Monique speaks French and I tell her that’s nice, but not in French though because I don’t speak it, not anymore. Anymore is a stretch. I tell her I used to speak some (French), just a little, and she gets excited, lights up, speaking to me en français—ah, bon, she says, le etcetera, le etcetera—because she’s African, she says, African but she speaks French. “C’mon,” says Monique, infectious smile insisting, “let me hear something, say something in French.” Accent, exuberance—I want to thank her for being such a human being but that feels dumber than my tied tongue. How old could she be, I wonder. Old enough to be my mother? Maybe. Then I’d be African, and speak French. And be able to do more than just laugh, a little embarrassed and afraid she’ll insist I step out of English and into a public performance for which I’m completely unprepared, as if preparation is a thing for this, my mind blanking just as it usually does when I most need it to save me from seeming (or being) stupid or surprised.
“I used to know some,” I venture, smiling, “but not anymore. I’m way out of practice. I can understand much better than I can speak.” I say this almost sheepishly, with apologetic undertones and subtle notes of guilt, a kind of aromatic, flavorful embarrassment I’m trying to offer her so as not to seem overly ordinary, but just a little, maybe, mostly, though with the charm of a good upbringing. Who doesn’t like that? And I’m still smiling, because she is and I can’t help it, because warmth feels nice for a change, and I notice the initial disinclination I felt at being approached by a complete stranger who just happened to be walking the same direction as me on the same sidewalk at the same time one warm weekday evening in late August dissipating with each little gesture, each glance, each chuckle, each utterance, en français and en anglais.
This is how it happened: We’d been standing at a corner, Monique and I, before we were Monique and I, when it was just an I and some peripheral strangers, waiting for the light to change, and I got that feeling I get when I sense someone notice me, as if I can hear them thinking about speaking, or perhaps poking me with a stick, their mind-gears cranking and clacking. I can hear them thinking because I’m being so quiet, like a WWII submarine down deep and gone all silent, engines off, listening for a sonar ping but pretending I’m invisible—or at least undetectable—in the semi-conscious hope that if I dive deep enough I actually will be. Please don’t, I thought, please, just leave me in peace tonight (that’s every night, almost, any night). Ping… ping…. Deeper I dived, headphones and a distant gaze as countermeasures. A flurry of traffic passed and, seeing the coast was clear enough, I lurched ahead, three-quarter engines, ballast tanks blown, screaming toward the surface like a bat out of hell, at least in my insides, and began to cross without waiting either for the light or for confirmation that I’d been spotted. Monique shuffled out behind me. Great, I thought, feeling myself in her sights. Ping… ping… ping….
About halfway across I caught sight, around the rusty iron and crumbling concrete pylons bisecting the four-lane one-way through the underpass beneath the train tracks, of a few more cars barreling through to the intersection. I stopped, waiting for them to pass, and as I did, Monique caught up to me. I saw her out of the corner of my eye and realized I’d been had. “I’ll follow you,” she said, with a big smile on her face and a quick motion of her right hand toward the oncoming, then passing cars. My silent service and feigned obliviousness had been for naught; she saw right through as if there’d been no stealth, no disguise in the first place, which was of course mostly true, and I felt like a hare that had imagined itself invisible in its stillness being approached by a kind, precocious child unaware of nature’s signals and thinking only of how fluffy and cute and interesting. Except I am big and she is small, I thought, it’s the big one hiding and the little one in pursuit.
“I won’t lead you to harm,” I said, surprising myself by having anything to say, let alone something in line with the moment, especially a moment I had been trying to avoid. I’ve always been so bad at resurfacing once I’ve gone down deep and quiet. I’ll usually come up gasping, exploding or bumbling into presence, speaking too quickly or reacting too slowly or both, somehow, all out of sync and breathless, disoriented, awkward, and a little more than a little odd, like I’m from another town or country or planet and I still haven’t learned the proper ways. Perhaps I am and haven’t.
Our tiny exchange passed with the remaining cars and I set off again, thinking that was—hoping it was—the end of that. But Monique set off too, as if tied to me by a little string, and put that hope on hold by saying something from somewhere close behind me about being careful in the city. I could hear that it was said through a smile, and I tossed a quick and cordial tooth-baring of my own back over my shoulder, wanting to be neither rude nor encouraging, a distantiating technique I’ve picked up in my many observations, and continued on my way in courteous nonchalance, but wanting so badly to dash off like that hare.
There were three young women on the far corner as I—we—approached, and I noticed them notice me—us—as they stepped into the street when the light changed, just as I was stepping up on the curb, Monique a few of my-sized paces behind me, poking along like a little dirigible. I passed them, pretending not to notice their noticing, and started to put my headphones back in—after having removed them when she spoke to me mid-street—but stopped myself, or was stopped by Monique, who’d begun to speak again, her voice small but clearly audible, like she’d sent the words straight from her mouth to my ears without any interference. And that’s how I came to learn of her bilingualism and origins, and also that she works in a grocery store downtown and lives with her daughter in a township just outside the city, that she is walking to the train, heading home for the day.
“Used to know some? How only used to?” Monique is playfully incredulous, and I think she mostly means it. She has a point, and why had I said I can understand better than speak? It was only barely true, minutely, imperceptibly, insignificantly true, like how it’s true that 1.2 is greater than 1—and that was about the difference between my speaking of French and my comprehension; also, on a scale of one to ten, about the right score for both. But the gates have been opened and Monique is charging through with a flood of français as I walk along caught between searching for a phrase or something fun or funny to say in her mother tongue—or one of them—and trying to understand some bit or piece of what I’m hearing. But it’s all tone and tempo, all fluid incomprehensibility and I just smile a friendly, idiotic smile, and laugh shyly, again. “You must remember something,” she insists, “not even a little?” “Not even a little,” I say, smiling again, offering a tiny head-shake of the ashamed for good measure, knowing I’m not telling the truth but allowing the fear of embarrassment to outweigh any possible joy of participation. Why am I like this? The question flits by in the background and I know I’ll come back to it later, regretfully, wishing I’d played along and wondering why I so rarely can after intense bouts of preoccupation. She emits a short, lighthearted, mildly disbelieving “hmm.” Her mind moves quickly, without hesitation or inhibition—these kinds of people like me, or they like people, and I happen to be a person, usually, or can seem like one sometimes. Perhaps so this evening. Did I mention it’s evening? Dusk, in fact.
“Ok,” she says, laughing a sweet, easy laugh, “how about bonjour.” Very funny. She says it slow and elongated, as if to an old person or child, over-enunciating. “Yes, I do know that.” Laughing, both. “Ҫa va?”—pause, eyes lighting—“or voulez-vouz coucher avec moi?” and she emits a peal of hearty laughter followed by an ear-to-ear, squint-eyed grin in the fading light occupying that interval between sunset and streetlamp. “Yeah, that too,” I say, laughing with her. Monique is funny, and she has now officially made my evening, and turned around the whole preceding day. Just with that. “Everybody knows that one,” she says, enjoying every bit of our little exchange. It strikes me that her face is kindness personified, the very idea itself in flesh and blood, smile-creased and wrinkled, with such lively eyes, eyes that really and truly do sparkle and I wish I had a camera or a paintbrush or a pencil and paper—something more than memory to capture it.
Most of the time I find what we say and do to be so boring or rehearsed that I drift off into pure observation, fully out of the moment, wondering all kinds of things about who they are and where they’ve been and why they care about what they’re saying or doing, indeed if they care at all or are just putting on airs till they can get back to what really matters to them, like I do. They come to seem like museum exhibits, one-, two-, maybe three-dimensional but with limited capacity for engagement. Not with Monique, though. There’s no time to wander out of the moment with her, no space for that at all, it’s all here, now, and her eyes really do shine. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before, not like this, and it makes me wonder what special power it is that lets someone be so happy they’re luminous and makes others feel almost silly for wanting to hide. Almost. They do say happiness is infectious, because happy, joyful people do rub off on us, don’t they? They infect us with their happy and we feel good, better, different for a spell, or sometimes we feel worse, irritated, even disgusted. But they do something to us, one way or another. Maybe the symptoms persist for five minutes, maybe for a week, maybe they come back to us every time we remember them, these happy people, or see them or think of them. But then it’s gone, all cleared up. And so are they. And the world is again what it is.
“See you next time,” she says, and waves. “My name is Monique.” And with that she crosses the street toward the paint-chipped and rust-spotted metal staircase up to the train platform. A train rattles and rumbles in and I can’t hear what she yells to me from the other side.