I’ll tell you a secret. For a couple of seconds, we were all asleep in the car – except Kate (I hope), who at that moment was driving. We knew the last stretch from Kingston to Montreal was going to be difficult: we’d been up before dawn, on the road and about, and we had eaten a great meal at Reem’s surrogate parents’ house in Kingston. We didn’t really need to be in a lateral position to fall asleep.
It was, however, part of our unwritten code to stay awake together while we were in the car. And I had the smug pleasure of realizing first that we had all dozed off. “Reem!” I poked indignantly. “What an awful co-pilot!”
And as usual, the GPS fucked with us when we were most vulnerable: fifteen minutes away from our weekend home and visualizing our beautiful beds. A wrong turn here, and another there, we almost ran over some enthusiastic night bikers. I don’t know if it was our almost-delirious states of mind, but it seemed like we were driving in a surreal town where the road stretched on and on, and the traffic lights were a different color.
It was past midnight and a week night but the city was teeming with life. It was an uncharacteristically warm night and people were walking and riding their bikes as actively as if they were vampire-like creatures and had just woken up from a restful sleep. Too many young people dressed too cutely for this time and just like I had felt in Kitchener, it seemed like we were on the set of a movie. I wondered what it was that felt artificial about the environment, and so I compared it to Seaview in Karachi. People at Clifton beach are part of the scenery, as integral and natural as the trees that grow along the shoreline and the clouds that lie low in the sky. The picture would be incomplete without the women in burqas, and the skinny, lanky, sleazy guys sitting on the hoods of their cars, fully-clothed families flapping around in the waves, the sandy-haired children selling flowers, the secretive couples, and the smell of hot kernels being tossed in blackened salt. That night in Montreal, the people walking around didn’t feel like that. They were separate, discrete creatures, indifferent to the tall buildings interspersed with older, European structures of houses and churches.
They were too loud, too boisterous, and we grinned sheepishly at how tired we were at just 12:30 in the night. The GPS, of course, lied about where the apartment was and we stopped outside a shop with a French name, which Reem tried to pronounce in French when she called Shataur (the young-un who was subletting his apartment to us for the weekend). Much to our delight, Shataur had no idea what Reem was saying so she had to revert to boring old English (staples? Bangles? I forget the ordinary name of that ordinary-looking store).
Parking then is another sob story in Montreal. Hera and I were standing outside after we had unloaded our bags while the others went to park the car.
“Whoa! Give me a high five, c’mon, two in a row!” said a guy who looked too happy to be not drunk. He held out his hand as he and his friend walked by us, and Hera and I reluctantly held out our palms.
“YES! Woohoo!” he walked by and turned behind with his fists in the air, as if he had won a Nobel. “THANK you. You guys made my night!”
Hera and I exchanged bewildered looks. Montreal is so weird. “Think of it this way Hera, we’re not even dressed up right now!” I grinned. “We’re gonna knock the city out after we’ve showered and actually brushed our hair…!”
Finally, we were all standing inside the apartment building on the ground floor with our ragtag baggage all around us (everything from hats to pillows and blankets to fat little trolley bags). “Well, there’s no elevator here…” Shataur tried to say it nonchalantly in an attempt to confuse us into simply following him up the rather narrow-looking staircase.
Kate’s face was such an expression of utter disbelief that I burst out laughing. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
Shataur was not kidding us.
We heaped bags all around ourselves, around the neck, over the shoulder, clenched in sweaty fists.
“So, what floor is it?” I asked when Shataur suspiciously neglected to mention that and started climbing up.
“WHAT?!” this time we all shrieked. The trek up those stairs was nightmarish and we all had the choice of bursting into tears, throwing a temper tantrum or dissolving into hysterical giggles. We kept muttering “Shataur…” and doubling over in exhaustion and laughter.
(The trek upstairs confirmed our worst fears: we are not ready for a triathlon yet.)
Montreal is supposed to have beautiful weather in the summer but by the time we entered the large apartment, we were sweating like we were back in Karachi, a hot, sticky summer afternoon. The apartment was big, with nice wooden floors and our eyes lit up when Shataur told us that there were three empty rooms and we could have them all if we wanted. The light in our eyes dimmed somewhat when we saw the rooms – if it was a Western flick and there was any breeze, there would be dust bunnies rolling about. As it was, the dust bunnies were just lying dead all over the place. The best room was the one at the front and was semi-furnished. The bed had a sheet on it… (yeah, our standards were low).
It was humid inside the apartment because all the windows were closed, “don’t worry, we have fans in every room!”
“Uhh…this one isn’t working…” Shataur hopped up on the bed in our best room and pulled at the rusty chain. “Ohh...yeah…”
We opened the windows with a growing sense of panic and I told my OCD to take a nap.
“Aisha, the flush doesn’t work…”
“GUYS, there’s no bin in the bathroom, where will I throw…”
“Oh and the water in the kitchen is always really warm so you guys can get drinking water from the bathrooms-”
“The blind in the other bathroom won’t come down,” I whined, walking into the bathroom where the other girls were standing, each holding a different problem.
“I can see into all the other apartments, I know they can see into this one! I don’t pee well under pressure.”
Things felt a little better after we all showered and spread Spongebob over one of the dusty beds. Hera and I chose the smaller, dustier room where the fan worked and I dozed off to sounds of people kicking beer cans in the road, shouts and laughter.