In class, one-to-one with a young woman. Her limp ponytail drags between her slumped shoulders. I’m patiently listening to her gulpy, whispered half-responses. Gently, I ask for a full sentence, and she’s staring down at the table, cold. Out of my peripheral vision, the television in the next room plays a special report: death rituals in some faraway country. The desiccated, hollow, toothy face of a man’s dead father comes up onscreen. My eyebrows twist in morbid fascination as he explains the bathing and offering of food and cigarettes to the mummified body of his father.
My attention whips back to my student, and I tune back in. It’s been almost a full minute of silence. I rephrase in favor of a black-or-white question. She continues staring down, frozen in time.
The full-length window facing the sidewalk buzzes with passersby. One figure looks in, then turns and stops. Staring at me through the window, vulgar, slack-jawed, grimy canvas vest, clutching a tattered shopping bag. I flush when my eyes meet his, and hurriedly tune back in to my student, who is just finishing her carefully composed response.
My eyes crinkle with a plaster-toothed, dry smile. “Great,” my voice creaks.
Canoe base, night. Outdoor bar, live band. Throaty, wobbly experimental electro music. White dude with locked hair bopping in the glow of his laptop screen. An unbuttoned office-worker type plays clarinet in time, and a third guy strums an upright bass. A fourth member sits cross-legged onstage, fiddling with something.
I wait at the bar with F, among a pushy mass of people. It’s finally my turn to be served; the bartender gives a “hello,” and I respond with an echo. A woman who’s elbowed her way through the crowd has usurped my place and blurts out her order before me, and he sets about serving her.
Incredulous, I raise an eyebrow at her. She avoids eye contact and flashes her cracked smile at the bartender, exposing a silver tooth in questionable condition, and cigarette-stained gums.
Whatever. F and I take our drinks, and watch the quartet onstage, nodding vaguely and politely in time with the noise.
Again, the train brakes, coasting into the station. Engine exhales and tracks metallically scream. The sound of bats taking off outta hell.
I look to my left, and there’s another night train regular. Mousy and thoroughly unthreatening, he’s an ageless man who wears turtlenecks and oversized jackets that hang loosely from his shoulders. His frame is nearly 2-dimensional, his moustache frayed like a well-used toothbrush. Blond skull sits cartoonishly on lanky shoulders.
He’s got long-ish hair, messenger bag, tiny rosebud mouth, blonde eyelashes and wire-rimmed glasses. Hopelessly unfashionable. There’s always a knowing, friendly glint in his eye when he sees me. He’s a regular that recognizes other regulars.
“Le FN est le pire ennemi du peuple.” A cardboard sign, painted roughly and taped to a stick, then stuck into a traffic cone. On the steps of the theatre behind the sign, a ragtag-looking group of about 20 young people sit, chilling in small groups. Rolling cigarettes with clumsy fingers and quietly existing. An older, grumpy-looking woman wearing a bath robe stops to point a finger at them and yell. Me, I lift up my sunglasses to peek at their sign, look at them, and simply nod my head.
In a café, in a seat facing the outside terrace. On the other side of the glass, a trio of stylish people in their 40’s smoke cigarettes, sip rosé, and chat, all done coolly. Meanwhile, a trio of police officers on bikes stand and watch the center of town, paying particular attention to the ragtag group of peaceful demonstrators. Minutes later, they ride away, backs flat and butts up in the air.
Tramways worm through the wide-open central plaza, back and forth, crawling along. Sliding noses intersecting every 9 minutes.
Wind’s picking up. Parasols ruffle, fountain jets spit haphazardly in all directions. Hoods drawn, feet hasten, scarves are clutched to necks. A woman dressed in bold primary colors walks by, covering her head with a large scarf that billows and waves behind her. Her head and face are completely covered, like a colorblock ghost.
Fat raindrops descend.
Thursday night is party night. Leaving work, I hear echoes of music and rallying cries that hasten the merrymaking. I walk past a troupe of university-age men. A cloud of scent slaps me as they pass by: fresh laundry.
I imagine their mommies lovingly washing their clothes at the weekend: scrubbing their pit-stained t-shirts and skidmarked undies. Fold the laundry for their little boy, give him a kiss on the forehead and send him back to school. They wipe a tear away and wonder where the years have gone.
Meanwhile, their little prince is out trolling with his carbon-copy friends. They don’t speak–they grunt out slack-jawed dopey nasal duh-duhs while they pound beers and try to score chicks. Flaccid, sullied masculinity. With a whistle in their step, these stellar knuckleheads stroll along, in tandem and with intention.
These thoughts accompany me to the station, and I ride back home.
The man I had seen in the same café the day before passed by on his bike. “Can I help you get somewhere in particular?” Bashful, I replied, “No, thanks; just trying to get my bearings, is all.” He poked his head toward me. “Huh?”
“I’m trying to get my bearings.”
“You mean, find out where you’re at?”
“Oh. Good luck with that.”
He pedaled away, leaving me alone with my map.
You can’t find your way around if you haven’t decided where you’re going.