Dumbing Down -The Toast

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paris“You’ve been away too long.”

My mother’s voice is a honey-thick purr and I am sitting cross-legged on my unmade twin-sized bed, the sheets in dire need of an industrial washing (beating). The pillows are suffused with cigarette smoke, a cheap brand that makes my lungs throb like a sputtering heart on a cold operating tray, unfiltered tobacco and nicotine that make my hands shake. I don’t even know why I took up smoking again. I smoked during my freshman year of high school because it gave me something to do. I stole my first pack from the corner store. It was a dare. The girl who proposed the dare stopped talking to me once she found some cooler friends. I stuck with the cigarettes. They gave me the semblance of an identity, a reason to skip gym class and cower beneath the bleachers, avoiding our pouty-lipped Wonder Woman of a PE instructor, a woman who sported noticeable peach fuzz. She always confused me with the only other black girl at our prep school. The only thing we had in common was our resentment of the privileged class, the wealthy fuck-ups who could spot imitation leather and silk and cashmere but didn’t know how to do their laundry or write a coherent term paper.

My father got his GED nearly twenty years after he dropped out. He calls me his “little prep school Negro.” He was simultaneously proud and ashamed that his only daughter was such a budding intellectual. He bragged to people as though he were defending the virtue of Robin Hood to mealy mouthed kings. When he was younger, the paperback novels he’d been force-fed in school sometimes made him break out in hives. Awful splotches and rashes up and down his arms, splotches like tentacles the color of drugstore Valentine’s Day cards. Reading all those pages with unforgiving lines of text made him feel incredibly small and stupid.

My mother pretends that he’s dead but he really picked up and fled to Florida. I was a baby. He met his soulmate in the self-service checkout line of Walmart. At least, it was good enough excuse to pack a bag and hit the restart button on his life. My mother has managed to stay sane via the poison of fierce denial. I think it keeps her young like the Evil Queen in Snow White.

My father is a man with few regrets. He regrets his marriage to my mother but he does not regret leaving. I don’t really know why, but I’ve kept in touch with him all these years. I suspect that Wife Number Two has always reminded him to send the birthday cards and Christmas presents. She drags around enough Catholic guilt for two souls.

“You’ve been away too long, Kiki. You didn’t come home for Thanksgiving, you barely stayed for Christmas, and now you want to stay for the summer?”

I hate, hate, hate it when my mother uses that tired nickname. It’s so abrasive and sharp and ugly. I picture her mouth pushing out the letters, vowels rounded like fists.

I’m living off the dregs of student loans and a run-of-the-mill waitressing job where some of the more lecherous skinbags try to pinch my ass. Studying abroad, about to turn twenty-one and when I think about how much time I’ve wasted on people and places that suck you bone-dry, it makes me terrified that I’ll never escape my fears, which Paris has somehow turned into a crutch.

I like Paris, I do. I was sincere when I made those vows. But then there are days when I wander the streets and I feel like I’m disconnected from my body.

“Why can’t you be happy that I got accepted into this program?”

“Kirsten, it’s great but I just haven’t seen you in so long and I thought you would come home for one holiday.”

“Very few people get into this professor’s class. It’s like being on the waiting list for a Birkin bag.”

“Oookkkaaay, but how are you going to pay for the summer?”

She sounds like a jealous child, wanting something shinier and newer.

“I still have my job at the restaurant. And the school will provide room and board. I told you that, remember?”

“I know. But I just worry because you don’t know how to cook and at least at your real campus back here, they had those nice dining halls and the grocery stores were down the street,” she babbles.

“Ma, I’m going to be twenty-one soon and I know how to work a fucking stove,” I mutter.

“Watch your mouth. I’m your mother,” she snaps. The whine in her voice curdles to authoritative militance. Sometimes my mother doesn’t know whether or not she wants to play the part of the parental enforcer or the much more forgiving part of the big sister/best friend. She doesn’t know how to occupy more than one space, more than one sphere of consciousness without feeling conflicted.

“I have to go to work. I’ll talk to you later,” I say.

“Fine. Did you get my e-mail? The one about which foods help with stress?”

“I have enough pills to last until I get back to the states. I already called the doctor,” I say.

“You’re sure?”

She is hopeful and I’m about to gleefully stomp on her windpipe.

“Goodbye, Mom.”

I lied about going to work. It’s a Monday. I never work on Mondays because it’s never busy on Mondays and the managers don’t want to pay me if they absolutely don’t have to. Instead I decide to walk to the apartment of this boy I met while dancing in the darkened cave of a club. I’d felt brave that night and decided to wear a dress that left little room to breathe. This boy bought me a fruity drink and when my taxi came, he kissed the top of my head and for a minute, I felt a little bit in love. To my surprise, he called me the next night. I’d texted him that I was having racing thoughts (it’s always easier to confess the outrageous to strangers because they’re like masked priests and the judgment feels more like a warm rush of empathy). He talked me down and out of the clouds.

His name is Francis and he’s an ex-pat from Kansas, twenty-seven with an eternal sense of bewonderment, a quality that oozes out of him like liquid gold. He’s one of those false prophet humanists, a product of insulated whiteness, not so much blatantly offensive as he is genuinely clueless. He thinks that old wounds can be carefully salved with vigourous applications of geographical distance. I know that I don’t really love him and I know that he doesn’t love me but sometimes the loneliness rises above the mercurial tide of the wine and I go running for his arms.

Like today. Today Paris weather proves fickle and as I shuffle around my apartment, it begins to rain.

I change into a knock-off Burberry trench coat and black flats and a striped sweater and skinny jeans. Francis has a weird obsession with Jean Seberg and Breathless and has been attempting to convince me that I should chop off all my hair.

The curls are nice, he says, but you’d look so much more stunning with short hair.

For some women, this would be interpreted as a backhanded insult but Francis has learned to massage the hurt out of his criticisms. Or maybe I give him too much credit because each time he forms these expert opinions, it’s usually followed by a reassuring kiss which then turns into clothes peeling off our bodies and dropping to the floor. It’s embarrassing how starved I am for love but the idea of self-control seems closer to psychobabble. Francis says that you can learn more from movies than books but I think he says this because he struggles with books, tripping over words he can’t even pronounce in his head.

“Ah, you look so French,” he gushes as he opens the door.

“Thanks for noticing,” I say, smiling despite my resentment. I follow him down the hall and into the main sitting room. He has a Bogart and Bacall movie on mute. Bacall stuns Bogart with her bedroom eyes and it makes my hands itchy for a cigarette, the tick-tick-tick of a self-made crutch. Empty brown beer bottles next to coffee mugs. A stack of old newspapers tucked in the corner like he’s a survivalist hoarding branches for firewood. Basquiat print hanging above the TV, purposefully displayed like a certificate of Parisian authenticity, one of the few artists that Francis actually knows. Not because he understands Basquiat or relates to his struggles on an existential level. He just knows that if you like Basquiat, you’re considered “artsy.” He wants to be seen as artsy. He wants to be seen as cosmopolitan and cultured. Sophisticated. It’s why he doesn’t go out of his way to date white girls, he says. Anything to wash off the filth of Kansas. Anything to show his devotion to this new religion of dissatisfied, tough-guy ambivalence.

“So, listen. I’ve got a business proposition for you.”

I pause in the midst of removing my coat.


“I’ve got a friend…he’s in town for the weekend and he needs a date.”

“Ok? What does this have to do with me?” I wonder.

“He’s looking for a girl. A nice girl. To wine and dine, all that good stuff.”

“Who is he?”

I take off my coat and flop onto the couch. The cushions feel like they’re filled with hay. I can feel a coil digging into my back.

“Family friend. Works in Silicon Valley. Does shit with computer programming. I don’t really know the details of it cause it sounds boring as fuck.”

“All he wants is a date?”

We both know that I’m code-talking, that date can be interchangeable for “sugar baby” or “escort” or “paid companion.” Francis will never use the term pimp. He thinks of himself as my manager. He knows that I’m always sniffing for more money and sometimes when I feel depressed for no discernible reason, it’s the best time to sign me up for some fast cash. Less chance of me actually over-thinking and backing out. One time, Francis took me to a fancy restaurant near the Champs-Élysées and called it an acting exercise. He pretended to be a businessman and got wasted on whiskey, which always makes him mean and blundering. He was especially forceful and uncharacteristically aggressive. We danced back and forth over the line of play and pretend. We had sweaty sex in an alleyway, tights ripped, skirt rumpled, because I didn’t have the strength to say no. How do I say that without sounding weak or pathetic? I was just so exhausted by the whole charade that it was easier to submit than to fight. Walking home, he said with a grin, I hope you’re not that easy with all those dumb motherfuckers! He sounded so proud, like he’d just taken my virginity.

“Yes. He has no other expectations than witty banter and some exotic arm candy.”

“Lump sum or hourly?”

“Lump sum. At least a thousand.”


“Ok? So you’re definitely available? Cause I’ll tell him right now.”

“Yeah, go ahead. It’s fine.”

Francis whips out his iPhone and starts texting.

“One thing to remember. Try to be a bit submissive. Don’t talk too much about feminism or James Baldwin or Anne Sexton or racial profiling or any of those things that you get really defensive about. He doesn’t like girls who are brain dead, but no man wants to play house with Lorena Bobbit, you know what I’m saying?”

We don’t actually go out to dinner. I meet him at a bar, an obvious hotbed for solo-traveling men with primal needs. I wear a red dress, no bra because Francis said that it’s the client’s favorite color. He’s older than Francis implied. He tells me to call him Jack. Like Jack Kennedy? I tease. He frowns like I’m a feral cat that has presented him with a dead pigeon.

Receding hairline, worry lines etched into his forehead with a scalpel, chunky tie that looks like it came from the clearance rack at J.C. Penney, mannerisms that reveal his ingrained Midwest geniality. Skin slightly pink like broiled steak, suggesting a recent vacation to some tropical getaway and he skimped on the sunscreen. He has a stiff walk as though one of his legs is cased in splintering wood. When he speaks, I get the sense that he’s talking at me instead of to me. Perhaps it helps ease his nerves?

After the bar, I make him take me to a bakery because I’m slightly tipsy and craving a chocolate pastry. We stand outside the bakery as I scarf down my treat. He smiles. He’s fattening up his prize sow.

We drive back to his hotel in his rented car. When I start fiddling with the radio, he gets upset and hisses, Can’t you sit still? You’re like a little child with ADD. So I stuff my hands underneath my lap and end up snagging my tights with the ring on my index finger. In the hotel room, I try to waste time by pawing through the mini-bar and studying the room service menu. Jack turns on the TV and takes off his shoes and unbuckles his belt. I go into the bathroom and pop a Xanax, rinse out my mouth with hot water, put on some more 99 cent lipstick.

“How do you want to do this?” I ask.

“Get on your knees,” he commands.

I’m not faded yet. There is a crick in my neck and I push back my shoulders and let my spine crack. Everything is too bright. I never felt confident in this polyester dress because the hem gets shorter every time I wash it.

I do as I’m told.
I’m a good girl.

I shut my eyes so tight that I see rainbows dancing. I gag and Francis takes this as an incentive to be rough, fingers digging into my hair, yanking at a puff of curls as though he were dangling off a cliff and holding onto the only rope that can save him from bone-breaking death. I place my hands on either side me for balance. Francis grabs my hands and makes me grab his thighs.

I take in the sound of cars and taxis and Vespas and motorcycles whizzing by, carrying people I will never know and never meet, the City of Lights humming content with its dirty beauty and its history, and all I can feel is sad and disappointed and frustrated and trapped.

His love is the color of a pus-yellow bruise and I chew on the fat of my shame like a wad of dip sprinkled with slivers of glass. This seems to carry on for hours until he pushes me away and then yanks me to my feet. A real-life Degas ballerina with bleeding toes waiting for the guidance of the puppetmaster.

I start to open my mouth to speak.


“Shut up,” he whispers, lips near my ear.

Later, when Francis is snoring belly-up on the bed like a beached whale, I lock myself in the bathroom and call my mom. I sip on a nip of vodka.

“What’s wrong?” she grumbles. There have been a few times that I have called her in the middle of the night. The first time she asked if I was “on pot.” I said I felt like I was losing my mind. She said to take another pill and let her sleep, please. The second time she didn’t even ask why I was calling. Just listened, silent for long stretches that made me queasy.

“Mommy, I want to come home. I don’t know if I can do this. Paris hates me,” I whimper.

“Kirsten, Paris doesn’t hate you. You have your friends and your class. You just need to go to sleep. This is what you wanted, isn’t it?”

When my mother is weary of me, she shuts down. She turns from coddling therapist to realist. She’s no longer a friend but the city’s cloaked guillotine operator.

“I guess so. Yes.”

“Then start acting like it.”

She hangs up. I listen to the dial tone until I finish the vodka.

I visit Francis and give him his cut of the money. We never made a formal agreement about percentages or whatever but I feel obligated to share. Francis, to his credit, has helped me weed out the deranged losers and the penniless posers.

“Jack seemed really happy with the whole arrangement,” Francis says. He licks his thumb and then flips through his bills. Sniffs them.

“These are new. Freshly printed.” I want to grab his lighter and set all of that paper on fire.

“Really? I got the impression he thought I was annoying.”

“No, no, not at all. He says you’ve got spirit,” Francis chuckles.

I roll my eyes.

“So, are you free tonight?”

“Yeah, why?” I ask, hoping that Francis will ask me out.

“I’ve got another date for you.”

In my head, I’m saying no. Fuck no. I’m done with you, Francis. I’m done with you because sometimes you get so drunk that you tell me that you love me and I’m a beautiful bird of paradise but the promises always end in sex that you barely remember in the morning.

Instead, I nod. Give him a Vanna White smile and say, “Sure.”

Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and a writer. Her work has been featured on Thought Catalog, The Toast, The Hairpin, Literally, Darling, and Bitch Media. She is a Prose Editor for Winter Tangerine Review and writes at www.my-strangefruit.tumblr.com.

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