In 1990, I was young and stupid, but not only in the way one would expect a 20-year-old to be. That summer I tried to immerse myself in French. And despite all the political huffing and puffing of that time, I chose Trois-Rivières, an hour north of Montréal, because I knew damn well I wouldn't be speaking any English there, yet I was still relatively close to Montréal, where I could occasionally go dancing and get drunk with my pals. Such were my priorities.
In 2005, when I finally returned to Montréal, I was no longer young and stupid-like-a-20-year-old, but this new smarts was not the kind that comes with 15 years of schooling/living/loving. This time I was in la belle ville nursing a memory of that very first day in 1990, one I've only recently tried to unravel and translate, noticing how its resonance has accented my entire writing life.
On a humid Montréal morning, I stood in a doorway on St-Laurent trapped in an extended flash-storm. An older gentleman, perhaps in his late 70's, stood with me. My French skills being what they were then, and recognising the dapper man sharing the doorway with me was undoubtedly French, I prayed he would not speak to me.
Of course he did, and I stammered something close to an appropriate response. He smiled politely, sympathetically, and spoke in his disjointed English, a true gentleman.
'Pierre-Henri,' he said, and shook my hand. We chatted briefly, then he asked me to coffee. Such a sweet, charming old man, I thought, and harmless, to be sure. We left St-Laurent, towards St-Denis, and a café he knew off rue Rachel.
We spoke English, but I became increasingly uncomfortable, recognising I had a genuine opportunity to practice my French, but was too embarrassed to be any more vulnerable than I already felt. Besides, what was a pretty 20-year-old young woman doing having café au lait with an old man? I wondered.
The café was quaint and reminded me of Paris. I forgot my doubt and stepped through the doors.
Pierre-Henri ordered for me then explained his son and grandchildren lived in Montréal, that he'd been in Quebec City since retirement. His family was very busy, but he was used to being alone since his wife passed away. I listened to him struggle with his English, but paid more attention to how his thin grey hair was elegantly cut, how his summer suit was perfectly pressed and only barely rumpled by the downpour. He was small in the way slim men turn as they age, becoming somehow more boyish looking. His eyes, blue and fair, were almond-shaped, and the edges were creased with delicate lines. He was simply a lovely man, and when I wasn't self-conscious I let myself smile prettily at him.
As he began to tell me about his travels through Europe in the late '30s, he ordered us another coffee and described those days when every adventurous Montrealer went to Paris. They went there to celebrate their youth. He smiled knowingly at me, and I became instantly nervous: Was I giving this sweet, lonely old man the wrong impression? Whatever could he want with me?
The dance halls were where the women were, he said, and because he could dance, that's where he went too. But he was broke, and he needed to find money fast.
In French, suddenly, earnestly, he asked if I liked to dance. He touched my hand, and it took effort not to pull it away from him. Yet, he was formal in his speech. I couldn't read him, and it was unsettling. I shrugged a yes-and-no.
'You prefer I should use English?' he asked in English.
'Non, je comprend,' I insisted. 'I know a little about dancing.' I had misunderstood his initial question.
'Well, chère, I danced. For money.'
I finally understood: A male gigolo. How fascinating, and impressive, given how it seemed he could keep up to his old tricks, as it were. And as I yearned to hear more, his English worsened, and his familiarity increased. He repeatedly used touch to make a point, as he described the finer details of the dance halls. He made eye contact, as he tapped my hand. He called me 'chère' again.
I felt the humidity, the three cups of coffee, the jet lag, and the insecurity begin to swirl around my head. As I stood, he was saying something to me. All I could say was 'Excusez-moi', when I meant to say 'Désolé.' He repeated himself but I did not hear him. He smiled politely, stood up like the eternal gentleman he was trained to be, and moved to kiss me. I was not yet familiar with the bijoux-double-kiss of the Québecois, and I pulled away, certain it was all just a terrible misunderstanding.
As I hurried back towards St-Laurent, I heard him. His words were gentle, sincere. I finally heard what he said to me before I ran away.
'I was a professional dancer; I danced with Josephine Baker . Do you know who she is?'
Even now, recalling the missed opportunity I had to speak with someone who wanted to tell me his stories, stories I could never conjure on my own, my heart tenses with regret. Missed opportunity always sways this melancholy way.
Since then, it has been a slow learning to engage in my curiosity, to allow myself to step into it, turn on the flashlight and shine it on every corner and crevice, until I feel rewarded. This has led to some crazy-seeming scenarios, risking fear or looking like a nut job, trying to exploit opportunities to unravel something new. Risking fear of what it might uncover, yes, but also, because it may challenge my preconceptions. That, I finally recognised, as I wandered through Montréal last autumn, is the souvenir of Pierre-Henri.