He woke up alone.
He hadn’t quite gotten used to that experience, waking up in a bed half-cold. The blankets and sheets unmoved, because he didn’t bother getting under them anymore.
It was dark in the room but he could see light peeking through the blinds, saw the jagged tooth-like indicator of sunlight on the hardwood floor. He reached out for her pillow, to see if a hint of her scent still lingered there. Then he remembered that she had never slept in this bed with him, she had never been to this house with him. It had been 16 months since he last saw her and he wasn’t even living in the same city as her anymore. He couldn’t smell traces of her anymore, couldn’t even remember what it was that she smelled like actually.
That realization shocked him a little.
It was always like this first thing in the morning though, the night’s sleep taking away the defences he had built up, like callouses, the previous day against thinking about her and he was left having to start over from square one. The daily ritual of realizing that she was gone, remembering why she was gone, and letting her go of thoughts of her.
By noon he usually had it dealt with, wouldn’t think of her the way that he would the following morning as he crawled out of bed. It was around that time of the day that he would typically see how much better things were without her, and as long as the music playing through the ceiling mounted speakers at work stayed in the background of his mind, he would be okay. Flashes of memories with her were not happening that often anymore. Which was good, after the one where he was suddenly back in Tahoe on Valentine’s Day with her, walking across the state border to Nevada holding her hand. That flashback that left him lost in the middle of a meeting with a client. Mrs. Karver sat there looking at him, asking if he was alright because he had just stopped mid-sentence for ten seconds and his gaze went far away. After that experience he tried to be aware of what made his mind wander to thoughts of her. If wander is even the right word, because it would just happen without provocation. The good news was they weren’t happening anymore. He wasn’t worried about having to see the shrink about what was going on anymore, he had it under control.
He sets the pillow down on bed and looks at the glowing blue alarm clock. 6:30, fuck! he mutters to himself as he does the math and figures out he only slept for 3 hours last night and has to be at work in 3 hours. Not enough time to try to go back to sleep and too much time to do get out of bed to get ready for work. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
There is always the painting to work on, he concludes. Might as well get back to it.
In the room next to his bedroom, hanging from the wall is a large stretched canvas. It stands ten feet high and easily twice as wide. He had to assemble it himself, there was no way it could fit through his door or down the hallway. His loft was large enough to hang it and allow him to use a ladder to work on it, but it wasn’t large enough for him to set it up assembled. He had hoisted the rolled up canvas through a window from the street, twelve stories below. The wood was carried by a guy he had hired online, some out of work college kid looking to make a quick twenty bucks. Once all the parts were there, he nailed and glued the frame together. He rolled out, stretched and mounted the canvas. He had never done anything like it before, but he had also never painted before. He didn’t really know why he was doing it or what he was hoping to paint but something told him he need to paint and that what he had to paint was going to very large.
Before he had mounted the canvas on the wall, he would take dimes and drop them on the taught fabric, he would watch them bounce, hold in the air, fall back to the white sheet below and then bounce back up at him. He counted that on average a dime would bounce 6 times before it finally came to rest on the textured surface. For some reason, that seemed to mean something to him. Like the painting itself, he had no real idea what that something was though.
He had been working at the painting for five week now, five weeks and three days to be exact. First he covered the left half of the canvas with a burnt orange oil paint and the right half with a light lavender paint. Then he covered the top half with a drab olive paint before washing the bottom half with a pale white. He stepped back and put the large brush down. He had the beginning done now. It was perfect, he sensed. Everything was there now, he just needed to pick up a small brush and put some black here and some red there. Maybe a little brown on that spot there and more black around that edge.
He worked at the painting for a month straight. Cell phone calls would go unanswered, bills in the mail sat there unopened. He didn’t even think to eat except for lunch when he was in the office and usually only then because he had clients that liked to meet for lunch. But he was thinking about getting back to painting all day long, not what column on what spreadsheet needed to be adjusted for the change in interest rates or which box needed to be checked to show that he understood the paperwork needed to be approved by the federal government before he could process it.
For the first week it was all about the painting, and he had no idea what it was he was creating. It just felt right.
But then something happened. He walked into the room where he was painting, he couldn’t call it a studio because it felt sacred, and he looked at the painting from fifteen feet away. He was so used to having his face inches away that he didn’t look at the larger image usually, not since he divided the canvas into quarters actually. Now that he did though, a chill ran through him and he felt he was going to be sick, maybe throw up.
Looking at the painting he saw her looking back at him. Her face in the paint and her eyes staring at him. Not just one face, dozens of them. Faces in faces; one eye being shared by two of her profiles, looking the opposite direction. The hair from one of her heads flowing into the hair of another one. All of these coming together to form a giant recreation of her, looking straight at him from across the room. Like one of those collage mosaics that have been so popular the past five years. A slight smile playing on her lips, eyes slightly squinting, the right corner of her mouth a sharp point. A smile that is unique to her alone.
In a state of shock he grabs a can of black paint and a large brush and he starts to paint over the disembodied heads he has brought to life. He covers one, then another and he does this until he is out of black paint and exhausted from climbing up and down the ladder. He steps back and he can still see her there looking at him, even through the fresh black paint.
He slammed the door as he walked away and left that room untouched for two weeks.
The next two weeks were spent in a drunken stupor, thanks to the three cases of wine he had bought. Work became a mechanical activity, he worked on papers but couldn’t face clients. He was afraid to go out in public. All that he saw reminded him of her, even street signs seemed to relate back to her in some way.
Near the end of the two weeks he didn’t even bother to go to work, called in sick instead. He was told he could work from home but he knew that the alcohol he kept flowing in his system wouldn’t let him see straight, that he would probably end up vomiting on his laptop if he tried to work. He refused the offer and hung the phone up. Grabbing a pair of pants, he got dressed to go buy more wine. One more case and I should be okay he thinks to himself as he locks the loft door behind him.
With the newest case of wine emptied and dry, uncorked bottles littering the floor, he gathers the courage to confront the painting again. Fully resolved, he opens the door that the painting has been hidden behind. As he sees the painted canvas, his jaw drops faster then the glass of wine from his hand.
The painting has not changed, but it has. The black paint, meant to cover the faces staring back at him, has instead filled the imperfections of the oil covering the canvas. It has filled the valleys of dried oil and what excess paint could not find a home seems to have slowly fallen to the hardwood below, where a thin line of inverted black icicles reaches up from the floor to the painting above.
Then suddenly it comes to him, what he must do. There is no question in his mind what this creation needs to be complete. He grabs a thick paint brush and paints two circles on the collection of faces inspecting him. The circles go from top to bottom and side to side. One inside another, touching and mingling. He encircles those faces with the color of her eyes and inside that circle, the color of his eyes.
It is then that he can finally step back and see that this was always meant to be for her. The insanity that he felt was this message begging to be told. Her, seeing him, seeing her in all of her beauty. Her eyes seeing her amazing self through his eyes. His final tribute to her, to what they had had together. Suddenly he could smell her again, could almost feel her near him.
He starts to cry as he realizes that the painting is dotted with little painted red feathers. He doesn’t remember painting them, but there they are none the less.