I think I went looking for Julie because I was tired and hungry. It was miserable Wednesday night — dark, rainy, cold, and I had my hood pulled up, even though it dripped water down my neck. The gang had broken up for the night, in twos and threes, haunting the metro stations and fast food places to stay out of the rain. I didn’t feel like being with them. Instead of friends I saw only specters; yellowing faces with olive circles under their eyes, then whitish sickly bodies extending hands for a couple of coins. Looking at them forced me to wonder how I must look.
Rainy nights like these breed sadness like bacteria — when you’re wet and cold, and even worse, alone, it’s easy to get thinking about clean beds, hot food, dry socks or a television to numb your thoughts. The sadness can drive you to desperation — that’s what happened to Julie Gage.
Two and a half months ago she decided to go back. I stood with her at the phone booth near Berri-UQAM metro station while she looked up her mother in the directory. She was crying and crying and crying. I was crying too. For twenty minutes she stared at the number, the snow staining the pages of the phone book, making the paper soggy and brittle. I hoped she’d close the book, slam it like she’d done once before, square her thin shoulders and walk away, her soaking boots making squelching noises on the pavement. She didn’t though. She picked up the receiver and dialed. This wasn’t going to be like the last time.
Her voice was ragged and her breathing uneasy. “Mom, come get me, I’m at Berri metro,” she said and then hung up. “Marc, you’ve gotta leave,” she continued.
She didn’t have to tell me. I know the game. I haven’t been home in a year and two months.
I didn’t say good-bye. I walked back to the timeless light of the metro. I thought she’d come after me. I thought it would be like the last time, the time she thought she was pregnant. That was the only time she ever talked about going back. She said that a child didn’t need freedom — a child needs a roof and socks and a bed and a bathtub.
I waited for her. I thought she’d come back. The impish little girl who used to hop between the curb and the asphalt was as much a part of my world as the buildings and the street names; her shaved head, green boots and tatty clothes skipping circles inside my head.
I wish I couldn’t remember her now. Every blind street corner I turn, every shop and bus and hovel and park, every piece of sidewalk I sit on, I expect to see her bobbing along or huddled in a doorway. Sometimes, when I see a new run-away sleeping on bench, I can’t help wondering. It’s always the same. It’s never her. I mumble, “Sorry, thought you were someone else,” and shake my head at my own stupidity.
Wednesday night I realized I was going mad, wandering the slick streets with car headlights shining in my eyes, and the rain and the cold and my loneliness. I should have gone to find some friends, to eat or beg or drink or laugh, but I wanted to find Julie.
When I stood in front of the phone booth near Berri-UQAM, I understood how she must have felt that night, longing for something just out of reach. I opened the book, following the last names: Gagnon, Gagné, Gagliani, Gagg, Gage. There were three Gages, but I had an idea of where she lived.
It was a long walk – at least an hour – and I was tired. I alternated between staring at my boots and reading the street names. I watched them turn from French to English as I trekked west: St-Denis, St-Laurent, Bleury, University, Stanley, Peel.
The few people I passed were huddled under umbrellas or dashing from building to car or from car to building; no one seemed to know what to make of me, the lone homeless boy crossing unfriendly ground, mohawk sagging and dripping onto the sidewalk.
Around Crescent Street a police car followed me for a block, crawling along beside me, a white and blue predator. To the town-folk, we are the cockroaches of the city, creeping out from under abandoned buildings and factories to roam streets, to eat their garbage and make homes from their waste. Sometimes I suspect they fear us as an omen of their own decline into poverty. We smell, we are ugly; we are the cancer that writes on walls and disgraces public places with our stench and our begging.
Maybe I am a cockroach, a mangy dog drooling for a few scraps, but Julie never was. She was too proud to beg — even when she hadn’t eaten in two days. She would trace the lines of graffiti on the wall, and sit outside in winter to watch the children bundled in their snowsuits. She loved the sagging structures we slept in. People would stop and look at her turning flips and cartwheels on the grass in the fall. No one averted his or her gaze from her. No passers ever seemed ashamed in her presence. She was a butterfly among the dung beetles. She was freedom.
As I walked, I passed a hospital on my way, its blank glowing windows looking out a me. Next came a graveyard. I stared hard at the stones. All the city’s buildings could be made out of headstones — the same rock and color — but the houses are made of cheaper material; granite is a luxury for the dead and the rich.
Past the graveyard stood the apartment building. I wasn’t sure what to do. For a few minutes I stood on the pavement, kicking pebbles into the road and watching them jump across to the other curb. A taxicab pulled up a few meters off. A young man got out. He swayed a little as he walked, dragging his sneakers, with his hands jammed in his pockets. I watched his back fade into the night.
A man of maybe sixty tottered out of the large glass door at the front of the complex. I sprinted to catch the door before it closed, just managing to slip my hands into the crack and pry it open. Beyond was a pristine lobby with a granite floor, elevators and cushioned armchairs. I stood inside the door, dripping on the polished rock. I ran my hands over my head, smoothing down my hair and trying to push the water off it. The building was warm.
I found Julie’s name on the post-boxes in the entrance and took the elevator to the sixth floor. I wandered around the hall for a while, marveling at the clean walls, leaving footprints on the carpeting; I couldn’t decide what to do.
Number 611 was her door, and the ringer was the kind with a light-build in it. I looked at it until my eyes ached. Eventually, I extended a grubby finger. I could hear the bell go off within and I held my breath, listening for footsteps.
When no one came to the door, I sat down with my back against the white wall. I pulled off my drenched sweatshirt, shook off my jacket, and spread them out on the carpet beside me. Then I unlaced my boots, taking them off and wiggling my soaking toes. The warmth and the dryness made me sleepy, I curled into a fetal position with my head resting on my boots.
What must have seemed a few hours later, a shoe nuzzled into a groove between my ribs. The shoe was high-heeled and dark blue, the sole was of soft black rubber and a thin stockinged leg emerged from its mouth. Curled up as I was, I couldn’t see the wearer without showing that I was awake. The nuzzling became more insistent.
“Come on, wake up, you can’t sleep here,” said the owner of the shoe.
I rolled over, squinting. A thin black girl of about eighteen with a bulging belly was staring down at me. Her hair stuck up in every direction, and her small hands sat on her hips.
“Julie,” I started, but instead of her name only managed a croak. Her eyes widened and one of her pink-palmed hands flew to hide her mouth. “Julie, Julie what’s wrong? I’m sorry; I’ll leave. What’s wrong, are you sick?”
“Are you stupid? Am I sick, can’t you see?” she gestured to her belly, “This is a hundred times worse.” My face went blank, as she sunk down beside me. She cried. I could smell her small body start to sweat. It gave off a kind of pungent odor. Inside my head voices started shouting at each other. I was stupid to think I could walk back into her life and carry her to freedom.
We sat there for a long time side by side without speaking. I thought about her silly-looking shoes and her skirt and the walls of her cage, especially the walls. These walls must have broken her, or maybe it was the roofs built to keep out the sky; I think the roofs are the worst of all. I thought about her walking up and down these hallways every morning and evening like an ant or a slave or a robot. When was the last time she saw the sunrise? Was she a secretary, a sales girl or a McDonald’s worker? What meaningless tasks did she fulfill between the lunch hours and the coffee breaks? I hated that thing growing below her gut, I hated myself for having put it there. I’d helped build the walls and the high flat ceilings.
I picked up my moldering jacket and sweat-shirt and started to tie up my boots. I didn’t say good-bye. I got up and turned my back on her. The street was calling me. Clean hallways make me feel claustrophobic.
I got half way down the six flights of stairs before stopping. On the fifth step above the third floor I turned back.
When I got back to her hallway, her door was open. She was still sitting in the passage. I picked her up and carried her inside.
The next morning she shaved off my mohawk and threw out my clothes. My boots and the safety pin from my eyebrow, I told myself, would be saved for weekends only. At night, when traffic rumbles under the open window, the sidewalks keep calling and calling — we can both hear them.