“Vous avez l’air triste, Mademoiselle.”
Uh, oh. He had spotted me. I hugged my backpack closer to my chest. My fear of speaking mangled French with a native coupled with my fear of homeless people. My folks taught me that all these people want money for booze and drugs. Of course, I always did my part for those truly in need. I donated blood to the Red Cross. See, I thought I was this good person or something. You knew that. My false humility manifested in my quiet presence, but I sure looked down my nose a lot.
I felt myself standing there, staring, so I tried out a sentence in French to tell him No, not sad, just serious, and then I looked around for you and wondered if I should have gone to the phone booth too.
“Ah, you are American,” he said in perfect English.
Oh man, I didn’t even get that one simple sentence correct. So much for all that money spent on school.
“Uh, yeah,” I answered in embarrassment. I hated admitting it. I feared a stereotype. I wasn’t one of those Americans who thought everyone should speak English, even in different countries.
“America, the beautiful. Purple mountains.” His yellow teeth showed and he wheezed again. His pigeon friend still hopped at his feet. “It is a song, non?”
“Right, of course.” My cheeks surely blushed deeper.
“Mademoiselle, you think I am crazy? You think I have nothing better to do than play with birds all day?”
He leaned toward me and I grabbed your backpack and shoved it between my feet. His tone less playful, I grew more wary and answered quickly, “No, not at all.”
He sat back again on the bench. Then he turned and smiled dreamily, or crazily, at some more birds that swooped in to pick at the sandwich crumbs. “It is true. What have I to do but this? I used to own a bookstore,” he kept his eyes on the birds. “My wife wanted to move to Spain, where she’s from, and I didn’t want to leave my store. So she left me. I begged her to stay. I promised I would sell the store in five years, just five years more. She never wanted to be married to a shop owner anyway. She wanted me to take over my father’s vineyards. I didn’t want that. She did. She’s gone.” He sighed, and threw some more bits of bread from his pocket out to the pigeons. “We used to feed the birds together. Now my store is gone—business never that good anyway—my wife is gone, and all I have are the birds.”
My hands loosened a little on our packs and I lost myself, for a second, thinking what a sad story. I thought it had to be a sad story, right, because if he wanted drink or drug money he needed my pity. But some kind of feeling welled in me for a minute, such that I almost burst into tears. Back home I always pretended that homeless people didn’t bleed like you and I.
Just as I was thinking I should say something, you came breezing back, a little too happy considering the news you had: no place to stay. You said we needed to get somewhere a little safer before dark. Then you grabbed your pack and started walking.
I turned to look at the man and my voice caught in my throat. But his eyes, staring right into mine, gave me a chill of sadness. Did he think we thought he wasn’t safe? All my body language had indicated as much. So I left with you. Just left.