Nonfiction Finalist Sonja Boon

Aug 13, 2016 by

Nonfiction Finalist Sonja Boon

 

French Kiss

 
“He kisses like a garbage can.”

That was Pauline’s assessment when I told her about a man I’ll call Alexander; or rather, when I told her about Alexander and me. She elaborated, telling me that his mouth opened so wide she almost fell in. Pauline had kissed him only once, early in the summer. Four weeks later, the main players had changed. Pauline had moved on and I, well, I had fallen for Alexander.

And now, here we were, Alexander and I, sitting at the edge of the sandbox in the playground across from my house. It was 10 o’clock on a warm August evening. Maybe there was a breeze. Maybe not. In any event, it was completely dark and completely quiet, and we were completely alone. I was sifting sand through my fingers. And I’d just told Alexander what Pauline had said.

Why did I say it?

The easy answer is that he asked. “What did Pauline tell you about me?” A simple question, really. He knew we were friends. We’d been inseparable all summer, conjoined twins who met on the first day of a summer language intensive, kindred sisters who laughed in French and English.

But that’s the easy answer and there’s so much more to it than that. Because as soon as I said it, I couldn’t take it back. And I wanted to say that it was a joke that I didn’t mean that this was a summer romance that it couldn’t be anything else that this thing this us–whatever this us was–was a big hole, so big and so deep that I felt like I was falling inside and down down down into caverns and dark spaces and this terrified me and I was seventeen and it was a game and I wasn’t–

And in the silence that followed I could say none of this, and before I could even breathe he kissed me and there it was–the universe opening up. And baby, I wasn’t in Kansas anymore and I certainly wasn’t in high school and seventeen was so much closer to eighteen than it had been just one minute ago. And it was soft and it was gentle and it was so full of yearning and questioning and wonder and all sorts of things all tangled up inside and I don’t know if it was my yearning, my wonder, my questioning or his, but it didn’t even matter.

I could have said I love you and I would have meant it, even though I wouldn’t have known what it meant.

 

Until this point, my romantic escapades had been few. In fact, they amounted to just one, a two-month relationship with a boy I now affectionately refer to as Max the Mortician. I’d met Max a year earlier. I was an exchange student from small-town Alberta transplanted into urbane Jonquière, two hours drive north of Quebec City. Jonquière was a strange and foreign world, where kids called their teachers by their first names and the bathrooms were co-ed. There was always a thick cloud of smoke hanging over the lockers after lunch. In Religion they talked about sex all the time, but I wasn’t Catholic and in my Moral Foundations class all we did was worksheets.

Max was the flute player who sat right next to me in band. He dyed his hair at least three times in the months that I knew him–red, black, yellow–and on one memorable evening, he pulled out a can of spray paint and turned it all silver. Max wanted to be a mortician, and his future letterhead, spitting out of the depths of his dad’s dot matrix printer, featured cross-decorated coffins. He sent me home with a love letter in the shape of a heart drawn onto the cover of a bound stack of photocopied flute music. A few years later, a friend told me that he was gay. I kept the music–and his hand-drawn heart–for another decade.

But this wasn’t about Max. This wasn’t about high school. This was a man–a man!–a beautiful man of twenty-one with a strong jaw and angular cheek bones, dark curly hair around an intriguing face: thoughtful eyes, full lips, and a nose that gestured towards an Eastern European heritage. Alexander was quiet. Serious. An architecture student who didn’t speak a word of French, even though he was born and raised in Montreal. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that he was a man, and that was perhaps the most glorious thing about him.

This prairie girl was entranced.

 

It should come as no surprise that my romantic life emerged in Quebec, some 4000 kilometres from home. In Quebec, I had no history, no past. Far from my strict family, my high marks, and my conservative small town, I was just the exotic girl from away, and I could shape that narrative any way I wanted. Jonquière was the perfect place to be born again.

In Jonquière, my French sparkled with the sounds of the Saguenay-Lac St. Jean. I bought my clothes at Le Château, teased my hair into a spiky mass and went clubbing at Le Pic on the Rue St. Dominique at 11:30 at night. We paid the bouncer fifty cents so he’d believe we were eighteen and then we’d dance and dance and dance, losing ourselves in bodies, music and movement. At 2:30, we’d pile into the back of a taxi, our sweaty limbs tangling into the sounds of our giddy chatter. La rue de Courcelles. A ten-minute drive. The cabbie would know the way. Once home, we’d tumble exhausted into bed, clothes in a messy pile on the floor where we’d dropped them, makeup smearing pillowcases, hair in a snarl. And we’d do it all over again the following weekend.

None of this would have been possible in my small, dusty hometown just a stone’s throw too far from Edmonton, where the only way out was a Greyhound bus that passed through at 11:40 in the morning and the only nightclub was a shady joint advertising topless waitresses. It wouldn’t have been possible in that town that called itself a city, that thriving metropolis with a Safeway, a Canadian Tire and a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Quebec was a million years away from Alberta. And so perhaps none of this was about Alexander and all of it was about me. Perhaps it was about intimacies I wasn’t quite ready to explore. Perhaps it was about being seventeen.

 

We exchanged student cards at the end of the summer. Promise rings of the gentlest sort? I don’t even know anymore. But I brought that card with me on the Greyhound bus that took me away from home one day in late August, tracing a route across prairie and mountain, orchard and strait, to the southern tip of Vancouver Island. And I placed the card in my desk drawer, where it nestled together with the letters he wrote me in black ink and tiny cramped handwriting. In the months that followed, I created narratives for him–for us–stories about who he was and who we could be. A summer fling with a man–a man!–from Montreal. A man almost ready to fly into the world. A man who wanted to be an architect. A man with dark eyes and a beautiful face and stories and histories that were not my own. Who wouldn’t want to fall in love with a man like this?

Alexander and I met one more time after that summer. His family was flying to Whistler for a winter skiing holiday, he said. Did I want to come along? Perhaps it was an innocent question. Perhaps there was more to it. I’ll never know. But I do know that the thought of a family holiday terrified me. In the end, I took the ferry from Victoria to Vancouver and we walked the cobbled streets of Gastown on a grey and wintry afternoon. Together, we reached toward the magic of that warm August evening. We looked for the swings and we listened for the summer breeze. I longed to feel the sand sliding between my fingers. But all that was left was stillness. Silence. And the memory of a kiss that was both perfect and not quite right at all.

 

Sonja Boon (1)

Sonja Boon is a writer, researcher, and teacher living in St. John’s.

 

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