Updated: Apr 15
It was probably 11:30 by the time I woke Coco up and told her the news.
"There was a terrorist attack in New York City this morning. Two jets flew into the World Trade Center, and both towers are gone. A third jet hit the Pentagon. A fourth jet crashed into a farmer's field in Pennsylvania; they think it was headed toward the White House. There's a fifth jet, but it's gone missing; nobody knows where it is; it's gone off the radar."
“Oh my God…” were the first words she’d spoken to me in almost two weeks.
“Yeah. My dad called me. He says it’s gonna be tough to be a Muslim in America, for the next twenty years. My sister called him; they evacuated the financial district in Dryden.”
Coco had just got back from Europe on Monday, so her sleep-cycle was still flipped upside-down. It usually took her three days to get over jet lag, after flying home from Germany.
When I met Coco, she was already ten years older than me. Her birthday is January 9, so for about five weeks of every year, she’s a decade older than me. We met at the end of the month she turned 38, so I was just about to turn 29 years old. Happy Valentine’s Day! We were married within sixteen months of our first date: coffee and pie at the Mars Diner, Yonge and Eglinton.
We could have been on our honeymoon in New York City when the World Trade Center collapsed, but Coco wanted to drive to California in October, visit San Francisco. That ended up getting cancelled too; we still haven’t made it to the west coast, even after fifteen years being the happily married couple with no kids, just cats and dogs. Eight cats, and four dogs.
Coco came into my shop looking for a print by Norval Morrisseau. I had never seen her in the gallery before, and believe me, I would have remembered her: a real good-looking woman, with a great smile. She also had a tattoo on her lower belly, underneath workaday granny panties.
We had just been talking, getting comfortable, when she flashed her tattoo at me.
“Is that a thumbprint?” I couldn’t help flirting with her.
Coco laughed: “No, that’s a snake, devouring its own tail. It symbolizes rebirth.”
“Ah: Ouroboros. The Great Serpent. From Celtic mythology.”
“That’s right. I’m looking for a print of ‘Man Changing Into Thunderbird’ by Norval Morrisseau. I’ve become obsessed with the idea of reinvention: anything to do with starting over, or reincarnation, like the phoenix. But my grandfather was Métis, so I want Copper Thunderbird.”
“You know, Norval Morrisseau painted snakes. In fact, I own the original of that tattoo on your hip. It’s quite a famous painting. Would you like to see it sometime?”
“You have it here?” she turned to face me, looking directly into my eyes.
“No, it’s in storage right now. But I could have it here in two weeks. We could make an appointment for a private viewing. Unless you’d like to meet for coffee.”
“Sure: we could have dinner,” she handed me a business card, “Call me, and we’ll set something up.” She didn’t ask for my phone number, though: but then, I had the gallery on West-West Queen Street West, back then (this was four years before I relocated to Bloor and Spadina); Coco could always track me down and ask for a date, if I didn’t take the obvious hint.
Her business card read simply COCO STINSON, no occupation listed, just a seven-digit phone number (647 launched in Toronto March of 2001). Before she even got out of the gallery, I was calling her ‘Skinny’ Stinson in my mind, as in, Hey Skinny: you ever seen a $2 bill? (That would still be my line, if I tried to pick up Coco at a party, whipping out money that folds from my wallet, and waving it in front of her like a magician at a birthday.) Or, Hey Skinny, you sure are pretty: wanna split a plate of nachos? (What can I say? She brings out the best in me.)
A minute later, I was on the phone with Margaret Mend-a-Wagon, asking her if Norval Morrisseau ever painted snakes. Specifically, a snake devouring its own tail.
“I don’t think so, but it’s not impossible. Why? What are you thinking?”
“I need a painting of a snake devouring its own tail. I’ll send you a sketch, with colour guide. I’ve met a lady, and she’s interested in Norval Morrisseau. I want to knock her socks off. Can you have the painting ready for me by the end of the week?”
Margaret painted her own canvasses, but enjoyed the challenge of a clever forgery.
“Sure, Emmett,” Margaret laughed, “Go ahead and call this woman.”
By the time we got back to her apartment, I knew I’d found someone special. Or rather, she’d found me, to be honest. The last girl I’d gone out on a date with before Coco, it wasn’t that great; I felt like more of a chaperone than a companion: Coco was a woman, not a girl. She lived by herself, had a career, knew who she was. She had eight cats in her bedroom, but I didn’t feel like I was walking into a trap. Eight cats, which is like having a bathmat that creeps around early each morning and late at night looking for food, but I wasn’t scared off. She may have had eight cats, but that’s better than two children, after having already been divorced twice.
(I didn’t find out about the second divorce until we were already living together. On her dresser, there was a stack of passports going back twenty years. I found out Coco had been born in Chelsea, Quebec; after Coco Stinson, for a time she went by the name Coco Jones; then Coco Thorstinson-Woll; then back to Coco Stinson. Each photo, she had a completely different haircut on display, like she was a secret agent playing dress-up. Even her signatures looked different; as Coco T-Woll replaced Coco Jones replaced Coco Stinson, you’d swear Coco was three different women, working undercover for the RCMP in Quebec: hence, the stack of passports.)
When I asked Coco about her multiple identities, she admitted the second divorce, but it wasn’t something she’d wanted to talk about, worried I’d think she was damaged goods for being married twice already. It was pretty obvious by then I was going to be her third husband, so Coco didn’t want me to have cold feet about being the next guy in line.
I mean: c’mon. After she met my family, they were more excited about her, than me.
Everybody loved Coco. My mom loved Coco; my dad loved Coco; my sister loved Coco; even my mentor in business, Murray Wheeler loved Coco. (My mom was pleased I quit drinking for Coco; my dad said Coco had a ‘dirty laugh’; my sister thought it was good Coco had her own money; and Murray couldn’t believe that someone actually wanted to marry me.) Before meeting Coco, was I a complete fuck-up, in the eyes of my friends? Every casual girlfriend I took to meet Murray, the old man called them Martha. Martha, Martha, Martha: never giving them a break.
But Murray discussed his prostate with Coco, that’s how comfortable he was with her.
We’d been together for about a month, when I asked Coco if she’d ever been in my shop before, before coming in and picking me up. She told me she’d been a regular customer, for two years at least. I said, no way: I’d remember somebody like you; I’d have been all over you, if you had been coming into the store, collecting artwork for a couple of years. So Coco hopped off the bed, and pulled out a pile of canvasses from underneath the mattress. She had five original works by Norval Morrisseau, wrapped in beach towels! Not prints; not forgeries; some of the best work I’d ever displayed; material I hadn’t seen in years. Not to be crude, but we’d just been fucking on top of $125,000 in art. The price stickers were still attached to the frames!
“You sold me ‘Family of Owls’ and ‘Spirit Lodge’ in 1998; ‘Man Confronting Shadow’ and ‘Turtle Island Shaman’ about a year ago; and ‘Mother of the World Messiah’ just before Christmas; we talked for about 45 minutes that day.”
“No way! That was you? I remember selling ‘Mother of the World Messiah’: the morning after that painting went out the door, a guy in a suit, dude wearing leather shoes, walked in to the gallery and offered me $10000 above my asking price for the canvas. I told dude, too late! But he ended up buying a piece by Margaret Mend-a-Wagon, two weeks later…same price.”
“The rest of my collection is in storage, but these are my favourites. I keep them under my bed so they’ll always be close, in case of a fire.”
Coco had an extraordinary eye for investment art. Margaret Mend-a-Wagon had painted ‘Turtle Island Shaman’ at least three times for me, but Coco owned the original, from a collector in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, sold on consignment as part of an estate. The more I learned about Coco, the more impressed I became with her judgment. Her Hubby #1 was a trust fund baby, and Hubby #2 an aristocrat (Coco had to give up a royal title, to marry me!) but Coco knew she could do better, marrying for love, not status: compatibility, not money, or social position.
Coco was New Year’s Baby 1962 in Chelsea, Quebec: that’s life in a small town for you.
(More than once, Coco has told me she was a bit of a party girl, as a student in Montreal, but I can’t imagine she ever let other women do coke off her tits, or smuggled bees from Mexico, so I think I have a different concept of what it means to be young, beautiful, and decadent.)
We’d been together for about six weeks when I turned to her and admitted, the painting of her tattoo was a forgery. (I’m actually stunned I was able to keep my mouth shut for so long.)
“No shit, Sherlock!” she laughed, “Norval Morrisseau painted snakes, but not a snake devouring its own tail. My tattoo is Celtic, not Native Canadian.”
“But if you knew it was a fake, why did you still take me to bed?”
“Well, arranging the painting of that canvas showed some real initiative, and I always try to reward men who take the initiative with me. But that’s not what got you in my pants. I decided to sleep with you because you were willing to wait for the right moment.”
We waited until after my birthday to jump in the sack. I was 29 years old, and just getting started. I’d survived the Y2K bug, but ahead of us we had 9/11, the 2003 Toronto blackout, death of grandmothers, the tsunami, loss of pets, the fading away of lifelong friends, and getting fat: all the small tragedies of middle-aged life, worked through together as a couple.
After a particularly acrobatic night, I turned to Coco and told her: “I wish I had met you when I was in high school!” (It was just something I blurted out, not thinking.)
Coco did the math: “I was already married, when you were in high school.”
“Well, then I wish I had met you when you were 21!”
“No, you don’t. I would have ruined you, when I was 21 years old.”
When I was a kid, twelve years old, I used to trade my Star Wars action figures with a kid named Kurt Dampier. Kurt was the same age as me, in fact, born the same day. It took me awhile to figure it out, but I kept getting the short end of the stick when I made deals with Kurt. I’d trade Chewbacca, a Stormtrooper, and two blaster rifles for Obi-Wan Kenobi (no cloak, no lightsaber!) then end up trading Obi-Wan Kenobi for R2-D2 and (headless!) Han Solo, before trading C-3PO and R2-D2 and Han Solo (head glued back on) for Chewbacca (no blaster rifle included).
You do enough deals like that, you come to realize, do not want what you cannot have, as the price you have to pay for it is just not worth it.
Coco and I married May 19, 2001. She was the best deal I was going to get.
She’s the full package: there are women with less history, but (hand to God!) Coco is the smartest woman I have ever met. After some of the dummies I’ve talked to, Mrs. Coco Stinson Jones Thorstinson-Woll Grogan is not just a mouthful, she’s Albert Einstein in cool gitch (well, these days, more like Albert Einstein in flannel pyjamas) and there’s nothing as exciting as an attractive woman with brains: it keeps things interesting.
Coco put herself through college working as a waitress in a café when she was in her late twenties. For a couple of months, one of her favourite customers was Leonard Cohen. I asked her one afternoon, what was he like? (I’ve never met a celebrity.) She thought about it carefully, then told me, Well, he was a bit of a flirt. Which is just a great comment about Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen used to flirt with my wife back when she was a student working her way through college as a waitress in a café: and if that isn’t a love song right there, I don’t know what is. I could write a thousand words about Coco, and not paint a clearer picture of her beauty.
But I have to explain what happened, the morning of 9/11 (11/9/2001, to be accurate).
About two weeks before 9/11, Coco was sitting on the couch in her underwear, eating a bag of chocolate almonds, when she asked me if she was getting fat. She’d gained a bit of weight (we were living off the fat of the land that summer) but nothing dramatic. She’d gained maybe 25 pounds since the wedding, but being married was still so new, I enjoyed calling her my wife, rather than my girlfriend, when introducing her to new acquaintances.
So: I made a stupid joke: called her “Jabba the Wife” while patting Coco’s Buddha belly, rubbing her stomach for good luck: Coco had a naval piercing, back in those days.
She had never seen Return of the Jedi, but she still got the reference.
Coco took off for Europe so quickly, when she landed in Berlin, even with the flight, and the five-hour time difference, it was still the same day in Germany as Toronto. She was so pissed off, she left North America for ten days, and refused to speak with me on the telephone.
It was the worst thing I have ever done: saying “Jabba the Wife” to Coco.
Even more than The Phantom Menace, it kinda ruined the Star Wars movies for me.
Sometimes I wonder, if 9/11 had never happened, how long would it have taken before Coco started speaking to me again? Without 9/11, would she have kicked my ass to the curb the next day? She’d already been divorced twice, for less cause, so you have to consider I was on the chopping block that morning in September. But then the world broke, and I caught a lucky break.
The day after 9/11, everybody stopped talking about the fifth airplane, the one that went missing between Texas and Ohio: but it’s still out there, despite what everybody else remembers.