Creative Non-Fiction by Ryan Levitt
The banging on the wall repeated with no discernible rhythm, each time followed by a loud clap of varying volume levels. And I was being driven slowly mad by it.
Angus was a Nova Scotian who had invaded my Montreal haven over the summer months after being picked up by my roommate, Veronik, like a dose of fleas from an alley cat. It was the beginning of my third year at university and I had prepared everything perfectly four months prior, moving my stuff into this loft of artistic abandon. This was where I would truly realize my potential as a star, and I didn’t need an extra getting in the way.
“Who’s the guy painting and clapping on my bedroom wall?” I probed. “And what’s his story?”
Vero explained that Angus had dropped into her lap at a vernissage off Rue St. Denis, on a humid night in late June, while he was trying to clean his brushes. Not looking where he was going he tripped over a loose floorboard, landing head-first into the thighs of Montreal’s most game gamine.
“He looked so forlorn. So, we decided to take him in,” explained Vero. “And when he told me the circumstances around his virginity, it kind of sealed the deal.”
“His virginity? How the hell did that come up?”
“It just did. He had this picture of a woman he had drawn that was so idealized that I just knew it had to come from someone who had no idea about the female form. So, I just came right out with it.”
“In the middle of an art opening?”
“What’s an art opening without a discussion about other openings?” mused Vero after taking a draw from one of her Blue Gauloises.
At that point, Nin, a grey kitten named in honour of the famous lover of Henry Miller came into Vero’s curtained-off alcove and wrapped around her legs. Vero absentmindedly petted her, dropping ash as she did.
“It wasn’t until we got him here and he moved himself in that we discovered just how annoying he is,” she continued.
“Have you fucked him yet?”
“My god, I have tried. But it just hasn’t quite worked out. And to be honest, it’s the only reason why I haven’t kicked him to the curb. He’s my summer mission that I haven’t conquered. I’m determined to bed him and bid him farewell by Labour Day.”
Unlike Vero’s quest for carnal pleasure, my summer mission had simply been survival, trapped as I had been in the stockroom of a mass-market women’s clothing store. Eight-hour shifts snapping security tags onto various pieces of polyester had turned my brain gelatinous. A hanger-on in my new home was not what I wanted to face on my first day back in my beloved belle province.
With a week to spare until the start of my third year of studies, I knew that I needed to get Angus shaved, shagged and shoved out the door in order to return our apartment to the cozy cocoon I’d idealized.
“How can I help?” I asked Vero.
“Getting him to join me in bed isn’t the hard part, Ryan. It’s the rest of it that’s proving to be a pain. And Louis is getting tired of the situation.”
Louis was our other roommate, a set designer for the French-language theatre scene with a ready smile and quick temper.
“What’s Louis got to do with any of this?”
“He’s been a life-saver. But I beg you to take over. I promised him you would once you returned. It’s the only thing that’s stopped him from murdering Angus.”
“So, I’m confused. Have you slept with Angus or haven’t you? And what exactly am I taking over?”
“You’ll see. Wait until tomorrow evening and it will all become clear. Unless things finally work out and my mission is accomplished. But I’m betting it won’t. Angus and I have plans for a romantic evening and it always ends the same way.”
I returned to my nook intrigued by the mysteries to come and revelled in my newfound Vie Bohème.
The loft on Rue LeMoyne was a parental nightmare, littered with rusty nails and the detritus from a dozen fringe stage productions of seasons past. The building itself dated back to the 17th century, with our home lying on the two floors above the caleche stables that housed the horses charged with towing tourists back and forth on the cobbled streets that made up our neighbourhood.
Other than the interior stone walls, the only other permanent partition inside the living space was a hastily constructed wall of reinforced plywood that separated my sleeping space from the rest of the apartment. Otherwise, every other room, including the bathroom, was delineated by diaphanous floor-to-ceiling curtains. You always knew when someone was taking a shit or having a shower by the movements of the shadowy figures behind the grey silks. The place was crude, and filled with the ghosts of about a thousand dead Quebecois. And I loved every inch of it.
My invitation to move in arose through my presence on the local theatre scene. Parties at Vero and Louis’ were legendary, drawing the famous and infamous from across the theatrical fringe. The fact that it was a 2,400 square foot loft with heat included for just $175 Canadian a month was an added plus. Crossing the welcome mat with my suitcases felt like moving into a demi-monde of delight. And I was now one of the maître d’s.
While contemplating the new living arrangements, I heard a knock on the plywood.
“Heeeeyyy Budddy! I’m Angus,” boomed the 6’4” lumberjack-alike amassed in the doorframe. He thrust out his glove-sized hand and pumped my arm furiously.
“I’ve been looking forward to meetin’ ya. Vero’s been talking my ear off, excited for your arrival.”
“Well, she didn’t tell me anything about you. So forgive me if I’m a little surprised by your presence,” I responded frostily. “And about your painting…”
“Oh yeah, that. Is it botherin’ ya?”
“Frankly yes. I keep hearing bangs and claps.”
“That’s my process, man. It’s how I paint.”
“No, bud. I place paint on the canvas and then I clap. The closer I get to completing a work, the more I clap. And I know a piece is done when the clap is right.”
“How do you know when the clap is right?”
“I just feel it. It’s a particular sound.”
“How long does this clapping go on for?”
“Could be anything really. Sometimes I finish a piece really quickly. Only takes a day or two of clapping to get it right. Other times, it goes on for weeks until I get a shade or line perfect.”
“I’d move my canvasses, but your wall is the only one flat enough to paint against. I tried nailing them into the stone, but the canvas just shakes from side to side ruining my line and shade work. You get it don’t you?”
“After all, the apartment is all about fostering talent, right? It’s why we all moved here. I knew you’d understand. Anyway, catch you later bud.”
He disappeared in a cloud of Drakkar Noir and stale Molson Canadian beer breath.
The next morning, I woke up to rhythmic clapping and emerged into the living space. Louis and Vero were perched on two kitchen stools shaped like hamburger buns that Louis had designed for a production set in a 1950s-era diner. Both of them were furiously chain smoking and scowling in Angus’ direction.
“Putain,” muttered Louis under his breath. “Merde. Il est un idiot. Une sauvage.”
“I hope he’s not referring to me,” I said to Vero.
“God no. It’s the damn clapping. It’s been going since six AM. I’m surprised you didn’t wake up.”
“The power of sleeping tablets, my dear.”
“Si tu ne le tués pas, j’ie ferai,” he muttered as he turned to face Vero.
Vero cupped Louis by his cheek and smiled.
“Un jour d’plus. Je promets,” she responded.
I usually had great difficulty understanding Louis. His thick joual accent, formed during a childhood spent in the industrial town of Abitibi deep in the Western Quebec heartlands, meant that I could only translate about every third word. But in this case, I knew exactly what Louis was getting at. Battle lines had been drawn and Louis was ready to attack.
“I take it Louis and Angus don’t get along?”
“Understatement. He’s informed me that if Angus isn’t out within a week, he’ll throw every canvas into a pool of turpentine to see if he gets the message.”
In theatre circles Louis was known as the Pixie for his twinkly smile and gentle demeanour, so I knew that this meant war.
“Louis, Je suis d’ accord,” I said in my rusty French, wincing at any grammatic errors.
Louis poured a cup of coffee into a mug from a table carafe and placed it in front of me.
“Vous en aurez besoin et beaucoup plus.”
The clapping went on for three more hours, driving us insane with its increasing volume and frequency. On and on it went, jarring us from our weekend daydreams and cups of calming Chamomile Celestial Seasonings – until suddenly it stopped.
“I’m done,” proclaimed Angus proudly.
“Angus, that’s great. But how was that clap any different from the hundreds of others today?” I asked.
“Whatdyamean bud? It was totally different. It was the real clap. The one I needed to tell me I was finished.”
“About time too, my palms are sore. I need to lie down.”
Angus galumphed his way behind his curtain and quickly began snoring loudly. I looked at the canvas and was mesmerized by the collection of colours. Swirls metamorphosized into figures. Hues matched perfectly with others. It was a solid piece.
“Dammit,” I thought. I always liked ruining the dreams of the talentless. To me it was like putting a wounded animal out of its misery. When people had talent, I found hating them more challenging.
Louis came up behind my left shoulder and admired the painting with me.
“C’bon n’est ce pas? Connard.”
Later that evening, while I was seated on the moustache-shaped sofa in the living space, Vero and Angus returned home from their night out. The door slammed open, and the two of them tumbled in, laughing as only the young and romantically hungry can muster. Angus pressed Vero against the wall, running his fingers through her long, red hair as he backed her against the sharp stones. In her passion, she didn’t feel a thing. I took the precious moments their carnal pleasure afforded me and high-tailed it into my room, thinking I would lock myself in for the night.
After a mere ten minutes I heard a crash.
“Ryan,” yelled Vero from her alcove. “I need you.”
Having already changed into a pair of pyjamas, I was annoyed by this intrusion into my solitude. But I could hear the need in her voice and decided to investigate. Crossing the loft, I stood outside her curtain.
“Shall I come in?”
“Yes. Get your ass in here.”
I parted the curtains to find Vero completely naked lying with her back on the futon, legs on either side of his torso. And on top of her was Angus, his moon-like white ass staring at me through the dark. Vero had already lit a cigarette and was sucking in greedily.
“It’s the only goddamn thing I’m going to wrap my lips around tonight, so I might as well enjoy it,” she said. “Now get him off of me.”
“What the hell happened?”
“Same thing that happens every night. We had a great evening, came home, things started to happen and as soon as the pants came off and he made a move to get on top of me, he had an epileptic fit. Poof! That’s him done for the night. I’ve had to wrap my futon in clear plastic to prevent the piss from ruining it.”
“And that’s why he’s still a virgin?”
“Supposedly he found out he was epileptic the night he tried to bed his high school sweetheart and it’s been downhill ever since. He told me that for a while in his late teens, the mere thought of sex could cause him to fit.”
“And you took this as a challenge?”
“Of course! But tonight, was the last straw.”
I grabbed Angus by the feet and yanked him from Vero as she pushed down on his shoulders. Through sheer perseverance, we managed to inch him off until Vero had enough of a gap to slide out.
“Are you sure we should be doing this? I mean, is it OK for him health-wise?”
“Who knows. Angus always wakes up in the morning and never mentions it. He must realize what’s happened, but he’s never given me any hints as to alternative ways to keep him healthy. I figure if there was something else we could do he would have said by now.”
“Maybe he’s embarrassed?”
“Get over it is what I say.”
Trust Vero to be the Mother Teresa of Vieux Montreal.
“I take it Louis has been handling this until now?”
“Yes. And he hasn’t been happy about it, poor lamb. He claims the thing that annoys him most is the fact that Angus’ ass is better than his. But really I know he just says that to be kind.”
“The guy weighs a ton.”
“You think I don’t know that? I’ve been trapped under him at least six times over the past two weeks. The first time it happened, I had to wait three hours until Louis returned home after a dress rehearsal.”
“So why do you keep trying then?”
“Three reasons, Ry. First off, there’s the challenge of it all. Call me a masochist but I get off on it.”
“At least something about this gets you off.”
“I don’t mean it in that way. You know me – the harder the opportunity, the more delicious the outcome. Anyway, second reason is his virginity. I’ve never been the first at anything. This temptation is just too enticing.”
“Why are you even bothering? If you manage to even go through with it, it’ll be an awful experience.”
“I know that. It’s just the principle of the matter. It’ll be like conquering Everest; Useless, difficult and a waste of time in the grand scheme of things but something I can mention over dinner tables years from now.”
“And number three?” I asked as I looked down at Angus’ prone form.
“The guy is huge. You think he looks big standing? Well there is literally a third leg down there. If he ever manages to get things working, he could make a living in the porn industry.”
Angus’ bare ass kept winking at me in the gloom. I wanted to see what Vero was talking about but felt sexualizing a post-fit epileptic might not be the done thing.
“That’s another reason why Louis kept him around this long,” added Veronik. “He moaned about the nightly ritual and urine stainage, but he always enjoyed getting a peek at Angus’ pole.”
“You’re terrible, Vero.”
“How do you think I’ve kept going this long, Ry?” she winked as she lit up another Gauloises. “Now go get me the mop so I can clean up and get to sleep.”
The following morning involved avoidance on a grand scale. Each of us darted in and out of curtains, desperate not to lock eyes for fear of admitting the facts of the evening prior. It was like a true-life version of a bad Moliere farce. Eventually Angus appeared in my door frame, sheepishly holding out a toasted bagel.
“They’re from Fairmount. Fresh.”
‘Mind if I start painting again? I’ve got an old friend visiting from out of town who I’m meeting up with later and I really have some creative juices flowing. I’m desperate to get it on paper before I have to go out and meet her.”
“Whatever you want. I’m going to campus to meet up with some friends, so it won’t disturb me.”
“I really mean it.”
I killed six hours at an A.L. Van Houtte on McGill College greeting the various flotsam and jetsam who passed through the doors. On my table sat a dog-eared copy of something by Kerouac alongside a double espresso and a couple of plays I was considering for the student-run theatre to act as my calling card to the local artistic community – the perfect combination to paint a picture of mystery and maturity. Like most afternoons, the various acquaintances who sat down to greet me shared their marvellous ways to change the planet. By 6pm we had cured cancer, poverty and found the secret to lifetime happiness. Unfortunately those great answers escape me now.
I walked back to the apartment to find piles of clothes being tossed from our loft window onto the street below.
Angus was standing helpless at ground level, looking up at Vero’s manic red hair as it flew wildly in and out of the window with each toss.
“I thought she’d be happy for me! For us!” he said as he looked at me with a bewildered gaze.
“ASSHOLE! PUTAIN!” screamed Vero down at us as another bag came tumbling over the ledge, missing my head by mere inches.
“You’re on your own….bud.” I responded before darting inside to find out the cause of the commotion.
Taking the steps two at a time I bounded into the loft to see Louis sitting on the moustache, petting Nin and sporting a calm smile. He looked over at me and gave two thumbs up.
“Tout fini. Kaput, mon ami.”
“Tank gud indeeed,” he responded in his best English parody. “Café?”
He rose from the sofa and went over to the kitchen to begin his ministrations.
By this point, Vero had run out of things to toss and was sitting down by the window lighting up a cigarette.
“What the hell happened?” I asked as I sat next to her.
“The idiot only went ahead and fucked his ex-girlfriend.”
“Yup. He went out to meet this girl from his hometown. Some creature who thinks that comic strip Cathy is the height of comedy and arrived in the city wearing a polyester fanny pack.”
“No shit. Anyway, supposedly she brought him back to her hotel room and through the intervention of Christ, the Madonna, a dozen lemon candles and a couple of valium, he finally did the deed. He said that it meant nothing and claimed that he did it for us. Somehow, he thinks that having done it once his problem will never re-appear. Trust a man to try and convince himself that fucking a woman was done to benefit another one.”
“Why did he ever tell you?”
“He wanted no secrets. Said that it was only done to help the woman he loved.”
“Maybe he meant it. He looked completely out of sorts when I bumped into him just now.”
“I don’t care. I never wanted him to love me. That was never the point. And now that he’s no longer fresh, I want to wring him out to dry.”
“Once bitten, twice dumped?” I asked.
“Bingo. Now if you don’t mind, I’m beat. Do you mind gathering his canvasses together and getting them ready for him? Most of them are dry but he was in a whirl this morning and was working on something while you were out. He finished it after he returned home from his fuck fest with that Acadian axewoman.”
“What’s it of?”
“God if I know. I don’t want to see his shit littering our home anymore.”
“Why didn’t you just toss the paintings?”
“You think I’m some sort of heathen? A heart can be broken… but art is forever.”
Vero got up and moved behind her grey curtain.
Eager to rid the apartment of any signs of Angus, I collected a few drawings and smaller pieces to stack against the wall near the loft entrance. I then moved over to his sleeping zone and pushed the curtain aside to enter.
Other than a couple of single, unmatching flannel socks and a Radio Shack clock radio, there was but one other item – a portrait of Veronik painted so exquisitely that my breath froze. He had managed to capture every facet of her personality – fragility, grace, haughtiness, aloofness and ego through simple brush strokes and bold lines.
Unlike the over-idealized visions of women I had been picking up off the floor the past few minutes, this piece showcased Vero warts and all. Shadow and light. Beauty and ugliness. I was awed by it.
Louis shuffled in behind me and touched me on my shoulder to hand me the cup of coffee he had prepared. Silently we stared at the painting, moved by its perfection.
“C’est magnifique. C’est parfait,” he said.
I could only nod in agreement. Words felt meaningless to describe it.