the american dream

“Do you have those tall lockers in the high schools in the states?” says Emily.

Julie knows exactly what she is talking about.  It was the junior high school student’s fantasy to inhabit one of the floor-length lockers of the older kids.  Occupying one of these lockers signaled that you were almost “over” the whole high school experience.  The fact that the locker wasn’t divided into a top section and a bottom section to be shared between two students also seemed to imply that you were too cool to have books dropped on your head or to have to lean over the person beneath you to get your paper-bagged lunch.  It was one of the last privileges of seniority you got to enjoy before you really were too cool for the whole thing.

“What other stereotypes of the U.S. do you have?” says Julie, trying to keep them speaking in English.

“Those blonde pom-pom girls who make fun of the nerdy kids,” says one boy, Antoine.

“Cheerleaders, not pom-pom girls,” the girl sitting next to him corrects him.

“Do they really have those?” he asks, looking skeptical as if he cannot fathom such a notion as girls running around in short cheerleading skirts, snickering insults behind their peers’ backs, “Like how it is in the movies?”

“Like on Glee?” Julie says, “Well that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but there are real girls like that.”  His mouth is agape and the students exchange fascinated glances.  It was hard to think back to the girls like that and picture how dramatic and cartoonish their whole persona was.  It was always weird running into one alone without the rest of her posse, as she would seem a little out of place when she wasn’t surrounded by ten of her clones.  They had seemed like such a normal part of a high school, an essential aspect upon which the social hierarchy was structured, but seeing it through these kids’ eyes and by Hollywood’s portrayal, it was bizarre how much attention they received.

 

“Anything else?” says Julie.

“In the suburbs, we think that everyone lives on a street where the houses look exactly the same.  And they go outside in their bathrobes to get the paper in the morning and everyone waves and smiles at each other,” says another girl, Myriam.

“And they all have big dogs in their yards too,” adds Antoine,

“It’s the American Dream, right?” Myriam asks.

“That’s actually true,” Julie laughs.  Maybe not all suburbia’s owned a golden retriever, but they were popular and most suburban residents seemed a eager to be friendly with their next-door neighbors.  Julie wondered how they had gotten to be so obsessed with this version of the “American Dream,” as it had never been something she held much of an interest in.  Maybe this so-called dream, didn’t just apply to Americans, she thought, as she remembered a similar version of settling into the American Dream in her conversation with Owen, from the the hostel in Paris.

 

“Where do you want to end up?” he had asked her, as if this were a perfectly normal comment one might make to a near-stranger.

“End up?” Julie echoed.  Even how he had phrased the question implied that there was some arbitrary end when settling was inevitable.

“I want to be a famous novelist, or a screen-writer.  But I want to be critically-acclaimed, rather than just a commercial success,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone, as if this were a simple formula to achieve.

He looked like he was thrown off-balance by this answer and then Julie had asked him the same thing.

“Me? I’d be happy if I could sustain a life working in the creative fields.  I think I would be content to settle down in some little village in Europe,” he had said.

Julie remembered being distinctly unimpressed by this answer, as “settling down,” was a phrase she had long despised.  It conjured up images of sitting at home watching sitcoms night after night and it somehow implied that one was finished trying to be anything and was content to just stay put in a figurative sense as well as stay in the same place geographically.  She had tried to think of something nice to say about how cute, little towns are so quaint and charming, but in reality these settings bored her and the conversation had soon petered out.

When Julie’s old school friends had fantasized about this life, which included being a wife and mother, as well as big dogs, grassy fenced-in yards and friendly neighbors, Julie would discreetly remove herself from the conversation, as she would not want to appear cynical.  She thought this was a silly dream though, and that by viewing this comfortable way of contentment as the ultimate goal, her friends were cheating themselves out of all that life could offer.

 

That night Julie had a dream (or a nightmare) that she was back in the states and got a job working at a law office.  People kept telling her congratulations and using words like “lucky,” and “great opportunity,” but she didn’t really feel like she was lucky or that she was learning anything from this supposed opportunity.  In the dream she worked in a tiny cubicle, but there was a window by the water cooler that she would sometimes look out of and she could see a patch of green grass next to the sidewalk if she craned her neck at just the right angle.  

The people at her office were hopelessly dull, as their favorite topics of small talk were home improvement and their children’s extracurricular activities.  She would smile and nod in an effort to feign interest so her eyes wouldn’t glaze over when they spoke of little league baseball games or the new guest rooms they were adding on to their houses.  In the dream, she would walk outside during her lunch break and purchase a coffee and wonder if anyone would notice if she didn’t come back.  She knew she could be easily replaced in her job, but she always did come back and she would spend her afternoons reading more legal documents and drinking instant coffee which barely kept her awake.

 

But this hadn’t happened yet, and maybe it never would.  The next day, on Saturday, she went shoe shopping in Paris with Catherine, whose major hobby was staying up to date with the latest fashions, especially the European fashions which were always more glamorous than the U.S. versions.  Catherine had bought three paris of shoes; one tall pair of chocolate brown leather boots, black studded booties and a pair of nude heels, but Julie couldn’t make any decisions.  Every pair of shoes she saw she could either talk herself into wanting, but at the same time she found some kind flaw or imperfection that convinced her they weren’t worth the money, so she ended the morning empty-handed.  Sitting a café with her friend where they ordered croque-monsieurs, Catherine posed the typical question that made Julie uncomfortable and feel like her answer was never quite good enough.

“So what are you going to do when your internship is over?” said Catherine casually, “Go back to school? Work?”  She couldn’t give Catherine some vague notion about being an author.  Catherine would think it was silly, and she wanted a more concrete answer than that; she was asking for a tangible step that would either involve earning money or becoming qualified to do something which earns one money.

“I might work in a department store. Or a boutique, if my writing doesn’t work out right away” Julie said, only basing her answer off of the summer retail jobs she had worked, “Yes, I really love fashion.  Maybe I’ll just do that until I find someone to marry.”  This line was a complete joke but she knew that Catherine would take it seriously and would probably think it was a good idea.  She was asking for a feasible plan, so here one was.

“Ah, I hear you,” Catherine said, biting into her croque-monsieur, “I’ve always wanted to marry a doctor.  So where should we go next? Galeries Lafeyette?”

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