The climb up six flights of narrow stairs to her tiny attic apartment (the agent had called it a chambre de bonne or “maid’s room”) made her legs rubbery, and the two Aperol Spritzes from the café downstairs fizzed behind her eyes.
Guillaume looked at her. “Are you okay?”
She remembered the word he taught her for “drink” in French, so she pointed to her head and said, “Yeah, just… le boisson.”
He smiled and nodded. “La boisson. It’s feminine.”
She let him in and he put the small pastry box on the coffee table.
She pointed at it. “La boîte.”
“Exactly! See? You’re getting it.”
That one was easy to remember because she had a secret mnemonic joke that “box” was feminine because it’s like a womb, or American slang for vagina.
“And this?” He pointed down at the old brass bed.
She scrunched her brow. “Oh… Shoot, I don’t remember. Wait, yes, la lit!”
“Le lit. Bed is masculine.”
She’d met Guillaume when finalizing the paperwork for her upcoming French classes. He asked her out right there at the reception desk, as if it was part of the process. Her friend who studied abroad last year had said, “Watch out, French guys are smooth. And they only like doggy style.”
But Guillaume seemed kind, and she knew no one else.
Now he was in her apartment because, as he pointed out, it was too hot to go to a park. The place still didn’t feel like hers. Photos of home she’d stuck in the molding around the window felt about as ensconced as chalk drawings on a brick wall. Her suitcase lay open at the foot of the bed. Clothes draped on the armchair. She picked these up, tossed them into the suitcase, flapped it shut and kicked it under the bed.
Out the window was a layered view of identical off-white facades, sloped metal roofs, and terracotta chimneys in rows like empty flowerpots. All muted colors, even in bright sunlight. Perched on chimneys, antennae, and window railings were pigeons that matched the buildings’ palette so closely that one could have been modeled after the other. She opened the window, and the stale air in the room shifted. “Please, take the chair. It’s more comfortable.” She lit the candle on the coffee table to clear the smell of old wallpaper. The candle was lavender like her mother’s perfume.
“Oh, merci.” Guillaume stepped around the coffee table and stopped to point at the armchair, its red upholstery worn pink in places. “And this?”
“La chaise,” she said proudly, filling two glasses of water at the tiny sink by the foot of the bed. The water tasted like pennies.
“Correct! But this is technically a fauteuil, so it’s masculine.”
“So drink and box are feminine,” she raised an eyebrow, “and everything else is masculine?”
He laughed, following her lead and removing his own shoes—scuffed leather shells like hipsters wore back home. A lot of French guys looked like accidental hipsters. “Many things are feminine.” He pointed at the candle. “Une bougie.”
She feigned offense. “Hey, who you callin’ bougie?”
He paused and leaned forward, “Sorry?” When she didn’t explain, he said, “The candle is la bougie.”
A candle is phallic, she thought, but because it melts away it is feminine. The flame trembled and drank up the liquid wax, her vaporous mother scented the air, and she regretted having lit it.
Guillaume sat back, crossed his heels on a corner of the coffee table and then pointed at it. “You know this one.”
“La table? That’s easy.”
“This one is a… you say ‘coffee table,’ right? In French it’s table basse. Like ‘low table,’ I guess.” He rested his arms on the chair’s arms of carved wood, like a commander after a victory. The masculine Guillaume supported by the masculine armchair. She crossed her legs, and the masculine bed creaked beneath her in protest.
She imagined herself naked on all fours in place of the feminine “low table,” serving as an altar for the vanishing candle and pastry box womb, as well as a footrest for Guillaume.
Her hands went up. “So, is French just totally sexist?”
“What? Why?” He took his feet off the table and leaned forward.
“Seems like everything that’s low or weak or could disappear is feminine.”
He paused. “Well, there are rules about it, yes, but they’re more about how a word is spelled. The thing itself being masculine or feminine—we don’t think of it like that.”
“I see.” Now she hoped he saw her question as just an ignorant joke. “What else in here is feminine?”
He pointed. “Those photos: la photo.”
But that didn’t help. The photos were only stand-ins for the familiar and far away, as ethereal as the scented candle. Her frustration jammed more questions on her tongue like bicycles and modestly-sized cars at a Parisian crosswalk. She resented the traitorous “feminine” boissons buzzing in her warm head. Another sip of penny water.
“And…” Guillaume continued. “Well, this room is feminine. La chambre, the bedroom.”
She scowled at the room. “Huh. Chamber. Like in a medieval castle. What other rooms are mine?”
“You mean feminine? They’re just words, remember.” His eyes were canny now. “The bathroom is feminine.”
“Oh, yeah? Where the toilet is?”
“No, that’s the WC, which is masculine. They’re different rooms.” Then with a sheepish smile he added, “But toilets are feminine.”
“Ugh! Figures.” She clenched the bedsheet with a fist. “And bathtub probably is, too, huh? Like a big womb where you wash away all your filth?”
“It is, but probably not for that reason… When you take a bath, though, it’s masculine. Prendre un bain.”
“Congratulations. Another point for you.”
“But shower is feminine. La douche.”
“Okay, now you’re just being an asshole.”
He laughed, enjoying the game. “Asshole is masculine.”
“Hm, it kind of is in English, too.”
“Ah, but do you see? You Americans think like that. Not us.” He shrugged with a smirk.
She glowered. “How ’bout the living room?”
“But wait, let me guess—the kitchen is feminine.”
“Yes.” His smile grew. But he saw the growing seriousness in her eyes. “Oh, come on! It isn’t like that! This is very sensitive of you, I think.”
Easy for him to say now, after centuries of that just being how the language worked, seemingly as immutable as earth’s orbit around the sun. She imagined an old white Frenchman at the dawn of the language, ordering his wife to go to the feminine kitchen and make him a (probably masculine) sandwich. Then, struck by the concept, he hunches to scribble the idea of gendered language onto his (most likely masculine) paper with his flamboyant (and therefore undoubtedly feminine) quill pen. Under all the layers of unquestioned tradition, she thought, it always boils down to the whim of some white man.
“You know,” Guillaume said, “now I realize technically all the rooms are yours. La pièce—’the room’—feminine.”
She folded her arms and considered counting that as a half-point, if only to make this first interaction more pleasant. Here she was in her new apartment in a new country, arguing with someone she’d have to see five days a week for the next three months while she learned a language that she was, perhaps wrongly, already starting to hate. Who knew what other mines lay in her path, linguistic or otherwise? This is what they call culture shock, she thought. Keep an open mind.
(She would recall and resent this moment of calming reason in class the very next week, when the teacher would confirm that, indeed, the nonspecific “room” was feminine, but that the ceiling, floor, and walls containing that room were all masculine.)
Guillaume looked out the window. “You will learn in your classes, French is a beautiful language.” He raised a finger at her. “Ah! Language—la langue—is feminine. Or as you say, it is ‘yours.’ But I tell you, we don’t think like that. It’s just… words.”
Communication, she thought. Empathy. Of course language was feminine. But she remembered that language was also a cultural touchstone. It conveyed knowledge and recorded history. It shouted from mouths and signs in the street against oppression, and tagged antiestablishment messages on phallic buildings and monuments. Yes, language had been a colonial tool and weapon of the patriarchy, but it had also united people to fight back. Now her toes touched a possible step up in awareness. A deep lavender inhale soothed her.
Guillaume noticed her reverie, and motioned to the box. “Would you like some pastry?”
“Which is it?”
A confused look. “Which?” Then, “Oh, feminine. La patisserie.”
“Well, then of course.” She smiled, and he smiled back, looking relieved. “Is it because pastry is sweet?”
He shrugged, “I don’t think so. Sugar is masculine.”
She took the two plates, forks, and knives from the dish rack at the sink.
“La fourchette,” he said, pointing at the fork. “Feminine.”
“Ah.” Some small satisfaction. “And this?” She held up the knife.
“Le couteau, masculine.”
“Of course. Stabby, stabby.”
He smiled and shook his head, “Of course,” and opened the box.
Inside were two smooth chocolate domes sprinkled with coconut shavings.
“Ooh, what are these?”
“Tête de nègre,” he said.
She stared at him, able for the first time to parse a French phrase herself. “You have a dessert called… ‘n-word head’?”
“It is a very old traditional dessert.” He pushed a knife down through one.
Inside it was white.