“Childhood Narratives,” Image by Dawn Surratt
It’s strange, everything being the same.
I wake up for the first time at 7:47 and roll over until 8:40. At 9:02, my bladder gets me out of bed. I check for blood, but after six days the wipe comes away clear. While the coffee brews, I open the bills that Max has forgotten to pay. At the very second I was reminding him yesterday, as he was saying “Yes, Molly, I will right after this,” he was forgetting. I pay them out of my account and take half the amount from his stash of cash in the drawer of the coffee table.
It’s just like any other day. Except it’s getting warmer. May is a week away, and I go outside to the stoop. There’s barely room for my coffee and my legs, but I squeeze myself together and try not to knock the mug into the bushes.
Across the street cars spill into the arena’s parking lot, four hours early for today’s basketball game. Further down, three firemen wash a truck in front of the station, and another block away a man in tattered pants with dreads down his back stands by the light and holds a sign. No one lowers their window. Trees rustle and clouds darken, clues that rain is coming. The morning glories that grow in tangles on the chain link fence around the empty lot behind our apartment building have folded in for the day, but the rest of the world opens around me.
After a few more minutes, I take my cup and go inside to start the day. My dad would laugh for the rest of the week if I told him I’m a workaholic, but not painting for the last five days has been torture. I’ve dreamed of my mistakes, of a streaky sky, of somehow turning the canvas in with a hole where the girl’s head should be. Once I woke up in a sweat from a dream that I’d accidently thrown it away. Does it say something awful that the loss of a painting is the nightmare that’s been plaguing me?
I step back and study my work. The tree behind the girl is wrong, too fluffy and fake. The coloring of the sky isn’t close to a match. I falter between the blue and the green paint, wondering what part is less scary. Fear is inevitable when I’ve gone a long time, or not long at all, without painting. I might have forgotten how.
Like so many times before, I choose a spot and attack. The tree is easy to fix, the sky not at all. A little orange and it’s cheesy, only blue and it’s boring. This woman probably wants boring for her daughter. I smile. If only she knew how boring trauma can be. Of course there’s a difference when trauma barges in unexpected and when it is recruited for a purpose. No thank you, not quite yet doesn’t always work.
I glance at the picture I’m going off of. The little girl – Christine, I think – stares at the grass with her lips in a straight line, though her mother asked me to paint her looking at the camera and smiling. “You know,” she said, nudging my shoulder with hers. “Lighter.” I’ve painted an outline, but it would help if I could see her eyes. Mrs. Grant has a Facebook page but her pictures are no help. Her 10-year-old daughter apparently skipped all family vacations and church cookouts. So I focus on the sky and grass and a patch of tulips. I’ll save Christine for tomorrow.
At 2:00 I tell myself I’ve worked long enough. Washing my brushes is therapeutic: running my fingers through the hairs, working out the paint, watching it gush into the sink. The red of the flowers oozes between my fingers, squishy and cool, and I stand a few extra seconds with my hands under the faucet looking at the print hung above the sink, a gift from a friend on Max and my wedding day. A little boy and little girl hold hands in a baby’s breath field. Their hair blows in front of their faces, and my chest opens up when I look at it. Every other inch of this apartment is taken up with the kitchen table, the loveseat we refer to as a couch, the octagon coffee table, hardly bigger than the stoop. There’s no place for storage, so boxes and plastic crates are stacked in the corner of our bedroom, taking up what little extra space we have. Sometimes I think I’m suffocating, not even able to spread my legs out on the couch, but right here I can breathe.
The ceiling creaks above me. Max is stirring. I sit at the table with my book, but I read the same page three times while listening for his feet on the stairs. Through the triangular window over the back door, I see the clouds have lightened. Max appears at the foot of the stairs.
“Good morning, honey.”
“Good afternoon.” I hop up, not saving my place. “Let’s go for a walk.”
He asks if he can eat breakfast first, and I tap my toes while he pours a bowl of cereal. He eats it in three bites, rolling his eyes at me the whole time.
We turn down Farraway first and begin our argument over which house we will buy someday. I want the light blue one with the roof we could go out on, the hint of a garden behind the house, windows stretching the length of the walls. I’d wind my own morning glories through the white wooden fence. Max insists on the one painted orange, overgrown with vines and broken toys abandoned in the yard. As an artist, he says, I should want that one too. But I want a pretty home, a place to raise children, a place with a yard where I will take pictures and they will look at the camera and smile, arms draped happily over each other’s tanned shoulders. Instead of saying so, I loop my arm through his.
“We are lucky.” I take a long stride, banishing how thin his cash looked this morning, the shiny new balance on the credit card we’d just paid off last month, the tiny trickle between my legs.
“Very lucky,” he agrees. He’s worried, but I don’t know any other way to set him at ease than to act how I feel. I don’t know how much is allowed to be said. I am happier than ever. I am so relieved.
“Do you want to eat lunch?”
“I just ate breakfast.”
Without further discussion, we turn toward the pizza place three blocks over. I order a glass of wine; he gets a beer. He tells me his book is coming along. In a year or ten he might be ready to query. He’s had several short stories published, but this is his first novel. I haven’t read it, but I believe in him more than I would have thought possible. He grunts when I say so. I tell him I don’t know how I’m supposed to paint eyes I can’t see, and he says I’ll figure something out. This annoys me so I take two pepperonis off his last piece.
Halfway home, we stop at an intersection and wait for our turn to cross. The wind blows through his hair, but his spiral curls don’t move. There’s a pot behind him, bursting with marigolds. He asks why I’m smiling that way, and I toss my head so my hair whips in my eyes.
At home, he says he has to write. He’ll be parked on the couch for the rest of the day, more of a workaholic than me though 2:30 was early for him to wake up. I go upstairs and open the door off our bedroom. There’s no porch connected, but a breeze rustles the faded flowered sheets, the closest thing we have to a field.
I reach down to turn off the lamp that lives on the floor. I spread my arms above my head and stretch my legs out to the end of our bed, almost to the crates. I take up the length of the room. I take up all this space. Rain blows inside and splatters on my toes. I am reminded for the second time today, the thousandth time this week that I love our life. I am reminded to be patient. And I wonder again if I should feel guilty, at least for not feeling guilty.
I try again. I recall the white room, the crinkling paper, the glimpse of metal speculum and plastic bowl before the doctor said ‘it’s done’ as lightly as if announcing sandwiches. I wanted a chicken sandwich. I close my eyes and do my best to freeze the moment I walked into the emptied-out waiting room and Max sprang to his feet. I remember the dull walls darker than they were and then I turn on my side, toward the sky. The clouds have turned purple and black, an almost cushy velvet, like a place I could sink into. Another second and there’s a monsoon, the full weight of a pent-up sky swirling around me. Angry but somehow still soft.
Sometime I fall asleep, and when I wake up, Max is beside me, the tips of his fingers tangled in the ends of my hair, his ankle brushing mine, his mouth gaping open. The rain has stopped. Tears burn my eyes but not the way they should. More like another smile. I kiss the tip of his nose and slip out of bed.
The clock on the stove glows 2:47. Another day has started. I tiptoe through the kitchen, avoiding squeaky boards, and stare at my painting. After several minutes I pull out the picture. Christine stares down studiously, her mouth tight, pale arms straight as rods that finish in clenched fists. I’ve painted her looser, the way her mother asked. A crease to her elbows, a tilt of her head, daintier hands. A free and happy girl. I guessed at how a smile might look, and I guessed all wrong. She looks more like me than Christine, more like a painting than a girl.
I take my brush and coat it in white. With wide strokes, I slash through her elbows and face, the angriest strokes through her smile. When the paint is dry enough to start all over, I paint her looking down, expressionless, the tiniest hint of brown peeking through wispy lashes.
I paint her the way she is.
Claire FitzSimmonds lives and writes in Louisville, Kentucky. She graduated from Asbury University in 2009 with a journalism degree. She has dabbled in blogging, but “The Way She Is” is her first published fictional piece.