Larks Fiction Magazine, April 2012
The Formica was sea-foam green. There was a vase on the cracked and peeling surface. She stared at it, suddenly struck by the obscene gesture of it posing on that shameless counter, empty and begging to be filled with something more lasting than the lifecycle of flowers. The artist walked in off of the torpid avenue and asked her to show him an apartment. That was how they met.
The windows were thrown open in the vacant room. “It’s perfect for a studio,” he said, “Say you’ll visit me sometime.” He grabbed a corner of the old wallpaper and pulled until it came clean away in his hands. She was taken by that. By the unexpected ease with which he revised the scene. It whispered to her of salvation.
When she returned to the studio, the paper had all been removed from the walls and he watched her, smiling. The room was painted a wreckless, sea-foam green, “You were sitting at that counter when I met you. It was a god-awful color but I could not get it out of my mind.” His hair fell into his eyes. There were paint stains on his fingers, his clothes; boots and ripped jeans.
For months she resided in his touch alone. Knew that the pads of his fingers were calloused from the brushes and watched as the contours of the canvas came alive under his patient stroke. Kissed him desperately as if he were kissing daylight into her. But the paint began to fade and chip from the wall and she felt the pull of its tide. She remembered more and more often a man who called her ‘wife.’ Who said as she was leaving, I put a message for you in a bottle. I put it on the sea. She too began to drift away.
Often the sounds of traffic blended with the crashing waves of memory and she was in another room, another house that belonged to another man, and to a woman she barely remembered being. A room where the smell of saltwater could not rival the perfume clinging to the flowers on the wall. Even those had withered like dried effigies to another time. In that other life she had a garden, a patio, a little house beyond it. Her small claim to who she had once been on her own. He stood at the window over the sink, waving to her. He was behind her as she dug in the dirt, lifting her and pulling her up and out of herself.
One day when her artist was out, she shuffled through abandoned canvases that spoke of his genius; the act of creation that was the rebirth of its subject. She stopped before a seascape, trapped among its shores. Did you find it there? Did you find my message? And then his hand was the bridge that drew her to him and she was back there, standing up in the little garden she had made and tended. Where he came up behind her and lifted her out of the dirt and shook the petals from her hair. Where his kiss was salty as the sea that she was drowning in. And then she was locking the door, locking herself outside in her garden. Locking him so permanently away that he soon became nothing more than a face framed in the kitchen window like a man at the helm of a ship, watching his horizon grow perpetually farther away.
He’d been away at sea so long she was sure he was gone for good. Disappeared over the horizon, never to return to this flat canvas world, waiting to be painted. Or lost on a distant exotic isle where beautiful mermaids swam to him and beached themselves upon the shore. He would nurse them, wreath hibiscus in their hair and have a harem by now. She hoped it was so.
The artist said, “Why don’t you talk to me anymore?” She just wanted to be left alone; to remember who she once was. His bed had sheets of cream: another empty canvas. She dreamed she was lying plastered to it and he was painting her into a sea of pale green. She dreamed the message in the bottle was nowhere to be found, and a dead-eyed fish washed up instead on the shore at her feet. When she woke, the blankets were a pile on the floor, the sheets were the net she was tangled in.
She was getting up to lock the door.
She trailed her fingers along the wall, trying to remember what it had been, about the flowers. “Just like that,” he said. She had thought she was alone. She turned and there were flowers all around him. Like he had left the door open in his infinite carelessness and the garden had dared to crawl inside. How could he be so blind? The peonies crept along the floor and touched her bare skin. He moved toward her and pulled the sheet up over her chest and she held it there as the flowers burst into sickening bloom.
She was transparent as glass. While he painted her, she dug furiously, churning up the garden until the petals littered the earth all around like spilled paint. And then her hand touched upon it, hard and cool in the earth and she withdrew it and brushed off the caked dirt. The bottle was empty.
When he was done, he turned the painting to her. He left without a word. Left her there clutching a sheet and staring at the image of herself, spread as thin as paint and looking for all the world like she had just risen from that garden. This was the message then: there was no escape.
There was too, the fact of that empty room. Naked as the day she was born. She stood there picking petals from her hair.