Oil on Canvas

February 20, 2008
By Sandra Song, Los Altos, CA

He painted her standing on a bridge of dirty cobblestone, moist and slippery from the waterfall’s spray. Her dress, streaked with dirt and grime, clung to her starved body, engulfing her in a sea of fabric that was the color of the floodwaters raging through the streets of New York. She was inspired by the disaster that trapped and killed millions. She was born from disaster.

She was created in his disheveled apartment that overlooked the river which was once Bridgewater Street, built on the banks of the Upper New York Bay. The great thunderstorm had left a flood of dirty rainwater in its wake, choking every gutter in the city with filth and skeletal leaves in a plumage of dead grays and dying browns. Drowned animal carcasses littered the streets, fur matted and soggy as rescue workers plunged into the depths to save these sorry creatures with eyes glazed over and that vacant, helpless stare. For days, helicopters hovered over the city, combing the turbulent waters for people lost in the murky surf, their pleading cries splintering the peaceful dark of the night, for no one dared to utter a single word and disturb the suffocating blanket of silence that seemed to smother all of New York City.

Whenever she would look up from the waterfall cascading beneath her, all she could see was more turbulent, unwelcoming water as she gazed outside from her place perched next to the foggy window. The storm raging outside the aging plaster walls was almost able to drown out the roars of furious waters beneath her feet.

Day in and day out, the rain battered the painter's aging roof, cracks forming in the ceiling, buckets and bowls already utilized under water stained wall paper, the edges curling and blackening with mildew. In the evenings, the torrent often grew worse, every lightning bolt shattering the opaque sky in two and the rain continuing to come down harder than ever, like the hammering of nails into a coffin.

The buzzing of the fluorescent lights overhead was the lullaby she fell asleep to and the alarm that woke her, a continuous symphony of angry flies swarming their prey. The lights cast a tired shadow over everything they touched, bathing the room in a washed-out, monotonous glow. A sea of worn canvases, the callous fibers moths' delight, collected dust in the corners where the painter had shoved them absentmindedly.
She was once one of those naked, rough blank spaces. Until that night.
The night her painter cried a river of tears.

But she was blind to the chaos and pandemonium all around her. The only thing she did all day, while watching the raindrops splatter against the window pane, was pray and plot her great escape from the confines to which she was condemned for eternity. All she did was wait aimlessly on that cobblestone bridge for a moment of inspiration, patiently awaiting to taste freedom, for the restrictions of a square frame doesn’t allow for much activity other than quiet contemplation.
Therefore, she had no choice but to day dream aimlessly.

“I wonder what it’s like out there,” she mused to herself, contemplating on how different it must be from her current surroundings.

"It may not be perfect," her gaze shifted to the window where gray clouds ominously hung over the city skyline, "But it's probably better than being stuck in here."

This was true, for all she really had was a jaded painter who only took notice of his wine coolers and the television.

She glanced over at the painter reclined on his ratty, pinstriped sofa, his clumsy feet extending awkwardly over the armrest as he stared blankly at the TV screen. He had put it on mute and the only sounds audible were the gentle buzzing of the television, which seemed to paralyze the artist in a state of half-sleep. A classic black and white movie was playing on the screen. A man and woman stood together in the middle of the city, with people rushing by them, their hands intertwined and staring into each other’s eyes. He gazed so lovingly at her, with such utter devotion as he continued to whisper sweet nothings in her ear, his fingers lightly brushing the hair out of her eyes.

"Darling," he mouthed, his face crinkling into a smile, "I will always love you no matter how many miles are put between us."

The woman swooned, her lips parted and eyelids fluttered in the dim lighting, “Oh, Rick! You know that you are the only one for me."

The girl touched her own face, clammy and rough against her frigid palm, closing her eyes as she stroked the cool, damp skin of her cheek.

Oh, how she longed to have someone touch her like Rick, how she longed to be loved. Maybe she didn't even need love; appreciation would probably be able to satisfy the growling hunger she had for attention.

"Painter, pay attention to me," she pleaded, her eyes boring holes into his emaciated body. "Please just notice me."

Ever since he had finished painting her he had just left the painting on his easel, whether it was due to his admiration or sheer laziness wasn’t clear. Lately though, all he seemed to be able to do was lay on his couch and monotonously recite lines from television movies, flipping through channels absentmindedly.

"I'll always love you, Rick," he drawled sarcastically to the TV screen, his eyes glazed over as he stared blankly at the ceiling. "I'll never forget you." The painter scoffed, getting up from his place on the couch, his clothes rumpled and disheveled.

"Bulls***," he sneered as the woman whispered in the ears of her lover. "No one has time to love."

He groaned, frustrated at the cliché of it all.

"Can Hollywood actually manage to give us something decent once in a while?" He muttered, his voice strained, tinged with annoyance. “Isn’t it enough that the only movies shown on daytime TV are cinematic Hallmark cards?”

The painter stormed toward his tiny kitchen, foraging in his now empty cupboards for food, angrily repeating, “God damn it. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, and have babies… It’s so f***ing boring!”

His head poked out from behind the kitchen wall, glaring at the television.

“Can’t you come up with something better than that?” He spat, irritated, before ducking back behind the partition. “I can’t believe that I’m paying to watch this s***!”

The sounds of empty cans being thrown against the wall complimented the hard, almost mechanical edge of his voice, echoing throughout the apartment.

The girl sighed. She sympathized with her painter.

He was so bitter about love ever since she had left him.

While he was painting the girl on the bridge, he would tell her stories about his previous love. About how they used to spill Chinese take-out on his couch and fall asleep intertwined with pork mu-shu on their laps. About how they used to go up to Boston to see the frozen Charles River and slide on the thick ice in the middle of the night. About how they used to steal candy bars from the grocery store when times were hard for artists. How in love they were as young adults in this great concrete jungle of graffiti and poverty!

The painter's whimsical flashbacks had ended there, his expression grew pained if he tried to think about their relationship any further, let alone speak of it.

At night, she could hear him sniffling into his pillow as he lay on the couch, buried underneath thin wool blankets barely keeping out the bone-chilling cold.

"Poor painter," she murmured to herself when she was awoken by his racking sobs in the middle of the night. "My poor painter."

But, even with all his misery and sorrow, the girl couldn't help but be jealous of him.

Oh, how she wanted to breathe the same stale air he did! How she wanted to feel hot, salty tears trickle down her face. Oh, how she wanted to feel the very human pain of not being loved!

It was one thing to be an object, something you can put a price on, and not be cherished, but an entirely different thing to be a living, breathing creature that can experience that gut-wrenching feeling of misery and self-pity.

She just wanted her emotions to no longer be hollow. She just wanted to feel.

No matter how miserable it made her.

"Anything would be better than remaining so detached from the outside world! Now, I only have my painter and he doesn't even want me!" Her chest constricted as she tried to cry, willing herself to produce just one tear, one droplet of moisture.

But none came. A blotch of blue and gray oil paint on a canvas cannot produce salty tears of anguish.

How ironic that she was surrounded by the sobs of the heavens and her creator, but couldn't conjure up a single tear for herself! She was born of water, yet none was in her.

She was so empty.

"Look at me!" She screamed at the painter, who laid on his couch once more, his face buried in the armrest. "Look at me!"

But he continued only to lay there, his back rising and falling with the exaggerated breaths he took, trying to control himself, trying to block out the emotion he was feeling from watching all of those fallacious television movies.

"Look at me!" She continued to beg from her spot on top of the bridge, leaning further and further over the edge of the railing, her twiggy arms barely able to keep her balanced as she gripped the wrought iron.

Her body, while not able to feel or produce emotion, was still subject to the laws of gravity, for she was still an object of the universe.

She heard the railing start to creak and teeter underneath her weight. Even though she didn't weigh much, the spindly railing couldn't hold the burden of her body. She ignored it, leaning even further over.

She couldn't care less; she just wanted his attention, for one moment, one second.

“Painter! Painter! Look at me!”

She could feel nothing as she continued to moan for him, her body shaking from the exertion of her efforts. The railing underneath her continued to creak dangerously as she extended her body further over the side of the bridge.

Her guttural screams echoed in the misty forest she was trapped in, her throat raw, aching from all the pointless yelling.

The girl’s hands were chaffed from the wrought iron, palms sore and tinged red from gripping it so tightly. With equilibrium compromised as the dense fog swirled all around her, her lungs filled with the fine droplets of moisture, throat tightening as she choked. All she could hear were the great splashes that disturbed turbid waters below, muffling out any other sound.

Head spinning in the frigid mist, her forest, her world, started to blur together in a mess of ugly browns, grays, and blues. Her manic heartbeat was the only thing she could hear, her pulse going wild as she started to sway in delirium.

“Look at me!” Her scream echoed as a resounding crash caused the apartment building to rumble, shaking its very foundations. Outside, the threatening floodwaters started to make their rapid ascent to the painter’s second story window, the murky soup of debris and dirt rising quickly.

Overhead, the once manageable cracks in the plaster ceiling had turned into great, gaping holes, the insulation visible and hanging limply over the edge as a sudden torrent of dirty rainwater poured into the tiny apartment.

A piece of the falling ceiling pinned down the legs of the painter, binding him to the building and the impending doom it faced as icy waters continued to creep through every crevice, crack, and open window. It was rising fast. In a matter of minutes they would be submerged under water, another statistic for the news broadcasters to report.

The painter smiled faintly as he observed the predicament he was in.

“Pray for your sins,” he joked lightly as he turned toward her, “This will all be over soon.”

How can you stay calm in a situation like this, she felt like screaming. How could he treat this like a stroll in the park or a day at the beach? They were both going to die, he without love and her without feeling!

A sudden powerful burst of water raged in from the hole in the ceiling, immersing almost everything in the apartment under freezing waters as the foundations gave way to the abuse of the flood.

She screamed as the merciless water engulfed the weak body of her painter; his emaciated form disappearing underneath, still trapped by the jagged piece of ceiling.

But she had no time to worry about him.

She was gripped by an acute sense of panic as the murky water washed over her, blurring the paint and sending streams of blues, greens, and browns in every direction until they disintegrated into tiny specks of color.

Though she knew she was dying, there was no pain, only the slow thinning of her paints as the floodwaters continued to wash over her. The pigments of the painting, little bits and pieces of her, were slowly melting away in front of her very eyes. Horrified, yet enraptured, she watched as her spindly arms, already pasty and wan, faded back to the white of the canvas, the fibers damp and shaggy.

The murky waters filled her lungs as they gradually crept over her face, caressing it, the frigid iciness kissing her lips, cheeks, and forehead, like a familiar lover. The world around her started to turn dark as the rest of her face was submerged underneath, and as the last bits of her sable hair washed away in the glacial torrent, she faintly cursed the wretched life she had been born into.

She still could not feel a thing.

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