Through the Lens
Amy inhaled her unfiltered cigarette, enjoying both the harsh taste and the freedom of not being badgered to quit by Heather now that they were no longer together. Her ex-girlfriend was supposed to drop by this afternoon to collect her remaining belongings. Where was she? Amy peered out the window. It looked chilly outside. Ice was encrusted on the tiny balcony of her apartment. All the flats on her street had wrought-iron balconies, which she had found terribly quaint when she first rented the place. Later she learned her stylish neighbourhood had once been an Eastern European ghetto, and prostitutes had displayed themselves on these balconies. This was the sort of detail she wanted to include in her film about the subjectivity of marginalized people. She was supposed to begin shooting next week, but she hadn’t written the script. She knew what she wanted to say; she just didn’t know how to say it. But if she didn’t come up with at least a treatment in the next few days, she was in danger of flunking out of her program.
The doorbell drilled. Amy tamped out her cigarette, walked to the top of the stairs, and pulled the string to release the lock.
A woman Amy didn’t know opened the door and strode up the stairs, her long arms swinging forcefully. She announced, “I’m here to move Heather’s stuff.” The woman was tall with the showy cheekbones of a model. Amy considered how best to describe her skin: cinnamon, caramel—no, that wasn’t quite right. Cardamom, the woman was the colour of cardamom, a vivid contrast to the magenta mohawk running over her scalp. She was dressed in mufti pants and a large black leather jacket. She extended her hand to Amy. “My name’s Poison.”
“Hi, I’m Amy.” She led Poison into what had been Heather’s room. “I’ll help you carry the boxes.” Amy slipped on her bedraggled vintage Afghan coat, then, together with Poison, heaved books and pots and sports equipment down the stairs and into a rental van. Ice was spread over everything like a gel, but Poison took the stairs two at a time. She also insisted on carrying all of the heavier items. When Amy protested, Poison said it was only fair since Heather was paying her. It was slightly mysterious: Amy thought she knew everyone Heather knew—they had been together for two years.
After Amy and Poison had finished, they stood together on the curb panting in the frigid January air. Clouds the colour of oyster shells fanned the sky. The ripples of grey surrounding the late afternoon sun forecast snow, a storm even, but Amy asked Poison if she wanted to come in for a drink.
“Sure. I’m not delivering Heather’s stuff until tomorrow morning. She got called in to work at the shelter tonight.”
“Really? That’s great. She’s been wanting to do something more meaningful than her cushy little job at her dad’s company.” Amy was unable to curb her resentment; she had never managed to do anything besides waitress and was currently living on student loans and the last of her summer savings.
Back inside the apartment Poison joined Amy in the living room, and sat down on the sagging couch, which was just about the only piece of furniture left in the room. Heather had decamped with the Ikea furniture, donations from her parents. The couch, which Amy had covered with a leopard-skin print, had been found at a yard sale. Amy went into the kitchen and returned with a bottle of beer for Poison, who used the front part of her T-shirt to screw the cap off.
“Aren’t you going to have a drink?” Poison asked.
“I’d rather smoke up.”
“Go ahead, I don’t mind.”
Amy found some pot in her bedroom where she picked up a book she had been reading on montage and post-colonial theory: Bricolage Versus Suture: Fetishized Bodies in Japanese Film. She joined Poison on the couch and used the surface of the book to roll herself a joint. The pot had an almost immediate effect. According to the dealer, the pot was organic and produced a nice mellow high. Sure enough, the anxiety Amy had felt for weeks over her film drifted away like soap bubbles, and she found herself checking out Poison. Amy hadn’t had sex in awhile and had never slept with a person of colour, which she attributed to lack of opportunity. She was a suburban girl from tiny Cornwall, Ontario, where she had been pretty enough to make the cheerleading team. Up until her last year of high school, when she discovered punk, Amy shook pompoms at hockey games and dated jocks. But now she was a queer artist in a multicultural city.
Poison gulped down her beer. “You know, I’ve seen you around.”
“Oh, do you live in the Plateau as well?”
Poison’s eyes sank to the floor. “I’m kind of in-between places.”
Oh my God, she was homeless. “Is that how you know Heather? Because of the outreach to homeless queer youth project she just worked on?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“If you need a place to crash for a couple weeks, you can stay here,” Amy said. Poison was so quiet, so polite—it was appalling to think of her lounging about in cold doorways and in Tim Hortons. Amy scooped up Poison’s empty beer bottle. “You want another one?”
As Amy fetched another beer from the fridge, Poison asked about the tattoo on Amy’s neck.
Amy dipped her head forward. A skull-and-crossbones were visible beneath fronds of hair dyed the colour of cotton-candy. “Got it when I was still in high school. Thought it would make me seem tough.” Amy produced a sliver of a smile; she had given this self-deprecating explanation for her dumb tattoo more than once.
Poison didn’t answer. Instead, the rough edge of her hand brushed the stained skin on the back of Amy’s neck. Just as quickly, Poison jerked her hand away, as if she had done something for which she didn’t have permission. Then they started kissing. Poison trembled, as though she were nervous or inexperienced, but, as if to cover this up, her hands tightly gripped Amy.
A ring tone sounded.
“Shit, my cell phone.” Poison rummaged through a knapsack until she found her phone, glanced at it, and turned it off. “One of my friends—I’ve got to go soon.” Her tone was nonchalant, but she avoided Amy’s gaze.
Was Poison involved in drugs? Only rich Yuppies or drug dealers had cell phones. But Amy was afraid to ask Poison about this. Instead she brought Poison, who announced she was thirsty, another beer. Poison drank her beer without saying anything, but between sips she looked over and grinned at Amy.
“What’s it like?” Amy asked.
“What’s what like?”
“Living on the streets.”
Poison’s limbs tensed. “I’m couch surfing.”
Amy felt stupid. She guessed being homeless was painful to talk about. An idea formed in her like a tiny embryo. She stared at Poison, imagining her through a camera lens. “Would you be interested in being in a film I’m making?”
“Uh.” Poison seemed taken aback. “I’ve never acted or wanted to.”
“You don’t understand. You wouldn’t have to act. This would be about being homeless. I would interview a bunch of people.” The neurons in Amy’s brain fired away. She into the kitchen and took some lined paper and a pen from a drawer and sat down again across from Poison, scribbling on the pad. She could see the opening scene, camera panning over punks kicking an old bum in a vacant lot. As she mapped out her ideas, she saw Poison watching her timidly.
“I’ll help you if you want,” Poison said.
Amy soon discovered Poison was better at the mechanics of filming than she was. That was an advantage: Amy was able to focus on directing and didn’t have to ask any of the people in her program for assistance. She couldn’t stand the majority of her classmates, mostly guys who were Quentin Tarantino wannabes. Since she couldn’t afford to pay Poison for her help, Amy bought all of their meals and allowed Poison to sleep over as often as she wanted, which was usually just weekends. They didn’t talk about their relationship —they just had one. It was totally different from Amy’s relationship with Heather, which had involved a lot of processing, especially after their sex life had dwindled to inconsequential. They discussed lesbian bed death, and Amy proposed non-monogamy as a solution. Heather was against it but in the midst of their negotiations went and fucked a woman she met in a bar. When Amy got over the shock, she realised, to her chagrin, she couldn’t have sex with Heather again. Without entirely meaning to, they had snuffed out their relationship.
Working on the film, Amy didn’t have time to think about her ex-girlfriend. She was living her life—as she supposed Poison must—in a state of immediacy. Nights saturated in sex and cuddling; days a blur of filming: Poison setting up a shot of a ragged rope around the neck of a dog belonging to a homeless man; Amy carrying on a fumbling conversation with a man who lay on a stained blanket held down by rocks on top of a street grate, steam billowing around them.
Slush leaked into Amy’s boots, but she barely noticed. She felt lucky as she glanced over at her lover. Poison was both handsome and elegant: Grace Jones in the 80s. Amy was usually the prettier one in her relationships; beautiful women made her feel insecure and competitive, but Poison seemed oblivious to her attractiveness, as if she had not yet been spoiled by sexual attention.
Amy gathered up the microphone and pole Poison had carefully set on a bench. This was their last day of shooting. The final cut was due in less than a month. Amy called to Poison, “I’m ready. Let’s get going.”
Poison swung the camera on her neck to the right and picked up the tape-to-tape. They had footage of Atwater station; time to interview the homeless First Nations people who hung out behind the metro in the tiny square of park. Trudging by trees made stark and grey by the winter, Amy and Poison found most of the homeless lying on the ground passed out or asleep. They were so ragged and still Amy almost tripped over one man whom she mistook for a heap of dirty blankets. She approached a younger woman who held a paper bag to her mouth, puffing in and out. When the woman had finished getting high, Amy asked her if she would be interested in being in a film.
The woman picked up an empty wine bottle and brandished it at Amy, who froze. Confrontation was something she tried to avoid. Even when she had been a kid, she had never been in a fight.
Poison raised her palms in the direction of the homeless woman. “That’s cool. We’re leaving.” She slowly walked backwards for a few steps before turning and increasing her pace. With the equipment jogging painfully against her ribs, Amy scampered after Poison. Only when they were half a block away, did Amy slow down. Glass and condoms were strewn along the pavement in front of her. She said, “It’s terrible what the Canadian government has done to the First Nations, especially when you consider their nature-based spirituality could probably save our planet.”
“The native people on the street are a wreck. They can’t save themselves, let alone the rest of the world.”
There was a spike in Poison’s voice, which stingingly reminded Amy of the way Heather used to get exasperated with her. But if this had been Heather, Amy might have argued, might have pointed out that South Africa based apartheid on the reservation system the Canadian government set up for the First Nations. But Poison was black and homeless, so Amy felt like she had to shut up, like she should just swallow her hurt at Poison’s irritation.
“Hey! Can I be in your film?” A chubby, blond white girl ran up to them, a filthy sleeping bag clutched under her arm. “I always wanted to be in a movie.”
Amy would have preferred to have someone who was First Nations; she already had footage of a number of white teenage runaways, but she smiled and went into her spiel: what the film was about, the fact that it wouldn’t be shown commercially, the release form that nonetheless had to be signed.
Poison pointed to a brick wall covered in graffiti of interlocking letters with arrows in bright, hard colours. “That would be a good shot.”
The words on the wall were indecipherable, but Amy liked the feeling they evoked: urban velocity. She raised a thumb at Poison. The film was more of a joint effort than Amy would ever want to admit to her professors.
The girl, who introduced herself as Jessica, positioned herself in front of the graffiti. After switching the sound on, Poison began to film Jessica, who made silly faces at the camera. Amy asked Jessica what she had done last night. Open-ended questions, she had learned, were more effective.
Jessica started laughing. “I met this guy in the Village. A hot guy in a gay bar buys me a drink, I figure he’s a fag, but then we start making out. He drives me to his place in the East End, and we, you know, do it. But then he wants me to do it with his grandfather who lives with him. And I was like, no fucking way. So he goes, ‘C’mon he’s in a wheelchair, he can’t meet girls.’ ”
Gross! Amy felt appalled and wondered if she was being prejudiced. Not about the lack of family boundaries, which was obviously gross, but about the idea of an old geezer in a wheelchair. Would she have sex with a young woman in a wheelchair? She wasn’t sure. She cleared her throat. “So, Jessica, there’s some things you won’t do for money?”
“Oh, I wasn’t doing this guy for money; I thought he was cute. I mean, I hoped he’d have some dope, but that was all. But blow his grandfather? That’s fucked up.” Her tone was suddenly level, serious. “You mind if I smoke?”
“No, go ahead.”
“Got any cigarettes?”
Amy took three out of her pack. She felt this rush of adrenaline. There was something appealing about Jessica; perhaps it was the fact that there was not a trace of self-pity in her voice.
Jessica didn’t smoke the cigarettes; instead she stuffed them into her pocket and gazed steadfastly at the camera. “This guy, he wouldn’t drive me back downtown until I gave Gramps a hand job. I told him I couldn’t do it because my grandfather used to mess with me, and it screwed me up. And he said, okay, and gave me twenty bucks to take a cab back downtown.” She paused. “I never told no one about my grandfather before and now I’m telling you guys, too!”
She sounded almost cheerful about the fact. Her story was great, the best Amy had on film. The only problem was Amy felt sleazy. She wanted to effect social change with her film, to help end exploitation, but the interview felt like exploitation. She signalled cut to Poison.
“Thanks, Jessica.” Amy reached into her pocket, handed the rest of her pack of cigarettes to the girl.
Poison and Amy walked west, dragging their equipment past shoe stores and Middle Eastern fast-food joints selling shish taouk and falafel.
“Why’d you stop?” Poison asked.
Amy shrugged. “I felt bad.”
“She had a harsh story. But it was good.”
“That’s why I felt bad, because I was thinking that too, instead of feeling bad for her.” What Amy felt towards Jessica was guilt.
Poison stepped back and began to film Amy, something she had never done before.
Amy halted. “What are you doing?”
Poison fiddled with the lens, adjusting it. “Making you the star.”
“I guess we may as well use up the film.” Amy ducked down an alley. “Is there enough light?”
“At the end.” Amy set the tape-to-tape on a dumpster, turned it on, handed Poison the pole with the mike, and moved back. As she adjusted her wool toque, Amy wished she had a compact mirror.
Poison asked, “What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you?”
Amy didn’t hesitate. “When I was twelve and my parents got divorced.”
“Did they fight over you?” Poison momentarily looked up from the equipment to smile at Amy. “I bet they did.”
Without amusement, Amy laughed. “They were too busy fighting with each other.”
“Do you love your dad or your mom more?”
“Before the divorce I thought Dad was cool and Mom was a bitch, but then I kind of realized why she dumped his ass.”
Staring at the brown ground, which was half-frozen and felt lumpy under her feet, Amy remembered cooking for herself when she stayed with her father, the phone not working because he hadn’t paid the bills, and the time he forgot to pick her up from the hockey arena and all her friends had left. She took a deep breath, trying to decide what to say. Being interviewed was harder than she expected. “My dad’s kind of an embarrassing person. He’s this fat, bald guy who works in a call center and jams in the basement with his best friend doing classic rock covers, and he’s, like, not a great singer.” She did not add the other things that came to mind about him; he defaulted on his support payments, and he had lost money in a pyramid scheme. While she cared for him, she did not respect him.
Poison continued, “Does your mother love you?”
Amy tossed her head. “My mother thinks lesbianism is something I’ve picked up at university and I’ll get over it the minute I decide to breed.” Did her mother love her? Amy had no idea. It occurred to her for the first time that homeless people didn’t lack shelter so much as love. Talking about how your family had failed to give you enough love was really hard. She looked up at Poison. “Can we end this?”
Poison lowered the camera, closed the shutter, and put the protective case on.
Amy asked, “Can I film you?” She felt vulnerable, wanted to even things up between them somehow.
There was a slight shake of Poison’s head. “I don’t have anything to say. I’ve already told you that.”
“I think you have lots to say.” This was supposed to be encouraging but came out bitchy. How had Amy come to accept this tacit bargain in which she pretended it was cool Poison had a fucked-up life? And why couldn’t they talk about it? Because, Amy realized, talking might mean judging. They also never discussed being white, being black.
When Amy started editing, Poison wanted to know how it was done. Amy showed her, and a few days later discovered Poison had added a little sequence. She had filmed herself sprawled in a leather armchair watching television with a stupefied expression. She picked up a handgun and pointed it at the television screen, which suddenly went fuzzy.
“Do you like it?” Poison asked eagerly. “The gun’s fake of course.”
Amy opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t—she was caught between anger and admiration.
“Do you get it? I’m saying society and media images of homeless people are bullshit and need to be destroyed. And now I’m in the film like you wanted!”
“I wanted images of cops,” Amy replied. Except Poison’s idea was better.
Poison looked crushed, appeared to be on the verge of pouting, which Amy found rather repulsive. She would not have been able to justify it, but she felt she should be the only pouter in the relationship; Poison’s role was to mollify her. Amy sighed, then told Poison the truth. “What you did is great, but you’re doing too much. It’s not my film anymore.”
“You don’t mind in bed.” Poison’s shoulders bristled. “There it’s fine for me to do everything.”
Amy didn’t reply, but two spots of red appeared on her cheeks as she continued to edit. She ignored Poison, expecting the silent treatment to drive her away. Instead Poison draped her arms around Amy’s shoulders, sucked her neck.
The space between Amy’s legs was abruptly wired with sensation. It was dumb—they were in a university building working in a little windowless studio that had a door but no lock. Nonetheless they lay down together on the carpet, close to the door in the vain hope that they could kick it shut if someone tried to come in.
They proceeded to have great sex. Poison was, for the first time, very assertive about what she wanted Amy to do to her. Amy liked it, or at least she was very aroused by it, but beneath her excitement, she felt a nagging resentment like a piece of meat caught in her teeth. Afterwards, she told Poison she didn’t want any more of her help on the film.
As she rushed to get to the third-year student film screenings, Amy was almost overpowered by the stench of thawing mud and garbage. It was April, and the temperature had changed overnight from freezing to summery. When she finally got to the Fine Arts Building, the screenings had already begun, so she was unable to find Poison. For all Amy knew, Poison might not even show up. The last time they had seen each other had been almost a month ago in this very building, when they had sex. Amy had been busy editing, and Poison had suddenly become busy herself. As usual, Amy had no idea what she was up to. But it was only fair to invite her to the screening of the final cut of the film, so Amy left a message about it on Poison’s cell phone. Amy had also invited Heather. She hoped their mutual presence would act as a buffer, would reduce their combined emotional impact. But neither woman had responded to Amy’s messages.
When the films ended and the lights came on in the auditorium, the awards were announced. Amy’s film didn’t win any of them. She wasn’t surprised. What did surprise her was seeing Heather shuffle through people to reach Amy.
“I’ve been away. I only got your message this afternoon,” Heather said. She looked good with a new crew cut. “I’m not sure I understood what you were doing, but the images were nice.”
Heather was so not into the arts, but Amy tried to be gracious. “Thank you. Notice all the winning films were made by boys?”
“The one about the relationship between the prostitute and the pizza delivery guy was dumb, but I liked the one about the heroin addict using Nicoret to get over his drug habit. That scene where he’s having dinner with his girlfriend’s parents and his watch goes off and he has to shoot up—that was hilarious.”
“Middle-class poseurs,” Amy sniffed. “At least, I interviewed real homeless people. And of course, Poison, who helped me make the film, is homeless.”
Confusion crinkled across Heather’s face. “Poison? What are you talking about? She’s not homeless.”
Amy wound her arms across her chest, binding herself. “Don’t you know her from the outreach program to queer homeless youth?”
“I know her because I was her camp counsellor, and our fathers golf together. My father used to do some work for the investment house where her father’s an underwriter. I know she looks all punk, but she’s in her last year at —.” Heather named a fancy private high school. Her mouth dropped open. “Don’t tell me she’s the little fuck buddy you mentioned!”
Amy didn’t bother denying it—she was too preoccupied with what Heather had said about Poison. Amy knew Poison was younger than her but had figured she was at least twenty. “Is everything she told me a lie?”
“Why don’t you ask her?” Heather gestured at Poison, who was walking towards them. She was dressed entirely in black, a trench coat draping her long form.
Amy said, “You fake.”
Poison stopped short and gave her the wary, impenetrable look of a kid caught by an adult.
“Camp, golf lessons, and private school versus panhandling and showering with a fire hydrant. It’s so hard to tell the difference.”
“Don’t be dramatic.” Spoken in a calm tone before going in for the kill. “You know, Amy, if I wasn’t black, you might not have found it so easy to believe I was homeless.”
“Do you think I’m racist?” Amy was so stunned by the trickery of this girl she didn’t even care about all the film students turning her way, their cigarettes suspended mid-haul.
“I don’t know, maybe. But then every girl I’ve ever had a crush on is white.” Poison folded her arms across her chest, mirroring Amy.
Amy was mortified. Was she racist? She didn’t want to think about it, least of all in front of the prying eyes of her classmates, the men with ponytails and goatees and the women with dyed black bobs. She turned away from Poison and Heather and walked in the direction of the free plastic cups of red and white wine.
Poison snagged Amy’s arm. “Please, listen.” She paused to meet Amy’s eyes with a sad, sweet look. “Before I even met you, I had this crush on you. I saw you in the bars and I just thought you were so hot. Someone told me your name, and one day I ran into Heather on the metro, and she said she was moving out of your place. I couldn’t believe it, my old camp counsellor and my crush. I asked Heather if I could move her stuff just so I could meet you. And I didn’t mean to lie—I just didn’t want you to know I lived at home. My parents pretend race doesn’t matter while you’re proud of being oppressed. How else could I have impressed you?”
“Not by lying to me!” Even though she was no longer mad, Amy jerked her arm away.
Poison zipped up her trench coat. “Since you know the truth now, I guess I should tell you something else. I applied to various film schools, and I’ve been accepted at New York University.”
“Congratulations,” Amy murmured. “It’s one of the top programs.”
“I know. Thanks.” Poison looked from Heather to Amy to the ground. “Well, I should be going.” Before Amy had a chance to tell her no, it’s okay, stick around, Poison strode away from them in her big steel-toed boots.
Amy felt tears bead in her eyes but remained where she was. Heather gave her a look that was not unaffectionate: “Oh, Amy, let me get you some dinner.”