T H E
V A G U E
[narrative spoken succinctly yet rapidly over opening montage, in a low, monotonous voice]Our story begins on an overcast morning, as our hero, a wide-eyed traveler from America, leaves the apartment of the friend he is staying with to explore the vast boulevards of Paris for the first time in his life. His sense of wonderment blinds him to the dangers just beyond the bourgeois sheen of the main streets, lurking in the alleyways of the city.
Hand pulls lock latch. Clack.
Door creaks, young man steps out, looks both ways, leaves.
Door slams. Clang!
I step out of my apartment and onto Rue de Sevigne, stopping for a moment to take in the surroundings. A thin one-way street busily runs in front of me, motorcycles loudly buzzing their way down, making their way to work. The sound is loudly echoed against the medieval buildings that claustrophobically line the street. A beautiful French woman catches my eye, her clothes the shades of autumn, her stride purposeful and confident, with a slight flair as she kicks up her heel at each step, chin held high. Hair blond with bangs softly falling over the elegantly angled, smooth face, nose protrudingly pointing in the direction of her gait. Elated at the sights living up to my romantic expectations, my glee hardly is contained, given away by certain crinkles in my face building up to a smile. I decide to follow the alluring Frenchwoman to begin my day of wandering.
The sky is a foreboding swirl of gray, but I look back down the street, and it’s teeming with Parisiens heading off to work. I try to keep gait with the woman, taking in the sights around me at the same time.
Black dress trails behind her, flapping in the wind.
Curls left, right, commands me to follow.
I’m taken to Rue de Rivoli, where the crowd instantly thickens, builds, its density slowing my pace. Candles hang from overhead, part of the sensory overload of Christmas decorations all over the street, and Christmas carols emanate from stores, enchanting passersby. The shop display windows collect crowds, their fluid, musical French voices mingling into the music, and the gathering heaps keep the streets jammed and barely flowing. I lose sight of my guide. The last ripples of her dress disappear in between two approaching men, dressed in chic suits. I move to the left to dodge, but to no avail – she’s gone, and I’m now on my own.
After a swift moment’s hesitation and then a pause to admire the stately grandness of the Louvre, our hero decides to traverse the city in a logical manner, deciding to start at the north, at the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur, and work his way down, zigzagging through the major boulevards. He blithely jaunts down the steps of the metro, under the flowery arch of the Metropolitain sign, regarded scrupulously by its two red bulbs.
The doors hiss and part.
A young man steps out, doors shut.
An electric whirring crescendos with the acceleration.
Sudden roar of the arriving train in the opposite direction.
The sign reads Abbesses, sloppily hung on a bare pipe. The walls had been stripped to the bare concrete, recently coated with a mess of indecipherable graffiti, barely visible under the flickering fluorescent bulbs. I head for the exit and climb an unending spiral of steps. The wall mural painted to follow the curve depicts faces of different ethnicities, some defaced with bright red paint. Now a mural of the different Parisien sights on a background of blue. Finally, a clear virgin white wall. I continue up the steps.
After a steady climb up steep steps our hero gazes in awe at the dense, ivory white Parisien cityscape. He focuses on certain buildings that stand out, Le Centre Pompidou, Notre-Dame, the Pantheon in the distance, taking quick snaps with his camera. He giddily climbs the final steps up to the cathedral. A guard asks him to remove his hat. Inside, he stares up at the concave, white stone dome and wanders around in the dimly lit chambers. He takes pictures for happy couples, wanders around some more, and then exits, lightly descending the many steps.
I reach the base, past the radiant green lawns, looking forward on to the next restaurant-lined street at which to turn onto. However, before I reach the end of the street, from the corner of my eye, I notice one of the many sketchy, dirt-stained street vendors, and by the time I notice him, it’s too late, and he moves to block my path. He approaches me, fedora askew, with a huge grin, raising up the goods that he has been peddling to others who have unfortunately passed by this way.
“Non, merci,” I tell him, preemptively, with a wave of my hand and a sudden change in direction.
However, he anticipates and moves to block, moving swiftly, khaki trench coat flaring as it follows, his motions perfected after years of encounters with similar tourists. He pushes into my face a few sad looking, threaded bracelets, their colors faded, the thread worn and dirty. He then speaks to me in his broken English.
“Two Euros,” he says, moving the bracelets back and forth, as if doing so would make them more appealing. The grin stretches wider, now a few stained teeth showing, most likely from years of smoking cigars. His eyes began to twinkle at the growing annoyance on my expression, that knowing look. He was close to his prize of two Euros, the fee for getting rid of him. I continue to walk away, but he grabs my arm, in one last effort at a sale.
Without looking at him, but with an obvious look of impatience on my face, I curse under my breath, both at his bold maneuver and at his impetuousness and arrogance.
“Fucking shit,” I mutter.
He immediately shoves my left arm. I look at him, incredulously.
“You don’t treat someone like that,” he angrily spits at me, once again in his broken English.
My patience ends, and I reply, trying hard but failing to control the angry tone, “I refused politely already.”
“Walk away then!” he gestures with a wave of his hand, and approaches other tourists, some looking on in curiosity.
I curse at him, and then proceed to walk down the street, my mind roiled at having my pretty thoughts rudely interrupted, thoughts cycling the incident over and over again, both angry and guilty at the same time. Taken aback at the possibility of having affronted the poor peddler of goods. But angry all the same of being bothered, of being harassed.
And it goes on. Our hero walks, not paying attention to what direction, eyes on the ground in front of his steadily paced feet, mind elsewhere, distracted. And he passes rows upon rows of beautifully ornate baroque facades, all looking on in sadness of being neglected by him. And he walks. We see his face, eyes blank, turned inwardly, angry but anxious. Mouth firmly set, tight. Brows scrunched together. The scenes behind the face changes – from lined, naked tree branches over large streets, to simple shapes of modern minimal buildings, back to the classic Parisien building facades, their intricate steel balconies hanging above – yet the worrying, disturbed face remains the same. And if he were to look up, not only would he be greeted by the Parisien view, but he would also notice not far behind, that the same peddler had begun to follow him, needlessly stopping at every block or so to escape notice.
Digging a path through crowded streets.
RER roaring above, cars honking, mingling voices.
Stores hawking cheap clothes. Promotions.
And so my head slowly comes up and my attention returns to the sensations of the city. A bustling neighborhood, packed with rush-hour traffic. Garish neon signs flicker on as the day dims, the colors blinking and bleeding into each other as they reflect off the slick streets. They all meld together into the distance, indistinguishably flashing, scrolling, on, off, on, off. I begin to smell the charred meat of a fresh kebab, passing by several food stands, and I walk into drifting voices, now a chorus of staccatoed French, fiery Arabic, and a mixture of various Indian languages. On my left are a row of parked delivery vans, each acting as a moving mural for graffiti artists. Children run past me, occasionally bumping me from my stride.
I eventually reach a large plaza. Here, the RER track curves to the right, trains rumbling by at intervals over the overlapping honks of cars and the motorcycles. I stand still at the intersection and take in the broad view. Lights move by in every which direction as I scan from right to left. Pedestrians cross haphazardly, running across the moving streets. And as my gaze arrives at the trail just traversed, I see a mass of heads, bobbing up and down. All moving as one, all looking down, steadfastly going their own ways, illuminated as they pass each storefront. And as I lazily gaze at this bubbling of humanity, an outlier catches my eye. One head that isn’t bobbing up and down with the others, a head a bit taller than the others, standing still, barely peeking out from the shadow of an awning, and capped by a fedora askew. And the fedora sparks a sequence of images from earlier in the day: stepping out from the alley, his frayed threads, grabbing my arm, shoving me, his sinister smile. The memory is introduced as a shot into my blood, quickly catalyzing into a growing dread throughout my body, and my limbs freeze. It becomes quiet all around me. The cars make no noise, the people no sound. And my vision freezes, focused in on the fedora capped man, and though I could be hallucinating, it seems that at that very moment his eyes, barely under the shadow of his brim, slowly shift to me, matching my gaze. And we stare intently at each other for what seems an eternity. Then, slowly, the awareness of reality around me and the reality of the situation diffuses through my mind replacing the dread coursing through my veins. The clamor around me slowly returns, the honking, the shouting, the screeching. The crowd returns to life, running here and there, cutting through the stacked traffic. The subway once again thunders above.
And I turn back around and run.
Past the people, past the intersection, past the parked cars, past the bistros, past the cafes, past the bridge, past the train station, past the hospital, past the cemetery.
Blurring, center to peripheral.
Lights trailing, tracking my motion.
Lines on either side, converging into the distant horizon.
And so he runs. And he traces a path through the city that seems at once new yet strangely familiar, the recognition uncovering itself with the passing of previously visited landmarks and memorized road signs. He occasionally looks up, but mostly stares at the ground in front of him. Not caring where he runs, only wanting to get as far away from the fedora trenchcoated man, he takes random turns in an effort to shake him off. At intersections, onlookers look on in annoyance as he pushes them aside and hastily picks up speed around corners. And a few seconds later, the very same onlookers are pushed down once more as the peddler pursues, his trench coattails flying behind him. At one particular intersection, our hero crosses right as the lights change, and he is almost run over by the quickly accelerating traffic, only to be met with angry honks and shouts. Yet this fortunate occurrence allows him to build distance from the peddler as he is left waiting on the other side. Not looking back, however, our hero keeps running.
Exhausted, out of breath, I slow to a walk. I turn around to check and see if I’m still being followed. But no, I see only a few people walking about, some walking their dogs. The streets are not so busy here, and I continue quietly down in the dark. The environment once more slowly encroaches my view, and I notice that the buildings are much smaller and older, the roads more narrow, pavement replaced by cobblestone. My footsteps echo into the night sky. Most of the shops here are closed. Eventually, I am alone. I come to the end of the street and climb the brick wall, jumping down from the top to the other side. Then I look up, and realize that I’m on the bank of the Seine, it’s current leisurely curving and following the marble lined channel. Small houses line up along the sides of the bank, the lit windows providing the only light of the night; their distorted images are reflected on the rippled waters. I slowly walk towards the edge of the bank, stop, and stare into the river. And as I stare, my eyes follow its trail into the horizon, as its width slowly shrinks and gradually disappears into the night.