Lying in the dark I watch the sleeping shadow of my boyfriend and decide to leave him. Just a pair of clothes and a little bag of essentials would be all I’d need. The thought of it makes me cry, not because I’d miss him or this crazy life we’ve created together, not because of the failure, of having to start all over again. I cry because I realize how very little of this world I can actually claim to own.
Instead of leaving I roll onto my side and face the window, watching the snow fall in a roiling midnight hush. I let the tears carry me down into a deep dreamless sleep where there is no snow and there’s a reason for everything. In the morning my boyfriend’s already gone to work and I get up and make coffee. It’s stopped snowing. I start a shower and get ready for work.
I had just started my shift when she came to my checkout stand looking so thin and pathetic in her faded rags that I wanted to reach out and cradle her face in my hands. She handed me twelve assorted tubes of oil paints, a medium roll of uncut canvas, three cheap brushes and a spindle of black thread. Twenty-two twelve, I told her. She handed me a few crumpled bills and I asked her, What type of painting are you working on? Oh, nothing really, she said, I’m just messing around. She looked down to the ground or at her feet or maybe past them to a place deep and warm and I handed her the change with a receipt and put her things into a plastic bag. Thanks, she said, and smiled, and I watched her walk out into the bitter cold with just a sweatshirt, the bag of materials nestled tightly like a treasure in the crook of her arm.
She came into the store a few days later looking rested and calm and I noticed how large and clear brown her eyes were, almost comically large, very bright and disproportionate to the rest of her face. How’s the project going, I asked her. It’s okay, she said, and handed me a set of brushes and two bottles of black acrylic paint. I told her that I loved art, I loved Monet and Renoir and Impressionism but that the French lacked above all else a working class perspective. I mentioned that my favorite painter of all time was the American Thomas Cole and then I said to her, Since it was the Germans and the Americans that dominated Expressionism, wasn’t that just the most apt metaphor for the twentieth century as a whole?
I took her money and handed her the change and both of us smiled and looked to the line of bodies waiting behind her. You wanna get some coffee some time? she asked me.
Do you paint? she said, sipping her coffee. No, I said. I’m afraid not. She gave me a strange look and so I told her, I’ve always been fascinated with art and painting but I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I haven’t got a creative muscle in my body. I mean, I love studying the methods and the schools, I love reading about troubled artists and their gross sensitivities, their frailty and idiosyncratic behavior. But as far as actually putting brush to canvas . . .
“How long has it been since you tried?” she asked me. She held her cup of coffee in both hands, the fingers pointed straight out. “Creativity isn’t just an ideal, you know. It may begin that way, but it still has to be realized. Being an artist, a person that creates every day, it takes a lot of resolve and stubbornness.”
“Maybe that’s why I stopped,” I said. “I’m sort of averse to working hard at anything.”
“Oh, come on.” She set her hands in her lap and sat back in the chair, studying me. “Sure, the creative process can be terribly difficult at times, but you shouldn’t just give up. It’s such a tremendously rewarding experience. And we’re all of us capable of creating at least one great work.”
“You might be right,” I told her. “But I’m afraid I’ll never know. I’ve tried and tried. I wanted it very badly since I was a teeny little thing. It just never happened. I’m convinced that the artist inside me is buried alive in a dark grave somewhere.”
“Rubbish,” she said, looking at her watch. “Oh, dammit, I’m gonna be late for work.” She stood and pushed her chair in and began walking away.
“Where do you work?” I asked her. “Or wait, I don’t even know your name.”
“I’m Norma Jean,” she said, reaching her hand out to me.
“I’m Angela,” I said, and took it. She rushed out of the café and into the dark cold like the icy dramatization of a dream, leaving her cup steaming its curious illusions into the air.
The room is bright with bodies spread sparsely in the silence. I stare at the wall straight ahead, study its colorlessness, try to seep into it. I feel nothing. The yoga instructor is seated at the front of the class and she says, Are you with me, Angela?
I feel like jerking back into the real world, a landscape of emotion and thought. I want to say, Yes, I’m with you. I try to focus on my breathing, involve myself in the session. But instead I just sit there staring at the wall, unable to make a sound, unable to feel. Maybe I should try the truth, tell her, No, I’m not with you, I’m not all right, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. My eyes begin to well up with tears.
I’m sorry, I say, and stand to leave.
To read the story in its entirety, you’re gonna have to buy the book when it comes out.