by By Rob Wolfe ’12
I. Au métro
The boy stands shoulder-to-shoulder in the metro car, head down, hands in his pockets, worried
about things like losing his wallet, making eye contact, or breathing in someone’s face. In a way, it’s comfortable. There’s no need to hold on to the handgrips: simply relax and let the packed-in mass of humanity support you. And they do support each other. 78,089 fans, minus a few token Austrians, are riding out together to watch Les bleus clobber Das Team, even though the match won’t matter for the World Cup.
The car lurches to a halt at Garibaldi. The doors slide open and four or five men in red, white, and blue push their way in. Behind them, a man in a tattered overcoat steps on. He stays by the door. His hair is tangled and white. He takes a deep breath and addresses his captive audience.
-Vous savez, ces Arabes, ce sont de vrais salopards.
He speaks an old man’s French, swallowing almost every consonant. He reeks of wine. He’s
incomprehensible. His words fall on near silence, broken by titters and sideways glances. The
old man casts around, settling on a redheaded girl lucky enough to have found a bench seat. He
addresses her directly; she laughs and looks away, but he’s persistent. She looks at him, away
from him, up, down, at the strangers around her.
He announces he’ll get off at Carrefour Pleyel, but stays put on the train’s arrival and leans on the door. One gentleman can’t take it any longer. He reaches past the old man and pushes the
door release. Slowly and with infinite grace, the old man tips over, out of the train and onto the platform. Several impatient travelers step gingerly over him on their way out, then several more on their way in. He finds his feet and stumbles out of the station.
II. Nuit blanche
The bateaux-mouches cruise down the Seine at ten o’clock on a Friday evening, tourists’ gazes
following the searchlights from the Pont Neuf to the Louvre, dipping into the tidal pools
collecting on the quays, and gawking at the marine life within: drunks, lotharios, a curly-haired Tunisian boy who passes the bottle on to resume his rendition of “Hey, Soul Sister.”
The boy pulls uselessly on the corkscrew embedded in a bottle of Beaujolais nouveau. He puts the bottle between his legs and tries again. The others are chatting nearby but the blonde in the red pea coat sits next to him, watching. He glances up at her, then back again, and decides to give up. But even giving up isn’t easy; he has to wind the metal out of the cork before pushing it into the bottle with a key. He jerks the handle to the left and his hand comes away suddenly, the rest of the screw left behind. She sighs,
-That’s all right. We’ll get them to open the next one at the corner store.
-’ey guys, ‘ow’s it going?
They look up. Two young men, one in a leather jacket, one in his shirtsleeves, sidle over.
-Want to buy some flowers? Just kidding. May we try some of your wine?
While Leather Jacket makes the necessary introductions, Shirtsleeves leans over.
-Are any of your friends single?
The buttons on Shirtsleeves’s shirt swim apart, then together again. The boy stares for a moment and nods to his left.
-Yeah. These three.
He nods to his right.
-Those ones have boyfriends.
They’re walking south now, all eight of them, with Shirtsleeves and Leather Jacket in tow. They
stop at a bar for the restroom, and the two men are still inside when the blonde in the red coat comes back out.
-Now’s our chance! Run! someone shouts.
They sprint down the avenue, soon lost in the crowd.
Five minutes later, they stand in line outside the Luxembourg Gardens, breath still coming hard, their just-faded smiles creeping back as the cork pops out of another bottle. They pass it around and talk. They say they’ve got the world’s largest disco ball inside, suspended a hundred feet above the central fountain. Light from inside flickers on the apartment buildings across the street.
At the gate, the gendarmes pull the last bottle out of the blonde’s bag and toss it in the trash.
They enter. As they walk down the path, distorted figures thrown by the sideshows dance among
the trees and the clear beams from the main attraction. The boy looks: paper cutouts of lava-lamp blobs and grinning faces rotate around yellow lights that turn the low-hanging leaves around him dull and waxy. Hundreds of people mill around the fountain, looking up at the ball. There’s nothing to drink and nothing else to see. They leave.
The guitar players are gone from the quays. The sun will come up in a few hours, but tonight the
metro closes late. The boy and a few others stay. A man standing on one bank of the river winds
up and hurls a bottle as far as he can; it smashes on the other side. Black, indistinguishable forms laugh, curse, heave glass in both directions.
-French gang war? someone postulates.
Probably not. Another man throws a bottle, stumbles on the follow-through, and plops right in
the drink. The gendarmes pull him out; everyone disperses.
The boy heads south on the metro, en route to the end of the line. His eyelids droop, and he
figures he has time after all to sleep. The car peeks above ground and locks eyes with the sun; he dozes.