The painting was a wedding gift from my husband’s uncle. A well-known artist in Miami’s Wynwood Art District, Uncle Lou had painted it himself. Whenever someone in Mike’s family gets engaged there’s always talk about what kind of painting Uncle Lou will give them. Like when Derek, Lou’s son, married a woman Lou hated, there was this big hullabaloo over the painting he’d given them. It was an ominous thing, all shadows, something like Munch’s The Scream, but with Derek’s wife’s face instead.
I guess Lou must’ve liked me, because the painting he gave us was nothing like that. It was huge, taking up almost half our living room wall. Though it was a pretty thing, abstract and luminescent, I couldn’t tell you what it was. There was a clear right side up, with feathery yellows bruising into blues, and maybe in the middle there was a sort of building or figure emanating a pale light. I wanted it to be a church, but knowing Uncle Lou it was probably a bar or a brothel.
I think about that painting a lot. Sometimes I’ll be sitting on the couch opposite it, staring, and then I’ll check the time on my phone and realize that an hour has gone by. Before, I was always complaining that I never had enough time, but I’ve got more than I need now. When I was a child, I couldn’t come up with anything for career day other than stay at home mom. My mother has this picture of me at three years old, shirt lifted up over my toddler potbelly and a doll pressed to my chest. Breastfeeding! At three years old! But without a kid in the house, I guess the only title I can take is housewife. I don’t have the hair or make-up skills to upgrade to trophy wife.
Every morning after I start the coffee and make breakfast and usher Mike off to work, I pour myself a second cup and sip it on the patio. Sometimes I pretend that I’m at a piazza in Rome, watching couples in Vespas speeding by, or sometimes I imagine I’m as close as Hollywood Beach, at a cafe on the boardwalk, laughing to myself at the old men in speedos doing yoga. Sometimes I sit there and think about my mother, and how she sat at the kitchen table in our childhood home, hands pressed to the sides of her coffee mug, sighing. Maybe she was pretending to be somewhere else too. No matter where I imagine I am I make sure I’m facing east, away from the mound of weedy grass that juts out where there used to be a swimming pool.
When my coffee cup is empty and my face starts feeling tight in the sun, I go inside, rinse out my mug and clean the few things that need cleaning. There aren’t toys to put away or sticky palm prints to clean off walls, not that I’d know how to get them off flat paint anyway. I take extra care to wipe Mike’s fingerprints off the stainless steel of the refrigerator and the microwave. Once a week I have laundry. And of course, the daily prayer of wiping counters and rinsing dishes. Then I put dinner in the crockpot, usually a lazy combination of whatever meat or frozen vegetables we have at the back of the freezer. I couldn’t tell you the last time I stepped inside a Publix.
It’s after all my domestic duties are complete that I settle on the couch opposite the painting to read. I always start with a classic, Shakespeare or a Russian tome with characters whose names I can’t pronounce, but after a page or two I inevitably pull out a paperback romance, the kind of book that guarantees a happy ending. But even this lasts an hour at the most, and by ten in the morning, and I’m staring at the painting again, both books closed beside me.
If you want to know the truth, I don’t know a thing about painting. I don’t know the difference between impressionism and modernism. For a long time, I thought modern and contemporary meant the same thing, but Uncle Lou sure set me straight on that one.
I had a child once. Her name was Ava, and for eighteen months she was the mass at the center of my universe, swinging me around her like gravity. She was small and brilliant, and one summer afternoon while Mike and I were out on a lunch date, she fell into the pool and the babysitter was too busy twittering and didn’t find her until she was limp and blue, and that was the end of that.
It was the end of other things too. First, we filled in the pool in the yard and I stopped going to pool parties and riding my bike to the beach. My mom friends left glass Tupperware containers full of food outside our door and I imagined them smiling tightly and sighing together over my misfortune when I stopped going to weekly playdates and responding to text messages. But really, what’s the use of mom friends when you no longer have a child?
Then came the end of ATM withdrawals and Target runs, until one day I came home from grocery shopping, closed the door, and never left the house again. That was almost two years ago, now. When I pray, I thank God for the Internet, because it makes being a recluse easy. Two-day shipping, same day grocery delivery, direct deposit, and live-streamed church services on Sundays. My marriage survived, and I’d say it’s a miracle, except I think it has more to do with Mike needing someone to take care of now that Ava’s gone. It’s not that I don’t believe in miracles. Sometimes I’ll wake up at night and feel deep in my gut that God has brought Ava back from the dead. I’ll run to her room and expect to see her there, sleeping face down, blonde hair splayed across her pillow, comforter only half covering her legs.
Mike asked me once how I can still believe in God. I told him that God let his own son die, so why was it such a surprise that He’d let her die too? It’s like that song they sing at church, He gives and takes away. Turns out no one likes it when He takes away. Mike shook his head when I said that and left the room. He goes cycling Sundays while I watch sermons.
One day I’m sitting on the couch looking at the painting, like I do, knees drawn up under me and books at my side, when the door opens and Mike walks in, scaring the shit out of me.
He drops his work bag by the front door and slips off his shoes.
“What are you doing home?” I say. I take my phone from off the coffee table and check the time, eleven o’clock.
Mike shoves his hands into his pockets, coughs weakly. “I’ve got a killer headache and a sore throat. Think the office cold has finally made its way to me.” He walks towards me and swoops in to give me a kiss, but I cover my mouth with my hand.
Mike takes a step back, an apology dying on his lips. When he asks what I’ve been up to I pick up the hardcover copy of Ophelia.
Mike shakes his head. “I think I’ll take a nap.” He ducks into the room, leaving the door ajar.
I stand in the living room until I hear Mike snoring. Even sleeping, his presence feels like an intrusion. I creep to the bedroom and push the door open an inch more. The anger I’d felt towards Mike after Ava died has long cooled into muted disappointment, and sometimes, nothing. He was the one who’d insisted on weekly dates, who’d lamented the decline in our sex life, said he felt neglected after Ava was born. He was the one who suggested the neighbor’s teenage daughter babysit. Our marriage wasn’t perfect and things weren’t as romantic once we became parents, but it wasn’t awful. We were happy, right? And now what are we? He has more than enough of my time now. I look at him and want to feel something, anything, about him.
But I can’t look at him long, especially when he’s sleeping, because all I see is Ava. It’s why I always go to bed before him and wait until I hear him putting his feet on the floor each morning before getting up. Ava was Mike in miniature: both with fine blonde hair sticking up in places, open-mouthed sleepers, hands balled up against their chests. As a newborn, Ava was all me, but with each month she looked more and more like Mike until she looked nothing like me at all. Was her death divine punishment for not loving her as an infant the way Mike did? For the time I’d held her, then a screaming newborn, over the toilet and wondered if she’d fit? Mike had caught me then. He opened the door and asked what I was doing. Nothing, nothing, I’d said stepping out of the bathroom, my shirt soaked in breast milk, Ava clinging to my chest. He took Ava and left the room, and panic flooded every part of me, a burn in the veins whispered sorry, sorry, sorry as I bounced up and down as if Ava was still on my hip. Mike made me call my doctor after that.
Part of me wishes that Mike will wake up and ask me the questions I desperately need to be asked. I know I’m back in that dark place again, like after Ava was born. I know that it’s crazy to keep myself locked away, staring at paintings. I need someone to give me momentum again, and I want that someone to be Mike. The last time he’d insisted on something Ava died, and I suspect he’s afraid to move me in case the worst comes again. But really, what could possibly happen that’s worse than what we’ve already endured?
I can’t look at him any longer, so I pull a half-eaten bag of stale Doritos from the pantry and sit on the couch in the TV room. I’ve never been the type of person to veg out in front of the TV, but today isn’t like other days and so I decide to do something unlike my usual self.
When I turn on the TV a smiling Bob Ross looks out at me, a half-painted mountain landscape with a river running down it behind him. Bob’s hair floats like a cloud around his head. The studio around him is dark and quiet.
“In painting you have unlimited power,” he says. “You have the ability to move mountains. You can bend rivers. But when I get home, the only thing I have power over is the garbage.”
I lean in closer with each brushstroke. I’ve never seen a painter in action before. I’ve only ever seen the finished product stuck mutely to the walls of museums and homes. There’s more mess, more uncertainty than I thought there’d be.
Bob flicks the brush up and down, the start of a forest on the side of the mountain. He smiles out at me again and says “I think in one of the earlier shows I mentioned, we don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents,” and I feel my insides pinching up and glance at the front door.
“What are you watching?” Mike asks, startling me. I turn around and he is gripping the back of the couch with one hand, rubbing his eyes with the other.
“Oh, nothing, I turned it on for company.”
“I could keep you company.”
I pat the seat next to me. Mike throws his legs into my lap like when we were just married and excited to be around each other every second of the day. I wipe my orange dusted fingers on his pant legs.
“Uncle Lou used to watch this guy all the time. I remember watching it with him when I was a kid. It’s what got him into painting.”
I look at Mike. “I assumed he’d always been a painter. It seems like one of those things you start as a kid or miss out on.”
“He was in his thirties when he started. He was so devastated when Aunt Julie died, even though we’d known she was sick for years, but once he started painting he was a completely different person.”
Mike looks into my eyes then and my stomach flips. I turn away and change the channel to Family Feud, Steve Harvey asks the contestants to name something a burglar wouldn’t want to see when breaking into a house. One of the contestants shouts “Naked Grandma!” and Mike starts to laugh, and I try to laugh too but it doesn’t make a sound.
The next day when Mike returns to work, I slip into my usual routine. I try not to think of Bob Ross as I stare at the painting but end up pushing the couch over to the wall and standing on it, my face inches from the canvas, looking for a piece of the story that Mike told me about Uncle Lou and Aunt Julie. Sometimes I think I get a hint of it, but as soon as I blink it’s gone.
Mike gets home later than usual, his arms bulging with bags. He doesn’t even slip off his shoes at the door. I follow him into the kitchen. There’s something electric in his movements and I tap my fingers against the countertop, picking up his current. Mike overturns the bag and painting supplies tumble out. Feathery paintbrushes splay out, all different sizes, tubes of paint and a palette clatter beside each other on my once immaculate countertop.
He looks up at me with bright eyes. “I thought you might like to try painting as a hobby, no pressure to be any good. Not that you wouldn’t be good.” I can’t think of anything to say, so he continues on. “I checked out some books from the library.” He reaches into his work back and places a stack of books next to the painting supplies. “Oh! And there’s an easel in the car. I’ll go set it up.”
“Thank you,” is all I can say. How can I add something to my life without Ava in it? But I know I’ll give it a go. I don’t want to be a letdown, and besides, it’s better than being forced out of the house for therapy.
Mike unloads the easel from the car. I follow him into the office, which hadn’t always been an office. I pretend the pastel yellow walls and fading outlines of stickers on the windows are exactly what I wanted for a workspace. Mike sets out the paintbrushes on the desk from thinnest to thickest, lining up tubes of paint behind them. He angles the easel at a window and when he is done throws open his arms and says, “your studio.” I giggle at that. How can someone who hadn’t touched a paintbrush since elementary school have a studio?
In the morning after Mike goes to work, I drag a barstool from the kitchen into the office and drink my coffee. I inspect each paint brush, turning it over in my hands and flip through a book that spells out exactly how to use each one. Once I read as much as I can about each brush I look around the room, seeking my first subject and lament my cleanliness. The love seat, a minimalistic grey thing from Ikea, is boring. The table beside it perfectly square and perfectly boring, the white lamp on top of it equally boring.
Jumping from the barstool and making my way to the closet, I slide open the doors and scan the Rubbermaid containers stacked inside. Each has a label made of masking tape and written on in Sharpie. A fine layer of dust covers each one, I haven’t opened any of them in at least a year. Christmas Decorations, Photos, Baby Clothes. One is labeled Seasonal Decor and I lug the tub out and set it on the love seat, fishing out a blue and white vase full of fake yellow tulips.
The first few days I don’t paint more than a few strokes before setting down my brushes. Mike walks into the office first thing after work each day.
“Looking good,” he says.
“It’s not much.”
It’s like some friction between me and the rest of the world falls away when I put a brush in my hand. I’m not talented, but the rhythm keeps me going. I can take the things before me and reanimate them. With every subject I bring to life, the air gets lighter. My arms don’t feel so heavy anymore. My head is clearer than it’s been in ages and when I dig through the closet for more things to paint and see the box labeled baby clothes my breath doesn’t catch in my chest.
My subjects expand. After the seasonal decor, I drag the easel and barstool from the office and paint the faucet on the kitchen sink, books on the entryway table, the front door, until one day I open the door and paint the palm tree in the front yard.
Mike pulls into the driveway as I’m painting the tree. He steps out of the car, but seems hesitant to approach, like he’s afraid to break whatever spell I’m under. I wave him over and look up at the highest palm fronds spread out like fingers towards the heavens. With one hand, I shield my eyes from the sun. The light warms my face, filtering onto and into me. I hear Mike’s feet sinking into the gravel as he makes his way over, and I set my brush down and let him wrap his arms around me. He rests his chin on my shoulder, assessing my progress for the day.
“You’re getting good.” He squeezes my shoulders.
“You sound surprised.”
“Not at all.”
“I want to go to the beach.” My heart is in my throat.
“Are you sure?”
“I want to paint the ocean,” I say, eyes on the tree.
“As long as you’re sure.”
The next day Mike takes off work and packs up the car: a cooler, my easel, two fold-up chairs. I step out of the house like it’s nothing and settle into the passenger seat. It’s strange sitting here, I haven’t had this perspective in so long. I think about how I might paint it. Mike squeezes my hand and starts the car. I can tell he’s fighting to act normal, but he keeps grinning like an idiot and I try not to look at him because I want to act normal too. I close my eyes and in a moment the car is moving and I’m not sure if I feel sick from the motion, or the thrill of it, or something else altogether.
The radio is off and the windows half down. Wind roars in my ears and I open my eyes. We whiz past cyclists and moms pushing strollers, and for a moment I feel the heaviness setting into my limbs, a pit in my stomach opening up, but then I swallow the feeling down and focus on the colors around me. The sky is shockingly blue, not a cloud in the sky, and the hibiscus flowers have bloomed, vivid pinks against dark leafy green. Everything is dripping with color and I’m not sure if I want to laugh or cry.
We turn left and even though I know it’s coming, the ocean bursts into view and I gasp because it’s even more heartbreaking than I remember. All that size and sadness in one body. Waves churning like my stomach, sand and seaweed kicked up beneath the surface. How cloudy it must be down there.
Mike parks the car and drops some quarters into the meter. I slip off my sandals and put them into my bag of brushes and paint, before walking to the waterline. The sand scalds my feet and I break into a run, bag smacking at my hip as I race across the sand. As soon as I plunge my feet into the water, a laugh bursts out of me so loud and wild that I’m sure Mike can hear it all the way from the car. I turn around and see him fish an arm free from the folding chairs to wave at me. The sun is blinding, but I think he’s laughing too.
Once everything is set up, I stand in front of the easel, a towel beneath my feet. Mike drinks a beer beside me. I can’t see the water, or the sand, or the gulls swirling overhead. All I see is her.
The summer Ava died I’d taught her to jump from the side of the pool and into my arms. It was her favorite game, and probably why she’d gone towards the pool that afternoon in the first place. When we came home from the hospital that night, our bathing suits were still dripping wet over the top of the shower from that morning. That’s something you can’t prepare for, that after your entire world is wrecked you eventually have to go home, where everything is just as you left it. I’ve pictured her death a million times. I see her clear as day, giggling as her feet leave the concrete edge of the swimming pool, relishing that moment of flight before plunging into the water, no one to catch her.
That day: the hysterical voice of the babysitter on the phone as I sit in Olive Garden eating unlimited breadsticks is gone and instead I am left with the day Ava was born. The day, I am sure, is the origin of my sins.
When the doctor pulled Ava from me, and set her, warm and wriggling, onto my chest, I looked at her tight wrinkled body and expected to feel something more. Mike was there beside me, pitched forward to look at her, a smile like the one he’d worn on our wedding day stretching from ear to ear, tears in his eyes. But for me, Ava’s mouth was wide as a freshly dug grave. I didn’t feel that overwhelming rush of love that everyone told me the birth of my daughter would bring. It wasn’t at all like the Johnson & Johnson commercials, or the sitcoms. Everything that could go wrong in my birth plan did: my contractions stalled out and I’d needed Pitocin. Despite the Lamaze classes I caved and got an epidural at seven centimeters. And in the end, after an episiotomy and two hours of pushing, the doctor needed forceps to pull her from me, like pinching a splinter with a pair of tweezers.
“It feels like nothing else in the world does it, honey?” A nurse had said once Ava was finally in my arms.
I didn’t say anything. All I could think about was big macs and how my stomach ached with hunger. I hadn’t eaten since the night before. I winced as the doctor tugged at the stitches, cried out when a nurse pressed on my stomach, kneading the doughy flesh to flush out clots.
Ava, still crying, shook her head back and forth, her lips rooting around, wetting my already sweating chest. She found her way to my breast and tried to latch on, but I moved her face away and pulled the hospital gown back over me. I looked at the people in the room: the doctor, the nurses, Mike, and wished that someone would take her from me, would tell me that it was all a mistake, and this wasn’t our birth story, this screaming child surely belonged to someone else. But instead a nurse looped matching identification bands around mine and Ava’s wrists.
I’d always planned on breastfeeding. Wasn’t that what I was supposed to do? The maternity ward bulletin board I’d looked at while walking the halls during my labor proclaimed “BREAST IS BEST” in hot-pink print. My insurance sent me a top of the line Medela pump. My Instagram feed was full of mommy bloggers with beautiful floral nursing covers that doubled as circle scarves. I’d even had one, pink peonies on a lemon-yellow background, washed and folded carefully inside my hospital bag. But then, with Ava on my chest, I felt that it was too soon, that things were moving too fast. Ava was a stranger I couldn’t give myself to just yet.
It wasn’t until the bathroom incident a month later that I’d found a name for the unbearable sadness that had overtaken my life. It was only when Mike forced me to talk to my doctor and I’d found the words Postpartum Depression Disorder, that I realized what I was feeling was not the bittersweet sorrow the mothers I knew whispered about to each other. Baby blues. The feeling of having your heart outside your chest. Sleep deprivation and, once I’d finally figured out breastfeeding, constantly leaking breasts. I’d thought that was all that was the matter with me.
But for a month the air grew thicker and thicker around me. My arms were so heavy, as if they belonged to someone else. The panic set in as soon as Ava was born, and I was certain that I was going to die, that we both were. It was something I wished for even. I spent nights in tears rocking in the glider, Ava screaming when she wasn’t suckling, each latch like a needle, each let down of milk like a tidal wave.
Here, at the beach, I know now, just as I’d known after the diagnosis, that the feeling was clinical, medical, just hormones bouncing around in my head. But that didn’t stop me from wondering over the last two years if my daughter’s life was taken as some sort of divine payment for not wanting her at her first breath, for imagining all the ways I could take Ava from this world with me.
After Ava died it took eight days for my milk to dry up. My breasts swelled up, and I avoided looking at my bare chest in the bathroom mirror. I became engorged within twenty-four hours, my breasts giant and hard like boulders slapped onto my chest. The barest touch of a shirt,
the warmth of the steam in the bathroom, even the thought of Ava during those eight days brought on the letdown, warmth flooding through me, milk leaking through my clothes, drenching me at night in my sleep. After the third day, the pain in my breasts lessened, despite the steady current of pain deeper in my chest, until one day my breasts were smaller, and my shirts were dry, and the thoughts of Ava, still constant, no longer created a physical response.
I look out at the ocean, feeling the paint brush between my fingers. My whole being is covered in light. I thought I would feel like that now, like my arms would be too heavy to lift brush to canvas. But here I am standing, sand stuck to my toes despite the towel, brush warm to the touch. I press the wet paintbrush to the canvas for my first stroke, but a child begins to cry down the beach, and my arm jerks, spreading paint across the canvas in a way I didn’t intend.
I turn, looking down the beach, watching as the mother scoops her crying girl from the sand, cradling her in her arms and planting kisses upon her face. Mike stands up from his chair, touches the small of my back like he’s asking a question. A weight lifts in my chest and I feel a warmth spreading through it, a tingling in my breasts. I touch my shirt and pull my hand away, but there is nothing there. The canvas catches my eye, its dark blue stroke like a gash, and want to cry.
“Are you okay?”
I close my eyes and I can see her, not sleeping in her bed, or at the edge of the pool, or in the hospital bed, brain dead, but how she looked at two months old, when I picked her up crying in the middle of the night and whispered her name, and at the sound of my voice she stopped crying and looked up into my face and smiled for the first time. I know exactly how I will paint her.
I open my eyes and consider the stretch of blue that mars my canvas. I dip my brush back into the paint, touch it to the canvas, and start again.