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The Reality

No dream can compare

Marc Levesque did not much care for fantasy considering it to be mostly a waste of time especially since the woman who was the object of those intruding thoughts of intimacy, Patrice Charlebois, was likely beyond his reach. Still, lying in his darkened Québec City hotel room, listening to the annoying buzz of the electric clock, he was restless – almost feverish – and, as the numbers moved past 3:30 in the morning, his anticipation of seeing her again only grew more acute.

Marc, for reasons of employment, had transplanted his life to Toronto from his native Québec four and a half years previously. He had no intention of leaving behind his French-Canadian roots but, at the same time, he had to be practical about his own life and, considering the chronically depressed economy of his home province, he knew he had made a good decision. What was more, he had grown to love the multicultural flavour of Toronto which made him remember that, there, almost everyone came from somewhere else. Especially in the spring, he loved to take long, Saturday afternoon walks, clutching a paper cup of Tim Horton's coffee, enjoying the rebirth of the sun and exploring the sights, sounds and aromas of the city's many distinct ethnic neighbourhoods. He particularly enjoyed Greek-town, relishing the thought, each time, of a souvlaki or spanakopita purchased from a favourite street vendor; an eternally jovial, older fellow with a blue and white striped apron and a cap, several sizes small, imprinted with the word 'HELLAS' - Greece. Marc joked to friends that it made him feel like he always needed to be carrying his passport.

The path of his own life had crossed with that of Patrice at a New Year's party a year before. The emailed invitation to go to his cousin Luc's party in Montréal had been a perfect excuse to return to Québec after almost two years. He willingly accepted and secured a place to stay with another cousin. He was unsure what excited him most – the party itself or catching up with that branch of the large, extended family. There was no doubt in his mind that it was going to be a wonderful long weekend. Three days after Christmas, trailing a small case behind, he took the subway to Union Station in Toronto and boarded a train for Montréal. Six hours later, he was already in the boisterous and joyful company of family.

At the party, they had been introduced by their host who was, it seemed, already enjoying the party far too much. Marc enjoyed her company but, never, at the time, did he consider that there was any real interest. She had a fairly restrained, almost academic, demeanour and they engaged, quite comfortably, in some interesting, as well as, entertaining conversation. He found that she worked as both an editor and layout artist for a small newspaper in the townships, several hours beyond Québec City. He found that her knowledge of local and provincial history was exceptional and she ventured after, as she said later 'one glass of wine, too many', to tell him some of the more spicy legends of their shared history which, through incitement of the others, they even managed to hear sung in some bawdy, traditional, Québecois songs.

At four o'clock in the afternoon, Marc, in his agitation, had been in and out of his hotel room so many times that he had lost count. He couldn't sit still and he could even stand without his leg twitching or his foot tapping. Finally, his cell phone rang. He dove upon it.

“Allo?” he answered.

“Allo. Marc, c'est moi, Patrice. Je suis arrivée en retard,” - It's me, Patrice. I've got in late.

It seemed that rural Québec was already blanketed by an advancing snow storm and her bus had become mired, more than once, in white-out highway conditions and traffic grinding to a stop. Forgetting his previous fretfulness, he reassured her that all was well and would soon arrive with a taxi to fetch her. She thanked him and, almost before closing the connection, he had escaped his room and ran through the hotel lobby. On the way to the bus station, Marc perused his memories of the past year.

He wasn't sure how the image of her and his persistent desire for her had slowly, insidiously worked themselves into his mind. He was certain that it had not been a conscious decision because, after meeting her, enjoying the party and then leaving the city, he had not perceived any particularly romantic notion of her, nor was there any thought that he would see her again. Those changes had come gradually.

About a week after the party, Luc had emailed to thank him for coming out and assuring him that the whole family had delighted in seeing him. Indeed, he had met some cousins of whom he had no recollection whatsoever. There was an innocuous footnote: 'Patrice sends her greetings and thanks you for the bad singing'. He responded with salutations to all the relatives encountered and ended with his own footnote: 'Tell Patrice I enjoyed it – her bad singing or mine?' By the end of January, she and he began emailing directly.

In retrospect, he considered - with twenty-twenty hindsight – it may even have been that first instigation, the innocent and joking interjection of his cousin, that had in some way planted a seed – recalling to his mind her mild, good nature, her precise manner and, later discovered, her colourful sense of humour. Their email correspondence began as brief notes – quips about events, the weather or persons encountered. By the end of summer, they had evolved into lengthier and more personal reflections. By that time, she had also thoroughly seeped into his mind and, unsure of her personal situation, he resolved to remain silent, not willing to risk the pleasure of her company.

“Patrice!” he shouted, stepping to the slush covered curb and signaling to the driver to wait. “Ici!” - Here! He waved his arm frantically and then set off toward her at a trot, mindful of the icy patches on the cement tiles in front of the station. She quickly spotted him and, smiling, received his embrace and kisses to the cheeks. After, she adjusted her hat and glasses with a mittened hand as he led her back to the taxi.

“Marc, I'm so sorry I'm late. We were supposed to have lunch four hours ago! I have to get to my parents house on the other side of the city. I couldn't even change before meeting you. Zut! Quel désastre.”

“Monsieur?” prompted the driver, still idling at the curb and scrutinising him from the rear-view mirror.

“Un moment, s-il vous plaît,” he instructed the driver and returned to study Patrice. He despaired of losing their casually arranged appointment before it even happened. Then he brightened. He looked at his cell phone to confirm and nodded.

“Patrice, here's an idea. It's just on 4:30 now. We can go somewhere nice for dinner – maybe a couple hours or three and then I'll see that you get going to your folks before it's too late.”

Patrice spoke and sounded relieved.

“Bien. D'accord,” she added decisively.

Marc indicated to the driver, 'Chateau Frontenac'. The driver confirmed and merged aggressively into the city traffic.

“Marc! C'est trop chère!”

“It's not too expensive – it's just perfect and we'll have a view of the whole city. Besides, it's a beautiful evening.”

In fact, for mid-January, it was. At 4:30, the dimness of evening was gradually settling and a few drifting snow flakes were illuminated by the streetlights that were gradually turning on.  Québec City can be forbidding in winter but, in that moment, as Marc saw it, all the lights were twinkling. Ascending toward the crown of the city, they commented with excitement on the visible preparations for the winter carnival, only weeks away. At almost 5:30, they were deposited before the imposing luxury hotel that rises like a guardian high above the old city of Québec.

If you do not know the winter in Eastern Canada, you quickly learn to respect it. The valley of the St. Lawrence river is a conduit which brings the harshness of winter snow and bitter cold both from the east and west. Sometimes, those storms are born from the warmth of the Pacific ocean. They collect their moisture there and, then, moving inland, they hover over the mountains of Colorado, chilling and, when the weight becomes too much, they descend like a vengeance, scouring the American mid-west and burying it under a blanket of white. When the storm would exhaust itself, instead, it then encounters the Great Lakes, gaining new moisture, before thundering down the St. Lawrence.

Instead, this storm was born in the North Atlantic which, even in winter, is warmed by circulating waters from the Gulf of Mexico. There, it had incubated, growing larger, angrier and heavier. When, no longer content to simply turn on its low pressure axis, it launched itself on Canada. Two days before, it had slammed into the coast of Newfoundland leaving many of the small, fishing communities there completely isolated – without power or communications. Then it had battered New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island completely into submission. Still not content and, not yet depleted, it eyed the St. Lawrence river valley, following it south and west and into the province of Québec.


The Reality
II. Leaving dreams for dreamers

Patrice Charlebois was, being the first to admit it, shy and uncomfortable with men. It was, perhaps, more specifically the case, that she was uncomfortable with herself and, when in the company of a man who she found intriguing, that insecurity would shine like a spot-light displaying her flaws for all to see.

Now, at 35 years of age, there was a history of some few liaisons but it was also true that none of them had stuck around long enough to get to know her. She didn't feel badly or resentful about it – only, maybe, a little lonely. She persisted in having a romantic notion that, somewhere out in the big, beautiful world, there would be a man who would love her because she was awkward, not in spite of it.

At its root, Patrice recognised in herself an issue of body image. Growing into a young woman, she had watched jealously as the other girls filled out, developing breasts and beautiful curves. Patrice had simply got taller and that was how she remained, almost shapeless and with breasts that hardly merited the name. As a result, the boys of her age seemed uninspired to give her their attentions. She took to wearing bulky sweaters and baggy jeans to hide what she felt she lacked. Her hair, an astonishing cascade of dark blonde waves, was normally tied back severely and, when she required glasses, the subconscious choice had been for the ones that gave her a bookish look.

“This should be just perfect,” said Marc beside her and interrupting her inward musings.

“Oh dear!” said Patrice as they entered the sumptuous restaurant. “You could have taken me for poutine and I would have been happy,” she commented. Marc laughed.

“No, I couldn't have,” he retorted, smiling. Then he snickered and added, “maybe they can whip some up for you here.” It was her turn to laugh.

Marc gently guided her to the desk of the maître-d'hotel and, in light of the relatively early hour, they were taken immediately. Marc politely inquired for a table by the windows and the  maître smiled and said, 'Oui monsieur, bien sûr.'

The restaurant was only sparsely populated by other guests – a few young families and some quietly talking couples sharing aperitifs. Marc and Patrice were seated somewhat apart from the other patrons at a small round table which allowed them to turn their backs to the restaurant and gape in admiration at the panorama of the city falling away below them from their high vantage point. A steady whisper of light snow was descending, driven on a rising wind from the east. The snow in the atmosphere added rainbow reflections to the lights of the city.

“Marc, it's wonderful,” gasped Patrice.

“It is,” he nodded, scanning the incredible view. “I'm glad you like it.” His gaze flicked toward her and then away, down at the table and then to the windows again.

The change in his gaze, that rapid change in the light's reflection from his hazel eyes was not lost on Patrice. She could not have been more aware of him.

Their waiter arrived – a discrete, polite and very pleasant, handsome young fellow – and, painfully conscious of their time constraints, they quickly made their choices of some small appetisers to share and then some tastefully arranged entrées. Together, they chose a bottle of wine from the Niagara region of Ontario and, moments later it arrived. They tasted it and found it light and full of accents.

“Well,” said Marc, a little nervous but attempting his best. He held up his glass to her.

“Patrice, I'm so glad you could have dinner with me. Late or not, it's the company that is important.”

“Thank you, Marc,” said Patrice and then, alarmed, realised she didn't have anything to add. To cover the fumble, she attempted to smile graciously and, clinking their glasses, they drank.

Patrice fretted inwardly, recognising the symptoms of her own awkwardness showing. It was his fault, she joked to herself; if he wasn't such a gentleman, then she wouldn't be having a problem. Marc picked up the slack and they began to patter about trivialities.

Patrice knew that it was the situation that was confounding her. Talking to him online had been light and inconsequential for the most part. At the party, they had not been alone but, rather, tossed this way and that by the ebb and flow of the occasion but, seeming, always to gravitate back together. Sitting with him in a beautiful restaurant was a completely different circumstance and, silently, she cursed herself for feeling the way she did.

What neither of them knew, having been so involved with their own thoughts over the previous many hours, was that Environment Canada had issued a special 'weather alert' at seven o'clock in the morning. The storm that had rocketed through Atlantic Canada was now threatening all of southern Québec and west as far as the Great Lakes basin. The storm had only grown stronger on its journey up the St. Lawrence river and now packed winds in excess of 100 km/h and, along with blizzard conditions, the temperatures were falling to -20 C with, due to the fierce wind, chills of almost -40 C. It had become a behemoth. At approximately six o'clock in the evening, while Patrice and Marc toasted with their wine, it engulfed Québec City.

For Patrice, Marc was an unknown quantity – a handsome and gentle stranger that had appeared in her life and, had he known it, swept her off her feet. She didn't know what to do with him because she didn't understand how he behaved toward her. He had demonstrated that he wanted her friendship and his behaviour toward her now only reinforced that but, she couldn't help wondering if there was more – another side of the coin to this soft-spoken man. She had seen the way his eyes had turned away as if not wanting to offend her with a glance that was more meaningful and, even as dinner proceeded, he maintained the topic light and entertaining, not wanting to look at her for too long or sit too close.

'Maybe he doesn't like me that way or...,' she hazarded, 'want me.' She felt a wave of sadness sweep over her, threatening to leak from her eyes. It was interrupted by Marc's exclamation.

“Good Lord,” he said, gazing at the windows with his mouth hanging comically open. “Where'd everything go?” Patrice followed his gaze and balked.

A winter storm, when it comes, is like the sky falling. The grey of the sky, bloated with precipitation, simply settles and where once there was 'here' and 'up there, the distinction simply loses meaning. Outside the windows was a solid wall of grey and the snow came in thick, blinding eddies. The heavy glass panes rattled, driven by a gale wind. The lights of the city had completely disappeared.

“Oh no!” said Patrice, thinking of her parents. “I still have to get home to my parents!” The words were out of her mouth before she realised – based only on her preconceived plan had things not worked out. She immediately regretted them. Marc smiled.

“I know,” he said, reassuring. “I promised you that I'd get you on your way.” He lightly patted her arm. She wanted to take his hand but resisted.

“Allons-y!” he said, spirited – Let's go. He proceeded efficiently to take care of dinner but, watching him, Patrice watched his mood darken and grow sullen, no different from the quick descent of the storm outside. Still, his manners toward her were unchanged and he minded that she had everything, moved her chair and placed her coat over her shoulders. On the way from the restaurant, he began making calls from his cell phone.

“Tres heures?” he responded. “Merde” He made some similar calls but the results were all the same. He frowned, not wanting to tell her.

“I can't get a taxi,” he confessed finally.

“Oh no,” answered Patrice. “What can we do?”

“Je ne sais pas,” he said, holding his phone in his hand like a solution might call at any moment. “Let's go find out what is going on... then we can decide. OK?” His face was creased with concern. Patrice nodded, taking his arm. His hand flitted over hers for a moment and then withdrew. Together, they approached the front desk.

“Pas ce soir” responded the young man – Not tonight. He continued.

“The city is pretty much shut down,” he offered. “The airports are closed and will be for a couple days. Even if you get a taxi, it's not going to take you anywhere. Have you seen what it's like outside? I know that I'm staying here and sleeping in a staff room tonight.” He was pleasant and frank but, it was not heartening. Marc looked at Patrice.

“It's true,” she offered. “While you were talking to him, I looked outside. It's a blizzard - we can't go anywhere. Don't you feel the cold?”

Marc hadn't realised that his feet, in ordinary dress shoes and thin socks hand gone numb and, beneath his overcoat and suit, his skin crawled with chill. The cold, on a spear of vicious wind, was gradually penetrating the stately, old building. The desk attendant cleared his throat and spoke.

“Listen, folks,” he said. He was tapping at his computer. “I've got a few 'less expensive' rooms available. I'm going to say you should take one because they won't last. That way you can get a good sleep tonight and see how things are tomorrow. That's just between you and me but, seriously, it's better than anything else.”

Marc hesitated, looking at Patrice and, yet, not daring to want to be with her, comfortable and warm in a small hotel room.

“I... we...,” he began, “can't...”

“Yes we can,” offered up Patrice. She produced a credit card and, a few moments later, they received the plastic keys.

“I'm cold, Marc,” she said. “Let's go upstairs and hope it's warmer than this lobby.” She smiled at him tentatively and he agreed. He agreed and, looking preoccupied and distant, rubbed her shoulders and they crossed the lobby toward the elevators.

“This was a surprise,” he ventured. The elevator ascended. Patrice just smiled at him and then looked at the floor as though looking for a lucky penny.

The room was little better – chilly and small but, at least, comfortably appointed. Situated, as it was, at a corner of the massive edifice, it was catching the brunt of the wind from, seeming, every direction. They quickly proceeded to the practicalities.

“I don't have anything to...” began Patrice.

“Here. Just take my shirt,” offered Marc. “It's long enough for you.”

He stripped off his shirt and handed it to her. Patrice wanted to watch the movement of his naked torso but, instead, she took the shirt and fled to the bathroom. There, silently fretting, she stripped off her own clothes and, before putting on the shirt, she glimpsed her own nudity in the mirror. Instinctively, she covered her flat chest and unfeminine hips with the shirt, hiding from herself. The shirt was perfumed of him. She held it close, inhaling his scent, and then put it on, gathering it tightly about her.

Marc mined in the closet and brought down extra covers, quickly making of the bed a cozy nest of woolen blankets and pillows. Finally, he took off his suit and, unsure what to do, stood in boxers, freezing, and gazing out the window at the wall of grey. When visible, the plaza in front of the hotel was already drifting in, feet deep with snow.

“Marc?”

Patrice had emerged from the bathroom and turned off the light. She stood shivering at the doorway of the room. The light from the bedside table sent long shadows across her thin frame draped in his shirt and her pale legs. He ached to hold her.

“It's a mess outside,” he commented, approaching her. “God! You're freezing!” he exclaimed. “Get in.” He quickly drew back the covers, making a space for her.

Patrice complied. In fact, she did not hold heat well and, in that moment, she was very much feeling the lack of substance that her body had to offer. Marc propped her up on some pillows and tucked the covers over her shoulders.

“Are you coming in?” she queried. “It's better in two, you know.” Her teeth chattered but the covers were lending her the insulation she needed. The shivering was for another reason.

“Honestly? Yeah,” he said, crossing to the other side of the bed. “I don't know that I've been so chilled in a long time. Really.” It was not entirely because of the cold.

He slipped under the covers, pulling them up tightly around himself and then checked that hers were well positioned. Beneath the covers, their body heat collected. Patrice inched closer. Marc nervously conceded and put his arm around her. He felt the side of her hip bump his and then settle close. There was silence inside but the howl of wind and rush of snow outside. Their chills subsided. Distracted and self-conscious, he rubbed her shoulder, trying not to think of how close her delicate body was to his.

“Marc?”

“Oui, Patrice?”

“You can kiss me, if you want.”

He did want to.

Marc Levesque did not much care for fantasy considering it to be mostly a waste of time especially since the woman who was the object of those intruding thoughts of intimacy, Patrice Charlebois, was lying in his arms. She leaned into his embrace and their kisses were tender, their touches light - wanting still of the heat of passion to overtake.

He studied her face; her eyes closed and lips parted. Her hair, long and wavy, was splayed out across the pillow. There was no fantasy to match; the reality was the best fantasy of all. He leaned in to kiss her again and Patrice sighed, smiling.

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