As I Was Crossing the Street

As I Was Crossing the Street
A bus has stopped right in front of us. I guess I won’t be crossing the street for a couple of minutes. A small van two cars ahead of the bus has stopped and is unloading something. The traffic on this small street is much thicker anyway than I’d ever expect, and the timing of the light is elongated in equal and unsurprising proportion—long enough so I have a moment to nod and mumble bonjour at the pretty mother holding a little boy of five or so by her left hand, a large cabas in her right, and a girl of seven or eight hanging on to the heavy bag. When the bus stops right in front of us, the little girl looks up at me and tells me her name is Josie. Her mother’s smile is pale and her voice a little tight as she tells Josie not to bother monsieur. I assure madame that her daughter hasn’t bothered me. Josie wrinkles up her nose at her mother, then looks up at me, and whispers, “What’s your name?” Joseph. “Oh, like mine. My name is Joséphine-Claire.” That’s a pretty name. I point to the green light. Maman leads her son by the hand, heaves up her bag, tells Josie to hold on to the edge of it, and steps into the street. Josie takes my hand instead and tugs me across, stretching my left arm out and down about three centimetres farther than it was meant to go. She jumps onto the sidewalk landing with a two-footed splat. I’ve always thought Frenchwomen heavy-footed, but guessed it was their shoes. Maybe they learn to put their feet down hard as little girls. But now I know her brother’s name is Luc. It’s a name I’ve always liked, but I was rooting for Napoléon. The mother thanks me for helping Josie across the street—voyons, madame, one has only two hands—and tells her to let go of the hand of monsieur. “He’s monsieur Joseph. That’s his name. He told me himself.” Okay, chérie, let go of monsieur Joseph’s hand. “And my name isn’t sweetie, it’s Josie, like Joseph.” All right, Josie, now please let go of his hand. You are being rude to him. I wriggle my hand free. She says, “I am not rude. And he is very nice, and he’s tall, he’s taller than…” In France, I’m still a little over average height, but Josie’s admiration of my 1,78m makes her mother’s face grow pale. The comparison stops in Josie’s throat when she sees her mother’s face, and I wonder what domestic tragedy, or likely roman-savon, I have just wandered into, without script, blocking, costume, or makeup—nothing but spotlight. The mother apologizes to me. I tell her no harm done. As I turn to go about my business alone, thinking that maman is pretty and stylish even if her clothes do not look new, Josie says, “Can he come home with us? Can Monsieur Joseph come home and be a papa?” I don’t usually understand children’s voices clearly in any language—too much treble. But this blunt and rugged question comes through as clean and sharp as a stiletto. There is some chaos here, some family business that should not be mine, but even so—come home? Papa, me? A family—think of that—for a man who lives alone and wanders the streets of Paris, and everywhere he happens to go, alone. A man with two and a half ex-wives and who knows how many other women. What would that mean? The mother is attractive if a good deal younger than I, but there have been younger women before. No, that’s not it, but I don’t know what it is. The drama? Can he come home and be a papa? No, I think, no, he can’t. “No,” says maman, “no, he can’t come home with us.” “But he could carry the cabas so you could hold my hand too.” I do not think she is really jealous of little Luc who hasn’t said a word and is looking back and forth between his mother and me, trying to puzzle out something. The mother sighs and smiles weakly at me. I shrug, say something brainless like it will all be over in another thirty years, and reach for the bag. It’s very heavy: I’m surprised she could carry it with one hand. I haul the straps onto my right shoulder, try another smile, and say En route! I ask maman how far we have to go, thinking I may have to swap shoulders. “Not far,” Josie says, “and my mama’s name is Christine.” Christine is now beyond annoyance and embarrassment. She stops in her tracks, takes a deep breath, blows out through pursed lips, and starts, I think, to say something to her unhousebroken daughter. I laugh a little, smile as broadly as I can, and say, Enchanté, Christine. She returns the compliment, adding that it’s only two streets after we turn right at the corner. I shift the bag to my left shoulder. Josie is holding her mother’s hand, but never takes her eyes off me. I am trying one innocuous word or two after another, to Christine, to keep Josie quiet and to pass the time. It doesn’t really work, but Christine and I don’t respond to her. After we turn to the right, Christine points ahead to the next corner where there’s a bakery. She’d like to stop there, if that wouldn’t bother me. Of course not. Luc shows some signs of animation, or at least of little-boy life, and bolts ahead to the bakery: at last, there’s something in it for him. Christine goes in after him. I wait outside, wanting to be discreet or not roped-in or… I still don’t know and feel off balance. Maybe I don’t want to look like a new boyfriend or a suitor or a sugar daddy, and anyway, it gives me a chance to put the bag down….

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