When I was about three or four years old, I told my parents I didn’t live with them. I lived in The Pink House. At first, they chalked it up to a childish fantasy — an imaginary friend sort of problem they quietly hoped would go away before they might have to go public with it. I imagine my mother distracting me in her sing-song English accent. “Katy, do come and read this book with me.” My father would have tried an ice cream. But I was adamant. “I don’t live here. I live in The Pink House.” In fact, at the time, we lived in a large white stuccoed house in Oshawa on busy Simcoe Street North. The first week my parents moved in, my father built a tall fence because I developed the disconcerting tendency to dash out towards traffic. Also, I could climb. Here we are in front of the fence, around the time of my pink house obsession. It made no sense. My parents wracked their brains trying to figure out the source of my odd fixation. There were no pink houses in Oshawa in 1970-71, as far as they knew. I wasn’t surrounded by hyper-gendered toys. Sure, I had the ubiquitous Barbies, but I never played with them, unless cutting off their hair and hiding them in the back of a closet counts as “playing.” Mostly, I liked toy cars, Lego and a cool six-shooter cap-gun my father acquired in Calgary when you could still buy kids war toys with a clear conscience. But there was one doll, just one — a beloved companion I dragged around by its hair and named Pink Baby.
The Pink House, my reasonable parents surmised, was the combination of a type A personality, a favourite toy, and, what my mother called a “vivid imagination.” It wouldn’t last. They were wrong. It got so bad that my parents decided to let me leave and “go home.” On the big day, I talked incessantly about finally going to The Pink House. But I couldn’t play with the bath toys. They belonged to the little girl who lived with them, not to the girl from the Pink House. My mother thought that would work. But I was undeterred. They let me go so far as to put on my coat and shoes, and start walking up the driveway to The Pink House. At this point, the way my mother tells the story, worry had my father skirting the edge of a total nervous collapse. I suspect it was my mother in that state. Regardless, they let me leave and held their collective breath. I walked down the driveway, looked one way, then the other, and paused —what seemed a very long time. Then I turned back and came home. I never mentioned the Pink House, my real house, again.
It’s in Montmartre. Tour guides will tell you anything to keep you interested and won’t necessarily let the truth get in the way of a good story. With that caveat in mind, this is what we were told and what I want to believe about The Pink House in Montmartre. Towards the top of the wending Rue de l’Abreuvoir it sits, where it sat in 1916 for Maurice Utrillo’s famous lithograph, and where it sat in 1886-1888 when Van Gogh lived in the neighbourhood. According to the tour guide, it was a brothel in Van Gogh’s time, and he was a frequent customer. Perhaps this is where he took some of the little pleasure he ever experienced in his tortured life. Certainly he would have passed by it often. Today it is a restaurant and where Kim and I chose to spend our last evening together in Paris. It has taken me almost 48 years to get to Paris. Of all the places in that city I have read about and imagined in literature and history, Montmartre is at the beating heart of it for me — the one that artists called home. We saved the best for last. After walking through Montmartre, we spent a few hours at a little table on the cobbled street outside La Maison Rose. We stayed until the sun went down. I know that Cafe Terrace at Night was set in Arles. But when the lamps came on, just for a minute, I imagined that the first piece of art I ever knew — the print that hung in my parents’ living room for 20 years — could have been born here. We walked the route Van Gogh would have traced back home, perhaps after a prostitute he loved kicked him out for another paying customer. It was a short downhill trek, to the big blue door of number 54 Rue Lepic, made gloomy in the night. I curled my hand briefly around the spiralled brass handle and squeezed, as he would have done. Perhaps he would have leaned his weight against the heavy door to get in. Alone.