They said college would be different but they were wrong. Marcus made the mistake of going to a large school with large boys who major in athletics and have hoagie eating contests and yell faggot at any male who styles his hair. The school has an art department but it’s small and undistinguished and the painting instructor is a middling realist who idolizes and even looks like Bob Ross, afro and all. Marcus paints a giant beanstalk with babies in hardhats climbing up its trunk toward a stormy sky. One of the babies has fallen mid-climb, its hat and diaper askew. The professor grimaces. “We don’t do that kind of thing here,” he says.
“What kind of thing?” Marcus says.
“That kind of thing,” the professor says. “Dead baby things.”
The professor has a surrealistic self-portrait hanging on the wall behind his desk: his head on a unicorn’s body, horn piercing the afro.
Marcus takes his painting and leaves school. He packs a suitcase and drives north. Canada. Montreal. October is a snowy month in Canada. Marcus has cousins in Ottawa who trick-or-treat in snorkels and ski gloves. The cousins play hockey and have haircuts that are too short on top and too long in back. His aunt and uncle love fly-fishing and Irish stout and run a store that sells sheetrock and lumber. But Montreal is different, Marcus thinks. A musical city. A jazz city. A French city with all-gay clubs, all-gay gyms, an all-gay playhouse, all the Ecstasy you can handle. A place without hoagies.
Marcus could have gone south, but Manhattan is too big and irrational for someone reared in a small town. There are plenty of gay clubs, and they have bicycle messengers who deliver drugs to your doorstep, but the rent is out of control and there are hoagie shops on every corner and meatheads who live in basement apartments and sleep until noon and loiter in parks looking for gay couples to smash against the New York City streets.
Marcus finds a one-room apartment on the east side of Montreal with an old belfry ceiling and cobblestone lawn. His couch folds out into a bed. The refrigerator fits on a shelf. He has a ficus named Thurston that sunbathes on a fire escape ledge and a salt and pepper Calico named Susie Suh that lounges in a bay window and watches sparrows peck rubber from the power lines. He gets a job at a diner serving Molson and poutine. There’s a rainbow flag in a window across the street. A five-minute walk gets you to a row of clubs where men with hard, strobe-lit bodies serve recreational drugs on metal platters.
Marcus enrolls in another art school and takes a painting class with a professor who calls Bob Ross an abomination, a cultist, a Jesus freak. The professor has a cue ball head and wire-rimmed glasses and contrived black stubble on his face. He tells Marcus that when it comes to paintings he likes dead babies, prefers them that way, actually. “Kill all the babies you want,” he says. “This isn’t the school of Anne Geddes.”
Marcus meets a ballet dancer at one of the clubs. The dancer is petite and knotted in muscle like an action figure, wears black yoga pants and a sidesaddle beret. Marcus kisses the dancer while a group of men watch. It’s a deep kiss, tongues flailing, hands groping. The men cheer and toast the air with their cups and bottles. The dancer leads Marcus back to his apartment and they spend the evening naked in the living room, bedroom, bathtub. They shower together in the morning and kiss in the doorway before saying goodbye.
Marcus paints a giant beanstalk with babies in hardhats climbing up its trunk toward a stormy sky ... The professor grimaces. “We don’t do that kind of thing here,” he says.
The dancer is a real dancer. An employed dancer. Part of a dance troupe that performs interpretive numbers at the Corona Theatre. Not a wannabe dancer or casual dancer or student dancer or delusional sociopath. The dancer is older than Marcus and understands things that Marcus does not. Etiquette things, financial things, sexual things, proper wardrobe things, horological things. They see each other the following night, and the night after that. There’s wine that Marcus can’t pronounce, cheese that Marcus can’t pronounce, bookshelves filled with titles Marcus can’t pronounce. They have sex in the stairwell with Marcus face-down in a climbing position and the dancer thrusting from behind. Then another night. Another. Two more.
Marcus paints a nude portrait of the dancer lounging on a throw rug with Susie Suh covering his privates and Thurston leaning in the background. He shows the painting in class and the professor is impressed. The texture, the movement, the eyes drawn right to the cat, the ficus like someone peeking around a corner, glimpsing something it’s not supposed to see. “Nice subject,” the professor says.
The dead baby painting is hanging in Marcus’s apartment on a wall where a television could go. The dancer examines the painting with his head cocked to one side as if the beret is controlling his posture.
“What does it mean?” he says.
“The beanstalk is the phallus,” Marcus says. “Shaking the babies off, shunning reproduction. It’s a gay thing.”
Marcus doesn’t like explaining his art but the dancer is curious and adorable and can’t be expected to know everything.
The dancer visits the diner, sits in a booth and watches Marcus work, declines free Molson and poutine, has to maintain his action figure physique. The diner closes at midnight and the dancer helps Marcus sweep up sugar packets and marry bottles of ketchup. It’s nearly two when they leave through the side entrance and find a trio of gut-heavy men with hockey player haircuts waiting in the parking lot.
Marcus remembers the men. They left no tip. They were silent in the diner but now they share opinions about gays and God and wrath and fear and morality. God, the men think, favors people with hockey player haircuts and has chosen them to smash Marcus and the dancer against the frozen Montreal street.
Marcus yells for the police but no one is listening. The dancer says, “No. Please!” But the God-chosen men didn’t wait by the side entrance smelling of Molson and poutine for two hours just to reason with a faggy little dancer.
It takes three weeks for Marcus to complete his newest painting. Ten feet high, eight feet wide, a canvas from the art school warehouse. Marcus is given studio space and a step ladder and a big cyclopean floodlight. The dancer sits naked in a wheelchair, forehead scrunched into a paragraph of lines, Susie Suh covering his privates and Thurston leaning in the background. Marcus mixes globs of pink, white, and brown paint to render the dancer’s crushed kneecaps—“Stomped to bits,” one of the doctors said. “Like a crumbled biscuit.”
The men with hockey player haircuts did more kicking than punching, and they wore the kind of boots that men with hockey player haircuts wear: rawhide and rubber-soled with reinforced toes. Marcus has cracked ribs, a broken collar, a cast signed by all his art school classmates and a cauliflower ear that hears nothing but hissing and heartbeats. But he can walk to the canvas and climb the little ladder. He only needs one arm to paint.
Marcus promises the broken little dancer that no one will see the painting but then drags it into class the next day and leans it against the large slate wall. The professor views it from the other side of the room before rushing forward, removing his wire-rimmed glasses, rubbing his cue ball head and examining the canvas up close—the mutilated knees, yellow toenails and dripping eyes.
“Yes,” the professor says, nodding and patting Marcus on the back.
Dan McDermott teaches English and creative writing at Phoenix College, earned an MFA in fiction from Bennington College, and is assistant editor at TSR Online. His stories have appeared recently in Ploughshares and The Southampton Review.