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A room away from the wol.., p.15

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 15

 

A Room Away From the Wolves
 


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  I should never have come here. That was what I was thinking. I should never have walked the street of flowers and ferns, knowing where it would take me. I should not have come. I should turn around right now. I should never see this man again. I should go. My mother would want that.

  Monet was grabbing my arm. She was heading for the glass door. She was opening it and pushing me inside, before I could even protest.

  The gallery space was a squished storefront. It seemed smaller now than it had all those years ago. Every wall was white. The ceiling was white. The floor was gray, and hard, as I remembered. The exposed pipes were painted white. The doors were white. There was no furniture apart from a desk and a single stool, and those, too, were white.

  Monet was offering her smile to my father, and he wasn’t looking at me at all anymore. He was looking only at her. It was hard not to. His eyes ran from her face down to what was below her face, and took their time there, did a few circles down there, until he came back up again and met her eyes.

  If Monet minded some strange creep checking her out like this, it didn’t show.

  He had a dark, scruffy beard. He had big, ugly hands. He reeked of cigarette smoke. He had a fat, veiny nose. I wondered what my mother ever saw in him, and worse, how many of his genes I carried, how much my aging future would be like this.

  “Don’t be shy. Take a look around.”

  Monet had no idea who he was to me. “Why, hello,” she said. “Hello, hello. We were wondering if you could tell us a bit about the artist? Like, what is his name?” She winked at me.

  A phone rang behind the white desk, and my father held up a stubby finger. I was relieved to see I didn’t have his hands. He’d be right back, he told us—well, he told Monet. He acted as if only one of us was there. He hustled for the desk and answered a white phone. He turned his back as he spoke, which allowed me to escort Monet to the far side of the gallery, where the girl in the painting—it had to be the same subject in all the paintings—lolled listlessly with limbs outstretched on the hideous plaid couch. Either the artist had limited skill in animating the human form, or she really was a corpse and it was a brilliant interpretation; I couldn’t decide. That was art, I guessed.

  I just let it out. “That’s my father,” I told Monet. “I don’t think he recognizes me.”

  “Who? That guy?”

  I nodded and indicated she should keep her voice down.

  “That guy is your dad.” She whispered it, flat. I couldn’t tell if she was teasing me.

  “This is his place,” I said. “That’s him.”

  “I don’t see any resemblance,” she said, and this soothed me. She made a box with her fingers, as if miming the frame for a photograph. She gazed at him through her finger-frame. “Maybe in the nose.”

  I cringed and covered my face.

  “Kidding. Seriously. But are you being serious right now? Did I interrupt a family reunion?”

  “He didn’t know I was coming.”

  “So,” she said. “When’s the last time you saw him?”

  “I was thirteen. Forever ago.”

  “And he doesn’t recognize you?”

  I shrugged.

  She grinned. “And you came here to—what? Claim your fortune? Go into the family business? Avenge an old wrong?”

  I couldn’t answer.

  “What’s the plan?” A spark in her eyes. “What do we want from him? Money?”

  I didn’t answer, but something was communicated between us that she liked. She liked it very much.

  My father had ended his phone call and was crossing the empty gallery space toward us. “The artist you’re admiring is called Frederico,” he told Monet.

  Monet stifled a laugh. He’d said it so pompously, attempting to roll the final r. “Frederico what? What’s his last name?”

  Every painting in the gallery was by this same artist. They all had the lack of artistic skill, the flat slops of color, the nude subject with the blob of dark hair. Many featured the hideous couch. In fact, the artist was better at painting the couch than the human.

  “Simply Frederico,” my father said. “He prefers to go by only one name. He likes to conceal his signature—see, there, in the corner by her toe, where he signed? He’s a master of the female form. Artforum called him the voice of—”

  Monet broke in, making him stop. I figured she’d laugh in his face. Master? Voice of . . . what? But what she said next shocked me.

  “I’m not here to see any paintings, Dad. Don’t you know me? I’m here to see you.” Then she stepped back and spread out her arms, as if to say, Look! I’m your long-lost child you never bothered to send a single birthday card to! Embrace me!

  His expression went sideways with confusion. He coughed a guttural smoker’s cough and said, “What now?”

  “Dad, it’s me. Your daughter. Bina. Don’t you recognize me?”

  She came in for the hug now—she was actually going so far as to touch him—and I felt myself turn into a mist in the shape of a person. Someone could walk straight through me, and I’d dissolve. I wasn’t even there. Only two people were, and I was watching them reconnect. So this was how he would greet his estranged daughter.

  He returned the hug, awkwardly, but when he pulled away he shook his head. “I don’t remember your hair . . . like that,” he said. That was all he said. After all these years, he had nothing more to say to me. He stood so stiffly. Not a millimeter of his face softened beneath the dark beard.

  “So what next?” Monet said. “Want to take me to lunch?”

  “Sabina?” he said. “Bina? It’s you?”

  The mist hardened to ice. Bina was something my mother had called me, from the beginning, before I even came out. Monet could have kept this going, but I didn’t need her. Not for this.

  “She’s lying,” I told him. “She’s not Bina.”

  He seemed relieved. Then his face hardened—gazing at me anew. “What do you want?” he said. “Did your boyfriend knock you around or something?”

  I touched my face. Makeup never seemed to hide it completely, no matter what I did. “I walked into a door,” I said.

  He didn’t like that, not one bit. It was something my mother had been known to say. He changed the subject. “Did she send you? How is she?”

  He wouldn’t even call her by a name, but I knew who he meant: my mother.

  Here was the man we left when I was nine years old. The man who threw the dishes, practically the whole set, until we had barely anything left to eat on. The man who called her terrible names, who did things to her she’d never told me, because it would hurt me to know, who made her walk into all those doors, here he was.

  I would keep her safe, even now. “She’s fine. She’s doing fantastic.”

  “Why are you here then?” He wasn’t smiling. He didn’t seem at all happy to be reunited. “You’re here for money. I can read you like I could her. That’s what you want, right? Cash.”

  Heat buzzed in my ears. “I’m here for the summer, I’m staying at Catherine House, I—”

  “I know the place. She stayed there. When she left me the first time.”

  I steeled my eyes at him.

  “They tried to poison her to me. But it didn’t work. She didn’t stay long.”

  I knew that, too. Her city stories ended so abruptly, as if the sidewalk had dropped off and there was no one left to catch her but him. She went back to him, this stranger. Was it all because of me?

  “I was the only one who visited her in the hospital,” he was saying. “The only one. None of them came. Whole house full of chicks, and not one showed.”

  Monet watched him carefully. She was getting a clearer picture of him now. So was I.

  “She was in the hospital?” This was the first I’d heard of it, and I’d heard most everything that went on that summer, or so
I thought.

  “After the accident.” This new piece of information— accident?—stung me. “And you could be scamming me, coming here, pretending to be my kid. Don’t think I don’t know that.” He paused. “Except you do look like her. That’s the truth.”

  Usually I liked this said aloud and acknowledged. I needed to hear it, needed to remember. Because if I resembled her on the outside, where it was obvious, didn’t we share so much more, on the inside, where only we could know and feel?

  “You do look like your mother,” he said. “Only chunkier.”

  I stepped back.

  “But that doesn’t mean I’m giving you money.”

  Monet spoke for me. “So that’s it? You haven’t seen your kid in years, and that’s what you have to say?”

  He refused to give me another word and stood there, quaking with rage. The familiarity of the moment squeezed my throat.

  In an instant, Monet had his arm. For some reason, she had his arm and was leaning into his ear and sharing something, and he was nodding, visibly calmed, even subdued. It was eerie.

  She turned now to me. “Let me talk to you for a sec. Alone.”

  “Wait,” I said, because I was still at the edge of something, and it had nothing to do with his money. An accident. There’d been an accident I didn’t know about. My mother’s stories had swirled with forgotten street names and subway stops, clubs that used to be open but weren’t anymore, defunct bands I’d never heard of, movies she watched in downtown theaters that had since shuttered, adventures she had in downtown parks, boots she wore that she bought on sale on the street where she said all boots used to live, the postcards she collected from the shop on Christopher Street that was filled with old art prints and movie stills—enough murky and distracted detail to make a web. She’d left some things out, hadn’t she? I was beginning to suspect that she’d distracted me with other things all so she could keep the most significant part of her summer to herself.

  Monet pulled me across the gallery, and soon we were at the doorway. She wedged her arm in front of it so I couldn’t open the door and leave.

  “Get your face together,” she said.

  I’d been crying. That kept happening. I was facing the street, fully visible through the glass, and not a single person who walked past paused with any concern or even noticed. My mother always said people in the city minded their own business. She’d also once told me there was never another place where she felt so alone.

  “What’s the game plan here?” Monet said.

  “Game? This isn’t a game.”

  The last time I ever visited with him—the day I saw this gallery, and left empty-handed—I remembered my mother’s hands in my hair, her warm body snug against mine as she pulled me close, and how safe I felt even though we were out in the noisy street surrounded by strangers. She apologized for taking me there. She should never have done it, she said. No amount of money was worth it, and we’d be fine without him, just fine.

  Then she made me a promise. “You will never have to see that man ever again.”

  She never broke that promise. I did. All by myself, on this very day.

  “What do you want to do?” Monet said, her voice pitched low. “He’s not going to like hand over his credit cards . . . We could see how much he’s got in his wallet if you want. Who should be the decoy?” She waggled her eyebrows.

  “No, no,” I said. I kept thinking about the accident he said she’d had. I kept thinking how he knew something about her that I didn’t.

  Monet pointed to one of the paintings on the wall, the largest, ugliest one, the one she’d called her favorite. “Go over there. By that poor girl’s feet. Wait there. I’ll take care of this.” Then she was near my father again, and she was pulling him away. She said she needed to talk with him.

  ━━━━━

  I might have followed, but something on the wall held me. The painting. That plaid couch. That very particular pattern on the couch. It tugged at me the way a vaguely recognizable face in a movie will tug, will spin your mind until you remember where you saw that person before, what role they used to play in some former costume.

  What was coming to me was all texture. Nubby and rough against skin. Then the pattern and the distinct colors, the sour brown, the sickly tan, the urine-inspired yellow. I’d touched it, in real life, with my own hand.

  That couch had lived in my father’s house before we left him and most everything in it. It had been in his studio (the garage), and I wasn’t allowed to sit on it. Now here it was, depicted in oil paint and hung in a Manhattan gallery far away from that garage, signed pretentiously, Frederico.

  Maybe my father knew the artist, but that wouldn’t explain the second thing.

  The subject in the paintings. The girl.

  In all the paintings, her hair was the same: a mess of curls hanging below her chin, brown squiggly lines, as if the artist didn’t know how to properly render hair using a paintbrush. The same brown squiggles and face appeared on every canvas in the gallery. My hand lifted to my own head, where my hair was knotted and slick at the back of my neck, from summer humidity, but if I broke it free from the hair elastic it would have made my own mess of curls and flyaways as usual. I had my mother’s hair. When she’d stopped dyeing it, the brown grew back in, plain as tree bark. Same as mine.

  Hair was only the beginning. We had the same hands and wrists, practically almost identical. Same big hips. Same big lips. He’d said we looked alike, didn’t he?

  This painting was of my mother. She was young again, rendered with globs and shaded body parts. The proportions were all off, but I saw the accusatory face of my mother. Full of secrets. Standing in the door of my basement bedroom, telling me she needed to send me away.

  I had to go. Through the window, the street was dark now, as if a storm had barreled through the neighborhood, shrouding the block. I should have heard traffic noise and the buzz of activity outside, but I didn’t. How long had we been here?

  Moments later, Monet reappeared, tossing me a wallet. “How much you get?”

  I caught it and held it close. It bulged with cards and sloppy lumps of cash, and I needed two hands to grasp it. “What’d you do to him?”

  “I doubt Fred’s coming back out here anytime soon,” she said. “He’s a little shaken, the pig. I saw him holding his chest when I left, like his heart couldn’t take it. The shock might end up killing him.” She was baiting me.

  “What did you do to him?” I repeated.

  She cocked her head.

  “He’s Frederico,” I said.

  She nodded, encouraging me.

  “It’s him,” I said louder.

  There was something about knowing that the man who made these things was my father. The trick he was pulling on the public by showing his own work and saying some artsy painter made them. The fact that he used my mother to do it for all these years.

  A paint can sat on the bottom rung of a ladder nearby. I wish I could say I was the one who noticed it, that the idea came to me, but Monet crossed the gallery to the ladder. The paint was white, of course.

  “He could come out at any second,” Monet said, yet weren’t her eyebrows raised? Didn’t she point a finger at the paint can and say, “Hmm”?

  I put the wallet down so my hands were free.

  “Go on,” she said. “Hurry up, before Daddy Dearest comes out.”

  She was so calm. At the same time, she was goading me. She’d done something to him, and now it was my turn.

  It was a half gallon of white paint, not so heavy. A paintbrush was innocently set at its side. The lid popped right off, the paintbrush a loaded weapon, dripping everywhere.

  I began with a splat, aimed it at the biggest canvas on the biggest wall. It took me over. It was all or nothing, and I wanted to destroy everything, every stolen scrap of my mother. I wanted to er
ase her from this place.

  As I was spraying paint at the pictures, I changed. I turned powerful. Brutal. Brimming with rage.

  Soon there was no more paint. There was no more artwork to ruin, except for one painting on the far wall. But I’d done enough, I’d made my mark, had my fill. My rage was spent.

  I dropped the paintbrush. I kicked the paint can over. I marked the gray floor with white prints from my feet, and then I stood very still. I had paint in my hair, paint spattered over my bruises and ugly spots and mouth just like my mother’s. I blinked, and all I saw was white. My mother felt so close to me; it was almost as if she were there with me in the gallery, softly saying, That was beautiful, Bean, in my paint-crusted ear.

  True dark had fallen, thick now, and streetlights were on, but there were still people passing by, completely uninterested in what was going on inside. The only person bursting with emotion in this room was me.

  I took the wallet and held it for a good moment. Then I dropped it in a pool of paint, where it would stick.

  “Really?” Monet said.

  “Really,” I said.

  She nodded with respect.

  I grabbed the remaining painting—a small canvas tucked away in a corner—without a second thought. A couple of fresh white dots marred it, but apart from that it was an original Frederico in fine shape. I held it face-first against my chest and headed for the door.

  Monet trailed after me.

  “You could get arrested,” she called.

  Was it me, or did she sound amused?

  “How many dollars’ worth of damage would it have to be to become a felony?” she asked. “If it’s art theft, do they have to call the FBI?” I could feel her behind me. This was still a game to her, one in which she felt not a single consequence, as if no one could catch her, no matter what she did. So reckless.

  I sensed that same recklessness in me.

  I was out the door, and so was she, and no one was yelling after us. I was across the street, and so was she, and all behind us was quiet.

 
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