Charlotte Jordan was a nice girl. Over the last several months of seeing her, I had grown to like her. She wasn’t like other girls. She was more than the rest. It seemed that she truly listened. You don’t see that much anymore. Everyone is only thinking about what they want to say, and they forget. She was different. And she had a pretty face.
She had an alright face.
She was not as thin as I preferred, but she looked as if she would be comfortable to be with regardless. Not that I would ever know. That many months and I still was not nearly as charming as I thought I was. But she was coming over tomorrow, and that was going to be nice. It had been almost a week, and I was quick to admit to myself that I missed her.
There was the time we sat and talked for hours. I hadn’t done that with someone since college when everyone was so eager to make connections—of any kind. It was then that I felt something more for her. She told me about her parents and how it was growing up on a farm in the midwest. About running through the fields in her bare feet. And about running through the house too loudly and the cannon and fireworks quality of her dad’s voice when you woke him up from a nap because of it. Her vulnerability tricked me into the same which brought on too many memories. Memories I would regret telling her. It is a bad thing how you can be forced to be vulnerable without even knowing it. You get a glimpse into someone’s real sadness and happiness, and you want so badly to share it with them, that you end up saying too much and being and feeling stupid. That is what it was like; a drug that made you do things you wouldn’t do sober, only to regret it when your mind is yours again.
“I guess she must like me somewhat.” I thought at least once a day.
The day was promising with nothing required of it. And with nothing needed of me until I saw Charlotte the next morning, I had time to work on my canvas. Even at thirty-two years old I still held fantasies of what it would be like to have the fame of a successful artist. With glimpses at times into what that could be, it was enough to keep the fantasy alive.
“But that was a long time ago.” I thought. “And if those glimpses had turned to nothing real then, what chance do they have now? Maybe start the day with some cleaning. Something to take the pressure off of proving myself.”
It was my thought that if I could not have the house guest-ready within 10 minutes, it was not livable. And although I loved my nephews very much, their visit yesterday kept the house away from that state by at least an hour. The few toys I kept in the house for them were left throughout the rooms every visit. No matter what they did, every item was moved and left in the middle of the floor.
“Are all kids like that?” I thought. “Was I like that? I don’t remember it. And I don’t remember my mom having to force it much either.”
But I assumed that I was and I didn’t care enough to try to remember otherwise.
Evan and Matt were mostly good boys. They brought me some of my favorite times. They also showed me very clearly that I would not be a good parent. One to two hours of playtime with a clean transfer back to my brother and his wife was the foundation of a beautiful friendship with them.
With all evidence of the boys’ visit packed up or thrown away, and with their latest piece of art stacked carefully with the others, it was time to do some work. And although any small amount of creativity came more easily when it was dark, I didn’t want the day to go to waste.
Since I was a teenager, I had been convinced that my ability was far greater than my successes. Maybe that was true. Maybe that is true of everyone. But while that thought gives you warmth at cold times as many beliefs do, it also erupts violently, full of regrets whenever too much thought is given to it. I could have been a famous artist living in Paris like the men whose art I loved so much. I could have been a great engineer. Perhaps even an important inventor if I lived in a simpler time. But I was none of those things. And with that knowledge, truer than anything I knew, I went to sleep every night.
Despite all of the regret and pain that came with pursuing art, I could never let it go, although I had at times—even years once. And while the cloud that hangs heavy did not appear as much, the sun had also disappeared.
Art was a damned friend. It brings something worth more than anything, but with it, it also brings something opposite and as powerful—more powerful. Perhaps that is what the artistic fight is: striving and pushing against the dark. But it isn’t like that. We use the dark. We need it. And without it, the light would be useless. It would mean nothing. And there would be no end to the grey which clouds and blurs the minds of most.
“This damn cough is back again.” I thought. “Not two days can go by without this coming up. The doctors don’t know anything. How many visits now and they still don’t know what it is? And they don’t even listen. Look at what it did to my uncle. It hasn’t killed me yet, and they never seem too concerned about it. They actually brush it off a little more quickly than I like.”
“Maybe I should take my medicine…”
Working was not hard when it flowed instinctively. Those were the days where all of the pieces to everything fit together. Everything that needed to make sense did. And nothing that didn’t matter, came to mind. The pressure was on your back, and you had all of the good from everything you knew waiting for you.
“But today was not that kind of day.” I thought. “Today is grey. And the grey makes me pay. This grey is eviler than any dark. This grey puts a stop on your mind. It puts a stop to the unexplained things that we feel and that our minds make. This grey is a barrier to the best part of who we are! The only part of us that is worth a damn!”
As I stood there, with a canvas smashed in the corner, I realized that my thoughts had slipped into shouting without me knowing it, with the only evidence of it being the ringing in the room that I heard once my thoughts quieted.
“This is something new.” I thought.
“Just sit back down and try again. Be mad. Be angry. Paint with that.”
But I knew I couldn’t.
“Was it Raphael who won a bid by using a stick to draw a perfect circle on the ground?” I asked myself. “I can’t remember, but maybe that’s what I need to do.”
I laughed, but it seemed so simple. Draw a circle. We teach that to kids. But that day in the past, it had proved something to a lot of people. And you know it proved something to Raphael too. I had been searching my entire life for that kind of justification.
I looked for a ream of paper. I had just purchased some in bulk last week, and I had plenty to spare. I grabbed a pencil, and I stared. I felt desperate. I felt the dark pushing me towards something—something coming out of the grey.
I drew a circle. But it was more of an oval than a circle. And that was true of the last five attempts as well.
“Raphael didn’t get it right the first try either.” I reasoned. “But this isn’t your first try, is it? You have been doing this for a long time. You have been trying to create something that is worth looking at far longer than you have tried anything. What makes you think you can do it now?”
“But I did make something good—that one piece. That one true thing that was more a part of me than anything.”
“Then why didn’t anyone like it?”
There was that ringing in the room again.
“Not very new anymore.” I thought.
I tried again—starting from the top—the bottom—from the sides. There was more crumpled paper—more ringing in the room and it was getting dark.
“Had it been that long already?” I asked myself.
It had been. And if the loss of the sun wasn’t proof enough, then the floor covered with paper was.
I had forgotten to lock the door. It was dark, and I had forgotten. I quickly ran to the front door and snapped the deadbolt. And the same with the doorknob.
“You can’t be too careful. There is no sense in what happens anymore.” I thought.
I checked the back door and carefully checked every room, closet, and shower. I went back to what was left of the ream of paper. But that was nothing. And it hadn’t been the first. I got another. Another pile, waiting to be turned into my failures. It was mocking me now. It wasn’t just an innocent bunch of paper. It was the tension of every action I had taken until now, pulled back and held still, vibrating in the pressure. Waiting to find its place on the floor—to find its place in my memories.
“We are fragile things.” I thought. “There is no defense against the judgment our memory saves for us. Those are the sleepless nights. The nights where my defenses go weak. The nights my memories have complete control over my worth.”
“Maybe this next piece will be the time I was eleven and my dad walked in on me. Or maybe the time my mom caught me stealing when I was seven. Maybe it will be that other time.”
“That one hasn’t come to mind in a while.” I thought. “Now it is definitely time to take my medicine.”
And so I did. The last one I had.
“I’ll be getting more tomorrow.” I thought. “And I need this now.”
I took a drink of water and swallowed.
I woke up startled, like you do when you think you are falling asleep while driving, but you only wake to find that you are sweating in your bed.
The night was still heavy and the small clock that was always too fast, read four twenty-four. My head turned over, and with blurry eyes, I was hit again with what had awoken me.
“Why does this hurt so much?” I asked out loud.
I had run out of my medication that I needed for how I felt, so I grabbed one that I could get anywhere, and I took another drink of water.
My medicine should have helped me by then, and I knew something was wrong. I had often asked what was wrong with me, but it was never in an attempt to find an answer. If I thought honestly, I would admit that it was asked to ease the guilt with pity—the kind of pity that digs its heels into the dark. But this time was different. I knew something was wrong. The blur that goes away after the first confusing minutes of waking was still there. And worse, the foggy mind with which I had only to feel and think, felt like it had after my last surgery. And not when the drugs disconnect you from everything—but the bad part. The part where the drugs have a hold on your mind and have left your other parts to feel everything.
“Am I going crazy?” I thought. “For the last three generations it has stayed in the family. Why would it leave now?”
The thought had occurred to me many times before, but like my other fantasies about finding a pile of pity waiting for me when something bad eventually happens, it had been just a plea. But what if I was? What if I really was? How would I know?
Maybe that is how it happens. You look away distracted for a moment and it slips in, and you never even saw it coming. And you never knew it was there. It comes in pieces until it is strong enough to do what it needs to do.
Not every day had been as grey as this one. Some were good, and one was truly great. That was the one I had leveraged so many times to pull me out of this. But when a day like that is because of something you have no control over, it feels as intangible as a dream. In fact, the day was because of a dream. And in it, I felt and created an almost perfect thing. None of the countless hours I had spent in museums could compare to the happiness I felt when knowing that true expression of myself. And with as great a chance as the dream had come, the luck to create it came too. Although not perfect, it was enough to save the feeling that lingered from the night into something real. It was then that I was happiest. And at that moment, everything that had been and would come, including this grey day, made sense.
I took another drink of water and swallowed.
“I had my time and that is more than many have. And with the echo from that day still in me, I am happy.” I thought. “Would it have felt better if thousands felt it too? Or would it matter if others know of it after today? Because right now, I have it in me and nothing can change that. I can cement that feeling in me now for always.”
“Who was it who said that next to your art, your life is cheap?”
I took another drink of water and swallowed.
“So this is how it is going to end. This is how it is going to come to me.” I thought. “When it is time to look at it in its face, it’s easier to accept it. That was the thing I didn’t know. That was the thing that has kept me here. And now that I see it, it feels like I’ve always known it. It’s a kind of weight. A weight that doesn’t lead you, but waits for you. Knowing where you will go, and being there when you get to it. I sure as hell can see mine now. Some don’t get to because it comes to them too quickly and they never had a chance. I’m glad mine came this way. I’m glad I get to see it face-to-face. This is what it is. It’s not a stranger. It doesn’t feel different—it feels like an old friend that I never knew. I have felt it all of my life, and I know it now.”
So I lay there, looking out over every one of my mistakes. They covered the floor as if hovering over everything I owned, and everything I was—with nothing perfect.
I looked away and up. And in a moment, none of it mattered, and never would again.
Charlotte Jordan got off of her mid-shift from the hospital and had two outpatient calls to make. The first one she had done once a week for the last three and half months. She had worked with a lot of unstable people, but there was something about Tom’s confidence in his mind that she had always felt was off—something that would lead to a bad and final thing one day.
She got in her small Ford and drove away. During the twenty minute drive from the hospital, she would think about her patients. Some knew what they were: sick and alone. Some appreciated her, and some despised her.
Some loved her.
She never could figure out Tom though. Some days he was as charming as she could want. Others, he acted like a child—like a hurt child. But not in an immature way. It was in a way where it was as if his mother never kissed his pains, or his father never let him cry.
What she always ended with regarding Tom was the worry of where all of that would lead. There is no medical term for what she thought. And none of his doctors understood that.
“Maybe today will be like the rest.” she thought again as she thought every week. “Maybe he will be just fine.”
It took a little longer than the usual twenty minutes to arrive at Tom’s. There had been construction on the highway since she was a child and it only became more complicated each year.
Charlotte walked up to Tom’s house. Fall days like this were rare. Every walk to and from the car felt like every beautiful memory you had, flooding you at once. The sun was shining through the clouds and the sky was very blue. The wind, cool and comfortable, carried sounds of children playing down the street. She felt for the key for the deadbolt, and the other for the doorknob.