Are you ready? he asks at 5:25, and we throw open the coat-closet doors, pulling out heavy parkas and scarves and woolen hats. We've eaten an early dinner of fragrant chicken slowly simmered in a lemony, fresh cilantro sauce with Indian spices, and the apartment smells warm, beckoning us to stay. But his French class starts in half an hour, and there's only one more week until the final week of oral exams. I lace my boots, zip my parka, wrap my scarf around my face, pull on a fleece headband and a wool hat over that; the final addition is a pair of stretchy gloves and a pair of thick handknit mittens, and then, padded to twice our size, we tumble out into the night.
In spite of the extreme cold, people are riding bicycles in the snow; young men with bare heads leave the park carrying hockey sticks over their shoulders. In a basement apartment, goldfish swim obliviously in a large heated tank. On the streetlight posts someone has put up white signs saying "La Collecte" bearing big red teardrop-shapes, and arrows pointing forward. What is it? he asks, and I say, blood - blood collection. But where? We speculate: the church? the firehouse? the school? All the signs are the same, leading us on toward the beating crimson source. A thin girl wearing a short skirt and tights crosses Brebeuf, her bare hands struggling to light a cigarette. Another girl hurries across, her mittened hand pressed over her mouth and nose. I feel my own cheeks prickling; soon I'll barely be able to feel them at all.
At Le Poisson Rouge, white tablecloths and wine glasses shine against the dim interior; the staff, in silhouette, eat at a back table before the first patrons arrive. In the window of the medical supply store, the macabre skeleton manikin still wears her white doctor's coat and stethoscope, and the clerk, in a black t-shirt, frowns over the cash register as he always does at the end of the day. We walk faster to make it across Christophe-Colombe with the green light. There are more red teardrop signs. Look how much lighter the sky is each evening! he remarks, as rue Rachel stretches out straight in front of us, all the way to the mountain and the lighted cross at the peak. I squeeze his hand. We pass Cafe Rico, where the smell of roasting coffee beans permeates a full block. The teardrop signs finally point to the right: the blood collection is somewhere inside the same building as the Toyota dealership! An answer, but wrapped as opaquely as a heart in the chest of urban life.
We're very cold now, but walking fast. How are you? I ask and he nods. It feels good, he adds, and I silently agree. People come out of the fresh pasta store clutching brown paper bags and hurry away down the street; overgrown pink-blooming geraniums and aloe vera plants press their greenness against the long expanse of steamy windows. As we run across St. Hubert, we pass the little boy who's always accompanied home from school by his mother or father at this exact hour; the parent firmly grasps his hand while the boy talks and gesticulates with the other: an exuberant personality refusing to be contained inside the bundle of hooded down parka, hat and snowpants.
Past the bars with their round St. Ambroise and Belle Geule signs; the clothing store where metal grills are being drawn inside the windows by a clerk; the frites shop with its smell of grease and potatoes. How many times have we walked like this, matching our steps, hips close together, noticing all the same things? I only think about it when I'm walking with people whose eyes are so different, who cover up all the possible sights and sounds and smells with their own conversations. Now that thought is succeeded, in quick succession, by a pang of regret for the times we've walked together in anger, and then shifts rapidly back to our rhythm, then to the cruel mathematics of years, and the unbearable potential for loss. I recognize the cycle of thoughts, and deliberately notice our steps - right, left, right, left - and the pattern keeps me here, now - and then we're at the corner of St. Denis where a firetruck is crossing rue Rachel surrounded by cars and I say all right, I'm leaving you here and then hesitate and say, no I'll wait with you for the light to change. I stamp my feet rather than stand still and he turns his face to me and we find each other's mouths, tongues exploring a startling wet heat while our icy cheeks press together. There's snow on his dark lashes. Dark-clothed figures stream around us and when we pull apart the last second has passed and the amber light changes to green; our hands separate; we move perpendicularly, arrows pointing in different directions, lost in the swiftly moving crowd.