Family Portrait

© 2003 Black Tangled Heart

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It began with just a kiss.

A kiss means nothing.

Alexander was worn after days of labour. Lilith was soft spoken and eager to please. She made him forget.

He let himself dissolve into the unfamiliar green of her eyes and the breathlessness in her voice. He found a comfort he had never known. Bliss was merciful, blackening out the struggles in his existence, even for only a moment. In those precious minutes, all he had was the taste of her skin, the touch of her fingertips on his face.

In that handful of time, Alexander had no wife and child at home.

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Amber was a pale girl with hair that matched her name. A sketchpad often lay open on her lap; she captured faces blurred by rain and dreams that filled her head. When her father returned to the family's apartment and the sun had faded, she saw the shirt button he'd left undone or the smudge of wine lipstick that touched his jawbone. Her mother saw the charming man who'd sipped champagne out of her silver shoe when she'd been crowned queen at her Senior Prom.

From dusk until the first rays of dawn, her mother used coquetry to win attention, hushing her husband with a lacquered nail when he spoke. They smoked menthol cigarettes in the sitting room; Amber's mother sat with an alabaster leg draped across her husband's thighs, blowing grey plumes from red lips. They locked their bedroom door, though noise could be heard clearly across the hallway. It wouldn't mend the marriage, no matter how many times it had kept him coming back to her. It wasn't going to suffice this time.

Amber stencilled broken hearts onto paper until sleep numbed her fears.

Lilith drove by on a humid Wednesday, dark hair untouched by the dampness that smothered the city. Amber dreamt of storms.

Her father kissed the crown of her hair as she slept, taking a suitcase and not looking back. When the divorce papers were presented to her mother, Amber traced a rose in charcoal and ran her fist across it. Her parents' love was a smear, dampened by the tears she shed upon her folded arms.

She awoke on many nights to the sound of glass shattering, or thick sobs that her mother wouldn't bother to conceal, not at home, not anywhere. When she didn't wrap herself in a duvet and her misery, porcelain vases splintered and lamps cracked into pieces. A photo album was lost to the hunger of a flame. A wedding picture was torn to shreds. Amber found it in the trash, but saw no use in taping it together again.

She covered paper in pastel streaks, watching the way light mottled the green leaves in the garden with gold, tasting faint rain that splashed her face. Her mother replaced cigarettes with alcohol, breath reeking of regret she couldn't let go of.

The months passed slowly, with illegible cheques arriving in the mail. The money was lost to liquor. The emerald leaves burnt a smouldering copper, and disappeared beneath layers of pristine white snow. When the sodden ground was unearthed with flourishing blossoms, Amber's darkening world was slashed with colour.

She began to paint in red.

Sometimes she drank, vodka scorching her throat. Sometimes she slept, hoping her anger and hurt would bleed into her mattress. Sometimes the alcohol and sleep helped. Sometimes it didn't.

She didn't cry anymore.

Her seventeenth birthday arrived unwelcome on the first day of May, with a pair of faux pearl earrings and a compact disc she already owned. There was a gooey chocolate cake, no candles, and an unenthusiastic rendition of Happy Birthday. Without a wish to make, she turned instead to her notebook, and left a sugary blue fingerprint in the middle of a clean page. Four days later, she gave up hoping to hear her father's voice.

The phone rang when her mother lay in stupor on the sofa. Not wanting to leave the warmth of her bath, Amber let the machine record her father's message. She hadn't the time to check the messages after she'd drained the dirty water. She heard it when she returned from her work at the sushi bar halfway across town. Her waned anticipation flared into pure disgust.

"Amber honey, it's your father. I'm assuming you've gotten the money? Happy birthday, sweetheart. Lilith and I wish you all the best."

The first sign of him in nearly eight months. She imagined the two of them sipping margaritas under the Florida sun as her father's laughter warmed the timid heart of his new love. The laughter that had once made his first wife's tears stop.

Her paintbrush became stained in grey, leaching out the red like it had done to her hope.

And the money. Yes, the money. She'd used it to pay the heating bill, fix the sagging front porch and buy the groceries. She'd considered saving some for her college tuition, but chose to spend the rest on a pottery wheel. College looked like nothing more than a hazy, fading dream. Her hands became chapped as she manipulated the clay; her art the only thing she could control.

She watched her mother's body swell with almost inexplicable rapidity. The cigarettes had kept fat from compiling. The oral fixation hadn't stopped when she'd thrown the cylinders away. The rouged mouth was always full: a shot of bourbon, half a gallon of pistachio ice cream, a pizza encrusted with grease. She stopped curling her hair; the television remote found a permanent home in her hand. She absorbed the fantasy lives of others, wishing to live in anything but the situation that was her own.

A package arrived three days before Christmas. If her father had expected her to smile, Amber was certainly not meeting his expectation. She never had, managing A's only in art class; befriending the girls who wore spike collars and dyed their hair magenta. It shocked her to find a card in the envelope, and a key ring jangling in silver promise.

Upon returning to the kitchen, she read the note her father had enclosed. An indigo sports car waited in her name at the dealership six blocks away.

"Pamela," Amber said gravely. She never called her mother anything but her first name anymore. "Alexander sent me a set of keys."

Her mother looked her in the eyes for the first time in what felt like years. Her expression was one of hollow acceptance. "Drive away and leave me here with nothing." Melodrama from the soap opera permeated Pamela's speech. Her bloodshot gaze left Amber's face and returned to the television screen, where people's problems were more stylish.

With a defeated sigh, she collapsed next to her mother on the rug. The dialogue of the show blurred with the flashing images. Platinum blonde women kissed their rich husbands; a lady miscarried a baby. It was only when a cheating husband was mentioned that Amber's head snapped up. She ground her teeth together, bitten lips sliding across them.

She picked up the keys and shook them; shook them hard, to drown out the voices on the screen. Her sketchbook became filled with the precise lines of the keys; she pressed down hard on her pen. Permanent.

The gifts came frequently as the thunderstorms. She unwrapped a golden wristwatch early Saturday morning and a leather clutch the following Wednesday. Alexander sent a letter with each parcel, detailing a trip to France he'd taken with Lilith, and asking Amber to accompany him to Italy. She packed her clothes in an old, battered green valise and quit her job, driving away from her mother. She left the blue car in the driveway, and took the dented station wagon instead. She flung the watch out the window as she sped down the freeway, watching the way it shone against the lurid morning sky.

She burned her father's notes with her mother's old lighter, sketching the way the fire consumed them.

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