“Walk four blocks, take a right by the museum. And you'll see the sign for the orange line. That'll take you to Rue Cartier.”
Zia pulled out her last crinkled Canadian dollar to tip Gus The Bartenter. He was her friend for an hour while she drank discounted beer and talked and listened.
“It's different over there in Vancouver," he said, carefully enunciating his words, "My English sucks. I went to there to speak better. But I ended up just smoking weed and, how do you say, chop up, my English? How is my English now?” he asked with a boyish smile.
“It's better than my French,” she said. They played a game of conversational roulette every time he returned to the bar from serving a table. The topic always changed like her beer, sometimes bitter, sometimes warm:
He hates dancing. She loves Thai food. He loves jazz. Want another beer? She hates American politics or all politics. He thinks punk rock is dead. She asks him why. Try this new one, it's made from American hops. She crinkles her nose and says she didn't come to Montreal for American beer. But it's brewed in Canada, with Canadian hands. She rolled her eyes and drank her last beer, wherever it was from. She was hungry and it was getting dark.
“Thanks, Gus. It was nice to meet you. And thanks for the beers.”
“Hey, you too; 'Sia,' was it?”
“Zia. With a 'z.' Like 'bzzzz.' Like this 'buzz' I got.” She laughed to herself.
“Ah. Zia. Sorry. You sure you'll be okay walking alone? You can always call a cab.”
“Yeah, I'm sure. I got here by myself, didn't I?” She drank the last drop of her beer and set it back down into the bar's puddle of condensation
“Bye,” she said with a smile. Gus picked up her empty glass and wiped the puddle with a napkin for the arriving couple eyeing Zia's old seat. The place began to fill up with hungry and thirsty patrons. Zia parted her way through the crowd and out into the 6:00 evening.
She plugged her headphones into her ears and began walking. Each block was a new song. By the time she got to block four, all she heard was a screeching guitar and a grumbling bass. She kept walking, looking up every now and then for the metro sign. She walked a few more blocks. She passed a record store, taco bar, an American Apparel shop, and a florist with tulips in the windows. But she didn't see a museum.
Or did she?
Did she drink too much with Gus and lose focus? Did she get distracted by her music?
Her sliver of paranoia fluttered her heart a little. She took a breath.
Maybe I'll smoke a cigarette.
She rolled one as she walked. The tiny strands of tobacco left a trail behind her on the sidewalk.
At the crosswalk, she asked a fellow smoker for a light.
“Thanks,” she said handing the Bic back to its owner, “Also, where is the metro from here?”
He unplugged an earbud, “Quoi?”
“Er, où est le métro?” Zia asked. Her Canadian and American beer buzz gave her the confidence for a more throaty, realistic accent.
“Ah, Il est trois pâtés de maisons, dans cette direction. Lorsque vous passez le musée, vous saurez.”
Zia nodded, “Merci.” Too stubborn to ask if he could repeat in English, she followed the direction of his hand down Rue Saint Laurent.
To her surprise and relief, the ORANGE line metro was in her sights. She checked the map for Rue Cartier, her home base, and discovered it was only three stops away.
As she scrounged in her coat pocket for a $3.75 single-ride metro ticket, her mind wandered off to eating dinner within the next half hour. She decided to make a curry that night. Rice, peas, eggplant, carrots, and cauliflower all soaked in sweet coconut milk. She sank into the plastic seats of the train and her appetite grew as she imagined sprinkles and dashes of curry, cinnamon, paprika, and cumin. A sure reward after a day well-spent of walking, talking, and admiring the Old and new, flashy and subdued, clean and dusty, trendy and active Montreal.
Zia paid close attention to her looming stop, growing antsy right before the Henri Bourassa stop, worried she'd miss it. She jammed her hands into her coat pocket and flipped the loose change between her fingers.
Finally, the train arrived at Cartier. She stood up fast and walked faster.
Outside the metro station, the temperature dropped to 20 degrees. The cold air rejuvenated her buzzed flushed cheeks. She felt good, she felt spritely. Cold air did that to her.
Everything outside the station was gray, though. The hypnotic city lights and sky scrapers were replaced with dark suburban houses and dusty lamp posts.
So this must be what New Jersey looks like. Zia thought to herself.
She checked her phone. It was dead. She didn't really need it. After all, she knew no one. The address to her bed and breakfast along with her wallet and a duffel bag was all she needed before hopping on to a train in Penn Station the day before.
Zia hailed a sleeping cab a few yards away from the station.
“Bonjour. Uh, 2366 Rue Cartier s'il vous plait,” she said, nestling into the warm leather seats.
“Bonsoir Mademoiselle,” the cab driver pushed a few buttons to start the meter and began driving.
“Le temps est plu chaud.” His eyes, brown, said to her via the rear view mirror.
Deciding she could no longer pretend to speak French in such close quarters, Zia sighed, “Je suis desole, Monsier. Je parle un peux. I have no idea what you said.”
The cab driver chuckled. His accent was different. There was French and something else. “Ah, no problem, Mademoiselle. I speak some English. Are you American?”
Zia turned to the window and said, “Yes. I am.” She looked back to his eyes in the mirror, “Where are you from?”
“Me? I am from Morocco. Do you know where that is?”
“Yes. North Africa. I've always wanted to go. The colors are beautiful there.” She didn't know why she said that last part.
“Very good. I have been living in Canada for twenty years.”
“So you still speak Arabic?”
“But of course.”
Zia smiled. She leaned her forehead lean against the cold window pane and closed her eyes. This was a moment she would remember: riding around in a cab in Montreal, shooting the shit with a Moroccan Canadian while her beer buzz soaked into her brain, and her stomach slowly churned for the looming hot meal in her temporary home.
“Okay, Mademoiselle. We are here. Cartier Boulevard.”
Zia's eyes popped open, her warm thoughts burst as reality settled into her present moment. The scene outside the window looked exactly the same. Did they even drive anywhere? The same dusty, shadowed houses and dim lampposts were still in front of her. Where were the brick row-houses with curved, iron-wrought staircases? Balconies adorned in twinkling lights and bicycles? Where were the hills? The cobblestone streets? The couples walking arm in arm, out of both adoration and safety to prevent one another from slipping on black ice? Where was the corner store that sold her a $20 pack of tobacco? Where was her front door?
Panic began to ooze over her body. Her down coat was no match for the sweaty wrath of worry. “Monsieur, this is not right. This is not where I live.”
He pointed at the sign and said, “Mais oui, mademoiselle, Cartier Boulevard, like you asked.”
“No, no. Rue Cartier. This is not right.” She began looking around for signs of familiarity, hoping she was wrong.
“Mademoiselle, this is ze only Cartier in Laval. Why don't you call your friends?”
Zia had no friends to call. She took this trip alone. She quit her fussy job in Queens a week before out of restlessness. It didn't pay well anyway. The day she quit, she found her passport tucked away in a drawer with her old pay stubs. She couldn't afford going across the country or overseas. Montreal was the best of both worlds for a restless soul on a budget. $200 for a round-trip train and a bed and breakfast was all the convincing she needed.
She only knew herself in Canada. She only knew her phone number. She only knew her location. Her phone was dead. And she was lost. And she was worried she made a grave mistake of traveling alone and riding in a cab with a complete stranger in the middle of Canada's New Jersey.
“But this can't be right. My friends are in Rue Cartier,” she lied. “There were brighter lights than this.”
The cab driver turned around and looked at Zia. “Light brights? The city? Do you stay in Montreal?”
Zia's eyes widened. Montreal! Her only beacon of familiarity. “Yes. Montreal. Which is where we are – aren't we?”
The cab driver punctured the worried tension Zia was oozing out of her body with a sweet laugh. His laughter melted her body into the seat, she immediately felt warm.
“Ahha! Mademoiselle, that is ze problem! You are in Laval. Far away from Montreal.”
Zia groaned and muttered “Fuck” under her breath. The cab driver's shuffling in his seat and laughter muffled her profanities. She was grateful he didn't hear her.
“I can take you back to the city, but it is far away. I do not usually drive that far, but I will for you.”
Zia was touched. But the thought of spending $100 on a cab ride meant she couldn't eat for the rest of the week. Plus it was too easy to swipe a card to get out of this. Somehow, karma would kick her ass again for leaving this test too early. It wasn't the right choice. She had to go back to the metro station and start over.
“Thank you. Merci. Merci. I think I need to go back to the metro and try again. I'll find my home.”
The cab driver nodded in approval, put the car in Drive, and turned around towards the station.
Zia pulled her credit card out to pay the $11 fare. She was amused by the machine. It was old and Delorean-esque. He put her card in the contraption, slid it fast, the device stamped her card onto the receipt, and he handed her the carbon copy.
“Merci. A tout a l'heure,” she said crumbling up the receipt and shoving it in her pocket.
The cab driver turned around in his seat, his brown eyes smiling, “Good luck. You're a beautiful girl.”
Zia smiled, looked down at her seat and shook her head slightly, “Merci. I'll tell my parents. Bon soir.”
She heard the driver chuckle as she shut the door.
He drove away into the dull, gray air. She wished she knew the name of her ally.
The metro stood before her: cold, gray, hard. Her buzz had worn off in the cab, perhaps the adrenaline suffocated it. The air was crisp. There was no one in sight. Just her, a few coins and a crumpled receipt in her pocket, and her breath meeting the cold air in wispy puffs.
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