Dani takes a drag off Caleb’s cigarette while it is still between his fingers. They are lying back on his futon, their bodies partially covered by twisted sheets. She blows a smoke ring up at the mural of orbiting planets and shooting stars that an artist friend had painted on the ceiling of Caleb’s bedroom.
“Look,” she says, following the smoke ring’s ascent toward one planet. “From this angle I created Saturn.”
Caleb taps the cigarette against the rim of an ashtray on the floor. “And God looked up at Her Heaven and said, ‘It is good’.”
The room is illuminated by candles set up on chairs, a bureau, a bookcase, an amplifier, a desk. The futon is directly on the floor and from where they lie the flames flicker above them at various heights. Dani sits up and begins to get dressed.
“It’s only coming to midnight,” says Caleb.
“I don’t want to miss the last Métro.”
“It doesn’t close for another two hours.”
She kisses the top of his head. “You don’t have to get dressed.”
“You neither. Stay over. You can catch the first Métro in the morning.”
“I’d love to, but....”
“But?” he says with some annoyance.
“Your mother is going to be home soon,” says Dani. “I don’t want to face her tonight or tomorrow over the breakfast table.”
“She likes you.”
“And I like her.” She wriggles her hand out of his grip. “All the more reason…”
“You know.” He looks away and pretends to be searching for something in the planets on his ceiling. “Tonight was for you. For us.”
“And it was very special for me.”
“So special you can’t wait to leave?”
“My grandmother will be expecting me to be home.” She tugs on her jeans. “Next time.”
Outside the evening is warm. Caleb lives with his mother in a large two-bedroom apartment on Rue Laurier at the corner of Jeanne Mance. Although it’s closer to walk up the street to the Laurier Métro, they agree to a more circuitous route, turning south on St. Laurent so they can briefly stroll arm-in-arm amidst the trees in the park, then return to the sidewalk with its dark storefronts. The plan is to turn east on Mont Royal until they get to the Metro station near Rue St. Denis. Instead, Dani crosses the street, pulling Caleb along with her as they continue along the Main.
“Ou vas-tú?” he asks.
“I just had an idea.”
The street teems with pedestrians and a parade of cruising cars, weaving taxis and the heavy plodding of the number 55 bus packed tight with passengers. A couple of blocks down Dani turns left, leading Caleb onto Rue Rachel. They walk until reaching a huge church.
“What are we doing here?”
“I remember passing by this church a couple of times,” she says. “It’s called St Jean-Baptiste. It’s quite beautiful in the daylight. I wanted to see it at night.”
Only streetlights illuminate the imposing façade with its two bell towers and the gothic columns at the foot of the steps. Dani climbs partway up.
“It’s closed,” says Caleb.
“There’s a light through one of the windows. Have you ever been inside?”
“It’s not my habit to go into a church,” he says. When she begins to laugh he folds his arms, pretending to be insulted. “What’s so funny?”
“I still can’t imagine you in a synagogue either.”
He covers the top of his copper-dyed mohawk with one hand. “Baruch, atah, Adonai.” He removes his hand. “Satisfied?”
“Vous êtes mon boychik.”
“Tu es,” he corrects.
She returns her attention to the shadowy stone edifice. One of the huge doors opens. Startled, Dani nearly stumbles backward down the steps. Caleb runs up to help her. The yellowish glow of dim lights emanates from inside the door. A silver-haired man wearing a priest’s collar appears. He says something to them in French. Caleb answers him.
“He wants to know if we are here for confession. I explained that neither of us are Catholic.”
“Ask him if we can go in to have a quick look.”
The priest nods and motions for them to enter.
“Is the church always open this late?” she asks the priest.
“One time every month we give the midnight confessions.”
Inside, Dani is awe-struck by the high stained glass windows, the majestic columns and intricate gold ornamentation of the vast interior. She and Caleb wander along the nave to get a closer look at the burnished oak altar. The priest trails behind them at a decent distance. Then Dani sees what looks like a black booth.
“What is that?” she asks the priest.
“C’est le confessionnal,” he answers. There is a solemnity in the way he intones ‘con-fess-yon-al’. Dani notices that he doesn’t meet her eyes. There is an odd glimmer in his. At first she thinks it a kind of humility, something to do with the sacredness of the confessional. But then comes the vague impression that he is, in some subtle and suggestive way, trying to lead her towards it, to get her to go in.
An old woman enters the confessional. The priest excuses himself and Dani watches him enter through the other end. She turns to Caleb. “I’m curious to see what the inside looks like.”
“The confessional? It’s a sacred place. It would be a mockery of their faith for you to go in there.”
“I know that. I can’t help it if I’m curious.”
“We should get going,” says Caleb.
Dani takes in one last look at the grandeur of it all. The immensity fills her heart. The silence seems to reverberate and she believes that God can indeed hear her every thought. The woman emerges from the dark booth. She wears a solemn, yet serene expression. As she makes her way to the front doors, Dani wants to run after her and throw her arms around the woman’s neck. An inexplicable feeling of love for this stranger overcomes her. The priest steps out of the confessional and walks to a door through which he disappears. Dani and Caleb are alone in the church.
“Come on,” says Caleb. “This place is giving me the creeps.”
“Not yet.” Dani steps slowly toward the confessional.
“Don’t,” Caleb calls in a loud whisper. “It’s not a joke.”
“Just a quick look inside.”
“I’m not waiting for you.”
Dani waves him away without a word and pushes aside the curtain. The inside is dark and has an unidentifiable, yet not entirely unpleasant smell. A mildly sweet mustiness, like aging flowers that slowly wilt but mysteriously will not die.
She kneels and is aware of the mesh partition before her, dividing her from where the priest would be sitting. She wonders if she would be able to see his face or if he could see hers. Perhaps it would be more like shadows not daring to look at each other.
A mild claustrophobia carries a shiver of familiarity. She closes her eyes and feels a heaviness in her lungs. When she had been around eight or nine years old it was her habit to sit in her closet. She did this two or three times a week, usually for anywhere from half an hour to ninety minutes. It became a kind of ritual, the closet being a place where she could commune with a secret part of herself. She would close the door for maximum darkness, except for the slit of light under the door. She could sense the clothes hanging above, like floating souls. Closing her eyes and sitting cross-legged, her arms wrapped around her thin chest, she would wait for all manner of visions to flood into her mind. After leaving the closet, she would write down as many of the images as she could remember and fashion them into little stories and poems.
When her parents discovered this peculiar habit they tried not to be concerned at first, believing that this was a normal and healthy creative outlet for a child her age. Nevertheless they each had their own talks with her about it. Her father, for instance, wanted to know if she ever got scared sitting alone in the dark. She assured him that she didn’t. Knowing how stressed out his work made him, she even suggested that he try it some time as a way of relaxing. Her mother wanted to know a little more about what she thought of in there and asked if she ever touched herself in the dark. Although her mother made it a point to emphasize that this wasn’t a bad or unhealthy thing, the question annoyed and embarrassed Dani so much that her fierce denial made it seem like she was covering up something.
The confessional’s closed-in, musty sweetness seems to leave a thin film in her nostrils and at the back of her throat. Dani balls her hands and presses them against her eyes. They itch and she gently rotates her knuckles over the eyelids. Her breathing grows more ragged and she can sense the small space closing in on her. Still, she isn’t prepared to leave just yet. This is all a test of some kind: invisible forces pitting themselves against her resolve.
“Dear Father,” she says and is pretty sure this is the wrong way to begin. She’s supposed to ask for forgiveness. Forgive me, Father, or something like that. But she isn’t looking for forgiveness. Not for herself anyway. “Tonight I lost my virginity.”
She looks through the mesh into the faceless darkness of the booth’s other half. She listens to her confession lose its way inside that silence.
“I had planned to do it a week ago, but something happened.”
The priest pulls back the curtain on her side of the booth. “Que faites-vous ici?”
Without thinking Dani rushes past him, almost knocking him over. She turns towards the great doors and nearly upsets a table holding votive candles.
Caleb is sitting on the bottom steps and looks up as Dani comes barreling down toward him, leaping the last few steps onto the sidewalk. Miraculously, she lands cat-like on her feet and uses the forward momentum to keep running.
“What the hell happened?” he calls to her.
It isn’t until she reaches St. Denis that she stops to catch her breath. By the time Caleb reaches her, Dani is still bent over, gulping down air, but cackling like a crazy person.
Be-Bop-A-Lula is a sixties-themed greasy spoon on Jean-Talon Boulevard near St. Denis, famous for its cheap breakfast specials. Dani and her grandmother sit in a booth. “Caleb said one of his friends eats here almost every day.” Dani says, looking around at the garish walls – each one a different Day-Glo colour: pink, orange, yellow and blue. There are posters of psychedelic-era Beatles, Steve McQueen as Bullitt and Sean Connery as James Bond; official-looking photographs of John F. Kennedy and Pierre Elliot Tudeau facing each other from opposite walls; blown-up newspaper clippings of students burning draft cards, Apollo XI landing on the moon and the geodesic dome at Expo 67. It seems to Dani that there wasn’t much thought put into the way the posters were placed. Their only function seems to be to cover bare walls. “I think the decorator’s seeing-eye dog could have done a better job.”
“It’s a little busy,” says her grandmother. “Not really my thing, but everything’s retro now. People can’t get their heads out of the past.”
“Because it was a more innocent time.” Dani rolls her eyes and tilts her head.
“That’s what we all want to think.”
There are two waitresses to serve the three booths and five tables. Both are dressed in a standard uniform of pink tee shirt and black toreador pants. One of them comes to the booth with two coffees and points out the specials written on an old-fashioned green slate blackboard above the cash register. Dani opts for raisin bread French toast. Her grandmother orders the smoked meat omelette.
Throughout the meal her grandmother tries to get details of Dani’s relationship with Caleb. Dani keeps her answers vague but honest. So far, all her grandmother knows is that Dani met Caleb at the Mount Olive Senior’s Home, where both he and Dani volunteer, and that he is a musician and studies journalism. To appease her grandmother, Dani doles out information about Caleb’s family. He is an only child (like her) and his parents separated when he was thirteen. His father died shortly after they divorced. Dani has met the mother a couple of times and it’s obvious that she and Caleb are very close. Not that she wasn’t kind and welcoming to Dani, just the opposite, but there was something in her manner – perhaps the overly confident ease with which she treated Dani – that indicated the mother didn’t consider her a threat. An unspoken conviction that she and Caleb had been through too much together and nobody could come between her and her only child.
Dani recognizes this in the way she and her own mother share the bond of worrying about her father, his drinking and erratic behavior since he lost his job, and now his attempt to deal with these problems after an ill-fated gambling spree in Las Vegas. The bond with her father is different. Dani has often felt the need to defend him to her mother, especially now, during this delicate period when he is obviously trying to help himself at this rehab in Vegas where he is staying.
“So you’re serious about this boy?” her grandmother asks, concentrating on the food that is still on her plate. The way she pushes the eggs around with her fork irritates Dani for some reason.
“His name’s Caleb. If you’re going to talk about him at least use his name. What, are you afraid if you use his name you might get too attached? Like naming an animal?”
“Caleb,” repeats her grandmother, hoping this quells the unexpected outburst. “I’m sorry. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t met him yet.”
“And what does that mean?” Dani glares at her grandmother. “Should I invite him for Shabbos dinner? He is Jewish you know, despite being French.”
“Why are you getting so defensive? What did I say?”
Dani looks at her plate and studies the uneaten corner of raisin bread French toast as if it’s the extra piece of a jigsaw puzzle she was sure had been completed. Her first inclination is to push the plate away then considers flinging it like a Frisbee against any one of these garish walls. In the end she carefully moves the knife and fork that sit on the plate, their handles balanced on the rim with the knife’s blade and the fork’s tines meeting in the middle. They look like the hands of a clock and she repositions the handles, at first to read a quarter to four and then three-thirty. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to fight,” she says. “I think I’m just a bit nervous. I do appreciate you letting me come with you today.”
“I’m glad you want to,” her grandmother says. “I didn’t think you’d be interested somehow.”
“I’ve never been to a cemetery before.”
“And you thought you’d get someone who isn’t long for one to take you?”
Dani grins then grimaces. “Please don’t say things like that.”
“I try to go every year on the anniversary of Dora’s death,” says her grandmother. “I do it for your father.”
“He doesn’t talk about her that much,” says Dani. “I wish he would.”
“She was a good mother to him. A lovely but troubled person. Her death was very hard on your father.”
This seems to be Dani’s grandmother’s cue to ask if everything is all right with her. She has noticed that for the last couple of weeks Dani seems to be preoccupied or worried about something. She asks about Dani’s father and how her mother is doing, although she herself spoke to her daughter in Fort Lee on the phone only the other day. Dani tries to reassure her grandmother that everyone is doing their best and tells her again how her father got his Las Vegas work card and managed to find a job in a chemical factory, where his room mate at the halfway house also works.
“I think he got Dad the job,” says Dani. “Everything seems to be finally calming down.”
“Good,” her grandmother says, obviously not entirely convinced.
Dani expects her grandmother to ask about the phone message from Mrs. Fairfax at the Mount Olive. It was a terse message, saying that she wants Dani to drop by her office soon. Dani assumes this is about M. Francoeur and the incident. Although she’s thankful for Mrs. Fairfax’s professional discretion over the phone, she wonders what will happen at the meeting. Will Mrs. Fairfax assign her to another one of the Mount Olive’s residents? Or maybe she’ll tell Dani that they don’t want her to volunteer there at all.
Mrs. Fairfax had called the day before, while Dani was at her summer job at Concordia University. She is a research assistant for Carl Farlowe, her creative writing teacher, who is working on a new novel. Having won a major literary award last year, he is a coup for the university, so they allow him to have an office for the summer. He is paying Dani a meager stipend with money he received from a Canada Council grant. Normally, she would have gone back to New Jersey for the summer to be with her mother, but the opportunity to work with a professional novelist is something she could not pass up.
When she got home yesterday her grandmother was out but had left a note telling her there was a phone message, so obviously her grandmother had listened to it. Dani assumes her grandmother’s concern, the allusion to something preoccupying Dani for the past couple of weeks, is meant to be a prelude to asking about Mrs. Fairfax’s message. Her grandmother says nothing more, possibly being careful not to inadvertently provoke Dani’s temper.
The waitress comes with a pot of coffee and refills their cups then makes the rounds of the other booths and tables. They drink in silence. Her grandmother signals for the check and opens her purse. Dani pops the leftover piece of raisin French toast in her mouth before the waitress can clear their plates.
Her grandmother says they should go to the Jean-Talon station and take the orange line the long way around to where they are going, because it means they can sit the whole way without having to change trains. The French toast is sitting precariously in Dani’s stomach. She suggests they walk west to St. Laurent Boulevard and turn north toward De Castelnau station. “It will be faster,” Dani says and mentions that they’ll be passing the Jean-Talon Market and can stop in to do some shopping. Her grandmother smiles. “Maybe next Sunday. And I get to pick where we eat.” Dani is overcome by a momentary impulse to take her grandmother’s hand, but hesitates. She is confused whether the impulse comes from feeling protective toward her grandmother or her own twinge of vulnerability. When they are at De Castelnau Métro station, Dani holds the heavy glass door open for her grandmother and offers her arm as they walk down the stone steps to the turnstiles.
They sit in a corner of the subway train, partially facing each other, her grandmother in a single seat and Dani in a double with the seat beside her empty. The piece of French toast feels like a stone sinking in an opaque and viscous liquid. Dani scans the other passengers, all those blank faces with hidden inner lives. She feels as if the piece of French toast is weighing her down in her seat. She is starting to feel nauseous and breathes steadily through her nose, becoming acutely aware of everyone else in the subway car breathing through their noses. All of them sharing the same stale underground air. The private weight of the French toast makes her think of Caleb, of losing her virginity to him. She wonders if this private weight inside her is what it feels like to have life growing inside her belly.
She is not afraid of becoming pregnant since she had been fitted with an IUD before leaving New Jersey to attend school in Montreal. She also brought her own condoms for Caleb. She remembers an episode of Law and Order, where the cops searched the apartment of a dead girl and found both a diaphragm and condoms in a drawer. “Suspenders and a belt,” Detective Lennie Briscoe had quipped (she loved Jerry Orbach’s deadpan delivery). She grins even now, but something about the phrase also speaks to her about the futility of being too cautious and thinking we are in control of our destinies.
Caleb had feigned indignation, seemingly offended that she didn’t think him responsible enough to provide his own condoms, but she soothed his bruised ego with exaggerated tender words. It all became a bit of a game, an interlude of playacting that led to intimacy. It all seems so ephemeral now in her memory, sweet but insubstantial, unlike this private weight inside her, this physical certainty. The feeling of nausea does not worsen, remaining persistent yet manageable. The knowledge that at every stop she could easily get out of the subway train to find a bathroom helps to steady her nerves.
Her grandmother turns to her, almost clairvoyantly. “If we go to the market next week maybe you could invite Caleb to join us.” Dani is aware that she has taken care to say his name. She smiles at her grandmother and nods.
At the Snowden station they change to the northbound train and have to stand in a crowded car, managing to stay close to the sliding doors. Bodies inch around to let exiting passengers off and maneuver to make room for new ones getting on. Dani’s grandmother comments, sotto voce, that she can’t imagine where they are all going on a Sunday. The solid weight inside Dani rebels slightly at all this jostling. At last, she and her grandmother get out at De La Savane. After two long, steep and slow moving escalators they emerge into the glare of daylight. They are in a grey industrial area with factory warehouses and garages, soon approaching a tall wire mesh fence with wrought iron gates. As they get closer Dani can see headstones through the fence. She can see trees and, farther down, workers riding tractors. A backhoe chugs slowly along a path just inside the gate. It is like a construction site in the land of the dead. Dani cannot reconcile herself to the idea of all this activity – roaring engines and excavations, like in an archaeological site – all this disruption in a place of eternal peace. The piece of French toast seems to sink lower into her abdomen, where all her fear is concentrated, and now Dani does take her grandmother’s hand. Squeezing it violently, she bends over and retches on the strip of grass outside the cemetery gates.
The laundry room in the basement of Caleb’s building has all the ambiance of a fluorescent-lit mini-dungeon. There is only one washing machine and one dryer. Dani is slumped in one of the two molded plastic chairs, listening to the lulling rumble of the washer’s spin cycle. The machine vibrates, rocking slightly. Caleb sits on a Formica table used for folding dry clothes. Dani holds an English translation of Kamouraska by Anne Hébert that Caleb bought her. “A classic of Quebec literature,” he told her. “It was one of the first books my mother read when she moved here from Morocco as a girl.” Dani reads the first paragraph three times before closing the book.
“Does your mother talk about her past? Her life in Morocco?”
“Sometimes.” Caleb swings his legs in rhythm with the vibrating washing machine. “More when I was younger.”
Dani tells Caleb about going to see her grandmother’s grave and her father’s reaction when she told him. She had phoned him when she and her grandmother returned home from the cemetery. It wasn’t that he was upset about Dani going there, but there was obviously something bothering him. Maybe he wished he could have been with her, or that he would be the one to take her instead of Bubbe Rita. Her mother once told her that Bubbe Dora had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, although back then it was called manic-depression, and that her father believed he inherited it genetically from her. This was a time when Dani’s father had been acting erratically, especially after being downsized from his job as a vice-president of sales for a big clothing company in New York. There were days when he wouldn’t get out of bed and nights when he didn’t come home.
She had been eighteen when her mother told her about Bubbe Dora’s manic-depression. Dani understood that her mother was trying to help her understand her father’s behavior, but also that she was taking Dani into her confidence, unburdening herself. Her mother made Dani swear to never say anything to her father, because he feels deeply ashamed about his mother’s diseased genes, helpless because he believes he inherited them and guilty for blaming his mother for his own struggles.
“You think that’s why he was upset about you seeing her grave?” Caleb asks.
Dani shrugs. “I’m not sure what to think anymore.” She considers mentioning to Caleb what her grandmother had said about the three of them having brunch and then going to the Jean-Talon Market, but decides not to. She already feels a twinge of guilt for telling him what her mother had told her in confidence.
The washing machine stops rumbling. Caleb hops down from the table. He opens the lid and pulls out a bed sheet and spreads it on the Formica table. The sheet shows a large stain, somewhat faded but still very visible. “Maybe I better put it through another wash,” says Caleb.
“Why did you wait so long to wash it?” Dani asks. “You let it dry into the fabric.”
“What did you expect me to do? Put it in the hamper so my mother could find it?”
“You should have washed the sheet the next day. Or that night.”
“I waited to save you the embarrassment!” he shouts too quickly.
She stares at him dumbfounded. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“Maudit! I didn’t know what to do,” he says. The corner of his mouth glistens with spittle. “It was either stash the sheet under or burn it! There was a stain on futon too. I had to flip it over.”
“Well, forgive me for bleeding like a stuck pig!”
They glare at each other. Then Caleb turns away from her and stuffs the sheet back in the washer. He pours in detergent from a box without using a measuring cup. Then he splashes in liquid bleach from a large plastic bottle. After jamming two Loonies in the coin slot and slamming the slot with the heel of his palm, he leans against the machine as the sound of rushing water echoes inside it. “Sorry,” he says without turning to her.
Dani stares at the shaded angles of his shoulder blades jutting under his tee shirt and something inside her crumples. All at once she feels sorry. Not sorry for her outburst or for bleeding on his bed sheet and futon. She feels sorry for the fine angle of his shoulder blades and how ill equipped they are to carry the responsibility of deflowering a virgin while trying to maneuver the narrow scrutiny of his mother. Dani can’t help but think of her father, haunted by the bloodline to his mother.
For the first time Dani is aware of something. She’s never considered that she herself might have inherited her father’s diseased genes. It surprises her to realize that far from feeling afraid, she isn’t even mildly concerned. She can’t understand this irrational certainty of her immunity. Maybe this is what allows a warm infusion of sympathy to spread inside her. She stands and places the copy of Kamouraska on the chair then walks to the machine and leans next to Caleb. The washer’s agitator begins to turn and her body absorbs the machine’s gentle trembling.
“I lied,” says Caleb, still not looking at her. “I kept the sheet because I didn’t want to wash it. I wanted it as a memento. Something to remember that night.”
Dani makes an effort not to smile. “Why?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because you were in such a rush to leave.”
Dani knows she should feel flattered, but there’s an edge of petulance in his voice that stings and saddens her. She tells herself not to say the first thing that comes to her head, but instead to wait and measure her response. Her restraint gives her a momentary sense of control before Caleb speaks again.
“It made me wonder why you wanted to do that in the first place.”
“Wanted to do what?”
He clicks his tongue in exasperation. “You know? Sleep with me? Let me be the first one?” His mouth twists with shame. “Calice! Why do you make me say it?”
She makes the mistake of an involuntary laugh that comes out like a snort. Caleb buries his face in his hands. “I’m sorry,” she says. “You know most guys wouldn’t care about the how or the why. It’s usually a point of pride to-”
“To what?” Caleb lifts his head and braces his hands against the washer. “Pop a girl’s cherry? Be a macho man and tell all his buddies? Is that the kind of asshole you think I am?”
Dani is shocked by his sudden vehemence and vacillates between feeling insulted and ashamed. Pop a girl’s cherry. He had spat out those words, almost uncontrollably. A cloudy gob of bile that regurgitated up his throat beyond the threshold of being swallowed back down again. Had those words always been inside him or had she somehow planted them there?
“You wondered why I wanted to sleep with you?” She tries for a wounded tone but can’t quite pull it off. “Don’t you think I like you?”
“It’s not that. There was something else.”
He can’t quite meet her eyes. “The timing.”
He lets those words hang in the air and Dani can feel them looming above her head. She does not know where to look. She wants to ask him what he means, but also hopes that nothing more will be said. She searches frantically in her mind for a way to change the subject, maybe ask something else about his mother… but too late. He reminds her of the last time he gave a concert at the Mount Olive. He performs for the senior residents two Saturdays a month, playing guitar and singing songs he thinks they will enjoy. He always ends with Bob Dylan’s Visions of Johanna, a song his mother loves and one he knows Dani is fond of as well.
“I remember feeling your eyes on me when I was playing it that time,” he says. “I tried not to look back at you. For me it felt like you were looking into me. It was nice. No, more than nice. Intense. Afterward, all the time I was waiting for you outside while you brought M. Francoeur to his room, I kept wondering what this meant. But you were up there a long time and when you came down something was different. Your eyes were red and I knew you were upset about something, but you wouldn’t tell me what. You just wanted to go home.”
Dani wants to change the subject, but doesn’t see how she can. “So? What does that have to do with sleeping with you?” She regrets these words as soon as they are out of her mouth.
“I don’t really know,” he says. “When you called me later that week and insisted on seeing me… I was so happy, I didn’t think about it. And when you found out my mother was working late you seemed so determined. You had the condoms…”
“You’re still upset about that?”
“No. I liked that. Really. But I remember asking about what had been bothering you and you said to me, don’t spoil it. And maybe you were right. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up.” Dani crosses her arms, staring downward, her mouth tense. Caleb drums a paradiddle pattern on the edge of the washer with his forefingers. “Sorry,” he says. “I really don’t know what I’m trying to say.”
Dani looks at her watch and says she has to go to the Mount Olive to see Mrs. Fairfax about M. Francoeur’s condition. She explains that his dementia is making him act erratically and Mrs. Fairfax is going to brief her on changes in his medication. She also wants to reassess Dani’s role as a volunteer. Caleb merely nods and Dani wonders if he knows he is being mollified then feels bad for not giving him enough credit. He is a sensitive and intelligent person and she most likely doesn’t deserve him.
She takes up her copy of Kamouraska, clutching it in one hand as she hugs his shoulders. He hugs her back and their arms interlock for a moment as they slowly break away from each other. Before she leaves she offers to pay for half the cost of a new bed sheet if he can’t get the bloodstain out of this one. As if on cue the washer whirs into its spin cycle and begins to rattle. Caleb says it’s not necessary, although he would like nothing better than to go shopping for a new bed sheet with her. He offers to walk her to the subway, but she says she is late and will take a cab.
“Washing the bed sheet is like trying to wash the memory of that night,” he says. “It will fade but not disappear altogether.”
“You can always flip the futon over again,” she says and pulls his head into the crook between her neck and shoulder.
Dani had lied to Caleb when she said she was late for her appointment with Mrs. Fairfax. In fact, the appointment isn’t for another hour. Instead of finding a cab, she walks briskly down St. Laurent until turning on Rue Rachel to L’église St Jean-Baptiste. She climbs the stone steps and pauses at the large doors, as much to steel her nerve as to catch her breath.
There is no one inside. She sits by the aisle in the last row of pews, taking in the hugeness of it, yet feeling a strange intimacy here. She notices the confessional off to the side and once more thinks about her closet refuge when she was a girl. How its smallness allowed her to connect to a deeper part of herself. The confessional inside the church brings to mind a smaller box within a larger box. A haven within a haven.
Startled, Dani turns and sees the priest. She stands, as if being caught at some wrongdoing.
“Why do you come here?” he asks sternly. “Should I call the police?”
“No!” she manages to say. “I came to apologize. What I did was wrong, but I meant no disrespect. I am very sorry, really I am.”
He stands there, unsmiling. “Now you must go.”
“Let me explain. I came back for a reason.”
“You said your apology. Allez maintenant!”
“Let me explain why I did what I did. It was not for myself.” She clasps her hands. “S'il vous plaît.”
The fleshy severity in the priest’s jaw-line reddens. He motions for her to step away from the pew. Dani is sure he is going to lead her to the door. Instead he stands with obvious impatience. “Well?” he says. “Make your explanation.” He claps his hands sharply. “Vite!”
Dani quickly explains that she is a volunteer companion for an elderly man named M. Francoeur, a resident at the Mount Olive Senior’s Home. When she started volunteering, earlier this year, Monsieur Francoeur was in the middle stages of dementia, but lately he has been showing signs of troubling behaviour that indicate his condition is worsening.
“He is a Catholic?”
“Yes, I think so,” says Dani. “There’s a crucifix over his bed.”
Dani wonders if this means the priest is more willing to listen. His demeanor does not change and she continues to talk about their relationship, her and M. Francoeur. Most of the time he knows who she is and considers her his friend. He is a gentle man, although he has had moments where he’s become excitable. There have been times when it was obvious he thought she was someone else. More than merely becoming used to this, she admits to sometimes enjoying becoming a stranger, losing her own identity in whomever he has conjured up in his mind. She immediately realizes that she has made her own confession and puts her fingers to her lips as if catching herself in a serious faux pas.
“Please come to your point,” the priest says.
“A couple of weeks ago there was a concert for the residents,” she explains. “M. Francoeur seemed to be enjoying it, although he wasn’t always able to concentrate. Maybe it was something about the music, or maybe being in the room with everyone else. But I could tell he was agitated, so I was happy to bring him to his room when the concert was over. Getting all the residents to their rooms took some time, so I stayed with him in his room until the nurse came with his sedative. In the late afternoon many dementia patients become restless. It’s called Sundowner’s Syndrome.”
The priest gives a curt nod. Dani becomes flustered that her nervousness compels her to meander rather than be succinct.
“At one point, I went to the door to see if the nurse was coming. Somebody was waiting for me and I was anxious to leave.” Dani takes a breath. “Then I realized that M. Francoeur was behind me. He had one arm around me. Like he was trying to hug me from behind. The next thing I knew he pushed his other hand down my pants.”
She pauses and the priest frowns, trying to absorb this information.
“He… interfered with you?”
Dani’s mortification at having to relate this episode is diffused by something close to bemusement at the propriety of the word interfered. His eyes narrow and Dani can sense that the priest is trying to decide whether or not to believe her. “He didn’t really do anything,” she says. “His took his hand out again right away.”
“But you were upset?”
“Yes. I was startled. I couldn’t stop crying. But I’m sure he didn’t think it was me. He thought I was someone else.”
“I don’t know.” Dani’s peripheral vision catches a glimpse of the confessional at the far wall. She wonders what M. Francoeur would say if he was sitting in there with this priest listening behind the screen. “He sometimes comments how my name Dani sounds like a boy’s name. I think… maybe he thought I was a boy. Someone he used to know maybe. I think he pulled his hand out right away because… he was surprised. I think it scared him. You know, to find… nothing.” In some way it is a relief to be able to tell someone, but she quickly adds, “I didn’t come here for myself. I came for M. Francoeur. I’m looking for forgiveness. For him.”
“And have you? Forgiven him?”
“Of course.” Dani’s back is suddenly rigid. “He has dementia. He didn’t know what he was doing.”
“He knew what he was doing,” the priest says. “But it was just that he did not know who he was doing this to.”
The priest goes on to explain that he cannot absolve M. Francoeur without hearing his confession directly. Seeing the disappointment on Dani’s face he promises to light a votive candle and say a prayer for him. Dani thanks him. She knows it is a silly thing to ask, but she wonders if the confessions he hears at midnight are different from the ones he hears during the day. The priest looks puzzled, then slightly amused. Finally his eyes turn solemn and his mouth is pursed. It is always midnight, he tells her, until the moment one confesses.
Steven Mayoff was born and raised in Montreal and moved to Prince Edward Island, Canada in 2001. His fiction and poetry have appeared in literary journals across Canada and the U.S. as well as in Ireland, Algeria, France, Wales. England and Croatia. His three books are the story collection Fatted Calf Blues (Turnstone Press, 2009), the novel Our Lady Of Steerage (Bunim & Bannigan, 2015) and the poetry chapbook Leonard’s Flat (Grey Borders Books, 2018). Upcoming is a full-length poetry collection Swinging Between Water and Stone to be published by Guernica Editions in 2019.