We couldn’t sit on the sofa in the house growing up. My mother didn’t allow it. The probability of spill, scratch, or rip was not entirely remote, so the couch remained shrouded in a plastic cover.
Whenever guests visited, we peeled off the stuffy case, plopping nervously onto the unyielding cushions. I watched her pretend not to watch the guests. Coiled fingers on glasses of potent red wine. Hummus dollops teetering on crumbling pita chips. Sometimes, I bet myself how many minutes would elapse before she moved the party to the patio.
The sofa was beige and antique. My mother described its hue as “cream” which was something she never ate. She was a creature of skim milk, cauliflower, and yellow quinoa. Bland things that didn’t inspire anything, least of all an appetite.
Truth be told, the whole house was beige. There were pale, scratchy carpets that the cleaning lady vacuumed every Thursday morning. Hand-made lace doilies—no longer quite white—perched beneath a pewter dish of tiny shells and fine sand. The grand piano was paramount, its varnished, ebony surface and gleaming white keys imposing and somehow celestial.
Back then, I incessantly compared our colorless dwelling to the rambling farmhouse of my best friend Melody. It had old creaky floors and a massive painting of a red rooster in the kitchen. Fluffy black cats skulked atop armchairs, shedding on the bold Afghan blankets from tag sales. The fridge was stuffed with plump organic raspberries, misshapen eggs from the chicken coop, and broccoli so fresh you had to scrub in earnest to remove the soil.
Melody’s mom taught yoga. She had a belly-button ring, tattoos, and a half-arm full of jangling metal bracelets. On warm nights she smoked pot with her boyfriend on the back porch.
At the farm, I dabbled in tempeh, oil paint, and downward dogs. Melody’s mom told me to read Roxanne Gay and gave me a battered pamphlet of Buddhist sutras. I devoured them under the covers in my bed back home, clinging to the precious sliver of robustness that emerged when I left the beige house behind.
One summer, Melody’s mom told the kids they could each paint their room any color. Melody chose a vibrant tangerine. She let me make a mural on top of it.
“Paint me some naked women,” she said. “Like Michelangelo.”
Melody frequently talked in the same sexually frank way as her mother, voicing things that should have felt crass, but always seemed brave. We already knew she liked girls, although she hadn’t announced it yet. I sketched two women the color of inky midnight, locked in an ambiguous embrace. I drizzled glitter across the breasts, thighs, lips, and necks like clusters of cosmic laugh-lines. It dribbled between their toes into a single, sparkling puddle like blood. The wall was the first time I painted for anyone besides myself and the first time I saw tears jam up in the reddening corners of Melody’s eyes.
“This thing is massive,” she told me, and it was.
That summer I was a “lady’s helper.” I found the job in mid-June from an advertisement in the newspaper. This felt quaint, and, at $20 an hour, paid far better than scooping ice cream.
The lady was named Carmella. On my first day, she opened the door to the foyer, clad in a gray velour sweatsuit. Her hair was generously streaked with silver, its tendrils threatening to topple from a precariously wound bun.
Donning a mild, appraising look she welcomed me in, handing off a piece of cardstock with several tasks written in tidy cursive.
“I’m headed to the studio,” she said, gesturing vaguely, the little amber bead on her dainty silver bracelet, sliding up her forearm like a dribble of warm honey.
“Ok,” I said shyly, masking my desire to stare. “I guess I’ll get started on this list.”
Her gaze lingered on the petunia hanging in the window, the neat shelves of sensible heels near the door, and the blade of grass wedged in the crook of my flip flop. Up close I could see little nicks in the pads of her fingers, eyes crinkled with sage bemusement, and the nearly imperceptible way her lips arched up at the corners. I wanted our eyes to meet. I knew, instinctually, that being seen by her would be unnerving and fantastic—a scrutinization of blemishes and beauty marks resulting in microscopic clarity.
“There’s lemonade in the refrigerator, dear,” she called over her shoulder, her departure imbued with the same detached kindness. “Please, make yourself at home.”
It was overcast and muggy. The interior of the house matched the vague wisps of clouds meandering across a brooding sky. Everything was gray. Stainless steel appliances. Stone countertops. Metal window frames. Gradients from paper to soot cultivated by someone who understood but largely eschewed color. In each room there was a single burst of vibrancy. An orange pewter jug. A turquoise door handle. A magenta bowl of fruit.
I polished the spoons and scrubbed the rim of the toilet. On the bathroom counter was a pail full of shards of glass. The slivers of blue chinaware, beer bottle, and translucent vase felt sensical, if inexplicable.
When I finished, I poured myself a cup of lemonade and meandered to the yard.
Behind the row of rose bushes was a shed with a massive bay window, its frame painted a dusky purple. A stone walkway twined towards a clawfoot bathtub packed with a hodgepodge of dilapidated glassware. I spotted hunks of dinner platter, a windowpane with a hole through the center, and a chartreuse vase missing its bottom.
Bizarrely, I wanted to cradle each fragile, broken thing in my palms, letting ragged history leech into my fingers. I lusted for rummaging, but touching the glass felt like reading a diary, so I retreated to a lawn chair and savored the lemonade.
The drink was cold, zesty, and whimsically yellow. I popped off my shoes and let my toes sink into the verdant, manicured lawn, feeling suddenly childlike. In the beige house growing up, lemonade—like all sugary beverages–was sequestered to birthday parties and fantasies.
Once, I asked my mother why we couldn’t buy lemonade mix.
“To be candid, Evangeline,” she said, with a wry, uncharacteristically sheepish grin, “I fear I’d drink the whole thing in one sitting.”
“Because you like it?” I’d asked. We were in the Stop & Shop snack aisle. I swung my ruffled socks and tennis sneakers over the edge of the shopping cart.
“I love it,” she said, shocking me. The list of things my mother loved was short. That day, she bought the lemonade and two donuts—chocolate frosted with rainbow sprinkles. We ate them on a bench in the sun and she didn’t even remind me to wipe the sugar from my lips.
When I told Melody about Carmella’s gray-scale house, she seemed as intrigued by it as me.
We were in my room burning incense near an open window so my mother wouldn’t smell it. Melody splayed in the armchair, her messenger bag tossed nearby, overflowing with notebooks and lip gloss. She twiddled a menage of scrunchies around her wrist.
“Do you think she’s some sort of artist?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
I’d googled Carmella, of course. Apparently, she was the former wife of some Wall Street big-wig. Apparently, they’d met when she was his secretary. Apparently, his new secretary was his new wife although Carmella had managed to retain one of their three homes.
“You could be an artist, you know,” Melody mused absently. “I mean, look at some of this stuff.”
She gestured at the beige wall over my bed which was covered in postcard-sized paintings.
Sunflowers with little colored buttons as their centers. A mermaid encompassed in crushed jingle shells. A still-life of the wayward, twining pea plants at the farmhouse.
There wasn’t any order or motif to the paintings. I’d hung them crookedly with double-rolled tape because my mother wouldn’t let me put nails in the wall. Sometimes they slipped onto my bedspread, and I’d come home to my creation staring up at me like an eye. When I walked past gallery windows downtown, there was an order to the artist’s work. A collection of seascape watercolors. An assemblage of abstract color blocks. My work seemed convoluted and incoherent, like fleeting thoughts brushing the edges of something important.
“I think my art may just be a mess,” I told Melody.
She glanced up at my favorite part of the wall: the zone where I kept portraits. There was a depiction of Melody emerging from the center of a rose, done entirely in red brush strokes. I’d painted my mother at the piano. Wholly black and white. It was hazy and dream-like except for her pen-etched hands, strikingly clear as they navigated the keys.
Once, years ago, Melody asked me why I never painted myself. I told her I didn’t do self-portraits, but this was a lie. Whenever I sketched Evangeline Webber, the colors swirled like paint-water being swept down a drain until I discarded the dizzying murk in a wastebasket.
Usually, if I deprecated my art, Melody told me to, “Stop being ludicrous.” This time, she just stared me straight in the face.
“Isn’t that the point?”
Melody didn’t detest men, but she didn’t find them particularly useful either. We were united in this cynicism, which a therapist would probably say resulted from having absent fathers. Hers was some sort of drifter, from what I’d gathered. Melody’s mom told me once—with neither wistfulness nor animosity—that she “loved him until she didn’t.”
Melody’s dad called her occasionally and once he sent a ukulele on her birthday. Sometimes, outside on the porch at the farmhouse, she strummed it while she relayed anecdotes, blending from light and upbeat to twangy and dramatic like a movie soundtrack.
I didn’t even know my father’s name.
“Why don’t you just ask your mom about him?” Melody wondered once.
The truth was, I had asked. Years ago, at breakfast. My mother didn’t respond. Instead, she took the vacuum out of the closet and wordlessly scoured the floors until I left for school.
“I don’t need a dad anyways,” I told Melody, “I have my art. I have friends.”
The plurality of friends was a lie and we both knew it. In elementary school I was painfully prim and unnervingly quiet. Every morning my mother yanked a brush through my curls until my skull ached so she could painstakingly plait long, ornate braids. She put me on the bus with an old-fashioned tin lunch-box full of crunchy, dressing-less vegetables and multigrain crackers. I spent the entirety of recess swinging, mainly because it saved me from asking other kids to play. When I pumped my rail-thin calves and soared up towards the metal beam and cloud-adorned skies, it rendered the four-square, hopscotch, and jump-rope below to mundanity.
Melody showed up in fifth grade. Her hair was blue then, like always. Sometimes, when she walked down the hall, she hummed to herself. When school had the annual spelling bee, we were the last two kids left standing. In the end, she could spell “eudemonic,” and I couldn’t.
That day at recess, Melody sat down on the swing next to me.
“Hi,” she said, brushing the tips of her toes back and forth across the woodchips and peering at me through the metal rungs of the swing’s chain.
“Hi,” I said. And then we just swung.
When I got home from school I looked up “eudemonic” in the Merriam-Webster on the bookshelf in the beige house. It meant “conducive to happiness” which I only half understood until the next day when Melody swung with me again, the two of us careening skyward and giddily giggling like a pair of rare birds.
Once, after a shift at my old ice cream shop job, one of the boys I worked with asked if I wanted to go get high behind the elementary school. I told him I didn’t smoke, but he said that was fine, and so we ended up on the swings where he fiddled with a lighter and some Zig-Zags. When he finished, he told me I was “pretty damn pretty” and my mind whirled with secondhand smoke and the inconceivable notion that I could be wanted. When I told Melody, I expected her to be thrilled on my behalf.
Instead, she closed her eyes.
It was barely more than a blink and something only I, who’d attuned to her motions and expressions during the years elapsing between preschool and freshman year, would notice. Her eyelids lingered closed for just a second too long, like a veil between me and the pain that I suddenly suspected was flicking across her pupils. I imagined them rolling around beneath the thin flaps of skin, itching to pop back out of the dark, pink sanctuary, or maybe, longing to stay in. When she opened her eyes, remnants of unspoken truths lingered in the two blue orbs, flecked with harsh light and reality.
The next time I was slotted to clean for Carmella, she didn’t meet me in the foyer. Instead, I found a stout piece of notebook paper on a table near the door. I was to harvest parsley from the garden and organize a storage closet. The fridge had lemonade again. It was raining.
The garden was tucked away behind a picket fence and well-pruned rose bushes. Chives wavered in the breeze, pert basil leaves stood at attention, and mint sprouted from every crevice like hair in an ear.
The purple shed was a few yards away. I watched portly raindrops lollygag down its windows, suddenly sure that this was the studio Carmella mentioned. I clamored towards the building, shamelessly peering between its half-drawn curtains.
She sat on a metal chair, eyes closed. Her crookedly buttoned suit jacket was the color of a storm, and her fingernails an egregious, hollering red. A colossal, polished, diamond ring dangled between her breasts on a silver chain.
The skin on Carmella’s cheekbones looked taut, like invisible strings tugged it towards youth. Her spine arched, impeccably erect, her fibers and fluidities coagulated into semi-solid form. In her lap was a piggy bank. She stroked the glass on the pig’s glistening tummy and chiseled ears, cradling it like an infant.
I was viewing a ritual not yet meant for me, perhaps never meant for anyone besides her. I’d caught her in some deep, private, potentially art-adjacent act that I desperately wanted to ask her about. I ached to know all of it—what provoked the sparks of brightness and the shades of gray in her home. Whether she was tempering restraint with vibrancy or subduing the vividness.
But then, her head bowed, curling over the glass pig like a gooseneck lamp. Her shoulders quaked and the wind picked up, the thin pane between us burgeoning into an impermeable wall. As whirling air swept away thorny dignity, a tear trickled down her well-powdered cheekbone. Worried that more would follow, I looked down and headed home.
My mother’s love of entertaining was real, but in constant conflict with her lust for control. Parties at our house were typically satisfying, but seldom fun, like solving a tough geometry proof or re-arranging your sock drawer by color. My mother was aware of and unbothered by this differentiation, as were her friends, most of whom worked at the university too.
Her PhD was in classical music. When she wasn’t composing or doing research, my mother taught piano lab to freshmen and advanced theory to music majors. She detested the freshmen, most of whom were only in the course to fulfill a core requirement. At one dinner party in the beige house she imitated them on our baby grand, slamming her thumbs up and down the keys like a plodding elephant. The academics roared. Most of them hated teaching talentless underclassmen too.
I wondered, on occasion, whether a college degree would make my mother appreciate my art. This was a frivolous musing because I already knew its answer. In her eyes, the best, and perhaps only, way to elevate my work from infantile scribbling to a verifiable passion would be a degree followed by other manifestations of prestige.
I worried that regimented study would tarnish the rawness I both bemoaned and treasured. Although I suspected I’d enjoy art school, I feverishly clung to my iconoclasm. I needed it, to render her achievement anything less than engulfing.
Sometimes, when nobody was around, my mother played for real. Her fingers flitted up and down the swath of black and white, notes swelling to fill the living room. Every bar of music screamed for openness, lilting skyward like wayward red balloons. I almost expected the beige walls to blow clear off, floating away like her.
My mother didn’t make mistakes. She didn’t sing. Her demeanor was dream-like yet clear, as if the notes absolved her of some gargantuan weight. I often wondered what it was.
The last time Melody came to dinner was some evening in July. I seldom invited friends to our home, so my mother was elated. That night, she made pork chops with white rice, canned green beans, and applesauce from a jar.
My mother knew Melody was vegetarian, but didn’t see this as a sufficient reason to discard routine.
“I wish there was a dog I could sneak bites to under the table,” Melody griped, grinning at the comedic impossibility of a dog in the beige house.
“The rice tastes better if you mix it with the applesauce,” I told her as recompense.
The relationship between Melody and my mother tended towards terse. Melody’s disdain for established metrics of worth was a rare challenge to my mother who relished rules and titles and was surrounded by others who relished rules and titles. I could have told Melody that to earn my mother’s warmth she’d have to feign interest in prestigious institutions and accolades, just like I could have told my mother that the way to win Melody’s approval was to disparage capitalism and offer a reasonable breadth of sustainable milk substitutes. Each wanted the other’s respect, but neither could conceive of admitting it. The result was a slab of pork congealing on a china platter and a strip of blue hair, swinging like a dare.
“How’s school these days girls?” my mother asked, gingerly slicing off the fatty rim of a chop.
“Abysmal,” I volunteered.
“Delightful,” said Melody with a cough-syrup sweet smile.
My mother sniffed, pointedly angling herself away from me.
“What sort of things are you studying?”
“Geometric proofs. To Kill a Mockingbird. In health we’re labeling diagrams of penises. Art is the best subject, of course,” said Melody.
“Of course,” said my mother, eyebrows arched mildly.
“Evangeline’s been doing some neat paintings, you know,” said Melody, “Mrs. Kreueller says she’s the best in our class.”
I sawed off a hunk of pork and slid it through a well of applesauce.
“Did she?” said my mother.
“Yes,” said Melody, “Not that any of us are surprised by that.” Her washed-out blue-jean eyes met my mothers’ in challenge.
My mother laid fork and knife in an “X” across her plate. “Evangeline didn’t like the arts much as a child,” she mused aloud, twirling her wrist in circles through the air as if it longed for something to grip. She reached over and pinched my arm like a plush toy, fingers lotion-tinged and cold. “I tried to teach you the piano for years. I’m not sure I ever encountered someone with less interest.”
I fiddled with the napkin in my lap, wringing its slack into rigid twists.
“There’s more than one type of art, you know,” Melody piped up.
“Obviously,” my mother’s eyebrows shot even further up her already crinkled forehead and her lips drew into a thin, stoic line.
“There’s also art outside of ‘the arts,’” I said.
“It doesn’t have to be regimented and institutional to have worth.”
“Obviously,” said my mother, “But we can’t discard our metrics of assessing value either. Justin Bieber isn’t equivalent to Mozart. Graffiti isn’t the same as Monet.”
It was the fight I longed for, but never had the gall to begin. Heat radiated from Melody. She trembled slightly, like water about to boil.
“They’re not the same, but can’t they both be valid?” I said, swaddling myself in the shawl of Melody’s energy and meeting my mother’s gaze.
“One is objectively superior.” My mother brushed a stray hair off her temple.
“Based on what?”
“Standards of artistic value.”
Flames burgeoned within my cheeks. I vehemently wanted my mother to flush crimson, but she remained the non-descript hue of a skin-colored crayon.
“Created by who? Old, white men who suck?” I hurled the dagger at her relevancy with abandon. My mother fancied herself a fellow critic of the patriarchal paradigm. I knew well the slick satisfaction that flicked across her face when her wit triumphed over that of a man.
She paused, put down her knife, then looked me dead in the eyes. “Better they than the talentless.”
I shriveled, needlessly swiping a napkin at the corner of my lips. Silverware clattered against ceramic dishware. The plates were scraped bare and the noise hollow.
The piano faced the window in the living room, and though she pulled the lace drapes shut, the light still dappled through, tap-dancing atop the varnished lid. Some days, during lessons, I wanted to hop up onto the piano and shake every bit of me, gyrating, jigging, flailing, flopping.
Others, I ached to lie stomach-down on the carpet and watch oscillating flecks of sun, wishing I found the keys as tantalizing as the light.
Her hands were on mine like two shaggy guide dogs. She always said I had piano fingers. It was a waste, really, with my long, elegant hands that I didn’t have more interest. When she said “interest,” I heard aptitude, because the truth was, I tried.
One week before lessons, I painted a pair of Ked sneakers, covering them in yellow, crooked-grinned, smiley faces.
“Look what I made, Ma,” I said, because this was back when I still believed we might both be kindred artists who’d learn each other’s languages.
“Won’t the paint just wash off in the rain?” She listened to Greig’s Concerto in A Minor and graded freshmen’s labeling of treble clef notes.
I looked down at the shoes. The yellow smileys still smiled, but they looked less happy. Like when someone’s voice says, “Good for you,” but their eyes say something else.
The next time it rained, I wore the shoes through puddles, letting the paint trickle off. In the dun-colored stream, my toes pruned and bloated. The smiles turned garish, sodden with something harsh.
The last time Melody came to dinner at the beige house was the last time because she walked out the door and said, “You know, Dr. Webber, it really wouldn’t kill you to give Evangeline the respect she deserves.”
“That’s rich coming from a child who’s so obviously been raised in a household devoid of respect,” said my mother.
There was a low seething hiss. If we were a pot, the lid blew off, its contents—steam, half-cooked spaghetti, and years of pent up everything—spewing onto the doorstep.
My mother yelled.
Our angst puddled in a heap like vomit.
The door to the beige house slammed and the wooden “Welcome to Our Home” sign fell onto the stoop.
Somehow, I was inside Melody’s Subaru, cheek pressed to the glass, picking at threads on the hole in the knee of my pants.
We sped away from the silhouette of my mother’s face in the living room window, gaunt behind the lace drapes. I watched in the rearview until she and the house receded into cream-tinged tininess, a speck of beige on a vast, dusky night.
When I woke it was early—too early for the sun. I was in Melody’s bed and so was she. She rolled over and blinked at me.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” I said.
“Well, that sucked.”
We were quiet for a moment. I moved my leg and the sheets rustled like billowing wheat.
“You know I love you, right?” she whispered. “Yes, of course,” I didn’t hesitate. Of course Melody loved me. And, of course she’d want to tell me now when she might be the only one who did.
I was grateful for her then. We were something rarer and more precious than blood. We’d chosen each other, knit our spirits together. We were sisters without the passively inherited genetic code, our link forged consciously in knots.
The clock by the bed ticked. Melody’s brow furrowed. Her fingers clenched the feather pillow, nail beds raw and beet-colored. Breath caught in her throat like she was about to speak, but instead she gnawed her thumb and stared at me. I wondered what she saw.
She inhaled, sucking words into her larynx like starving captives fingering the key to their rusty chains. It wasn’t light enough to see the mural, but I imagined the glitter-blood drizzling down onto our foreheads, drop by agonizing drop.
“No,” she said, her voice collapsing into a whisper. “Like, I love you.”
And then her lips were on mine and my mouth made a little “o” in surprise, and it was gentle, and kind, and everything that I wanted to want.
Except I didn’t.
“Oh,” I said.
Something like hot tar roiled in the back of my throat. If I didn’t leave now, it would spurt through my holes—teeth and ears and seams at the corners of my eyes. If I didn’t leave now, I might never return. And so, confused and blindsided, I went.
Her shouting was plaintive. My name. Come back. Bare feet mashing into the gravel driveway. Bleeding. Running. Breathing.
When we first met, Melody hated shoes. In the summer she’d cast off her dirty flip flops to run up creek beds and climb trees. Her feet were filthy and calloused and I envied their toughness. I was the soft one with pale, dainty skin susceptible to sun rays and mosquito bites. I was a fledgling mammalian critter lying face-up on a rock in the sun, squishy and ripe for impaling. I didn’t know then, that tough things can be maimed, and soft things can wield the knife.
I ran until I felt light–like an empty husk or an effervescent speck of suds. My feet didn’t hurt, because I had none, my essence reduced to the colossal, elephantine thudding of the heart barricaded in my ribs.
I ran until I was on the other side of town. The side with large, austere houses. At the top of the steps, I rang the doorbell. When nobody answered, I rang it again and again until it opened and Carmella peered out at me, her eyes like twirling cyclones.
She took in the weeds between my toes, salt-smudged cheekbones, and woeful bedhead.
“I employ you, right?”
“Yes.” I tucked my hair behind an ear, shuffled the bloody feet, unsure whether she was joking.
“You don’t look like you’re here to work,” she said, cracking a concern-tinged smile.
“I’m here to prune the herbs,” I said, reddening at the brash untruth. The reality was, I didn’t know why I was there except that the gray house was neither the farmhouse nor the beige house, but some enigmatic third place, removed from the dichotomy.
“Let’s get you a glass of lemonade,” she said, opening the door wide.
We walked through the foyer to the kitchen, and she poured two glasses from the pitcher, dropping ice cubes into the little glass cups with a clink.
“Ah lemonade,” she said. “It’s sweet and tart and frivolous. It doesn’t have nutritional worth or get you drunk. It’s purely for fun. I rather think it solves everything.”
“I wish that were true,” I said, after a slurp.
“Why do you think it isn’t?”
We sat at the breakfast island. The sun peeked through the clouds and a breeze rustled the shards of hanging glass.
“My best friend is in love with me. I don’t think lemonade can solve that.”
Carmella paused. I waited for her to ask if I was in love with the friend that loved me. I wondered whether she’d been in love with the man who was once her husband. I wondered whether she had a friend.
Instead, she pulled a little vial of pills out of her pocket and shook two into her palm. She put one after another on her tongue, then took a swig of lemonade.
“What are those?” I asked.
“They say I feel too much.” She closed her eyes.
“Do you ever think they’re right?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” she said. “Sometimes it’s all so fucking gray.”
We were silent for a moment.
“Today is pretty fucking gray,” I said, surprising myself.
“Gray depressing or gray confusing?”
“Is it one gray extending in all directions, as far as you can see? Or are there so many grays you don’t know where any of them stop and start?”
I thought for a moment.
She stood up, wrapping a cardigan around slender shoulders, “Follow me.”
And so I did, down the steps, across the yard, and into the shed. Carmella unearthed artifacts from the bathtub outside, piling rose-tinted wine glasses, miniature flowerpots, and fragments of mirror at our feet.
“What are they for?” I asked, as my hand shot out and brushed the rim of a scalloped butter dish.
Carmella didn’t answer. She picked up a pewter figurine of a Victorian woman with an impossibly tiny waist and held it over her head, looking up at it in reverence like an idol.
Then, she threw it at the ground.
It wasn’t a slip off a cliff, but a jump. A nosedive.
“Help me,” she said, gesturing to the butter dish. And so I did.
Christmas ornaments. Beauty compacts. Lambs from a nativity scene. We hucked them at the patio’s floor with rampant, rabid, fervor, breathing deeply and grunting like men. Something shattered. Many things shattered. Little by little, then all at once, pain billowing over me in waves.
When there was nothing left but a pile of jagged glass, we fell back onto the lawn chairs.
“What was that for?” I asked, again.
“I make art,” said Carmella, “Mosaics mostly. I’m drawn to broken things.” She pushed a button on the wall and the roof of the shed fell open like a blooming flower. As rivulets of light streamed in, she gestured to our feet.
Under the heap of ruined glass peeked the edges of a giant sun, made of rainbow shards embedded in the concrete. It seemed ludicrous that I hadn’t noticed before the rays extending on either side of us like arms poised for a hug. It was every color, but when the sun glinted down on it, the bits and chunks of disparate objects converged into strands of pure, nameless brightness.
“It’s beautiful,” I breathed.
“It’s complex,” said Carmella, “Which I’ve always found more worthwhile.”
I crept back into the beige house and didn’t leave. Two weeks of tiptoeing and praying I wouldn’t run into her while pouring a bowl of cereal or brushing my teeth. In a sense, it wasn’t such a change; we’d lived as waifs for many years, connected only by wisps of longing and echoes of agitation.
At night I dreamed of the cream-colored wallpaper, oatmeal-scented hand soap, and blonde wood of my bedroom floor. Beige was a hulking creature with gaping, cavernous mouths set on devouring me. While I dozed, the creases of its papery fingers brushed the soles of my feet and its weak, shallow voice breathed in my ear. When I woke up, I realized it didn’t have a face.
I stopped sleeping. At night I slunk down the stairs and sat morosely beside the window in the living room. I tossed newspapers over the carpet and set up my easel. The first night, I stared at the barren, moon-lit canvas. My mind was flat and deflated, abandoned by the creativity that usually coursed through its gelatinous tissues.
On the bed of crumpled newspapers, I quivered. Words were never a worthy vessel for capturing the magnitude of it all, but my hands had always understood the innate shapes and hues.
I opened the local paper. “Citing safety concerns, coalition of mothers forms to advocate for a new playground at the elementary school,” said the headline. The accompanying photo was of our swing-set.
I held the words in my palm, stroking ink and complexity.
Then, I brandished a pair of scissors and chopped them up, snipping apart the phrase until disparate letters remained. I glued them to the canvas and the moon twinkled a grin. The scent of ink and sound of snips carried me towards an unknowable shape, albeit one that felt rooted in my essence.
For nights, I delved into the frenzy of letters, swishing oil paints atop them with bold, deliberate strokes. While I worked, I drank coffee, liberally pouring in packets of cream and Splenda from a stash I kept beneath my bed. It was sweet—too sweet. I guzzled it anyway.
Finally, my mother caught me. I felt her before I saw her, peering over the staircase to determine whether the precarious position of the coffee cup or the paint palette alarmed her more. I waited for a tirade of disciplinary actions. Instead, she just watched me swirl the blue with the red into a rich queenly purple, flicking it adeptly across the canvas.
“What do the letters say?” she asked, finally.
“What?” I looked up, mock-surprised by her presence.
“What are you spelling with the letters?”
In my hand I had a “Q” an “R” and an “X.” Big, Times New Roman style—from a headline.
“Nothing, Mom, they’re not spelling anything.”
She didn’t speak for a long time. Just watched me paint. I could feel her anxiety palpitating through the air of the already stuffy living room.
“I don’t get it,” she said, softly, finally.
“You never get it.”
“But I’m here,” she said.
I looked at my mother and she looked at me. In her silk nightgown, eye mask propped on her forehead, she was small and earnest.
“I know,” I said, and it was true. She was here. She’d always been here.
“And I want to get it.”
I was floating, morphing. Shrinking into a child then ballooning into the vast, indescribable thing I’d always been.
Wordlessly, she slipped down the staircase and perched on the piano bench, drawing her spine straight and touching her fingers to the keys. I dunked my paintbrush in red and let it hover over the page.
And then, we made art.
Her hands crafted magnificent melodies. Mine bequeathed color to a fragment of imagination. Both trembled with the rigor of smashing open the beige walls.
I slogged up the dusty farmhouse driveway, encumbered by canvases. A black cat twined around my ankles like a hug as I fingered the house key I’d had since middle school. Its teeth were starkly jagged, like they’d moved farther apart and sharpened. I shoved it deeper into the fabric of my pocket, suddenly uncertain that it would still fit the lock. An almost-ripe raspberry dangled from a bush near the porch steps. I plucked and ate it, the tart unreadiness exhilarating, or perhaps unnerving.
Propping my paintings against the screen door, I drank them in. On canvas, Melody’s expression swirled and churned, transformed in each painting by a different fancy or anguish—smiling, smirking, somber. Reducing her plethoric dimensions to just one face would be a travesty, and so I’d made many, outlining her bones in red and her hair in blue. The substance in between was tiny newsprint letters. They didn’t spell anything, but I hoped she could read them anyway.
For so long, Melody was hopelessly entangled in my creations. She wasn’t just their subject, or their benefactor, but a tenet of their formation. It was she who christened my scribblings and snippets and splatters. She said, as if it was the most obvious thing on earth: They’re art. You’re an artist.
If a thing is nameless, does it even exist?
Without Melody there wouldn’t be a mural or a postcard wall or this collection of her likeness. My art wouldn’t be seen, but rather stowed—in a below-the-bed shoebox, or my mind. Everything hinged on the tiny, precious, paramount visibility. Without it, there might be art, but not this art. There might be me, but not this me.
A window on the second floor creaked open, and ukulele strumming flooded the driveway, sweet and a little morose. I knew she’d climbed out the window and onto the porch roof.
I looked at the paintings again. They really were lovely, a monument to her. They said what I wished I could holler, lips craning towards the mildewed roof and cloud-speckled skies. I love you, M. Because I couldn’t bring myself to espouse a sentiment so woefully detached yet tantalizingly akin to the one she craved, I’d made her the art.
Why, then, did it feel like an unnuanced memorial?
The ukulele stopped and the stairs wheezed a familiar creak.
It hit me quietly, like a whisper or a breeze: the paintings were just a pedestal. The altars we each tended for the other were the problem. They were alluring, sure, but too tidily reverent. Too narrowly fawning to accommodate the gnawing, agonizing, fascinating disarray.
There was a paper in my pocket. I pulled it out, unfurling my hand, kneeling, and flattening the crinkles on her steps. Two eyes, two nostrils, two earlobes. A muddle of curls, bold cheekbones, the oft-detested chin dimple. The drawing was rough, scrawled in charcoal and watercolor, but the shape, while malleable, was defined.
The door opened.
I handed Melody the paper. Surrounded by her face, we stared down at mine, her fingers tracing and my eyes following the uncertain lines, post-folding crease, and muted, barely perceptible hues. The painting was incomplete and technically inferior. It wasn’t whole yet, and maybe it never would be, but I hadn’t tossed it away either.
The return to her orbit was achingly exquisite. Dripping with complexity and trembling with messiness, the moment, like us, defied categorization.
And wasn’t that the point?