Pretty Things

Virginie Despentes
Emma Ramadan
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

Pauline is sitting at the kitchen table.

She’d opened the shoe closet, nothing flat.

At twenty-five years old, she has never thought to put on high heels, and she finds herself grotesque in a red dress, like she’s in drag, trying to walk in the living room with the lowest heels in the entire collection. Absurd attempt at a dignified walk that’s even remotely passable. Ankle, in jeopardy, jerks to the side, knee knocks against the other knee. So she has to walk carefully, think: Which do I put down first, the sole or the heel? Think: Where do I put the weight of my body so that I don’t slouch? Hold myself upright, move the leg. But it doesn’t work; she looks like a drunk crab, nothing like a woman.

She looks at her feet, destroyed. Her heel is red from the abuse. Her toes are stunted, sensation of ground-up bones, because the toe of the shoe contracts and compresses with no regard to the form of a foot.

It will never work.

Her rage turns black. Claudine, poor idiot, where did you get the idea of wearing such things, who were you trying to make happy, to look like what, stupid pathetic slut?

The telephone is ringing off the hook, ten times worse than yesterday.

“Claudie? Claudie pick up I know you’re there, I called five minutes ago and the line was busy. Come on, my dear, scamper over and pick up. Claudie, I have good news for you, come pick up … You’re not there? Listen, I don’t get it, call me back, it’s Pierre.”

She takes off the impossible shoes, immediate relief. In less than an hour she’s gotten herself some magnificent blisters, transparent skin bubbling up from the rest.

Takes a bath, a little later. The vials, the bottles, the tubes, she puts everything in the bathwater, childhood memory of playing games with the toys floating around.

Eye pads, lotion, soft foaming cleanser, pulverizing exfoliator, mask of fruit acids and vitamin C or ceramide, things of every color, creams for nourishing this or that, silky skin, shiny hair, radiant complexion–relentless battle against yourself; whatever you do, don’t be what you are.

Getting out of the water, she sniffs her arms, a mess of scents, all the things she had tried, an irritating odor, annoying because it’s meant to be calming. Like how when we really badly want to fall asleep, fearing insomnia, we end up tossing and turning in the sheets fifty times, in a rage. A frenzy of serenity.

Red dress, her whole chest exposed, like a cow showing off her udders; the top of her ass, which no one should see, is visible. She spins around suspiciously in front of the mirror. A pang in her heart–she already doesn’t look like herself.

Leafed through the pile of magazines that Claudine had been reading. Sheer panic. In a tone of amused complicity, a cornucopia of little tips for being a trendy slut. And getting into every single detail, making sure everything is in its right place: how you should orgasm and how you should break up and how you should shave and how you should dye your hair down to your pussy and how you should be, inside and out. A deceptively charming tone, idiotic propaganda dictating what we should be.

After centuries of having to completely cover themselves, women are now commanded to bare everything, to prove that everything about them conforms to society’s expectations, to show they have recalibrated themselves: look at my endless legs, clean-shaven and tanned; my ass with just the right amount of muscle; my flat stomach and pierced belly button; my enormous, firm, and shapely breasts; my beautiful, healthy, ageless skin; my long eyelashes, my shiny hair.

Contrary to what she had believed, it isn’t about submission to men’s desires. It’s an obedience to the advertisers, required of everyone. They determine the fad, page after page: here’s what we’re selling, so here’s what you have to be.

“You see how well I’m managing?”

He agrees. “I do, and it must not be easy.”

He watches her thrash about. She spins around, hops a bit, walks back and forth with some skidding, she can do a half-turn without her ankle buckling. She gets up on a chair, hands on her hips. She adds, “It’s not perfect yet. There are some things I won’t be able to do.”

“Those aren’t the right shoes for it.”

Good progress; she was comical to watch at the beginning.

But she’s been at it for a week, and now Pauline can manage in heels. Even though she has the same legs as Claudine and a similar walk, one thing clearly distinguishes them: how they present themselves.

Pauline gloats, “I’ll be able to go outside soon!”

She hasn’t gone out even once in the two weeks since she switched over. She says that it wouldn’t be very smart, that you never know.

She’s not exactly overflowing with common sense, another commonality between them. She has her little methods, extremely personal rituals that she has to follow to the letter “for it to work.”

Nicolas remarks, “No denying it, they make your legs look great … but maybe you should shave them. Or else get waxed.”

“Are you crazy?”

He scratches his head, not convinced he’ll be able to get his point across.

“You’re really thinking of going out like that? In a dress, in heels, and your legs not done?”

“My legs are done, my mother put me in the world with them. It’s barbaric, shaving, completely barbaric.”

As if he had just proposed that she shave her pussy and show it to the whole world. A blatantly indecent proposition. In the past two weeks he’s grown used to her bizarre reactions.

She strikes him as a babe in the woods. For years she’s lived behind closed doors with nobody but her boyfriend, who seems to be extremely weird. She has never cheated on him, she has never thought about it, she doesn’t have close friends, no one to miss, she doesn’t have TV because it propagates too much bullshit, doesn’t read magazines for the same good reason. Being that sheltered, she has her odd reactions.

He thinks it over; she certainly won’t learn from the books she reads that women never show their body hair. Nevertheless, he attempts a demonstration.

“Still, you’ve gone into town in the summer, right? At Bar-le-Duc, there are people outside?”

She acquiesces. Fairly stubborn, for her the issue is resolved: she’s already done enough of this, she doesn’t want to hear talk of painful finishing touches. Nicolas continues, “Have you ever seen a single girl with hairy legs in a dress?”

“I don’t look at girls’ legs.”

“That thug you’re dating never asked you to wax?”

“No. He’s not a thug, maybe that’s why.”

Why does he fundamentally believe that just because she’s a girl she has to rely on artifice or else no one will want her? With all her heart, she wishes Sébastien were there so he could see what it’s like when you’re different.

Nicolas goes rifling through the cabinets, takes out sugar and water. He’s in a good mood; her reluctance really seems to amuse him. He proposes, cheerfully, as if they were about to play a game, “Come here, I can do it with sugar. I did it to my sisters when I was a kid.”

“I said no.”

“Listen, I, personally, don’t give a shit. But since you really seem to want to make people believe you’re her, I’m here to help, that’s all. Otherwise, you can’t wear a dress.”

“No, I want to wear a dress.”

She never wore dresses. Except at home, her big T-shirts. Otherwise, she never went out with bare legs. The usual drill: be as far as possible from Claudine, opposite, different.

And when she went out with Sébastien and they passed a girl showing off her legs, he always found it shameful that women always feel obligated to parade themselves about, exhibit themselves in order to please. He’d say, “Your purpose isn’t solely to conform. It’s like they’re complicit. I don’t understand them.”

Now she’s doing exactly what she shouldn’t do, just to see, that’s all. She absolutely wants to go out in a dress.

And again: her legs, in front of the mirror, ankles strained by the heels, calves, straight up to the top of her thighs … she has the same legs as her sister. Which are the same as those of women in the fashionable films they saw when they were kids.

She absolutely wants to go out in a dress. And since Nicolas insists, she lets him prepare his odd mixture.

It’s the first time he’s contributed to the plan without her having to push him. He’s loosening up, slowly. Becoming more agreeable.

Her heels clack against the parquet, making little nicks in the wood. She starts to get used to it, she’s ready to go out, just has to find the keys. Pauline goes from one room to another, not bothered at first but getting annoyed now, looking in corners, lifting up magazines, moving the clothes she had piled up after trying them on, throwing them in a ball, searching them again–she can’t find the keys. It’s almost absurd; she turns around in circles in the dump and then starts to overheat.

She is dressed completely in pink, a skirt that goes down to her knees, a rarity in Claudine’s wardrobe. Her hair pulled back, hours in front of the mirror trying to keep it from frizzing out in every direction. Stubbornly, she doesn’t adapt, she doesn’t look like she’s supposed to. Even when everything is done well, something about her acts up. In the bedroom there were small boxes, red stones, blue, amber like water, or a funny mauve, gold or silver metal to wear around your neck, fingers, wrists, ears, and even fake things to wear in your nose. In a drawer, elsewhere, neatly arranged in little boxes, other spoils: makeup, colors for lips, eyelashes, eyelids, or cheeks, different textures, a painter’s palette, all impossible to apply herself. Nicolas, leaning over her for several days, turning her head, absorbed in what he was doing, manipulated her face, looking for the light, explaining that she couldn’t put too much on because she doesn’t know that about herself yet, which colors do what to her, and goes flipping through magazines, confident gestures, to teach himself how it’s done. Manipulation as an art form. And then her own face, vaguely changed, distancing itself from her. She quickly understood that he wanted, more religiously than he realized, more actively than passively, for her to slide more toward Claudine. She was surprised to see him searching for her with so much care, trying to break down her methods, what she did to make her eyes look so much bigger, to make her skin seem as soft as the skin of a fruit. He had very gently shown her. Pauline frowned. “How do you know how to use a makeup brush?” He responded, “My entire childhood, I watched my sisters do it,” and fussed around her.

Today she is finally ready to go out.

She is supposed to meet Nico somewhere other than Claudine’s. She even has to take the Metro, cross a large part of the city. As it turns out, the keys are hanging from a nail. Nicolas probably hung them there without thinking about it, having always seen Claudine do it.

On the staircase, it’s not as easy to wear heels as it was in the apartment. The floor’s not the same; this one seems more slippery, and it’s not the same ankle exercise, going down the stairs. Clinging to the rail, Pauline, cautiously, step by step, arrives at the bottom. Kitchen smells mixed with odors of wax, noises behind certain doors. On the ground floor, the super pulls his curtain aside an inch, Pauline nods at him.

She presses the wrong button on her way out; intending to open the door she turns on the light. Then finds herself outside. She imagined that after days shut inside it would take a few minutes to get used to it, but it wasn’t a big deal.

Except that the street she had been watching for a while from the window is different now that she’s on it. Opposite her, on the sidewalk, two very tall and excessively large women; the orange one pushes her as she walks by, deliberately, shoves her with a powerful jab of the elbow. Then goes on her way. Pauline takes a few steps to the side, slips off the sidewalk and leans on a car. Nicolas had advised her once, all charm, “You just have to think of it like skating–there are a few tricks to learn and then it’ll be fine.”

Difficult to move forward on the sidewalk. Too many people, some block the front of the grocery stores, their baskets full of improbable things, others talk right in the middle of everyone, others seem sapped of all energy.

She walks with her eyes fixed on the ground. She passes a guy, and her eyes look up at him instantly, identify him. He’s the first white guy she’s seen since turning down this street. Strange reflection to make. She is so not used to these shoes that for the first time she notices the difference in consistency between one place in the sidewalk and another. She also realizes that no one on the street is looking at her, as if she were transparent. The woman from earlier who’d jostled her, as if resolved to pass right through her, had signaled, You aren’t even here.

Glance in a shop, beauty products, wigs. She passes in front of a hairdresser, then a butcher’s shop, then arrives at the Metro.

The boulevard she has to take is on a slant. In normal shoes she wouldn’t have noticed, it only slopes downhill a tiny bit. In high heels, the difference in level is insane, a truly perilous exercise. She sets her feet down one after the other, concentrating as though she were on a balance beam, trying not to fall flat on her face in front of everybody.

People watch her. Some even turn around. And others permit themselves close-ups with impunity, her legs, her ass, her tits, her mouth, some smile at her, or make little noises and whistles to entice her. She wishes she could pluck them all away; she can only move forward in small measured steps and act as if she hasn’t noticed anything.

A man on the sidewalk is selling corn from a cart, the smell of grilled food, he calls to her, a sort of kind enthusiasm, as if wanting to play with a dog. A woman veiled from top to bottom is waiting for her ear of corn; she scrutinizes her, only her eyes visible, inspecting her, scorn tinged with anger. The seller keeps at it–even when Pauline is several yards past him, he continues making a big racket. She is entirely public, approachable, entirely made so that everyone pays attention to her. She’s dressed for that.

Glance in the window of a jeweler’s, full of gold and clocks. Her own appearance. Between fright and amusement. She looks like other girls, not herself. She never thought it was possible to go out like that without someone shouting, “Where’s the costume party?” Her appearance, legs on display, silhouette transformed. And no one realizes that she’s not at all like that. For the first time she understands: in fact, no girl is like that.

Virginie Despentes is a French writer, novelist, and filmmaker. In 2000 she directed her first film, Baise-moi, an adaptation of her 1993 novel. An English translation of Les jolies choses (Pretty Things) by Emma Ramadan will be published this season.
Emma Ramadan is a translator.
Originally published:
July 1, 2018


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre

You Might Also Like

Plant of Contradictions

Puerto Rico
Tiphanie Yanique

Four Japanese Stories

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
translated by Ryan C. K. Choi

Eternal Return

Sergio Troncoso


New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.