His brother sent me an email.
“He doesn’t speak much English. Do you speak French?”
“I can follow along somewhat. I know how to talk food. But no,” I wrote back.
He replied, “He’s the same way with English. It’ll be fine.”
The other guy was a soon-to-be medical student at McGill but, meanwhile, during summertime, would be coming with me to Boston to learn genetics while working for free at some professor’s lab.
I drove downtown to their apartments to pick them up. A black german shepherd stuck his nose between the ornate cast iron bars on a balcony in an old brick 3 family apartment. Wisened maples lined the streets. The dog wagged his tale when my finger brushed the doorbell.
A lanky bearded man descended the stairs. I had a tendency to think of every tall man who wore a beard as ‘Beardo’. I only ever said it out loud once, though I’d been tempted to many other times.
He took off what Angelique called a “Pack Sack”, engorged like a European coming to a new land, and heaved it into the trunk of Gretchen the Pug.
“Nice neighborhood,” I said, nodding.
“Ah I live here with my mother and my girlfriend.” A large-ish park, smaller than La Fountaine Park, but still generous stood across from his apartment.
“Your girlfriend and mother live together? Your mother must be a really easy person to get along with.”
He laughed like an animal, bearing his white fangs. “My mother and girlfriend are the two sweetest human beings ever.”
“Nice to meet you.” I said, slamming the trunk.
“Likewise,” he said, and went to assume his place in the shotgun position.
The Plateau part of the city still lay quiet then, too early for anyone but the occasional homeless artist, and taxi drivers. In Montreal the city did sleep, but it slept in because it went to bed really late. There were times when I’d arrive the Thursday night before, untangling myself from some unexpected rush hour weirdness in Boston, or those with cabin fever heading north of Nashua, New Hampshire, or rush hour in Burlington, Vermont . There were times when I dropped people off on rue Ste Catherine in Montreal well after midnight, and the place would still be teeming with party goers, business people, people chilling, people on the move. Montreal was the only city I’d driven in where I continually hit traffic jams on the highway at 2 in the morning.
That morning was absolutely my favorite time of the day, the late spring dawn, sun not at its full strength. I felt a passing heartbreak for being unable to sit in on one of the benches and enjoy an hour right there.
I looked down at my notes to get to the Francophone’s place.
“Turn right here and take St Denis up maybe 5 streets.”
I was kind of used to it now, the narrow streets, cars on either side. It strained me, all that looking for potential trouble so close to my car, but gradually my body grew accustomed to that level of scrutinizing. Having driven down streets like Marquette and Duluth, Fabre, and … all over Montreal really, feeling the squeeze became commonplace.
This second guy, the French guy whose brother had emailed me, was smaller and darker than the med student. Clean shaven, ducking his head. “Allo,” he said.
“You are not Canadian,” the Med student asked in French.
“No, I’m from Algeria,” he replied in French. And then he sat back and looked out the window while Beardo told me all about his mother and his studies and how he should present himself at the border, an hour later.
We passed the last possible exit, the one with the flashing yellow light, rounded the corner, passed what looked to be a horse farm, and then some small businesses that I’d never seen open: a gem store with a slackened and flaking turquoise facade, and some delivery offices. Next up the duty-free shop that offered Lancome parfume at a slight discount from prices … that could be located from the nose bleed section of cosmetic concerts.
“Passports,” I called out, holding my right hand up and back like Hitler.