Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Secret Life of Bourgeois Women

We are having lunch with the Dueña at the Barril de Arguelles. We’ve come to that part of a lazy Spanish lunch, the kind that I don’t take very often, that starts at 2:20pm and ends at 5:30pm, the point where you’ve finished the coffee, and you aren’t quite ready to go. You’ve moved on to the fortified alcohol.

My husband is discussing the lifestyle change involved in moving from suburban America (Atlanta) to life in the more urban part of Madrid. “My wife is outside the apartment from morning until the afternoon. I don’t know what she does all day. I suspect she has a lover.”

The Dueña belongs to a Spanish generation that made the transition from the rigid post-Civil War era to the freewheeling post-Franco era, where, as my husband put it: “They had to close down the local titty bar in Puetro Pollensa because you could see the same thing for free on the beach.” Spanish cultural background aside, the Duena is familiar to me, if I am not to her. I grew up with women like her--well-bred women of a certain age whose demeanor of outward respectability concealed a very sly, wicked sense of humor. Nursing her shot glass of hierba, the Dueña replies “Pues, hace bien.” (Well then, more power to her) My husband, who had been looking to this older female figure to reinforce his disapproval of possibly wayward women, is silenced.

What is the wife in question, who is sitting there, quietly listening to all this, thinking? She reads a lot. She thinks about nineteenth century literature—novels like Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, where men write about what they would do if they were a well-heeled, married woman with a certain amount of leisure time on their hands. They inevitably come to the same conclusion: Adultery!

If she had felt more awake, hadn’t consumed some hierba herself, or felt the need to impress anybody with how witty and urbane she was, she might have offered the kind of response the comment deserved: “Why there’s a pleasant idea, I hadn’t thought of. Now I’m going to enjoy a little reverie interviewing all the candidates.” But mostly she wonders, herself...

What is it that she does all day?

In the business dinners she attended with her husband, people were generally too well-bred to ask her that question. They don’t need to. They’ve already sized her up. They ask her a few polite questions about her children, and move on to truly exciting topics involving what currently is hot in technology, who’s making the most money, who’s killing it with market share and industry buzz.

She asks herself. What is it that she does all day?

She makes lists. These lists involve transfers of money, faxes to be signed and sent, invoices to be paid for her husband’s new company, a check to be written for the annual fund of the children’s old school, wrangling with the phone company, figuring out why a service has not been activated on her husband’s new cell phone; she signs for a letter, duly notes an appointment on her calendar, tries to remember if this is sport’s week at her boys’ school, which means that they need to wear their PE uniforms the first three days instead of on their regular PE days. She goes to the bank to get cash to pay the people who work for them and to the post office to mail things. If it’s the holiday season, unusual things have to be procured for the boys’ Christmas Play—one boy needs a reindeer headband, “un diadema de rena.”

She was proud of herself for finding a costume shop and wading through the naughty nurse and dominatrix costumes until she actually found what she was looking for…until she got to the play and her son told her that all the other boys’ mothers got them headbands with red bells on them and that his reindeer headgear, a cheap felt made-in-China production, already has a lop ear where one of the other boys pulled on it. Her daughter attends the French Lycee, where there are no Christmas plays, but they do have strike days that have to also be duly noted on the calendar.

Some days it’s a wild goose chase where she goes to three different ministry buildings looking for the elusive Form 790 for a friend who has used to live in Spain and needs it for immigration. The friend gently notes in her email that that she also asked somebody else for help with this, but the ministry is only open in the morning and the other woman “has a job.” When She finally gets to the security line to enter the ministry and is trying to keep track of the gate-keeper’s explanation of how much tax must be paid, where to mail the form back, and some special certification that is required for the accompanying passports, she notices a giant poster with block letters against a yellow square: “Ahora todo es mas simple.” (Now everything is simpler).

She feels so weak after riding in taxis and the metro, that a cup of chocolate con churros at “Maestro Churreria” seems divine. She soon regrets this when she starts to feel queasy during the taxi ride to her daughter’s school in the suburbs, time she uses to take on the phone company and their nine levels of automated voice menus, en route to deliver the swim bag that has been forgotten that day, note to self—Tuesday is swim day. She had briefly considered not taking an hour out of the day to go to the school and back so that her daughter might “learn a lesson in responsibility” but decides that aforementioned daughter’s conduct has been improving lately and, thus, deserves a break.

She gets home, gets on the computer and Skype rings. She has forgotten that it’s a Tuesday afternoon and thus the one two-hour slot a week, where she works on the play with her friend back in Atlanta. They decompress, talk about their week, the scandals and corruption with the TARP distribution in the US. She remembers that she met John Thain, at a New York Stock Exchange holiday photo op with The Former Employer—the entity that purchased her company. The Former Employer, like, the Ministry, had a mandatory decorating scheme that included lots of self-congratulatory posters. They were also very proud of their record on Ethics. At orientation/integration day they handed out red Frisbees with the words “Ethics!” printed on them. They talked to her and her colleagues with the patronizing tone and distaste that adults reserve for wayward children who 1) will not be able to understand the complexity of their lofty ideals 2) if left to their own devices, will defecate all over them. Sure enough, somewhere in the memorabilia drawer of the basement, there was a picture of her husband, the company officers and beetle-eyed, non-blinking John Thain.

I tell my friend: “I’ve met an infamous Personage.”
She’s non-plussed: “Get over yourself. There’s a lot of those people out there, at this moment.”
I persist: “I know, but he’s publicly known and I’ve got a picture. Think I should upload it to Facebook?” which makes us laugh.

We maybe get one hour of actual progress made on the play. It feels painstaking, but we’re moving forward. We’re on the last act now and our deadline for finishing and editing is the end of the children’s school year. Then the children come home, there’s dinner to be thought about, homework to be supervised, notes to teachers to be written. One day rolls into the next.

My husband’s comment that December lunch makes me think of Belle de Jour—a 1967 Luis Buñuel-directed movie, starring the young Catherine Deneuve as a respectable upper-middle class woman with an alternative life. One of my former male bosses loved that movie (not a boss from The Former Employer, I note. Their human resources department, which boasted an incentive program called “Brave New World,” would have frowned on such discourse as a Title VII risk). Back to “Belle de Jour” It’s a good movie, if you like foo-foo arty movies, or you happen to be interested in the theme above. I liked the movie. For that matter, I used to enjoy reading the “Belle de Jour” blog. She was a good writer. I absently wonder if subject matter like “Diary of London call girl” is what it takes to achieve Guardian “Blog of the Year” status.


Jean-Luc van Hulst said...

Great story!

Nathalie said...


Chantal said...

Funny - I just watched that this past weekend at the deYoung Museum in SF. A fantastic film!