Monday, January 7, 2013

Short Story: The Art of Losing Things

I wrote this short story to share what my life was like before I learned I had a hormone imbalance and 'birth control pills' could correct it. The woman in this story is also blessed with synesthesia, which I have in another form (mine isn't musical).

“When are you going to grow up and figure out what you want to do with your life?” Normally Lara would have felt proud of her brother Eric, looking so handsome in his dressy polo shirt with those touches of premature grey at his temples. But not today.

He had stopped by to pick up some well water. After six months she had finally managed to convince him that he was wasting money buying water at the supermarket. He was wasting packaging, too, but she wasn’t sure he cared about that.
“I know what I want to do with my life,” she answered him, trying to keep the annoyance out of her voice, handing him a gallon apple juice jug full of water. The next one was labeled “Fruit Punch.” She opened it, positioned it in the sink and turned the faucet on. 

“Well, what?” Eric spread his arms out in a huge, lopsided shrug, his left hand going only halfway out because of the weight of the jug. “Are you keeping it a secret?”

Lara just shook her head. 

He put the apple juice jug down by the door with the rest of them and used his right thumb to dial his phone. Then he walked to the bay window in the dining room and dialed again. “And why do you live out here?” he yelled from the dining room. “You don’t even have phone signal. Don’t you people believe in towers?” 

“I get signal on my phone,” she answered, turning off the faucet and capping the jug. Apple juice again. She brought it to the door herself since it was the last one. 

“Well, let me use your phone, then.” He put his own back in the pouch on his belt and held his hand out. 

Lara shook her head again. “I don’t know where it is.” She opened a closet, grabbed her painting smock from a hook and put it on over her head. It was an old dress, big enough to fit into two or two or three times over, in a style that had been madly in fashion for a few months about ten years ago. 

Eric averted his eyes from the hideous dress. “You lost your phone—again?” 

Lara just looked him in the eyes, feeling sheepish. 

“How long since you’ve had it?” 

She made a face. 

“How long?” 

“About a week, I guess.” She uncapped a couple of paint tubes, the yellow and the white, for the sky. 

Eric sighed. “Well,” he said, “let me use your house phone, then.” 

She handed him the cordless handset. “You can’t call long distance, though.” 

The look he gave her would have withered an oak tree. “Really?” The word came out in a squeak. 

“I mean,” she explained, “it’s not in my plan.” 

“Oh,” he said. “Why not?” 

“I have my cell phone.” 

He just stared at her. 

She shrugged. “Except when I don’t.” 

“How exactly did you manage to lose your cell phone,” he asked, “again?” 

“I don’t know. Maybe I ought to be on medicine.” She capped the paints again. It was no use trying to work now: she couldn’t concentrate. 

Eric wiped his forehead like it was sweaty, even though it wasn’t. “If it’s medicine you need, go see a doctor. Make an appointment right now. Come with me, we’ll borrow a phone, one that gets signal, and get you an appointment.” He opened the door and grabbed two of the jugs. 

Lara grabbed two more. “I can’t. I don’t have insurance.” 

“Don’t you qualify for free care?” he asked, walking out. 

“I think I do,” she answered, following him, “or I would, if it weren’t for the red tape.” 

“What do you mean, red tape?”

"All that paperwork."

“So fill out the paperwork.” They lifted the four jugs into his trunk, which was already open. 

“I started to,” she said. They started back to the house for the rest of the jugs. 

“What happened?” 

“So many questions.” 

“So answer them.” 

“Half of them are unanswerable.” 

“What do you mean, unanswerable?” They grabbed the rest of the jugs. 

“I don’t know how to explain it.” 

“Well, can you show me?” 

“I don’t know where it is.” 

“Well, when did you have it last?” They put the jugs in the trunk again. 

“I don’t know.” 

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” he put his hand on the trunk lid and waited until she was clear of it before slamming it down. 

“I probably had it when I was asleep.” 

“Oh, come on!” 

“No, I mean,” she began, but it was hard to find the right words. “I,” she started again, and stalled again. 

“Take your time,” Eric said, and leaned his elbows on his trunk, to slow himself down. “I’m listening.” 

“Sometimes I go through life half asleep,” she said. “Caffeine doesn’t help; I can’t give myself a sugar high; exercise doesn’t help. And that’s when I lose things; when I come out of it, things are missing.” 
Photo: stockbyte/thinkstock

His head was down, his hands folded, the bridge of his nose on the tips of his thumbs. “You do need to be on medicine,” he said firmly, looking up. 

“I’m worried, though, Eric,” she told him. “What if it makes me lose my artistic ability?” 

“What artistic ability?” he scoffed. “You waste your time painting and dreaming. We’re talking about real life here.” 

The phone rang from inside the house. 

“Go get it,” he said, “I’ve got to go anyway. I have to make this call.” 

“Lara!” the voice on the phone gushed, “How come you were holding out on us?” 

“Holding out on you?” Lara repeated stupidly. She hadn’t placed the caller’s voice yet. 

“I had no idea you were so talented.” 

“Oh, thank you,” Lara replied. She knew who had called, now: it was a woman she was friendly with, had met a few times. Her name was Jodie. “To what do I owe the random compliment?” she asked. 

“Oh, I just saw your website.” Jodie explained. “I had no idea.” 

“Oh. Thank you,” said Lara again. The conversation felt awkward, and she didn’t want to talk on the phone right now, anyway. She wanted to paint. 

“Why didn’t you tell me you could paint like that?” Jodie asked. 

“I don’t know, I—“ Lara stammered. “I thought I’d mentioned that I like to paint, sorry.” 

“Like to paint!” Jodie mocked. “This is a whole lot more than just liking to paint. This is talent. I had no idea.” 

“Well, thank you,” Lara said again. She didn’t know what else to say. 

“You shouldn’t hide it,” Jodie advised. “You should be in a gallery. There’s a nice one in Setterton.” 
“Yeah,” Lara agreed. “I like that one.” 

“Or there’s Diamante Gallery in Hillsborough,” said Jodie. “I don’t know what ‘Diamante’
means, but it’s another option, I guess.” 

“’Diamante’ is Spanish for ‘diamond,’” Lara answered, “but I don’t know why they named it that. I saw a nice pottery exhibit there a few years ago.” 

“Well, anyway,” Jodie went on, “you should be in one of them—your paintings should, I mean.” 

“Sounds nice,” Lara replied. She wanted to paint. 

“So which one?” Jodie asked. She sounded excited. 

“Which one what?” 

“Which gallery do you want your paintings in, of course.” 

“Oh, well, either one would be great, for sure.” 

“So pick one,” said Jodie, “and let me know when I can see it there. I can’t wait to show all my friends. I can’t believe I know you.” 

“Whoa, there!” Lara covered her eyes with her left hand, glad Jodie couldn’t see it. “Wait a minute. Getting into a gallery isn’t that easy.” 

“But you’re that good,” Jodie argued. “Sure, it’s not easy for us regular people, but for you it’s no problem. That’s why the galleries are there, Lara. They need artists like you, or they wouldn’t exist.” 

“Well, thanks for the vote of confidence,” she replied diplomatically. 

“Tell you what,” Jodie chirped. “I’ll get you an application, and then you can get started. Oh, it’ll be great! You’re going to be famous, Lara, I just know it, as soon as you get your work out there. But you have to get it out there, first thing. I can see it now, you and me at your exhibit, and all your fans, and we can…” 

Lara had been trying hard to pay attention, to follow Jodie’s chatter at least in general, but there were just too many words, coming too fast, and her mind wandered. It didn’t help that she couldn’t see the words—if they’d been text on a page it would have been a little easier, and even better if Jodie had been standing in front of her in person. 

What she could see was her painting, sitting there on its easel, waiting for her. Its unfinished state gave it a melancholy look, like harmony without melody, and she couldn’t help feeling sorry for it. 

She cradled the phone with her right shoulder and picked up the tube of yellow. She unscrewed the cap and stared at the tiny foil seal, wishing Jodie would stop chattering and let her break it, squeeze it, mix it, get on to painting. 

She could see exactly how she would mix it with the white, exactly how she would apply the mixture to the canvas, exactly how the sunbeam would look when she was finished. She could almost hear it. 

She sighed quietly, screwed the cap back on the paint tube and rested her chin on both her hands, her wrists together—and that’s when she realized she was no longer holding the phone. 

It didn’t seem to be lying anywhere nearby, so she was going to have to look for it, call Jodie back and apologize. 

But where should she look? When Eric had called yesterday, it had rung from the egg-keeper on the top tier of the fridge door. But she hadn’t opened the fridge since Jodie had called. She checked the mail table, all the windowsills in the living room, all the shelves of the art closet, all the steps in the staircase. 

She was just getting down to look under the sofa when she heard a sound that reminded her of frightened chickens, and realized the phone had fallen into one of the big front pockets of her smock. Or maybe she’d put it there and forgotten. 

“Lara? Did you hear me?” 

“Yeah, I’m here.” She stood up, bumping her head lightly on the coffee table. It didn’t hurt, but the stack of books fell over. “That’s great, Jodie, thanks,” she said with a smile, amused that the woman had actually been talking the whole time. She put the phone back on her shoulder and restacked the books. 

Jodie was on a roll again, something about the technique some other artist used, da Vinci maybe. Lara took a deep breath and barged in: “In fact, I’m going to start painting here in another minute. I’m sorry, but I have to go. I can’t talk on the phone when I’m painting. It’s a zone thing.” 

“Oh, well don’t let me stop you,” Jodie replied. “Any time I call and you’re getting ready to paint, you just let me know, and I’ll go. I don’t want to interfere with your creative process and all.” 

“Thanks, I appreciate that,” said Lara sincerely. 

“So you get started, then,” Jodie continued. “I’ll stop by the galleries and grab those applications for you in the next couple of days. I have to go to Hillsborough anyway tomorrow. This is so exciting, Lara! Okay, I’ll talk to you later. Go paint.” 

“’Kay, thanks, Jodie. Bye” Lara set the handset down in its cradle to charge, went to the kitchen and washed her hands. 

She unscrewed the cap to the yellow paint, turned it around and carefully punctured the foil seal. She placed the cap on the tray of her easel, picked up her palette and pinched the end of the tube, down near the crimp. A dab of shiny buttercups appeared and sang a pure single note, an E. She picked up the tube of white paint, opened it, pinched it. White was two notes lower, middle C. She picked up her brush and began to swirl the two colors together, combining the notes until they formed a constant, even harmony.

Then she turned her attention to the painting. Its incomplete melody sounded flat, looked flat, felt flat. It was a bog or wetland on a dismal, cloudy day. An unfinished bull moose stood half-submerged, his velvety antlers raised high, his chin still dripping from his watery lunch.

She prepared her brush and lovingly applied the paint, adding a shaft of sunshine that broke through the cloud cover. The flat tones of the overcast bog began to recede into the background, began to be the harmony. The yellow hum of sunshine and the strong trumpeting brown of moose-fur began to take their rightful place as the melody. 

The music was as real for Lara, its notes as distinct and recognizable, as if it had been an orchestra in front of her instead of a canvas. ‘Synesthesia’, the psychology books called it. But to Lara it was just reality: each shade of color was connected intrinsically to a specific musical note. Or, to put it another way, each musical note was a particular shade of color. When she went to concerts, she would close her eyes and lose herself in the ever-changing storms of color. When she painted, she composed music. She’d never learned to read actual sheet music very well, although it was one of those things she hoped to get to someday, but whenever she looked at anything, its colors sang their notes to her as distinctly as a page of sheet music sang in the mind of a veteran composer. It was one of those things she could never explain well enough for Eric to grasp. 

She stood back and surveyed her work, added a brushstroke here, a descant of nearly-pure white there, perfecting the scene, harmonizing the tones, heightening the heavenly crescendo of the sunbeam. 

Two discordant notes jangled in the composition, ruining the melody. They weren’t in the clouds: tiny notes of discord, mostly purples and blacks, buzzed in the receding storm clouds. But they were small, quiet, in the background. They provided the sinister counterpoint that emphasized the joy of the sunshine. These notes were in the foreground, overpowering the joy, wrecking the music. For an instant, Lara’s reaction was to check the canvas, see where she’d spilled or smeared or carelessly swiped her brush. Then she realized the offending sounds were not in the painting. 

She shook her head, laughing at herself for mistaking the sound of the doorbell for colors in a painting, laughing in giddy relief that her precious “Moose in a Bog” was not ruined. She wiped her hands on her smock and began to lean around the fridge to glance out the window at the driveway, to see whose car was there. She didn’t want company. She wanted to color symphonies and orchestrate sunshine. She wanted to paint. 

The doorbell sounded again, double this time: “Ding-dong, ding-dong.” 

“Coming!” Lara called. She turned her back to the driveway-window and walked to the door. 

Note: The author answered a call from to write just the first chapters for several novels, and The Art of Losing Things is one of them. If you'd like to contribute a chapter to The Art of Losing Things, or check out the other novels-in-progress at Chainbooks, click here.

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