Serge

On a cold and blustery day in early May, 1986, Serge St-Martin and I packed a thermos of hot soup and hiked to the top of Mt Elmore.

By 5:00, we were at the top of the tower, but just as I started to unpack our lunch, a gale force wind blew out of nowhere, a cloud darkened the sky, and it began to snow. The wind blew so fiercely that the tower shuddered. I hastily repacked our uneaten lunch and prepared to descend. 'Wait,' Serge laughed, 'Can I ask you something?' he said, putting his arm around me, 'Do you want to marry me?'. And on the way down, as snow pelted us and an icy wind brought tears to our eyes, I said 'yes', and we began to talk about why, when and how.

My last day of work was June 27, and we left the next morning for a 5000-mile road trip to visit friends in Toronto, and then on to the reunion at my sister Frankie's summer place in Buena Vista, Colorado. The trip was too long, and there was often tension between us. But it was ob that trip that I fell in love with the Southwest, especially during a train ride from Chama to San Antonito. I was dazzled by the light, dry air, and sparkling streams of the San Juan Mountains.

I applied for my visa in August, thinking it would only take a couple of months to process. But it took more than seven months, during which time I could not legally work or go to school in Canada.

While I waited, I went back to work part-time for Hearthstone and began learning French from a three-record set I bought at a yard sale.

Serge and I were married on September 20 in a low-key civil ceremony at the Palais de Justice in Ste-Hyacinthe, followed by a reception at "Spaghetti Maison", a charming family restaurant in an 1850s brick building and former store in St-Charles-sur-Richelieu.

It took four months to sell my house, and I showed it to hundreds of people before I finally got an offer for $55,000 ($12,000 less than I was asking). A few days after we signed the contract, I got an offer for $72,000. Once the house sale closed, I still didn't have my Canadian visa, but I had nowhere else to go. Serge and I had made countless calls to Immigration but were unable to obtain any information. Early the morning of October 13, 1986, I loaded up my truck and headed for the border, where Customs agents grilled me for more than hour before a kind-hearted officer who recognized me from my many previous trips across the border took pity on me and granted me a two-month visitor's permit.

It took weeks to complete the move, one small truckload at a time, one or two trips per week. And every trip there was a huge hassle at the border, since I still wasn't a legal resident of Canada. The packing was bad, but the unpacking was much worse. Serge found it very difficult to clear out a space for my belongings.

He whiles away the time on totally unnecessary tasks like using a toothbrush to clean a set of plastic glasses that should have been put out with the trash. Give him a stack of papers or magazines to sort and he'll read every single one before he throws it away. Moreover, he knows he's not getting anything done, and it makes him very upset. He turns red, clenches his teeth and fists, stamps his foot, screams and yells. He may throw or break something, put his fist through a wall, or grab me by the throat. Afterward he doesn't remember any of it.

Finally in late November — on American Thanksgiving — I received my visa. And at last I could begin my most important task: learning French. As a landed immigrant, I had the right to seven months of French immersion offered by the COFI (centre d'orientation et de formation des immigrants). I began classes on January 5, 1987, at COFI Alivar Asselin. I was immediately plunged into a turbulent and fascinating world that would captivate me for the next six months.

On the first day of class, I found myself in a smokey cafeteria with 50-60 other people. My classmates included men and women from 12 different countries, ranging in age from 21 to 38. All but two of us — me and a German woman married to a Quebecois like me — were refugees. From day one, all our instruction was entirely in French. Initially unable to communicate except with those who spoke some English, we would gradually acquire a shared language that we would use to get to know each other, and to develop deep bonds that would, in some cases, last for many years.

Our teachers were wonderful. One of them very astutely observed that I was "trying too hard" — being too analytical, attempting to translate every word by word from French to English. When I took a more relaxed approach, I found that — without directly translating — I was gradually able to grasp the general content of conversations overheard on the metro on my way to and from class.

In an effort to improve our relationship by finding shared activities, Serge and I ballroom dancing classes together:

Our instructors are the 1984 and 1985 Quebec champions. I watched amazement as they danced. She was, of course, perfectly made up and dressed in a transparent black chemise, a knife-pleat black-and-white skirt, textured hose and three-inch spike heels on the most improbably narrow-strapped black patent leather sandals I had ever seen. He was dressed more simply, but had the typical Quebecois high and round rear end, which he swung with obvious and self-assured sensuality as he and his partner demonstrated the cha-cha-cha, the samba and the meringue. The students were all big perms, oversized sweaters and silver jewelry, teetering like flamingos on their spiky black heels. Men and women alike ground their rear-ends like a line-up at a girlie show, apparently without a moment of self-conscious modesty. I practice in the mirror for hours, trying to imitate a move that is entirely natural for them. As usual, I feel like the neighborhood mutt at the poodle show. But I also feel a little thrill to be living here among these curious people, who are so Northern-hardy and so sensuously Southern at the same time.

Despite our best efforts, Serge and I continued to drift apart. Serge spent most evenings and weekends away at folk dancing or meetings of the local chapter of Canadian power squadrons. When he was home, he spent his time sleeping or watching television. I kept my head down, avoided him as much as possible, and concentrated on learning French. I was sick most of the winter, with the recurrent bronchitis that would plague me all the years I lived in Montréal.

On July 6, 1987, Serge and I were attending the folk festival in Drummondville, but we'd been arguing all day. Serge disappeared and after half an hour of searching for him, I decided to go home without him, but my coat and purse were in the car, and he had the keys.

Finally I found him, told him what I was going to do, and asked for the keys. He glared at me, grabbed my left arm and squeezed as hard as he could (the next morning I had a black-and-blue mark for each for each finger). We started walking toward the car. I told him I was leaving him and he told me to go to hell. I started running and he came after me. I unlocked the door and leaned in to get my things. He shoved me into the car with his foot and slammed the door on my legs. I bolted out of the car, sobbing hysterically, threw the keys at him and started running. A young man on a bicycle who had witnessed the whole event began walking beside me and urging me to come with him and get away from Serge. Serge followed us in the car, told me to get in and promised he wouldn't touch me. Instead, I went with the young man on the bicycle, and spent the night in his guest bedroom. I did not sleep much, but it gave me time to think. In the morning, I went back to St-Hilaire, put a few things in a box, and left.

It was a decision of the head, not the heart. I knew Serge loved me, and that he had no control over his outbursts. But if I stayed with him, I would have to accept that he would be violent, and I wasn't willing to do that. Years later, Serge would be diagnosed with "adult ADHD", and he would seek treatment. We remain friends to this day.

I spent 10 days with my friends Paul and Val in Pointe-Claire, helping them paint windows while I looked for a place to live. While I was apartment hunting, I got caught in the flood of July 14, when nearly 3.9 inches of rain in 2½ hours overwhelmed the sewer system and flooded basements and roadways all over town.

Serge's daughter helped me find an apartment to share with two other women on rue Laurier in Plateau-Mont-Royal. My roommates, Hélène and Claudette, were both single mothers with four-year-old daughters.

In October, I bluffed my way into a temporary job as a technical writer for Matrox Electronics in Dorval. Matrox was a successful, progressive, well-run company and I retain very fond memories of my time there. With — finally! — a good job and steady income, I slowly began to build a life for myself in Montréal.

I started going to folk dances classes, and to the summer dances on Mount Royal. I put an ad in "La Presse" for "partenaire(s) pour petite randonnées de fins de semaines". One of the men who responded was Jean Trépannier, a passionate outdoorsman, gifted writer and Montréal native. After 10 years in Gaspésie growing organic strawberries, Jean had returned to Montréal determined to make a living as freelance writer. He had chosen a hard life for himself, living in a one-room apartment in an alley on Plateau Mont-Royal, sleeping on the floor, cooking with his camping gear and supplementing his income with odd jobs, including a short and disastrous stint as a lumberjack.

From the beginning, ours was a very stormy and tempestuous relationship, punctuated by glorious cross-country hiking, bicying and skiing expeditions inevitably followed by Jean's abrupt and total withdrawal. When days or weeks would pass without a word from him, I would eventually contact him and extract the latest list of character flaws that had caused him to call our relationship into question. I was "overripe", "too mature", "too responsible." I moved too quickly, made too much noise and just generally "took up too much space". His withdrawal and stinging criticism did far more damage to my self-esteem than Serge's physical violence.

In June, 1988, I landed a job as Marketing Manager for Velan Valves. I remember that interview like it was yesterday, presided over irrascible patriarch AK Velan. AK was a Czech immigrant who in the 1950s hitch-hiked to Washington carrying his design for a steam trap on his back. He returned with a contract with the US Navy. From there he went on to build North America's second largest manufacturer of industrial valves. He was joined in our interview by his sons Tom and Ivan, both vice-presidents of the company, and within 15 minutes they were all screaming and pounding their fists on the table. I was impressed by the honest and open differences of opinion. No slimey hidden agendas here. And so they hired me. And except for my current fantasy job as webmaster and wilderness guide for Mirasol, it was the best job I ever had. I had enormous responsibilities but was given the resources I needed to get the job done, and I loved Velan's wonderfully multicultural workforce, many of whom were recent immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Although I had limited experience as marketing manager for a much smaller company, and there was no overlap with my predecessor, I somehow knew what to do. I set about using an early version of DBF to build a mailing list, and over the next five years I would gradually replace Velan's very expensive and wildly incompetent ad agency with an in-house art department and digitize their huge library of catalogs, photos and technical drawings.

Our on-again off-again relationship with Jean left me lots of time to travel, and I had some fabulous adventures. In July, 1988, I took a wild ride, alone, to the Côte-Nord:

One hour north of Quebec City and you are high in the hills overlooking the St. Lawrence. Big rough half-naked hills with their bones showing. I groan up the hills in third gear, patting my poor old pickup's dashboard and plying it with draughts of oil. First glimpse of St. Lawrence, still and irridescent as if covered with a swath of silk. Charlevoix's personal cloud cover emerges, the sky turns navy blue, and rain comes down like bullets, then cannonballs, then a ton of lead. I can smell the steam on my overheated transmission. The temperature has dropped at least 10 degrees, and I turn on the heat because it smells too good to close the windows. There's no pink-yellow haze in the air. You can swim in the rivers here, and I doubt that you have to wipe a layer of soot off the lawn furniture every morning like I do in Montréal to enjoy my dinner in the courtyard behind our apartment.

Finally in February, 1989, Jean and I broke up for good. For the next year I drifted from one disastrous short-term relationship to another. A man who was in love with his adopted daughter. A guy who had to go to the gym and take a shower immediately after sex because his home shower "wouldn't get him clean enough". A bipolar OCD unemployed machinist who thought we should spend all day every weekend in bed. A man who decided we shouldn't get involved because we were both in therapy. A massage therapist who didn't think it mattered that he was having unprotected sex with another woman because he had "confidence in her."

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