a review by Peter McCambridge
Aïcha is 13. Before she met Baz she was always angry, burning with anger. She trailed her broken childhood around with her, trying her best to avoid her mom, old creeps, and the used needles in the park.
But now she’s in love. For the first time, she can see the stars shining in the sky above her neighbourhood in Montreal. She would do anything for Baz. Even though he pats her on the head, runs away from her advances, sleeps on the sofa when she insists on spending the night at his place, and keeps reminding her that, yeah, she’s cute, but he’s more than twice her age.
Aïcha is the most unreliable of narrators. She tells her story in a slangy monologue to a social worker, contradicting and correcting herself as she goes. Her mom always has men over, she tells us, so Aïcha has to wait in the park outside while they have sex on the sofa. That is, until she tells us her mom is sad and alone, that she has no life. Her mom’s old boyfriend, Hakim, treated Aïcha like a princess, snuggling with her as she ran around the house in her underwear. That is, until we find out he was abusing her.
She loses her virginity to the brother of someone whose name she can’t remember from school. In a stolen car. To make Baz jealous. She lets herself into Baz’s apartment and waits for him to come home, putting her toothbrush next to his.
From Et au pire, on se mariera
by Sophie Bienvenu
≈ translated by Peter McCambridge
OK, I’m staying. But stop doing that thing with your eyes, would ya? You’re freaking me out.
I have this dream all the time. It’s a nightmare actually. I have these eyeballs on my tongue and I can’t talk. My mouth is full of them, they won’t budge. I try shouting, but that doesn’t work. I can’t close my mouth either, so I try to swallow them, but there’s too many, I bite down on them, but it’s really, really gross. They go all squishy and there’s like juice flying everywhere. I have to hurl and I end up choking on my eyeball vomit.
I googled it once to see if it meant something, but I couldn’t find nothing. What do you think it means?
Although, to be fair, I could care less, you know? It’s just a dream an’ all.
So after that, yeah…
I went back there, down below where he was living. Like once or twice. Maybe more.
I had to see him. To say thanks and stuff.
Or just to see him again.
But then, after a minute or two, I got bored, you know? When you’ve spent two weeks waiting outside someone’s place morning, noon, late afternoon, and night, you end up losing hope, you know?
I decided to just let it go and went back to the park to sit on my duck and have a good think. I was brokenhearted.
I’d swiped a pack of smokes from my mom and had tried it on with Mr. Klop to get him to sell me some beer because that’s what people do when they’re brokenhearted. They smoke and drink. But the old Jew said no, so I bought some Canada Dry. He at least put it in a paper bag for me.
I already felt like shit, having my heart broken an’ all, but the taste of the cigarette made everything even worse.
I was gonna throw the smoke away, but I thought it made me look cute. I looked even more like Elvira when I smoked (you know, Tony Montana’s girlfriend, I told you about her earlier). I was looking at myself in a car window, so I didn’t see him coming.
Whenever I do something, I have no clue what’s going on around me. It’s a problem I have. I’m not like a bird or a fly, you know, with like eyes all the way around my head. Or a spider that has as many eyes as feet. A spider has as many eyes as feet, right?
He came an’ sat down on the horse beside the duck and said hi. I jumped and looked at him without saying nothing. He said he was sorry, he didn’t mean to scare me.
“Well, you scared me,” I said.
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you?”
I’m normally good at lying just the right amount. Sometimes I go too far, but I usually don’t get carried away with rearranging the truth. But that time I panicked, said I was eighteen. Might as well have said, “I’m fifty-nine, but I was born with this rare disease” and it’d’ve been just as believable. He looked surprised. I shrugged an’ said, “OK, fifteen.”
He seemed OK with that. Just as well because I’d other things to be doing than spending the night haggling over my age.
“Can I bum a cigarette?” he asked.
“Here, have the pack. I quit,” I said.
I wanted to ask him his name an’ all, but I thought my voice sounded like shit. I didn’t want it to come out all wrong. You know when you want to say something but it just won’t come out? When you want to tell someone you love them but you’re like physically incapable because it’s like the words are too big for your mouth or you think it’s like you’re gonna start an avalanche or something and get buried under all the emotions and shit?
No? Maybe it’s just me then.
But anyway, I bit my tongue. There was no way I was gonna ask his name. Just as well he read my mind, otherwise…
That time we just talked a little. Well, he asked questions and I answered them. But I couldn’t concentrate at the same time on my heart (so that, you know, it didn’t like explode) and my answers, so I talked a lotta shit at the start. Then I tried to limit the damage, I just nodded and shook my head.
At some point it had all gotten too emotional and I don’t like emotions, so I said I had to go. But I asked him if he was gonna be there the next day.
I wanted to ask for the day after that and the day after that until the end of time, but I didn’t do that either. If I did what I felt like doing all the time, people would think I was mental or something.
When I got back home, I was so happy I sat down on the sofa beside my mom, the crazy bitch. She looked all surprised an’ all and asked me how I was. I said good.
Then she smelled that I’d been smoking and started kicking up a fuss.
I stormed into my room and shut the door and, because it felt so horrible to be shouted at when I’d been so happy, I cried.
You see what a bitch she is? She ruins everything all the time. She was on her way to ruining everything with Baz, just like she’d ruined everything with Hakim.
“You kept her home from school again?” “What have you two been doing all day?” “Where were you?” “Put something on, Aïcha. You can’t be running around in your underwear, you’re a big girl now.”
I liked walking around in my panties because his skin touched my skin whenever we hugged on the sofa. Sometimes he’d tickle me with his fingers. It was fun.
I’m talking to you about Hakim here, OK?
It’s not like I’m walking around in my panties in front of Baz. Are you like out of your mind? Jo says you have to shroud yourself in mystery. It’s a case of “Do what I say, not what I do,” because she’s not best placed to be talking about mystery, not wearing a skirt that looks more like a belt and a mesh camisole that you can see a bra that’s not got nothing to support through.
That’s shrouding yourself in mystery, all right. I do that all the time, don’t need no one to tell me. I’m hard to get. That’s Melissa’s advice. And don’t be thinking Hard To Get is that Bruce Willis movie. Oh no. It means you act like you couldn’t give a damn, even when you do.
I’ve got like tons of examples…
At the start of our relationship, I would spend whole days waiting for him to stop by, but I’d pretend that wasn’t what I was doing.
It was really hard, you know, because you wouldn’t think it, but there’s not much to do in the street or at the duck park when you’re not a kid anymore. Back when I was a kid, I could line up stones or perform all kinds of sociological experiments on ants, but I didn’t want Baz to think I was like twelve or something. Cuz I was supposed to be fifteen.
Once I met him on the street carrying his guitar on his back. I asked him where he was headed, but all conversational like, not like my life depended on it or anything.
“I need to get the blablablah on my guitar’s blablablah fixed,” he said.
“Ah,” I said, sounding like I gave a damn.
“What are you up to?”
“Oh, you know, the usual stuff. I can’t go home because my mom has a guy over and they’re at it in the living room.”
He sounded all uncomfortable. So I laid it on a little thicker.
“So now I’m waiting for Melissa and Joanne to arrive and I’m probably gonna hang with them while they wait for their customers.”
“Who’s Melissa and Joanne?”
“My whore friends.”
“Ah… OK. No… euh.”
“I’ve never been to a music store.”
He asked me if I wanted to come with him, I said I didn’t know (hard to get), but ended up saying yes.
We walked to Berri-UQAM and took the metro. It was a bit like our first date.
He set down his guitar and it was really long and boring. The guy with the beard in the store showed him tons of new stuff, got him to try loads of instruments. I didn’t dare touch a thing cuz I was scared of making a noise or breaking some shit that cost like eight thousand dollars or something.
When we left, he asked if I was hungry.
He was hungry.
“Ever been to Jean-Talon market? They have the best merguez sandwiches in town!”
My throat hurt.
Hakim said all the time that Quebecers didn’t know how to make merguez sandwiches and you had to like sell a kidney to get a good one. It was one of the things that really wound him up.
“You don’t know what it’s like until you’ve been to Algeria,” I shrugged. “Quebecers don’t know shit about them.”
He looked at me funny. With a little smile that said, It’s funny you think I’m a moron.
“You ever been to Algeria, Aïcha?”
“Ever had a merguez sandwich?”
“So you’re a real Quebecer. You don’t know shit about it.”
And he laughed.
I sulked a little cuz I don’t like it when people laugh at me.
If I’d known how to get home from there, I’d’ve walked.
He kept on talking but I pretended I wasn’t listening. He was telling me all about the neighbourhood’s history. I had tons of super bitchy remarks like “If it really is the world’s best neighbourhood, why did you move? Move back!” but there’s no point doing the sulking thing half-assed.
At last we got to his store and he ordered two sandwiches. He said, “You want something to drink? A Coke?”
The guy behind the counter said they didn’t have Coke, but they had Selecto.
My throat hurt, then I said:
“The Selecto here doesn’t taste like it does in Algeria.”
He looked at me funny too. If I hadn’t still been in full-on sulk mode, I’d've told him where to go.
We sat down on two concrete blocks and ate our sandwiches. I swear, I didn’t want to like it. I did everything I could not to like it.
“Not bad, right?” Baz asked when I’d finished the whole sandwich.
“What’s up with Algeria? Wanna tell me?”
“Want another one?”
I waited on the concrete block while he got us more sandwiches.
I was pissed, but I still thought he was good looking. So I thought to myself that since I’d never go to Algeria, I might as well respect the Quebecers who make a mean merguez sandwich. Cuz you wouldn’t think it, but that day, sitting there on the concrete block, that was the best sandwich I’d eaten in my whole life.
I didn’t tell him “what’s up with Algeria” that time. It’s not shrouding yourself in mystery if you blurt out your whole life story the first chance you get.
After we’d met a few times, he ended up inviting me over to his place. A couple of weeks after the music store. I asked him if his guitar was repaired and he said yes.
“Are you any good?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders and my stomach made a funny sound. Don’t know why, I wasn’t even hungry. That afternoon I’d eaten the leftovers from a shepherd’s pie my mom had made for me the night before cuz it tastes better the next day.
Don’t tell her I said it, but my mom’s shepherd’s pie kicks ass. It’s pissed me off for years that something she’s made can be that good. You know, it’s like Hitler. Who knows, maybe his chocolate cake kicked ass too, but it’s not exactly common knowledge. No one would want to eat the world’s best cake if he’d made it, right?
Well, for me, it’s the same with my mom’s cooking. ≈