Paris at Harvard Square
Yesterday, I was making my way home, after a nice dinner with friends in Lexington. It was around 11.30 in the evening when I arrived at the Harvard Square T station. I was waiting on the platform for the train to arrive. Usually I tend to walk back and forth waiting the train. Sitting and waiting still like a stone makes me feel nervous. My thoughts circulate better in my brain when I move my legs.
The platform was empty; the kind of train platforms I like because they give me plenty of room to walk around. There were two other people on the platform. I hurriedly looked at them and my first impression was that they were both homeless. It was freezing cold and snowing non-stop outside and maybe they had found a temporary refuge against the arctic-like temperatures on that red-color platform. Homeless people usually do this in order to protect themselves from the cold.
One of the seemingly homeless people was a young lady who had sat down on the floor, cross-legged, a backpack next to her, her head covered with a hoodie, stretching her hand out with difficulty in order to grab a plastic bottle of water. I glanced at her and she looked at me with haggard eyes. As I walked past her I heard her sluggish voice saying “excuse me sir”. I stopped immediately and turned towards her as she was trying to articulate her next sentence; her face “spoke” to my memory. It was a familiar face; I was sure I had seen her once and more than once. “You look familiar”, she said. “You look familiar too”, I said standing immobile. “What’s your name” she asked. “Gazi”, I answered”.
Her sleepy, jaw-dropping face changed suddenly, like ignited by a sudden emotional fire. “Oh my God” she exclaimed. “I was in your class… one ‘f’my best professors… m’ name is L.… d’u remember me?” she asked jumping up and giving me a hug. As I returned the hug, the odor of alcohol reached my nostrils. I told her that I remembered her. She was one of my best students in my class on ancient Greek epics and tragedy. But the L. I had known two years ago was somehow different from the L. I was embracing on the train platform.
Like reading my inner thoughts she grabbed her hair with her hand, under her hoodie and said “I’ve changed a bit; I dyed my hair”. I didn’t say a word. I tried to strike a smile and only nodded. “I’ve had some medical problems; a lot of doctors”, she added. I nodded again. I remained silent, trying to find the right words, the right English words. I'm a young and inexperienced teacher (in America); it rarely occurs that I might meet my students outside of college. I felt flattered that L. recognized me and called me “one of her best professors”. Then I said something like “so happy to see you” and “are you done with your studies?”.
I don’t remember what her exact answer were. Actually, I was struggling to find the right expressions, the appropriate English expressions for these circumstances, that seemed rather extraordinary to me. Then she said: “do you remember my essay on Paris?”. She was not talking about the Paris of France but Paris of Troy – the handsome prince who “stole” the most beautiful woman of the ancient world, Helen, and brought her to Troy. Their transgressive love triggered a devastating war between Greeks and Trojans that lasted ten years, ending with the biggest massacre the world had ever known and the total destruction of Troy. All wars are devastating for that matter and the Trojan War – narrated by Homer in the Iliad - stands out as a the model for all wars. Reading and analyzing “Iliad” with my students, I hardly could hide my sympathies for Paris; according to me he is the first anti-hero character in the history of Western literature. He was not a warmonger, a war-lover or a good fighter; he was just a good lover. He was not interested in becoming a hero - in a world where men felt really accomplished only if they were considered heroes. He was not interested in kleos - the glory that surrounds the men who have died heroically in battle, making them immortal in the eyes of the mortals. All Paris longed for was to enjoy his love with Helen. He couldn’t understand all those war-loving men who preferred to die, to destroy their lives, their families and those of others, fighting for a woman who had chosen to love Paris instead of staying with a husband she had married against her will.
"I was harsh on Paris", L. said. In her essay she had treated Paris with contempt; she considered him a spoiled soul and a sort of irresponsible traitor, who brought disgrace and destruction to his homeland for a whim, for a love affair. "No L., you were not harsh. Maybe your take was the right one. It’ s a matter of interpretation after all", I said. "Everything is a matter of interpretation" L., replied, and her words came out of her mouth with difficulty.
Right at that moment the train arrived. I didn’t know if she intended to take the same train I was about to step into. "Your train is here" she said, like reading my thoughts. She gave me a hug, whispering “goodbye”. I returned the hug. "Take care please" I said. "I will” she said and I felt again the odor of the alcohol. I stepped into the train and watched her from the window as the train was leaving the platform. She sat down again and sipped from her plastic bottle of water. I don’t know if there was, somewhere, a roof over her head; I don t know what kind of medical problems she hinted at. Tenderness and surprise: that’s what I was feeling at that moment, as the train was carrying me towards my destination. Mixed with the noise of the train’s wheels her sluggish voice echoed in my mind: "Everything is a matter of interpretation"...