A Night Of Art And Anti-Art by Jane Eaton Hamilton
A woman with a perpetual smile said, “What is your name?”
“Tiara,” said a second woman. She had red hair and a large jaw.
“So you’re a princess?”
“Yes,” said the second woman. “I wear myself out.”
Later, under the Cambie Street bridge at Spyglass Place, there was an old piano sitting on the seawall with blue and orange polka-dots, and a piano bench, and a man with a flat cap and three friends was playing, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt. ‘The Keys to the Street’ was a project between the city and post-secondary institutions; there were more polka-dotted pianos elsewhere in Vancouver, and the public was welcome. There was no moon. It was dark with broody grey clouds sweeping over a sky lit almost blue, and a breeze was coming off the water, cooling things down. There weren’t stars, but sometimes a plane flew noisily overhead. It was 1:30 in the morning. The view from the seawall was sweeping downtown, the high rises speckled with lights, the casino bathed in pink, the Monk’s sign reflecting red on the furrowed water of False Creek, but the four people around the piano, just here, under the murky glow of the streetlamp and the heavy cement buttresses of the bridge, and the small rainbow ferry-slip, and their laughter, and the tunes the one man was playing, was somehow enough. I wanted to take Liz’s hand; I wanted to stop time right there.
I had been walking with Liz with my mother’s red blanket over my arm, and though it had been washed many times, I liked to remember when it smelled of a blend of my mother’s perfume and her cigarettes. Liz smelled of cigarettes, so when I was with her and my mother’s red blanket, it was simple to think about my mother sleeping under that blanket, how she had shape, then, and substance, before she died, how she had shoulders and breasts and elbows and a tummy and knees. She had bunions. I thought about the great fun I’d have with my mother when I was little, how she let us put clown makeup on her, and how she loved to limbo to Harry Belafonte, and then about swimming every afternoon in my grandparents’ swimming pool and how she would only haul us out when our lips turned blue and chattered. I thought about my mother’s love for animals. I thought about how she let me sleep with pet raccoons, three of them, in my bed, and how I had a lot of snakes and preying mantises in jars. I’d punch holes in blue Miracle Whip lids, and put in twigs and bits of grass. Once I watched the mantises have sex, and while his green penis was up inside her, she ate his head off, and then she ate the rest of him. There are theories about this sexual cannabalism: adaptive foraging, aggressive spillover and mistaken identity hypotheses, but who knows? I certainly took notice as I shook the mantis back out to freedom come morning (the household rule). I had mice in a shoebox. I had a robin’s egg incubating under a hot light. I had a pet owl, Spooky, and a pet hawk, Hawkeye. We had a cat mom named Pardon Me.
As we walked towards the piano, I draped myself in my mother’s blanket, and I walked on the lip of the seawall, and I pretended it was very thin, an inch and a half across, the side of a plank, something to balance on, and I told Liz about how we kids would do nimble foot across the top rails of our paddock, and how one set of rails was removable, set loosely into brackets so farm vehicles could pass, and how it was hard, almost impossibly wobbly, to get across, and then I acted it out for her, swaying, almost falling, my mother’s red blanket a cape whipping in the night wind.
My heart was very arrhythmic. I wanted to press myself against another human to settle it. I thought about Jules in California and how for a while after I spent time with her, my heartbeat was nearly normal.
Liz and I had been lying beside the pond where I often, at dusk, saw blue herons fishing, Charleson Park. The clouds looked like scumbling. I liked the sound of Liz’s voice. I let it spill over me in washes, like a glaze I’d put on a painting. It was low and made me think of Scotch, and sometimes she laughed and then she sounded ickily like an ex-lover, a smoky jazz-club rumbly laugh. I touched the grass; I ran my hands over it as if it was someone’s green brush cut. I told Liz that scientists were discovering that the smell of cut grass was actually the smell of trauma; my friend Sonnet L’Abbé, a good poet and teacher, was exploring plant communication. I was feeling the grass and remembering how I used to see as a child, intently, how when I looked closely enough I’d see each blade creased in its middle like a tiny folded book, each imperfectly sheered top. I thought about lilacs, and rhubarb, those fat red/green stalks, the sugary sap that leaked from them, and about climbing, and jumping out of our hayloft, that airborne feeling where my stomach went up in my neck. I turned on my right side to see Liz’s profile and noticed the city lights through sweeping curtains of willows, and I thought about Annie Dillard’s tree with the lights in it from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which might be the book I’d take to a desert island, really, if I had to choose just one. I wished I had the skills as a painter to capture what it looked like right then, that willow, as Annie had the skills to capture it with writing, and I felt the sting of my limitations.
I listened to Liz talk about the Tar Sands, and how the 14 kilometre Healing Walk she’d undertaken during the previous days had made her cry about how much we had destroyed. Environmentalists weren’t sure there was the possibility of reclamation, and the current plans for Syncrude were to triple, not pull back. Liz and her companions walked past Syncrude’s open pit mines, and Liz said it reminded her most of a desert. “A desert with slue-y ponds,” she said. It stunk of sulphur. At the tailings ponds, someone had erected huge sculptural scarecrows meant to warn away actual birds, mechanical hawks that flashed and rotated. While Liz was talking, I looked out at the pond in front of us, upon which a little catchment of light was shimmering. I couldn’t see much of it, or hear birds, but I believed it to be healthy and replete with ducks and red-winged blackbirds in the reeds, bugs and water snakes on the water, and herons at dusk fishing frogs.
I turned over onto my back and I watched Liz smoke, her toque, the shape of her nose and lips which I had already wanted to paint, the red ember of the cigarette. Because I am a nasty ex-smoker, I told her she was doing in micro to her lungs what corporations were doing to Alberta. I didn’t tell her I would have given the world to have never wrecked my heart with cigarettes, but it probably went without saying that I worried for her future.
I could smell flowers, milky with lust. Above us, the leaves were rustling in the breeze, and they made a sound that filled me with delight and childhood. I tried to imagine what it was like for Van Gogh with his paintbox out in the fields at night, how what he saw in the skies translated to what he drew on his canvases. I wondered what he would paint if he were standing beside us now with his butchered ear, and whether his ear would have been butchered if he could only have come out, the way we can now.
I felt but didn’t say that life was pulling me up by my heart straps and telling me to listen, to put my bare feet against earth, to note the lumps of the tree roots under me, to listen to the wind, to take the indigo perfumes deep into my lungs, all the flowers’ mad sexual hurried displays.
Liz talked about my short story, “Hunger,” and how it had moved her when she read it in Edmonton, or maybe at the Tar Sands, camping, I don’t know, somewhere, and I told her about its etiology and about character-driven stories and how they were my favourites to write, and I thought about, but didn’t say, how much I missed writing stories, how all the stillborn stories ached inside me, discrete painful throbs like stubbed toes. She said “Hunger” had made her think a lot about power and how power plays out between couples, between mothers and children, and I said that it had made me think about that, too, but also I wondered if the girl in the story ever called her mom to let her know she was okay, and how I also wondered if she got enrolled in school. Maybe it was stupid to wonder how things turned out for a person I made up. I thought about love, then, and characters struggling to stay in love, and how hard that was in real life and in fictional life, too, and because the night was growing colder and Mom’s blanket was wrapped around me, and all the love in my life was sweet but also broken, I thought about Cole Porter’s songs, and Jules singing them as we drove along the southern coast of California, with her pure voice I could listen to for hours, and about the Percy Adlon video of kd lang singing “So In Love,” which I hoped someone would play at my funeral, and that women in attendance, or not in attendance, those I had slept with, would know that that was how I had tried to love them (excluding the “So taunt me, and hurt me/ Deceive me, desert me” part, which could be rewritten as So admire me, and respect me/ Love me, thrill me), full-throatedly, completely. It is a video about a partner dying of AIDS, but it is universal in speaking to loss, and I would want the women to know that it hurt me to lose them; it hurt me to lose them in just that k.d. lang way.
And then it was too cold to stay, Liz was chilled and I was starting to shake, and we walked and wobbled our way to the surprising delectation of the polka-dotted piano, and I looked at Liz with true joy, and I met her eyes and we stopped there, for a second, just looking at each other, realizing that sometimes despite the Tar Sands, despite the cruelty that can go on between humans, and by humans towards everything else, a moment can leap towards you perfectly pear-shaped and soft in all the right places, and muscled in all the right places, like a beloved woman’s body, perfectly exquisite, perfectly perfect, out of the indigo night, and we looked until we were done registering this, and then we walked to my car.
Jane Eaton Hamilton is the Canadian author of 8 books of short fiction, poetry. Her memoir was a Sunday Times bestseller included on the Guardian’s Best Books of the Year list. She is the two-time winner of Canada’s prestigious CBC Literary Award for fiction (2003/2015). Her work has appeared in Salon, NY Times, Seventeen magazine, MS blog, Full Grown People and many other places.