Mostly we walked. There was an uneven layer of snow on all the sidewalks that had never been shoveled loose, and the white was speckled with street gravel so that it all looked like graying chocolate chip ice cream. We wobbled along the surface from le Quartier Latin to le Plateau to Mile End. Somehow we had stopped talking. I think there had been nothing said since breakfast, when over strong coffee you stared out the window at the Dépanneur sign on another corner shop and wondered aloud why in Quebec the French word for repair was tied to convenience stores. And then quiet settling in, the two of us watching the sidewalks moving with people, bright in the sunlight.
After, we went nowhere in particular, stopping at places marked in our guidebook but with no idea of stringing them together in any narrative way; there were cafés, public squares, bagel shops, a headstone carver, a wide plate glass window fronting an oxygen bar. Montreal was not single-minded, not a theme park built just for us. Several places promised danseuses nues—nude dancers. And it reminded me of the idea of dance in stripping—the idea, maybe never realized, of women who were dancers first, the way the French language put it, and unclothed only secondarily. I could imagine a fierce and sure woman leaping and then coming to earth in a tight huddle with herself, her spine a knobbed arc in the low light, unburdened by the religion of covering. Here, in Montreal, these places flashed their lights in the middle of everything, between a bookstore and a Vietnamese restaurant, between a hotel and a shop selling soaps and bath salts.
Eventually we were moving through residential neighborhoods, houses with metal or stone staircases sweeping up in a curve from the street to front doors. It seemed like everything had been lifted, the basements all above ground here, windowed and available. Then we turned and crunched along the sidewalks with increasing confidence toward the main park. Several times we had seen the mountain, in moments when the houses and shops cleared out of the way. Now we went to it, though without talking about it first. We just moved that way.
In the park the snow was even deeper, though we couldn’t tell for sure where the ground really was. Once, my leg plunged through to the hip, and my knee struck something hard. I dug into the snow, and found the rim of a public trashcan down there, buried bottom to top. We stared at each other in surprise and pressed on, along broad thoroughfares shared by cross-country skiers and the springing twang of their poles, and sometimes on newly-forged paths between the thoroughfares. Always we moved upward. At one point we scrambled up a slope that threatened to throw us off with every step on the slick packed snow.
At the top of the mountain there was an old chateau with a lookout that allowed us to see the city from above. We thought of other cities we had seen from above, the phenomenon of seeing such places from above. The buildings here, even the tall ones, were not so tall, and it seemed to both of us we had come from such a place at one time or another. Still neither of us said a word.
What were we learning? When it started to snow, the cold making it a dry bright snow, crystalline, I was a person without footprints, a person moving unknown through a foreign place.
Getting down the mountain was more difficult, because the stairways leading toward the part of town that called out to us next were all closed for the winter, under repair or so packed with snow they had become ramps. We took a winding path that seemed promising at first. Then we found a place where the wooded slope dropped off sharply toward the bottom but where we thought we saw the tracks of people who had climbed this way before us. We looked at one another and that decided it.
I hung off the edge and touched the slope with my toes and tried to start backward, all hands and feet and knees. Then the snow dropped out from under me.
The world became motion, flipping me and sending me flying forward, sliding in a way that was flying.
I skidded to a stop near a tree, facing forward, my legs out like skis, still so full of movement that it took a second to realize I had stopped. I was only partway down, sitting in a bath of snow up to my waist. I could feel the cold in my pants, my gloves, my sleeves. And as I looked back up at you, feeling how fast I had been, I opened my quiet lungs and whooped sharp into the air. I saw you and the brightness of the realization. And I looked back to the falling slope, saw the trees and the rocks, thought about the possibility of all my clothes filling up with snow and that ice covering my skin, and felt how my hands and feet were holding me in place. Then, with the sound of you behind me, flying yourself, and ahead of me the speed and the whole natural length of the city, I let go again.
David Ebenbach is the author of two books of short stories—Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers’ Publishing House) and Between Camelots (University of Pittsburgh Press)—plus a chapbook of poetry called Autogeography (Finishing Line Press), and a non-fiction guide to creativity called The Artist’s Torah (Cascade Books). His first full-length collection of poetry, We Were the People Who Moved, won the Patricia Bibby Award, and will be published by Tebot Bach in 2015. With a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Ebenbach teaches Creative Writing at Georgetown University. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.
This story, “Danseuses Nues,” was originally published in The Greensboro Review.