At the Nouveau Palais
On 9 March, 2018, I attended the book launch for Dimitri Nasrallah’s new novel, The Bleeds, which took place at the Drawn and Quarterly children’s bookshop on rue Bernard, a few blocks east of avenue du Parc in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. I met my friend R. there, and after the reading and the mingling, I accompanied him to the Nouveau Palais restaurant to meet his brother, D., who was meeting a friend, P. All I knew about P. was that she happened to have decided that day to run for the Liberal Party of Canada in her Montreal riding. D. was meeting her to discuss it.
The Nouveau Palais on the inside doesn’t look like the run-of-the-mill greasy spoon it does on the outside, though the décor has been kept intact: all early 1970s faux-wood paneling and booth upholstery is the same, but new materials uphold the old structures; that includes the cold case of desserts at the front above the bar, with its swivel stools. A filigree wood screen covers a red-lit glass backdrop above the refrigerated display. There are cylindrical pendant lamps and they have sweet potato pie, hangar steak, a ‘winter spätzle’ and veggie burgers and fries on the menu.
R. and I found P. sitting with R.’s brother at a smallish 6-seater booth at the back. P. told us she was expecting her husband to join us here when he arrived on the train from Toronto, which is where he worked during the week. In the 1990s she had been a foreign correspondent in Moscow, for Radio-Canada and other news services, and their children were just finished high school. One son was going to live in Algonquin Park as part of a program for learning forest stewardship.
When her husband, G., arrived a few minutes later, and we ordered our dinners, it suddenly occurred to me that I’d met him before; not only did I have a distinct and nagging sense of having encountered him before, but it was accompanied by an unpleasant feeling of our having had an argument, a disagreement, or some sort of altercation. I could not, however, recall his name, or when or where I had met him or spoken to him.
Since it was a noisy Friday night and the place was crowded, it was difficult to hear what was being discussed even two persons down from me at the table, so I couldn’t really hear G.’s voice at all. I was sitting directly next to R., and his brother was on the other side of him. Across from D. was G., who was sitting next to his wife, P. And I was sitting directly across from P.
As I listened to P. tell R. and I about her years in Moscow, somehow the whole intrigue of the Western presence in Afghanistan came up, which reminded R. that when he was travelling in France last year, he ended up at a party where a 2nd cousin of mine, S., was doing the catering. From the Afghan (my mother’s) side of my family, S. is a writer and former journalist who has travelled extensively through Afghanistan: first in the late 80s, disguised as a boy, she travelled with mujaheddin fighters through the North West Frontier Province; at the time, she broke a story to the Times of London on a particular use of weaponry by the Soviets. Later she returned to Afghanistan and made two more documentaries, and other journalism—notably in Gaza, where her best friend and cameraman James Miller was killed by an Israeli soldier despite the fact that he was carrying a white flag. (There was never any admission of guilt on the part of the Israeli government of course, but Miller’s family was awarded GBP 1.5 million). S.’s documentary Beneath the Veil was extensively broadcast in the West, including on CNN’s Larry King show.
During dinner I continued to be haunted with a sense of the uncanny and the unpleasant. Where had I encountered G.? By the time dinner was over at the Nouveau Palais, I’d given up hope and chalked it up to my bad memory (as usual!). R. said, as we trailed behind the group exiting the restaurant, that his brother had confided that while he liked P. well enough, he really disliked G. Again, another clue about this guy, but nothing materialized in my memory. We stand outside the restaurant and I notice G.’s large bag, clearly what he packs every week to take to Toronto.
I walked all the way back home to rue St. André—about 20 minutes—still haunted. At midnight, while I was folding laundry, it all came flooding back.
About 6 years ago, as an experiment, I tried the Tinder dating application. I’d heard that while it had started as an instrument for gay cruising and quick pick-ups, it had matured into a real alternative to internet dating sites and that it was a more progressive and arguably better technology for dating. I was reluctant, having dumped all dating apps and not having ‘dated’ at that point for at least 5 years.
A therapist convinced me to give this a try, so I did. I met G. for coffee near where we both worked: on Spadina north of Queen, in the middle of the day, at a Dark Horse coffee shop. He was about 5 minutes late and I’d already installed myself at a table with an Americano and a blueberry something-or-other, wanting to seem entirely relaxed about the meeting, though knowing deep down how much I truly despised dating as a practice: that is, meeting someone for the express purpose of interviewing them about an arrangement that the culture tells you is important—couplehood. Worse, it's an interview of someone for the purpose of discovering if you can attempt to have an intimate relationship with them, as if that can simply be decided upon based on a set of interviews ('dates'). It’s not about spontaneously meeting someone through a shared activity or connection with friends or social events; it’s a sit-down coffee interview, with all its attendant caffeinated judgments, misfirings, and misplaced conversational gambits. Even worse when you realize you don’t want the job after 5 minutes but for the sake of niceties must continue for another 20. Longer if it’s a drink or dinner.
After some chatter about writing, work, and cities, G. told me he actually didn’t live full-time in Toronto: he was only there during the week and went back to Montreal for the weekend, where he lived with…his wife and two children.
The arrangement he told me that he and his wife had devised, “for the sake of the children” was that they would carry on together until the kids were finished high school and moving out of the house, at which time they would go their separate ways. But until then, the arrangement was an open marriage.
After nodding nonchalantly about all this, and chatting politely again for the sake of (what? appearances?) dignity, I supposed—I was dismayed to discover I hadn’t had much of my blueberry thing to eat nor drunk much of my coffee.
He left things with “I’ll be in touch,” but of course I thought that was absurd since I had neither agreed that his arrangement was a good one, nor disagreed—I had only listened and nodded politely. I guess if you’re enough of a liar to yourself to join Tinder as a married person and pose as someone who is single, then why wouldn’t you also tell your date “I’ll be in touch” when you likely had no intention of being in touch?
I deleted the application from my iPhone, just in case he wasn’t just saying that.
I wonder if he had been sitting there next to his wife in our booth at the Nouveau Palais, recognizing me the whole time. Probably. He was aloof and cold, except, that’s what he was like when I’d met him too, so it was no indication.
Still, I had a good story to tell R. and D. the next day….And as it turned out, D. had some information about them—when P. married G., he insisted she sign an elaborate pre-nuptial agreement, owing to the fact that he is the heir to a significant fortune from one of Canada's richest lawyer-families. That explains the hobby-job in Toronto as a writer for film and TV.
I wonder what the odds are that I should run into this person years later in this way or any way.