It was winter when Henry first went down to Rue Beaudry. The snow hadn’t arrived but the sky was low and weighty and it was already too cold to keep his hands outside his pockets. Henry stood on the college steps jangling his change, and calculated, without looking, that he was carrying ten dollars. Instead of taking his usual route, he turned right and trudged along Ste. Catherine for a long time without consciously deciding to go to Rue Beaudry. On reaching the street he walked up and down pretending not to look at himself in shop windows, before pushing open the door of a dimly lit café.
The boy behind the counter sized Henry up as he made his coffee and set the cup in front of him with exaggerated care. Henry took out his book, lit a cigarette and waited for something to happen. The other customers’ intent murmurings were drowned out by the hiss of the espresso machine. Only the middle-aged man opposite, writing in a journal, glanced up. Eventually he contrived to drop his pencil at Henry’s
feet and darted towards it, smiling up from between Henry’s knees with an eager ‘Bonjour’.
‘Je ne parle pas français,’ Henry lied. The man retreated irritably and Henry felt too uncomfortable to linger.
Corinna was still at work when he got home so he put Etta James on the record player and sang along to ‘Blind Girl’ four times in succession while making an omelette. When Corinna returned, he gave her a foot massage. She didn’t appear to notice any difference in him. As usual, she was too caught up with complaining about her colleagues.
‘Hilde shouted at me again about not cleaning the counter.’
‘Yeah, miserable old bitch. I think she’s got some kind of OCD about the counter.’
‘Poor sweets.’ Henry put his arms around her.
It was still winter the next time Henry went down to Rue Beaudry but this time the snow lay three-feet deep. It was so cold the smoke from the chimneys had stalled in the deceptive blue overhead. Corinna had gone to her parents for the weekend. Henry excused himself with an essay deadline. For the fortnight before Corinna’s departure he was taut with anticipation and apprehension at what he was going to do while she was gone. He almost wished she were staying. When she set off with her rucksack of dirty laundry, all bundled up for the journey, he was filled with pity at her innocence. She looked so appealing in her rabbit-fur hat – the one she thought of as lucky because she’d been wearing it when she’d met him.
‘Have a good time, sweets.’ He leaned in to kiss her.
‘You too, bunny. I wish you were coming.’
‘I wish I was too but you know how it is.’
‘Yeah, don’t work too hard.’
Once the door was shut he showered and shaved and carefully composed an artlessly bohemian outfit finished off with the green scarf, which brought out his eyes, according to Corinna. It was still morning, still too early so he sat at his desk and opened The Fundamental Questions of Philosophy by A.C. Ewing, M.A., D. Phil (Oxon). An hour passed during which he read page fifty-six about The Pragmatist Theory of Truth over and over again without taking in a word. His hand hovered above a blank sheet of paper and wrote nothing. He lit a cigarette, smoked it, stubbed it out, picked up the pen and wrote, ‘My name is Henry and today I am going to. . .’ The thought of describing what he was going to do excited him but when written down it sounded trite and ridiculous. He tore the sheet into very, very small pieces.
There was nobody beneath the Angel at the park. She spread her wings beatifically over fresh virgin snow. Henry dallied, calming himself by making neat trails of footprints where no one else had trodden. The park was in the opposite direction to Rue Beaudry. He stopped and turned three hundred and sixty degrees, four times over, with his face to the cold clear sky. The snow was so pillowy he was tempted to fall backwards and make an angel imprint. Sometimes it felt like too much effort to stay upright. He knocked a cigarette out of his pack of Du Maurier’s and flipped his lapels up – his Jean-Paul Belmondo look. The stone lions guarding the Angel reminded him of the previous winter when he and Corinna had sat beside them and watched a total eclipse of the moon. It had been smaller and redder than they had expected and the shadow of the earth made the moon seem as if it was suspended like a Christmas tree-bauble in the sky. They had stroked the lions and Henry had kidded Corinna that they came alive at midnight.
‘Do they remind you of yourself, the lions?’ she’d asked, running her fingers through his thick auburn hair.
‘No, not really.’
During the summer they had danced to the beat of the tam-tam drummers who congregated beneath the Angel on Sundays. Those days they spent their whole time dancing. He’d shown her how to salsa and she’d picked it up quickly, her hips swinging smoothly with the rhythm. The merengue had been harder and she couldn’t get the foot movement right – ‘They look too flat,’ he’d told her, titupping his own high-arched feet like a dressage pony.
‘Thanks a lot.’
‘There’s no need to get offended.’
‘It’s totally insulting to tell a woman she’s got flat feet.’
After that she’d refused to dance with him, claiming he made her feel unfeminine.
The neon sign was broken, so if you weren’t looking for it, you might miss the door. The address was burned on Henry’s memory though, so he scanned the empty street to make sure no one had seen him and quickly slipped inside.
‘Salut, mon beau.’ The man in the reception booth took his money, placed a folded towel in Henry’s outstretched hands and dropped a locker key and a condom on top. ‘Ta première fois, ouais?’ Henry nodded and the man’s sly eyes glittered as he directed him down the corridor. ‘Tournez à gauche et continuez tout droit.’
Red bulbs filled the corridor with a sulphurous light and tendrils of steam curled around Henry as he walked further, his mind racing over the scenes that waited inside. The changing room reeked of feet and cheap cologne like every other changing room Henry had been in before but, unlike every other changing room, there was a hushed excitement among the other men who stared at him openly as he removed his clothes and arranged the towel around his waist. By now his heart was pumping so hard he felt it might dislodge his internal organs. With self-conscious casualness he sauntered down another dark corridor into an even darker chamber where it took a minute for his eyes to adjust and see the shiny bare flesh of a dozen other bodies. The air was opaque with steam and sweat and heady with amyl nitrate and it pressed against his mouth and nose, making only the shallowest breaths possible. Silently, the other bodies shifted to accommodate him and he squeezed into a space between two pairs of muscular thighs. Though he had never been so vulnerable, the womb-like secrecy of the place cradled him. As he luxuriated in the dripping warmth and the hot pressure of his growing erection, a large hand landed on his knee and pulled his towel open. Instantly, Henry was alert, his heart pounding again. Part of him felt oddly detached, as if he was observing the experience from afar, noting the heaviness of the hand, how different it was from a girl’s. The other part was holding his breath as the hand crept up to his crotch.
A little later, Henry emerged from the chamber, light-headed and sweat-soaked. He stumbled through the labyrinth of corridors, passing doorways, some of which were shut and some of which led into small rooms where men were lying face down and naked
on single beds. They looked up hopefully as he passed. An enormous bald man, cross-legged like a salacious Buddha, gestured to his erect penis with a triumphant ‘Voila!’ Henry moved swiftly on. The man in the final room lifted his head, stared at Henry and lay back down without smiling. He was young and slim with haughty cheekbones and a beautiful mouth. Henry stood hesitantly in the doorway. The man beckoned him inside. He held out his hand. Tentatively, Henry held out his own. Their fingertips touched for a second and then, roughly, the man pulled Henry towards him.
The freezing air was like a whiplash to their hot faces when they came outside. They had forgotten how cold it was and lost track of time. The glass buildings on the peak of the Plateau shone like slices of pure gold in the ricocheting rays of the setting sun. The storefronts on St Denis dazzled with strings of fairy lights in red, blue, pink and green.
‘These are the best lights in the city,’ said Alexei, as they marveled at the tiny coloured bulbs which dripped from the canopy outside La Merveille du Viêtnam. Viewed from the side they melted together in a neon Milky Way. Directly below, each light blazed crisp as a miniature firework burst. They stared up for so long the Maître d’ emerged with a menu and asked if they wanted a table.
‘Some other time.’ Alexei pulled Henry away.
He took Henry to his room on the third floor of an apartment where the Rues St Dominique and St André crossed. On the landing, they passed a lugubrious man who looked away when he was introduced – Alexi’s roommate.
‘Martin’s a cartoonist. He brings women back here to draw,’ said Alexei, when Martin was out of earshot.
‘Yeah, naked. He pays them.’
‘Where does he find them?’
‘He advertises in Le Miroir.’ Alexei ushered Henry into his room and disappeared to make coffee. The room was bare save for a mattress and a pile of mathematical textbooks. The view from the window was a geometric tangle of fire escapes, washing lines and telegraph poles against the snow. The windowsill was covered with manic scribblings about COKE and ANARCHY.
‘That wasn’t me,’ said Alexei, returning with a steel coffee pot and two cups. ‘I keep meaning to paint over it. The guy who lived here before wrote all that. According to Martin, he was pretty nuts.’
‘I can see.’
‘Yeah, he was from California. All built up. Drank high-energy drinks and lifted weights. Played hip-hop at one hundred decibels. Wrote crazy stuff all over the walls and then jumped the rent. I’m pretty normal in comparison, apparently.’ He laughed so Henry could see every single one of his crooked teeth.
‘And these are for your course?’ Henry flicked through one of the books and gawped at the never-ending equations spinning neurotically into infinity. Alexei was studying mathematics at McGill.
‘Yeah, I just drop a little acid and spend my days making pretty patterns out of numbers.’
‘Cool,’ said Henry. He really thought it was.
It would be easy to explain Alexei to Corinna, Henry reckoned, as he followed him through the trees. ‘I’m just going round to Alexei’s . . . yeah, Alexei, this guy whose just joined my class . . . yeah, he’s a nice guy . . .’ Henry ran through the possible lies as he tried not to slip on the frozen snow.
‘This is the coolest thing in this city,’ said Alexei, when they reached the foot of the illuminated cross. ‘I can’t wait for it to turn purple when the Pope dies. I mean, how much more kitsch can you get?’
‘Not much,’ agreed Henry. His eyes were ablaze with the screaming yellow light that slapped retinal imprints all over the black sky. His mind was cascading with the revelation of a wide new future. His lips murmured a silent prayer, though he had an inkling you weren’t supposed to pray for yourself. ‘Everyone in my writing class always says La Croix is a symbol of repression,’ he said. ‘Same with the angel. You know, religion and the colonial powers oppressing Québec and all that . . .’
‘What a load of PC crap,’ said Alexei. ‘The masses have no sense of style.’
Henry thrilled to his arrogance. It had to be because the guy was Russian; something which also explained his bad teeth. ‘My parents were dissidents,’ he’d told Henry proudly. ‘When I’ve got my doctorate I’m going back to Moscow.’
They wrote each other’s name in pee in the snow (Henry only got as far as the ‘x’) and skidded along the moonlit paths to the plaza that fanned out in a crescent beyond the Chalet. From there the whole sparkling spread of the city was flung like jewels on a bolt of black velvet. The last time Henry had viewed this panorama was on Corinna’s birthday. They had waltzed across the paved semicircle, drunk on champagne and love.
‘Who were you last here with, Alexei?’ he asked.
‘God knows: some guy or other. Some lucky guy.’ Alexei smirked over his shoulder, then pointed out the Notre-Dame Basilica, the Jacques Cartier Bridge and the street where he lived, five blocks back from the line of red and yellow car lights inching along St Denis.
Henry counted the streets back from St Laurent and wondered what Corinna was doing at home before remembering she wasn’t there.
‘I think that’s where I live,’ he said, but Alexei was looking in the other direction. He slid his hand into Alexei’s pocket and entwined their warm fingers together. Looking down, a balloon of joy swelled in his chest. He fancied he could cast himself over the balustrade and swirl like a snowflake, weightless and free, between the glittering tower blocks. At that moment he realised Corinna would have to know the truth. Even so the balloon continued to swell.
Copyright © Rowena Macdonald 2011