Authors: Jodi Picoult
Kitomi Ito’s painting, on the other hand, was all about stillness.
It was the moment after intimacy, when you weren’t joined to your lover anymore, but still felt him beating like blood inside you.
It was the moment where you had to remember how to breathe again.
It was the moment where nothing mattered more than the moment ago.
The model had red hair, and it was one of the only splashes of color on the background, which was tan, like cardboard. The field was white with bits of pastel in it. The woman—Rosa la Rouge—sat up half-nude. Behind her was a mirror, reflecting the direct gaze of the man who faced her from the bottom right of the painting: Lautrec himself, turned to the side, so you saw his bared shoulder and his profile, his beard and the wire edge of his glasses. The artist’s shoulder—a pallid green—was the only other bleed of color in the painting. I wondered if it was meant to flag illness, like his bent legs under the covers; or jealousy over this woman who would ultimately be the end of him.
Or maybe it was a flash of the hidden heart of a man most often described as aloof.
I shook myself away from the painting and continued down the hall to the bathroom, passing an open doorway. The room was familiar to anyone who had ever seen the Nightjars’ final album, with Kitomi and Sam Pride in that very bed. The only thing missing, of course, was the painting that, for the album cover, had been hung behind Kitomi.
But there were things in the room now that were not part of that photo. On one side of the bed was a nightstand with a stack of books, a glass half-full of water, a pair of purple reading glasses, some hand cream. On the other was a nightstand with only one item on it: a man’s wedding ring. Neatly aligned on the floor was a battered pair of men’s leather slippers.
I backed away, feeling even more voyeuristic now than I ever had seeing Kitomi half-naked on an album cover, and went to the bathroom. When I emerged, Kitomi herself was standing in front of the painting.
“His cousin was a medical student,” she said. “He let Henri scrub in and do paintings of surgery.” She turned, a smile in her eyes. “I’ve always thought of him by his first name, not Toulouse-Lautrec,” she said. “He was hanging over my bed for years, after all.”
I took a few steps toward her. I wondered if I should tell her that I knew all that. But Eva had warned me to stay silent.
“He was placed in a sanitorium because of alcoholism and syphilis, and to prove to doctors he was sane enough to leave, he painted images of the circus from his memory. But he still died at thirty-six.” Kitomi’s mouth twisted. “Some people burn too bright to last long.”
Her voice was so soft I had to strain to hear it. “Auctioning it off feels like an amputation. But it doesn’t seem right to have it in Montana, either.”
I thought of Kitomi saying she wanted to turn the page.
This was not, I realized, a woman who wanted a clean break, a new life. This was a woman who was so tied to her dead husband she was going to live out the dream he didn’t.
Eva is going to kill me
. But I turned and said, “I have an idea.”
On the way to El Muro de las Lágrimas, or Wall of Tears, Beatriz and I detour past the remains of a mermaid. Yesterday, she stretched at the edge of the beach where the dry sand met the wet. Scales of shells mounded her tail; her hair was a tangle of seaweed. But today, our sand art has been all but swallowed by the sea.
“I bet it’s totally gone by curfew,” Beatriz says.
“Tibetan monks spend months making sand mandalas and then they brush them away and throw them into a river.”
She turns, pained.
“Because it’s not permanent and that’s the point.”
Beatriz looks at the ruins of our sculpture. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” she says, and she picks up her water bottle and starts walking. “Are you coming, or what?”
Today she is taking me to a site that is part of a former penal colony. It’s a two-hour hike through parched terrain, past scrub and cacti and, yes, poison apples. Even though we have left early, the sun is strong enough to make my shirt stick to my back with sweat, and I can feel my scalp burning where my hair is parted.
Beatriz is still cagey with me, but there are moments when she lets down her guard. Once or twice I’ve made her laugh. It may be foolish to think that she’s any less sad in my company, but at least I have eyes on her. And as far as I can tell, there aren’t any fresh cuts on her arms.
“I thought art was supposed to be something you left behind so everyone would remember you,” Beatriz says.
“Something doesn’t have to be finished and hanging on a wall for you to remember who made it,” I say. “You ever heard of Banksy? He’s a British street artist and activist. One of his paintings—
Girl with Balloon
—was auctioned off by my company in 2018. Someone bought it for $1.4 million…and as soon as the gavel came down, the canvas started to slip out of the frame, in shreds. On Instagram, he posted
Going, going, gone,
and said he’d built a shredder into the frame intentionally, in case the work ever sold at auction.”
“No, it happened in England.”
“What a waste of money.”
“Well,” I say, “actually, it went up in value when it was torn into ribbons. Because the real art wasn’t the painting—it was the act of destroying it.”
Beatriz glances at me. “When did you know you wanted to sell art?”
“In college,” I admit. “Before that I thought I’d be an actual
“Yeah. My father was a conservator. He restored paintings and frescoes that needed fixing.”
“Like the Banksy?”
“I guess, although that wasn’t glued back together. Conservationists usually focus on really old art that’s literally crumbling to pieces. He’d bring me to his sites, when I was little, and let me paint over a tiny bit that wouldn’t mess anything up. I’m sure he didn’t tell his bosses. The best days of my life were the ones where I got to go to work with him, and he’d ask me things as if my answers really mattered:
What do you think, Diana, should we use the violet or the indigo?
Can you make out how many claws are on that hoof?
I feel the same black shadow that always comes on the heels of a memory of my father: the acrid smoke of unfairness, the knowledge that the parent I wish was still here is gone.
“Does he still let you do it? Paint with him?”
“He died,” I say. “He’s been gone about four years now.”
She looks at me. “I’m sorry,” she says.
“I am, too.”
We walk a little further in silence. Then Beatriz says, “Why don’t you paint anymore?”
“I don’t have time,” I reply, although that’s not true.
I haven’t made time, because I haven’t wanted to.
I remember the exact day I put away my painting supplies, the shoebox with its arthritic tubes of acrylics and the palette with layer after layer of dried moments of inspiration, like rings on a tree. It was after the student exhibition at Williams, when my father said my painting reminded him of my mother’s work. But I somehow couldn’t bring myself to throw away the tools of the trade. When I moved to New York, the shoebox came with me, still unopened. I set it on the highest shelf of my closet, behind sweatshirts from college I no longer wore but couldn’t bear to donate to Goodwill, and the winter hiking boots I bought but never used, and a box of old tax records.
Beatriz is looking at me with sympathy. “Is it because you weren’t good at it?” she asks. “That you stopped painting?”
I laugh. “You could argue that any time someone intentionally leaves a mark behind, it’s art. Even if it’s not pretty.”
She tugs her sleeves down over her wrists. Even in this heat, she has chosen to hike in a sweatshirt, rather than show me the scars on her arms. “Not every time,” she murmurs.
I stop walking. “Beatriz…”
“Sometimes I can’t remember her. My mother.”
“I’m sure your father could—”
to remember her. But then I think…” Her voice trails off. “Then I think maybe I’m just easy to forget.”
I reach for her arm and push her sleeve up gently. We both stare at the ladder of scars, some silver with age, and some still an angry red. “Is that why you cut?” I ask quietly.
At first I think she is going to pull away, but then she starts speaking, fast and low. “The first time I did it, I guess. And then…I stopped for a while. At school, it was easier to distract myself. But then, right before I came back here…” She shakes her head, swallows. “How come the people who don’t even notice you exist are the ones you can’t stop thinking about?”
“My mother was never home when I was a kid. In fact, I used to think she
for reasons to travel so she could get away from me.”
The words come out in a rush of air, a popped balloon of anger. I don’t think I’ve ever said it out loud before to anyone. Not even Finn.
Beatriz stares at me as if all my features have rearranged. “Did she run off with a photographer from a Nat Geo ship?” she asks drily.
“No. She just decided that everything in the world—literally—was more important than I was. And now she has dementia and has no idea who I am.”
I shrug. “It is what it is,” I tell her. “The point is, if someone abandons you, it may be less about you and more about them.”
I stop speaking as we come upon a wall that rises from the scorched earth. It’s made of volcanic rock and towers over us a good sixty feet, stretching further than my eye can see. It does not, I realize, enclose anything. “The inmates built it in the forties and fifties,” Beatriz says. “It wasn’t for any real purpose, except to create work for punishment. Tons of prisoners died while they were building it.”
“That’s grim,” I mutter.
There are two ways of looking at walls. Either they are built to keep people you fear
or they are built to keep people you love
Either way, you create a divide.
“They only got one ship full of cargo a year—the prisoners and the guards were all starving. To stay alive, they hunted down land tortoises to eat. There’s rumors that the place is full of ghosts, and you can hear them crying at night,” Beatriz says. “It’s creepy as fuck.”
I step closer, walking the length of the wall. Some of the stones are etched with symbols, letters, dates, patterns, hatch marks to count time.
If you define art as something made by the hands of men, something that makes us remember them long after they’re gone, then this wall qualifies. The fact that it is unfinished or broken doesn’t make it any less striking.
When my phone starts buzzing in my pocket, I jump. It has been so long. I pull it out with a cry of surprise and see Finn’s name.
“Oh my God,” I say. “It’s you. It’s really you!”
“Diana! I can’t believe I got through.” His voice is scratchy and pocked by static and so, so dear. Tears spring to my eyes as I struggle to hear him: “Tell me…and every…you…it’s been.”
I’m missing half of what he says, so I curl myself around the phone and experimentally move along the wall hoping for a stronger signal. “Can you hear me?” I say. “Finn?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he responds, and I can hear the relief in his words. “Christ, it’s good to talk to you.”
“I got your emails—”
“I didn’t know if they were going through—”
“The service here is terrible,” I tell him. “I wrote you postcards.”
“Well, nothing’s been delivered yet. I can’t believe there’s no internet there.”
“I know,” I say, but that’s not what I want to talk about, and I don’t know how long this magical, elusive signal will last. “How are you? It sounds—”
“I don’t even have words for it, Di,” he says. “It’s…endless.”
“But you’re safe,” I state, as if there is no alternative.
“Who knows,” he says. “I read Guayaquil’s getting slammed. That they’re stacking bodies on the streets.”
At this, my stomach turns. “I haven’t seen anyone sick here,” I tell him. “Everyone wears masks and there’s a curfew.”
could say that.” Finn sighs. “All day long it feels like I’m sandbagging against a wave and then I walk outside and realize that it’s a fucking tsunami and we don’t stand a chance.” His voice hitches.
I look around at the curl of clouds in the sky, the sun glittering on the ocean in the distance. A picture postcard. Just a few hundred miles away this virus is killing people so fast that they don’t have room for bodies, but you would never know it from where I stand. I think of the empty shelves of the grocery mart, the people like Gabriel growing their own food in the highlands, the fishermen that have to carry the mail to the mainland, the tourism that dried up overnight. The curse of being on an island is inaccessibility, but maybe that is also its blessing.
Finn’s voice wavers, cutting in and out again. “Pregnant women…labor alone…ICU, the only time family is allowed…gonna die in the next hour.”
“You’re breaking up—Finn—”
“Nothing changes and…”
“…all dead,” he says, those words suddenly clear and crisp. “Every time I finally get to come home and you aren’t there, it feels like another slap in the face. You don’t know how hard it is being alone right now.”
But I do. “You’re the one who told me to go,” I say quietly.
There is a silence. “Yeah,” Finn answers. “I guess I just assumed…you wouldn’t actually listen.”
Then you shouldn’t have said it,
I think uncharitably, but my eyes are burning with guilt and frustration and anger.
I can’t read your mind.
Which suddenly feels like a much bigger problem, a seed of doubt that sprouts the very moment it’s planted.
“Di—a?” I hear. “Are…still…?”
Although I have not budged, I’ve somehow lost the connection. The line goes dead in my hand. I slip the phone into my pocket and trudge back toward the wall to find Beatriz sitting in its shadow, scraping the edge of one pointed piece of basalt against the smooth belly of another.