How I Became An Artist
by Ramon Kubicek
As I huddle in the darkness with the blanket to my chin, three knives fly into the cabin door. Four flashlights switch on to see if the knives have found their target. A twelve-year-old named O’Mara whoops and jumps off his bunk.
“I got it. You guys are lame.” He pulls his six-inch blade from the crudely drawn red circle in the middle of the door. The other two knives have struck up high and to the right. “We do it again.”
They do it again over a dozen times, maybe even twenty times. I lose count, and the twanging sound of the knives striking becomes routine. I tell myself the knives won’t find me. My bed is just right of the door. I can touch it by reaching my arm out. When the flashes are off, I can’t see my hand in front of my face.
There are seven of us in the cabin, but three dominate because of their age and size. After pulling out their knives, the three get back into their beds, switch off their flashes, and prepare to throw their knives again. I pull the blanket over my head.
Despite arriving over 4 hours ago, I’ve been put into this cabin about ten o’clock. Some mix-up and no available beds. I’ve been sick because of the car fumes on the ride up and my fear of this unknown, and spend my time puking into the bushes and sitting on my gear until a bed is arranged in Hut M. My parents drive away almost immediately after dropping me off with a hug and a few encouraging words. As if they can’t wait to get away.
This is the first time I’ve been from home on my own and in summer camp. It’s a Catholic Charities camp, but I’m too young to know what that means. As far as I can tell, no one else in the camp of two hundred or so kids is as young as five years old. The next morning I go to a camp counselor and tell him I want to move to another hut. He looks down at me and I can’t tell what he is seeing and whether that’s good. I guess I manage to communicate my plight, because he moves me to another Hut. Hut M, the hut I slept in, I find out afterwards, is known for housing the problem kids, the older kids who are on a fast track to becoming gang members in Point St. Charles.
My new Hut is J. The hut is one long room with six beds on each long side, facing one another, military style. Every hut has an out-house assigned to it, and it’s our job to keep it clean. Every Saturday is inspection day, and we have to make sure that our beds and night tables are spotless. Saturday is visitors’ day. My parents will visit twice in six weeks. Years later, I figure out that they were using the time to conceive my sister. By the fourth week, I will no longer look forward to their visit. As much. I will be in another mode altogether, a mode of someone who has been sent as a scout or a spy into a country he has never even studied, but must learn to survive in.
But moving into Hut J is not going to be a given. As soon as the counselor has left, feeling good about the rescue operation, a redhaired kid about 8 approaches. Kennedy is wiry, with a sailor’s t-shirt. He stares at me when I first enter Hut J. I look up at him. His two buddies are the oldest kids I’ve ever seen. Will this be another Hut M?
“Hey kid, my name’s Kennedy. What’s your name?”
I tell him mine. He looks at me like I’ve tried to hock on his face and missed. He exchanges a look with his buddies.
“What kind of a name is that? It doesn’t matter. Don’t give a shit. Thing is you can’t stay here.”
“This is my hut. You gotta ask my permission before you can stay here.”
“But the counselor…”
“He doesn’t know nothing … Got any money?”
“No.” I think of the five dollars I have secreted away in my extra socks.
Kennedy looks with disgust at his friends, who look fiercely at me. I seem to be breaking some kind of rule.
“Then you gotta fight me.” He glares at me. “Boxing,” he adds with a smirk.
One of his buddies finally shows he can speak.
“Bobby’s dad is in the Navy. He taught Bobby how to box. He’s gonna beat the shit out of you, kid.”
Bobby looks at me with a grim smile. “Tell you what, kid. You beat me, you can stay in the hut.”
“Okay,” I say. I don’t know what else to say.
Kennedy laughs. “You got some guts. Let’s do it now.”
He leads me to the equipment hut. Kennedy’s been here for a couple of weeks already, so he knows his way around. He signs out for the gloves, like he’s sixteen rather than eight.
He hands me the gloves. I hold them in my hands close to my chest as if they were a bag of groceries. Kennedy shakes his head and begins helping me to put on my gloves. Then he puts his on.
“You ever boxed?”
I shake my head.
He sighs with the injustice of having to beat up an untrained kid. “You’re supposed to hit me and knock me down. I try to block your punches. We go for five minutes. Okay?”
I nod. This is the first time in my life I‘ve even heard the word boxing. I decide that three things will happen. One, I will watch what Kennedy does and learn from it. Two, I will do something completely different myself. Since I don’t know how to box, I’ll invent my own game. Three, whatever happens I won’t cry.
We begin boxing. Immediately, Kennedy assumes an impeccable boxing posture, or so it looks to me, and begins to dance in front of me with his arms raised gracefully in front of his head. I raise my hands too at his urging. Then, one, two, three, he smacks me three times in the face. I blink my eyes and try to focus. This isn’t going to do, playing sitting duck to his Sugar Ray Leonard.
Suddenly I begin windmilling my arms very quickly and deflecting his punches. He looks at me with confusion. He has never seen such a technique before. In fact, it is safe to say that no one has ever seen such a technique before. My movements are so utterly without technique that they must have the appearance of an exotic fighting strategy.
My windmilling succeeds to the extent that I manage to bop him twice in the face. From the look of surprise, it seems he has never been bopped before.
Suddenly, he calls it. “Okay, Kubenfrick, It’s a draw.” He looks at me as if I might be wearing a disguise. Then he extends an arm for a handshake. “I’m Bobby Kennedy. And you’re in the Hut.” It’s the first handshake of my life.
I’d managed to go through the first five years of my life without even one friend or playmate. I’d not been to pre-school or kindergarten. My parents had moved to a slum clearance neighborhood where the only two kids close to my age were a girl a year older, whose father had threatened to murder my mother, which had an unfortunate effect on the possibility of playdates, and Ralph, who was four years older, and who was constantly hurting me with bricks and nails. Ralph was later moved to some facility for trying to saw a cat in half. After one episode, between my fourth and fifth birthday, in which the left side of my face had been rubbed free of the outer layer of skin through one of Ralph’s schemes, I sat in my kitchen, stared out at the blue sky, and a voice in my head said, “one day you will wake up from this dream” That summer I was in camp.
This camp, whose name I no longer remember, was a place near the Laurentians in farming country. Every Friday we had movie night, and we saw the same movie: “Shane.” It was my first Western. I also learned how to swim on my own, by simply refusing to drown, and I learned to ignore the mosquitoes. We had a walk of about a mile between the camp and the beach. On either side of the path were two swamps, where the mosquitoes lay in wait. When we were aware of them, we tried to bat them with our towels. Worse were the horseflies, who never gave up. When my parents came for a visit, they asked if I had measles, and it was the first time I really noticed how many bites I had on my body. But it was okay. I watched a lot those six weeks and did everything I was asked, whether I knew how to or not. One of the things I learned was that Bobby Kennedy’s dad was not going to come for a visit, nor was his mother, nor was anybody, and that this bothered him a lot, though he never referred to it.
Years later, after graduating from university, at 19 much younger than anyone else I knew—again—I decided on a whim to go across Canada, from Montreal to Vancouver. I had an idea of finding a job, falling into an adventure or two, and meeting some artists or filmmakers or poets. At university I had taken art classes and film classes and creative writing classes along with all the required subjects, but nothing had really stood out except my desire to create something beautiful. The journey to Vancouver was supposed to be my prequel to artistic revelation.
I bought a train ticket, but got off in Edmonton. I was so sore from sitting and so bored with days of trees and then fields that ran flat past the horizon into tomorrow, that I was sure I was going to lose my mind. So I walked and hitchhiked and walked some more, and after numerous ordinarily amazing adventures arrived in Vancouver.
Like many people, I have thought about the role of coincidences in my life. In my case, there have been many significant chance meetings that later shook my foundations, many near-misses, even books that came at exactly the right moment. The exact dates don’t matter. I’m not sure whether the coincidences matter anything more than the stimulus for a momentary raising of eyebrows. But the coincidence in this story is definitely part of the journey.
I arrive in Vancouver at eight o‘clock in the morning after an all-night ride on the back of a motorcycle driven by a blonde woman about 25 years old and about 1,000,000,000 miles out of my reach after I step off. I am in a place called Stanley Park, and all I have with me is a small bag hanging off my shoulder. “The ocean,” I say reverently to myself. Like lots of Montrealers, I think Vancouver is somewhere near Australia. That is, I know where it is geographically, but psychologically and conceptually in Montreal we all think at this time that Vancouver exists in some place perpetually in the clouds where people walk barefoot beneath cedars when they aren’t surfing.
About ten minutes after my moment of joy, a young woman my age approaches me and asks me to join her and her friends, who are having coffee on the beach. Why not? What 19-year-old guy says no to a 19-year-old blonde with an open smile? A red-haired male in his twenties is sitting in the group between two girls. Everyone looks as you might expect after a night of drinking and trying to sleep on the beach and keep clear of the police patrol. We begin chatting. He is from Montreal. We compare notes. He listens to my name. He looks at me carefully. “Kubenfrick?”
The odds of meeting someone after 14 years you’d known for 6 weeks in summer camp—well, why bother. I’ve just graduated from university. Bobby Kennedy finished high school, sort of, and has worked a lot of jobs, looking for a score. He’s been trying to join the Merchant Marine for the past few years.
“Hey, there’s a job going in California. Scuba divers in shark cages going down fifty feet to an archeological dig.”
“Sounds cool. But I don’t know how to scuba dive.”
“No problem. I’ll teach you.”
We spend the next week trying to find work in Vancouver. In his mind, we are going to be cleaning the boats on the docks. I’ve never done that before. We don’t even get a sniff. I go through my money very quickly. He goes through my money too. At the end of the week, I say goodbye. I have disappointed him with my decision not to dive in the midst of sharks.
I decide to head back to Montreal. In Calgary, I meet a man at a coffee shop who is reading a Russian novel in translation by Avram Tertz. He sees me staring at the book cover. We talk about the novel. We talk about Russian movies by Tarkovsky. We talk about the Russian art movement called Constructivism. We talk about the qualities of Russian vodka. Martin Duravec invites me back to his house to stay with him and his family for a few days. He wants someone to lecture to and to play chess with and to do paint-offs. For a frightening moment, I consider that he sees his youth in me. But I go.
They live in a nice suburban house just outside Calgary. He is between jobs. His wife works as a cleaner (despite having a Ph.D.), maintains the home, and cooks, while Martin muses on life. He is waiting. He is waiting for just the right opportunity. He is 42 and wants to teach at a university. When he talks, he often purses his lips, narrows his eyes, and gazes up, as if he were trying to locate a book on a shelf eight feet off the ground. They have a 15-year-old daughter who makes me nervous, because though she is tall and lean, she is always almost bursting out of her clothes and sits very close to me.
One day, Martin asks me to “baby-sit” Hannah. She’s 15, I say. She doesn’t need babysitting. He wants to visit someone, and I guess he wants someone else a bit older in the house.
This is no good. In my mind, I shout at him: You fool! Don’t you realize your daughter is gorgeous, and that I am a sexual beast barely able to restrain myself? Can you not at least give me some credit for the restraint?
Hannah is wearing one of those tops that also show she is not wearing a bra. I’m afraid she has some kind of rip-cord on her body that she can pull and in a flash her ample breasts will burst out as I am chastely trying to discuss National Geographic Magazine. Then she wants to arm-wrestle. She likes wrestling, she tells me, and wants to try out some holds.
That’s it. I disappoint everyone here. I leave without touching Hannah. I leave without painting with her Dad. I leave with only 1 dollar in my pocket. I have not found work in Calgary, and I have barely explored Calgary, meeting not even one cowboy. I’ve met no poets or artists.
I am a profound disappointment. Nothing has happened. I have some money in a Montreal bank. My parents would send me money if I asked, but I decide to go back to Montreal with only a dollar in my pocket and no credit cards. It’s a crazy, almost impossible idea, and I need to do it. About three thousand seven hundred kilometers separate Calgary and Montreal. A lot of walking. A lot of time sleeping outside in July without a tent or a sleeping bag. A lot of time searching for food in the open and off the occasional fruit tree. A lot of time sketching rocks and clouds. A lot of time making pillars of small rocks balanced on top of each other. As I stand beneath the prairie heavens in the late afternoons, I feel I am completely alone in the world, until the trucks roar by without stopping. Okay, not alone: just me and the trucks.
Years before, Bobby Kennedy had befriended me, and now, in a strange coincidence putting the two of us together again, I had rejected him. Rejected a possible adventure for nothing really. For returning to Montreal with a sense of incompleteness just short of failure.
Somewhere in Saskatchewan I am trying to fall asleep in a field, but the stars are so numerous in the bowl of the sky that I cannot. And those Northern Lights won’t quit. The Universe talks to me. It says, you are nothing. And it’s true I don’t feel anything, because the Universe is also inside my head and throughout my body, and I can’t seem to separate where one ends and the other begins. Only the feel of a small mammal running across my legs snaps me out of this drifting.
How will I ever create? How will I ever become anything? Don’t, the Universe says. Just let the world in.