I wake to my cell phone’s alarm and try to sit up on my half-inflated mattress. Sunlight skims over a pile of boxes in an otherwise barren room. I get the phone and notice the voicemail icon flashing on the screen. I just moved to Montreal, so nobody has this number. Could it be an offer for a gig? My mother? The call came in last night when I was jamming on my sax.
“Bonjour, darling,” says a female voice that turns me on. “I’m checked-in at l’Esperanza. We’re waiting for you in room 17, me and 10,000 kisses. Don’t take long. Je t’embrasse.” A loud kiss ends the Siren’s melody. Who is she? I press “1” to listen to her again. And again.
I left my car half a block away. I’m freezing my derrière in front of a place for tight budgets and furtive rendezvous, the HÔTEL ESPERANZA. I just couldn’t stay home with so much in my mind and no proper furniture. If I walk in there and ask for the woman in room 17, they’ll call the cops on me. It’s getting colder. I should leave. Wait, the most spectacular mane of red curly hair captures my eyes and stops my legs. I’m a big fan of redheads. She’s a few years younger than me. Her clothes are too skimpy for this weather. She carries a bulging tote bag with some lingerie sticking out. She’s so lost in thought that she probably doesn’t feel the cold. Her eyes are redder than her hair, the most beautiful walking mess of a person, lost, worn-out, but so magnetic. I have to follow her. I don’t know if anyone could ever have this effect on me again.
We arrive at the corner. I wonder if she’ll cross the intersection or head down to the bus stop. She’s hesitant. I’m hesitant. I manage to ask, “Are you all right?” She doesn’t acknowledge me and walks off the sidewalk, right onto the oncoming traffic. The bus won’t stop. I project myself and pull her back to safety. Her red mane sweeps the air as the bus roars by. Her reddish blue eyes stare at me. She’s shaking. I hold her as we squat on the ground and I ask, “Do you need to go to a hospital?” She doesn’t answer so I add, “Let me walk you back to the hotel.”
“Je vous en prie,” she begs. “Let me go. Leave me alone.” I can’t let go of this redhead stranger. She’ll just hurt herself.
The heating in my car is kicking in. I push the passenger seat so this woman can lie back. I push mine so I can look her in the eye. She doesn’t trust me, but she’s too worn out to go away. I hand her a tissue. I ask her name, but she looks away. “I’m Bruno” I say and try my best at a cute smile.
She concedes. “Mylène.”
I have a clumsy accent yet I echo her name flawlessly. I could even play it on my sax. “Nice to meet you, Mylène.” I try to shake her hand but she just gives me back the used tissue.
Her eyes move like a broken metronome. After a while she says “Would you kiss me if I asked?”
I burst a nervous chuckle and then I kiss her. I savour her lips until she pushes me back.
“I was just wondering, not telling you to do it.”
I’m too ecstatic to be ashamed. I straighten my seat and try to straighten the situation. It’s time to take her home, hers, not mine, even though I am so wickedly tempted.
I park my car on a wealthy street in Westmount near a run-down little castle with a backyard garden. The mailbox reads: “ABBOTSON.” Mylène walks the garden path. She looks back at me and unfolds a timid smile before disappearing from my view. I ponder for a few minutes if I should leave. I could return another day with a bouquet of flowers. I’m worried about Mylène but above all, she fascinates me and I don’t want her to forget me.
I ring the doorbell and after a minute a woman in her fifties with the same blue eyes as Mylène greets me. “Oui, bonjour?” With a mix of grey and red hair her looks are tamed and solemn like her clothes. I tell her I’m looking for Mylène. “Are you a friend of my daughter’s?” Her accent and voice resemble Mylène’s but with a lower pitch.
“I was wondering if she’s okay. I’m Bruno.”
“Enchantée, Bruno. I’m Madame Duchesne, Mylène’s mother. I’m expecting her for lunch but at this time she’s in the university. I’ll tell her you came by. Does she have your phone number?”
“Yes she does.” I don’t say that Mylène is already there. I could get her in trouble. “Thank you Madame.”
The lady smiles quirkily, losing her cool manner for just an instant, and closes the door.
I don’t leave. I prowl the garden and find an annex to the house. A big garage converted into a guesthouse. The bulky curtains are moving. It must be Mylène closing them. I push the door. The room is poorly lit and too many things dwell in the shadows. This place is a museum: hunting trophies, vintage furniture, a console phonograph, Iroquoian artefacts, a Turkish rug. There’s food on a small table, a midday snack with appetisers and a glass of Scotch, all still untouched. I bump into the husky desk tumbling down a book. “DANCE, DREAMS AND SOULS: THE HEALING OF ONONHAROIA BY DR. ROBERT ABBOTSON.” I might have read this book years ago in school. I remember that Ononharoia is a festival of the Iroquois people. I see the author’s picture. The classic British-type professor but even older. I put down the book and notice that Mylène stands quietly in a corner next to a wheelchair.
“Remember me? It’s Bruno.” I reach for her chin and gently lead Mylène to make eye contact with me. “I was worried about you.” Her eyes tell me that she doesn’t believe anybody could care for her. But I do. “I know this doesn’t make any sense. It’s like when you hear a tune for the first time and then can’t get it out from your head, as if you already knew the melody… as if it was the greatest song. Please give me a chance to get to know me.”
“You’re sweet but I’m married,” she says. I take her hands and explore every finger. She knows I notice that there’s no ring. “I couldn’t wear it while I was in l’Esperanza.” Mylène pulls herself away and finds shelter by the chimney.
“I won’t tell anyone.” I see this fragile woman neglected by her husband and abandoned by her lover, or so she thinks. I’ll feel guilty if I don’t say it. “You should know that perhaps your friend never arrived because he didn’t know you were waiting for him.”
“We meet there the first night of every month. No more after this.” Mylène becomes a bit anxious. “I’ll put the damned ring back on.”
I grab her hands again. “You shouldn’t. What’s the point if you don’t love your husband?”
Mylène pushes me back. “Of course I love him!”
“Then why are you so upset for the other guy?”
She hesitates. The other guy is not the problem. “My husband is the wisest man I know. He’s passionate about everything… except me. But he would be lost without me.”
I can relate to that feeling. I pull her toward me and kiss her over and over. I really savour her lips until Mylène frees herself from my embrace.
Someone opens the door. I turn around with my heart pounding and see Madame Duchesne. She has an empty tray on her hands and she seems about to throw it at me. “Sacrement! What are you doing?”
“We were… just talking.”
She frowns. “Who?”
I’m alone. The woman I was kissing seems to have vanished. “Mylène. She must be in the washroom.”
The lady knows I wasn’t alone. “She should know better than to come in here! Robert doesn’t like it.”
“My husband.” She can’t keep eye contact so she starts to pick up the untouched food and liquor, but breaks down and stumbles cascading a mess onto the Turkish rug.
I hurry toward her. “Are you okay?”
“Je peux pas y croire! Give me five minutes, please.” She sits on the leather recliner and takes a deep breath. I try to clean the mess. Her voice breaks. “How many women do you know who keep bringing food to their dead husbands?”
“Your husband is dead?”
“Robert died 3 years ago.” She looks ashamed. Not so much for ruining the rug but for her life. I feel sorry for her. She stares at the scattered appetisers. “I bring him his drink and things to eat just like I did every single day for 20 years. I had committed to take care of him and his things forever. If I don’t carry on with the routine something seems missing and I can’t go through with the rest of my day.”
“You must have loved your husband.” I hand her the tray with all the pieces.
“He was an outstanding scholar and left quite a legacy of knowledge, one of Canada’s most prominent anthropologists.” She notices that the Ononharoia book was moved and gets up to return it to its usual place. “All these books about old things and old customs. Like me. I’ve been an old woman since I was Mylène’s age since my accident. Robert took care of me. He was the only person that cared for me in this world.”
“What happened to you?”
Madame Duchesne recalls sounds and flashes from the past. “I had gone through a dreadful night. I was more absent-minded than usual. A bus ran over me. It’s a miracle I survived although I’ve always felt that part of me died that day. Sometimes I wish I had it all back. To be as I was before.”
I reach for the wheelchair in the corner to help her but she stops me.
“Non! I have walked perfectly since Mylène was born. But then it was my turn to take care of Robert who was much older than me. He was in that damned chair for his last 10 years. Sometimes I stayed here with him but he wasn’t too fond of anybody invading his personal space.” Emotion overruns her.
“I wish I could do something.” I try to comfort her by stroking her shoulder.
She squeezes my hand as she tries to regain her composure. “I feel comfortable with you, Bruno. C’est bizarre, I hadn’t felt this in such a long time. I’m glad you and my daughter are friends so I’ll get to know you.”
“I can’t be just friends with Mylène.”
She sees in my eyes what I mean and says, “I think you’d make a beautiful couple.”
“You wouldn’t mind?”
She smiles at me flirtatiously. “Well maybe if I was a few years younger. You’re not married, are you?”
As I try to decipher her charming smile Madame Duchesne recovers all her strength and gets ready to leave. “Thank you for helping me out with the rug. I’d hate to see it stained. Tell Mylène that lunch is almost ready. Please stay and join us, Bruno.”
The door closes and I turn around to see Mylène. I want to ask her if she overheard my conversation with her mother but her face hides behind her red locks. She says “I couldn’t find my ring. My husband is going to be so angry.”
I uncover her face. She seems fully comfortable with my caresses. I might have a chance. “You’re married to someone who isn’t there for you. You should do something about it now. Don’t wait for ten or twenty years to realise.”
This time she kisses me. “If only I had met you the night before.”
“You were still infatuated with the guy who ditched you. Now you know he wasn’t worth it and I’ll prove that I am.” I hug her tightly and try to be more eloquent with caresses than words, but I still feel a bit guilty. “I need to tell you, I got your message about room 17.”
She frowns at me. “I waited all night… the worst night of my life!”
“How could I know? It was a wrong number! Besides, I didn’t listen to your message until this morning.” I bring her head onto my chest. “Yet the music of your voice and words captivated me. I imagined your face, your kisses, the way you make love! I had to see for myself who was this mysterious and arousing voice that had left a message in the wrong number.”
“I know I dialled it correctly!”
“Maybe so. Numbers get recycled.”
“You should have come earlier!” She embraces me as tears run down her face.
“I’m so sorry you had such an awful night but it won’t happen again.” I clean her tears calming her down.
“C’est vrai. It won’t happen again.” We stand and tidy up a little bit. Mylène smiles and caresses my face. “Merci. Now I know things could be different.”
I kiss her again. We hug and get to the door. “I’ll wait for you in the main house and we’ll have lunch together. Okay?”
“I’ll be there.” She closes the door behind me and doesn’t make any further noise.
The house is tidy, not as dark as the guesthouse, but it’s also saturated with decorations. I see Madame Duchesne by the fireplace talking to a young woman. Madame Duchesne greets me merrily. “Voici Bruno! The meal is ready!”
As I approach the women, I notice black and white portraits above the fireplace. Mylène, the very formal Robert Abbotson and Madame Duchesne are all there. The young woman staring at me has her own portrait too. She seems a bit jumpy. “Hi! Do we know each other?”
I shake her hand and my head. “Of course not but you must be Mylène’s sister.”
“That’s absurd. I am Mylène! Mylène Abbotson.”
I take Mylène’s portrait. “This is Mylène!”
Madame Duchesne gazes tenderly at the portrait. “Bien sûr, my name is Mylène but that was so long ago that she feels like another person.”
The daughter pulls her mother away. “Mom, you’re still pretty but naive, too. You let yourself be sweet-talked by a complete stranger!” She snatches the portrait as her acidic gaze attempts to dissolve me.
Now, how can I explain to her that I fell in love with the ghost of her mother’s lost youth? I wish I could vanish before they call the cops on me.