Translated by J.T. Townley
from Issue 22
Both of us refugees without a passport. Our coats salvaged from dumpsters. Trying to adapt. Casimir was taken in by a Jewish society looking for a tax write-off; me, by a group of old priests from Latin America. They gave him a TV and some black clothing, but all I got was an old mattress full of bugs. He talked about the synagogue, I talked about priests, both of us with a kind of skepticism, a bitter aftertaste in our mouths.
We met at the language school. A passing glance and the classic conversation about the weather: snow for seven months, icy winds that cut right through you.
“And it’s such a simple world here,” he said. “No one’s interested in anyone or anything but themselves so their lives won’t get too complicated.”
He was a tall blond with blue eyes and a hooked nose: a face for the silver screen, only with a little something else, something hard and attractive. I was short, thin, and pale, with black, curly hair. We made for a rather striking pair.
The metro was late.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
A cavalier stranger in a gray raincoat told me they were cleaning up blood.
It’s possible that everything began with that single, terrifying sentence, when we both realized at the same time that there’d been another suicide.
“Right, it’s February!” Casimir exclaimed.
Berri Station to Longueuil, then a bus full of Greeks, Arabs, Portuguese, and Pakistanis, the whole lot blue with cold. It was everyone’s dream! To be paid forty-five dollars a week to learn English. He was from Lodz, I was from Valparaiso. He’d left Poland because he was Jewish; for me, it was on account of the soldiers.
The teaching approach was simple but effective. The teacher said, “How are you?”, and one by one each of us—too tall, bearded, fat, and depressed for students—replied, “How are you?” The first day, I got dizzy after my hundredth “How are you?”, not even counting those spoken by others. Casimir gestured that it was making him crazy. I grinned. But, hey, it was worth five weeks’ rent!
We had a thirty minute break for lunch, far away from “How are you?” but deafened by the roar of vending and Coke machines in the huge cafeteria. We sat together amid the language school’s five thousand immigrant students. Everyone had their own little meal they brought from home, rice, shish kebabs, goulash, empanadas, pasta, or marzipan, wrapped in aluminum foil or packed in plastic bags. Neither of us had yet tasted the vending machine soup or the lighter fluid that passed for coffee.
“I think I have a fever,” I said.
“No, it’s just class,” he said. “It’s like they strip us of our power of reason, like it’s a tape they’re recording over.”
Why is it that a well-turned phrase spoken by an attractive person somehow seems more convincing? In another language, words seem to find their true meaning. We looked at each other like a pair of loners who’d finally found a friend. He asked me if I had any family. “My father and one sister,” I said. He was an only child, and his mother stayed back in Poland, all alone.
When lunch was over, an ear-splitting electric bell emptied the cafeteria. The trashcans overflowed with food scraps and napkins. The tables were covered with crumbs and ashes. And the afternoon went by just like the morning: “How are you?”
We’d go home on the same metro line. He lived near Waldman’s on rue Saint Laurent, a half a block from the Portuguese butcher who plucked live chickens right in front of his customers. That was where he got the chicken necks and feet for his Jewish barley soup. A supermarket, Les Quatre Frères, and a home goods store, Warshaw, were nearby, along with a cheese shop and all sorts of stores that sold foreign goods at bargain prices.
As for me, I lived on rue Van Horne, close to the post office, supermarket, pharmacy, bank, and bus stop. The neighborhood wasn’t so bad: that’s what I’d tell myself every now and then to boost my morale.
Casimir’s room was situated above a restaurant that served bagels and smoked meats. Mine was above a pizzeria, so the building was infested with roaches. When I’d go to the bathroom at night, I’d find them in the sink, in the tub, in every corner. Long, pale, golden roaches, not like the round, black Chilean ones.
“What about in Poland? Do you have a special variety?”
“Could be,” said Casimir.
He had so many in his kitchen it was scary. The exterminator who came by one day told him that every roach lays eighty eggs, which take twenty-eight days to grow into adults, which each lay eighty eggs, and so on. His landlord, himself a Polish Jew, was a fat man with greasy hair who cut corners on heating oil. But I was lucky, since I never froze like Casimir; in fact, most of the time I suffocated from the heat. I lived on the third floor, and, get this, there was even an elevator. It locked, and each floor had its own key. The landlady, a Greek dressmaker who wore a blonde wig, lived in the apartment right across from mine. Sometimes I would knock on her door and, annoyed, try to make her understand through gestures that one of her other tenants had forgotten to close the gate to the goddamn elevator, so I’d paid the price: a hundred and thirty-two stairs. Something else strange about that elevator: every Monday, some resident with nothing better to do would draw a gigantic penis in colored chalk on it, and every Monday night, when the Greek’s son discovered the drawing, he banged and kicked on our doors, drunk and furious, demanding to know who was to blame.
“It’s not so easy to sleep, Casimir!”
From Berri to Longueuil, Longueuil to Laprairie. Every day. I sat next to Casimir during every class. As for the other students? There was a Bulgarian dancer who slipped into the country on a flight layover in Gander; Mahmala, a contemptuous Lebanese industrialist; three Haitians who escaped Duvalier’s dictatorship; a Greek laborer; a quiet young Portuguese woman who worked nights; Carlos, a Columbian elementary school teacher; and our teacher, a tall, polite Indian, who seemed dyed-in-the-wool British, only with brown skin. Eleven of us in all, sitting together in an overheated classroom, the horizon beyond the windows white with snow. The two of us right next to each other. I’d look at him, or he’d look at me. He sighed often and impatiently, raising his eyes to the ceiling.
On Mondays, we almost always began with, “What did you do over the weekend?” That’s how, in very limited English, we learned that Mahmala’s wife bathed him every day, that Nikolas, the Greek, was a night watchman for Canadian Railroad, that the Portuguese woman’s name was Ilda and she lived with her mother and seven sisters, that the Colombian man came here with his family and his maid to earn enough money to buy a house. As for me, I never said much, and Casimir revealed that he was the only Jew who ate smoked herring all week long.
I forgot to mention Félix, a former priest from Spain, the latecomer to class. He wanted to make up for his years of abstinence at all costs. He’d use any pretext to talk to girls, though apparently without any positive results. But that didn’t bother him; he’d just laugh to himself and stare off into space, imagining what he would never experience.
During the breaks, we exchanged news. There was almost always something happening in one of our countries: deaths, military coup d’états, armed skirmishes, a new economic crisis, or some more exotic calamity such as an earthquake, a flood, a hurricane, or a drought.
At midday, Casimir and I liked to take walks outside. He told me it was colder in Montreal than Siberia. I’d never even seen snow before, and I wasn’t yet used to seeing icicles in the mustaches of men who had colds. But he knew about cold weather from Poland’s bitter winters. He showed me how to wear my scarf, warm hat, and gloves, and he explained that you should never press your nose against windows because it could get stuck there, so you’d be left with nothing but a couple of holes for nostrils, like some kind of skeleton. Casimir maintained that anesthesia and freezing were the same thing: you felt absolutely nothing as the cartilage hardened and fell off, sinking silently into the snow. It was all new to me, so I walked carefully on the slippery sidewalks, especially wearing such a heavy coat and big boots. He assured me that they’d thought of everything here. If someone slipped and broke a leg, he could go after the city for not having executed its functions in a timely fashion. I found that ever so comforting. Some people received pensions from the government; one day they were fine, the next they were disabled for the rest of their lives. The snowplow trucks worked night and day, taking out a pedestrian every now and then.
“You have to be really careful with children,” Casimir emphasized.
The other students didn’t interest me very much. They were timid and withdrawn, meekly repeating anything. Their weekend activities weren’t too thrilling either: shopping, laundry, cooking, TV (for those who had one). Nor were their descriptions of their apartments, the nearby parks, the stores where they did their shopping, and the buses they took to class.
We would wolf down our sandwiches (always egg) we brought from home, then we would go skating for the little time that remained. I bought a pair of used skates for fifty cents from a Jewish cobbler on rue Saint Laurent, whose address Casimir had given me. He’d been a skating champion on the lakes of Poland, while I could barely stay upright. He would take my arm to steady me, and sometimes his hand would linger a bit, and he would gaze at me with his blue eyes, white steam billowing from his mouth. We didn’t speak. The silence was comfortable, almost familiar. Sometimes he would adjust my scarf, and I’d let him. I longed for such small, ordinary gestures. Without a word, I’d gaze at him, so handsome, as if something were quietly happening between us.
After class, the metro. We’d have coffee in a restaurant in one of the stations. He’d tell me a thousand different ways to save money. Buying bruised vegetables and fish past its prime and old cheese. Rummaging through grocery stores’ trash barrels. Tapping into the city lines for free electricity (since the Jewish society also provided him with a stove). We said goodbye with a kiss on each cheek. He would hold me a little longer than necessary, but not so long that anyone else noticed.
In retrospect, I think education had something to do with why we became close. He’d studied economics, I’d studied social sciences. We were the scholars of the class, the ones who spoke the best English. It was the language of work and success, the language of opportunity that everyone had come looking for. Lots of our classmates used us to practice and improve the little they actually knew, which gave us a kind of prestige in a school full of immigrants.
Sometimes our class texts began with “Give me a chance” or “Try me out”—to help stimulate our plans for the future, I suppose. We were also asked to write dialogues. Since we were grouped by ability, I was always with Casimir, and we entertained ourselves by writing plays. He liked Strindberg, I liked Ibsen. He talked about Grotowski, I talked about Polanski. He even looked a little like Polanski! I’m not sure just how, but there was a resemblance. One of our last projects was a parody of Romeo and Juliet. We rehearsed it in a café. When it was time to leave, he kissed me on the mouth. I could have easily avoided it if I’d seen it coming, but it took me completely by surprise. Him, too. That night, he called and tried to explain what happened. He sounded like a little boy on his best behavior; I slept peacefully.
From one class to the next, one break to the next, one glance to the next, the course was wrapping up. Our teacher, who was still so enthusiastic about life in Canada, had us watch films about a lumberjack’s life, a tractor driver’s daily routine, a snowplow driver’s weekend—a whole series of optimistic films about the joys of productive labor. He also taught us songs like “Jingle Bells” that we all sang together, out of tune and in different accents, smiles on our faces. But most importantly, he taught us to speak on the telephone and fill out employment applications, since work was what we came here for in the first place. Our brows furrowed and faces creased.
During our break, Casimir asked, “Can we leave together today, Marcia?”
“Sure,” I said.
We took the bus from school to Longueuil station. As we walked past the shops and the lottery kiosk, I took out a metro ticket.
“No, no, let me pay!”
But we didn’t go any further, stopping right there, waiting, watching people as they passed through the turnstiles. Then, suddenly, he cried:
The machine had rejected two tickets.
“I always have to wait, but I always ride for free!”
All his talk of pinching pennies, a few here, a few more there, annoyed me. It was Jewish through and through.
Down in the metro, he invited me over to his place.
“I’ve wanted to ask you over for a long time. I’ve made some excellent soup. You’ll see. Past-prime is my specialty!”
I hesitated for a moment, then I began to laugh. The first invitation I’d received since moving to this city, and I was going to refuse?
His place was very small, just one room. He shared the bathroom with his landlord. We ate soup and smoked herring. Fresh or not, it wasn’t bad. We drank some wine, and I felt a little tipsy. The room was white and empty, without any decorations, not even a chair, so we sat on the edge of the bed. He asked me to tell him about the coup d’état. He couldn’t understand what had happened. A model country! One of a kind! I responded with my usual litany: imperialism, the multinationals, etc. A small, poor country cannot determine its own fate. He told me about Poland, occupied, divided, and dismembered over the centuries. It was even wiped off the map at one point. I listened as he attacked me, saying socialism was a struggle for day-to-day paranoia and the power of bureaucrats. I’d had it up to here with discussions like this. When I didn’t respond, he added:
“On one hand, there are the multinationals, but on the other … You basically made all of our mistakes over again.”
Then he stopped, stepped over to me, and kissed my hand for a long moment.
“It’s been months since I’ve had anyone close to me. Why don’t you lie back and relax?”
Frightened, I moved away.
“Why shouldn’t we allow ourselves a moment of tenderness?” he said, eyes clear and beautiful. He laid his head on my shoulder.
“It’s snowing,” I said.
Taking my head in his hands, he slowly said, “You are so beautiful.”
I said nothing. I gave myself over to the moment: outside there was snow and icy wind, while we were huddled here on the edge of the bed in the warmth—though for different reasons. I would have fled, but we fell into an endless embrace of despair and loneliness. I was shaking.
“What’s the matter?” asked Casimir, running his fingers through my hair.
I was crying softly.
“Come now, don’t cry,” he said.
He almost convinced me, but I was infinitely sad. I tried to stop, mumbling, “Casimir, I just can’t…”
He turned off the light. Little by little, we got undressed and awkwardly embraced. Then, all of a sudden, I was beside myself, telling him about my arrest.
“I was in a police station. Two men held me down while the other hit me.”
He turned the light back on. Through my tears, I saw the scars on his naked body, on his shoulder and arm. He discovered the ones on my chest and back.
He pointed at the burn marks on one of my breasts. “Those, as well?”
I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to say or remember anything else about it. When I looked at him again, his expression was solemn. Hard and tragic. His blond hair was a mess.
“I’m going to tell you a secret,” he said in a low voice, as if he feared being overheard. “I’m not Jewish.” He played with my fingers and continued whispering. “I had to learn Yiddish and go to synagogue. I did this”—he showed me his arm—“trying to escape from prison. I’d been trying to get out of Poland for years. I finally found an organization that helped Jews get out. I spent seven years substantiating lies, telling them I was the son of a Jewish lover my mother had had during the Nazi occupation. I walked around with a cyanide tablet on me, just in case…”
He grew melancholy. So did I. He frowned, and his big eyes narrowed. He took my hand nervously in his own. Ran a finger over my face, weakly, timidly. Kissed me on the cheek. We embraced again, searching each other’s body for traces of violence and pain.
He turned off the lights, and the darkness chased us under the sheets. We cried as we kissed, both of us alone with our own pasts and futures. We fell asleep in bed next to each other, all alone in the same trap.
The next day was Saturday. We got up early. Casimir made coffee and, in his usual voice, said:
“What do you plan to do next week? The class will be over. How will you pay your rent?”
“I don’t know. I’ll get a job at the factory or in a restaurant.”
“You’re young and beautiful. Give socialism a rest already! I know some industrialists in their fifties who’d just love to marry you. Westmount is a nice neighborhood. Lots of money, Cadillacs, big houses. Money can’t buy happiness, but it certainly helps. Come to synagogue today, and I’ll introduce you to some of them.”
I was smiling, but it was more of a pained grimace. “You’re crazy!”
“Crazy? I’ve had enough of waiting, being poor, hanging out with ordinary nobodies. I want money. And I’ll get it, no matter what!”
I noticed he was getting excited.
“I’m going to Toronto. There’s no future here, the political situation is too unstable. Québec is trouble waiting to happen.”
He went to the bed and pulled out a shoebox hidden underneath. He showed me what was inside: the photo of a hideously ugly woman. He waited to see my reaction, then said:
“I’m getting married! Her father owns a factory.”
I was stunned.
“But you’ve never said anything about it!”
“It happened through the synagogue.” He offered me a cup of coffee. “You know, I’d like to believe in romanticism, but it’s dead, once and for all.”
I didn’t want any coffee. I put on my coat, boots, scarf, and warm hat.
“Are we going skating on Monday?” he asked in his Yiddish accent, full of enthusiasm, smiling cinematically.
I nodded yes. In the doorway, there were fat, golden roaches like the ones I had. They were all we had in common. It was snowing. Exhaust from buses dirtied the sidewalks, staining the snow brown or gray. People hunched over in the icy wind.
Monday, Casimir didn’t come to school. I phoned him. No response.
The class ended.
A month later, I received a postcard from Toronto:
Married and a manager.
When I get my citizenship, I’ll change my name again, since people here are anti-Semitic. Casimir Davis, or maybe even Henry Davis. I’ll soon be able to visit my mother in Poland, and one of these days, I’m going to do business on Wall Street.
HOW ARE YOU?
There was no return address.
Marilú Mallet was born in Santiago, Chile in 1944. She immigrated to Québec in 1973 and earned an M.A. in Art History and a Ph.D. in French from the Université de Montréal. She has published two collections of short fiction, Les compagnons de l’horloge pointeuse, and Miami Trip, as well as nonfiction in numerous magazines. Co-founder of the production company Les Films de L’Atalante, she has also directed several award-winning feature films and documentaries.
J.T. Townley has published fiction, translations, and essays in Collier’s, Harvard Review, The Istanbul Review, The Threepenny Review and other magazines and journals. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, an MPhil in English from Oxford University and he teaches at the University of Virginia.