Stories about falling in love, about writers not writing, about everyone around us thinking we have great lives and the small things that eat away at us inside all the same. Stories about being surrounded by friends and family and still feeling empty and alone. Stories about learning how to live. About the things that really matter, the things that connect us to loved ones and that we’re too embarrassed to ever mention again. About loss. About mothers who seem distant as movie stars in their daughters’ eyes. Some have more plot than others. Some are so centered around an idea they’re more like an explanation or apology. All are monologues, unmistakably spoken, resolutely down to earth. And every single one of these 37 stories is beautiful. Simple and beautiful.
From Chaque automne j’ai envie de mourir
by Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon
≈ translated by Peter McCambridge
What’s really terrible is to think that things are going to stay this way forever.
Before, I never wanted to own a thing. I didn’t want to buy a single piece of furniture. I wanted to be able to leave on a whim, without having to explain myself, pack things away, organize everything. I didn’t want anything holding me back. It was all a bit extreme. Now I have furniture. Not much, but some all the same. I haven’t taken off all that often, either. I wanted to be able to leave – it’s not the same thing. Now I know that being able to drop everything and go is all in the mind; it’s rarely about furniture.
I’ve travelled a little. Like everyone, like lots of people my age, actually. I like it. Being uprooted from my life. Torn out. I love travelling alone and arriving someplace where nobody knows the first thing about me, someplace where I could be absolutely anyone, where I could be everything I am not here. I get weak at the knees whenever I arrive someplace and I think to myself: “Here, I could.” I could slip away to live here, leave everything, leave Quebec. What’s keeping me here, after all? People? Hmm. But what if I was tired of it all one day, if I was completely fed up, if things kept going round and round in circles for too long, if I was stuck in a corner, if there wasn’t anyone after all. Then I could go there. A little town in the south of Portugal. Sweep in like a witch, move in somewhere on the second floor, someplace where the windows would always be open. With an all-white bed in the middle of the room, my linen sheets, a wooden table, two chairs, and nothing else. Dresses, books, and pretty drapes. Get up early in the morning and go down to the port to buy fish. Get to know the fishermen a little. Ask how their wives are doing. Work mornings in a café run by my new French friends. Do my grammar exercises in my little Portuguese book, serve iced watermelon juice and Ginja, do the dishes outside, cook shellfish. Write in the afternoon, or give tourists a massage. It would be easy. Have a child with blue eyes, who speaks two or three languages and knows how to swim. Learn the names of the birds and plants over there. Celebrate Christmas.
Nobody would know a thing.
I have nothing to hide. It’s just that one day, without you knowing why, the people around you know who you are, or think they do. They’ve made up their minds, they think they’ve got you all figured out, they tell themselves that you’re complicated or naïve, that you’re always reading, that you’re not funny or have no patience, that you’re too kind and gullible, that you sleep around, that you don’t know what you want, that you want it all, that you don’t want enough, that you’re an opportunist or you’re not ambitious enough, that you’re moody or a scatterbrain, or a control freak, that you’re a hypochondriac, that you’re a feminist, that you’re motherly, that you’re jealous, that you’re poetic, and it’s true, or not, and it doesn’t really matter: the fact is you become what others think you are, and that’s what paints you into a corner, much more than any furniture.
That’s why I like travelling alone. Why I get a little weak at the knees at the thought of starting out all over again somewhere else and having a completely different life.
What’s really lovely, too, is when these dreams of another life come together, shining out in the dark like tiny beacons, like a constellation of all possible worlds. If where you are isn’t working any more, if this life doesn’t appeal to you any more, you can always come here; it’s bright here all the time. Whenever I close my eyes, I can see the light of those little glowing windows all over the world.
Tavira. That’s what the little village in Portugal is called, Tavira.
When I was small, I used to dream of moving house, changing schools, and being the new girl in class.
Now, sometimes I dream of the same thing. I dream of a place where no one knows me, where I would be brand new.
Deep down, I dream even more of wanting to stay somewhere.
Childhood is a war that’s been lost. Lost, lost, lost. Lost over and over, lost forever.
In general, people, adults, pretend they don’t remember how brutal it all was. Makes them feel too uncomfortable. They’d rather not remember how bloody the battles really were. How low the lows could be. How cruel the other kids were.
Everything we build ourselves to get through later life is like a post-war lull. But if we fess up and say it, kids can be really nasty. No worse than us, but just as bad. If we remember how things really were, what really went on, it’s enough to take our breath away. It breaks us up into a thousand tiny little pieces, smashes our knees in. Until we can hardly stand.
Kids are brutal. Later on we teach them to pretend they aren’t so wild.
“Smile,” we tell them. “Say ‘Thank you,’” we tell them. “Stop pulling that little girl’s hair,” we tell them. “Don’t stick your tongue out,” we tell them. “My little angel,” we tell them. “Don’t stick your tongue out, my little angel. Smile.” Childhood is a war that’s been lost, for all eternity. That’s one of the few things I know.
I just had one mom and half a dad. My dad worked at Baie-James. My mom didn’t want to live up there. She was cold all the time, so we lived in Limoilou. It was freezing there, too, but I dunno, I think Mom would’ve died up there. Up in the tundra. When Dad came home on vacation, it was one big party. He had three weeks off for the whole year: two in summer, one at Christmas. The rest of the time, Mom and I got by OK. I would pretend not to hear her cry at night. And she would pretend not to cry. On Fridays she would put mascara on both of us. I wasn’t wild about it, but I’d let her do it because it cheered her up. She would do our makeup and buy a mille-feuille for us to share, like two dolls playing at having a tea party. Now I think back on it and it breaks my heart: my mom, just her and her daughter, every Friday night, all through her twenties, Mom as pretty as a princess with her mascara, as rare as a rare flower, pale as an orchid, Mom who would knit and work hard at the hospital like a good girl, Mom who taught me to behave myself, called me “my little angel.” Mom who would lower her eyes whenever she met a man. She was pretty as a starlet and she lived like a nun. My dad, too, he was good-looking. Good-looking like Marlon Brando. He just wasn’t there.
Anyway, I don’t know why I’m talking about all this. Because I felt lonely, I suppose. That’s a lie: I know exactly why. I felt so alone. And I was. Still am.
I had loads of friends, though. All boys, all neighbours. I was a real tomboy when I was a kid. Apart from the mascara on Friday nights with Mom, I didn’t do any girly stuff. I thought girls were annoying, I thought they were big babies, I thought they were soft. And scaredy cats.
I thought they were cry-babies. I preferred playing outside with my friends. We were always together. We did everything together, all the time. We rode around on our bikes every night from May to October, we went to the store to buy chips and pop. We hung out in the schoolyard, we played hockey, we swam at Alex or Marceau’s house, we stole carrots from Madame Bélanger’s garden behind our house. I was an only child. I had a mom in tears and a dad three weeks of the year, but they, they were my brothers. Alex, Oli, Champoux, Marceau, Ben Sirois. My brothers.
We had a hiding place beside the river. We were really close, it was really cool. But one time something happened. Something happened that made me lose all that. It was the end of school, I remember it really well. Three days to the end of Grade Five. One night in a little wood not far from where we lived, they stopped playing and tied me to a tree. I was bigger and stronger, but there were five of them, so they tied me up to a tree, really tight.
Then they all kissed me, hard, badly, roughly, one after the other. With their tongues. I fought like crazy. For nothing. It didn’t change a thing. It was wild. They were kids. Brutal. That night I hated my dad for being up north, I hated my mom for teaching me how to put on mascara instead of showing me how to fight, I hated being a girl. That night I hated everyone I loved most in the world. I cried. Like a girl.
After that came the longest summer of my life. I was big, then really all alone because I couldn’t ride bikes with my gang any more. There was no gang any more, I wasn’t their friend any more.
Childhood is the war you lose the day you lose your brothers. ≈