You looked at them as though they were about to give you leprosy, ticks, and lice at the same time. As though they carried all the diseases in the world and with every passing second, you risked being contaminated by their stench, their filth, their coarseness. I saw your air of disgust, Isabelle, and it made me feel sorry for them—I hoped they wouldn’t notice you watching them with so much contempt. You waved me over, and with a pleading look, said, “Let’s move? There are still two free seats at the other end of the car.” I know you held it against me when I said no, but it was important we stay seated there. I wanted to explain that it didn’t work like that in life—we couldn’t simply slip away when a situation made us a bit uncomfortable. But that would have taken too long, and you would have been angry. In short, it wasn’t worth it having that conversation. So I simply said, “No.”
I’m sure you didn’t understand why I refused. No doubt you found it odd given the intolerable odour wafting around us; a mixture of shit, alcohol, and old, dirty underwear combined with the usual pizza smell of the Berri metro. I wished you could see them the way I did, looking past their dirty hair and black nails. But I didn’t hold it against you. Everyone in the metro examined them with the same scornful expression. Hundreds of people got off at Berri-UQAM and hundreds more stepped into the car, saw those two, and turned around. I could tell people were tired from their day, that they had no desire to put up with the couple’s presence. They were probably thinking to themselves, “If I’d known, I wouldn’t have chosen this car.” It fascinated me how these two people, who were just a little down on their luck, managed to make fifty others uncomfortable.
When I turned towards you, you weren’t looking at them anymore. I didn’t know if you were frightened or if it was the rank smell, but you were pressed up to the window with a blank stare, as if waiting impatiently for it to be over, for them to leave so that you could act normally again. So that you could relax the muscles in your back and breathe at last. Every time the metro voice announced the name of the next station, you’d glance subtly in their direction, hoping, undoubtedly, that they’d get up. They didn’t move. You couldn’t have noticed, but they were sleeping propped up against each other. For a second, I told myself I’d made a mistake in sitting in the single seat and not next to you as usual, because the guy’s dreads were so long they just grazed your hair without you realizing it. I sincerely hoped you wouldn’t notice. I knew that if you did, you would spring to your feet like a madwoman and get off at the next stop—without caring where, or whether I was behind you—just to make it end. You’d scratch your scalp until there was blood on the platform, tearing your hair out because you’ve been a bit paranoid ever since Julie told you she got lice after a homeless person gave her a hug. Well, maybe you’d be right. Maybe their clothes were damp with piss and windshield washer fluid, and crawling with the fleas of abandoned cats, maybe they were on crack or heroin at that very moment, maybe you were in danger and actually had a chance of catching who-knows-what virus.
You were probably cursing me in your head, telling yourself I was the worst boyfriend ever for not suggesting we change places when there was still time, for not saying, “Of course my love, take the individual seat, I’ll go beside the window.” Especially when I knew how much you hated this type of situation. I held your hand to prove to you I was there and you had nothing to worry about, because I understood how you felt. But you resisted, as if you didn’t have the right to move—you had to play dead to keep a semblance of safety. It was all in your head, Isa. If they had wanted to hurt you, they would have. I would have stopped them, clearly, but acting like you were in complete control didn’t make a difference, your body language wasn’t fooling anyone. Maybe they suspected their presence was bothering you, or that they were disrupting your little metro routine, but if that was the case, they didn’t care, and rightly so. They weren’t doing anything illegal. They had the right to sit there, to occupy that place, to take their share of the limited space, even if they smelled like garbage. Anyway, they didn’t take up much room because the girl was sitting on the boy’s lap. I wished you would have noticed how different they were from the squeegees on the corner of René-Levesque and Viger—the ones who came up to your windshield the other day. Compared to them, these kids weren’t scary. They weren’t going to call you “a selfish bitch” because you refused what they asked of you, and on top of everything, they kept a low profile. That could have been me and you a few years earlier, if life had been less good to us.
The girl was very skinny and wore ripped fishnet knee-highs, an old Slipknot tee, and a military hat that hid most of her face. The left side of her head was shaved unevenly and pink braids fell on her right shoulder. The guy was naked from the waist up and held the girl in his arms, which were full of scars and old scabs, still half open. He could have definitely used a trip to a walk-in clinic, because some of the scabs looked infected—I could see from where I sat that some had turned yellowish green. It didn’t bother the girl, who, half awake, caressed his greasy dreads with a delicacy almost maternal, while he closed his eyes and rocked her gently. Their faces reflected the same serene expression, the same peaceful smiles as sleeping children. It almost seemed as if they weren’t from here— they didn’t belong in this world and had been dropped here without warning. Clearly I made that up. More likely, they were just two squeegees in as bad a way as anyone roaming Saint-Denis, Sainte-Catherine, or Ontario, and that was it. The guy still hadn’t realized he’d set the sponge of his window washer on my foot and the toxic liquid was soaking my shoe. I thought about offering them a little money to go eat, but I didn’t want to insult them. It’s true, I didn’t know what their lives were like, maybe they managed okay in the end, and they didn’t need my help or anyone else’s.
I looked at you once more, Isa, then I saw how the squeegee girl was slowly twisting her fingers around her boyfriend’s oily dreads and realized you had never touched me with that kind of tenderness. You’d never shown me that kind of affection. Not now, not ever. The life we’d shared had nothing to do with their story, their loving gestures and obvious togetherness. It was something else. Something more predictable. More practical, but also more ordinary. More reassuring, but more cowardly.
We started dating at the end of university because we were the only two still single, because we had nothing better to do, and because our mutual friends pushed us to. At the end of our last seminar, I asked you if you wanted to have a drink with me and you accepted. The rest seemed already written. You asked me if I would order another: I said yes. After the forth, I went to settle the bill without you knowing: you found me enough of a gentlemen to see where the night might take us. I suggested we go for a walk in the Vieux-Port and the idea seemed to enchant you. You insisted that we get caricatures near Place Jacques-Cartier: I gave in. I told you I had a surprise for you and asked you to choose between my hands hidden behind my back, right or left: you told yourself I was entertaining, full of ideas. I let you take the pistachio cone even though you made the mistake of choosing the strawberry one in my left hand: you found me even more charming. Your hand grazed mine: I grabbed it. I moved closer to you: you didn’t back away. You kissed me first: I liked it. I dared to ask, “Your place or mine?”: you responded, “Yours.” We drank another half-bottle of red wine: soon, we moved to the bedroom. You left the next morning after a breakfast of croissants: within three days, I called you. Years later, when our friends asked us how it was going, we told them it was going well, a few squabbles, but nothing serious, and it was true. Everyone was pleased, everyone patted themselves on the back for playing Cupid with such talent.
They didn’t know that we had never had sex seven times a day during the first months we were together, that we never discussed the names of our future children, not even the possibility of having them, that we never suffered when we were apart for more than twenty-four hours. They couldn’t imagine all the time we spent waiting to be seized by intense but invisible feelings. They didn’t know we’d ruined some of the most beautiful things—the stars, the sky, the sun, the sea, flowers, spring—with empty talk, not knowing how to truly invent ourselves. They wouldn’t have believed that silence punctuated our daily lives more and more, that we were no longer surprised to find it between two bites of bread, two gulps of wine, two rhetorical questions, because we’d gotten along so beautifully. Maybe we’d already said everything we had to say to each other and we had to start turning on the radio, the television, the espresso machine, the dryer to mask all the hours of nothingness, all the hours we didn’t dare admit that silence was the last privilege we had.
I don’t know what to make of the life we’ve lived up until now. I don’t know to what extent we’ve simply “shared” the moments that seemed to come naturally: the moves (from Fullum to Marquette, from Marquette to Villeray, then Villeray to Casgrain), my family, your family, trips to Percé, Eastham, Daytona Beach, Christmas dinners, turkey, chicken, roast beef, Easter brunches, ham, salmon, lamb. Moments we didn’t need to force because everything was fine. The only thing I’m convinced of is that you’ve never looked at me the way she looks at him, and I’ve never held you in my arms like that—as though not even death could get in the way, not even in this stinking car—and it never seemed serious because we would be loved until the end.
So, I lowered my eyes, Isabelle. I stared at the tip of my shoe drenched in washer fluid because I couldn’t look at you anymore, because it would have been too much to meet your eyes and have you see in mine that we were no longer in love, that maybe we never had been, and that everything would be over the moment the metro doors opened on the emptiness of our story.
Québécoise author Alice Michaud-Lapointe was born in Montréal in 1990. Her first book, Titre de transport (Héliotrope, 2014; paperback reissue 2016) was a finalist for the Grand prix littéraire Archambault. In fall 2016, she published her first novel, Villégiature, also with Héliotrope. Since 2015, she has been a Ph.D. candidate in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal.