Jackson was already in a bad mood as he made his way through Concorde station. The klezmer band, which usually cheered him up, echoed through the corridors. Will trundled behind him with the grocery trolley. They’d been to the Marché Aligre, but Will hadn’t liked it. Will preferred supermarkets, where he could pick things out for himself and didn’t have to trot out his rudimentary French. As a result, since Will did the cooking, Jackson ate greasy chicken, rubbery steak, and vegetables picked weeks before they ripened. In France!
Jackson heard English spoken before he saw them: the blind guy and the two Brits at the bottom of the next stairway, shaking hands before parting ways. From the top of the steps he heard the blind guy say loudly, “Who speaks English and can help me?”
He didn’t glance back to see how far Will was. He clattered down the steps. “I speak English,” he said. “I can help you.” He took the blind guy’s elbow just like that, as if they were a couple about to head off to church. Behind them, the klezmer music faded.
“Thank you,” said the blind guy. He had one of those white sticks, which he held like a leash, as if he were walking a dog. “I need to find the place where the door opens on the metro,” he said. “On some cars, they open by themselves, and I can follow the sound. But if I find myself before a latched door, I don’t manage to open it before the bell rings.”
The blind guy spoke with a Middle Eastern accent. He had a soft, oval face, with a short brush of facial hair; back from his forehead, it was thinning. His eyes had the creepy unfocused look of all blind people.
“Here we are,” Jackson said as the 12 train pulled alongside the platform. As he helped the blind guy cross the gap between platform and train, he glanced back. There came Will, through the next set of doors. Jackson tried to catch his eye, but Will gave him only a quick head nod before finding a seat and propping the market trolley between his legs. The car was packed. Along with the blind guy, Jackson stayed on his feet, gripping a pole.
Free to stare at a guy who couldn’t see him, he put him at 30 years old, more or less; a few gray hairs were starting up among the dark brown. His eyes remained half-open, the pupils unfocused. He wasn’t handsome. His lips seemed a little wet, full as a child’s, halted in the midst of a smile. In the end, Jackson thought, you have to say something. “Where are you from?” he asked.
“I am from Iran.”
“And what are you doing in Paris?”
“I am studying. My name,” said the blind guy, “is Faisal.” He shifted his white stick to the hand gripping the pole and held out his other hand, which Jackson shook briefly.
“Jackson,” he said. He wished that Will were closer by. Will was a real teacher, the genuine article; every discovery of a student was like a gift for him. “What are you studying?”
“Actually, I am not studying yet. I need papers.”
Ah. A refugee. A blind, undocumented Iranian in Paris. “But if you could study – “
“It would be massage,” Faisal said – and as if he could see Jackson’s surprise, “It is a good career, for a blind person. We are very good with our hands, and we do not embarrass the customers.”
Jackson stole a look at Faisal’s hands. Funny, how he tried to disguise his staring. The hands were fleshy and not strong-looking. But some people like a gentle massage. “And you’re learning French?”
Faisal giggled, a girlish sound. They had stopped at Madeleine to take on more passengers; the car had grown hot. Aboveground, the raw chill of early April. Jackson had two more months instructing American students in the niceties of Parisian architecture, then it was back to Buffalo and the dissertation that wouldn’t quit. He’d grown up in Paris; that was why they’d come here on Will’s sabbatical. Will, after all, was thoughtful; Will sensed how discomfited Jackson was on the wide, snowy streets of upstate New York; Will wanted him to feel at home for once. But the spoiled American students, the plastic-wrapped groceries fetched at Carrefour – that wasn’t home. Lately, Jackson’s life seemed like a play, with the charming Montmartre flat they’d rented as the stage set, and Will always on stage, reading philosophy and working on his book and cooking supper, while Jackson executed the exits and entrances. What Jackson really wanted was to send Will home, at the end of the semester, and relocate from their sweet Montmartre flat to a faceless grenier in the 11th arrondissement. He wanted to stay out until the wee hours at the bars by the Canal St. Martin, smoking under the gas lamps while the football game played at the bar and the pretty boys came and went.
“I am trying,” Faisal said. “But French is not an easy language, and I have no one to practice with. I find the Americans much friendlier than the French.”
This recognition of being American, especially American in the age of Trump, this moment when his country was spreading shit around the world, always pained Jackson. When he wasn’t with Will, he tried to pass for Parisian, but his language had slipped, and he suspected even his way of walking from the hip gave him away. “If you were to come to the States,” he said, “you wouldn’t find us so nice, I’m afraid. Our government isn’t very welcoming, especially toward Iranians.”
“And my government is even worse!” said Faisal, with the same high giggle.
At Gare St. Lazare, the car shed half its passengers. There was room on the benches now, but Jackson and Faisal remained standing. Now and then, Jackson glanced back at Will. Will had pulled a journal out of the grocery cart – he always brought something to read – and was marking it with his pocket pen. His head tipped sideways, he wore his reading glasses. Will’s whole demeanor, the social flesh that encased him as his pale skin encased his long muscles, was enviably smooth. Not impenetrable exactly; Jackson wasn’t into men of mystery. Rather, like that Tempurpedic material they used now for mattresses, a dense absorption of the other person that slowly vanished until nothing seemed to have pressed upon him. For five years now, Jackson had availed himself of Will’s smoothness, had hurled at him every sharp spear of disappointment and seen it sink in, become absorbed and made invisible. He imagined sometimes that if he shook Will hard enough, all the slights, the barbs, the demands and disappointments would burst from his body.
“When we get rid of our government,” Faisal said, “and you get rid of your government, we will get together. We will have a big party.”
“That could take a while.”
“It doesn’t matter. We will find each other.”
“Here in Paris.”
“Oh yes! I will live here. Nothing will stop me.”
“Can we bring friends?”
“All our friends. I will cook chelow kebab, the best you ever have had.”
“And you’ll be a massage therapist.”
“I will give a massage to everyone at the party. Would you like a massage?”
“I would, actually. My lower back.”
Faisal nodded as though he understood. They weren’t flirting. Still, Jackson couldn’t avoid the picture of himself, his white naked ass on the table and a blind man’s soft fingers kneading. It lay just on the disgusting side of erotic, or maybe the erotic side of disgusting.
They pulled into Notre Dame de Lorette. “Do you know what stop you get off at?” Jackson asked. “Do you need help?”
“I get off at Pigalle. Two more stops. I count the stops, so I know.”
“Well done.” Pigalle, Jackson thought. He pictured a small, colorless room on the fifth floor. A bed, an overhead bulb, a microwave. Downstairs, the north Africans selling mobile phones and cocaine. Stench of fetid chicken and urine.
“I have the whole metro in my head,” Faisal was saying. “I have the whole map of Paris in my head. I have so many things there. You cannot imagine,” Faisal said, “how big my head is.”
The car was close to empty now. At the other end, if he chose to, Will could hear everything they were saying. Faisal’s smile had grown brighter, as if his eyes were turned inward and seeing the great expanse inside. At that moment Jackson knew this wasn’t simply an undocumented refugee without resources, without hope. All the space that was filled, for Jackson, with images, friends, words on his computer screen – all of it could be cleared away to make room for a kind of knowledge that he had never touched on before. “Clearly,” he managed to say, “you’ll get along well, here.”
“Thanks to generous strangers, like you. You are so nice, Jackson. Your wife is very lucky.”
Jackson hesitated. What the hell. One more stop. “I haven’t got a wife. I’ve got a boyfriend. He’s here, in the car with us.” He glanced back at Will. Sure enough, he was looking now. Jackson’s hands began to sweat. “He’s got our grocery cart,” he said.
“He is a lucky person,” Faisal said. “You are a kind and handsome man.”
“You can’t see me.”
“Your voice is handsome. Your children will have a great father.”
Jackson’s mind rang with confusion. “If I ever have them,” he managed to say, “I’ll call you to come tell them so.”
“And I will do it, because it will be true.”
All through this exchange, Faisal smiled gently with his wet lips. He was saying the things that a person in his home country always said to a woman. Six years ago, Jackson had gone on a month-long dig in Egypt. He recognized the tropes – you asked a woman about her children, you assumed she was married, that she did whatever she did with the consent of her husband. Faisal had begun with the assumption that Jackson was a husband; then he had made him a wife. Jackson ought to resent it.
The P.A. system began the announcement. Pigalle? It was always framed as a question, the initial mention of the next stop. When you broke into the station, the question became a statement – as if, Jackson always thought, the métro was unsure where it would arrive until it got there. Concorde? Concorde. St. Paul? St. Paul.
“This is my stop,” said Faisal. “I feel we have become great friends.”
He lifted his blind face, and Jackson kissed him, first one bearded cheek, then the other. He felt the brush of Faisal’s full lips on his jaw.
“We will have this party, Jackson,” Faisal said as he turned to lift the handle on the door.
“How will you find me?” Jackson said.
“I will find you.”
“Wait. Here,” Jackson said, and he reached for his wallet and pulled out one of the cards he’d had foolishly printed, when he began the stint at the study-abroad program. He tucked the card into the pocket of Faisal’s loose raincoat. “So you’ll remember me,” he said. But the door had closed by then. In any case, he realized as the métro pulled away and he watched the blind man tap his way down the platform with his white cane, he couldn’t read any text other than Braille.
Three more stops. He took a seat next to Will. Without lifting his eyes from his journal, Will reached up and scratched the back of Jackson’s head. “You okay?” he asked.
“Sure,” Jackson said. He loosened the cord on the market trolley and peeked inside. “I’m sorry I made you buy all this,” he said. “You don’t have to cook it.”
“You can show me how. When in Paris and all that.”
Jackson looked out at the blinking lights. Then he shut his eyes. He pictured the tunnel boring deep below Sacré Coeur, twisting sharply to the right at Lamarck. Below Paris, he had learned in his childhood, lay a catacomb almost as big as the city itself, hollowed by the limestone excavated to erect the great buildings of the city. An entire society thrived down there. They slept in crawl spaces. They staged nightclubs, complete with jazz bands and sultry altos, in vaulted caves. Maybe that was what Faisal saw, inside the huge gallery of his head. “We should have him over,” he said.
“Who? That blind guy?” Will chuckled. “You’ll never see him again.”
“He’ll find me. We have a date. For a party.” He opened his eyes. He turned toward Will, who practically glowed with loneliness. He laced their fingers. “You’re invited,” he said.
Born in St. Louis, Lucy Ferriss has lived on both coasts, in the middle, and abroad. She is the author of ten books, mostly fiction. In addition to her new novel, A Sister to Honor, her novel The Lost Daughter, a Book-of-the-Month pick, was published in February 2012 and has appeared in Poland and China. Her memoir Unveiling the Prophet: The Misadventures of a Reluctant Debutante was called Best Book of the Year by the Riverfront Times; her novel Nerves of the Heart was a finalist in the Peter Taylor Prize competition; her collection Leaving the Neighborhood and Other Stories was the 2000 winner of the Mid-List First Series Award.