Before we drove to Quebec I bought a map of Montreal each for myself and Juliette. She studied the key and found all the swimming pools, the libraries, her possible schools, the street where her sister lives. I bought the maps at a gas station and they became our way of imagining ourselves into the city. Juliette found the athletes' training centre where her synchro camp would be held, and I marked the charcuterie on Rue Mount Royal that convinced me we should go live in Montreal for a year in the first place. Others might not be able to see the terrines of duck pate but I could smell them and taste them, just by unfolding my map. I carefully studied the orange, blue and green Metro lines, and the parks where we could walk our dog. We found community centres and bandstands. I looked for all the bicycle paths and the underground city. A guidebook told me there is a cinema with a headless ticket taker, and we searched for this too, as well as the biodome, the observatory, and the bridge where people lie in sleeping bags to watch fireworks in July. All these things Juliette studied with me. A girl should always have her very own map.
When we drove into the real city we both saw what an act of imagination it is to see into a map. The real city is as fluid as that act of imagination. It has as many colours, and is as illuminated. It has as many secret corners and unexplained shadows. But the lighting is different. There is sound, and weather. There are clouds and grey expanses and ugly parts. Would we be able to live here?
The map was labelled and safe. A person could fold it up when they had studied it enough for one day. People did not continue to walk through it, or get out of cars and shout across the street, or lie on the sidewalks, or carry tiny, shiny purses into stores full of fur coats and shoes and necklaces and Teflon spatulas. One did not find oneself hungry at the intersections of a map. One did not find oneself unnerved, or wonder who all these scurrying souls were and why we didn't know any of their names. The map did not have wads of chewing gum on its sidewalks. Neither did it have police cars blocking every side road for six blocks. It was a Rand McNally map. It cost $4.95 and had three colours of ink. It was a limited edition of the real Montreal, and part of us wanted, for a moment, to escape back inside it.
The Jean Talon Market in Little Italy is easy to find on the map, but in life it is hidden in a courtyard between streets. It peeps out, like a dream or a bright idea, after you have stopped searching for it. But it found us, just in time to take away fear. Juliette is a mushroom person, and here were mushrooms whorled and white, transparent and perfect. Onion bulbs bursting pearl-white. Children and their mothers and fathers eating hot, fresh-boiled corn picked this morning and rolled in butter. Here was the other side of the wardrobe, the secret garden glimmering through the wall. We would be all right, for now anyway.
The map is magic. It pulls you into its dream. It lies. It fabricates. It underestimates. It guards secrets and reveals misleading names and labels of things. It hides fears. A map will tell you what you want to hear, and it will stay quiet when you ask for its deeper story. The deeper story is one you can find only by walking into the real city. And that's what we are about to do.