They seemed to appear out of nowhere, like snails after the rain. You never saw anyone so manicured–so sophisticated–during the summer months, after all. Perhaps none of them could be bothered to care when all of their makeup and clothing was bound to sweat off of them anyway. Why take the time to primp in such conditions? The seconds were already so ephemeral in the summer months to begin with–who should want to while them away on such frivolities as aesthetic? Malena, that’s who.
While others could seem effortlessly to throw on shorts and a tank top and flounce out the door, Malena could not even dare to appear at a beach or public pool without eyeliner and mascara on. She, like Joan Crawford, had a disease when it came to constantly sustaining the illusion of glamor. It was as though her mother’s constant repetition of the phrase, “Beauty is pain,” had seeped permanently into the cracks of her brain and now she was damned to a life of eternal grooming, coordinating and accessorizing. In short, obsessing over the very things that made men not so latently find themselves superior to women. She knew that was how Patrick felt, her erstwhile boyfriend who decided to break up with her in the middle of the summer when she was still relishing the girlfriend perk of a free stay at his parents’ house in Antibes. During the three (well, two and a half) summers they had spent together, she often asked herself if she truly loved him, or rather, the trappings of affluence that came with him.
As someone who grew up in the rusting (read: no frills) setting of Occitanie, she had once thought herself immune to such trivialities as wealth. But moving to Paris helped curate a fixation on it thanks to her class lack. Encountering Patrick one day at a cafe only served to amplify that feeling. For as she watched his then current girlfriend, Celeste, bedecked in the latest fall wear from Maison Margiela, Fendi sunglasses and an oversized hat that made her appear as though she had one foot half in and half out of the Kentucky Derby, Malena realized that these things, “vacuous” as they were, made someone like Celeste stand apart. Whereas Malena could only blend into the background on her budget.
Still, if that were true, why did it look as though Patrick kept staring at her in the absence of his far more fashionable girlfriend? Malena kept turning away whenever their gaze would meet for too long, but whenever she glanced back, he was still staring, smoking his cigarette with the brooding intensity of James Dean. She sipped what was left of her coffee uncomfortably and decided it would be best to leave. Some instinct within telling her to go into flight mode. And, just as she rose from her chair, Celeste returned, seemingly having taken the phrase “to powder one’s nose” a touch too literally as there were overt traces of cocaine around her nostril area. No wonder she was thin enough to wear couture.
Malena ambled toward the crosswalk, striking a match for her cigarette as the light turned red. Just as she took that first serene drag, it was interrupted by a startling grab upon her shoulder. It was Patrick, whipping her around to say, “I think you forgot something.” Malena couldn’t imagine what until he handed her a slip of paper with his name and number on it. “Call me. Or I guess text. That’s what’s done, right? To keep things non-committal. Either way, I’d love to hear from you.” And then he was gone, darting back to the cafe where he was still beholden to Celeste. It was the smoothest yet most weaselly thing she had ever borne witness to. Obviously, she was completely entranced. And yes, she did call.
It was a call that changed her life, for he invited her to accompany him to a Paris Fashion Week show at Grand Palais. One that would be closed to the public–other than select media leeches. Sensing her lack of enthusiasm about the invitation, Patrick asked, “Do you need something to wear?” She hesitated. “I can get the designer to loan me out anything I want. It’s not a big deal.” He was a modern day Edward Lewis. But Malena knew she was not Vivian Ward. Not only because she wasn’t a prostitute, but because she wouldn’t fall for Patrick. This was an experiment, she told herself. One that would prove she was not a whore for the bourgeois. That she could glimpse into their world, shrug and then easily walk away.
But as the flashbulbs and the steady drone of techno music reverberated in her ears at Grand Palais, she knew she was being put under their trance, with Patrick as her dashing hypnotist escort. On the way there in his chauffeured car, she had demanded, “Does your girlfriend know about this?”
He corrected, “Ex-girlfriend. You were the happy spectator to our breakup lunch.”
“Don’t seem so disappointed.”
“Yes, she ended it. But I had despised her for almost a year. Our parents are good friends though, which made me cowardly about being the one to kibosh it. Luckily for me, I guess, women have more balls.” His hand slithered up her thigh as he said this, and she bristled. He removed it. “You’re going to be a difficult nut to crack, aren’t you?”
She made no reply.
“Anyway, you don’t have parents, do you?”
She glared at him. “Is that some dig at my ‘poor orphan’ status?”
“Hardly, it’s just easier not to have them when you’re with me. Then my own parents won’t have to kill them with their judgmental kindness.”
“I’m ‘with you’ tonight, sure. But I’m not with you. Let’s get that straight.”
“I knew you were going to make me sing for my supper, that’s why I chose you.”
He was starting to get on her nerves. Then came the red carpet, her own public rabbit hole into an alternate reality she swore she would never be glamored by. Yet the next day when she saw her expression of joy captured in the images that were appearing online and in gossip rags all over town, she knew that some part of her loved Patrick as much as she hated him. For it was he who gave her this chance to become the person she had long suspected she was. And it gave her all the more license to be meticulous about her self-presentation during the summer, when everyone else was throwing caution and decorum to the wind.
Patrick, after enough seasons spent with her, was no longer beguiled by Malena’s attention to detail for her appearance, so much as completely vexed by it, commenting, “I had no idea when I first found you that I would be making you in Celeste’s image.” Unbeknownst to her, in fact, Patrick and Celeste had been sleeping together since April, and Patrick kept assuring her he would end things with Malena when the summer did. But apparently her aberrant narcissism as showcased by the length of time it took her to get ready pushed him to do it in mid-July, exiling Malena back to Paris during a period when only dowdy American and Asian tourists remained.
She was crestfallen. Forced to return to renting a nine hundred euro a month studio in the fourteenth after hawking a large bulk of the couture she had acquired during her time with Patrick, and the benefits of his father being the CEO of the Lanvin Group. Now she was a peasant again, in the midst of a class-centric schizophrenic episode. For could she rightly sport Bershka and dine at Taillevent? She was confused about her identity now, yet it still led her back to that same cafe on Rue Montorgueil where she had initially been appraised (and subsequently deemed valueless) by Patrick. She sat there every day at the end of that summer, watching the season shift to Fall, and with it, the sudden appearance of all these fashion snails, materializing as though after an expensive fabric rain. She, all the while, seemed to grow frumpier as those around her blossomed into the most stylish seasonal version of themselves.