Montreal

Short fiction contest: first prize winner

The bus jerked to a stop and I woke with a numb face. Somehow I’d managed to fall asleep with my cheek pressed against the window.

There was a smudge on the glass roughly the size and shape of my face. I had left my mark … without checking to see if I had everything, I grabbed my bag and rushed off the bus before the lineup started. It wasn’t until the hard wind unsettled my hair and pinched my cheeks that I knew that I had arrived.

I set my bag down and leaned against a pillar to check my phone.

No messages.

I texted her again, asking where exactly I needed to go. I put my phone away and watched the travellers scurry about the bus station as the dying sun cast its last rays across the white marble floors, turning them orange.

There was a man carrying several suitcases precariously tucked under each arm, slung over each shoulder and clasped in each hand; a woman trying, unsuccessfully, to calm her two screaming kids; a group of drunk university students barely keeping their composure; and an acoustic duo playing a song in French that I couldn’t understand.

Someone had scribbled “Vive la Revellution” in huge letters across the bathroom door. I didn’t know whether to laugh or sigh. My phone vibrated. I read the directions, picked up my bag and braced myself for the wind. The bus stop was just up the road, but any distance in this weather is unbearable. I zipped my coat up to my chin and pulled my hat down above my eyebrows and went out into the wind.

I strained my eyes to look ahead: there was an incredibly tall man meandering down the sidewalk toward me. As he got closer, I could hear him grunting French words to himself that I couldn’t make out. He locked eyes with me, but his gaze seemed to pass right through. I stepped aside to let him by but our sleeves brushed against each other.

“Fuck you!” he screamed.

Welcome to Montreal.

Somewhere along this long and complicated route, I got on the wrong bus. I went up and asked the bus driver the fastest way to get to Rue Stanley.

“You’re on the wrong bus,” he told me without looking over.

I didn’t know what to say so I waited.

“Look, the route you want doesn’t run after nine. The best thing to do is to get off here and call a cab.” “Okay. Where is here, exactly?” “Chinatown.” I got off at the next stop and looked around for a taxi. There were very few people out on the street. I started to get anxious.

After a few minutes of walking, my legs numb from the bitter, relentless wind; I saw something that looked like a taxi about a half a kilometre up the road. Maybe there is a God after all.

I certainly hadn’t expected to find him in Chinatown.

The taxi sign was illuminated and there was no one in it but the driver. I knocked on the passenger window.

Nothing.

Not even a glance. The driver was on his cellphone and looked to be in the midst of a heated conversation. I didn’t care.

I knocked again.

Still nothing; it was like I didn’t exist. I thought about it for a minute, and the wind picked up again.

“Fuck it.” I opened the door, slung my backpack in, and sat down in the back seat, closing the door behind me. The driver was yelling something in Mandarin on the phone.

He turned and looked at me. He yelled again, only this time I heard a word I recognized. Gweilo: white ghost. I wished Chenn hadn’t taught me that word. I wanted to say something, but thought better of it, it wasn’t worth the argument. Plus, I needed the cab.

“3458 Rue Stanley, please,” I said, loudly.

“Debit no work, you pay cash? Show me the cash,” he snapped, holding an open palm in front of my face. I slapped a 20 into it. He folded it and put it in his cup holder. Within no time at all, we were moving. The driver was still yelling into the phone, but I didn’t care as long as we were moving.

The cab rolled to a stop on an empty street corner.

“Here,” he said.

I looked at my 20 sitting naked in the cup holder. I raised my hand, and just as I was about to start, I realized it would only start an argument I couldn’t win. So the gweilo left the cab at least $10 light.

I checked my phone. Nothing. I looked all around for a street sign but there were none to be found. Jesus Christ. I called Angie.

“Hello! Danny? Where are you?” I could barely hear her through the din of the party.

“I don’t know. I’m on some street corner. My cabbie just took off. I have no idea!” A man in a grey peacoat was walking toward me. I put the phone down and stopped him.

“Is this Rue Stanley?” “Yep,” he pointed at the street sign. I felt like such a tourist.

“Okay.” I picked up the phone again. “Apparently I’m on Rue Stanley.” “Great! Just head up the street and follow the noise!” “See you soon,” I yelled, and hung up the phone.

I started walking and in no time I was at the foot of a “noisy” building. The front door was open, so I walked right in.

I followed the hallway, tracing the source of the noise. Eventually I came upon a faded wooden door with the number three hanging upside down and the peephole duct-taped over.

I walked right in. Immediately I could smell alcohol and marijuana. I was in the right place.

Looking around the crowded room, I tried to find a familiar face. Everyone looked a lot younger than me.

There was a group of kids smoking on the couch and a copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations on top of a coffee table before them with white powder — cocaine? Adderall? — arranged in lines on the cover. The apartment was a mess. Everything was disorganized and out of place.

The only feature of the room that didn’t contribute to the overall chaos of the place was the three posters of Biggie, Fight Club and a “Jesus is my Homeboy” arranged to form a pyramid on the wall. Somebody’s sad attempt at frat house aesthetics.

Standing in the entranceway, I was amazed I hadn’t yet spoken to a single person. No one had even acknowledged my presence.

Maybe the cab driver was right: maybe I was the white ghost. It was only then that I realized everyone in the room was speaking French.

One of the drunken kids wearing a crown and a sash that said “Prom King 2012” stumbled his way toward me.

I tipped an imaginary hat.

“Your majesty.”

“Here,” he thrust an unopened beer into my hand and walked away. I watched him stop and vomit all over the floor, the wall, everything. All hail the king.

Then it all started to add up: Prom King, French speakers, Fight Club, economics — I’d somehow ended up in a debauched high school party. There was no finding Angie in this apartment.

I left as abruptly and anonymously as I arrived, and called Angie from the hall outside.

“Angie, I don’t know where I am. I followed the noise and it led me to some hardcore after-prom party. I saw a park down the street. Meet me there!” Walking toward the park I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a storefront window. There wasn’t much light on the street; I could barely make out the details.

The reflection was so obscured there was no way of knowing for sure that I was looking at myself. I studied it for a while, curious. There was a poster beside the twisted remnants of my face. It depicted a beautiful woman looking over her naked shoulder with a bottle of Gucci perfume in the top right hand corner. There was something written in French that I couldn’t precisely understand. Something about love — I just couldn’t quite put it together.

“And one day she’ll love you!” I exclaimed, proud of my French.

If only it were that easy.

Finally, I settled down on a park bench and opened my beer. I looked around the park: with the exception of a few dull street lamps and a statue of a rusty horseman, I was alone. The wind was picking up again. Maybe the park was a bad idea after all.

Maybe Montreal was a bad idea after all.

I started to feel incredibly lonely. I sipped my beer slowly as wind whipped powdery snow all around me, each gust picking up a plume and twirling it into a wisp before it disappeared entirely. This process continued to repeat itself time and again before my eyes. I rather enjoyed the snow phantoms.

As I waited for Angie, I thought about why I had come to Montreal — why I had travelled four hours on a piss-smelling bus only to turn around the next day and ride another four hours back.

I knew the answer — I thought about it every morning — I was just afraid to admit it. As the loneliness returned, I sipped my beer and watched the snow phantoms come to life, dance briefly with the bitter winter, and return to nothing. I counted myself among them.

Tags

Fiction, Short

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