The brush looks odd in my hands. The way I hold it now makes it seem almost foreign. I stop my trembling fingers for a moment just to look at his face. He looks so hungry today. It emanates from him, oozes like maybe life has squished his heart a little too tightly, a few too many times. It isn’t a handsome face. Paul’s not someone you’ll see shirtless on the cover of GQ. I chuckle to myself at that thought. Neither am I. Paul slides off of the old bar stool before me and walks over behind me, behind the empty, thirsty canvas, behind my trembling left hand clutching at the paintbrush. I went without eating for a week in order to be able to afford my brushes. He touches my fingers to his lips. I start to cry. I can’t afford my lessons anymore. We have too much back rent, credit card debt, too many jobs on the side to go to class even if we had any money. I want to hide, or run, or just lie in my bed and mourn. I don’t want to do the brave thing, struggle my way through the rest of today, or through anything, really. Paul shrugs his lumpy shoulders inadvertently as he slides back to the bar stool.
To Paul, I’ve always been a place. In some strange and yet perfectly not strange way I am the bed he collapses on when he’s too tired to stay awake and contend with the sharp world. I am the kitchen table he eats at when he needs sustenance. And he is mine. Not my anything in particular, just mine, one that belongs to me, my own. Even when we were little it was so. We’ve lived in this same ugly, dilapidated apartment building since he was eleven and I was eight. He didn’t seem to mind then that I was a girl, and so much younger than himself—no fun for a baseball-playing preadolescent. But then, it isn’t like he had anywhere else to be or anyone else to be with, for that matter.
I can still remember the first night that he stayed here, after his mom threw him out in one of her drug binges. She kept getting worse at the end. Eventually, it was like he lived here, planting his funny little herb garden on my dusty window sill, and leaving his shoes under the fold-out futon. It was a little over a year ago, I guess, when we were sixteen and nineteen, two high school drop-outs, straight up screwed up kids with nobody but each other. He’s ugly, we’re both dumb, and I…

I touch the brush to the canvas. I paint his eyes.

I have to…say it, you know?—just have to get the muck of last week out of my system. The other day, at the park, I had the most unreal experience. I’m sitting on the bench (a red bench, freshly painted, a rare beauty of a bench, if I do say so) and out of nowhere, this gigantic bear of a black dog comes and leaps into my lap. My lap! It actually knocked me off the bench. And so I’m laying on the ground and my head is spinning, and it’s dizzy and it’s vertigo and it’s stars and colors and stuff. The first thing that I see is this gray hat, kind of smushy-like, bent over me, and a voice like honey and a face like God. He might as well have been the old geezer upstairs, to anyone in the arts. Marshall Kline. Need I say more? Everyone knows M. L. Kline. His work, it’s like—it’s just—I don’t know how he does it, but when he touches blankness it becomes fullness, swelling with beauty and meaning. He impregnates a void canvas with a life that dazzles, that reaches out of the realm of the second dimension to grab the observer—it grabs you and holds on so tight that you can’t breathe, and in a way, don’t want to. I feel glutted when I see his work, swollen; the very grandeur of it is too much to take in at one time.

Paul’s not paying attention. He’s supposed to be looking directly at me but he keeps staring over my shoulder somewhere. The petunias. Must be. It’s petunia season, but his flowers won’t grow. I pause a minute to look over my left shoulder to the window, to the row of lovingly potted plants, to the empty

one, that should be full of smiling pink floral faces. He can’t figure out why they won’t grow. I won’t tell him again that it’s silly for a grown man to be planting flowers in a place as ugly as this. “Paul!” He smiles sheepishly. He’s read my thoughts.

Kline felt so bad about his dog Lady—yes, Lady, such a name for such a beast!—that he bought me lunch. Lunch! With M. L. Kline! I told him—it came out that—well, you know—that I paint—not that I’d tried to hold myself anything so noble as an artist next to him, but he found out. He’s a nice guy, Kline is. He offered to take a look at my portfolio and give me some pointers, but I didn’t have it on me. It’s the strangest thing, when I think about what happened I always hear the rusted groan of my apartment door, opening on its old hinges…one of those random things… I brought him back to my place to see my work. It was under the bed. He looked around with a careful eye while he waited in the front room—taking in all its shabby glories, I’m sure—and asked who made the funny little wire people on the kitchen counter. He liked them. Paul made them. I brought him the leather pouch that contained my best stuff.

I take an oddly timed deep breath in the middle of an almost hiccup. Paul laughs. I think I’m coming down with a cold. I always hiccup when I have a cold. I add to the canvas the lines around his mouth. Cock my head to the side. A little more yellow, a little blue. I always colored outside the lines when I was little. My stick figures were never in the flesh tones—always red or orange or purple, never the right color.

He held my heart in his hand, my throbbing, palpitating, noisy heart stuffed into an old leather pouch. He thumbed through the first few, paused in the middle for the one of the girl in the yellow sundress. Then, he found it: my masterpiece. He didn’t blithely speed past this one. No, he looked at it deeply, examined its soul. And then he gathered the pieces up and put them away again, glanced wordlessly at my face, lingered on my eyes. He turned on his heel and walked out of the room. I was shocked. Breathless and confused I chased him down the stairs and into the street.
“What do you want me to say, kid?”
“You—you promised to critique them” I sputtered with all the imposing dignity of a five-year old. He didn’t answer right away.
“You’ve got no talent for it, honey, none at all. The paintings lack feeling; they lack spirit. There’s not a class or a teacher in the world that can teach you to give your art that. I’m sorry, Jessie, but this is my whole life, and I can’t be false to my art to make a girl happy, not even a pretty thing like you.” And then he was gone.

Splinter, shatter, whirling nau-
sea of light—
Like so many stars
In my head
After a resounding thump.

Breathe in.
Breathe out.

Paul’s getting jittery now. He hates to have to sit still for too long. I can take a break for now, for a minute or two. I wipe my palm against my damp forehead. It’s been a warm spring. Paul mutters to himself.
“Ten weeks after last frost…in damp soil…neutral ph 6.6…patience…yeah…patience I have, just no flowers…”

I want to laugh at him. I want to laugh at us both for wanting all those things that we can’t have, and then I want to cry, cry for all those things that we can’t have but try to yank, drag, coax out of life anyway. But I don’t.
“You hungry, Paul?”
“Do you want me to cook something?” He blithely offers me a blank stare, and then, then a wide, exuberant grin.
“Yes! Yes! I’ve got it!”
Paul runs over to the neat little garden that makes its residence on our window sill. “It’s the shade!” he explains. “Petunias need direct sunlight to grow. Let’s see…the sun is better over…there! By the sink.” He carries his beloved plant close to himself, looking downright foolish, like a little boy again, flashes me a grin. He knows what I’m thinking.
“It isn’t foolish,” He says softly, seriously. “Living things take so much energy—so much life—to maintain, but they give as much as you do. This may seem silly, but it—it makes me believe that sometimes you can fight to live and win. You know how it is, Jess. I get alive inside when I think that in this neighborhood—not a speck of green, all gray and silver and iron and smog—there is a little patch of something living, something surviving, even if it’s only on our windowsill and nobody but we ever see it.”
I smile.
“Like…grass that grows between cracks in the sidewalk?” I suggest, flattering his philosophy. He smiles encouragingly, the teacher at the pupil. “And the not fun stuff like paying the bills—I mean, being able to—like that too, Paul?
“Um, sure, I guess…” He smiles out of the corners of his mouth. “Speaking of paying the bills, do you still have a job or don’t you?”
“Oh, pshaw!” I walk over to the bed and pull my old, raggedy boots out from underneath; wiggle my toes in my socks as I pull them on. “I’m going, I’m going,” I mutter in mock disgust. It occurs to me that Paul is smarter than he thinks he is. He’s lucky, then, to have something special to compensate for what is ordinary about him. I’m still painting, right? That’s got to count for something in the cosmic tally. Even if these confounded cracks in my sidewalk are choking my little bit of green, my “something living,” my petunia or whatever. Outside, an ugly, unforgiving sound—the horrible mechanical screaming of an automobile pitted angrily against the asphalt, dancing madly with some other unfortunate automobile—slaps me out of my reverie.
I have to leave now if I want to beat the afternoon traffic. But I will take the time to eat a sandwich, and wipe the mud off my boots. I hum to myself a bit of a song I’ve half forgotten, collect keys and a kiss, and slip out the door. It creaks as I shut it on its old rusted hinges. Paul works later tonight. I’ll get to sit on the rooftop and paint by moonlight while I wait.



Joined December 2008

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