Contrasting


Yielding Slowly, 36 x 48.

We are staying in The Gay Village of Montreal. It is a Sunday evening. Under strings of pink lights, past the rainbow flags, couples walk hand in hand along the sidewalk. There are closed vendor tents and sticky beer sidewalks.

Because where I live has a dearth of guys holding hands on the street, I’m appreciative of the contrast.

And wondering where the lesbians of Gay Village go. Do they forego the street scene, taking to the suburbs, with or without their lipstick?

A lot of the couples have the appearance of grown twins whose mother insists they wear identical outfits. They share matching pectoral muscles, suntans, and aviator sunglasses.

As we walk agains the traffic I imagine us from the guys’ perspective; a straight middle aged couple, people who don’t take the time to shop, wearing wrinkled cotton clothing. As if sporting MEC backpacks and different styles of Birkenstocks differentiates us.

We seek our reflection everywhere; choosing friends, partners and dogs that affirm our perspective, or existence.

Out on the street it is a relief to step away from our disappointing airbnb condo. It seems to personify everything that is wrong with our culture. Home Depot decorating that has worn after eight years. Ostensibly wood surfaces showing their plastic origins, peeling to reveal innards of compressed fibreboard.

The chairs on the rooftop patio failed to create community, despite the barbecue and flowerpots. The unventilated hallways with their clear pendant lamps that looked contemporary in the photos but in this unventilated hallway smell sharply of air freshener wafting with cleaning fluids.

Cities hit me with an initial wave of fascination. Seams of poverty eventually gain prominence in my mind, and leaving a city inevitably fills me with relief.

But this urban summer's night provides a glimpse into people’s lives that I'm hungry for. Evening picnics of thirty and sundry in the park. Living rooms are a foot from the sidewalk, their doors open to the evening air.

Inside we glimpse a double pile of magazines with a TV balanced on top, piles of clothes and bottles.

We circumnavigated little islands on the sidewalk; a smashed window lying on top of a mattress. Broken plastic furniture, bent window blinds, defunct electronics, a single torn running shoe.

The contrast with my small town life pinches at me making me grateful for my usual daily blessings, our raised bed with rows of arugula, an impressive garlic patch, the daily squeak of my clothesline attached to the barn appeared in my mind’s eye as conspicuous luxuries.

Every block seems to have its cluster of chairs on the sidewalk. As we meander uptown we walk past motley groups of neighbours of all ages, lounging in t-shirts and bottles of beer; freckled citizens unwittingly basking in the privilege of being Quebecers.

Men speak loudly, siting close to one another, heads leaning in, their forearms touch, their faces expressive. There is weightlessness to these interactions, to my eyes seemingly unburdened by the competitive armour of Anglophone men.

The origins of our behaviour stretch generations, maybe continents behind us.

My love of Quebec culture is an ongoing discussion with my husband Jake. He insists Montreal women are more comfortable in themselves, more likely to look him in the eye, hold his gaze.

And certainly when Jake and I sit chatting on a sidewalk café his head swivels, I turn to see if there is a tennis match going on behind me.

It is indisputable; the women behind me are captivating.

When we drove in to the city with the mission to put our daughter on a plane, we lowered our windows to soak in the city sounds.

On the corner of Mont-Royal and Saint Laurent was a violinist playing barefoot tapping her feet before her open case on the sidewalk. She wore a mini skirt with a wide beaded belt over her hips, one side of her head shaved, the other side blessed with golden long curls.

What was striking to us as we sat in the hot car waiting at the light to change wasn't just the expertise of her playing, but her open expression, an undefended energy that wove its way through the notes.

To me she appeared pure as someone who never had had to sort the bills from the junk mail, or yanked weighty grocery bags up a snowy staircase in the cutting Montreal winter wind.

Summer makes us expansive, and there are some things it is nicer not to think about.

I’d been lounging earlier on the narrow balcony of the condo, which projected twenty feet above the sidewalk.

I watched a small sedan pulled up in front of me, and a man got out to inspect the dresser someone had abandoned on the edge of the sidewalk. The man was dark haired, casually but neatly dressed, possibly Lebanese. He slowly tested all the sliding drawers and, looking to the left and to the right a little sheepishly, he opened the trunk of his car.

As he began trying to manoeuvre the sluggish thing, I could see from a storey above that he had a baby seat in the rear.

His efforts felt uncomfortably familiar to me. It seemed easier to get off my stacking white chair and take the elevator down to haul treasure than it was to watch him struggle, my hands idle in my lap.

I had crawled around the back of his car speaking comprehensible but embarrassing French, trying to drop the back seats and haul the dresser from the other side.

Sometimes, when it isn't your work, it feels easy.

We weren’t able to get it in the rear seat either and together we tilted the dresser back onto the sidewalk, scraping dry wood on the pavement, leaving the piece for the next lucky customer.

United in our fruitless efforts, he turned to face me and held his hand out for me to shake..

I felt coy nodding and smiling; a man shouldn’t need the help of someone in a skirt.

I was mildly concerned I might have violated an old code, making sure men don't lose face. Old habits die hard.

I nodded as he drove off, and I slid between the heavy glass doors of the building entrance.

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