It was a spring evening and Dylane had invited us to her apartment in Rosemont, which she’d bought a few months earlier. It was the first time we were going to see it, so Hélène suggested we buy a plant she could transport by car, and we’d all contribute what we could. The choucroûte garnie on the table was ridiculously outsized, and we wondered how we’d make our way through it. With summer on the way, we were all watching our weight and picked at our plates, grimly chewing salty sausage and fermented cabbage. We controlled with a lesser zeal our consumption of the Riesling, and after relating her latest misadventure with a downtown beautician in a tall office building who’d burned her armpits with overheated wax, Julie announced with a grimace that Vianey was moving in with her in July, and she was afraid she was going to regret it.
“Why? Hélène asked. “The last time I saw you, everything was fine.”
“He’s jealous. He’s negative. It’s stifling. I just don’t know.”
Julie was the beauty of our group, a sylph with a gaunt, almost androgynous face, cat eyes, bee-stung lips, and a rakish look at times. In her twenties she’d almost become a model, but a few photo shoots and casting sessions had left her disenchanted with the scene, which she found shallow and overrun with social climbers. She’d met Vianey over a year earlier at an office opening for the video game company where she worked as an associate producer. Vianey was a visual effects man.
“At least,” said Dylane decisively, “if it doesn’t pan out, Vianey goes, and you keep the apartment. And for God’s sake, don’t put his name on the lease.”
We all nodded in agreement. At that time, while keeping her lucrative job as a Crescent Street barmaid, Dylane was training to be a real estate agent. She often brought up subjects she’d learned about in class, legal and financial issues of the housing world. When I’d left Jean-Philippe in the late fall and moved into a share with my friend Nadine, Dylane had pointed out that my rent was paying over three-quarters of Nadine’s mortgage. In other words, I was contributing more than Nadine toward the purchase of her condo, while occupying one middle-sized room.
You might as well buy something, Dylane had suggested. “Do you have the cash for a down payment?” Dylane’s view of the situation made me a little sad. I really liked Nadine and refused to admit she might secretly be greedy and scheming. And though I wasn’t in debt like all the other Lit grads I knew, I doubted my savings would come close to paying the down payment to which Dylane alluded. But I didn’t brood for long. I was too aware with each passing day that leaving Jean-Philippe had been the right thing. What did I care if Nadine gained on the exchange?
Hélène set down her fork. She hadn’t finished with Julie.
”So what changed? You were so happy after your winter getaway with Vianey! You were even thinking of getting your IUD taken out!”
What tipped the balance? Was it the sudden incursion of a gynecological device into our conversation? I wondered if we were headed for one of those evenings when we’d all become Sex and the City characters, apart from our shoes bought on sale at Aldo and the Montreal setting, so unlike fairy-tale Manhattan. On the corner of my placemat, my cell phone vibrated. “Mom” appeared on the glowing screen and I went into the living room to take the call. My friends said nothing, maybe assuming it was Sébastien, but that was unlikely, because Sébastien was immersed in end-of-term grading and since it was barely nine, there was no way he’d be finished. While my mother reported the latest news about my grandmother, I noticed the tall plant Hélène had bought for Dylane on our behalf. It continued to slumber beneath its cellophane. Little white buds broke through the green silky branches at the top. I sniffed the opening of the wrapping paper and recognized the sweet, exotic fragrance of jasmine. It seemed to me that our gift was not really Dylane’s style. She got home in the wee hours, usually not alone. We’d nicknamed her lover of the moment No. 3 because he played defense for the Montreal Canadiens. Dylane had never told us much about him, except that he was married (an unfortunate caprice dating back to his Major Junior years) and owned a mansion on Île Bizard. One time Dylane had actually gone there for a Christmas party, where she could melt into the crowd. I couldn’t have explained why, but it seemed to me that sleeping with a married hockey player was incompatible with caring for a delicate plant. I predicted the jasmine would be dead in a month.
“But I don’t want it!” I told my mother.
“You have no choice, for heaven’s sake! It’s your inheritance!” After hanging up the phone, I ripped the big sheet of cellophane down to the bottom of the pot so the plant could breathe, and I returned to the dining room.
Hélène was the only one of us who had children. Theo was four and Bia nearly two. Though her acting career had got off to a slow start after she’d left the National Theatre School ten years earlier, Hélène had since enjoyed a certain success on the small screen. Without exactly becoming a big name, she played supporting roles in popular soap operas that had been running forever and a few slicker, edgier series too. Over the years, Hélène had also made a name for herself in the dubbing industry, lending her voice to Hollywood blockbusters, some of them duds but not all. She’d done Scarlett Johansson, Angelina Jolie, and Renée Zellweger. When I dropped by the video store—and heaven knows how often I did that in the months after leaving Jean-Philippe—I sometimes rented movies she’d worked on. I liked to watch the French-dubbed versions just to hear her voice delivering lines as outré or flaky as: “We managed to dig a tunnel to the Pentagon!” or “Oh, Bruce, you don’t need to go to Harvard for me to marry you!” Benoît, with whom Hélène had been living for nearly seven years, was also an actor, but his career wasn’t quite as thriving. Apart from a commercial for the Quebec liquor board, he played in self-produced shows in nameless venues where there was nothing to nibble on at intermission but packets of rancid BBQ peanuts. “But he’s such a good father,” Hélène would say if anyone brought up Benoît’s latest bungled audition whereby he’d missed another career-launching role. Given the circumstances, it was obvious that Hélène was the family’s sole provider, but we’d never heard her complain about an arrangement that would have seriously galled anyone else in our group.
She wiped away tears with her napkin as I sat down across from her at the table. I realized that on hearing Julie’s woes and Dylane’s comforting comments, Hélène had felt hurt that she hadn’t been informed of Julie’s love problems. Did we think she was that busy? she appealed to us, sniffling; even when she was on set, she listened to her messages. Even when giving the kids a bath, she could always talk on her cell in hands-free mode. I imagined the scene: Theo and Bia splashing, squabbling, screaming, and Hélène, soaping and scolding and soaked to the bone, trying to follow Julie’s rambling tale of Vianey’s snooping in her computer to make sure she’d stopped corresponding with her ex-boss. For that was the calamity which had occurred a month earlier and dampened Julie’s ardor for Vianey. However, because Julie told me things that she didn’t tell the others, only I knew the full story, namely, that Vianey had not only found e-mails from Julie’s ex-boss but two or three short films they’d made during their affair.
“What do I do, Florence?” she asked when she’d called the day after the crisis. “Do I dump him or give him another chance? I can’t trust him. And he’s mad as hell!”
It was a Thursday morning. Rush-hour traffic was at a standstill on Avenue du Parc. I’d just left Sébastien’s apartment and was waiting in line at the bakery.
“What kind of movies were they?”
“X-rated!” Julie replied,as if it were obvious—which I suppose it should have been. Then she added in her own defense: “I was twenty-eight with a gorgeous body. Denis convinced me to immortalize it on video. I have no regrets. My breasts are starting to sag, aren’t yours?”
“Uh, I’m in a store at the moment.”
“Anyway, yours are smaller, you don’t have that problem. So what do I do? Give him the heave-ho? He wants me to delete them. But there’s no way. They’re souvenirs.”
“Well, follow your instincts.”
Now, there’s a piece of advice that means what it means but also the complete opposite. Who was I to enlighten Julie as to what she should do? After replacing my phone in my coat pocket, I stood motionless and mute before the nose-ringed cashier.
“Croissant and coffee, comes to four fifty-eight . . . Ma’am?”
I could not tear my eyes from the brown paper bag containing my breakfast. The poignant nature of my situation had come clear in a blinding flash. I‘d spent the night with a man who hadn’t offered me a hot drink or a scrap of carbohydrate before I left in the morning.
The memory was playing itself over in my mind while Hélène, at the table, blew her nose and apologized; she didn’t know what had come over her. Probably fatigue. We urged her not to give it a second thought, and she went on to talk about her next TV role, with a tea towel soaked in ice water draped over her face. The tea towel was still there when a new volley of sobs shook her body and she finally came out with the real reason for her emotional outpouring. Hormones, she said, not fatigue. She was pregnant. Of course it was an accident. Benoît and Hélène had long since agreed they didn’t want a third child.
“I got my dates mixed up. We’d just come back from a premiere at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. I took the morning-after pill, but it didn’t work, how stupid is that?”
“And you’re keeping it?” asked Julie.
Hélène told us Benoît would prefer not to but she had a hard time agreeing. It would be as if she were obliterating a little future Theo or Bia.
“At the same time with Benoît’s career not taking off . . . It’ll be me in charge of everything again. And I’d just lost the last of my baby weight!”
“And you’d need a bigger apartment,” observed Dylane. “You just have two bedrooms. Would you sell your duplex?”
Hélène’s face fell. Clearly this detail hadn’t occurred to her.
“You could convert it into a small two-story,” Dylane suggested.
“The morning-after pill didn’t work?” I was dumbfounded. “I thought it always worked. I just took it last month.”
“You don’t use condoms with Sébastien?” asked Julie, aghast.
I reminded Julie that Sébastien, like me, had just come out of a long-term relationship. That didn’t mean anything, she objected. Had we had ourselves tested? Agreed to be exclusive? Serious? I waved away the questions with annoyance. After breaking up with Jean-Philippe, I’d met Sebastian at the university. We had friends in common. On our first date, we went to the museum. Then, because his courseload and thesis supposedly took up all his time, our rendezvous invariably took place between ten p.m. and eight a.m. Did this set the scene for something that might qualify as serious? I thought of the last time we’d seen each other, on the previous Sunday. Talk of the Town was just ending on TV when I received a text message: “The library’s shutting down, my brain too :). . .” That was all it took; I invited him over. Nadine was on vacation with her sister in Berlin so I had the condo to myself. I opened a bottle of red wine and we drank a glass before the late evening news. Years from now, I’ll still remember the puzzled look on the weatherman’s face as he announced freezing rain for the next morning, while behind me on the sofa, Sébastien struggled with his belt buckle and, sliding my yoga pants down my thighs, pressed his pelvis against mine. The sports report immediately followed. During a recap of the Nadal-Federer final of the Monte Carlo Masters, Sébastien stopped moving, forcing me to turn my head in his direction. I gave him an inquiring look. “My father is supposed to have tickets for the International this summer,” he apologized with a crooked smile, and picked up where he’d left off. “We have to be careful with my roommate’s sofa,” was all I said. I’d just turned off the TV with the remote when he seized my hips hard, panting. I don’t know why I continued to believe things between us could ever be more genteel. Was it because, unlike Jean-Philippe, who worked in the restaurant business, Sébastien was an academic? Was there a law stating that refinement of thought went along with refinement of manner and sentiment?
“Come on Florence,” Julie was saying, “I don’t have to tell you what kind of filth is going around.”
“I thought we were supposed to be talking about Hélène!” I retorted.
“That’s OK,” Hélène said. “I’m just ten weeks. I still have time to think it over.”
On the kitchen counter, Dylane’s cell phone sprung into life with a piercing melody that made us all jump. She stood and snapped it open, her eyes round as lottery balls.
“Number 3 just won his match in Detroit!” she yelped.
”Yes-ss-ss!” we chorused as Dylane writhed with pleasure, reading the rest of her text message. I thought again of our silky green jasmine plant and was no longer so sure that Dylane would neglect it. I often had to remind myself that behind her flippant manner, jerky barmaid gestures, and fake tan, Dylane was quite fragile. Hadn’t she suffered for years from panic and anxiety? I told myself she’d watch over our plant, just as the plant would watch over her, and I finished what was left of the wine in my glass. Outside, a yellow crescent moon loomed over the rooftops.
The projects Julie worked on were tantamount to state secrets. In the video game industry, spying was rampant and greatly feared, so her contracts all contained a confidentiality clause. She was tight-lipped about what exactly she did. Yet that evening, she told us she would soon be going to Conakry with some of her colleagues because her company wanted to create a game based on some of “the great African themes.”
“Diamond smuggling, the bush, the Ebola virus, hijackers, the coups d’état—all that kind of thing,” she said, and began chewing her cuticles.
It was a mystery to me how the world of video games could be less shallow than fashion. I wondered if Julie sometimes regretted not having tried her luck at modelling. Did she ever think about it? She was thirty-four so they’d probably have retired her by now, but who knows, in the meantime she might have earned hundreds of thousands of dollars. In magazines such as Vogue and Glamour, Julie often recognized Montreal models with whom she’d done casting sessions, back in the day. But to ask her about it was taboo, for it implied that she might have missed her calling. At our age this kind of conjecture was becoming a source of great alarm. Besides, no one asked me if I regretted abandoning my vague ambitions of being a novelist after receiving my first and only rejection slip.
As Julie described the hotel where she’d be staying—bamboo everywhere, a pool with panoramic sea views—I thought of my job. In just a few days I’d be swept into a tide of end-of-term grading. The university lecturers’ union was threatening to strike in the fall and I didn’t yet know whether I would vote for or against. My proposed paper for an international conference on Quebec literature in Bologna had been accepted, so I’d be going to Italy the following winter to discuss “The Aesthetics of Self-sacrifice in Michel Tremblay’s Belles-Soeurs.” The career I strived daily to build in academia was far from boring, but I was increasingly haunted by the question, “is that all there is?” Correcting student papers in red ballpoint, climbing the seniority ladder, defending ideas in foreign countries?
This train of thought was so oppressive that I was compelled, a moment later, to announce to my friends that I’d been named heir of my grandmother’s fur coat. That spring, my grandmother’s life was slipping out of her grasp and she was using her remaining clarity of mind to orchestrate the division of goods among her children and grandchildren. “She wants to leave the coat to you, and anyway she says it’s too small for any of your cousins,” my mother had informed me a little earlier on the phone. “Nice!” I replied.
“What kind of fur?” Julie inquired.
“Mink,” I managed to blurt before tears started coursing down my cheeks.
Julie put her arm around my shoulders.
“Come on, Flo, your grandma’s an old woman! Don’t be sad, it’s for the best, I’ve lost both my grandmothers . . .”
“It’s not that,” I wept.
I realized at that moment that we almost always talked about our families as if they lived in distant lands, places we came from too but whose population and climate were too difficult to describe. Still, I attempted to explain the legend of my grandmother’s fur coat, a gift she’d bought herself in the late sixties to celebrate her divorce from my grandfather.
“It’s like a symbol, you know? To glorify her life as a single woman.”
“That’s romantic,” said Hélène. “To get divorced in the sixties, she had to be a strong woman.”
I had a vision of my grandmother arriving at our house on Christmas Eve, when she was still driving her Honda. Her bony skull with its toffee-colored chignon emerged from a mass of black fur that covered her from neck to ankles. She might have been some kind of mythical animal, a squirrel’s head screwed onto the body of a bear. Clutched to her chest was a huge pot of stewed pig’s feet she’d made the day before and only needed heating up. She thrust the cauldron into my mother’s arms and returned to the car to retrieve the endless packages, bound in colored ribbon, for her delighted grandchildren. When exactly had my grandmother lost the ability to make her own way to our house, forcing my father or one of my uncles to go pick her up? When had she lost the energy to cook her traditional meals? Of those details I had no clear memory, but I did know she’d never stopped wearing her mink coat, the ultimate symbol of her independence, which had, that very evening, become my responsibility for life. I thought of my furniture, all dismantled—table legs, drawers and planks—the boxes of books and dishes stored in my brother’s basement in Brossard since my separation from Jean-Philippe. I wondered where I’d store my grandmother’s fur coat. In another cardboard box that I would take to my brother’s place the next time I went to see him? Then the penny dropped. Obviously, I was not going to be paying three-quarters of Nadine’s mortgage forever. Some time soon, I would have to face reality, starting by looking for an apartment where I would live alone with all my belongings, which now would include the detestable fur coat.
“A strong woman—sure!” I said. “She spent her entire existence complaining that my grandfather ruined her life. When we were little, she’d ask my brother and me to spill hot coffee on my grandfather’s girlfriends when he came to visit.”
“And you actually did it?”Dylane asked indignantly.
Didn’t every family have its witch?
“She gave us chocolate. Why do you think my girl cousins gorge themselves on fast food four times a week? It’s a poisoned legacy, don’t you see? I so do not want to end up alone. But it’s sure to happen now that this symbol’s been passed on to me. It’s like a curse.”
A groan of protest rose from the table. According to my friends, I was being completely irrational. Rubbing my back, Julie told me she knew a seamstress who revamped old fur coats and would re-style my grandmother’s mink however I wanted—crop it, shave it, chop off the sleeves and use the remnants for a hat or a stole. In short, there were a number of ways of hacking up this coat to erase all traces of its past.
“What about Sébastien?” Hélène ventured.
“Oh,him. It’s almost eleven and no sign of life. I know he’s tied up with grading and his thesis on the lost self-portraits of bloody old Rembrandt. Being busy has become the excuse of the century. Number 3’s busy too, he’s a goddam pro hockey player! That doesn’t stop him from calling Dylane!”
Julie rolled her eyes.
“Being nice is the least he can do, the guy’s married!”
“What’s your point?”
Julie avoided her eyes.
“You know very well. It was the same with my ex-boss.”
“I think Number 3’s more serious than Denis.”
“Don’t tell me he’s leaving his wife!” cried Hélène.
“I gave him an ultimatum,” Dylane announced. “He’s got two months to start divorce proceedings with his lawyer, or it’s over.”
Her eyes sparkled.
“And you believe him?” queried Julie.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“And me,” I harangued, “I’ll end up alone and bitter, an old literature prof in a granny’s fur coat!”
I began to weep in earnest and Hélène got up to re-soak the tea towel she’d been using earlier.
“Maybe the morning-after pill didn’t work for you either,” she teased, flattening the tea towel over my face.
The icy swath of cotton paralyzed me. Through the fibers, I saw Dylane pouring generous doses of Grand Marnier into our coffee and I heard her say that in real estate, the development of residential projects for the elderly was becoming a gold mine.
Moments later, I laid the tea towel on the table. Outside, the crescent moon had disappeared and the satellite dishes tore silver holes in the black sky.
”You know what Jean-Philippe used to say?” I said.
They shook their heads. I stifled a yawn and rubbed my eyes.
“He said we made a perfect club of little princesses who know nothing about life. He said that listening to us talk together, he found us completely trivial.”
“A club of little whats?” Everyone burst out laughing.
“What a shithead,” Julie sighed. “How did you put up with him for four years?”
That, I reminded her, was the mystery I’d been trying to elucidate for three months, to the tune of $100 an hour, with a shrink who sucked mint candies throughout our sessions. Julie said maybe she should see one too, to figure out what was going on with Vianey. She rose to go the bathroom. I cleared the table and put the rest of the choucroûte in the refrigerator. Hélène got up to call Benoît. Dylane lifted the fruit tart from the box with one hand while thumbing a number on her cell-phone with the other. In this choreography we’d danced a thousand times before, our spike heels clicked back and forth on the hardwood, but the people downstairs went to their cottage every weekend, so we weren’t bothering anyone.
Copyright: Translation of “Bienvenue au club.” Copyright Nadine Bismuth. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Alison Strayer. All rights reserved.