The Canvas

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"What do you know about hydro-electric engineering?"

Lissa Taylor was great for asking questions like that. In the midst of a boredom so deep you're positive you'll fall asleep and not wake up for days, she'd startle you with something random and crazy enough to jolt you awake.

"Um, not much…why?"

Just not awake enough to be articulate.

"Oh, I'm building a fountain, is all. I'm scared I'll electrocute myself, so I thought I'd ask..."

The first thing Lissa typically told people was that she was crazy. She's one of the 3% of girls at James Patterson High who doesn't play three sports a year, take every cake elective possible or try to get knocked up every weekend. Instead, she marches in the band--every fall she rallies to have marching band approved as a lettering sport--has a 3.5+ GPA and runs for every office possible.

She's the kind of crazy that will take the world down in flames, and then piece back together better than it was before.

Running, snow boarding, sleeping in; those are my thing. Politics aren’t. Neither is art. I was the kid who colored inside of the lines at four and never really stopped because he "lacked creative expression". My English teachers say the same about my writing. To say I'm not creative is an understatement.

Everything about Lissa is the opposite of me. Especially the crazy part. I like to think of myself as fairly sane.

But you take one look at the canvas, and even someone as art-illiterate as I can tell there's something to it. For one, it only takes one glance to think its out of place. Most of the JPHS artists draw what they know: cows. Farms, if they're broadening their horizons. The 1% of the artist population who are as close to Goth as any group of farm kids from Ohio can get have dark-colored, abstract and generally spooky and fairly weird collages and pottery. The canvas doesn't fit into either category.

I stared at the canvas, awed at the life it really seemed to have. Then I shook my head and reminded myself I’m a straight guy.

“I love gay guys,” Lissa suddenly buzzed through my mind.

That statement alone makes her seem crazy.

My gayness in question or not (and it CERTAINLY is not), the colors and design were arranged in a way that even the art-illiterate kid could see the life behind it.

You could also tell she'd been hurt. I’m not big into dating (which really does not help my NOT-GAY cause), but I’d dated enough to know how both sides of a break-up worked. You either came out on top as a heart-breaking d*ck or ended up watching Fight Club on an endless loop while punching yourself to stop crying.

I looked over the 16x13 and my mind easily calculated that the thirty-six pieces added up to sixteen broken hearts. Each was a different size, color, texture and pattern. And, of all crazy things, they were all ‘laminated’ with scotch tape.

"She walks around on such a high horse," Molly Jamm said next to me. She clicked her tongue [adjective needed here]. "She calls me a slut, yet look at all the boyfriend's she's had! What a hypocrite! And she claims to label herself as "real"."

I half-laughed in a non-committal way, not really having a response. Every small-town-abundant-county has a surname that runs rampant, and “Jamm” was the one here. Not only were they large in numbers, but they were big in head size.

They were also the main participants in that one weekend activity I’d mentioned.

"They're not just ex-boyfriends," someone spoke up from behind. I turned to see Shelley Miles, one of the "Goth" artists who had just graduated from JPHS. I wondered if her work was somewhere in the community college section. "They're also friends, family...anyone who has ever broken her heart in someway has a letter on there."

I looked back at the canvas and realized that the paper wasn’t textured. It was written on.

Any teenage girl could sob out some broken heart letter over a guy who had dumped her; I'd seen enough movies to conclude that. Lissa hadn't stopped at that, though. She'd written to lost friends, family members, estranged individuals who somehow hurt Lissa.

And that that fact gave it even more life.

I really might be gay, I worried, shaking my head. I tried to remember where I’d left my copy of Fight Club.

"--etters?" Molly was asking Shelley back in the real world, looking angry and confused.

"She wrote letters and then folded the origami hearts," Shelley replied to Molly. "Then she taped them to keep the letter protected, then cut them into broken hearts."

Shelley nodded silently then, and focused her gaze back onto the canvas. She seemed to be searching for something.

Shelley broke off their friendship on Lissa's birthday, it dawned on me while I watched Shelley's searching gaze. My mind drew a blank for why, and I realized that I had forgotten what had been the biggest piece of school gossip for two months. What a shame.

So Shelley has a heart up there.

They had been best friends, Lissa and Shelley; Shelley probably knew so much about the canvas because Lissa started it while they were friends.

I wondered if Shelley would have any idea what size her heart would be, or what color, pattern, texture. Big because they were such good friends?

Okay, that’s stupid even to the art-illiterate kid.

Shelley's breath caught ever so softly and she was gone before I could turn to look at her. I realized that Molly was gone, too--probably off to insult another classmate of our's--and I was surrounded by complete strangers. I let the crowd jostle me along and I exited the high school art exhibit hall.

The wave of smells engulfed me: fair fries, birch beer, pig sweat and cow manure. Children laughing, kids crying, adults hollering, announcers calling out students showing their livestock.

Realizing how long I'd been standing in front of the canvas, I moved toward the unhealthy food, buying enough to feed a small family to slate my hunger.

"--just not my type," I caught the guy in front of me in line say to the girl working behind the counter. As he hastily moved away with his order, I looked up at the girl to order, but froze as my mind put two and two together.

"Well, okay, you have to live in a glass house under a rock to not know this, bu-ut…I like you," Lissa had said to me last spring.

"I'm sorry, I just don't want a girlfriend right now," I'd told her, my application to MIT on my mind.

I side-stepped out of line and moved back to the art exhibit hall, walking against the current until I arrived back at the canvas. I had to look at it again. Like Shelley had.

And when I found what I was searching for, I gasped softly, just like she had.





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