Translated from the French by
The first time I saw you, you were sleeping. In fact, I heard you before seeing you because you were snoring on the old living room couch. I’d walked for a good part of the night before coming back to my new friend Sylvio’s, and I remember saying to myself: “Here is someone who is sleeping the sleep of the just.” What I felt was that you could not slumber with such abandon on a caved in sofa, with the rising sun striking you full in the face, if you were not at peace with yourself. Of course I had a tab of acid in my body and even if the trip was winding down I was still seeing rainbows on the hallway’s walls and life was asserting itself, you know, with a quiet force, where all blends together, endowing everything you see with deep meaning.
Thin, edgy, with fiery eyes and crow-black hair, Sylvio was having breakfast in the kitchen with Michel, younger and paler, who I called his blondfriend, just as a joke. I’d met them together in Old Montreal, but Sylvio said that between them nothing had been carved in stone, you couldn’t lose sight of the Revolution, and conjugal ties only entrapped us in an outmoded style of life, he did have a way with words. He’d painted black slogans onto his old yellow Corvette: Property is theft, Religion is the opiate of the people, and also, on two lines, Vengeance is sweet / to the Indian heart, because he had Mohawk blood, and if we stop remembering, we forget.
Sylvio was generosity incarnate. He welcomed into his Saint-Léonard three and a half young people who needed a place to spend the night, and he’d been bailing me out for two or three days.
I’d had no trouble picking up my old habits and reuniting with the gang of fallen angels, who’d hardly been aware of my three-day absence. But the carefree nonchalance of those first moments had been obliterated by a ravenous crocodile gnawing an ever-deepening hole in my insides. There was no question of my going back to the affluent home where I’d been beaten. And as I was not yet eighteen, I hid myself with growing unease every time I spotted a police car. I spent my time cowering in the lobby of the Hotel Iroquois. That’s how I saw Woodstock 27 times. It was running non-stop on a screen overlooking the terrace, and it was my new religion. I always knew that one day I would go to live in a hippie commune and find true happiness.
Meanwhile, I found that the cobblestones of Place Jacques-Cartier did not make for an especially comfortable bed, and the wolves were still roaming by night. I could spot them now by the icy vigilance they awakened in me. And it was no longer good enough to take naps on a bench in the sun, twenty minutes here, a half hour there. Time passed, and I was not getting enough sleep.
That night, I’d reeled off one Janis after another: it’s all the same fucking day, man. While I was trying to put my guitar back in its case, an obnoxious drunk refused to leave me alone until Sylvio intervened and brought me back to his place. With the corner of a shag carpet where I could set down my backpack, a large three-cushion sofa and a threadbare catalogne, it felt like I was at the Ritz.
“Who’s he?” I asked, as I served myself a cup of coffee with one teaspoon of sugar (there was no more milk).
“Oh, he’s an old friend who’s just got here from the West Coast. His name is Denis, I know him from tree planting.”
Michel and Sylvio had pulled up their chairs and it was starting to get hot in the kitchen, so I went into the living room, cup in hand. Just then you opened your eyes, and I saw a gleam of light. A green ray, as in Jules Verne’s novel. I’d had a whole collection of his books in my former life, the one I’d abandoned three and a half weeks earlier and that now struck me as an island drifting afar off, receding with ever increasing speed.
I’d never seen eyes like yours, and I’ve never encountered them since. Green, yes, but jade veering to turquoise, shot through with rays of gold streaming outwards from the pupil.
Two suns staring back at me.
Impulsively, I held out my cup of coffee. You said, “Wow, just the way I like it.”
We went out into the little yard, the sun was beating down already, and what moved me most was a butterfly larking about from one side to the other of the metal fence. It passed through the mesh as if there were nothing there. I was both saddened that the chain link was profaning the morning’s gentle mood, and happy that it wasn’t inhibiting the insect’s flight.
You said that I was pretty intense, I said yes, and we kissed.
Our first night was one of delirious passion. I could hardly believe my abrupt transition from hell to paradise. You smelled so good, your scent was intoxicating, I could have lost myself in it, my eyes shut, or in your gaze, eyes wide open.
The month of August seemed endless, we had never known such heat in Montreal in human memory, and Sylvio was starting to feel claustrophobic, so we dipped into the Journal de Montréal and you read: “Second floor partly furnished with mezzanine corner of Wolfe and La Gauchetière, seventy dollars a month, that’s not much, I bet there’s no hot water.”
You were absolutely right, the floor was buckled and the tap ran cold only, but we were the first to visit and you signed the lease on the spot, I was very impressed.
We moved in two days later. Michel had a buddy who worked on disaster relief for an NPO in Verdun, meaning a “non-profit organization,” I was learning all sorts of new things. One or two trips in a Corvette and for nothing at all we found a mattress, bed linen, a few pots, pale green melamine cafeteria dishes, a fistful of utensils, a table and two chairs. Along with the shabby old couch left behind beneath the window, that was all we needed.
You would pay the rent with your unemployment insurance topped up with some little under the table jobs, and I would buy food, earning small change with my guitar. I was making progress, I didn’t always have to watch where I was placing my fingers. And since you’d explained to me that the police had better things to do than to chase after runaways like me, I was less nervous. And people liked what I was doing.
The rest of the time we spent in bed. I could have let endless days go by stretched out beside you, inhaling the hollow of your neck, the roots of your burgeoning hair, so thick, your curiously golden skin beneath your freckles. Your tree bark. You were the trunk planted in the middle of the forest, I bestrode you like a bounding doe. You came into my eyes.
And in resplendent detonations, I burst into bloom.
When we were not afloat up in the mezzanine, you taught me to live: how to cook porridge like your mother, mixing powdered milk with water so it would be creamier. How to sprinkle cinnamon onto a slice of toasted white bread after having smeared it with margarine. How to wash two plates at once, sliding them one over the other as you went. But I was the one who found a way to make perfect grilled cheese sandwiches in a little dented frying pan with a lid that didn’t fit: you had to lower the heat so the cheese had time to melt before the bread went black.
Sylvio and Michel came by one afternoon with a gift: a radio cassette player they’d found I don’t know where. Sylvio said it had fallen off a truck. He’d picked up two, one for them, one for us, I never stopped learning. Michel found CHOM on the radio, he put a big bag of pot on the table, brought out a bright yellow pack of Vogue papers from the back pocket of his jeans, and got busy rolling a three-papered joint that he started to pass around while Jimi Page roared out Our shadows taller than our soul…
Smoking always had the same effect on me: after two or three puffs I started to jump up and down on the kitchen floor. Oye como va mi ritmo, bueno pa’gozar… I didn’t understand much after ritmo, but that bit I knew by heart. Without being quite aware of it, I moved into you, swaying my hips. I made eyes at you while thinking of our awakening that morning, stretched out side by side like languid beasts.
Sylvio didn’t need a diagram. As soon as he’d finished his joint, he rose to his feet in the smoke-filled room:
“Come on, darling, I’ll buy you a beer at the tavern!”
“Okay my sweet, I’m coming, bye-bye lovebirds,” Michel responded, before following his lover out, forgetting the plastic bag on the table.
(to be continued)
Text and illustrations © Sophie Voillot 2021