The first time I travelled alone was on a pilgrimage of sorts to Montreal. I was a student and the city was a long way from the comfort of my parents’ Vancouver Island home, but I was determined to be a writer and writers hit the road.
From the airport I went to a Tourism Montreal visitor centre and waited in line for an agent. I peered down at the new hiking boots that had chafed since breakfast. I was pleased I had persevered through gate changes and baggage claims and bus transfers and Métro stops to get to the birthplace of my literary hero: Mavis Gallant. I would explore the places that had inspired Mavis and I would be inspired. I would visit the haunts where she had written and I would write.
A teen with a name tag waved me forward. I eyed her stack of tourist maps and neat clutch of highlighters. “Hello there!” I chirped. “I’m on the trail of Mavis Gallant!” The girl across the counter stared. I plowed ahead, tapping out my wish list on my fingers: directions to the author’s convent school, her former homes and her office at the Standard. The counter girl blinked. “Em, who?” Mavis. The Pied Piper of Montreal. Only the greatest short story writer of all time. Canada’s most enviable literary export. The girl scrunched her face at me. “Who?”
Deflated, I left the visitor centre in search of the apartment that had been loaned to me by a friend-of-a-friend I hardly knew. With each step the blisters on my heels bloomed. In my mind, I was already shedding my bag in my new digs, flopping on the couch and reconstituting the pieces of myself that I’d flung into the world all day. The prospect of a cold drink and a shower buoyed my spirits. Refreshed, I would devise a new plan to find Mavis in Montreal.
I emerged from the Métro into an industrial neighbourhood southwest of the city. The sun beat down on a busy road and graffiti. Sweat trickled down my back. From the street it was clear the front door of the apartment was ajar; the friend-of-a-friend had not mentioned roommates. I pushed the door open with my boot. Inside, dust bunnies flitted across the hardwood without so much as a couch or a chair to impede them. I wondered if the place had been robbed and whether I should call the police, but there was no phone and I could not speak French. I avoided two stuffed garbage bags in the middle of the floor in case they contained food scraps or mismatched body parts. In the corner, a blanket and pillow were pressed into the window seat as if someone had just gone for cigarettes. “Hello?” I called into the emptiness. The floor beneath my hikers shifted. Through a broken window, I glimpsed a train hurtling past. Could I picture bedding down here for the night, possibly with strangers?
Back on the sidewalk, the heat rose. A truck pulsing with music crept by at close range. The driver and his passenger yelled something in my direction. It sounded impolite, but I had no way of telling. Peals of laughter pressed in. I determined that if I had to run, I wouldn’t get far—my overstuffed pack was the equivalent of another human lashed to my spine. I considered collapsing in a heap on the sidewalk, resting my head on my backpack and hoisting a white flag until someone took pity and came to the rescue. Unless you died you were always bound to escape. Mavis’s words, not mine.
I spotted a pay phone box up ahead. I got caught in the door’s accordion folds, unable to twist free. My backpack poked into the street. I battled my way inside and flipped through the remains of a tattered phone book. I dialled the number for a university and secured a residence room. I had no idea how far away it was, only that somewhere in the city someone was expecting me.
At the Université du Québec à Montréal I received a key to a door I was assured was secure. It swung inward to a space as blank as a jail cell: single cot, pillow flat as a stick of gum, one tiny window. I dropped my bag and collapsed on the bed. The smell of bleached sheets was comforting. I had no will to complain about a too-hard mattress and I was too shy to return to the information counter to ask where all the hungry students ate.
In my head I recorded the trials of the day—they seemed equivalent to crossing the Prairies on all fours. In fact, I had simply travelled to an unfamiliar city where plans had changed. I gazed at the ceiling, one arm dangling over the side of the bed, and wondered what Mavis would think. I was sure she would find inspiration in the institutional walls, the mottled orange carpet, and would use the scene to get words on the page. Everything I start glides into print, in time, and becomes like a house once lived in. Because Mavis would have savoured this moment, I would savour it.