On Friday I started going back to classes. It had to be done, right? Finish high school. Graduate. That was the plan. And it was something to occupy my head, which tended lately to go all dark and scary, ruminating on things I just needed to forget. I hated my stupid head, sometimes.
Adam helped me carry my paintings in to the art room. Shay looked at the three of them for a few minutes, nodded.
“These are interesting. The texture’s amazing, the light’s fantastic, the way it’s coming through the window on this one.” He pointed at my favorite, one of the unfinished ones. “They’re so dark, so heavy. Almost oppressive. Really depressing stuff. But good.” He frowned at me. “Excellent work. I’m impressed.”
Adam followed me to my locker. “You seen Goya’s stuff? The nightmare stuff? You know, monsters eating people? That’s cheery compared to yours, Vi.”
“Thanks for carrying them up.”
“Yeah. What I’m good for. Beast of burden.”
I made it through the day, thinking of the paintings. They hadn’t been so dark when I’d started them, but the thicker the paint got, the less white I mixed in. The more they reflected me wishing my life away.
At the end of the day Adam stood at my locker, leafing through a magazine. I eyed him, walked over.
“So.” Wondered what he’d say next.
He grinned at me, tucked the magazine in his backpack. “So, like, I’ve been thinking about your paintings all day. What are they about?”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “What do you care?”
His shoulders slumped. “I just think that art is really interesting. Those were really good paintings, especially the one with the window, the way the light was coming in. The way the paint is, it’s almost like the side of an old barn, all peeling with like fifty different layers of paint. Like it’s all the people before, all those dead people who chose the color they wanted their house to be. How they’re all dead and their colors are covered up.”
I stared at him, speechless. That’s what I’d meant. “That’s exactly what I meant. That’s what it’s about. The transience of life. We’re here and we’re gone. Everything in between is meaningless, forgotten.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“Yeah. Totally.” I stuffed my books into the locker, grabbed what I’d need, and closed it. Didn’t I believe that? Adam leaned against the locker next to me, stuck his hand into his back pocket, shook his head. Wasn’t that all life was, us just passing through, a blink, and we’re gone?
I gripped the braided leather of my bag strap, felt it dig into my flesh, press against the bone. Flesh, blood, bone. Could there possibly be more to it?
“Damn. You’re really depressed, aren’t you?”
I breathed, tried to shake it off, but it just wouldn’t let me go. “No. I’m just so fucking happy it hurts.”
“Damn. So why do you paint, if nothing means anything?”
I stepped back, placed an arm across my middle. “I don’t know. I just need to paint.”
He notched an eyebrow, twisted his lips. “Good answer. No commitment, nothing to declare. You just need to.” Oozed sarcasm.
I slung my knapsack over the good shoulder. “If you didn’t want to hear my answer, you shouldn’t have asked the fucking question.”
“I asked because I wanted to hear the answer, not a sound-bite.”
I turned and walked down the hall. I didn’t care if I left him far behind, but he caught up, anyway, walked beside me. Kids called out to him as we went. He did that weird head nod thing and called back. They all must’ve wondered why he was with me. It must’ve looked strange, the giant and the shrimp. I sped up but he kept in time so I slowed down, gave up, gave in. I didn’t understand why he bothered with me at all, why he was so decent. I hated that about him, craved it to my core.
“So do you have any favorite artists?” He grinned again, resilient as a zombie. “I’m rather fond of Matisse, myself, especially his later stuff.”
I glanced at him. He seemed serious enough. “You are not.”
“Yeah. Yeah, totally. Those groovy cutouts that he had assistants paste up because he couldn’t walk or whatever. Those are cool. And his cutout women? Awesome.”
And this from someone who played football and had a dislocated shoulder, for whatever reason. I wondered if he had spent all day in the library, concocting this shit. “Adam, I’m having a hard time believing you, what with your penchant for sports. That automatically takes, like, over half your brain cells away. Shoop. Gone.”
“Well, Mom wanted us all to have a firm grounding in the arts. She thought exposure to different types of music, to paintings and sculptures, to all different types of books would make us better people, more balanced, happier. And Ivan’s a painter. So. Yeah. I’m totally serious. I also dig Picasso’s Blue Period. And Mark Rothko. I don’t know. I could go on.”
“So why do you play sports, with all this knowledge?”
“Well, it keeps me from getting down in winter. The blahs and that jazz. Used to be, like, suicidal and all after summer. So I thought activities might perk me up. Give me a chance to see twenty.”
Adam depressed? Hard to imagine. He pushed his floppy brown hair off his forehead, stuck his hand into his back pocket again.
“So it’s not that hard of a question,” he said. “What artists do you dig?”
“A lot of them.”
His grin faded. He scuffed his Converse on the linoleum. “Okay. I hear you. So what type of stuff do you paint? Just interiors of abandoned buildings?”
“I’ll take that as another no. So what else is there?”
I shook my head. “You think that all the paintings that have ever been painted and will be painted can fit into three narrow categories?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. You tell me, since you’re this great artist.”
“I never said...” I narrowed my eyes at him. He looked up at the ceiling, whistled a little tune. “You’re just trying to get me to talk, aren’t you? Fuck you.”
“It worked. A little. For a very short time. That’s the most I’ve heard you talk, so far. Must of taken a lot out of you, huh?”
I shook my head, willed myself not to laugh. I hated him, but I really, really liked him, too. I fished around in my memory, remembered the call I took from Ivan. “Who’s Janie?”
Adam stopped in the middle of the hallway and kids jammed up behind us for a second, yelled at us, not really angry, though.
“How’d you know about Janie?′
“Ivan thought I was her when I answered the phone.”
“Oh.” He started walking again, shrugged.
We stepped outside then. It was cool and crisp. A chill little wind made the trees surrounding the school dance and sway and whisper about the winter coming soon. Sleep, sleep, the trees said. The sun busily burned off the light layer of snow on the ground. I breathed in the smell of winter, a heavy blanket.
“She was my girl. One of the basketball cheerleaders. Dumped me for a chemistry nerd. Said he had more direction in his little finger than I had in my whole body.”
“Why haven’t you told Ivan?”
“Embarrassed. Got dumped. Ivan’s like my idol, Vi. You can’t tell your idol that you’ve fallen.”
He unlocked the passenger door first, went around to the driver’s side. “Dunno. It’s just not done.”
We got in and he started the car, smiled at me. “Ivan’s a good painter. Really good. Those are his in the living room.”
I stared at him. He seemed serious. “No way. Those are gorgeous.”
“Yeah. My favorite’s the one in my room. He gave it to me last Christmas. You wanna see it?”
A peaceful quiet settled in. I watched buildings thin into trees as we headed to the house on Farmer’s Loop.
“Winter’s coming, huh?” He pushed his hair out off his forehead again.
“You don’t like it?”
“Not particularly. Hate the sun going away. Don’t like being cold. Like to Nordic ski, though. You been?”
“I’m not athletic.”
“You should be. Sports and stuff are good for you.”
He hunched his shoulders up. “Wouldn’t call yourself healthy, would ya?”
I shrugged. I’d never been gray before. That probably wasn’t the healthiest color and I felt like I struggled under water all the time, now, like I couldn’t breathe. Sometimes I felt like giving up, sometimes not. “Do you ever feel like giving up?”
The road curved ahead of us. He glanced at me, brow furrowed. “You mean like suicide?”
“Naw. Just like not trying anymore. I don’t know. Never mind.”
“No.” His voice got fierce. “No. I will mind. You wanna kill yourself?”
I had nothing to say to him. I just didn’t know.
“If you’re gonna kill yourself do it now, before we all care about you too much.”
Nice. I turned away.
“You hear me, Vi? See, I’m like this real sensitive guy. You giving yourself up’ll hurt me, see? I care about you.”
“That’s your problem, not mine. You don’t even know me.”
“I know you, Vi. I know you.”
I wanted so desperately to believe him. To be known. I didn’t know why, but there was something about him that made me want to believe him. Trust him. So I said, real sarcastic, “Right. Sure. You know me.”
We turned onto Skyline. He sighed. “Vi, you don’t hear me now but maybe one day you will. Don’t kill yourself. Please.”
“I didn’t say I was going to.”
He didn’t answer. I wondered what his silence meant. It felt heavy, portentous. We pulled into the drive, parked by the side door.
“So you wanna see the painting?”
Surprised, I glanced at him. He smiled his mother’s half smile, tilted his head. Apologizing?
“Yeah.” I took a deep breath. “I’d like that.”
We climbed to the third floor. His room tucked up next to Dixon and Cohen’s, a spare and another bathroom.
I stepped into his cozy room and fell a little bit in love. The walls were sage green. The bed hadn’t been made; a green and white quilt trailed off on to the floor. The closet stood open, color coordinated. His guitar perched on a stand in the corner. A polished wood floor gleamed in the afternoon light, a large braided multi-colored rug in the center. It felt like him; welcoming, honest.
“The painting’s behind you.”
I turned, breath hitched.
The painting took up most of the wall, probably seven by twelve feet. I had no idea how they’d gotten it in here. The Brooks Range predominated, across the valley from Fairbanks, middle of winter, sun low on the horizon. The air had ice particles in it, refracting the light. I closed my eyes to the beauty and sorrow of it. “How can you live with that?”
“He must be awfully sad.”
I glanced at him. “Why?”
“His parents were killed in a car accident. His sister, too. They didn’t think he’d make it, for a while. For a long time he hated himself for living.”
“Wait one fucking minute.” I focused on the hardwood floor. “He’s not your brother?”
Adam leaned against the door frame, cocked his head at me. “Of course he’s my brother. He’s lived here since I was twelve, he was fourteen. We adopted him last year, before he went off to college.”
I shook my head, felt a strange heaviness in my chest. So Ivan got two perfect families. How nice for him. To ignore the bitterness that came out of no where, I asked, “Did you know him before?”
“No. They weren’t from here. His dad worked for the government. They lived everywhere, overseas and all over the states. Just moved up here a few months before it happened. There wasn’t any family to send Ivan to so we got him.”
Nice. Plop. Found himself in Wonderland, like he’d eaten the wrong thing.
“I’ve gotta get to practice. You can stay up here if you want.”
I turned from the painting, as if I had awoken from some unknowable dream. “No.” I shook my head. “I’ve got homework.”
“Yeah. Hate that.” We walked down together. He stopped for food in the kitchen. “Want anything?”
I shook my head again, mired in the painting.
He pursed his lips, raised an eyebrow. “Try again.”
I rolled my eyes, put some water on to boil to placate him.
After he left I retreated to my room, lay on my back on the floor. I didn’t want to be comfortable here. Reminded myself that I didn’t belong here at all. “An alien,” I told myself, scolding. “A grain of sand.”
I had to sit up soon, when the burns hurt too much.
I stood, undid the overall straps, pulled off my cream thermal undershirt, walked over to the mirror. Stared at my back over my shoulder. Puckered, angry red and blackened weals covered the top left side of my back, stretched across the jutting shoulder blade and up, down the arm a bit. Circular. Like a hot range, ready for the tea kettle. I turned away, not wanting to see anymore.