On the train from Montreal, Sylvia experiences the lateral expanse of Canada, not by watching the limitless landscape, because she rarely looks up from her novels, but through three days of percussive repetition, sound and pound, throb, informing her body of the country’s unfolding. She finishes Catch 22 and starts War and Peace, eating chips and peanuts and chocolate bars by feel, without emerging from the wars. Only when she has to use the toilet or buy more snacks, does reality, her astounding isolation, confront her. Has she really left? Chosen to move, to move alone, into this discomfort? The devil she doesn’t know. When the seats are transformed into berths for sleeping, she scurries into her warren with the bottle of rum she had removed from her mother’s liquor supply, sips away her agitation, and falls asleep painlessly. She awakens in the morning to muddled awareness and regret, still amazed at her decision to make this journey. She doesn’t recognize her courage, only her fear and loneliness.
One morning the tracks end, the rhythm stops, and her body unfolds into the great insecurity of a drizzly city where she knows no one and has to put things in place on her own: university registration, apartment searching, life. She moves from train to baggage claim to taxi stand to the billeting, found for her by the Friends of the University Association, where she is to stay while she finds her own place.
A basement suite just off Fourth Avenue, the not yet yuppified, or even hippified, section of Vancouver, where students can afford to live, is on a well-picked-over list of places provided by the University. Its two rooms have a mattress on the floor, a yellow Formica and chrome table with two matching chairs, a cactus, and a broom. The Association lends her bedding and a couple of towels, and gives her directions to the closest Sally Ann. She uses one of the towels to cover the seat of the less dilapidated chair, after its torn, hardened, oilcloth upholstery grates her upper thigh. It is here that she sits, using the second towel for the tears, her refrain, ‘you don’t bloody know anyone,’ repeating in her mind like a schoolyard taunt. She acquires a cat, her first pet, and trembles with him in her arms all that inaugural night because, even more than the journey and the distance, she is terrified of this strange creature, his slinking closeness and his needs.
She shares the bathroom and something of a kitchen—hotplate, fridge, sink—with the tenant in the other basement suite. She hears his noises and avoids their common area, except in the morning when she waits and waits for the bathroom. When she fills the fridge with groceries they are stolen by the ghost next door, so she keeps the Corn Flakes in her room and eats them dry if the milk is gone. She obtains a few items from the thrift store and a few friends from her classes.
One evening, when Sylvia is dense with loneliness and unable to locate any of her new acquaintances, she walks along Fourth Avenue, undecided, directionless, toward the bridge, then back a block, then turns around again. Each time, she passes a strange and beautiful installation. A shipwreck of furniture, stacked and sloppy, is moored on the sidewalk. Tables, chairs, beds and bedding, lamps, carpets, kitchenware, and, perched at the summit, a long-haired, shiny-eyed, pipe smoking, twenty-something man, semi-reclined on a crimson velvet couch. Her third pass evokes a comment from the king-of-the-castle. “You look a little lost.”
“Me?” Sylvia agrees, yup; lost, alone, displaced, afraid.
Impossibly, not even a spoon is dislodged; his descent is so agile.
“Come with me.” He darts behind his mountain, “I’ll show you Vancouver.”
They squeeze through a door behind the furniture. Narrow steep stairway, two steps at a time. A landing and a second flight of stairs. At the top, white arches lead to white, unfurnished, spacious rooms. Out of breath, Sylvia watches him climb through a window into the evening sky at sunset. She follows him like Alice.
They are sitting on the slanted, black roof tiles, which still hold the day’s heat, and view Vancouver like a series of backdrops on a stage: the traffic and stores below, Plimley’s Auto Dealers across the road, street after street of wooden Kitsilano houses. The beach, the bay, the mountains. The sky. Pink and red fade and are exchanged with a dimming blue. Sylvia worries about that deserted crimson couch and all its trappings below—until her guide passes her his pipe. As the sky darkens, the definitions and perspectives are slowly replaced by city lights and star lights.
When it is too dark to see there are sounds on the street below, chatter, movement of furniture, the crash of a dish on the sidewalk, people shouting, “Jack. Jack”. “You there?” “We’re coming in, Jack.” “Open up, Man.” The moving crew.
Sylvia and Jack join the choreography; worker ants file up the stairs with their loads, deposit them at the top and return to the bottom for more, shifting their bodies sideways on the descent to allow the burdened to pass up the narrow stairwell. There is often a retreat, backwards and upwards, as the width of tables, bed parts, bookshelves, make double passage impassible.
The pile has been moved to the living room. Rugs are unrolled, Moroccan cushions are scattered and the workers recline. There is beer and pot and incense and the record player is found. Henry, round and jovial, is moving his things into one of the rooms at the front. Jack has chosen the one facing the mountains. Marie is asleep, her head on Tanya’s lap. Colin seems to be asking Sylvia questions about herself but the words take so long to reach her that she forgets the beginnings of his sentences and cannot answer. Paul has gone down to the Chinese restaurant on the corner, with Sylvia’s money, to buy egg rolls for everyone.
When Sylvia is offered the dark room at the back, she moves in the next day. She doesn’t wait for the end of the month or try to have her damage deposit refunded. Sylvia thinks, ‘menage-a-trois’, not really understanding the polygamous implications of the term, but it sounds sophisticated. Her room is gloomy but glows in comparison with the basement suite she has left, and it is only a few steps through the kitchen and into the massive, white, minimalist room at the front, which Jack, like a flighty Puck, is endowing with magic; painting murals of forests and fairies and English gardens, using colours out of tubes and visions out of vials. He has surely poured a potion in her ear, so in love is Sylvia with all she sees. After she is settled, she buys herself a peasant dress, floor-length, velvet, purple with white lace trim, plunging neckline—and wears it like a princess. She plants herself in the ballroom on a stool across from the scarlet sofa, purple fabric stretched between her knees where she cradles her cello. She plays Elizabethan tunes to complete the fantasy. Lady Sylvia, Titania…
The house is often full, parades and clusters forming between the red velvet couch and the purple velvet woman. Pantomimes and gestures. Pirouettes and pas-de-deux. Poetry readings. Gambling. Stoning. The notes of the cello meander amongst and around, enriching the tableaux with Sylvia’s soundtrack.
Some days when the place is empty, some nights when she is alone—when the cello is silent and the Vancouver rain has flooded the interior of her home and her mind—memories float over the damp and shiny landscape which has replaced the silence and clamour of her parents’ house, the big stone house in Westmount, Quebec; rich, white, English Westmount.
They let her go, paid for her to go, wanted her gone as much as she wanted to be gone. She remembers her mother recycling stories of “Sylvia, the Difficult Child.” She had walked at nine months of age, had the nerve to start walking at nine months so that Mrs. White “never had a moment’s rest” after that. She had torn up pictures of the baby, born when Sylvia was three, “old enough to know better.” From the age of two she had been “flirtatious” with “any man who crossed her path.” “I could never understand her. Obstinate, moody, overly sensitive,” Mrs. White complained. “She didn’t let me sleep. I had to put a lock on my bedroom door when she was little. We’d find her in the morning, fast asleep at the threshold.”
Sylvia remembers her own uncomfortable secrets. Those night terrors, locked outside her parents’ bedroom. Caught stealing candy from the neighbourhood five and dime, not by the shopkeeper but by neighbourhood kids, who rang her doorbell and “told.” Being the last one to be picked for team games, when, at puberty, her armpits suddenly began emitting a skunky, perplexing odour.
There is a repetitive memory, which she has related to her roommates, of a little girl sitting beside her mother in the back seat of a car. “She wore a long fur coat that changed colour when I stroked it. My hand moving on the fur, watching the colour change, deep brown, tan, deep brown, tan, soft and warm, the rhythm of my stroking interrupted now and then by my mother lifting my little hand and placing it back on my own lap. Her coat, soft and warm, dark like the colour of her thick long hair.”
She does not recount, even to herself, stories about her father, who had so little presence because, intuitively, knowing it was the only way to control his limitless sexuality, he stopped talking to his daughter, even looking at her, when she started growing breasts at eleven. Except to tell her that she was too fat and to stop feeding her face.
She nurtured the dream of getting away, a year before she actually applied, and was accepted, to the music school at the University of British Columbia. There had been a different plan for her. Because she had gotten good marks in the sciences in high school her mother would have had her enroll in a nursing program after completing her science degree from McGill, in two more years. It was acknowledged that she was smart and it was denied that she was creative and conflicted and seething, although all these things emerged or erupted through her adolescence and early womanhood.
When her sister, Peggy, showed a particular ability on the piano Sylvia’s lessons were discontinued, switched to cello, so that the two girls could play duets for their mother’s parlour mentality; at their parents’ dinner parties and on the world tours that only happened in their mother’s dreams. Sylvia hadn’t enjoyed the piano, Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata, repeating, repeating. The second by second, note by note metronome, like traffic masking the pleasure of a country path. Her mother beside her, warden, “Ugh! not right, play it again, Sylvia”. The competitions which she sat through and which her younger sister won. But the rich, versatile, portable cello invited her into a world of music beyond the sitting room: adventurous, expressive, surprising. She could practice, unchallenged, for hours in her bedroom, moving on from the simple tunes she was given, to improvisation; exploring the possibilities of her instrument like a lover.
Manon, a new live-in maid from Trois-Riviere, was hired, with an excellent reference from another Westmount family, and ensconced with her personal items—family photos, books, her own pillow, her record collection—in a single room off the kitchen. Living with the White family in a parallel world, stretching and crouching to remove the detritus that the family had shed, she knew her place as she cleaned theirs. She was not a smiling person, but that was not what Mrs. White needed. “She’s rough around the edges, but I can’t fault her cleaning,” the woman told her friends in the very room where Sylvia and her sister would entertain, at the very time when Manon dusted the knickknacks behind the chattering group.
Who can say how Manon tolerated the hours of vapidity, of redundancy, of loneliness, and what occupied her mind while she moved her energy through the house? She followed the schedule that had been assigned: the massive crystal chandelier to be cleaned with a vinegar solution twice a month, the living room sofa and love seat vacuumed only before and after the room is used for company, the kitchen appliances wiped thoroughly, daily. Any crumbs left will attract ants, mice. Her work must have been adequate for it to be so unacknowledged.
But the floors and paintings and furniture in the hallway beside Sylvia’s room shone with Manon’s pleasure in hearing the adventures that were going on behind Sylvia’s closed door. Deep resonant chords, tiny droplets of pizzicato, extended drawing of the bow across strings while Sylvia, inside the room, and Manon outside, forgot to breathe.
One evening, as she was looking for a late night snack, Sylvia, discovering the sounds of Thelonious Monk emerging from Manon’s room, spit out the half-chewed pulp of her noisy apple and settled onto a kitchen stool until the needle rubbed its advanced technology into the record’s centre. But it was Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain that—one evening when Mr. and Mrs. White were out—found Sylvia, cello in hand, in Manon’s room for hours, improvising with Miles.
Their friendship was clandestine. It was only 1964. Women had had the vote for less than fifty years and the civil rights movement was under hard savage attack in America. Classism in Quebec was full-bodied and epidemic. Manon was four years older, twenty-three, but she and Sylvia looked like twins. You can imagine them, stretched out on their backs, side by side on Manon’s single bed, staring at the ceiling as though they saw the notes of the saxophone, the bass, the drums parading above—and maybe they could. Heads almost touching, the colours of Sylvia’s hair duplicated in Manon’s; highlights of red in nests of brown, scattered and mingling, long and crosshatched on the one white pillow. Four glistening brown eyes, actually, yes, the same dimple, the same intensity, the same pleasure and pain, both listening to Coltrane with acuteness, with luminosity. And when they stand at the same time, Manon to change the record and Sylvia to the chair to embrace her cello, you can see that they are animated in the same way. Sylvia’s slight advantage in height is hardly noticeable, nor are her slightly larger breasts, nor is Manon’s more delicate build.
Manon watched and listened to things that Sylvia experienced in the house; Mrs. White eavesdropping on Sylvia’s phone calls, Sylvia’s sister maneuvering the parents to favour her, the father’s lecherous observations of his daughters. It was Manon that helped Sylvia understand that the younger woman had to find a way to leave, that she was being smothered and repressed and abused in the family home.
But it was Manon who left. They were discovered when Sylvia, off to a lesson, was retrieving her cello from Manon’s room.
Their parting was supervised. Manon, walking to the taxi that would take her to the next employment— she was given a positive reference; Mrs. White was not a monster—called back to Sylvia, “go.”
“Go,” repeated in Silvia’s head like gunfire, filling the evacuated places, accompanying her cello practice, activating a scheme. Her loss, her anger, sparked a current of planning and audacity.
Her trunk was sent ahead. August 26, 1965 was a day earlier than her date of departure. Sylvia’s father walked her along the track, overcame his impulse to shake his daughter’s hand, gave her a hug and watched her board the train. Sylvia rode the train standing up until it arrived, thirty minutes later, at the Dorval station. Here she picked up her baby blue overnight bag, her Samsonite suitcase, her cello case—and debarked. When she arrived back at the downtown station on another train she perched on one of the wooden benches, noting how hard and uncomfortable it would be to spend the night there if Michel weren’t to arrive.
Before Manon left, she had advised Sylvia to fill her musical gaps by joining a jazz or chamber group at the university. “Quarter Notes” was both, a French horn, a double base, a viola, percussion and, when Sylvia joined, a cello. It was an unconventional constellation with a unique repertoire; mostly jazz modifications of traditional, recognizable, classical pieces. Michel played the base. There had been an attraction. Virginal flirting. Advancing and retreating. Fencing. Practicing together, they allowed their instruments the pleasures their bodies withheld. When Sylvia told the group she was leaving, she directed it to Michel. Now that she had a plan for herself, a revolution, she had a plan for him. Her plan was only possible in the context of this great step she was taking in her life, in the context of the courage and faith and hope her move involved.
Michel did arrive. He took her and her luggage on three buses to his brother’s studio apartment in Point St. Claire. He had brought along sandwiches and there was a half bottle of wine in the fridge. They watched the late, August, building-filtered, daylight ease into darkness. A touch here and there, a stroke. It was a long time before they kissed. Together, apart, together, apart. Tango. Neither of them were talkers and neither of them were lovers. But Sylvia had been experiencing the thrill of her brazen scheming all day. When night was full, she grasped his hair and pulled him to her. Their bodies aligned; caressing, pressing, licking, gnawing, poking, scratching, tickling, laughing, moaning.
Now, in Vancouver, Sylvia remembers that she missed the next-morning train and had to spend the day and night on the hard, wooden bench in the railway station after all, her legs spread over her suitcase and her cello, grasping her little blue overnight bag in her arms. That long day of exhaustion and triumph and giddiness and aroused places in her body. This longer night of doubt and apprehension returning.
Jack’s friends, Henry’s friends. Sylvia and her music weave through them like spiders. She tries to trap them in glistening and sticky threads. She wants to make them her own friends. She wants them to remember her and notice her music. There is a flautist who sits beside her, plays and leaves. There are people who come in costume, Robin Hood’s merry band, to perform in front of Jack’s murals. There are people wearing beads and flowers. Flower children.
Jack (Puck, she has begun to call him) likes her to play as he paints. And then he likes her to stop. He puts on Donavan or Joni and sings along.
Henry is Bottom. A large lumbering brown bear, cuddly, clumsy. Everything that can be damaged is chipped or cracked from Henry’s loping. But his face beams with the joy of little things; the smell of morning coffee, the taste and pride of his own casseroles. And of bigger things, the sound of Sylvia’s cello, her shadow on the white wall behind her. The soft fabric of her dress that he wants to touch. She tries to talk to Henry, “I don’t like you in that way…I like you as a friend…” as she picks up the pieces of the bowl he has just knocked down, then leaves him to pick up the pieces of his broken heart.
Jack creates the real damage. He seems to like Sylvia “in that way” but maybe not as a friend. He is there and not there. He shares Henry’s casseroles and passes around the marijuana he grows at a friend’s farm up the valley, and crawls into Sylvia’s bed. Some nights. Some nights he is gone for days. Some nights he comes home with other women who stay for days, even weeks, who chat with Sylvia in the salon or in the kitchen, or even follow her into her bedroom like a chummy roommate. Sylvia tries to be cool. She is trying to learn the new rules of this society she has joined. The rule of not having rules. The expectation of not having expectations. The confused and desperate freedoms. The communal confusion. The confusing heartbreak.
She is not sure of the rule for love. Or even the word for love. Henry loves Sylvia. Sylvia loves Jack. She takes a daisy from her hair and plucks the petals, ‘he loves me, he loves me not.’ She knows he doesn’t, so much evidence, and that the flower is ruined for nothing, but she is unable to extricate herself from a fiction that is rewritten when Jack stops painting to listen to her cello, when he brings home a garland for her to wear, the very garland she has just picked apart, looking for magic. When he follows her to her bedroom and spends the night, the whole night, alone with her, she tells herself lies. She needs someone to point out her self-deception, Jack’s general indifference, his callousness, his self-absorption. Henry sees it but is no help. Jaded as he is by his own infatuation, he thinks that Sylvia is the callous one. She needs Manon.
Instead she gets her sister. Half way through her graduating year, Peggy is already deemed deserving of a graduation present, so she is airmailed out to the west coast for the two weeks of Christmas holidays. They are not ready. Sylvia—trying to negotiate the labyrinth of her peers and the strata of her emotions— is not ready to play host to this package of tumultuous unknown. And Peggy is not ready to be introduced to the entangled filaments of Sylvia’s scene.
But here she is. They embrace at the airport and are silent in the taxi after Sylvia asks after her parents and is told they are fine. After Sylvia asks about the flight and is told it was fine. When they reach her Fourth Avenue address, Sylvia borrows her sister’s eyes and sees the dreary, wet, winter, grey of the building façade. She leads her sister through her enchanted doorway, now a gaping dark hole that she would like to avoid. They both picture the Westmount house, virginal, snow-covered, grey stone, lined with Christmas lights: safe, serene, barbaric. On the stairs Sylvia notices the smell for the first time: a mixture of mould, old tobacco, fresh marijuana. She looks to see what is registering on Peggy’s face. Revulsion? Fear? Moving beside her sister, everything in Sylvia’s world is now on trial.
Sylvia brings Peggy a cup of tea where she is soaking in the big claw-foot bathtub, almost asleep, drained from jetlag and the three-hour time change. She gives her the towel she had borrowed from the Friends of the University months ago, realizing that she should have returned it. So many things she has forgotten, or lost, or chosen to hide, until seeing them now through Peggy’s eyes. But Peggy’s eyes are closing and Sylvia tucks her into the bed they will be sharing while Peggy is here. She flies around the flat, trying to sanitize it. There is no dish soap, no vacuum. There are no rags. She uses a pair of her underwear to sweep the dust bunnies from the edges of the floor and then dumps some leftover, caked, laundry detergent on the same panties to tackle the decay in the kitchen sink and on the refrigerator shelves. Henry and Tanya are stretched out in the salon watching her erratic activity and she commandeers them to assist her, giving them money and a shopping list; broom, dustpan, garbage bags, pot scrubber, paper towels, dish towels, apples oranges bread eggs cheese butter cereal milk. They look at her blankly and she hears them laughing on the stairs and wonders when she will see them again and what they will bring back.
When Peggy wakens almost two days later Sylvia has disguised and sanitized the house. But not Puck’s murals in which she has discovered grotesque and erotic creatures. How could she not have noticed the phallic tree trunks, the woodland creatures with huge erect penises, the leering, panting fairies, the huge bums and breasts attached to ecstatic facial expressions? Were they just added? Was it Jack’s perversion to add these as a welcome for Peggy? A statement? Or had they been there all along censored by Sylvia’s cognitive dissonance? Sylvia buys a Christmas tree to place in front of the most explicit scene and strings garlands and ornaments to cover what else she can.
Nor can she disguise Puck himself, who greets Peggy with the charm that Sylvia now recognizes as dangerous and duplicitous, whose influence Sylvia, in spite of herself, is still under. She introduces him as Jack and tries to eclipse him with Henry but would need Oberon’s magic flower to effect that feat.
Peggy is not in bed when Sylvia wakes to use the bathroom in the dark pre-dawn morning. She is not in the salon. She is not in the kitchen. Sylvia knows where she is but looks for her anyway. Behind the curtain. Under the couch. In the cupboard under the sink. She could open Jack’s door and find her sister in Jack’s bed but she goes back to her own bed instead. Who has betrayed her, Peggy or Jack? Who has betrayed Peggy? Sylvia, for not protecting her from Jack-be-nimble? Or Jack himself for taking advantage of Sylvia’s ward? Sylvia examines them when she comes upon them in the salon the next day. They are sitting together on the red couch, not sitting, entwined, like a knot of writhing snakes, oblivious that Sylvia has entered their Garden of Eden. She draws the bow across the deepest notes on her cello and separates them like a snake charmer until they stare at her without seeing her, mesmerized, as if they had been poisoned by their own venom.
Peggy says she is not going home. Sylvia tells her she can go to hell. But Sylvia needs to get Peggy home. Sylvia’s freedom is at stake. She has to make sure her parents don’t get involved, don’t find out how Sylvia is living, don’t discover that she has dropped out of school and is using the money they are still sending her to pay the rent and support everyone who is living in this den. She knows she has to go to Jack. To hell with Jack, too.
She tells Jack the situation and he looks at her blankly; he has perfected that look. She reasons; Peggy hasn’t finished high school. She threatens; she will go to the police—Peggy is underage. Statutory rape, she tells him. If I get dragged out of here, who will pay your rent? she implores. You are such a bastard, she screams.
She goes to the phone booth on the corner and reverses the charges. Her mother doesn’t understand what Sylvia is telling her. Panic rising, all she hears is ‘Peggy’, through Sylvia’s garbled sounds. Someone is telling her something about Peggy. Sylvia stops sobbing and tries to speak calmly but, as Sylvia calms down, her sister’s mother, panting and crying, has become too noisy to hear what Sylvia is saying. What has happened to Peggy? What has happened to Peggy?
Peggy is removed from 2264 Fourth Avenue, by a government agency for the protection of children and youth, and put on a plane to Montreal. Jack has disappeared. Henry is still around but he and Tanya are elusive. Everything has emptied and even the cello can’t compete with the silence of that hollow place. Sylvia buys a gallon of white paint and paints over Jack’s murals. When the cheques stop arriving, Sylvia gathers stuff from throughout the pad, some of her clothes, a locket Peggy had left, Jack’s boots. She forms a small pile in the middle of the stark white room. She would like to toss a match on it but, instead, she invites the few visitors who are still coming around, to buy something. Jeremy finds Jack’s paints. Eleanor buys Sylvia’s purple dress. Peter wants the red couch and returns with a friend to cart it away while Sylvia stands at the top of the stairs to watch it drop like a tossed boat, under the horizon. Her life in reverse. Out on the roof in the drizzling rain Sylvia sees Vancouver, gray, sad, gentle. That’s how it is in the winter. She will have to get used to it.
Photo by user Rob