by Imola Zsitva
I saw her every morning at eight fifteen on the corner of Avenue de L’Épée and Fairmount. First to emerge from the electric car were the black, high-heeled boots and blue skinny jeans, followed by the green wool coat. It didn’t look warm, but it wrapped around her figure in sheer elegance. Like a movie star who always looks immaculate, even when she pops out for groceries. Her hair was blonde (as you would expect) curled into sleek, loose waves that appeared purposely messy, but in a stylish way—the epitome of sprezzatura, concealing any deliberate effort. She could have been a model, this human Barbie.
Her every move demanded attention; I watched her help her son and daughter out of the car, collect their backpacks as they strode towards school, smiling. “Bonjour.” She greeted parents who reciprocated the gesture with matching enthusiasm and a brief, courteous exchange about the never-ending winter, the nuisance of traffic, and how ridiculously fast their kids were growing.
She didn’t see me, and who could blame her. I blend into the background—just another parent rushing their children to the public school across the street, arriving late and out of breath. My coat was a secondhand find from Renaissance; and my boots a Christmas gift from my husband—practical and warm and “guaranteed to last five seasons.” I haven’t bothered with makeup since Hugo’s birth; the days I brush my hair are considered a victory. I don’t have a personal trainer or a gym membership. I kickbox to videos on YouTube to curb my chagrin, but they’ve done little in the way of flattening my kangaroo pouch. I could be lazy. I lack motivation, my husband tells me.
“You need to seize life by its balls,” he reminds me over dinner. I clearly don’t have any, nor want any—balls, that is. I nod in agreement and picture cracking his balls like two free-range eggs, making myself an omelette. I blame the Hebrew language for this reverie. Beytzim, eggs, also means “testicles.” In my mind, this metaphor makes perfect sense. More sense than most things, whose meaning escapes me, like the meaning of life. Some say it’s motherhood; but then why do I feel so empty, and then guilty for feeling empty.
I am clearly failing in the motherhood department. Hugo has “behavioural challenges” and Anais bites. The social worker told me that I am a role model to my children. “Everything you do, has a consequence.” If only I were more patient, and positive; if only I could revive that joie de vivre that now seems as elusive as winning the lottery. If only I could erase myself to become the selfless container my children need. I can’t even do the immigrant thing properly. Canadian on paper since July 2016, and all I do is “piss and moan,” instead of being grateful for the great many things that this country has given me, like true democracy and freedom of speech.
Thursday morning I crossed paths with her on the way home, as she was a full ten minutes late. I almost missed her in a black coat, white trainers, and baseball hat. Her face was free of makeup, and her hair was unusually flat. I smiled and said a quiet “bonjour,” one mother to another—acknowledging each other’s presence—and only then did I see her tears. She smiled back meekly, avoiding my eyes, and I knew not to read too much into this fleeting exchange. Tomorrow we would return to be strangers. I already had my back to her when I heard her say, “Je vous aime trop.” I turned around, feigning interest in some random commotion on the street. She held her son and daughter in a tight embrace and whispered to them in French, which they reciprocated with silent nods. I didn’t know how to interpret this Hollywoodesque scene, tacky in its heightened emotions, especially so early in the morning. But her voice rang true, like mine hasn’t in years. “I love you.” I blurted out the most exhausted phrase in North America at the school gate as I waved goodbye to Hugo and Anais—a learned language acquired from other mothers, mothers who “had their shit together.”
It was her picture in the newspaper that caught my attention. She was smiling her immaculate smile, showing off her perfect white teeth. Her smile seemed to express both the professional success and personal fulfillment that must come from seizing life by its balls. Beytzim. The camera loved her. Her irresistible smile distracted me from the headline: “Media Magnate’s Girlfriend Dead from Apparent Suicide.”
I was trying to imagine the scene, but my disobedient mind carried me instead to the mountain, another scene from early that year. Pierre was pulling the kids in the sled, talking about the inevitable demise of America and the irredeemable evils of its forty-fifth president. “We are so lucky to be living in Canada,” he said, unaware of me lagging behind. He often liked to remind me of this luck—my luck to be alive, my luck to be Canadian, our luck to have two healthy children—and how everything would be better (close to perfect even) if I learned to show more gratitude—be grateful for the roof above my head, the food on the table and our comfortable home in Montreal’s hip Mile End neighbourhood.
Luck and gratitude were on my mind as I stared at the comforting snow around me. I yearned to wrap myself in the white snow, for it to be my blanket and the wind to be my lullaby as I fell asleep; I yearned for this persistent exhaustion to melt away, just for a second, two, or three. Then I caught myself, and my guilt kicked in. I was a mother now, and no mother (with her shit together) would allow herself to think such selfish thoughts, even for a moment. What was the meaning of life again.
Claire-Marie was the name of that woman I did not know. Thirty-three years old. Mother of a boy and a girl (their names not given). Pilates teacher. Ex-wife of a successful businessman. But who was Claire-Marie, besides a media magnate’s girlfriend? The article didn’t say. It detailed her boyfriend’s “distress and exhaustion after a particularly difficult year.”
“The hypothesis being investigated at the moment is that it was a voluntary act,’ said the police spokesperson. The woman spoke of having been assaulted by her ex-husband, but there were no signs of violence, neither on her, nor on him.”
Assault. Signs of violence. Did Claire-Marie’s ex-husband break the coffee table, but never her bones? Did he throw a carton of milk at the fridge, milk that she would have to get down on her hands and knees to clean? Did he give her all the money she needed, but make her beg for it first? Did he call dinner a “fuckup” when it was served seventeen minutes after six?” Did he accuse her of being her own worst enemy? Did he blame her for their son’s behavioral problems and their daughter’s dyslexia? Did he tell her that she was just like her mother, crazy and incapable of being happy? Did he convince her that it was all her fault because she didn’t try hard enough? Did Claire-Marie ever dream of packing her bags and starting over in New Zealand?
But Claire-Marie was silent while Barbie continued to smile.
The washing machine beeped. It was time to put the load in the dryer, prepare the snacks, and pick up the children. I mustn’t be late again.