Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Importance of Cell Phones

Without a cell phone, you can’t play the game. Its mobility gives people the illusion of privacy, discretion and a certain anonymity, hence its indispensability in the rituals of mating. “What’s your cell phone number?” is the all-important first line. Would you like to pursue this, whatever this may be, or not?

It took me years to identify this discussional turning point and recognize its true significance. The first time it happened, I already had a few decades and relationships behind me. It occurred on New Year’s Eve of 2000 in Paris. It was three o’clock in the morning and my friend Christina and I had just eaten a six-course dinner and quaffed two bottles of cheap champagne at La Fermette Marbeuf, a restaurant just off the Champs-Elysées. The Art Nouveau décor, candlelight and waiters in 19th century costume who tended to our every need—and perhaps the champagne—had transported us to a place and time outside our usual good girl, Southern reality. We had just taught the entire wait staff the proper way to dance to the Village People’s song YMCA, showing them how to form each letter correctly with their arms. Now, we were dancing in couples to a series of 1970’s and early 80’s disco songs and hoping that nobody we knew was there watching.

I kept glancing over my spinning shoulders at Christina, my big-sister radar detector for conduct not besuiting a proper lady at full alert. Her dance partner had propositioned me during the previous dance, using direct language that even I could understand, and I was concerned. I feared that the French language factor might lead to confusion and Christina would find herself in a predicament. Head tossed back as she laughed, she didn’t appear in any danger—at least not yet. Her innocence and inability to speak French would protect her I supposed.

I turned my attention back to my partner, a slight man with a fine nose, doe eyes set in a face that saw little sunshine. He seemed kind and very French. I liked his smile and quiet manner. The song ended and we returned to my table. He refilled my glass with champagne and served himself one.

“So, you were telling me about a place that has really good, traditional bistro food,” I said, taking a sip of champagne.

“Yes, it’s in the 10th arrondisement. I often go there with friends. I could show you where it is. What’s your cell phone number?”

“I don’t have a cell phone,” I said, the words traveling out of my mouth before I realized what I’d done. I’d told the truth, but I had also said “No. I’m not interested” in the unofficial language of mating.

“Ah, bon,” he said, sitting back.

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t take the words back. A part of me knew that it was just as well. I took another sip of champagne and looked for Christina. She and Monsieur Lecherous still danced among the tables.

“Excuse me,” I said getting up from the table. “I need to speak to my friend.”

My would-be suitor pushed back his chair and stood up to make room for me to pass.

Eight years later, I find myself in Paris once again. I’ve been here for a month and still haven’t bought a SIM card and units for my cell phone. I tell myself that I don’t need one despite the fact there are few pay phones, and those that exist require phone cards. Every day I vow to go to the phone store. Every day something else comes up.

Today I receive an e-mail from a man who took me out dancing some 20 years ago. He wants to meet me around seven tonight. I’m supposed to call him on his cell phone to confirm, using my cell phone so he has my number in case he’s running late. It’s nearly noon, the deadline to make the call. I stare at the clock on my laptop and grumble “why can’t I just send an e-mail?” Then, I remember how we danced until dawn, ate croissants out of a country baker’s oven, laughed over how I had an hour to finish packing before heading back to the States. I close my laptop and pick up my bag. I run down the stairs, out the door and across the street to the nearest cell phone store.

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