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I think I’m going to do something creepy—no, I think I’m going to be a creep. I should get off here: it’s my stop. I know I should, but I can’t. Won’t, don’t, it’s all the same. I stay put. So does she. She’s the reason I don’t get off the train. It’s not that she’s attractive to me—or interestingly repellant or weird. She’s just puzzling and somehow wrong, has been since I got on the train ten minutes ago.
She was sitting on the jump seat by the door. As I passed her and saw her full-face, I guessed her to be maybe thirty or a few years more. Once I had perched myself in the strapontin catty-corner from her and next to the door that won’t open, stretched my legs out, and looked back at her profile, I thought she looked middle-aged and climbing. She’s not the first woman, or man, I have noticed who changes decades depending on the angle of approach, who suggests time-lapse photography or a police artist’s projection of the kidnapped child at college age. Not enough to notice or care about, not enough to plan to be a creep and follow her when she gets of the Métro, not enough.
But it does not need to be. She has quirks and oddities to spare, a treeful of antic monkeys and bats, all looking for my attention. The look on her face is sour, bending her mouth down and adding curvature and a wrinkle to her nose as if she has smelled something vile, yet cannot bring herself or find the will to move, to make an exit, to take a bottle of cologne out of her bag, douse her handkerchief with it, and hold it to her nose—or just faint with a case of the vapors. She looks witchy and stoic, but unhappy and she stares down at her cell phone which she holds just above her lap.
It’s hard to tell what she wants from the phone. Is she waiting for it to ring, hoping someone will call her, anticipating a lover or girl-talk with a friend? Or is she trying to decide whom to call next? I’ve seen that look before, that look saying there must be someone I can connect to right here and right now, someone with whom I can get rid of the noise of the train and the other meaningless sounds and silences. She looks away from time to time, then stares back at it, still looking sour and offended.
Her evident discomfort shows in her clothing. Her raincoat is a tone or two darker than it should be—not standard trench coat tan and not quite dark enough to be a nice toasty color either—with a corduroy collar in a burnt, or rather fried, orange peel. Her scarf isn’t bad, but its pale blue and faint red swirls don’t go with the coat or a green shirt under it. It’s all just off, as are her rumpled cargo pants that come down to the middle of her calf, an ending point that would make the prettiest legs in the world look like lamb shanks. And then her shoes: bright, shiny patent pumps with a good eight-centimetre heel. Did she get dressed in the dark, I wonder? Or is it just the bad clothing—with the wrong stitching, colors, cut, and shape—that I’ve come to identify as Eastern European in Paris? That’s the more likely guess, and the train moves away from my station as I try to make sense of all this strangeness and fail completely and make up my mind to see what I can learn.
She gets off at the next stop—a fairly long one by Parisian standards—walks out onto the platform so slowly that the doors nearly close on me as I try to keep a discreet distance, and out we go with me bobbing along in her wake at a distance of six or seven metres. A spy or cop would probably think this is the easiest tail in the world. She moves slowly, doesn’t look around since there’s only one exit, and moves in a nice straight line. That’s why they’re paid to do the job. I don’t know what to do, how to handle the case. She is so slow, still staring occasionally at her phone, that I’m afraid I’ll mow her down. Since there aren’t many people between us, and they are passing her, I figure there’s got to be a better way, stride by her, and bound up the steps like a man on his way to something important, find a building I can hold up, and lean on it, staring at an imaginary cell phone in my hand as if I want it to ring.
Two minutes later, she climbs out of the subway with a map in her hand. With her head down and looking at a map, she passes within an arm’s length of me and plows slowly ahead. She is close enough so I can see on the cover of the folded-back map the word Parigi, but I don’t for a minute think a woman dressed like that could be Italian. And you wonder how anyone can read a map while walking. But she is doing it, getting something from her study, and then picks up her pace fairly considerably. She slows down at the first three intersections, looking left and right, then continues. At the fourth, she stops.
Directly ahead of her across a complicated intersection is my station, the one I should have got off at, the one I always get off at. She looks left and right, squints up at where the plaque de rue probably is, but is hidden by an awning, and stands absolutely still with pedestrians, hustling to beat the light and cross the street, eddying around her like white water around a rock. She turns slightly to her right. In profile, she still has the same sour expression as she peers at her map again, then folds it, tucks it in her bag, starts left, and walks off to her right. I wait thirty seconds or so, walk to the corner, and turn right.
The street she has taken forms a triangle with the next street over at the end of which there is a small, paved park with sycamores, a Wallace fountain, a public clock, and benches. It’s a nice place where I often just go to sit and watch what there is to watch, usually serenaded by motos and scooters. There are also benches on this side of the street, and this is where the woman from the Métro, in her patent pumps and off-color clothing, has decided to sit. I am getting too close to her, and the store to my right is closed—no sense in staring in the window. Just a few strides before I reach her bench, I start to cross the street for the park. She looks up abruptly and says Monsieur? Not good, but she’s not shrieking and is only saying Monsieur, not Police!
I’m still not sure I have escaped detection. She looks at me rather blandly—no sense of a bad smell, so it wasn’t me bothering her nose in the subway—and asks for a light, a little too literally. Her French is not good—accented with something that is certainly not Italian—and she actually has asked me to turn on a lamp. Asking for a light, I have heard, is one of those questions that muggers and spies often try on their victims to disarm them before attacking. This is no more comforting to me than her failure, so far, to call the cops to remove this stalker, the strange man all in black wearing sunglasses on a very overcast day.
But nothing happens, nothing of one sort or the other. She is neither spy nor criminal nor outraged victim. Just a foreigner who wants a light. Testing my luck, or maybe pushing it, I ask her if she needs help finding something or other. No, she tells me, or I think she tells me, because I am getting about every third word, I just need to rest before walking to the bus station. It’s a long walk from here, you know. No, it’s there, and points to her left. I try to tell her it is quite a distance from here, on the Right Bank and we’re on the Left, to tell her to take Line 4 and change for Line 3 at…
She’s not paying attention. She shakes her head. I try to explain, offer to walk her back to the entrance of the subway. No, she says again, they tell me not to trust men in Paris. Her coat, her shoes, her scarf, her expression, her phone, her accent, and her sense of direction are all wrong, but maybe she’s finally got something right. Don’t trust men in Paris and don’t let them figure out your puzzling wrongness. I retreat.
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