Melissa Bull’s poetry collection, Rue, was published by Anvil Press in 2015.
“I like to get a good draft going,” my father said in the summertime, when it was that 40-degree heat wave time. He liked to get a good draft going. What he’d do is he’d open a bunch of windows and doors at the front and back end of our long Montreal apartment. He’d lie down on the settee in the dining room or stretch out in his study and mutter poetry to himself out loud, or page through his piles of books about the historical apostles, or read his sheet music along to a live concert on some German radio station, and he’d fall asleep caught up in his paperbacks among the season’s damp drafts, hoping to wake with the morning birdsongs. If he heard any, he’d save them up to tell me about them. He’d say, “There was a male cardinal out on the fence this morning—it was glorious.” He used words like “glorious” because he was born in a small town in Ontario during WWII and his family—always at the ready to spy some beauty in the natural world—were in the habit of employing the vocabulary of the sublime in their daily lives. That casual use of highbrow language is something I miss about my father now.
When my parents broke up they sold the duplex they’d converted into a house. I was in kindergarten. My mother got the kind of apartment you can find all over Montreal—spacious with high ceilings, its many rooms breaking off of one long hallway, with a fire escape at one end and a two-chair-wide balcony on the other. She lived on Claremont just below Sherbrooke, about a twenty minutes’ walk away from where she’d lived with my father, and its proximity meant the commute wasn’t long between visits, which was thoughtful, and it eased the transition for me.
I’m not sure what motivated my father to move directly across the street from my parents’ Hampton Avenue place—if it was just easy, or if there was some generosity to it; if it was for my sake or in some heartbroken way for my mother’s. He packed everything he owned into black garbage bags, including actual bags of garbage, and moved across the street, to the second floor of a triplex. It took us a while to root out the garbage bags full of garbage from the garbage bags full of our stuff. Our place stank for a while as a result, but it was worth it for the joke.
Our upstairs neighbour’s name was Tamara. She was bedraggled and most certainly unwell. I don’t think she worked. She was depressed and probably addled with something else, probably many something elses. She shuffled around smoking cigarettes in her nightgown or unitards or in bulky, monochromatic caftans, though they had fallen out of style. Her nails were claw-like and nicotine-dyed-yellow—as if once she’d been pretty enough to be vain about her nails, or maybe she’d never been pretty enough so she grew her nails long to compensate, or she just had naturally strong nails that grew despite her unkemptness. She tried to commit suicide a few times. There’d be ambulances and stretchers and we weren’t allowed to talk about it with our friends. It was hard to understand so we laughed about it uncomfortably. One day she was gone but not because she’d died: she’d changed her name to Amber and moved to a halfway house a few years later; one of those ones in NDG like where Karla Homolka lived under a pseudonym.
Our landlords, the O’Connors, lived downstairs: a family of five grown sons living at home with their elderly folks. All the sons but one worked as movers for Meldrum’s. My father’s favourite story about that family was the time the O’Connor patriarch, Lloyd, got drunk one night and stole the chairs off the whole block’s porches to set up a proper mass in a neighbour’s yard in the middle of the night. There was an Italian family next door who kept a statue of the Virgin Mary in a beer fridge with the door jammed off. Floyd had set up everyone’s lawn chairs in a respectful semi-circle around the sacred beer-fridge-grotto.
My best friend Vanessa lived next door. We were about the same age, and in the same grade at school. Our bedrooms were aligned and we would yell through the walls to each other, amazed that we could hear each other, as exultant as if we’d cracked some secret kid-code the adults had hidden from us all our lives. But I could also hear when she got in trouble. I could hear her yelling, “Please, not the wooden spoon! Not the wooden spoon!” And the ensuing thwacks. My parents spanked me too—mostly my father did, and it was awkward and embarrassing—but never with kitchen utensils.
As a five-year-old, my greatest fears were related to what I watched on TV at either of my parents’ houses. Since I was at my mother’s from Thursday to Sunday, my Saturday morning cartoon ritual was a French one. Most French-from-France cartoons from the 1980s concerned homeless children whose parents had abandoned them to the streets or gangster frogs who murdered each other and floated pathetically to the top of their ponds, so Saturday mornings could be a downer. I liked The Smurfs—Les Schtroumpfs. Definitely less drama than the gangster frogs and homeless kids, but I was terrified of Gargamel. I thought it was possible that he might live in my mirror and step through it at night, and cast spells on me while I slept, as wizards are wont to do.
I didn’t watch much TV with my father, but he liked to take me to the movies. Sundays through Wednesdays, when I stayed with my father, I was frightened that ET hid in my closet, just waiting to poke me with his glowing index as soon as my father left the room. I could visualize his wrinkled neck slowly extending up to my bunk bed to make eye contact. And then, that one terrifying, orangey-glowy poke. My father would check the closet for ET and show me that he wasn’t there when he’d tuck me in, but his system never seemed entirely reliable.
My childhood room at my father’s house had a shag carpet made of various shades of brown, and a bunk bed painted royal blue—that Matisse 1980s blue. The bed was just a novelty item since I was his only child. There was a sign on my doorknob with a definition of my name—Melissa means honey bee—on it. I had a rainbow mobile, and a poster with a picture of the earth captured in space over one of those wicker chairs from the 1970s that look like cobra heads.
When I stayed at my mother’s house I never had to get her out of bed if I had a nightmare. She could pick up on it and she’d be there without me calling for her first. I had to go get my father, though, if I woke in the middle of the night. Sometimes I’d wake up and not be afraid, and I didn’t mind that my father hadn’t come to check if anything was the matter.
One night when I was about six years old, Jesus paid me a visit. I was sleeping in my top bunk. I was in the top bunk and crying—the only time I remember crying about my parents’ divorce, though I must have cried about it more than that one time. It was probably around the time of the custody battle, when I had to choose who to live with, and I’d picked my dad. With that hyper-awareness of fairness that children have, that especially only children may have, I knew that it was a decision that had hurt a lot of people. No one had asked me why I chose my father but this is why: because my grandmother had asked me to and I took her advice.
So I was crying on my top bunk, and then in walked Jesus from the kitchen into my room. He put a hand over mine and said something nice. Something like, “It’ll be okay,” or something else brief and soothing. He was wearing one of those brown terrycloth robes like in my childrens’ bible. A fully-covering terrycloth robe—not one of those halfsies things that snapped, like what my dad wore after a bath. Jesus put his hand over mine and said something. Then he was gone.
The only person I told about Jesus was my cousin Pierre-Antoine. I told him in grade five, when we were hanging out in his basement eating jawbreakers and seeing who could belch the alphabet. He was showing me his marbles and we were talking about God and I told him that I had seen Jesus once. He believed me, he said, because he had a friend who’d seen the Virgin Mary. I thought his friend was full of baloney, or that he was telling (as my father called a lie) a stooo-ry. No one ever saw the Virgin Mary; only superstitious people.
It’s funny that I wouldn’t believe his story when my own boundaries for reality were, clearly, quite porous. For example I used to dream that I could fly down the staircase of my parents’ house. I believed it to be true to the extent that I threw myself down the same flight of stairs quite matter-of-factly when my friend Amélie said didn’t believe me that I could fly.
I remember handing Amélie my papers and crayons and saying, “You hold this,” and I remember jumping trustingly into the staircase. On the day that I’d chosen to show Amélie up, I did not fly but somersaulted. The stairs were steep.
But even now, I do remember flying down the stairs—flying, not falling. I remember early morning light, and my yellow pyjamas with the feet, and landing in my older half-sister’s arms, light as cotton batten on a dusty sunbeam.
So I wasn’t that surprised, when, one night, feeling a presence in the room, I found that I was actually being visited—by cats. By many, many cats. It was like some kind of musical gone ghetto; we were all alone in the moonlight, them and I.
Portrait of Jesus Christ
Once again, like the time with Jesus, I had been sleeping in my top bunk at my father’s house. And then I was awake. In the dark. On the window sill, directly across from me, on the dresser beside my bed, and the wicker chair, and rolling in the shag carpet, were at least a dozen cats. Their eyes glowed in the feeble light that filtered in through my window.
I wasn’t sure if it was like that time that Jesus had visited me, or like the time I thought I could fly. I was aware that this might not really be happening.
I climbed down the bed’s ladder in my bare feet and padded through the kitchen, down the hall, and past the dining room into my father’s room. He was snoring like fathers snore, sinuses unkempt, body flopped back over about five folded-over pillows. I shook him awake and told him my room was full of cats.
He said, “No, no Melissa, it’s a dream. Go back to sleep.”
And I said, “Papa, there are cats all over my room.”
And he said, “It’s just a dream. Bo back to sleep, Silly Milly.” You know, mumbly, eyes closed.
I said, “Papa! There are CATS. ALL. OVER. MY. ROOM!”
It was like some kind of Robert Munsch punchline that we repeated and bounced at each other like that—him all sleepy and me all insistent until finally he got up in that dutiful father way, in that way that says that I was his kid and this is something you do when you have a kid, you get up and show the kid that there is no ET in the closet and no cats in the room. There was never any feeling that I should know better. He was cool about it. He just hulked around in his big comforting bulk and we went into my room like he anticipated that there would be times like this, and that he loved it, and that he was surprised that I would come in and tell him there were cats in my room, and that I was an interesting kid, insisting on this anomaly of a school of kittens, a flock of cats.
He didn’t think about his liking drafts.
We arrived on the scene. All the Hampton Avenue cats were hanging out up in my room like they had all RSVP’d to the same midnight cat party. They were jumping from my bureau, from my desk, their eyes reflecting the streetlight in the alleyway. There were at least a dozen of them. One of them bawled.
My father shooed them out through the fire escape beside my room the way he’d shoo out bats. With a strange, wordless yell and a series of ungainly movements that involved bending at the knees and kicking forward in a way that made me worry he’d lose his balance and fall, though he didn’t. The cats scattered.
I don’t remember what happened next.
Melissa Bull is a writer, editor, and translator based in Montreal. She is the editor of Maisonneuve Magazine‘s Writing from Quebec column. Her translation of Nelly Arcan’s Burqa of Skin was published by Anvil press in 2014 and her collection of poetry, Rue, was published in 2015, also by Anvil.