In Transit: "Prochaine Station: Part 2"

Greg Labrosse

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In part two of Labrosse's story, Oriana's two pursuits become one. Discover the space with her.

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Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”
woman in metro exit

Prochaine station, Plamondon . . . Prochaine station, Côte-Sainte-Catherine . . . Prochaine station . . .

One morning after work, two people walked into the metro car I was sitting in at Snowdon station. I immediately recognized them: it was the young man in the tracksuit with his little sister. They sat on the double seat facing me. In their matching blue and white uniforms, they formed an idyllic image of sibling bliss. The little sister was playing with a swim cap, at first using it as a slingshot to flick her brother’s shoulder, then trying to fit it on his head as he checked his phone. He didn’t seem to be too bothered by her pestering. He looked up for a second and caught me smiling at them. He smiled back, and when his sister looked up to see who he was smiling at, he swiftly snatched the swim cap out of her hand and coolly put it away in his duffle bag. I pulled out my camera and snapped a few shots of them play fighting, the sister happy to put on a show for an audience of one.

We were approaching the transfer station, Lionel-Groulx. I figured I had enough time to go to the market and have a quick bite to eat before my class. When the intercom announced the station name, the three of us stood up from our seats and slowly walked towards the metro doors. As soon as they opened, the little sister shot out of the train and drifted up the stairs toward the exit. Her brother followed her at his own pace, looking up once in a while to see if she was still in sight. I walked behind him, distracted by the white stripes of his tracksuit. When we stepped outside, both of us stopped in our tracks—it was pouring rain. His sister had joined a small crowd huddled under the roof’s thin ledge. We pressed against each other, laughing awkwardly as a puddle formed around our feet. The brother turned to me and said mockingly:

“Don’t worry, my sister’s a professional swimmer.”

“Yeah, I saw that she’s quite a pro with her swim cap,” I answered.

He smiled and held out his hand. “I’m Olivier,” he said, “and this is my sister, Amélie.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Oriana.”

Amélie smiled brightly as she tapped her foot in the widening puddle.

“Are you guys thinking what I’m thinking?” she said mischievously.

Without waiting for an answer she darted into the rain, swerving through the people approaching the station. Olivier immediately gave chase, and a second later, I found myself running after them down the sodden street. I tried to secure the camera in my bag as we jumped over the sidewalk puddles. When we finally caught up with her, Amélie was standing casually under the awning of the market, droplets of rain streaming down her face.

“Chicken skewers anyone?” she asked, with an innocent look on her face.

I looked at her quizzically.

“I never forget a face,” she said, beaming at me.

Olivier looked at me and shrugged. “Your face is hard to forget, you know.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said, and we went to place our orders.

Once we were sitting down at the picnic table, they began telling me about themselves. Olivier was a competitive diver and trained nearly every day at a nearby sports complex. Amélie was taking swimming lessons there over the summer and would wait for him to finish his training before they headed home together. You could see that she adored her older brother, proudly reciting the medals he’d won over the last couple of years. I then told them about my French classes and the project I was working on in the metro. I took out my camera to show them some of the pictures I had taken that morning. On impulse, I decided to show them the Polaroid of my father and told them his story.

“Oriana, you have to come to Olivier’s next competition,” Amélie said abruptly. “It’s this Saturday at the aquatic centre of the Olympic Stadium, where your father ran.”

I was caught off guard by the invitation. Going to the stadium had never really crossed my mind until then. “Yes, I guess I could,” I answered hesitantly.

She paid no attention to my indecision and immediately set a time for us to meet. I decided to go along with it, thinking I could always take photos of the nearby metro stations to get ahead in my work. When my order was ready, I asked for it to go and said goodbye to Olivier and Amélie. My clothes were damp from the rain, but I was in high spirits.

That evening, I dropped by Marcus and Naëlle’s apartment to give everyone an update on my work and to see how they were doing. Dominic was stressed because the deadline for the preliminary work was less than a month away and we still had several stations to survey. I tried to reassure him and told him that I would finish at least two more stations before the end of the week. I then remembered my plans with Olivier and Amélie at the Olympic Stadium and asked him if he had any news from his students in the history department. I was curious to know if they had recognized the woman in the Polaroid picture.

“Thanks for reminding me,” he said, looking up from his computer. “I do actually. One of Marcus’ students noticed that, on the arm of the woman’s uniform, there appears to be a black trident, which is a symbol of Barbados. So, they’re now looking into all the female Barbadian athletes who were at the 1976 Olympics.”

“We’re getting warmer!” Marcus called out from the kitchen, where he was fixing us a drink.

“Thanks to you!” I shouted back, my mind reeling with the idea of finally meeting the woman in the photo.

But my elation was short-lived; when I turned back to Dominic at the computer, his facial expression had morphed into a frown.

“Oriana, who are these people?” he said, his tone humourless.

I positioned myself behind him to see what was on his screen. He was reviewing the photos I had taken inside the Côte-Vertu station and came across the images of the two young women arguing, and then the ones of Olivier and Amélie in the metro.

“I took those once I had finished my work at the station,” I explained, “on my way to class.”

Marcus had arrived from the kitchen, carrying the refreshments.

Mais c’est normal, Dom,” he said, his voice calm and disarming. “Who doesn’t take a few extra shots with the camera when they’re on assignment? They’re good pictures, actually.”

Dominic didn’t respond, but the tension seemed to have dissipated.

Naëlle entered the room with snacks and we gathered around the coffee table. For the first time since the beginning of the project, the four of us ate in silence.

When the day of the competition arrived, I was strangely nervous. More than a month had passed since the beginning of my work with Dominic, and I was starting to feel the pressure of the project deadline. I had no intention of letting him down, but at the same time, my attention was increasingly drawn to the idea of learning something about my father’s time in Montreal, and my encounter with Olivier and Amélie had pushed me further in that direction.

I got dressed and took the metro to the Pie-IX station to meet with Amélie. I spotted her waiting for me dutifully at the top of the stairs. She greeted me excitedly and insisted on guiding me around the site before taking me to the pool where her brother was diving. I followed her outside and we walked towards a large esplanade facing the stadium, but there were several barricades set up, preventing access to the stadium. Amélie approached a security guard who was standing behind one of the metal barriers and asked him what was going on. He explained impassively that the stadium was being used to house the influx of asylum seekers that had begun crossing into Canada from the U.S. that summer. He said we’d have to walk up the street and enter the aquatic centre from the opposite side of the site. I took out my camera to take a few pictures before turning back, but this upset the guard and he asked us to leave the area immediately.

When we arrived at the pool, the competition was already under way. The stands were full with friends and relatives of the competing divers. We sat next to a woman in her late fifties who wore the same blue and white tracksuit I had seen on Olivier. Amélie introduced her as one of his senior trainers and we shook hands. Olivier appeared at the far end of the pool, and the three of us immediately stood up to cheer him on. He walked gracefully towards the base of the platform and began climbing the diving tower. His body was remarkably lean, but even from a distance you could see the strength of his legs and shoulders. When he reached the 10-metre platform, Amélie grabbed my hand in excitement and promptly explained the difficulty of the dive her brother was about to attempt—a backward 3 ½ somersault in the pike position.

Dominic positioned himself at the end of the platform, his back to the pool and his toes barely touching the concrete surface. He raised his arms to the height of his shoulders, his body forming a motionless human T. He held this position for a few seconds, controlling his breathing. He then lowered his arms down to his sides, and in one fluid motion, lunged backwards off the platform. His body spiralled furiously as it fell towards the water, finally piercing its surface like a knife.

“A perfect rip entry!” shouted Amélie, jumping out of her seat.

The crowd applauded heartily as Olivier climbed out of the pool and waved in our direction. Amélie and the senior trainer blew him kisses and hugged each other, full of pride. As I watched them celebrate, a sudden thought occurred to me. I reached into my bag and took out my father’s Polaroid. Once they were sitting down again, and the applause had faded, I gently tapped the trainer’s knee and showed her the picture. I explained how my father had run in the Montreal Olympics and asked her if, by any chance, she recognized the woman who was in the photo with him.

“That’s Yvonne,” she said immediately. “Yvonne Edwards. She also ran in the 1976 Olympics, for Barbados. She was an amazing athlete, who held many world records in the 70s.” She paused before adding, “When she retired from running, she moved to Montreal and became a sports therapist. I still visit her once in a while at her apartment in Verdun.”

She handed me back the photograph. “Would you like to meet her?”

Amélie squeezed my hand tightly as I stared blankly at Olivier’s trainer. “Yes, I would,” I finally managed to say.

One week later, with the help of Olivier’s trainer, I found myself at the Verdun metro station, on my way to Yvonne’s apartment. Dominic had always mentioned this station as a fine example of Brutalist architecture. Its tall ceiling was supported by heavy concrete columns, and its walls were covered with a pattern of geometrical lines pointing in the direction of a skylight, which filled the space with natural light. The July afternoon was bright and warm, but I was happy not to be spending the day underground, so I decided to walk the ten blocks to Avenue Woodland.

Yvonne was waiting for me outside the front door of her apartment. She greeted me warmly and invited me inside. I followed her to a small backyard, which was in the shade of the Baptist church next door. I sat down in one of two garden chairs that were placed on either side of a small wooden table. Yvonne had already laid out a teapot and two brightly coloured teacups for us.

“So, I hear you have a picture of me when I was young and beautiful,” she said, as she lifted the teapot.

I waited for her to finish pouring and took out my notebook with the photo.

“Is this you, Yvonne?” I asked timidly, as she put on her glasses.

“Oh, I can’t believe this! This was forty years ago, almost to the day,” she said wistfully. “What a wonderful picture. We were so full of life.” She paused to examine it more closely. “This is Joaquin, if my memory serves me well.”

“Yes. My father,” I said. “He left us when I was little, but my mother always kept this picture of his time in Montreal. One of the few proud moments of his life, I suppose.”

Yvonne looked at me with deep affection.

“My child,” she said, “I don’t think your father took the Games very seriously. On the day of the event, he showed up out of sorts and got disqualified in the first round. He knocked over one of his first hurdles and fell into the lane of the runner from Antigua, who was furious. The officials had to intervene to separate them.”

I put down my tea because my hand had begun to shake.

“That’s not exactly what I had imagined,” I said softly.

Yvonne cupped my hand gently in hers.

“You know, Oriana, when we’re young, we have this perfect image of our parents. We see them as incapable of any wrongdoing. But as we grow older, we realize that they’re human beings like everyone else, full of imperfections. Your father was a charming man, but he cracked, like a ripe coconut, at the worst possible moment.”

I got up and hugged her tightly. She insisted that I finish my tea, and in an attempt to take my mind off my father, she began telling me about her own Olympic experience and the life she made for herself in Montreal. All her children had grown up and her husband had recently passed away. She lived alone now, but proudly mentioned that she had many friends who visited her on a regular basis. I eventually said goodbye, leaving the Polaroid behind on her small wooden table.

The air had gotten heavier in the hush of the afternoon. Instead of heading towards the station, I decided to set off in the opposite direction. Verdun was unfamiliar to me, so I was walking somewhat aimlessly, as I did when I first arrived in the city. When I reached the end of the street, I saw that it opened onto a broad boulevard that ran parallel to the St Lawrence River. I kept walking until there were fewer and fewer houses around me—just open fields and tall trees. To my right, away from the water, I was drawn by the shouts of a game being played on the grounds of what resembled a hospital. As I got closer, I could see it was a cricket match. The umpires wore impeccably white shirts that read Montreal Caribbean Cricket Society. I rested against a tree while I watched the game from a distance. I took out my phone and thought of calling my mom, but decided to wait before breaking the news to her. I called Naëlle, instead, and told her what had happened. She said in her gentle voice that it was better for me to know the truth, that what my father had done was painful, no doubt, but of no real significance to my own life, since he had never been a part of it. Just as she said that, the batsman hit a straight drive into the open field, the crack of the bat resonating through the tall trees.

By the end of July, my work with Dominic was coming to an end. We met one more time to work on the last station together, Square-Victoria-OACI. He was animated and clearly pleased that the preliminary stage of the project was wrapping up. He was also less distant than usual, and slightly more attentive to my own state of mind. We finished measuring the maps on the platform walls and walked through a connecting tunnel that traversed a large rotunda at the southern end of the station, our footsteps echoing off the black circular tiles. When we exited the station onto Victoria Square, on the edge of Old Montreal, Dominic stopped me suddenly and asked:

“Oriana, did you ever get a chance to see the Habitat 67 building?”

“No, I’ve been too busy working,” I answered with a grin.

“Well, today’s your lucky day.”

We walked down the length of Rue McGill until we reached the port and found a bench that gave us a clear view of the city’s landmark.

“It certainly has nothing in common with the new hospital in Cartagena,” I said plainly, as I observed the building’s unusual modular design. The whole structure was built on a concrete peninsula that was essentially disconnected from the rest of the city.

Dominic shifted into professor mode: “Safdie was influenced by a post-war architectural movement called Metabolism. It was founded by a group of Japanese architects who believed that buildings should be designed as living organisms, and that cities themselves should be viewed as natural systems, continuously evolving in cycles of renewal and growth, like the branches of a tree.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “How can branches grow when they’ve been separated from their trunk like this?”

“What they were suggesting, was that we should accept change as a normal condition of life, and that buildings should have the ability to adapt over time,” he replied. “Of course, their ideas were criticised for being too utopian. But you have to understand that, after the war, one of the only creative escapes for architects was to design artificial worlds, which in their eyes, could imitate the organic processes of nature.”

“I think that’s what I did with my father’s photograph,” I said, more to myself than to Dominic. “I invented a world that never existed, to give my life some sense of meaning.”

As I sat there, looking out over the water, I imagined meeting my father in the metro. By chance, I would see him sitting there, just like another stranger. I probably wouldn’t even notice him. Or maybe something about him would catch my attention; a certain way of smiling, or some spontaneous gesture that would make me curious, and maybe even compel me to talk to him, to enter his space, or let him enter mine.

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