Odette has looked better, at least I hope she has. She has splotchy skin, frizzy and thinning old-lady hair of a color between coffee ice cream and baby pee, and rheumy eyes. That is such a wonderful turn of language—rheumy eyes—such a Victorian phrase, makes you feel as if you would never think of going out of the house without some complicated knot in a black cravat around your neck and a top hat and spats. But her appearance is not what she is about. Odette has a message, a warning, a finger to wag in your face, mine, and in the face of anyone who happens to pass her on this busy street in the Fifth Arrondissement and surely in every quartier of Paris. How would she put it? If she’s the hot babe I want her to be, no matter how old she looks (more or less like God’s younger sister), she’d say, Use a rubber, kid. Her copywriters, because she exists on an advertising poster that is part of a public-private-deal-too-complicated-to-get-into, are doing us all a public service and thus prefer to tell us rather blandly that Condoms protect you from AIDS. Odette knows. That’s why she’s staring at us from the poster. She is clean and has used—or rather has participated in the using of—13,847 condoms. That’s what is says on the poster. Pile them up, all 13,847 of them, at a quarter of an inch or .635 centimetres a piece, including wrapper, and gracious! a stack climbing to eighty-eight metres or two hundred eighty-nine feet, the height of the towers of Notre-Dame or the Mormon Temple outside Washington. Fall on your knees and worship… and of course there is no line of tourists waiting to get in. It makes you wonder how you would feel, what you would say, how you would react if you actually saw a tower of Trojans, Sheiks, Lifestyles, and Crowns casting a shadow—truly—on the dome of Les Invalides. Some things, obviously, should remain only theoretical or the province of conversations that should never have taken place at all. Like this. But Odette makes you want to conjure. If she used one condom a day—assuming no re-use or double dipping—it means she had an unbroken string of daily copulations running just under thirty-eight years, a record that makes Ty Cobb and Cal Ripken look like bush-leaguers, and they were only playing baseball. And supposing she used several day, say six? The string would be shorter, but then it might mean that she’s not as old as she looks, just worn out. Either way, there is a certain amount of tumescent awe that just rises up involuntarily at the thought, or at either thought, and others to be considered at another time. These suppositions, however, do not do the trick, do not put all the posers and puzzlements about Odette to bed once and for all. One question remains, nags, itches—and doesn’t want to be scratched. But there it is, staring us right in the face. How does Odette—or how do her copywriters—know how many condoms she was party to? Did she count them, make little cross hatches on a piece of paper or on the wall over her bed, like a prisoner ticking off the days until release? The number is too precise to be an estimate—13,847 is real and compelling, much more convincing and penetrating than “at least thirteen thousand” or “almost fourteen thousand” or even “a whole bunch.” How has she kept track? You wonder. You wonder what system she has used—the counting and ticking off both seem a little too casual and liable to inaccuracies—and then it occurs that of course she has saved them, every last one, in a trunk or un bac, but one with the green lid, not the yellow lid of the trash can for recyclables. Where would she keep it? How big must it be—or would she have a collection of them lined up… where? It leaves you shaking your head, doesn’t it? And it may certainly leave you wondering if she also saved other things from our disposable society, like cigarette butts, tampons, Kleenex, chewing gum wrappers. But this is foolish. She simply wouldn’t have the space to save so many different things and would probably think it absurd, anyway. Who saves cigarette butts? Gum wrappers? Why? Whatever for? You see what I mean. But still, Odette owes us one last answer to the question we all don’t want to ask, yet can’t get out of our minds. These 13,847 used condoms, saved in cans, trunks, or self-storage units in the suburbs—who counted them? © Joseph Lestrange If you’re coming to France (or for that matter anywhere) you can reserve your hotel here. To rent a car, Bonjour Paris recommends Auto Europe. Take trips, not chances. For peace of mind each and every time you travel, enroll for MedjetAssist evacuation services.

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