by JEAN HANNAH EDELSTEIN
It was already too late when I realized that some 18-year-olds had the wisdom to choose to study at universities where the sun shone most of the year, in places where winter meant a hoodie and 15 positive degrees. It was too late because I was already embedded in Montreal, in possession of three pairs of longjohns and a puffa jacket that I bought at the GAP (‘It looks great with your jeans!’ said the salesman, and I believed him, hungry for validation because at the time I had a boyfriend who told me that my face wasn’t pretty, but had grown on him).
I wore tights under the longjohns, and a hat that I knitted myself and which looked like an industrial-sized tea cozy. I wore mittens on a string, the kind you have when you are five, because I couldn’t seem to hang on to both halves of a pair for more than three weeks. It was already too late when I realized that I could have been somewhere warmer, but I learned to appreciate winter in Montreal, to savor the way the cold gave me a sense of purpose. As I assembled my layers and set out down the hill I felt intrepid, as if every icy gust I faced rendered the things I was leaving my apartment to do — eat brunch, go to a lecture on Tristram Shandy, sell cigarettes in the campus tabagie — extra-important.
It was already too late, three years later, in my final Montreal winter, when I realized that I was a little bit in love with Daniel, and that Daniel was a little bit in love with me. It was too late because I had already spent my life savings ($400) on a flight to Ireland for Reading Week, chasing a boy from Dublin who I’d met on vacation the previous summer (as if I knew what I was doing, he’d become my boyfriend for the following two years; I really did love him, more than a little bit.) But the Irish boy was only available on e-mail, whereas Daniel was present in my political science courses.
I was very shy, but I was strategic. I found out Daniel’s last name. Signed up for the same tutorial as him. Noticed that he was left-handed and so got to class early and chose the seat next to the only left-handed desk in the room. We started talking. We started sitting in lectures together, going to the library together, eating muffins and drinking coffee in a grimy campus cafe together. Daniel was quite short, blonde, with a fascinating gap in his front teeth that signaled an adolescence too edgy for orthodontics. Daniel was sophisticated: two years older than me because he’d dropped out of university on his first go-round to find himself somewhere in the southern hemisphere. Daniel did not wear his mittens on a string. Daniel’s mittens were discrete. Daniel was clever and studied a lot, which was very attractive, but he also had an air of alluring danger. Daniel was inclined to say things like: I have taken every drug there is except heroin because I am afraid of needles. Does Daniel like me? I’d wonder, and we’d sit side-by-side in class taking notes and whispering remarks that seemed pretentious and witty, paying attention to each other instead of our professor, a former child actor who’d starred in a canonical French-Canadian film about a snowball fight.
One bitter-cold week in late January Daniel asked me if I’d like to go to a Howard Zinn lecture with him. This was incredible. It was incredible, somewhat, because Howard Zinn was a kind of person who I thought I should admire, in keeping with my political inclinations. But it was even more incredible because it would be the first time that Daniel and I had actually planned to meet each other anywhere at all: after two or three months of spending time together, we still pretended that our meetings were coincidence or serendipity. We had never seen each other after six o’clock.
On the Howard Zinn evening we met on Saint Denis, Daniel and I and a couple of his roommates and their friends. For some reason Daniel was standing in the street eating potatoes from a foil container, despite the fact that it was snowing a little bit, that the temperature was in the negative teens. Potatoes? Daniel said, brandishing a plastic fork, and I said No, thanks. And then in single file along the barely-cleared powdery sidewalk with the other young socialists, we trudged to UQAM.
Howard Zinn talked about the impending war, and its wrongness, and Daniel and I looked at each other after Howard Zinn’s most salient points and nodded, our foreheads pressed into serious lines and our forearms touching on the rest between our chairs. Howard Zinn said important things, but I recall less of what Howard Zinn said, and more of the intense excitement of sitting next to Daniel in a lecture theatre that wasn’t at our university. And the even more intense excitement when the Q&A began and Daniel leaned over and whispered, Let’s get out of here. Daniel had no need for Q&A. We climbed over his roommates and their friends and our subtle exit was ruined when the string from my mitten tangled around someone else’s leg and I had to spend a few moments trying to detach it, flailing, apologizing, cringing. But I freed myself at last and Daniel and I headed back north through snow that was now falling thick, fast, sparkly in the street lights.
Daniel lived two or three blocks southeast of me in the Plateau, give or take, and when we reached the corner where we’d part, we paused, flakes swirling around us with the particular sound of a Montreal snowstorm, which is really a particular kind of a silence. Daniel looked at me and I looked at Daniel. I looked at his grey-blue eyes beneath his ski hat and his gap-toothed smile above his scarf and I thought, Maybe now would be a good time to kiss Daniel, maybe now Daniel will kiss me. But Daniel’s sophistication had limits, and I was strategic but very shy, and maybe after a moment it felt too cold to be standing there on the street corner, or maybe some snow blew in my face. So I said, Thank you for inviting me to see Howard Zinn! and then I went home. And I guess so did Daniel.
The next day the cold was still bitter, and Daniel and I met as usual at our lecture on post-colonial nationalism, in a hall where the desks were old-fashioned, looked like they’d come from a one-roomed prairie schoolhouse, with a bench for two and a desk that curved up from it like the front of a sleigh. Daniel sat on one side and I sat on the other and we piled our layers of clothing in the middle, and our child star professor talked about imagined communities. At the end of the class Daniel slid out of his seat and stood on one end of the bench and I slid out of my seat and stood on the other end of the bench and we looked at each other, in silence, and put our layers back on: second sweater. Cardigan. Scarf. Coat. Mittens. Hat. I thought: this feels exactly as if we are getting dressed after sleeping together. And that was the climax of my romance with Daniel.
"You Need Not Scream" - Bowerbirds (mp3)
"Winter's Fist" - Bowerbirds (mp3)