Performed at “Exits & Entrances,” on December 9, 2019.
The day I stuffed my soft-sided luggage to the bursting point, I thought not of Jack, but of Caryn. I thought of how she might need me, how she’d grown used to me. I remembered crazy little things, like how she looked that last summer, paddling around the pool with her zebra float. The float was so lifelike – the head, anyway, the eyes heavy-lidded, the nostrils beading with moisture – that I told her we’d have to get a permit for keeping a wild animal. She laughed. I could always make her laugh.
One Friday afternoon when it was just the two of us at the pool, she called, “Look, no hands!,” raised her arms over her head, and slipped off the float. I threw my magazine down, dived in, flip-flops and all, and swam to her. She flailed at the water then put her arms around my neck and kept her hold as we made our way past the upturned flip-flops to the side of the pool. I was breathing hard, but she wasn’t. When we reached the side, she patted my face and said, “I love you, Missy.” I wanted to protect her forever, thought I would. I believed then that life was like a jigsaw puzzle – the more you worked it, the easier it got.
But, as always, Jack came between us. That night, I suggested swimming lessons. He insisted she was too young.
“I had lessons at her age.”
“Swimming is overrated. I just wander around in the shallow end with a drink in my hand.”
“That’s not funny.”
“You worry too much. Next she’ll be on a gluten-free diet.”
Sometimes people tell me I should have stayed. They cite his house, his pool, his success. My girlfriends talk about his artist’s hands, his brown eyes. The guys catalog his Porsche, Jaguar, Tesla. As for me, when I can get a word in edgewise, I tell them there was no room.
The honest ones, like my mother, roll their eyes or smirk and say, “No room? In a three-story house?”
At first, it was the paintings. Jack painted bold colors, nothing halfway, but screaming reds, blues hot as the flame on a Bunsen burner, yellows as disturbing as staring at the sun. No slow fades, but borders between colors sharp as a paper cut. Mostly he painted abstracts, and those were eerie enough, swirling masses of color that looked like boiling lakes with monsters twisting through their depths. But when he asked Caryn and me to pose for him, and we sat in lawn chairs in the garden, wearing matching sundresses at his request, and putting up with sunburn creeping across our shoulders because he said sunscreen would make our skin look too greasy, he turned our patience into canvas-enclosed panic. In the painting, our faces swelled as if we’d been nose to nose with a fish-eye lens, and our bodies flowed into a void. Our skin wasn’t milky or tan, but green, and our over-sized eyes purple. Gone were the lawn chairs. Instead, beneath and behind us lay a vortex of black and white.
The day he unveiled his work, Caryn screamed and ran. I took a deep breath and tried to think of a positive response, perhaps the “range and vision” the art critics talked about.
“It’s really colorful,” I finally managed.
“It’s really you,” he said.
Week by week, Jack’s paintings multiplied, growing from the entrance hall to the living room to the den, until even the aggressively large kitchen and Caryn’s bedroom were invaded.
When I tried to tell Jack that was why she couldn’t sleep, why she had nightmares, he pushed my words away.
“You let her watch too much TV,” he said.
Then it was other things, sometimes about me, sometimes about Caryn, but worse when it was about Caryn because she had no mother and her grandparents lived across the country and I was one step removed, just a live-in girlfriend with little say when all was said and done.
The morning I packed to leave, with one of Jack’s disembodied portraits staring me in the face, I remembered the last birthday I spent with Caryn, when she begged for a chocolate-on-chocolate cake and he brought home two raspberry-swirl cheesecakes. She cried – she was only five, after all – and he yelled at her in front of her friends, calling her a baby, and all of them became quiet and watched with a fearful reverence as he cut the first piece.
“He’s stabbing a zombie’s face!” one of the braver ones said, and several others took up the idea, and Jack got so mad he cut pieces twice the normal size and stood at the head of the table barking orders that everyone finish every bite. They did, and when Caryn woke up in the middle of the night vomiting, he said I shouldn’t have let her eat malted-milk balls after dinner.
“It was her birthday,” I said. “I thought she should have something she wanted.”
He waved a hand. “What could she want?”
And so when my headaches got so bad I could hardly bend down to pick up the clothes Jack always left on the floor and when Caryn’s kindergarten teacher said she seemed preoccupied and when I called social services and they said I really couldn’t do anything for her – after all, there was no neglect, and abuse would be too hard to prove – I knew I had to go.
It was September, and I folded my clothes into neat piles and lay them gently in my bag. My hands shook, because I knew I’d have to face Caryn. Outside I heard her laughter as she played tag with Hunter, the little boy from next door. I looked out the window and saw them running around the wet concrete by the pool, which I’d asked her not to do. Jack sat in a chaise longue, his back to them, sketching. As I watched, the lapping water of the pool caught the sun, and I blinked.
A few weeks later, I was staying with a friend when Jack called. I’d blocked his number but for some reason answered. His words arrived in shards, like the jolt of his paintings. Funeral, tomorrow, deep end, Hunter diving in, Caryn following, fighting with the water, Hunter unable to save her, cuts and bruise, lungs full, face pale as ….. Stupid next-door kid, useless ex-girlfriend.
An aura blotted my vision, fireworks in black and white.
“You should have been here,” Jack said. “Maybe you can pay your respects if you’re not too busy.”
Should I have known it, sensed it – the future? My thoughts crowded together until all that was left was that last afternoon when I raised the window, its wood groaning within the tight frame, and called down to them, “Be careful!” I called three or four times, but the backyard sprinklers were hissing and somewhere music was playing and the sound of my voice evaporated like daylight at dusk.