

Once, when Constance was sad, she sent me a note. She wrote in English, “I am all sorrow. I need a big arm to wipe this tear,” as if her whole body were a tear, all that water under the skin, a water balloon, a vessel for every stashed sadness.

I wrote back in English to say I was sorry, that I understood how she felt. I wanted to pick good words, that could close the distance between us, but I went with standbys.

“We all feel sad sometime,” I wrote. “Things will get better.”

My handwriting was fat and open, as easy as the words that tumbled out.

Constance is much braver than I am. She’s not afraid to work to find the words to say what she means.

“If the butt is so consuming,” she says, “eat lettuce.”

This piece first ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in August 2012. Thanks very much to editor Greg Victor. Thanks, too, to Constance, for her ongoing, timeless perspective.

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