By Jackie DesForges
I’m not sure if it was my blonde highlights, my propensity for eating pizza, or the fact that I had just been dumped, but for some reason at the beginning of summer in 2009, I convinced myself that I was Elizabeth Gilbert. I imagined myself as something tragic and glamorous, a girl who was about to set out on the road with nothing but her suitcase and her pride. I had mastered the “eating” portion of the eating, praying, and loving three-step program, and now I was on my way to attempt the other two steps in Brussels, hoping to look stylish and independent while I was at it. In hindsight, I should have packed more lightly.
I awoke from a Parisian champagne party I’d had with a friend at about six in the morning in order to have enough time to catch my train. Turns out that even after throwing out half my suitcase in a champagne-induced delirium the night before, my baggage still weighed significantly more than I did.
Never travel with a rolling suitcase and a duffel bag that does not somehow securely attach to it if you’re traveling by yourself, have no upper body strength, insist on wearing dresses that do not allow for much movement or dragging of said suitcases, and insist on packing for apocalypse weather. It took me about twenty minutes — including several breaks that involved massaging my biceps and giving myself a couple of brief pep talks — before I finally made it the two blocks to the station, where I was greeted by about two dozen stairs and not an escalator in sight.
Whimpering, I started to lug my bags up the stairs one at a time, and I was actually very glad at this point that it was so early in the morning because this meant there was no one around to witness my pathetic struggle. Or so I thought.
Enter Scary Man with a Gold Tooth.
He was old and smelled like shoe polish but he was dressed semi-decently in a suit that looked like something a grandfather would wear. He offered, in French, to help me get my bags up the stairs. Obviously this man seemed like a deus ex machina at first, and when we reached the top of the stairs I thanked him profusely in both English and broken French, and then I started to walk away so that I wouldn’t be late.
Gold Tooth, however, decided that he also wanted to accompany me into the station to show me which metro I needed to take to get to my platform. I paused, remembering certain graphic passages from Devil in the White City, which I had just finished reading. And then I laughed to myself. Don’t be silly, I thought. If this guy could find the means to build an elaborate torture chamber, he could certainly find the means to get a more realistic fake tooth. Besides, the station had too many witnesses.
He took my suitcase and started walking with it, but I kept my hand on the handle next to his because, well, it had everything I owned in it and I wasn’t about to let some old guy with a gold tooth run off with all of my summer dresses or the poster that my friend Emily had stolen off a portable bathroom for me in Cannes.
So there we were, the gold-toothed man and I walking towards the station together, each holding onto my suitcase and glancing at each other nervously. It would have almost been a nice picture, like a grandfather seeing his granddaughter off at the station, if we hadn’t been so mismatched – he in his faded, worn suit and scraggly hair; me in my light summer dress and pointed shoes, my bracelet and earrings glinting in the sunlight.
I was somewhat surprised when we made it inside the station unharmed and still both holding the suitcase. He led me to an elevator (no matter how crazy this man is, I will always be eternally grateful for this elevator and the break it afforded my aching biceps) and we rode it down to line A of the metro. This would have been exceptionally helpful if I had needed line A, but, alas, I needed line D, which was down another floor. I knew this because I’d asked the nice gold-tooth-less lady at the info desk of my hotel the night before.
I kept trying to tell this to the man in my decent, slightly broken French, but he wasn’t listening. Suddenly, he asked me if I had a metro ticket. I wanted to say, “Well, maybe I would have had time to get one if you hadn’t been dragging me towards the wrong metro line, you crazy gold-toothed man,” but I was too frustrated to attempt all of that in French.
The look on my face must have translated this quite well, because he said, “Don’t worry, I have many ticket,” and then he proceeded to pull open his jacket to show me his supply, just like they do in the movies — rows and rows of metro tickets, just dangling there like Christmas ornaments along the hems of his coat.
At this point I began to worry, because there was no way that that could have been legal.
Rather cheerfully, Gold Tooth pulled one of them out and swiped it through the ticket reader, and we squeezed through the metal entryway with my giant suitcase – together. I went first, not letting go of my suitcase. We awkwardly maneuvered it underneath the turnstile and then somehow he slid through right after it like a snake, without having to swipe another metro ticket. It was like one of those games you play as a kid, where everyone grabs hands and then you spin yourselves around until you’re completely tangled, and you have to figure out how to untangle yourself without letting go.
And so there we were: slightly tangled, slightly sweaty, slightly irritated with each other for our mutual refusal to relinquish control of the suitcase. All of this on Platform A, exactly where I did not need to be.
“Ok,” he said, smiling widely enough to plant an everlasting image of that tooth in my mind, “you pay me now.”
“Um, no,” I said, accidentally laughing, as I always do when I start to really panic. “This is the wrong place.”
“No. Metro you want. This is metro. Money for me.”
“I don’t have any money.” Not really a lie. I was still a student.
“But I help you,” he said, looking confused. He was still smiling that creepy gold smile. “I help, you pay.”
“I didn’t ask for your help. You grabbed my suitcase and wouldn’t let go until we got to the wrong metro. I appreciate the elevator, but otherwise you have not been helpful. I need to leave or else I’ll be late.”
I started to walk away, and he roughly grabbed my arm.
My instinct was to turn around and kick this man in the crotch, as I imagined Elizabeth Gilbert would have done. Instead, I forced myself to take a deep breath, remove my arm from his grasp as discreetly as possible, and keep my voice as even and intimidating as I could. “I’m going to Brussels.”
He obviously did not understand my English, but a young French couple standing next to me did. I noticed the woman nudge her husband and point to me.
The man sensed that I was distracted and made a swipe for my suitcase, and I couldn’t help myself, I yelled. I yelled something that was neither English nor French, nor attractive.
The young woman was suddenly behind me and she put a protective hand on my shoulder, while the young man went up to Gold Tooth and started speaking to him in very aggressive French. Gold Tooth paused, his eyebrows raised as he contemplated everyone’s roles in this situation; he looked at them, then he looked at me, and then shrugged and walked off, presumably to find someone else he could accompany to the wrong metro station.
I’m pretty sure I scared the living hell out of that young couple when I turned around and started thanking them in any language I could remember, offering them anything I could think of to repay them for the help they’d just given me (did they need a babysitter? an au pair? any type of servant?) to the point where I was almost crying.
My search for the D-line after this episode was highly uneventful except for a few hundred stairs and several pathetic attempts at getting my suitcase on and off the metro. It was interesting (albeit somewhat humiliating) to notice the people watching me as I struggled, and to finally see which one of them would be the one to take pity on me and help me lug my beast of a suitcase onto the train before the doors closed on top of me. I wondered what these people saw when they looked at me –the people who didn’t help me, I didn’t really blame them. They were caught up in their own lives; they were on the way to work, they didn’t want to be bothered.
But those people who finally looked over at me with a kind, pitying smile as I sweated and swore and, at one point, kicked my suitcase repeatedly until someone asked me if I could kindly stop — those people who lent me an extra hand or bicep, maybe they looked at me and saw their own daughters, sisters, nieces, or friends, or any young girls just trying to prove that they could travel across the world by themselves and actually make it out okay, heavy suitcases and all.
Ironically, I think Gold Tooth was the only one who ever actually offered me that much help with my suitcase.
Since then, I have traded in my suitcase for a backpack. And wherever I’ve gone –on every metro, train, or plane that I’ve taken– I always see a girl about my age struggling with a heavy suitcase. I look at her as all of those people must have looked at me that summer, and I see myself; I see that determination, that frustration, that desire to prove to yourself that you can do it, that you can make from point A to point B it in a world that was simply not built for little girls with big suitcases. And I want to be her Gold Tooth – but in a more legal, friendly, non-terrifying way.
And so I smile at her, and I offer a hand.