When I was nineteen, I moved to Montreal both for school and in the hope that the city would be for me what Paris was for the Lost Generation. That moveable feast, to quote Hemingway; that Babylon to be revisited, to quote Fitzgerald instead. Unlike Hemingway or Fitzgerald, I wasn’t chasing the modern novel. I thought I’d write a few plays before making my fortune writing sci-fi.
Montreal was cheap in those days and, for the first few years, I bounced between apartments and soon ended up with a roommate in a spacious two-bedroom that cost less than six hundred dollars. When our lease ended, she decided to live with her boyfriend and I decided to save money and so, for the love of a man on her part and a hundred dollars on mine, I moved to a place with two less rooms and twice as many problems.
In Montreal, new leases start on Canada Day, mostly because the separatists like it that way. July opens with tenants roaming like snails with their homes on their backs. My new home didn’t amount to much and, once my futon was interred, there was only a desk and my cat and many boxes of books. It was a sad place with a common room/kitchenette and an optimistic bedroom, which is what you call a bedroom that’s anything but. There was a small balcony but the floor creaked and every movement was a shot in a war with the woman below.
I knew right away that moving had been a mistake and I felt like the surgeon who realizes, long after the patient is sewn, that they’re missing their watch: I had lost something I could never reclaim.
It was that liminal period after Y2K didn’t change the world and before 9/11 did. I got a job cooking at a Mexican restaurant and wrote at night. The science fiction wasn’t going well and, since I had become a Gershwin fan, I decided I would write a play about his life. Gershwin wasn’t part of the Lost Generation, but he was their soundtrack—the American in An American in Paris could have been Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or any of their friends.
Every night I worked and vowed not to sleep until I was unashamed of what I’ve done. In other words: I became an insomniac. This didn’t help the war with the woman downstairs and, one day, I came home to find felt-pads for furniture waiting by the door. I put them at the bottom of everything, including myself. When I wasn’t writing, I was reading and when I was being pretentious, I was reading Shakespeare and, either way, I was on the balcony in the light of the rising sun.
There was a laundromat on my street and, for the first month, I stuck around due to the misapprehension that my clothes were something others want to steal. The understanding that I was wrong became a moment of what the Greeks called anagnorisis: the protagonist makes a critical discovery, after which his life is never the same. Oedipus plucked out his eyes but I just threw my clothes into the machine and left to buy every Gershwin album I could find.
These were the days of video stores and the one nearby was open late. I wandered the aisles and memorized the names of directors. I was an actor too and pretended this was research, but what I was really doing was working up the courage to rent porn. I never found it and, for months, I was stuck with whatever scrambled French films my antenna could find.
The city was a paradise of colorful personalities. Banana Man mugged people with his eponymous fruit. Tattoo Man had a skull etched on his face. Guru Man offered the secrets of life if I bought him a burger. I’d tell you what he told me but, naturally, you’ll have to feed me first.
There was an all-night bistro where they left me alone while I wrote. I wanted it to be my Café des Amateurs, that haven on Place St. Michel where Hemingway liked to work. I fell in love all the time but I never approached because I thought the whole point of writing was to dream and if you live the dream then you become the story. “It doesn’t take long to write things of which you know nothing,” says Francine in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. “When you write of actual things, it takes longer, because you have to live them first”.
Of course, you get tired of writing about things of which you know nothing, especially when you’re writing about women (Gershwin had a lot of lovers). Soon, I had fallen for a French-Canadian artiste with Rapunzel-like hair framing a face that could launch a few hundred ships. It’s an old saying that one has to date a French girl to speak French but that only works when the French girl is on the visiting team. I was on her home turf; there was no need for la belle femme to settle for the likes of me. But Rapunzel took pity on me. My apartment was a humiliation but she was kind. “You have the sort of place writers write about writing in,” she told me. Then she pretended to enjoy having sex on a futon.
Things went well until she tired of having long hair. I didn’t care for the haircut—what is Rapunzel without her locks?—and told her she’d made a mistake. Of course, the mistake was mine. Insulting your lover’s new hair is akin to crossing the Rubicon, from whence there can be no return. A week later, the woman downstairs surrendered and broke her lease. Simultaneously, I found an infestation of ants and, after following the troop back to headquarters, I took care of the queen. So that’s three women I drove away. In the theatre, this is called rehearsal; I was learning a skill I would someday wish I had never had.
In September, I went back to school and filled my schedule with classes in U.S. History and mythology courses taught by a professor I adored. I daydreamed of afternoon delights interspersed with private tutorials on anagnorisis and xenia, that concept of showing virtuous hospitality when a stranger is in your home. The Gods punish those who violate it; this, along with a certain face, is what started the Trojan War.
On tests, I apologized when I didn’t know the answer. “I’m sorry I don’t know this,” I wrote. “But might I add, you’re looking great today….” A pathetic attempt at courtship and, thankfully, one which the professor ignored. We never had a single private conversation; in spite of my compliments, she remained fair and gave me a B.
Although I went to Concordia, I found opportunities to produce theatre at McGill and, that winter, the miracle occurred: I was given the chance to produce my play about Gershwin. The play’s focus was on Gershwin and Kay Swift, his great forbidden love. She was the first woman to ever write the complete score for a Broadway show; the “forbidden” part stems from the fact she was someone else’s wife. The impossibility of this situation would later drive him to work in the movies. “I am not marrying Kay Swift,” my fictional George declared in one scene. “I came to Hollywood specifically to get away from Kay Swift.”
I built the set at home and my apartment became overgrown, like a forgotten jungle. Friends had moved away and la artiste didn’t return my calls. I was out of shape and lonely and tired of writing and thinking how, as Fitzgerald once remarked, writing was a dog’s life. I thought about Gershwin and Kay and thought that even forbidden love wouldn’t be so bad.
Before going home for Christmas, I needed someone to feed the cat. Someone recommended an acquaintance friend who was studying to be a vet. I barely knew her but she was pretty and, when you’re shallow, this is the only reference letter you need.
I returned to find the girl had been living in my apartment—she didn’t get along with her roommates and her boyfriend lived at home. She asked if she could stay an extra night and I agreed. And so opportunity had presented itself: here was my chance to walk into the world of forbidden love. But she was a guest and there was xenia to worry about. My professor had taught me well. To please her—and, for that matter, the Gods—I remained a gentleman. We shared the futon, but I stayed on my side.
I never saw her again and this, mixed as it was with the holiday season, imbued the encounter with the magic of ether and dust. Sleeping with her would have likely brought disaster, so I suppose things are better as they are. Still, one never knows and the moral of the story, if there is one, is that if I had taken Introduction to Economics, my life might not be the same.
At the end of January, we moved into the theatre. Things went well until one of my actors booked a commercial and announced she couldn’t make one of the performances. She offered a solution: a friend from theatre school who could play the understudy and replace her for the night.
During this time, I was working at the restaurant, running rehearsals, and preparing to play Gershwin. Like hockey players, I had a superstitious aversion to shaving. This turned me into an unkempt actor-playwright, plump like a pumpkin. I was grouchy all the time and barely acknowledged the understudy who was saving my show. Naturally, she declared me ungrateful and smug. At rehearsal breaks, she ignored me and passed the time in the corner, doing crosswords with a pen.
In some circles, this is called a wonderful beginning.
She played Mollie Charleston, a chorus girl from Gershwin’s past, and on the day she was to appear on stage, I arrived to find her nervously running her lines. By then, I had shaved and was in better spirits. Once a show opens, it no longer matters if the show is any good. All you can do is hit your mark and hope nothing falls on your head. In a rare moment of self-reflection, I realized I’d been an ass and offered to buy Mollie a drink.
Later, in the entertainment district, we swallowed martinis in a fashionable club. She noticed I was still smug but a little more grateful and mentioned she might get into Heaven if she did a good deed. So she came home with me. I had class the next morning and left a key so she could sleep-in and rifle through my drawers. Love is a game of discovery. We believe we’ll unearth treasures no one else has found. Whatever she found didn’t scare her; she was still there when I came home.
Mollie works for an accountant but doesn’t enjoy it. She finds my apartment bohemian and the cat paws through her hair while she sleeps. She smokes on the balcony and chews gum before we kiss. We rent movies and make love while they play in the background. She calls me “Sunshine” and signs her emails with a row of Xs and reads my literary efforts. She tells me they’re very good, which is a lie, but wonderful to hear.
When my lease ends, she helps me find a new apartment. It’s just around the corner and, on another Canada Day, we drag everything by hand. I leave the futon behind—Mollie pulls rank and demands an actual bed. The new apartment is a glory and, as we unpack, I discover the camera I received for my birthday. I never used it. A pictorial history of my love life would suggest I’ve lived as a monk; there are few pictures of me with my arm around a lover, a fact that is likely a relief to those who would prefer to forget the whole thing. This photographic deficiency stems from an unhappy talent for having too much faith in my brain. Why take a picture when you think you don’t have to? I may forget things all the time, but you’ll never convince me this is true.
However, on this day, Mollie is disheveled and sweaty with a kerchief holding back her hair and she looks tough and strong, like a soldier on break from sacking a city, and I’m so in love that I recognize the moment for what it is. “Smile,” I say and, with that, the moment is preserved.
After that, I start keeping the camera around, waiting for more moments. Mollie and I don’t start living together, but her toothbrush moves in and her unmentionables are loafing about, not paying rent. It’s common for her to lounge on Sundays while I work away. One weekend, I glance over to find she’s fallen asleep with the cat nestled in her arms. Again, I reach for the 35 mm camera. The resulting picture is black and white, 5×7, with a white frame. The cat sits in the crook of Mollie’s arm, splayed across the cover that’s been pulled to her neck. There’s a pen in her right hand and the unfinished clues of the crossword that put her to sleep. 42-Across: French Lady Who Still Carries a Torch. Her head is turned and she wears a beatific look as if she’s dreaming of stardust. The cat, if you’re interested, looks at the camera with the what-is-the-silly-human-doing-now expression that is typical of the race.
There’s a silence in pictures; too many things aren’t there. A picture, for instance, can’t tell you about the smoking or the nicknames. It also can’t tell you that, two weeks after I take this picture, Mollie decides we’re better off apart. I’ve been told men mourn relationships after they’re over while women do it before they end; the spiritual departure happens long before the physical one. Put another way: by the time a woman leaves, she’s already left. It wasn’t stardust she was seeing as she slept; it’s more than likely she was dreaming of her great escape. In trying to preserve the moment, I had captured something already lost.
All relationships go well until they don’t; if yours is going well, it just means you’re still trying to run out the clock. In our case, the problem was my age. When Gershwin was my age he had written the hit song Swanee, had shows on Broadway, and was mere months away from premiering Rhapsody in Blue. I was an unpublished writer graduating with a useless degree. My late-night writing sessions were fruitless. I hadn’t read Shakespeare in weeks. Fearing I was falling behind, I buried myself in my notebooks. Suddenly, I had many desperate pieces on the go. Mollie saw she’d been left behind. I suppose she could have rushed to catch up but it’s likely I gave the impression I wasn’t worth the sweat.
During the post-love malaise, I developed several manias. One was for salad—I was never healthier than in those anything-but-halcyon days. Another new trait was that, whether from shame or self-flagellation, I refused to have my picture taken. When a mutual friend married, Mollie was a bridesmaid while I was asked to read from Corinthians. If I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing… Perhaps this was what drove my prohibition. No one wants a picture of nothing. When I fled the wedding, it was just so the photographer wouldn’t waste her time.
Near the end of his life, Gershwin was, like most in Hollywood, completely miserable. After a lifetime of romantic near-misses, he wrote to several ex-girlfriends with redemption on the mind. No one replied. He’d enjoyed a lifetime of symphonies and Broadway shows, he had looked up from the piano to see he was alone. “I am thirty-eight, famous and rich, but profoundly unhappy,” he told Alexander Steinert. He was blunter with his cousin, Harry Botkin: “This year, I have got to get married.” The year in question was 1937, the same year he died from a tumor in his brain.
Researching Gershwin in those early years, I was smart enough to see the warnings but foolish enough to believe they didn’t apply to me. After all, a piano is not a notebook. But women haven’t changed since the Jazz Age. There were those who would have liked George to put away the music just as, I’m sure, Mollie would have preferred for me to put the notebooks away. I could have been in that bed; I could have supplied the name of that French lady who, after all these years, still carries a torch.
Image at the top of the page: Image by “Writing words..” by _StaR_DusT_ is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/