She was a nervous lithe-figured woman, quick of smile, which she employed as certain birds use their colorful tail feathers, to distract the attention of predators as she made her get-away.
If she had to describe herself in words: head like a bony boot, rosebud mouth, alarmed llama eyes.
People often mistook her on first sight to be half her age. But this was the result of her ability, partially contrived, to appear innocent of life, clueless, at times almost minimally retarded. She had a tendency to peer intently at things and when, in the case of people, they became aware and returned her gaze, she looked away quickly, as if amazed, offended and appalled to find that what she had took to be inanimate had turned out to be alive, after all.
She liked to sketch. People, plants, cars, rock formations at the shore, the salt-and-pepper shakers on the breakfast table, which is what happened to be her subject at the moment, as she sat alone in a hotel lobby in Baltimore.
It made little difference to her what she sketched. She had no single favorite subject. Anything was as good as anything else. Lines and planes, shadows and light, all objects could be rendered down and reconstructed from the same basic elements. All phenomena was created equal. This is what she taught her “students” at the convalescent home where she volunteered once a week to instruct stroke victims in the art of sketching from life.
Give her a sheet or two of any kind of paper, a pencil with a good stout eraser, and she could while away hours reconstructing the world in graphite. It was her one and favorite past-time. Take away her paper and pencil and she felt like the world had rushed inside her and out the other side like a door thrown open to an empty room.
Last night, sitting in the lounge, sketching bottles at the back of the bar, a man approached. Horizontal planes, shadowed dramatic hollows, cross-hatching, and a softening of angles resolved themselves into a conventionally handsome face with inquisitive hazel eyes set sparkling behind wire-rimmed glasses.
“Are you here for the convention?” he asked.
“The NAESP.” When he saw that signified nothing sensible to her he spelled it out. “The National Association of Elementary School Principals? I thought I saw you at the convention center this afternoon.
“What’s so funny?”
“I didn’t think I looked the principal type.”
“No offense, I hope.”
“What is the principal type anyway?”
“I don’t know. Are you one?”
She shrugged. “Then the opposite of you, I guess.”
He indicated the empty chair at her table.“Do you mind if I sit down?”
“Not at all. Please.”
And she extended her hand.
She'd been lucky with men. Not in the kind of men she attracted, mind you, but that she attracted any at all. She was not what anyone would call an attractive woman, conventionally or otherwise, but she wasn’t overtly unattractive either. She was what you might call undistinguishable, “serviceable” without meaning offense.
She was a little skittish about being touched. That she was not skittish about touching is what saved her from a life void of physical intimacy. In this way, she encouraged contact, even in the timid. She would allow virtually any man that showed an inclination to do almost anything to her. That this hadn’t led to tragedy was in part due to the fact that few men understood the mixed signals she broadcast. She was just so exceedingly strange and awkward that few men were inclined to approach her, fewer still had any clue how.
Her body had always seemed gross to her. Somewhere along the way she came up with the notion that the less there was of her body the less would be her disgust. These were the not-entirely-unreasonable origins of her anorectic tendencies. If she didn’t fake orgasms, it was only because she was even more ashamed to fake them than to have them. She was a bad liar, and an even worse actress. She wasn’t afraid of being caught in a lie so much as embarrassed of a potentially bad performance.
It surprised even her to think that she'd been married, and not just once, but twice! The first time it lasted fifteen years. Although you could hardly count the last seven or eight years as constituting a marriage. She and Martin had been so estranged by then, all but strangers. They passed each other in the house as if it were a train station, each of them on the way to somewhere else.
Helen couldn't imagine now how it had even come about, that marriage, or any marriage between her and anyone. She seemed so odd and marginal now, so solitary. It was hard to think of her actually being with anyone, having a wedding ring on her finger, calling anyone “my husband,” even once, nevertheless twice. But after Martin had come Cedric, although the mistake of that union took less than two years to make itself plain.
She was particularly embarrassed over that misadventure. She should have known better. She made a fool of herself insisting that it work out. Cedric had been right, so cool and rational in his insistence that no one was wrong, they simply had two different ideas of what it meant to be in love.
Helen, on the other hand, was determined to prove him wrong, or, perhaps, it was more accurate to say, hell-bent on proving herself right. She didn't want to think that she had gotten it wrong about love. Cedric might have had a very self-centered, selfish idea of what he wanted in a marriage, seven-out-of-ten might have agreed with her that she was right, but what did that mean, in the end? Nothing, really. Cedric wanted what he wanted and in that he was perfectly correct. They simply weren't compatible, just as he’d argued all along. Even if being compatible meant that she had to agree with his notion of marriage as a level-headed partnership based more on pooled resources than passion, on the satisfaction of material needs and practical comforts than the spiritual need of the soul, what did it matter? If she couldn't accept that, what did it prove but that he was correct in saying that they weren't compatible?
She saw this now; she hadn't seen it then and it shamed her to think of how blind and mule-headed and naïve she’d been. She had taken up drawing while sitting at the deathbed of their marriage and in the dark lonely days that followed its burial. She had taught herself, reading a few books on the subject, but mainly just by doing the thing itself, taking a pencil and a pad of cheap paper and drawing anything that happened to fall within her line of sight.
To see a thing properly, she discovered, you had to learn how to see it without defining it beforehand and this had taken time. She’d had to unlearn so many bad habits a lifetime in the making. This is what she eventually tried to teach her students. How to see a face not as a “face” but as an assemblage of shapes, curves, angles, shadows. An eye became ever so much easier to draw when you didn’t think of it as an eye, all the more so if it happened to be the cherished eye of a child, a parent, your beloved.
Define a mass by the emptiness surrounding it. Draw what wasn’t there.
She was better off alone.
After they were done, lying side by side in the dark, he asked her, “Why are you here in Baltimore then? You didn’t say.”
“I brought my mother here,” she lied. She replied without even thinking, fabricating purely on impulse, surprising even herself.
He looked confused, almost as if he expected to see the older woman somewhere in the shadows of room. Helen clarified before he could cast about with more questions, which would only extend the conversation and prove painful, like fingering a wound. But to do so, she had to lie again, only this time it came easier.
“To be buried, I’m afraid. She died up north, where I live, but she was from Baltimore originally.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Of course you didn’t,” she said, relieved that this seemed to put the matter to rest. “It’s okay, really. She wasn’t herself for a very long time.”
That part was true enough. Her mother hadn’t been herself for a very long time. But why say that her mother had died? If that was the way Helen really felt, she wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone, not even to herself. Why go even further and tell him that she had come here to bury her? Helen wondered: did he now think her strange to have accepted his advances so readily when ostensibly she should have been in mourning? Or did it seem natural to him, human emotion being a mercurial, paradoxical thing that she seek comfort where she could? More than likely he didn’t care enough to pursue the matter one way or another. Her lie wouldn’t hold up to deeper scrutiny, further interrogation, but fortunately it didn’t have to. Is that why she preferred to be with strangers? Because with strangers it was only the surfaces that mattered?
“Just look at the surfaces of my paintings and there I am,” Warhol had once typically quipped. “There’s nothing behind it.”
Certainly that couldn’t be true, Helen had once thought, a younger, more idealistic woman in those days. It was just Warhol being wry; it was just Warhol being Warhol.
Now, well. Now Helen wasn’t quite so sure.
After a brief conversation in the bar, she had diverted the man back to her room where she said she’d be more comfortable and within an hour they were in bed together and that’s all that seemed to really count. The fact was that she found it easier to have sex than to make small talk. It hadn’t seemed to unnerve him any. She’d yet to meet the man it did. For one thing, she never pressed the issue of sex; all she did was offer no resistance. It was, as she well knew, her one and most alluring quality.
His name was David. His last name wasn’t necessary and he didn’t offer it; she wasn’t going to be addressing any letters to him. He was married, though he didn’t say so, didn’t wear a ring, but she’d have bet good money on it. She was well familiar with the unspoken signs. There was a habitual consideration, almost a gallantry, which married men exhibited around women that was unmistakable. Helen wondered if any of her own ex-husbands displayed it with the women they slept with during their marriage. She supposed they must have. She didn’t resent them for it, or didn’t think she did. Nor did morality enter into the picture, as far as Helen was concerned. There was nothing more to this encounter than what was temporarily on display, a kind of still-life tableaux of the sort she set up for her students, just as impersonal as that: planes intersecting, shadows merging, perspective, volume and negative space.
“I should go,” he said, sometime after three in the morning. He said it, pulling away carefully, like tape from a band-aid, as if he were afraid of the tearing sound, wincing at the thought of the pain it might cause her.
All she said was “Okay.”
She could sense his relief in the darkness. He dressed quickly, expertly, and left quietly.
She thought of Lautreamont: As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.
“Can I get you anything, ma’am?”
Her head jerks up from the open notebook. The look of terror that must be on her face clearly upsets the attractive young waitress. She quickly adds, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I just though that maybe you’d like another cup of coffee?”
“No. Thank you. I’m okay.” Helen’s answer sounds unfriendly, short, unintentionally harsh. It doesn’t help that these are the first words she’s said to anyone all morning. Her voice is a frog’s untried croak.
The young woman was only trying to be helpful. Sorry now for her unwelcome intrusion, she starts to back away with the coffee pot. There is something apologetic even in the way she does that, as if trying to pick up her footsteps, take them back in her retreat one by one.
Good god, Helen thinks. Is there no way I can avoid offending people unless I sleep with them? Must I sit alone in my room, then, where I’m certain not to meet anyone? Except, of course, the housecleaning staff. I could make a life of that, I suppose, if it came to it; it might, too. I could draw every single object in the room until I’d recreated it in its entirety on paper, change perspective, scale, lighting…it would be more than a life’s work, actually.
She sighed, her concentration broken.
She’d missed the chance to say something further to the waitress, who has by now made a successful escape. She is chatting with other less obviously sociopathic guests, a couple, the male half of which announces in a drawl like the warm syrup he pours over his pancakes, that he and his wife are from West Virginia. His wife adds something about grandchildren.
“Well, I hope you have a nice visit here in Baltimore. Charm City,” the smiling waitress, who introduces herself as Jessica, tells the couple. “If there’s anything we can do to make your stay more pleasant, please don’t hesitate to let us know.”
“Oh we will,” the man says, and sounds like he means it, come hell or high-water.
These are the kinds of conversations that Helen has never gotten the hang of having and she admires those who can. She’s studied these exchanges as she had drawing, broken them down to their constituent elements, reduced them to formula for they were formulaic if nothing else. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know the words of the script, but to say them out loud seemed too much like a performance. It would be too much like faking an orgasm. She was too embarrassed to say what she didn’t mean. She thought about everything way too much.
She put away her pencil, her eraser, closed her sketchbook. She glanced at her watch. It was already ten-thirty. Check out time was noon and her train back to New York was due to depart at two-ten. It was time for her to go upstairs and pack. She was due back at the convalescent home the next day. She had a class to teach first thing in the morning. She took a last look around the dining room. She could sketch the scene from memory on the train back to Auburn.
What Helen found most rewarding about teaching the art of drawing at the convalescent home were the patients who, as the result of some stroke or tumor or other catastrophic brain event, had lost the function in their dominant hand. They were convinced, of course, that they could never learn to draw. If they couldn’t draw when they had use of their “good” hand, how could they ever learn to draw with the other?
What she liked best was telling these students that they actually had an advantage in learning to draw over the other members of the class. They didn’t believe her, naturally. They heard many such well-meaning lies from the staff at the home, untruths meant to buoy their spirits and encourage them on the long difficult road to recovery. They didn’t believe her until she showed them it could be true. They were delighted to see their drawings of still-lifes come alive with a jerky kinetic energy while the production of their classmates in the novice drawing class remained stilted, cramped, and awkward .
Helen had started teaching classes at the convalescent home shortly after her mother’s third stroke had forced the old woman into residence there. Helen had been living with her mother at the time, after her divorce from Cedric was final. Her mother had needed assistance after her first and second strokes and Helen had needed a place to live. It was odd, looking back, how her life worked out in this fashion. It was like jumping across a river without looking and finding the stones to land on just when and where you needed them.
She bent over her mother now, guiding her trembling and palsied left hand. Her mother had always been a natural lefty, though it made no difference anymore; the stroke had stolen the intelligence from both hands. A few feet away stood the still-life Helen had assembled: a small stuffed bear someone’s grandchild had left behind, a plate of stale bagels from the breakfast room that morning, a chipped institutional coffee mug, a bouquet of roses on its last legs, a blood pressure cuff and Mr. Corrigan’s extra set of false teeth.
If they had any wits at all left, the fortunate ones also retained a sense of humor. These objects Helen had arranged, instructing the class to pick only those elements that most interested them. They mostly ignored her advice, or didn’t understand it, and tried to draw it all with a depressing literalness that was bound to fail.
“Easy mother, easy,” Helen said in a quiet, comforting tone. “Hold the pencil loosely. There’s no need to grip it so tightly. It’s not going to try to get away.” She paused to wipe away the drool from the old woman’s shiny chin. Then she patiently picked up the pencil and returned it to her mother’s hand. Lately, the hand had only two operable settings: grip fiercely or let go. “It’s okay mom, don’t worry about it. Just feel me guiding your hand. You can take over whenever you’re ready.”
She thought again of the lie she’d told that man in the hotel in Baltimore. David, if that was his real name. Had the truth slipped out of her, after all, in the guise of a lie? Did Helen think of her mother as already dead? Had she already buried the woman as she’d once known her, back there in the graveyard of memory, along with her ex-husbands?
Helen worked with her mother for a while longer and then left the older woman to herself. Her mother sat there fiercely clutching the pencil, grimly concentrating, hand trembling, unable or unwilling to begin, as if, even now, beyond all mistakes, she might still afraid of making one, afraid of so much as making a mark.
Helen drifted around the class, trying to remain unobtrusive but always at the ready should any of her students have need of her. She gazed over shoulders, gave quiet encouragement, made gentle suggestions. Mostly, though, she simply let them be. What could she tell them, anyway, except how to see, how to find and follow their own unique line, how to make it come alive with all the energy and life at their disposal and who, when it’s all said and done, can teach anyone something like that?
Meeah Williams is a freelance writer and graphic artist. Her short fiction and poetry has most recently appeared or is forthcoming from
. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband Hank.