In Paris, every advertisement is a painting. The city is wallpapered with them: vibrant, colorful posters that grow like moss on every surface. I like looking at the ads when Maman brings me to the city. Every month, we take the Metro to the open-air market, and I watch as we pass dozens of posters plastered along the sides of the stations. In the Metro, the ads are enormous. They stand at least four meters tall and curve upwards, covering the tiled walls that bend over the tracks like archways. A new Jean Cocteau film. Toothpaste for .99 francs. The frozen smile of a rising politician. Every ad has its own frame, making it so that sometimes, if I concentrate really hard, I can imagine that I’m walking through a museum.
They had put up a new one when Maman and I came down the stairs to the Metro that Tuesday. We had just finished our annual back-to-school shopping, and Maman’s hands sagged with the weight of half a dozen brown paper bags. I’d done my best to keep up as she carted me back and forth from the post office to the school uniform shop, from the butcher to the fish market. By the time we reached the platform, Maman was so exhausted that she threw herself onto the first plastic seat she saw and closed her eyes.
The poster was on the wall across from the tracks. It was an ad for the Paris Aquarium, which was right above the station; Maman and I had passed the building just moments ago. The words ‘A sight for sore eyes! A being from another world!’ appeared to burst out in giant block letters above a picture of a beautiful orange octopus, its fleshy tentacles coiled over the printed words so that it looked like one tentacle was coming off the page. According to the poster, the aquarium had just acquired a rare type of octopus that was at risk of becoming endangered. ‘Visit the last wonder of Australia,’ said the poster. ‘Just a stone’s throw from the Avenue des Nations Unies!’
I stood on the edge of the platform, taking care to keep a safe distance from the tracks. My eyes bored into the ad. The image of the octopus was incredibly detailed – I could see every crease in its bulbous head, every rubbery sucker on its upturned tentacles. The octopus’ arms were spread wide open, as if it were about to leap off the wall and onto the tracks. I thought of the little squid my mom had haggled over at the fish market before declaring it was too expensive and pulling me away to look at the tunas. The poor creature had looked limp, deflated over the crusty ice. It struck me as odd that a picture in a metro ad could look more lifelike than the real thing.
Behind me, Maman began to snore. Her ankles squeezed the shopping bags together, keeping them from toppling over. It was just after lunch, so there was hardly anyone else in the station, and the air was pleasantly cool. Everything was quiet and peaceful.
And then I saw the eyes. I was turning away to sit with Maman when the octopus in the poster blinked. In the dim light of the station, the eyes glowed with a fierce intelligence. I rubbed my own with my knuckles, convinced I was dreaming. But then a tentacle twitched, a sucker quivered, and the smell of seawater reached my nostrils. A cold fear gripped me, and I realized I was not looking at an ad after all, but rather a very real, very scared octopus.
I stayed still. Had I been younger, I would have pulled at Maman’s skirt and pointed at the creature in alarm. But I was nine now, and I knew how to keep a secret. In any case, Maman wasn’t paying attention; her mouth hung slightly open, and I could see that she was relishing the few stolen moments of peace. My neck began to hurt from my frozen stance, but I had the strange feeling that if I moved a single muscle, something terrible might happen.
The station shook as a loudspeaker crackled to life. “We are experiencing delays of up to ten minutes on this platform,” said the controlled, measured voice of a lady. “Paris Metro apologizes for the inconvenience.”
Maman’s head jerked upwards, and a snore caught in her throat. She glanced down at her watch and sighed, throwing me a small, tired smile, then slid her arms back across her chest. Her head leaned back so that her neck arched upwards in a curve, and she was asleep again within seconds. I turned back to my octopus. He was still there, though it was trembling from the vibrations of the loudspeaker. I was glad he hadn’t died from fright; the loudspeakers in the Metro had a nasty tendency to startle even seasoned passengers. I took a step closer to the platform until I was almost at the edge of the tracks. We had studied octopuses in class before, but I hadn’t realized until now just how big they could be. My octopus was splayed out in all directions, his tentacles spilling over the poster in a dramatic stance. I could see the little suction cups rising and falling, as if searching the air for potential dangers. I knew from school that octopuses were intelligent, that they could squeeze through the smallest rip in a fishing net and even move outside the water. I smiled as I thought of the commotion that would erupt inside the aquarium once they realized their prized octopus was missing. I wondered if they would call for backup and imagined a row of gendarmes armed with fishing nets wading into the Seine and coming up empty-handed.
We watched each other from across the tracks. His gummy, orange skin rose up and down with each breath. His eyes bored into mine, and I somehow knew that, even if the lights were to go out in the station, I would still find his eyes there, glowing in the dark like two moonstones. Without breaking eye contact, I raised my arm in the air. The motion felt rather silly, as if I were a student waiting to be called on, and I was relieved there was nobody around. Then my octopus copied me. A tentacle crept up, sliding to the side of the poster so I could see the printed picture frozen below him. I stifled an awed gasp as I realized that my brilliant friend had camouflaged himself onto the ad. Delighted, I raised my other arm, and the octopus followed suit. I extended my fingers, and its suckers stretched as if they were reaching out to touch me.
A hiss rose from the tracks. A bell rang above us, announcing that the train was coming into the station. My octopus must have sensed something was wrong, because he immediately fell back into his original position on the poster. I stood on the edge of the platform, rooted to the spot and digging my nails into my fists. I wanted to reach out to him, to have him leap into my arms and hide in Mom’s shopping bag. I wanted to take him home and keep him in the bathtub, feeding him breadcrumbs and playing endless rounds of pattycake after school.
The train slid into the station like a black snake slithering from a hole. The tracks screeched, and I was seized with a fear that the monstrous train would flatten the octopus. Maman, brought back to life by the incoming train, leapt out of her seat and began gathering the bags beneath her. I was already at the edge of the platform, clawing at the metro doors and rushing inside as soon as they opened. I found a free seat next to the aquarium ad and threw myself on it, my eyes searching through the grimy windowpane.
My octopus was still alive; I could tell from the rhythmic quiver of his skin, like he was panting from the effort of staying still. I pressed my hand to the windowpane and spread my fingers. They looked small compared to his tentacles. I wanted to wave, but I was afraid Maman would notice and tell someone. He was so strong, my octopus. He had not moved the whole time, and I thought about how scared he must be, pressed against the wall and the window. How hard it must be, I thought, to keep still and quiet in uncharted waters.
Our eyes met for the last time. Slowly – so slowly that not even Maman noticed – it lifted a tentacle and touched the place where my index finger met the glass.
Then the train lurched forward and my octopus was gone.