If, p.20

If, page 20

 

If
 


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  The roof was a gaping hole now. The magnificence of the frieze that he painted in the height of mania was a glaring assault. I was surrounded by the story of us, but it didn’t have an ending and it never would.

  It’s one thing to tell someone you don’t love them, that you want out. But Ash vanished. It was the closest thing to someone dying suddenly. Ash leaving me was traumatic.

  I watched the sun rise as tears flowed down my cheeks, remembering all the happiness we shared up here, but like a parasite, grief latched to each happy memory, tainting them.

  I was furious with Ash and at the same time, I would do anything to watch the sunrise with him again.

  The cool night air quickly dissipated as the rays of the sun overcame it with its heat. The rays gleamed along the roof, highlighting the cacophony of scenes around me. I took one last look at them, wistfully and spitefully, and then I said goodbye to that roof forever.

  BIRD

  After saying goodbye to our secret place, I went back to my futon and caught up on sleep. My first new purchase with my new salary would be a bed. A real effin’ bed.

  I woke up early in the afternoon. I had been so tired lately. All my energy had been reserved for the show, and pretending to be happy in front of my cast mates.

  I drudged to the kitchen and started a kettle of hot water for tea. I didn’t even turn to greet Jordan when I heard him letting himself in. He was one person I didn’t have to pretend with.

  “Hey Birdie.”

  “Hey.”

  “What are you doing? I thought we could do something fun on our day off!” He thought being extra cheerful might catch like a contagion, but it deflected off of my impenetrable sadness.

  “I’m just gonna stay in and rest. I don’t feel great.”

  He sighed and put his arm around my shoulder. “Bird, you’re never going to feel better until you make yourself feel better. You gotta live!”

  I dropped my chin and shook my head. I didn’t want to force myself to be happy, I wanted to ruminate in my sorrow.

  “I know it feels like the end of the world. It always does with your first love, but there is a light at the end of all this. The pain will end eventually.”

  Jordan didn’t understand. I couldn’t tell him, not unless I was sure. But there was a possibility my connection with Ash would never end. My period was several weeks late. I was in denial, hoping each morning I would wake up to cramps. I couldn’t bring myself to take the test, I was too scared. A positive test would confirm I had lost everything: my love and my career. There was always the option to end the pregnancy to keep my career, but even then, the loss would take me to a level of devastation that terrified me. I was an unwanted pregnancy, but I was given a chance. I wouldn’t be able to end a child Ash and I created, even if that meant raising him or her alone.

  “It’s not the same. We didn’t break up. I don’t know where he is. If he’s going to be okay. If he’s back on the street. I didn’t get an explanation. I’m not even sure if he really loved me,” I said jaggedly.

  “He loved you Bird. I’m sure he still does.”

  “Then why? You don’t abandon the person you love. You don’t just leave them in suspended animation. I can’t move on from it. I just keep thinking about it.”

  “Bird . . . I can’t speak for him, but if I had to guess, he was in love with you from the first time he painted you. Maybe even earlier. I don’t think that love was the issue.”

  The tea kettle began to shriek, breaking the conversation. I pulled it off the burner and poured myself a cup.

  “Want?” I asked.

  “No,” Jordan replied with a deep sadness in his voice.

  I focused on holding back my tears. I had a television appearance tomorrow for a local news station, and I couldn’t have puffy eyes.

  “Bird. You know him better than anyone. You know he adored you. I just . . . maybe he wanted to let you blossom on your own.”

  “If that was the case, it’s pretty ironic, because I feel like I’m withering away.”

  Jordan sighed. We’d had a version of this conversation several times since Ash left. I am sure he was just as sick of it as I was. In that time, I had lost some weight off of my already lean body, and Jordan had expressed his concern.

  “It’s only been three weeks. You will get over him. There are so many guys out there. You could have any guy, well any straight guy, in our cast. Everyone is mesmerized by you.”

  I chuckled at the absurdity of having anyone I wanted. How funny it was that I had become the object of everyone’s lust. Status has an interesting effect on people.

  “I can’t tell you Ash is just a guy. He’s unique. He’s wildly talented and one of a kind. But his awesomeness came with huge issues. You really have dodged a bullet. You’re too young to commit to someone with a severe mental illness. Don’t you remember that night you found him? Do you really want to worry about that happening again? Did you really want to babysit him?”

  “I know your opinion on that matter. You have made it abundantly clear.”

  “You have to at least admit that he’s not perfect. It might be for the better. There is a silver lining.”

  Silver. One of the colors he saw when I danced. Like the moon sparkling off a dark ocean. Everything made me think of him. He left his mark on everything that was beautiful and good so that I couldn’t even enjoy those things any longer.

  I shrugged my shoulders, dismissing Jordan’s attempt to find any good in the situation. I understood the logic. But the heart wants what it wants. It is stubborn. It fights and kicks and screams and aches until you give into it, or you build a tolerance to the pain. The latter was my only option.

  My cell phone rang, saving me from further discussion about my misery. Normally, I would screen the call, but ever since Ash left, I answered everything, hoping it would be him.

  “Hello?”

  “Hi, may I speak to Annalise Campbell?”

  “This is.”

  “Hi, my name is Rachel Millner. I am with the Ellen show. Occasionally, viewers petition for guests they would like to see, and there’s been one for you that has gone viral.”

  “There is? I had no idea.”

  “Yes, it’s only been up about twenty-four hours and it already has over five hundred thousand signatures.”

  “What? I uh . . . I guess I haven’t been online since yesterday. Wow. I don’t know what to say.”

  “Well, I would like to invite you to the show. We would love to have you on as a guest. So I am hoping ‘yes’ is what you’ll say”

  The few appearances I had since Alana put me up to the job had prepared me to accept without hesitation.

  I had become something of a local celebrity because of Danse Nocturne and my TV appearances, but hundreds of thousands of people petitioning? It was unreal.

  The news provided the first hint of genuine happiness I had since Ash had left. It also sharpened the fear I felt about my future.

  Jordan and I did our usual squeal-dance celebration.

  “Bird, it’s so good to see you happy!” He gave me a tight hug.

  “I’m sorry I’m being such a drag. I am really happy for you and Trevor. You guys are made for each other. And you are going to have one million babies and a picket fence and all that stuff.”

  “You’ll have all that one day too.”

  I resisted the urge to debate his kind words.

  “Okay, back to the fucking news that you just broke the internet!”

  “I’d hardly call it that.”

  “Get dressed. We’re celebrating with some pizza!” Jordan proclaimed. As I dug through a drawer for clothes, Jordan searched on his phone for evidence of this viral campaign. “Oh, I found something.” He began to read highlights out loud. “It says you are an inspiration and a testament to perseverance . . . Unconventional beauty . . . You dance with a grace that moves people . . . that you are a role model to young girls . . . I guess a teenage girl in LA started this petition an
d it spread like wildfire.” He looked up at me. “Bird, this is amazing!”

  “I can’t believe it,” I exclaimed.

  “I can. You better hold onto your big red hair. We are in for a ride with you,” he smirked.

  ASH

  I FELT AROUND my bed and let out a sigh of relief when I found the space beside me was empty. I didn’t remember much about the night before and there was a chance someone would be beside me. I rolled like a log until I hit the end of the bed and barely got to my feet.

  The chill in the air reminded me I was naked, and I threw on pair of sweatpants hanging from a lamp. Then I smelled coffee. Was it really coffee? Yes, I never smelled coffee unless there was actually coffee being brewed. I like the smell of coffee. I wouldn’t have minded it coming to me here and there. Unlike licorice, which was always a part of my emotional responses even though I hated that shit.

  Shit. If I wasn’t the one making coffee, then someone else was. I slid into the bathroom. The used condom in my toilet confirmed I was not alone. I sighed, swept my fingers through my hair, and knotted it above my head. Then after one big roll of the eyes, I made the long walk to the kitchen, thinking of a way to get whoever the hell it was out of here.

  “Morning,” the girl said all cutesy like she was some fucking high schooler. She was wearing my shirt. I hated when they did that.

  “Morning. I have some appointments this morning. I’ll call you a cab.” Her face dropped. “There are to-go cups in that cupboard over there.” I gestured to the general vicinity of the kitchen as if that would help her.

  I opened the front door of my condo, picked up the Times, flipped through the sections and my day got worse. Like punch to the balls worse. Licorice.

  There she was, dressed like an exotic bird, perched over some well-muscled dancer’s head. Annalise “Bird” Campbell the caption read. So much had changed in the five years since I had left LA and gone to New York City to start over. One thing didn’t—the way that girl made me feel. Except now she was a woman, and she had become all the things she wanted, and she probably hated me, if she thought of me at all.

  That was the goal. She had to hate me. She had to erase me. The burden I had to bear was that I couldn’t erase her. And the pointless pussy parade didn’t change anything. I thought one day I might find someone else like her, but she couldn’t be matched, not even close.

  “The cab?”

  “Huh?” I asked, forgetting that nameless groupie was still there.

  “You were going to call one?”

  The busty brunette stood over me as I sat at my dining room table.

  “Oh, yeah. Um . . .” I fumbled around for my phone.

  “Forget it, I’ll just grab one myself.” I think I was supposed to be apologetic, but I was relieved she was finally leaving. The door sort of slammed behind her and I was again able to consume myself in thoughts of Bird. They were always a storm, love and regret, pleasure and pain, pride and shame. Even when she wasn’t part of my life, thinking of her fired me up. I still felt the all-consuming heat. But the sweet taste I used to get on my tongue was replaced with the sharp one of licorice. I thought about what Miller told me, the look of pure devastation on her face when he told her the news. I thought about how my last words to her were the promise of a life together. I mourned over the fact that the only way I could be good for her was to hurt her.

  If only we had met later, maybe things could have been different. But we met when we were barely adults and we were drunk on love and I was just figuring out how to deal with my bipolar disorder and my self-loathing. Well, I was still trying to figure that last one out, to be honest.

  Miller helped me set up in New York right out of the hospital. He wasn’t thrilled about it, seeing that city was the home of my first all-out def-con-level manic episode, but I had a heart to heart with him. I told him why I felt I needed to leave and surprisingly, he went along with it.

  For a while, I kept my life simple. A low key job, a small apartment, and in the evenings I snuck around the city and made it my canvas. How ironic that I didn’t vandalize when I was homeless, but as a stable member of society, I used brick walls, park benches, lampposts and whatever felt right to create my art. Turned out people liked the work and it was rarely erased. My installations stamped the city and gained a cult following. I remained anonymous, but I hoped one day she might see my calling card and find me. I wouldn’t barge back into her life, but I wanted her to know I was around. She knew my signature style. It was a fanciful thought she might find me, but it was what kept me going.

  When I came to NYC, the money didn’t matter. I just needed stability. Early on, I had faith Bird and I could find each other again, but reality set in. We were just fucking kids. Eventually decisions have to be made from a place of logic, not from some wellspring of love. My first step in becoming a man was leaving Bird so she could truly live. Men don’t have time for childish dreams.

  It hurt, and the hurt was the reason I snuck out at night and colored the city. It was the only way I could let that pain out.

  Eventually, I was prescribed a medication called Lamictal that didn’t dull my synesthesia. After my initial diagnosis in college, I had given it a shot, but developed a potentially fatal allergic reaction. When I got back to NYC years later, my new doc insisted on giving it another shot. This time, there was no bad reaction.

  Once I found something that could keep me in a functional range and still retain my senses, I was producing like a madman.

  Through the filter of an ever present heartache, the city that was full of sounds and scents and people made my senses explode. Smells, colors, tastes and sensations overlapped. But nothing ever shined like Bird.

  Every time I painted, it was an attempt for me to channel the way Bird made me feel; when I painted and she danced, and life was simple. We existed infinitely in those moments. I never thought they would end. If I stopped painting, I would stop feeling her. If I stopped painting, it would be like Bird had died.

  For a while, I followed her successes, but it was too much. I knew enough to know I made the right choice. She went on the tour, and Danse Nocturne became hugely popular. I saw billboards and ads for shows all over the U.S. I might have become an underachieving street artist, but she had become everything she deserved and more. That was good enough for me. That was until about three years ago, when the same hand of fate that placed Bird and me in each other’s paths swept in for a second jab at things.

  I was in Alphabet City. At the time, I had a website where I posted the sites of my upcoming installations. It started to gain a decent following, and I became something of a mythical figure in New York.

  I was painting a street lamp, creating the illusion that it was melting into the street below when a limo pulled up. This was not the kind of neighborhood where limos just cruised along.

  The electronic hum of the window lowering finally got me to turn and acknowledge its presence.

  My first instinct was a rich creep who had a penchant for tall young men.

  “You’re WATT?” Out popped the head of a pretty brunette with huge brown eyes. I could tell she was petite, though I could only see her from the shoulders up. Her makeup and hair was fresh, the maroon coat draped across her shoulders looked like it cost a month’s pay for me.

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, my hands full of fresh paint in front of a freshly painted post.

  “I’ve been trying to find you. I saw your website said you’d be here next and I have been coming here every night for the past four weeks. I even just left an event to check.”

  I looked at her skeptically.

  “Could we talk?” she asked.

  “About?”

  “My name is Shyla Ball Holden. I own several art galleries across the globe and I want to discuss your work.”

  I had long abandoned the dreams of becoming the next big thing. I convinced myself I was content to paint the streets. But her words stirred something that ha
d lain dormant: the desire for my name to live alongside the artists I admired.

  I tilted my head to peer into the limo, but couldn’t see much. Sometimes cars still made me claustrophobic. The claustrophobia struck like lightning, I never knew when or where the walls would suddenly begin to shrink. But the woman had my attention, so I was going to take the gamble.

  I sighed. “Okay, fine. But I need a window open.”

  She smiled and opened the door and I slid in as she moved back to her seat. I was surprised to see Mr.GQ talking on his cellphone just beside her.

  “That’s my husband. I kind of pulled him away from something important, but apparently he’s not a fan of me wandering around looking for mysterious artists in dark corners by my lonesome.”

  I nodded.

  “So, I am a huge fan of your work. It’s fresh, unique, full of texture and movement and light. And the way you interpret landscapes and people, it’s almost otherworldly, like a drug trip.” I had isolated myself and my work for so long, I had forgotten what it was like for someone to admire it in my presence. The last person who did that was Bird.

  “Thank you.”

  “What’s your name?”

  I pulled down the half ski mask I wore to shield my identity. “WATT.”

  She smiled. “Fair enough. I want to do an exhibit of your work in all of my galleries.”

  It was too fast. It was like some Cinderella story and it didn’t feel real. My talents deserved this chance, but I still didn’t feel I did. I had blown my chance years ago. Second chances didn’t happen in real life. I had accepted my fate of living as a monk, paying penance for ruining my family and hurting Bird.

  “I don’t know.”

  “What is there to consider?” the husband asked. I missed that he had ended his phone conversation.

 
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