Reina was sure she had been born into the wrong family. Absolutely positive that some incompetent nurse had switched her with another more fortunate girl at the hospital. One who had taken possession of her erudite and ennobled-by-culture family. They, too, were probably wondering where this daft child had come from, what they had done wrong to birth a spawn of such ignorance. And though they had named her Clothilde in the hope that she would live up to a moniker of this level of pretension, it sounded more and more incongruous to address her that way as she grew into what amounted to a Beverly Hillbilly.
Reina, meanwhile, who at least didn’t totally despise her name or feel it didn’t suit her, recoiled from any interaction with her video game-playing brother or glued-to-the-boob-tube parents. She refused to be like them just because she was of them. In fact, went out of her way to be perpetually absent from that bluelit-by-screens house as much as possible between being the head of the model UN, the president of the French club and tutoring kids from the posh side of town in math and literature. If those activities weren’t keeping her occupied, she would drive the thirty minutes it took her to get to Philadelphia to go to a museum or see an old movie at some revival theater. Anything to decontaminate from even the remotest amount of time with her slack-jawed kin.
Yet no matter how condescendingly or secondarily to her “status” that she treated them, they always returned her contempt with honeyed words and carb-ridden dinners. Your average American plebe’s cuisine: hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, chicken fingers, and hamburgers–not all served at the same time, necessarily (though it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility). She would peck at a few bites to oblige before practically running to the bathroom to yak it all up. This fucking family of hers, constantly wanting to poison her with their baseness and stupidity. Their sheer pig-like revelry in the muck that was their averageness. Even in the face of her overt disdain, she never thought that they could actually pick up on it. Were too complacent and oblivious to do so. Thus, she was not only flummoxed, but appalled to come home late one evening around nine after tutoring (and having sex with) one of her clients to find the three of them sitting at the table eating ice cream as they all stared at their phone or tablet with the sound of some slow-speaking Italian instructing them on how to correctly say “gelato,” which, nonetheless, still kept coming out of their mouths as “juh-lotto.”
“What the hell is going on?” Reina demanded.
Derek, who was a year older than her at eighteen but somehow came across as eight, smacked his lips together as he sucked on the customary hardened mounds of Dreyer’s. “Mom and Dad are taking me to Italy.”
Reina felt as though someone had stabbed her in the chest with an athamé and kept twisting it around and around. “Um, I…what?”
Derek snickered as he side glanced at his cohorts. “Told you she’d be pissed.”
Erin, her increasingly overweight mother, looked at her daughter with a shrugging sort of pity. “Oh Reina, we are sorry, but we can only afford to take one of you and even that’s a stretch.”
“So you choose Derek? Derek who thinks Caesar refers to a pizza chain and that the Sistine Chapel is pronounce ‘Sixteen’? What in the actual fuck?”
Derek taunted, “Isn’t fuck too gosh a word for you, Reina?”
“It’s ‘gauche,’ and, in this case, no.”
This time, her father, Jake, was the one to attempt a conciliatory explanation by insisting, “It’s a graduation present for Derek. He’s going off to college and we won’t be seeing as much of him pretty soon.”
Reina practically spat, “Community college. He’ll still be living here. You’ll probably see even more of him now that class is ‘an option.'”
Derek grinned at her rage over the slight she had been dealt. For he knew she thought they were unworthy to travel to “the source” of art and culture that she had been champing at the bit her entire life to see. For her, Italy was second only to France, specifically Le Louvre. Reina, the “a cut above” little twat rendered inferior by his not so lacking cleverness in cozying up to the parental units all these years. Biding his time so that when the right moment arose, he could milk something truly envy-inducing. Knowing exactly what would put Reina in her place. For there was no other person on the Earth so convinced that to travel–particularly ticking off “the right boxes” of certain locations and landmarks–automatically entailed cultural awareness and superiority.
As Derek packed his bags the following week to the tune of Lady Gaga (it was his attempt at getting into the spirit of “Italianness”), he proceeded, once more to lord over Reina that they would be starting in Rome before heading down to Pompeii and then the Amalfi. “I think we’re like going to that Pahsitahno place.”
“You mean Poh-see-tahn-o?”
His aloofness over the privilege of this trip was making her want to tear her hair out. Was causing her to lose all concentration on the things that once mattered to her so dearly. She was forgetting the French subjunctive, what countries were warring at the model UN and what she was supposed to be focusing on with regard to the subject matters her tutees were struggling in. It was as though all the walls of culture and intelligence she had built up for so many years were crashing down around her. Crumbled into hundreds of thousands of pieces that buried her in her own shame over the thought of Derek being permitted to even set foot in a place as hallowed as Italy. But then, she didn’t seem to understand, like so many others, that, by and large, only the most unmannered and uneducated seemed to relish taking tours of Capri and the ruins of Pompeii in their Bermuda shorts and visors or “fishing caps” with flaps at the sides to protect their delicate purebred skin from burning.
Because touring these places–these once beautiful places rendered eyesores by only the most uncultured of swine–wasn’t about actually seeing them for these people. It was about being able to say to others, “Oh yeah, I’ve been there and you haven’t–ergo I must naturally be better than you.” What’s more, it made them genuinely feel as though they were becoming smarter. As though, by osmosis, these places were imbuing them with a level of culture that no generic setting in their Anywhere, USA town ever could.
Reina herself was too much of a dilettante to fathom this. And, in the end, it drove her in a somewhat ironic and opposite direction: embracing the “low-classness” she had once so despised, tried so vehemently to avoid at all costs. In this way, she vacillated between stripping and performance art upon moving to the bastion of all low culture: New York City. Tapping into the anger and resentment she felt at the thought of her brother and parents stepping into the Hard Rock Cafe in Rome as just one of infinite examples of a journey they squandered, her latest exhibition was entitled, “If I Only Had A Cultural Upgrade,” a spinoff, of course, of the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz wishing, “If I only had a brain.” Funnily enough, in the present era, this desire is most certainly the last thing that would materialize in any semi-sentient being if they were presented with the seminal “three wishes” scenario.
Standing in the corner of the room using a wine glass as a bleeding cup, Reina would chant over and over to the tune of “If I Only Had A Brain,” “If I only had a cultural upgrade.” One of her visitors finally asked, “Then what? What would you do?”
She squeezed the glass between her legs until it shattered, declaring, “Well then, I guess I’d be much smarter, wouldn’t I?”