Chapter One: That Poor, Dear Girl
I went to Montréal on a whim. I bought a one-way bus ticket, quit my job, took my belongings to the Sally Anne, and became portable. Then I sat on the Greyhound for four days and three nights. People trudged on and off. I shifted and sank in my seat. I smoked pot at every rest stop, hoping to soothe my aching back and make room for better thoughts to reveal themselves. I came to notice that folks who get on buses are often the ones who can’t get on planes. Vagrants and strippers, kids with dirty clothes and dirtier mouths, mothers who curse a lot. Why is it that the older you get, the sadder your face becomes when you think no one is watching you?
We passed through brown prairie, past a huge Canadian flag, red and white, rippling in the wind as a train glided slowly by in the foreground. It was one of those moments when you feel proud of your country, as though anything can happen in all this beauty and vastness—there might even be some to claim for your own. The whole time silver clouds followed my reflection in the window, flashing by in fast-forward. I studied myself. I felt more peaceful than I could remember, stuck this way between the past and the future.
Each time we left a province behind, I would think, Now my life is beginning. Now my life is beginning. I read a book of Bukowski’s poems and tried to emulate his zero-fucks attitude. My spongy grey brain, only twenty years old, if not consumed by too many drugs, pickled by alcohol, or suicidal from love, was the perfect age to decide upon its own system of opinions and beliefs. I had been defeated, but it wasn’t too late for me. I had regrets, but I could begin again. I did not have to be “that poor dear girl.” It was time to reinvent myself in a place where no one knew why.
I had a brand-new journal: blank pages with beautiful purpose, waiting for stories. I had my yellow Walkman and a clip of batteries so long it looked as if it should have been connected to a machine gun. I had precious mix tapes made by the friends who still liked me enough to see me off at the station. I had my backpack and my skateboard. Riding the bus with reckless ambition, I was startled by the hope I felt in leaving everything I knew behind. For what seemed like the fiftieth time I fell asleep, while my body shook with the buzz of the road.
We made stops at every tiny parcel-pick-up town. Often I would wake to air breaks extinguishing, to find fellow travellers gone for good, or to the sound of new people wedging their belongings into the compartment above me. I kept my bag beside me on the spare seat—I wasn’t interested in sharing the already cramped space or making small talk just yet. Somewhere in Ontario I took out a scratch card my mom had given me in a little package to ease my bus-ride boredom. It contained a discouraging reminder of how unrealistic I was being, moving somewhere I’d never been, full of people I’d never met and languages I didn’t understand. Please be safe, you can always come home. I scratched the crossword ticket until my nails were dark with metallic shavings. I blew the remnants off the page, revealing that I had not only lost but had scratched just one entire word. Yet the word was east.
I smiled and put the ticket in my journal, grateful to be reminded that life provides signs, if you’re open to receiving them.
I stepped off the bus, zombified from days of stillness and silence, and was transfixed. The buzz of the Montréal summer rang out like a jet plane taking off above a BBQ party. A carnival of people milled about the streets, all in states of sticky summer intoxication. The air was thicker than a homemade soup and nearly as hot. Above, a bright white light, like a searchlight looking for stars, swung from a rooftop in a constant 360-degree swoop. It was 9 pm, and the twilight lent a faint blue backdrop to the clamouring activity all around. The streets below the station were entirely blocked off to traffic by metal gates. Volunteers guided the hordes of people, and from the backs of their neon shirts I learned that I’d arrived in the midst of a jazz festival.
I wandered into the frenzy, shouldering my huge pack onto my tilted frame. I was wet with perspiration and nervousness, and my load made walking amongst the crowds difficult. I ducked into a falafel place on the corner, dropped my board and gear, and feasted, elated by how the radish and tzatziki flavours soothed my burning mouth. I’d been living on nicotine and wordlessness.
I was on rue Saint-Denis. I couldn’t know then that I would soon see the same faces daily, puttering about Carré Saint Louis, playing music, lapping up sun on the benches by the fountain, or drinking beer out of brown paper bags as I watched from the balcony of my future apartment. For now, everything was unfamiliar and dizzying. I had no idea where to turn, which direction to go in, or even how to speak. I felt insecure but excited to be anonymous. In that hot, people-filled night, it was delightful even to be frightened.
Chapter Two: Joie de Vivre
I had a room reserved at Solin Hall, an off-campus dormitory owned by McGill University. During the summer, visitors and students could get a spot there for cheap. I had a female roommate from Taiwan. She looked wealthy and had come to visit her boyfriend, who came over often to spend the night. In the common area I met a group of boys from a Texas university, visiting on an architecture trip. They were very American and too calculating for me. I went with them to Super Sexe, the McDonald’s of strip clubs, on Saint-Catherine Street. A neon sign on the wall inside said Come for the pussy, stay for the tap rye. We shot white tequila in plastic cups, and they talked about their girlfriends and their futures with and without them. They bought me a lap dance and smoked all my weed.
The city was boisterous and all around me. My energy was picked off and stolen, returned and reshaped, a hundred times a day. I was inspired, stirred, scared, sometimes all at once. I had lived all my life in British Columbia. Montréal was everything BC was not: captivating, cultured, sexy, and corrupt. I spent my days walking the streets and hoping to blend in. I ate in parks. I read or wrote and, mostly, I watched. I practiced some basic French from my phrasebook. I bought postcards with pictures of the Forum and the Old Port and wrote poems on them, which I never sent to anyone. I bought 40-oz. Labatt 50 beers and drank them out of paper bags. I chain-smoked Dunhill’s. I walked with my head held high, relentlessly tough on the exterior, but inside I was soft. I hoped for love. I could have wished my life away on that feeling alone. All I’d ever wanted was for it to happen to me. I walked for so long that I forgot to relieve myself or drink water. My legs ached. Perhaps I thought a journey had to be physical.
I had roughly six hundred dollars and an understanding with myself that whatever happened, I could always just buy a bus ticket and return home. I walked Saint-Catherine from Atwater to Papineau: past department stores, tattoo parlours, strip clubs, boutiques, cafés and bars, through the Gay Village, past metro stations and bus stops. The number of people was startling. I stumbled on a free Lauryn Hill concert, and later that same evening I watched Oscar Lopez, his shoulders hunched over a guitar, so small on stage, mesmerize thousands of people.
The magnitude of it all—the street party, the volunteers with walkie-talkies, the tourists standing in everyone’s way with their hands on their hips, looking around blankly, the structures and stages, everything enhanced by the blanket of thick humid air that cast halos over the masses. The lights were like fireworks, glaring and sparkling. I had never been surrounded by so many people. By a long shot, my hometown was smaller than the crowd.
I hadn’t known I was supposed to bring my own bedding to the dorm, and for the first two nights I slept on a bare mattress with my t-shirts as a pillow and a towel for a blanket. There was no air-conditioning. I kept the window half open, and each night I heard people out in the neighbourhood. They spoke French and sometimes English, as well as other languages I didn’t know. The city was savvy. Lying there on the damp single bed, its saggy contours around me, staring up at the water stains on the ceiling, I felt like an uninvited guest. The Taiwanese tourist giggled late into the night through the thin walls, and the rich Texan boys clinked their Budweiser bottles on the floor above.
A staff member lent me an old purple sleeping bag, which I accepted, embarrassed, on the third night. It was ripped at the seam, and I lay still in it, like a grub in a cocoon, so that the stuffing wouldn’t come billowing out from the plaid liner.
That night I had an awful dream that cancer was eating my Grandma’s lungs and she finally died. We had never been close, she had always loved my sister more, but in the morning I had an email from my mom, saying that she had passed away. Dreams don’t come true, I wrote on the inside cover of my journal, they are true.
Chapter Three: Canada Day
In the morning, the best thing that can happen is waking with the sun on your face, the blankets just so, the temperature perfect and enough time to drift in and out of a dream, waking finally to feel like your right self: a rested self who still possesses the jewels she found along the beach path in her mind, so she can give them away throughout the morning, before people with ill intentions can take them.
I felt so at ease lying there that morning, blinking and feeling fanciful about the day, before I remembered what had happened the night before. At sundown an Eastern European man, probably in his fifties, had come up to me in the park at Square Berri. I was writing a letter to my Grandma; a therapist had once told me it was “cathartic” and “healing” to write to the people you love when they die. I would probably burn it the way I had so many other letters to the dead. I hadn’t spoken with my parents since they’d emailed to tell me she was gone, no longer suffering. There wasn’t going to be a service. I was sure my dad’s siblings were already fighting over who got what.
The man who approached me was not dishevelled, nor cloaked in any particular mystery. He was just a man. But there were no people of colour where I grew up, so this alone made him strange to me. His plain white t-shirt was tucked into brown polyester pants held up by a leather belt. He wore Birkenstocks on his ashy feet. He carried nothing with him. His grey beard and dark skin made me think he was wise.
He crouched next to me in the grass where I had been writing and asked me the time. I didn’t have it. Then he told me that I had a lot of powerful energy and asked if he could touch my hands. I gave them to him, and he told me we were exchanging energy.
“Can you feel it?” he smiled.
“I think I do.” I wanted to reassure him. I wanted to reassure myself.
He examined the lines on my hands. “You lost someone special. And you are drained. Past lover. You are out of balance.” He said it with soft eyes and a soft face, and I sat and listened like a sieve, letting every word pour through me and pool into the flattened grass. I did not want them inside.
“It’s been three years since I encountered someone I could exchange energy with. I can restore you. Did you know you were a ballerina in a past life? You danced for dignitaries.”
I noticed that I was sitting on cigarette butts. “I’d better be going.”
I shoved everything around me into my bag and bailed, half running, dropping my favourite pen behind me, too afraid to stop and pick it up.
In my last look back, I saw him through a glaze of tears. He was standing with his palms open, watching me leave. I took the orange Metro line home, avoiding the eyes of every stranger who glanced my way. I could be swallowed up by a monster any second, and no one would ever know. I stared out the tram window into the fast-moving black.
Back in my room I sat on the pathetic bed and wrote about it. So many of my journals began with Last night I did this. Last night this happened to me. They were basically diaries of mistakes and bad encounters. I’d wanted this one to be different, but so far it was more of the same. I heard kids playing outside, the echo of a basketball being bounced on tarmac. The world didn’t sound like a dangerous place.
I wanted to be a ballerina as a kid. I never owned a tutu; our town was too small to hold dance classes. Instead I twirled around in the backyard, with little rhythm or coordination. I leapt and flung myself, and one day I fell onto the exposed brick of a support beam for the deck and gashed my knee so wide open that I required a trip to the hospital for stitches. When I worked as a waitress back home, customers would ask me if I was a dancer. I guess it must be something about the way I carry myself, but I can’t see it—dancers have grace.
When I left the dorm for the day, everything that had been beautiful looked hard. Around me was only concrete and the many shoe soles that pounded it. Bus lines, metro stops, vending machines, book bags, flying newspapers, and a community garden hidden entirely by a cement wall. The brick buildings were coated in an industrious blackness.
I walked north this time, to the Plateau, where I found rue Prince Arthur, a pedestrian-only street connecting rue Saint-Denis with boulevard Saint-Laurent. Decorations hung high over the cobblestone streets, connecting every building with dancing, whispering ribbons. Music played from the open doors of every restaurant, and the street was made narrow by all the protruding outdoor tables. It was crowded, time for afternoon drinks. I sat on my skateboard against a brick wall and watched.
I wanted to be one the diners, gorging themselves on Greek platters piled with seafood and lamb and potatoes and rice, drinking table wine from cheap crystal. My guidebook said that Quebecers call the time before happy hour heure triste, or “sad hour,” when drinks are even cheaper than the happy-hour specials. I sat there so long I began to wonder if the patrons might think I was homeless.
Eventually I walked up Saint-Laurent to the Euro-Deli to get a slice of pizza. The girl behind the counter had thick dreadlocks cradled in a scarf, and as she worked the till I noticed that she had hairy armpits. The tip jar had a sign taped to it, cut out in a cloud shape, that read Making dough, but not making any dough. She was so aloof it was alluring. In BC I’d been taught that in service work you have to be over-kill nice or no one will eat at your restaurant, yet this place was full. Reggae music thumped from staticky speakers on the patio. I dropped all my change in the tip jar, hoping she would notice the hefty reward. But she didn’t even meet my eye. Her tattooed knuckles went back to kneading, and I went to the counter to douse my pizza in hot sauce and parmesan cheese. Big letters on the back shelf spelled out love.
(In a few years the power of positive thinking will become all the rage. It will fly off the shelf in the form of books, seminars, videos, and webinars, like a popular Christmas toy—something the masses can purchase to enrich their lives. People will go over the top with inspirational one-word reminders and even get tattoos in case they forget to Live Laugh Love or are temporarily unable to recall the importance of Kindness or Family. I for one have always thought that actions speak louder than decorative wall phrases.)
Late September is a coming-of-age novel set in Montréal. It tells the story of Ines, a twenty-year-old skater girl who undertakes a Canadian rite of passage when she leaves her claustrophobic hometown in BC for a fresh start in the City of Saints.
Ines steps off the Greyhound into the throngs of the Montréal Jazz Festival, the first of many iconic Montréal celebrations and locations that mark time in the novel, including Moving Day, the Tam Tams, Fierté Gai (the Pride parade), and Halloween at La Ronde. In awe of the magnitude and vibrancy of the city, Anglo Ines tries to find her footing and also her tribe. She smokes and drinks and writes and skates her way through the streets. She befriends April, a latex-loving goth with a maternal mien, who gets her a job at a cam-girl studio in Old Montréal. Then, in the midst of a bar fight, Ines meets Max, a handsome, magnetic skater whom she quickly falls for. Summer fades to fall, the city changes, and their romance turns darker. As Ines tries to uphold the bliss of their intoxicating summer, she realizes that while she has escaped the confines of her small-town life, she cannot escape her past trauma, or her nature. And neither can Max.
This work explores themes of grief, mental illness, sexuality, identity, and addiction. While it is fiction, I undertook a similar adventure and was also a sponsored skateboarder in my early years, leading to my inspiration for the story.
Amy Mattes is a new mother living in Nanaimo, British Columbia, where she spends a lot of time near the ocean, reflecting on life. At the present time she is working on a second piece of literary fiction. She is a woman with big feelings and grit. Her website is amyjmattes.com.
Embark, Issue 12, April 2020