My father was an artist, at least he was when I was growing up. He painted mountains, snow, animals of all kinds, and rain. But there was one painting that he never quite finished; one painting that he could never let go. It was always covered in a thick gray tarp that smelled of charcoal and dust. And when I was little, I took a peek under the tarp when my father was away.
It was the same scene he had painted before. And as I grew older, I watched him paint the same canvas over and over again. He would then cover it in that thick gray tarp before tossing it away. When I asked why, it was always something small: "The hair is not right", "The water is too blue", or " That dress is too white". And so I stopped asking.
Between the mountains and the bears, there was always that one painting that haunted my father. It was of a man embracing a woman underwater. The man looked strong and naturally muscular. He was clean-shaven, topless, and wore khaki pants of a light grayish color. His strong hands caressed the soft, brunette hair of his dance partner; light speared through the water, etching a tattoo on his right bicep.
The woman was strangely beautiful and elegant. She wore a dress of blue fading into white; a dress that mimicked the slow tango between the light and the water. The woman tilted her head left to expose her neck, letting her partner kiss her on the cheek. And I could almost envision the scene playing out; one kiss on the cheek, one kiss on the neck and a grand finale on the lips of a floating goddess. Tiny bubbles escaped both in glee as they whispered tiny secrets of the world in each other's ear.
But there was also always that sheet of glass in front of the dancers. It looked like both had fallen into an aquarium of sorts, a strange translucent barrier rising between the viewer and the subjects portrayed. And after my father passed leaving one final canvas, the painting began to haunt me too.
It started as a tiny riddle. How did the two lovers get into that situation? But it soon grew bigger with more and more tiny riddles. Who are the dancers? Where are they dancing? What music could they be dancing to? And then, there was a break in the case of my own personal musings.
It was around the time of Spring-Cleaning when I finally mustered the courage to attack the attic. There was a section of the ceiling in my father's house that had a drop down ladder. It creaked, groaned and snapped in protest as flakes of rust fell to the floor. The smell of must and mold hit me immediately as I began to ascend the stairs. It was a smell of cobwebs, dust, and the sadness of forgotten things. I coughed violently as dust slithered down my throat, the taste of darkness, loneliness, and bitterness lingering as dust particles were expelled.
I soon began the arduous task of hauling the forgotten memories down into the sunlight before wiping away the layers of dust. I was well equipped with a head-light and a broomstick to fend off any crawlers that lurked in the dark. In my journey of rediscovering, I found an old leather-bound yearbook. The yearbook told me that the clean-shaven man was once my father, and the woman was once his high-school sweetheart.
Her name was Merriam. And after doing some more digging, I found that she was living happily in a nursing home not so far away. I will admit that I felt a tinge of excitement at the prospect of having all my tiny riddles solved. It was followed by a shudder of fear that perhaps she did not remember. And then, I took another look at the last canvas. I murmured "She has to remember", before setting off with the yearbook in one hand and that gray tarp in the other.
I was taken to a small room with a window facing east. It overlooked a thin snaking river in the distance and a weeping willow that splashed the water in glee. An elderly lady sat in a wheel chair greeted me with a wrinkled smile and a small sigh. I knew that she must be Merriam; the smell of sun, sand, and ocean salt lingered in defiance of the other scents of alcohol-based cleaning products.
She began with a question."Well, I certainly don't get many visitors this time of year. You almost look familiar. Who are you?" Her voice was thin and wispy like the wind that gently caresses water.
"I'm a man with questions."
She laughed and her laughs rolled like waves across ocean. "And you think a tiny, elderly lady like me knows the answers? My dear, I'm old but I'm no guru."
"I believe that you can help with my tiny riddles. Do you remember this man?" And I showed her the picture in the yearbook.
She paused and gently brought the picture closer before touching the photo. "Yes, of course I remember Paul Martin."
"Paul Martin is my father."
There was a sound of an intake of breath and surprise before silence. She touched my hand and drew me closer. "Yes, I can see the resemblance. You have your father's eyes and hands."
"I think he loved you very much."
"What makes you say that?"
I lifted the gray tarp and a deep silence settled. She reached eagerly toward the canvas and traced the two figure for many moments before settling back, breathing heavily. She closed her eyes as if living the moment again and began to whisper tiny secrets.
"When I met Paul, he was working in the local aquarium for a summer job. He would do everything from leading tours to cleaning out habitats. I visited the aquarium for the first time at an odd hour. Paul was on tour duty and became my personal guide for that day. He immediately led me to the manta rays; and I was awestruck by such majestic beasts flying and dancing just beyond the glass."
I blinked and the young girl from the canvas sat lifelike before me.
"I soon became a regular and Paul was more than happy to impress me with random factoids and trivia. " She giggled. "He even bought me manta ray shaped kite from the gift store with the money that he had earned."
I rubbed my eyes and the young girl was gone.
"And I think I must have fallen in love, because I began to stay longer and longer. One night when the aquarium closed and Paul was on clean up duty, I snuck into the place. I wanted to see the place once again, alone with my personal guide." She blushed lightly at this as she did once long ago; her wrinkles fading and returning like the tide.
"It was a warm night and he had just finished mopping the boiler room when we met up. He had already taken off his shirt and sweating from doing labor in a non-air conditioned room. He was slightly embarrassed that I had caught him half-naked." Her lips curved into a mysterious smile. "I was wearing that dress there and Paul said that I looked like I was about to go to a dance.
And so he hooked the speakers that usually calmly spouted information to viewers to a cassette player. And so we began to waltz to a slow love tune. He led me up a ladder and asked if I would like learn to fly, and I of course agreed. We descended into an empty tropical tank and began to dance underwater too." She paused, sighed, and gestured at the canvas. "That was once Merriam and Paul a long time ago and many worlds away. After all, what could be more romantic than a kiss in the medium where our ancestors were born; a kiss in a different dimension where dancers can fly without effort."
I nodded. "Thank you. Would you like to keep that painting?"
"Oh no… I couldn't…"
I touched her arm gently. "I think my father would want you to have it."
She looked like she was about to protest again, but then nodded in acceptance. "Thank you, my dear."
"Just one last question. Do you know why he painted the glass?"
She looked puzzled for a moment before a thought dawned. "Paul told me once that it was at the most intimate moments like that when he felt the most alone. Sometimes, when he dreamed of those moments, he said he felt he was watching himself through the glass; in the moment put apart at the same time. I told him at the time that I didn't understand, but I believe I can see it now." She smiled softly and touched the glass on canvas.
I left quietly as she faded into other distant memories. And a tiny new riddle bubbled up as my footsteps echoed down the long and empty hall. What is the sound of the path not taken?