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The Saving John Project
This piece is very personal to me. There was a girl that helped me during a very rough patch in my life. She used to love short stories, and so I wrote this in honor of her memory. I hope people realize that they have endless potential in saving someone's life through unconditional support and love. "
While I was doing preliminary research for my art-critique project for the spring semester, I came across a painting that helped me understand what Davinci meant when he said that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. An impossibly complex straight line on an otherwise blank canvas. How long had it been since I stared like that at a painting?
Tomorrow’s research: its backstory. Also, I have that appointment with Professor Mitchell about the overdue assignment that I was supposed to turn in LAST WEEK. I’ve gotta make it in time. Universe, send some good vibes my way.
There on the bridge, I stood. The cold night, the lake below, and me wondering where to place my shoes. The steps people take before they jump. The whole setting was too routine. I looked out at the water, as clear as my now-empty to-do list. I shivered, but not from the cold. Most likely the cheap whiskey I downed was to thank for that. I was just a little excited beyond nervous, more ready to get on with it than my body felt. Liquid courage, indeed. And of course, both shoes neatly on the concrete with a gap in the slabs forming a dark line between. No cars passing, a quick glance downward, a resolve-enhancing dry gulp, and now my eyes peered straight forward, resolute. Until she shouted from somewhere over there, off to the side.
She had a pair of striking blue eyes—the kind that could read between the lines—the same piercing eternity of the lake below. Her hair was a frizzy mess of brown with a single pristine streak of blonde down her shoulder.
Confused, I let her pull me down. A bit furious inside, I questioned her intervention as I collapsed into her arms in a stiff embrace, like jigsaw puzzle pieces just out of the box. The awkwardness relaxed after a few lingering, panting breaths. We descended together on the pavement, staying there for some time, neither able to form words. The heady rush of inebriation and adrenaline drove me to break the silence. I just couldn’t leave this world without someone hearing my story.
“Have you ever had to give up something you love for someone you thought you loved more?” She considered carefully but didn’t respond, thinking to let me continue. “Well, I did, and if you are planning to, don’t.” I chuckled softly, but without mirth.
“Is that what happened to you?”
“I guess. See, I used to date this girl. Abigail. She said I spent too much time painting and not enough time on her. And she was right.” I picked at my sleeve thinking about admitting so much to a stranger, but I continued. “She grew tired of that and left. And she also took my love of painting with her. Now, whenever I pick up a brush, prep a canvas, or pull out some paint, she’s there. And she’s crying. Crying and cursing at me about how I didn’t try hard enough.” Why was I being so direct? Talk about oversharing…
She absorbed every word, glad I sounded more sober with each breath of whiskey exhaled. Turning toward me, she sat up, unsure of what else she could do. After a brief moment, she spoke.
“Is that why you’re here today?” With both hands, she cupped my closer hand in hers tenderly as if to make up for the impromptu embrace earlier. This simple gesture was better than hearing her say that everything was going to be okay. Which she did, too, of course.
“Can I see your art?” She whispered.
I was taken aback for a moment. I’d just torn up my body of work and scattered everything into the icy depths below, but for one piece. The excruciatingly basic one that I just could not destroy.
“This is all I have left,” I said, offering the painting with a gentle begrudging. I’d made that one the day Abigail left. A blank page with a single stroke down the middle. I was just trying to make it down the length of the page without giving up, cleaving left and right completely. Just like how Abigail tore me and art asunder.
Her eyes widened in disbelief, her mouth gaping open a little in what seemed like obscure recognition. Seeing her reaction, I turned back to the monochromatic work and wondered what anybody else but me could see in it. As I tried to figure it out, her arm faded, and I looked up just in time to see her face—and those deep blue eyes—vanish, leaving me alone on the bridge.
I had the strangest dream last night and couldn’t go back to sleep. It almost felt real how his hands felt against mine. I heard things we see manifest themselves in dreams, and I guess that’s true, which explains the painting. But what about the whole plot my mind made up to go along with it? That, I just couldn’t shake off, but I had to get on with my research.
I loaded a new espresso pod and flipped open my laptop. Two years ago, the painting was found floating near the shore off Queensboro Bridge, not far from a suicide victim: John Pollock. The simple line painting was salvaged and restored, and a photo of it sat side-by-side with the guy in my dream. The one I stopped from jumping off at the bridge. What are the chances? Could it really have been him on that bridge? Why would he suddenly appear in my dreams? Was it even a dream? It was so bizarre that I dreamt about some incident I never knew about and, what’s more, changed the ending. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I poured a now-cold espresso into my cup and swirled in just enough milk to taste the roast. Thinking back on the dream, I knew I had my critique angle for Professor Mitchell. She was pretty proud of the work that I (finally) turned in and said I might make a good critic in just a few years. I need her to like my critique of John’s painting, too.
So. Hungover. But everything is so clear. I should have died. I should have forgotten everything. Damn this headache, but I need to remember. Me getting ready to jump, her shouting, the both of us falling and hugging. A girl with striking blue eyes. Frizzy brown hair. A single stroke of blonde down to her shoulders. A slim face with pronounced cheeks. I want to remember it all.
The alcohol must not have worn off because my previous fears and doubts about painting miraculously evaporated in the brief moments I was sketching her. It was only later when I finished sketching that I realized what I had just done. A sudden rush of guilt ran through me as if I’d betrayed my memories of Abigail. Abigail wouldn’t have wanted me to return to something that made me lose her.
But it wasn’t all guilt. There was an odd mix of excitement and jubilance, some pre-Abigail feelings I’d long ignored and just couldn’t admit.
A sudden rapping on my bedroom door jolted me. An unexpected visitor tried the knob and stepped in, a silhouette of the girl from the bridge. We both gaped simultaneously in shock, and I was simply petrified. I couldn’t mouth my thoughts—what the f*ck is happening?
“Holy sh*t I was right!” she shouted.
I had no way to digest her opening words. “What are you doing in my house? How did you even get in?”
She began to laugh. Not at me but perhaps the ridiculousness of this entire situation. “Sorry I just can’t believe I predicted this.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Okay, so this is going to sound crazy, but is your name John Pollock?”
“You should be dead.” It wasn’t a threat, I think. Was it regret? Maybe I really died and am just living on as a ghost. I haven’t talked to anyone else today, so that could be true.
Looking down, all I saw was her shoes dissolving into air before I could muster a response. Something crazy was happening, and as I turned back to my sketch of her, I also realized I remembered her perfectly.
Have you ever heard of the universal-guilt theory? It’s like the universe oftentimes feels so bad over the suffering of a single individual and performs some kind of divine intervention to make things right. Nothing direct like BOOM. MIRACLE. More like gentle nudges that some people will be attuned to feel and respond to. I’ve done three hours of research on Google and Reddit, and honestly, it’s the perfect explanation for both yesterday's and today’s events. Actually, I made up the name, but that’s what it should be called. Maybe it has to do with everybody sending thoughts and prayers all the time. Maybe it was because I could feel tremors of doubt and anguish in that simple straight-line painting.
Anyway, I met John again. The first time, I stopped him from jumping off the bridge—the exact event I’d read about in the news. But there was no guarantee that it was real or that he wouldn’t try again. I checked back the paper from yesterday that detailed both his suicide and artwork and surely enough, nothing had changed. I couldn’t know for sure whether I’d alter reality or anything, but I just feel like I was sent by the universe to prevent him from ending his life. Not just once, but indefinitely.
SO here’s the plan. I stumbled across a Reddit Conspiracy Theory page. Though they’re often full of BS, one commenter talked about a crucial rule on how this whole thing might work. For me to be able to satisfy the conditions for some desirable outcome, both parties would have to agree on terms. A contract of sorts. In our case, I guess that means we both need to agree John is stable enough to continue living. I think that involves getting him back to his true love.
I know I can’t rewrite the past and prevent him from ever meeting Abigail, but maybe I can revive his love for art again through the only thing I have to offer him: unconditional support. I will give him, to the extent I can possibly offer, what we as people all secretly wish in life. So that just maybe, it’s enough to keep him going. Yes. That’s where I’ll begin. I’m sure I’ll see him again tonight in my dreams.
In the meantime, I need to hold back on my school work. I already told Prof Mitchell—she did not seem happy about it. But right now, her approval is not what matters. What matters is saving a life. The Saving John Project.
She came back. I’d been painting her all this while when she suddenly appeared in my room. Before I could even speak, she yelled at me with confidence, as if rehearsed a thousand times.
“WAIT! Don’t freak out. This might seem crazy and illogical but I have a perfect explanation for this. Just give me a moment to talk.”
Then, she explained something she called the universal-guilt theory. I’d never heard of it before. She explained that I was already dead in her time, that I’d jumped. Apparently, she’s living two years ahead of me. Adamant, she was convinced she was sent by the universe to make life right for me. To stop me from committing suicide.
Of course, I didn’t believe her at first because, who would? But the one thing she had going was her vanishing act. Something impossible to explain without the element of other-worldly forces. Also, her confidence and passion made me rethink the possibility.
While I drifted off toeing the line of hope, she snapped me out. “...to be an agreement.”
“What? Sorry, I didn’t get any of that.”
She rolled her eyes and said, “Pay attention! This part is really important. Like I said, I read somewhere that we need to have an agreement made that decides the when and what. So here is my proposal. For the next month, I will support you in any way I can. I’ll be here with you. And in return, I want you to find the courage to stay alive for thirty more days and beyond.”
I’m sure she expected a better response, but all I came up with was, “Why are you doing all this for me? You don’t even know me.”
She responded, “I believe that the universe has sent me here for a reason. And I am not planning on living the rest of my life feeling bad that I didn’t try.”
Ouch. Was that for her or me? I turned away and stepped to the side to think.
Seeing the portrait behind where I had stood, she pointed. “Is that a painting of me?”
I blanched as the blood drained from my face, only to return with vengeance. My face shone vermilion, caught as I was doing something I couldn’t explain.
Again, she saved me, not making me try to finagle my way out of it. “It’s beautiful,” she adored. “But I thought you couldn’t even pick up a brush lately.”
I replied, “I have no idea. Just picked up the charcoal to sketch, and before I knew it, you were already on my canvas. Is it weird?”
“Not at all,” she reassured me. “It’s beautiful, and thank you. It’s not what my mirror shows me.”
She took in the painting again and perked upright. “I have an idea. Why don’t you do this for the next month? Draw as many paintings of me, or whatever makes you comfortable, until you get used to that feeling so that you can carry on doing art without me. Thirty days, okay?”
I felt a nervous growl in my stomach. I relied on my hangover to get started and my gut instinct to finish it, and I didn’t know if I could pull that out again. But it almost felt like I was always waiting for this moment to come. Something to give me an excuse to draw once again without feeling the guilt. I stared back at the painting and focused on the emotions from before, a mix of fear and excitement.
“Okay. Also, what’s your name?”
I turned to face her, but she was already gone.
I did it! I was able to get John on board with the idea. I was so nervous at first, thinking he’d consider me a maniac. But he listened, and he accepted. Now, I gotta figure out what we have to do because I can’t just fake it til I make it. I don’t know where to begin. But today marks the first day of the Saving John Project.
Now that I’ve had a moment, I realize I’m two years in his future. Which means I get to know everything before it actually happens in John’s timeline. I can plan our month. More importantly, I can suggest paths for him to explore.
And, turns out, two years ago today was the greatest jazz concert of all time, free for everyone to visit. A modern-day Woodstock in Harlem. I was so excited to go, but taking John out of his room would be my first challenge. I had to convince him that walling himself in wouldn’t do him any good.
I’m surprised neither of us wondered whether others would be able to see me. Thankfully that wasn’t the case because I figured I might want to eat with John at some point. Can’t just be a ghost and have him talking to thin air.
I can’t believe it took 4 days for me to get to know her name. It’s Olivia. I saw her write it on her name tag after we walked in the gate at JazzFest. It beat staying inside and sulking. To be honest, I’d actually missed the New York social life. I felt a small smile creep up a few times, but I’d squash it away before she could notice, I think. I just felt too guilty going back out in the world again and enjoying it with someone else. But I had to admit, it felt nice to have someone there who cared for me. I guess that’s what Abigail had wanted, too.
When we got home, I took out a fresh new canvas and started painting. From time to time Abigail popped into my mind reminding me that every stroke cut us further apart. Olivia would see me wrestle bodily with my own memories, and her hand would rest on mine till I steadied. Without saying a word, Olivia assured me that I could, should, keep going. And as I painted smoothly, she disappeared again. If only I could paint her voice, too.
This is Day 8 of SJP. Went to Coney Island and rode the cyclone again a dozen times. Not even John could hold his excitement and thrill. But every time I catch him smiling, it vanishes abruptly.
I tease him about it. “You know, it’s a pity your smile fades so quickly. But at least you’re retraining those smile muscles. You might even fool me into thinking you’re actually happy.”
He stops walking, eyes a bit clouded. Maybe I was too aggressive. I start to apologize, “I didn’t mean any..” but he waves me off.
“No, you’re right. I am happy, but it’s just, I shouldn’t be.”
God dammit, Abigail. What did you do to him? Just let him go already.
We walked home, and I snuck a quick sniffle to hide the bloody nose I knew was coming. Good thing I woke up in my own bed right then.
We went to Coney Island today. Sure, riding the cyclone was fun, but I only agreed to the next ten rides because she grabbed my hand—the real thrill ride—and ran like the first time over and over. A human touch, a kind one. I had almost forgotten in over a year.
“Stand there for a second, would you?” I asked.
She nearly balked, holding a hotdog inches from her mouth with chili threatening to paint her shoulder. But later in the afternoon, I painted her as she had stood by the hotdog stand. Nowhere near the extravagance of a lone figure portrait. But it felt nice, natural. Except for Abigail popping in, sometimes pleading, at times ranting. Painting was still tough, but maybe muscle memory drove me forward. I could still paint well, at least. I tried my hardest to ignore my ex, but every time I started a new painting, I felt obliged to ask her permission. Thankfully, Olivia was always there to grant it.
SJP Day 17. I finally pushed John to visit an art exhibit. When I suggested it, he immediately declined. It was like he regressed to when I first found him on the bridge, scared of what’s next. But with enough coaxing, I convinced him to visit a MoMA exhibit on the Upper Westside. Strangely, it was different from all the other days he spent painting.
John recognized a bunch of artists and had all the textbook knowledge I had. He seemed back in his element talking about each art piece with a level of sophistication that I needed to get used to. Honestly, some of it went in one ear right out the other. I was impressed.
John grabbed my hand and rushed us over to something he pointed at. “Nighthawks,” a WWII-era oil painting of three diner patrons late at night and the rest of the world beyond their street corner dark, empty, and silent.
“It’s like us in there, and everybody else fades away.” I couldn’t tell what else he saw in the painting, but what he said made me smile. We remained thoughtfully silent on the way out. I resolved to keep a strong smile on my face so that he’d know I was there for him.
But I hate to admit, as much as it made me happy to see John doing so much better—being able to engage with art, and even attend an exhibit—I can’t say the same for myself. The truth is, I’m not getting any sleep. When I pop over to John, it’s not a dream projection. I’m physically there with him. The move over is jarring every time, and the lack of sleep even more. My nose bleeds whenever I come back, and all I have time to do is record my thoughts and get back to doing the bare minimum at school. John deserves my best, but I can’t give up on my own life, either. I’ve got less than a year left. Never knew how long a month could feel.
I was absolutely terrified to go back to an art exhibit. Sure, I've been painting every day for Olivia. But to be surrounded by the world where my guilt lies, I found it overwhelming. And I could swear I saw Abigail cowering in the corner, waiting for me to comfort her. But maybe it was because Olivia was there by my side or because I had finally reconnected with art, I closed my eyes and walked away.
I knew Abigail would never forgive my callousness in choosing art over her again, but I was beginning to realize my demons were my own. She was over me, and I needed to be “selfish” now, to move on despite her eternal bitterness. I had to. For a whole host of works I had yet to produce. For a girl who pretended her fatigue wasn’t causing nosebleeds. For a girl who might really love me unconditionally.
Day 27, or Day 26? My body won’t keep up with the promises of our contract. John was all excited asking me what we’d do that day, and all I could come up with was “coffee shop.” I no longer had the strength to keep up the smile he needed to see.
I sat with my cup of latte art, and he finally said it.
“You’re leaving in a few days.”
I wish he hadn’t. He looked so passionate and focused, and his eyes exploded with a different kind of pain.
I looked down, even more exhausted by what he said. I replied, but I don’t remember what I said. “Yeah.” Or something like that.
His painting that day was of us sitting at that table, me looking down, and him out the window. “Already Reminiscing.” Huh, the first one he gave a title.
A few days ago, I realized I was ready to keep painting. I think it was when Olivia reached up to grab the only flower on a bare tree as we hiked. A few inches short, she summoned me to get it for her, so I pulled the branch down just enough. It was beautiful. She held it by one violet petal and took a sniff. But it was sad. Now the branch was empty without it. I saw myself in four days. I knew I had a lifetime of painting to do, even if all I ever got to express were the scenes we’d shared these three weeks and some days.
As I recreated her cafe pose on canvas, she looked smaller, or weaker.
“Are you okay?” What I meant was, time’s running out, and I need you to tell me that you are going to stay.
A small “yeah” was all she could muster. I traced her hairline with my hand, and she barely acknowledged the motion.
Universe, if you really do feel bad for me, don’t let this be enough to make you feel better.
He was behind me when I appeared. I turned, and he had a cake.
“Triple chocolate mousse. Your favorite, but you take just a few bites because it’s, what’d you say? Cloyingly sweet. That’s it.” I had a few bites. It was Day 30. I knew what he was about to ask me. To extend our contract. Cake stuck in my throat as time stood still.
I was already in tears anticipating the question. Of course, it wasn’t unreasonable, and part of me wanted to offer. Little did he know that I had been agonizing over a way to make things work out.
But living two lives at once would kill me. I had to finally admit how worn out I was, that all my good intentions were a part of him, and I had to go back to piecing together my own semblance of life if Mitchell hadn’t given up on me.
“Olivia, you probably already know what I’m about to ask you, but is there any way we could extend the original contract?”
I gave myself a moment, hoping for something to make me doubt my inevitable answer, but nothing came.
It ripped my heart out to hear myself say “No.”
I waited for John to protest. To tell me he was not ready. That he couldn’t live without me, either.
But he simply said, “Olivia, go get some sleep.” He hugged me tightly from behind, clasping his hands over mine. Finally, we fit like we were made to hold one another. And then I found myself awake in my own bed, sobbing.
She was gone.
When I got back, I had to relearn prioritizing myself, and just in time. My final projects and job search wouldn’t wait for me, and even Mitchell’s faith in me could unravel at any time. I couldn’t critique John’s painting now. I couldn’t bring myself to check up on him and find out what changes the universe had decided would be from our contract.
I checked our database for a new piece and got to work. Three lattes later, I was done.
I missed John terribly. Although I had done all I could do for him, I still felt I had left parts unresolved, that I could have somehow found the strength or will to do more for him. He’d probably tell me I was wrong to feel this way, but I couldn’t help it. I guess I can understand a little better how he felt so convinced that he’d let Abigail down.
For a whole year, I put my head down and worked to a whole new level of exhaustion.
Finally, I’ve been requested to cover a new exhibit on my own. When I arrived, a large painting displayed outside the gallery announced the exhibit. I missed it, though, fumbling for my press badge.
I handed over my ticket, preparing to immerse myself in the world of art and critique. A young couple passed by, the woman tearing up, “You better open an exhibition for me someday.” The man just chuckled. He looked like a promising art student.
The exhibit was prefaced, “No thanks can be enough for you.”
Another plaque came into view. I noted its title, “Salvation,” took out my glasses and notepad, and looked up to take notes.
My eyes widened in disbelief. Pen and pad crashed to the floor.
Queensboro Bridge. The scene where John and I met. Light colors coyly shading lines barely visible from afar. My heart pounded against my chest. I gathered my tools from the floor and moved on, shaken.
An impression of a jazz concert. Seen from behind, two figures are slightly more bold, with pronounced lines and full color.
Then, the one painting I never got to see. Triple chocolate mousse cake. A man on one bent knee. Me, covering my face, no expression visible.
Behind me, other viewers chattered. “I love this painting! Do you think they get married?” someone behind me wondered.
I choked back tears and let the year of unanswered emotions rush through my heart. Memories of our month flooded in, animating themselves through the paintings that anchored—actualized—them.
Camera shutters and paparazzi sounds cluttered the entrance. “Look, that must be him!” An excited attendee exclaimed as she grabbed her phone to snap a picture.
I turned around, not ready for the devastation of not seeing him. Or worse, seeing him.
Amongst a growing crowd of fans rushing to snap selfies together, John stood calmly and without expression, greeting them politely.
Then after a brief moment, he turned his head, and the corners of his mouth widened upwards.
He simply smiled. For the whole world to see. Staring straight at me.
The final draft of a smile we had worked on for a month, and a lifetime of happiness to abound. The most sophisticated statement of found joy expressed in the simplest curve of his mouth. DaVinci, you sonuvab*tch.