Fiction

Sepia


This is an excerpt of Gail Scott’s Heroine which is being reissued with a new foreword by Eileen Myles in October 2019 from Coach House.

Sir. You can on-ly put ca-na-dien monee in that machine. No sir. No foreign objects nor foreign monee in that macheen. It’s an infraction, you see. The guard’s finger runs tight under the small print. The wooden squirrels in the rafters are si-lent. The Black tourist descends the steps with an astonished stare toward the telescope aimed at the city skyscrapers.

I’m lying with my legs up. Oh, dream only a woman’s mouth could do it as well as you. Your warm faucet’s letting the white froth fall over the small point on the tub floor. Your single eye watches my floating smiling face in its enamel embrace. Outside the shops swing. The wind has turned the trees to yellow teeth. This is the city. Montréal, P.Q. I work here. I’m a c—

scott____ 9780889224155_cover_coverbookpage-v2

That is I worked here ’til one day. I was sitting in that Cracow Café on The Main with its windows and walls sweating grey against the winter. Eating steamies made from real Polish sausage. Suddenly I looked up and there was this funny picture. A cross stuck in a bleeding loaf of bread. You were sitting under it smiling at me through your round glasses. Sort of, with your wonderful mouth, so feminine for a man’s. And your beat-up leather jacket.

Some hookers were standing round drinking hot chocolate. One was so wired up she kept doing a high step still holding her cup. Right leg over left leg. Twice. Left leg over right. There was no point trying to stop her. Somehow you managed to slide out over the torn red plastic seat and sit down beside me. Without anybody seeming to mind. I loved the smell of your cracked leather jacket. From Europe with love.

No, I’m telling stories. Maybe these women were your socialist revolutionary comrades trying to get stopped for soliciting so they could expose the brutality of the city administration. Some of them had middle-class skin.

I mean solidarity. If anyone asks, instinctively I have the answer. Loving women. In my case two. That is, the same set of brown eyes twice. We’re side by side on her bed. Then I’m lying on top of her soft breasts. She pulls up her white nightshirt and pulls down her panties so our genitals will touch. I – I think I rolled off. Yes it was me who stopped. Knowing I’m a failure. No. Never admit. Never admit you’re a failure.

The smell of coffee. Real cappuccino. A few leaves rush by a real prostitute bending her knees ’til her pussy comes forward. Then putting her hand on it. The harsh note is in the next booth saying: ‘She should adopt a more self-critical voice.’ His woman companion nods but her answer’s drowned in the noise. ‘You have a relationship,’ the guy is saying, ‘and you learn something from it. Next time you select better, that’s all.’ He shrugs. We get up to go. I like how your glasses hang on a string. When you’re not wearing them. Later, looking at the photos, I notice we’ve seen it all the same. The pretty prostitute, her jeans just right snugly over the V- shape but not too tight – Um, your hands reassure me. Confidently clicking the camera. Together we’re crossing the bar of light.

Colder times are coming. The tourist sees the plain whiten beneath the skyscrapers. The scene shifts to that dome-shaped café full of hippies and women in cloche-shaped hats. The sign says bauhaus brasserie. It only fills half the lens. Jane Fonda goes by on a horse spattered with the blood of Vietnam. A gay man is fingering my homemade leather blouse and saying: ‘Sweetheart, you look so much like Barbarella.’ The new man and I get up to go. As we step out into the snow a woman comrade cries: ‘How come you never kiss anyone but her anymore?’ I’m a bit scared. We’re standing in the harbour. The gulls clack in the fog over the old schooner. I can’t hear my breath. Maybe we’re coming in unison. The illusion of perfect fusion. ‘Gail’s friends are my friends,’ you say in a soft voice. I’m so relieved. It’s starting to snow. Of course I didn’t know what you mean when you say that. Until I looked back and saw her head on your shoulder. Across the room at Ingmar’s when the sun shining through the lead glass delineated that dark place under your chin where it felt so safe. I’d been running from chair to chair on those Marienbad squares asking: ‘Have you seen Jon?’ as if I didn’t care. Suddenly she’s standing in front of me saying: ‘Why don’t you just relax?’

She’s right, Sepia. What I learned from her is that the relaxed woman gets the man. That was in the summer of ’76. When the rcmp hinted our group should leave the city if we didn’t want any trouble. The whole Montréal left was on the train. We called it our Olympic Vacation. Going to visit the other so-called Founding Nation. On that trip you’re in the woods for a good two days. Deep in reserve country with the trees leaning recklessly over the horizon. My legs were so anxious I wanted to jump off. Because I couldn’t forget the restaurant scene where someone said at the next table: ‘Elle a perdu; qui perd, gagne.’ I wrote faster. So fast and so small you could hardly see my handwriting. The cop at the counter watched as if I were writing in code. His handcuffs were at his belt. The gulls flew over the glassed-in roof. You used to sit there and think of sound, of the ships battering up and down between the waves. (I loved your mouth; it held me to you when the rest of your body cut like a knife.) You said: ‘I want to be free. No monogamy. It’s not for me.’ I laughed and pulled out my plum lipstick. ‘Tea for two,’ I said. ‘Decadence for me and decadence for you.’ No wonder you looked surprised. It wasn’t the right reaction.

Anyway, we were on the train. When suddenly I was awakened by an angel in a turquoise blazer. She held a cn card in her hand that said: while on this train your wish is my command. We watched her disappear in the night. Noting we’d forgotten to say the heat was pouring out from under the seat. Though it wasthe middle of summer. We never saw her again. But I couldn’t get back to sleep. I was so worried about not being able to smile when the girl with the green eyes put her hand on your thigh.

A feminist (I kept repeating) cannot be impaled by a white prince.

The trip was like a dark tunnel. At the other end there would be light. When I got to Vancouver, I’d see, maybe, how to be free. Janis Joplin came on the radio. Her voice cracked like one of those evergreens trying to grow on the burnt earth outside Sudbury. She said: There’s no tomorrow, baby (laughing her head off ). It’s all the same goddamned day. We learned that coming here on the train.

 

scott____ 9780889224155_cover_coverbookpage-v2 Gail Scott is an acclaimed novelist, essayist, translator. The Obituary (New York: Nightboat, 2012; Coach House, 2010), a ghost story set in a Montréal triplex, was a 2011 finalist for Le Grand Prix du Livre de la Ville de Montréal. Other novels include My Paris (Dalkey Archive), about a sad diarist in conversation with Gertrude Stein and Walter Benjamin in late 20th Paris, Main Brides and Heroine. Spare Parts Plus 2 is a collection of stories and manifestoes. Essays on feminism and experimental writing are collected in Spaces Like Stairs and la théorie, un dimanche. (translated as Sunday Theory from Belladonna, NY, 2013). Scott’s translation of Michael Delisle’s Le Déasarroi du matelot was shortlisted for the Governor General’s award [2001]. Scott co-founded the critical French-language journal Spirale (Montréal), and is co-editor of the New Narrative anthology: Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Toronto: Coach House, 2004). She is currently completing a memoir based in Lower Manhattan during the early Obama years.