Thursday, April 7, 2011

Vers l’Est du Gros Q (East of the Big Q)

Copyright 2011


What a difference four year makes! At nineteen, and several much more satisfying encounters later, I moved into a flat with two friends and an advertised-for fourth at 4646 St. Catherine St. in Westmount, right next to the Pom Bakery. It had never been "updated" -- as they say today, so we each paid $50/month and had our own rooms. The kitchen was completely original, with a too-low-for-a-tall-guy counter and sink and paneled cupboards above. The gas stove was a beauty, with only three burners in a row and porcelain knobs. I'd seen antique wood stoves like it before -- all steel and white enamel, but never in gas. The gas furnace beside it heated the water for the radiators. It was relatively new, and we used to like to get stoned, lie on the floor and watch the blue flames through the grill. The bathroom had a 2"-wide pipe leading through the ceiling and to the roof to let the steam and odours out -- not to mention the heat! But it was the seventies, when no one cared about such things. 


Since I had my own bedroom for bringing home guys, I took full advantage of it. Finally, I could go to Stanley Street every weekend, no questions asked. I can recall some pretty cute guys that came home with me. One turned out to be on a weekend pass from a psychiatric institute who, upon meeting a female roommate's boyfriend, announced he'd rather have sex with him. Fortunately, that only happened in the morning, after we'd spent the night together. Needless to say, Cynthia's boyfriend was not interested.


McGill University was already throwing gay dances back then, and it was at one of them where I met Jacques.  



JACQUES WAS A GITANES-SMOKING QUÉBEC NATIONALIST who hated to speak English— “It hurts my mouth,” he said. He was a slim man of my height (six feet) with a shock of thick, black unruly hair and a bony forehead that sloped over thick eyebrows and piercing black eyes. His nose was hooked, his nostrils flared, and a luxuriant moustache bristled over lips that were hard but sensuous. He usually wore a Greek fisherman’s cap and a five o’clock shadow. He made me think of Stalin.
He was twenty-six—so much older, it seemed to me then, than my nineteen years. He picked me up at a gay dance at McGill University late one November. He wasn’t my type at all. I tried to get rid of him but he persisted and hauled me onto the dance floor for a slow one. Before long he had a hard-on. I got one too—I thought this was so daring, having one in public. He rubbed his against mine as we danced. Once I was aroused he had an easy time getting me to his place in the East End. It wasn’t very far in—just a few streets past Saint-Laurent Métro—but I’d been to very few guys’ places so far, and none in the east.
Through the cold night we climbed an outdoor staircase that turned and twisted inside a brick cage up to his third-floor flat. Once inside, Jacques turned up the flat’s only heater and we made out before its hot, dry blasts.
To a boy raised in a suburban two-storey house thinking the rest of the world had three bathrooms, everything about his place seemed exotic. His bedroom was off the living room—not down a corridor like West End apartments—and instead of a regular bathroom with toilet, sink and bathtub/shower, a big, four-legged tub and the sink with separate taps were in one small room, and in another, closet-sized room next to it stood the ancient toilet with its wooden tank way up high that you flushed with a chain. The kitchen contained one sole set of wooden cupboards above a low counter. The free-standing sink was like a large laundry tub, and in a corner stood a grimy gas-fired hot-water heater. And, though there was nothing behind the building but an empty lot, the kitchen windows and the back door looked right across a narrow court at the identical kitchen windows and door of the adjacent flat.
In the living room stood a magnificent harpsichord. Over the next few weeks Jacques played for me, sometimes staring at me so intensely I felt self-conscious and had to look away. But I could listen to him play for hours. Today I still feel a special magic when I hear it; I’m still not sure whether it’s because of him or because it really is a magical instrument, speaking of ancient times of cold and misery and finding hope and love through the mournful and joyous pieces written for it by Couperain and Bach.
That night Jacques and I had sex in his room on a mattress on the floor. We had to leave the door open to let the heat in as we slept, and throughout the night his kittens came in pestering us to play. In the morning Jacques poured rich-smelling coffee into bowls. I’d never tasted anything as good before—I didn’t even put milk in it. I’ve often had coffee like that since, at guys’ places in the East End, and in France.
He had an aroma that entranced me. I don’t know how to describe it, because it was nothing I’d ever smelled before, nor since, exactly. A mixture of Gitanes and his own musk, I guess.
He was the archetypal separatist—I don’t know why he wanted an English boy like me from “the Town of Mount Royal,” as he called it—he said it made no sense to call it Ville Mont-Royal because it was so English. He only spoke English when I didn’t understand something, and then he made a point to show his contempt for it.
He grew ashamed to be seen with me in front of his nationalist friends. I had a hard time understanding what they said—they all talked so fast among themselves, their words all running into the other, consonants and vowels swallowed up. I couldn’t catch their jokes. I tried to speak like them, but Jacques only disparaged me. A waitress scolded him once for calling me a barbarian when I ordered a 50, a beer he considered too middle class. He’d cultivated a “Bohemian” life, but he was from the upper middle class like me (his father was a doctor); he was even circumcised.
After three months he’d had enough of my adolescent obsession with him and he dumped me. He was my first boyfriend and it took me nine months to get over it. From the time after Christmas when we broke up, as I moped at my office desk, hoping he’d call or later in summer as I floated on an air mattress on the lake, a scene from that first night haunted me, and has ever since: The kittens had awakened me. As Jacques slept, I raised myself to peer outside his bedroom window. Big, fluffy flakes of snow were still gently falling. The twin rows of kitchen window sills and decrepit wooden balconies flanking the view were covered with the dim, night-time white of the snow that had fallen. Directly ahead, about three blocks away, through the scrim of the falling snow, I could make out the fuzzy outline of the big letter Q with its lightning-bolt tail on the Hydro-Québec building. To me that Q represented the east end, with winding outdoor staircases, rich-tasting coffee, the smell of natural gas, mattresses on the floor—maybe even a harpsichord or viola da gamba—and black-haired men who know how to make love with their bodies and souls.
It was still snowing the next morning as I left his flat and trudged though the snow. Halfway along I stopped to look around. Everything was so quiet, the air smelled so clean, the snow on the curving staircases and rusting mansard roofs so white and pure, my footsteps on the street the only tracks. The lovemaking that had reached so deep within my soul the night before glowed right to my skin and I’m sure from my eyes. Transported emotionally as well as physically, I knew I was coming back.


From "East of the Big Q," a collection of short stories about queer Montreal, by Raymond John Woolfrey. Copyright 2001-2011

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