The blank sheet of paper soaked all the light in the room.
In an irresistable contrast. Amongst the hipster chatter I could pick up dropped names, catch vibrant gestures and I navigated through bodies that would accommodate and contort to avoid a spilled drink. He must have been waiting for awhile; a single person in a large booth alludes to squatter's rights - especially when the tavern is packed so tight. As I slid into the booth across from him, he did not look up from his tablet. Which made me look at it too. The calming effect of this little window of pulp, in an otherwise jarring and clamoring environment, was infectious.
He was away in concentration. His eyes swimming in the eleven by fourteen inch pool in front of him. Straight backed and upright, forearms at rest, perpendicularly framing the object of his focus. Immediate atoms charged with unstable anticipation and suspended intent.
- Are you waiting for the idea?
- No. I already have like seven. Seven grand ideas.
- Not grand enough to make you go, though? How long have you been here?
- Awhile. Before happy hour. When people were ordering more coffee than beer. Awhile.
- *Sigh*. At what point do you give up?
- Do I ever? I think you are giving time too much credit in this process. There is one thing I don't understand, and that is why it starts when it does. I never tell myself to pick up the charcoal and draw. I just find myself doing it. Sometimes I sit there for five minutes, sometimes for an hour.
I'm feeling an affinity with him. When we made plans to meet, there were no indications that I would find him compromised or engaged. There was also no plan. The idea, as usual, was to meet at happy hour after work and play catch up. Sometimes we run out of language and invite others; this is in fact, usually the end result. I look at my hardback copy of Zola's Nana in my hand. How often do I carry around a book that never gets read? Its blood red binding seems charged with a long anticipated purpose, and eagerness to answer the call. I slap the book on the table.
- I think there's enough light. Go on with your deliberations (with a smile).
- I don't want to be rude...
- You're not.
The challenge is picking up where you left off. I read a page, the thirtieth, and wonder if I should start the book from scratch. There are too many characters. Too much time passed from the initial embarking on reading the book. But I continue, slowly. My metacognition isn't dropping me from being conscious of how I'm reading, to letting me lose my awareness of self in the pages. And I continually look up as young ladies pass our table. I fidget and repeatedly restart. I flip pages ahead to see where this chapter ends and whether getting there is conceivable. I peruse the pages and calculate the ratio of extended dialogue to black page paragraphs. I smell the book. Whoever owned it before me was a smoker. I imagine who owned it before me - an old person? The image of an octogenarian reading the book on a swinging front porch bench, after a long day of garden-tending. It's a lot to pull from these yellowed pages, this musty scent. But the imagery comes more easily than the story in the pages. It is the front porch of a large plantation and the sun is setting and there are mosquitoes all about. No wait, the book cannot be that old. I look at the publishing date. 1955. So it is old, but not old enough for my daydream. I check out another woman passing our table, and as my eyes travel from her hips to his face, I feel like errors in perception are mounting against me. But it doesn't matter; he's started.
He begins with two sweeping swipes producing open and closing parentheses. He leans back and looks at it for a moment. He pushes his head far back on his spine, squinting his eyes. Waiting to see something there. Finalizing his idea? I look over the top of my book at it but say nothing. Then he leans in, curling up the end of the tablet with his left hand and attacking with charcoal on his right.
It is all reckless movement - I watch his hands more than I watch the trails left by the charcoal. Dramatic slashes are followed by intense zig-zagging. Many of his wrist jerks are angular, and there are very few moments where he draws slowly. Or smoothly. Judging by his hands, there can be no curves unless he is working some experienced magic. He stops to pick up his eraser gum, changes his mind, and drags his thumb across his tongue instead. He rubs his thumb into the picture, creating his chiaroscuro where he wants it. After several minutes of more furious drawing, he sets the picture flat - sticks both thumbs into his mouth - and sets them to work smearing charcoal in every which direction. This is the only moment where he takes on a surgical air, where his eyes reflect an intent. As he grinds his spittle into the pulp.
He leans back. He spins the tablet around. Like it no longer holds any interest for him.
- It's a horse. Nice. I didn't know you did horses.
- I can do animals. Dogs, Cats, Horses. Wait, four - I can do unicorns too.
- I'm not sure if that counts.
I lift the bristol tablet so only I can see it, away from his vision - not that it matters. He seems disinterested, like this was his release. He can go to sleep now.
I was expecting something more shocking in terms of subject matter, but it is just a horse. But it is beautiful and sad. It looks like nothing that could have come from the disorganized furiousness of its birthing. Theres a contordedness to it - the viewer is in front of the horse, inches from the ground. The subject appears in genuflect, as though the horse is trying to touch its forehead to the ground. Its face is in near profile, with one eye looking accusingly at the viewer.
I want to take it home with me. How many drawings have I seen where a horse is a majestic animal in active bucking or broncing, or displayed from the neck up in a presidential profile? There's a uniqueness to this broken-ness. Even a tamed beast has some spirit, but there's something human about this horse with its defeated spine. The picture captures something that could never exist in the real world, something for which we lack any context.
- I like it. I like it a lot.
- Thanks. The long wait is really about trying to figure out what I want to say.
- And what is that?
- Hmmmm. Well, it's for you, so I guess that's up to you to figure out. If I was good about communicating directly, I wouldn't be drawing pictures - right?
- Does this mean I get to keep it?
- Yeah, you can have it. You can put it up at your place and look at it while you're pretending to read some fancy book.
Knowing it is mine to keep. I hold it up in front of me with a straightened, proud, back. My broken horse. As I hold it away from me, another picture emerges - in a Dali-esque twist, the total becomes another horse's face. My eyes adjust, and it is the only horse I can see: the new horse is smiling cheesily, incorporating a pond and faux reflection at the bottom of the page. An arresting twist. I have to concentrate to get the original image back...
- Nice touch. I didn't notice the second horse at first.
- They're the same horse. Like you can't be broken and happy at the same time?
- Okay, so they're the same horse. Are you trying to get at something profound?
- Not really. Its for you. So I'm going to make it about you. There are times I don't think you give yourself enough credit. I hope when you look at this picture, you remember there's more than one way of looking at things. That's about it. This is your reminder to go easy on yourself, and I hope when you look at it, you look at it right.
He says it with authority. He says it in a way that makes me recall all the negative things I may have said about myself in the past, but as I call them back they arrive with a weakened significance. I want to say something meaningful, but anything that comes to mind seems too familiar.
- You're welcome.
His smile widens and shows his charcoal-blackened teeth.
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