The very first thing I have to do is tell you about my friend Matt. He is a major part of the story of how I got to here, although the moment of truth itself was merely a flip and a flash.
I first met Matt at The Crime Lab, a small cocktail lounge he owned near Coal Harbour in downtown Vancouver, in 2000. The Crime Lab was situated in a tiny flatiron building built in the 1940’s, and was at once the site of a police photo lab. Tucked under the trees and modern skyscrapers that sprung up around it over the decades, the Crime Lab was a small and cozy venue, with a purple neon sign that glowed out into the darkness of the rainy Vancouver nights. The Crime Lab was both quaint and cool, the perfect late night spot to be seen at, and the best place to drink kitschily named martinis with the west end night owls, and the restaurant industry folk who strolled in after their shifts ended. Matt was usually behind the bar pouring drinks, chatting amicably with whoever walked through the door.
I liked him right away. Matt had deep-set blue eyes, a strong chin, and a thick head of tousled brown hair. He had a boyish yet gentlemanly demeanour, a humble confidence, and was incredibly charismatic in a self-deprecating way. Although the Vancouver restaurant industry was oftentimes a fickle, shallow, and unkind industry, Matt–- a young hotshot himself in the same industry–- was none of those things. He had an authentically kind heart, and generous nature. Everyone loved Matt.
Matt and I formed a connection and friendship immediately. I would sometimes walk down to the Crime Lab from my apartment, and have a drink with him while he worked behind the bar. He would always have a glass of my favourite wine waiting for me, and never took my money. As the night drew to a close, Matt would say goodnight to the last of his patrons, lock the doors behind them, and turn off the neon sign. He would pour a drink for himself and another for me, and we sit together in a booth, a candle on the table as the only light in the place, talking and making out as the sun slowly crept up the grey sky outside.
After he drove me home, he would often come inside to crawl under the covers beside me in my bed, spooning me and giving me a kiss on my shoulder as we drifted off to sleep. Our relationship never became sexual. Although we were physically attracted to each other, sex would have made things emotionally complicated between us, and we both knew it. I was the monogamous type, and Matt was not. I was also the jealous type, and there were too many temptations in Matt’s world. We would have lost the friendship had we ventured further. As it is, there are no hurt feelings, bad memories, or sour notes when I think back to my time with Matt. I get to keep him, exactly as I knew him.
Matt and his partners soon opened up another lounge called “Lucy Mae Brown”, which quickly became a bustling hotspot for Vancouver’s chic and fabulous downtown crowd. Whenever my friends and I stopped in for drinks after a night out, Matt would always come out from behind the bar to greet me with a quick kiss hello, picking me up in a bear hug as I wrapped my legs around him. It was our sweet and foolish ritual we would perform each time we saw each other. He gave fantastic hugs.
One night, Matt and I were out having a late supper at Random on Davie Street, after a night of watching flamenco at the Kino cafe down on Cambie Street. When he picked me up earlier in the evening at my apartment, he had noticed the paintings I made on my walls and complimented me on them. Now, as we finished our dinner, Matt pulled a quarter from his pocket and began casually flipping it. “Let’s see who wins”, he said with a playful glint in his eye. “If I win, you do a painting for me for free. If you win, do a painting for me and charge me whatever you like.” He called tails. A flash. He slapped the quarter onto the table. Heads. Sometimes the smallest moments become the most significant ones.
Matt wasn’t sure what he wanted me to paint for him. “What do people paint?” he asked. “Fruit? Flowers?” I didn’t really know myself—this was a brand-new game to me as well. A still life did not inspire me, nor did it feel quite right for my friend’s tastes.
“I think it should be something that you like, and want to look at, “ I offered. “How about a nude?” I blurted, surprising myself. I had never painted a nude before—what was I thinking? “I know how much you like naked women!”, I joked. “Correction”, he said with a grin. “I LOVE naked women!” And so it was.
I painted my first nude. When Matt came to pick up his painting “Lucy Mae Brown” a few weeks later, he quietly regarded it, and for an anxious minute I thought he didn’t like it. “I didn’t think it would be this good”, he said. I still remember how I felt in that moment, and I think I always will.
Matt was the first person to believe in me as a painter, giving me the first opportunity to show another person what I could do. He is the reason why I thought that maybe I was a real artist after all, that maybe I could do this “for real”.
Months later, I was busy painting every day. My friend Sugar had offered me a show at his event space sugarandsugar, so I was completing a painting per month in preparation of filling the huge two-storey space with my art. I didn’t see much of Matt during that time; he was also busy with work, and a new girlfriend, and then another new girlfriend. We would keep in touch with an occasional phone call, and once in awhile I would stop in to Lucy Mae Brown for a drink and a hug. “I’ll send you a Ziggy card”, he would say with a grin as we said goodnight. He was always threatening to send me a Ziggy card. It was a silly punchline each time we’d say goodbye. Who would even remember those silly little greeting cards from the 80’s with the befuddled but good-natured little cartoon character?
The date of my art show came and went, and Matt had not come. Knowing how busy he was with work and his private life, I was not hurt by his absence, assuming that he must have had to work that night. I looked forward to telling him all about my show the next time we met.
I never saw or spoke to Matt again. A couple of weeks later, I received a call from a mutual friend who no longer lived in Vancouver but had kept in touch with a few people from Matt’s crowd. The friend did not know if I had heard, and he wanted to make sure I had. Two months prior, in September of 2004, Matt had taken his own life.
I kept a journal, faithfully, during the years I lived in Vancouver. I still have them all, filled with moments and stories and painful bits of growth and loss, pieces of dialogue. Memories of Matt live on in the pages, words I am now so very grateful to have kept, safe between two covers. Tiny memories and moments we shared that I may have forgotten about by now come alive again when I read those pages.
In my studio, there is a small picture of Matt tacked up on the wall beside the table that holds my brushes and jars of paint. Underneath the photo is a vintage Ziggy card, discovered on Etsy one afternoon as I procrastinated in the studio. Ziggy tiptoes through a sunny, butterfly-filled garden, a cheerful scene in bright colors. In chubby black cartoon letters, these words. “Meeting You Was a Giant Step in My Life.”
The inside of the card I have left blank. There is no place I could send the card to where it would reach him now, but I keep the unwritten words in my heart each day, like a faded valentine. Dear Matt, I have so much to tell you. I love you, I miss you, and I’m sorry. Wish you were here.