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From Issue 45
Love: A Painting
When Minnie Murphy’s dad bought her mom a Jaguar XKR convertible for their 15th wedding anniversary, my mother said people only ever celebrate anniversaries in a big way if they don’t have much else to celebrate.
Mom and Dad don’t celebrate anniversaries. They argue. The same worn-out arguments with Mom throwing pepper grinders and Dad ducking out for a drink. When Mom gets mad, she breaks things: a wine glass, a pot of geraniums, a plastic spatula. Last month, when the internet was cut off, she threw the toaster off the balcony. She did check first to make sure no one was on the sidewalk; we live on the twelfth floor. Mom said she was trying to get a rise out of Dad, who forgot to pay the bill, but he just shook his head and went to a bar on 123rd Street. Mom and I watched him from the balcony; he was careful to cross the road, and not walk under our apartment.
Mom’s Welsh, and she says if we were in Wales I’d call her Mam, but here in America that doesn’t sound right. Dad’s from Perth, the end of the earth, Mom calls it, but she’s never been, and Dad says when you’re there, it’s not the end of the world, it’s the center. I’d like to go. The air is clean, and the ocean is blue, not shit-brown like the Long Island Sound. Sometimes I imagine I’m in Western Australia walking down a clean white beach that goes on for blocks and blocks. Or I imagine I’m swimming in that blue Indian Ocean with a family of dolphins, who don’t bump into you, but even if they do, it’s OK, because they’re dolphins. In New York we go to the big round pool in Central Park that’s so full of kids you can smell the pee, and you’re always swimming into a leg or an arm or a head.
After the toaster incident I decided to do something special for Mom and Dad’s anniversary. I couldn’t think what, so I went to Skippy’s. Skippy is Dad’s friend. He lives in an apartment that doubles as a studio, and to get to his place you take the train to 157th Street, ring the bell, walk up four flights of dirty concrete steps littered with Burger King wrappers, cigarette butts, and empty cans of beer, and knock. Six locks click, Skippy opens the big metal door, smiles through his beard, and suddenly you’re in a different place. It’s a happy place. The walls are filled with green and blue: unfinished paintings of great big waves crashing into black rocks. That’s amazing ’cause water’s the hardest thing to paint. He tells me it takes practice, and then he downs his beer and crushes his can with just one hand, which also takes practice—I know because I tried and cut my pinkie.
‘You could make them a painting?’ he suggested. ‘For their anniversary?’
‘No way—I could never paint. I mean, I draw on the computer, but that’s different. I’ve never worked with oils.’
Skip smiled and said he’d give me lessons in exchange for beer, Natural Light, (that Dad would have to buy because I’m only twelve). Then he looked at a blank canvas and shook his head. ‘I have to go back. Have another look at the surf,’ he said.
Dad says he’s been here twenty years, and he’s never going back.
The next evening I went to Skippy’s with beer and a brand new brush, and Skippy taught me how to mix paint. He isn’t married, and I’ve never seen him with a girlfriend, but Dad isn’t worried about me going over there with six packs of beer because he says Skippy’s not that way inclined. I don’t know which way he’s inclined; I’ve never seen him with a guy either.
We were painting on our separate canvases when my cell phone rang. Skippy rolled his eyes, but I answered it anyway. It was Minnie.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m painting a picture of love,’ I said, ‘for my mom and dad. To remind them what it is. That it exists.’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Are you going to, like, post it on Facebook?’
‘Yeah,’ I said, and then I looked at Skippy in his Converse splattered in paint, and his cut-off jeans, that he actually cut off himself—he didn’t buy them that way. ‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘Not. No, I’m just going to give it to them.’
‘Oh,’ she sounded disappointed. ‘Someone else is calling.’
I went back to my painting, which was blue and red and pink and orange, and every color except black. Black is what people wear in Manhattan. It’s the color of shoveled snow on the side of the street in winter; it’s the color under my fingernails. I hate black.
Minnie Murphy’s mom has breasts that are round and full, like water balloons. They’re fake. She has bleach-blond hair, and I once saw her French-kissing Minnie Murphy’s dad in the Jaguar. Before that, I didn’t know parents French-kissed. I told Mom this and she laughed. ‘Maybe if I had tits like that,’ she said. I don’t like to imagine my parents kissing, but I kind of wish they would.
Dad’s a carpenter, and he and Skippy work together. Skippy rides his bicycle everywhere, even in the snow. He’s always picking up stuff on the side of the road that other people are throwing out. Once he got Dad to duct tape a couple of two by fours to his back, strapping the tape criss-crossed around his middle, so that he could take them home, cut them down, and make frames for his unfinished paintings.
A week before my parents’ anniversary, I went out to Connecticut in the Jaguar. Minnie and I sat in the back seat, wind blowing our hair wild. We rode north through Harlem, past groups of men on street corners, past homeless people with their mounds of possessions overflowing grocery carts, past women pushing strollers, and everyone turned to look at us. With the top down, it was too loud to talk, so we all sat in our own thoughts, and stared out at the people staring back at us. Then we went over the bridge, past Riverdale, out towards Connecticut to the Murphys’ country house, where the air smells green. I stared at the other inferior cars on the road, and I tried to imagine it was my parents in the front seat, but that was impossible.
We spent two days at Cedar Lake, where Minnie’s mother made homemade blueberry pancakes with real maple syrup. On Sunday afternoon we jumped off the dock, and swam across the cool lake to the other side, where we climbed ashore, and walked through the woods like explorers. I actually saw Minnie’s parents hold hands. I wanted to stay for a week, or a month, but that evening, we packed up the car and piled in. My heart sank when we crossed the George Washington Bridge, and I looked across the murky Hudson River to the downtown skyline. Living in New York is like being a black speck: nobody misses you when you go because there are so many other black specks. You may as well not even exist. When we got to our neighborhood, it was trash day the next day, and the black bags were stacked fifteen feet high. The stench was enough to make me run inside. I took the elevator up to our messy apartment, and came through the door just in time to see Mom hurling a vase across the living room at Dad. She missed. It bounced on the rug and didn’t break, and this must’ve shocked her out of her rage because she started to laugh. I grabbed my brush, a couple of beers from the fridge, and headed to Skippy’s, confident that I had a better picture of what love looked like.
‘I’ve got it, I know—what it smells like, even,’ I said to Skippy, breathless from running up four flights of stairs. He smiled. ‘What? You don’t believe me.’
‘I believe you, I believe you,’ he said. ‘I just . . . ’ his voice trailed off, and he stared at a half-painted wave before cracking open another can.
‘Skippy,’ I said, taking a sip from his Natural Light, and trying not to gag, ‘we should go to Australia. You and me.’
‘That costs money.’
‘You just need to finish a couple of your paintings, sell them for a thousand bucks a piece, and we’ll have enough for two plane tickets.’
‘To be young again,’ Skippy said.
I stood back and looked at my picture. Skippy looked, too. It was on the abstract side, but there was a recognisable blue lake melding into clouds and green hills. Something didn’t look right. ‘I don’t know,’ I said to Skippy.
After a long while he said, ‘Maybe you need a bit of black? To balance it out? Or some dark brown?’
Skippy and Dad speak in questions, their voices rising at the end of a sentence, as if they’re never quite certain of what they say. ‘Unlike you bloody Americans,’ Dad said to me once, ‘so goddamned confident you’re ready to take over the world?’
But what’s so bad about confidence? Minnie’s parents were confident. You could see it in the way they walked: determined, certain, like they knew exactly where they were going.
It was a hot humid day when I brought the painting home. I set it up on an easel in the living room, placed a sheet over it, and then sat on the brown sofa to wait for my parents.
Mom walked through the door and said, ‘What the hell?’
‘Wait,’ I said. ‘For Dad.’ He was working overtime, and wouldn’t get home until six.
Mom went to the kitchen and started peeling potatoes, and I sat there, tapping my feet on the stained Oriental rug, looking around for a place to hang the painting. Over the stereo, maybe, but they’d have to move the Monet print that had been there since before I was born. As I looked at it, I realised I’d been staring at those water lilies for so long that they looked like wallpaper. The locks clicked at last, and Dad walked in. I could feel the pulse in my neck.
‘Mom, Dad,’ I said, ‘come here.’ My parents shuffled into the living room. ‘Stand there.’
‘OK, bossy boots,’ Mom said.
I placed them in front of the painting, and said, ‘Happy Anniversary.’
‘Ah, Christ,’ I heard my dad say as I whisked off the sheet, revealing my painting in a gold frame built by Skippy. It looked good. I listened to Skip in the end, and added some black. Chagall was a major influence, and it reminded me of the giant paintings that hang down at Lincoln Center. There was a blue lake in one corner, trees in another. The sky was at the bottom. I wanted to tell them that this was what love looked like, but I didn’t because good art should speak for itself.
My parents stood there, looking, not saying anything. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t silence. Then my phone rang, and we all jumped.
It was Minnie. She was crying. I went to my room to talk. ‘What’s up?’
‘I just logged into Dad’s email by accident, and there were all these messages from this woman – gross sexual emails. And not just that – they’ve been seeing each other.’
‘You sure it’s not your mom with a fake name?’ I asked.
‘Positive. She writes about my mom.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. What else do you say? I promised to come over in half an hour. Then I went back to my parents and the painting, hoping they’d be holding hands and gazing at the anniversary present I’d given them. But Dad was sitting on the couch behind the painting, mumbling something I couldn’t understand. Mom was reaching for her cigarettes, and walking towards the balcony. And the painting, well, I can’t explain, except to say that it had changed. The painting no longer looked like a representation of love. It looked like a bad imitation of a Chagall. It looked fake, false. I sunk into a chair.
‘What happened?’ Mom asked.
‘Minnie’s dad is having an affair.’
A smile crept over my mother’s face. She glanced at Dad, who laughed out loud. Then Mom started laughing, too. Dad got up from the couch, and picked up my mother, literally picked her up off her feet, and swung her around.
I said, ‘WHAT??’
‘Schadenfreude,’ Dad replied.
Mom said, ‘That’s quite possibly the best anniversary gift I’ve ever received.’
I went to Minnie’s that afternoon feeling light and happy, though I tried not to show it. Three months later her parents split up, and her mom got the house in Connecticut, but they don’t go anymore. Apparently, they found lead in Cedar Lake from a bullet factory up the road, and it’s not safe to swim.
SARAH KLENBORT, 35, has previously had fiction published in literary journals Harpur Palate and Linq, as well as a nonfiction essay in the periodical Ninth Letter. She balances two jobs – literature tutor at the University of Western Sydney and teaching a Memoir class at Sydney Community College – while also caring for her two-year-old daughter and writing eight hours a week. In 1998 she went on a weekend trip to Wales, fell in love with a Welsh carpenter – who she’s still with – and stayed for three years. She loves camping with her family, dreams of publishing a novel and, in a past life, worked at Vogue magazine in New York City for two months. Read more about Sarah.
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