This one’s been in the works for awhile: My legs, imperfectly drawn, against a black beach blanket.
Until the day I die, I’ll never forget those glassy, unblinking eyes. It’s funny how no one else seemed to notice, because I did right away. The moment I stepped in front of the mirror and lifted my toothbrush, I noticed those dark glassy eyes, and I knew something was very wrong. The moment I stepped in front of the mirror and blinked I knew nothing would ever be quite right again. The moment I stepped in front of the mirror and noticed that my eyes did not blink back in the reflection, I knew I was in trouble.
What do you do when you step in front of the mirror and realize that your eyes are not your own? I’ll tell you what I did. I laughed. I laughed out loud and I blinked and blinked again. I laughed and I looked at my unblinking reflection and I decided right then and there that I was up for anything. Count me in, I said. Because, fuck it, when you wake up early to glassy, unblinking eyes in the mirror and no fucking clue what the hell is going on, what else can you do but laugh?
Right then and there, I signed the contract. I waived liability. I agreed to anything. Brushing my teeth proved relatively easy but doing my hair took a few tries. I didn’t even attempt to exert any will over my wardrobe. I softened my gaze and put on what felt natural, which turned out to be a long white peasant skirt and a skimpy black top that complimented my glassy gaze.
One last glance in the mirror revealed infinity. I took a careful step back in those heels – the ones I hardly ever put on because they trip me up – and I headed out for the day. When you find that what you see in the mirror doesn’t match your face, work doesn’t seem so important anymore. In fact, I could think of only one place to go, so I skipped work and headed for the Modern wing. What, that doesn’t make sense to you? Fuck off. I needed to find myself somewhere.
After a bit of wandering, I found navigating easier than usual. I floated down the soaring hallways and through the dim galleries. When my eyes were not my own, my heels no longer tripped me up. I found myself there, in the Spanish abstractions, in the sallow faces looking back at me from American Gothic. I found myself in Picasso’s cubes, I found myself in nails on a black cross. I found myself in wood and canvas.
After I got the hang of finding myself, I floated backwards to the Middle Ages. There, I found myself in a gold-rimmed engraving by Dürer. When five o’clock rolled around, I wasn’t ready to leave. They found me sitting on a bench where I could keep an eye on my eyes. I put up a fight for the security guards; I dug my heels in and screamed. It took three guys to restrain me, only they didn’t know that it was already too late. I’d signed that contract, remember? All in means all in, so here I am.
What’s that, doctor? You want to help me? Can’t you see that I’m just fine? Look at my eyes, look how they match what’s in the mirror now. What’s not to understand? Here I am, all yours. No, I’m not afraid. Fuck it all, doc, can’t you hear me laughing?
I got the late shift so I went straight to work after. I came in and straightened up, then sat at the counter drinking water and reading. The truth is, that’s why I do this job. The lights in here at night are just so and hardly anyone comes in so I can read in peace.
I was tired and the smell of whiskey was the only thing keeping me sane, to tell the truth. I love the warm feel of the bottles all lined up behind the bar, glowing. A few chapters in, I got sucked into the story so I didn’t notice my customer til he cleared his throat inches away from me.
“Good evening, sir,” I said, squinting into his face. I must need reading glasses because I couldn’t focus on him at first. From what I could tell, he looked slightly disheveled. I wondered what he’d been doing all night.
I think I saw a faint smile cross his face at the word sir. It was hard to tell.
“Yes,” he said and paused like he was thinking. “Yes, a double single-malt Oban, neat, please,” he finally asked. He was soft spoken and it was hard to hear him. I really wasn’t doing great tonight. I needed sleep.
“Just a sec, sir,” I said with a little laugh and he laughed too, right away. I got him his whiskey and he sat by the window, against the reflection of all the lights. It was Monday night, and Monday nights are always slow, so I snatched a chocolate bar from my purse and returned to my book. I couldn’t concentrate though. Every few sentences, I’d catch a glimpse of him lifting his whiskey and I’d have to look. Then I’d sneak a little bit of chocolate. We don’t officially serve food here.
“Is that dark chocolate?” he asked, emphasis on the word dark.
I smiled guiltily.
“May I try some?”
I walked around the bar with my chocolate bar. “Here you go, sir,” I put the chocolate down on his table.
He smiled. “Thank you,” he said.
I went back behind the bar and leaned back against the wall next to the whiskey shelves. I squinted at my customer, trying to be cool about it. The lights are pretty dim and it really is hard to see. On the table next to his glass, the guy had a small book, maybe a sketchbook. I tried to decipher what he was doing. He seemed to be doing the same to me. I have to admit, after a few minutes I started getting goose bumps and wishing for another customer, so I pretended to clean up the bar. He must have felt the same way because he pushed the chocolate out of his way and opened his little book. I tried not to look at him.
A lady in cowgirl boots and pushed open the door and to be honest I was thrilled to see her. “Hello!” I called cheerfully. “What are you up to tonight?” I asked as she came to the bar and sat down. “What can I get for you?” I just kept talking, barely stopping to let her order. Definitely not like me.
“Knob Creek on the rocks, please,” she said absentmindedly. She put her feet up on the next barstool and began typing furiously on her phone.
“Here you go,” I said extra cheerfully since I was grateful for the distraction. I set the drink in front of her but she wasn’t even there.
“Mmm,” she said. I couldn’t tell whether she was talking to me or her phone. She finished typing, downed her drink, put some money on the bar, and moved toward the door. Sketchbook guy didn’t even look at her.
Alone again, I fussed with the amber bottles for a few minutes, then changed the music, switching out the nice classical for Beck. In a minute the place was throbbing with white-boy hip-hop threatening drive-by body piercings, and sketchbook creep ought to be getting the message, I hoped. I wiped the already-clean bar and pretended not to watch him drawing in his notebook.
Meanwhile, halfway through the song a bunch of guys in suits pushed the door open, started to come in but then froze when they heard Beck blaring. They frowned in unison and backed out the door. Damn, I thought.
I caught sketchbook guy humming along to the music. Fuck, I thought, as he looked up at me again. He must have shifted his chair by then, or my eyes decided to do me a favor, because all of a sudden I could make him out. He was actually pretty cute in an art-nerdy kind of way. Too bad I’d been giving him the stink eye for so long. He probably thought I was crazy. I mean, I probably was certifiable by then.
My heart about jumped out of my chest when I looked up and saw him inches away. He was smiling and holding out a page from his little sketchbook.
“This is for you,” he said kindly. “Thanks for sharing your chocolate.” There was nothing creepy about him whatsoever. I looked down at the paper in my hand. It was a sketch, a really freaking good sketch, of me.
“Wow,” I said, speechless. I felt bad about blaring the music. The sketch was unbelievable. He got my dark hair, its edges curled. He got my eyes perfect, even showing a hint of the fear I was feeling. And my cute Peter Pan collar so crisp against my dark sweater – I felt like I could feel the fabric if I touched the paper. I couldn’t believe he did this in just a few minutes. Sketching somebody without their permission – is that even legal?
Note: The thing I like best about this story is that it started out in a coffee shop, and when I thought of the title, I knew I had to change the setting. This is my first attempt at a big edit of a piece of fiction, and I’m happy with how it turned out.
This art is a companion to this post.
Black brought us together twice. The first time I was four years old. Your mom brought you over. We went outside to play, our moms had coffee inside. I slung my new pink purse with the cherries on it over my shoulder. Tucked inside I had my art book and my crayons.
So we went outside to play. I led the way up the hill, that hill that seemed so large back then but that was really rather small. We climbed it and sat down next to each other at the top. I opened my purse and pulled out my art book.
“Can I see it?” you asked.
“Okay,” I said and handed it to you.
You flipped through my drawings as I pulled out my crayons and lined them up on the grass. Your eyes roamed over my pages, taking in my imaginary friends, my master plans for a motor home, my silly four-year-old dreams.
“They’re all black,” you said, confused.
“Black is my favorite color,” I told you, putting the crayons in rainbow order because they were not all black. I like to choose.
The laugh cut through me and I hated you. I reached for you and yanked a handful of your sweet, shaggy, golden hair.
Your mom saw everything through the window and blamed me. But she was wrong. You deserved it. I gave you my secret and you tried to destroy it.
Years later you reminded me. “Black was your favorite color,” you laughed.
Yes, I know it was. It always has been.
The day before you asked me to marry you, you hid my engagement ring in a drawer. I looked. Damn my intuition.
The next night you wanted to walk on the beach. I knew what you wanted. I stalled, lurked in the bathroom, and bided my time. I don’t know why. When we reached the gloomy beach just after sunset, you got down on one knee and slipped the ring on my finger. You didn’t even have to ask. We lingered awhile until we couldn’t see each other anymore, the black night sky dropping heavy on us and the black water crashing on the sand. The scene was straight out of my art book.
“There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, “sketch” is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.”
-Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
There are some books that I just come back to again and again because of their truth, like this one. Gwen over at Little Growing Pains shared a post this week that reminded me again of this quote. I think that the experience of making the sketch is the important thing, and sketching means making mistakes and changes.