If I'm not paying attention, I'll sometimes cross paths with an old friend. After wishing me a Happy New Year, they always ask, “Whatever happened to you?” They wonder why they never see me, so I've found a way to rationalize it for them. First, I explain I've moved further west, further south. Then I say I'm working hard, waking early. If they still aren't satisfied, I'll add, “It's winter after all,” then with a glance to the sky and palm to the rain, “We're all just trying to stay dry.”
I understand the question. A year ago, I never would've thought I'd be so far from them. Not because it was avoidable but because I couldn't see it. Soon I'm turning twenty, and lately, for the first time, I can see a plot to my life. Things don't just happen anymore. Now I recognize how certain choices have led to certain events, how these events amount to who and where I am. It's a startling recognition, simple but too complex for old friends on street corners. But if I answered them completely, traced the plot away from the city and them, I'd start with Andrew and the nude, and end with Rasmus Claude.
I met Andrew soon after moving to Vancouver. He was a painter just older than me with a vaulted studio on the Downtown Eastside and a trust fund he downplayed. He wore skinny jeans and oversized glasses and after a few weeks we slid into the status of couple. Andrew showed me the best of the city — beaches for sunsets, bathrooms for coke. He introduced me to the right people and some of them were friendly. In that way Vancouver felt even smaller than Edmonton. I didn't find it hard to become one of the talked-abouts. Everyone at least knew my face, though what they thought of me was probably wildly exaggerated — like I only existed in places of extreme light or dark.
When I think of that first summer in Vancouver what I see is Andrew, chest-deep in water that ripples with the purest light. All my ideas of the city were fulfilled in him. He had ambition, but whether his work ever sold, whether anyone ever recognized him, was immaterial. The mountains and the sea were their own validation.
Our time as lovers ended in the winter. Andrew had started saying I was the prettiest girl he'd ever been with. He said each time he made love to me he felt he'd learned another protected secret of a mysterious cult. I didn't exist to be thought of that way, and just knowing he felt that was enough to put me off the sex altogether, like a bite of bad seafood. But we stayed friends and once, despite our breakup, I even posed for him nude.
That was early last spring, a night when people's ideas of me were basically true. We'd been out late and fled the rain back to his studio, drunk enough he didn't try kissing me and I didn't mind being naked in that space, warmed only by an old heat lamp. Other than being drunk — and I don't think I get that drunk — I really can't explain why I agreed to it. But I found a way to rationalize it when people asked. I said it was a spasm of misguided liberation, something born of the same impulse that had me with twenty-year-olds in the tenth grade. Or I just said it was a favour for an artist and a friend.
Either way I regretted it. Andrew called it his best painting yet. I thought it barely looked like me — my features wildly exaggerated, painted pitch black and nearly neon — but he said he'd captured my soul. Maybe that's why, a few months later, I felt so sick when he said he was selling it. It wasn't like I was naive. Of course I knew that artists sell their work. But what you know can still be shocking when it happens. I remember blocking my breasts as if something was reaching for them. He'd never cared to sell before. If it really was his best painting, why wouldn't he just hang it on his own wall and appreciate it for himself?
It reminded me of a beef I'd had with my father for years. We never fought or anything — quite the opposite — but I couldn't get over how little he appreciated his successes. He seemed to just collect them, one by one. Dad never even celebrated, he only nodded and calmly plotted the next achievement. In elementary he put me in commercials — that was a success. If you reduced me by half and took away my breasts you might recognize the green-eyed brunette from those Trix cereal ads. Then through middle school he put me in sports — gymnastics, figure skating, both successes — before I finally stopped being agreeable and kept to my room through high school. Three weeks after graduating I left for Vancouver.
I'd never been but knew the city through photos, gathered from a brochure I found for Expo '86 — the beaches by day, by night the neon light, how it smears on rain-slick streets. Even more recent photos gave me the feeling that the city was young, untouched somehow. I dreamed it up like the Wild West. And anyway I needed to leave Edmonton, where Friday night was Strongbow in a basement. I had some okay friends there, but it was really the thought of being inside those photos that got me through the boredom and irritation of senior year. I didn't look beyond the goal of leaving. I wouldn't let myself get scared of being broke and jobless. When I arrived, I made good on those bedroom hours and got hired at a used bookstore on Main Street. That's where I met Andrew, though I never saw him read.
After announcing the nude would go on sale, he invited me to the gallery where it'd be displayed to potential buyers. It was part of a show curated by Marguerite, a wealthy thirty-something whose gaudy-ringed fingers always held a glass of wine on the verge of spilling. Andrew was tense in the weeks leading up to the show. I could see two more ribs through his t-shirts and he kept smoking DRUM tobacco, which was tough for me. I'd been trying to quit since wintertime. I'd grown to resent the control smoking had over me, the cravings waking me for four a.m. satisfactions in the freezing rain.
It was the hottest June anyone could remember, almost a year since I left home. There was never room on the bike racks and people's patchy tans became topics of conversation. So far, I'd tanned my face and chest. The strapless dress I wore to the opening showed my paper-white arms and shoulders, making the tanned parts look detachable, as if you could display them as a bronze bust. That time of year the days are freakishly long in Vancouver. I arrived at the gallery well past ten but in the west a muted blue held out against the dark.
The gallery was mostly full and most of the art was total shit. Like all Vancouver painting I'd seen, these artists seemed afraid of expression — safer instead to paint like kids and pass it off as irony. Andrew painted like that, except for the nude.
It was easy to spot, prominently displayed under beady studio lights, the only piece people clustered around. I couldn't look at the price. I searched for Andrew and found him with some older people all in black and sipping pungent shiraz from plastic cups. He was silent and anxious-looking while the others complained about how the Cultural Olympiad funds were being spent.
“The way they're selling the city, it makes me sick,” one woman moaned.
“Haida art and anime,” said another.
“What will people think of us?” asked a man who, registering my presence, pocketed his left hand.
Andrew said, “Excuse me,” and took my arm. His hand was cold with sweat. We retreated to a corner and he began rolling a smoke. “There's no one,” he muttered. “No one'll buy it.”
I tried to be nice, though it irritated me how much he cared. “It looks really good,” I said, encouraging him with a shake to his shoulder. “I'm proud of you. It's the best thing in here.”
He scoffed. “Well, yeah.”
“Look, why do you care? It's a great piece. Just leave it on display, let others enjoy it, then keep it for yourself.”
He licked the paper and folded the smoke. “You're probably right. I'm already sick of these people anyway. Nothing but clowns. Fucking children and clowns.”
Marguerite appeared as Andrew said this, beads heaped over the mounds of her matured cleavage. “Oh we're not all so bad, are we?” Her voice purred, soaked in wine. It occurred to me they might've slept together. “In fact one of those children just bought your piece. Or does that make him a clown?”
“This is the real success,” she said, draining her wine with a flourish. Purple smudged the plastic. “None other than Rasmus Claude.”
“Really?” Andrew blurted.
Marguerite grinned and nodded, eyes lit up like slots.
“Who's he?” I asked.
“Claude's one of the biggest in town,” Andrew said, tucking the smoke behind his ear. “A collector.”
“Rasmus is an old friend,” Marguerite said, now fingernailing her Blackberry. “He's melting over your painting. I could barely keep his hands off it.”
“I hear his house is amazing. I hear he has a whole room devoted just to nudes.”
Marguerite looked up at me and said through crooked lips, “That's where you'll go,” before making for the bar.
“Which one is he?” I asked.
Andrew scanned the gallery and said, “There.” I followed his stare to the biggest man in the room. I would only ever see Rasmus Claude in the flesh three, maybe four times, and this was the first. He had the anatomy of a snowman, if you put the biggest ball in the middle, and in fact his features weren't unlike a snowman's, either. He was bald save for a light frosting of white hairs above the ears. He wore small round glasses, which made his eyes look like brown leather buttons. Drink or maybe diabetes gave his nose a carrot-orange glow, and gaps between teeth made his grin seem like a disjointed row of dirty pebbles.
Sickness hit me as if it burst from a pipe. I saw his house — the nudes banging walls of soundproof glass as Rasmus ate his dinner. I was dizzy with the image as Andrew repeated, “Outside?”
Outside was humid, and though Vancouver's pretty clean all I smelled was exhaust coming off the asphalt in huge waves. Andrew didn't pick up on my state because he repeated in awe, “Rasmus Claude!” I pried a grimace from my face. “That's his car,” he said, pointing to a silver Mercedes convertible. It was vintage and even the license plates were Collector. I was gazing at it when Andrew said, “Don't look!”
Claude came wobbling out of the gallery. He didn't have the nude with him, of course. It would stay on display for a few more weeks. But still I swear he grinned at me, like a boy who's seen his big sister step out of the shower. Then he fired up his Benz and veered away.
I didn't see him again until late August. Meanwhile something had changed, quite fast but almost imperceptibly, like clouds reforming. By August I was barely going out and people probably talked about me less. I dressed in accordance with the weather forecast. I glared at anyone who checked me out and gave my manager hell for installing a video camera. I no longer made it to the beach, and rationalized why I kept away with a childhood fear of what lurked in the water.
The last time I answered a call from Andrew, we met for coffee on Commercial Drive. I hadn't seen him for a few weeks. He kept fidgeting, as if waiting for a call that wasn't coming, and looked worse than ever — skinnier, his teeth brown, almost fuzzy. I was glad I couldn't see through his sunglasses. For the most part he spoke tersely, but before I could avoid the subject he was on about Rasmus Claude. This alone seemed to animate him.
“He got his hands on that Olympics money. Now he's loaning his collection for a big show — all local painters. Guy has an arm in every corner of the city, connections with the mayor and whatnot.” He sucked down half a smoke in one drag then added happily, “He bought one of my paintings,” as if I could've possibly forgotten. Suddenly he snatched my wrist and held it to the metal table. “Let's go out tonight,” he demanded. “There's a party.”
I'd recently used every excuse on him without just saying I didn't feel like it. That was the truth, but summer was almost over. Soon enough would be winter — the sky a cold glare, the trees like skeletons of trees, and the rain. I agreed and his grip loosened.
He gave me the address for where to meet up. It was a house I knew in Strathcona, but since I'd been there the tenants had changed. Now some very finely-dressed art school kids lived there. When I arrived the place was a dump and it wasn't really a party. Hardly anyone was around. Smoke lurched through the air, fringed with the smell of mould. I didn't want to sit for fear of bedbugs. Andrew was smoking with a few of the kids on a couch, still wearing sunglasses. He looked so old so near them.
When he saw me he sprang to his feet, held me by the arm and showed me to the kids. They nodded without recognition. “She's my muse,” he explained, then said sagely, “It's important to have a muse in your practice.” The kids stared up at him blankly.
We didn't stay long or say much. Andrew's scowl did nothing to prevent the kids talking on about experiences in Europe. Around midnight he broke his silence with a slap on the knee and loudly proclaimed he and I should go somewhere else. We gathered our beer like naked people gathering clothes, the kids peering at us through the smoke.
Once outside Andrew recovered something of his good mood. He said we were going to a party. We hurried through the newly-falling rain toward Chinatown, copies of Metro on our heads. He'd stolen some beer from the kids and we drank it fast, a dash of mingled rain with every gulp. By the time we reached the gallery we were soaked, ink-stained, drunk and silly. It felt almost like a year before.
Some people all in black huddled beneath the gallery's awning. Looks suddenly became important to Andrew. He fixed himself up in the window of a car, then shaped my hair and buffed my cheeks with his sleeve. It was too late to simply leave when I recognized whose car mirrored us. The top was up.
We elbowed through the heat of bodies into the gallery. It was packed. I could see only glimpses of the paintings — knuckles, nipples, teeth. A City of Vancouver banner hung above the crowd, whose eyes were now on us. The suspicion in their looks confused me. Andrew's grip constricted on my hand as Marguerite intercepted us, and it dawned on me that I didn't really know him anymore.
Marguerite looked the same as ever, as if she'd just arrived from Andrew's opening, but the courtesy was gone. “What are you doing here?” she hissed.
He was desperate immediately. “You've gotta let me see him.”
“You're a child and an idiot,” she said, exasperated. “You make it hard for even Rasmus to be a sycophant.” Marguerite clutched Andrew in the armpit, his hold on my hand fell away. They moved off, and from the look of how she berated him it was clear they'd been lovers. Andrew put his sunglasses on and stared glumly at her feet.
People were minding their own business again so I tried getting to the art, but before I made it I found myself almost kissing the back of Rasmus Claude's head, the fat folded where it met the neck. The sickness surfaced instantly. I felt a tangle of limbs across my body but couldn't move away. The crowd enclosed me and pushed me toward him like a tide.
He was with a tanned young man I thought I recognized but couldn't place. “The neighbourhood's virtually untouched,” the man was saying. “Council will do what we recommend.”
Rasmus didn't respond. He was looking at me out the corner of his little lenses. The man also noticed me and grinned automatically. With that in place I recognized him from an election sign last year.
“Can we help you?” Rasmus asked.
“Don't you recognize me?”
He studied me like marble. “Yes,” he said approvingly, “but you'll have to help me place you.”
“You own a painting of me,” I replied. “You bought it from Marguerite in June.”
Rasmus smacked his hands together then slapped one on my shoulder like meat to a counter. “Oh yes! Of course! How are you?” He rotated me so our backs were turned to the politician. His voice dropped low. “Did he put you up to this? I thought I was very clear with him.” I tried squirming out from under his hand but it was suctioned on. “Tell him I don't want to see him. I don't want to hear from him.”
“Did you put me in your room of nudes?”
Claude guffawed and looked around as if for someone to explain me. “Look, I'm trying to be nice, but you kids don't understand this business. I choose where to put you. That's what you agree to when you pose for someone. That's what he agreed to when he sold the piece.” I stared at him blankly. His tone softened. “Look, I'm sorry. You're a lovely girl, really. You're a beautiful model.”
“I'm not a model.”
His blonde brow creased and a grin began to break. “What are you, then?”
But before I thought of what to say, again I was rotated, this time by Marguerite. “There you are,” she said crossly. “He's waiting outside for you to leave.”
She cast me off and the tide towed me away. I glanced back before the crowd closed around them. Rasmus had resumed talking to the politician, Marguerite whispering in his ear like a conspirator.
Harder now, the wind-blown rain scooped down from the orange clouds. I couldn't find Andrew in the bodies outside so I made for Hastings, hoping for a bus. But just a few steps down the block I discovered him spread out in the doorway of a seafood shop. Tentacles hanging in the window cast shadows across his limp body but he was still awake, belching regularly, an unopened can of beer clenched in his fist. “So you have a hard night,” he said, rising slowly to his feet. He balanced then staggered toward me. “Sometimes you have a hard night, hey? No biggie...” I stepped past him into the doorway. Andrew tripped on a crack in the sidewalk, dry-heaved, then with a discus-like motion flung the can. It smashed directly through the window of the nearest car. An alarm sounded wildly and we ran off in different directions.
September bore the first marks of winter. Breath and scarves appeared and the sun couldn't rise high anymore, arching low now like a softball lobbed lazily across the sky. By then my Vancouver was smaller than ever, propped up by home and work and filled with the route I walked between them. So I could watch, shade by shade, the trees along the sidewalks gaining colour. I could feel each sharpening of the cold.
When I thought of the summer I saw nothing like Andrew, submerged in water of light. I felt nothing of last year's wildness, when I'd stepped inside the photos I'd seen. Only the two nights of Rasmus Claude reached out from those months. I replayed them frequently, unwillingly. I always heard his parting question before heaving him out of mind, and so forgetting summer altogether. I really thought I wouldn't see him in my reduced version of the city.
The morning was rainy. My kitchen clock sounded like rainfall. I sat spooning half a grapefruit and staring at the envelope opened on the table. It had arrived early in the month — a letter from my father, cheque enclosed. He'd written to remind me of the start of another school year. I knew the moment the cheque cleared I'd have agreed to something, so it remained uncashed and unacknowledged, though also not destroyed.
I lived alone in a basement suite east of Main Street, north of Broadway. Its only windows were north-facing slats at ground-level, so I received no light. Mould flourished everywhere, especially the bathtub, the porcelain clean only directly under the tap, which always dripped. I liked the place — cheap and central — but some days, like that one, it felt rainier inside than out.
I had the day off but decided to walk to work to see if anything was happening. I didn't get far. One of the businesses housed in the old brick buildings nearby was an architectural firm. Elaborate models of potential cityscapes filled their windows. As I passed I glanced inside and met the eyes of Rasmus Claude. I stopped, startled. He stared at me, framed in the doorway, then pointed, said something and stepped outside with a young man who instantly sheltered his spiked blonde hair with a black umbrella. I recognized him from the bookstore. He always bought whatever glossy book on design we carried, paying with a credit card the silver of his eyes.
Claude approached me while the man hung back and lit a long unfiltered cigarette. He got so close I shared his umbrella. Already his little lenses were fogging up. “Hello,” he said enthusiastically. “I'm glad I ran into you.” I cast a glare that collapsed his tone. “I feel badly,” he continued, shuffling his feet like a shy boy. “I don't normally lash out at people. It's just, that painting's caused me so much grief. But it wasn't your fault. I spoke with Marguerite. She explained everything.”
I looked over his shoulder at the man, his silver eyes watching us intently. I truly wanted to accept Claude as sincere — if only to remember something else — but those eyes made me ask instead, “What do you want?”
“I want to make it up to you,” he said, bratwurst fingers now clutching my shoulder. “I want you for a project.”
At that the man stepped forward and vigorously shook my hand. He introduced himself as Todd, his last name recognizable as the name of a realty firm, a fact confirmed by a business card produced like a switchblade. “Which direction are you walking?” he asked.
“Good,” said Rasmus, grinning. “Let's all go.”
We proceeded along the route I always took. The rain was speeding up the fall, the fallen leaves stirred like cooked spinach on the street. About halfway through the walk we stopped at a burned-out building, only now being torn down, a few months since the fire. Some workers in lemon-yellow jumpsuits idled around a Komatsu digger that was knocking at the charred beams. The meaty scent of burnt wood still travelled to us faintly. Without the building, you could see clear to the mountains, and the mist peeling off them looked like the extinguished flames.
“Here we go,” said Todd, popping the collar of his black jacket. He lit another cigarette. “What do you think?”
“What was it?”
“A house!” he exclaimed, as if announcing a prize.
“It's actually quite a sad case,” Claude admitted. “A family. No one was hurt, but they were here illegally. Things will be harder for them.”
“You're right,” said Todd, “but stay on task.”
“Well, the lot's ours now,” Claude said, pointing out the development application already hanging on a nearby fence. “We're planning condominiums. I'm a principal investor, Todd's our realtor, and-”
Todd groaned and took over, “Look, we'd like you to model. What do you think?”
At first I thought of the cities behind the glass.
“We're looking for a young face,” Claude added. “We want to reach the right people. We need someone who embodies the neighbourhood.”
“The word is culture,” said Todd definitively. A thick beam splintered and a whole floor sunk to the ground. Loose wood and shingles slid off and rained down on the men.
“It's really lucky you ran into me,” said Claude, leaning in close. His hot breath flushed my cool cheeks. “Marguerite said you've done commercials before. This should be no problem.”
“But I'm not a model,” I replied. “I told you that before.”
“Right,” interjected Todd. “That's good. We really just want you to be yourself.”
“And what's that?”
He groaned again and looked at Claude, who said, “Beautiful, of course, young, wild...”
“Cultured,” James stressed. “You work at that bookshop.”
“But she's also wild,” Rasmus countered. “You should see her friends. I have a painting...”
His words were drowned out by a loud retching. The house was on the verge of total collapse. The digger backed away but the workers arrogantly held ground. We three watched as the roof crunched down, folding the structure, spitting smoke-licked rafters everywhere. One of them shot further than the rest and hammered a man behind the knee as he turned to run away. He barked and crumpled to the muddy ground.
“Christ!” Todd exclaimed. He bolted into the lot, Rasmus hobbled after him. The other workers gathered up the man. He was pale and moaning, limp as a puppet, but I didn't hang around. Neither did I continue on to Main. I walked straight home, realizing that those were my first words with someone not a customer in weeks.
Anyone can see why I don't answer the question this way. It's not comfortable on a street corner. I wouldn't be explaining, I'd just be telling. At this point there would still be a few things left to tell, but I'd change the subject. How can I rationalize the fourth time I saw him?
It was the latest days of fall. I was dreading the darkness of December. Each night I found myself vowing to cash the cheque in the morning, not caring what I'd agree to. Thankfully, I seemed to wake with a sharper memory, or maybe pride. But when darkness came again each day I felt a sensation of the coming years — a concrete yard and the smell of burning leaves.
I'd moved mid-month and left the bookstore, having called in sick enough times that quitting and being fired became one thing. Now, as I always answer, I live further west, further south. I work hard in the kitchen of a Thai restaurant on Cambie Street. The only window in the kitchen is a television, and all I ever hear is orders and my manager explaining how Canada Line construction ruined the neighbourhood. Inside the steam of rice, I feel out of sight and reach.
By late fall I'd gained a very different idea of Vancouver. I no longer thought it was the Wild West. Whatever had allowed me to step so cleanly into those photos had happened before I recognized plot, and long enough ago I can't retrieve one. So I can't replicate my wildness. I reflect on it like a happy accident — kind words from a stranger in a foreign city, who quickly disappears.
The fourth time I saw Rasmus Claude was from afar one afternoon on Cambie and Broadway. I'd strayed that far north to buy cheaper groceries for the kitchen. Construction rattled the intersection and sharp autumn gusts sent dust reeling skyward. Claude was plodding down the upturned sidewalk with the gait of authority, as if he could stop the noise, stop the dust. I didn't go near him and didn't call out. I don't really know if it was him at all. I'd never say it but I had a sudden vision of him: deep down below the city, his limbs wrapped tight about a virgin like an octopus.