Authors: Lexi Maxxwell
“Do you need me for something?”
She shrugged, a small, very Sam-like smile crawling onto the corner of her mouth. “Can I watch you work?”
The answer was that no, she couldn’t. Not for the kind of projects he’d been working on lately.
There was a day when Zach had loved for Sam to watch him work. When they first met, his primary workspace was a shared studio off campus. He always made sure to go when none of the other artists were using it (and, if he could manage, at night) because he preferred the quiet, thoughtful feel of the studio, but he’d also liked it when Sam came, even if all she did was sit across the room, on the shitty maroon futon with its ripped seams, and read. She was like a talisman, her presence a comfort. Zach had always done well with women, but Sam was special. Looking up and seeing her there by him seemed to bolster his spirit when he needed bolstering, to make him brood when he needed to brood, gave him the emotional context he needed to create. But he’d been young, and life had been different. Sam was different, and they’d been different together. Zach grew used to not working, then to working alone. “Personal” used to mean the two of them; projects birthed during their early years felt almost collaborative. Today, “personal” meant personal. Zach didn’t know if he wanted Sam to see this. It would be like letting her watch him masturbate.
Yet she looked so hopeful. Almost nostalgic. Zach realized that was Sam’s aim when she came into the studio, Memphis as a by-the-way. He had spent so much time
using his studio, and she’d seemed so delighted lately that he’d been going back to his creative space. Zach probably looked hungry when he entered, and sated when emerging. Something animalistic happened in that studio, Sam must have figured, and she wanted to see it, or be a part of whatever it was. Judging by her recent doe eyes, it was like she was falling in love all over. If only it felt like lollipops and fairies to Zac.
“I don’t know, Sam. I don’t know that you’d like this style I’m doing now.”
“I love all your styles. I’m just glad you’re in here, being creative.” Sam said it as if suggesting a kid was coloring to pass the time. But didn’t feel like that to Zach. It wasn’t pleasurable so much as
“It makes you happy,” she said. “And I fell in love with this promising young artist.” Her face became serious. It was supposed to be mock-serious, but he could see through it. “Unfortunately, he met some Yoko and stopped creating.”
The statement punched most of Zach’s remaining urgency from his body. He looked at his easel’s half-finished canvas, then passed it to Sam, still perched on the stool. She looked almost sad. It was his turn to assure her that everything was okay. And it was.
“Come over here,” he said, forcing a sly smile. At first it felt alien, but then began to seem comfortable, like an old shoe.
Sam stood. She hesitated. He realized he hadn’t been giving her enough credit; of course she understood the depth of his art’s reflection and of course she knew what it meant, after that bit of filibustering, to invite Sam to see it … especially before he’d even finished. Of course she knew because she’d done something similar herself. As curious as Sam seemed to be about Zach’s new work, Zach was curious about Sam’s. Just as he was spending more time in his studio, Zach knew Sam had started to tinker on a bit of creative in her office. It was as if his odd new renaissance had inspired her to pull the trigger on her own — break past the rigidity of journalistic writing to the beautiful core Zach had read in her novel. But despite his asking, Sam hadn’t been willing to show him a word of what she was working on. She said it was “vulnerable.”
So Zach made his playful smile larger, curling a finger at his wife and beckoning.
She walked forward, came around the canvas, looked at it, and said nothing.
After a while, Zach laughed. “It doesn’t mean anything to you, does it?”
“It’s pretty,” she said, looking lamely up at him.
“It’s okay. I could tell you what I think it means, but I don’t even know I could get it right.”
“You don’t know what it is?”
He knew exactly what it was. It was frustration. Confinement. A sense of being bound. It was the knot he felt in his stomach every day when he woke at 7 and put on a dress shirt. It was an odd new awareness of his mortality — a sense that his life wouldn’t last forever, and that even at age 24, an inevitable and inescapable death was always on the horizon. But that wasn’t what Sam meant, so he only shook his head.
“Look at it, Sam,” he said. “But stop looking for objects. Feel it instead.”
Zach almost laughed again. Sam focused so hard that her face scrunched up. She really, really, really wanted to see what he was showing her. They’d been together for five years. That was enough time to learn what art meant to Zach, where it seemed to come from, and what it meant when an artist was reluctant to share. But she’d never felt like she “got” it, and didn’t think she was able. But as was always the case with people who didn’t think they understood, Sam’s problem wasn’t her depth, it was that she tried going
deep, and ignored the humanity that bobbed on the surface.
“You know me better than anyone,” Zach said, waiting.
She had to see it. It was so obvious.
And with that thought, he wondered if he’d made a mistake. This
too much. Showing her
make him too vulnerable. And there was more: Once Sam saw the torment in these pieces — and the raw, blunt brush strokes used to paint them, contrasting with his usual feather touch — she’d take it personally. She’d feel guilty. She’d feel bad for him. She’d feel insulted, both because he was committing his fury to tangible form (like an accusation) and because he hadn’t apparently felt comfortable enough to discuss it. He could try and explain that it was possible to be two people at once — one a devoted, happy husband and another a bound artist — but it wouldn’t matter. Sam would feel slapped all the same.
But as she looked, as Zach felt a delirious recklessness rocketing through him, he realized that was exactly
he’d decided to let Sam peek. If they moved to Memphis, that would be the final cutting off — the point of no return. He had to show her how much it hurt while there was still time to go back.
“I’m sorry, Zach.”
Sam turned. “It’s okay. It only has to mean something to me.”
“But it does mean something to you? I mean, it ‘frees the demons,’ as you used to say. You coming back in here again … that’s a good thing, right?”
Sam looked into his eyes, searching for truth. She said, “I’m sorry I talked you into taking the job at Matrix.”
Big smile. “Hey, we have to pay rent, right?” And it was true. Zach’s job, though he hated it, paid well. They had almost enough money for a down payment on a house. After that was out of the way, they both knew kids would follow. He used to be a lone wolf, responsible only to himself. But with each passing year, life became a little less about him and a little more about others. Living in an industrial loft might have sounded sexy a few years back, but if he wanted a family, they needed a place to live and food to eat.
“Is this enough, Zach? You coming in here to work? Is it a decent substitute for the life you wanted?”
The statement twisted like a knife in the gut. Sam had said it dead honestly, craving the straight answer to a question she thought he spent his days asking.
Zach set his hands on Sam’s arms, squeezing. “This
the life I wanted.”
Sam stared at the painting — all reds and oranges and blues. Something like a face at one edge, but hollow and indistinct enough that it could be anything. Zach thought he saw her eyes recognize something inside the color, but now he no longer wanted to.
She turned, back to the easel. “You wanted to freelance.”
“I wanted to be with you. I wanted to have a family.”
She watched him, trying to determine if he spoke true.
“For so long,” Sam said, “you just worked and then we hung out in the evenings. But you didn’t want to come in here.”
“Artists sometimes take breaks,” he said. “Like vacations.”
“You were on vacation?”
“I was recalibrating.” It was a half truth. The larger one was that Zach felt inspired at two ends of the spectrum — joy and pain. The past years were middle ground, not quite sated, but satisfied enough to do nothing about it.
Sam turned back to the painting, pulling away from his grip. She looked down and saw two dark smudges on her pale-blue dress shirt sleeves from where his paint-covered fingers had touched the fabric.
“Shit,” he said. “I’m sorry about that.”
But Sam wasn’t listening. She was looking at the painting, taking it in. Her back was to him, hair pinned in place, a few loose hairs tumbling loose, coming undone.
“How can you create this and not know what it is?”
“When you write stories,” he said, “do you ever realize that characters are talking without you telling them what to say?”
She paused. He stared at her back, two steps behind her. Sam’s blue blouse and pinned-up hair were unreadable, but Zach didn’t feel like he should walk around and disturb her.
“I guess I do.”
“Same thing,” he said.
“So it comes from somewhere else. Something deeper?”
She continued to stare at the painting. Her hands moved to her front, at her neck, and started to do something.
“You aren’t happy,” she said.
“I’m happy enough.”
“Do you think we’re supposed to be happy? As in, what we used to call ‘happy’? Or do you think it settles into something more mature, like ‘satisfaction’?”
He shrugged. Sam didn’t see it. He wished he could read her face, but he couldn’t, and her hands stopped whatever they had been doing. She reached one out, index extended, and touched the painting’s surface. The paint had gone on thick and was still wet. Sam’s finger made a distinctive cut through it, like a giant comma. He should have been bothered but wasn’t.
“When I wrote
,” she said, still facing away from him, “it felt like something had to come out. Something primal inside me saying I needed to get a pen in my hand or my fingers on a keyboard and pour it out. If it didn’t want to come, I would have to entice it, get behind and push if needed. But I couldn’t keep it in. Literally couldn’t. I know what inspired that book, but not the details of how it was born. But maybe it’s not up to me to understand. Maybe it was my job to give it a place to grow, maybe it was always supposed to be what it was supposed to be. Maybe I can’t be applauded or blamed for its creation.”
“That’s why you have to publish it,” Zach said.
He thought she might balk at the old dispute, but didn’t know what else to say. Something had shifted in their conversation, he wasn’t sure what.
Sam turned. She had unbuttoned her shirt and wasn’t wearing a bra. Her smooth skin ran in an unbroken column from face to navel to waist. She held the crimson finger she’d used to touch the canvas in front of him. Behind her, the comma shape cut through the unfinished work.
“Maybe I can’t be applauded or blamed for ruining your painting,” she said.
Zach looked from Sam to his art, from his art to Sam. She hadn’t ruined it. She had only made it different. Sam had impressed herself on what he was creating and left her mark. As it should be. And whether that was good or bad was up to the two of them and nobody else.
“I don’t know what to say, Sam,” Zach said.
She matched his eyes, blue irises shaking minutely. He could see goose bumps on her chest, and when she slipped the shirt from her shoulders and onto the floor, Zach saw how her nipples stood erect. The studio wasn’t cold. This was coming from somewhere else.
Sam took her red finger and touched it to her left nipple, dragging a line of paint down her front, impressing his art upon her in the same way she’d impressed herself upon his canvas.
“Tell me you love me,” she said.
“Of course, I love you.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s true anymore.”
“Sam, where is this coming from?”
In front of him, her eyes were still shaking, shining, and wet. Her last sentence had cut him. He felt like he’d been impaled on a spear, and a thousand images flooded his mind: a county fair at night, a meadow, a party, a box with an elastic gold string. Each felt precious, worth dying for.
“What happened to us, Zach?”
“Nothing. Nothing happened.”
“I can’t decide if I’m glad you’re in here or not,” she said. “You need to do what you need to do. And I need to do what I need to do. I’ve been writing a lot lately. I don’t know if it’s any good, but I know it feels like
felt. It has to come out. But why? Why
You used to do your art, and I didn’t care about mine. I was the whore for the steady job. I was left brain; you were right. We fit. But now, we’re both … ”