By Katie WelchMy first Vancouver home was a dingy basement suite in a house off Main Street, a draughty 1970s atrocity far from the romance of the ocean and the cool underpinnings of downtown. It smelled of cat piss and bleach. I used to slink around beneath a family of five. Most nights the kids fought and the parents shouted. I would pass the mother on the sidewalk, her eyes puffy and desperate. I had no friends among my neighbours, hated all the restaurants within walking distance, and resented my commute downtown to work, cooking in a pub on Davie Street. On the afternoon bus to English Bay my envy would roil, all those seated and standing swaying bodies going home to change their clothes before heading out to dine at a chic restaurant or for a promenade along the sea wall, pausing to gasp at sunset pinks and oranges splashing across the Strait of Georgia. They had it all, the markets of Granville Island just a funky little foot ferry away, the rainforest paths of Stanley Park in their backyards, the swish and grit of downtown only a saunter from their front doors.
On Saturdays I would bump my guitar on and off the bus, and after my shift walk to a jam session at my friend Chris’s apartment in a building on Bute Street, at the rainbow-striped beating heart of the gay community, danger flowing in, courage pumping out. I felt chic and urbane on those blocks, surrounded by the vanguard of society. Buildings in the west end’s leafy, salt water-perfumed streets rarely had vacancies, but we played our music loud, leading to angry calls and eviction warnings from the property manager. Eventually Chris chose music over environmental mood. He found a shitty house in far-flung Burnaby to rent, and I inherited his apartment. Disguising eagerness and delight, I helped empty my new space.
“I can’t believe I got you kicked out, man. Not feeling great about that.”
Holding a cardboard box full of kitchen utensils, Chris shrugged.
“It wasn’t just you, Glen. Anyway, no big deal. The band’s gonna be gigging soon, so it’s about time I got a decent rehearsal space. Bring all the kitchen stuff in this load, then we’ll take the sofa.”
I moved into apartment six-oh-three. It was cramped, a single living room with a pull-out bed and wainscoting wide enough to serve as bookshelves. On the hall side a paneled wooden door led to a narrow staircase, three steps up to a slapped-together bathroom where exposed metal pipes were painted the same pale blue as the walls. A truncated free-standing tub erupted from the floor, crusty tiles cracking and heaving around four steel claw feet.
Over by the main room’s windows a small opening led to a bright, miniature kitchen with diminutive appliances and tall, narrow cupboards. The stove had four burners, but only the smallest of pots fit over each little blue ring of flames, so for pasta I used two burners at once. A sliding glass door from the main room opened onto a fire escape, a squeaky ladder of steel stairs and walkways riveted to the side of the building, a speck of outside space where I started an herb garden. I bought thrift store pots, unwanted ceramics glazed in muddy browns and oranges, and stuffed them with scraggly cuttings begged from friends.
I propped a chair beside the sliding door and used it as a picture-window to watch my herbs grow, or to stare at people down on the street. On rainy mornings a woman twirled an umbrella, yellow with a border of red flowers. I caught only glimpses of her, one shiny green rubber boot, flash of an angular profile. A black sedan would pull up to whisk her away and she’d shake the umbrella, spattering big drops, then close it and fold her lean, supple body into the passenger seat. A ridge of chestnut hair rippled along her forehead, suggesting voluptuous waves under folds of a headscarf. One day she looked up before getting into the car and delivered a melancholic smile to a point slightly above my head. She had a straight nose, thick eyebrows, and blushes of pink on cheeks of steeped tea. I leaned toward her and banged my head on the glass, leaving a smudge of skin oil.
I was outside picking oregano leaves on a day off when she drifted out above me, her bare feet pressing into the steel slats of the fire escape. It had rained earlier that morning, then cleared. Warm sun struck the west side of the building. She put the green boots down and leaned her yellow umbrella against the black stairs. An accidental voyeur, I was overcome with guilt. I held my breath and froze like a lizard on a wall. She went inside, and climbed into my imagination like it was the black sedan.
The light pad of her footsteps above me was intimate. When she flushed her toilet, assiduously I closed my ears. Did her bed pull out from the wall too? How had she decorated—did she use the wainscoting for books, and if not, assuming her apartment matched mine, what had she perched on this conspicuous ledge—photographs, knickknacks, teacups? Was she a minimalist, her apartment a blank white canvas for her beauty, or was she a hoarder, side-stepping stacked back issues of entertainment magazines and piles of shoes and jackets? I indulged in ignorant speculation about her loose headscarf, asking myself dimwitted questions. I googled it, a rousari maybe, signifying anything from modest to Moslem. I pictured her sleeping above me, her hair splayed out like black rays emanating from an eastern sun, gentle breath passing her parted lips, the pale underside of her arm thrown carelessly behind her head, sheets draped sensually over her secrets.
We shared the elevator and exchanged tight smiles and terse nods. I wanted to ask her if she heard me when I played guitar, and if she liked it, but I felt unqualified to speak to her. In this neighbourhood I was a minority, a person without a visible past or a textured present. Men held hands with other men, politically charged rhetoric was exchanged in accented English or foreign languages, and wealthy upstarts mingled with the visibly downtrodden. I was an awkward, ignorant tourist in a multicultural, polysexual extravaganza, a dinosaur in jeans, running shoes, and a puffy down jacket.
At the Chinese grocery, I happened to stand in line beside the umbrella woman. She wore the green boots and a light pink silk headscarf. I thought up a clumsy introduction, a question, something like how did she plan to eat the pomegranates, lettuce and eggplant she was holding—together, in the same dish? Her eyes were cyan and flashed like precious stones in a riverbed. She looked like an older version of the iconic Afghani girl on the National Geographic cover. How dumb would that sound, out loud, over drinks? I held my apples, orange juice, and cucumber. She hummed a melody I didn’t recognize, a musical phrase that moved in steps, then leapt up a major sixth. She paid for her items and left. When I got out to the street less than a minute later I couldn’t find her.
Living downtown warmed me to the city and on days off I wandered, learning Vancouver’s secrets and social anthropology and wondering where to slot myself in the mix. On West Georgia, I saw a landscaped concrete half-wall, a plain rectangle of cement brought to life by thick trailers of ivy crawling over its surface. Genius struck. I would grow a climbing plant on the fire escape and coax it to penetrate the space outside the umbrella woman’s apartment, a slow, living love letter. It was April in a temperate rainforest; plants grew so fast you could hear them stretch. If I hung the pot from an overhead stair it wouldn’t have far to grow before it surprised and delighted her.
At work I seared raw meat on a stainless steel grill and invented her life. A co-worker probably drove the black sedan; lovers picked each other up in the evening, not at eight o’clock in the morning. She was a virgin because I never heard telltale rhythmic banging, and to me her headscarf signaled the demure shyness of the sexually inexperienced, but perversely I pictured her naked, exposed waves of her hair tumbling over her shoulders, her smooth, quixotic limbs winding like tentacles around a lover who entered her tenderly and with excruciatingly slow strokes so I wouldn’t hear them through the floor joists. In my fantasy, she bit a mouthful of pillow to muffle her cries when she came. These mental pictures juxtaposed with the real her the next time we shared an elevator. I watched red circles light up around the floor numbers as we went down.
The floral department at Thrifty Foods sold tropical houseplants tucked in beside bunches of cut flowers wrapped in garish purple plastic, and there I found the perfect plant, a heartleaf philodendron. Grows rapidly, the tag said, with palm-sized heart-shaped glossy green leaves, a botanical valentine! The care instructions said to pinch off new growth for a bushier plant, or else allow the vines to develop, and train them onto a scaffold with floral tape. The philodendron was only nine dollars. Adjusting for economic constraints, I bought a bumpy macramé plant hanger and a chipped terracota pot from the Salvation Army thrift store. String and old twist-ties could substitute for tape.
Two weeks later, on the first of May, the philodendron was already clinging to the fire escape, snaking pale, thin, exploratory tendrils around the stair slats. With gentle fingers, I teased the tendrils upward. I delivered my rent cheque to the building manager in person as I was leaving for work.
“Who lives right above me?”
The manager frowned, scanning me suspiciously.
“Why—you have a noise complaint?”
“No, nothing like that. I just want to make sure I’m not disturbing her.”
Shrugging, the manager ripped open my envelope and examined the cheque inside. His surliness irritated me. Chris had once used a racist slur to describe this man and, coward that I am, I had let the comment foul the air like a rank fart without calling Chris out.
“I know who she is and all. I’ve seen her around.”
“So talk to her.”
He must get this all the time, tenants wanting private information about other tenants, I thought.
“Okay, cool. Could you maybe just tell me her first name?” I smiled at the manager and turned my palms up, showing him what a minor, insignificant kindness this would be.
“Why do you need to know?”
“Okay, have a nice day.”
It wasn’t raining so I walked to work, frustration driving me headfirst along the sidewalk. An hour into my shift scraping onions across the oily grill with a spatula, I knew the building manager was right. I should go up to the seventh floor and call on her.
It took me two weeks to get the nerve. In that time, the philodendron wound its way closer to her, a few leaves flattening themselves against the underside of her walkway. Soon they would find daylight between the slats and unfurl like tiny, triumphant verdant flags. It was tempting to use the plant as the excuse for knocking on her door. We could squeeze out onto her fire escape side by side, excuse me, oh pardon me, to check it out. But no, better she should discover the delicate leaves on her own and dissolve in gentle admiration. My goal was simply to introduce myself so that later, when she found the plant growing toward her, she would picture me as she touched the vine’s achingly ambitious terminal buds.
On a Sunday evening I crouched under the low ceiling of my bathroom, centering my face in the spotty mirror while trimming beard and moustache, sticking small scissor blades into one nostril then the next, snipping away tiny black hairs and leaving them to speckle the white sink. I climbed a dismal indoor staircase up one flight to the seventh-floor hallway where aromas of a dozen different dinners mingled unpleasantly. The quality of light was different on the seventh floor. It was like a parallel universe where circumstances had conspired to produce small discrepancies, numbers on the doors, nicks in the paint. I tapped at 703 with gentle knuckles, my anemic hand floating, ghostly.
I had stereotyped her. She wasn’t shy or cautious, but flung the door open to reveal a riot of colourful living. A floral-patterned rousari was settling over the crown of her skull as if it had just dropped from heaven. The ends of it draped loosely beside her thin arms. I didn’t know where to look, and tried not to flick my curious gaze to her periphery. It meant meeting her eyes, those eyes.
“Hey, I’m Glen. I live right below you. I’m a musician, well I play guitar, and I just wanted to make sure that when I practice, it isn’t bothering you, or anything.”
It came out stiff and rehearsed. Nothing unfolded the way I had planned it. She was bold, confident, vaguely amused. One of her voluptuous eyebrows arched, and a single dimple creased her left cheek, startling me into stupidity.
“We hear you when you play, sometimes. But it doesn’t bother us. Thanks for asking.”
She started closing the door. I pressed forward a little, drawing out the moment, and brushed my forehead with fingertips in exaggerated relief.
“Phew, that’s good. I’m really glad I’m not, you know, annoying you. Um, what’s your name?”
“Laleh,” she said, smirking as if her name was a joke I didn’t understand.
“Laleh, Laleh. It’s a beautiful name. Does it mean anything?”
The eyebrow descended; the dimple disappeared.
“Tulip,” she said.
A woman’s voice called out from the kitchen inside the apartment, asking if a cup of rice was enough. Astonished my upstairs neighbour wasn’t alone, I slid my head to the right and goggled into her territory, seeking a visual of the interloper. I stopped myself from blurting a rude demand to know who was in there. Laleh glanced over her shoulder and replied that yes, a cup was fine. She returned her attention to me, and pushed the door firmly in my direction, blocking my view of the room behind her and ushering me away.
“We’re making dinner. Thanks for being so considerate. See ya, Glen.” The door closed in my face with a metallic, final snick.
Then I was underneath her again, parsing the visit. The inconvenient extra person didn’t fit into my fantasies so I edited her. She was someone who came over in Laleh’s spare time, a good friend or a sister. Laleh. I mouthed it. It felt sensual. Laleh had said we only because the other woman happened to be there when I knocked; I would have heard them, if two people lived above me. I sat on my couch caressing the curves of my guitar and listening, but the soundproofing in the ceiling must have been excellent because, though I knew they were up there, I couldn’t hear feminine voices, or the rattling and clanging of pots and pans. Reluctantly I conceded that sometimes the faint footsteps above me might belong to more than one person, and to extrapolate, Laleh might not live alone. What I knew about her for sure dwindled to almost nothing. She had a yellow umbrella and green boots, and wore what was probably, maybe, a rousari.
My cell phone rang. It was my mother calling from her condominium in White Rock, forty-five minutes east of Vancouver. My father had died six months earlier, of stomach cancer. My mother’s new friends were widows too, two decades her senior, and she was quickly becoming old before her time. She walked the ocean promenade every morning with Jingo, a skittish white terrier, and played contract bridge once a week. I didn’t feel like talking to her, and considered ignoring the call. But on the tenth persistent, aggravating ring I caved in and answered.
“Glen I need you to come out right away.”
“Hi, what’s wrong?”
She was crying hard, gasping for breath between sobs.
“Oh, no! What happened?”
“The train—he was on the other side of the tracks, and I didn’t notice!”
“I called for him to come! It was my fault. I ignored the train whistle, can you believe it?”
“Then is he..?”
“It was instant. I don’t think he suffered. He’s gone—there isn’t even, his body…”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
The bus to White Rock took almost an hour. I stayed with my mother all day, listening to her reminisce about Jingo. Fresh grief hauled recent grief to the surface and she mourned my father all over again while I wrestled to keep him buried. I urged her outside for fish and chips, but Marine Drive was crowded with people walking their pets, one pampered, leashed animal after another wearing plaid sweaters, red raincoats, and Day-Glo orange booties. We got take-out and went back to her condo. She was calm when I left in the evening, resigned. On the return bus trip my thoughts wandered up to the seventh floor, and then I flashed on Chris. We hadn’t hung out since he moved to Burnaby. I pushed my phone against my ear, watching tall rain clouds trundle in off the ocean.
“Oh hey, Glen. How’s the space?”
“It’s great, yeah. Hey, who was it that complained about the noise?”
“Six-oh-four, the couple across the hall. Why? Don’t tell me your acoustic bugs them.”
“No, no. It’s all good. I like the place, I’m stoked. Way closer to work,” I said. “Hey, did you ever meet the woman who lives right above, on the seventh floor?”
“The Iranian chick? Yeah. Don’t remember her name though.”
“Iranian?” I heard a burden of ignorance in my echo.
“Persian, Iranian, yeah. She’s cool. Classy.”
“How did you meet her?”
“How does anyone meet anyone in a building? In the elevator, dude. Don’t tell me you have a thing for her. Good luck with that, man.”
I laughed as if my needing luck were tacit, and we hung up.
It rained every day for the next two weeks. In the mornings, I leaned out the window and watched Laleh spin her umbrella. After the black sedan picked her up, I went online to augment my slim grasp of all things Iranian. The Persian language was Farsi, a word I’d never heard. I knew nothing about Iran’s cuisine, history, or politics.
I called my mother at noon, most days. Her friends wanted her to get another dog, but she felt it would be insulting to Jingo’s memory to replace him so soon. Idly, I researched popular Iranian dog breeds and discovered that domestic dog ownership was rare in Iran, considered an unhygienic, distasteful imitation of the decadent west. For lunch, I made myself grilled cheese sandwiches dipped in ketchup and washed them down with glasses of milk.
At last, one day while I was staring six floors down at Laleh, she turned around, tilted her head, and looked back up at me. She was a painting, pretty features and sleek rousari in a circular yellow frame. Our eyes met, and I waved at her with limp fingers. She waved back, her distant expression equivocal. The black car slipped up beside her. She closed and shook out her umbrella, then acknowledged me with another quick glance before she vanished. Encouraged, I checked on the progress of the heartleaf philodendron. Leaves were exploring the air outside 703, and there was no way Laleh hadn’t noticed them.
When my shift ended that evening I bought two bunches of tulips from the Chinese grocery, and when I got back to the lobby on Bute Street Laleh was there, holding hands with another woman, their heads together, lips brushing. Goodly creatures, as new to me as I was to Vancouver. I dropped the arm holding the flowers. Blossoms hung shamefully near the marble floor, and cut stems pointed up at me like slender, mocking fingers. The women broke apart and laughed at my blinking, naïve pallor, the downstairs neighbour of a brave new world.