“Until the day I die, I’ll never forget those glassy, unblinking eyes,” she said, pausing. Then, after a moment more of looking out of the kitchen window in front of her, she sighed and resumed cutting the vegetables for dinner.
I looked around. I’d heard the story before.
“Come on, Shirl,” I said, getting up from the breakfast table in her kitchen and moving towards the bookshelf. “Let’s talk about something else. Who are the new guy and company?”
She turned around briefly to look at the picture I was looking at. “Oswalt,” she said, “Do you like him?”
“Looks alright. Married, I’m sure, judging by the ‘ready-to-run’ look in his eyes,” I said, turning around. She burst out laughing, and I remembered why I came to see her year after year. It was that laughter. Not that it was elegant, or like tinkling bells, or any of those other mushy romantic things they write about a woman’s laugh. But it was…it was honest, like everything else about her. And after a year of breathing the lie that was my life otherwise, I would crave a whiff of that honesty.
Maybe it comes from growing up together. Technically, we only ever spent summers together. The rest of the year, we lived in two different worlds. But when you’re a kid, your whole life is that summer vacation. We never talked about the rest of the year. Just picked up where we left off, as though someone had just un-paused us. The only time that unwritten rule was broken was when she first told me the story six years ago, over a bottle of vodka and three boxes of tissues.
“Another drink, Dani?” She was standing next to me, looking at my face intently. I realized I’d been staring at the collage of painting cut-outs over her desk.
“Yes, I’d like that, thanks,” I said, smiling at her.
She took the empty glass from my hand and poured me another drink. “Why don’t you sit down? You look really tired.” She handed me the glass and motioned me to the sofa. It was a small apartment, with the rooms melting into each other. The only doors were the bedroom and the bathroom doors. I looked around again. The apartment was full of her, it was her open book.
She sat on the other end of the sofa and started telling me about what she’d planned for us for the next few days. I stopped listening again. Instead, I heard a 17-year-old Shirley sobbing. It was how the summer started that year. I’d just met her parents out on the beach, and they’d said she was in her first-floor room. I found her between the bed and her nightstand on the far side of room, hugging her knees and shivering and sobbing. I felt a sharp pain in my chest and then my heart broke. Later, as I sat there next to her having moved the nightstand more to the corner, holding her, I looked around the room trying to understand what had happened. Nothing seemed out of place.
I snapped back to the present. She was still talking about plans for the next few days, and all I wanted was to sit squeezed between the bed and the nightstand, sobbing, with her holding me close.
“Or we could just stay home,” I said.
“And do what? You hate the indoors.”
“We could talk.”
She smiled. “About what? What do you want to talk about?”
We could catch up. We never catch up. We only meet and do things together. We could talk about what happened in the meantime, I wanted to say.
“You never told me why you stopped sketching.”
She laughed again. “You never asked,” she said playfully. It made me smile.
I couldn’t sleep. I got out of bed and found myself once again staring at the collage above her desk. A portrait of the man of sorrows; a pair of hands; the feet of a kneeling man, the portrait of a Venetian woman, another old woman, a few self-portraits of an intense looking artist. And there, almost covered by all the other pictures, was a sketch – a half-finished female nude.