As I help the young woman from the parking lot to the diner, I notice a familiar roundness to her cheeks, which are red from the cold.
“Forget the bicycle,” I tell her. “You’ve had an accident. Just leave it there. It’ll be fine.”
With her arm over my shoulder, we hobble inside to the booth by the window where I’ve been sipping soup and reading an old clipping from the arts section.
“I think we’re okay,” I tell the waitress, who has followed us to our seats with a look of concern. “Maybe another bowl of minestrone?”
Once the waitress leaves with our order, the young woman introduces herself. “My name’s Soledad.”
Soledad combs a strand of hair back with her finger. Her eyes dart around nervously, eventually latching onto the clipping laying there on the table. She points to my name in the title. “Is that… is that about you? Are you, like, an artist?” she asks.
“Not lately,” I mumble. I cover the clipping with my palm and try to return to the subject at hand. “Hey, you know, you’re lucky that car was backing up slowly. Are you sure you’re not hurt? I’m pretty sure there’s a nurse on campus,” I tell her, thinking she might be a student and that she could use the lift.
“Oh, so you’re a professor,” she concludes, strangely unconcerned with her accident.
“No, I own an art supply store near the university. You might know it—Derry Pens and Paint?”
“Do you go to Kimball?” I press. “You seem really familiar. Can I ask your last name?”
Avoiding my questions, she glances at her watch and then pulls her sleeve over it. “I was only going to wait outside,” she says. “I watched you for, gosh, it must have been an hour. But I’m really glad I got this chance to meet you.”
“Me? Why me?”
“It’s just a relief that you’d turn out to be so nice. You seem nice. I thought you might be. I wanted to know what you’d really be like,” she says. Her watch beeps, and she looks at it again. She smiles, but her chin crinkles like she’s about to cry. “Del Bosque,” she says; her name. “Soledad del Bosque.”
Her hands reach across the table for mine. But before our fingers touch, she blows apart. Her form and colors smear iridescently into the background as if she was just wiped from her seat with an acetone-soaked rag. Like a figment, she has vanished.
The waitress places another soup on the table and I jolt to my feet. “Everything okay? Is there something wrong with the soup, sir?”
Disbelieving what I have just witnessed, I cup my hands to the window, looking for Soledad. All that’s left are the slate-blue scrapes in the snow where her bicycle fell.
When I come home and climb into bed, Nancy kicks away from me under the comforter. “Your feet are cold.”
I pretend to sleep, but I can’t. With my head on my pillow, peering up at the plaster light fixture in the middle of my dark bedroom ceiling, Soledad del Bosque’s strange and prismatic exit plays back as her last name ricochets around inside my skull. Did I make the encounter up?
Del Bosque. Del Bosque. I used to know another Del Bosque—Paz del Bosque—an old girlfriend of mine that I dated on and off through college. And then it comes to me, the reason this Soledad was so familiar. She looked a little like Paz, didn’t she? Something in the face. I sit up on my elbows, doubting this was a coincidence.
Nancy rolls over onto her side. I wait until I hear her snoring and then fumble for my glasses on the nightstand to look up Paz del Bosque on my phone. There she is. Paz del Bosque-Collins. Living in Connecticut with two sons and a husband who stepped right out of some corporate stock photography.
That’s right! I remember reading about her wedding in the Times. The years have added an air of propriety to her since the last time I strolled down memory lane and I think no, she’s not the same Paz I knew from back when I was a fine arts major in the city. It’s her and at the same time not her. No mention of a daughter named Soledad, and yet, there are those same round cheeks. And the same smirking dimples around the chin, now that I’m paying attention. Could that really have been her daughter back at the diner? Soledad seemed much like the Paz I used to know. Not like how she seems now. But what do I know? I haven’t seen her in, gosh, it must be almost twenty—
“Hey, can you turn the brightness down?” Nancy groans from over her pillow.
“Sorry,” I mutter, and place my phone face-down on the nightstand.
Like any New England college town in the winter, Middlederry is a snarl of brick buildings hedged in by snow-matted hemlocks. White steeples rise over the rooftops, stabbing the pink and wheat-gold sky. It’s the sort of postcard setting that academic couples move to from the big city to raise children.
Dawn moves like a slow blush over the snowy fields across the street from my house. Up the front stairs to my porch, it holds its palms against my windows and the ochre tiles along my kitchen counter glow and warm. I get up early just to bathe in this light and listen to my coffee machine percolate.
Nancy comes clomping through wearing her winter coat. Under her beanie, her hair is wet from the shower. She takes the thermos I’ve filled for her.
“How long is your easel going to be set up in front of the window?” she questions me with a practiced tone of weary annoyance.
“I’m waiting for the right moment.”
“Okay, but does it need to block the window? It’s been there for four days and you haven’t touched it.”
It’s been almost a month since you’ve spoken a kind word to me, I think to myself.
Ever since our last relationship discussion, Nancy hasn’t told me she loves me without it being in response to me telling her first. Her words have taken an edge despite my having done nothing to pressure her. I’ve made no ultimatums. Cast no judgements. Drawn no conclusions. All I’ve asked is if she’s given any serious thought to the matter of kids.
From the window, I watch her scrape off her windshield, slamming the handle of the scraper down to break the ice off in shards. In my last relationship we were certain about having kids, and I wonder if she’s resentful of the fact. I wonder if I am, though I’ve kept it to myself because I don’t want to fight. I’d like to preserve the morning’s peace so I can return to my easel and find my moment.
But the moment I’m waiting for can’t happen. Not until Nancy leaves for work and her fussiness is out of the frame. Not until after I hear the swash of her car fading down the wet, slushy road can I enjoy the morning stillness. Without the anxious energy of her rattling the pipes and creaking the floorboards, going through her morning ritual, I can stand in front of this canvas I’ve set up by the window to watch the light and wait to catch something out of the silence and break my dry spell.
But long after the sun has risen I haven’t managed to get anything onto this blank canvas. It just sits there by the window untouched, already a poor impression of the snow-covered field across the street. Now that Nancy’s off to work, I’m seized (again) by the notion that it’s just a field and not that interesting when it comes down to it. It’s just an empty snow-covered field, and I’m just a dumbass who stands in front of a blank canvas every morning. So what is this? Am I just obsessed with the non-life of empty white spaces? Am I ever going to put something into this canvas that matters to someone? Am I ever going to come alive myself?
I don’t have to be at work until much later. Things have slowed down at Derry Pens and Paint. All the fine arts majors at Kimball University are on break. Their parents, who overload them with supplies at the beginning of each term, are gone until next semester. A few artists in the valley still come through for annual pallets of sculpting clay or rolls of cotton duck canvas or what have you, but on the whole business is muted and hibernal.
I come into the management office during second shift and catch Frank there, holding a cigarette through a window because it’s too cold to smoke in the loading bay. He quickly stubs it out with an apologetic look when he sees me kicking snow off my boots at the door.
“The new hire submitted for more vacation time,” he says, patting his mustache down with his thumb. “I said I’d check with you first.”
Frank, my manager and surrealist-turned-family-man, is the only person who’s worked at Derry Pens and Paint longer than I have. I kind of inherited him when I took over the store, and we’ve been close friends ever since.
“I’ll cover the hours,” I tell him. “Be with your wife and kids.”
“Thanks, Yusuf,” he says. And then, after a short moment, “Don’t you and Nancy have plans for the holiday break?”
“No, she’s driving up to her parents’ farm once she’s done grading finals.”
Frank nods, doesn’t pry.
I wonder if I would, though. Go with Nancy to her parents’ farm for the holidays, that is, if she’d’ve asked me to come with her again. It’s a nice slip of hobby acreage. We visited last Labor Day and her father and I discussed landscaping. I thought it was a nice dinner conversation, but Nancy thought I embarrassed myself by reciting Wikipedia factoids to her father (the expert) like some kind of blowhard (as she put it).
Over the intercom, an associate calls for keys to the spray paint cabinet and Frank says he’s got it. I watch him on the security camera, fumbling with the lock as the customer points to the metallics. I take a moment to flip to the front door camera. The registers. The easel display. The parking lot. The paints aisle. Wait a second.
I flip back to the parking lot camera. Someone’s kneeling there in the snow beside my Jeep Wagoneer. Their hands are moving, doing something to the side of my vehicle. I run downstairs, hit the crash bar on the door, drop off the loading bay.
“Hey,” I holler. “That’s my car.”
Blue-gray hooded jacket. Camo pants. It’s a woman in her late twenties. She doesn’t run, which is disconcerting. I stop a few feet from her. She stands with her shoulders rolled forward. Bony face. Hawkish nose. Piercing blue eyes under the eaves of her brow.
“You.” She points a crowbar at me. “This is what you get,” she says, and punctuates the word get by bashing out my headlight, bursting it into tinkling particles.
“Don’t. Don’t do this.”
But she swivels around. “This is what you get for what you did.” She punctuates did with my other headlight.
I think I’d be more outraged if I could understand why this was happening. “Listen, this must be a mistake.”
“You would say that,” she says through her teeth. Adjusting her grip, she steps back and lops a mirror off, clubs a spider web into the windshield, hammers a landscape into my door panels, where she’s scratched the words Vivian was here and I could’ve lived, fucker. Wheezing, she slumps against the back wheel and jerks an inhaler out of one of her pockets.
“Listen, Vivian, is it? I need you to stay put.” I reach for my phone, but I’ve left it up in the office.
“Oh, now you see me,” she says. Coughing, she wobbles to her feet. “You remember. Sure you do. You’d have known all about me if you ever cared to look in at Anchor House,” she says. “Mom was right. She wasn’t ready for me, but you’d never have been ready for any of us. And you never will be.”
“Did you… did you say Anchor house?”
Vivian blinks, as if she hasn’t thought this far. “Let me see your wallet.”
“I said give me your wallet, motherfucker!”
Compelled by an old, caliginous guilt, I hold it placatingly between us and Vivian snatches it from me. Looking through the folds, she slinks backwards. Then she rounds behind my car, and I follow, hoping to prevent any more damage. But then I find I’ve circled around my own car. Bewildered, I run around again, and then slide between the other cars in the lot, looking under them, trying to find where she vanished off too. She’s gone.
“What the heck is going on out here?” Frank is standing behind me.
“Some woman just fucked up my car.”
“Where’d she go?”
I find my wallet discarded in the snow with twenty bucks missing. Everything else, including my saved arts section clipping, is still there.
Pondering how I’m going to explain how this damage happened, I remember the cameras, and run back to the office. Scrubbing the recorded footage, I see myself running into the snowy parking lot, out to my car, where I hold my hands pleadingly, regretfully towards a smudged figure standing before the words written across my door. At the end of the exchange, she ducks behind my car and her form vanishes amidst the snow, as if layers of white paint have been spattered over her. No footprints lead away from my car other than my own.
With the shop locked up, the only place in town that’s open is the diner. Frank and I go for danishes and coffee, and I try to explain what’s been happening to me.
“Vivian was here… I could have lived, fucker,” Frank slowly recites the words scratched into the side of my car, parsing. He shakes his head, sips his coffee, and wipes his mustache.
“And she mentioned Anchor House, which is crazy,” I explain. “Anchor House was this beat-up old colonial that young artists used for studio space. Lots of parties. While I was in school I used to date someone named Amy Iverson who spent a lot of time there. But the place was condemned. The city knocked it down years ago. If you look up the address, it’s part of a shopping complex now.”
“It sounds familiar,” Frank sits back, recollecting. “Sort of like an artist crash pad, right? So this Vivian who fucked up your car, you think she was related to Amy Iverson?”
“She resembled Amy,” I say, rubbing my temples. “Same sharp nose and blue eyes. Same in the way Soledad del Bosque resembled Paz del Bosque. They both looked like who they would’ve been.”
“Would have been?”
“Like if in some other reality I got Amy pregnant while we were together. Or, if Paz and I had stayed together instead of her marrying some Connecticut blue-blood and we’d had a child. I’m being visited by ghosts of people who could’ve been my daughter.”
“Ghosts,” Frank entertains with a smirk and a shift in his seat. “You sure about that? I was under the impression that ghosts were people who already lived.”
“It’s how it feels. Neither seemed to have a lot of time. There was an urgency, like they were here to do something. And then poof, they vanished. Without anyone else noticing. Like how a dream fades when you realize it’s a dream. I don’t think I’m going crazy. I know what it’s like to hallucinate, and this isn’t it. If I’m really being visited by who could have been, then I want to understand. I just want to know why. So that I can, I can…” I touch my cheeks, which are wet, and yank a napkin from the dispenser.
“Could’ve been…” Frank repeats my words as he stares at some middle point between us just above the table. “Okay. well, let’s say they really are… visiting you from realities other than this one, and they’re looking for you here. What would that say about where you are in their reality? There would be versions of you there, wouldn’t there be? What happened to those other versions of you? What choices have you made in their realities?”
This thought interrupts me feeling sorry for myself.
Frank reaches for my shoulder, steadying me. “Hey, I’m just spitballing. Playing through your scenario. Look, what I’m getting at is that maybe there’s a simpler explanation for all of this for you. The you that’s here, with me, I mean. What did the police say when you called it in?”
I dab my eyes and take a sip of water. “No record of any Vivian Iverson or anyone related to Amy Iverson matching her description. Whoever she was, she only took twenty bucks from my wallet, anyway. Probably cab fare,” I suggest, and blow my nose.
“Remind me,” Frank mutters, and points his fork at my pockets before taking a bite of his danish. “Do you still carry that old clipping in your wallet? The one I sometimes see you reading at your desk that what’s-his-name wrote about your paintings?”
“The arts section critic? Pompadous. Yes, I have it here.”
Frank waves his hand. “You don’t need to take it out. I just remember you carry it around in your wallet. This all just made me think.”
“About how we hold onto things.”
I make a face wondering what Frank is getting at—a neat theory to tie this all together?
“Listen, Yusuf,” Frank says. He puts his fork down and wipes his mustache with his napkin. “Have you ever shared this kind of stuff with Nancy?”
“That I’m being visited by ghosts?”
“I mean more like have you ever talked with Nancy about being a father? With all these other extra-dimensional versions of you out there with kids, I’m guessing you might’ve at least broached the subject with her. I know you tried when you were with Fabienne. And now here you are with Nancy and I’m just saying this, Yusuf, because it seems to me you’re stuck in a loop,” Frank counts on his fingers. “You were with this Amy. Then there was Paz. And then you moved out here with Fabienne, who you wanted a family with. And now Nancy.” Leave it to Frank to come with the left-field insights.
“I suppose we’ve danced around the topic. Nancy thinks it’s too late to have kids.”
“Is that what you think?”
“That she’s too old to have kids? She’s only thirty one.”
“Fuck. No, Yusuf. I’m asking if you think that it’s too late for you to have kids. Because it’s not, if you want them.”
I didn’t always want to be a father. Before moving to Middlederry with Fabienne, I was only interested in painting landscapes. I’d been moved by Metcalf’s snow fields from his Cornish phase. I wanted to escape all that trendy postmodern stuff from school. I wanted to move out of my head and into my chest. I wanted to work en plein air, capturing that transcendent New England light. I wanted to be inhabited by a soul.
Back when I was painting, I had always managed to have lasting relationships, but they were always about two people becoming what they were individually destined to become, a story about helping each other along the way. That’s different than relationships where two people come together and belong to something bigger than they are as individuals.
But then, I wonder if having kids was ever really the plan with Nancy. Or if that was Nancy’s plan with me. It stings to wonder if she might’ve been keeping an honest critique on whether I was dad material pocketed away all this time. She’d have wanted to avoid the confrontation. But that’s what friends like Frank are there for; to push you to do what you need to do, not what you want.
Breaking up with Nancy feels like stepping off of one of those moving walkways they have in airports. When she returns after the winter break, we have the talk and I can tell she’s been waiting for it. Not just because she doesn’t want kids. Sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by my moving boxes, Nancy explains how it’s been more than that.
“It’s like we turned into roommates,” she says. “We stopped doing things. That fire I loved died down.”
“I suppose we did let things slide a bit.”
“No, Yusuf. I mean your fire,” she says. “Your art. The places it would take you—us. You used to bring me to places that didn’t have names. Like that one field we camped in so you could show me that one rare color of dawn on that one particular day. And you’d climb all over the rocks. Remember that that big flat boulder when we had a picnic? I know I complained a lot. I hated the mosquitos. But they were always worth it in the end, our excursions into the countryside. I came to trust that they would be, came to look forward to those little trips.”
As she talks, she pushes one of my art supply boxes forward with her foot. The one with the word “paints” written across the cardboard. Before setting up my easel, it had been collecting dust in the spare room ever since she moved in… two years ago? Has it really been that long?
I don’t like having the sheets pulled back on all these issues I turned a blind eye to. Beyond Nancy thinking we were too old to have kids, this notion that she might’ve questioned if I’d have make a good dad begins to color everything in hindsight. If at some point she began to believe that my stunted career in the arts and starting a family were at odds somehow.
“Yusuf, you got lazy,” she says.
Over the kitchen table, a chasm opens between us. As I’ve captured impressions of landscapes, I’ve trapped myself in one here in Middlederry. I arranged my life with Nancy into a picture where nothing moves. Part of me wonders if these ghosts are somehow trying to lead me back to who I was.
I’m not ready to take a good look at these things until Nancy moves back to campus housing and I return to my perennial bachelorhood. I soon hear from friends that they’ve made her a named professor at the Penric-Taggart School of Economics over at Kimball, and I realize just how much she was investing in herself while we were together. All those quiet nights behind a book. All the school conferences. All the extracurriculars. I guess I’m happy for her. I leave her a message on her feed congratulating her, and she gives it a thumbs up.
I haven’t had any visitors since the break-up. I’ve taken up jogging and reading books on psychology. I want my self-respect back. I want to stop shutting off. I want to show up. I’d like to be the kind of man these ghosts would’ve wanted for a father.
Some mornings, I still pull the old clipping out of my wallet, the critique that Pompadous wrote about my work, now creased from reading it over and over again.
…His landscapes are very pretty, but they could have been captured by anyone. His is a technical talent that captures impersonations instead of impressions. One sees nothing of the artist in his paintings because he puts nothing of himself in them. Standing before them, one feels as if one is peering into an empty loading bay at midnight…
I used to read this scathing review because I wanted to see if I’d feel the shame that was so crippling the first time I read it. The words don’t cut so much anymore, but I still read it to feel how long it’s been, how much has healed over. Like nature, I am easily cut down. I take time to grow back. But the real reason I carry this old and faded shred of newsprint around is because that son-of-a-bitch Pompadous was right. I agree with him. The truth in his cutting remarks has me artistically blocked in, become the very wall I need to break through. I’ve read the review so many times I could recite it word-for-word, but now I just take it out from time to time to look at the shapes the dark printed paragraphs make on the page, like a map of a ravine I’m trying to leap over.
The snow is melting around Middlederry. Jogging in the slush, I’m thankful that they salt the sidewalks and I’m beginning to see the grass. It’s nice to get the blood pumping. It’s vital. Spring semester looms heavy and the backs of moving trucks are yawning open all along the streets. New faces are blossoming around my neighborhood, new students, new professors, and they all look so young.
A yellow school bus slows as it passes me by. At the corner ahead, it flips its red stop sign out from its side. I jog to a stop and drop my hands to my knees, venting great steamy breaths. My sweat is going be cold inside my clothes if I don’t jog in place, but I’m already winded.
Then I feel a gentle tap on my leg. A little girl in a puffy lavender jacket is standing beside me. Her backpack is one big wet nylon cube. She mutters something, muffled by her scarf.
“I’m sorry honey, I can’t understand you.”
She points to the school bus and reaches for my hand.
I walk with her, matching her tiny shuffling steps and we join the line.
“Where is your mom?”
The bus driver holds the door winched open. “There she is,” he proclaims. “There’s our girl.”
She touches the railing to board the bus, but then stops, as if remembering something and turns. I crouch to listen, but she hugs around my neck gently and pads her scarfed face against my cheek. A kiss bye-bye.
Then, slow, reaching strides up each of the stairs into the bus. Embroidered across her backpack: “Mallory.”
When the bus pulls away Mallory is there in the window smiling toothily, little hand waving quickly. Wait! Wait for me! I sprint down the sidewalk after her, but I can’t catch the bus. My legs are like rubber bands now. I stumble over a lip of concrete protruding from the sidewalk and topple gracelessly against a wet, grassy berm.
The bus is too far down the road to see clearly, now, breaking apart into dabs of yellow against the mottled greens, beige specks where the homes straddle the gray stripe of the road. When the bus vanishes with Mallory into the backdrop, I curl into my knees, sobbing and holding my ribs. Mallory. We picked that name together, Fabienne and I.
Fabienne Rand still works as a resident at BEAM Arts in the Spectra Building. When she sees me, I am standing outside, pretending to look at my watch.
“J’y crois pas! It is you. What are you doing here?”
“Oh, my dentist is just over there,” I lie. “New guy. Different than the one before.”
“You look, uh…”
“Yeah, you too.”
“Are you going in, or…”
“No I got here early. Why, do you…”
“Yeah, you want to get a coffee or something?”
We rush through this awkward exchange and she grabs my arm, leading the way to the cafe at the corner. I’m so glad she’s happy to see me that I’ve almost forgotten why I’ve come here. We order coffees and then wait at the other end of the counter together.
“So. Tell me about the impressionism world. How is this all going?”
“Good, I guess.” I don’t go into how I haven’t finished a single piece in two years. I don’t mention that I’m selling art supplies to other budding artists instead and that I bully myself with an old critique from the arts section that I carry around.
“And how is our old house? Are you still there, or renting?”
“Oh, still there.”
“Bon,” Fabienne smiles fondly at the memory. “Well, I don’t see a ring. I thought you’d have found another artist lady. Living in some commune like this with un petit village of feral children. Painting with your hysterical color palette.”
“Whoah. Pump your brakes,” I tell Fabienne. “Hysterical palette?”
“Oui. And posing your new lady in a nostalgic New England landscape, comme Wiles ou Hopper. American impressionism obsesses about old places, no? It’s probably the insecurity of a short history.”
I must be making a face, because she smiles, knowing that her teasing still works. This is how she is. Fabienne sidesteps around all the small talk to dance right on my soft spots and I love her for it. I get my coffee and find a table in back and wait there like an obedient puppy. Fawning like this will come off as overeager, I remind myself. I need to get a grip. Play this a bit cooler.
When Fabienne sits beside me, I ask, “How have you been? You know, since…”
“Oh, fine. It’s been so long, you know.”
We both don’t say the word: stillbirth. It’s not because we can’t. We just know how heavy the word sits for us, how long we spent excavating the pain when we were together. How Fabienne moved on, leaving me wanting to sit and sift through it more. Saying the word would cause a weight to be dropped against this fine and pleasant fabric we have between us just now, plummeting our moment downwards.
Instead, we stay in the present. We share what’s new in our lives. Hash about politics and the state of things. Fabienne shows me photos of a new installation she’s been working on in the BEAM Arts event space, shaped foam and projected lighting. I praise it with a note of humility, knowing I don’t have a hand to show. Nor can I deflect her questions about whether I’ve been painting. I tell her that I’m working on a few things, and she seems to understand this is not true with a pitying, if encouraging smile.
I notice how Fabienne only wants to talk about new things. Her face brightens when I talk about where I am now and where I could be headed. Even if my prospects are dull, she’s excited to hear how I think about them. She’s encouraging me even in how she is sitting forward, her smile hovering over our bistro table as if to say, Yes, Yusuf. Please, show me you’ve moved on and made distance in what you say and how you say it. Match me here. Join me in the possibilities of what might be. But that’s not why I’m here. I’ve come to talk about different possibilities.
“Hey, um,” I say and then pause because I don’t really know how to bridge into what I’m here for after I’ve worked up the courage. I know it’s going to open up some old wounds, making a sharp turn towards the past. “This might sound weird, but do you ever still wonder about…”
I search her eyes, looking for her permission to be asked: “Do you ever still wonder about Mallory?”
“Because I think… I think I might have seen her. Or someone like her. Someone like how she could have been.”
Fabienne twists her head uncomfortably, realizing now just how gripped by our past I still am. She looks around the cafe, up at the ceiling, looking for words. I know I messed up, bringing this all back. “Sorry. I know that sounds crazy. I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe you had tried again and—”
“Yusuf!” Fabienne shakes a finger at me. “Enculé, I can’t do this with you anymore. I thought we could be friends again now, maybe. But every time is you asking me to go through this with you and j’en ai ras-le-bol. I can’t give you what you need,” she tells me. Her words are coached. She’s found strength, made distance since we were together. She gets up to go.
“No, Yusuf. I’ve moved on from this.” She backs away from the table, as if stepping away from whatever has led me here. “Don’t call me. I don’t ever… I don’t want to see you again,” she blurts with a pained expression, as if she didn’t know she could have said that.
I wasn’t doing everything I could to be the best Yusuf I needed to be with Nancy. At my age, I know that break-ups only feel better once there’s been time to grow around the loss. We lose everything the relationship was, everything it could’ve been, and everything it could’ve given us.
A thought occurs to me after morning before my run. I’m not really sure how to put it into words, but I know I need to mark it somehow. So before I step out of my running clothes, I open to the first sheet of a canvas pad I have clipped to an easel that I’ve set up on my porch. I knew my future self would get around to putting something there if I left it waiting, warming in that diffuse light. Somehow, the gestures come easily this time. Mindlessly. I don’t really know what this is going to become, but my hands are dancing, doing the work, and I think I can make out what’s emerging on the page.
By the time my hands are covered in oils, I hear footsteps. There’s a young woman with a clipboard pausing on the last step up to my porch, hand on the rail.
“Hi,” I say, inviting with an open hand. “Yes, come up, please.”
She says her name is Avery, and that she is here to take a survey. She glances through my living room window into the house, taking in my spartan furnishings with an appraising look. “How long have you lived here?”
“About a year. It’s just me.”
“Are you with the arts faculty at Kimball?” she asks, gesturing to the canvas.
“Oh, no. I own an art store near the university. And I’m an artist. Here, take a look.” I turn the easel towards her.
“Seems like everything is going okay…” she trails off, briefly taking in what I’ve painted.
“Go ahead,” I offer quietly, realizing that she has stopped writing on her clipboard. “Take some time with it.”
Avery looks at her watch. “I’m kind of on a schedule.”
“Please,” I clasp my hands together. “I could use a fresh pair of eyes.”
Avery stands there for a moment with her head cocked to one side, eyes darting around the composition. The way she sways her balance gently from foot to foot, one hand holding her arm, reminds me of how Nancy would take her first looks at my paintings. If Avery is Nancy’s daughter, I realize how clever she is—would have been, to meet me here under the pretext of a census survey.
After a moment, I point to the figures in the painting. “They are having a picnic. The father is at his easel balanced atop the rock. The daughter is playing in the grass, and the mother has gotten up to see what he has captured. See how she is brushing the grass from her thighs? She wants to see if it is true to life.”
“The father sees her looking at how he has painted them—and he’s devoted to them. But the mother is unsure about the father. I think she sometimes believes he sees their life together through a different frame. I’m having a little difficulty getting that expression right,” I tell Avery with my hand on my hip.
Avery nods again, gently, still looking, lost in their story. But I wonder if I got the mother right, because for a moment it seems like Avery is about to crack. Her lip is trembling. But then, just like Nancy, she shifts her posture. Her face regains composure and she says, “You should’ve given the daughter something more to do than just sit in the grass.”
Hmm. “If it’s alright, would you be comfortable with me taking a quick sketch of you while you’re looking at this painting? I’d just like to capture something before you go, an impression while the light is right,” I explain.
Avery looks on without moving. I take down some lines, capturing her on a separate sheet while I have her here, capturing her looking at herself being seen in my painting. And after a moment, I look up, and she has gone, folded into my surroundings like a trick of the light. I wonder if that was enough; what she came here for.
But now I have her captured here, on my page. And in my mind’s eye, I can see how she will become the girl sitting in the grass, and how she will be seen in her mother’s eyes getting up to look at the painting—the painting within my painting. The light of a soul, swimming in the pigments on my brush, just a line at first, an essence. A subject to live within my landscape.
Perhaps in all of this, I am the object to be changed. Maybe it’s time for me to stop carrying this stupid newspaper clipping around in my pocket. I need the room, now that I am unblocked. I need to clear the way, because something new is about to arrive.