I ran under the large sign screaming PIGALLE and down into the metro station, clutching my new black purse to my side as I swiped my Navigo pass along the machine. Sliding through the turnstiles, I prayed that I would be able to catch the train that was already on the platform. As I ran down the stairs, there was a loud buzz echoing through the platform. The automatic doors slammed shut, and the train whirled though the tunnel, leaving me in solitude on the platform. The lighted board said the next train would arrive in 13 minutes.
Perfect, I thought. At least there is another train.
Honestly, I didn’t really live that far away from where I was. We stayed out challenging the metro closing that night to celebrate my friend’s birthday, officially christening Sacre Coeur with our champagne and watching the skyline from the steps of the basilica. I’m sure it had already been christened by other picnickers over the past hundred years, but it hadn’t yet by us.
The Pigalle metro station was about three blocks away from my apartment, but since it was so cold and reaching two o’clock in the morning, I didn’t want to risk braving the dark back streets of the Red Light district alone. Anyone walking around alone that late was either a prostitute, or would be perceived as one.
I immediately regretted forgetting my iPod that night, as I sat down on a bench on the platform. Tant pis, I thought, looking around the barren platform. I noticed a homeless man sleeping across the tracks as footsteps came toward me down the stairs. Avoiding eye contact with the newest temporary squatter, I tried to get a glimpse at him. His hair was tangled and oily, his clothes unwashed, and the black plastic bag in his hand left little to the imagination in terms of his intentions for prowling around the neighborhood. Eleven minutes.
He took the seat next to me and turned to look at his bench companion. Stroking the side of his jeans, his mouth twisted into a smile and his eyes squinted. The stroking became faster and faster. I got up from my seat as fast as I could and began staring at the map on the wall, practically memorizing it. However, I wasn’t counting on him following at my heels. The stranger took his place again right beside me, pretending to study the map as well. I locked my eyes on the blue line tracing nearly parallel to the Seine, ligne 2, praying he wouldn’t try to start a conversation.
“Which one’s yours?” he breathed in my ear, the most chilling French words I had ever heard. I tried not to flinch, keeping my eyes locked on the map.
“Where are you going?” he asked again, hoping that a simple rephrasing would warrant a response. My heart beat faster and faster as his breath hit the back of my neck.
“Come on, it’s just everyday conversation. You don’t need to be scared. Where are you going?” His French was so broken and quiet I could barely understand him. Not that I wanted to, though. Seven minutes.
After a minute of whispers beating against my neck, I realized the only way to get him to stop would be to respond. “I don’t know,” I mumbled, hoping he wouldn’t recognize me as a foreigner.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” he squinted at me, taking one step closer. My mind raced, trying to think of what to tell him next. I couldn’t tell him where I was going, I couldn’t tell him, I couldn’t–
“Place de Clichy,” I said. Fuck. Why the fuck did I say that?! I thought, momentarily hating myself for being the worst liar in the world. I debated whether to go over to the couple that appeared on the platform for help, or to try to ignore the stranger again. Three minutes.
“Place de Clichy? Aaahh bon? That’s my stop too.”
Of course it isn’t, I thought, wishing I had kept ignoring him. He mumbled again, as I walked closer to the edge, away from the stranger. Every time I got close enough to feel the bumps on the platform, I worried someone would push me onto the tracks. For some reason, at that moment I preferred that to the lingering stranger.
At last, the double zeros flashed on the board announcing the time remaining till the next train. The headlights from the train came around the corner, and I was filled with relief.
I jumped on the train, and started to walk through the cars to get away from him. Dans le metro, I thought. Il n’y a pas les places sur le metro. Of course, now was the time when I was thinking of my professor’s preposition lessons.
Luckily, there were other people on the train in case I needed to cause a scene. I walked up to the first car, right next to the driver’s car. At school, they always said to go there when riding the metro alone at night, because the driver could always call for help.
The stranger stopped in the first car, too. I was at the first door, he was at the second. With one eye glancing sideways at him, I desperately waited for the train to reach Place de Clichy.
The woman on the train recording alerted me that we were now one stop away, so I braced myself, ready to run. I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to devise a plan in case he followed.
Place de Clichy.
As soon as I heard those words echo through the intercom, I squeezed through the barely open doors and fled, as the stranger exited at the same time.
Of course I picked today not to wear a black coat, I thought, wishing I could blend into the crowd. I raced up the stairs off the platform, through the automatic doors, and up the stairs onto Boulevard de Clichy, a mere hundred feet from my apartment. I glanced over at my crepe man, wondering if I should seek him out for help or just make a beeline for my apartment. But, I wasn’t sure if he would be at the stand tonight, so I decided to run for it.
Past le McDo. Past Léon. Past Tabla. Past a tabac, a boulangerie, and la Banque Populaire. I panted, fumbling with my keys, struggling to get the door code right on the first try.
With a click and a gasp the door unlocked, and I pushed the heavy door open. Scuffling inside, I pushed it closed as fast as I could. I grasped my keys once more to open the inside glass door, when I heard knocking on the outside door. The glass door swung open quickly as I turned the key, and I ran up the narrow stairs, out of the cold and into the refuge of my apartment.