Study In ContrastsIt was a pretty comfortable Eurostar chunnel trip back home to Paris from my Guardian Masterclass in London. Unfortunately, I sat in a 4-seat configuration with three other travelers - two women and a guy - and the guy who sat next to me had ants in his pants. He couldn't sit still and his elbows were constantly jabbing me. He kept dropping his phone on the floor and had to crawl under the table to get it. He jumped up several times to walk the train or go to the bar car. The whiff of his beer breath afterwards was nauseating.
It was raining. I'd had a beautiful couple of days in London, with rare sunshine. But as I made my way to St. Pancras station to catch my train, the rain started coming down. Drops of water spotted the train window and the greenery speeding past me was muffled in fog. All at once, there was a rainbow, but the people sitting with me were oblivious - wrapped up in their French hilarity that I didn't understand and didn't want to.
The women were a study in contrast. One had a smart haircut, was slim, tall and fashionably dressed - black mini-skirt suit, low-scooped neckline and spiked heels. The other was puffy-cheeked and dowdy, with an old-fashioned headband and a pale blue cotton shirt, buttoned almost all the way up. But they laughed as if they were best friends. The rapport seemed contrived, like they had to be friendly because they worked together. But once they got home, I imagined they wouldn't be caught dead together. Dowdy would feed her cat in a 6th-floor walkup in the boredom of the 7th arrondissement. She'd put on flannels and go to bed alone. Sultry would call her boyfriend as soon as she got away from her coworkers and soon fall back into his Egyptian cotton sheets while he pulled down her scoop-neck top to reveal her black and red lace bustier. "Leave your shoes on." he'd whisper.
I snapped a few pictures of the rainbow through the window, not realizing that I also captured the reflection of the two women during a lull in their tiresome conversation. Two hours on a train pretending you like someone can be exhausting, I know. The rainbow arcs boldly behind them - an unpredictable natural phenomenon - unnoticed.
From Paris' Gare du Nord I thought I'd take the bus home. It was a direct shot on the 31 bus. I filed through the tourists at the station, feeling a bit cocky because, unlike them, I know where I'm going. I stood at the bus stop and was somewhat taken aback by a handsome older guy who walked up and waited nearby. He did a double take of me, a rare occurrence. Just two days before, I listened to another woman writer in the Masterclass, reading her story of a middle-aged woman who suddenly realized how invisible she had become to handsome men. I found myself shaking my head in recognition, realizing I had also faded into the woodwork. But this surprising glance from a handsome stranger was life's way of teasing me. Or, maybe I hadn't lost "it" completely.
I glanced up at an approaching bus and saw the 3 in what I assumed was the 31 bus. I boarded, following my handsome man. We sat opposite one another. I no longer had the nerve to continue eye contact. Going past his second glance was a bit too risky for me. I watched as we passed through Pigalle. Tourists, sex workers and peep show barkers competed with each other for my attention. Then, the neighborhoods stopped looking familiar. That's when I looked up and noticed I'd taken the wrong bus. I got off at the next stop, trying to seem like I still knew where I was going. The handsome man and the bus faded into the night.
There was a Metro stop right beside me. I boarded the train with a sigh. I could have been home by now, feeding my neighbor's cat then going to bed, alone, in my flannels. Instead, I sat in the glaring fluorescent light, bothered a bit by the loud hissing of the train and the siren that sounds before the train's doors close. In front of me was another odd couple. Two men. They were also talking, so I imagined they were together. One was a dark, long-haired guy, reminding me of George Harrison on the cover of his album, Beware of Darkness. The other man was extraordinary. Asian. Ancient. Glasses. He had a white Fu Man Chu beard that curled up impossibly at the ends. His Paris-style tourist beret sat on his head like a school girl's beanie. His bags were carefully packed and stationed in front of him. His striped umbrella stood upright inside a hidden slot of his suitcase. It matched the fabric of the Metro seats, but not the man who owned it.
At the next stop, George Harrison got off the train, his blue backpack slung over his shoulder, his white bag full of something - God knows what - no longer in view. So, they weren't together after all. Maybe George was just fascinated with Mr. Fu Man Chu and struck up a momentary conversation. I preferred their conversation. It was more authetic than the two women on the Eurostar.
My stop was next. I so wanted to see Mr. Fu Man Chu stand up and leave the train. I wanted to see if he wore a long black dress or matching black pants with a button-up coat, like in the gold rush days of San Francisco's China Town. Somehow, it would have made him more real to me. It was like he was a vision, from another place and time. But he remained where he was, an ancient wizard in this modern contrivance called The Metro.
I stepped off the train, this time knowing where I was going. He stayed behind, not even worried about becoming invisible in his middle age. I envied him. I have a feeling he knows where he's going even when he's in an unfamiliar place. But I think, more importantly, he knows who he is.