They’d met at recess, each wandering alone on the edges of the playground until they bumped into one another. His pockets were filled with acorns and stones; his hands held fallen twigs. He had no interest in joining the other boys with their ball games and imaginary light saber battles. Her pockets were filled with pine cones and pebbles; her hands clutched autumn leaves. She had never gotten on well with the other girls.
They became friends.
He loved to draw. It was one of the first things Laura learned about him. When they weren’t hunting for treasure together—late dandelions gone to fluffy seed, a ring of mushrooms, the sight of a furry caterpillar crawling up a tree—then Eric was drawing. He scratched patterns in the earth with a stick. Scraped stones against pavement to leave smears of brown pigment. Doodled in class and complained that no crayon or marker ever got the color just right.
One recess after morning rain he traced patterns in the wet grass. “How do you spell your name?” he asked her. He wrote it in the grass with a stick, and for a moment she thought she actually saw it, a darker green in the patch of wet lawn.
He brought her a leaf on which he said he’d traced her name in dew. It must have dried; she saw nothing. He said that he would keep trying.
When she was twelve her parents told her that they were moving. She cried. Phoenix, Arizona. She saw it in her head: a desert, harsh and bare. No grass, no greenery; no lakes, no weather, no rain. No friends. No one she knew.
Eric promised to write.
And for a while, before they both forgot, he did. He sent her funny, rambling, whimsical letters, filled with his drawings. A cat with jeweled eyes, leaping from a giant striped hat. A rabbit with antelope horns. A kaleidoscope of butterflies landing on a tree of glass.
“Draw me a castle,” she wrote, and he would do it. “Draw me a manatee,” and he could do that, too. The colors glowed. Rich blues and greens, like the iridescence of dragonflies; reds and purples like desert sunsets. He had started making his own inks, he told her. He was trying to truly capture on paper the colors he saw.
“I miss the fall,” she wrote. “Send me something from home.”
He sent her a manila envelope. From it she pulled red maple leaves, rimed in frost. They’d been sent through ordinary mail. The frost was real. Her name was written on each leaf, sparkling in ice crystals.
They lost touch, as young people do. It was the ‘80s; there was no email, no texting, no Facebook.
But they found each other again, in a city on a coast far from where they’d both grown up. Laura was in college, studying computer science. Eric was at an art school twenty minutes away.
A string of connections, a phone number passed through a family friend, and they were meeting at a sunlit café. After a few minutes, the awkwardness passed. She looked into his eyes and saw that it was still him, so many years later. The boy who made her laugh, who always understood, who had always meant home.
“Can you still do it?” she asked. “Write and draw everything, in anything?”
He shook his head, smiling. “Not everything.” He gazed at her in undisguised wonder, this handsome, tousle-haired young man who was still the boy she knew. “I can’t really draw you.” She blushed.
But he drew and painted what he could, in abstract patterns new to her. He painted in salt-water, in the deep, shifting blues of the cold sea of their new city. He mixed a gray that was the soft fog over the bay. He took the dark green of pines and the lighter green of sunlit ferns, and somehow he even mixed in the smell of an old forest through which he and she had walked, hand in hand. He painted moonlight in softly glowing whorls and bands. He painted sunlight.
Sunlight from the day that they first met again after so many years: the light shining in their water glasses and falling across the café table. Sunlight on their shoulders as they stepped out, laughing, into the warm afternoon. Sunlight on the trees and glittering on the sea. Sunlight on the campus quad. The sunlight that seemed everywhere, that surrounded them in their new days together. He caught it and dipped his brush into it and swept it across canvas: a clear, colorless light that couldn’t be seen even as it left his brush, but infused everything it touched.
She would never quite understand how he did it. And slowly she had begun to realize that not everyone could see the light in his colors. Many praised his technical skill; many commented on the vividness of the inks he used, his facility with shading and tone. But only some gasped and stood entranced; some smelled the pine forest in his greens, while others shivered at the cold blues of his stormy seas or stood dazzled in the wash of pure light from sunlit scenes.
She always saw. She always felt.
And one night he made a color for her eyes alone—hers and his. A color meant just for the two of them, truly visible only to them.
It was senior year, and she was supposed to be studying for her final exams. He was supposed to be working on his senior thesis project. But he showed up at her apartment door, rumpled-looking in a stained T-shirt and jeans, urgency in his voice and eyes.
“Laura,” he said. “I need you to help me with this one.”
And she did. She would never have his singular gift, but she could help him with this particular color. Because it was hers, too.
It was a color made up of the memories of their childhood together—muddy knees and acorns and sticks. Shared cookies and gummy bears and a worried face and comforting presence when the other was scared or hurt. Quiet afternoons spent sketching together. It was a color made up of longing and distance. Of autumn leaves and frost and desert. It was a color that held their present lives, all the pressures of college and coming together and growing up, all the light of possibility and love.
When they were done, the color looked to her like umber flame, deep and warm and steady. The words he had traced in dew had dried; words he had written to her in frost crystals had melted at her touch. But words or images in this ink would never melt or fade.
“Only you and I can see this,” Eric said. “As long as we stay in love with each other, we’ll be able to see this.”
And they dipped the nibs of their pens into the ink they’d made and wrote their names, side by side, in umber flame.
At their wedding two years later, they read their vows from cards of paper which would have appeared blank to anyone else who looked, but which to them glowed with words of fire.
“Love you,” she sometimes wrote on notes to him, in their private ink. “Love you,” he wrote back, with whimsical doodles that shone just for her—a burning rose, a cartoon cat with huge, starry eyes clutching dramatically at its heart. “I love you,” she wrote on a card for their anniversary. Teasingly, she added–“You can still read these words, right?”
“Always,” he wrote back.
He continued to draw and paint after graduation, but even with his gifts, making a living in the arts would never be easy. He taught art classes at a community center; he picked up freelance illustration and design work. She was climbing the ranks in software development at a major company.
Now they no longer left love notes for each other around the house or slipped into lunch bags. They left to-do lists for each other on a whiteboard in the kitchen; they wrote grocery lists in ordinary pencil. They had a child. They were both exhausted, staying up with the baby and then fighting traffic to get to their office jobs. Eric was working crazy hours at a design agency. Laura was directing a major project; she was pumping breast milk between meetings, managing her team, rushing from work to pick up the baby from daycare. They were both running on fumes, accidentally putting the cereal box in the refrigerator and the milk in the pantry.
Eric quit his corporate job, said that he would go freelance again while caring for the baby at home. It made sense. Laura had always made more money, and daycare costs were astronomical. Now there were home cooked meals ready when she came back from work, her daughter waiting to be gathered in her arms. She was lucky. She held her daughter, pressed her cheek to the baby’s soft cheek. She stood swaying in the kitchen with the baby while Eric stirred tomato sauce on the stove and she thought, I am lucky. I am lucky.
She was. They were.
He’d meant to devote more time to his art again, to the work he truly loved. To mix and capture the colors of life. Laura saw him try. But then the baby stopped napping, and he still had commercial work for clients, and it seemed that all their time was eaten up just trying to get through the day, surviving and containing the chaos as best they could.
The baby was two now. Laura had fallen asleep with her again. She always read Maddie a story and snuggled with her under the covers until the child drifted off. Laura had meant to close her own eyes for a moment—only a moment—but blinking blearily at the clock she saw that it was past midnight. She groaned. She still had an hour of work to catch up on at the computer. The house was dark; Eric had gone to bed without her. They barely talked one-on-one these days. When was the last time either had written the other a love letter?
He started drawing again, handmade inks and paints on paper, strange and beautiful things of light and dark. They’d had a second child. Their children were older now: five and three. There was a little more room to breathe.
There were darker colors in his work now, shades that she’d never seen before. Flickering shadows cast over light. Bands of darkness pulsing and curling. A new complexity which caught and held her fast.
She came home to a messy house, the refrigerator nearly bare, the kids eating cookies out of a box in the living room. Eric must have lost track of time again; it would be take-out for dinner.
She felt a flash of anger, but forced it down. He was working at what he loved, and that was important, wasn’t it? He was trying to take hold of his own career, make up for what he felt was lost time. He was doing the best work of his life now; they both knew it. Her girls ran to her and she hugged them. “Daddy’s in his studio?” she said. They nodded and showed her the pictures they’d made with him earlier that day: flowers and mythical creatures, squiggles and streaks painted in sunlight and moonlight and love.
Finally, they were arguing openly. In their heedless release they said terrible things to one another, things that should have been held back in secret, locked away in the deepest parts of themselves.
He blamed her for his lack of career success. His disappointment that his art had never quite taken off. He said that maybe they had settled down too young. He said that he felt trapped. Unsupported. That he wanted space. He said all the terrible, clichéd things a man his age could say, and she felt like screaming and so she did.
Because she hadn’t signed up for this life, either. She had not made vows to a man who would shut her out, who seemed to disappear from his own life. She had done everything to be supportive of his work; she believed in it. She picked up the slack in the housework; fed and cleaned the kids, put them to bed, did the dishes while he was still in his studio . . . She was doing everything, and how could it not be enough? How could she not be enough? She was the biggest supporter he had. And didn’t she have her own dreams, as well? When challenged, she couldn’t even say what those dreams were. Just that she knew that she’d once had them, and that they were something other than what she had now: relentless deadlines and work politics and helping the kids with schoolwork and feeling that everything was on her, that she was doing it all alone—that her partner in life was effectively gone.
That her partner had let her down.
They both cried.
He was gone that weekend—a get-together with old art school friends. She slipped into his studio. She stood in that small, sunlit place, and she looked at the pieces mounted on the wall, at the workbench with its scattered paints and inks. At the blank canvas on the easel and the work-in-progress lying flat on the table. And she realized that he had not drawn or painted anything new in weeks. Perhaps longer.
She walked slowly about the room. On the walls glowed suns and swirls and arcs of light—brilliant colors that could never be captured by digital pixels, never truly rendered on a screen. She saw the colors Eric had created for their daughters on their first birthdays—a rich yellow for Maddie, their eldest; an infinite blue of summer skies for Charlotte, their youngest. She saw joy and love.
She saw the dark colors that had taken over his most recent works. A pure black that seemed drawn from a hole in the world. An ugly green-gray that twisted her stomach, that crawled on the edges of pictures like mold. A more subtle darkness which could hardly be seen, but which permeated whole pictures like fog, dulling even the brightest colors beneath.
She looked at his unfinished works. She looked at the unused dark colors captured in glass jars and dried out on trays—shades that she didn’t even know Eric had made. She knew the ugly feelings pulsing in those inks, though she could not draw them out and express them as he did.
What had happened to the color that she and he had created together, the color meant for the two of them alone? That ink of umber flame that only they could see?
She was tired. Was it worth it to hold on?
She had turned to go, when her shadow fell across what she had thought a blank stretch of white paper. She bent closer. Closer still. Yes, just barely she could see it. She had to cup her hands around the image to see it clearly, but it was there. A leaf traced in umber fire, life-size. He’d drawn it, a maple leaf from the cluster he’d once sent her. It was so faint that she’d almost missed it; even now, knowing that it was there, she could barely see it. But as she stared, the maple leaf seemed to leap and turn and then burn a little brighter.
He came back to her that night. He held out a note to her. She recognized it as one she’d slipped into his overnight bag a year ago, when he’d been invited to teach at an out-of-town workshop. She’d written “I love you” on it—even then knowing the trouble they were in, trying to reach out to him. She saw her words burning on the scrap of paper, burning in umber flame.
At their 30th anniversary years later there was a cake, a party, friends and relatives crowded into the back room of a fancy restaurant. Maddie was recording it all with her new iPhone; Charlotte beamed with pride as the cake she’d baked and decorated was brought out. Laura and Eric kissed before the crowd. He handed her an anniversary card: words of love and a poem written in ordinary, visible blue ink. Below that he’d written something else: a suggestion of what they could do later that night, written in invisible flame for her eyes alone. She blushed.
Years later. A lifetime shared.
Laura sat alone in her late husband’s sunlit studio. Brilliant colors surrounded her, like a garden in bloom. But there were also swathes of darkness on the walls. A complicated pattern of dark and light.
She sat at Eric’s old work table. Before her, a jar glowed with umber fire.
She had been twenty-one when she and Eric had first filled that jar. They had remade that color years later, after almost giving up on each other. And through the years they had remade and refilled it again and again.
The color in the jar was darker than when they’d first started; it was deeper but brighter, too. Singular light had given way to countless flickering shades of earthen-brown and gold-red fire, rich and mutable but with an unalterable steadiness at its heart, like the steadiness at the center of a flame.
She ran her fingers around the jar’s glass surface, feeling its warmth.
We had a good life, she thought. Not a life of fame or fabulous wealth. Not a life with every youthful dream fulfilled. But a good one. A great one.
Her phone buzzed: a text message from her daughters. They were on their way to pick her up for lunch. They were kind and gentle with her, solicitous of their elderly mother’s grief even as they grieved themselves.
It was two months ago that he’d passed away. He’d been painting that morning in his studio. He’d come out to the kitchen where she was drinking tea, and she knew at once that something was wrong. His gait—the confusion on his face, half fear and half-annoyance. He opened his mouth, but no words came.
She remembered running to him. Sitting with him on the couch while they waited for the ambulance to come. His head leaning against hers. And then, somehow, she was at the hospital and Maddie and Charlotte were with her. Maddie was talking to the doctors. Hemorrhagic stroke, they said. They’d wheeled him into surgery; they were trying to control the bleeding. He never came home.
Now Laura lifted her head and looked around her, at the studio where he’d spent so much of his life. At times, she had felt shut out by his devotion to his art. And yet she’d loved his work, too.
Her hand had been on his as they mixed their color for the first time, in the silence of the art school’s empty studio. As long as we stay in love with each other, he’d said, we’ll be able to see this.
And it was true. He was gone, but she could still see it. She could still see their color in the pictures he’d made.
All around her, the walls glowed with hidden messages for her. Whorls and curves and secret words of fire. Leaves and petals and wings. Her name, written again and again.
He was gone, but she remained in love with him. And somehow, somewhere, he was still in love with her.