“The Affair” By Catherine Yeh

Montreal became romantic after she left. She went back once in the middle of March and once in the middle of June. She had forgotten about the city’s beauty, or maybe she had never appreciated it before. Her college days were a haze of alcohol and midterms. She had gone home in the summers, so all she remembered was the blistering cold. She remembered the way her cheeks cracked as she made her way through blizzards, her eyes mostly shut, clutching her textbooks through thick wool mittens. There had been a necessity to these trips to the library, no matter how cold it was or how much her legs burned after she finally reached the warmth and safety of the building.

Coming back in March, she could feel it. She was standing on Durocher, a street she had been on a thousand times before. The cars parked on the streets were completely covered in snow; they looked like marshmallows. It was finally warm enough for snow in March. She stretched out a hand, holding her breath so as not to blow away the snowflakes, waiting for them to fall into the palm of her hand. There was something about the dark, bare branches of the trees, something naked, something revealing that made her heart beat faster. The narrow houses with spiraling staircases had found a way to support the weight of the snow. It lay there, heavy and light, white and sparkling, a picture-perfect image.

That was the moment she fell in love.

In June of another year, she had stood in the middle of the Saint-Laurent . It was sunny. She could see bright murals with fresh coats of paint, and couples in their early twenties, holding hands, kissing, and eating ostentatiously elaborate ice cream cones. Music was playing on the streets, loud and booming. The city had awakened. Montreal was the perfect in-between: in part an old romantic, and in part the captivating, fleeting lover. As Marlowe walked along cobblestone paths in Old Port, she could feel the romance of champagne and candle lights… and amid the streets downtown, she could feel something else entirely, something light and sexy, dangerous and mesmerizing.

In March, Marlowe had been in Montreal for a job interview. After graduating, an internship had taken her to Berlin, where she spent a lot of her time eating German plum rolls and drinking too much coffee. Although she had loved the city, she had struggled with the language and knew that she would not be staying. Her interview in Montreal had lasted two hours. It was a series of behavioral interview questions, followed by a tour of the office, and one last interview in French. After her interview, she had gone to La Banquise and wolfed down a poutine, walking back slowly to Durocher street with her stomach close to exploding. There, it had happened. Even during her interview, her heart had not raced so fast.

In the end, although she was offered the job at the company in Montreal, she had already accepted a job offer in Boston. The position in Boston had seemed more challenging, more demanding. Marlowe needed that. She needed to feel the stress of her job, to feel her palms sweat and her head pound. Marlowe had not thought much of Boston before moving, and for months after she continued to not give it any thought. She worked in the financial district and took the home every day. There, she met Opal, a young and ambitious corporate lawyer, and Sebastian, a guy from Minnesota who worked in finance. Marlowe and Opal got drinks together every Friday after work. It was expensive, but as necessary as her trips to the library had been in college.

“God, this is good. What is this?” Opal would ask.

“I have no idea,” Marlowe answered. She only ever recognized one or two ingredients in each drink at any given bar. Usually, this was vodka. Growing up, her otherwise conservative grandmother had loved a drink of chilled vodka (neat) after dinner.

“Alright, I’m not trying this one,” said Opal, pointing to the last item on the menu, “It’s got egg whites in it. I draw the line at egg whites.”

“Fair enough,” said Marlowe, wrinkling her nose.

In Boston, the finance guy named Sebastian had proposed. He proposed on a Saturday night, on the fifty-second floor of the Prudential Center. Marlowe was wearing a red dress. She remembered because it had been their anniversary, and it was the kind of dress that a person spends a lot of time picking out.

“Yes,” she said, smiling. Sebastian slipped the ring onto her finger.

The engagement did not last. It was only a few months later that she got promoted and had to relocate to the company’s headquarters in Paris. The long distance proved to be too much, and they broke up several months after the relocation.

In June, six years after her last visit to Montreal, Marlowe landed at Pierre Elliot Trudeau for Emmett and Lily’s college graduation. It was beautiful in June. Marlowe sat with her parents in what must have been the one hundredth or so row. Later, when her parents were out to dinner and her siblings celebrated with their friends, she strolled down the Boulevard on her own, enjoying the rare intimacy of her moment alone. She felt almost giddy, like a teenager experiencing freedom for the first time. She bought herself an ostentatiously elaborate ice cream, one with hazelnut and chocolate on top of a soft vanilla ice cream.

Marlowe had been born and raised in scorching heat, in a city with burning lights, clamorous voices, and an unparalleled humidity. She had never returned to that city, had never missed it, not even for a second. It was probably why she had sought the cold in the first place. And still, despite this love for Montreal that only seemed to be growing, Marlowe returned to Paris. Paris was quite different. Paris demanded sophistication, a quick wit, and a large appetite. Still, Paris was exciting. Paris got her caught up in the thrill of it all, every wonderfully stressful minute of it.

It would take something of a hurricane to take Marlowe out of the world she had embedded herself in. This hurricane came during her last year working in Paris. During that last year, Marlowe received something that caught her quite off guard. It was a reality check, and it came in the form of a silver envelope containing white lace and glittering letters. Opal was getting married.

Marlowe didn’t attend the wedding. It was during that month that she moved away from Paris, and, too busy with the move, she did not think it would be possible to attend. Besides, she had not spoken to Opal in over four years. It was a coincidence that Marlowe should be thinking about the silver envelope when several years later, she ran into Opal during a layover in New York. They were both sitting at the gate, waiting for their flights.

“Marlowe?” came Opal’s voice, which had not changed since she had last seen her all those years ago.

“Opal –hi,” said Marlowe, surprised. She shut her laptop, slipping it into her carry-on.

“How are you? I haven’t seen you since…” Opal had also forgotten the number of years.

“A long time,” Marlowe laughed finally after they thought in silence. Opal laughed too, tucking her hair behind her ear. Her wedding ring glittered on her left hand.

“What brings you to New York?” asked Marlowe.

“I live here now, actually. My husband –Ralph, he took the kids to see their grandparents in Idaho. I’m heading there now.”

Kids. Marlowe must have looked surprised, because Opal laughed again, and took her phone out to show her a picture of two small children, a boy and a girl.

“Do you have time to get a drink? Maybe catch up?” asked Opal.

“Sure,” said Marlowe. She always arrived at the airport much too early, anyway. Opal ordered a mojito, and Marlowe ordered wine. They mostly talked family and work. Marlowe had gotten out of corporate law. She was a family attorney now.

“So, are you seeing anyone?” asked Opal.

The truth was that Marlowe hadn’t really dated much since Paris. In Paris, she had dated her assistant for a while. Before that, her only serious relationship had been with Sebastian, the finance guy. Since he had gotten re-engaged, she had stopped using social media unless it was for work, which was also why she had no idea Opal had become a mother.

“It seems like you’re really thriving at work,” said Opal, as if that compensated for the lack of romance in her life. She was trying to be friendly.

“I think I married my job,” joked Marlowe, but saying it out loud, she realized how true this was. Work would always come first. It was what she had devoted herself to. It was what she would continue to devote herself to. It was the marriage she had chosen.

Which is why Marlowe was devastated when she got divorced. It happened the night before her forty-eighth birthday. The words “vision”, “new direction”, and “severance package” had been tossed around during that final meeting, in that exact order. She had gone from disbelieving to infuriated to devastated in a span of seventy-two minutes. She poured herself a very large glass of whiskey.

“Fucking severance package,” Marlowe said out loud. She finished her glass of whiskey, crawling to her bedroom. She snapped open her laptop, angrily. Maybe she had gone back to ‘infuriated’. Did she really feel devastated? She checked her email. She always checked her email so many times a day. She was organized and meticulous. There were no new emails. There was no ‘just kidding’, no ‘we made a mistake’. She felt devastation creeping back into her. She checked her Facebook. She didn’t know why, she just did. Opal’s third child had made Opal breakfast in bed. There was a photograph of a stack of sloppy-looking pancakes on a plate and a cup of orange juice.

And then she did something impulsive. She did something sloppy and disorganized and unlike her. Drunkenly, she bought a plane ticket.

Montreal had only changed slightly. It had been renovated. It had shifted into something that was a little cleaner, a little tidier, but ultimately the same. It was a city that didn’t have the cold indifference of Toronto or the pressure of New York. Instead, it was a city with attitude, passion and joie de vivre. She stayed at a hotel on Sherbrooke. She thought about telling one of her siblings that she had gotten fired. She had no friends to tell, except maybe Opal. All the other friends she had were friends she had made through work. She remembered her sister’s twenty-ninth birthday. Lily had just broken up with her boyfriend, and strangely, her first instinct had been to run to her elusive sister’s apartment in downtown Toronto.

“How do you do it?” whispered Lily, crying. She was hugging Marlowe’s pillow, soaking mascara into the fabric. Marlowe handed her a box of tissues.

“What do you mean?” she asked gently.

“You! Your job! Moving all the time. You never care about being in a relationship.”

“That’s not true,” said Marlowe. She sounded defensive, even to herself.

“That’s why he broke up with me. He’s moving to London,” sniffed Lily, “For a job.” She said that last word with such bitterness that Marlowe hesitated before speaking again.

“I’m sure it couldn’t have been easy,” she said finally. “We could’ve tried long distance. He could have tried. He could have made an effort!” Her sister sounded angry now until she collapsed into tears again.

“You’ll find someone else. Maybe not right away, but…”

“I can’t! I’m almost thirty! Everyone I know is engaged or married or—or popping out babies!”

“Okay, that’s ridiculous,” said Marlowe, “You’re not even halfway through your life. Do you realize how young you are? That is a sexist, male contrived –”

“Who cares? Who cares if it is? You know what? Fine! I’m young! But I don’t care. I’m ready. I want to be in a relationship. I want to get married, and have kids and—and a fucking gnome in my front yard.”

“I know,” said Marlowe quietly. Lily wiped her tears away, exhaling. She grabbed a tissue and blew her nose.

“I like my job,” breathed Lily, “I do. I just…It’s just not my whole life. I want people to be my whole life. And I just don’t get it, when people are willing to sacrifice everything, everyone they love, for a job. Aren’t you supposed to be fighting for the people you love?”

Marlowe hadn’t known how to answer that. Now, over a decade later, she still didn’t know how to answer that. What she did know, was that it was September. The leaves were red and yellow in Montreal. Marlowe bought a bottle of white wine and a pack of chocolate chip cookies. She walked to Parc Lafontaine. There were families and groups of teenagers having picnics on the grass. Even in September, with the cool air starting to set in the city, people were eating ice cream. Marlowe looked out into the pond.

She breathed. She felt something on her cheek. She brushed it away before she realized she was crying. She felt confused. She didn’t feel sad. She felt…relieved. She was breathing. She could breathe.

And for the first time, she let herself fall. Really fall. She let herself lie in the grass, staring at the leaves trembling in the branches. She let herself stare at the sky and at all the fluffy clouds. She let herself be there in Montreal. She let herself be a part of the city. She walked down the boulevards and passed through all the parks. She ate bagels toasted with butter and cream cheese and had pudding au chômeur with her double espresso. She could feel herself warming up, lightening up, falling back in love.

By her second week in Montreal, she had shifted her sleep by four hours, waking up at ten thirty instead of six thirty to her siren-like alarm. She went for afternoon runs up Mount Royal, and read political satires at cat cafés. She spent three weeks in this urban paradise. During the fourth week, a headhunter called. She was wanted at a company based in Toronto. They had reached out to her a year ago and were still interested. She didn’t need to think about it. She knew herself now. She packed up her bags from the hotel room.

It would be alright. Montreal was only six hours away from Toronto by car. They would find a way to make it work.

 


Catherine Yeh is a graduate of McGill University, where she studied Psychology and English Literature. A Taiwanese-born Canadian based in Boston, she is passionate about fiction writing and education rights.

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