Natasha Young recalls the fond but incestuous smallness of Montreal, and what it’s like to edit yourself DIY-style.
If ever in my travels I am asked what life in Montreal was like, I will answer only in anecdotes. Example: one summer day, my friend Charlotte invited me to meet at her apartment so we might take a walk in the alleys, their trees newly lush with aromatic flowers and the cats who either scurry or flop and roll when approached. I’d been asked out for a coffee date by a photographer, Christopher, which was meant to happen that afternoon. I entered Charlotte’s apartment and there, on the sofa, was the photographer, half-dressed. I hadn’t known he was her roommate. We greeted one another mutually stunned; he quickly shuffled into the shower to make himself presentable. As Charlotte and I stepped out, I explained to her what had just happened. She smiled. “That is so Montreal.”
Or, around an illegal campfire we’d kindled near the train tracks, L Ron said, You’re always welcome here. You’re one of us now.
Roben smiled at me, consolingly, and said I shouldn’t want to be one of them.
Later, I’m in a loft we call The Plant. Sheets strung up everywhere, one big blanket fort, with projectors projecting galactic loops, simulating a psychedelic night sky. A rotating cast of musicians drone away under sheets suspended from the ceiling or on blankets and pillows coating the stripped hardwood floor. Many in attendance are friends of mine. Some late-middle-aged men lay in Savasana on the floor. The musicians transition smoothly between half-hour sets, ceaselessly, from sunset until sunrise. I am set to play some looped tracks I recorded in advance of the rain falling outside, and also my guitar, tweaked through a space echo pedal. The space is a co-op live/work community of youngish anti-capitalist creatives, some freegans who proudly dumpster-dive around town, and some former McGill University students with world-class training who play music fabulously for no one but their peers. The Plant is tasteful, socially conscious co-op living, a third space and a second home. Nobody here has dreadlocks. Nobody smells like patchouli. Most everyone is presentable, normcore-adjacent, and clean-cut. A few are American expats, like me. There is little to no shit-talking behind the backs of others. I’ve never encountered such a generous social scene that was neither religious nor cultish.
But for its niche Anglophone creatives – we’re mostly cloistered in the Mile End, Little Italy, or one of the adjacent pods – Montreal is not always affectionately called a small city. Too small, according to anyone jilted by a once-lover who constantly runs into him thereafter, or keeps accidentally dating his similarly shitty friends.
Every Montreal-based musician I know describes the music and art scene here as incestuous. Because everyone knows everyone, and everyone works with everyone else, but also because of social cross-pollination. Civility between musicians and artists is at risk when, say, it is so likely for a guitarist to start dating the ex of an ex-bandmate.
“Break my heart!” He dared me. He was named like a play on the painter of the death of Marat. We were sitting on concrete under a small bridge in the park, caught in the rain. The sudden downpour, we had been expecting it, figured we’d lucked out when the sky stayed clear as long into the evening as it did. Like with most things I do, I’d pushed my luck too far. Related: First dates are best with both parties stoned. He kissed me between beer sips and chain-smoking his Peter Jacksons (“Reds,” he’d demanded of the Chinese gentleman at the dépanneur).
“Careful,” I teased, “I just might write about you.”
“Please!” He dared me again.
He’d grin enormous after each quip, each grin another dare, like, I dare you to be charmed.
He has so many teeth, is what I thought. Ow-ow.
Under the bridge, he climbed onto my lap, nuzzled my face with his face. In my periphery, a boy abandoned the scooter he’d been riding uphill, walked away angstily while another boy came up behind, took the scooter, and rode it away.
In the morning, maggots frothed out of my fire-engine red cylinder poubelle and wriggled, white and flaccid as was He the night before, the first night he spent in my bed. Like a true romantic he stood watch on the Persian rug nearby (I declared the floor to be lava) and watched me clean and listened patiently to my roommate’s squeamish squealing. I felt his loyalty like hot wax dripping onto my pelvic floor. Should he have dressed for casual conversation over torrid love affair, would he have had as many tears in his jeans? “Easy access,” I said. “I’m not easy,” he said. But that was my line.
He’d wield the word “we” so confidently, I thought – but didn’t dare say – “Baby, why do you do this to yourself?”
We kissed while mounting our matching Peugeot bicycles and the old white-haired street fellow bellowed in cigarette-rasp French, “It’s important that you are in love! You are young! You should be happy and in love while you are young!” Celebrating us or warning us, I couldn’t tell. As we rode our bikes away (the old man still calling out to us to love, to be in love), He yelled singsong, “WE’RE IN LOVE!”
I chimed back: “AND IT’S IMPORTANT!”
He’d look at me like he wanted to actually eat me. Dressing my feet so we could leave his stuffy apartment (stuffy because we’d practically hotboxed it), he kneeled, took my sandal in his hand, slipped it onto my tan-lined foot then took a bite out of the meaty part of my calf. His every gesture was grandiose like that. Like he couldn’t contain himself, as if his body was not enough to house him. He was always bursting at the seams, by which I mean his Vesling Line. But we took our time. Restraint is the gold standard of desire: arbitrary in value but relentlessly effective.
Thoughts that buzzed in my brain as I’d smoke my cigarette on the terrifyingly near-broken balcony (so Montreal):
Is it too late to change my mind? Should I ask Charlotte to shave my head?
The plan had been that we’d gather at The Plant to shear me on the night of the vernal equinox. I wanted to wear the badass attitude I was predisposed to project, defending myself by baring it all. Instead, I chose a lame devotion to the desire of men. I considered performing the ritual on the solstice, instead, imagining that to sever those keratin ties would let me be alone at last. I opted to follow my friend’s example in more subtle ways: to obscure everything I think or feel in long, arduous notes, amplified through so much reverb and thick delay that, while the truth is right there, it is inscrutable. Musicians have it easy, in this one way, because the technology changes the spirit of their sounds for them. As a writer, the closest equivalent to a guitarist’s effect pedals I have are mind-altering substances. When the work must be done, I prescribe to myself whatever induced delirium suits the mood. The side-effects are part of the work, too. The side-effects become another thing I can write about. Case in point.
I can’t help but laugh at the misery of my own choices; while the choice I finally made was clearly the more responsible of my self-imposed options, the heart is such a nag, ever pleading against my best interest in the interest of a good time.
The tragedy of a species becoming unfit for life by over-evolving one ability is not confined to humankind. Thus it is thought, for instance, that certain deer in paleontological times succumbed as they acquired overly-heavy horns. The mutations must be considered blind, they work, are thrown forth, without any contact of interest with their environment.
Oh hell, oh goddammit, here’s the all-too-predictable arch: I’ve come to a crossroads cliché, and in bad faith, at that. What is the meaning of the disaffected tone I’ve been writing in? If the event of my leaving did not cause me pain, confusion, sadness, lines of rigorous internal questioning, challenges to my very identity, I would not be writing this. There is no point in writing something personal if I am not going to let things get personal. Leaving my home is a very personal revolutionary gesture, and my fear of appearing vulnerable is staggering me back from authentically heartfelt prose. Art is beautifying the undesirable appearance of vulnerability, if you consider weakness alike with ugliness. It is also an easy mistake to conflate being vulnerable with being open to intimacy. I am a private person, even though I write about myself in revealing ways, because every time I write about myself I am manipulating truths to best serve whatever it is I really want to say. Naturally, Vivian Gornick put it best:
The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader. Yet the creation of such a persona is vital in an essay or a memoir. It is the instrument of illumination.
In the recent past I have published stories and lived a writer’s nightmare: I have been confronted by my muses. Caught with the ink stains still on my fingers. We are all just so close that subtlety in life-as-art is near to pointless. I’ve been accused of trivializing or betraying our intimacies. Try as I might to embellish the truths in my fictions, the material that moves me is so specific, so steeped in particular intimacies, there is no use hiding behind metaphor. To salvage relationships, I have had to apologize for work I am proud of. I have had to explain to people I care about that what I’ve written, while inspired by them, does not literally represent how I feel about them. It’s exhausting, so I keep inventing better ways to hide behind my own words. Fiction is useful. The disconnect between life and art enables an artist to perform authentically and relentlessly.
For those among us unfortunate introverts who struggle to connect their higher minds to their tongues in the presence of others, performance is our most accessible social tool. Even in one-on-one conversation. I could stretch the definition of the word performance further or just tell it straight: I know, and have known, many performers, and this is how they tick. The performance stands in for vulnerability, for intimacy, for uncomfortable truths. The performance can be self-effacing humor or grandiose behavior or melodrama or the makings of promises and of connections. I, too, perform. But my style of performance is an extension of my Deepest Self, a presentation of inner truths, not a dressing-up or masking of them. My kind of performance is easily unlikable. I figure some are uneasy knowing the stories they’re being entertained by are true stories, therefore not plausibly about them. Everyone likes to feel represented in the culture, I think. “Identify with” is a lie of a clause. Our nature is to replace anything with ourselves.
Realizing the dishonesty in so much performance, I challenged myself to make counter-intuitive choices. I am aware that the most fun people, the compulsive performers, are not whom I ought to align myself with per se, but I attract them, I believe, because I see through them, so they think I get them, and I am attracted to them because they are easy. The unapologetic deceptiveness of my own logic somehow surprises me. Now I’ve written it down, the audacity of it sinks in my chest like some too-big oblong thing in a hard swallow. Having written it, I exhale its weight. But I’ll still have to live with having thought and recorded said thought.
I take no pleasure in the aforementioned game anymore. I am residually disgusted with myself when a friend consoles me “Oh, don’t bother trying to reign in your consciousness like that, it never works.” I feign relief and chase my loathing with the satisfaction of having figured out this thing that’s puzzled me so long. Then I check myself: Nothing’s that simple.
Related: Never assume the author has privileged knowledge. We (authors) don’t necessarily know anything nobody else knows.
One thing I will say with authority: all of the best, brightest days of this city’s prolific music scene – days when money and attention and time were, for certain bands, a given – are spoken of exclusively in the past-tense: months spent in the studio, years spent on tour; their twenties as a time of critical acclaim and modest financial gain, and their thirties, already well underway, a plateau lived out on a literal plateau. One of life’s cruel jokes. I love them, sorely, because they all keep playing. My love for these boys is real, I think, but I know, I know: it’s Peter Pan syndrome. I want to see this Never Never Land shrinking in my rear-view.
He was concerned with how thin I am, but he reassured me: “You’re skinny, baby, but you bounce in all the right places.”
Everything’s a joke with him so I’d scrutinize his words for traces of sincerity. It was obvious, though he couldn’t say it in obvious terms, who the fragile one between us was. Who was the one being left behind, in the end?He would remind me of this, then laugh it off, because he dare not ask of me what he really needs to: Baby, be gentle.
I asked how he would’ve felt if I had not told him on our second date that I was moving 3,000 miles away in two months. He said his heart couldn’t stand it.
At times of transition and instability, stability becomes my central fantasy; counterintuitive, perhaps, but scary effective. We talk elopement and Green Cards, we hold hands, we croon Ba-by to one another full stop. What a relief when he shuffles into his jeans. I am a bad person but a satisfied woman as we exit the bedroom, air heavy with sex, and confront the day-world in exchange for coffee and smokes.
“I’m washed up, baby!” He says through his teeth. I realize I know his wolfish grin. I’d seen it, and that blood pool in the white of his eye, years ago, in his old band’s most popular music video.
The wolfish grin turned to a grimace as he softened between my legs; then, to a snarl when I hurt his heart, when it was nearing time for me to leave. Because he’d been deliberately respectful of my need for privacy, out of hurt, he threatened that he’d out us to any who asked. It is a commonplace, rather benign threat; as I said, Montreal is stiflingly small. Everybody knows. Leonard Cohen sang that, for chrissakes.
To write about a jilted lover is to seize power over a lost cause. When I’ve lost access to a certain tenderness, all I have left is what I can create of the experience, no matter how relatively little it meant to either of us. On principle, I cannot abide betrayals of intimacy. Is nothing sacred? In this case, I err on the side of yes: because, and only because, with his promise to betray me, as far as I’m concerned he’s betrayed me already.
I think that “privacy” is to contemporary female art what “obscenity” was to male art and literature of the 1960s. The willingness of someone to use her life as primary material is still deeply disturbing, and even more so if she views her own experience at some remove. There is no problem with female confession providing it is made within a repentant therapeutic narrative. But to examine things coolly, to thrust experience out of one’s own brain and put it on the table, is still too confrontational.
By the time I finally got on that plane – direct flight from Logan International to LAX – I figured I was doomed to be the Fiona Apple of alt lit.
I want to go far enough back into my history that I no longer recognize myself. My friend Xi tells me she has undergone psychic surgery. Her medium performed the procedure via Skype call. Psychic surgery is something you should be ready for, really prepared for, Xi explains. That, before undergoing psychic surgery, you should already be on your path to the next level of your personal enlightenment; you should be open to the forces of change in the universe, receptive to major upheavals, ready to confront the gnarled tumors around which your personality is calcifying with age. Otherwise you risk an incomplete extraction, cancerous cells spreading and reproducing en masse, more harm than good. She describes her “procedure;” meanwhile, I recall my parents’ very real surgeries, the very real tumors they had surgically removed. What I would give for the physical surgery to have a simultaneous psychic extraction. That shit leaves more behind on a body than dilapidated breast tissue or abdominal scarring. Anyway, I know Xi means well. When she offers to put me in touch with her medium, I almost yelp a yes at her. But I am checked, this time, by the non du père, lest I am lost to (what I imagine my own father deriding as) such New Age follies. I ponder what psychic antibodies we’ve got fighting us for us and how many crystals I could crush-and-snort to boost my metaphysical immune system. Preventative medicine isn’t very American, but I believe in it.
But I am an American. And before WalMart was a national pastime, we were OG DIY. America, home of MacGyver. Be your own surgeon! I need to cut, cut, but they don’t just give those kinds of tools out to women. What may I have? I have teeth. I can bite. Sever the sinews! He has so many teeth, and I listen to them chatter, chatter away; even when the men are not around I have their sounds and musics in my ears all day, day-dreaming of them, dreaming of them loving me, dreaming of them dreaming of making love to me. I need silence. I need to bite. What they do let us women have is tweezers and nail-clippers and razor blades and files. We DIY our psychic surgeries as a matter of purpose, but never quite deep enough, not enough to reach the recesses where the self-loathing festers.
The cosmetic changes help a little, so I cut my hair over my sink. I slice the cherry angioma off my forehead and cauterize the wound with a sterling silver knife and a lighter. I change places.
What if I had stayed? Would it have ended well? I try in vain to not ask. If a hypothetical situation doesn’t happen to actually happen, who cares what could have been? Like a forest ablaze in a dank, wet country. Or competing insect swarms battling for a marsh that’s about to become a parking lot.
Anyway, some futures are intentionally predictable, because that’s how people like them, like the formulae of old blues standards. So I walked away from my life in 4/4, counting time by the repetition of my migratory pattern: variations on the theme of my existence.