Translated from the French by
“Look, Josée, You’re really cool, but I don’t feel like lugging around your backpack and mine too, you understand?”
Sylvain’s words had been resonating in my head for three days, reminding me of what Jean-Louis had said a few weeks earlier. It wasn’t as if, in my impotent naiveté, I was looking to move in with him. Or even as if I intended to have him shouldering my burden, literally or figuratively! But he didn’t leave me any time to set him straight before vanishing from the square. You would have thought he’d never set foot on it.
Since then I would only swear by Janis Joplin.
Only she could understand me when she howled out the pain of a heart thirsting for love, spilling her guts, Cry Baby, nothing held back. For her I’d dared to leave Old Montreal, to climb up to the corner of Berri and Sainte-Catherine, and to slip into Archambault where I’d managed to swipe a songbook with chords, words, and all. To make amends, I’d bought a small E string, the cheapest they had.
Back on the street, the cold cellophane wrapping clung to the damp skin under my blouse, my heart was beating hard, so hard! Rush without running, zigzag from one dark corner to another, turn here, then there. Learn to breathe again. But on the way back down to my domain, what a triumph!
Sitting on the ground, leaning against the crumbling wall we used as a shelter, I worked on the songs one by one, and as soon as I finished I started in again. In time I began to know some of them by heart, except Little Girl Blue, which moved me so much that I couldn’t sing it without bursting into tears. On the other hand, with Get It While You Can, every line came out of my gut as if I were the one who wrote it: be happy when you can! In lieu of a guitar solo, I would go off on a barely controlled high-pitched ululation. It worked not badly, but I had to shorten it, I didn’t have a whole orchestra to back up my wailing. My favourite was A Woman Left Lonely, which lent words to my wound. A woman. That’s what was strange, my having barely emerged from childhood.
When I saw Mireille and Danny munching their fries out of the same carton, I wondered why that couldn’t happen to me. Me, who felt so alone, so helpless since Sylvain told me to take a walk.
Hey! I was hungry for him as for some essential nourishment, but whichever way I looked, in whatever direction, nowhere did I see his silhouette. Hey! Only his look-alikes, that each time made my heart stop, leaving me with a hedgehog in my throat, rolled into a ball.
“Hey! Are you all right?”
I jumped, startled. I hadn’t seen Steffi arrive. Crouched down beside me, she was eyeing me with some concern, blinking in the sun.
“I don’t know. I’m not great, to be honest.”
“I can see that. Listen, you want to take a walk with me? Just to make a change?”
It wasn’t the first time she’d tried to lure me away from Old Montreal, but so far, except for my raid on Archambault, I’d hunkered down there, it was the only place in the whole universe where I’d been able to make a place for myself, however minuscule. I felt magically protected there, while the rest of the city seemed patrolled by police with only one thing in mind: to find me, to grab me by the ear, to bring me to my knees at the feet of my mother… and that would be the end of me.
It had already happened the previous spring. I can’t remember on what pretext she’d again lashed out at me, but after school I’d turned in circles around the bus stop and I’d let several go by. My feet wouldn’t let me climb inside. But they did want to take me to Café Campus, on the other side of Côte-des-Neiges, and I’d holed up there for hours, sampling every joint that came my way. I was trying to persuade Jean-Marc, a bearded type who was a university student, to invite me to his place for the night, when the harpy burst in through the little side door, foaming at the lips, and charged right at me.
It was as if she possessed some kind of otherworldly radar.
She shoved me into her white Ford Granada with the blood-red seats, and sped to the police station, dragging me inside against my will. An officer seemed to be waiting for us, she must have phoned before leaving. As to how she knew where to find me, I always suspected my little sister, but I didn’t blame her: she must have been grilled within an inch of her life.
The officer led us into a little room with a desk, a chair for him, two chairs for us, and a baleful fluorescent light overhead. And there, before the farded mumsy with her wee duplicitous smile, bejewelled from head to toe as always when she wanted to reel someone in, he lectured me and interrogated me with an air of sham benevolence.
“Listen, little lady, you mustn’t frighten your mother like that. It’s not as if you were being badly treated at home, eh? You seem to be lacking for nothing, isn’t that so?”
Even though I was sending him mute signals by widening my eyes like a hysterical owl, it never entered his mind to take me aside or to have her leave. So I said nothing. In any case, even without my opening my mouth, I knew what I was in for. And as soon as we were back home I got a hiding that made all the others look pale in comparison.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to leave this square where I was going round and round. Without admitting it to myself entirely, I perhaps also hoped, a little, to run into Sylvain. We headed toward the subway, a dry, dusty wind in our faces. Once at the station, Steffi handed me a cut-rate ticket. It reminded me of the distant time when I too was a schoolgirl. We got off at Sherbrooke, just two stations on. We’d really only taken the ride to get to the top of the hill. What a luxury.
How pleasant it was to sit under the trees’ green parasol. We’d been all wrong, Jean-Louis, Normand, and myself, back at the beginning of time.
Steffi handed me the bottle of water she’d bought in the subway. It was the best I’d ever drunk in my life. It felt like I was quenching a millennial thirst. While she lit a Gitane, I brought out my guitar and started to strum a few chords of my own invention with two fingers. A bit higher on the scale, I found something open and dreamlike that calmed me. The leaves rustled gently around us, we were at peace.
A spindly silhouette wearing a brown leather hat was walking toward us with a bouncy stride, hair flouncing in the wind. Steffi introduced us. His name was Marco, I no longer remember where they’d met. He sat down on the ground facing us, took off his black leather sandals, opened his yellow leather bandolier and brought out a bottle that he offered to Steffi. It wasn’t in anything leather, just a paper bag. That’s how I discovered caribou. The first time, it took me by surprise. It was hot, strong, and sweet at the same time. I told myself that it was the Southern Comfort of the north.
Saint Janis, pray for us.
It was now or never for me to try out my new repertoire of songs. I strung them together softly one after the other, just to see if I could remember the chords without referring to the songbook. When I say softly, I don’t know if everyone would agree, given how hard it was for me to pronounce those words without choking up. But at the end of Me and Bobby McGee, they both joined in with some loud la la la’s straight from the heart. Then we went silent for a moment, nobody moved, and I set down my guitar amid the calm, there was nothing to add.
Marco broke the silence.
“I’ve got some good Acapulco Gold at home, want to come? I live right over there, it’s not far.”
On the other side of Saint-Louis Square, we entered a little street where I’d never been. It bore the name of a legendary prince, and there were paintings on the walls of the houses. At the corner of de Bullion, we came on a fountain into which a little prankster had poured some dish detergent. The white suds that poured onto the sidewalk heightened my feeling that we had just entered a children’s book.
“There it is,” said Marco, gesturing gallantly with his arm.
We climbed the stairway leading to an apartment smelling of dust, with rooms all in a line: in the front, a double room whose rear section featured a big dining table, then a kitchen, and right at the back behind the bathroom, an incredibly spacious bedroom with a balcony and a wooden stairway leading to the alleyway. After giving us the tour, Marco placed an LP on his stereo’s turntable. It was Gilles Valiquette, Chansons pour un café. I remember feeling that it fit him like a glove, and since then I can’t think of the one without associating him with the other, especially since I saw a resemblance between the two faces, the one smiling on the album cover, and the other, bending over the table, intent on rolling a good-sized joint, which he then held out for me to light.
What a beautiful day, repeated the singer. Taking my first toke, I told myself that at least it was ending better than it began. We smoked, listened to some records, and after about an hour Steffi got up to leave. She had a fair way to go before making it home: up Boulevard Saint-Laurent on the 55 bus to Laurier, changing to the 51 and heading west to Grosvenor Street, not far from my former school.
Seeing her getting ready to leave, I felt as if, after having half-way crossed the arid Nevada flatland in a covered wagon, I was seeing my traveling companion off to the Old World. Night falls swiftly in the desert. I wasn’t sure where I was going to plant my tent. I think I remember Steffi just then looking hard at Marco, who exclaimed:
“Josée, if you want to crash on the couch, no problem, there are no fleas here, and no bedbugs!”
Text and illustrations © Sophie Voillot 2021