He has not showered in the past 2 weeks, yet I climb anyways the steps into brick mortar dripping with the colors of the rainbow; into the palettes of rain and sunshine that stroke onto my paintbrush, and trickle to make love with the canvas ink. My art teacher wears his heart on his denim sleeves, complete with corduroy shorts that become the coastline for the intimacy of red and blue hues; his denim is cuffed with the memories of the ruby of warmth, aquamarine of blues, and vermillion of the sunset.
I meet him first 2 feet shorter, dripping with the pretention of 5-year-old amateur artists who just want someone to impress. He bore the same denim then—though in darker shades that were not so frayed with patches of the early morning and jaded scarlet. I had shown him my shadings, my golden cheeks purposely splattered with charcoal fingerprints to create the art my drawings could not. He had rumbled laughter and gripped HB, coloring in the patches of misunderstanding and loneliness. I fell in love that day.
His knuckles have always been calloused with pain, camouflaged with azure and dark lavender that swing by the scuffs on his fabric when he speaks in harsh Vietnamese. I have watched them lift the paintbrush when he first taught me how to color the sky, shadow my fingers as I failed to create a straight line, brush the horizon as he finessed the sculptural mold. In all these memories that I can only remember in sketches, he is always accompanied by his denim; a harrowing history that began before blue and yellow ever fell head over heels into red.
My art teacher lives in his studio of red brick ivy, a lost city that exists only through rickety stairs with the railings smothered by charcoal smudges. As I clutch the banister to make my way for my weekly Saturday morning class, I pass by canvases littered with foreign Vietnamese scrawls in ruby. He has taught me not to ask, but I learn most on the unsaid—the rough outlines of an infant and a woman, the paintings of a foreign land, the crimson of a war zone. I never question why he lives alone, though I spend my watercolors imagining his heroic escape from Vietnam, an anonymous national hero who found sanguine in our little town.
He rarely speaks of Vietnam, only through childhood tokens I cherish when my fingers are blackened with charcoal soot and 7B grays. He is no Rembrandt, nor Da Vinci, but when he tells me of how he found art, his eyes gleam yellow and his denim pigments brighten in excitement. It is hard not to do the same. The first color he ever created was red—red, for his love of his country. He shows me the evidence from his denim jacket, the red of 30 years prior that still adorns history. It was not an easy task, however—when he set out in denim armor at 4 feet tall to find red, all that he found was blue. Blue was the color when he looked at the sky, when he looked in the rivers. Vietnam was not a country for the red; safety was in the peaceful aquamarine that ensured its people did not bleed crimson. However, he loved red so much that he continued to search, until he chopped up dandelion whisps with peppermint extract, and a fresh ginger that he had snuck from his mother’s prized kitchen, to make the color of human love.
The same color tints my cheeks when he mutters in disapproval when I skip class because the aromas of artificial paint and bottled ink engrave themselves too much that my 5-year-old self can no longer focus on the pretty pictures. I do not want to draw anymore; I cannot draw anymore. My eyes are tarnished with purple postcards that prove I cannot love art as much as my art teacher does; art is for the strong.
However, he does not allow me to succumb to passive purple; we are in the state of red, in the state of passion.
Draw, he says!
Paint, he says!
Sketch, he says!
I can’t, I say.
It is only when I revolt do I see his denim fabric scrunch in anger, and his shoulders hunch in tautness at the 5-year-old pigtailed rebel who refuses to paint the colors of the sky. His slurs are laced with Vietnamese venom I can only understand in individual strokes, but I know I am in trouble as I watch dark wine spill over his cheeks, dancing with danger.
2 weeks later, I come back on a Saturday morning, and he still cloaks his denim shield, but the colors washed over seem darker now. He sees me and his eyes light up, his smirk proving he knew I could not stay away from charcoal friends, nor his stories, for long.
I ask him what he would like me to draw, and he begins to show me. I freeze. He has taken off his denim jacket, and I am not sure if I recognize him anymore.
Draw the fabric, he says.
My fingers shake like the wobbly steps of this haven, yet, no matter how hard I press the charcoal on pure white sheets, I cannot capture the carmine in denim cuffs and wrinkles that bear more tears for colors he does not let on.