Besides, I have a cigarette going and three more lines to get me through to 3 am, unless Jill or Jean-Luc drop by with extra supplies. Victor clearly intends to be there all night, drinking beer after beer without getting drunk because he isn’t there for the beer tonight, he’s there to see me, which is kind of a scary and maybe even conceited thing to say but it appears to be the case. He didn’t even bring his usual sidekick with him tonight —small guy, clean-shaven, tousled blond hair, easy smile. Just came by himself and sits there, watching me. I like the sidekick better; he never acts like there’s anything more going on than there actually is, unlike his friend here. Victor is around 30, tall, with black hair combed back smooth in timeless worky-joe fashion, and a serious, pale, fleshy face. It would be a baby face without the thick dark mustache between his little round nose and his little round mouth. Like a kid, he wears a jacket embroidered with a baseball and two crossed bats over his heart. Who the hell is this guy who thinks he should buy me a cake? He is someone who believes that he knows me.
Mostly I work here to make enough money to pay the friendly neighbourhood coke dealer who works out of a bar down the road. Our neighbourhood coke dealer really does seem like a friendly, decent guy. He may even have looked at me a little sadly once or twice as I came up to him for a refill, like the drunk old happy hour business guys do. They ask me whether my father saw me “leave the house like that” when I’m wearing some particularly ironic serveuse sexy get-up, the irony being lost on them, I guess. Most of the coke dealers I’ve met are nice guys (never girls. That would kind of scare me, I think.) who end up doing it because they like coke themselves, they’re comfortable hanging out with others who like it, and they don’t really know how else to make money. I knew one who was beautiful and sweet as pie, just a young gay guy from New Brunswick trying to survive Montreal. Wanted to be a techno-pop star with his synthesizer and his two-man band and his distressed leather jacket and new-wave hair. They weren’t bad. But his bandmate fell in love and moved back to New Brunswick, so buddy had to keep doing the other thing. Rent to pay. Job description: stand there, look cool, every half hour or so a quick hand-off, pocket to pocket, little tiny packets, bills folded up small. Every week meet your man, pocket to pocket, little tiny packets, bills creased and sweaty. I met him through friends before I even knew what he did. Finding out was sort of awful, and no, I never bought so much as a line from him.
Most of our friends are in school, but Jean-Luc, Jill, and I—us three are taking a break. I stopped soon after I saw my reflection in the sliding doors of a subway car one day and didn't like it. I just looked so ordinary standing there waiting for the train to pull into the station, with my turtleneck and jeans and my backpack on my shoulder. Just the previous year I’d had a school uniform to wear each day; now everything I put on felt like a costume, a uniform for a day. I know, I know—then I was an ordinary student, now I’m an ordinary waitress. I guess I’m just ordinary, and so are Jean-Luc and Jill, but we hate admitting that to ourselves, so we buy pocketfuls of this stuff that makes us impervious to self-loathing, and we try to conduct our lives at night, against backgrounds of starry skies and coloured lights and thought-obliterating, computer-generated music, which makes us feel glamourous. No mystery there.
I slip downstairs to do a line. The last one was approximately one hour and twenty-five minutes ago. If I pace myself right, I should be able to get through to closing time even if neither Jean-Luc nor Jill pay me a visit, though in the event that one or both of them does show up expecting some from me, well, that will be a problem.
The ladies’ room is down in the basement, around the corner from the passage to the secret room with the pool table—part of a block-long, subterranean rabbit’s warren of interconnected manager’s lairs on this street full of bars, clubs, and bistros. One of the older barmaids once sent me down there to fetch our boss, and I found him there with an etched crystal goblet in one hand, gesturing elegantly with a decent cigar in the other, calm-faced, an entirely different creature from the one he was upstairs.
In the middle stall I balance my cigarette on the toilet paper dispenser and take my miniature jewelry Ziploc out of its secret pocket. The quality’s OK this week, not too much hard stuff to crush, and I pinch off the part I want to save for later between my thumb and forefinger and hold it back in one corner, insert my prosthetic proboscis and sip out the rest. I have found that a section snipped from one of the bendy straws my mother keeps on a shelf in the kitchen, in a package behind the Taster’s Choice coffee helps —come hell or high water, there will always be a jar of Taster’s Choice instant coffee in my mother’s kitchen.
In the gap between the bottom of the middle stall door and the floor, I can see other women’s shoes—Aldo loafers, Hush Puppies. They scrape and shuffle against the dark slate tile: inadvertent bathroom softshoe. Ha! I picture them all in Charlie Chaplin hats and ‘staches. Maybe someone’s waiting for the stall, maybe they’re just doing their make-up, maybe by the sequence of pauses and tiny noises I make they can tell exactly what I’m doing. Sometimes when I’m waiting in line in a ladies’ room I think I can hear someone taking out a tiny Ziploc, measuring, sipping—certainly no stretch of the imagination in this town. I reassure myself that the few extra minutes I take in the middle berth, which was available when I came in and which I would not have chosen had all three been empty, are both deserved and necessary, and while the women outside bemoan their collective situation, which appears to hinge on some guy at the office named Jerry and what he did with the raffle funds, I resurrect myself as some hot anonymous cocktail waitress in a tight black skirt and hard-soled, velvet Betty Boop pumps that really hurt, who will shortly emerge from her stall/incubator firmly encased in her rent-an-identity, lean into the mirror, check her nose, look herself in the eye, and get the hell out of there.
Upstairs Victor’s still camped out. Customers come and go. 1:30-ish he gives up and puts on the baseball jacket, which he could have but did not surrender to the coat check girl who is completely crushed out on him, and settles for a friendly goodbye and a heartfelt thank you, leaving a generous tip.
The phone rings and since I’m working the big double bar tonight Mickey has only to wave me down—or rather, thrust his prominent chin in my general direction, reach across the bottles on the central island and pass me the receiver on its long spiral cord. Usually when someone gets a phone call it takes a while for the person to be found and then make it to the phone before the caller hangs up, and no one ever hears their cell phones. Not so when you’re working the main bar, which has the loudest and most frequently answered telephonic apparatus in the whole darn joint. I am definitely moving my way up in the ecosystem that is this drinking establishment, with its three separate bars (four if you count the main one as two) and rotating roster of pretty waitresses among whom I used to count myself, but thanks to my certificate from one of the city’s finer recognized bartending schools and my relative consistency in terms of wearing revealing tight clothing, I now hold a role of greater responsibility.
Mickey leers at me over the pointy spigots they put on the bottles to help us measure. Though I have yet to go home with him to his crappy basement apartment in St. Leonard with the bedroom door that doesn’t even open all the way because the bed itself takes up most of the room, he considers it a victory that I’m even considering it. He grins his idiot’s grin, showing his bad tooth. Jackass.
It’s Jill and the news is bad, so I tug at the undulating telephone cord, turn it like a jump rope, admire its rubbery blackness. I wonder what kind of racket it would make if it were to catch on a couple of bottles and bring the whole lot of ‘em crashing down. The rundown: it seems our Jean-Luc was picking up supplies at a favourite neighbourhood vendor when a pair of plain-clothes policemen, posing as law students from Sherbrooke, suddenly opted to discharge their duties right there in the vendor’s living room. Like on Law & Order or something. They took the vendor and Jean-Luc to the police station. Poor Jean-Luc. He’s so nervous all the time already. Plus the Sherbrooke law aspect would shame him even if it was just a cover, because that’s where he might have gone, it’s where his friends from College Notre-Dame were going, it’s the best law school in Quebec, McGill notwithstanding, with this giant Road Runner boulder on the front lawn, stamped—no, engraved—with a big, all-caps, sans serif, all-ye-who-would-even-think-of-any-kind-of-bullshit-whatsoever-will-be-exposed-and-subsequently-shamed-here, DROIT. It’s even better than that blindfolded chick with the scale.
I light a smoke and badly want to take out the little jewelry Ziploc in my pocket and throw it in the garbage, but there is Mickey, and here is someone who wants another beer, and there is the DJ in my unimpeded line of vision, and there’s that damn cake in its box. I ask Jill to hold on so I can sell one of the office-y women from the bathroom a drink. She is gracious and I smile at her from like three thousand million life degrees away. She gives me a quick nod and an OK tip before turning back to her sensibly dressed friends, celery-garnished wholesome-looking Caesar in hand—a brunch cocktail, really. I crack open a bottle of Blue and sell it to a beautiful baseball cap university guy who gives me a hey- baby wink. But Jill is still on the phone from some fluorescently lit ghoulish reception area for associates of miscreants while poor fallen Jean-Luc’s being questioned, and my manager is giving me a long, hard look from the spot where the waitress usually leans in to give me her order, and in fact there she is behind him, with her tray and her wad of bills folded lengthwise and threaded through her fingers. I check my watch and tell Jill I’ll be there as soon as I can, then hand the receiver back over to Mickey, who keeps a straight face for once. Jerk.
I stay to the end of my shift. I tell myself there’s nothing I can do at the station for Jean-Luc and Jill. At the end of the night I settle up with the waitress and the manager, give the cake to the coat check girl, who smirks at me in return. She’s tiny and cute and blond and I don’t see why Victor doesn’t grab her, already.
Outside, I set to scraping my mother’s Mazda free of snow and ice, while across the parking lot, Mickey does the same to his shitbox, but we ignore each other, and I escape first. For some reason I go to the busted vendor’s house, thinking maybe his wife will answer, the look of hope on her face disappearing when she sees me, as usual, and she will fade away into the kitchen, and everything will be normal, but the outside stairs are icy and creaky, the porch light is off, and no one answers the door. I don’t even want to think what they did with the kids.
The station is as ugly as I imagined it would be, but not quite as awful. Jean-Luc and Jill sit huddled together on a sort of wooden loveseat, like a jumbo school chair. Behind them on a fabric-covered bulletin board all kinds of community notices are posted with thumbtacks and bits of Scotch tape, very wholesome stuff. There’s a plant of the palm tree variety growing fairly well in the corner made by the outside of the reception counter and the wall. A young policewoman with her hair in a bun is standing on the other side of the counter, marking something with a pen in a giant ledger, watching us without looking up.
Jean-Luc and Jill make room on the school chair loveseat and the three of us sit there for a while in our winter coats. Jean-Luc’s skin is grey and he’s sort of quivering, Jill’s wearing her sequined minidress and a ski jacket; she did something new to her hair and looks fantastic, but she’s been crying. This entire scene won’t do at all. Jean-Luc would probably gladly do a line behind the restroom door marked with a helpful and somehow very distressing pictogram that indicates it’s equipped for people of either gender, the handicapped, and people with babies, but he wisely restrains himself and I don’t offer, because we all try not to be too obviously self-destructive in public if we can help it. He says, “They’re letting me go on my own recognizance,” and we get out of there and jump into my mother’s car and go back near where I work and replenish our supplies from our third-favourite vendor.
We adjourn to Jean-Luc’s apartment in what was once the attic of a Victorian mansion, the kind with a weathervane and turrets and carved wood, divided up now into sad little apartments. I actually love this building and fantasize about moving in here all the time. My own little place.
Jean-Luc puts on a dance-mix CD and we sit back and stare at each other for a while. Jill snaps out of it first and starts doing the necessary with her expired student bus pass and the kind of mirror you slap on your locker door. Jean-Luc finds a crisp twenty from that night’s tips and rolls it up, starts reminiscing about school, about before he became a waiter and frequent patron of the city’s gay saunas. He sighs and smokes and talks about it, hates himself. He invokes his doctor father and we all grow solemn, but then his roommate comes home, the screechy aging queen, a higher-up waiter at the same bistro Jean-Luc works at, and gets to hear the whole busted vendor story.
They all start talking in French—Jill’s is nearly perfect, but mine’s nothing like theirs, so I space out and look through the old cross-hatched window at the lights outside in the still-dark night. You can see pretty far from up here, and I notice that across the river the lights continue, only differently. I just keep looking at things—the lights outside, the texture of the rug, the cigarette burning its way toward my fingers. I feel fine. So clean. I float inside a smooth cylinder made of ice that is amazingly uncold. Time has no problem with me, nor I with it. Jill and I smile wanly at each other, but she just puts her cigarette to her lips and re-focuses on Jean-Luc, breathing out a stream of smoke and perfectly enunciated Quebec French. Her smile is perfect and at some point she has re-applied lipstick.
We sit up smoking, talking, doing lines, and drinking water out of tall clear glasses set on a glass-top coffee table—Jean-Luc’s roommate did the place up with as many sharp-edged things as he could, trying to erase all the Victorian mustiness. We stay like that until a grey light breaks, but instead of following Jean-Luc to bed I get up and put my coat on and kiss him goodbye while Jill is in the bathroom brushing her teeth. The car complains but starts and I gun it even though it’s not ready and lurch out into the street. The roads glint white with frost and dried-up liquefied salt; streets Sunday morning-empty.
Sundays when I was a squirt I used to get up super early and have Dad all to myself. He’d make us each a soft-boiled egg and we’d eat them with spoons out of special egg cups made specifically for that purpose, which I thought was weird but cool. Then we’d play tic-tac-toe on this fancy 3-D set someone gave us, made of Lucite and black-and-white marbles. And those things were enough for us, we didn’t need to talk much.
The first time I tried my current drug of choice was at one of Jill’s parties, when we were like fifteen. Her parents were always out of town, she’d already been to maybe four different high schools and knew kids from all over town; also she’s amazingly outgoing and unshy. The only reason I ever met Jill was because after two years of claustrophobically parochial Jewish school, I begged for and ultimately won the right to follow my friend Amy Ann Hershberg to the secular private school she’d chosen after grade 6.
Ever since I’d known her, I’d lusted after everything Amy Ann owned. Once, after trying on hers, I decided I absolutely had to have pointe shoes, and set to work on my mother. We went to the mall, me and my mom, both of us so easily squelched, so easily swayed, walking slowly and without purpose, though I was trying to act like everything was great and I knew just why we’d come—an act I learned from my father, an act which unfailingly alienates. And here comes one of my mother’s friends with her daughter, and the daughter has the same name as me, and the mother had the same name as another, less impressive friend of my mother’s. We stop and face each other, and it’s clear they know exactly where they are going, and that my mother and I are lost. Nobody smiles. My mother’s friend looks concerned. My mother looks like she’s going to cry. The friend asks what we’re up to.
“I thought I’d buy her pointe shoes,” my mother says.
“Oh,” says the friend. Then, gently: “Is she…taking class?”
“No,” says my mother, miserably.
We part ways. As my mom and I amble toward the kids’ shoe store with its bronzed baby booties and pink satin pointe shoes in the window, neither of us says anything. We both know we aren’t going in.
So it was around 4 am at one of Jill’s parties in her parents’ designer condo. Interesting downtown cool kids everywhere, many of a species of Rockabilly: boys with white skin and sculpted flicks of hair above incredibly expressive foreheads, long legs in stove pipe black jeans, and shoes with inserts of animal print on a pointed vamp with thick fluted soles that looked like tire treads. A phalanx of Elvises circa 1957, snarling in Québécois French. They were but a subgenus away from skinheads in some cases. (At a café near school I met a skinhead’s girlfriend who pulled from the top of her blouse a tiny silver medallion, embossed with a swastika enameled red and black, to show her friend, who was also my friend.). This would explain why none of them wanted to talk to me, obviously ethnic as I was. I wandered around, alone, and in passing one of the bathrooms noticed that someone had left on the counter—the bathroom was really two rooms, all done in white and beige, and one of the rooms had a long mirror and a long counter where Jill often did her makeup—someone had gone and laid out three rows of white powder for people to try. There was a little tube made of rolled up money. I wanted to feel like I was part of things, as though I could be one of the people that whoever had left the lines there had in mind, so I tried it. Stupid, I know. Anyway, it made me feel better, about being there, about my life, about everything.
In the morning, I called my dad to come pick me up, and one of the Rockabilly boys rode with us, since he only lived maybe ten minutes from our house, which I discovered as a crowd of us gathered in Jill’s parents’ polished granite vestibule. I overheard him tell someone he lived near Snowdon metro, and pounced.
“Excuse me,” I said. We had never spoken before. He turned his light blue eyes on me, and I felt like I was dangling in mid-air. “You live near Snowdon? Me too! My Dad’s coming! We could drop you off!” Very subtle, like.
“Um,” he replied. Or, more likely the French equivalent, “Euh.”
“Really, it’s no trouble!” And there was nothing he could reasonably say or do to stop me, because I wasn’t about to take no for an answer. Or even “non.”
I’d learned French from intimidating Moroccan and Israeli ladies, with elaborate Farrah Fawcett hair and a casual-chic/YSL dress code—tall slouchy boots over tight jeans, a soft knit vest belted at the waist. Lip gloss. Berets. They spoke French like Parisians, if Paris were a dry, sunny place, with lots of orange and turquoise and gold in it. This guy with us in the car spoke the kind that sounded like it could slip into rock n’ roll at any minute. No curlicues, no Mediterranean. Québécois French chugged along like traffic, I thought, not that this guy was giving us any sort of sample. The three of us were silent the whole way until he left us with a minimal thank you just past St. Joseph’s Oratory. Except my dad was angry, I could tell, and by the furrows on the Rockabilly’s alabaster brow the things he was thinking about were beautiful, sad, and utterly and permanently beyond my reach.
Home now from Jean-Luc’s, my mother’s car safely garaged, I take off my boots, and listen. There are breakfasty and CBC sounds coming down the stairs, but I’m not up for an encounter of any kind so I sneak up as best I can and slip past the kitchen as my father lifts a spoonful of oatmeal to his mouth, sitting at the table in his pajamas with the paper spread out in front of him. I make it up to my room and get out of my barmaid get-up and want to pee so bad, but can’t imagine going out of my room again so I take the liter yogurt container filled with birdseed for my budgie, Moe, and empty it all into a plastic bag—in fact his water needs changing but I really can’t go out there again, and anyway we’re both going to sleep since I left the lights and music on for him all night; he keeps the same schedule I do. I squat down and pee into the empty plastic container, thinking of how gross it would be if I spilled any. I go and go until the container’s getting all hot and soft and it’s practically full and indeed I do spill a drop or two when I put the lid on, but it’s a raw wood floor so I just sort of rub it in with my finger, turn off the light and the radio and go to bed, whistling comfort to the bird who’s totally used to all this and just glad I’m home.
The kitchen is right under my room and I hear everything, but then I think I have super sensitive hearing or something ‘cause I’m always hearing stuff no one else does. Either way my Dad’s done with breakfast and he pushes his chair back, switches off the radio, bounces up the stairs, and passes my door on the way to the shower. I feel like something big and heavy is dangling over my head, like in cartoons where someone’s always hoisting a grand piano up to the seventeenth floor, and it always comes crashing down on someone, and also the world seems tilted on its axis in some way that must be dangerous and wrong, but there’s nothing I can do about it so I go to sleep.
Rebecca Rustin is a Montrealer with roots in London, England and the shtetls of Poland, Romania, Lithuania, and the Ukraine. After studying the great authors of the English tradition at Concordia University, she finally picked up a copy of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and felt at hom
February 10, 2009
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