Rita Bourland has resurrected Fiction Friday. This week, Rita gave a fifth prompt to all of us interested in doing some creative writing. Either you could write whatever you want, or you could write a story based on this prompt: You are on a subway in a large city (London, Paris, NY, D.C. etc.) and get off at the wrong stop. I opted for this prompt. Here's what I did with it. I hope you enjoy it - and I hope that you, too, will be inspired to write some Friday Fiction!
Michel tried to let the smooth glide of the Métro car lull him into calm. He thought about Hugo, who always kept a level head. This morning his friend had put down his cereal spoon and L’Equipe and said, “You’re up early.” “Job interview,” Michel had replied, his voice wobbling. “The writing teacher one?” Michel had nodded. “Don’t worry,” Hugo had stated, his certitude emphasized by picking up the spoon and L’Equipe again, “you’ll get it.”
He tried to be as calm as Hugo, who needed that center in his own job as a policeman in the rougher sections of the 18th arrondissement. Even as a child, in the village they’d grown up in near Angouleme, Hugo had never seemed to worry about anything. Why couldn’t everyone be that way?
A few hours earlier, he’d been musing about this while getting dressed. As he’d raised his shaking arms to tighten his tie, his right elbow had knocked over a glass of water he’d unwisely left on the dresser, right beside the print ad with the information on how to get to the interview.
“Merde-uh!” Desperately he’d dabbed at the paper with a fist-sized wad of tissues, then looked down at the damp print. Most of the ad was now illegible. Fear and anger overtook him. He’d led such an easy life in their village. His parents had paid for everything; a job would have only been an amusement. But he’d felt like he was missing something. Why couldn’t he have been satisfied? Instead, he’d come to this huge city far from home, and in the week he’d been here, he still felt like it was cold and unknowable.
He’d stopped himself, taken a breath, and examined the paper. Okay…the information he really needed was still here. The Métro station name was blurred but he could still make out “Sèvres”, and the street name looked like Dup…something. Hugo had tacked a large Métro map to his door. Sèvres…. Ah! There, at the other end of the city: Pont de Sèvres.
It was a good thing he’d gotten ready early; it would take a long time to get there.
Outside rush hour, the Riquet Métro station was like calm before the storm. Only a few people stood, spread-out from each other along the platforms. The train came a minute later, and everyone boarded and easily found seats. But Michel knew now that the next station, Stalingrad, had the same effect on passengers as the moon on the ocean. Most would flow out of the train, and a new crowd would rush in. This new crowd was usually much larger. The empty seats were quickly taken. At least half the passengers who had to stand were like coiled springs, ready to pounce on the next seat that would be vacated.
Throughout the ride, Michel couldn’t help furtively observing the people, as he often did. Hugo had told him to read something to relax, but he didn’t feel ready to trust that he’d be able to pay attention to the stations at the same time. And so, he gazed out the window and saw the inside of the car reflected back, like a TV screen. Some of the people on the train with him seemed perfectly normal and nice. But there were also teenagers from the bad neighborhoods to the north, like the notorious La Courneuve, which he’d heard about on the news long before coming to Paris. They dressed in flashy imitation designer clothing, baseball caps perched in seeming carelessness over their foreheads, or sweatshirts with hoods pulled up - the unofficial uniform of petty criminals. Sometimes drunks sat with heads sinking chestwise and no one around them. Sometimes homeless people moved through the cars, lugging their lives in decaying plastic bags.
He switched lines at Chaussée d’Antin-Lafayette, a station largely populated by well-dressed women coming back from shopping at the Grands-Magasins. For the next few stops, the train car was filled with the smell of expensive perfumes.
It took about an hour to get from the apartment to Pont de Sèvres, which was the last stop on line 9. When he got out, he felt instantly disoriented. In front of him, the sky was empty – no buildings but just a large outdoor bus station, then the horizon dropped towards the Seine. There was a tree-and-house covered hill on the river’s other side. Now he had to remember the street. He took the smeared ad from his pocket and fixed it with his gaze. The street name looked like…Du…Pont? The rue du Pont? “Pont” de Sèvres - that made sense.
An old woman was walking in his direction, pulling a shopping caddy behind her. She was neatly dressed, with her grey hair in a chignon, and a jacket with a plaid scarf and a little pin on the left lapel. Only her shoes were remiss, the clunky black things so many old ladies wore. “Excuse me,” he asked, “I’m looking for the rue du Pont?”
She glanced up at him, her age-spotted forehead furrowed. “The ‘rue du Pont’?”
Michel pointed to the smeared word on the paper in his hand.
“Here,” the woman took the paper from his hand and held it close to her face. “This is a mess,” she muttered. Like all Parisians, she’d quickly turned exasperated and scornful. After a few seconds, she announced: “You’re in the wrong place.”
“Uh- ” Michel sputtered.
“This says “rue Dupin .”
Ah! “All right, thank you – uh – where’s the rue Dupin, please?”
The old woman gave a short sigh that was somehow long enough to express how hopeless she found him. “There is no rue Dupin here. You are at the wrong Métro. There is no word before ‘Sèvres’ here, but something after. You see? I think you must have meant to go to the Sèvres-Babylone station.”
Okay. Michel took a breath. He was at the wrong place, and the interview was in – he glanced at his watch – ten minutes. This place was called “Sèvres”, too, so it must be close. “Thank you,” he said to the old woman. Then he went back down into the Métro station.
The map on the wall revealed he was completely wrong about the distance. Métro Sèvres-Babylone was on a different line, and near the center of the city.
Michel wondered if he’d ever be a real Parisian. Then he thought of the attitude of the Parisians he’d met so far, and wondered if he really wanted to be one. As he passed through the turnstile, he tried to act like Hugo: He’d arrive at the interview a little late, but he’d call now to tell them that. And the station he had to change at was Michel-Ange Molitor; his saint’s name was maybe a sign of good luck.
Thirty minutes later, he exited the Métro. “Excuse me, the rue Dupin?” he asked,the first person he came across, running. The man made a brusque gesture and Michel saw it across the street. He waited what seemed an eternity for the light to change as cars dashed down the broad Boulevard de Sèvres. If he’d been calmer, he would have appreciated the place, full of old, low white buildings, with a leafy park softening the diagonal intersection of three streets. There was something harmonious about it.
The number next to the address had been blotted out so much that even the sharp old lady at the Pont de Sèvres station couldn’t have helped him. Luckily, he remembered the company’s name: Les Petites Libellules. After a sprint halfway down the street, he found it, and went inside.
But he probably shouldn’t have bothered: “We don’t tolerate lateness,” the woman he’d arranged the interview with told him when he arrived at her office.
“But I --”
“Sorry, but I don’t have time.” She picked up her bag and a light, fashionable coat and headed out the door to lunch.
In a daze, Michel left the office and dragged himself back up the rue Dupin, towards Métro Sèvres-Babylone. The world around him was reeling. Hugo had been right: he was – or would have been – perfect for the job, and it would have been perfect for him. And now what was he going to do? The thought of going through the want ads again depressed him. He crossed the Boulevard de Sèvres like a real Parisian, barely checking for oncoming cars, and walked to the Métro station and let it swallow him.
The train would be there in 5 minutes. He found a fairly clean-looking plastic seat and sat down and tried not to think about anything.
Suddenly, there was a loud yelp from further down the platform. He turned his head and saw a small dog frantically barking at someone lying beside him. They were attached by a red leash.
Michel was up and running over before he could think. When he got close enough, he could make out the form of a rather large older woman. He knelt down and asked, “Are you all right?” feeling a little stupid, because no one would willingly lie down on the sometimes-spittle-marked ground of a Métro platform.
The woman groaned.
“Okay, please stay there. I’m going to get help!” He ran down the platform and up the stairs. The automatic exit doors shakily shuddered open and he burst through and raced to the ticket counter.
Within a matter of minutes, he was following two medics back down the stairs towards the woman and her yelping dog. He watched nervously as the medics leaned over her and held a mumbled conversation.
One came back to him. “Do you know this woman?”
“No,” Michel shook his head. “I just heard her dog and saw what happened.”
“I’m sure she’s grateful.” The medic nodded. “The problem is, she has this dog and we can’t bring it with us in the ambulance, and it won’t be allowed in the hospital. It doesn’t seem like she has any family nearby. We think she's suffering from dehydration, and will probably only be in the hospital overnight.” The man hesitated, probably thinking about the correct protocol. Then, he shrugged. “Do you think you could take the dog until then?”
His inability to find a quick reply often put Michel in inconvenient situations. But at least he liked dogs. And so, the woman was put on a stretcher and removed from the platform, the medics took down his contact information, and when the next train whooshed into the station, Michel boarded it with a red leash in his hand and a trembling Yorkshire terrier on the other end.
It was a calm ride on line 10. The few passengers were mostly older, well-dressed tourists. At Odeon, some teenagers got on, laughing and sending text messages. Michel had taken a seat on one of the strapontins – the fold-down seats near the door. The dog was on the floor beside him, shaking slightly. He looked down and thought, “I know how you feel.”
He closed his eyes, suddenly realizing how tired he was. The train’s slight rocking was almost cradle-like.
Suddenly, the leash stretched and tensed in his hand. Michel watched in horror as the dog launched his little body at a pretty girl carrying a large green box and standing obliviously against the metal pole in the middle of the car, gazing out the windows. She had on headphones and seemed totally lost in what she was listening to. The impact of the dog’s head butting into her leg startled her back into reality.
“Oh!” she gave an involuntary jump – and “No! Shit!” – as the pale green box flew from her hands and fell upside-down on the floor. Little colored circles rolled out of it. Michel watched as the dog sucked them up like a vacuum.
He got up with a start and the strapontin snapped back to its place against the metal partition with a loud “Bang!”
“Oh! I’m so sorry! He’s not my dog – I didn’t know--” He bent down at the same time as the girl, and started trying to shove what contents the dog hadn’t gotten to, back into the box, as she tried to pick the box up, seeming glad to leave the dropped contents where they’d fallen. And rightly so, Michel realized, returning to reason.
“I can’t believe this!” she said, resting the box in the crook of her arm and taking off her headphones.
“I’m so sorry,” seemed to be all he could say.
“They were for my sister!”
“I-” the logical solution came to him. “I’ll replace them!”
He could see her take in his wrinkled suit, his disorderly hair. She beckoned him to lean in. “Sorry, but I don’t think so. I had to go all the way to the Champs-Elysées to get these, and they were,” she stopped, and her cheeks went red, which Michel couldn’t help noticing looked nice against her slightly tanned skin, “expensive,” she finished.
“Oh! No, it’s – um, it’s okay. Really.”
She gave him another look, one eyebrow in a perfect arch. “You have the time to come all the way over to the Champs-Elysées?”
They got out at Gare d’Austerlitz, took line 5 to Bastille, then transferred to line 1 and took it to station George V. At least, that’s how they must have gone, but he didn’t really think about it at the time. He hadn’t watched the stations, only Juliette, who luckily seemed to know the Métro the way he’d known the streets of his village.
They’d talked through the ride, Michel explaining about the dog and his recent arrival in Paris, Juliette telling him about life in a cheap student apartment in the fifth arrondissement, where she was going to school for art history. He told her about Hugo’s dangerous but always interesting job, and she’d told him about being the black sheep of her musical family. Tonight, she was going to her sister’s piano concert at the Salle Pleyel: “It’s her first professional concert, and I wanted to surprise her and put a huge box of macarons from Ladurée backstage. They’re her favorite pastry.”
They got out of the station and emerged onto the Champs-Elysées. The legendary avenue had slightly disappointed Michel when he’d visited it with Hugo a few days before. The building facades weren’t elegant so much as modern and suited to displaying things to buy. And the things to buy weren’t all from expensive designers; in fact, the Champs-Elysées was like an outdoor mall, with few extraordinary shops among moderately-priced clothing stores and even a Monoprix and fast food places.
“I’m not a posh girl or anything,” Juliette said, as they walked towards Ladurée. And he understood why when he saw the place. He hadn’t walked down this part of the avenue when he’d visited, since most of the things that Hugo found of interest were on the other side. If he had, he might have come away with a slightly better opinion of the famous street. Ladurée, a famous pastry shop, was a sight he finally found fitting of his image of the Champs-Elysées. It was housed in a venerable Parisian buliding that exuded luxury and an old-fashioned charm, with a green and gilt awining over the door and tearoom windows.
Inside, they waited in a long line in a dark-paneled room. The counter in front of them was full of colorful pastries and different pretty boxes to put them in.
“I don’t understand,” Michel said in a low voice, “Why are they so famous? You can buy macarons in a lot of places.”
Juliette looked at him in comically exaggerated surprise. He loved her dark blue eyes, and in the artificial light he noticed a diamond smaller than a drop of sleet in the right side of her nose. “You’ve never tasted a Ladurée macaron?”
He shook his head.
“Then I’ll buy you one, and you can buy the others you owe me.”
“Fair enough,” he nodded solemnly, and the dog barked up at them as if to seal the deal – or to remind him that he should probably taste one, too.
“You’ve had enough already,” Michel muttered, and Juliette laughed.
They figured she’d lost twelve macarons in the Métro, so when it was their turn she ordered her dozen, then asked Michel, “What flavor do you want?”
“What’s the best one?”
Without a second of hesitation, she told him to pick Fleur d’Oranger.
When they'd left the shop and walked a few paces, she stopped. “Taste it now,” she said.
He reached into his little bag and took out the macaron, small and light orange. He bit into it, and it melted in his mouth, leaving its taste like a scent on the air. “It’s like eating an orange cloud!” he blurted out. “Uh- it’s smooth and light – I’ve never had anything like this!”
Juliette nodded. “Exactly.”
She watched him take his second, and last, bite. “If I was a painter, instead of someone who studies them, I’d paint you just like that.”
Michel didn’t know what to say. Luckily the dog barked and they both laughed.
By now, they’d reached the Métro station. Michel looked at Juliette, her gleaming eyes the color of sapphires, her short, frizzy brown hair, and wished he was good with words. He could write them, but saying just the right thing, wasn’t a skill he possessed. Especially not when it came to asking someone he had no right to ask, if he could see her again.
“So, have you been to the Louvre yet?” she asked suddenly.
“Uh-no”, Michel replied.
“Well, this weekend, it's the first Sunday of the month.” She stopped, with an expectant look, then saw his blank face and continued. “Uh – that means all of the national museums are free.” She stopped again, saw what Michel imagined as himself trying to swallow. She took a breath and went on, “I was going to go anyway- want to come along? I mean, who better than me to show you around?”
Michel felt his face get red.
“Uh,” Juliette’s cheeks did the same, as if to color coordinate. “I mean, because I’m studying art. I mean, if you’re free. Uh -” she reached into her bag and before he could say anything else, she pulled out a little notepad and a pen. “Here’s my number, if you’re interested. Uh- I’ve got to go – my sister -”
And before Michel could say one word, she’d dashed down into the Métro. He stared at the number in his hand in disbelief. Then he folded the paper and put it carefully into his breast pocket, vowing not to touch a glass of water until the suit was hung up and the number was stashed somewhere safe.
The train must have come as soon as Juliette had gotten onto the platform; by the time he arrived, she was gone. As if half awake, he took line 1 back to Bastille, then line 5 to Stalingrad, where for once he barely noticed the crowd – except when someone almost tripped over the dog’s leash. Just as he was about to follow the signs for line 7, he decided to get out and walk the rest of the way home. He looked down at the dog, who seemed to smile up at him. They left the noise and chaos of the Métro and the Boulevard de la Chapelle, and crossed onto the white stone promenade of the Bassin de la Villette.
The late afternoon sun shone down on them with gentle warmth, light yellow like a macaron. The dog sniffed at blades of grass that were peeking up between the stones. A few meters further, Michel could see people strolling up to the cinemas on either side of the water, or sitting at the terraces of their cafes, watching the world go by with an espresso in hand. They walked on, the water rippling beside them like a soft laugh, pigeons picking at crumbs, the clouds above subtly shaded white -- an Impressionist’s sky.
He got back to the apartment much later than he would have thought. His suit was horribly rumpled, his hair even more of a mess now that the breeze had been blowing through it for the last half hour. He’d taken off his tie and stuffed it into his pants pocket, deforming one side of his trousers. In one hand was the red leash and the dog it was attached to. In the other was a crumpled bag from Ladurée.
Hugo was on the couch, watching a DVD. He put it on pause and turned to Michel, asking, “So did you get the job?”
Hugo opened his mouth to say something, then stopped, puzzled by his friend's appearance, by the dog, and most of all by the smile on Michel’s face.