River of Rats, Part Five – Pigalle
I don’t remember ever talking about it, or how a decision was made. But one night, we jumped the turn-styles at the Pont Neuf station- because we didn’t have money even for that- and rode the metro to Pigalle.
When we arrived, I sat on a bench under the trees on the meridian while Joanna, wearing a long black trench coat and the only dress she brought with her, a knee high red-checkered number she purchased at Super Target, crossed over to the Rue de Clichy.
She watched how the other girls did it, they weren’t hard to pick out. She went up to one of them, bummed a smoke, lit it, found an unoccupied corner, and set her back against the side of the building, and smoked. It didn’t take long before a man approached her. He spoke and she nodded and smiled faintly, then walked with him. He put his hand on the small of her back and they walked up the hill away from me and into darkness.
I waited for a very long time. I can’t say how long, but finally she came back with the man. I could see he was middle aged, maybe around fifty, maybe older. He had perfectly coifed silver gray hair, a deep tan, and looked to be very fit. Probably a businessman; he was like a silver fox. He wore a ring on the index finger of his left hand; I hadn’t noticed that before. He put something in her hand, kissed her on her tenderly on her forehead they way a father would with his daughter and walked back up the hill. When he was out of sight, Joanna turned and walked to where I was sitting and didn’t stop, kept going. I got up from the bench and followed, eventually catching up to her. It was cold now and we could see our breath in the night air. She didn’t speak and neither did I and since the metro closed in the early morning, we walked back to the bridge.
Later, side-by-side in our sleeping bags, I asked her ‘what was it like?’
‘Like nothing.’ Her back was turned to me and I couldn’t see her face. She was trembling.
‘What do you mean, ‘like nothing.’
‘Exactly that; like nothing. He couldn’t tell that I wasn’t even French.’
The next morning we ate breakfast on a plastic covered terrace of a café. It was the first true meal we had in a very long time. We didn’t speak, there was a silence between us; we had stepped over a certain threshold and couldn’t turn back. There are some things you just can never return from.