Painting without Canvas

“It’s nice to see you,” I whisper, digging deep into Enzo’s broad shoulders.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says. “I got lost.” His voice is barely audible over the humming escalator and conversation bouncing between foyer walls.

“Aren’t you always lost?” I smile but it feels as if the joke brushed too close to reality. Maybe it has been a little too long since we last saw each other. I haven’t heard from Enzo since we went to the movies three weeks ago, but he called last night to ask if I would meet him at the Museum of Modern Art.

We slip from our hug and he holds me at arm’s length, one strong hand on each of my bony shoulders. His wide eyes are half hidden under overgrown brown hair, which curls on his forehead. I am staring back at him, looking at the swirls of purple and red and orange my fingertips left on the fabric of his sweater. My pasty fingerprints, made of the same material as watercolor pigments before they’ve been saturated with water, have left an imprint on Enzo’s shoulders as they always do when I hold him that hard. I pressed harder this time, thinking both the affection and the color will lighten whatever darkness Enzo feels, or maybe just wanting to leave a mark that will last the distance suddenly present between us.

He turns towards the escalator and I follow, using my right pointer finger to trace a rainbow heart on the outside of the metallic wall before turning to walk onto the first step. It’s something I leave for others to see without knowing where it came from and how it got there, like a random smiley face someone might scribble with a Sharpe.
On the step in front of us, an older man and woman with interlocked arms are smiling in amusement, exchanging few words. They’re watching the young woman in front of them, who is focusing through wide glasses with translucent frames on her son. Trying to keep him still as she holds a tissue to his nose and asks him to blow.

This trip feels different than any of the others I have made to the Museum of Modern Art. I’m aware of the people around me, the sounds and words filling these white corridors with life, as if I’ve just pulled off a pair of sunglasses. My usual rush to get on and off the escalator is not controlling my movements. That drive to get to the art as fast as possible is muffled by fear of what I might discover about myself, about Enzo, or about our relationship. I focus on the moving escalator railing – thin and thick hands, young hands, older and frailer hands, all of them careless. My hands, which appear like all of the others, are a work of art in itself; my fingertips swirl teal, orange, and purple. Stepping off, we move into the first gallery.

“Do you remember this one?” I say.

We are standing in front of Monet’s Agapanthus, the grassy yellows and greens swaying with brighter blues in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish between the colors. Yet I feel these colors as if they’re completely separate from one another.

Enzo and I had written about this painting in an art history class at Manhattan Marymount, where we met nearly one year ago. The professor split the class into groups of partners for weekly writing assignments due each Thursday, and this was one of our favorites. Throughout the fall semester, we combed over dozens of paintings and dissected each stroke of color every Wednesday night.

A minute passes without a word and I turn my head slightly to see what part of the painting has him so preoccupied. I notice he isn’t looking at this painting or any of the others, but is fixated on his cardigan, pulling it flat with his left hand and trying to rub out the dull colors from my fingertips with his right. He huffs over the marks, which settle deeper into the sweater as he rubs.

I’m thinking about a time in high school when I felt the same way about my abnormality. When I was a freshman, I sat in front of a girl named Veronika in earth science. She would comment on the layers of rock in the cross section only for a few minutes before giving up and offering a merciless impersonation of the teacher: “Stop leaving pink erasure pieces all over the desk!” Because it was my first year, I hadn’t talked too much, uneasy with the attention my skin automatically drew and unsure if others would see my flamboyance as I did – beautiful. But I felt as if I could talk to Veronika because her outgoing personality and quirky humor drew attention away from me.

Looking at the Monet and listening to the soft scuffs of Enzo rubbing his shirt, I feel as if I’m back in that moment when everything changed. While Ms. Pierson was lecturing about pyroclastic flows, I turned to Veronika and began to mimic our teacher. “The rocks pummel down mountains with speeds upwards of one-hundred miles an hour!” I whispered, raising my voice a few octaves in pitch. But then Ms. Pierson stopped talking.

“Jett, will you stop flirting with Veronika?” The silence was heavy. “Move your seat, now.”

I felt as if a spotlight had turned on me and the audience was unsure how to react. Not only was I suddenly the subject of the attention I had been trying to avoid, but I was scared my friendship with Veronika was over. I wasn’t flirting with her, but she might just think I was. Avoiding any eye contact, I grabbed my bag with my left hand and stood to walk across the front of the classroom to another seat.

Nearly reaching an empty desk, I heard a voice break the silence, shouting, “But isn’t he gay?” Laughter ignited chaos throughout the classroom and my legs buckled as I slide into the empty seat.

Another voice fueled the outrage, “Even his fingers are rainbow!”

There were weeks of silence only I really felt. Everyone kept moving as they usually did, as if nothing was wrong. What happened in that classroom never spread around school in the way I thought it would and the following weeks of focusing on nothing but coursework became an identity. I was succeeding on paper, eventually finding a place in high school with other students in the advanced classes. There is nothing I could do to look like the others, but intellect was the solution. My colors are beautiful, I thought. My abnormality can be my motivation.

My thoughts blur forward, to senior year of college, one year in the past from the present. I settle on that Wednesday after fall finals. Enzo asked if I’d be free at 7:00pm. It was nothing but a routine text he would send every Wednesday that semester, when we still had a painting to view for class on Thursday. But finals were over, and instead of leaving for the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we laid next to each other on my bed as he used my finger to stroke pinks and greens and purples onto my torso and chest as if he were painting me himself. Enzo is unlike anyone I’ve ever been with. We made love and art at the same time as my body rubbed the visible spectrum of pigment onto his. It was the masterstroke of our relationship – the magnum opus.

I feel pressure, as if parts of who I am are competing for action. Enzo’s pushing harder and harder on the sweater marks.

“Do you remember this one?” I repeat, tugging his sleeve.

He suddenly releases his sweater and looks up at the painting.

“Yeah, I do,” he says.

It is hard for me to forget this painting. Monet doesn’t settle for any clear boundaries and it feels infuriating, as if anything I perceive is just not quite right. It’s as if Monet is pushing me away from understanding anything in this piece. I wonder now, standing next to Enzo, whether the exact boundaries between grass and flower, water and sky, were even worth painting. Maybe our perception of the beginnings and ends of something was more important to Monet than objective boundaries. Or maybe Monet understood just as little as I do about the things I see happening right in front of my face.

“Why do you think Monet throws that red in there, Jett?” Enzo motions with his right hand towards the very bottom of the painting, near the center where a few tufts of deep red flare into the torques.

“It balances out the green. It’s perfect.”

“Well I think it’s sentimental, there’s something depressing about this place.” Enzo keeps his eyesight on the painting as I turn towards him.

“So, because he added red, it’s a sad painting?” My sarcasm hits Enzo the wrong way.

He grabs my hand, pulling me from the gallery and through a white corridor into another. This space is modernist, adorned with the recognizable style of Picasso and Braque. He stops in front of One: Number 31, 1950, a Pollock painting of brown, white, and black splattered across the canvas. Yet the streaks and spray feel anything but random. It’s a painting of exact detail – the black lines connect with white and brown streaks in an articulate web – but it’s also a painting that’s spontaneous and expressive.

“Tragic.” Enzo’s head tilts right, perhaps following one streak or another.

“I don’t see it.” I respond. I’m entranced by the way Pollock can turn the random into the precise, how he can paint the complicated relationships and interconnections between the various tones. This painting feels like the human experience of coincidence or Déjà vu – something perhaps too perfect to be completely random. “It’s beautiful.” I can hear him rubbing at his sweater again.

“I’m gonna have to Tide this.” He looks up at the Pollock. “There’s so much rage,” he says before returning to the colors, now fading even more.

Something is different about Enzo. The darkness I saw on him a few weeks ago has infected his speech, his actions, and even his personality. It started at the movies, when we were waiting for Spider-Man to begin. A little boy burst into the theater, leading a young man by his hand to the seat next to us. The boy almost fell through the cushions when he sat down next to Enzo, tugging at the young man to sit down next to him. What’s wrong, I whispered into Enzo’s ear as the little boy sporadically threw out his arm to shoot imaginary webs. Let’s get out of here, he whispered back. As we left the theater, his hands felt cold and sweaty on mine and he wouldn’t look at me. He hugged me hard as we approached the A train uptown, a clear sign he wanted to go home alone. I’m leaving you Jett, he said. But he left before I could say anything.

“So much rage in the painting or in you?” I say.

His face turns in disbelief and confusion only to meet my eyes which look just as surprised with my own words. I think, Maybe there’s a way to understand this tension between Enzo and me like Pollock seems to understand the mess he painted.

“What happened at the movies?” I say, breaking the nervous silence. “I haven’t heard from you in weeks.”

Releasing a deep breath, he places his hand on my back and steers us towards the escalator to the third floor, where the more abstract art and sculptures are held. As I stare at the beautiful swirls on my right hand resting on the elevator railing, Enzo speaks.

“It’s the anniversary,” he says.

I can hear the escalator humming and voices echoing between the white walls as seconds pass like minutes. But I wait, afraid any questions would push him back into silence for three more weeks.

“My brother died five years ago. It was a car crash.”

I turn to look at him but he is peering down over the railing of the escalator, avoiding eye contact. My eyes dart behind and then in front of him, checking to see if anyone has heard. No one is paying any attention. I wonder if I even heard the words correctly.

“I’m so sorry,” I say. “I had no idea.” But am I supposed to?

“That boy in the theater. He was exactly like my brother.”

As we approach Gego’s Drawing without Paper, I feel panicked trying to understand. Gego’s small sculpture is supported by a steel frame as thick as a pencil, but is wrapped with copper wire as thin as a piece of hair, bending and contorting the sculpture’s appearance, like random scribbles on a perfectly rectangular piece of paper. This sculpture feels personal. After all, I am a painting without canvas, my skin acting as the medium for color like the pieces of metal that act as paper would. Yet Gego’s piece is a sculpture, not a drawing. And I am not a painting or a work of art.

“Maybe that little boy was a sign Lucas is still with you.” I say, focusing on the sculpture but feeling his stare on me.

“No. He’s gone. I didn’t stop fast enough.” Enzo rubs at his sweater. “Not…” he pushes harder, “fast enough.”

“I’m here for you.”

“But this isn’t about you.” He stops rubbing and looks up at me. “Can you even imagine what this feels like, Jett?” He moves closer, speaking into my ear so no one else can hear the frustration.

“How can I? You completely stopped talking to me.” My heart pounds. “I didn’t know. I couldn’t know.”

“Just try to imagine it. If I had seen the deer a few seconds, milliseconds sooner, my brother would be alive. I…” He struggles to finish the sentence, his labored breath barrels onto my neck. “It’s my fault he’s dead. I can’t even live with myself so I had to break up with you.”

I feel uneasy. He did say break up, right? “Why are you doing that?”

“Cuz you stained my shirt.”

“No,” I draw in a breath, “saying we broke up?”

“Because we did,” he says. “We broke up at the theater.”

“No, no you just said you were leaving me,” my words trail off, realizing what was unsaid that night was more important than the words he actually spoke, the ones I have been thinking about for weeks. “I thought you meant that night, you know, for the night, oh god.”

“You know, I’ve always envied that thick fucking skull of positivity, of confidence. Wait, you don’t think this is a date, do you?”

“Well, why the fuck did you bring me here then,” I say, my voice quivering.

“I’m moving back home. Upstate. I figured you deserved to know why, but you just aren’t understanding. You and your colors can’t save me. They can’t bring him back, Jett.”

I look down at my hands, suddenly aware of myself in a way I haven’t been before. I pull at my sleeves, trying to tug enough slack to hide my fingers.

“You’re just a dark person,” I say, “That’s all you are.”

“Jett, not everyone sees the world, sees themselves like you.” Enzo pushes me away from him and I lose my standing, stumbling too close to the artwork and just grazing against one of the copper wires protruding from the sculpture. The wire moves merely an inch.

I gather my balance and then glance in shock at the sculpture and at him. I struggle to catch my breath, to grapple with the artworks now tainted: the Gego piece, our relationship, my rainbow tinted fingertips.

“The funny thing is, I’ve never been happier, never felt more sincere than I do now, moving back to live where my life ended.”

Still without breath, I run for the escalator, down two floors, and to the coat check. Grabbing my coat, I turn, almost expecting to see Enzo running after me down the escalator. He would tell me that he was wrong and things are really not that dark, that my colors do give him and the world something positive. The smiley face I had rubbed onto the wall catches my eye and my heart beats faster. It doesn’t look as beautiful as it did when I placed it there with my finger.

I rush to the bathroom, pulling two paper towels from the dispenser, careful only to touch them on their corners. On my way to the front door, I rub the heart from the wall with a few hard and fast motions. I remove the stain as quickly as possible, anxious to get home and out of public. I am suddenly aware of how others could see me and feel dark, like Enzo does.

The streets of New York are bustling as if nothing happened. I try matching my breath with my steps as I walk to the subway. My mind feels like it is twisting: Perhaps those red strokes in Monet’s Agapanthus are a representation of something dark I cannot understand, an expression not too different than Enzo’s decision to move back home. Perhaps there is rage and chaos in Pollock’s painting, as Enzo must have felt that night at the movies, not the beauty of coincidence I assumed Pollock was expressing.

I rub the back of my left hand with my right thumb while I wait on the subway platform. I watch as a swirl of violet and red materializes. I feel the pasty texture of my skin and think, is it possible that darkness is just as powerful, just as beautiful as color?

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