It was around 2 am when I stepped out of the brasserie. My companions were in a hurry to catch their respective night buses to their destinations while I had resigned myself to my fate of riding a taxi home. I would lose three good meals because of this, I thought.
I struck out on my own to flag a cab down. All had their red lights on, indicating that they were full, and all whooshed past me. Other people were also flailing about in the cold night and got ignored as well. I walked on Rue de Rivoli and saw a taxi stand. A guy was sitting on a bench with his backpack on his lap.”While you are getting another shot, I am waiting for a cab” he said miserably into his phone.
The €6.20 bottle of Coca Cola I drank with a twist of lemon had passed through my kidneys and found its way into my bladder. It wanted to get out. I lifted my nose and caught a stench. I walked away from the taxi stand and followed the stench to its source – a dark corner of a building. I did what the Parisians had done before me.
I decided to go to Hotel de Ville to see if I could catch cabs there. I waved at them and they flashed their red lights back at me. Great, I thought. I might as well wait for the Metro to open. Three and a half hours to go. I turned my attention to the fountains and the lights. If it had rained, the streets would have shone like silver. If I had gone to the Seine, the lights could have been misty in the river. I was ready to burst into song about being on my own, when a teenage boy suddenly fell flat on his face. His two companions picked him up, laughing. Under a lamp post, two lovers were conversing while staring into each others’ eyes. A man was walking past me when he realized that he dropped something from his back pocket and he ran back across the square, leaving his two companions behind.
As I walked, a man approached me, made eye contact, and addressed me in French. He was wearing one of those large pink and blue earphones. For some reason, I leapt aside like a cat and my legs positioned themselves in a way that would make it easy for me to pounce at him. My body did this instinctively. Maybe it was the way he approached me, the empty bottle of water which he offered for me to drink from, the fact that he could hear me perfectly while he had his earphones on, or the way he smiled, or the way he asked me in French and English where I was from and if I had children. With high fives, fist bumps, clasps, and chest to shoulder bumps, he told me it was alright and Paris is safe. I was ready to push him at any moment and kick his face.
“You are not that interesting and no one will have this keen interest in you if he does not want something”. Thank you my dear inner voice for the vote of confidence. I was thinking of a way to gracefully get away when three teenagers converged on us. “Excuse me” one of them said to me and the man turned his attention to them. They conversed with him and I slunk away. After I got away, they ceased their conversation.
I walked to a street corner. A man in a shirt and pajamas looked at me quizzically. “Ca va?” He asked. “Bonsoir!” I smiled broadly at him. He followed me with a puzzled look as I trudged around his neighborhood. I sat on a bicycle parking slot and watched people go on their way. I heard shouting from a couple of blocks away and instinct told me to sit on a bench at the bus stop across the street. As I made my way to the bus stop, three teenagers at 10-second-intervals successively ran past the spot where I had just sat. It was unclear who was doing the chasing and who was being chased. Three people made their way to the middle of the street and danced to music from a device one of them was carrying.
A block away, I saw green flashing lights. It came from a parked van amidst metal barricades shaped into a rough square. I decided to go see what it was. The van with the green lights was a police van and it was parked beside a DOFRAISE truck. The truck had apparently figured into an accident. As I approached, a policewoman asked me if everything was alright. “I’m waiting for the Metro to open”. She nodded. Her four male companions ignored me.
I leaned on a lamp post right next to the scene of the accident. A police officer was looking intently at my lamp post, crouching down and taking notes. There was a bicycle in the middle of the barricade. If people made the mistake of walking through the barricade, they were sternly shooed away. A teenage boy walked past the barricade and was immediately asked by the police “Ca va?”. He gruffly replied that everything was fine and for no reason glowered at me.
A bicycle went by with a man sitting on the handles while another man rode it. The two of them were talking and laughing very loudly. A black man and a white man brushed past me with the black man muttering about taxis. The cabs they chased flashed red lights.
A dressed-up girl and an older man stood in front of me. The older man was holding up his mobile phone as if it were a boombox while trance music played. The girl looked at me intently with her glazed eyes while trying to maintain her balance. “Is the music good? Do you like it?” she asked. “Yes” I replied. “Give me five!”. I gave her five. “Give me another five!” I gave another. “Give me ten!” I obliged. “You are good!” She smiled, touched both sides of my body, and she and her companion walked away.
“Police stop him! Stop him!” cried the black man from out of nowhere. He was asking the police to stop a cab with the green light on it. Someone got to the cab he wanted first.”Nnnooo!” he cried and abruptly shut up when another green-lighted cab appeared. “Get in” he hissed to his companion. A man in a suit came up to me and stood beside me. He smiled at me benignly while I inhaled the scent of strong alcohol from his body. He looked at the van and the truck, began to sing under his breath, and ambled away.Two men went inside the truck and took out some plastic trays. The police were wrapping up their investigation. A while later, both the van and the truck came to life and pulled out of the barricade. I was all alone again.
I walked to a bus stop on Rue de Rivoli and sat on a bench. I looked at my watch, it was 4:45 am. I still had a lot of time to kill. Lest another lost soul would think of me as an appropriate companion, I left the bus stop and walked on the sidewalk. I stopped in front of a small patisserie and read the menu written on a blackboard. “Chocolat chaud” caught my eye. A nice cup of hot chocolate would do me good. I went in, gave my order, and seated myself on a table near the door. People trickled in. Some were in their very rumpled office clothes, bleary eyed from a long night. Others in t-shirts were resting their heads on the wall, napping before the food arrived. My hot chocolate came in a small metal pitcher paired with a small white cup. I poured the thick liquid into the cup and took a sip – strong cocoa taste offset by very sweet milk.
I looked at my watch. It was already 5:30, thank God! I poured some more hot chocolate into my cup. Maybe I could stay for ten more minutes, I thought while clasping the small warmth in both my hands. No need to rush.
When I stepped out, the street lights were already turned off. Faint light was creeping up into the sky. The trees from afar seemed bare and the strangers in the street were just strangers. The phantoms had retreated. The night was over. As the light grew stronger, my steps went faster. I wanted to escape from the light and slumber in a dark room, to be at peace. I hurried down to the metro, another phantom running away from the light.