Shooting the Messenger
Till Death Do Us Part
Unlike Kelowna, rent in Ottawa was prohibitively expensive, but there were alternatives for those short on cash. One option was Pestalozzi College, an urban commune named after Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi [1746-1827], the famous—or infamous, depending on your point of view—Swiss pedagogue and educational reformer.
It was a college in name only. Pestalozzi was a modern twenty-story apartment building on one of the National Capital's more famous streets: Rideau Street. This was a prized location only a short distance from Parliament Hill and an even shorter distance from the University of Ottawa (l’Université d’Ottawa), Ottawa’s downtown bilingual university.
It was the layout of the apartments that made Pestalozzi special and the rent affordable. Most apartments consisted of three or four small, spartanly-furnished bedrooms featuring a bunk bed with pull-out drawers, a closet and a desk. In some configurations, you had two or three small bedrooms and one large bedroom with two bunk beds, two desks and one closet. The bedrooms opened into a central living and dining area. Depending on the number of bedrooms, you shared one or two bathrooms.
Unless you went to Pestalozzi as a group, you had no idea who your communal companions would be. I moved into an empty apartment with three one-bunk bedrooms and one large two-bunk bedroom. With the start of the fall semester, the building quickly filled up, including my little corner of the world on the 16th floor. The first to check in after me were Bob and Marina, who took the larger bedroom.
Bob was a tall, thin young man with long black hair. He had this booming voice, or should I say, booming laugh; Bob did not so much talk as laugh, a slightly hysterical laugh. He also had this vaguely frantic disposition, bouncing around the apartment like the proverbial butterfly. Bob was more into fashion and make-up than most women I have known, and better at it! Bob and Marina’s large bedroom would occasionally double as a makeshift beauty salon for the residents of Pestalozzi. Bob’s makeovers were nothing short of spectacular. Bob was your stereotypical gay guy. Marina, however, was not your stereotypical lesbian.
Marina was a short, slightly overweight, large-breasted young woman. She may have been considered overweight by today's standards but perhaps not to the Inuit community from which she came. Like Bob, she had long black hair. Unlike Bob, who wore his hair like Jesus Christ Superstar—that is, unkempt but so clean it sparkled—she always had hers tied back, which only emphasized her pleasant round face. Marina taught Inuktitut part-time at Ottawa U.
I never got close to Bob, perhaps for obvious reasons, but with Marina it was different. We never really became bosom buddies, no pun intended, but she was the only one I found comforting when things did not go as expected. Marina was into Tarot Cards, usually 72 cards, 22 of which represent virtues and vices, death and fortune, and are used to ostensibly tell the future. Whenever I felt my life was going down the tube, the cards predicted that times would get better, which they usually did.
Marina had been the victim of multiple sexual assaults until she came up with her own solution to stopping the attacks on her person. Her radical solution was not to resist and to laugh at her disconcerted assailant as he attempted penetration, and even after. In her "milieu," rape was somewhat commonplace. She said that for a rapist, a struggling victim is half, if not most, of the fun. She took the fun out of it by not resisting. Laughing at her assailant meant she was diminishing him as opposed to him diminishing her. After her reputation was made, the rapes and attempted rapes stopped. Short-term discomfort for long-term relief; it had to take guts.
On a number of occasions, Marina asked me to accompany her to a strip club a few blocks west on Rideau Street so she could hook up with a girl or woman who understood her. In those days, women did not go to a strip club without a male escort. The male friend would camouflage her intentions: to buy a girl a beer and discretely arrange for a bout of intimacy, usually at her place. I became her chauffeur on some of these outings.
Marina became a model for me on how to talk to women. I already knew how to listen. From the conversations I had with her and the conversations she had with women and girls she fancied, I came to appreciate that women want to be treated both as sexual objects and as human beings—not unlike men. Marina, the woman who loved women and the intimacy of igloos on cold arctic nights, was partly responsible for my finally needing the fingers of my other hand to count the women I would get to know as friends and lovers.
Canada recognized women as persons in 1929, 52 years after Confederation. It took only a few years after my discovery of women as sexual beings to come to the same conclusion. Having realized that women were people too, it was only natural that I would extend the same courtesy to Bob, his short blond-haired boyfriend, and their acquaintance, a pasty Little Orphan Annie look-alike.
When the boys were short of cash, Little Orphan Annie would go down to the park behind Ottawa’s premier hotel next to the Parliament Buildings, dodging queer-hunters with bats and broomsticks, to tend to the men and boys waiting in the bushes where the Rideau Canal meets the Ottawa River. The area behind the Chateau Laurier has since been extensively renovated and most of the action has moved to a park on Ottawa’s other river, the smaller Rideau. You can still, however, get your mind—and other parts of your anatomy—blown in a variety of ways a short distance from Parliament Hill.
With the arrival of Pierrette from Québec City and André from Mont-Laurier (a small town in North-Western Québec), our little, randomly thrown-together commune was complete. Pierrette was a slightly taller, thinner version of Marina and wore her hair the same way. Pierrette was a natural leader, although our community acknowledged no such person in theory. You picked up after yourself and kept the place clean because Pierrette expected you to. She was a woman of few words, but when she spoke, you listened: a single loud, “ÇA VA FAIRE!” (That's enough!) when she was studying was sufficient to quiet even the most raucous crowd. Like André, she had difficulty with the English language, which may explain why she and André did not associate much with Marina, Bob and friends.
André worked as a disk jockey at a local radio station on the Québec side of the Ottawa (Outaouais) River. To this day, he remains the funniest person I have ever met. Dinners were a laughing riot. It wasn’t long before Pierrette fell in love with André, but he was not interested. André is the only man I have ever known who expressed no interest, in the more than eight months we were together, in an intimate relationship with either sex.
Many weekends, when Pierrette and André returned home, Marina and I would share a bunk, with Bob and Blondie on the other makeshift bed, passing around a joint and listening to Pink Floyd, the Stones, Led Zeppelin or whatever, talking late into the night. It was not all small talk or rambling on the politics and pop-philosophy of the day; we also talked about Adam Smith, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche’s influence on Wagner’s music, etc. German philosophers seemed to be a favourite of Bob and his boyfriend.
At the end of the school year, Pierrette moved back to Québec City. André would shortly find a job with Canadian Armed Forces Radio and leave for Germany. The dynamics of the commune were about to change with soulmates of Bob taking over the space vacated by Pierrette and André. It was time to move on, in this instance to another apartment with the same configuration on a different floor.
Charles, a retired airman, occupied the large bedroom. It must have been the mother of all divorce settlements for him not to be able to afford accommodations more in keeping with a man his age and status. His conservatism and parochialism meant he was no competition for the two professional young women who occupied the remaining smaller bedrooms. Huguette had recently graduated from teacher’s college and started teaching at an elementary school in the French enclave of Vanier while Rhona was articling for a law firm.
They were serious young career women for whom Pestalozzi was just a convenient and inexpensive place to call home while they planned their futures and paid off some debts. Huguette had an out-of-town boyfriend. Rhona admitted to never having experienced an orgasm during intercourse; I accepted the challenge. She was a good sport, with only the occasional “I told you so” shrug when a requested change of position proved as inconsequential as the previous. Both Huguette and Rhona, and even Charles, were good company, but it was the truncated time I spent with the young woman across the hall that left an indelible regret instead of a pleasant memory.
She lived alone in one of the smaller communal apartments. Her place was always a mess. Everywhere you looked, there was a piece of clothing—even underwear—strewn about. The kitchen counter was seldom free of empty packaging from takeout or a dirty pot or pan from the day before. The walls were bare except for what could pass for a child’s attempt at painting still-life: flowers surrounded by a smooth, cheap grey frame made of balsam.
How could a woman who always appeared impeccably dressed and groomed in public live in such a mess? I got to know and often shared a drink with the slender, Twiggy-like blonde living in that mess. We would sit at her kitchen table—a four-by-four vinyl and wood imitation of a butcher's block on stainless steel legs—drinking and talking about our impossible relationships. I don’t remember what she poured in my glass except that it wasn’t wine, and it wasn’t beer. All I remember is that I did not like it that much. It was probably rye or whiskey, something my father drank.
She had the saddest blue eyes I had ever gazed into. I stared at her; she stared at the painting. Even when she looked at me, she was looking past me. She talked about the man she yearned to be with. The man whose company she craved she described as brilliant, a brilliant misunderstood artist. The man she talked about was confined to a state institution. Montréal is only 120 miles from Ottawa, but she was spending today’s equivalent of a thousand dollars a month on long-distance telephone charges. Our short evenings together usually ended with, "Il faut que je fasse un appel" (I have to make a call).
It may have been the Twiggy-like figure with the sad, misty blue eyes who first mentioned seizing the moment before self-preservation interfered and spoiled it. It was just talk; we were just talking. Who has not talked or thought about leaving this world on his or her own terms, and not according to some mythical god's timetable? Sometimes, when I spot a Minister walking the Halls of Parliament or on Wellington Street accompanied by a good-looking blonde with a binder or a briefcase, I am reminded of her. She spent a lot of time with government movers and shakers and at least one Minister.
She was not from Québec City but somewhere else where English is a foreign language; it might have been Gaspé or maybe Rouyn-Noranda. Young Québec women with a college degree or even a high school diploma, who could not speak English but had a pleasant personality and good looks, easily found jobs with one of the many personnel placement agencies that specialized in providing ministers, members of Parliament and senior bureaucrats with private one-on-one tutoring in conversational French.
One evening, I found her in a much-improved mood. There was life in those beautiful blue eyes and the mist had dissipated. She said she had found a new job or something and that she was leaving. Before I left her that evening, she took the painting off the wall and gave it to me. “Pour toi; j’en n’aurai plus besoin” (For you; I won’t need it anymore). She gave me a hug and held on for the longest time. Before closing the door, she said: “Tu sais, si pour toi la vie ne vaut rien, rien ne vaut la vie” (You know, if life means nothing to you, then nothing makes life worth living).
Back in my apartment, I turned the painting over and, in the most beautiful handwriting, I read: “Si pour toi la vie ne vaut rien, rien ne vaut la vie.” I thought the message was for me. How arrogant. How could it have been? It was not signed, and her giving it to me had been a last-minute decision. It was his message to her. Why did I not see it at the time? The painting was her link to the man in Montréal for whom her heart ached, and she would not part with something so precious unless...
The next morning, someone made their way onto the roof of Pestalozzi and, as the sun rose, jumped. I was told that a body had been found on the stairs in front of the eastern entrance to the building, but nothing else. To the east was Montréal and the man behind the painting. It did not occur to me at the time that it could have been her, and that giving me the painting was her way of saying goodbye forever. How could I have been so clueless?
Try as I might, I cannot remember her name. Forgetting her has been the worst, reminding me of my own failings as a human being. With her name I might have been be able to find out what happened to her. Maybe it wasn't she who jumped, and I shouldn't feel guilty. It doesn't help that, more than a few years later, as I was cleaning out my garage, I came across the painting. It had suffered water damage and was so moldy, I had to throw it out.
Pestalozzi College has since been redeveloped into a typical apartment building and is now called Horizon Towers, the urban commune concept having fallen into disrepute—too many visits by the police and the fire department, I suspect.
It was during my stay at Pestalozzi that I took the public service exam and was given my first assignment