Like every outing, whether trivial or not, even the “simple” act of throwing oneself into the roulette-like fray of humanity was harrowing without adding some unforeseen chagrin to it. But Stephanie St. Clair was not “allowed” to be affected by such things. Not anymore. There was a time when her blue blood family probably would have told her she wasn’t even “allowed” to go grocery shopping. Alas, the family’s earnings–therefore its name–had lost some prestige over the past half-century, and Stephanie had been all too happy to slip into the inherent non-frippery that comes with being a nobody–just another word for average.
She only wished there weren’t so many others like her now. That was the real cachet of having lived among the opulent: there were fewer of them to deal with. And, to boot, one certainly didn’t have to deal with the confined spaces of a Franprix or Carrefour Express when they were roaming freely in La Grande Épicerie like a grazing cow in the French countryside. She missed La Grande Épicerie now, in fact, as she walked through the aisles of the Carrefour like they were filled with terrifying funhouse mirrors rather than nourishment of any kind.
She had put off the excursion long enough, and she was presently paying the price. Maybe if she performed this type of outing more frequently, she wouldn’t be so scandalized by it. Yet each time, she was. Horrified by doughy babies with their constantly feeding maws wide open to cry over nothing; by kept women whose sole purpose in life was to be stuffed by their husbands after being plucked by their plastic surgeons; and, most of all, by the realization that she was no longer rich enough to avoid the quotidian. Money can’t buy “happiness,” but by God, it can buy a fundamental barrier between you and disgusting people. Not to say the rich aren’t disgusting in their own unique way, drenched in the moral reprehensibility of excess. And, in her fashion, Stephanie couldn’t help but retain some semblance of the decadence of her own kind. She supposed that’s why she found herself eyeballing the more “gourmet” pasta items in a recessed aisle on the bottom floor of the store (the one up top housed the plebeian brands–Barilla, Panzani, etc.).
And as she reached for a package filled with medium-sized shell-shaped pasta, the loosely applied tape intended to fasten the top of the bag tore open, letting a flood of yellowness pour forth, cascading to the floor with a conspicuous whirr not unlike a rainstick. She was mortified, hot as a boiling pot of shells with the embarrassment of her clumsiness. What was worse, it was not even her clumsiness, but that of the sadistic prankster who had surely been deliberate in his lack of care with applying the tape. As though he was purposefully targeting the rich bitch ilk that would even bother to spend six euros on a box of pasta that could be purchased for under one. Yes, whoever this factory worker was had played her for a fool, rigged the system as mercilessly as the wealthy did for the poor.
As the shame continued to spread with as much vengeance as the shells currently scattered on the linoleum, she vowed she would find the man who did this to her. In the meantime, however, she had to exit the store without her (no, his) faux pas being noticed. She simply couldn’t bear some irritated yet smug employee glaring at her as they approached the scene with a broom. As though she was the problem in this scenario, not the vendetta-pocked working class seeking to take their rage and resentment out on women like her whenever even the smallest opportunity presented itself.
Gathering what was left of her wherewithal after this harrowing event, she proceeded to nonchalantly tiptoe away from the scene of something that wasn’t really her crime. And, just when she thought she had exited the aisle safely undetected, an Indian man clearly trying to flirt with her felt the need to call out regarding the basket she was still dragging–spewing out shells that had splashed into it during the fall as she moved–“You dropped something!” No shit, you uncouth asshole, she wanted to snap back, but decorum prevented her. Instead, she ominously returned, “I know,” and kept walking with the dead giveaway basket in tow.
She ditched it at the escalator, swapping out the items she still planned to purchase into a “clean” one. As if anything touched by hundreds of plebes a day could ever be clean. Ascending to the top floor, she touched the empty pasta bag she had pocketed inside of her coat. Had chosen to obtain evidence of her humiliation because on the package was the address of the company, as well as a number indicating the custom, individual nature of the now missing content. She would find out the identity of the worker who did this–it was only a matter of some investigative grunt work. That is to say, infiltrating the factory as one of its employees, learning the process behind packaging and, by deductive reasoning mixed with direct questioning, unearth the culprit who had done her so wrong. Who had made the ordeal of entering a normal person’s grocery store even more of an ordeal.
His name was François and he looked every bit the huckster she expected. However, he was much more dashing than she had anticipated. Weren’t all members of the proletariat supposed to be hideous? It seemed not, Stephanie had to admit when she glanced up from behind the perch of the conveyor belt she was working to take in his lustrous, curly brown hair, chiseled jawline and abs that rippled through his uniform. He was the fantasy of bodice ripping paperbacks. Especially if those narratives were targeted at rich women who had never been sexually satisfied by anyone of their own class. Yes, she was starting to forget all about how François had publicly humiliated her in the grocery store with his careless yet deliberate fingers. Fingers she was watching this very instant indelicately place tape on certain pasta packages.
She had to wonder at his strategy. Was genuinely curious about which pasta packs spoke most to him as those that would likely appeal to an unsuspecting shopper of affluence. An unsuspecting shopper like herself. She slowly ingratiated herself into his life without ever actually exchanging any words with him. It was difficult, at first, as it meant smoking Gauloises and reading Zola whenever she was permitted a fifteen-minute break. And that was a challenge for someone as health-conscious and pro-bourgeoisie as Stephanie. But she would have done anything to strike up a conversation with this man so that he might, in turn, strike a fire in her loins. Oh how she would love to make enough pasta for him to fuck her on a bed of tagliatelle strands, she found herself daydreaming.
Yes, whether he knew it or not, destiny had intervened to bring her here. For while he might have thought he was sticking it to The Man with his shyster actions, he would soon be sticking it in her. They would be lovers, friends and maybe, one day, she could even groom him to be presentable enough to showcase to what was left of her family.
In the midst of her reverie, she was interrupted by the sound of the conveyor belt groaning as it became jammed with tresses of spaghetti that had fallen out of their packages in the absence of Stephanie fastening them with the company’s signature sticker featuring a wheel logo. Aghast at the severed flecks that were flying in all directions as the conveyor belt ground to a halt, her shame was only mitigated by the twinkle in François’ eyes from across the room. As though he was telepathically informing her, “I know just what you’re going through.”
The foreman approached her with an incensed aura, tersely asking her to come to his office immediately. It was there that he presented her with a “first strike” warning after questioning her as to whether she had ever had any factory experience at all as she claimed to on her application. She assured him she did, and that it was a one-off lapse in focus.
Later, outside on her faux smoke break, it finally happened. François initiated communication with her, lighting his own cigarette as he consoled, “It’s okay, you know. We all space out at this job from time to time. Honestly, I’ve lost count of how many packages I’ve probably improperly taped… As long as the tape is on there though. Doesn’t matter how tight,” he concluded musingly.
That’s when it hit Stephanie. There had been no intent behind his actions, she wasn’t being targeted as a rich bitch and nothing meant anything. She had been so affected by something he hadn’t even put a modicum of thought into. Her abashment was only a byproduct of someone dazed, bored by the menial nature of such a “profession.” Perhaps feeling things so deeply as Stephanie did (and having the time to stew in them so completely) was yet another luxury intrinsic to those born into money.