The first time I had the dream, my mom stayed with me until I went back to sleep. The second time it came, two years later, I sat by myself and stared at the ceiling. Then I went to the window and looked outside. It was cold, fall. I stayed there until I was tired enough to close my eyes again.
The dream was of a spider, and I was in a small house in the desert. The spider’s legs were digging into the sand and its bulk was squatting over the house. I was running around inside, from window to window, nearly blind. I never found a way out. Both times, the dream ended just as the spider lowered its belly, compressing the roof.
I had that dream twice in my life. Twice in two years. It seems like a low rate for a dream that bad.
I told three people about it. Clarence was one of them, in university. Clarence was the first one I ever told, because he was so uptight about telling me anything about himself. He just shrugged and didn’t bother telling me his secrets, but he was so repressed anyway. Clarence was six foot six, gawky thin, and took to cutting himself in his dorm room because he didn’t like attention. The last I heard, he was out west cleaning toilets at a resort.
“I just kept adding to it. One stroke a day over the years.” People nod. Some smile. Clarence was just like that, too. All of this is just like Clarence. “Reminds me of a friend of mine.”
People practice things so that they can become better at them. With me, it’s the smile, the great de-fuser of problems. No one debates it. Few know how.
“Hello Vick,” I say to the woman who’s come up beside me. The people I was talking to shuffle towards the bar. Vick’s not a buyer, not a patron, not a fan. She’s just one of those people who on the basis of her blond hair and thin legs gets invited to things like this. Hello Vick. Enchanted to be seen with you. To have your arm through mine. We should have dinner. We should dance. We should get together and not have children.
“Hello Vick, nice to see you.” She smiles. It’s hard to blame her for being a vulture. I only really hate her when she’s with someone else.
“Start talking to people or you won’t sell anything. Here, let me help.” Vick eats the air around her. “This is our famous artist,” she says, loudly. “Tell me about this painting, dear.” People are gathering. Someone puts a wine glass in my hand.
“It was made by one paint stroke a day. Only one stroke, but every single day. It began in 1992.” As a signal to the authorities of reality that I had better start existing. “It took six years to paint.”
The crowd murmurs, but what I hear most clearly is the older woman who has champagne go down the wrong pipe. I can’t see her, but I know she’s gone grey.
“Six years, that’s a bloody long time, mate,” says a man with hands on his hips. Vick tightens her grip on my arm. “Still, I like it.” He laughs and tells me that he’s from Texas, then shakes my hand as though he’s afraid to damage it.
The second person who learned about the spider dream was my first girlfriend. That was a university thing as well. She took off a few years ago, but I’m sure she remembers the dream, because she was so amazed that I’d had the exact same one twice. I’m positive she packaged the details with her knee-torn jeans, her overalls, and the red sailor coat I bought her in Quebec City. The story’s probably in her diary, an actual paper account. I stopped worrying about that when my lesbian friend asked me what I had ever seen in such a strange little girl. In my head, girlfriend number one never finds another guy and never shares her diary with anyone.
It was my own decision to trust a lesbian. That was a girl worth having, but not terribly have-able. I keep in touch with her on the off-chance that I’m gay.
The Texan winks. “Say, how do we know that you didn’t fake the whole thing?”
Vick snaps at him, “That’s ridiculous. Look at it. Are you even looking? Maybe you should get a bit closer.”
It occurs to me that I should ask these people what they see when they set their sights on me, as they press their faces to the windows of my house, fogging the glass with breath and fingerprints. “You could have started it a month ago and told us different,” continues the Texan.
He’s right. I could have. When the Texan leaves, satisfied that I don’t have the motive or creativity for such a conspiracy, the crowd thins out. Vick stays with me. “Look over here,” she whispers, “these two have potential.” Then her voice goes up. “Meet Mr. and Mrs. Gearish.
Vick smiles and whispers in my ear. “I hope you don’t mind.”
Jaime and Vivienne Gearish, two people who could tell me about 1951 and how teenagers at soda shops folded pornography in their textbooks and kept cocaine in their purses. “I’ve seen you in magazines,” I tell them.
Jaime laughs and tells me about the time he shot his biggest bear (Vick puts her hand to her cleavage). He’d used a bow in BC. The arrow had hit with such force that it’d broken through the animal’s rib cage and splattered its heart against the leaves.
Jaime points to the painting. “It reminds me of Korea.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell him.
“Vivienne likes this piece because it’s got a relationship with pain.” The old man is still very handsome. He must have been gorgeous when he was young. Vivienne keeps looking at Vick. “I haven’t seen many paintings like that.”
“There’s only one.”
Jaime grins. He was probably a cute boy, too. “Well, we have a new house in the city, and we’re looking to make some acquisitions. Everyone’s been telling us that this is the place to start. Your exhibit.”
I nod, recalling my relationship with pain. I had Lego when I was a boy. I went through three bicycles before I finally got my driver’s license. At the age of thirteen, I got cut on the hand by a piece of glass someone had hidden in a window.
“It’s marvelous,” says Vivienne. “The text is haunting.” She beams at me with green eyes that suggest readiness for a something that I would have a hard time naming. “It’s so naked. So stark.” The ‘something’ comes a little closer, shuffle-stepping as it breathes on me.
I played soccer. I got into a good university. I have many friends. My family loves me. My parents were always rich. My grandparents are still alive.
Vick squeezes my arm. “Why don’t you say a bit about the piece?”
“It hurts to,” I admit. But I try anyway, reaching deep for an internalized paint can of fumes. I wonder what Clarence would say if he were here. I wonder what the lesbian would say.
“Son,” begins Mr. Gearish, tearing up at my explanation, “listen to me.”
My only speeding ticket was overturned. My first apartment was small but cozy and nothing ever leaked. I’ve had six girlfriends, and though I haven’t married any of them, I haven’t divorced any either. When I was twenty five, I won tickets to see a movie. My brother enjoys my company. He lives in Africa, and sends pictures. I paint them sometimes. My sister lives in the city, not far from me. We have dinner a couple of times a week. She makes me hold her arm as a proper gentleman should. Her job as a traffic reporter keeps her in a helicopter for parts of the day. She always tells me that she saw me on such and such a day on such and such a street. From the helicopter. From the sky.
My brother sends me recipes for African food. My sister mails me care packages even though I live ten minutes from her.
And in the recurring dream-story, the spider squats and the wood bends above my head. Both times, the house never fell. Maybe I was too blind to see the cracks.
“How much?” asks Mr. Gearish, so ready that he might as well have written the words on his cheque book.
The frame around the canvas is shiny new. There were two men in coveralls polishing the wood this morning for about three hours. The gallery director was watching them the whole time. In 1992, I made the first stroke, and used green to do it. In late 1998, I finished off with blood-crimson morning red mixed with a hint of artichoke fire. And that’s exactly how I answer the old man’s question.
“You did very well,” Vick tells me, as we sit on the steps of the gallery. The lights are out and the valet boys are at home drooling over car catalogues. Vick’s got my coat around her shoulders. It rained sometime in the last three hours.
I ask her about the Gearish’s, what they’re like, how she met up with them, why she thinks they’re interested in my work and that piece in particular.
“Why don’t you tell me about that painting?” she asks.
I started with a yellow grade-school pencil when I was five years old. The first tools were stored in my butternut cupboard, right beneath the box for my twenty-metre electric train set. By junior high, I was playing with water paints. It wasn’t until high school that I was put on display. Later on, they put a photograph of me in one of my old classrooms.
The night of prom, I got home a little drunk and sang my way to the front door. I went to my room, took off my tie, and stayed up all night with my colours. My mother found me in the morning, the music on, my eyes bleary. I went away to university, found the first of my six girlfriends. I went to class, played soccer. On the weekends, I traveled. One night, I met my friend the lesbian. February 26th, she led me up the steps to the main campus bar, holding my hand. She drew me to a spot near a pool table. We ordered a pitcher of beer. She told me she was gay.
It ended on an April day. I got something called a job, and became a lonely man on a rooftop, trying to be intimate with the sky.
That ended on an April day, too. I walked home from the stodgy mudpile that was my work and found that my apartment was moving in on me. Circumnavigated 20 by 40 feet until the ground was worn. Sang a blues song from memory. At sunset, I found a piece of old canvas and put a stroke on it, a green one. For six years, I added a stroke a day to it, careful never to bury that first mark.
She shrugs, gets up. Asks me to call a cab. I don’t think she’s mad but it’s hard to tell. She’s still gorgeous, with her heels in the puddles.
I apologize again, because within all this perfection, this wonderfully-designed ode to a decent life, there was a dream once where a spider squatted low over a house and a boy ran mostly-blind from window to window within. I take Vick’s hand, walk her to the cab.
“It was just a dream,” I tell her.
It was. But it happened twice.