Luisa did not scream as she hurled forward, somersaulted, and then plummeted towards the backs of two hulking guys leaping down the escalator with Olympian ease. At the top of the stairs just as she was about to grip the handrail, they had knocked against her with such force that she seemed lifted out of her mukluks, she later described the moment, as if invisible hands descending from the skylight had picked her up by the shoulders. Beyond that she could say very little as her tumbling flight befuddled images and ideas before she blacked out.
On planes she entered a self-induced paralysis and scarcely moved until the wheels touched ground, unless forced by circumstances and calls of nature. Flying down the escalator, she landed at the bottom of the moving stairs feet first and mukluk-free before rolling and instinctively stretching out her arms to break the fall. Her wrist bones bent and cracked. Borrowed from her much younger brother, the boots stuck and jostled on the bottom escalator tread. Made out of seal skin and stitched by an Inuvialuit grandmother in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, so he had texted, she wanted to wear them because none of her boots kept her feet warm. Franco, who had taken an arctic cruise a couple of years ago with a girl Luisa hadn’t met, agreed. He had no intention of wearing mukluks on Montreal streets when military boots suited him just fine. Anyway, they were too small for his feet.
In the air above the staring shoppers, Luisa’s wool scarf had wrapped itself around her head like a padded bandage. Her quilted parka cushioned her upper body against the concrete floor overlaid with green rubber tile. Disappearing down the adjoining escalator to the metro station, the leaping rhinos had not looked back to the damage they had caused. Luisa lamented, “no, dammit, I’m not alright, I’m hurt,” to the several shoppers who gathered around and inquired. She blurted the words out in English although she had lived long enough in Montreal to begin a conversation in French, at least in the boutiques and terrasses. “Je suis blessée.”
Then she remembered. Sous-vêtements? Was that the correct term for panties? You’d think she’d have that one committed to memory at least. She blacked out as a pair of mukluks, two sizes too big passed before her eyes. Never forget fundamentals, her mother had always advised. My God, my underwear. Mes sous-vêtements. Before the pain screeched and her mind keeled over, Luisa later remembered that her thoughts had grasped at conventional wisdom and reduced themselves to a cliché.
Having no recollection of the ambulance ride, she assumed someone must have called Urgence Santé. The supposedly bilingual nurses in the hospital spoke such fractured English that Luisa eased their discomfort by uttering her own halting but serviceable français. She could at least understand important questions pertaining to her physical well-being. Oui, j’ai eu un mouvement d’entrailles ce matin. The expression on the morning nurse’s face made Luisa think she had misspoken. She would look up the movement of her entrails in Larousse upon her return home.
Perhaps she had not stayed long enough to encourage visitors. No one came to see how she was during her three day occupancy, not even her brother out of whose mukluks she had been jettisoned. The other patients in her ward received family, friends, flowers, cards, fruit and hard candies which they liberally offered Luisa.
Someone must have gone through her wallet for ID and Health Insurance Card, so clearly she was a woman of whereabouts known with a fixed address, an email, un vrai courriel, for God sakes. She was connected to the World Wide Web, her Facebook friends numbering a thousand, but still no one visited and sat by her bedside.
She took a cab home alone, the casts weighing her arms down. The day was grey, splattered with frigid showers freezing on the ground and glazing trees and cars. An orderly who sang Reggae helped her with the mukluks. Really, wanting to wear them had been a stupid idea from the very beginning. She was now in her brother’s debt, except his indifference cancelled any and all obligations. Her wrists immobilized, her body aching, Luisa looked out her window overlooking one of Montreal’s rush hour traffic-clogged streets, watching vehicles chuff and skid and beep in the freezing early March rain. Brusque with her fellow workers and the one neighbour met on the stairwell, her wrists inflexible, she couldn’t key in the Classified and Obituary information accurately or painlessly.
Two days after she returned to work, her boss advised a three or four week sick leave from the English-language newspaper office where she hunkered in front of a computer several hours a day in a windowless cubicle. It would also be wise not to come back until she recovered the use of her hands and, he implied, her good-humour. Luisa realized that she contravened the unwritten, universal law which proclaimed that the miserable should always look on the bright side, find solace in comparisons, be grateful that whatever ailed them hadn’t been worse (think of cyclists flipping over handlebars and cracking their head against a fire hydrant or the front end of SUV, causing irreparable brain injury). Well, she hadn’t been cycling in the frigging indoor centre d’achat, but walking, following the rules, or trying to — Attention au marche. Despite watching her step, she had still been bounced into the air by rampaging rhinos contemptuous of human courtesy.
The landlord had sent notice by mail that he planned to raise the rent on the first of July to help pay for the hike in electricity rates and new shingles for the roof of the old apartment building. Her lease expired at the end of June. Her cell displayed a list of calls received and, yes, a few friends sent emails, but clearly no one knew about
her injury and subsequent hospital stay. Wasn’t a nurse supposed to notify somebody just in case she had slipped into unconsciousness? If serious surgical intervention required approval from next of kin, that would be her mother who spent every winter drinking sweetened alcohol on Florida beaches. She neither phoned nor emailed, and sent a Christmas card with a twenty dollar cheque and a few words: “Hope you are well. The weather is divine. You must come down for a few days. Don’t forget your old mother. Call me once in a while.” Which Luisa did and pretended to be interested in her mother’s snowbird activities.
Although her brother Franco lived in Montreal, he was forever skiing in Vermont or the Laurentians, or taking business courses at Concordia University when he wasn’t working or playing at soldier. He rarely returned calls. How would the doctors have contacted her closest relatives to inform them of her improbable accident? True, after regaining consciousness and some mobility, she could have called friends and her brother from the public phone in the ward, as the use of cells was forbidden, or ask an orderly to do so, given the state of her hands. Asking for such a favour from a complete stranger struck her as both awkward and a form of special pleading.
Given intractability and clumsiness, she could manipulate items sufficiently to feed herself. Not open a can of soup or risk a pot of boiling water, but roughly concoct sandwiches, dump dollops of yogurt into a bowl, crunch into whole fruit, and shred lettuce. During her first evening home twice the cell phone sang its cute version of Tina Turner’s classic What’s Love Got to Do With It? And twice she decided against answering. Voice Message recorded one call from Alain, the boy in Shipping who wanted to sleep with her. She had gone out with him once so far. He loved American action movies which bored her. He had such sexy, black, wavy hair, but now seeing him was out of the question. And a call from her friend Shaleena who wanted Luisa’s help with a forthcoming dinner of Indian food which required a lot of chopping and stirring. That, too, was out of the question.
Once the casts were removed in a few weeks, she’d need physiotherapy to recover flexibility and dexterity. Damn! Attempting to slice through an apple, she lost her grip of the knife, the blade of which skidded dangerously close to her unprotected fingers. Would Franco want his mukluks back? Hard to say. She was surprised he even agreed to let her wear them in the first place, except he had bought the boots as a souvenir of his northern trip and to impress his girlfriend of the moment, not for any practical purpose. As nothing was expected of him personally, he didn’t object.
Franco often said one thing, but seldom followed through, his promises carrying as much weight as goose feathers. He had sworn to come to her aid whenever needed. Last year she had appealed for help moving to this flat. He begged off with a host of excuses, and then settled for military manoeuvres of several weeks’ duration at the Val Cartier camp, so he claimed in his email. Since he was in the Infantry Reserves, attending Wednesday and Saturday exercises in the Armoury on Bleury, the excuse sounded plausible. He had also promised to fix a few things around the apartment as he was mechanically adept and owned a lot of tools, but nothing had transpired since he first made the seemingly heartfelt commitment. If Franco had known about her accident, Luisa doubted if he would have troubled himself to visit. She hadn’t seen him since she had gone over to his place to pick up the boots last November, also the day of his twenty-fifth birthday. She had neglected to bring a gift. He had a previous engagement and hurried her out the door.
Her wrists hurt. The pain raced to her head and riveted her brain. She had forgotten to renew her prescriptions yesterday and would have to brave the bitter weather today.
She also must begin apartment hunting or pay fifty bucks more a month for this quasi-dilapidated abode and that would bust her budget. She called her brother and got a voice message saying he’d get back to her as soon as possible. It might have felt good to hurl the phone over her back balcony shaking loose from the wall, but she swallowed her exasperation. If she had married or acquired a partner … well, she hadn’t. She much preferred living alone in any case which was exactly what had happened to most of her married and/or partnered friends.
The mukluks stood by the door: mid-calf high, the outsides wrapped with grey rabbit fur criss-crossed with black leather straps, and decorated with blue and red beadwork on the toes. Authenticity cost a lot. Franco said that he had paid a small fortune for them, but Luisa attributed that to his tendency to exaggerate. One could find replicas in boutiques and department stores. Perhaps he had in fact bought them in town and had been lying all along about their provenance.
Her apartment faced the alleyway and overlooked storage sheds and several dumpsters. Since she didn’t walk on her hands, she’d be able to find a new place without Franco’s assistance. Packing and moving would pose problems she’d solve when the time came. Surely some friends would assist. Without a coat and in her feet in carpet slippers, Luisa stepped outside and gasped as icy rain slivered into her face.
The slippery balcony wobbled. She clenched the iron rail with one hand cold to the touch, her wrists bursting into pain, and dropped the mukluks over the edge. They flipped over, landed on a pile of glazed green garbage bags, and then slid out of sight. Luisa trembled in the freezing rain on the precarious structure before retreating to safety and warmth. The dumpsters would be emptied into a truck and carted off tomorrow morning.