Thu 6 Jan 2011
i am lying on the couch, nestled up against my laptop, as usual.
the almost-white light of a January morning spills in and floods the room and i stop and turn to it. i shift onto my back and stretch my spine. if i could purr, i would.
i seldom see this room, though my waking hours in the house – especially when the children aren’t home – are mostly spent here. the walls are a yellow i can’t quite describe…somewhere between butter and the Provence kitchens rendered by Impressionists.
i’ve never seen a Provence kitchen. i barely see this living room. but it is pretty, in the light: white wood trim and patches of colour from the stained glass. old things and cherished things and cheap blond-wood Ikea chairs. pictures of the children. Dave’s childhood Encyclopaedias. plants, clinging hardily to life in reproach of my perpetual neglect.
i look towards the window and a black and white painting – mostly gray, really, a painting of a black and white photograph i never saw – nods at me from its silver frame. it has sat there for more than five years, now. i have owned it for at least thirteen.
i am startled by it. by its constancy, its reassuring presence. this painting had a history once, a vaguely unpleasant taste in my mouth. i kept it as a trophy, i think. a talisman, though i cannot say of what.
it is a scene of two men at a roadside, by a ditch rich with black and white blobs that i assume, romantically, to be flowers. one man crouches over the wheel well of a rounded, 1930s-style pickup truck, straight out of Grapes of Wrath. the other man stands behind, bent over, presumably dispensing advice. a discarded wheel lies forlorn in the foreground, and a telephone pole rises from the field behind the men.
the painter, in mid-life, had decided to be an author. i, an aching quarter century, wanted to be an editor. or anything, really. just something discernible that i could set my self to.
a first novel, only my second as an editor. long conversations, structural shifts. recompense, and a dinner with both our spouses.
i chose this painting from his basement gallery of hundreds, many bigger and flashier. but the scene reminded me of the Farm Security Administration photos of the Great Depression, and a palette knife had drawn texture through the paint, and it called me.
the man in the back, it’s X’s grandfather, you know, he said, referring to a mutual acquaintance my own age, a friend of my husband’s who’d never liked me much. business vs. art, X and i; oil and water, silly children.
i nodded. has he seen it? i asked. the painter shook his head no.
like a raven with its shiny thing, i edged closer to the painting. yours, he said.
there was wine, too much of it, and this middle-aged man grew proclamative and then belligerent. his theme? how to be a man. and by extension, a proper woman.
i watched his wife grimace, my husband politely try to extricate us. the politeness made him suspect.
sealing that deal, i waded in, as subtle as a twenty-five-year old who was studying Master’s-level feminist theory could be.
you’re not a real man, he bellowed at the boy i’d married. i felt violated, as if we’d been taken apart and misconstrued by a worldview that lines up the world in black and white and misses all the humanity in between.
and i felt ashamed, because i wondered if he was right.
the painter who fancied himself Hemingway bashed us all soundly while we sat, pinned like butterflies to our dining chairs. i belched at one point, loud and gutteral, a red wine symphony. it was all i knew how to say in the face of his breach, his betrayal of the social contract.
do unto others, they taught me in Sunday school. be good, be kind, be polite. be on good terms with all persons. and i do, i do, i try. i know no other code, for all i find this one lacking, sometimes. but when the contract is broken, i am righteous.
it is mostly a stupid way to be, this reactive defensiveness. if i perceive unkindness to me and mine – unkindness i cannot speak to, the kind of unkindness and dismissal that comes from a clash of worldviews – i will up that unkindness, sometimes loudly. it is not a particularly effective strategy, i admit. i am a bird, squawking and pecking over trampled eggs, or trampled feelings. the display does nothing to resolve either wound. it creates its own.
and yet i do not know how else to speak when i feel small and powerless.
except that one time.
we left the painter’s house, my husband and i. his wife stood sheepishly at the door while the painter sat in his socks in the room we’d vacated.
i put on my coat, put the envelope with my editing pay in the pocket. and then i picked up the painting. mine, i said. i thanked his wife, and left.
and i hung the damn thing. even if it should have been X’s. even if the night had gone to hell. even if he was right about my marriage. it has hung until i no longer see it.
when i look, i notice it still calls to me. but all that it says, i only wish i could explain.
do you have a concept of the social contract? how do you react when yours is breached?