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Lost Careers: SoHo Artist


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I moved to New York about two years ago. It was meant to be a short stay and we were lucky enough to find a loft in SoHo that we could rent for three months. The entire deal was anonymous—we had no idea who the owner was, except that she was female, a painter. Our entry, then, was fraught with almost morbid curiosity. What sort of paintings would we be living with, what sort of furniture, what, what, what? Our first hours were full of trying the sofa and chair (both hard), trying the bed (harder), studying the enormous oil paintings, playing with the light switches, and try­ing to settle our dog, who sensed danger at every turn. Next, we examined the LP record collection, which seemed familiar, although I haven’t played a record in years. How old do you think she is? I asked. What do you think she looks like? For some reason I decided she was a large woman (the paintings?)—probably statuesque and close to my age (the music).

By the second day, I had begun to scan the titles of her books. She had a vast collection and it bore an uncanny resemblance to my own library. She had, for example, The Quaker Reader, a book I’ve not seen on any other shelf but my own. She had books I owned as a child and as an adolescent—books I had loved and forgotten. She arranged her books in exactly the same way I arrange mine—that is to say, in the same categories. Now I began looking for clues about this painter’s life, and on a shelf above my borrowed desk, I found her high school yearbook. Because of the notes written on the end papers, it was easy to discover our landlady’s maiden name, which is the same as mine. She grew up a few hundred miles from me; we graduated in the same year; and neither of us had participated in extracurricular activities.

I’ve always believed that the essence of a person comes from these things: time, place, genetics. And a pinch of choice. This woman, whose first name is Carole, has lived my life as a New York artist—some­one who ran away to the city in the sixties, studied painting, and found that she had enough talent to carry on with it. Instead of daughters, she had two sons. Instead of raising them, she handed them over to their father and applied herself to her art.

When I finally met her, she was tiny, balletic, in­tense. When I complained about the rock-hard bed, she ran across the room and leapt onto it, as if it were a trampoline. My doppelgänger has both spine and bounce. I’m not sure hers is the Other Life I would have chosen, but it is the life I might, almost, have had.

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Linda Spalding’s most recent novels are: The Purchase, and A Reckoning,. She has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Canada’s National Magazine Association as well as the Governor General’s award