Painting: `Morning' by Maxfield Parrish


by Kelson Vibber

“Hi,” she said, looking out the open door. The face she saw was one she had once known very well, but subtly changed, ever so slightly overcome with shadow.

“Hi,” he said. “I said I’d drop by.”

“Please, come in,” she said, stepping aside to let him pass through. She closed the door and walked toward the couch, motioning for him to follow. “Since you called, I’ve been wondering...” She caught her breath and gestured toward the couch. He sat, and she set herself on the arm at the opposite end. “So, um, how’ve you been?”

“Better. The usual ups and downs. You?”

“The same.”

“I’m reading again.”

“Reading. Good. Reading... is good for writing.”

He smiled a little and exhaled.

“Have you written anything lately?” she asked.

He looked away. She carefully shifted to sit next to him.

“What’ve you been doing this whole time?”

“Losing myself.”

“I thought you left to find yourself.”

“Well it didn’t work!”

“So, what do you think of my new apartment? I just moved in a few weeks ago.”

“It’s nice,” he said abruptly. “I’m sorry...”

He started to look around the room. The furniture was all used, and the couch they sat on was slightly musty like the ones the drama department used in rehearsal spaces: broken in, sat on by untold multitudes before it ended up here in Elizabeth’s apartment. Actually, it was a very comfortable couch.

He took it all in — the bare off-white walls, a tall particle-board bookshelf next to the door, filled with science-fiction novels. A tiny television set stood atop a record cube stacked with CDs and tapes. It was off; there was nothing interesting on anyway. In one corner a stereo sat next to a collection of paintings and posters, leaning against the wall, waiting to be hung up where people could see them.

“Some of them are my own work,” Elizabeth said.


“The paintings. You were looking at the paintings, weren’t you?”

“Oh, yes, I was. I didn’t know you painted.”

“Oh, a little. I’ve dabbled a bit here and there, ever since you left — off to pursue your dreams on the stage.”

“Okay, I got a little sidetracked.”

“Sidetracked? You left me and barely said hello for two years! August ’94! Look at the calendar, Tom! We’re halfway through 1996!”

“Look, I’m sorry! I just got caught up in things.”

“Really. And didn’t you care what was happening to me?”

“I thought I knew.”

“Oh, now isn’t that arrogant. A few tidbits about my future and you think you know how I get there? Well I’ve got news for you: I don’t just live when you happen to look. I’m here all the time; I have my own life!”

“So do I, damn it! I was hurt too!”

“Maybe. But at least I can pin the blame on someone else.”

He got up, walking toward the window with his hand to his forehead. “I’m sorry,” he said without looking back. “I should have... I should have done a lot of things.”

“Could you have at least checked up on me once in a while?”

“Would it have been enough?”

“No. But maybe you would have seen, and maybe...” She headed for the kitchen door.

He turned, unsure of whether to follow. “What is it?”

She stopped. “I fell in love.” Tom’s eyes snapped toward her, and she turned to face him again. “Yes, I fell in love.” She started walking toward him. ”You didn’t give me a chance. My friends were important, but you kept me in the background. By the time you left, there weren’t enough of them around to see me through.”

“Is that my fault?”

“They were your stories.”

“Beth, I —”

“You boxed me in! You left me completely alone.”

“That’s not it at all!”

“No? Then why did it happen?”

“Don’t you see? You were the survivor. Others perished, but you — Elizabeth — came through. Not unscathed, but neither was I. They were my friends too.”

“Fine way to treat your friends. One tragedy after another.”

He looked down. “That’s why I left. After what happened to them... I didn’t want to write anymore. I was afraid... I’d lose you too.”

“Go to hell,” she whispered, turning away.

“I need you back, Elizabeth.” He placed his hand on her shoulder. “You’re the only one who can help me.”

She pulled her arm away, looking at him and seeing both the present and the past — all of the past. “And what makes you think I would want to help?”

“Nothing. I’m not expecting you to help, but I am asking. If you want me to stay away afterward, I will. But I can’t turn my life around without you.”

“Can’t you?”


“I’ll think about it,” she finally said, sinking onto the edge of the couch.

“I suppose that’s all I can ask for.”

“I’m surprised at you, Tom. Didn’t you think I’d be eager to help you? That I’d just been waiting two years until I saw you again?”

“You know me better than that! You really think I could be that stupid?”

“You didn’t know about my painting. You didn’t know about my boyfriend.”

“But I knew who you were! You’re not one to waste her life away in regret. That’s why you’re the one I need to help me.”

“I told you, I’ll think about it.”

In the silence that followed, Tom’s eyes drifted to the books on the shelf. He smiled as he recalled introducing her to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and how she’d lent him the Foundation trilogy. Then he saw, sticking out among the creased paperbacks, a large hardbound book. He recognized it as her best friend’s copy of Les Misérables. The friend had been in a coma for three years. Maybe it was time something was done about that.

He looked back toward Beth and the couch, and saw the stack against the opposite wall. “May I see your paintings?” he asked, walking toward them.

“Oh, they’re not very good,” she said, interposing herself as if to guard them from his presence.

“Come on,” he said soothingly. “How do you know? You’re your own worst critic.”

“I know, but still — they’re kind of personal.”

“Then why’re you planning to hang them up?”

She sighed. “I don’t know — somehow... I guess if they’re not seen, it’s as if they never happened.”

“May I?”

She knelt down and separated out the three she had done, then spread them against the wall so that he could see them all. The first one, the one which had been at the back of the stack, was a self-portrait. The proportions were a bit off, and the colors too bright, but it was unmistakably Elizabeth — and not just because of her “flaming red hair.” The face was hers: the mouth always threatening to smile, the blue eyes always seeming to know something no one else did.

Next was a rugged canyon at sunset. The colors were again too vivid, but the patterns of light and shadow were extremely carefully rendered. The combination gave the impression not merely of unreality, but of some state of heightened reality.

Finally, a storm-tossed sea. This time, the colors were dark, somber, full of grays and blues. Clouds loomed over a turbulent sea so dark it was black. A tiny ship was caught helpless in the midst of this immense power, a bolt of lightning stretching jaggedly across the foreground.

“Sometimes I looked out,” Elizabeth said, “and saw you adrift, caught up in something more complicated than you could sense.”

He turned to face her. “Why did you keep thinking of me, after all this time?”

“I knew you’d come back. We left so much unresolved. Sometimes I imagined I’d take you back, and sometimes that I’d turn you away. Now that you’re here... I don’t know which way to go.”

An airplane flew overhead.

“Your boyfriend...?”

Ex-boyfriend. He left me after two weeks. He dated me because he was lonely. Then he found the girl he really wanted.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“What for?”

“I should have been there.”

“If you had been there, it never would have happened.”

The refrigerator hummed in the kitchen.

“I abandoned everything,” he said, “to pursue an illusion. After so long, I don’t even know if I can get back.”

“You can’t expect to pick up right where you left off.”

“No. I guess not.”

Silence reigned indoors. Somewhere outside a cricket chirped. A car revved its engine, a tire screeched, and the scent of poorly-filtered exhaust wafted through the half-open window.

“I should go,” Tom said, rising.

“Wait,” Elizabeth said, catching his arm to stop him. “Not until we know where we’re going.”

He nodded, and she released him. By some mutual understanding, they returned to the couch, where they sat facing each other.

“How did you want me to help you?” she asked.

“I want you to be my guide.”

“Your guide?”

“Yes — I need you to get me started writing again.”

“Why me?”

“You’re the only character who’s really taken on a life of her own. I wouldn’t know where to begin with anyone else. You I know. You I trust. And yet you’re the only one who can surprise me. I had no idea you painted, or met someone else. Or that you’d thought of me.”

“I’ll do what I can. But promise me one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Next time, let my story be told.”

“I promise.”

“Well, then,” she said. “We’ll see what happens.”

February 1996