Trading Blows: Round Two

Trying to lie still next to someone I loved is the hardest thing I have ever tried to do.  I say loved, like something past, but that’s not the whole truth. This ball of indecipherable strings is impossible to untangle, so for now the love line is buried, the hate line is buried, everything buried in this in-articulated mass that has been winding since I found the cufflinks and tie wrapped behind the toaster on the counter, an accidental gift.

But physically trying to rest next to this mystery Michelle without waking her up is a daunting task that I don’t think I can handle.  They say that everything you know about a person can change on a dime, but I didn’t believe it until the dime became the size of a car, fell out of the sky, and splattered me on the kitchen floor. My body feels like it’s been pummeled, bruised all over, and my sweet spots on this bed aren’t working.  My go-to position – flat on my back with my pillow tucked slightly to the right so I can rest my head on my cheek – hasn’t lulled me to sleep, I tend to asphyxiate when I lay on my stomach, and I’m sure as hell not going to spoon Michelle.  I’m running out of options, my body is a screaming mess, and my mind is no better.

I turn on my side to face Michelle, slow as a sloth, and I look at her in the moonlight pouring in through the bedroom window.  She’s wearing one of my old high school shirts, all stretched, faded and holy, complete with the red and white cartoon mustang glaring at me on the back, with the slogan in bold, “Get a leg up…on LIFE!” I’m trying, cartoon mustang, I’m trying.

Michelle stirs slightly, pulling her cheek deeper into her pillow, and I catch my breath. If she wakes up and sees me, she’ll know something is wrong.  When you wake up and your significant other is staring at you, sweating and twitching like a four year old on sugar, it’s pretty obvious.  Then she will drill me until I confess, as if it’s my secret to keep. I haven’t prepared my statement yet.

At this moment, all I want to do is watch her sleep and pretend that this goddess lying next to me is mine. And I’m hers. And we are all that each other will need, until we grow old and one of us loses our memory and we need Ryan Gosling, soaking wet in the rain on a dock, to bring our shared consciousness back.  Michelle and I have, had, this running gag where we press our foreheads together, and we’d pretend that everything we’ve ever thought and felt would flow between us until we became one. It was our way of opening up to each other. One afternoon our senior year, on some random patch of grass on campus with grossed out freshmen staring on their way to class, we lay with our foreheads touching for what seemed like hours. There, stretched out on a pink and purple blanket I had procured from the dollar store, we willed ourselves to push everything we had into the other. At some point, Michelle opened her luminescent eyes, kissed me on the nose, and said it was, ‘like, mind-meld honesty.’ I’ll never forget that.

I want to grab her by the shoulders, lock my forehead to hers and scream. Scream at her to push everything into me, to make it like it was, to make me see our life the way she does, to help me understand why she finds it worthless. I want to know why I’m not enough. I want her to cry, to drain out every dark, dusty closet confession that she has until they melt in a puddle on the floor and drain through the cracks in the boards to somewhere else, somewhere we don’t have to believe in them. I want her to tell me that she loves me, that it was some type of honest mistake, to somehow pull the rabbit out of the top-hat and show me that it was all an illusion, the deck is and always will be fixed in my favor. I want her to kiss me. I want her to kill me.

I can’t shake these thoughts, my forehead is drifting for hers, and I can just see her waking up, headbutting me, then asking me what the hell I’m doing, so I get out of bed. The confines of our room feels like a jail cell, and I burst through the door, kicking it open like an action hero. Too late I realize what I’ve done, the door slams into the door stopper, and that springy-fart noise they all make as it recoils rips through the apartment. I can be an idiot sometimes.  I turn, fully expecting to come face to face with the wrath of a beautiful, cheating, divine whore of a partner, but she’s still laying there, asleep in the moonlight.  I turn on my ninja stealth as I close the door, and pad into the kitchen.

I want to die. Just end it all. I mean, not literally, I’m way too cowardly to willingly experience pain or anything like that, and the sight of my own blood makes me faint so I wouldn’t be very successful if I even tried, but I’d give anything at this moment to wink out of existence. To just dissipate into the air grate, disseminate into the secrets of the cosmos, and reincarnate as a tiger or  komodo dragon. Anything badass.

I freeze and close my eyes in the kitchen, willing myself to dissolve. Nothing happens, and the mental image of Michelle bucking away, red-faced and screaming on some Calvin Klein model keeps jumping unbidden into my brain, so I give up and walk into my studio, a tiny box of a room just beyond the joint living room/kitchen space.  It’s when I step into my studio that I realize I’ve been holding my breath since the door slam, and I exhale like a diver coming up for air after having seen the sharks, and decided that he needed a career change. I can breathe here, on this side of the apartment. This room is my space. This is where I create good things, bad things, genius things, dull things. Whatever I make here is mine. It’s just four white walls, a hardwood floor, and a closet, but there is one enormous window that seems to have this innate ability to catch all light, so I throw up a stand and blank canvas in front of the window, perfectly illuminated by the moon. I mentally thank the window, give it a little nod, and sit on my painting stool, setting out my paints as I try to make my mind as blank as the canvas.

My phone rings. Bon Iver’s mournful voice starts to flood the apartment, so I hop up and track the phone down as quickly as possible, checking it as I close the door to my studio. It’s my mom.

“Hey Mom.”

“I’d like to place an order for your ShamWow, please.”

Now would be a good time to explain about my mother. She has early-onset Parkinson’s disease.  It crept into her hands around her 33rd birthday, and has since wormed its way everywhere else. So she lives in a nursing home in Florida, just shy of having her third 45th birthday, constantly re-remembering that she has two sons, a dead husband, and cable television.

“Mom, its Neil, not ShamWow.”

“Neil? When did you start working for ShamWow?” She must have seem the commercial, picked up her phone to order, forgot the number, and dialed me instead. This happens a lot, with varying degrees of sadness and hilarity.

“Mom, I don’t wo…”

“I’ll take five please. These things are wonderful. Do you remember the those Brawny paper towels I use to use? And that Brawny man? He looks so much like your father. I should call your father…” And so it goes. She’ll keep talking to herself, forgetting who is on the phone with her, or that she’s even on the phone, especially since my brother Tom and I gave her a Bluetooth headset a couple Christmases ago. I gently set my phone on the window ledge with my Mom’s soft, southern voice floating through the room, and I start to work on my canvas for my 10:30 fingerpainting class I’m teaching tomorrow.

A flash of ocean blue down the middle of the white canvas, with the pads of my five fingers. Putrid orange streaks needling the blue like a pin cushion, with the edge of the middle fingernail. A swath of forest green underneath it all, cupping the bottom of the blue, with the heel of my palm. The most sickening mixture of green and brown that I can manage, I paint across my knuckles, then punch the shit out of the canvas for a couple minutes. Ninja punches though; I don’t want to upset my mom mid-soliloquy.  The contact leaves divots in the painting that the poo green mixture fills in, giving an eerie, bruising texture that pervades the blue, the green, the orange.

I figure I’ll give a mini-lecture tomorrow about channeling emotion into an abstract picture. I won’t tell them my story, I’ll emphasize avoiding the literal, but I’m sure the housewives will love it. What artist doesn’t like hearing that using emotion will create masterpieces?  Who doesn’t like being told that the rage, depression, and loneliness that we all will inevitably hold is  something useful, something that we can share instead of something that is crippling and isolating? Maybe I can get them to open up, to relate their own domestic disaster stories, and have a whole studio full of furious wives slapping the shit out of canvasses. Sounds like a plan.

My studio is warm, and I close my eyes and let my mind wander with my head in my hands, my mother’s voice having faded into the early morning air.  Across my mind’s landscape a group of 5’7, blonde bombshell housewives are dancing to ‘Like a Virgin’ in nothing but cerulean hip-length peacoats, when two soft hands tentatively press on my shoulders, pulling me back into the oblivion of my real life. I groan involuntarily as I realize that there isn’t a mostly-nude chorus of women dancing for me.

“Hey babe, I’m off to work,” Michelle whispers in my ear. “You know, stools aren’t usually used for sleeping. Go to bed.” She kisses me softly on the temple, the soft crush of her lips caressing my skin, her hair falling across my neck like a blanket, and I do my best to steel myself as she tussles my hair. ‘Like a rock’ is my internal mantra that flies on infinite repeat through my brain, but I’m more of a sponge than a rock, who am I kidding. The tears work their way out, my internal strings have been strummed too hard, and I double over sobbing with a violence that scares me, slipping from my stool to the floor.  After seconds that run like hours, or maybe its hours that shrink into seconds, I raise my head and look behind me. The living room is empty, the front door is closed, and our apartment is silent in the 6:00 am twilight. Part of me suspects that Michelle was part of the dream, but a quick glance shows me the bedroom door is open, and I remember ninja-closing it last night.

Tears still streaming down my face, I look at my canvas in the glow of the infant sunrise. Something is missing. I dip my index finger into the black paint I’ve left open, and scrawl FUCK YOU across the painting. Then I run the palm of my hand over the wet letters, obscuring the words. There. It’s abstract art now. Thank God for fingerpainting.

Published by Neil Stratman

I'm an actor currently based in Chicago. Woot.

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