by Madeline Laughs
I’m so confused by all of this and I’m not sure where I’m supposed to be putting any of it. Am I doing the right thing by continuing to hope for a miracle, or am I just chipping away at some delicate veneer that has aged beyond repair?
I wear my paint spattered smock and whitewash the canvas everyday. It seems it can never be white enough and each morning I go downstairs to check for dryness so I can begin the portrait I have imagined in my head for so long now. I’m greeted with a new yellow stain. It’s never in the same place, but it’s always there seeping through all of my hard work from the day before. I can’t paint on a canvas that won’t allow me to even get started.
I want to scream at the nubby cloth-covered frame. Do you want to be beautiful? Or do you want to remain incomplete, forgotten about in the corner of my studio along with all of the other paintings that were never finished?
The stain appears a little darker and I hurl the bucket of gesso at it in anger. Take that! Let it cover you, let it in, let it be. Don’t keep waiting until I have exhausted all of my reserves and headed back home to come back in the still of the night and take over once again. You don’t belong here. You have no place, no business in my landscape.
Tired, hungry and covered with the stains of my day I untie the ribbons that hold my smock in place. The dried paint crackles as I pull it over my head and I can smell the linseed oil as it drags across my face. Leaving the studio at night without having painted a stroke has become an act of contrition. There is no satisfaction for this artist as another day drags by without a bit of progress shown on the wetness that laughs at my back as I walk away.
I know you are not well and I am working as hard and as fast as I can to give you something magnificent to make you smile again. It is just taking longer than I thought it would. I’m afraid you’ll be gone before I can get started and that makes me sad.
I hang the sturdy apron on a hook by the door and notice the difference there is to it’s shape. The pockets in my smock are full of despair and frustration now and I can’t squeeze another lock of hair or ball of lint into the small corner just under the flap that buttons it closed. It bulges with the burden of things forgotten and tucked away until later when I can sort through them and keep what is good and useful while discarding what I know I’ll never need again. I need more room in them until I know you’re feeling better.
What will I do when you hand me another used tissue? Where will it go? Perhaps I can start tucking them up my sleeves? Or I can busy myself here with sewing on more pockets while you decide to get well, or stay sick? I’ll have to rummage around in the closets deepest within my soul to find enough fabric that’s not being used for something else. I think there might be some left over from the 70’s. Some paisley printed corduroy that hasn’t crumbled with dry rot and is strong enough to stand being pulled tight around my heart.
You told me not to be scared as you guided me through the land mines in your head. You never wanted to frighten me or hurt me. You warned me that coming too close to the lonely spot you chose for yourself could be dangerous and I wouldn’t listen. “Turn left!” you yelled and I nervously turned to my left and stepped right on a live one. I didn’t move. I just stood there knowing the trigger was right under my toes. It was all that stood between you and I and I wanted to be with you so I took that leap of faith.
I had no idea how bad it would hurt or how loud the explosion would be. I didn’t know I could bleed this much. But I could never bleed as much as you did that day. The red gushed and splashed the tiles around your feet and still I flew through the air in your direction. I opened my arms to catch you and pressed my fingers to your lips to hush your cries.
And now all I can hear is the ghost of a phone ringing and the shadow passing under my window at night as you sit in the dark where you are trying to feel better.
The days when I sought the inspiration that would fuel my creativity have passed. My research and inquisitive interest sit on a shelf in the storeroom in a box labeled Unfinished with a date from so long ago that I can’t remember the details or the motivation it took to gather so many little things in one place. I reach for this box and blow the dust from the lid. Opening it now seems kind of pointless when the canvas I’ve picked refuses to cooperate. I pat the lid without prying it open and put it back in it’s place on the shelf.
I hear a gentle wheeze and a cough that floats across the miles between us and I wonder how you’re feeling as the sun sets on another day. I check my sleeves for things that might have slipped surreptitiously inside without my knowing when it happened. I find nothing but my own skin, now scarred and pink with scrubbing to rid the infection from beginning and the rot that will surely appear if I’m not careful. The land mine has taken a toll on both of us, but I am left whole and have carried on. I shake my sleeve down and button the cuff closed and tight around my wrist.
Do you remember those days? You said you would visit my studio. You had marvelous ideas of how the sun could sit in the sky and the colors you described were tones I had never heard before that day. You promised we would sit together and plan a background that would someday be the future and people would come from miles away just to sit and stare at what we had created together. You chided me that you could never be a muse because you were once a master painter yourself. You wanted to teach me everything you knew about plucking the strings of any stranger’s heart that crossed your path. You would make me famous. You would make me better.
The cup of tea at my chin steams and warms my face. I inhale the memories that cross my vision with the scent of fried food and fresh fish. Paper covered days spent under the shade of a large old tree, drifting down a river the color of lime jello in a boat you designed from yesterday’s news. Bittersweet chocolate kisses nestled in a box of neon colored fireworks erupting through the rooms of your life and into mine.
I open my eyes. The tears have rolled down my cheeks just like they have forever. I swipe them with the back of my hand in anger. I am tired of crying and I am tired of hearing you wheeze and languish in another room that I can’t enter.
You have denied me entrance. You blame me for traversing the mine field when you asked me not to. You think I have tried to separate you from your old life and that I have taken away your ability to be someone I never knew. You say you don’t want me to see you this way. Have you forgotten that I was there when it happened? Or am I remembering being there because you have told me the story so many times? Each time you add a thought to my memory banks a new wave of details emerge that I have never heard before. You spin a yarn glistening with droplets that are as thick as the tears I have grown to detest. What am I to believe anymore? Have you told me the truth about anything?
I feel you move. I wince from the pain that courses through every damaged piece of you. You have become tragically beautiful in my heart. I will paint you someday and you will see what I see. You will remember what it was like once, so long ago, when you were younger and stronger than you are now. You will smile and the day of the land mine will fade into another yarn, glistening with the thick drops of my tears.
I finish my tea. Washing the leaves from my cup I turn out the lights and head back to my bed. I pull the covers to my damp chin and I close my eyes and remember how you looked in a picture by the fence with the sun shining on your face. I take this face to my dreams and pose it just the way I imagine it should be, whole, happy and moving through my sleepy thoughts with bliss.
Tomorrow I will awake to another day. I will have another chance to tie the ribbons of my smock around my neck. The new pockets will be ready to receive whatever debris you discard in my life. I will tuck it all away for a rainy day when you and I are stuck inside alone together. We can sift through all of it then and we can laugh about those odd bits that neither of us remember, but both of us dearly love.
I will bring out the box and open it to show you everything I squirreled away until that day. I know you’ll be pleased. I know you’ll be amazed at my tenacity and the rapt attention I paid anytime you ever spoke. You will applaud my thirsty mind for finding the pieces that put you back together again. They are all in that box with the dusty lid waiting for you to pluck them out and fit them into the jagged holes that now seep and ooze your life away into the sheets.
The stain will disappear and we can sit and talk about which brush stroke would would be best in the corner and what colors we will use to draw in the desires of the masses. I will feel your eyes on my shoulders and hear your chest rise and fall with every new breath you take. As the paint dries and becomes full of life, so shall you. The puzzle pieces will lift you into a new place where the sun can shine on your face once again and you can rest easy when it sets in the evening. Dreams once littered with fits and nightmares will be smooth and seamless taking you one step closer to finding peace and finally being happy.
Until then I will wait here. I will visit my studio and try to start painting what I see so clearly in my mind’s eye. Someday the ringing I hear will be you and your voice will be clearer than it was the first time I ever heard it. You will laugh and tease that I am too serious and we will sit over a cup of tea and talk about our scars together. The masterpiece that was to be us will hang above the fireplace and people will come from miles away to gaze at the beauty of our faces, painted and still smiling among the memories we will make when the door to your heart opens wide enough to let me back in.