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PAINTING DREAMS

A short story by Sarah Rosenblatt

"Ouch," I said.

Her painting stopped me.

"It's from a dream," she said. "I slid down a banister that became a razor blade." She was older than the other students, yet her work was more innovative. While they were at their easels meticulously trying to reproduce oranges over red velvet, Emma's dark figure was sliding right for the tooth of the banister. She wasn't afraid to paint pain. She wasn't afraid of her dark side.

I told her I once dreamt I smooshed my face against the living room window and couldn't pull it off. I was forced to watch family and friends coming and going, laughing and yelling, from the outside.

I wanted to deal with my dream in my art, as she did, but I ended up painting dog walks from the dog's point of view.

She smiled and said, "You can paint my dog."

We had never talked before. Now I told her I was far from home, far from my parents and friends, far from the way I used to manage. She invited me to dinner.

 

On the table was a sculpture of a man jumping, his feet about to stomp on a heart-shaped balloon. Emma's kitchen was huge, plenty of counter space, and the walls were covered with dream paintings. Through her purple transparent curtains I saw a neighbor watering her garden. It must have been Chinese cabbage.

Emma said, "We've been here two years. Many of our friends and family are still in DC. When you said homesick, I understood."

Emma stood at the counter, chopping mushrooms under a painting of a hand with fingers that were knives. Her husband Dan's hand was petting one of the blue birds in the table cloth.

He squirmed in his tiny kitchen chair. Although he had spent time in these chairs, he still couldn't get comfortable.

"Do you like New York?" Dan asked, "despite the homesickness?"

"People aren't accessible," I said.

The polka-dots on his shirt bounced into each other as he shifted. They were like New Yorkers from above, bumping, but never sticking.

"It takes an hour on the subway to see a friend. No one drops in," I continued as I tore off the label on my bottle of tonic water in long, snake-like strands.

The kitchen windows with the darkness behind them reflected in Dan's eyes. "Even once you have friends here," he said, "it's hard to keep them. The city comes between you." After he said that, he stopped squirming. We understood each other.

The raindrops were suddenly loud against the skylight.

Our plates darkened as did our reflections in the toaster. At times the curtain would blow over the toaster and we'd all be meshed in purple. I said, "I bought a raincoat today."

"What color?" Emma asked.

"Plum." I pulled the coat out of the bag at my feet.

"My favorite," Emma said, "Have you heard about raincoats in China?"

"Not lately," I laughed.

Emma said, "They can be folded into two-inch packets, and with just a little tug, they open. This reminded me of a clam I once put in my mouth that started to grow."

We laughed.

I imagined a clam on her tongue expanding into a raincoat.

As we ate salads, I looked up at Emma's painting of a woman standing precariously on the edge of a stool, a light bulb shattering in her hand.

"A pear is like a rusted light-bulb." I quoted one of my second-grade students. I had memorized their lines.

"Wow," Emma exclaimed."What an image."

"Beautiful." Her husband nodded.

Emma excused herself and walked out into the rain. Perplexed, we continued with our salads. There was a silence.

"Where did she go?" I asked

Her husband shrugged.

Rain dripped through the skylight forming faces on the purple linoleum floor that would elongate as Emma's dog, Lolly, sniffed them.

We had just about finished when Emma returned with a bag of pears.

 

I quoted Frankie, another student, as we climbed the stairs leading to Emma's studio. "My head is like an apple someone has taken a bite out of."

"What a line," Emma said, hitting her head with her hand.

"I certainly know what he meant," I said.

We were at the top of her house, in her huge studio.

"More dream paintings," she said.

The walls were covered with paintings of sharks circling swimmers.

"Sharks may be cliche, but they are true archetypes." Emma said.

One shark had a man's leg in its mouth.

"I bet that's your favorite," I quipped, thinking of Emma's banister painting. The water was blue-green; the sharks were blue-grey, and I was undersea in Emma's nightmare. The close-ups of the shark faces reminded me of my own nightmares. I understood Emma's trauma. I used to dream that my father and mother were stepping out into the ocean, a shark surfacing as I yelled at them to come back.

I was trying to eat a pear and help Emma dry dishes at the same time. She was washing with a blue-grey sponge. It was shark-like as she whirled it vigorously in the dishpan; it was viciously going for the blue coffee cup.

I said to Emma, "Your husband's a really sweet guy."

She took her hand out of the water and the shark continued to circle.

She said, "That's a patronizing thing to say. There's a lot more to him than that."

She surprised me. I thought, I can't cover everything at once. The shattering light bulb in the painting above me looked like it would fall.

Later I realized that Emma insisted on acknowledging everyone's dark side.

 

We painted together at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens as Hasidic children climbed rocks and swans swung their reflections around the pond. Her orange daffodils were turning yellow. She had paint in her hair and on her sweat shirt and her hand was her palette.

I told her I'd once seen a boy whose feet were two puppies. They reminded me of my parents' dog, affectionate, ready to cuddle. When I looked again at the boy's feet, they were desert boots, making their way through the park.

 

Shoes, pavement, grass, Coke cans, through a dog's eyes.

My paintings reflected my underlying feeling of being stepped on by New Yorkers who lived anonymously, gave a twinkle of their eye, and then disappeared into their gait.

Emma's favorite was the one in which a walker's shoe hit a hind leg. "That leg is mine," I said.

"A little hairy," commented Emma.

She added, "I like the looseness of your paintings. You're not afraid to let go. You don't have to control everything."

Emma and I drove to the west seventies on Thursday evenings to see our respective therapists.

"I'm surprised you haven't met David yet. He's always around campus. He stays up all night painting women swinging on swings. His women either fly toward the trees, their reflections specks in the water below, or they fall fast into the puddles. That's why he appreciates the eccentric angles in my paintings. He told me I was the most exciting person in the program, besides him," I said.

We laughed.

"What an ego," Emma said. "What about me?"

"What an ego," I quipped.

"At least he's completely honest about how lonely he is in New York."

"I'm sure you relate to that." Emma laughed.

Emma had actually adapted to New York. She loved finding exotic fruit in the markets in her Jamaican neighborhood, she went to Indian restaurants in the East village and attended off off Broadway shows. She had a handful of friends she had collected over two yearsthe years, and she kept up with them, despite the city.

"Dave has five digital clocks in his bedroom, each set to a different time and with a different fluorescent glow. I'd wake up in the the night and see bright pink and green slurring across the top of his glass of water on the nightstand. We've had intense nights, talking till four in the morning and painting together. We painted people walking dogs at the playground with swingers flying overhead, threatening to drop. He made me forget my loneliness. New York wasn't so bad."

"And now?" Emma asked.

"Whenever I look at him in drawing class, he looks away. When I try to talk to him, he ignores me. It's as if our intimacy never happened. As if all those glowing clocks and his upturned nose close-up had never existed. He almost convinced me, I almost believed him, except I had our painting." I said.

"He has you on his swing. He pushes you up into the clouds and then sends you spilling into the puddle," Emma exclaimed.

"You know, it's funny, one of his swingers looked like me," I reflected.

I had talked myself out before I even arrived at my therapist.

"Stay away from Dave," Emma warned.

She couldn't understand how interesting Dave was. At the same time, I knew she was looking out for me in a way I wasn't looking out for myself.

She was thirty years older than I, but this wasn't a problem because my mother and father had always been my close friends.

On our way home, Emma told me that her therapist had had her go back to her infancy, so she could pinpoint the helplessness she felt when her mother drank.

"During those times, I felt that everything was out of my control. When I think back, I feel like I'm locked in a dark closet and I can't get out."

"Considering everything, you've really been able to manage. Your marriage is intact, you paint everyday and you've made my life in New York worthwhile."

"You make my life sound idyllic."

"Am I being patronizing?" I asked.

 

We painted together twice a week, swam in the early mornings at the Brooklyn College pool, and drove uptown for our talking cures Thursday evenings. I still missed my family, biking with my mother around little lakes in Minnesota and taking long walks with my father through the oldest section of the city on Sunday mornings.

I was on the floor of Emma's kitchen, trying to paint her washing dishes from Lolly's point of view. I could see up Emma's nose as her glasses bobbed up and down from her vigorous scrubbing.

"What's that band-aid from?" I asked, pointing to her nostril.

"I had a sore that kept bleeding. My dermatologist thinks it's skin cancer."

"Skin cancer!" I exclaimed.

"I'll get the results of the biopsy in a few days. He doesn't think it's dangerous. It's called basel cell. They remove it and it goes away."

I was painting furiously now. The band-aid was huge over her entire face.

"God," I said, "How scary!"

What would I do without Emma?

She took off the band-aid and said, "Look!"

"Ugh," I said.

It looked like a red-brown miniature shark bite. She had been bitten by one of her sharks.

"Aren't you worried?" I asked.

"No," she said.

She may not have been worried, but I was. I couldn't concentrate during my drawing critique. Shark bites appeared on the noses of every portrait I looked at. Even my teacher had a funny spot on his nose, which I considered telling him to get checked.

When we went swimming on Wednesday morning, I watched Emma, untanned, in a black bathing suit, paddle across the water. As she moved through spots of light, I saw the redbrown color of her sore spread across her face and then over her entire body.

 

At lunch Emma said, "I'm not going to paint sharks anymore. I'm going to paint my piano lessons when I was a little girl. The old man who taught me always had his hand on my leg."

I tried to picture Emma, the piano, and the old man's hand on her leg, but all I could see was her sore under the transparent band-aid. It overwhelmed her face.

I saw her in bed, dying, saying, "It was wonderful painting in the Botanical Gardens with you. You ought to paint that boy whose feet were puppies."

On Thursday morning I called her early in the morning for the results.

"It was as he said, basel cell."

I was relieved. But in my art history class, looking up at the Modigliani portraits, I saw Emma's face and her sore in the shape of a small shark that was expanding to the size of a great white. I drew a picture of it in Jansen's History of Art.

I was preoccupied and couldn't talk to my friends at the Campus Coffee House. I drew another picture of Emma, this time with a clam-shaped sore on her nose, on the Campus Coffee House menu. I ordered rice pudding. It reminded me of home.

Emma walked in wearing an opaque band-aid. She said her painting was going great. Would I come to dinner?

 

Dinner was tasteless. I couldn't believe her husband was ignoring her wound. They were animated, discussing a Sixty Minutes episode on insurance fraud. How could any of that be of importance? I was glad when Emma's husband put a baked potato on her plate covering over her reflection, bandaid and all.

"Are you still finding it easier living here?" he asked.

"Not lately."

"Why," he asked?

"Emma," I said.

"Emma?" he asked.

"I'm worried about her."

"Why, what's wrong with Emma?" he asked.

I was embarrassed to say it.

"Cancer."

They looked at me strangely.

 

That night I dreamt Emma was dog paddling in green water, swans and their reflections passing her by. The light was hitting her right side. She had a huge clam stuck to her face and it was growing as she swam. When it was twice the size of her face, it opened and a purple plastic raincoat popped out and began suffocating her.

I woke, went to my easel and painted Emma swimming in green waters and that huge clam. I did a series. First with the clam, then the raincoat. Within a few months, I could actually look at Emma again.


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