“You are the only one,” Juliette tells me over hot chocolate, “who cares about balconies and stairs.” Our chocolate is good chocolate from a brown tin. I bought it at a corner bakery. It is made of flakes of real Swiss chocolate. You can eat them right off the spoon if you want to, but we have melted them in a pot of milk. I talked in our apartment about how much I love the balconies and stairs of Montreal, then I wrote about it, and I guess I was talking about it some more and Juliette felt compelled to point out that it was a bit of a monologue. We could be picking up dog poop with our blue rubber gloves on, or putting Draino down the bathroom sink, and I would suddenly ask, “Why doesn’t Toronto have stairs and balconies? Do other cities have this many? What is the origin of the stairs and balconies of Montreal? I need to find this out as soon as I can.”
Sometimes I think a thing is exquisite and I just can’t shut up. It’s as if the beauty keeps pouring into me and I overflow with it and I wish, so much, that I could share it. There is a loneliness about this, and now that Juliette has pointed out that I am the only one who cares, the loneliness causes me to suddenly cry. My husband thinks this is going too far. I used to feel like this in Paris, when I had no husband and no child. The geraniums, splashed against the darkness of open windows, might as well have been spilled blood. I saw a woman and a man in a Paris doorway. She had on a slip and he looked like the same man as my husband. I am talking twenty five years ago here. The kind of man who tears bread. You think if you find him you will never feel lonely again.
How can you not feel alone on a bicycle? Handlebars in front of you, a basket in front of the handlebars, then the pedals, the chain, the spokes, your flailing knees and bony wrists, riding through the avenues full of wrought iron, which is cold, hard, and made of thin, black lines. Balconies, stairs, bicycle; everywhere diagonal lines intersecting, beautiful, yes, but you are the only one who cares. You question how deeply you care. What good is beauty held alone in your hand? The only point of it all would be to make a person fall in love, and you’ve already done that, and it was a long time ago.
“Mommy, I didn’t mean to make you cry. The balconies are nice. And so are the staircases.”
“Especially,” my husband does not like to see tears, “the staircases that go round and round. Those ones are beautiful, you’re right.”
The next day he finds me a set of stairs and balconies under brand new construction on the corner of Rue Belanger.
“It looks exactly like the old ones,” I say. “I was worried they were all old and that no one was making them any more. I was wondering what was going to happen when they fall apart. I was afraid it was a lost art.”
My husband talks to the man painting the wrought iron black. He is always leaving me on the street while he talks to men who are working on buildings. He comes back and says, “twenty thousand dollars.”
“So they’re still making them.” The new one is even more beautiful than some of the old ones. The wrought iron has double sections, parallel figures, and the balcony is made of wood that strawberry blond I never used to be able to resist on a boy. But who can afford twenty thousand dollars for stairs and a balcony? Not the old men bowling wooden balls in Parc Turin. Not the Concordia students with their bikes locked on the banisters. Here I go again, worrying about the end of the world while the midst of the world is all razamatazz around me.
“Do you want,” my husband says, “to go to that little café on the corner of St. Hubert, for one of their red-hot café au laits?”
He knows I do. The coffee is strong. I can see its layers through the glass. My husband has done the best he can to reassure me that balconies and stairs are beautiful, I am not the only one who thinks so, and someone is still making them. He tries, so hard, to be a good husband.