I slapped a Vicodin up against the back of my throat and chased it with some beer… light beer, I was really trying to lose a few pounds before my sister’s wedding. The Percocet helped block out the pain in my forearm, which probably wasn’t broken. There was no swelling, just a nasty bruise from when I landed on it after jumping off the fire escape. To be fair, I probably would have taken the Vicodin anyway. I liked the feeling I got from it, the sense of being insulated from the world. Like emotional bubble wrap. But that was my last one, so I needed to make a decision. I headed to the painter’s place.
I’d known her for a long time, but I only knew she was a painter because her fingers were always stained with paint and ink of various colors. I never saw any of her paintings. When I asked, she said she did mostly portraits of imaginary people, with an occasional landscape. I said, “do you mean, like, characters from books you’ve read?” She said, “no”.
She never wore any makeup other than dark, dark pencil thin lines to make her eyes appear to be the shape of cats’ eyes. Her lips were pale, nearly as pale as her cheeks. Except when she blushed.
We never kissed, but I thought about it often during our long conversations about nothing while we sipped coffees and watched the wallpaper slowly peel away from the plaster.
She knew the words to every song in the Billboard Top 40 from the year she was born, and she hated every book on my shelf. Her hair was prematurely grey, the color of a winter sky before a storm.
I’d first met her when my friend O’Brien introduced us, next to the trash dumpster behind the Quik-Mart. For years after that I bought Vicodin from her, or Percocet. Later, when she added heroin to her merchandise list, I stopped buying from her. Too many junkies hanging around her place. But, desperate times, and all that.
When I got there, I found she was not alone. The poet was with her, and he was singing a song with no words, just the bare melody. Also bare was the painter, unclothed, naked, and the poet’s hands were busy at the work of pleasure. I cleared my throat to alert them to my presence.
“The door was unlocked”, I said.
“I was hoping to score some pills”, I said, by way of explaining my presence.
Still no response, but I knew where she kept them, so I helped myself and left some cash in their place, and slipped back out into the rain.
Maybe you want to know about when I jumped off the fire escape. Sometimes a bad option is actually the best option available. It was like this: Jerry, this guy I’ve been dating, pulled a Mr. Hyde on me, totally out of nowhere, just because I mentioned that I thought this other guy we both know, Cecil, is cute. Which he is. Jerry’s actual name is Gerald, so I always say he should spell the nickname version ‘Gerry’, but he disagrees, for no logical reason whatsoever.
Anyway, Jerry got crazy and started throwing stuff. He’s not usually violent, so it caught me by surprise and I panicked, and climbed out the window onto the fire escape. Jerry tossed my shoes out after me, and one of them hit me in the head. That’s when I jumped.
So, now you’re up to date, and I’ve got enough pills to get me through a week or so, if I ration, which I probably won’t, but maybe. I flip a coin (not really) and decide to go to my place instead of back to Jerry’s. Better give that a day or two. When I get home I just crawl into bed, shoes and clothes and all, and sleep.
The morning sunlight is an unwelcome intrusion, as usual. My arm still aches, and the bruise is more colorful. I wonder if the painter would consider it worthy of painting. I need some coffee.
The phone rings. It’s probably Jerry. Am I ready for that? No. Coffee first, then I’ll call him. I let it go to voicemail and shuffle into the kitchen. I have one of these coffee makers where you just drop the prefilled pod into the receptacle and push a button, no thinking or measuring required. It doesn’t make the best tasting coffee, but I appreciate not having to pay attention. The time it takes to brew is just about exactly the time I need to shuffle into the bathroom and empty my bladder, then shuffle back to the kitchen to find I forgot to put a mug under the machine’s output spout. There’s coffee, coffee everywhere, and not a drop to drink. Fuck it, I’ll go to the coffee shop.
Susie, the goth barista with the lobe extenders and the multiple facial piercings, pulls me a double shot of espresso without a word, certainly without a smile. I take it outside and sit at one of the rusty little tables they have on the sidewalk, watching the passersby passing by. Then Jerry is there, looking sheepish.
“Did you get my message?”
“No, I left my phone at home.”
“Well, basically, I’m sorry. I was an idiot. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well, we’re all idiots sometimes.”
He reaches across the table to take my hand, and notices me grimace with pain.
“What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
“I banged it a little when I jumped from the fire escape last night, like an idiot.” I try to smile.
“Oh, baby, you should get that x-rayed”, he says as he slides my sleeve up and gets a look at the purple-blue-black splotch.
“No, it’s just a bruise. I’ll be fine.”
“I was worried about you. Where’d you go after you left?”
“Home. I needed to sleep. Listen, don’t worry, ok? I’m alright. You just freaked me out a little, and I had to get out. But it’s fine. I’ve got a ton of stuff to get done today, so I’m gonna go take a shower and get myself together. I think I might call my sister, see if I can go stay with her at the lake house for a few days to clear my head. I’ll call you in a couple of days, ok?”
And I walked away, not waiting for an answer, and not looking back.
I did go back to my apartment, but I didn’t shower and I didn’t call my sister. I popped another Vicodin, cleaned up the spilled coffee, and headed back to the painter’s place.
This time the door was locked, so I rang the bell and knocked a couple of times. Eventually she let me in.
“Hey”, she said, “I was just thinking about you.”
“Yeah, that poet was here last night and he said he’d seen you at some party recently, and that reminded me that you hadn’t been around in while.”
“Oh, yeah, I think I did see him at Bennie’s party. He was making out with some model, or actress or something.” That wasn’t true, I hadn’t seen him at all.
“Ha, that doesn’t surprise me. He’ll make it with anyone. Anyway, what brings you around today?”
“I’m not sure. I just needed to be with someone, and I’ve missed hanging out with you.”
“Yeah, I’ve missed you, too. I was just about to get high, want to smoke with me?”
And we did.
“You know, you’ve never shown me any of your paintings.”
“Because I don’t keep any of them. I either burn them or scrape the canvas and paint something else, or just give them away.”
“Would you paint me?”
“If you want, sure. But you might not like it.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I paint what I see, not what people actually look like. A lot of people don’t want to know what other people really see.”
“I do. I want to know.”
She pulled a blank canvas out of a closet and set it up across the room from where I sat on the end of her sofa, and she started to paint.
“Do you want me to pose, or anything?”
“No, you’re fine. Just sit there and relax.”
Hours went by, seemingly. Neither of us spoke. She painted, and I watched.
Finally, she said, “Ok, come take a look if you want.”
I got up and walked over to her side of the canvas to find that she’d painted exactly the bruise on my arm, which she hadn’t seen since I hadn’t taken off my sweater. The canvas was covered in paint, purple-blue-black, shapeless, painful, raw. I just stared and stared, speechless.
“I warned you,” she said.
“It’s perfect,” I said. “How did you know?”
And that’s when we kissed for the first time.