The streetlight flickered erratically as I locked my bike to the parking sign. It seemed to flip on and off in sync with my movements, almost as if it had a motion detector. The street was mostly empty except for the rows of old ten-speeds and fixies locked outside the gallery. The area was once an industrial part of Vancouver, but low rents had attracted several galleries and coffee shops over the years. The streets were still wide and unkempt, with dry grass peeking through wherever it could. The warm summer air was slow and languid.
The gallery was packed with art school kids buzzing on free wine when I walked through the door. Luke was happily doing the rounds, bouncing between small circles of family and friends. He actually looked pretty good, in clean white sneakers, dark denim Levi’s, and a crisp white collared shirt—his formal wear.
Luke’s first two openings had been relatively minor events at minor galleries, but this was his first real show as a professional artist. The gallery had even gone to the trouble of painting his name on the front window.
Luke and I went to art school together. After graduation, he waited tables and did real art, while I took up graphic design. Now, three years later, I work for a social media advertising firm. Our website says we “tap the marketing potential of social media,” but essentially all we do is make homemade-looking fan tributes for new products. Sneaky little YouTube videos intended to go viral. Typically, a badly edited video showcasing cool people doing quirky and hilarious things with a product is followed by a clever company slogan that makes everyone feel like they’re smarter than advertising, and surprise, it’s a commercial. Yay. I’m just building up a portfolio. At least that’s what I tell myself.
“Art, right?” Luke said excitedly when he caught my eyes.
“Yep, art,” I said, reluctantly. We hugged. “Congratulations. Everything looks great.” Everything, in this case, was a photo series of dilapidated Vancouver warehouses with black and white portraits of the squatters who lived in them.
“Thanks, man,” he said. “You’re a doll for coming.” Luke was in his sincere mode. He basically has two public personas—the entitled hipster and the melancholy artist. He can flip from one to the other at any moment. One time during art school, we had been waiting in line at a coffee shop and he was earnestly telling me about his latest project. He wanted to take photos of empty hallways in old apartment buildings, the kind that smell like stale cigarettes and twenty years of home cooking.
“Those halls are just so tragic, you know?” he had said. “Whenever I’m in one, all I can think about are sad old people and depressed shut-ins.” He paused, searching for words. “But then they’re also kind of beautiful too. And solemn, like a cathedral.”
A guy from one of his classes walked up and asked what we were talking about. Luke’s face became exasperated. They’d hung out for the first time recently, and I’m guessing Luke didn’t approve of his music library, or clothes, or some other perceived aesthetic deficiency. Whatever the case, Luke had apparently deemed the guy too much of a philistine to understand the deep sadness he felt in smelly hallways.
”I was just telling Aaron here about last night’s dinner at my grandma’s place,” Luke said. “It’s kind of private. She’s dying.” Then he turned his back to him and continued talking with me about the pathos of old apartment buildings.
“Hey, did you see Brianne yet?” Luke said, taking a sip of wine. “She looks hot tonight, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“She’s here?” I said, ignoring his assessment of my ex-girlfriend. “I thought she was working in the interior.”
“She is, she’s just visiting,” Luke said. “Staying with her mom or something.”
I suddenly felt as though I was being video taped. “That’s cool,” I said. “I’ve been wanting to catch up.”
“Sure you have,” Luke said. He squeezed my shoulder and winked facetiously, then left to get another glass of wine.
Brie and I broke up two years ago, just as she was about to finish journalism school. After graduation, she took a reporting job in a small town somewhere, and I hadn’t seen her since. All I’d heard is a rumour that she lost her job a few weeks in and had to relocate to another town. Apparently she wrote something that pissed off the mayor, First Nations chief, and town librarian, all in one go. Rookie mistake, I guess—that was virtually half her contact list, gone. I’m sure the piece was accurate though. It was probably just honest.
I did a quick tour of the gallery. It was crowded; middle-aged arts administrators in thick black-rimmed nerd glasses were everywhere. I found Brianne in a back room with some of Luke’s sketches. She was standing alone in front of a pencil sketch of a homeless old man, staring at it piercingly, without any emotion, as if it was a fascinating specimen of road kill.
She was wearing a thin cotton dress that hung just above her knees, and her light brown hair was streaked blonde from the sun. The dress hugged her flat stomach and narrow hips, and white tan lines rubbed against the straps of her black bra. She always went jogging five times a week, but now she’d lost her college cafeteria weight.
“Hey there, stranger,” I said, tilting sideways so she could see me.
“Wow, hi Aaron,” she said, pretending to be surprised. She leaned in for a hug. Her hair smelled like mint. I was surprised that she was wearing lip gloss and mauve eye shadow—she hardly ever wore make up. Brianne’s face would be conventionally attractive were it not for her eyes. They’re too far apart, like a frog’s. Everything else is in the right place though, so the overall effect is a kind of exotic beauty, probably even more striking than if her eyes were normal.
We exchanged pleasantries and made obvious comments about the art. The photos were great, the gallery was great, Luke was doing great. We talked about our jobs once the initial discomfort wore off. Brianne said she wanted to move back to the city as soon as she could, but the journalism job market was hopeless. Her cheeks turned slightly red and her eyes scanned the room as she talked. She used safe, factual statements, like she was talking to her boss, or a judge.
“You know you’re talking to me as though we’re in a job interview,” I said.
Brianne looked surprised, then relieved. Her defensive bubble seemed to pop. “That’s because you’re so sensitive,” she said. “If you grew a pair I’d be able to talk to you like a normal person.” She smiled as if she was joking.
“Whatever, it was just an observation,” I said.
“Don’t be so serious,” she said, making a mock sad face. “I’m just teasing. How’s your work going?”
“Not bad, I guess,” I said. “Actually, I’m somewhat ashamed of my professional self. I’m doing graphic design for a cheesy ad firm right now.”
“Yeah? If you don’t like it, you should leave.”
“I will, eventually,” I said. “I need more experience first.”
“Fuck that,” she said. “You should never do work that embarrasses you. You won’t move to a better job if you’re ashamed of your portfolio.”
“That’s true, I guess,” I said. “Not everyone is Luke though.”
Brianne seemed as if she had something to say, but she remained silent and looked away. We saw Luke through the doorway. He was thriving in a large group of smiling girls.
“Luke’s not that talented,” she said. “He’s just decisive about what he wants. You could have a show like this if you wanted to.” She spoke as if getting an art show meant putting your name on a list.
“It’s not that simple,” I said. “Food costs money, for example.”
“You find a way,” she said. “If you really want it.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
The conversation lost steam after that. After some clumsy attempts to keep it going, she asked me to say goodbye to her before I left, then walked away.
I drank a lot of free wine afterward. I talked to a few art school friends, then Luke’s entire family. I tried to avoid people from school who were probably still making serious art—too much potential for judgment. Later on I went outside for a cigarette, but the only one I could bum was one of those really long and skinny menthols. As soon as I lit it, Brianne’s bright blue frog eyes were in my face. Her lips were dark with wine.
“Nice cigarette,” she said.
“I think they’re sophisticated, actually,” I said, joking.
“You’d get beat up for smoking that in some of the bars where I live.”
“That’s because you’re small-town trash.”
“Screw you, Aaron,” Brianne said, smiling. She tried to mess up my hair but I caught her hand and held it for a second. Brianne flirted only when she drank. I think she saw it as a weakness when she was sober, but after a few drinks, the whole game became an opportunity for achievement.
“Luke said you’re staying at your Mom’s?” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “I borrowed her bike.”
“Biking in a dress—impressive,” I said.
“You’ve tried it?”
“I was a vicar in a tutu for Halloween once,” I said.
“Loser. That’s from one of those stupid Smiths songs, isn’t it?” she said.
“Yep. It’s brilliant, actually.” I took a deep drag of my cigarette, looking up at the sky. We were silent for a moment.
“Remember when we used to dream of staying in that tacky motor hotel?” Brianne said.
“That insanely bright turquoise one with the pink and white trim?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Probably the cheapest hotel in the city and we couldn’t afford it.”
Whenever Brianne was stressed out, I’d force her to curl up with me on the couch and think up ridiculous dream vacations. Silly stuff, like going to every waterslide park in the province. Or an imaginary west coast lighthouse tour we called “Getting to Know BC’s Romantic Loners.” We didn’t know if lighthouse operators were in fact romantic loners, but it seemed plausible at the time. Turns out they’re run by machine. There were others, but we always came back to that one motor hotel because we drove by it all the time. It’s a true gem—tacky as anything, but charming in a strange way. It reminds me of those sad two-storey motor hotels in just about every movie about small town America.
“I’m making money now,” Brianne said. “Let’s just bike over there for a sleepover. My treat.”
She nodded, smiling mischievously.
“Sure,” I said.
“Cool. Go get your bike.”
It was a clear night, the stars a hazy orange in the city-lit sky. We rode side by side along back roads and alleys, stopping only once on Quebec Street to admire a skunk. The staccato spray of lawn sprinklers made me forget I was in the city. We didn’t talk much, but she seemed more relaxed than usual. I saw Brie smiling to herself a few times.
When we arrived, I offered to pick something up from the cold beer and wine store while she checked in. It was just up the street, so I walked. I returned with a bottle of pink sparkling wine. I had to call Brianne to find our room, which was on the second floor. It wasn’t much of a surprise. A faded floral bedspread, a dusty vase of fake flowers, and a dented ice bucket on a plywood desk. The curtains were thick with dust, the smell a mixture of stale cigarettes and cleaning solution. Everything seemed clean and filthy at the same time.
“Oh. You didn’t get beer?” Brianne said when I showed her the bottle. She was lying on the bed watching the eleven o’clock news.
“I just thought this was nicer. And kind of funnier,” I said, taking off my shoes.
“You’re ridiculous,” she said, seriously. “Did you get cigarettes at least?”
“No, should I go back?”
“It’s fine,” she said. “Champagne it is.”
“Sorry, I guess I got carried away,” I said. “It’s funny though, isn’t it?”
“It’s pink, yes.”
I popped the cork, and the sound just hung there in the room. I offered her the bottle and she took a swig, then I did the same. We watched the news and drank the entire bottle.
Without saying anything, we rolled into each other during a commercial. Her lips were passive and limp, but I tried to ignore that for as long as I could. I wanted her to like it. I took off her clothes, then mine. She closed her eyes.
At first, the sex seemed like the best kind, familiar and new at the same time. Brianne wasn’t really there though. She was up in her head somewhere, guarded and safe. I suppose I had no reason to expect anything different. It was pretty much the same when we were going out. She just let me do whatever I wanted, which wasn’t what I wanted. I had no idea what she wanted. When we finished, she turned off the TV and fell asleep with her back to me.
In the morning, I woke up with a shaft of dusty sunlight beaming through the curtains onto my face. My mouth was fuzzy and dry and my head still creaky. Brianne had already showered and dressed, and was putting things in her bag. I asked her if she wanted to get breakfast, but she said she had to meet her mom. I was disappointed she said no when I asked her to reconsider, but I actually admire how she can just leave like that.
I slept for another hour and called Luke when I got up. I felt unsettled and wanted to be around people, so I asked him to meet me at Slickity Jim’s for breakfast. I got there first and was nursing a cup of coffee in one of the booths when he arrived.
“Dude, you look terrible,” he said, slapping his hands on the table as he sat down, shaking the cutlery. My coffee splashed up to the rim of the cup.
“I drank a lot last night,” I said. “Brie and I went to a motel.”
“No way, really? That’s awesome.” He grinned proudly, like I was his younger, more innocent brother. “How did that happen?”
“It was her idea,” I said. “I don’t know.”
“What, did she have a toothed vagina or something? Why are you all mopey?”
I gave him a look, but he was intently studying the menu.
“I guess it’s complicated,” I said. “The huevos rancheros are good by the way.”
“Do you still like her?” Luke said.
“No, not really. I don’t know. I feel some affection towards her, sure.”
Luke folded his menu and put it to the side. “Personally, I never thought you guys were good for each other,” he said. “You want more of a nice girl.”
“I know, but what does she want?” I said. “That’s the part I don’t get.”
“Someone she can control,” Luke said matter-of-factly, in a rare flash of insight. “Someone less aware, probably.”
“I just feel like she puts up a barrier towards me,” I said.
“Take that as a compliment,” he said. “That means there’s real feelings involved. She’s guarding her tender little heart.”
Luke hesitated for a second. “She didn’t put up any barriers when I slept with her, that’s for sure,” he said.
“I told you about that, didn’t I?” Luke said, casually. “After you guys broke up.”
“She moved after we broke up,” I said. “You went up and saw her?”
“No, she was here for two weeks before she left,” Luke said, looking around to find the waitress. “You were the one who broke up with her so I didn’t think it was a big deal.”
Luke clued in that we were having a conversation and stopped looking for the waitress. “If it makes any difference, it didn’t mean anything for either of us,” he said. “I don’t think she even likes me.”
“She came to your art show,” I said.
“And barely said hi and went home with you.”
I wasn’t angry, just shocked. We didn’t talk about Brianne after that, but I think Luke knew I was shaken up. He got the bill for once. When I got home later, my imagination took over. I kept picturing them together. I tried to remember the conversations I had with Luke in those few weeks after Brianne and I broke up, but nothing incriminating came to mind. I wondered what Brianne got out of it. I don’t think she even likes sex that much. Or maybe she does, which is even worse.
Later that afternoon I got on my bike and rode to the art gallery. I said hi to the volunteer and stood in front of the guestbook with the pen in my hand, looking over rows of gushing comments. The exhibit was apparently “haunting,” “powerful,” and “beautiful,” and Luke was a “rising star.” There were too many exclamation points.
I flipped back a few pages, looking for Brianne’s thin, slanted handwriting. Hers was one of the first signatures: “Not bad for a hack.” There was a large B and an illegible scribble for her name.
I found an empty row on the same page and quickly wrote with my left hand, “Weak. Disingenuous. Don’t quit your day job.” I signed it with a fake name. Then I went home and made a comforting pot of macaroni and cheese.
A week later, Luke told me about a guest book message that “hated on his art.” He said it meant that he was a true artist now—he had made an emotional impact. But I could tell he was upset, and I called him on it. I told him that, as a creative professional, he would have to learn how to take criticism. I said it was a learning opportunity. He agreed halfheartedly, although I think he wondered if I was joking. Then he hung up. It was a learning moment for me, too. I rarely take revenge. Expressing anger has never come naturally for me, but there’s always room for improvement.