The sun had just begun to set over the harbor behind the Vancouver Convention Centre when I got out of the back of the cab and buttoned my suit jacket. I’d bought it for this exact occasion and wanted to put my best foot forward for my first event on my nationwide tour.
Over a dozen of my pieces were on display inside, and my attendance had made ticket sales skyrocket to such startling numbers that the coordinators had rebooked the largest ballroom in the building, which had floor-to-ceiling windows three stories high overlooking the harbor. The horizon burned orange, and the sky over my head deepened to a stunning violet.
I’d already started sweating in the back of the cab, but now as I crossed the sidewalk and made for the front doors, the heat intensified. Vancouver was warmer than I’d expected in mid July. It wasn’t the same stifling heat I was used to back east in Montreal, and I might have been fine in jeans and a T-shirt, but my three-piece suit was not that.
I tugged at my tie and cut through a throng of teenage girls taking selfies in front of the lit-up Olympic Torch right smack in the middle of the courtyard outside the Convention Centre. Vancouver had played host to the winter Olympics in 2010, and that was the last time I’d been here, too.
I’d even stood in this very spot when they first lit the torch and the flames caught between the crystal-like pillars that pulled together at the top almost like logs on a campfire. They glowed between varying shades of turquoise, purple, blue, green, and pink when they were lit, and ever since their construction, I imagined they’d been an attraction to locals and tourists alike.
I passed the Torch and pressed toward the front doors of the impressive building, an architectural marvel. It sprawled nearly an entire city block and it was at its most beautiful at dusk and full night.
The last time I’d been in this city, I never would have imagined I’d be lucky enough to have my own art on display at an event such as the one tonight. Hell, I couldn’t imagine anyone even wanting to buy a single piece I’d ever done but I’d long since passed that mark of success.
My career had been on the rise for over a year. I was grateful for the distraction. I needed it now more than ever.
When I wasn’t painting or attending galas, I was alone. And when I was alone, I thought of her.
Damn it, I thought as the doorman pulled the doors open for me and I stepped into the air-conditioned venue. Even on a night like tonight, I can’t be free of her.
An attendant in a red vest with gold buttons handed me a printed program. I tried to decline it with a polite shake of my head, but the attendant insisted, pressed the paper into my hands, and shifted his attention to the elderly couple coming in behind me, who also received a program.
Right smack on the cover of the program was a picture of me.
Weird, I thought as I flipped it open and read through the list of other artists who had pieces on display here. I recognized several names who were all talented, impressive, successful, disciplined individuals with career paths I wanted for myself. If time permitted tonight, I would do what I could to steal some conversations with them. I knew how to paint, obviously, but I wasn’t all that great when it came to the business end of things.
I followed signs toward Ballroom A, where I was met with yet another picture of myself on a large banner hanging from the rafters up above the door. I grimaced as I passed beneath it, wishing and praying nobody else paid much mind to the photos all over the place.
My hopes were immediately dashed when I stepped into the ballroom and dozens of eyes slid in my direction. My name fell from the lips of strangers who closed in around me asking excited questions and complimenting my pieces.
I shook hands with strangers and slapped a smile on my face. “Hello, hello, hello,” I called as I shook each hand. I wasn’t used to this kind of attention and I wasn’t entirely sure I liked it. The appeal of being an artist rested in the fact that I spent most of my working hours locked up—alone—in my studio for hours. “I’m flattered. Truly, I didn’t expect this. Thank you all for coming.”
Women crowded in front of their husbands to bat their lashes at me and offer dainty hands adorned in jewels and gold for me to shake. There was more money in this room than I could even fathom, and it showed in the attire and accessories the men and women wore.
I inched through the crowd as fast as I could. I didn’t know where I was going, only that I had to keep moving or they’d drown me in their affections.
I turned at the sound of my name being boomed across the room by a deep, masculine voice. It held a note of familiarity, and as I scanned the dozens of unfamiliar faces nearby, I poked around in the back of my head, trying to place who it belonged to.
Mathieu Bouchard stood grinning about twenty feet away, casually leaning up against a backlit bar with a martini in one hand and a program in the other. He waved me over and the crowd parted for me to pass and join him.
I fixed my tie and raked my fingers through my hair as I approached, and he looked me up and down the way my own father did when I came home after being out of town for a while.
“It’s good to see you, son,” Mathieu said. His voice carried farther than I’d have liked, but people kept their distance. He was a big deal in the art world as well and apparently not nearly as approachable as I was.
I shook his hand. “How long has it been?”
Mathieu’s goatee used to be a light brown color but now it was gray. He’d put on a few pounds, but he looked healthy and fit, and he still rocked the shiny shaved head he used to have when he was my mentor when I attended art school back in Montreal.
My old mentor pushed his black-framed glasses higher on the bridge of his nose with one finger. “We must be looking at nine or ten years, no?”
“Sounds right.” Had it really been that long?
“You’ve certainly grown up.” Mathieu turned to the bartender and ordered a second martini for me. I opened my mouth to protest and tell him I wasn’t drinking tonight, but he gave me a stern shake of his head. “The first rule of attending an event like this where your art is the main attraction is to have a drink in your hand so nobody else can buy you one. And to take the edge off. How’re your nerves?”
Mathieu’s French-Quebecois accent was still there, but not as thick as I remembered.
“I would rather be anywhere but here,” I admitted. “Present company excluded.”
He laughed. “I remember the first time my work was in a show like this. I couldn’t eat all day long, and when I finally managed to eat the finger food at the event, I threw up into a garbage can outside the hall. It wasn’t as nice a place as this, of course, but it was nice enough that a guy didn’t want to be seen hurling into a garbage can.”
“All of a sudden, I don’t feel so bad about how I’m handling it.”
“You have nothing to worry about, Joshua. Your work speaks for itself. You’re talented and you produce at an astounding rate. You’re going to have lifelong buyers after this show, I assure you.”
That meant a lot coming from my old mentor, who’d taught me more about my craft than anyone else.
The bartender handed me my martini. I thanked him and lifted it to Mathieu. “Here’s to not throwing up in garbage cans.”
Mathieu’s glass clinked softly against mine. “And to wealth.”
I didn’t tell him I hadn’t made much real money yet. Sure, I’d sold some big pieces for high-ticket prices, but I certainly wasn’t making the kind of money the Curtis men usually made. I had a healthy trust fund, courtesy of my parents, who still lived comfortably at the old family estate in Montreal.
They’d raised me to follow my passions, not a high salary, and I doubted either of them truly believed I’d be making a name for myself in such a big or lucrative way. I certainly hadn’t. I’d accepted long ago that I might not be the kind of bread winner the generations of men in my family were before me.
However, looking around at the crowd tonight and the way people clamored to get a close look at my pieces, I was beginning to wonder how high my ceiling actually was.
“Have you had time to explore the city?” Mathieu asked.
I shook my head and sipped my drink. Martinis weren’t my usual cup of tea. “Not really. I got in yesterday morning. I was down in Seattle prior to that.”
“For more work?”
“Visiting an old friend actually,” I said.
It had been nice to pop down over the line into the United States and visit Jeremiah in Port Orchard. Not only was it good to see one of the other Casanova Bachelors in person after so long, but it was also nice to see him thriving.
He’d met a woman. A good woman, it seemed, and he was happy.
I wondered if that was in my future. How long did I have to wait around before someone came and filled up the giant hole in my chest that Piper had left?
“How much longer are you in Vancouver for?” Mathieu asked.
“Two weeks,” I said, pausing to smile at a passing trio of older women who looked from me to yet another massive picture of me hanging from the rafters. “I have more business in the city and decided to stick around for a while. It’s been a long time since I came to the west coast. It really shines in the summer, don’t you think?”
“If you like hippies and athleisure wear,” Mathieu said. “Personally, I miss the sensibilities of French-Canadian women. Could you imagine walking the streets of Montreal and seeing grown women in leggings and those God-awful oversized boots they wear around here? It wouldn’t stand, Joshua. It simply wouldn’t stand.”
He had a point. Montreal was a fashion forward place and was often referred to as a mini New York City. Men and women alike dressed to impress even if they were just popping down the street to meet a friend for coffee and returning home to a day full of sweaty chores.
Things here on the west coast were much more casual, and that kind of appealed to me, too.
I definitely didn’t have anything against women wearing leggings and it surprised me that any man would, even a French-Canadian one.
“Do you have plans tomorrow night?” Mathieu asked.
I plucked an olive from the end of the toothpick in my martini with my teeth, chewed, and swallowed. “Besides holing up in my hotel room and ordering room service? No.”
“Come join me and Iris for dinner at the Fairmont.”
“Iris is in town?”
Iris was Mathieu’s young daughter. She couldn’t have been older than thirteen the last time I saw her.
“She’s attending the Emily Carr Institute of Art,” Mathieu said.
“That’s a good school.”
“She’s a good student.” He winked. “Lots to learn, but she has the bare bones of talent that might stand to get her somewhere. Or she’ll just get it out of her system in their program and pursue something else.” Mathieu nodded across the ballroom. “I have to go rub shoulders with some of my own buyers. I suggest you do the same, Joshua. But please, join us tomorrow night. Seven thirty at the Fairmont. The reservation is under Bouchard. I hope to see you there.”
Mathieu vanished in the crowd, and I lingered by the bar debating whether or not I should order another drink before I started my rounds.
The bartender caught my eye.
“Ah, what the hell?” I said, lifting my nearly empty drink toward him. “Another.”