Nathalie was my first love
I kissed her hungrily. Then she said softly: "Never come back. It would be dangerous for you”
She was the most insignificant of creatures: a waitress in a restaurant on an obscure side street in the east end of Montreal. I began going there one night in the fall, when, at loose ends and frozen stiff, no longer with any idea where to wander or where to find a little friendliness, I decided to drop into the dingy little place where she worked. I often strolled around the poorer part of the city, but 1 knew nothing of this particular spot. I was simply called in out of the night by the sallow glimmer from its window.
The instant I saw her, I felt a queer uneasiness. The uneasiness you feel when it thunders; a whirlpool begins to turn deep inside you, the storm is upon you and the calm waters are lashed to fury.
I remember her eyes above all. I might forget her face but never her
eyes. They were huge, sad, with the anguish of a dying season. Her pallor
and her delicate features emphasized their lively sparkle. Only her mouth
when she smiled betrayed a certain coarseness.
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“I couldn't muster a word. My heart was hammering too hard and my lips were like blubber . .
I sat in the largest booth and waited for her to come and take my order. I was sure she’d seen me come in but she ignored me completely for more than five minutes. It wasn’t that she had to serve anyone else, or wash dishes or wipe the
counter; she was simply interested in the young men who were playing the slot machine, pushing, shoving and trading insults.
That’s how they like to get rid of their time and money. And she treated them
with an assurance that was tempered now and again by a sort of servility that annoyed me. She wasn’t embarrassed by their language. Their suggestive remarks left her unmoved. A puzzling mask of indifference would snap down before the
steely expression that, in turn, hid an underlying little-girl’s shyness. . She had a provocative way of seeming to withhold her real self that disconcerted the stranger.
One of the young men threw a rude remark in my direction and they all turned to laugh at me. It was a large mob and I couldn’t bring myself to face up to them. I lowered my eyes slowly and when I raised them again she was standing in front of me, relaxed and faintly amused, arms akimbo. She looked at me silently. She was waiting for me to order. For a moment I was flustered, no longer knowing what I wanted to drink, my eyes frozen on her immature breasts, which seemed to tremble under the white blouse of her uniform.
“A coffee, please.”
My voice had cracked frightfully. She turned away without a word. Her hips were rounded without being pronounced, her legs were good, and she had slim ankles.
THE coffee she brought me was boiling and vile. She banged the cup in front of me and without saying anything walked over to the juke box. She took a nickel from a pocket in her apron and dropped it in the slot.
A blues for saxophone filled the room. One of the young men came up and seized her for a dance. She let the young thug hold her in his arms for a couple of steps, then pushed him away and went back behind her counter to start washing glasses.
While the record was playing she was in another world and didn’t glance at me once. I didn’t move. I couldn’t drink my coffee but neither could I bring myself to leave. It had become impossible for me to walk out. I hadn’t the faintest notion how I’d go about it, but I had to talk to her, to know her.
An hour later, all the regulars had gone and no one remained but she and I. And the silence. And the sadness of this restaurant, with its yellowing walls and its grimy tables. At the end of the counter, an alarm clock with a luminous dial gave the time. The later it got the more embarrassing seemed my situation. If only she’d at least come over to me, I could have found some excuse to talk to her. But she kept her distance, unapproachable, almost hostile. There I was, ridiculous, alone, ineffectual in front of a cup of coffee long since empty.
“Have you finished? I’m closing up.” She had said this from the counter, peremptorily, without warning, and it was as though she’d shaken me awake. Her voice, I remember, was faintly disappointing, a little discordant. The first words were firm; the rest tended to fall away.
I got up, went to the counter, and paid. She took the money and made change without looking at me. I left her a small tip which she took automatically without thanks.
“Have I held you up?”
“Not too much.”
“If I have, I'm sorry.”
She shrugged and smiled straight at me. Overcome with shyness, I glanced downward. Those looks of hers were so unexpected and rare! I couldn't muster a word. My heart was hammering too hard, and my lips were like blubber because the coffee had burned my mouth.
Her smile was gone as quickly as it came and already she was busy with something else, as though I no longer existed.
1 had lost my first chance to get to know her.
She still didn't turn around. Busy putting glasses on a shelf, she mumbled rather wearily:
And I left.
ONCE out on the sidewalk, I couldn’t go away. Practically walking backwards, I went as far as the corner of the street and stopped. It was cold. The night was dark; dark as the depths of her glance, deep as the shadows in the pupils of those eyes, stripped, as mysterious yet as naked as her face.
I had racked my brain, but 1 couldn't think of anything to say to her. My heart beat too loudly, so that I was afraid the blood would burst from my breast.
Five minutes went by. The lights of the restaurant went out, the yellow glow of the windows disappearing and leaving the street empty and quiet. Then she came out of the place, closing the door carefully behind her. For a moment, her slight outline paused on the sidewalk. Finally, she turned up the collar of her raincoat and came toward me. Her footsteps made no sound; she had a compact little figure and her hair streamed in the wind. I felt like running away. I felt like disappearing utterly, like melting into the night or into the brick wall against which I was leaning. It was too late to get away.
As she passed me, the wan light of a street lamp fell on her face and I made a fresh discovery. Her features betrayed an indefinable anxiety that made her more beautiful and more intriguing. Once again my eyes met hers. The cold had made them brighter, and I could see something—the birth of a tear or a star—at one corner. She kept going into the night as though she hadn't seen me. as though thinking of another time and place, without stopping or even slowing down. I closed my eyes and listened to the beating of my heart for an eternity. When I opened them she was gone.
Wildly infatuated, thinking I’d lost her forever, I ran like a madman in the direction she’d gone, trying to follow the ineffable trail she’d left behind. I caught up to her again at a corner where she'd stopped to light a cigarette. Finding her there was so unexpected I nearly bowled her over. She was frightened but didn’t cry out. Her cigarette fell from her lips and I saw the flare of anger in the depths of her eyes.
“I beg your pardon. 1 . . .”
“Did you follow me?”
“I wanted to talk to you ... to know you.”
She had spoken the last words coldly, as though no answer were possible. Then she turned and walked on. I had come too far to turn back. I caught up with her as fast as I could.
“I may never see you again. I only . . .” She wasn't listening to me. I was walking beside her, beginning to plead; nothing was more vital than that she understand me, but she remained unresponsive and silent.
She lived at the foot of the darkest street in the neighborhood, in a red brick house with a roof that tilted insanely. Judging by the outside, it must have been terribly ancient, unhealthy and uncomfortable.
I fully expected her to go in quickly and leave me on the sidewalk like a poor idiot, but she did no such thing. She stopped and turned to me as though she
were going to say something, but she didn't speak right away. She waited for me to justify myself or else vanish.
“You live here?"
“Yes. On the second floor. Anything else you'd like to know?”
“Maybe. One reason I followed you, I wanted to know your name.”
“What good is it going to do you to know my name?”
“I don't know. At least I could say 1 knew that much about you.”
“Not tonight. I'll tell you some other time if I see you.”
“I'd like to see you again.”
“You know where I work!”
And with the agility of a lithe animal she slipped up the outside staircase leading to the second floor, and just as she was going into her rickety mansion she turned and called to me:
“My name is Nathalie!”
Nathalie. Her name had made me the prince of the night, even in the gloom of her neighborhood. I could think of nothing but her. Not that her memory had made me a trembling, expectant lover. But I thought of her as some won-
derful being, straight out of a richly romantic novel. She was, all at the same time, mysterious, brutal, and strangely frustrating. What she had said, her curt way of saying it, clashed with her grace and beauty. But words are nothing but a reflection of the spirit; they rarely give even a hint of riches yet to be glimpsed. How many women use words to mislead us, to create the illusion they’re something they're not?
The day after my first meeting with her, I had one fixed idea: to see her again. Oh, I'd given myself the third
degree. I’d asked myself if this trip was really necessary, if my story-telling bent might be running away with me, if I were the plaything of my imagination, dazzled by her physical beauty, if I’d trapped myself by magnifying a chance encounter out of all proportion. Only one fact emerged: I had to see her again.
Nevertheless, the idea of sitting in that little restaurant for hours on end didn't attract me. Later, I determined to wait for her after she’d closed up. I estimated the time badly. When I got near the restaurant I could see — my heart sinking — that the restaurant was already closed. I’d assumed the place would close every night at the same time. Business must have been slow, and she’d closed early.
I felt as though I’d been cut off without a nickel, betrayed by my own imaginings. The idea of waiting until the following night to see her was unthinkable. I wanted to break something, to beat my fists against the brick wall. What a dolt I was, how utterly ridiculous! Five minutes earlier and I’d have seen her, met that look again, spoken with her. Thus pondering my stupidity I trudged slowly away, unutterably lost and lonely in the district’s foggy night. Several times I tried unsuccessfully to find the little street where she lived, where I’d left her the previous evening. But the more I looked, the more I felt I was getting farther away from the right spot. Everything eluded me that night. Even her face, which I found 1 couldn’t picture from memory.
How long did I ramble like that, in this dark, unfriendly neighborhood that sharpened one’s pain and sense of loss? I don't know. I recall only that I was just about to start for home when, once again, I saw Nathalie.
It was like a sudden vision seen through a break in the fog. 1 first recognized her laugh, then her walk, then the outline of her head, and finally her eyes. Those same bottomless eyes, where yearning coals seemed to glow. Those eyes that had gripped me in an instant, and lived within me since the night before.
But Nathalie was not alone. Cozily, trustingly, her arm was linked to that of another man. The realization was as jolting as it was unforeseen. I could do one of two things: brazen it out and walk right past them, or turn and run from them. I decided to keep walking, hoping Nathalie wouldn't recognize me. My chief concern was to save face.
She did recognize me. Casually, with a touch of arrogance, she greeted me with a single trite word:
In a strangled croak, several seconds too late to sound natural, I replied to her greeting:
“Hello . . . Nathalie.”
I heard the footsteps of her companion moving away behind me. As on the night before, Nathalie’s made no sound. I had the sensation they were both looking back at me as they walked on. I couldn’t have turned and looked for all the tea in China. Nathalie’s laughter broke upon the night, mingled with the man’s laughter. It was like a knife in the throat.
I went home consumed with shame and anger.
I swore to myself I'd never again try to see her. The following two days, Friday and Saturday, I resisted the clamorous temptation and my infantile obsession. I was ashamed of my ludicrous manoeuvres of the two previous nights. The shame helped me convince myself that Nathalie was nothing more nor less than a bit of Huff, pretty enough, all
right, but hardly bright enough to waste time with.
THE next day was Sunday. And I’d overestimated my sanity. I was flooded with a depression that overwhelmed common sense. .Suddenly, there was no more question of being ashamed, nor of keeping in check my desire and curiosity. I had to find her again, to learn a way to reach her, to know what went on deep inside her. It had become my
only interest in life, the only way to relieve my depression.
I left my place about three in the afternoon. A cold downpour was falling: a church bell was ringing for vespers. No one was on the streets, except for a few old women here and there, all in black, huddled under their umbrellas. They stuck close to the brick walls of Des Forges Street, stepping carefully to avoid slipping on the glistening sidewalk. They were about the only ones going to
vespers. They were members of that curious segment of humanity that never stops praying. Their faith is all that rescues them from their loneliness, their unhappiness and their boredom.
I was soaked through by the lime I got into the restaurant. Without glancing at the counter, I went immediately to the back of the room and sat down at the farthest booth in the darkest corner. A sick shyness kept me from looking up. At all costs 1 didn’t want to be conspicuous. I wanted to pass unnoticed, to give Nathalie the impression I’d just happen-
ed in because 1 was soaked and wanted to warm up. I was trying to be her most run-of-the-mill customer, the last person she’d single out for attention.
This stratagem, of course, was dictated by my pride and nothing else. I didn’t want Nathalie to get the idea I’d come to see hcr. I was the only customer. That, I thought, was a good thing. Someone— Nathalie, I was sure—was walking toward me. Before looking up at her, I wanted to appear as casual as I could. I stretched my legs under the table, unclenched my fists, and waited for the
last moment, when I sensed someone was standing over me, before looking up. But it wasn’t Nathalie. It was a middleaged woman, gross, ugly, waiting sullenly and impatiently for me to order. I was completely stunned. She saw this but, not knowing why I was surprised, became more impatient. 1 managed somehow to ask for a cup of coffee, and she dragged her feet back toward the counter, unquestionably of the opinion that a cup of coffee hardly justified the effort.
I decided Nathalie didn’t work Sunday afternoon, and was both relieved
and disappointed. Happy to put off the constraint of our next meeting, disappointed at being alone and far away from her, far from her eyes, far from her young face and her lovely body.
I was savoring my resurrected depression when the door of the restaurant opened. A stocky young man, with a pugnacious expression and a total lack of charm, stood in the doorway. He nodded briefly at the waitress and went over to the juke box. The woman said to him laconically:
“She hasn’t come in.”
He snapped back:
Then, after glancing at me, he dropped a coin in the slot. A saxophone started moaning. He was playing the record Nathalie had played that first night. At that instant I recognized him. I couldn’t have told you his name, but I could have placed his laugh.
He looked at me for a long, long time, with hostile persistence. I am not the world’s bravest man; I got up and left before the record was over.
OUTSIDE, it was nearly dark and it was still raining. I didn’t look for a streetcar or bus to get home; I preferred to walk. The freezing rain battered my face and now and then I had trouble breathing.
Just as I was turning a corner, I came face to face with Nathalie. The rain on her face made her more beautiful than ever. You’d have thought the droplets on her forehead, her lashes and her lips had washed away every remnant oí bitterness, anxiety and unfriendliness. Her hair was hanging straight down to her shoulders. She smiled and was the first to utter a greeting. Then, coquettishly, to get out of the rain, she drew me by the arm into the doorway of an empty store. I was astonished by it all. Why was she being so nice to me all at once? I couldn’t get an answer out. I’d never, I knew then, been honest with myself about her.
“I don’t work Sunday afternoons.”
“I know . . . there’s someone waiting for you at the restaurant.”
“Is that his name?”
“My name is François.”
She burst out laughing. I guess she didn’t think the name suited me.
“I shan’t try to see you any more. I understand now.”
“No. I’ve never been afraid.” Demonstrably, I was lying. But the words restored my aplomb. I added: “If you didn’t mind, I’d come to see you any time.”
“Tomorrow’s my night off.”
“Do you like movies?”
“Now and again.”
I wanted a date with her as soon as possible.
“Eight o’clock tomorrow night in front of the Bellevue theatre.”
She didn’t say yes and she didn’t say no. She smiled:
“You might see me there.”
Then she suddenly put her hands on my shoulders and kissed me hard on the mouth. Before I could move, she’d let me go.
“Why did you do that, Nathalie?” “Because it’s raining so hard today.”
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