"The city was sad but I was quite drunk on this adolescent happiness"
"The city was sad but I was quite drunk on this adolescent happiness"
And she went laughing into the November storm, leaving me alone and in tumult in the doorway of a dark, empty store.
I no longer wanted to go home. I wanted to preserve the vague depression vvitlh which the day had begun. The rain hadl thinned out to a drizzle. To me, it was gentle and soothing. I massaged my face luxuriously. The sadness of the city was making me so happy. I was quite druink on this unhealthy, adolescent happiness. I was perfectly in tune with this wet, stripped late November, with its emptiness and darkness. On my lips was the ephemeral lingering of Nathalie’s lips—a kiss for no good reason during a chance meeting on the street and in the doorway of an empty store.
A recollection to quicken desire, the way my lips remembered the freshness of hers.
(Of all the questions I asked myself about her, one was repeated like the theme of a symphony. Does Nathalie lovie Fred? What is there between them? Lowe? Pity? Friendship? If she loves him, why did she kiss me? I had no answers.
I walked. It rained. My steps took me fro>m one place to another, from street to street, from district to district. St. Cattherine Street, with its garish neon sigms in the drizzle, struck me as a good plaice for a lonely walk. 1 walked west, stopping in front of all the theatres to look at the still photographs, and before all the shop windows with enough magic in the colors and clutter of merchandise to feed my imagination.
The sidewalks were lined with the crowd that never stops moving along them in any big city. The lights winking at each other in counterpoint across the night looked like an unscheduled fireworks display. Along these endless main streets, time prods us all in the back. More than one passer-by loses track of himself in this mob given over to the several snares of the big, brassy streets.
It was about ten at night by the time I went into a little bar on Drummond Street to keep alive my dream and my morbid happiness with a few drinks. Nathalie followed, ghostlike, through the shabby fortifications of my ego.
The rain turned to snow in the middle of the night. When I woke up in the morning, I heard the wind howling at my window and snow pattering on the glass. Des Forges Street was shrouded in white. The early risers had their heads down and shoulders hunched as they leaned into the wind. Winter had come gliding in over the streets and houses to take the city without a struggle. I felt I'd been asleep at the battlements, that I’d let myself be taken by surprise like everyone else. With one breath, the snow had enchanted the streets and the trees, the scrap iron and grime of the back alleys, making everything naked and newborn. I was like a wounded animal who hadn’t seen death coming. Standing sleepily at the window, I cursed the sleep that had robbed me of that awareness. What I’d have given to have been the only man alive to see the first flakes fall! I imagined the almost sensual pleasure of anyone who’d come out early that morning and seen the street before him without a blemish. He’d have made the first footprint, left the first traces in the dawn of a new winter. I was too late. The city's old people had been to church and the early-morning workers had gone to their factories. Cars had left their exactly parallel tracks in the streets;
and the sidewalks, no longer smooth, were scored and rumpled. How long, I wondered, had that imagined pause in eternity lasted. How many hours between the time when the street was perfectly smooth and nude and the time when men first traced upon it their odd signatures? Not a person in the city could say, for the whole city slept while winter took over our homes, offices and lives.
IT was a slow day at the newspaper where I worked. Several reporters were late and had a hard time getting their copy in ahead of deadline. The city editor stewed and fussed for a few hours, then settled down. Like the storm that kept blowing outside, then stopped completely about noon. The afternoon was, if anything, more dismal. I was in a sort of intangible cocoon, and very rarely
did a noise from outside interrupt my daydreaming.
Evening fell quickly. After dinner, it began to snow again, but softly; as gently as it falls in those little stories about the winter. Walking in it was so wonderful! My neighborhood was like a village cut off from the rest of the world. Peace, oh peace, such as I'd never known. Yet this gentleness was so great and so intangible it rather unsettled me. Under the bright halo around the streetlights, it seemed to be snowing in a crystal globe. And back there somewhere, in the unquiet
night, was Nathalie’s face. It was blank, devoid of expression, infinitely relaxed. Yet, what darkness hid behind her alabaster forehead? How many shattered dreams and fruitless longings? An innocence like that destroyed, lost! Who was she? I no longer knew, but she followed me; her face followed me on my chilly voyage across the snowy streets.
At eight o’clock I’d been waiting fifteen minutes under the marquee of the Bellevue theatre. “You might see me,” she had said. And the “might” gave rise to a tormenting uncertainty.
The snow was still falling, but neither as gently nor as slowly. The wind was kicking and twisting it. It made me catch my breath once in a while. Cars streamed past the theatre and a crowd ambled along the sidewalk in spite of the weather.
I was wearing only a thin fall topcoat. My mother was mending my winter overcoat. I was shivering but I insisted on staying outside. The longer I waited the more certain I was that Nathalie wasn’t coming, but I couldn’t bring myself to go inside and sit down nor to leave.
All at once, between two cars, I saw her angling across the road and coming toward me. She also was wearing too light a coat for the weather, and it seemed as I saw her that her frail body must be shivering under the well-worn gabardine. She’d tied a red bandanna over her hair the way the little immigrant girls do when they first encounter the Canadian winter.
“I didn’t think you were coming.”
“Why? Because it’s after eight?”
“I was sure you’d wait for me.”
She took my arm and we went into the theatre. Two pictures were playing: a detective story with dubbed French dialogue, and a typical American musical comedy. I found them long and dull. Nathalie was absorbed and seemed to have a good time. Since I had a little money left when it was over, I could suggest something to eat in a west-end restaurant.
1 thought she’d be pleased but I could see instantly that she disliked chic restaurants, that they either bored or frightened her. A number of men shot her suggestive looks, which she answered either with indifference or a frown. She wouldn't eat anything. She would take nothing but a hot drink and, as soon as she'd finished, made it plain she wanted to be gone. I asked her questions, tried to get her talking about several subjects, but it was useless. She withdrew from me. Withdrew more and more, and looked at me from eyes in which tears were starting.
More than once 1 tried to take her coat. She flatly refused, as though she were ashamed of the dress she was wearing. 1 was getting desperate. The more I tried to get through to her, the faster l was losing her, the more she was becoming a distant stranger. Í had to resign myself to taking her home. It was obvious I couldn’t get her to stay with me for any length of time. She kept her guard up too carefully, distrusting my curiosity.
1 don't think we exchanged a single word between the restaurant and her house. She was sad and uncommunicative all the way. Eventually, we were once again at the end of the little dead-end street, now buried in snow. For the second time. I saw the house where she lived. Winter had helped the look of it, making it less shabby. Nathalie looked up at her place on the second floor, and no light was showing. She lowered her head. As the silence became insupportably heavy, I put out my hand to say goodnight to her. She didn’t take it. She
came close to me and took the lapels of my coat in her two tiny fists. Her eyes showed a desire to cry.
“Kiss me,” she said.
I hesitated. I nearly asked her why. Then I did as she had done the evening before; I kissed her hungrily on the mouth, like a child afraid of losing its mother.
“Now never come back.”
I looked at her, thunderstruck. She moved away, went up two steps on the outside stairway, and turned. Softly, without histrionics, without any fumbling for expressions, in no especially dramatic tone of voice, she let me know she was going to have Fred’s baby.
“Some day,” she added, “he’ll be coming for me and taking me far away from here. That’s all there is.”
She was just about to leave when she noticed my pitiful expression.
“You can go now. I didn’t tell you all this to get your sympathy. I’ve never needed anyone’s sympathy. That first night, at the restaurant, when you saw me putting my hands in the dishwater, there was pity in the way you looked at me. I saw it right away. That’s why I didn’t take to you.”
“What you say may be true. Forgive me. When I thought of you in the wrong way, I didn’t really know I was feeling sorry for you.”
“Now you know. Don’t come back.”
She was at the top of the stairs. She turned one last time, holding her red scarf in her hand. She looked quite composed. It was snowing a little and her hair was blowing in the wind. The night got a little brighter. The moon was struggling to rise. Softly, as though she were going to blow out a candle, she said:
“Never come back. It would be dangerous for you.”
And she disappeared into the house. I hadn't taken a hundred steps away from there when a gang of thugs jumped me at the corner of a street. It took me a couple of weeks to fully recover from the cuts and bruises I acquired in the encounter.
I never went back to see her but I often recall her eyes, her face, her whole body. And the night came when she appeared in my dreams. Insane, tortured dreams. She was all alone in the middle of a desert, surrounded by snakes and gargoyles. At the other end of the desert. I tried to warn her of the danger, but no words'would come. She was walking silently along the bank of a river and suddenly slipped. She tumbled into the water and was swept along. From the bank I held out my hand but she hurtled over a waterfall into the abyss. I screamed in terror and w'oke up drenched in freezing sweat.
One day I learned the end of Nathalie's story. Í was at the office, riffling impatiently through the paper that had just come off the press. Her picture was on one of the general news pages. It was a snapshot that must have been taken when she was about sixteen. There was a short news story with it. The headline was: “Young girl found dead in snow.’’ She apparently felt sick on her way home one night, and may have called for help, but no one heard her. She fainted and was found frozen to death.
When I think of Nathalie, it brings back a whole chapter of my life. It’s a chapter with the perfumes of autumn dying and winter coming in. ★
This is an excerpt from a novel to be published soon by L’Institut littéraire du Québec.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.