Translated from the French by
It was after four o’clock when we went downstairs to find some shade on the sidewalk. With the sun bearing down on the back wall and the tarred roof, the heat inside was unbearable.
Jean-Louis sat down on the wrought iron steps. “I bet we could cook an egg on the sidewalk across the street.”
I didn’t answer. My Indian blouse, white cotton, was sticking to my skin. We’d taken two showers that were already just a dim memory. As I didn’t know I was leaving home, I hadn’t thought of bringing an overnight bag or a carryall. My legs were weak from pleasure, and my sudden change in status was making me dizzy.
We saw Normand coming from afar off, tall as he was. He seemed surprised to see me. “What are you doing?”
“We’re stewing,” I said. He sat down on the steps, next to Jean-Louis. “Shift over man, I’m hot enough already,” Jean-Louis exclaimed, pulling away.
But Jean-Louis, I don’t know how he did it, even if his long hair had curled up a bit, not a drop of sweat, nothing. Finally we all got up, and obeying the law that hot air rises, we decided to set off for some fresh air at the bottom of the hill. We went down towards Place Jacques Cartier, crossing Viger Square. It felt weird to walk by the statues of Joan of Arc and Marianne, flanking the front of the Union Française.
As we walked, we brought Normand up to date on our situation. He nodded his head in silence, but drew his hand several times over his chin, as if smoothing an imaginary beard.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard,” he said finally, panting, as we worked our way towards Place Vauquelin. We’re breaking. A record. For heat. Today. Never seen before… in history… so they say!”
We were finally able to breathe some cooler air as we crossed Rue Notre-Dame and set foot on the slanting cobblestones of Place Jacques Cartier. Everything seemed new to me, bright, multicoloured. Later, when I watched the film Obscured by Clouds, at the end, when I saw everyone going down the very last hill, it reminded me of that moment.
We went to sit on a bench in front of the Nelson Hotel. Not far off a gang of percussionists was beating out a lively rhythm on their congas and bongos, I’d learned the instruments’ names in music class. They were going at it hard in the muggy late afternoon, I could almost see the cinder they raised drifting up towards the veiled sky. Jean-Louis passed me a joint of hash that smelled like paradise. It was all I needed for me to think I was already there.
A guy planted himself under an awning and opened his guitar case, which he set down in front of him, wide open. He tuned up quickly and sang a Bob Dylan song, then one by Charlebois. Passersby began dropping coins into the case. Interesting.
To think that my guitar was all by itself in my abandoned room!
For two or three years I’d been strumming a few chords, teaching myself with a little manual full of diagrams and an album of Cat Stevens scores. Looking back, some of these songs now seemed prophetic. Especially Wild World and of course Father and Son, except in my case it would have had to be put in the feminine. One day, for a neighbour’s birthday, I’d dared to bring the instrument out and sing a little, and it didn’t seem like I was hurting their ears, they even asked for more.
As I still had some change in my jeans pocket, I went to get three hot dogs with relish and mustard at the snack bar facing us, and I offered one to Jean-Louis, then one to Normand, in celebration. A little music, a little coolness, two new friends: I didn’t need more than that for my new life to seem sweet and gentle.
A bit later they got up, yawning, and I trailed them back. They looked at each other strangely, I didn’t quite know why. We left together and walked up to Jean-Louis’ place without talking much, subdued by fatigue and the heat.
“That lukewarm bath felt so good! Do you have something I could use to dry my blouse?”
I’d finally decided to wash it with hand soap in the basin, it was better than nothing. Jean-Louis offered me a metal hanger.
“No, it has to be plastic or else it will rust.” I clearly heard him sigh just as he turned to rummage in the closet. When I came out of the bathroom, he was sitting stiffly on his mattress.
“Listen Josée, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but you can’t stay here. I find you really neat, but we hardly know each other. I broke up with my last girlfriend not long ago, and I’m not ready to fall in love again. Besides, I live here with my sister, and she’s coming back from her holidays tomorrow!”
Nothing like a cold shower to counter a heat wave.
“I’m the one who doesn’t know what you’re thinking. I’ll be gone tomorrow, don’t worry.”
I turned my back and lay down, my face to the wall, my pupils like saucers. I knew what I was running from, but so far I hadn’t thought to ask myself where I was going.
“Listen, don’t take it like that… I don’t know, is there something I can do to help you?”
I turned around, the better to smile into his eyes. “The guitar I saw in the living room, is it yours?” “Yes, but I don’t really play it. Why?”
The next morning, Jean-Louis laid it on thick. After a hearty breakfast washed down with lots of coffee, he made me a gift of a few cigarettes with a box of matches and he even gave me back the five dollars for the tab of acid we’d bought together at Café Campus: “This is for you, sweetie. Good luck, eh!”
We hugged, then I went down the stairs holding the guitar case in both hands, to better guide it around the curve. There was even a little compart-ment in it where you could store your cigarettes.
“Hi Steffi, it’s me.”
“Hey! Man, where have you been? Your mother’s freaking out, she’s called here a hundred times.”
“I ran away, I don’t ever want to go back. You know, I never told you everything… can I come see you?”
“If you’re not going back to you mother, you’d better not. My parents promised to call if they saw you.”
“Can you come and meet me then?”
“Where are you?”
“In a phone booth, but we could meet at Place Jacques Cartier, at the foot of the Nelson Column.”
“Okay. Do you need anything?”
“You wouldn’t have some old clothes, would you? I’ve nothing to change into…”
An hour later, there she was, my blonde sprite, with a little backpack filled to bursting. There were two pairs of pants, several T-shirts, a belt, a light sweater and a heavier one, a windbreaker, and two pairs of socks. She’d even thought of underpants. I flew into her arms. She offered me a Gitane and I scratched one of my matches.
“It’s lucky that we’re almost the same size. But what are you going to do?”
“Don’t worry, I have a plan. Wait, I’ll show you.”
I took the guitar out of its case and checked it out. It had a nice body, pale wood, a rosette inlaid with mother-of-pearl, metal strings, a dark brown neck, pick guard and bridge, and a black headstock on which was inscribed, in italics: Aria. After having tuned it by ear, I stood up, opened the case at my feet, cleared my throat, and intoned:
“It’s not time to make a change, just relax, take it easy…”
After five songs I’d already collected what I needed to buy two hot dogs. Except that Steffi didn’t want hers, so I scarfed both of them down while she watched me with a worried look.
My demonstration had worked, I’d found a way to earn my bread, my sausage, and my ketchup, and my relish! After swallowing the last bite, I finally told her everything about what I’d left behind me: the rage and the blows, the threats and the fear, the bad dreams and the snarling telephone.
“You see why there’s no way I can ever go back.”
She sat there speechless, struck dumb. Just then, two policemen decided to amble down the square towards Rue de la Commune.
“Listen, I don’t want to alarm you, but your mother’s called the police, there’s a search warrant out to find you.”
I felt myself go pale. Quickly, I buried my head in the backpack and pretended to search for something.
“It’s okay, they’re gone. Look, my parents are expecting me for dinner. But you, where are you going to sleep?”
“Oh, I’ll think of something.”
Watching her climb towards Rue Notre-Dame, silhouetted against the setting sun, and disappearing into the crowd, I saw my childhood slipping away from me. An abyss opened up, and today I wonder how I was able to survive that moment in time, that precise instant when a new light, curiously solid, as hard as the stone beneath my feet, laid bare my almost total destitution, the utter completeness of my solitude.
How did I not implode, in this free fall, in the absence of everything.
I know two things: all moments pass, that one like the others. You cannot spend your whole life scrutinizing the void in silence, sitting on a bench, as night falls. I must have been thirsty, and started to move, looking for something to drink. Placing one foot mechanically before the other. The body wants to live.
I also know what saved me. Terror. Physical fear. The panicked heart, the strangled breath, the icy shivers at the mere thought of the star performer in my nightmares, the larger-than-life ogress who had brought me into the world only to destroy me. My entire being was now animated by a single compulsion: at all costs, never again to fall into her clutches.
Text and illustrations © Sophie Voillot 2021