I stand in the Faidherbe-Chaligny metro station at 11:48 pm on a Monday night. I nestle my chilled palms in my coat pockets and laugh at something along with my friends. Our laughs bounce along the walls and through the tunnels, unusual vibrations in the hushed terminal.
But a clash punctuates the giddy echoes and I hear a whispered, “Oh my God.” Confused by the cause of the noise, I turn and suddenly it makes sense.
Lying on the track, I see a still body with black hair and a blue sweatshirt. His clothes are dark and he almost blends in with the ground, save for the foreign beige color of his neck. It twists over the rail as if struggling to escape its body and I hear myself gasp.
The meeting of flesh and floor is what you heard, I tell myself, aligning the pieces of the scene. The ugly, unwelcome collision between bones and steel. For five seconds, time stops. Strangers stare and gape. Their mouths, arms, shoulders, torsos recoil in shock, while their legs take them closer for the same reason.
Several thoughts cross my mind: this man is in danger, I cannot help him, I’m not strong enough, I don’t know the number for emergency services, I don’t even have my phone. The next train arrives in two minutes.
Then—movement. Bags drop and feet shuffle and words are yelled. Someone pushes a button on the sidewall and a piercing shrill replaces the noise of panic. Six phones emerge from bags and sweatshirts and six people replay the same story. A man descends to the tracks and peels the limp mass off the ground. Sixteen hands are side by side, then the man is on his back. Don’t touch his neck, I hear from three different voices at once.
I feel my hands drape my mouth to stifle a scream. I feel my feet take me forward gruesomely close so that I see the ribbon of burgundy spill from the man’s lips and then from his head. I see the charcoal half-moon bruise that decorates his neck.
I look back and see my friend swaying dizzily on a chair, eyes hazy. The yellow clock numbers begin to flash and the metro never comes.
I look again at the man and wonder what to do, but all I see now is a huddle of bodies crouching and soothing and murmuring. I see one lone pair of earphones splayed out on the concrete.
I’m thankful for the goodness of these strangers then, that this man is rescued by humanity’s instinctual desire to protect and to help. And then I wonder why I am not a part of it.
I am as useless as the yellow plastic seats, the overpriced vending machines, the city maps on the walls who witness all but stubbornly keep to themselves.
I am an inactive bystander weighted to my place among the bustling crowd by fear and uncertainty and disbelief.
But before I can reflect any further, I am being ushered away by my friends. I hear the wail of nearing sirens and I do the only thing I’m capable of in the moment.
I apologize silently and steal one final glance at the discarded ear buds before I ascend the staircase and never look back.