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Still life with tornado, p.3
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.3

           A. S. King
 
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  “He said ‘You can always come stay with me, no matter where I am’ and he was crying,” she says.

  “I remember him crying,” I say. “But I don’t know why he was crying.”

  “I do,” ten-year-old Sarah says.

  People on the bus think ten-year-old Sarah and I are sisters. They smile as if I’m taking her somewhere educational or something. They are happy with us. They don’t think we’re skipping school. They don’t visit other ideas. They just think about themselves, mostly.

  I get off the bus at the art museum and she follows me.

  MEXICO—AGE TEN—OUR Family Mexico Getaway

  All inclusive. These aren’t words that a ten-year-old understands. What a ten-year-old understands is: This was not the New Jersey seashore. The water was a different color—any color, but in this case, it was turquoise. There were colorful fish in the water, not pink plastic tampon applicators or cigarette butts. Mom and Dad let me eat all the tortilla chips I wanted, even for breakfast. I lived on perfectly uniform triangles of corn for the whole week. Mom and Dad drank fruity drinks all day and were generally in a good mood.

  For Mom, it was easy to be in a good mood while all-inclusive in Mexico. She was a night nurse. Twelve-hour shifts in the emergency room from seven to seven. The only thing that bothered her was the sun because she considered herself a bona fide vampire. She had great stories from her vampire shift. Things happen in the emergency room in the middle of the night.

  Her stories used to be funny. Now nothing she brought home was original—not even a patient with a jar of Concord grape jelly shoved up her rectum. Done before. You just wouldn’t believe what some people put in their rectums. You wouldn’t believe what people swallow either. Car parts. Electronics. Nails. Cement. You name it and someone has swallowed it or put it somewhere that landed them in the ER.

  Dad was only in a good mood because of the piña coladas. He didn’t even read on the beach. He just sat there on one of the white lounge chairs—one of a hundred in a perfectly straight line parallel to the sea. Every chair had a towel. A blue towel. Every four chairs had a thatched umbrella hut, some had a round table nailed to the tree stump that held up the umbrella part; some didn’t. Almost all of the resort-goers stayed on their beach loungers. Very few went into the water. So Dad wasn’t an anomaly or anything. He was just a player in the sterile, geometric beach scene he called Our Family Mexico Getaway.

  Bruce was a mix of emotions. It depended on the day. Mom and Dad ignored him mostly. They gave him his own room key. If Bruce wanted to stay in the room, Mom and Dad let him. If he wanted to take a walk on the beach late at night, they said, “Be safe.” Bruce was nineteen. He could take care of himself.

  I swam a lot, covered in millimeters of waterproof sunscreen. Mom and Dad stayed under a thatched umbrella and gave the bar waiter bigger tips every time he came back, which kept him coming. I was only allowed in the water up to my chest and that was fine because I could lean back and float there. I floated a lot.

  I remember floating, closing my eyes against the baking Mexican sun and talking to the sea god. I was ten. I didn’t have a name for the sea god. It was just the sea god. I remember asking the sea god to help me draw better pictures. I remember promising the sea god that if he let me draw better pictures, then I would really do something in the world. I’d be famous. Like Picasso or Rembrandt. I didn’t know about women artists back then because in school you only learn about the men. If I knew better, I might have hoped to be Georgia O’Keeffe or Aleksandra Ekster.

  I didn’t notice the fish until the second day. The first school surrounded me and if I stood as still as I could among the calm waves, they inched closer to me and brushed by my hands and I said, “Hello, fish,” and I imagined they said, “Hello, Sarah,” but fish don’t talk so that’s probably not what happened, but I wanted them to say hello, so I decided that’s what they were saying. I was the only one in the water. They were my fish.

  Over the week, I saw twenty more schools of fish. Sometimes it was the same family as the first—a white angelfish sort of breed. After that it was little blue fish, some fatter yellow fish. Over by the rock jetty, there were bigger gray fish. Each time I saw new fish I did the same thing. I said, “Hello, fish,” and I decided they said, “Hello, Sarah.” Mom and Dad got drunker, but it was okay because the empties never accumulated. They always seemed to be drinking from that same first, perfect glass.

  We went to a buffet restaurant at the hotel for dinner a lot. A few times Mom and Dad went to another restaurant at the resort, but Bruce and I ate buffet every night in Mexico. When we did all eat together, Mom, Dad, and I ate Mexican food but Bruce got pasta and a Caesar salad. Every night, that’s what Bruce ate.

  I told them each night what I’d seen in the water and they seemed delighted that I was having a good time. Dad told me that when we got home, we’d look up the fish and find out what kind they were. On the second night Mom said that she was so proud of me for being independent and going out into the water by myself. “We waited years to go on a real vacation—until you were old enough to take care of yourself,” she said.

  This was a compliment and I took it as one, but the comment made Bruce click his teeth and shake his head. The week went downhill from there.

  On the last night, Bruce said, after my telling them about saying hello to my fish friends and about them saying hello back, “They aren’t your friends. All the people here see them.”

  Mom and Dad told Bruce to shut up. I said, “Yeah. Shut up, Bruce.”

  Bruce said, “Fish don’t like humans, Sarah. Not even you.”

  “I think they like me,” I said.

  “You’re delusional,” he said.

  “She’s ten,” my mother said. “Can’t you just pretend to have a good time?”

  “Why pretend? Aren’t we doing enough pretending as it is?”

  That was when Dad’s piña colada good mood wore off. Last dinner in Mexico.

  “Jesus Christ, son. We brought you here. We paid for the whole week. Why are you such a pain in the ass?”

  Bruce got up from the table and went back to the room.

  I had my last Mexican dessert—a three-cream cake that was so good it made me cry as I ate it. Dad couldn’t drink enough to get his good mood back. Mom said that she’d had a great vacation and thanked Dad ten times for it. They held hands right there on top of the table.

  That was the night Bruce said what he said.

  He said, “You can always come stay with me, no matter where I am.”

  Art Museum

  Ten-year-old Sarah has been here five times already. I remember her loving the suits of armor and the big Picasso—Three Musicians. Ten-year-old Sarah wanted to be an artist. Mom and Dad encouraged this. Now sixteen-year-old Sarah can’t understand why they’d encourage something so impossible.

  I ask her, “You want to go in?”

  She rolls her eyes like I’ve asked a stupid question and walks up the famous Rocky steps without talking to me. From behind, I can see me in her. The skinny matchstick legs. The no-hips build that makes it impossible for me to buy jeans that fit. When she gets to the top of the steps she waits for me. She says, “One day we’re going to be in this museum. One day, we’re going to be famous.”

  I want to tell her to stop saying we. I want to tell her that presently we can’t even draw a single pear or our own fucking hand.

  We go to the front desk and even though I still wonder if I’m hallucinating, I know ten-year-old Sarah is really here because the lady behind the counter asks how old ten-year-old Sarah is, and when ten-year-old Sarah says “ten,” the lady gives her a wristband for free. I have to pay fourteen bucks for being sixteen.

  We don’t say anything as we walk to the Picasso. We both know where it is by now. When we get there, we both stand and stare as we have done every time before. Dad says art is a way of stand
ing still and finding the quiet inside yourself. That’s what I do. Ten-year-old Sarah does it, too, like a trained dog, but I can see her little hands twitching to touch it. I see her look around for the security guard. I remember being her and thinking just one touch as if touching the same thing Picasso touched would give her the talent to become him. It was always some sort of scam—begging the sea god, touching the Picasso—a desire for genius the way the desire for money makes people buy lottery tickets.

  Ten-year-old Sarah says, “Picasso had original ideas.”

  I say, “Maybe.”

  She says, “Not maybe. This is original. No one did it before him.”

  “I guess.”

  As we wander around the area, there are similar paintings. Braque, Gris, all of Picasso’s contemporaries. I see the style in those, too. It was a movement. Picasso wasn’t the only cubist. (Nobody was the only anything-ist.)

  “I mean, somebody had to be the first cubist, right?” she asks.

  “Somebody did. Yes. But maybe it wasn’t Picasso.”

  She shrugs. “You’re a fucking downer.”

  “I’m a realist.”

  She shrugs again and crosses her arms in front of her chest.

  “Just think about it. How do we know that Picasso wasn’t walking down the street one day and saw some guy drawing this on a piece of wood? How do we know that he invented this without other people’s ideas? We don’t. We don’t know anything.”

  “I don’t know about art history much,” ten-year-old Sarah says.

  “Nothing new ever really happens,” I say.

  “You really are a downer.”

  “Realist.” I refuse to explain to her that you can’t trust history books anyway because history books were usually written by people who wanted to sound like they knew something.

  We wander away from the cubists. Ten-year-old Sarah doesn’t stay with me or talk about any of the paintings. She keeps her arms crossed like she’s fed up with me. She’s a little like twenty-three-year-old Sarah. Aloof—like she’s better. At the end of the long hall—the one that leads to the contemporary section—is a Lichtenstein. I’ve never seen this one in person before so it must be on loan or something. Frankly, I don’t think reproductions of old comic strips are all that original, but this one has something to it. It’s the look on the subject’s face. Ten-year-old Sarah stops in front of it and squints at the dots. She backs up three big steps—animated little-kid steps—and squints again. I walk over to the right and read the description.

  Roy Lichtenstein, American, Born 1923. Sleeping Girl, 1964, oil and Magna on canvas.

  • • •

  Ten-year-old Sarah stands square to the canvas with her arms loosely at her sides. Unlike her crossed arms in the cubism room, she is letting Lichtenstein into her. She is feeling the sleeping girl. I stand next to her the same way. Legs slightly apart, arms by my sides, breathing, like some sort of art museum Tai Chi. I try to let the sleeping girl into me, too. I look at her furrowed brow while she sleeps and I feel pain inside of her sleep. I feel like something is unfinished in her life. I feel she is unhappy.

  I look over after a quiet minute and see that ten-year-old Sarah is crying. This was Mom’s art museum habit. Every time we went and did what Dad told us to do—stood still and found the quiet—Mom would find one painting that would make her cry quietly. It was a sacred act. Tears would fall slowly while she stared at a piece and then we’d move on and look at other paintings. Dad never cried, but I think he wanted to.

  I look back at the sleeping girl. I see the beauty of all the dots and the simplicity of the colors and I want to cry but all I feel is numb. Ten-year-old Sarah takes a step forward so she is nearly nose to nose with Lichtenstein’s girl and the security guard slowly makes her way toward us. I stop trying to cry and look up and smile. We both tell ten-year-old Sarah to step back from the painting. She steps back.

  The security guard says, “Forty-five million dollars.”

  “For this?” ten-year-old Sarah asks.

  “Yep.”

  “It’s just dots,” she answers. I don’t say anything.

  “Lichtenstein’s dots,” the security guard says. “Forty-five million dollars.”

  I think about that. Forty-five million dollars. That’s like a lottery ticket.

  Ten-year-old Sarah wipes her eyes dry with her fists and shakes her head. “Even I can paint a bunch of dots.”

  The security guard says, “You’re not the first person who’s said that, for sure.”

  I’m not sure what she means, but I like that she said it. It is just dots. And forty-five million dollars could have bought a lot of people food somewhere or bought women’s shelters or orphan’s homes. What’s so great about buying a bunch of dots?

  • • •

  I want to visit the Twombly room, but ten-year-old Sarah says she hates the Twombly room. “It’s all scribbling,” she says. I try to disagree, but I know where she’s headed, and I follow her. We go to the armor collection. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has the coolest armor. There is no need to think about originality in there. Armor isn’t original. Even some animals have armor—they’re born with it.

  Ten-year-old-Sarah is happy now. No crossed arms, no tears, no trying to tell me how much of a downer I am. We’re by the Saxon suit of armor called Armor for Use in the Tilt with the weird spike coming out the front of the breastplate. This is my favorite piece of armor since before I was ten-year-old Sarah. I didn’t understand it at first. I looked it up on the Internet when we got home and learned what tilt meant. It’s a term for jousting—the armor was used during jousts—games where two horsemen would race toward each other with lances and try to knock the other one off his horse. The spike on the breastplate is there to adjust the shield on the jouster’s weak side. We stand and stare at the armor for a few minutes. I read the description as I have a hundred times before. Geography: Made in Saxony, Germany, Europe. Date: c. 1575. Medium: Steel; leather (replaced); textiles.

  Ten-year-old Sarah turns to me and says, “Do you remember the big fight in Mexico?”

  “Maybe.”

  “Remember what Bruce told me? In the restaurant?”

  “Not really.”

  “He really hasn’t come back yet?” she asks.

  We’re having this conversation while staring at a suit of armor. I realize that my life feels like this. Armor for Use in the Tilt.

  Life is a joust. Recently, I’ve been unhorsed. And yet I don’t feel a thing.

  “Doesn’t call. Doesn’t send letters.” I hold back on telling her I have his phone number.

  “It was my fault,” she says.

  “I doubt that. I don’t think it was my fault.”

  “You probably blocked it out. It was bad.”

  “What are you? Some sort of amateur psychologist?”

  “I’m ten. I’m not stupid,” she says.

  Here’s what I think. I think we’re really smart when we’re young. Ten-year-old Sarah is smarter than I am because I’m six years older. Twenty-three-year-old Sarah is dumber than me because I’m sixteen. Someone somewhere was way older and richer and dumber than all of us and paid forty-five million dollars for a bunch of dots. I think this kind of smart isn’t something they can measure with tests. I think it’s like being psychic or being holy. If I could be anyone for the rest of my life, I would be a little kid.

  Breakfast

  When I get home from the art museum, Mom is awake and eating breakfast. It’s four o’clock in the afternoon.

  “You’re going to get expelled,” she says.

  “Okay,” I say. Expulsion is a buzz when she says it. My heart races and I taste adrenaline. I used to feel that way when I drew something cool. Excited for the next stroke of the pencil and simultaneously terrified that the next stroke could ruin what I’d already done.

 
“Did something happen?” she asks. “At school?”

  “Nothing ever really happens.”

  “You can’t go to college if you don’t have a diploma.”

  “Picasso didn’t have a diploma.”

  “Good for him,” she says. “You can’t drop out of high school at sixteen.”

  She looks tired. She always looks tired. Being an ER vampire-shift nurse does this to a person. Some days she looks more than tired. That usually means something gruesome happened.

  “Did you have a hard night?”

  “Accident on the expressway,” she says. “It was ugly.”

  “Did anyone die?”

  “Yes.”

  “I’m sorry,” I say.

  “Don’t ever drive like an asshole, Sarah. Ninety percent of accidents are because someone was being an asshole.”

  “I promise I won’t drive like an asshole.”

  “Good.”

  We’re Center City people. We don’t even have a car.

  Mom goes to pour another cup of coffee. I stand there trying to remember the ten-year-old me who watched her do this four or five nights a week. Always over the weekend. I try to figure out why she chose weekends when it was the only time I was home all day.

  “Do you remember when I was ten?”

  She stirs in three sugars. “I remember some things.”

  “Remember Mexico?”

  She stops stirring her coffee and stares at the countertop and lets the question float above us for a second too long. “You got such a sunburn on the last day,” she says.

  “I forgot to put lotion on,” I say.

  She sits back down. “I always felt bad for that. I should have made sure you were covered up.”

  “It healed,” I say, thinking of my thick skin.

  “Still.”

  “That’s when we lost Bruce,” I say.

 
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