White Crane Spreads its Wings

Copyright 2015 E. John Love

Brian Gordon Wilcox took a half-step out of the T-stance and slowly pivoted over onto his right leg. He was close now, close enough to finally perfect this one form; his favourite form, the one he’d dreamt of. It was the elegant shape that he had almost mastered – the movement he’d been trying to perfect of the most elegant animal. He could sometimes see and feel the White Crane in him begin to emerge, stretching up the curve of his back, lengthening his neck and focusing his eyes, scaring off the inner, hunching primate fear, and replacing it with cool, avian perfection. The form is a frame of mind, he coached himself. It starts in your head, and once you see and feel it in your mind’s eye, only then can it become crystallized in your body.

He’d begun teaching himself Tai Chi a year ago, as a way to improve his physical (and mental) balance. It helped him clear his mind and keep his thoughts in the present moment. It didn’t always work but it helped. It seemed like the past always bubbled up again though. In its infuriatingly inevitable way, it worked its way up into the present. Peace lives in the present (when he can make it work), and pain and regret always seem to arrive uninvited from the past. If he kept his hands and body busy, it often seemed easier to keep his thoughts in the present moment.

Brian stood motionless, perched, waiting until he felt ready. He shifted his weight again ever so slightly, breathed in deeply, and felt cool night air blow up the sleeves of his silk shirt. He loved practicing forms outside in the evening air. He was wearing his most comfortable loose clothes, and the evening air was moist and pungent with all the late-summer greens turning yellow, and a million little once-growing things rotting nameless in the salty surface below him. It was the sound and smell of nature rolling over in its sleep.

He wavered. He knew he wasn’t ready. He put his other foot down quietly and stood still, straight-legged but relaxed. It wasn’t time yet. He’d lost it. Why was this stupid stance so fucking difficult? The crane was evading him.

Brian’s thoughts drifted back to the girl, the one who wouldn’t get out of his head, the one with two names. To those who’d only ever watched her at do her job, those who didn’t really know her beneath the pretty costume and the carefully-crafted makeup, her name was “Starr Collins”, an exotic fantasy. But Brian had seen “Starr” close-up many times and he’d heard her real voice shyly emerge; he’d recognized the struggling girl peeking out shyly from behind her grown-up play-acting. He’d gotten to know the real girl simply as “Janie, from Prince George”. She knew him as “Brian” or just “BGW” – both of which were labels that truly felt like him all the way down to his shoes.

He’d first met Janie in The Austin, years before its rock and roll and beer and flashing gaudiness got blown-out and gentrified into a Quality Inn. Back in the day, Brian would sit there in the darkness, whiling away the afternoon sketching the girls and drinking alternating cups of coffee and glasses of beer. His sketch pad was his screen, a duck blind, a curtain to hide behind. His pencil was his weapon, his talisman, a small innocuous sceptre of power – an extension of his right hand. He shot his subjects with the eye of a photo-journalist, capturing in the flash of a second the essence of them: a drooping eyelid or lazy arm that betrayed their exhaustion, or a wobble on a high heel that gave away intoxication, or the use of too much heavy makeup trying to hide a bruise or a scar.

His powers of observation and his unlikely-yet-accurate imagination were the only skills he had, and the only things he could call his own which had not been taken away from him. In his ironic and introverted way, Brian had always hungered for attention without knowing how to ask for it. Sketching in a dark, loud peeler bar was as close as he could get to socializing with the opposite sex. Most of the time, he really didn’t want people to see him, but he secretly wished that the right girl would see right into him and tell him she loved him. Janie had seemed like the right girl; sweet and special, friendly and kind. She was in fact the third girl who’d ever joined him at his table after coming out of the dressing room after her show and, although he’d seen her talk in friendly, casual ways with other patrons in The Austin, Brian believed that she’d shown him a different, special kind of warmth. She’d acted interested in him, although the reason for it was a complete mystery to him. Brian had always believed that most women really didn’t care for him, that they might show a passing curiosity in his handiwork with a pen, but beyond that, he could never develop their attention beyond anything more than a momentary curiosity. Each time after their artistic intrigue had passed, he’d feel himself becoming invisible again – an unappealing nobody, transforming into someone they’d likely avoid out on the street.

But after Janie’s first few visits with him, Brian had felt an affinity and a trust grow between them. Over time, her curiosity in his drawing ability and expressive representations of the other girls blossomed into a personal familiarity and then into something resembling emotional intimacy.

Janie gradually began to share her personal life stories with him and began to ask Brian about his background. Back then, it took him a long time to gradually accept that she really gave a shit about what he said. Up to that point, there hadn’t been very many women who had.

But after seeing her at The Austin a few times, she stopped coming in. After their second talk, she’d scribbled her phone number on his palm (she’d held his hand!), but it would be weeks after he’d not seen her for a while until he could work up the courage to try calling the number. There was never an answer and Brian never found out anything about her whereabouts from other people at the bar.

He had taken an 8×10 photo of her down off the wall when nobody was looking, and obsessively copied it in page after page in his sketchbook. The photo was his cherished reminder of her, and a fetish object for his desperate need.

But the real Janie was gone, and once that realization had sunk in on him for a while, he began to doubt his perceptions, and undercut the virtue and value of his own feelings. Maybe it was just his tears that had won Janie over. Maybe it was just pity or sympathy for him that had gotten under her skin. Maybe he had just been a passing fad to her – a temporary mental trend. After you lose your taste for someone, that too-bonded-to-them shit never hangs on for very much longer. He tried to convince himself that maybe Janie had just needed him for a little while, like a comfort; someone who was uncomplicated and non-threatening and always a welcome ear for her worries. Maybe he was just an emotional rest stop for her – a safe place where she could wait and catch her breath before she started running out on the next leg of her journey. Now, everything his love had been wrapped up inside of just amounted to a few brief memories that he wasn’t even sure about.

Brian took another deep breath in, then out. His heartbeat slowed slightly. He felt his hips relax and his centre of gravity drop a centimetre lower. Janie had truly cared about him, he decided. Nobody could be that good of an actor or that much of an evil liar. The simplest most direct answer that he could give himself – the only thing he had left to hang on to from her – was that she had genuinely cared once. Even though it had been brief and ended quickly, Brian could still hold onto the early, happy little moments in their friendship, and her photo and all of the feelings that he had applied of it, like so much gold-leaf and tiny jewels applied tenderly and delicately on top of those 100 year-old photos of east indian prostitutes that he’d stared at in that art gallery that time. It was all about turning a flat, lifeless memory into something iconic and timeless. These shimmering, glowing enhancements were his consolation prizes to keep, even though he’d lost everything else.

He breathed in, brought his left toe pointed to the ground a half-step ahead and breathed out slowly. His hands traced large arcs until his left arm curved up over his head and his right arm swung gracefully down past his hip. He’d automatically raised his left knee and extended his toe like an invitation to dance in the darkness. He stood motionless in spite of the growing breeze, perfectly balanced on his right foot. Finally, the White Crane had spread its wings just so. He felt elegant, beautiful and graceful, perfectly poised and lighter than air.

From behind him there was a flash of red and blue lights, the stuttered whoop of a siren and a meaningless metallic voice. It was too late for that. Brian was above it all, free from her and now, even free from himself.

With a small sigh, he let his weight tilt forward and stretched out his arms for a final cold embrace. He soared perfectly off the railing of the Second Narrows bridge, and over the hard black water of Burrard Inlet.


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