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No Woman Is an Island Illustration by Ohara Hale.

No Woman Is an Island

Deborah Ostrovsky on how in addition to being the city of love, Montreal is also the city of broken hearts.

I WAS ON MY WAY HOME from buying lunch at La Vieille Europe when I first noticed that the city had changed. As I walked up Boulevard Saint-Laurent, the street looked like it had been enveloped by a greyish, smokey hue. Maybe the light had simply faded in the slush and grit of another bleak March day. Maybe it was my low blood sugar. Or maybe it was because my marriage was falling apart.

Along the Main, abandoned storefronts declared themselves to be à vendre. I’d grown accustomed to brief incarnations of shops and cafes padlocked just months after opening. But this time everything was gone. Even L. Berson & Son, which had sold Jewish funeral monuments on Saint-Laurent since 1922, was moving away. With a bag of merguez sausages and espresso beans in hand, I stared up at the red and grey “For Sale” sign perched high above piles of granite headstones that awaited their final resting place. I wondered if this was a portent that my relationship was also destined for a graveyard.

My husband and I weren’t getting along; trivial things were adding up. Like when, after over a decade together, he forgot my pathological aversion to birthdays and planned a surprise party for me. It felt like a cruel joke, and I spent most of that night weeping in my bedroom while he entertained our bewildered friends. I was also becoming more of a homebody, scared of air travel, while he chose to work abroad—a fact related to his career ambitions but also an inner need to wander.

Meanwhile, many of our friends’ relationships were falling apart. Their negative space was starting to accrete—it felt like only a matter of time before we’d fill it up with our own bad ending. We organized a chalet weekend with another couple who cancelled because they had separated. My daughter had a friend with whom she used to dance to Annie Brocoli songs at daycare. Then one day he was gone; his parents had split up, both moving farther away. While my husband was off in a different timezone, a friend came to pick up our extra bed since her own assets were now divided. Maybe I’ll need that back soon, I thought, watching her push the mattress into a rental van.

“WE ARE HERE ON THIS ISLAND in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of divorce,” Joan Didion wrote in Life magazine about a restorative week in Honolulu she spent with her daughter and husband. Their plan worked; the marriage lasted until her husband’s death thirty-four years later. The entirety of my marriage has taken place on an island at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers. With frigid winters and sweat-drenched summers, sharing a bed with someone in an apartment without air conditioning can deal a fatal blow to any relationship. What would have happened had Didion chosen to come here, instead?

Our problems ran beyond climate, though. I’m afraid you married a coureur des bois, my husband’s boss (and beloved mentor) once told me, referring to Quebec’s early adventurers. We were eating breakfast at the Parkhotel on the northern edge of Germany’s Black Forest, where he and my husband were commuting from Montreal—sometimes twice per month—for an engineering project. He’s always on the move, his boss said. I remember my vision going grey then, too. I recognized the archetype so well.

MY HUSBAND AND I were about to call it quits when his beloved boss, married longer than anyone I knew, died. On a muggy, sunny August morning, we made our way up Mount Royal to the cemetery. The gravestone came from L. Berson & Son’s new iteration.

I stood at the graveside and my blurry, grey vision went away. This is how things will end, I thought to myself. The funeral took place on one of the brightest days I can remember—nature’s cruel way of asserting its joyful will amidst a crowd of mourners. As we drove down the mountain, things appeared gilt-edged. My husband announced that he had cancelled a few upcoming trips. We talked about flying to Honolulu.

Unlike Didion and her husband, we never made it to the Pacific. Instead, we ended up at a Cistercian abbey in Saint-Jean-de-Matha, just an hour away. Eschewing artisanal cheeses and rosaries in the gift shop, we picked up a self-help book called Le couple with Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss on the cover.

We haven’t finished the book. We probably never will. But we got off the island, and that was good enough.