A young Asian girl weaved through the crowd of European giants down the long staircase in a metro station near the terminal’s exit. Sections of the metro tunnel were turned into colorful murals. Round the corners, at junctions splitting the path to different platforms, a street musician was playing a jazzy tune.
It was the time before the advent of camera phones and touch screens. While tourists often time carried with them digital cameras, the eighteen-year-old Hana had no such luxuries at her disposal. She did not take the last-minute, twelve-hours-long, economy-class flight to Charles de Gaulle for sightseeing.
She was, in fact, running away from home and attending an art school against her father’s will.
As such, she did what an aspiring artist would in front of her model: take out her sketchbook and draw.
Under the bright fluorescent light at the junction, the girl sat on a forest green duffle bag, back against the tunnel wall, and began drawing the musician in front of the mural. She drew the musician and his curious translucent violin in a low angle portrait with the audience, small as it might be, omitted from the scene.
The man, whose hair was dyed in a vibrant shade of blue and donned a flashy crimson trench coat which seemed so spotless it must have been of no use other than as a stage prop, appeared so engrossed in his performance that she imagined he would keep playing long after the last audience had left.
Turn out, it was far from the truth. She was his last audience and when she wrapped up the drawing and was about to leave, he put his hand on the strings to damp the last melody and beckoned her.
The musician then followed up with a few lines in French.
Hana had no idea what he was trying to tell her but she guessed he wanted a tip for his performance. So she looked in her teal handbag for a coin, she was clueless as to how much she should give and decided to give him a two-euro coin.
He accepted the coin but reiterated what he said before in English.
“Pardon my rudeness. Is this your first time in Paris?”
“Uhm…is there a law against drawing in public?”
“There is no law,” he paused briefly to show a thin smile, “but there should be one against stealing someone’s heart, What say you, mademoiselle? Shall we spend your first night in Paris making great music together?” he said.
Hana eyed the man again, more cautious and scrutinizing this time. Of course, since she had spent a good part of the hour drawing him, he was physically attractive and suited her fancy like Cinderella’s glass slipper. Still, it was shocking to have such a tasteless pick-up line directed at her.
While she was speechless and unsure how to react, he took a bold step closer and dropped another line.
“Or you rather I paint you like one of my French girls instead?”
Hana choked on her own laughter.
“–Okay, Mr. Maurice. Are you telling me that the great music I was listening to just now was the music of your self-indulgence and that I was painting an exhibitionist?” she asked while hiding a chuckle behind her wrist.
This time, it was the musician’s turn to be speechless.
“Well…” he muttered.
“Well?” she hissed impatiently.
The man began to crack self-deprecating laughter. She was right, that was thoughtless of him, he admitted while praising the witty comeback. Then, he shared a bit about his few endeavors with random women on the street, many of whom either walked away or threatened to call the police. And though he claimed to have his fair share of successes, none had ever lasted longer than a fortnight.
At one point, he asked for her name.
Despite getting off on the wrong foot, he later came off as tolerable and somewhat charming. She was quite pleased that the conversation was going in a positive direction, to the point that she was comfortable enough to introduce herself.
“So where stay you, Mademoiselle Sasaki?” he asked.
“For tonight? a hotel called de Ville in the fourth arrodi–…arron–…district, in the fourth district.”
“Hôtel de Ville?”
“Yes, and I’m not telling you where I will stay tomorrow.”
The girl put a finger on her lips and grinned.
“That’s no hotel. That’s the city hall.”
Having convinced her that the city hall was no hotel, Maurice brought up the offer to host her in his apartment again. This time, he said it in a markedly less playful tone than before.
She hesitated but eventually turned him down.
Denizens of the underbelly saw no glamour in the light and champagne above; not that there had been much fanfare anywhere in the world since the start of the Great Recession. That November in Paris, tens of thousands of new homeless sought shelter from the harsh weather in these underground metros.
At the platform where the trains docked and where Hana had just stepped on, a thick stench of urine assaulted the nostril and pushed her back up the stairs. Worse, the trains here were terrifyingly old and shamble, and their arrivals were announced by a high-pitched screech of brakes on black metal rails.
Yet, the rough sleepers slept on.
Hana returned to the spot where the musician had once stood. To her dismay, the man she was looking for was no longer there…
In this world, there are chance encounters from which both parties walked away bearing regrets of what could have been.
While the musician sat on the train to his apartment near Télégraphe station, his beloved violin safely tucked in a black oblong case, he reflected on what he had said to a stranger he likely would never meet again. She was right, he had made a fool out of himself. In her eyes, he must have been nothing more than a shameless pervert who would say anything to get into her pants.
Leaning against the window, he saw dark and light patches zoomed past his field of vision at high speed, and more importantly, he caught glimpse of his own reflection in the glass. What was he then? A miscreant, a broken shell of an aspiring youth who had once dreamed of performing on the big stage in front of thousands.
Paris had changed him. Poverty had changed him.
A monotonous voice read in French, German and Japanese the regular safety PSA from the train’s speakers. The doors opened to the familiar plaque on the tunnel’s wall. Télégraphe, it read, bold and white on a background of blue tiles.
At the platform, he saw no rough sleeper in the vicinity. Such was an idiosyncratic reality here in this poorer arrondissement of the city where neither the dwellers of the surface nor those of the underbelly had much to spare. He stood in the momentary serenity and thought about the morning.
Then he turned on his heels and walked through the tunnel to the opposite platform.
The girl was not there when he returned to the junction in front of the mural. Instead, he found a homeless man sleeping soundly under the fluorescent light.
Maurice let out a sigh of relief and disappointment. She waited for nobody, that mademoiselle. What would become of her in four years’ time?
Would she give up?
Would she run headlong into the flashing light?
Would she be able to grasp her dream?
He would not find out. Not until they met again in four years’ time…