In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was your Father. Your Father’s house has many rooms. It’s an endless hall of mirrors which upon closer inspection you realize are actually bookshelves. Words. Paragraphs. Page after voluminous page. Your Father’s voice surrounds you even in your sleep. You cannot disconnect, although you’d rather not listen, so you crank up the volume on your iPhone playlist and hide behind your vices. You steal from his liquor cabinet and medicine chest. You sit alone at night in his study reading from his journal. You memorize certain passages scribbled in your Father’s messy script. Such as:
What we remember lacks the hard edge of fact. To help us along the way we create little fictions, highly subtle and individual scenarios which clarify and shape our experience. The remembered event becomes a fiction, a structure made to accommodate certain feelings. If it weren’t for these structures, art would be too personal for the artist to create, much less for the audience to grasp. Even film, the most literal of all the arts, is edited.
-- Jerzy Kosinski
So your best work is on the cutting room floor? You slam the journal shut and hide it back under the dictionary and thesaurus on his desk then hurry out of his office, running down the corridor toward the light.
Your Father’s house is actually a mansion. The epitome of Southern California style. White stucco domes, spires, stained glass, arches, patios, porticos, potted palms, and the most high-tech security money can buy. Digital alarm systems. Cameras. Microphones. Even so, you do not feel safe here. You wander through your childhood, finding memories around each corner, yet deathly afraid of what you’ll discover in the dark spaces, the forgotten closets, the attics, wine cellars, and shadowy spots beneath the stairs. You crawl in and hide anywhere you can. You laugh at the absurdity of luxury.
Thank God for higher education. Your Father prepares a place for you while you’re away at boarding school. He waits, watches, observing you from afar from a silent perch atop his glass house. You do not feel homesick whenever you’re away. You feel numb.
He’s told you more than once, “Listen. Pay attention.” And later, with infinite patience, he reminds you, “Talk things through. Don’t let your emotions override your reason.”
Fully chastised, you crawl off to that favorite secret spot out back by the swing amongst the blanketed wisteria blossoms and pine needles. You lie on your back on the grass and tell yourself, “These are the things I have learned.” Yet you still cannot bring yourself to record them daily in your journal, because you know in your heart that you must be a fraud, a phony. You play at being intelligent, but it’s clearly an act.
Instead, you write with pigments, you take out your cans of spray paint and cover your bedroom walls with graffiti. “Think before you speak.” You paint this in bold blue letters then toss that can out the window and grab the flaming neon orange, Agent Orange, the largest can in your tagger’s box. You shake it up; the clacking ball inside the can reassures you of its content. “Learn to trust.” You spray this on the ceiling so you can see it when you’re flat on your back. “Learn forgiveness.” You spray this on the floor so you can see it when you’re on your knees. “Talk things through.” This little gem you spray onto your mirror over and over until your index finger grows numb from squeezing so hard on the nozzle. Yet you cannot stop. It’s as if another, wiser, older soul has finally entered your body, making you write with a clear mind – all the truths you’ve known since before you were born. “Reason. Patience. Empathy,” it whispers in your ear, “And above all, the art of listening without judgment.” You paint these words on your forehead, and then collapse on the floor. And now you’re spent – almost high on the fumes. You need space. You have to get away.
You are the lost girl, pregnant at the prom. You sneak off to the ladies room, and wracked with pain, you cannot fathom why these waves of sweat and nausea plague you, blood dripping down your legs like sticky tomato juice. You slap yourself and flush the mess down the toilet. You do not judge the unjudgeable. You cannot know the unknowable.
Lady Macbeth you’re not, yet you wash your hands at the sink. Scrubbing your pale arms and elbows, you dab a moist toilette at that annoying little cherry stain on the backside of your prom dress. Out! Out! Damn spot! “I can do this,” you repeat like a vapid mantra. “I can do this because I am doing this.” The reality of the action somehow makes the plausibility easier to stomach. “I act, therefore I am.” Your actions always precede you. C’est la vie. Une Vie.
Okay. Cut to the chase. You are Sky. Your parents named you this because they recognized in you, a chance to reclaim all their untapped potential. You are privileged. And you know it. You hide behind your emotions so you won’t have to be responsible for your actions. You are a baby.
When Sky left home for college, she knew she’d never go back. In the early years of her childhood, her parents had struggled to make ends meet, and then after her mother’s premature death due to a sudden stroke, her father’s business had taken off. He had quadrupled his investments and had become financially secure so Sky could pursue her dream and study art at UC Berkeley. She missed her mother, and the ensuing loneliness she felt created an emotional vortex of creativity. Sky threw paint on her canvas with hostile, violent sexual energy. Her first year on campus, two of her paintings made the Dean’s Gallery Showcase, in conjunction with the Mapplethorpe Show.
No freshman had ever made that cut before. Usually it was just the professors and their colleagues. But not this time. And it happened quite by accident. She had left her canvases out in the studio, ever the slob, and did not put them on the drying rack along with all the other freshmen in her Painting 101 class. On the day of the contest judging, Dr. Stone, the assistant curator at the Berkeley Museum, happened to pass through this studio alone while looking for his staff assistant who had failed to meet him at the judges’ brunch in the boisterous café downstairs.
Dr. Stone literally bumped into Sky’s two paintings, leaving a dollop of burnt sienna on his trousers. Cursing, he bent down to wipe the paint from his pants then noticed the canvases in question. They hit him hard, like an unexpected slap in the face. He picked them up, still wet, and carried both of them over to the muted sunlight raining down from the skylights above. He put them on an empty easel then stood back, arms folded across his chest, and studied them. He stroked his charcoal-black beard with his right hand. He squinted; cocked his head left, then right. He stepped back a few more paces and squinted again. Then Dr. Stone did something he almost never did.
He sighed. He knew now how Stieglitz must have felt when first gazing at Georgia O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings. He carried the paintings out to the judges’ meeting and found his assistant huddled with the other grad students, pouring over their notes for the catalogue and featured artist’s bios.
“Whose are these?” Dr. Stone bellowed. His presence always commanded respect, even if his actions didn’t. “Who did these paintings?”
The grad students glanced up from their confab, silenced by his piercing gaze and baritone voice. Jenny Marcus, a doctoral candidate, pushed her rimless glasses up on her nose and stood to face him. “Those belong to one of my students,” she said. “I can’t remember her name, but she’s a freshman. And she rarely comes to class.”
“The name is irrelevant now anyway,” he said. “Just add them to the show.”
Derrick Gray portrayed himself as a gruff man. His silvery goatee and short ponytail accentuated the coarseness of his jaw, the abrupt neckline, and especially his rigid posture. Despite his Levis, denim shirt and his hiking boots, he was not a laid back hippy, as much as he tried to pretend. On the other hand, he was no self-absorbed starving artist either. Having taught at a slew of lesser colleges across California, he was damn glad to land this gig at Berkeley. His salary had increased enormously since leaving San Francisco State. Yet after two years at Berkeley, Derrick was bored.
He missed the passion he once painted with, as a student at NYU. He was tired of teaching, it took up all of his time and he did not have enough time to paint. What Derrick needed to do now was to find a new fire in his life, something to stir that old excitement back into his work. When his muse was silent, as was frequently the case at these “faculty” shows, he liked to sneak off by himself and ponder his past. Tonight was no exception. Flipping up the collar of his denim jacket, armoring himself against the chilled night air, he stood outside on an upstairs balcony and glanced up at the sky just in time to see a shooting star; a rarity here with all these city lights.
At that exact moment, Sky stepped out onto the balcony to get some fresh air, her bare shoulders glistening almost silver in the moonlight. Slender black spaghetti straps hugged her flesh against the chill. She held her hands up to her face, touching her cheeks, pressing against the flushed sensation of drinking one too many glasses of Pinot Grigio. She exhaled deeply, clutching the iron rail, and leaned way over the edge. She felt dizzy, and a little nauseated.
“You okay?” Derrick asked, leaning against the wall with one foot propped up for support behind him.
Startled, Sky jumped back from the railing.