Painted Pictures

I moved out with my princess bedroom furniture, college loans and cat.  We moved into the loft together and I lost my virginity to a writer who was twice my age.  In short, I was lost and frightened for a while.  

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Working in the city meant semi starvation rations, living in the city meant free days at the museum of art, tranquil walks even in the coldest winter months.  My worst day was when Pristina died.  She came with me to the city when I moved from my parents home in the suburbs and the community college that taught me nothing.  They tolerated both of us (yes the college as well).

I moved out with my princess bedroom furniture, college loans and cat.  We moved into the loft together and I lost my virginity to a writer who was twice my age.  In short, I was lost and frightened for a while.

After I found myself awake beside the man I didn’t know,  my longing for Pristina grew – she was just across the hall all alone.  I crept out of bed, gathered up my strewn clothing and crept along the hallway to my own studio apartment.  I cried and petted my cat telling her that I would not leave her again.  I fell asleep, the next day I was late for work though refreshed.  I received a promotion, raise as well as a corner office in the basement that year for my diligence.

I didn’t go home for Christmas that year.  In the new year my parents wrote me from Florida encouraging me to visit them in the new retirement community they had found.  I started working a second job in the evening and for two years Pristina and I worked and slept in a studio apartment and the writer across the hall slipped us poetry under our door.

I paid off my last college loan on November 16th and that night I ordered out and shared a rare New York Strip with soft wedged potatoes sprinkled with sea salt and vinegar for myself and Pristina.  Pristina sneezed over the potatoes and licked her lips each time she swallowed a dainty piece of meat.  She taught me the art of savoring a meal.

Pristina and I moved to a one bedroom apartment with wooden floors and an ancient looking bathroom which depressed us both.  The kitchen was dark green with brown linoleum and I told myself we would get used to it because the skyline of Chicago was worth the depressing dark interior.  It wasn’t and one year later we moved into a renovated old brick factory.  The writer who turned poet lived on the bottom floor with his wife and their golden retriever.  The writer turned poet’s wife would tap on my door; she had long dark black hair and her face was smooth but she would smile at me and invite me to their apartment.  “No worries, no worries, I’m not jealous.  Come and eat with us.”  I always refused and Pristina would sit upon an old heat register meowing at the poor dog who lacked exercise.

I left for work one frigid January day and was late coming home because the CTA was running slow and the sidewalks were slippery.  Pristina was alone and in the dark when she died without me.

Her funeral expenses set me back financially, and I had to miss a day of work but I came home with a jasper jar with her ashes in it.  I called my mother to tell her and after explaining that Pristina had not died years ago I hung up and sat in the dark.  I understood the coldness of a smooth jasper jar.

The writer turned poet, turned writer showed up in February with a great framed painting of Pristina for my brick walls.

“You need color up here.  Pristina, her dark fur and golden eyes will make this place feel like home again.”

I said nothing to him while he drilled and worked and swept up the dust of his labors.

“Why don’t you have dinner with us?”

“No thank you.”

He slid the wide door of my apartment shut and tip toed away.  I sat in the dark for another night with my back to the painting.

April in Chicago can be violent.  The wind slammed and bounced against the tall buildings and tumbled down to rattle old brick ones sheltering poets, writers, wives and administrative assistants.  The dog below howled in a low whimper when the lightning was replaced by the thunder.  Pristina lept down from her perch on the wall and walked, her tail perpendicular, to the register and sat to mew in the old register.

There was calmness.

I thought of making love one more time to the poet before I had my picture painted and hung next to Pristina but thought no, I did not want to surrender again to my needy self consumed psyche which was only fodder for the deceitful.  You see, I spent so much time imagining my happy ending I discovered I loved being relieved it never happened.  In fact I realized that there was no such thing as poets, painters or writers only a terror of being alone.

Dead Today

How long are we dead Missy? A moment, a flash of time that encompasses exquisite pain and then – what? Do we remain in a paroxysm of memory or do we go blank a sudden release?  And really, old friend, what is worse?

So I read today that you are dead.

Are dead, and were dead, and was dead. Ah the beauties of the English language, each statement reflects for the audience who I am…well to hell with them.

How long are we dead Missy? A moment, a flash of time that encompasses exquisite pain and then – what? Do we remain in a paroxysm of memory or do we go blank a sudden release?  And really, old friend, what is worse?

Your obituary was short and brief; no viewing, no opportunity to submit to your favorite charity – the abortion clinic, the woman’s homeless shelter or possibly the city’s club for user men. They put you in your grave and since weather permits a “brief” family ceremony is allowed, graveside, where the dirt hides their mess now. At last, my friend, your very own address.

And what dear, is the ceremony about? The children that don’t know you because you were unfit or broke or worse, deceived into believing you were too much of all the above?  What of the son who was raised by your parents, the same parents who smiled at our girl scout uniforms and told us both we were communists? What, would, will, shall, it be about?

And your “companions,” will they be there? Yeah, I know dear and so do you, if they slept with you then they loved you right? Tell me, did you ever get over that notion? You know, being able to brush your teeth, look in the mirror and say, ‘I am more than an easy lay’? Or did it ever occur to you that possibly sex, no matter how intense, is not love? Did they ever give you the time?

Maybe, I don’t know.

Missy, I always thought you pretty; your smoke-blue eyes and blemishless ivory skin, even young as we were, I thought you pretty. It was always you who ran from the boys on the playground — they showing you their crotch and yelling, “sharpen my pencil, Missy, sharpen it for me.” On the playground, God help the early-developed girl.

Later we watched the boys, who stood up straight for the blond prom queen’s father. While they fawned over future wives, they made sure you knew their intent; making you blush and me shudder. They snickered in their Christian youth groups and pondered you. We fooled ourselves into thinking that their gold crosses meant something to them. But they were raised right and condoms were always ready in their pockets and roomy back seats. For justice’s sake, I wish them daughters with large breasts and low self-esteems.

As for me, I wait for the dead to tap on my windowpane, and for someone else to tell me their name. Today it was yours and in a swirl of green girl scout uniforms, hobo Halloween costumes and trampled prom dresses your blank, smoke-blue eyes, look back at me, no more questions just perhaps surprise.

 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Train

Short train rides change perception, rarely reality.

Our coffee cups, still in the sink, a few crumbs on the counter, added to the house’s feel of empty and ignored as I enter in what was just a few hours ago, familiar.  You tried to clean up before we left but I wanted to get started.  I have no idea why I was so anxious.

Actually, I do know why, both of us tired, the train trip back into the city seemed excruciating to me.  The night before we had the train practically to ourselves.  Oh, a few people sat in jolting, distant, silence, here and there within the train car we were in – an older gentleman, who thought you were my wife, sat across from where we stood.  I didn’t try to dissuade him of his notion.  You had your back to him but I watched him watching us.  Though your hair was pinned, somehow, high upon your head soft curling strands fell down upon the curve and back of your neck — small glints of silver gray, unashamed, glistened upon your temples.  Your eye makeup, slightly smudged from blinking and rubbing fatigue, only seemed to make your appearance softer.  You insisted upon standing, claiming you preferred it but we both knew you were simply fighting sleep.  I looked away from you to hide a smile and caught the old man looking at us — his expression, a sort of longing look, perhaps envy.

So I turned back to you, looked down upon your face, pale, sleepy, beautiful.

I opened up my arms, grasping the cold metal bars above your hands.  You blinked and looked up at me.  A small frown between your eyes and I realized you were questioning me.  Was I really inviting you to step forward, place your head upon my shoulder, lean in?  Gently I inclined my head toward my shoulder.

No sarcasm just rest. Trust me a little.

You did.

You moved forward and I lost sight of you but for the first time, beyond the casual handshake or the quick friendship hug, I felt you.

Your body against mine, resting.

For the first time in years, I was slammed with continuous, slightly frenzied thought.  I was terrified I would have an erection and then terrified I wouldn’t, then terrified I was having those types of thoughts about a woman who was diametrically different from me in almost every way.  And then I caught sight of the old man again, he winked at me and smiled and quickly looked away.

Was he afraid I’d try to explain?  Hey, she isn’t my wife, she’s the most aggravating, mind-bending, hawkish woman I’ve ever met.  I became conscious of your weight against me and realized I was the only one on the train stressing.  Stressing like some overwrought prom date.  So I lowered my arms along the bars to encase you further against me and I felt a small shiver move between us.  You seemed to radiate heat within my protective circle; a heat I was aware of but not consumed by, a heat that was meant for me to know of, but not to know.  A heat that so few women are aware they possess, that permeates their body when approached like the opening of a leaf when finally in sunlight long enough.  A power really, that is self-contained, yet subconsciously utilized.

I thought about saying that aloud but I could hear your scoff, your “masculine conceit,” argument and so remained silent.

I continued to watch nothing out the window, the flash of lights as the train moved quickly from the old city to where I lived, alone in the new housing.  I thought of the many times I had made this trip by myself, exuberant from a time on the town, ready for solitude and rest.  Would I feel that way again?

The train began to slow, our stop tonight, mine alone later.  I felt your reluctance to move so I moved my chin against your forehead, felt your soft skin beneath me.  I could feel the old man watching and I most desperately did not want you to thank me.  I felt myself stiffen as if waiting for a tight-fisted blow but you didn’t even look up.  You placed your hand upon the center of my chest as if touching me was something you did often, and softly pushed yourself away.

The train stopped and the rattle of the doors opening and the cold air of late night, early morning, coursed into the car.  I glanced back.  The old man was watching, again his look of envy or remorse upon his face, but he wasn’t looking at me, he was looking at you.  We stepped toward the door and your hand was in mine.  You never held my hand before and I did not feel incredulous but suddenly concerned for you.

The doors shut behind us and we began moving away from the platform, toward my house, my small world I had let you invade, on my invite, for a few days.

“Do you think he rides just to pass the time?”

I looked away from your face, your sad voice but re-gripped your small hand in mine and said nothing.  I did not realize you had even noticed the old man.  Rebukes flooded my mind.  What did you care, you who feel overtaxed, and burdened by the world, what could you care about one lonely old man.  I remained silent and we continued to walk because your rebuke would make sense too.  Why was he alone, when could society take the place of an individual’s touch?

The street was dark, my house darker.  My hand trembled as I inserted my key into the lock and opened the door.

I stepped aside and let you in first.

You walked down the long hall toward that narrow entry room that separated the dining room from the drawing room.  I watched you.  You placed your hand deep within your hair and pulled out the magic that held it aloft upon your head all evening.  I watched your hair cascade down and brush your shoulders.  You placed the magic absent-mindedly upon the small narrow table that belonged to my Mother and seemed destined for this narrow tall house, deep within this bohemian, suburban, sprawl.

Your back still to me, your hands went up and rubbed your temples and I could imagine your face, eyes closed and worried about the old man on the train.

I wanted to man up, wrap my arms around you, fight your hair ‘til I found your neck and place wet kisses there, feel the tension drain away and hear you sigh.  I wanted to work every inch and curve of your body against mine.  Maybe you were right, there might be a God, and He had a hand in making things fit.

The moment passed, I allowed it.

I let it pass and I let you walk to your room, close the door without saying goodnight and I sat up the rest of the night with very expensive wine and as far away from God as the day I decided He didn’t exist.

You told me not to stay with you at the airport, that you’d be fine and I honestly felt that you meant it.  You seemed relieved to be there, to be boarding a plane back to your beloved Chicago.  Dark circles under your eyes and your hair disheveled and sexy, the waiting area for your flight suddenly seemed to lift your spirits.

I thought seriously for a moment about leaving.  We were adults, behaved like adults, and didn’t have a thing to worry about or remember tonight.  But to your annoyance, I stayed and I wanted you to take my hand and I wanted to put my arm around you while we waited but you read your book and I paced the floor.

A call to board.

Why had I waited for this moment?  What did I face now?  A quick, friendly hug, a joke, a laugh –next year in Chicago.  But you had caught on, hadn’t you?  You straightened your back, shrugged your bag higher up on your shoulder, and waited for me.  For one moment, one glorious moment, I thought, yes, I surrender.  I surrender and there is no way in hell that you can stay but I don’t care the enormity of pain watching you board that plane will be worth one honest square moment.

I asked you what the weather was like in Chicago.

The weather.

You didn’t say anything, smiled a small smile, gave me a quick kiss and was gone.

And now I’m standing in this house.  Sunlight streaming into the windows, dust motes floating in the air and the sound of a distant city on a Sunday afternoon.

I waited for the telephone to ring, had visions of you at my front door but the house remained quiet.  I told myself, as I settled in and cooked my evening meal peace and tranquility had settled back into my house.

I preferred to be alone, admired from a distance, known for my austerity and non-hypocritical friendship, I was a haven for my friends.

Darkness and I still waited for the telephone to ring.

I broke down, washed your coffee cup from the morning, and placed it away with the others.  I went upstairs and entered the guest room.  I could smell your perfume, knew that I would.  I told you to leave the bed that I’d wash the sheets for the next guest.  I pictured myself naked chest down upon your sheets, shook my head and roughly pulled the bedding up ignoring your sent and stumbled out the bedroom door.

I washed everything.  My small machine and I worked.  I sweated hanging your sheets in the basement to dry, smelling now like laundry detergent.

No one at the door, no telephone ringing, I grabbed my keys, locked the front door and started walking.  An all-night coffee house down the street.  I took you there a couple of days ago.

The coffee house was expensive but good.  I took no book, no electronic gadget, I just watched the quiet Sunday evening world move by.

And oddly enough I didn’t look for you.

You are gone.

I looked for the old man.

I saw my partial reflection in the depth of the coffee cup.  I saw my reflection, dimly, in the darkened windows of the shop.  I tried to look beyond myself, out to the suburb and city I know, but my reflection was in the way.  My hair, silver, my expression somber, my shoulders still broad, not stooped, not yet.  What would we look like sitting there together?

What did we look like sitting there?

My hand didn’t tremble at all when I pushed the key into the lock and shoved open my front door.  The door did not creak and the floorboards beneath me did not moan.  The house was dark; I switched on the light and stood in the long hall.  There where you left them, were the magic hairpins upon my Mother’s table.  I picked them up and held them in my hand.  Smooth, warm, small; how could something so compact help defy gravity?  I placed them back down on the table, arranging them how you had left them.  I walked up the stairs, into the barren guest room, laid down on the bare mattress, smelling faintly of your perfume.

If I Entered Hell

My Beatrice would be a monk with whom I would never confess I was in love with

If I became the female self of Dante

I would hope that Hans Rookmaaker would be my Virgil.

Hell then would be a circular art gallery, a gradual, seven story spiral ending in an ice box.

And within the ice box perhaps Monet, paint brush in hand.

Frozen in the act of painting light, a perplexed look on his face.

“Where is the sensation?” — his eyes would ask; sensation being the only reality of life

for him.

I would ask my guide if I should tell him that he is dead — and my guild would shake his head,

no.

‘Monet lives at last, he feels the cold of his encased death.’

And my guide would pity me, and take me to my Beatrice — a monk who writes the classics and beautifies the deep well walls of knowledge.

There I would stay never saying I was deeply in love with him.

 

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

 

Accidents

he sat stony-eyed not acknowledging Carlos at all.  “Darla will have a glass of the house wine,” I said hastily fearing she would do something unconventional. 

“I have one question.” She looked at me with something between dread and vexation which merged and culminated in a purely “Darla-like” expression.

“I know, I know but really just one question,” I pleaded.  Darla leaned back and gave me a slight nod.  Taking that as permission I blurted it out, “What happened to men?”

Her pale skin blanched to a sudden milky gray and her beautiful sculptured lips turned a leaden color her smile conveyed a sort of evil satisfaction.  “Nothing, they’ve always been that way, you’ve just noticed.  That’s what I hate about optimists.”

Darla’s voice sounded as if she were down a deep echoing well.

Carlos, our usual waiter, was walking up to our table.  I could tell he was having a bad day because his usually pristine and pressed black trousers were splattered with something shiny from the knee down.  His small white apron had a washed out yellow looking blob almost dead center.  I felt myself turn red because the stain was dead center so I hoped whatever hit him hadn’t been painful.

“Stop blushing you idiot,” Darla whispered, “and stop looking at his crotch.”

Darla was never very nice.  I looked away and tried to compose myself.

Carlos came up to me and didn’t smile.  “How are you today?” he asked and I knew he didn’t care to know.

“I’ll just have a cup of coffee and whatever pie you have today,” I said squinting up at him.  He had managed to stand just where the sun was painful when looking up.  I though perhaps he should have been an international spy or an assassin rather than a waiter.  I looked over at Darla, blinking heavily.  She sat stony-eyed not acknowledging Carlos at all.  “Darla will have a glass of the house wine,” I said hastily fearing she would do something unconventional.

Carlos walked away not letting me know what sort of pie to expect.

“You see?” said Darla.  He’s a man and a typical one.  He has had a bad day, splattering grease on his pants…

“Trousers…”

“His pants when emptying the garbage at home before he came to work.  While at work some clumsy American tourist like you…

“Expatriate, I live here,”

“Tourist spills their orange juice in a projectile fashion because they saw a spider on the table so naturally, he’s a total shit to you.”

“Oh I know men are moody and take out all their frustrations on women, I was just wondering what happened to them physically.”

Darla lifted her eyebrows to me in question.

I looked about at the street, narrow hipped men with billowing shirts and long hair.  “They are all different colors and heights but all look the same.”

“Perhaps you are simply become cured of obsessing over them,” Darla said.

Carlos reappeared, his face looking like it was carved in oak.  He placed my coffee and blueberry pie in front of me and Darla’s wine in the center of the table. “Will that be all?” I could tell Carlos didn’t want to be standing next to the table. Darla stretched out her long gray hand and pulled the wine to her side of the table.  Carols blanched visibly.

“She is here today?” asked Carlos.

“She sees you, Carlos.  I’m sorry for that, truly.  I’m sorry too about the clumsy American tourist.”

I was sorry too, Darla was relentless and very good in causing accidents.

Caves

The cave was deep and little was known about it.  That’s the thing with quiet little states like Indiana, nobody realizes the secrets it holds.  I knew simply because I was, for the most part, alone.  What else did I have to do than read books and listen in on conversations? 

The cave was deep and little was known about it.  That’s the thing with quiet little states like Indiana, nobody realizes the secrets it holds.  I knew simply because I was, for the most part, alone.  What else did I have to do than read books and listen in on conversations?

I hate the summer heat and to this day I lay low when summer is at its zenith.  I suspected that the small cave near the river was not just a small cave.  John Wilkie would take foolish girls there and so it began to have a reputation.  I suspect that John Wilkie, tall and good-looking as he was, really didn’t know what to do with a girl, so he took the doe-eyed ones to the small cave by the river just to get the girl to sit close to him and shudder.  There were a few fathers and elder brothers that didn’t weep at his memorial service but still, he has his name in bronze over at the courthouse square on the World War I memorial.

I digress.

John Wilkie, Salem Schultz, and Nathanial Barrow were the river rats of the town and on hot summer afternoons, they would take a raft up and down the river and spear carp and catfish.  Every once in awhile they would put a line in and pull up bluegill.  Salem’s father was a whiz at smoking fish and I even had the honor once or twice to try the delicacy as my father and Salem’s father were fairly good friends.  One such night, my hands greasy from smoked fish, my senses were deadened by the drowsy conversation between my father and his friend.  They spoke of their own fathers and their memories of the civil war, which to me, in 1914 seemed eons ago.  I was fourteen, wore wire-rimmed glasses and had grown at least two inches that year.  I stuck close to home, the library and anyplace relatively cool.

“Let’s go to the cave.”

“No, I don’t want to go to that stupid cave.”

“Why not?  It will be great at night.”

I spoke up, amongst the whispered conversation of the boys who never took any interest in a bookworm like me.  “You know, I think that cave is probably connected to a much larger cavern or cave system.”

There was a dead silence and I felt myself grow red.  The heat along my neck and face positively burned.  What had made me open my mouth?

“Who asked you worm?”  I couldn’t tell which one whispered that in my ear but all three chuckled as if the words were unique in the annals of slights and rudeness.  Perhaps that was what prompted my boldness, they were such dullards.

“Actually, I’m sure that cave is part of a larger cave.   There is even a possibility that an underground river is involved.”

I was practically drug to that cave with the words, “prove it, know-it-all, and smarty pants,” filling the air as we walked down the dirt road, and down the narrow path to the river.  The darkness was complete as the town’s lights disappeared behind the steep bank of the river.  We felt our way along the bank with the swift water just at our feet and the gleam of fast running river expanding out before us.  I was relieved when we all managed to crowd into the narrow cave opening.  To actually get into the cave we had to belly crawl.  I didn’t like it as I wasn’t fond of small places but the natural stone walls quickly gave way to a fairly large cavern.  Nathanial lit the lantern and the cave walls lit up with the spark of tiny quartz and dripping wet stone.

I had been in the cavern before and seen the impressive glitter.  There had even been some geologist down from Chicago to examine the cave.  It was from over hearing those men talk in my father’s store that they suspected the cave was part of a larger cave system.  The bought supplies from my father intent on exploring the cave in greater detail but were at the last minute called back to Chicago.

They never came back.

“It’s cold in here.”

“Hush, did you hear that?”

“Stop it, Salem, nobody wants to hear your ghost stories.”

“No, Nate, really, I think we should go.”

The cave did seem unusually cold.  I was delighted.  Perhaps this was where I could escape to occasionally from the heat.

“Hey, I think I heard it too.”

“What?”

“Like voices.”

I moved to the outer line of the light.  Nate had held up the lantern but his hand was shaking and the light shook with him.  Suddenly we were in complete darkness and what shattered me was that I heard nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  There was no sound from the boys, no teasing or angry words and I heard nothing hit the stony ground.

I am pretty good at keeping my bearings and I felt that if I followed my left hand straight ahead I could reach the small opening that led to the river.  I knew that I had been duped but still it was terrifying to be left alone in that cave.  I moved ahead swiftly and bumped into something soft and warm.  It bounced off of me and then seemed to swing back and forth a darker shadow than the blackness about me.

I fell to the ground.  The ground was wet and smelled of urine.  I scrambled forward and bumped into a soft lump that shuddered and cried softly.

“John?”

“Worm?”

I crawled over him and he grasped my foot following me forward.  I heard a soft scratching and some whispering overhead.  I moved faster and John Wilkie nearly crawled over me.  I felt the fresh air and so did John because he pushed me aside and pulled himself out.  As I crawled out I felt a stabbing pain in my right foot and I shouted out in agony.  I made it to the small cave at the river and found John standing at the edge weeping.

My foot and leg were never the same.  I wasn’t fit for active duty when the war came.  My parents spoke in whispers near my sick bed and to me, they were always a little distant from that time on.  I was ill for a very long time.  I even had to complete my first few weeks of school at home.

I was never a popular boy so I can’t say I was bothered by the solitude.  The whispers were what bothered me the most.

“He’s poisoned.  What got Salem and Nate got a piece of him too.  He can see in the dark and his eyes flash red.”

You see, it’s important now that I stay incognito, I’m not so changed I need a cave to hunt in.

It’s Not Difficult

You can enter my mind through my heart

Just so you know, staying up late is not good for me, I’m a morning person.

Weary, I’ve stepped out on to my high tower ledge and found the big dipper just overhead;

Close but not touchable.

So, I point the momentum North and ride the will to survive into the icy cold.

The bay is rocky smooth, Superior ice blue and now I feel safe away from you.

Odd, I don’t fear the scythe-man and am terrified of you.

A vulnerability is impossible to live with.

The levitation is sudden, the atmosphere heavy, ripping down my body as I move up

No nest is a temptation from this lofty spot where I see the seas spin deep frothing white.

The ghosts step along the streets their staffs diamond willows that no one but a few knows exists.

Sit down across from me and answer my questions

Answer me

Love is what you’re best at, that is obvious while I ponder the ideology of believing in death

And not God.  So answer me, what has the world come to?

To each their own, to each their own.

To the west, to the east what was once frozen has dropped upon my front door and taken

The Limberlost

No, no she has simply gone deep as the stars have gone just out of reach

Don’t be afraid, I won’t ask any questions you can answer

You can get into my mind through my heart.

Please answer my question.  It’s not difficult.

 

Photo by Alfonso Ninguno on Unsplash