Talking with Nicola as my load churned in the dryer, watching her smile and toss her mass of curls, listening to her poor-artist lament, recoiling from and sometimes leaning into her liquored ten a.m. breath, weighing the odds of her willingness to bed me, I figured that another person’s inner squalor can make one’s own thudding life seem joyous. Easy schadenfreude, of course. I sat up straight on my stool in the laundromat-café while Nicola nattered on about past travels, arts council grants, Québecois dancers and painters. Nicola, elbows propped on the bar and her chin in her hands; Nicola, repeatedly slipping into French when she called her fate a catastrophe; Nicola, scoffing at all men everywhere.
“They get me pregnant and I abort every time. I want goodness for a father. I want a man who stays.”
She crinkled her mascara-ed eyes and touched my hand, called me Irish sweetheart. I told her I was English and from Toronto, the city Montrealers love to hate.
“So you see,” she said, ignoring me as I tilted an ear to my rumbling laundry, “since I’m too old for a job program and teaching placement, me, an artist who’s already received $100,000 in grants, now I’m standing together with the jobless and the moneyless. We are a big minority.” She pushed a dangling tendril from her face, then let her hand rest in her hair so I’d look at it, black curls framing black eyes—the pose she thought her best.
Cars drifted by the open door, and the occasional breeze pushed back at the August heat. We sipped our espressos and I listened to Nicola for half-an-hour. My show of pity became less show—why, I’m not sure. Again, maybe I thought she would take me home. For me, sex was a distant memory. And to think I had moved to Montreal, the place where, whatever you wanted—straight or otherwise—they would go you one better. Montreal could slam you into a state lonelier than the one you arrived in, but if you were willing to slouch around and spend some money, you could get what those romantic Scots called “your hole.”
I looked at Nicola. I was ready to ask if I could help her somehow, when she spoke again.
“You are married?”
“What’s your name, Tim or Darren or something?” Trying to sound coquettish, Nicola mangled a purr. Her career as a seductress had, I surmised, already hit a wall of sad smiles and turned heads, of polite walk-aways from tables up and down St. Denis and St. Laurent. She was heavy—heavy breasted, necklace heavy, mood-heavy—and she wore the face of the wounded: too much make-up, too easy a smile, too quick to look away at the slightest movement in her peripheral vision. She couldn’t miss the promise of eye contact. Nicola: pity kisses and alley grapplings had likely been her fate for years. I knew the male version. Actually, I was the male version.
“My name,” I cringed, “is Nicholas.”
Her eyes widened. “How fun! Nicola and Nicholas—it’s a film!”
She ran her finger along my forearm, silver bracelets dragging across my hairless skin, and I wanted to curse. I hated the French exclamatory mode, the womanly trill I christened the Petit Oiseau Syndrome, as if legions of Edith Piaf wannabes were wandering the city and cooing their desire for all manner of things, shoes, purses, barrettes, candies, blades of grass—and, apparently, names. That trill seemed the ultimate emotional fakery. But thinking that and looking at the weary smile of my companion, I shook off my disgust. Nicola saw me as someone sympathique, albeit a naïf, a polite Anglo man happy to hear all she said.
“You know, Nicholas, all my life I have lived with one foot in Europe, one in Québec.”
I was a thirty-year-old grad student, a supposed gentleman, but I couldn’t resist.
“So your legs are always—.”
Her laugh gave me a peek into the shadow of her mouth: there was no mystery, just darkness. I had a Canadian moment. I felt bad. I wanted to say sorry, over and over again.
Instead, I glanced out the door and saw parked cars, the sun making silver spots on the roofs. Traffic had stopped, as if the world had decided to hush. No birdsong. No passersby. I felt something, though, on my left hand.
It crawled towards my wrist, twitching its black stinger. I wanted to jerk my arm. I wanted to scream. But no part of me could move.
Nicola cupped the wasp between her palms and slid off her stool, walked to the door and spread her hands. I didn’t even see the wasp fly off. Nicola sat back down and finished her espresso.
“You,” I said, “are insane.”
She stared at the small yellow bags of coffee beans on the shelf.
“A man in Guatemala taught me,” she said, turning towards me. “Have you slept in a volcano? A dead one, of course.”
“I didn’t think people slept in volcanoes.”
“Where, how, and with what people sleep – it is an interesting topic, Nicholas.”
She paid for our espressos—slapping my arm when I held out a bill—and then she took my elbow.
“Now,” she smiled, and lifted up my hands. Her fingers between mine, she began to waltz me to the door and the beating sun.
“Come, Nicholas. Watch an artist at work.”