The week of the Executive Team visit was nearing its end, thank fuck. The preparation for the visit proved to be more intense than the visit itself, as I had to get up at ungodly hours to help the dumb-ass Executive Assistant back in Seattle re-route several flights due to the Air France pilot strike, and spent a lot of time on the phone calming the nerves of executives who were anxious about both the strike the ISIS threats. Unfortunately, they all arrived safely and in plenty of time for the conference, so my weekend was shot taking care of last-minute requests from whiny, self-important jerks who refuse to work with anyone except the person in charge.
My goals were to minimize the time I had to spend with them and make them deliriously happy so they would go home satisfied and leave me the fuck alone. My old boss, who had moved to the States to take an executive position and stuck me with the job I have now, burned some karma by taking care of one evening’s festivities. For the other two slots, I decided I would take them nightclubbing on Montmartre one night; for the other, I set them up at a golf course for a late afternoon round and let them have a free evening to explore Paris. I also warned the concierge at the hotel that a group of American big spenders might want the best call girls in town on standby that night.
Everything on the entertainment front went very well and I only had to spend the one evening on Montmartre with them. The dreaded tour of our offices which had frazzled my staff for weeks and tripled the number of team smoke breaks was over in twenty minutes. While the bigwigs headed for the links and their stag night on the town, we went out and drank ourselves silly in an orgy of relief.
I thought I was off the hook for Thursday night because half of the executives were flying out that afternoon and no activities were planned. We wrapped up the conference just before lunch and as I was getting ready to slip away through a side door and disappear into the Parisian throngs, the CEO called me over and asked me if I would dine with him.
Of course I immediately put on a practiced display of French savoir faire and said I’d be delighted. We agreed to meet in the hotel lounge at eight and from there we would taxi to Le Meurice. If you’ve never heard of Le Meurice, just try to imagine dining in the fashion of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette before they got their heads whacked off. The restaurant is actually modeled after a room at Chateau Versailles, and as you can see in the picture above, is a breathtaking example of the horrid, decadent and indulgent taste that earned both King and Queen a trip to the guillotine. As I glanced at the menu and saw the prices (35 euro for a bowl of berries, 80 euro for a side of veggies), I immediately put two-and-two together and realized that the CEO, flashing his cultural values like a capitalist peacock, was trying to impress me with displays of wealth and grandeur.
That could only mean one of two things. He either wanted to fuck me or . . .
“You’ve done one helluva job over here,” he commented over cognac. “Frankly, I didn’t think anyone could turn this around with Europe an economic basket case, but you beat projections by what, 50%?”
It was actually 60%, but who cares?
“All the feedback I get about you from the team (he meant the Executive Team) is positive, and when you can get that bunch to agree on anything, that’s pretty rare.”
“Thank you,” I said with a gracious smile, as if I actually gave a shit. At that moment I heard echoes of my voice and realized that I don’t sound like the same person when I’m talking to people in so-called professional settings. I sound . . . I don’t know, like the bad actress whose audition is cut off in twelve seconds because she’s trying too hard. The CEO interrupted my reverie in typically American fashion: he dropped the bomb.
“We want you to come home. We want you to be our EVP of Marketing.”
Maintaining my composure, I smiled and said I was flattered. Flattened was more like it. He took my noncommittal response as a cue to launch into his sales pitch on all the wonders awaiting me when I became an Executive Vice President. He offered me an obscene amount of compensation (a 300% increase in total comp); maintaining my vacation accrual at French levels so I could visit my parents frequently; full relocation back to the USA complete with transitional housing and mortgage assistance; two years of severance pay in case of termination for any reason other than gross misconduct; and the usual company car. The offer contained all the features of a standard executive compensation package that reinforce the entirely valid perception of American executives as selfish, loathsome individuals with no social conscience whatsoever.
At that moment, though, I decided not to see him as a greedy bastard but as a guy who was trying to solve a problem and improve his company, either because he really thought I had talent or because he needed another woman on the Executive Team other than the token HR lady. I was also very grateful to the company for giving me the opportunity to move to Europe, and somewhat grateful for paying for my Master’s program (which they did more to improve my on-paper credibility with potential clients than to educate and enlighten me, but still).
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I’ll have to decline,” I said, looking him straight in the eye so that he knew I wasn’t trying to negotiate for a yacht. “I’m very happy here. It’s where I belong.”
He was ab-flabbergasted and reminded me that he was offering me a package that anyone else would die for.
“I know that, and I appreciate your generosity and show of confidence, but it’s not about the money. Like I said, I’m very happy here.”
He finished off his cognac in one fell swoop, put his snifter down and smiled. “That’s why you’re special. You don’t need this. Most of the guys on the team think they need the money and the status, but it’s really that they’re scared shitless of losing it all. That’s why they play politics and make half-assed decisions. And that’s why I wanted you—I wanted someone on the team who was real.”
I smiled, still unsure whether he was being real or was trying to shift the conversation to seduction. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and respond to his expressed desire for authenticity.
“I wish I could help you with that, but I’m afraid I’m . . . not your girl.” I threw in that double entendre in case his pecker was starting to consume his brain.
He thanked me for my honesty and signaled for the check. While we were waiting for that transaction to conclude, he asked me why I felt so at home here. I decided not to tell him that I thought the USA was going down the fucking toilet with its triple obsession with the military, guns and violence, but focused more on France’s greater sense of culture and its emphasis on what Americans refer to as work-life balance. I did not tell him that I was planning to resign when my contract was up in April, because even with that slight glimpse of the human being beneath the suit, I still didn’t trust him enough to put my livelihood on the line.
I politely declined his offer of a taxi, waved goodbye as he sped off into the night, lit a cigarette and walked the few long blocks to my apartment. During my stroll, I thought about how much I loved living in France, and remembered a conversation I had with my mother earlier this year. The moment was captured in our joint review of The Moody Blues’ Seventh Sojourn.
Maman: How did I manage to raise such a cynic?
ARC: I’m not cynical. You have to admit that you flower children had a certain naiveté about the way the world works.
Maman: That is true, but I also think we had a greater sense of vision and hope.
ARC: I’ll give you that. Can we lift the needle? I want to talk with you about something. (Music stops.)
What I wanted to talk about was changing my last name to hers.
My first name is distinctly French but my last name is clearly Irish (my dad won the coin flip) and the French have a hard time pronouncing it. I liked the idea of changing my name as a way of affirming my new identity and making a statement of commitment to my new homeland. Right around the time that thought emerged, I read an article about how the number of Americans renouncing their citizenship had skyrocketed over the last few years, and I toyed with that idea for a bit, but rejected it in the end. Even though I loathe the current state of things in the USA, I still have warm feelings for many of the people there and for certain aspects of American culture. While I think there is zero chance that things will change enough in my lifetime to induce me to return permanently, I still want to be able to travel freely to my birthplace and see a ballgame without having to get a visa.
Needless to say, my mother was thrilled by the idea of changing my last name to hers and mentioned that it would have made her dear departed but son-less father happy to know that the name would live on for at least one more generation. I thought my grandfather was a grumpy old asshole, but since he’s dead, I decided not to reveal that she had made the idea of changing my last name less appealing by bringing him up.
Anyway, I’ve started the paperwork and should be a brand-new person in a month or so. Changing my last name is a symbolic way to celebrate a new life in a place where I’m very, very happy. Since I haven’t shared my name with my readers, that may not mean much to you, but it means a lot to me.
And as proof that life sometimes takes the shape of thematic interludes, on the Monday after Executive Week I received a phone call from an American headhunter on a business trip to Paris who wanted to have lunch with me. We met at a less pretentious but still fashionable place near the office where over an apéritif she told me that I had been on her firm’s radar for some time because of my international experience and quick rise through the ranks, and she wanted to talk to me about a lucrative opportunity with another American firm looking for a European head of operations, similar to the job I have now. I was amazed at the amount of intelligence she had collected on me, especially since I’ve done nothing to promote my business self through those nauseatingly professional sites like LinkedIn. I thanked her for the consideration and asked her one question: “Is the company publicly traded?” She said yes. I thought for a minute, and because I was tired of having been a phony most of the time the executives were here, and since I have no desire to work for an American company again, I figured I had nothing to lose from telling her the truth, and that doing so would make me feel very, very good.
“Look, you don’t want me. I smoke, go clubbing in leather, engage in kinky sex and my partner is a woman. I post nude pictures of myself on the Internet and I have a long-distance sexual relationship with a married man and his wife. I don’t think that would play well with your Board of Directors or your average investor.”
“Oh, my!” she said. “No, you’re probably right.” She tittered nervously. I rarely hear anyone titter anymore.
“I hate to have wasted your time, so let me pick up the tab,” I suggested.
“Let’s split it,” she offered, after a moment’s hesitation. I nodded in agreement. Lunch was served and we munched over small talk about how wonderful it must be to live in Paris, blah, blah, blah. I could tell she felt awkward and embarrassed, but I also noticed she kept stealing glances at my lips and my tits. After lunch, we went outside and I leaned forward to give her the traditional air kiss. At first, she seemed surprised and almost stumbled backward on her high heels, but she managed to right herself to accept that small act of French custom. I pulled out my cigarettes and offered her one, which she declined; I wasn’t surprised because I’d pegged her for a jogger, the poor thing. I lit mine and started to walk back to the office. At the corner I turned around and she was still standing in place, looking in my direction, probably having passed some time checking out my ass. I blew her a kiss and she smiled broadly and blew one back from a very safe distance.
I hope that she had a good time in her hotel room that night jacking off to images of the girl of her repressed dreams.