Her Years as a Painter
Every Thursday after school let out, Rona sat with her son, Marcus, and taught him the fundamentals of painting.
Rona had a pale face with deep-valleyed cheekbones as though a lover held her face in his palms for too long. She liked the way the colors purple and yellow complemented each other, although the purple had to be the kind found deep inside a lilac near the edge of the stem, and the yellow had to match the dented surfaces of an old golden tuba.
Marcus asked many questions during the painting lessons. He was seven and strikingly imaginative for his age.
“Sometimes I wonder if I should be a painter, too,” Marcus said one afternoon, slipping through sometimes. He rolled his R’s and slid through S’s as if he were tripping on uneven sidewalk squares.
“I used to wonder the same thing,” Rona replied, twisted the cap off a burgundy acrylic named Marsala. “One day, I just knew.”
“Do you think I’ll know?” He spun his brush between his fingertips to paint a feathered circle. Rona noticed his painting habits transferring into routine motions, like twirling his spoon during dinnertime, watching his reflection flip around itself.
“I think you’ll know.”
Rona rented a tight one-bedroom apartment in the Bowery of Manhattan until Marcus was too old for a crib. By the time he needed a room of his own, she earned enough money to rent a two-bedroom a few blocks up-and-over from the Bowery in SoHo. She woke up at six in the morning to the sound of bouncing balls in the street and children’s voices shouting, “Niño, pass me the ball!” She caught a Q subway train every morning and rode one home every evening, the sun low in the sky by the time she made it to Marcus’s after-school care center three blocks from the subway stop.
The movement of her hands replaced red, yellow, and green: she directed traffic in midtown Manhattan for seven-fifty an hour.
Marcus expressed interest in music so Rona brought him to a piano teacher whose fee she paid with shortened grocery lists, fewer trips to get her hair fixed, self-excerpted bi-monthly salary checks, and from the teacher, sympathy like a coupon.
After their weekly painting session, a man named Billy called. Billy was a past lover of Rona’s, a married man who lived in suburban Westchester County, New York, and visited Rona once or twice a month on Thursdays, once a week during tax season because seeing her “relieved stress.” When she asked why Thursdays, he told her it was the night his wife and kids went to their town’s community theater for a show. When she asked why her, he said she was familiar, he missed her, and he felt their nights together were small time capsules in which he could feel nineteen again.
Billy came around that Thursday and walked in just after she closed Marcus’s bedtime storybook. He waited in the living room until Rona shut Marcus’s door behind her, and then led Rona to her bedroom. As the headboard knocked into the lemon-peeling walls, she felt rose stems pressing outward against the skin in her legs. Her hair was matted down from the raking of his hands and the pushing of the pillow beneath it, and as he muffled his outcry into her neck, she imagined the heat of his body as the heat of a sun, and she was lying on sand listening to an ocean she had never seen, and she didn’t have to work because there was no such thing as city traffic or directing it, and Marcus was a child prodigy in one of the orchestras she saw advertised on city buildings, and Thursday nights never happened.
By the time Billy lifted off her and she could see the reflection of the swaying ceiling light in his sweat left in the swoop between her rib cage and belly, she realized Thursday nights do happen and so do Wednesdays and Tuesdays and Mondays, and every day before and after and around again, and by the time Billy left, it would be time for her to conduct the traffic in and out of the lives she would never live, car horns playing a melody she hoped her son would never follow, holding up her hands for “stop,” because it was something she couldn’t say to Billy, “go,” because it was the only thing she could say to her son, and “slow,” because that was how she took it.
Billy fell asleep promptly after intercourse. She used a book light to read until she was tired enough to sleep in the crowded full-size bed. A storm crackled outside, dulling the city’s blares and sirens.
The windows in their small apartment were held shut by chains loosened by the wind. The chains clinked and clanked against the glass.
“Mom?” she heard Marcus whimper from down the hall.
She slid out of bed and tiptoed to his room. He was sitting up, his stuffed lion tucked under his chin.
In general, Marcus was never involved enough in his dreams to stay in them and sleep through the whole night. As an infant, he pinched his fingers into fists and held them above his peanut body as he whimpered for her. He was azalea-eyed, had his father’s face and her lips.
She sat on the edge of the bed, his windowpane cheeks dripping with rain, and he reached for her like he did when he was young enough to believe thunder was gargantuan elephants stomping through the city, sheets of metal clashing above their roof, or the clapping hands of a man too big to fit anywhere but in the sky.
“Shhhh,” she cooed, gently stroking his head as his breathing slowed, his body rising and falling under her hand on his back.
He leaned against her until the lion fell from his grip and he drifted into sleep. She laid his head on his pillow, pulled up the comforter, and flicked on the nightlight beside his bed. “I’m big now! I don’t need that,” he said nearly every night about the airplane-shaped light. She shut the window and admired how the stars looked when everything beneath them was wet.
Rona had a telescope her father taught her how to use when she was Marcus’s age. Stars hung from invisible strings and tagged in her hair, and her father put his hands on her shoulders, gravity in the palms of his hands. “Andromeda,” he whispered.
She was raising Marcus in the city and couldn’t give him a balcony to watch the stars or a telescope to see them. She hoped he wouldn’t need a telescope lens to learn about galaxies but instead learn to paint his own.
Seven months after Marcus’s father left, two-year-old Marcus stacked letter blocks into toddler words and Rona said to her mother over the phone, “I am consumed with the idea that I can keep feeling less and less if I allow myself to.”
“Is that what you want?” her mother asked. Rona pictured her mother leaning against her kitchen counter with a glass of seltzer. Rona pressed the pad of her thumb into the ridge between her eyebrow and nose.
“Of course not.”
“Is Marcus happy?”
Rona looked at her son and smiled. He was wearing denim overalls and a dinosaur patterned shirt, giddily smacking his hands on the floor when the blocks tipped over.
“Then you tell me: what else should matter?”
Rona hung up the phone and, with a wave of calm settling over her, sat beside her son. Marcus reached toward her, and she held him in her arms, wondering if he would remember his father one day, or if she would have to do the remembering for both of them.
Marcus was grown now, seven years old and curious.
She tucked herself into bed again where Billy idly snored.
“Where do you put your feet when you hug?” Marcus asked on the subway the next morning on their way to visit Rona’s father in Queens. His school was closed that particular Friday to observe Easter weekend. His fingers wrapped around her hand as his body swayed with the bending arms of the train.
“Wherever they go naturally,” she said, not knowing the answer because she had never thought of hugging in those terms before, where the other parts of the body go when left unused. She expected him to flood her with one hundred other questions but realized it was she who was questioning. Where do your hands go when we kiss, where do you put your arms when we dance, where do your eyes go when they aren’t on mine, where does your heart go when I leave you?
“Mom,” he said, “what if I step on your toes?”
Kissing the back of his hand, she said, “I’ll love you anyway.”