A lyrical short story by Leonard Cohen: A Montreal poet goes looking for love in a raincoat | Leonard Cohen


When I was about 13 years old, I did the things my friends did until they went to bed, then I’d walk miles along Ste Catherine Street, a night lover, peeking into marble tabled cafeterias where men wore overcoats even in the summer, stopping for intense minutes in front of novelty shops to catalogue the magic and tricks, rubber cockroaches, handshake buzzers, explosive cigars, and leaking glasses, sometimes choosing a sexy pipe for my future manhood from among the terraces of briar in bright windows of tobacco stores – I’d stop wherever there was an array – newsstands, displays of hardware, skeins of black and blonde hair hung between elaborately wigged wooden heads in beauty salons; I wanted detail to study, but a profusion so I did not have to linger long on anything. Sometimes when I got home, my mother would be on the telephone describing my coat to the police. As I prepared for bed, she’d rage outside my closed door, demanding explanations, reciting the names of children who brought their parents pleasure and honour, calling on my dear father to witness my delinquency, calling on God to witness her ordeal in having to be both a father and a mother to me. I would fall asleep in the torrent, thinking usually of the exhausted school day that awaited me.

I don’t know what it was that drove me downtown two or three nights a week. There were often long dark blocks between the windows I loved. Walking them, hungry for the next array, I had a heroic vision of myself: I was a man in the middle-20s, raincoated, battered hat pulled low above intense eyes, a history of injustice in his heart, a face too noble for revenge, walking the night along some wet boulevard, followed by the sympathy of countless audiences. My creation was derived from the lonely investigations of private eyes into radio or movie crimes, family accounts of racial wandering, Bible glories of wilderness saints and hermits. My creation walked with the trace of a smile on his Captain Marvel lips, he was a master of violence, but he dealt only in peace. He knew 20 languages, all the Chinese dialects, hardly anyone had ever heard him speak. Loved by two or three beautiful women who could never have him, he was so dedicated, every child who ever saw him loved him. He wrote brilliant, difficult books and famous professors sometimes recognised him in streetcars, but he turned away and got off at the next stop.

If we could ever tell it, how it happens, we grow to approximate the vision (minus the nobility, trace of smile, languages, mastery), we get what we wanted, we grow in some way towards the 13-year-old’s dream, training ourselves with sad movies, poems of loss, minor chords of the guitar, folk songs of doomed socialist brotherhood. And soon, we are strolling the streets in a brand new trench coat, hair in careful disarray, embracing the moonlight, all the pity of the darkness in a precious kind of response to the claim of the vision, but then much later when we are tired of indulgence, and despise the attitude, we find ourselves walking the streets in earnest, in real rain, and we circle the city almost to morning until we know every wrought-iron gate, every old mansion, every mountain view. In these compulsive journeys, we become dimly aware of a new vision, we pray that it might be encouraged to grow and take possession, overwhelming the old one, a vision of order, austerity, work, and sunlight. So it was that last week I was moving along Pine Avenue, at four in the morning, wishing myself somewhere else, in a house of my own beside a wife, work prepared for the next day.

In my room, on Mountain Street, a beautiful girl lay asleep on a mattress and I couldn’t be beside her. I was heading toward Côte-des-Neiges and she was sleeping back at my room, a profound sleep of isolation, her red hair fallen on her face and shoulders as if arranged by a Botticelli wind. I could not help thinking that she was too beautiful for me to have, that I was not tall enough or straight, that I did not command the glory of the flesh, that people did not turn to look at me in streetcars, and despite certain emotional and artistic achievements (she could also claim them), she deserved someone, an athlete perhaps, who moved with a grace equal to hers, exercised as she did, the immediate tyranny of beauty in face and limb.

Love among the dead leaves … steps in Mount Royal Park, Montreal.
Love among the dead leaves … steps in Mount Royal Park, Montreal. Photograph: todamo/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Two days before, the evening of the day she had come to Montreal, she told me she loved me, she said to me the words which I do not think I will ever be able to use easily, “I love you”; she said them and I let them dignify us, but I did not allow them too deeply into my heart. Perhaps she knew this. I think she wanted to believe the words, but I don’t think she did. Perhaps I should have forced myself to respond to her declaration. Perhaps it is best for people to establish the ideal (love) in practical terms, as quickly as possible, to bring it close, to make it a real possibility. What do I know of the words anyhow? I have fled them as though they were a sentence of bondage, I have never been able to utter them with courage.

Later, on that same night, we were walking down Mountain Street to get something to eat. I showed her a lovely iron fence which had in its calligraphy silhouettes of swallows, rabbits, chipmunks. She said to me, “You’ve won me,” and she said my name. Should I have believed that I had won her? Let men and women couple together, make the beast with two backs, cry kisses into each other’s mouths, give every gift of flesh and spirit until there is no more giving or demanding but a blind divine exchange of bodies, and then let them whisper in exhausted voices, “We have won each other.” Which we never managed.

By the end of the next day, I had written a stillborn poem about two armies marching to encounter from different corners of a continent. They never meet in conflict in the hungry central plain. Winter eats through the battalions like a storm of moths at a brocade gown, leaving the metal threads of artillery strewn gunner-less, miles behind the frozen men, pointless designs on a vast closet floor. Then months later, two corporals of different language meet in a green unblasted field. Their feet are bound with strips of cloth, torn from the uniforms of superiors. This field they meet upon is the one that distant powerful marshals ordained for glory. Because the men have come from different directions, they face each other, but they have forgotten why they stumbled there. And she had done some writing too. I found the paper after she had gone.

“You cannot have me now – I pity myself too much and hate myself too much at times – you can never have me now – I want to speak but cannot now …”

But we went beyond this, we finally found words to say. I don’t wish to record them all, even though I remember them. We spoke so that we could become tender. It was not the kind of tenderness which follows passion, but the kind which follows failure. So, I resolved to discard lust since it could not be answered. For the time remaining for us, I would regard her as the fine instrument of discipline and grace which she was and praise her trained beauty as it deserved. To be fustian: we abandoned the mattress of lovers for the close armchairs of friendship.

Echoes of Baudelaire … Cohen performing live in 1970.
Echoes of Baudelaire … Cohen performing live in 1970. Photograph: K & K Ulf Kruger OHG/Redferns

That night, I watched her move about my room. Our conversation had emancipated her. I had never seen her so beautiful. She was nested in a brown chair, studying her script. When I worked in a foundry, I remember a colour I loved in the crucible of melted brass. Her hair was that colour and her warm body seemed to reflect it just as the caster’s face glows above the poured moulds. As she repeated the famous words to herself, her face was a child at first communion or an old lady’s in a remembered pilgrimage of virginity. I thought the exclamation of Baudelaire, mon semblable:


I yielded all my silent praise for her limbs, her lips, not to the clamour of personal desire, but to the pure demand of excellence. I was detached enough to write in my notebook:

Once I longed for distance,
Miles of railroad track
To hurl my love away from me
So I could wish her back.

Now my flesh requires
What distance cannot give.
No comfort in the mental kiss;
You need my mouth to live.

I studied her marvellous body, which she had charitably left unclothed, her belly (think of the soft primitive line drawn on the cave wall by the artist-hunter and use it to outline an albino heart), and I remembered her cruel intestines:

Quel mal mystérieux ronge son flanc d’athlète?
What unknown evil harrows her lithe side?

Those were very good hours we spent together in my room. Most together because we were most apart. Poet and Actress lost in their damned Crafts. Then she was tired and lay down to sleep. She was leaving the next morning. I wanted to lie a moment by her side. I closed the lights and lay beside her. I even thought, wildly, that a miracle would deliver us into a sexual embrace, I don’t know why, the natural language of bodies because we were pleasant people, because she was leaving the next morning, I don’t know. We said goodnight to each other. She rested her hand on my thigh, nothing of desire in the touch. And she went to sleep, and I opened my eyes in the dark and my room was never emptier, and she was never further away. I listened to her breathing, it was like the delicate engine of some cruel machine, spreading distance after distance between us. Then I was more alone than I have ever been, and my room became intolerable. Her sleep was the final withdrawal, more perfect than anything she could say or write to me, and she slept with a deeper grace than she moved. Now I could intrude on no part of her. I kissed her hair, remembering that hair does not feel and I rose and dressed.

The night had been devised by a purist of Montreal autumns. A light rain made the black iron gates shine. Leaves lay precisely etched on the wet pavement, flat as if they had fallen from diaries. A wind blurred the small leaves of the young acacia trees on McGregor Street. And I was walking an old route of fences and mansions I know by heart and wondering how many more times I would have to walk it. One word rolled around in my mind and colonised my thoughts until my only mental activity was to repeat it again and again with each step I took. Driven. Dri-ven. Dri-ven.

This writing embarrasses me. I am … enough to see a young man stepping out of Stendhal, given to self-dramatisation, walking off a comfortless erection. Perhaps masturbation would have been more effective and less tiring. Let me say only this about the walk: the rain was real, the wind and the desperation were real, and the hat over the forehead, the isolation of the streets, the eyes that search every shallow and deep doorway for the soft embrace of a waiting, destined woman, the prayer almost cried, “Help Thou my unbelief,” and the cold, beautiful rain-jewelled answer of indifference, all these were real. The 13-year-old’s vision was as close to materialisation as it had ever been, and for the first time, I knew that I hated it.

Meet me at Mountain Street … downtown Montreal.
Meet me at Mountain Street … downtown Montreal. Photograph: Robert VAN DER HILST/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Two hours of walking and my head was clear. I thought of dreams, manipulations for martyrdom, the tall exquisite women who are sad because they cannot love, their lips I crushed my lips against, and myself the moonlight sponge, the jukebox heart; I reviewed the impossible predicaments I created, the impossible girls I courted, the icy carcasses caressed, the hate returned by tenderness to rot the heart – all these I applauded goodbye, as a cheap burlesque audience applauds the last number, the puffing line of middle-aged floozies dancing backwards into the wings with superficial nostalgia and real revulsion. Of course, it was not a true goodbye. I knew that there would be other nights that I would walk through, but I would know where I preferred to be, and I would be working toward it, and back in my room, there would be no queenly lady sleeping alone. But that night there was. I made a little noise coming in and she awakened.

“Oh,” she said, “I wish I could have gone with you.”

I did not reply. She understood that something important had happened to me and that the strain was finally over between us. I touched her face and went to bed for a few hours. We sat very close to each other during the taxi ride to the airport. It was raining still. We drove out of Montreal. When we saw the first airplanes, she breathed a little startled sigh for both of us. The car ride had been too short for the friendliness we felt.

“I’ll miss you,” she said, and I said that I would too.

O Mariette, no one moves as beautifully as you, no one’s voice is such a perfect slave to his will, no one’s hair pours so many earth and metal colours over white shoulders. The turbojet will carry you to the height you deserve. Grant audience to the countryside. Your eyes are trained for continents. Half my bed is too little empire for your imperial appetite. I will always imagine you in the air, at the summit of a mountain or on the roof of a great Manhattan hotel. The punishing rain and cold air will be more welcome to your body than hands and kisses are, and you have a pure art for transmuting all your pain to silver. Burn like the cold moon men watch. Draw the camera back. Pan the airfield. Cohen is waving goodbye to one of his sharp women. He is indulging himself in a little harmless rhetoric. The plane disappears into the lead sky.

Cohen catches a limousine back to town. During the ride back, he considers the great technical achievement which an airport is. He could never organise one. Or take any new building on the way into the city. Who has the mastery to plan such a thing? In Red China, they were smelting iron in their back yards. In Israel, men and women, his own age, were fighting and farming the desert. In special schools, steel-nerved men, in perfect physical condition, were being trained to walk in areas where the gravity pull was different, they were learning to breathe alien atmospheres. Railroads, huge corporations, governments: he would never be able to grasp or work within their intricacies, and as industrial Montreal flies by the car window, he feels humble before every gas station.

Back in his room, Mariette is brought to him again. There are her sheets, there are red hairs in his brush. He finds the note written a day before. “You cannot have me now …” He reads it over almost a dozen times. Then he begins this entry in his erratic journal, feeling curiously at the very centre of things.

  • A Ballet of Lepers by Leonard Cohen (Canongate, £20). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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