When JOHN VON SOTHEN is invited to join a Parisian think tank, he can’t help but be flattered. However, the enthusiasm of joining Paris’s world of letters and science quickly wears off when he realizes he may just have joined a sex club instead.
Recently I was approached to join what I guess you could call a “salon.” Some might call it a reflection group, others a lodge, and if you really wanted to sound pretentious, you could probably call it a think tank. Regardless of the name, the idea of joining something like this sounded very intriguing to me. It seemed Parisian and literary and refined, so as an American living here, you can imagine how flattered I was. The past few years in Paris had not been kind. The bon vivant Hemingway lifestyle I’d envisioned for myself: of café hopping and writing in parks had crashed on the rocks of my present reality: pushing a stroller and drawing in a sandbox. Here was a chance to finally fill out the image I’d had of myself before I arrived: me as a sort of Cole Porter type, holding a martini and quipping bon mots over a reading of Derrida. I would treat this not just as an invitation, but recognition, for all the hard work I’d put in to becoming a real expat – and another in a long line of benchmarks I’d meet on the road to becoming fully French. One month in – you visit the Eiffel tower – one year in – you’re smoking – five years in – you join a secret society. It sounded like the logical trajectory.
I’d also recently done the math at home and realized my daughter, who’s six, had more friends than me, which obviously sparked some jealousy, considering we’d both arrived here at the same time, her via birth, me via Air France. If anything, joining this group would help even the score.
But a club? I’d never been part of a club before. Teams, sure. Baseball, football, basketball, but clubs? They were for nerds non? The chess club, the Dungeons and Dragons club, the drama club – those were the guys in high school who I beat up. But the name of this group had flair. Futurbulance; which just by the title you could tell it had its focus on a turbulent future. My kind of group. Much jazzier than its passive American counterparts Aspen or Mensa, which I imagined were peopled with guys wearing oxfords and khakis in a “dress down Friday” way- their blackberries clipped to their belts, their drink of choice, Poland Spring.
First off, you don’t find salons, they find you. They’re not something you come across on Craig’s List or take out a year memberships like Theatre de la Ville, and I have to admit, when strangers ask you to become part of something in Paris, especially a select group, you quickly assume it has something to do with sex. At least, I did, which was secretly probably what interested me in the first place.
Now the way the selection of a Futurbulant works is that they interview you – twice. Why two times, I don’t know. Maybe the first time to see if you have good verbal skills, and, later on, to see if you’re strong in math? At least, that’s the way it felt during the first interview, which was conducted in such machine-gun French by two women over lunch, I wasn’t even sure I’d sat at the right table. Quick talkers and quick thinkers, these two waxed on about sustainable development and micro-loans and the Marshall Fund and we hadn’t even ordered yet. I just smiled and let them burn, following as best I could, with an “ah bon” or a “dis donc”, tempted all the while to stop them mid-stream to tell them I really wasn’t that smart. But it didn’t matter it seemed. I wasn’t being judged on my merits, but on my pedigree – the rationale being if their group was to resemble anything futuristic and turbulent, they’d better have an American and Chinese on board tout de suite. (By the way, the guy interviewed after me was Chinese.) Somewhere over the entrée, the conversation veered towards the mission of Futurbulance and the way in which the salon would run. I perked up and held on as best I could.
“There’ll be long dinners of course,” they explained, “and role-playing.”
“Themes will be chosen. We’ll often break off into groups, and special guests sometimes are invited.”
Long alcohol-fueled dinners, breaking off into groups, playing roles, guests invited on occasion. All they’d left out it seemed were the leather costumes and pig masks, because all of it, all of it I was sure now, was just a pretext for sex. This was a salon no doubt, one for swingers.
Smart swingers mind you. The kind that make simple “intellectuals” look like Honey Boo Boo. These were the types we called in the States “minds.” The kind of people sought out by the RAND Corporation after the war to build the h-bomb. Of course, they’d made a salon. Geniuses can’t socialize amongst normal folk. We’re too slow. Plus the future to them apparently was turbulent, if not apocalyptic, so why waste time talking. Have sex instead, and maybe in the process, procreate a whole future race of “minds.” Heavy stuff, something out of an Aldus Huxley novel, something my mind told me I should probably avoid. But once again my curiosity got the best of me, and as my mom always said, “In the worst case, maybe one of them can get you a real job.”
Also the thought of joining a secret society, sex aside, started having more and more allure to me. Maybe I’d learn a secret handshake, maybe get a symbol branded on my calf. Maybe even later, I’d have the luxury of calling a Futurbulant say, in Singapore, who’d meet me at an airport, hand me a briefcase of cash and passport, no questions asked.
Now all of a sudden I was worried I’d be rejected. Being passed over by a think tank is one thing, dissed by a sex group is another. It’s much more humiliating and sad. And as the days passed, I slipped into a micro-depression, thinking, not that I hadn’t impressed them, but I wasn’t hot enough.
Just then I got a second call, this time from someone named Stanislas. He and another member would meet me for a second interview…this time for drinks. Apparently in Futurbulance, the girls do lunch – guys do drinks. So we drank, and they also spoke fast, but, this time, it wasn’t about role playing or pairing off. This would be about keeping it all a secret. Like as in “Are we safe John?” I let them know by my nods and winks at whatever it was they talked about, that sure, the secret was safe with me. “Good.” I could have sworn them say, “We’d hate for our little secret to get out.” I think I even saw Stan crack his knuckles.
Later that month I received an email telling me I’d been accepted, but the enormous elation quickly dissipated into apprehension. It’s one thing them wanting you to be in their group, another thing actually accepting. I had to consider my family for one. My French wife, our two kids, but these kinds of things happen in France no? At least, that’s what I’d read in the “things you may encounter while living in France” brochure at the US embassy – just after the “Tips on traveling to Pakistan.”
A second email arrived. This one a mass email to all the other futurbulants “re: the welcoming of our new member – John von Sothen, at our usual spot– the Red Throat.”
The Red Throat? I mean really. And where is this located?
“In the Marais of course.” Of course. Where else would it be?
It was like going to the “Man Hole” in Greenwich Village or “the Dungeon” in Chelsea, or “Le trap” in I don’t know where in Paris. Red Throat just sounded so hardcore and tough and so…strep.
I was sick and quickly confided to my wife, my dilemma, and my fear, only for her to laugh in my face and recount it to our friends over dinner the next night. “John thinks he’s been invited to a sex club,” she announced, at which I quickly left the table to get dessert.
“A sex club? But you’re not going to let him go are you?” asked an astonished friend.
“Of course, it’s not a sex club,” I heard her laugh. “But you see, he needs to believe these things. If I say anything to the contrary, it would be like telling him there’s no Santa Clause.”
After our guests left, I told her to stop kidding around, because this time it was serious.“Honey, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’m in over my head.”
I told her about the guy named Stanislas and the Red Throat, and the way I described it, you’d think I’d already been to one of the orgies.
“Well just don’t go.” She countered as she continued to fill the dishwasher. “Email them and tell them thanks, but not thanks and basta. ….Can you fill up the coffee maker for tomorrow?”
“But I can’t just back out you see. This is a SECRET SOCIETY honey. You don’t know how these people operate.” I showed her the way Stan cracked his knuckles. She stopped and gave me a long look. “If they were a real sex club, why would they want you?” I tried to ignore the personal attack.
“I think it’s because I’m American.”
She gave out a bigger laugh, and I ignored that as well and went on to tell her about the international aspect of the group and perhaps how they found me funny. By then she was already on to her second question.
“Then why did Anne (our friend) think of you?”
All of a sudden I saw my wife’s anger grow. It was the same anger a mother shows when her child shoplifts for the first time. At first, its rage directed towards the child. But then the mother realizes the child’s just pathetic, and worse he’s been taken advantage of by others, wherein who lies the real blame.
This Futurbulance thing isn’t the first instance where my wife’s been forced to bail me out. If she’s not having to explain that we DON’T need to buy five calendars from the garbage man each year; (“But what if they stop picking up our garbage?”) she’s on the phone with France Telecom pleading that her husband didn’t quite understand what the soccer subscription he ordered.
“He doesn’t even know what PSG is, how could have he have ordered it!”
Countless times she’s been forced to drag me around the neighborhood scolding the various shopkeepers for ripping me off, all of whom shrug their shoulders as if to say they didn’t know I was retarded.
To the Fish guy:
“Does he look like he could eat two kilos of shrimp?”
To the dry cleaner:
“Does he look like someone who wants his jeans pressed?”
And the door slams, she leading me back down the block, me shyly tagging behind. I’d probably suck my thumb if I wasn’t holding all the bags of returnables.
When we recently renovated our apartment, I’d often drop by to see how the work was progressing. I was efficient with the fly by assessments, (floor was laid, painting’s been done), but as soon as calls were to be made on the ground, the workers turned to me, and invariably something got lost in translation, which my wife would then have to sort out later.
“John, did you talk to the plumber today? Because he said you OK’d the boiler going in the closet?”
Since I felt like a cornered child, I’d immediately responded like one.
Now at the dishwasher, she was asking me, plain and simple, to hand her Futurbulance’s phone number, and she would handle it like she’s done every other time.
“I don’t have their number, you see, they’re secret.” All of sudden, Futurbulance had become the local bullies at school who’d taken my lunch money, and I didn’t want my mom to get involved.
“What’s their name then,” my wife pressed.
“Fa – futurbulance.” I stuttered, scared, my hands in my pockets. “I just thought it was a good way to meet new people, you know, engage in lively discussions…”
I was sent off with strict instructions, so strict it was as if she’d safety pinned a letter to my chest. To make doubly sure, I drilled myself on the subway ride there. “Don’t make eye contact; just pay your respects and acknowledge there’s been a big misunderstanding. Say you’re flattered – start with the… “Oh you didn’t get my email?” thing. Maybe even give them the old break up line. “Stan this is harder for me than it is for you.”
I was so into rehearsing, I hadn’t realized I’d already walked into the Red Throat, and there at the bar stood and older, wiry type, maybe the restaurant owner, maybe the founder, maybe the “guest of honor?”
“I’m here for Futurbulance,” I said meekly, eyeing his knuckles to see if they’d crack.
“Ah Futurbulance,” he smiled. “They’re in the BACK ROOM.” I gulped and shuffled towards a curtain separating Futurblance from the rest of decent society.
And it was there where I faced my moment of truth. The point where there would be no turning back. My moral compass would never be true again, and all because I wanted to outdo my young daughter who, by simply saying she has a new Dora the Explorer backpack, wins over three more friends like that.
I took a deep breath and pulled back the curtain, at which point a sped up short film suddenly ran of my life, the life I’d assume beyond this point, and all of it seemed very… Kubrick. Me getting divorced, me getting thrown out of Futurbulance because of a woman od’ing in my bathroom, me being chased by a guy with a Venetian Biennale mask. All because I joined a salon, my life now would become Eyes Wide Shut.
But a strange thing happened. Behind the curtain were my futurbulants, yes, but there were no capes, no masks, classic chino khakis sure, oxford shirts check, bottled water yes, but wine too and even champagne. I shook hands and said my hellos, and everyone was gracious and modest. Some worked in banking, others worked in the Sarkozy administration. One oversaw the civic board in Orleans, and one ran a theater. I said a little about myself, we ate and talked pop culture I think or was it the future of the middle class in France? I can’t remember.
We listened to the guest of honor, who spoke about the long-term future of video games on our culture, and whether it will properly address our desire for social interaction. It was all very well thought out, all very benchmark-y, all very stimulating, much better than sex actually. I was so relieved I wanted to kiss everyone there, Stanislas included, but then I thought….John don’t push your luck.
So yes, the saying’s true. No reward comes without risk. I took a chance to broaden my horizons, and it’s paid off handsomely. Every other month or so I look forward to meeting my peers (you see I’m a genius as well now) to engage and reflect and share, and I don’t even have to put a red ball in my mouth. Gradually as the months have passed, I’ve noticed I participate more, and I’m even able to leave dinners not feeling like I’ve just added extra needless channels to my cable subscription or ordered by accident a kilo of pig tripe. I’ve simply joined, not so much a secret society in Paris, but Paris society on a whole, and sure getting there has been turbulent, but now the future looks calm.
It’s only when I tell my friends in New York, that I’ve joined a salon/lodge/reflection group/think tank do I get the clichéd response.
“John, can call it what you want. We all know you’ve joined a sex club.”