“Elliot? You home?” I walked into the apartment, loaf of olive bread under my arm, coffees in my hands. “Elliot?” Must’ve been the only one there.
A quick reconnaissance told me I was right. I set Elliot’s grande mocha breve in the microwave, pretended it would maybe stay hot that way. I put the bread in the bread box, took my tiny espresso to the bathroom and turned the water on hot so I could take a bath. I chose my Chopin/Listz playlist, poured vanilla cinnamon bubbles in the stream of water. Slipped out of my clothes, stepped into the warmth. The bubbles snapped as I sunk down to my chin. I closed my eyes, sipped the coffee, tried to turn off my brain.
The front door creaked open.
“Essa?” Elliot said.
“Yeah. In here.”
He came in, leaned against the door frame, two coffees in his hands. I smiled. He noticed my cup on the wall ledge behind the slipper tub.
“Ah,” He said.
“Yours is in the microwave.”
He handed me the little coffee. “And here is yours.” He sat on the stool next to the tub and drank his coffee. I finished mine, moved on to the one he’d brought to me.
Coffee. Never enough.
“So. How was your day?” he said.
“Real shitty.” He trailed his hand into the water.
I let his hand find mine, squeezed.
“So why was your day bad?” he said.
I didn’t want to tell him the truth, but I wouldn’t just lie to him, not when he asked. I sighed. “Honestly? I kept thinking about last night.”
He stared at the bubbles around our hands. “Huh. Me too.”
We sat there, holding hands underwater for a long time. Finally he looked up at me.
“You naked in there?”
He surprised a laugh out of me.
“No, really. I’d like to work on the painting tonight. You up for it?”
I nodded. “Sure. Yeah. That’d be okay.”
He took my hand out of the water, kissed it. I smiled; he could be so sweet. He let my hand go, stood.
“You know what you want for dinner?” he said.
“How ‘bout sushi?”
He sighed, shook his head, smiling. “Oh, Essa, don’t do this to me.” All pseudo-dramatic. “We can’t afford that again this month. But then,” he ran a hand through hair that he’d done the same thing to all day long. “You say stuff like that. My brain is now full of sushi thoughts. Fuck! We’ll have to do it. I’ve gotta have it now. This is terrible. Get outta there. Get dressed. We’ve gotta go.”
I chanted ‘sushi’ as the water drained, as I dried off and let my hair down and got dressed. He laughed and laughed.
Later, after dinner, at the school, there I stood; naked again. Elliot had begged and begged me to let him do my portrait. I’d finally given in because I needed him to remember me when he left me.
He would leave me. I knew he would. Everyone did.
So I sat in a ridiculous pose, twisted tight, seated on the floor, a white sheet pooled around me, covering my breasts and lady bits. He designed this pose, said it was how he always thought of me; the dichotomy of total vulnerability and the inability to cover it all up.
Well. How I hated being seen to the core by anyone. Even Elliot.
God, I loved him too much.
“Essa. Whatcha’ thinking?”
“Tightening up, huh?”
“Big time.” He wiped his brush clean, watched me. “You okay? Need a break?”
I contemplated the question, my pose, the whole damn universe. So I loosened up.
Disconcerting to have physical responses to brain meanderings. To be seen... Shut up, stupid.
“Essie, you’re doing it again. What in the world is going on in there?” He held out a hand. “Forget it. Forget I said that. Let’s just take ten.”
I nodded, pulled on my tee and jeans. Walked out, down the hall and straight out the doors. I stopped and stared at the stars, ignored the cold, the freezing concrete beneath my bare feet. Truth: I felt violated to be seen by anyone so deeply. I crushed my face into my hands. Awful, awful, awful, that feeling of exposure.
And what was I so afraid of? We’d been together three and half years. He hadn’t hurt me yet. Not in any lasting way. He’d done nothing to break my still, small trust.
He’d said last night he loved me. God! How could he love me? I was too broken for him. He couldn’t possibly love me. It terrified me; that love. I won’t love him. I can’t. Was I even capable of love?
In the studio he cleaned his brushes, put things away. He looked over at me as I stopped just inside the room. “We’ve been working for a couple hours. Decided to maybe stop.”
So I grabbed up my bra, panties, socks, and put them on in the bathroom across the hall, chastised myself for messing up his painting time. We obviously couldn’t do this in class. But, oh how relief swelled in my chest like a balloon made of cotton candy and moonbeams to be leaving, leaving. Running away.
On the way to the apartment he said my name, starting something. Why couldn’t he just let it go? Why did he always keep pushing?
Answer: he loved me and deserved to hear how I felt.
I was so fucked.
He went on, “Are you unhappy about posing for me?”
“No.” He had to have that painted memory.
He didn’t say anything on the rest of the walk to the apartment. The air felt bitter, promising snow and ice and calamitous winds in just a few weeks time.
At the apartment I took off my fingerless mittens, wool sweater, the scarf he gave me from Nepal. I laid them on the couch, where they didn’t belong, and turned around. Elliot waited, watching me.
I crossed my arms, turned slightly away. I couldn’t hear this. I just couldn’t. Not again. Looking over at him, I saw hurt on his face, the last thing I wanted: to hurt him even more. “Wait, Elliot. Just kiss me. Please. Kiss me.” I turned to him, giving him what I could.
His face softened and he obliged me, kissed me the way he does, killing me, ripping down to the core of my soft heart. He slowly undressed me and I stood before him, naked yet again.
“God, Es. You’re so beautiful.”
When he looked at me like that, like he could sip me up, drink deeply and never be satiated, that’s when I felt maybe I could be beautiful.
Could I possibly be more for him than I thought I could be?
We made love on the couch. Yet again, I tried to memorize his skin, the feel of it, the scent of him, woods and powder and some strange magical essence that spoke to the core of me. I always seemed to forget, felt as if every time I rediscovered him. He whispered in my ear, after, when we’d wrapped ourselves up together so deeply I couldn’t quite tell where I ended and he began.
“I love you so much, Essie.”
I buried my face against his neck, breath ramping up again. I knew he waited for me to say it, too. How hard was it to say such a thing for a guy? Answer: Fucking hard. And then to repeat it without a reply. Could he know something I didn’t? How could he keep throwing himself into that abyss of fathoms-deep vulnerability? How must it hurt him to keep saying it, to keep breaking open like that?
I got all resentful, like a spoiled brat. God, I hated myself sometimes.
“Oh, shut it,” I said, pulled away, locked myself in the bathroom. I sat on the floor, cold and unforgiving under my bare ass. I tucked my knees up, dropped my forehead on to them. Tried to stop hyperventilating. No, I would not fly into the stratosphere. It was practically impossible for such a thing to occur. Nor would my heart shatter in my chest. I would not die here, curled into myself, rocking like a baby.
I did not cry. I would never allow myself that luxury. But I did allow myself a Klonopin, that sweet pill that wiped away everything.
Elliot stayed awake until after I go to sleep: always, every night. It was one of my more bizarre and annoying manifestations of the anxiety crap. I really couldn’t go to sleep if everyone in the house was already asleep. I mean, what’s up with that? How did that even make sense, after what happened... Shut it, brain.
So Elliot found this out the first night we spent together. He fell asleep while I was in the bathroom, after we’d made love for like, the seventh time. I stepped out and my heart began that inevitable crawl up my throat for it’s four-billionth attempt at escape. My stomach froze and my brain started upchucking methods of my imminent annihilation. So I tried the biofeedback crap, laying stiff as a board in bed next to Creepy-Asleep-Elliot. I rolled over and tried to enjoy watching him sleep. I ran back into the bathroom, shoved my face into a towel to stop the ridiculous noises trying to escape from my spleen. Blurgh. Hate on the anxiety bullshit.
I talked myself down somehow, prowled around my tiny apartment, doing the little things I never had time for: scrubbing the sink, reading a weeks worth of mail, filling out the last Sudoku I’d filched from the coffee shop.
Finally I realized I was so exhausted I had stopped making sense: the Sudoku only could be solved with letters at that point. So I broke down and woke Elliot. I told him I couldn’t do the sane thing, and he held me as I fell asleep. Basically instantaneously.
He’s never asked me why. Every night, he would tuck me under his chin and hold me tight.
What did I ever do to deserve him?
The first tattoo I got curled along my left hip, a stylized salamander that I had drawn. To me, it represented rebirth, a new beginning: I’d heard some story of them playing in the fire and coming out clean and magic. I got it when I’d left for college. I’d been thinking about it for eight years, since I turned ten. A friend’s brother had them, covering his back and shoulders and arms, like armor. I’d been enamored of the brother, and wanted one immediately. To me, they felt like stories on your skin, promises, wishes; marks of who you were on the inside and where you’d been and where you intended to go. They were physical reminders of one’s will.
I have a twisted band of eternity symbol around my ankle, a reminder of all the shit, how I’m tied to it forever, acknowledging it weighed me down and how I couldn’t ever leave the memories behind. Then I had a circle of rays representing the sun on my left shoulder blade, a celebration of my art as my sun. Elliot came with me to get the moon on the outside of my right breast. It symbolized my womanhood, me accepting myself as a woman. He helped me do that. On my bicep: a stylized wave in a filigree circle, portraying the ocean. Water was life to me and death, the womb and the grave. On the other bicep I had another band of looping eternities, for the sky. As a child the sky was the only freedom I could see. To have the sky on my skin declared that I was free, too.
With the tattoos I had taken possession of my body.
It was my body. Mine. I belonged to me.
God, please. Let me finally belong to me.
“Essa, we’re going to be late.”
I looked up from Gail Carringer’s latest, took a bite of apple. He leaned against the fridge.
“You go on. I want to finish this chapter.”
He frowned. “You’re skipping Neilstrom’s class, aren’t you?”
I tried to look innocent.
Elliot shook his head. “Did you not write the paper?”
“Oh, no. I wrote it. Would you take it in for me?”
He sighed. “Yeah, whatever.”
I went into the bedroom, found it on my desk. Elliot followed me and my shoulders went up when I turned around and saw the bulldog stubbornness written across his face like thunder looming in the distance.
“Then why aren’t you coming?”
I closed my eyes. God, I wish I knew.
“Okay,” he said. “Whatever. Too personal, huh?”
My eyes startled open. He grabbed the paper from my limp fingers and headed for the front door, opened it, stopped himself from leaving, slammed it closed. I jumped and he spun around, jammed a hand through all that mocha hair of his; down today and I just wanted to run my hands through it, to try to soothe away his anger.
“Okay, Es. Wouldn’t you say I give you a lot of space?”
I tilted my head away just a titch. “Sure?” He did. His kindness knew no end.
“I’m trying to be supportive and patient. That’s how my parents are. They support each other, give each other the benefit of the doubt. They’re amazing, my measure for a healthy relationship. Fuck, Es, I so want that with you. But I feel like I’m alone here, sometimes.”
I spun away, covered my mouth to keep it all in; that all-encompassing fear of him running away filled my heart. I couldn’t be who he wanted me to be. Was that what he was saying? Not yet. God, the painting wasn’t done yet.
“Hey, hey,” he touched my back and I leaned into it. “I’m not going anywhere, here. You tell me with your eyes what you won’t admit to yourself.”
I shook my head and he stroked my hair, one long slow caress down the whole length. At the end, down past my butt, he pulled gently, let go, and I turned around. He laid his forearm on my shoulder, tilted my face up with his other hand.
“Sweetheart, you’re just so broken in there. So unhappy. Bad shit happened, but don’t let it murder you, okay?”
I grabbed the least inflammatory statement and ran with it. “I’m not unhappy. I’m not. I’m just sort of... I don’t what the hell I am.” I never knew what I felt.
“You’re sad, Es. All the time, almost. You were getting better and then I threw the love stuff in... I just don’t know how to help you. I don’t know how to make you happy.”
I slid a hand in his back pocket, kissed that soft mouth of his and pulled away. “You can’t make me feel happy. But I’m not unhappy because of you, Elliot. I’ll try to... I don’t know. I’ll work on it, okay? I’ll try to be more aware. I’m sorry, okay? I’m so sorry I can’t give you what you need.”
He shook his head. “You give me what I need every day. They’re just words, Es. Just words. You show me you feel them every moment we’re together. Don’t be scared. I’m here for you, okay? I’m not going anywhere.”
I backed up, hand over my mouth, a huge weight inside of me. I spoke through my fingers, shaking my head. “I can’t, okay? I can’t give you power over me. I won’t let you control me.”
He took the two steps over to me, cajoled my hand from my mouth and kissed my palm, all the while holding eye contact with me. His eyes: Dove grey. So fathomlessly compassionate. So infinitely far away and impossible for me to decipher.
God, I loved him too much.
“I don’t want to control you. I can barely take care of myself. I want you as you are, scars in place. You destroy me, Essa. Just to catch sight of you across campus. My god, my heart just explodes when I see you. And I know you feel it, too. I’ve seen you catch sight of me. You look at me like I’m your home. And all I want to be is that anchor, a place of safety for you. Okay? Just, you know, trust me.”
God! Trust: Was that even possible? “I can’t. I won’t.”
“You can’t trust me? Or you won’t. Really different meanings, there.”
I held my head. “Stop. Please.”
“I don’t want you to be my slave, Es. I have no interest in controlling you. I just need to know that you need me like I need you. So you’re like practically perfect in your independence. The proverbial perfect woman. But I’d like to know you think I’m special. Okay? That I freaking matter to you.”
“Oh, Elliot.” I go and bury my face in his chest, wrap my arms around him, breathe in woods and powder and strength and god, please, some patience, too. “Elliot, you do matter. I only want you. But love is too much. Too big for me. And trust? That part of me shattered into a thousand pieces ages ago. But babe, with all that, I still want to spend the rest of my life with you. Just you. You’re that great.”
“Isn’t that what love is? Deciding someone is great enough to spend the rest of your life with. You know, always and forever.”
I pulled away from him, tucked my arms around my belly. Elliot touched my face, smiled this sweet, sad smile that broke my heart.
He said, “Gotta go, babe. Already late. See you in thesis.”
He shut the door quietly behind him and I leaned against it, slumped down onto my haunches, elbows on my knees, hands out in front me; empty. Always empty.
I don’t talk about why. I can’t. Not to anyone. Because nobody believed me then. Nobody but Grandpapa. And then he died. I tried to kill myself then, too. Didn’t take. So why should I talk about bullshit that broke me, destroyed me? Hulled the innocence straight out of me.
I’d never be that scared, damaged little girl again. Nope. Not that.
I walked into thesis 45 minutes late with a few drinks in me, just to take the edge off, and sat next to Elliot in the back. Cody lectured about something, barefoot in jeans, an Alaskan Amber tee, and an open flannel. Elliot raised an eyebrow at me. I shrugged. He frowned, turned back to Cody, and then we all succumbed to the slides he put on after dimming the lights.
I sat there, staring at the paintings Cody ticked past us as he yammered about each of them with violent speed. I felt like that could be my life up there, splashed in blues and violets and oranges and greens. Like it was all going too fast and I couldn’t comprehend the meaning.
I felt my nails digging into my arms just as they sank into the skin. I rubbed at the welling blood and squeezed my eyes shut for the rest of the presentation, virtually painting in my head the next scene in the series for my show. Trying to take myself away from the dissonance all around me.
Finally, finally Cody let us go. As we gathered our stuff up Cody requested my presence at the podium. He slowly collected his notes as I shuffled my books and bag and phone. “So?” he said.
“I was late.” I glanced at the smartboard, notes still splashed across the white.
“Yes. I know.” He stopped fiddling with his papers and studied me. “And?”
I looked down at the worn carpeting, lifted my shoulders. “No excuse. Just late.”
“What were you doing?”
He had started this campaign to get me graduated last semester. He seemed to actually care. I hated that. I glared up at him. “I had a couple drinks, okay? Satisfied?”
He sighed, ran a hand over thinning hair. “Are you okay?”
My fists clenched on my belongings. “It’s none of your business, Cody. You just get to grade me not invade my life.”
He lifted his hands in surrender. “Okay. Fine. I’d just really like to graduate you but it’s gonna be hard if you don’t come to my class. We only meet once a week. You can manage that, Essa.”
Elliot waited for me in the hall. “Well?”
I reminded myself that breathing was not an option. In and out, I told my lungs. “Lost track of time.” I headed for the studio, Elliot loping along beside me.
“You’re driving me crazy,” he whispered.
I stopped dead, turned to him: Saw him. He was beautiful, his curling mocha hair long, pulled back with a strip of leather. His face, so strong with bones trying to knife through his cheekbones and jaw. But he looked tired with these dark circles under his soft grey eyes.
He looked nothing like my uncle.
Why did he love me? I couldn’t be easy or witty or charming to be with and I’d been called a pill and much worse by many.
“Elliot, how can I change my skin, my self, but still remain me? How can I leave but still live?”
He looked down, back up at me, scraped a thumb over his eyebrow, rubbed the heel of his hand against his forehead. “Okay. We’re going in deep, ‘cause I don’t know what the hell that means. You trying to say you want to kill yourself, Essie?” His voice went all husky at the end and his dove grey eyes smoked to storm. “Es, is that what you meant?”
I looked around; empty hallway. I pulled all my hair back, spun around, tried desperately to articulate what I couldn’t understand welling up inside of me. The talk we’d just had, the drinking which I hardly ever did. Those slides racing past me. All of it: A juggernaut of Too Much.
“God, Elliot, I don’t know. I don’t know what I mean. I’m just so fucking tired of all of this and god, it feels like the world is falling apart and I’m right there with it.” I covered my mouth with fingers like ice.
“Essie, baby you’ve got to swear you’d never do that. I couldn’t handle that. You know that, right? I’d never...”
Two students came around the corner, took one look at us, turned and walked back the way they’d came.
We looked at each other and looked away, stopped short from where ever we’d been going.
“We’ve got to finish this later.” Elliot ran a thumb down my cheek. “Okay? We’ll talk later.”
I stood there, watching him, afraid of what he’d say, what he’d do if and when I gave in, gave him the power to destroy me. He held my gaze for a moment, then looked down.
“I hate it when you look at me that way.”
“I’m afraid to ask what I look like.”
“You look at me like you’re unsure of what I’m capable of. Like I may do something horrible. What, I don’t know, but Es, that look says you’re scared of me. You look at me like I’m going to hurt you.”
I blinked, pulled away. “Later, right? We’ll finish this later.”
“Yes,” I said. “Of course we will.”
“We can’t let this go. We’ve said too much.”
He smiles, but it’s not a real smile. “Es, you’re the only person that can make me feel like a monster. I’m not whoever, whatever hurt you, okay?”
I breathed in, shuddering. “You’re the only living person that I know for a fact isn’t dreadful. You’re not a monster. But I am afraid of you.”
“You told me the sky tattoo proves that you’re free from your past, but goddamnit, you’re the most imprisoned person I’ve ever known. I know I’m not supposed to talk about this shit. Sweetheart, I’m fighting phantoms and I don’t know how to defend against them. I’m bringing my fists to the OK Corral, here.”
That shattered me, his pain spilled out before me like so much gasoline, just waiting for a fuse to blow. I put a hand out, to try to calm the waters.
“I want to trust you. I want to tell you... I want to share with you how I feel but I’m not built for this.”
Elliot glanced down, nodded. Looked up into my eyes, holding my gaze. “Know this: I love you. It’s a choice, a commitment. You will not, cannot scare me away.”
I swallowed. “All right.” I tried to understand what he meant, wondered what he meant when he used the word, ‘love.’ I got the strange feeling that it meant something totally different to him than it did to me.
To me, love meant ultimate surrender. It meant to lay one’s body out on an alter and hand over an axe to the one you professed to love. It meant the beginning of the death of one’s soul, of one’s self. Painful and bitter, like swallowing acid.
I thought Elliot might be the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen. He thought I was crazy to think such a thing, but I was convinced. Mocha, curling, shoulder-blade length hair, face all angles and planes. Skin like caramel, perpetually tan. Tall and slim. He mostly wore browns and greys, some blues and greens. I constantly borrowed his clothes. He had all these ancient wool sweaters with the elbows worn out and old vintage tees with obscure logos. He wore henleys and corduroys and Converse All-Stars. I felt that when I borrowed his clothes, I could maybe borrow his skin for a little while. Honest. Sure. Beautiful. Still. Trustworthy.
I adored his paintings. They exuded a startling honesty, a purity. He painted people, but not really portraits, those stuffy old things sitting in important people’s offices. No, Elliot painted a person’s inner soul, somehow capturing who they were, rather than just what they looked like. He painted people he knew, people he liked. When I looked at those paintings I could see him there, too, and how he felt about them. How much he loved all of them.
Elliot was patient. I’d never met anyone as still as he could be. Not particularly physically still, because, god, that boy was almost never at rest. But internally still, like inside he knew his place in the cosmos. I envied that so much.
I didn’t understand him.
I didn’t understand why he loved me at all.
I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just hand over what he needed. They were just words, weren’t they? I wanted to love him, wanted desperately to trust him. Grandpapa would’ve said Elliot was entirely worthy of those things. I knew he would’ve.
What the fuck held me at the brink of this cliff? Why the hell couldn’t I just jump?
Elliot began to hang around with the guys from the auto repair shop. We never finished the conversation in the hallway. In his absence I became aware of how integral he’d become to me. That terrified me, that need.
And then we both got wrapped up getting ready for our imminent shows. I had to have at least three more ceramic pieces and two more paintings. He needed to finish the painting of me; he’d suddenly decided it would be the focal piece of his show. I hadn’t seen it yet, which made me really anxious. There I’d be, naked for the whole world to see. Maybe nobody would know it was me.
Elliot once told me he liked waking up to my face; that my face was the first thing he saw. I couldn’t think of the correct response.
I wasn’t worthy of that love.
Don’t share your heart like that.
Don’t you see the imperfections? The eye crud, the bad breath, the matted hair.
The thing I’d really wanted to say was that I liked it, too. I loved waking up to his smile, to him smiling at me.
God, I missed that.
I felt as if I could be breaking, breaking open, light shining through the cracks. Would the breaking kill me or save me?
I sat at the back of Cody’s weekly lecture, wondering where Elliot had hidden himself. Wondered when I’d have time to mix up the celadon glaze I needed. Never enough hours in the day. I felt like someone had stolen something from me that I’d never had.
The door opened and I saw out of the corner of my eye that Elliot came in, fifty minutes late. He sat beside me and I smiled at him. He smiled back but it was one of his not-real smiles.
He was taking back what he’d offered, wasn’t he?
I saw my life then, stretched out in front of me: Lonely, afraid of people hurting me. Locked up in a house or cabin with only a dog for company. God! God. I turned blindly to the front of the classroom and willed myself not to break apart in a thousand pieces. He would betray me, he would destroy me.
He already had. No one could be perfect. No one could live up to my stupidly high expectations.
At the end of class, Cody called Elliot up. I waited outside the room for fifteen minutes but had to go on to the ceramics studio. There was too much to do and not enough time.
“Wake up, Essie. I need you in the studio, okay? We’ve got to finish your painting tonight.”
I rolled over, away from him. I now knew I couldn’t go on without him but I was afraid to face him with this knowledge in my fists. I’d given him too much power. But maybe it was okay when you gave someone power over you. Like they gave it back once you’d given it to them. A gift they held with light hands.
“Es, come on. I need you, babe. I’ve just got to have this painting in the show. I think it’s my best ever. The most important piece I’ve ever done.” He sat on the edge of my side of the bed, ran his hand over my hair. I rolled onto my back, smiled at him. He smiled at me, turned on the bedside lamp. I threw a forearm over my eyes until I’d adjusted. I looked at him then, and saw the ever darkening circles under his eyes, joined now with lines around his soft, sad mouth. It had been two weeks since we’d actually talked to each other more than just in passing.
“You look exhausted. How long since you’ve gotten any decent sleep?”
“I dunno. Long time. No time for that.”
“Well, come here. Sleep a bit. Then we’ll go to the studio.”
He stood up, raked fingers through his hair, paced back and forth in front of me. I propped myself up, looked at the clock. Three in the morning,
“I can’t, Es. I’ve got it. I can see what it needs, you know? I was just in there, staring at it for I don’t know how long and something finally clicked. I know what it needs so I can’t sleep, okay? Not yet. Later. After we work.”
I got up, nodding. Of course he had to finish it. I admired his vision so much. I walked to the bathroom, looked over my shoulder. “Take a shower with me?”
“Yeah, yeah. I could use one of those.”
So we took a shower, washed each other’s hair, made slow desperate love. He’d gotten too thin, hip bones jutting out. The sound of the water and our bodies slapping and our breathing filled me to bursting. We got dressed silently, but I knew that he could tell that something had changed in me. I felt his nervousness.
I wanted to say it then, so bad, but I didn’t want to mess up his focus. So I stayed silent.
We walked to campus holding hands. Snow lay still on the ground and the dark pressed in on us like a furred thing, breathing silence and chilled air down my neck. Elliot’s hand felt solid surrounding my own small soft one. His seemed like a worn hammer, like the wheel of an old car. Like something that’s always been there, something that would always be there. I tried to shrug off the feeling of importance of what was essentially just a transient moment.
In the studio I watched him prepare his palette: alizarin crimson, yellow ochre, hooker’s green, ultramarine blue, thio violet, titanium white, burnt sienna, raw sienna, burnt umber. His paintings tended toward earthy colors, warm and lush, whereas mine hung around in the bluish-violet range, cool and distant.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m ready. How ‘bout you?”
I nodded, folded a towel up to sit on, so it wouldn’t show, sat down and let the sheet pool around me. Elliot walked over and pulled a bit of hair down, to hang along my cheek. He moved my leg a bit, placed the sheet just so; between my legs and across my breasts. He double checked the painting, fussed a bit more with the sheet.
“Okay?” I asked.
He stepped back, nodded, already painting in his head. I stared down at the concrete as it blurred before me. I would not cry.
I loved him. I really did. I hated him for that.
At his opening, Elliot and I walked in together. He wouldn’t let me see the painting so I was shaking in my anxiety. I patted my purse, where I’d slipped a Klonopin, just in case.
The gallery was packed and Elliot buzzed. I just wanted/didn’t want to see the painting. How did he see me? Would it be a mirror or an x-ray? A couple guys from work came over and slapped him on the back, congratulating him. I slipped away.
It hung on the exit wall, the last painting people would see. It was huge. I’d known it was, but seeing it there, framed, taking up the whole damn wall, I felt slammed by the weight of it.
It was gorgeous, a masterwork. I was beautiful, shockingly so. My hair floated like seaweed, like I was under water. The background held amorphous shapes, liquid-like, blue and purple and green, like the painting could be a lens to the bottom of the ocean.
I stepped closer. The girl in the painting: her face so sad, so beautiful. It was amazing, shocking, appalling. Could Elliot still love me?
“Hey,” he said, touching my left elbow. “What do you think?”
I tried to pull back, to struggle from the wake of the painting but it had destroyed me. “Oh, Elliot, it’s a masterwork.”
He looked down at me, eyes alight that quickly turned to concern. “You’re crying, Essie. You hate it, right?”
I shook my head, surreptitiously wiped my cheeks, shocked that I’d cried. “It’s magnificent. I... Elliot.”
He turned me to him. “It’s you. I thought I’d push myself with these paintings, but this one? It ripped me.”
“You rip me.”
“Elliot.” I looked into his eyes, couldn’t quite read them. He would always be a mystery. I took my courage into my hands and said, “I love you, Elliot.”
I used to think life was waiting; waiting for the next calamity, for things to make sense, to finally be happy. Waiting for the end. Waiting for answers and redemption.
Now I’d decided it was more like a journey, complete with smooth spots and rough spots and construction zones. I so desperately wanted to know how it would all turn out, how all of this could possibly be alright. I wanted to know how I could be happy. How I could possibly forgive them.
What I’d begun to learn, though, on this fool’s journey, was that it was imperative to find something, someone to hold on to. Someone who saw you, had witnessed your scars but still wanted to keep holding on. No one could survive alone. It hollowed me, shattered me; that need of mine.
But I would still hold on tight.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Beth Emery has always counted her many moves by her natural surroundings: seashore, deep forests, desert, Arctic tundra, mountains, northern wilderness. She now writes by the Midnight Sun and constantly paints the images she can’t get out of her head.