BLINDING THE FINCHES - Excerpt
by David S.E. Zapanta
My blood, my heart, lay upon the canvas in a palette of ruddy oils.
Sable skimmed the rough cotton, leaving a viscous trail of paint in its wake. I flicked my wrist, abruptly ending the downward stroke of the paintbrush. The bristles fanned out, a hairy sunburst, as I applied pressure to the tip. The brush surrendered the last of its pigment in a lustrous, oily whorl.
I paused to glance at the humming electric clock sitting on the counter. How could five hours have passed so quickly? I reluctantly stepped back from the easel to critique the day’s efforts. No matter how effusive with praise the art world was for my evolving body of work, I still saw myself as a hack, a charlatan. That there was a seemingly inexplicable demand for my paintings only made me feel like more of a fraud.
Still, we could not live off my paintings alone, Sarah and I. The potential for such a possibility loomed on the horizon, but potential alone was not enough to pay our shared expenses. Sarah’s decision to do temp work was not meant to be permanent. And yet, two years later, her own dreams remained unfulfilled as her beloved Smith-Corona collected dust in a corner.
Lately she’d been working longer, more unpredictable hours. Usually when she walked in the door she was too tired, too spent, to stare at a blank page. We hardly talked the way we used to. Now, our conversations were terse exchanges that ensured bills were paid on time or food was on the table. It was the bare bones of what was once a robust relationship. We’d fallen hard for one another, before painting had become so vital to our existence under this shared roof.
The last time we spoke—truly spoke to one another—was weeks ago. She’d looked beautiful, the way the light touched her face, and I’d told her so. She responded by telling me I was trying too hard. I didn’t ask her to elaborate.
What else was there to say?
And yet, now, standing in our Providence apartment, the air sharp with turpentine, her absence created an unexpected ache in my chest. I needed to see her. Even as I formed this thought she suddenly appeared beside me, as if pure desire itself had somehow made her manifest.
“You scared the hell out of me,” I rasped, speaking for the first time since she’d left that morning. “I was just thinking of you.”
Sarah rolled her eyes. “And yet you didn’t even hear me come in half an hour ago.”
I noticed she hadn’t removed her coat. “You know you shouldn’t take it personally. If I had heard you—”
“So it’s my fault you're ignoring me?”
The last thing I wanted to do was fight. I glanced back at my canvas, more as a reflex than anything else. Seeing the thick brushstrokes calmed me. There was a certain order within the swirling colors.
“You know that’s not what I meant,” I finally replied.
“I asked you to open the windows before I left,” she said. “It really stinks in here.”
“Yes. And I…forgot.” I slowly wiped my hands on a soiled rag before struggling with one of the living room windows. Coats of latex paint had been so indiscriminately administered to the sashes and frames over the years that the windows were often warped shut. The dusty panes rattled as I finally forced the windows open.
“Why don’t you take off your coat and stay awhile,” I joked, but she didn’t crack a smile. We were better than this. Surely she felt the same way. “This next show is really important. But in a few weeks—”
“Every show is important.” She wrapped her arms around herself in a white-knuckled embrace. “Please, give me some credit, Ben. I’ve been in your shoes plenty of times before.”
I nodded quietly as I flexed my empty hands. There was a time when Sarah had graced my canvases, and I her writing. We had since moved on to different means of inspiration.
Floorboards creaked underfoot as she followed me into the kitchen. I grabbed a glass from the counter and filled it at the tap. I offered it to Sarah, but she merely shook her head. I tilted my head back and let the cool, chlorinated water slide through my insides.
“Don’t you think it’s weird that I’ve been coming home late the last two weeks?” she asked.
“No, not really. Why?”
She pressed her lips together in a pale smile. “Right. How silly of me. Why would you?” She turned to the window and cracked it wider. The distant sounds of Thayer Street’s nightlife drifted in on the breeze. Our apartment building was on Williams Street, on the outskirts of both the RISD and Brown campuses. Art students and Ivy leaguers alike patronized Thayer’s many shops and cafés. It was in a dusty used bookstore on Thayer that Sarah and I, only students then, first met so long ago.
I had the urge to leave the apartment with her now, hand in hand, mingling with friends we hadn’t seen in months. Staying in here, bickering, I knew it would be the death of us. It seemed like an impossibility, though, even this simple attempt to reconnect with one another.
Sarah rested both palms in the soot on the sill and inhaled deeply of the crisp New England air. A streetlight cast its pale glow on our rusty fire escape. Dead plants lined the rail in plastic and terra cotta pots. Sarah reached through the window to stroke the withered remains of a Boston fern.
“If you’re not painting something, you’re not thinking about it,” she finally replied over her shoulder.
She turned from the window and shrugged free of her wool pea coat. It fell to the scuffed hardwood floor in a heap, scattering dust bunnies in every direction. “What would this conversation look like as one of your paintings?” she asked, glancing at my canvas. “What would be its title?”
“Sarah. Come on.”
“Maybe something pretentious, like The Vanishing Point?” She spread her hands in a grand gesture. “Maybe Patrick can include it in your next catalog. Who knows, it might fetch both of you a pretty penny.”
Patrick Thorpe was my agent in New York. If not for his uncanny ability to romanticize my work, no one outside this small town would know who I was. Sarah couldn’t stand him. Her dislike for Patrick suddenly rankled me.
“I don’t understand why you’re so upset.”
“You are so incredibly dense sometimes,” she said with unexpected vehemence.
“You’re the writer. Spell it out for me if I’m too dumb to understand.”
Her eyes were bright beacons beneath her furrowed brow. But then, all at once, her expression softened. “Kevin,” she said quietly.
I shrugged. “Kevin? Am I supposed to know who that is?”
This time it was Sarah who shrugged. She attempted a small smile that seemed anything but happy. “I’ve been out late because I’ve...been with him. With Kevin.”
The hairs on the back of my neck bristled. “With him. What does that mean, with him?”
“What do you think it means?” she said. “He happens to be a writer.” She glanced over at my easel in its cramped corner. “Unpublished, but a writer.”
The sudden impulse to break something caused the room to spin, made my empty hands tremble.
“You should see your face, Ben. You look just like your father.”
I reached for her, my fingers digging into the soft flesh of her arms. She gasped as I tightened my grip.
“Just like him,” she said, her eyes widening.
I fought back against a terrible emptiness. “Stop saying that!”
Sarah laughed as her eyes welled with tears. “My god, then stop acting like him.”
I quickly withdrew my hands. She rubbed her left arm, her hand lingering where my fingers had left oily smears of paint. She had never been the canvas for my anger. Never. Even now, in what was fast becoming our lowest moment, she didn't deserve such terrible treatment. Yet the thought of her with someone else was too much for me to bear.
“I can’t believe this is actually happening.” My own voice sounded feeble to me, hollow.
“We haven’t been okay for a long time, Ben.”
The Parting. That's what our conversation would be called. It would be a painting devoid of warmth, flat and empty. “I would never have cheated on you.”
Sarah sighed. “We haven’t slept together, if that makes you feel any better.”
It took me a moment to realize she was referring to this new person, this would-be interloper. That I had once imagined a future for us made my insides twist with humiliation and embarrassment.
“Yeah, I feel so much better now, thanks.” I picked up her coat and pushed it into her arms.
I hated the sound of my name on her lips. “Like you said, we haven't been okay for a long time. Or did I misunderstand you?”
Her eyes again welled with tears. “Nope,” she said quietly. “You’re right. I did say that.”
I turned away and approached my easel. I had no intention of painting. I simply wanted the comfort of a brush in my hand. Despite what anyone thought, the act of creation was never about commerce; for me, it was about hope.
“You know, just because I’m attracted to someone else doesn’t make me a bad person,” said Sarah.
I dipped the sable tip in a jar of solvent. The oily pigments bled from the bristles, a roiling cloud that darkened the Mason jar. I finally turned to her. I was without charity; there was no room for forgiveness in my troubled heart. Not now, maybe not ever.
“It doesn’t make you a good person, either.”
“Fine. I’ll go.”
That she was the first to look away brought me a strange, small comfort. I stayed by the easel while she headed to the bedroom. Hangers rattled on the rod as she pulled clothes from the closet and threw them into an overnight bag. She emerged from the bedroom several minutes later, her eyes puffy and red. I stared at her, and took in the details of her face, wondering if I would ever see her again. Wondering if she would ever seem beautiful to me in any way ever again. She didn’t look back as she walked out the door, the keys jangling in her hand.
I stared at the closed door for several minutes before finally turning back to my easel. I wanted to exorcise doubts and demons but no longer believed in the medium. I took a seat at the kitchen table instead and quietly studied the small crescents of dried paint under my fingernails. Hardened flecks of oil paint were everywhere—my knuckles, my eyebrows, the front of my flannel shirt. I picked absently at one dull spot of color; it had fine roots as I pulled it from the fabric.
“Time to clean up,” I commented to the empty apartment.
Standing at the bathroom sink, I observed Sarah had forgotten her toothbrush. Indeed, she’d left much more behind—a home pregnancy test was perched on the back of the toilet. I quickly reached for it, thunderstruck by the small plus sign in the window.
We’d been down this road once before, Sarah and I. There had been no red flags last time, no warnings. By the time I knew of it, it was too late to be part of the conversation. Yet, now, a baby was alive inside of Sarah, a baby that, through some miraculous mistake, was mine. Tonight that baby would be in another man’s bed. Even at that very moment, my DNA spiraled, joined with hers, splitting and multiplying a million times to become lungs, a pair of hands, the beginnings of a heart.
I could barely grasp the enormity of it.
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