One of Them

The only thing one needs to know before doing something big is whether one is ready to die for it or not.

Not that Julie is about to die or to do anything big.  All she’s done for now is take small sips of the coffee this man has prepared for her. She listens while he speaks. She doesn’t know yet whether she can like this man or not; she doesn’t know whether coming up to his apartment was a mistake or not.  All she knows is that he likes his coffee dark and strong, stronger than any coffee she’s tasted before.

Got any milk?

No, the man said, no milk, sorry. He moves from the kitchen counter toward his coat, which hangs off a stool.

I can go and get you some if you want.

No, no, Julie says. She takes another small sip, winces, and smiles.

It should have been a little scary, terrifying, even, going into this man’s apartment, a man she’d just met, a man twice her age, a man who once did something big, years ago, some kind of terrorist act that involved kidnapping and murdering a political figure; a man who was caught, judged, and went to jail for it.

He just wrote a book about it all, but she hasn’t read it yet.

But she isn’t afraid. She believes she can recognize a violent man when she sees one, because she grew up surrounded by angry, violent men. She feels reassured by this man’s gentle voice, the concern in his eyes, the softness of his smile.

Nothing has happened with this man yet. Nothing may happen. Her own agenda is unclear; his, unknown.

But even before coming up to his apartment, the idea of meeting him again had already changed her. She began to notice things more now, simple things like the way older people in the bus hung on to their groceries bags even when nobody sat next to them; or the white ring that salt, mixed with melted snow, left at the tip of her new leather boots; or how she always knew, before people like bus drivers even spoke to her, whether they were English-speakers or French-speakers. She noticed that bus drivers were always French-speakers.

It had been a week since she and the man had made this plan: She would meet him at lunchtime on Friday, after her math and French classes, before art and history. They would go to the diner on the other side of the highway and have coffee. She took the bus. He was waiting for her at the bus stop when she arrived. He wore a hat even though it was a mild winter day. He reminded her of a nerd disguised as a hippie for one of those cheesy school-sponsored theme parties, the kind of guy who tries to look cool but never does. You could feel it, some kind of innate eagerness barely hidden under false layers of aloofness. Just a bit taller than her, blondish beard cropped close to his skin; his hair, medium length, wavy with bangs pushed to one side; a pair of aviator glasses, gold-rimmed; a beige leather jacket with white fake fur on the collar. And of course, that hat—a knitted, close-fitting wool hat, the ultimate in uncoolness, even (or especially?) in a town as cold as Montreal.

He smiled at her and lifted his hand in a slow wave as she got off the bus. She found him more handsome than she remembered. They walked a few blocks, straining to hear each other over the highway’s noise. He asked her a few questions. She answered each without expanding on any. As they were waiting for the light to change before crossing to reach the northeast corner where the diner was, he said he had coffee at home, which was right there, down the block.

Wanna come up?

Why not? They had already talked enough to make her feel that nothing terrible was going to happen. She is sixteen and trusts her instincts. Of course she would have never been able to explain this to anyone, and for that reason, among many others, she hasn’t told anyone about meeting him.

Okay, she’d said.

And this is how she is here now, sitting next to him on his bed because the only other furniture in the flat is a desk and one chair. The sun is hitting the hardwood floor in sharp angles. There is one radiator hissing loudly. So this is how it works: A man invites you for coffee, you think, why not, and next thing you know you are sitting at the edge of a bed, his bed, talking about what is worth dying for and what isn’t.

People ask me, was it worth it? It depends, the man is saying. It depends whether what you believe in is worth dying for or not.

He is talking; she is listening. All she really knows about him is what she read from the blurb at the back of his book: He was one of those terrorists who kidnapped and killed the Vice-Premier of Quebec during the October Crisis. But that was all in the past, old stuff no one takes seriously anymore, stuff like this ideological battle he is talking about now, how the French-speakers have been colonized by the English, how the Catholic church has been used to keep them in their place, and how everyone has been corrupted by the power of people with big money. (He always uses the English words for that, never the French ones: “big money,” “cheap labor,” “bosses.”)  And this is how it happened, how it bubbled up, this whole crisis that blew up one late October in 1970, which might as well have been a million years ago, with makeshift bombs exploding in wealthy neighborhoods and how he, just twenty years old, a member of the South Shore gang, ended up with that kidnapped Vice-Premier in his aunt’s suburban living room, and when the Canadian government declared martial law (Martial law! Can you imagine, he asks her, sending the Canadian army, into the streets of Montreal!), well they, he and his three cell members, did the only thing they could do.

He talks and talks; she stays silent, doesn’t nod, doesn’t smile, doesn’t say what she thinks, which is that she can’t imagine, no, that it is impossible for her to envision what it would take to become so serious about something like language. French. English. Words. Really?

Still, this is certainly something different, something that has never happened to any of her girlfriends at school; something she won’t talk about, not right away, but it won’t matter, because the experience itself will hang around her like an aura, and people will know.

He stops speaking, looks at her sheepishly, and says, I am speaking too much, sorry. I’ve been lonely for too long.

This confession surprises and rattles Julie, and she feels she must say something, make amends somehow.

It’s just that I didn’t have a chance to read your book yet, she says. But I have it with me, she says. She takes his book out of her school bag.

He smiles and says, it’s okay, people your age don’t care about all this.

He moves his hand flat on the bed behind her back, not touching it, not touching her, his own torso leaning slightly closer.

Julie may not know much about armed revolution and terrorist tactics or even the history of oppression her own people have endured, but she knows that when a man you barely know gets closer to you, it is up to you to move back, to keep your distance, lest you give the wrong signal, send the wrong message.

She doesn’t move.

 *

They met two weeks ago, at the Francophone Book Fair that takes place every year in downtown Montreal. Her friend Sandrine had mentioned that her uncle, who runs a small publishing company, was looking for someone to mind the booth in the evening. Julie, whose father’s disappearance just a year before had left her mother scrambling to support Julie and her siblings, had jumped at the opportunity: six dollars an hour, four hours a night for ten consecutive days.  She took a bus and then the subway downtown every day after school; the uncle drove her back late at night.

Most evenings she was left alone at the booth while the uncle went around the convention center to network. The man’s booth was right across hers. He, too, was alone on most nights. His booth wasn’t really a booth, just one long table, and on that table, piles of his book, a small yellowish paperback. He sat behind that table for five days before she even noticed him, or his booth. There was something different about that day too. Day one, day two, day three, day four, the same; then, on day five, she had felt it, his gaze hovering like a knife over her neck. So she’d looked up and seen him. At the end of her shift, she’d crossed the aisle, picked a copy of his book and looked inside. He watched her as she read the little blurb about him: his life, his arrest, conviction, jail time, and now, parole.

He told her she looked familiar. She laughed.

I’m too young, she said. Was barely born when all of this—this, she shrugged as she pointed the pile of books on the table—happened. He smiled and asked her how old she was. She lied and answered eighteen.

Would you like me to sign a book for you?

Oh no, she said, I have to go back to work. She looked back at her own booth, but no one was there. Still, she quickly put the book back on the table.

I don’t have the money, she said.

He took a book, opened it, picked up his pen.

If you want one, I’ll give it to you.

Sure, thanks, she said. She was trying to convey indifference with her attitude, but inside she was excited about getting the book signed by the author himself. She might even read it.

She stared at him while he applied himself to writing something on the first page of the book. His hair was thin and looked soft, almost like a baby’s. His hands too, delicate, beautiful, not the hands of a madman or nutcase.

In the book, he wrote: You know nothing of snow until you’ve lived under the bark of frost.

And then he had asked her if she would meet him for coffee.

*

He gets up, searches through the pockets of his coat, comes back with a pouch of tobacco and rolling papers.

You see, he tells her now, carefully laying tobacco and the paper on a magazine, things were different back then. Back then. Back then, he keeps saying those words, back then in my time. He is trying to take her back then in time, but it is so hard for her to imagine it, his time, back then, some, what, thirteen, fourteen years ago!

His time: cafés bursting with young people like her, everywhere and at all times, like in early spring, when winter’s grayness has finally lifted, when the banks of black snow lining the curbs has melted away. People’s bodies opening up, defenses dissolving, skins touching each other by chance—except that this time, in his time, it felt as if winter would never come back, as if spring was eternal. Even the smoke rising from the polluting stacks on the South Shore seemed lighter, purer. Hope floating about like colorful balloons against the blue sky. Ideological discussions spreading around like fresh gossip. Under the political clamors and cultural ferment, it seemed as if each individual was establishing a secret but exciting connection with the world. One could almost hear it, the little people and the whole wide world, whispering like two new lovers.

He smokes, and she wants to smoke too. Just as she is about to ask him to roll a cigarette for her, he stops talking abruptly, gets up again, picks up something from his table, comes back to the bed with an envelope in his hands.

I feel so ancient, he says. Look at me, a thirty-two-year-old man, talking about the old days. He rolls his eyes.  You must think I’m boring, he says.

It’s fine, she says. But now she knows his age. She thought he was younger.

Here, look, he says.

He shows her a picture: him back then, some twelve years ago, standing in front of a lake, summertime, hands on hips, smiling. In black and white, he looks really handsome. Tanned, trim, already bearded, but with longer hair. More hair. Yes, a handsome young man: She would have definitely liked him, if she too had lived back then. Another picture: him with other young men, their wrists raised in the air, the big blue and white nationalist flag with the four fleur-de-lys in the background.

She is interested in those pictures more than his words. Sensing this, he shows her more pictures, his left hand holding one after the other, his body leaning on his right arm, his right hand right behind her buttocks. Her long thick hair falls down like a curtain over her face.  Through the curtain, she stares at each picture intently, as if she were an investigator looking for some clue in a crime scene.

He kisses her through her hair, little kisses aiming for her cheekbone. She likes the way he smells. Clean, neutral. The beard is soft. She turns her head, lets his lips find hers. I’m kissing an old guy, she thinks to herself. Interesting, although not exciting, not exactly. A tang of tobacco and black coffee, something unidentified that tastes sweet. She holds on to the image in her head, that first black and white picture of a young man just a few years older than her. She gets into the kiss, kisses back. She reminds herself: This man is a writer. In his time (back then!) a revolutionary fighter. Now, some kind of historical figure, whose hands, hands that once murdered someone, some politician, some minister, are gently, but confidently reaching under her sweater, lifting it up.

But she pushes him away, and he doesn’t insist, not yet, not at that moment. She looks away. She doesn’t know what she wants from him, but she is afraid of what he wants from her. Sex, of course. Does she want to have sex with him?  She has no idea, partly, well, mainly, because she is still a virgin. She isn’t even sure what it really means, to have sex. It is still abstract, almost as abstract as his political talk about something that happened fifteen years ago.

They are lying on the bed on top of the blankets, with their clothes on. He puts his arm around her waist. Under his glasses, his eyes are closed. It seems that he has fallen asleep. She turns away from him and looks outside the window of the small studio apartment. It is snowing lightly. Out there, across the parkway, is the only world she knows, and in that instant, she hates it for being so small, so limited, so easily known. She can hear the traffic from the highway that cut the neighborhood in half. She imagines, up a few bus stops, her high school building, where all the good girls like her, bright young girls like her, are all dressed in the same uniform of quilted skirt and off-white shirt and forest green blazer with matching socks. They, unlike her, are now heading back to their afternoon classes, walking up the long and narrow tree-lined slope that leads to the main building, austere under the dark and low hanging branches, its massive stone entrance thickened from age, its walls layered with centuries of cold and wetness, of humidity and heat, of shadows and light and anything alive that has ever brushed its surface.

What a difference it makes, to be here on a bed with a man twice her age, and not there.

If she were among them, this is what she would do: She and her girlfriends (her gang, the cool ones; a self-selected club that excluded hippies, preppies, or nerds) would change their clothes, as they always do before and after leaving the school. As a general rule, she and her friends wear black at all times, black being the anti-color protecting them from the angst-inducing colors of the early 80s—that royal blue, that oversaturated eggplant, neither mauve nor burgundy; and that awful, awful forest green. As a general rule, these friends stick together and deride everything and anybody they encounter that isn’t, well, one of them.

She likes to think that she is one of them. She works at being one of them. But is she?  She wouldn’t think of telling them about the fact that her father has disappeared, about her mother’s financial struggles, about the fact that the only reason why she is still in that same school is because her mother went to the school’s director, Mother Superior herself, and asked her for free tuition, which she received, allowing Julie to stay on as the school’s sole charity case.

And now, there is this, whatever this is, a date, the beginning of an affair? With this man, of all people. She can’t even imagine bringing it up with any of her friends. Weird, she can hear them scream already, weird! You’re so weird! Not the fact that he is older: There are a few, not many, but a few other girls who have older boyfriends, affairs going on with men almost twice their age. Not that it is something you go around school telling everyone about. More like something you tell on a late night, in one of those intoxicated tell-all sessions with one or two of your closest friends. But this, she can’t imagine telling anyone. An apartment in a building overlooking the highway. This guy, this man, who can’t stop speaking of politics, injustice, oppression, independence. This man who’d been convicted of terrorism, kidnapping, murder, and had spent years in jail.

She looks around her: an apartment that belongs to an adult who isn’t a relative. A bed, a coffee table, an armchair in one corner, a television set in the other. Books just about everywhere. A place like she might move into in a couple of years. She has just jumped into the future, her own future now coming into focus, taking the shape of a small, simple apartment like this one, nothing fancy, just an adult’s place.

He moves, turns around, puts a hand on her belly. He looks at her but she looks away. She is afraid he will want more from her right now. So she asks him:

Tell me about those thirty-six hours you spent with the Vice-Premier before killing him.

 *

I can’t say, this is me, I did that. I can’t. It still feels like it happened to someone else, like it wasn’t me, but someone else.

He turns to face her. She is lying on the bed; he is standing and walking around the apartment.

You had to be there to really understand. Now, I know that the whole thing seems rather hard to believe. We didn’t want to kill the Vice-Premier, not at all. We kidnapped him. When you want to kill someone, you just kill him, shoot him or something, I don’t know. We never hurt anyone before, not even during our bank robberies. What we really wanted was—

He stops.  He sits next to her on the bed. Her stomach grumbles loudly, and she laughs nervously.

You’re hungry.

In a second he is in the kitchenette, opening the fridge’s door and peering in: a few cans of beer, a forgotten piece of hard cheese, that orange baking soda box on the bottom shelf.

I’m going to order in.  Do you like Chinese food?

It’s my favorite, she says.

They eat Chinese take-out on the bed, picnic style: crispy egg rolls, chicken balls in that bright orange-red sweet and sour sauce, slippery lo mein noodles, baby spare ribs smothered in a thick, dark brown sauce. She eats like a ravished animal. He eats slowly, chewing with his eyes closed, then staring at her, watching her eat before picking up the next bite.

We took good care of the Vice-Premier, you know, while we waited, he says.  Made sure he was comfortable. Even ordered some food in once, when we ran out of spaghetti. We asked him what he’d like and he said BBQ chicken. We were all so starved that when the delivery guy arrived, we didn’t even care if we got caught.

She swallows her last bite, nods. It seems obvious to her that the man facing her would do such a thing, be considerate to his prisoner. Like he’d been considerate to her, not forcing himself upon her, being gentle, not insisting on having sex, not right away.

Once they are done eating, he piles up the emptied Styrofoam containers and takes the whole mess to the kitchen area and dumps it in a garbage can under the sink.

I should get going, she says.

After a pause, he says, OK, I will walk you back to the bus.

But instead of getting up, she pulls the magazine with the tobacco and rolling papers toward her and begins rolling a cigarette.

He looks at her, silent. He sees her book, his book on the floor, picks it up, places it on top of her schoolbag.

She brings the cigarette to her mouth but it is too loose; tobacco falls out, the paper burns too quickly.

Here, he says, let me show you.

As he rolls, he begins another story. It’s about the history of our people, he says, centuries of it, before even he was born. There are a few facts she already knew about, if only vaguely, things she learned just last year in her National History class. There was a battle at that place called the Plains of Abraham, which the French lost, ceding the territory to the British. Soon after, there were those other rebels, soon to be Americans, fighting for independence in the south against the British. They came up north to stir trouble and gather more support, which could have changed a lot of things if it had worked, but it didn’t. Then, those who eventually lost the battle in the south, the former British loyalists, came north to establish themselves among the former French colonists. Then, still later, maybe a century or so later, there were those first guys, the French-speaking ones, who named themselves the Patriots and who led their own rebellion and tried to get rid of the British, but that also didn’t work.

Okay, bummer of a national history, if you’d ask her! Terribly unlucky. Maybe unfair, even. But wasn’t it the same everywhere? The same story repeating itself over and over, painted with different hues or colors on a slightly altered canvas—a bit tighter here, a bit looser there—but in the end, if you look close, what you’ve got is a frame, four right angles, with a mess of reds and blues and greens and blacks and a bunch of uneven lines and strokes, and some empty spaces too, where the brush should have been but wasn’t, and instead of a country, you have a  blank, ill-defined, barely noticeable. At the end of the day, it’s not like things were better elsewhere, in Africa, in India. And what about the USSR?

In the end, though, all she says is this: It is so hard to believe, that there could ever be a revolution right here, in Quebec. Elsewhere, yes. But here? I don’t know.

He squints back at her, as if trying to read her mind.

To want a country, when you have none, is always a revolutionary act. There is no way around it.

She stares at the cigarette he is smoking, the cigarette that was meant for her, a tiny rolled-up one. She inhales the smell of the pungent and musky dark tobacco. She hears him ask:

Don’t you want to live in your own country?

Now that the question has been asked, she realizes that for as long as she can remember, she has known that she would live elsewhere.

I don’t know, she says. Maybe not.

Really? And where would you go?

She shrugs. New York, or France. I don’t know.

I see, he says.

She stares as the smoke comes out of his mouth, shape-shifting in the afternoon light before melting off in the dry, overheated air; white fog, gray clouds, and then a dubious, purple haze.

It feels good but embarrassing too, to have said it, something she may want, something different.

Hey, she says, give me a puff of that. He hands her the cigarette. She keeps it.

Do you speak English?

Yes, she says, which is not true, her English being bad, terrible in fact, much poorer than her classmates’, who have grown up in the English-speaking neighborhood where the school is, but where Julie and her family moved just last year, after her father’s disappearance.

A bilingual girl, he says. He shakes his head, gets up and goes behind the kitchen counter to make a fresh pot of coffee from his drip machine. She lies back on the bed, carefully taking puffs from the cigarette, listening to the sound of coffee percolating. She can’t tell how long it has been since she’s been in this man’s apartment. The day seems to stretch like a dream, no beginning or end, just a muddy, unclear middle. The usual markers of her day are unavailable in this unknown and new space, but she did try to keep track anyway: first period, math, long gone; second period, French, just before lunch. Then lunch: she imagines her friends lining up at the cafeteria, trays in hand, their chatter louder than the sound of utensils and glasses and metal plates; then the line breaking into small groups, well-defined tribes who head back to their respective tables, solidly demarked territories, a stately as any country.

This is the big battle of her generation, the war over coolness. Her tribe: the punk girls from the neighborhood, the artsy style. At her table: girls with black or purple or bleached hair, girls like her who, in the morning, wore their ripped jeans and torn checkered tweed jackets and long scarves and funky men’s hats all the way to the locker room. The rebels among the good girls who wore their uniform to school: like black crows among white sheep, except that at the end everyone comes out alive, pinky cheeks, bright future looming with husbands from good families, healthy kids, and a house in the suburb.

Not exactly the kind of stuff he was fighting for back then, in his time. Not what you think of when you talk about a revolution.

Then she hears the sound of young school children shouting as they come off a bus and she realizes that it is actually much later than she thought, three in the afternoon already, lunch break long over, and she has now officially skipped an entire day at school. Wednesday’s fourth period class just about to end, with Sister Justine, her short, curly white hair and her ancient thick, black square glasses and her long hands extolling nature’s colors, feverishly trying to open her students’ eyes to their beauty—look at these trees outside, the deep burnt orange in the trunks, the lavender mixed in the gray of the bare branches, and the tiny, tiny buds, the variety of their whites and yellows, sprouting dots from an infinite spectrum already shaping the full potentiality of greens to come once spring is finally here!

The students would be staring at Sister Justine while she talked, her pale, skinny fingers flapping by her head like moths around a light bulb; then, bending their heads in front of the blank paper before them, they would draw thick-skinned trees with brown trunks and dark green leaves.

They just couldn’t help it.

She is surprised to find that she wishes she hadn’t missed her Art class.  She is Sister Justine’s favorite, and wonders if her absence has been noticed.

He comes back with the coffee, pours her another cup.

I know what will happen to you, he says.

What?

You will become one of those who leave and never come back. You will become one of those who speak French with a French accent, or worse, you’ll become an American. Your children will speak English, and everything we did—

He shakes his head, makes a gesture with his hands that means: It will be all over; it is already over.

The way he does that scares her, because she understands that it is true, and that he already hates her for it.

*

Yes, in the end, they had to kill him, the Vice-Premier. Once the manifesto they wrote was read live on the radio, once the Canadian government declared martial law and sent in the army, once they heard that another cell on the North Shore had surrendered, it became obvious that they would get nothing in exchange for releasing him except, perhaps, a flight to Cuba as political exiles. Exile, or jail, these were the only options. But you see, in the end it was a matter of life and death, not just for them, not just for the Vice-Premier, but for an entire people.  He—the Vice-Premier—was a good man. He was a family man. He pleaded with them. He believed they would do the right thing. He believed the government would do the right thing. When it became clear that the government wouldn’t negotiate, he, the Vice-Premier, lost it. He threw himself, still blindfolded at the window. But he didn’t make it through. The window was narrow, too narrow for an adult body to go through. All he did was cut his forehead on the broken glass. He could have taken off the blindfold. He had already managed to untie his wrists. But he didn’t even try. Bloodied, he sat on the floor in the middle of their living room, his eyes closed, his head hanging low against his chest.

He was already dead inside.

Claude, Francis, Joseph, they didn’t want to do it, but they did it anyway. It was never courage; it was about will.

It was about being ready to die for what you believe in.

Only he, Emile, wasn’t ready for it. Once the body was disposed of, it was Emile’s turn to lose it. He fell to his knees in the middle of the living room and cried like a baby.

That’s what his book was about.

 *

They are naked under the thin blanket, lying side by side on their backs, staring at the ceiling.

And so this will be the story she will tell later: They didn’t have sex, not really, that time she went up with him to his flat. That’s what she would say in a few years to her girlfriends when asked when was her first time. Was he your first? Not really. It depends what you mean by having sex. She was about to leave, and they kissed again, and then he guided her back to the bed. He undressed her. She didn’t help him, didn’t resist; she let him do it. They had lain naked in bed for what seemed like an eternity, her body as light as a sheet of silk paper, his as solid as a rock—paper, rock, she’d thought she was the winner, but who was holding the scissors?

Then he had kissed her, on the lips, on her breasts, her stomach, and the whole time she watched herself from above, as if she was having one of those near-death experiences they talked about in magazines. She was floating above her body, and she watched as he kissed her down her belly, then licking with his tongue, reaching down lower, and continuing, his tongue striking her, non-stop for, what, at least ten minutes if not more and the whole time she was watching from above, knowing that this was a big moment for sure but not able to feel anything, not really; not really, like she’d said later.

He stopped and asked her if she enjoyed it. She said she didn’t mind, it was okay, she said.

Oh huh, he’d said, and he said he was sorry, and he truly looked sorry, even though she kept saying it was okay. And she meant it too. What was there to be sorry about, when she was the one who had no idea how to react, not even in the most basic way, as in: yes, no. She had felt the same way she’d felt in the science lab after dissecting a frog. Behind a mask, wearing gloves, once she observed the entrails through the microscope, she’d found that she felt nothing for the frog, no pity, no fear, no disgust, nothing at all.

It is as if it all happened to someone else.

Now he has rolled over and is lying on his stomach, his face between his crossed arms.

She sits at the very edge of the bed, covering herself with her sweatshirt. Soon, the room goes dark, streetlights piercing through the bare trees and the half-shut blinds. The apartment is completely silent, except for the soft sound of his snoring.

She gets up quietly. She gets dressed quickly, walks out of the apartment, shutting the door carefully behind her.

The winter sky, as it does just before snowfall, has turned into concentric shades of purple, as if illuminated from behind. The temperature has dropped; her breath is visible. She lifts the hoodie of her coat over her head and walks toward the bus stop. But once there she doesn’t stop to look if a bus is coming. She continues to walk, and all the way home she can feel his book tucked in her school bag like a small explosive device, ready to explode.

 

“One of Them” was originally published in Epiphany; a literary journal Fall 2016

It was republished in The Writers Studio at 30, Epiphany Editions, 2017