I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Mother gone, father good as gone, grandmother drowned with her money locked up, and the very next day in painting class he pushed my hair aside—I almost said “to read over my shoulder”—of course I mean see. This hair? It was honey, then. Boxes in the drug store long for it. I was nineteen. It was wonderful. I was a painter. I just mean I painted, then.
I copied George Stubbs who stripped real horses. I copied the anatomical drawings of DaVinci. On free days I went to the zoo where the motion of animals was contained, and I drew them alive. I studied and worked. I was an excellent student in all my subjects. I had always kept the painting secret from my family. But now there was no more money coming anyway, the only one of them who loved me newly dead. I knew when I walked the campus that I would never be more beautiful and my body would never be as whole. I had this foresight. You have to consider the times. I wore my dungarees and smoked my cigarettes and did not wear lipstick like my mother. Lipstick makes the mouth a cunt. The moment my grandmother sunk I felt power in my body, power that comes only from grief and loss, the necessity to make my own life. Now I had no money. It was spring. When life is everywhere death is, too. When you’ve got nothing you become receptive.
This is what Nick saw in me. He watched an awful lot of Antonioni. I did not call him Nick yet.
I was walking the campus after class considering where to sleep. I had some friends but they made me uncomfortable. I appreciated the politics but did not like the drugs. I told you about my father. Addict. I told you about my mother. Asylum. As I walked, the sun went down. I was thinking about the nature of color. I was looking at the grass in the dark to see how much green was still in it. I was trying to predict how wet it would be in the even-darker shadow cast by a concrete bench near a lit window, then touching it to confirm my prediction. I was closing my eyes and then trying to surprise myself by looking in another direction and trying to discern sources of light. What the moon had to do with anything. What the city beyond had to do with anything. I was not full from my supper of diner coffee, saltines, and ketchup. I hopped over a low stone wall and crossed the street. In a row of buildings where I’d never had class, a basement light shone. I could see him painting in there. I crouched by the basement window and watched him paint. Looked down on him. There was nothing sexual about it. Just serendipity. Well, okay. There is always something sexual about surprise connections. There is always something sexual about coincidence: the potential for satisfaction. I must have been lit, too, without knowing it. He saw me and did a gesture I didn’t understand at first meant “come on in” in Italian, something that had crossed the oceans with the immigrant family that produced him. He turned the gesture around, waving me in so that I could understand it.
Anyway, he was very seductive.
He told me a story about drawing as a child and accidentally experiencing the miracle of two-point perspective. Magic, he said. He put lines on a page just to put lines on a page and then look what they did. Then words for that memory appearing years later. Now, memory of the word forever pinned to the memory of a lived dimension. I only remembered being taught perspective in school. I thought, this must be genius, this man. When a man tells a story about his childhood hang onto your pants.
We are wrapped in white sheets on his white sofa where I sleep at night and he screws me in the afternoons. There are paint spatters everywhere so that life and canvas blur. He wears his coveralls in class and everywhere because an artist never ceases to be an artist. In class he lectures on authenticity. In class we walk the perimeter of the life model before returning to our easels. He says: first walk the perimeter and see the soul of the thing that is there. See the soul before you exert your will. I thought of my father’s hunting dog who runs the edges of fields to flush birds. I thought of birds shattering the boundaries of a soul. I sealed the boundaries of my soul and walked the perimeter of the naked girl. Da Vinci looked for the house of the soul in the dissected body. Sometimes I picked up some cash as a life model. I tried not to look at her as a person. I tried to look at her as a shape with a soul. Here is how the light hit her. Here is how her body met the light. He was going to Florence at the end of the semester. He had bohemian friends there. I said, “Can I stay here in your studio?” and he said, “Come with me to Florence where they keep all the paintings.”
Fantastic. He had a cousin who worked for Pan Am. He had another cousin with space in Florence. He said, “You will love it.” Then he said, “No! It will love you,” and slid his painted hands between my legs. I thought, I can do anything!
The novelty of flight. Yes, I wore a shirtwaist dress. He gave it to me for fun to wear. Aren’t there movies lining up to depict this for you? There were movies for me. Audrey Hepburn and the mouth of truth. We arrived in Rome, to spend the night near Termini and continue to Florence forthwith. We arrived at night. The hotel was nice. Hotels came cheap. You know Rome was founded on rape. In the room was his wife.
It was not a surprise that he had a wife. It was a surprise to find her there next to my first window that, like doors, opened in.
That was the first and last I saw of the room—it has disappeared from my memory. All I see is people. There is Nick. He’d shaved for the flight, already looking a little not like himself to me. There is his wife. What she looked like. Not pretty like me but pretty. Tough-pretty. Wild, dark, curling hair. What he looked like next to her.
I look at her but I can’t tell what she knows. She’s standing not touching anything, a small dead tilt to her head. And there’s Nick striding around the room—he’s so high on adrenaline, striding around the room with his mouth twitching. I’ve seen this before. He has a lot of energy. He doesn’t contain himself. Emotions flow through him. His body, his way of moving around is exactly the same as when he’s teaching, when he’s painting. Using his hands, using brushes. Except now I don’t like it. I can see him just poking at the air around him—what happens if I poke like this, what happens if I poke like that. He’s anticipating, holding back anger or joy. I think, you are not a caged animal. I think, a real animal would tear you up.
He says, “My girls, my great girls. You are going to love each other.” He begins to list our desirable attributes. He cites my talent, my hair, my untapped and so on. Apparently no one has an ass like his wife, no one is so liberated, no one more brilliant and nurturing. When I start to cry he says, “What is wrong with you? Look where you are!”
I don’t remember.
There’s wine, of course. We drink the wine.
I forget what else until the bed. I don’t remember how we got in there. He got in. She got in. I stood with the end of my wine and then I got in. Thought about the white sofa in the paint. Listened to him lecture about what Florence was going to be like. A monastery of arches filled with monks’ cells each with an arched door and a single arched window, and in each cell a single painting either of arches or in the shape of an arch, and inside each painting, people in holy acts of contemplation. Of people. Of paintings. Of memories.
In the bed I think about threes and twos. I wonder why one is better than another. I think about composition. The stability of triangles. About making motion. I think about the last time a nun smacked me. It occurred to me that Nick was old enough to disappoint himself. In the bed, on his left side I can feel his hands moving around, on her, on his right side. Why did I feel like a child in that bed? Just because of the shapes and the numbers?
When I thought they were sleeping I left the bed and passed the black window refusing to look out. I went into the blackish hall and followed it with my fingers, textured silk embossed like braille all the way to the bathroom. I couldn’t find a light. I felt so clumsy, working foreign mechanisms by feel. I followed the patterns to return but stayed in the hallway and pressed my back to the wall outside the door to the room. I looked up. I could make out the hanging fixture above me, one in a series, none lit. I thought, I am in the eternal city. All roads come here, so all roads must leave. I looked up because I was lost. It had become very important to me to renounce God after losing my family, and so what I saw was the particulate darkness, the quiet difference in density between where there was an unlit lamp and where there was not. What happens first in history, the praying or the looking up? And what if I knew, then what, so what? Skies painted on ceilings. In the hallway I thought I could be looking at a nice night sky beneath an unpainted ceiling. Then I thought, No I’m not. It’s just a ceiling in the dark. I thought, Is this timeless?
Why couldn’t I make it mean what I wanted? I’d looked at the sea from the descending airplane and imagined the peaks of water first as endless mountains and then as endless roofs of churches, their crosses exploding off their tips like the distant droplets that must be there in the spray that must have been there. Airplane: memory, already. What was I going to do with all those churches? I had promised, in my heart, to wrench them from their artworks, to free their artworks from them in my heart. Nick’s wife arrived in the hallway in her white ghost nightgown. The light changed or my eyes adjusted. She was like a letter someone dropped from the sky. So much taller than me. Her voice low and controlled. She seemed to consider sizing me up but then did not have to, already had me pegged. It happens in a breath, her taking me in. She handed me an envelope. Inside was a pair of tickets. One for a steamer, one for the train to take me to it. To take me home. It left one day and one night away. Steamers were cheaper than jet planes. People still took them. But they were on their way out. My grandmother went on deck to see a hurricane coming. Her third yacht trip around the world, if it’s true what she told me before she left. Already memory broke. What did it mean, the envelope? That she expected me? Did she know about the sofa in the studio? What if I were a different girl, would she have torn the tickets up? Or did she want me to insist, on my own, to stay? What does a coward do, and what is brave? I am not afraid of who he is. I am not afraid of her.
But I was an excellent student, and I wanted to know.
I slept a little, on the edge of the bed. I did not clutch the tickets in my hand. I put them in my suitcase. It is possible to take up very little space, to convince yourself you are not in evidence. When the light shifted, I woke as if it’d touched me. It did touch me. It came through a clear window, through a pale curtain, and by the time it reached me it was colorless. I took my suitcase. I do not remember the hallway lit, as it must have been that time of day.
In the lobby the hotel people in their uniforms were not at their posts and I did not ring for them. I took a map from a box of maps at the concierge desk. I put sugar cubes in my pocket from a silver bowl in the bar. I took a warm roll from a pan half unloaded into the display case. I took two apricots from a basket. I put the fruit and the bread in my suitcase and left.
Outside, first thing, I looked for the sky. I had never seen clouds with silver linings in life before. The kinds of whiteness. Particular pinks. Like the sky was faking it. Candy green parakeets with beaks like berries swooped in pairs and landed in budding trees, I swear to you, and behind trees, massive monochrome buildings getting dirty as they approached the earth. All those paintings I studied, frosty flesh among swirling fabrics, the human faces of dark animals grimacing truthfully from corners. Old Nick admired the grace of my stroke, at once restrained and assured, my sensitivity to the dimensionality of my subjects. He said I had a gift. I said, this is not a gift. I said, I work for this. I touched the sugar cubes in my pocket, each wrapped in colored paper. I had not understood the colors in paintings I studied as so literal. I felt a little let down. Saints fading in stucco frames on exterior walls, sculptures leaning midair from the facades. I walked through an inside-out city. I saw a cardinal high above me crushing the head of an infidel who searched out my eyes from underfoot. I saw a fish inside a bubble. People woke and left their houses as if to decorate streets appropriately. I worked out ways to tote my suitcase. This hand, that hand, both, front, back. By midmorning it was getting crowded. I did not want to touch the people. I did not want them to take my suitcase. Italian men, they will really rake their eyes across you. I had to push through a messy market. People who do not know how to form a line or speak in turn. People handling everyone’s meat and vegetables. I felt hot, though the weather was irreproachable. At the edge of the market, water streamed from the mouth of a wolf. I put my suitcase down, cupped my hands and drank from it, then shook shiny droplets from my fingers. I picked my suitcase back up and practiced erasing people as I walked. Sometimes people, sometimes myself. It’s not so different. On buildings I saw keys and bees, mountains and crowns. I knew these were codes for people in the country’s history. I knew the statues we know as white were once painted. I imagined being painted, asleep on the sofa, Nick pulling back a sheet, then pulling back my painted surface, and marble beneath.
I sat on my suitcase at the base of an obelisk. Water slid across the backs of rising turtles. I resisted the desire to hug the toe of a colossus. I turned to look down each of several boulevards that stretched like tentacles electroshocked. A snake stared his own toothy face in a stone mirror. I saw a dolphin turning into a dragon turning into a horse turning into someone broken off at the shoulders. I saw where Mussolini changed a neighborhood into squares crammed with modern weaponry. He made the wolf mother look up at the babies she raised, when everywhere else they suck at her and squirm.
I stood on the bridge lined with angels. I walked across it so I could see them from one side and then the other. Then I walked right back because I knew from my map that they lead to St. Peter’s. Things became less what they were. I pissed in a bush that was shaped like a staircase. I looked into windows that were paintings of windows. I knew trompe l’oeil from slides. Dumb. I can see right through you! I imagined saying to the window, having spoken to no one since my lover’s wife. I was sure she was secretly from Omaha. I let my joke with the wall bounce in the space between us, a sour interaction. On display in a real window, a cappuccino was just a paper napkin stuffed in a cup with cinnamon on it.
But almost anywhere you can go in Rome is a church unless you want to interact with people. Eventually I drifted toward quiet and ate a piece of my fruit and a piece of my bread in a gray cobbled cloister. The food was good because I was hungry. The arms of the church reached out and clasped the arms of the arched colonnades, pilasters, loggia. … Could I go in there? Ways that yes and ways that no. The face of the church bulged in a game of concave-convex. But its doors were open, and inside, an unpainted universe of soft white glowed.
Come in, don’t come in. I put a sugar cube into my mouth. Bells rang. Dogs from inside houses all through the neighborhood surrounding the cloister began to howl. I looked up at the sky in this frame. At my feet: star patterns in the cobblestones, cement things in the shape of stars in the ground. I stepped from one to another, and stood in the doorway of the white church, and stars tip-toed from big to small up its dome.
Over alternating doorways white angels crossed and uncrossed their wings. Come in. You can’t come in. Come in. You can’t come in. Abstract crowns with points that replicated the points of the stars, suns that wiggled, suggesting fire, and then more crowns turning into those white ideas of flames. White. Everything asking you to follow patterns just complicated enough to remain impossible. I committed the name of that church to memory. Now I know that its name means knowledge. The master designed the courtyard to present the work of his student. Screw you, Nick. You’re from New Jersey.
Did I like the church? Have you been listening? Grandmother stepping onto the deck of the yacht, crossing the line. You know who was at her funeral? Me and the maid. What can turn your feelings around and ask nothing of you? Well, if not an unpainted church then not church. I went to a palace that was a museum I had no money to enter. Two entrances were at the tops of stairs. In the left wing was a square staircase and in the right wing was a round staircase. Up the stairs, galleries behind doors. Ahead, galleries behind doors. But you could go up and down the staircases. I carried my suitcase up and down the staircases. In the square one a lion led and then followed me gently through rhythmic rays of slanting light. Then the round one digested me in its coils.
At dusk I stood in front of the Pantheon and let it do its work on me. Put me in my place. Comfort me with its thickness, its guiseless, skinless surface. Inside, I traced the line between the conceivable and inconceivable, setting the curve of the Pantheon in relation to the curve of the universe. I was conceivable within this dome with its moony eye, moving my consciousness in and out of my body. Imagine living with, walking among, moving through the bodies of gods. When would you scratch your ass, when would you pick your teeth? You would have to pick your teeth inside the body of God. I felt a bit of skin between my teeth. I remembered that I no longer believed in God. I picked at the bit of skin and felt myself refract. The self that is what it is, and can’t be helped.
Outside the Pantheon, of course the moon was full, white hole in the sky. A bum was already asleep among the colossal columns of the portico. I was not going to sleep. I was going to keep walking the city until I had to walk onto a train that would take me to a boat and leave it. The Tiber was lit with yellow lights. Heaps of ancient coins pouring into it or glowing up from under water. Either way.
Lit fountains. I took my shoes off. I put my feet in.
I did see some paintings. I saw ceiling paintings through windows at night.
The windows are cages. There’s a line in a Marvell poem, a sly nun says it’s actually the men who are caged outside the nunnery. I couldn’t see detail, but it can’t be so much about seeing the detail; you can’t look up for long or your neck hurts. From outside, the angle of sight is quite comfortable. You rest in the wash of color. You know what the pictures are of, anyway. They’re pictures of people in heaven having a grand time. You stand there behind the grid the window makes. I have been told that there were no green parakeets in Rome until decades later, but I saw them. Look at me, you can’t come in, look at me, you can’t come in. Not a single Italian heard my voice for the entire time I was in Italy. I made my way. I took the train. I took the boat. Third class, no portholes. Thanks, wife. I was not afraid of hurricanes. You have to take care of yourself. When we crossed into American waters they rang a bell. People crowded onto the deck. It was a bright day. I felt gratitude for the head on my own two shoulders. The world is in a blade of grass, the universe in a single grain of sand. You don’t have to go anywhere, you just have to look.
This is not about you. This is not where you came from. This is not why I married your boring father. This is not why I won’t suck his dick. This is not why I’m not an artist or why I never left again. This is not a secret code you can break and the meaning of western civilization will rain on you. It’s mine. It’s just mine. The things from my past, the things in my mind.
I saw white hexagons made of leaves and flowers evolve into hexagons of white. Stars were white as they climbed, smaller and smaller, into whiteness. I remember a relief of feathers of stone and a door framed with white bounty contained in pots. A white crown transformed into white fire, white bees simultaneously distant and enormous. I put myself in relation to it. Heaps of mountains that had been made to mean some pope were finally mountains again. Keys could be keys to anything.
In any event, I’m glad you came. You should come on in and see the place. I’ll show you what I’ve been doing.
Lucy Corin is the author of the short story collections One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (McSweeney’s Books), and The Entire Predicament (Tin House Books), as well as the novel Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls (FC2). Stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, Ploughshares, Tin House Magazine, and elsewhere. She spent 2012–13 at the American Academy in Rome as the John Guare Fellow in Literature.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee