Translated from the French by
What’s hardest when you have nowhere to sleep is to get through the wee hours, between the bar closings and dawn. You have to be constantly on the move. The police wouldn’t let us sleep on benches, and as a declared runaway I couldn’t risk being asked for ID I couldn’t show, having left home empty-handed. A bit more and I would have begun to see myself as a serious delinquent, but the truth is that I was a minor, innocent, unwashed and with hair unkempt. Helpless.
I would have liked to go back (in time) the better to leap forward (into the void), but there was no point dwelling on that. The first nights, I’d tried my best to bed myself down in the dank night, but I was like a doe in a land of wolves. No way to close your eyes. It was only with other escapees that I felt somewhat safe. A burnt-out street light, a friendly stretch of wall, created a small dark nook below Place Jacques-Cartier, at the corner of Rue de la Commune. There were several of us huddling there, sheltering behind our curled fingers the ember of a cigarette passed furtively to and fro, it was almost a game.
There was Martin, diabetic, whose father must have been worried about him, but so what; I didn’t quite know why he had taken flight, but my guess was that his stepmother was not kind to him. Bertrand, a soft-eyed giant who rolled his Rs on the tip of his tongue and played the recorder like a nightingale. He had a whole slew of them. Mireille the vagabond, so round and blonde that Danny, who could read music but not the alphabet, had fallen madly in love with her. She was never separated from the tambourine she carried over her shoulder, strung onto a scarf that was as Indian as her flowered dress. Whenever she opened her mouth to sing, artless words welled up from within her. Danny followed her everywhere with his electric guitar and its little amplifier on which he accompanied her with a raw, gravelly blues that made people feel good wherever he went. He spent half of his money on batteries, it was a vicious circle.
They didn’t let go of each other for even five minutes, “I think I’m a nymphomaniac, what can I do, I want it all the time! I love it so much!” Mireille confessed to me, one night, with wide, panicked eyes. It’s true that she projected an avid sensuality that was utterly irresistible. With her little pink socks in her cracked white leather shoes, she looked delicious enough to eat. I understood very well how one would want to nibble her ear or sniff at her neck. In fact, I found both of them adorable. They were the only ones in our group to cuddle up. As if by common agreement, no interest was shown by the two other guys and me.
We had other fish to fry, to say the least.
My clan of fallen angels. We knew we could rely on each other, we were all in the same boat heading for the high seas as long as we could manage to hold our heads above water. The five of us would have made a great band, had we only been able to maintain a modicum of discipline. But you couldn’t ask too much of us. It was already an achievement that we’d worked out a way to help each other bum a few coins: as of mid-morning we took turns keeping an eye on the gear while the others went to hold out their hands to the tourists, easy to spot with their cameras on their chests. After that, we were on our own. My specialty was the businessmen sitting on terraces, downing their coffees while mopping their brows after having left a tip on the table. A bright smile, an innocent gaze, my head slightly tilted to the side: “Can you spare a quarter?”
It wasn’t too hard to escape their hands: pretend to laugh, dart away with a twirl, back off while lobbing them a thank you, make them think that nothing was more flattering than to be hustled all day long. Anything rather than make them angry. Anyway, they could all go screw themselves, the little self-important bourgeois with their heaps of money. Up to a point, anyway. “Can you spare a quarter?”
I hadn’t given up on what I called my recitals, but I had to rest my throat a little, along with my raw fingers which, thank God, were getting tougher every day. Also it felt good not to be always lugging around my guitar and back pack. I couldn’t take my eyes off them for a second most of the time. The lookouts, after a while, tended to doze off on the bench around which we congregated.
I often had the same dream:
I run, I run through an endless maze of corridors to escape my mother who is pursuing me, crazy with rage, armed with a giant carving knife.
It was always quieter on Mondays, I don’t know why. The Earth had turned on its axis seventeen times since I’d moved to the other side of the mirror, and here it was: my birthday. I was seventeen. For the occasion, I dressed just as on that fateful night: the faded bell-bottom jeans, the white cotton blouse, the Indian leather sandals. The other clothes in my minimalist wardrobe came from Steffi, I was very happy to have them but they weren’t really mine, not really me.
The suffocating heat had somewhat abated. A light breeze from the river cooled us despite the blazing sun. We sat in a row along the sidewalk, our feet on the cobblestones, on the side of the square where the cars climbed toward Notre-Dame. They moved more slowly than on the way down, it was less unnerving. I’d only told Mireille about my birthday while the others were off looking for coffee. I had no expectations, but at a certain point they all looked at each other. They must have rehearsed their choreography, because everything unfolded marvellously. There appeared before me a pack of Export A, topped with a little Jos Louis chocolate cake in which a candle was implanted, then the fourth in line lit it and they sang Ma chère Josée, c’est à ton tour, it was brand-new at the time. We had all in unison intoned Gilles Vigneault’s Gens du pays on the mountain to celebrate the Saint-Jean, eight weeks earlier. It might have been a century ago.
It was so kind of them. I don’t know what came over me, all of a sudden the contrast with my childhood birthdays got to me, and just before blowing out the candle I said, in a forlorn tone of voice:
“Right, happy birthday, Josée…”
Fortunately, I don’t think they heard me. Or else they were very adroit, because nothing showed. Only Martin, who had come up to light the candle, admonished me under his breath:
“You know Josée, it’s not good to be bitter, it’s no fun for you or the others…”
“You’re right,” I replied. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize, just start over! Make a wish this time.”
He lit it again and I blew it out, trying hard to wish I could be happy. It was the best I could do.
I tore the cellophane off the cigarette pack, offered it round, and my mood lifted just as, behind me, I heard a voice call out:
“Hash, pot, acid, meeescaline!”
It was like being in the old market, between the cabbages and the carrots, “beautiful carrots, freeesh!”
“What kind of acid?”
I hadn’t taken any since my first time, but for the occasion I was prepared to repeat the experience. I still had some change from the day before, not a lot: it was either that or a hot dog with fries and Coke. What the hell, I’d heard that LSD cut your hunger… and with the Jos Louis, I’d be able to fill my stomach a little.
“Bang yer queen!”
“Tangerine. Just a sec, I’ll show you.”
Curly-haired, bearded, hirsute, he offered me an orange microdot that sat on his outstretched palm. I’d never seen him before, but it seemed he was a friend of Bertrand, who telegraphed me a “yes,” nodding his head to reassure me. All right, okay, there it was, I gave myself a gift, thinking about my wish as I swallowed the miniature host.
There were lots of people around the percussion bench. A pleasingly complex rhythm was spilling out from it, with long loose phrasings that evolved but did not repeat themselves. My stomach began to tingle, and the sound was getting to me. I went closer.
Sitting in the middle, in a beam of light, a silhouette haloed by curly hair was pounding away with practised force on two congas of different sizes, linked by leather strips. I kneeled down between two freaks who were whispering, full of admiration.
“That’s her, that’s Francine.”
“Seems she just got here from Quebec City…”
“I saw her play the other night with Michel Séguin!”
The way other percussionists leaned in to listen to her between two offerings, you could see that her talent was inspiring everyone. She had a little feline face, delicate limbs, fine hands. But when she brought them together to form two flattened pyramids, their joints serving as summits, when they beat down with rapt zeal onto the stretched skins, when like two serpents’ heads they undulated one behind the other, she sent out waves of fire that went right to my solar plexus.
I felt connected to a source of life-giving energy.
The more I watched, the more I listened, the more the power radiating from her exploded in multicoloured eruptions. Against the light, I made out from the corner of my eye silhouettes coiffed in feathers, personifying, with unbridled elegance, life in all its guises.
When they’d finished playing, the musicians got up to unwind, but not her. She just sat there in silence, and so did I. She lit a cigarette, blew the smoke toward the endless blue sky, stretched, saw that I was scrutinizing her every move, and said:
“Why are you staring at me like that?”
“Uh, sorry, Francine…”
“How do you know my name?”
“Uh, a guy told it to me a while ago…”
“Well it’s none of your business who I am. Take off!”
Getting to my feet, all flustered, I thought: Uh… that’s all I know how to say, for Pete’s sake.
It must have been an hour since I’d last laid eyes on the clan. I went back to them, my spirits low. Sylvain, Bernard’s friend, was still there. He made room for me and I saw in his eyes that he hadn’t missed a thing. I sat down between him and Bertrand. Leaning back against Bertrand as on a bulwark, I breathed a long sigh. He sighed with me. We stayed like that for a moment. The silence spoke volumes, and it didn’t lie. Then Sylvain shook himself, rose, and said to me:
“Stop beating yourself up, that’s the best thing for you to do. Listen, I have to go see my connection, but I’ll drop by later in case you want to smoke something good for your birthday.”
I said okay then I picked up my backpack and my guitar and I went my way. A bit farther on I found a streetlight beneath which I could stand, and I opened my notebook while turning my back purposefully on Francine: don’t think about her anymore.
I wanted to work on my repertoire of French songs. Echoing Charlebois, I took flight on Turkish carpets… Really, this girl had got me down. But bitterness is not good, Josée, for others, or for you. So I raised my eyes to the sky; it was blue for me too, wasn’t it? And I went to my favourite Vian, I’ve made my decision / I’m going to desert. The prophetic words flowed out, lifting me up in the process, the strings undulating beneath my fingers.
Fuzzy little clouds began to roll my way, and I had to stop because the chords were becoming confusing.
I drifted toward the river, and sat down cross-legged on a cement block, in my usual position. Once, when I was a prisoner in my bedroom, punished for who knows what, my stepfather burst in, exploded in laughter, and called out to Her Immobile Majesty, slumped on the couch in front of the TV: “Missy does nothing at all, she’s installed like a Buddha, this is Nirvana, no less,” and the other chortled… but so what, I sat the way I wanted to. The breeze was caressing my temples, the little clouds were frolicking in the blue. I saw the sky breathing in and out. Each time, the puffs of wind pushed spirals of incredible beauty along their way, far above the world.
Down below it was the railroad tracks, stone, concrete, asphalt. Little by little, an iridescent pattern worked its way into all this mineral, a honeycombed network run through with diagonals; you would have thought they were butterfly wings. I could have remained there, immersed forever in their contemplation, rooted in my cement, my hair in heaven. I felt all-powerful and detached from everything. I knew that all I had to do was to grind out four or five tunes to earn my daily hot-dog, but anyway, I wasn’t even hungry. Still, as night fell, my restlessness returned. I uncurled myself at my leisure, I stood up, I turned back.
The lamps on the terraces lit up one by one in the blue dusk. I started climbing slowly over the cobblestones. No sign of the clan, each one must have gone off seeking their fortune on their own. I crossed Rue Notre-Dame and found myself in front of the Place Vauquelin fountain. A fickle wind was chasing the water drops from one side to the other, producing nomadic rainbows. Water is life, said the mother in the Beau Dommage song. If you think mine came out with such things, it was more like: “I’m warning you, if you don’t water the lawn right away,” or “So that glass of Perrier, is it coming?”
Now I was free, free as the shimmering air at the end of day, as the liquid dust tumbling within it. I sat down. I raised my eyes.
Atop the column of water, just before it imploded to come splashing down into the basin, a white horse was rearing proudly. As the sun edged into the night, the moon rose on the tip of Île Sainte-Hélène, and my horse of foam greeted it, churning its front paws. The moon was almost full, and how perfect was that, I had nothing better to do than to watch it rise slowly toward the stars. I didn’t see many of them, but I knew they were there, and life needed me to have faith in them.
“Is it a C or a D?” said a voice to my left.
It was Sylvain, holding out to me the famous joint. I hadn’t even seen him arrive. I shot back:
“It’s a D, silly. It’s waxing.”
“It’s almost full for your birthday, that’s a good sign.”
“It’s a period of increasing energy, full of promise.”
“I like that…”
“And look, it’s just at the phase where you can best make out its dark side. On the left, the piece that would have made it perfectly round, it’s there thanks to the light from the earth!”
With so many gifts, my smile came on all by itself.
I relaxed. He took the opportunity to draw closer. He slipped his warm hand under the cotton of my Indian blouse. He straddled me from behind, one leg on each side, and began to caress me discretely, protected by the cloth. I leaned back against his torso and reared like my horse, without telling him, it was my secret. His hands moved down over my skin, onto my stomach, I opened my legs, he slid into me, I was wet, his fingers bent, he pressed gently, then more forcefully, my pelvis jumped for joy and I opened out beneath a sky dazzled with stars.
For a long moment we said nothing. Then, very softly, he approached his mouth to my ear, and whispered:
“Would you like to suck me off?”
I had to mull this over for two minutes before I could answer.
“I don’t know, there’s too much light…”
What I did not tell him – I wouldn’t have known how – was that I’d never done that in my life, and before doing so I wanted to be truly in love, for it to be worth my while. As if, given how I’d lost my virginity, I needed to draw another line for me to cross of my own free will.
“We just have to find a dark corner…”
“Okay,” I said, “but I just want to stroke you.”
With no glare from the street light, we could better see the moon. He took my hand, placed it on his column of flesh, and moved it slowly to show me what he wanted. His glans was incredibly smooth. I played at sliding my fingers all around it, he seemed to like that, he closed his eyes, threw his head back, began to breathe more heavily, then he took my hand back into his own, rolled it tightly around his shaft, thrust it up and down faster and faster and when he groaned, a milky stream spurted toward the Milky Way and I saw my white horse prance once again.
Text and illustrations © Sophie Voillot 2021