by Sandrine Galand
Éditions de Ta Mère, 2016
I went walking in Côte-des-Neiges somewhere on Côte-Sainte-Catherine. You never spoke much to me about your old neighbourhood, as if it were an old memory that wasn’t worth sharing anymore. You only showed me a few polaroids: an old white piano, melamine shelves covered in spider plants, his guitar hanging around. He used to play Brassens, Le Forestier, Moustaki, and you would whistle the tunes while he played. Remembering the lyrics was never your thing.
He never strums the cords of his guitar nowadays. It’s collecting dust in the hallway on the decorative support where it was placed. He must have stopped playing sometime after I was born because, sometimes, on the speakers in a mall, I recognize the notes from “San Francisco” and the song swells up inside me like a vague impression of a lullaby that used to chase away bad dreams.
I walked from one apartment block to the other, trying to find a trace of your existence. It’s stupid, I know. But I was hoping that the happiness you guys felt forty years ago would have been set in the bricks or concrete, imprisoned in the reflection of the tiles. It’s really strange picturing you at my age, in your twenties, settling down in a new city full of hope.
Without children. Without me.
I tell myself that when you arrived in Montreal you chose your neighbourhood because it was close to Saint Joseph’s Oratory, because, from the first time you went there, you found it majestic, reassuring, almost familiar. But that’s just a story I tell myself. I know: the apartment was his. You agreed that you would move in with him rather than the other way around since he still had a few semesters at university to go before finishing his studies. You annexed yourself to his life, preferring the compromise of small rooms and closets full of cockroaches to interminable train rides between Washington and Montreal.
And what’s more, at that time, your faith didn’t dictate your actions. You weren’t one of those people who are both young and pious. It would’ve never worked between you two otherwise. That came after, when your little brother died too fast too soon too poorly. A phone call, in the middle of the night, and that was it. You became a firm believer, afterwards, entirely devoted to God. Sometimes senseless things are required to give sense to other things. He never understood, though. When it was apparent that I was old enough for drunken secrets, he admitted to me it was then that you two started to lose each other.
The two of you weren’t over just yet.
After a few months it became clear that you both needed more space. You moved out for the first time, then a second, still on Côte-Sainte-Catherine. And after six years in Côte-des-Neiges you both left for the West Island, where the houses were more modern and the yards bigger: everything that was needed for balance and your future family’s happiness. And no more neighbours to complain about having to listen to you yelling.
Maybe out of nostalgia for your old neighbourhood you brought us to the Oratory every month for confession. He stayed home. At mass, every Sunday, you taught us to pray for his conversion. Jesus, make daddy believe in you. I used to repeat that for as long as the music after communion lasted. When the organ stopped, I would sit back down, feeling that my job was done. That did it, this time. He would be with us next Sunday and all would be well. The years passed and he never came. One by one we left the church; my brother, then me. We abandoned you to your prayers. I’m sorry. It’s far too much of a burden for one person.
I did love our trips to the Oratory, though. We would park at the top, near the chapel entrance. As the car made its way up I would watch with envy as the pilgrims climbed the stairs on their knees. One step, one rosary bead. One day I’ll be big and I’ll do the same. Jesus will know how much I love him and he’ll have no choice but to grant me my wishes. The confessional smelled of varnished wood and the perfume of the faithful who came before me. Maybe that’s what the soul was: billows we leave floating behind us, imprisoned by the heavy, scarlet drapery of whispered secrets. I atoned for all of my little-girl sins by murmuring a few Our Fathers and Hail Marys. No effort required; it was a slick routine. I could recite them both while my mind was occupied with other things. With you two. To the point that if I threw in three more Hail Marys maybe you wouldn’t fight over supper. I was making deals with God.
After confession we would continue to the great hall and the votive candles. We would light one for Grandpa who was sick, one for the neighbour who lost her mind, and one for him, of course. We had to make sure the odds were in our favour. I’d it all worked out: if he converted, nothing would stand between you, and the arguing would stop.
Even today, even if I no longer believe, part of me blames myself for not having prayed well enough, hard enough. Long enough. So standing there in front of the buildings on the boulevard, I invent your past lives in apartments made up of the scraps of memories that I wrested from you. Since I was never witness to it, I make up the romance you left behind, stuck on the side of Mount Royal.
I imagine a room without much furniture: a mattress, a standing lamp, a dresser and a nightstand. Very little light makes it into the room; the blinds are drawn. You’re both lying down. Your hair is straight and mid-length. You haven’t started perming it yet, your usual look. He’s massaging the soles of your feet. Even though you love your job, it wears you out. You’re on your feet for hours at a time, walking along hallways, helping patients in the hospital. You know all their names, you know their stories, their fears, their resilience. You’re surrounded by daily drama and the little anonymous deaths nobody frets about. It wears out your body and your nerves. As a twenty-year-old you don’t feel it. As a sixty-year-old you’ll be worn out too quickly.
Winter’s arrived. Everyone’s got a wool blanket over their duvets. You’re not heating your place yet because you’re trying to save for the mortgage you plan to get in a year or two. Anyway, you love feeling your bodies against each other, gradually soothing each other, to the point of starting to sweat. But the tip of your nose stays frozen. He teases you; your nostrils are too big, they won’t stop flaring. You get even by burying them in his ear. Physics, math and general engineering books are scattered on the uneven floor beside you. Even then you didn’t understand a single thing he was studying. Now, it’s normal. Later it’ll be just one more thing to come between you. On the radio they’re saying the storm won’t pass before tomorrow morning. You stay in bed.
I would have loved to come in, smell the stink on his wet sweater drying on the wicker chair because he’s just back from buying croissants at the Duc de Lorraine without putting on a jacket and Montreal is snowing the way only Montreal knows how.
I would have found you both on that mattress on the floor, your bodies across each other, in the process of inventing me.
Everything yet to come.
Translation by Benjamin Hedley