Listening Underground

The 14 Arrives at Chatelet

In Paris. Every morning on the 13 to Montparnasse. Not every morning. Some mornings. I would sit or grip the pole and wonder about germs and the people would shove in and not move to the center. A man with his face in my hair, a hand on my book bag. And I had no language to tell him to stop. Or I did, but I would be so afraid to use it. I didn’t know how people said things. That’s what it means to really learn. To say things the way people say things. Not what’s in the book.

Once, a woman stood with a wriggling little girl, clawing over her shoulder, and I offered her my seat.


That’s all I could say. I could say things about sitting, about the seat. (Or maybe the only word I knew was “chair.”) I could command her to sit, like a teacher yelling at a classroom of children. Please take my seat because you need it more than I do. That’s what I needed and didn’t have. But she smiled and I felt relieved.

One morning, my hair was wet. And I wanted to bang my head backwards against the scratched window and shout.


I’m sorry. I don’t understand. It’s driving me crazy to be so close to you and not to understand. I self-punished. You are a terrible student. You are old and can’t learn anything. Maybe your hearing is going. Because if you were really learning, you would be a part of this. You would be reading something other than Wuthering Heights on the 13 to Montparnasse.

And the Metro coughed me up at the foot of the ugliest skyscraper in the most beautiful city in the world, and the wind whipped across the concrete plaza while I fought tears and wanted to pound my fists into someone’s face. Please, just let me learn so I don’t have to be alone.

New York. Months later.

A French family stands by the door on the 2 train as though they are drawn from a picture book. The father, rotund and bearded in a fedora, directing traffic, watching the stops. The mother or maybe an aunt, bundled in a winter coat, in designer boots. And the little girl in enormous pink sneakers and a more fashionable haircut than I could hope for in my lifetime. She’s fair haired and her eyes are enormous and sparkling with such ferocity that she looks almost feverish. She recites the names of the stops as they fly past in her little-girl accent, high-pitched, wonderous. I can understand everything they say. Everything.

They know exactly where they need to go, have counted the stops and know the street layout where they’re headed. Disappointment, almost. As I recite in my head the things I could say like a game. Questions that never made it onto the test.

Do you need help?
Do you know where you’re going?
I speak, but only a little.

Six times, I hold my tongue. The French do not invite casual conversations with strangers. They read the map. The doors open. They move on.

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