Ain’t Life Grand When It Doesn’t Cost You Several?

“Ain’t life grand?” Inês asked wistfully. “Are you microdosing again?” I replied. Inês tended to do that, and so many other things that made me wonder how she could be “fully” functioning or hold down a somewhat steady job as an English tutor. Then again, it was Lisbon. The rules were all very loosely applied. I still had yet to get that into my head. I had blown in from Paris where, believe it or not, things were at least slightly more official in terms of how “business” was conducted. I had left because, among other reasons, it was the summer. And it was the type of hot that scorches the earth with what one imagines could only be the fury of God, for Satan is perfectly content in his own private hellfire without reaching to the surface. But no, God always wants to meddle in the lives of men (more to the point, women, by way of possessing men who seem obsessed with legislation about controlling the female body).

Inês, who I had met years ago when she was visiting a mutual friend that had a party at an overcrowded apartment in Montmartre, beckoned me all the more by informing me of a position working for a family all summer. I wouldn’t have to teach, just clean and cook. And it might even carry me all the way through mid-September. It sounded wonderfully non-cerebral and like precisely what I needed to recalibrate from the literal pressure cooker that the City of Harsh Light had turned into. So I left.

She lived in the Moorish Quarter, just walkable enough to the distraction that was the beach. She said I could stay for the interim period of a week before I moved onto Alfama, where the family in question lived. I would be a silent presence, from what I could understand, for there was no expectation that I would need to watch or care for their presumably horrendous children–they had a separate “nanny” (a word I find difficult to use for how Britishly antiquated it sounds) just for that purpose. It truly was exactly the type of silent menial labor I had been dreaming of. The kind that seemed almost totally inaccessible to white girls accused of being either “overqualified” or “taking other people’s jobs” when we tried to pursue “career” paths such as these. But at last, I had triumphed over the odds. No more teaching rich cunts who didn’t care a lick about pronunciation how to speak English.

To celebrate, Inês took me to the nearby Flamingo Bar, all kitsch and cocktails–the amount of which I lost track of somewhere between texting my ex at 1:30 and puking outside at 2. I awoke the next morning on Inês’ couch, to the sight of her smoking what I did not realize was a hashish-packed cigarillo and staring out the window. It was at this moment that she demanded of me, “Ain’t life grand?” I suppose I’ll never forget how assured she was in her delivery of the line. In such a way as to make me realize that, all this time, she must have been hiding the fact that she was secretly rich. You know how some moneyed people like to pretend to blend among the common man by “living like a pauper” (to them, that means “slumming it” in a deliberately unkempt apartment that still somehow looks “wonderfully bohemian” with all of its “tchotchkes,” yet it’s an apartment in an expensive neighborhood they still manage to have all to themselves)?

I didn’t want to press her on the matter of her background despite being all at once certain she must be the heir to some coffee empire. Instead, I gave her my riposte, “Are you microdosing again?”

She smiled. “No, just a bit of hash to start my day. You want?” She handed the cigarillo to me. I declined. Hangovers and hash weren’t my bread and butter. I was starting to miss Paris a bit. At least there was an illusion of time and structure there. In Lisbon, everything felt off-kilter and akimbo. Like I was free-falling down that same rabbit hole as Alice, only everyone was speaking Portuguese and playing fado music along the way. When I finally hit the rock bottom of that hole it was the end of July. Cooking and cleaning for that family turned out to be not what I wanted at all–even if it was what I thought I had needed. Seeing the grotesque way in which they interacted (or rather, didn’t interact) with their help made me feel more like slave labor than hired hand. The wage tended to match that theory when I got my first under the table envelope, filled with two hundred euros for two weeks of service. I suppose a price was never really discussed. Inês had just sort of passed my name along and I was hired after a brief interview that seemed to iterate to them that I was able-bodied even if white.

It was when one of their spawn condescended to me in French one day that I had missed a spot on the floor–like I was goddamned Cinderella or something–that I decided to up and leave. Return to the hot armpit of France where class was out in the open as opposed to “subtly hidden” the way it appeared to be in Portugal.

I told Inês goodbye, of course. She was sorry to see me go, but added, “I probably couldn’t do that job either.” In point of fact, I never once saw her working during the summer. Which made me wonder if the English tutor thing was just a cover for her rich girl’s existence.

Then, as I returned to the sweltering streets of Paris during a record-breaking heatwave, I thought: maybe Inês wasn’t rich. Maybe she had been onto something I could only just now apprehend here in the community (cess)pool in front of the Eiffel Tower. That life is grand when it doesn’t cost you several. When you’re down at heel in the slush with all the rest of the plebes who understand something about life that the rich never will. Maybe if I ever find out what that something is, I’ll let you know.

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