by Adam Strong
Mom’s studio on this one Tuesday morning, something magical. Our time together, we never got to do this again. But it was long enough so I could play it back in my head whenever I wanted.
Mom moved different up here. I don’t know if it was the light or she was doing what she was born to do, but she was way more patient. Mom’s desk lamp has this green bend in the arm, and the lamp made a white glow on the canvas next to her. She put her hand on the seat of the stool. She was wearing her wedding ring. Which meant for now, Mom and Dad were all good.
When she spoke, it was at half-awake dream speed.
“Hop on up,” she said, “I want to paint you.”
All the things in the world and she wanted to paint me.
Nothing better than being across from her. Up in her studio. In my underwear. On the ripped up stool, duct tape on the seat scratchy on my butt.
Mom, one long strand of red hair down the middle of her face. Her skin, white milk mixed with a shade of red.
Some holy kind of light came from the window behind her. The sun in the view out the window, a few leaves and a big cloud.
Steam came up from Mom’s mug of coffee there on her desk. So slow the way she sat up, took two hands to pull back her straggly strands of hair, then a quick burst of finger twists to jam her hair into a rubber band. Her face smooth and calm, the white light from the empty canvas in front of her.
When she leaned forward, you could see the hunch in her back, she did this all the time. It was part of her trance, the curl of her finger around a brush. The slow of her hand moved her brush from a pot of black paint to her canvas. Long tip wet with black paint. A trance from paint to canvas, from brush to water, black to white.
A warm in my chest spread out to the rest of my body. Cold outside but warm up in Mom’s studio.
So much warm I could’ve sat there forever.
Mom’s black glasses down on the tip of her nose. Mom’s eyes weren’t just blue and weren’t just green, they were hazel. Mom sat up there, a calm not just in her eyes, but in her whole body too.
When I sat back on the stool, there was the reflection of her hand in her mason jar. Mom’s reflection puffed up with water. Mom’s hand in the reflection slow and long, scratching out something, like if she drew enough new lines, it would write over what was wrong.
The back and forth of her eyes, the things she used to see her paintings, the way she loved the world. Her eyes were how she loved me.
I knew she was painting me, but I didn’t know what I looked like on her canvas. Mom’s curlicued hand movements. Figured that was for my curly hair, and her scratched out hand movements were for my eyebrows.
I was squirming, the kid motor inside me didn’t want to sit still.
Mom’s voice with a little bit of mad under it.
“It helps if you pick a spot.” She said.
The glasses at the end of her nose had the reflection of the white square of her canvas.
Her voice in the middle of all the room quiet, “Stare at the spot until all you are is breath.” She said, “Lose yourself.”
Why would I lose myself when I had Mom right there, the light hitting her, the window with a whole lot of dirt and grime. The shapes of the two out of focus green and yellow leaves moved, like breath.
Mom right there, taking her time in the long movements she made with her brush. To me her hand looked like it didn’t even touch the brush she was using, every move she made was a swan taking a long drink on a flat pond. Every inch of me being seen by the only person who could really see me.
For a second in New York City everyone shut up.
The bend of her back over the canvas. Her teal shirt with a little bit of ash from the cigarette that she didn’t smoke. She let it sit there until the long paper burned off in a long tube of ash.
Those leaves, Mom’s eyes, all the attention, the whole room not going anywhere in a hurry. I did it, I did what Mom said, I got to a spot where I was a body with breath going in and out. Two hours, normally such a long time, but being seen by Mom like I was, I could’ve sat there all day.
Mom and a brush and all the time in the world to make me into something new.
Don’t know where I went. Off on one of those leaves I guess. But there was something about Mom and it pulled me back. Mom, had the cigarette in her mouth. The sweetness in her voice was drawn out in one long breath.
“Sometimes,” Mom said, “I love you so much it kills me.”
Yellow and green splashes of color, and the wind outside. I could fool myself into thinking those leaves were moving from my breath, but they weren’t.
Me there, my body on the stool, the long line of my throat down to my stomach. A squeeze, an ache.
Killing her. I was killing her.
Mom and why she couldn’t just let a moment be a moment. Why she always had to tell me the truth.
“Mom,” I said, and there was a break in my voice.
“What do you see when you paint me?”
Mom got out of her lean forward. She slid her glasses back up over her eyes. The green moon irises of hers weren’t big anymore. Her eyes were shut tight, trying to think of the right words to say. The lines of worry were back on her face. There was no steam coming from her coffee, no more color in the green and yellow leaves outside.
Mom’s cigarette between her thumb and forefinger, her nails were all chewed up. Her eyes weren’t on me, they were down on her canvas.
“I see a boy who breaks.” she said.
Mom, when she said those words, my heart, the place I feel things, was down in my stomach. Mom had to have someone else living inside of her. That’s the only way she could say I was someone who broke. Someone had moved into her brain but hadn’t fully taken over yet.
I was so wrapped up in her painting me I didn’t notice any of this in her until she said those words. After she said I broke, I saw the someone else all over Mom.
Someone else in Mom’s back hunched over her canvas. Someone else in the slits of her eyes shut tight. I was going on about how good it felt to have someone paying attention to me and Mom was trying hard just to stay awake. Mom and where I was in all of this. Mom was the only one who cared about me, and sooner or later I was going to lose her.
A few weeks later I was home, fake sick from school. The woman who used to be my Mom was asleep. Don’t know what time she came back the night before. Dad was at work. Me and an empty house. Me and my hand on the cold of the door to Mom’s studio.
Pushed open the big door and and there were her paint cans, her swollen journals, her ashtrays full of butts.
The first part of the studio was the way it was when Mom painted me. The afternoon Mom taught me how to sit still.
But the other half of her studio had this thing. Three boards with hinges, stood up. Three wood panels. Plywood and brass. Over on the other side of the studio, turned away from me so I could only see the back.
Mom’s painting. A triptych. She told me about it a few days ago over breakfast. When she said that the word, all kinds of weird things happened with her tongue and her teeth.
Mom with her coffee and her cigarette, her eyes red as they’d been every morning lately.
Tri means three, three panels, three slats of wood. One in the middle and the other two attached by hinges. Tych meaning, I don’t know what, but it was up in Mom’s studio.
To me, when I saw it, the triptych looked how a car crash looks on first sight. The painting didn’t tell me what it meant. I had to figure it out.
The triptych, the three wood panels stood up on the back half of Mom’s studio. Stood up in a zig zag, three panels.
When I first saw it, all I could see were the black lines, knuckles and bone and teeth. Those I could tell what they were, the way they looked in those black drawings in encyclopedias. That’s all I got out of it. A bunch of lines and teeth and bones.
I didn’t see any of me in there, no proof that she ever painted me. At first I didn’t know what I was looking at, a brown base paint color, white lines, knuckles bones and teeth, over and over, across all three panels. This triptych was a mystery I could pull around myself, like some kind of sleeping bag.
At first I almost didn’t see it. The whole universe of teeth and knuckles and bones.
But then I saw it. I had to get way back in the corner to see it, but I saw it. I had to stand up on the table pushed in the corner and there it was, under the window I looked out at, the one with the two leaves breathing outside.
What I saw, a shadow, the curve line, a little thing I recognized, a line became the outline of my face, then the curlicued lines of my hair. The day she painted me. The long line of my face etched onto all three panels of the Triptych, the little nick in my ear from when I cut it when I was a baby, right there on the canvas, the tufts of my curly hair stretched out across three panels
And it was only then I saw what she was trying to do.
Me and the knuckles and the teeth and bones, the shadow of me. The feeling got to me again, all that warm spread out in my chest. So much I could stayed in there forever.
The triptych was the whole world, her world, and I was right there the whole time, right in the middle of Mom’s universe.