No one seemed to take much notice of the stranger. He moved amongst the fine art students at the University like a ghost, hovering near the far end of the classroom during still life portraiture or hanging back in the corner of Jamison’s Pub on Friday afternoons. Sometimes, he appeared as an old man, pale and weak, struggling to keep awake through art theory, and at others, like a dark-haired recluse fading into the shadows of the quiet blonde’s living room. Who was he, this stranger in our midst? If he had a name, I never learnt it in all the months we attended classes together. So, when we heard that he had died in a car accident, we were all at a bit of a loss.
For more than a week, we did not notice the empty seat he once occupied near the back of the classroom. The steady rhythm of life – with all its joys and heartaches – proceeded pretty much as it always did. Rush hour traffic still snaked through the downtown streets twice a day and chipper cashiers, their adolescent smiles unblemished by the grindstone of time, still served coffee in carefully measured cups as though nothing had changed.
The first person to notice his absence was the moody sculptor. The moody sculptor, a one time champion figure skater and football cheerleader, who had managed to escape the petite mort of a small farming town up north, was the least likely to notice such things. She maintained a preoccupied, aloofness that permitted her to draw others into tight little orbits around her perfect sun. Perhaps it was a subtle shift in gravity caused by his absence that had made her take notice – but notice she did; and on Monday morning, before visual arts, the moody sculptor, all dour faced and glum, stumbled into the cafeteria and plopped herself down beside us.
The moody sculptor’s auburn hair looked coarser, hanging limply across her narrow glasses. She curled her fingers up, revealing her recently manicured nails. She explained how she received a phone call last night from the stranger’s sister, who had arrived in the city last Thursday for his funeral, and who had scanned through the short list of numbers on his cellphone. At the top of the list was the moody sculptor’s. The stranger’s sister surmised that the moody sculptor must be a girlfriend or a close friend, she wasn’t sure, but that she felt she should let her know what had happened. If the moody sculptor was flattered, she did not show it. Her face remained still, even while her green eyes searched for meaning in her double latte espresso. The sister had invited her to a reception at her parent’s house tonight, and had asked her to pass this invitation on to his friends and classmates.
The caustic linebacker smirked and ran his fat fingers through his brown hair, the loose curls snapping back like well-groomed Astroturf. He cocked his head to the side and let a sigh fumble over his teeth. “Bullshit,” he said, more as a statement than a challenge. “I don’t believe it.” He thought this was another ploy at gaining attention like the time the moody sculptor had attempted suicide, calling the caustic linebacker at three in the morning, saying she’d swallowed a handful of pills with half a bottle of vodka. The pills turned out to be chewable multivitamins, and though she was terribly ill, she survived the night with only a nasty hangover. The moody sculptor’s lower lip protruded in a pout, before she protested, saying it was nothing of the sort, and if he didn’t believe her, he didn’t have to come. The moody sculptor shot a look at the rest of us, canvassing our support, like she was running for office or picking teams for volleyball. We all caved in, agreeing to attend out of respect for the stranger; even the caustic linebacker agreed to drive, promising to pick us up in his SUV at six.
All through morning class, I regarded the empty seat where the stranger sat. The chair angled away from the desk, the backrest forming a rhombus. I tried to imagine his form propped up against the laminate desktop, with a notebook and pens scattered there. A pink eraser scrubbed flat on one corner, beside a couple soft lead pencils. Perhaps, he was doodling in the margins of his notepad, distracted by the hopeful blue of the sky outside the window. Perhaps, he was thinking about his only sister, who had moved out East years before. I could not picture him, even after an hour of studying the way the shadows crossed the floor where his feet would be. All I could see was a profile without features. Did he smile often? Was he happy? Black scuff marks dulled the varnished floor under the desk, but those marks were not specifically identifiable to him. Those marks could have been made by anyone. The negative space permitted no way in.
The caustic linebacker picked us up at the quiet blonde’s place, a makeshift flop house where she rented rooms to several students, including the moody sculptor, to cover her costs. I lived only a few blocks away in a tired apartment building with antiquated plumbing. The quiet blonde had bought the house with the inheritance she received when her mother died a few years ago. There was always somebody in the quiet blonde’s living room, sprawled out on the couch or cross-legged on the floor. The quiet blonde hated silence. She crawled into the back seat of the caustic linebacker’s SUV, her hands flattening down the bottom of her grey skirt.
We arrived at the home of the stranger’s parents at about six thirty. They lived in a large, Tudor-style sandstone house, upscale for the neighbourhood, on the crescent of a hill overlooking the city, with a large English garden terraced along the side and down the back of the yard, now laid to sleep under a blanket of fresh snow. Soft blue Christmas lights sparkled in the conifers and along the eaves of the house. Through the picture window, we could see people gathered in chairs, surrounded by the orange glow of the living room lamps. The way the window frame cut their legs off at the knees made the scene look like a home movie, the kind people dragged out when nobody wanted to speak. A dozen cars blocked the long driveway and the street out front, and the caustic linebacker dropped us off out front before driving down the block to find somewhere to park. A skiff of fresh snow covered the sidewalk and puffed up with each step we took. The footsteps of those who came before us had already filled up again with snow. Fat flakes kept falling. By morning, there would be no traces.
A slender girl, perhaps twenty-five, with dark Slavic features and a slight accent, greeted us at the front door, and introduced herself as the stranger’s sister. Her green blouse fit snugly across her chest and she wore grey slacks with a perfect crease pressed in them. Her light brown hair curled around her shoulders. Her warm fingers fit comfortably in my hand when I introduced myself. She took our coats and led us into the living room, telling us to make ourselves at home and be sure to try the beet and apple salad. It was his favourite, she had made it herself. She left us in the living room, lugging our coats upstairs.
People milled about between the living room and the kitchen, passing by family pictures along each wall of the narrow hallway, or through the crowded dining room, where most of the guests congregated around the stranger’s parents. I followed the others into the kitchen. The kitchen was larger than my apartment. A group of older men, with a food plate in one hand and a beer bottle in the other, huddled around the granite island, talking about sports scores and business. They seemed cut adrift from the rest, absorbed in the game on the TV. Behind them, the oak table was loaded down with large platters of apple strudels and meat pancakes, a vegetable plate with dip, and inflated crescent rolls. The caustic linebacker and the moody sculptor filled their paper plates with food, blending into the crowd. I returned to the living room, back the way I had come. The brown Berber carpet softened my footsteps. In the living room, the mood was more sombre, with people gathered next to the wine and liquor. A dozen bottles of wine sat opened on a floral tablecloth stretched over an old stereo cabinet. I found myself alone in a crowd. Soft violin music swirled around the room, filling in the spaces between the conversations.
“Did you know he played the violin?” the stranger’s sister said, coming up behind me. Dark rings formed circles around her eyes, pulling her pink cheeks down. “That’s him right now. It’s a CD he made about a year ago.”
“He’s quite good,” I replied, though I would not know the difference between Perlman and a street busker.
“Did you know my brother well?” she asked, in a tone that made me feel foolish. She rubbed the cuff of her blouse between her thumb and forefinger. When she looked up at me and I peered into her eyes, I saw a sadness there that clutched at my chest, like her brother’s music. I withered under the soft trills and vibratos that washed over my head like flat waves of heat pounding me down. I could bear her stare no longer, and I turned away, ashamed.
“No, I didn’t.” I put the wine glass to my lips to hide my face, disgusted with myself that I never made the effort to get to know him. The bitter tannins in the wine stuck to the roof of my mouth. I gulped it down, feeling it pass through the lump in my throat. I was a fraud. Four months together, sharing the same classes each day, attending the same parties, and I never spoke with him once. I was not even sure what he looked like.
Before she could put more embarrassing questions to me, the doorbell rang and she excused herself to answer it. Another group shuffled through the foyer, stripping off their outerwear. The stranger’s sister gathered up the coats and carried them upstairs. She moved with purpose, but graceful nonetheless. I swallowed down the rest of the wine and poured myself another full glass from an uncorked Hungarian Cabernet.
In a forgotten corner of the room, where the leaves of a spider plant turned brown, the quiet blonde sat with an older woman in a wheelchair. The two shared a joke between them, and both laughed like a mother and daughter. They even wore matching navy jackets over a white blouse, with a silver lapel brooch that shimmered each time they leaned into each other. Before the grey overtook her hair, long blonde strands probably fell from the woman’s shoulders, too. The caustic linebacker and the moody sculptor were nowhere to be found. I escaped downstairs to use the only unoccupied washroom in the house. I needed a moment to pull myself together.
The harsh vanity lights over the bathroom mirror flooded every corner of the room with light, exposing a long crack in the ceiling and each imperfection in the tile work of the walk-in shower. Matching green towels hung neatly from the rack in descending order. The room was spotless, as sanitized as a five-star hotel room or those perfect covers of magazines. I sat my wine glass down on the counter, leaving a red ring on the white marble, and splashed cold water on my face. The cold water dripped from my hair. Droplets formed all around the basin. I wiped my fingers on the towels, leaving dark stains in the folds. The grizzle of two days growth and my eyes red and aching, I barely recognized the man in the mirror. I picked up my wine glass and flicked off the light, pulling the room back into darkness.
A warm light seeped from a half opened door down at the far end of the hall. Instead of going back upstairs, I snuck down to the door. The light grew brighter with each step. The hardwood floors slipped under my feet. Inside was a small painter’s studio, lit by floor lamps set in each corner of the room. Canvases in various stages of completion leaned against the walls, and paint splatters covered the drop cloth in the middle of the room. Paint cans at each end of the drop cloth anchored it in place. Over the top of a workbench, made from a door and two saw horses, painting materials waited for the stranger to return. A twelve foot canvas hung from one wall, black border, earth tones, azure background as rich as the sea, with half finished figures forming a broken circle like a great atoll. In the middle, a squat Buddha sat cross-legged, his gold body aglow, but where his face should be, the canvas was blank, empty. The work was near brilliant.
“What are you doing?” the stranger’s sister stepped out of the shadow of the doorway. She held a bottle of wine in one hand and an empty glass in the other. “You shouldn’t be down here.”
“I’m sorry,” I raised my hand in submission. “I was just using the bathroom and I saw the light on. I’ve just been admiring your brother’s art.”
“Twin brother,” she said. “We are twins.” She walked over and refilled my wine glass, before filling her own. Shadows fell over her face as she gestured at the painting. Her brown eyes glowed. She ran a lone finger along a cleave line chiselled from the black sky. Her eyes followed it down into the acrylic blue of the sea. “I’ll never understand it. He’s the artist. I’m the lawyer.”
I nodded so as to not offend her, but the stranger’s work was quite good, as good as his violin playing, perhaps even better. His rich colours and textures swam over the canvas, calm at some points, but wild and frenzied at others, sweeping up over the figures to pray at the Buddha’s feet. Joy and ecstasy merged in entwined flesh, where the figures rolled in the crashing surf. Even the stars in the black skies that surrounded his blue world seemed to serve the faceless Buddha.
We drank up the wine and discussed the stranger’s art. She eagerly pulled out canvas after canvas, searching for understanding in each piece. I explained as best I could to her the subtlety of his techniques, the genius of his bold strokes. Each work held a surprise, ironic, jovial, like the mystery of serendipitous events. She kept looking at my face, watching my every move, the way my hands fluttered, smiling when I became animated and nodding when she understood.
When we finished the last of the wine, she leaned into my chest and whispered into my ear, “Dance with me.” It felt awkward, but I could not refuse her. Her shoulders drooped and she fell into me. We pressed together in the middle of the room, the stranger’s violin charging through the air, like wild horses racing to beat a storm cloud, and we shuffled back and forth on the tips of our toes, forming small circles on the paint splattered drop cloth. Her hair smelled of lavender. I shoved my nose deeper, searching for a memory of lavender fields and summer that belonged to somebody else. The steady rhythm of her breath warmed my chest, but I felt tears, her tears, soaking the front of my shirt.
I looked down and asked her if she was all right, and she replied, with a smile, “Yes, I’m fine. I just needed to be held.” I wiped the tears from her pink cheeks, as a gesture of kindness to her and to the stranger. With our arms wrapped tight around each other, we danced to remember and forget, even after the music had stopped.
“Who are you?” she asked.
I smiled, like the faceless Buddha on the wall. “No one.”