Translation and revision from the original French Un amour de cafetièreBoth by Anouk Ferland
The doors open and slam shut. José hears two Portuguese chew the fat on the street corner. The knife sharpener’s bells and tinker truck roll in front of them. There is little space for privacy in this neighborhood, but the essentials remain modestly hidden, as if under a blanket. The mall purrs and spits out delivery trucks that are aligning behind it. A punk on a bicycle, a festive drunk with his sweet dog, grandma and the children she is babysitting, all this beautiful crowd parades and sighs right in front of José’s apartment. But his head is elsewhere, it left on a satellite as he breaks the windowpane to jump on the moon. This is all theory of course, his body is well, on earth, in his living room looking out the open window and listening to the sounds of the city. One sound rises through the thick structure: a girl, the next-door neighbor, talking on the phone. José listens. This wall is all he shares with this so-beautiful girl next door. The two sides of his life, like the flipping of a coin in the palm, where he imagines another copy of himself, living in the claustrophobic paradise (the apartments are small in this building) with the neighbor. The physical proximity of his dreamed version of what-life-could-be was all the more believable and soothing.
« No, no, he did not suffer…he was unconscious from the accident on ». The neighbor’s paradise takes a turn for the worse: her boyfriend. However, her voice is still even and gentle. « He did not hear the tram and the rails ate him up. He has always been very distracted ». Some sobbing sounds muffled the conversation. José breathes in without a sound and waits as his ears and mind listen and he gets, that way, closer to the other side of the wall.
He feels like he is inhaled by an opening in the sky: this tall Greek man of 30, his taciturn neighbor, was dead. To think that he would never again hear their sighs, their fights, their conversational embraces, pushes José down in a great depth of shock and inner turmoil. Their presence had transformed José’s unassuming home life. His life as a single man, in a city he did not grow up in. Since his neighbor had moved in with her partner, José’s mornings had smelled of fruits and croissants, baguette and freshly grinded coffee. He had lived, to speak in a certain way, through the smells and sounds of his lady neighbor since her arrival a few months ago. Although, he thought, the fried Mediterranean white-fish and his own taste for the expected lemon to come with it had made him wish he had been the boyfriend on more than one occasion, on those Southern nights, where spices filled up the air and eased through his wall from her kitchen to his. And now, she would be living alone, like him, in this silence that had been eating up at him since his youth and that had been particularly French, for him, at his heart, since the beginning of his exile in this new country.
José came from Cuba in the late nineties. His aunt had sponsored him (she was a dentist) and he had first arrived in her little house near Villeray. He had arrived in Spring, and although it was still cold in the streets, he had loved every gulp of timid sun rays that had hit him. The snow was already almost all melted and thawed. His aunt proceeded by hiring him as a gopher for the dental office, an administrative assistant. His English was very good having worked in the tourist industry back in his home country. But paperwork was a beast, another monster to tackle for which he was not prepared.
Being a rather very visual person, José attacked the problems of scheduling with pie charts. His Aunt, Marti, had asked him to keep certain patients coming back with regular phone calls. He thought it would be very interesting to get a pie chart of each patient’s problems relative to how often they visited. So along with ‘the regular phone calls’, José obtained a picture of the population’ s dental issues presented to his Aunt Marti. He had always enjoyed classifying life into tiny shaped boxes of understanding. His Aunt catered to a mostly Spanish-speaking population with ordinary cavities problems rather than periodontal. So every day visit to Aunt Marti’s clinic was a breeze of fluorine in her patients’ mouths. José enjoyed hearing and speaking his Castilian while everybody mingled and soft pop radio stations dripped their sound in the background of the clinic.
He worked relatively hard to be good at the job, but his Aunt was very proud of his mathematical minded brain. It made sure the scheduling and organizational planning of the office went smoothly. He had moved in the building on Fabre street about seven years later, in a small 1 bedroom but with a charming third floor balcony giving on the front yard with a view on the entrance to the building.
One day, as José was smoking on his balcony, in the lush foliage of the tree and his ferns, he heard a click. The door downstairs was locked. The neighbor was trying to force her way in, shaking the handle, cursing her keys for not opening the door unlike Ali Baba’s cavern on his command. José leaned over the rail, and observed this young woman who obviously needed a hand. As he was thinking how red her hair looked in the sunshine of spring, she looked up to his balcony.
‘ CAN YOU OPEN THE DOOR FROM INSIDE?’ she yelled up to him.
José dropped his cigarette over the rail, and a great cold shiver went from his head to his toes. His heart was shivering but in his lips, blood flooded.
‘Hi. Let me get downstairs now’ he yelled back.
He had three flights of stairs to come down from, and the tree looked a little sad when he left. She had spoken! As José was coming down to the entrance, the front door seemed particularly foggy in its window. His moist palm turned the handle and released the lock-click.
That is what he had heard-this moment of great open, this letting of all the light filter in his lungs as he opened the door, and swallowed deep for his feet grew shaky but his hand was firm on the brass.
The sun warmed up her red bangs, delightful mourning bangs full of sunshine.
‘Hey. Thanks, I am not sure whether the copy I made works. It appears it doesn’t. ’ she said as she picked her bag from the ground.
‘You’ll have to make another double then’ said José. ‘But I have a few copies at home. Do you want to borrow one in the meantime?’
‘I don’t want to trouble you with lending me keys’ she answered ‘I am Svena. What’s your name?”.
‘José Marti. It is no trouble at all.” he said, handing his hand over to hers. As they touched, he felt her woolen glove in his palm, and saw the spark of her red hair, blinding his sight, and her mouth, marked by a smile.
‘You’re my next door neighbour, José?’ Svena asked with a concealed surprise. ‘I like to think neighbours here are all pretty discreet, so I wasn’t sure if it was you or one of your friend on the balcony earlier’.
‘ Come on up. Is your bag too heavy?’ he asked pointing to her groceries.
‘The shoulder bag is worse, but its good for the fitness of the back. I am a massage therapist so I have to keep fit. It’s a physically charged and demanding job really. Thanks for asking about the groceries though.’ She smiled as a small line of delight folded the skin on her chin and pinched her cheeks into a dimple.
They climbed the stairs without further talking. The wood of the stairs creaked for the happiness José felt at smelling her hair so close to him, just behind him. Every one creak, every one more stitch to his heart. His feet were feeling the ground again, and his knees were like two strong men pushing him up the stairs, to open up the floors to Svena’s own presence.
Once he got to his apartment, he disappeared behind his door. Svena smelled the pot pourri on the small desk next to the hall in his place. It smelled of musk and roses. Behind the door, José was looking in the box, inside the closet, to find the keys he would lend to his neighbour Svena. He showed up at the door, triumphantly and as a hero, with the copy of the key to the downstairs’ door in his left hand. ‘ I am not sure what is sweetest: having a key or having smelled that pot pourri in your apartment. I was wondering where that odor came from. I think the walls are made of thin cardboard in this building’ she said ‘thank you. My late boyfriend always loved that smell.’ she added.
‘It’s more likely the ventilation system because I smelled some of your cooking. Lots of olive oil smells.’
‘I have ordered more food than cooked food recently. With the passing of my boyfriend, I haven’t had the time nor care in the world to feed myself through my own hands’.
‘Yes, the concierge told me. I am sorry Svena.’
‘Yes, well, life is not what it is all made up to be I guess. Thanks for the key. I’ll drop it off once I have taken it to a shop’.
For the next few months, José lived in his apartment on Fabre Street. Many neighbors came and went but Svena, next door, stayed on in the building. She dropped off the key in his mailbox, the week following their first and only meeting.
In his apartment, when night came, José would start the night with jazz and classical concerts by having his records playing gently in his living room. On many occasions, he observed that the neighbor’s apartment drew silent and that she would curl up, he liked to think, with a book in a chair, to better benefit from the music through the old wall. Svena.
Behind the living room, down and along the wall, was the sink of the mirrored washrooms. The latter rooms were symmetrical on each side of the division by the wall. That is where he would hum when he once heard her brush her teeth. The flossing was impeccable, he could tell, because she would smack her lips in a loud thump after she had freshened up and rinsed her mouth from the cup of tap water. The precision of the sound came from the water piping system between the two apartments. Their respective homes were intricately and structurally linked up, connected in their very own foundations. One Fall, as he was drinking a glass of some icy brown coke by the door, a strong pumpkin soup smell, mixed in with whiffs of garlic cloves, did churn his nose into parchment paper, and leave him soaking up in the perplexing patterns of these flavors. Svena.
By the time he discovered hair growing out of his ear, he had fallen in love with the neighbor. He was in his late twenties. Through the sounds and smells of their apartments joined by a wall, José knew a silent love.
One late afternoon, after weeks of loud phone calls in a balkan language (these calls reminded him ( their tone, intonation, the rhythm, their tuning) of grits of sand finely polishing a rough surface), after weeks of that, she left. He learned that she was leaving the country to go back to the people of her youth, the ones still living in the Greek white villages. She took with her smells of croissants and feta cheese and sounds of pop music, and left José without any home to speak of but this apartment, less than an empty paradise now, without her behind the wall.
The night she left, José was playing his records again, with no public this time, except for his own ears and the phantom of a love. Absence really chokes up everything in the end: in the case of José, it choked up his past, his present and his future. He returned to live with Aunt Marti in the following spring. No one knows for certain what happened to him after the big fire of 2008. Everybody dispersed and no one kept contact with each other. All occupants at the time of the Fabre street’s building were thought to have made it out alive, except for pets that were too old or too fat to be rushed out the door. Two residents, it was later heard, went missing however, but no remains were ever found. The night of the fire, a pet parrot came flying out to her mama’s shoulder, out of the smoky windows, yelling ‘baby, baby’ or what she knew of human words. It was a curious accident in the neighborhood of Fabre’s Street. The building was reduced to rubbles and embers, and the only one thing left was the concrete wall separating José and Svena’s apartments, proud and still standing firm, after all of that.
I moved out in December 2007, and never saw any occupants from the Fabre’s building again. Funny all this blank silence after all those years between people who grew so close to each other due to mere physical proximity. Just because of the way the apartment building had been built, many years before any of us were born.