Another Shade of Gray

Colors swirled together, mixing like shadows into an oily black as she stared. Carefully she dabbed her brush into the paints and then flung it with careless abandon across the room. The paintbrush hit paint side first, splattering black over the normally pristine white wall. She stared at it for a moment, head cocked to one side and hands on hips, the tip of her tongue absently playing along her lower lip like quicksilver. With a sigh she shook her head and wiped her forearm across her forehead causing light blonde wisps of hair to be pushed up into miniature Mohawks.

"Never right...never good enough," she muttered to herself as she washed the colors off of her easel and sat down to start again. Carefully she dabbed a bit of white onto her paint-board, squeezing the pure paste out in little swirling circles. She looked down at it, frowned in concentration, then dabbed a small dot of ebony black paint in the middle.

"Like an eye...like his eyes. Never right...never good enough." She brought out a fresh new brush and ran the bristles along her lips, underneath her eyes, imagining that the brush picked up the bruised flesh underneath. What she needed was the color of insomnia, of hate and innocence. Too bad paints tended not to run to those colors.

But that was how she remembered him. Sleepless nights of passion and hate-filled days. Innocence and naivety swirling and mixing uncomprehendingly with wisdom and superiority in eyes the color of mirrors and smoke.

She opened her own eyes and looked down at her mound of paint, the black oil paint slowly sliding down the side of the white, leaving a trail of watery shadows. The paints were old, deteriorating and decaying. Like she was. Like her soul.

She sighed and pushed the slipping black back on top of the white and added a bit of grassy green to the mix. Green for jealousy. And black for depth and white for what could have been. Perhaps a dash of scarlet for his indefinable passion for life, for her. And she couldn't forget the blue; blue for the tears. The colors sat on her palette, waiting to be mixed.

Bringing the brush down from where it rested against her pale skin, she jammed the brush into the paints, watching in fascination as the paint splattered out in all directions underneath the tawny bristles which splayed out like childish fingers getting into the cookie jar again. She twisted the brush and the bristles twisted up the paint, seeping into the straw and staining it with tie-dye colors. The sixties reproduced.

She brought the brush back up to her face, bringing it so close that her eyes crossed and it blurred to a shapeless splotch, dark against the background of her white walls.

________

When he had first shown interest in her, she had been amazed. Overwhelmed. And more than a bit confused as to why he liked her in the first place. He was an artist, and one that proudly lived up to the stereotype. She was a slightly shy, intensely insecure secretary for a law firm. Opposites attracting wasn't the half of it. But he had pursued her, and in the end she had given in.

At first it was fun, and exciting, and with him she no longer felt like herself, but like a larger than life version. Her insecurities peeled off like sunburned skin, and the people around her noticed. Including her superiors at work. When she was promoted into a position that would actually let her go somewhere in her career, he had been so happy for her, and they had gone out and celebrated for an entire weekend. But from there, things went downhill quicker than a basketball. Her new job demanded more time from her, and she was happy to give it. She found that hanging around with him was becoming more of a nuisance than anything else. But she couldn't bring herself to break up with him; deep down, she feared that if she lost him, she would lose some vital part of herself. What that part was, she couldn't be sure, but she knew that she still needed him.

So they stayed together, and she became more and more torn between responsibility and frivolity until one day, the fabric that held them together ripped apart.

He sat on the sleep-rumpled bed in her one room apartment, clutching her pillow tightly to his chest as he watched her get ready for work.

"Don't go," he told her softly.

She paused in putting on her candy-apple red lipstick, looking up into the mirror she was bent over. Behind her own wide-eyed expression she could see his sharp-planed face and wide gray eyes, staring imploringly at her back and reflection. She caught her breath in her throat, tucking her words into the crevices between teeth and the fleshy cushions of her cheeks.

Finally she blew the stale breath out through her nostrils, watching as they flared slightly like a bull's. Looking resolutely at her own reflection and focusing on her own brown eyes, she blocked out the image of him with the ease of long practice.

She pressed her lips tightly together, feeling the waxy smoothness of the lipstick as it spread out evenly onto her lips under the pressure of unspoken words, and painting a clown's goofy smile on her normally slightly solemn, thin face. She had always hated the color, so bright and overly passionate and completely at odds with the muted pinks and burgundies that cluttered up her vanity table. It practically screamed 'cheap hooker.' But it had been a birthday present from him, and so she always coated her conservative lips with it when he stayed over. Never mind the fact that before she got to her office building she would carefully take a Kleenex and wipe it off, covering the remains with her favorite beige-pink lip gloss. That was her little secret, and she held it close to her heart like a five-year-old's raggedy old teddy bear. Some things were just better left a secret.

"Don't go," he repeated, louder this time as if she hadn't heard the first time. That was a joke; she always heard. Heard the words but also the underlying emotions so poignant that they stung like bees. Heard the pleading and the wild hint of panic mixed up in desperate good humor. Oh yes, she always heard, no matter how hard she tried not to.

Holding back a sigh of impatience, she turned away from the mirror and walked past him and the bed to the table beside it where her watch and money clip rested. He turned in the bed, rotating to keep his soulful eyes on her at all times.

"You know that I have to get to work," she told him, finally addressing his plea. Her voice was taut with emotions held firmly in check. "I'm late enough as it is because you turned off the alarm clock." He always did things like that. He didn't seem to realize that she wasn't like him. She liked her work, liked going into an office and knowing that people depended on her. It gave her a sense of accomplishment. And while part of her would have loved to stay with him and forgive him for making her late, it was swallowed up by the much larger part that was just plain ticked off and wanted out.

"I know. There's a reason why I did that. Call in sick."

He flopped over onto his stomach, balling up his fists under his chin and crossing his feet in the air, giving her a puppy dog face at the same time, eyes still shining with unfathomable mirth.

She didn't even bother to respond to that suggestion; it always led to the same fight, and invariably led to pain and loud voices and nosy neighbors wondering what was going on next door. Instead she concentrated on wrapping the polished silver band of her watch around her right wrist. She fumbled with the clasp, cursing lightly at it, the mechanism eluding her one-handed ministrations.

Finally she managed to get the clasp closed, smiling slightly as it gave a tiny, satisfying snap. It was only then that she looked up at her lover. He was sitting up again, the pillow thrown thoughtlessly on the floor. His eyes were no longer that light color of dove's wings, but the dark, stormy cloud covering that meant he was troubled.

"Can't you stay?"

"No!" she exploded, throwing her arms into the air. "I called in sick yesterday for you."

"So it makes sense that you would still be sick today."

She felt her face drop into an incredulous look as her hands slowly fell back to her sides. He seemed so calm and reasoning as he dismissed her objections, as if it made all the sense in the world for her to stay in their own little world and shirk her duties to play hide and seek and tick-tack-toe with him. As if going to work was the strange idea.

She shook her head firmly. "No. You're crazy. I'm going to work."

Something indefinable changed in his expression and demeanor, and she could see that he was angry. "Fine. Go," he told her, sounding sullen.

She gaped at him in disbelief. It was just like him to turn things around to try and make her feel guilty. She was a fan of having fun too, but she had limits. Unfortunately, he didn't. And that was the heart of the matter. He was just too extreme. It didn't occur to her that she might be at the other side of the spectrum, just as immoderate as he was.

"Oh, so now you're going to make me into the monster just because I want to behave like a normal, sane adult. You always do this!" She only just managed to keep her voice at a below yelling volume. But he didn't bother. No, of course he wouldn't care for the neighbors; after all, they weren't him so they were unimportant to the world. Selfish doesn't even begin to describe him, she thought contemptuously.

"I wouldn't have to do it if you ever spent time with me! All you ever do anymore is work and think about work. Even our friends have started to complain." He was standing up in front of her now, those eyes she loved to look into late at night when they were hazy with dreams and sleep were now bright and snapping at her like a slave driver's leather whip. They cracked down on her with all the force of his frustration and hers, threatening to shatter her into pieces in the same way their increasing differences were breaking up the love between them.

She turned away, unable to look into those accusing eyes for a moment longer. Taking deep breaths, she carefully brought herself under control, always under control. Shaking her head, she snatched up her purse and practically ran to the door, trying to escape through it to her safe world of secretaries and deadlines; escape to a world of normal people who didn't stay home all day and weren't filled with strange, wild dreams which could never really come true because this was not Never-Never Land, and she was not Wendy.

"I'm going," she said quietly, pausing at the door but refusing to look back.

"I won't be here when you get back."

She drew in a deep breath and stopped for a second that seemed to last eons. Then she stepped out of her apartment and firmly closed the door, using the back of her hand to wipe the red prostitute lipstick off. Without looking back, she got in her car and drove to work.

When she came home that evening, all of his things were gone. His father's old high school football jersey and his toiletries; his paintings, books, and all the pictures of them together, all had disappeared. Even his pillow was gone from the bed. Funny how she had never noticed how bare and white the walls were when they weren't covered with all the paintings he had made. Eyes wide, she walked in shock to the bed and sat down on the edge, staring at the white, white walls in front of her. This man, her lover who never carried through with anything, the veritable king of wish-wash, had actually followed through on his threat.

Suddenly she wasn't quite sure what to do. She felt all the layers of confidence that he had provided fall from her and lie rumpled on the floor like discarded clothes. She felt cold, vulnerable, and young again. It was as if he had never entered her life.

Biting her lip, she turned on the TV, desperate for some noise; the unaccustomed silence was deafening her. But somehow, all the jokes on the sitcom she watched fell flat. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, before shutting the television off again. She let her eyes roam aimlessly around the empty room, until something caught her attention. She blinked, and then got up off the bed, crossing over to her vanity table.

There, nestled in between her foundation and eye shadows, were tubes of oil paints. Lying across them were several brushes of all different sizes. She stared down at his last gift to her for a moment, then slowly reached out a hand to touch them, pick them up. She had never painted in her life, unless you counted kindergarten finger-painting. The creative things had always been his forte. She had no idea where to even begin, but when she closed her eyes, the only thing that came to mind was his eyes.

Suddenly she knew exactly what she needed to do.

________

The color on her brush was too light. His eyes then had been darker, like shattered agate as they stared down into hers, imploring her always to stay for a just few more moments, what was work worth anyway? A few bucks, pheew, nothing compared to him. And inside, she always agreed but no, she was an adult now and with responsibilities to match. She couldn't stay and play Chutes and Ladders today, nor Hide 'n Go Seek. She had to be a big girl and go to meetings and computers and so many novices asking "what do I do now?" And his eyes darkened and faded away, a memory of nothing really, just mist that wilted under the sun's harsh rays and God's pitiless gaze.

More black. She needed more black. She felt a need, a longing to reproduce that gray she had never seen anywhere else but in her lover's eyes once upon a midnight. If she did, perhaps his ghost would leave her to her life and she could be normal again. If she had that one small piece of him, maybe she could regain all the gifts she had lost when he left. She wouldn't feel incomplete and insecure and insane anymore. She would be able to sleep again. She hadn't slept for ages, haunted by that out-of-reach color and the voiceless melodies and cadences of his features.

She glanced down at the paints in front of her. Could it be? Was that the color that rained down on her dreams at night, warning her, whispering in sheathes of sin to not forget, never forget? Had she finally gotten the Never-Right correct? Perhaps.

She brought the paintbrush down to her arm and painted a thick stripe along the tender flesh between her wrist and elbow, blowing lightly to hurry the drying process. Her breath was cool against the paint and her skin, causing shivers to run up and down her spine in delicious anticipation. Slow as a snake dazed from the warm sun, the stripe dried, looking elephantine against the translucent pale of her skin. She stared at it, forcing her eyes open until they stung with the cold air-conditioned breeze that swept through her bare, one room apartment and tears threatened to fall down like crystals and smear the drying paint.

She let the brush drop from numb fingers and brought the hand up to wrap around her painted wrist, thumb smearing the gray into a lopsided cross. A crucifix. Her albatross. She shook her head and closed her eyes, feeling the relieving tears squeeze through black eyelashes and felt them splash warmly into the crook of her arm and trail down like little waterfalls into her lap.

"Never right..." she whispered, voice trembling. "I'm never right, never good enough. Not anymore." She would never be the same. She opened her eyes and reached down to pick up her brush from where it lay on the mottled carpet. She looked at it in frustration then with a quick movement, snapped it in half, the crack loud in the silence that had reigned ever since he disappeared.

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again," she said in a quiet voice that sounded muted after the gun crack of splintered wood. Another brush, a new kind of paint. Why didn't the colors ever end up right? She put the right colors in, the colors that had painted their brief stint together in heaven. But it never came out right. Such things were reserved for heaven's eyes. But here on earth, she would try again.

Another paintbrush, another shade of gray.