Translated from the French by
“Woman! Don’t tell me that you used the same knife for butter and pâté again? Without even getting rid of the evidence? Mind you, I’d rather have it that way…”
I was starting to regret having slept with Gaby. First of all, I have to tell it like it was, it wasn’t memorable, and since then he’d been calling me Woman. Every time, I sighed and rolled my eyes.
For the four or five days since I’d moved into my new lodging, I was finding it hard to leave it. Without admitting it to myself, I’d so much missed a soft bed, a pile of books, endless daydreams while watching the clouds come together and drift apart…
Except that I still had to go out, not only to earn my rent, for which Gaby had got me, as he proclaimed in a triumphal declaration, a discount of two dollars a week: “I told them that you were helping me with the accounts.” The most laughable of pretexts. I hated figures. But I also had to buy some food, however simple and light, even if he allowed me a generous share of his own provisions. As long as I kept kosher, whose restrictions I could never get straight.
“Oh yes, sorry!”
“Never mind, keep the rest of the butter, I’ll buy some more. But be more careful, okay?”
I tossed off an “okay” while tearing down the stairs so fast that I almost ran into the pay phone posted near the door. Sure, it was convenient to be able to make calls without installing a line in your room, but it could have been put somewhere else, I told myself for the umpteenth time already. Every time I went down the stairs, in fact. I’d made a big decision, and I didn’t want Gaby to see me exiting the house in sandals. Even if, as the sun dipped down this late afternoon, it was still acceptable to be seen wearing them over to The Chateau, at the corner of Sainte Catherine and Mountain Street.
I’d spotted some Aldo boots, fawn leather, high, with laces, a dream. I was banking on the Friday crush, as the offices let out, to pass unnoticed. My heart was pounding as hard as the time I went after the Janis song book. But I was determined to be done with frozen feet. Even if I had to sacrifice my adored Indian sandals, which I’d been wearing ever since I ran away from home.
No dallying, I had to be as quick as possible. I took out two boxes from the shelf, one size 8 and one size 9, blessing whoever invented self-service. I began by trying on the 9: not only did I have enough space to wiggle my toes inside, but the back didn’t slide along the heel when I stood up. Bingo.
With the balls of my feet, while ostensibly placing the size 8 box on the adjoining chair to divert attention, I dragged my sacrificial lambs as far as I could under my seat. Then I got up, put the empty size 9 box on top, brought them both to where I’d found them, and left the store, hastening slowly, focussing my thoughts on the hare, the tortoise, the ant, the grasshopper so bereft when the north wind blew, and I found myself outside with new boots, half laced, under my bell-bottoms.
Breathe. Don’t run.
It was as if I’d been doing this all my life.
I climbed the stairs on the tips of my toes and slipped quietly into my room like… well, like a thief. I stashed the new boots into the little closet that my meagre possessions barely filled, and I stretched out, opening the first book that came to hand: one of the San Antonio novels I’d picked up in a church basement bazaar and that drew from me peals of laughter, sometimes in the middle of the night, making me chortle even more, but under my breath. It was excellent cut-rate therapy. My heart began to calm itself, and my breathing too.
A little later I pulled on my only other pair of shoes, running shoes I’d been carrying around with me ever since I’d resorted to Disaster Assistance, in order to go to the bathroom. Predictably, I ran into Gaby, who was making coffee with the espresso maker everyone shared, snubbing the electric one gathering dust in the corner.
“Ah, you’re there?”
“Uh, yes, I was out of cigarettes.”
“Good, I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”
“If it’s for the rest of the rent, I should be able to give it to you tomorrow.”
“No, that’s not it. Tonight is Benjamin’s birthday. Esther wanted to invite you (I had my doubts about that), except you’ll have to wash the dishes, you know, so she’ll find the kitchen clean.”
“Oh la la, I’m sorry, excuse me.”
I’d become an expert at repentance thanks my early training in dealing with screams, blows, and punishments.
Guilty you are, and guilty you will remain.
“You don’t have to apologize, just pay attention, it’s not complicated.”
That’s not the way I wanted things, but somehow my pledges of dependability always led to dereliction of duty, and I found it hard to fulfil my household tasks voluntarily. I did my duty at last, however, and then Esther took over to prepare a fragrant feast.
All four of us gathered in the middle room, which I was visiting for the first time. It was bigger than the two others on the floor, with two windows, a double bed, not a three-quarter, a larger table, and three chairs instead of two.
I took the third, Gaby sat on the bed, and the lovers treated us to chicken with cumin along with saffron potatoes. For dessert, Esther opened a ribboned box, but instead of a cake, it contained a dozen gazelle ankles.
The almond pastries were both powdery and unctuous, with a flowery taste that complemented the delicate flavour of the mint tea. Doubtless inspired by those familiar delicacies, Gaby and Benjamin began to reminisce about their youth in Casablanca.
“Do you remember the time we took our motor scooters along the Corniche…”
“Ha ha, yes! We went like the wind…”
“We turned onto the beach…”
“And we sank down like hippos at low tide!”
In the midst of the general laughter, Esther got up, Gaby gave me a sign with his head, raising his eyebrows, and I pushed my chair back to help clear up. To my great surprise, instead of going right back into the room, Esther opened the tap and began washing the dishes, so I gave her a hand. It was not my style to do this twice on the same day, but I wanted to take the opportunity to get to know her.
Despite my good will, I think she found me a bit doubtful. She answered my questions tersely, but I learned that she was engaged to Benjamin. That they’d met at the synagogue. That she’d come to study business in Montreal. That she very much missed her family in Morocco. And that if they got up late on weekday mornings, it was because Benjamin worked nights and she used that time to study because it was important for a couple to keep to the same schedule. All this with haughty condescension, as though the air she breathed was purer than mine.
When we went back to the room, the boys had brought out their guitars and begun to play, Benjamin doing rhythm and Gaby melody. I didn’t know the piece, but it was really pretty. Then they shifted to Blowin’ in the Wind, and without thinking, I joined my voice to that of Gaby, harmonizing spontaneously.
Like Monsieur Jourdain, I was composing counterpoint without knowing it.
They looked at each other, nodding their heads, and Benjamin asked if I had a special request. I suggested Me and Bobby McGee, he knew it, and as my voice was already warmed up, I did something not too bad, in my opinion. Gaby seemed to agree:
“Benjamin and me, we play together with two friends, one on keyboards, the other on drums. But we need a singer. How would you like to rehearse with us tomorrow night?”
“In a real band with mikes, amps, and everything?”
“That’s right,” smiled Gaby.
To celebrate that, he rolled a “digespliff” that we smoked as a trio because Esther didn’t want any. I almost felt like blowing the smoke in her face to punish her for her superior attitude earlier on in the kitchen, but I let it go. I was too happy.
Mikes, amps, and everything!
Text and illustrations © Sophie Voillot 2021