The tiny apartment was ours. It contained turpentine and tubes of oil paint, replete bookshelves spewing novels onto the floor, faded T-shirts, knit scarves, and well-preserved LPs. There was also a bed, a stove, an easel, cupboards, light bulbs, three tables, and our bodies. We ate Thai food at midnight, talked about existentialism before bed, loved each other, ignored each other, expected too much from each other, and did everything at once.
"Do you love me?" he asked abruptly, his head in the refrigerator, poking at emptiness and containers of hummus.
"I think I want to." From my niche on the couch, I tried not to look at him. In our small, spare home, the living room and kitchen were open, and privacy was absent everywhere except behind the bathroom door.
"It's not that easy," I said.
"Nobody's stopping you." He arranged magnets on the retro white refrigerator. At Quimby's bookstore he'd bypassed the poetry magnets, calling them pretentious, and picked up a box of brightly colored letter magnets, the kind children used for spelling. Since there was only one of each thick, plastic letter, we could only spell out simple ideas. HI. BYE. CAN. WON'T.
"That's the point," I said.
"What's the point?"
I stopped typing. "No one can make you love someone. It's a miracle." I remembered something. "Did you pay the electric?" He was notoriously late with deadlines. The apartment had darkened once when I was halfway through a shower, lavender-scented bubbles running down my eyes and me groping for soap and towel and light switch while slipping in the stall. The bruise from the slam of my elbow on the faucet handle lasted two weeks.
"I believe in miracles." His fingers pushed the magnets into forming NO and FAITH. I expected the lights to blink out just then, to whir and then snap off, but nothing happened.
"Wanting something doesn't make it happen." My fingers itched to return to the keyboard.
He leaned against the wall, brick rubbing his back. "It does if you want it badly enough."
I did love him, but I didn't want to. We loved each other, and maybe we didn't want that either. It was so easy to be in love, but so difficult to love him. I couldn't distinguish his feelings at any given moment, and the slight variations in tone that usually indicated mood were absent from him, replaced with a terse seriousness. His life as an artist was one of ideas and emotion, but it didn't involve the necessary mundane intricacies of life, the paying of bills, the changing of batteries, the vacuuming of littered floors. We lived in something akin to a theater set, a Hyde Park apartment that staged a pretty painted forest with plastic apples, rehearsed lines, and dramatic action. His world belonged to a powerful dream where art breathed from life, humanity trounced politics, economy was irrelevant, and comforting isolation beckoned. A dangerous world.
He watched me every morning as I dressed. Groomed.
"You're not pretty." It was a statement, not an accusation.
"Fuck," I said. My knee banged against an oak corner. The bedroom was large enough only to fit a bed, mirror, dresser, and petite closet where his Diesel jeans fought for space among my J. Crew sweaters. The bed faced the door, which, without room to close it, we always kept open. "I know," I responded to his observation. Don Juan he wasn't, but I had never had delusions about my looks. Fine, but nothing near gorgeous. Pale cheeks, limp cobalt eyes, tiny bow lips. I was no Venus on a shell.
"But your face is interesting. That's better. You make people work for it."
"For what?" I slipped pearls into my ears.
"For finding the truth in beauty," he said, detached but also intrigued, lifting his torso from the bed, propping himself with an arm.
I liked hearing him talk like this, so different from my co-workers who chatted about the RBIs of Cubs players and the best martini bar, so different from my parents who carried on about the price of gas and vegetable stew. He made me believe in the power of intellect, the parsing of the ideas we carry, forming the amorphous perspective with which we create reality. I sat beside him, looking at his angular face in the morning shadow, the high cheekbones, pointed chin, isosceles nose. "Will you paint me?" We had this debate once a week, where I asked him for a portrait, and he refused—advance and retreat, a conversational tango.
"No. I only do nudes."
"You don't want me to pose nude?" I joked, slowing my buttoning of a rabbit hair cardigan.
"I won't paint you nude. I keep my work and private life separate. Most people do, or try to. If I were a surgeon, I wouldn't be allowed to operate on my family members." He sighed, suddenly exhausted though he'd just awoken.
I didn't say that for some reason, art seemed different, a closer more personal career, and, therefore, the normal rules didn't apply. I kept quiet because I couldn't list valid reasons for why I felt that way.
He continued, "My subjects cease being people. They're bodies, color, shapes cut by light. They don't mean anything aside from aesthetics." He squinted at the light dancing in through the blinds.
"There are plenty of times when people are only bodies."
"Yeah." He dropped back onto the mattress, fingers teasing the seams of the pillowcase. "Those are the worst times."
"So what does that mean about your work? You're painting people at their worst times?" I hadn't thought it was a serious question until I asked it.
"I don't do school portraits," he said. "I'm not asking for collars and cuffs and shined white teeth, babies sitting on big colorful blocks, or a family posed on antique chairs." His narrowed eyes turned into a joke as he mimicked the wide grin of a cheesy studio portrait smile. I laughed, an easy response that lifted me from the hook of real reply, and squeezed out of the room.
He fell back asleep and I walked to the station and boarded the train, ignoring the gaze of all the other bodies that crowded around me at rush hour, pressing and insistent.
Was he really indifferent to his models? It seemed impossible. His subjects ranged in size, shape and color. Curves, flesh, muscle, vein, and bone, vibrating with contained emotion. Mostly women, but occasionally men. The colors he used were never pure—red, gold, and blue in the peach hue of skin, purple and brown embedded in flaming orange hair. His figures resembled those pear bodies of Matisse paintings—sumptuous, vibrant brushstrokes, the bold enigmatic colors of Les Fauves, the sensuous curves of a lovingly outlined figure, the impression of relaxed decadence. The bodies were bereft of close detail—lounging in chairs, sunning by rivers, each mark a wide swathe, inexact but celebratory. They were not people, but creatures under watch, directed on a set.
He was right; the body mattered, not the person. Displayed in the painting was humanity, not the subject. Yet how could he look at his models that way, with a focus that could sear skin, and not be moved? In truth I knew that everything affected him—his fingers tightened when he read the paper, his cheeks pinked at the chili pepper he kept on his tongue after ingesting curry, his ears imbibed notes as his head danced to music—and his art could be no different. Perhaps that is the artist's curse, to feel everything with fervor, to be consumed by everything. At one gallery exhibit's opening night, while he talked to artists and art collectors, I stood transfixed by a piece of digital art, a film on a three-minute loop, where, in crayon-box colors and the graphics of a cartoon, the world continually built up and then burned down.
One night, a couple of months after we began living together, I woke to metal clangs. It was three a.m. and I needed to wake in four hours and gulp caramel espresso and commute to my job copyediting at the Tribune, things he couldn't begin to like or understand. His bedside was rumpled but empty, and light shone from the living room. I sat up and squinted, my pupils adjusting, and I looked down the hallway to see him crouched. Black paint smeared the floor, spilled, smashed in angry diagonals on his shirtless back and grey boxers. He was attacking the brick walls with thick brushes, and his hair mingled with sweat above his eyes.
I rose and joined him, careful to avoid puddles of color. "What's going on?"
He only bothered to turn for a second. "Can't sleep." His sleep patterns were always off, something for him to chase rather than regulate.
"It's a bit dramatic."
"I've been thinking. We need to redecorate." And he kicked up a small can of Forest Fern, splattering the ceiling and furniture and me, everything in sight, with a thick green rain. He put Siouxsie and the Banshees on the record player, regardless of the neighbors.
"You're crazy," I said, only a second before he handed me a container of Ocean Wave and I upended it, hands flinging upward like a triumphant gymnast sticking a landing. I'd never felt so glad to cover myself in a cornflower blue mess. And for the next few months we called our furniture Pollacked, though our splotches had no intent.
That was what I loved about having fallen for an artist–a free-spirited will I assumed artists bore, a willingness or need to alter all the rules that I believed kept the world stable and neat. He turned off all the lights except a tiny desk lamp and I picked up strange objects to silhouette—a bird cage, microscope, bicycle wheel, model whale skeleton—and he painted their outlines on the walls. We made love and mingled colors. We ate marshmallows at dawn and fell asleep on a sticky couch.
What night was that? I can't recall, though I was the one always pinning things down, filling in lines of lists and squares on a leather planner. He remembered days, like attending a reading on Thursday or buying supplies on Saturday, but not dates, numbers, schedules. We might agree to see a documentary and sometimes I'd return to the apartment, having been stood up. He'd be on the floor reading or working on something, apologetic after I confronted him, without recollection that we'd made plans at all. He abhorred graphs, lists, agendas, and while he did write things down, he wrote on scraps of paper he shoved into crinkled pockets or stuffed folders, so carelessly handled and easily misplaced. He knew when he was hungry and when he was tired and when he needed to paint. Anything else was miscellaneous, a reality TV show he didn't care to watch.
So he forgot when I had meetings or doctor appointments or DVDs due or phone calls to make. He got late notices on bills, ignored bank warnings and extra fees while out buying another cocktail. Had he picked up a guide to being bohemian somewhere when he went to college at Berkeley? Did it allow only so many possessions, only listening to underground bands, and the shunning of responsibility for the sake of non-conformist rebellion? I started to wonder whether the way he acted was really his personality or what he supposed the personality of an artist should be. But I tried to push that thought aside, because I didn't want to consider which one I had fallen for.
I glanced up from my issue of Glamour as he leaned on his elbow against the windowpane, his eyes squinting into the light. We often stared through the big glass rectangles from our seventh floor, sometimes taking turns, sometimes together. Maybe to escape the confinement of the apartment, to breathe in space. Maybe as a tacit way to express a yearning of escape, the desire to believe there was someone or someplace out there that understood us when we couldn't grasp each other. He had been silent for an hour, but restlessly roamed about the apartment.
"What are you looking at?" I said.
"Just watching as usual?"
"Look at that girl. Throwing her head back and laughing so hard." He put his hand on the glass.
"She's probably high." The view was not spectacular. An old building across the way with more cramped apartments in muddy brown stone, a Laundromat at the bottom, dumpsters and an alley. The scenic vistas were off in the horizon, the promise of glass buildings and the bridges canopying parts of the Chicago River. I flipped a page and glanced at sixteen varieties of red dresses for the fall.
"What do you want?" His voice was tight and sharp. I wondered if he was annoyed by his expectation of the things I wanted: a shopping spree at Saks, front row seats at an Oprah show, daily Starbucks. What I truly wanted was him beside me at that second, a long kiss, the tender pink tip of his tongue against mine. I wanted to hug his thin muscled arms and feel the veins beneath my cheek. Instead, I stayed where I was. I flipped a page and looked at the rich folds of yellow leather jackets.
"That," I said, waving a hand generally toward the window, the skyscape, the shiny bronze head of the Willis Tower.
"This isn't good enough for you anymore."
"That wasn't—" I stopped. It wasn't what I meant. He was in a bad mood, and I couldn't shake it from him or lead him out of it with words. It only made me want to join him. I looked at the mess of the walls, the confetti of paint on the previously tan couch, the splattered rainbow of the ceiling, everything long dried and permanent. I hadn't minded the paint fumes after that night of the frantic painting; I'd been too devoted to the romanticism of the action. But now I felt trapped by the bold infusion of chaotic color in the tiny space, choking the air. "Will you paint me?"
He pressed his face against the window like a child gazing at a new running train set, trying to figure out its bridges, its roads, its shined metal movement. The beat of the city throbbed, and he stood in the museum piece of the apartment, dying to capture a million images.
"It's claustrophobic," I told him. The walls. The city. Us.
"You can't take it with you," he said. I don't know if he meant him, the apartment, or any material thing. He stared at me. The sharpness of his sea-colored eyes made my skin want to splinter. I had never known people who acted this way and it thrilled me. I thought he might throw something, but his fingers didn't twitch. I'd break under his gaze if I stayed much longer. Finally, I walked to the refrigerator and took purple, yellow, and orange letters to spell AIR and went outside to get some.
I couldn't cast off his moody intensity as simply characteristic of a brooding artist. His intensity constantly charged beneath his body. His brusque observations contained no malice, only the tendency to jump from thought to thought, fleetly flying toward disparate philosophies. In movement he was languid, and he spoke almost laconically, but it was that lazy manner and stillness that accentuated his thoughtful passion. As if, just by standing and staring, he could know everything I was and could become. One exacting look from his eyes—glass-like, absorbing everything—and my heart plummeted to my soles. One errant smile from his face—so angled with light, reflecting light—and I was buoyed beyond physical limitations. My body held me, but could not contain me.
The next day, we were back to basics, back to being consumed with each other, on the couch, eating Tandoori chicken. After eight hours scanning words with tired eyes, listening to gossip about the columnists in the building, I wanted to be entertained. I bit a last piece of naan, wiped my fingers, and picked up a paintbrush from the table. "What do you think of while you paint?"
"Yeah. Why so surprised?" I ran the brush against my skin, leisurely feeling the sable bristles. He looked up.
"Thinking runs parallel to painting. Thinking is adjacent to reaction, intuition, a lot of it. The action is almost… subconscious." He scooped rice into his mouth.
"You're sleeping while painting."
"In some way. More like being terrifically focused and aware. A presence, but one removed from this"—he knocked on the table—"reality. Dreams realized on canvas." At times he could become hermetic, but if I got him talking about his work, some battery would switch on in his chest, and he'd lean in close and talk.
"I never remember my dreams. Only the nightmares." Lately, I'd been having trouble sleeping, would wake up in the middle of the night and see his closed eyes, his body finally still and relaxed. It's impossible to look at a sleeping body and not feel tenderness.
"Both are important to living." He crossed the two feet to where I sat and pushed his lips on mine, our breaths spicy.
We would often lie in bed together, silently, feeling the fading dark of morning permeate the room. Every day he conjured up a fresh flower and laid it on the pillow above my head. I woke to its fragrance. Surrounded in the lightest, sere cotton sheets, we lounged, his hand resting easily on my hip, around my shoulders. During those quiet moments, though I had on no makeup and no ornament, I felt the most beautiful. Even as we touched, as he stroked the skin of my pale stomach, I knew he could not separate my body from my being. Feeling his chest compress and decompress like bellows, I couldn't stop thinking of the man beneath my touch. The man who dreamed and thought and loved and hated was apparent to me in every millimeter of his form, shadowed in the deep planes of his face. The body functions by itself, reacts. The body efficiently lives. The mind willfully works.
"I'm going to marry you someday," I teased. It was the natural progression of things. We were in our mid-twenties in Chicago, young, brilliant, and banking on potential. We loved each other and were fully jaded and fully hopeful. Somehow we'd managed eleven months of dating, only a handful of tirades, and no broken plates.
"Do you really believe that?"
"You say you love me." We were in bed, and I shifted toward him, staring at the hard block of his chin through the grey gloom.
"Well… marriage recognizes that devotion."
"And divorce negates it. Marriage changes people, but it doesn't make you better." He put his hands behind his head, elbows keeping me at bay, eyes on the ceiling.
"You don't know that. Marriage is sacred and intimate. It's a sign of undying affection and loyalty." My fingers lighted upon his chest.
His head turned my way. "If you don't trust my devotion as is, I wouldn't want to ask you to marry me anyhow."
"I want the ring, the wedding, the flowers." My arms gestured in wide circles, as if they could create these things from air. "Red roses, white dresses, tiers of icing-heavy cake that will make us gain five pounds in an instant. Black and white photos of us laughing in a garden or at a beach. There's reason behind the ritual."
"All blind ceremony. Just an excuse for people to gush and coo and slap you on the back. I'll give you a ring, I'll buy flowers, but I won't get married."
"It's a binding contract with God."
"It's semantics." He flopped over onto his belly, head crammed into the pillow.
"So is love." I rose and walked to the bathroom, closing the door, running the water, lathering face wash and scrubbing hard.
I was enamored with the thought of living romantically. I assumed creativity equaled beauty, and with beauty came happiness. Wealth wasn't a factor; luxury was for the elite, the satisfied, "the Republicans" he liked to say with a sneer. But although I was immersed in his world, I was never completely assimilated. I couldn't laugh quite as hard as his friends did at get-togethers. I couldn't get inside his art, his vision of what people are besides what they think of themselves. He painted a person empty of self-consciousness. Nude. I finally understood the secret that his models were not only bodies, they were an opinion represented by shapes and hues. He painted his subjectivity; he observed the women somewhere between skin and blood, the place where soul hovers. The place love seeks. What was more intimate than that?
The day before our one-year anniversary of dating, I went to Nordstrom. When I opened the door of the apartment, he was slouched on a chair, flipping through Art News and listening to The Velvet Underground. "I bought a dress." I waved the garment bag, delighting in the crinkle sound of fabric on fabric.
"It's off-the-shoulder, down to my ankles, navy washed silk." I unzipped the bag and held out the hanger. The fluffy hem dusted the floor.
"For an occasion?" Four empty cups of Styrofoam were knocked on their sides on the table.
"I want you to paint me."
"I told you before—I won't do it." He circled something in black marker.
"That's why I bought the dress. This will be a different direction. An experiment of sorts. Be brave." A wide smile. I lifted the dress up and held it against my body, but the rustle didn't stir him. He wanted to drown in art and life, but not converge the two. It could be done, I wanted to believe; it had to be.
"Why do you want to do this?" He boxed off something else on the page.
The joviality left my voice. "I want to see how you see me."
"What do you really want?" He almost ripped the paper.
We spent a moment of silence staring at each other.
"Why do you only paint nudes?" I dropped the dress back onto the couch.
"People hide behind clothes. That's easy. If I cared that much about both the body and the person, I'd go completely mad, wouldn't I? You have to learn to let go."
"How can you love me if you haven't seen the real me?"
"I've seen you." He flung the magazine on the coffee table, but it slid and hit the floor, bowling over some of the vanquished cups and joining a pile of used palette knives.
"Not like you do everyone else. Not on an easel."
Silence. He stood and brought his hand up, then very slowly grazed it against the pale of my cheek. For a second I thought we'd gone crazy.
"Put on the dress. Cover the windows and the mirrors."
He was demanding in a way I hadn't seen before. I wondered if he ordered all his models around like this, if it was true the minute he regarded them as art they were no longer human. I watched him tear through his box of paints, move sizes of fresh canvas around, pull out paint thinner and test brushes on his palm. Suddenly, I didn't want this anymore, but I'd already asked.
I could not smile. I couldn't talk, laugh, or even try to look poetic. He didn't prevent me from moving, but I was frozen in this role. No longer was I a romantic interest, but a thing to be captured, studied, compartmentalized into pieces. His eyes interrogated me and I felt suspected but had committed no crime. I'd assumed there was something sexy or tender about posing, the interchange between watcher and watched. Or at least I expected that I, the woman he loved, would be treated differently than those other girls, the ones he used strictly for subject matter. But there was only the gruffness of efficiency, the coldness of trained movement, hand to brush to canvas.
As his subject, I gazed into his eyes and wondered what reflection they emitted. Maybe I didn't think he would actually ever paint me. Maybe I didn't think he loved me that much. He spoke little, only to give me short instructions, to keep my fingers at this position or that, to raise my chin, to straighten my back. Unlike his former models, I did not sit or lie or bend. I stood before him, legs stiff, hands limp at my sides, facing forward. The pose was so direct, so vulnerable, I was completely bare even though I wasn't naked. If he noticed my shivering, he didn't say a word.
The painting was beautiful and in the bathroom that night, behind the closed door, I cried, face stuffed into a faded peach towel. It was too beautiful, an ethereal vision of grace and compassion whose every physical trait matched some unnamable perfection. The creature on canvas was tall and exquisite, her neck and limbs elongated, her skin pale and delicate, her mouth viciously red. It reminded me of ornate Klimt paintings—a devastating woman in a long elaborate gown, something slightly Gothic and sinister in black and gold. Her hair bundled lusciously on her head and pieces fell in her eyes; her dress showed every stitch and ornament, each delicately placed, sequin. Gone were his sumptuous summer colors; this painting's tones were muted and tepid—blacks, damp blues, chalky whites, oranges and yellows all sun-sapped. She was not me, and we knew it. If her portrait accurately displayed how he felt about me, our life together had been a farce, a lie. She was too terrible and beautiful. And I could not find her inside of me, this doll behind glass. All I could do was smudge fingerprints. Even as we spoke, our words became silence. We slowed our motions, calmed our limbs, lest, in the middle of the night, we should run from each other.
"I'm going for a walk." He faced the door.
"It's pouring outside." There was no longer anything romantic about the rain.
"There's a new market down the street. I'll bring back fresh fruit."
"I don't want it. Just stay here." I was already standing over a pot of spaghetti, turning the heat down.
"A man could die in the rain." His fingers gripped the doorknob hard.
"My point exactly."
"Just lie there on the sidewalk, open his mouth, and drown."
"Are you feeling okay?" I wanted to walk toward him, but my feet wouldn't move. "We lost the umbrellas." On the refrigerator, I tried to arrange the letters into COME and BACK, but I only had one C. And I blocked the would-be words with my body so he couldn't see, if he cared to look. I wasn't even sure I meant them anymore.
"I need to go for a walk." The door opened.
"Can't it wait until the weather clears?"
Our relationship shifted from effortless companionship to careful avoidance, though we still ate together, slept beside each other. Our words were empty and cordial, the pleasantry of estrangement. The few times we made love after the painting, I understood what it was to be reduced to nothing more than a physical object. Afterward, I turned my face to hide the tears. His shoulders did not shake; they were too still, as if he tried not to breathe.
We stood in the center of the studio, our bodies facing each other, our heads trying not to. I was almost done packing. It was easy to tell which things were mine—the copper pots, the milk and honey lotion, the accordion files and kitten heels.
"I'm sorry." I meant the painting. Or everything.
"A stranger will remember you as beautiful." He meant the painting. Or himself.
"But it'll only be a fantasy." I kissed his salty cheek. I wanted to linger, but everything that constituted my life was packed in fat brown boxes, and that knowledge pushed one foot out the door. Only then, from the doorway, I realized how easy it was to see everything in the apartment, to take one look around and notice every corner, every object or lack thereof, paint everywhere and no room for cleanliness or clarity. It would only take paint thinner, gallons and gallons, to clear the walls and the canvas, to scrub away the chaos we'd caused, acetone chipping away layer by layer, making everything new again.
Title graphic: "Painted" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2010.