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My Painter

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When I first met the painter of this picture I'd just lost my job and, if I remember correctly, I was reading the poems of the Japanese writer, Shiraishi. I got the book cheaply in a used bookstore and so felt a certain responsibility to it, but the more I read the more I liked it, and sometimes I even went around reciting bits of the poems in my head. Things weren't going well. I was sleeping on the floor of a friend's apartment, a photographer from Berlin who used to take pictures of the plants on his windowsill, a few potted greens that seemed to share a certain wistfulness, as if they had once lived in the great glass and cast-iron hothouses of Europe and didn't know how they'd got to that homely window ledge. They were nothing special, those plants, but I didn't say anything because after all the photographer was letting me sleep on his floor and use the soap in his shower. At that point I didn't know he was also the one who would introduce me to my painter, but if I had it would have been yet another reason to have practised silence as a form of gratitude.

In those days I was spending a lot of time in the little park on Second Avenue outside Beth Israel Hospital. During the day I didn't have much to do. I'd walk the streets with a book in my pocket, revelling in the winter sunlight and taking in the window displays designed to make you want to change your life, or at least rub the one you have until it starts to shine. That park was a strange and maybe even beautiful place, although you had to spend a fair bit of time there to begin to see its beauty. People who'd come to visit the patients in the hospital would go to the park to get a breath of fresh air and make calls on their cell phones. They were pale and exhausted, and you could see how their whole world had been honed to a single point. It was the ones who were waiting, who were hunched against the cold and didn't know the outcome, who stood out most sharply. There was one couple whose baby was in the ICU, and every time I saw them it took my breath away. You could tell they were sleeping in the hospital because they always wore the same clothes, and sometimes I heard them explaining to someone on the phone how the doctors were going to try this or that treatment. The baby was sick, he couldn't breathe. Is it possible that sadness can make people graceful? Usually I saw the man and the woman each on their own, I suppose so that one could stay behind with the baby. But once they came out together. The sky was tamped down heavy and grey, and it had just started to snow. The two of them were walking away from me, so I couldn't see their faces. But they looked too small for their enormous coats. I don't know who was staying with the baby, maybe the woman's mother, or maybe they left him with the nurses. After that I never saw them again, but sometimes I think about that child and wonder what happened to him. Not long afterwards I met the painter of this picture.

The story she likes to tell is that she saw me across the dance floor, but as I remember it we were introduced by the photographer at a friend of a friend's apartment. The apartment was about to be gutted, and everyone was allowed to draw something on the walls. I don't know why this was so exciting, but it was. I was given a piece of white wall in the hallway near the kitchen. It didn't get much light, but otherwise I was happy with it. I didn't know anyone at the party, and so the photographer looked around for someone to introduce me to. Just then my painter walked by. The photographer called her over and handed out our names. Then he went off shaking a can of spray paint.

During that time in my life I had a lot of elaborate ideas for jobs that I didn't know how to get, but which I believed in my heart I was meant for. I can't remember all of them now, but one involved operating a pleasure boat for tourists on the Gowanus Canal. I knew a girl who lived in Brooklyn, and I think the idea had something to do with my affection for her, and the way it brought me closer to her. In her bedroom she had a plastic model of a human brain, and many times I took the F train and ended up sitting in the sunshine on her floor, playing with it and trying to scrape together the courage. My mother used to say that I was my own worst enemy, and though I never thought she was right about that, the situation with the girl would certainly have fitted neatly into her argument. In the end it was always the girl who did most of the talking—she was, in so many ways, exemplary—while I sat Indian-style with the pieces of brain scattered around me. I don't know why I thought of the girl just now, or my plans for the Gowanus, except that it was around the time that I met my painter that my longing for her had reached its pinnacle. Since then I've thought about her less and less, and now I hardly think of her at all.

As I was saying, we were all given a little piece of white wall and the chance to draw on it however we saw fit. Unlike my painter, I am not an artist, nor have I ever wanted to be one. But I'd gotten it into my head to paint a jungle on fire, and wild pigs running out of it, sparks on their feet. The idea came from one of Shiraishi's poems. In it the wild pigs are afraid of humans and always run away from them, until one day a fire breaks out in the virgin forest and they come crashing out of it towards the human beings who they have always been right to fear. I started by drawing the jungle licked by flames which looked fine, more or less, but when it came time to draw the pigs they had none of the speed or terror I'd pictured in my head, and could have passed for dogs or even rats as easily as pigs. What had begun in excitement ended in disappointment, as has been the case with so many things in my life, and because the wall was quite large, and I could do nothing to hide the pigs, I felt embarrassed, then humiliated. I decided to abandon it and wander around the rest of the apartment to see what other people were doing, and simply hope that the fiery jungle and the wild pigs or dogs wouldn't continue, in the minds of the others, to be associated with me.

As I remember it, it was then that my painter and I first began to talk, and I realized, at some underpass in the conversation, that we would be seeing each other again after that day. Maybe I already knew then that she was going to paint me, or maybe I hoped that she would, or maybe I didn't care either way, was just glad to be free of the jungle on fire, and those poor and terrible pigs. My painter was busy painting a landscape of a tree, and what impressed me was how small it was, how she'd chosen to leave so much of the space allotted to her blank, the way the little landscape drew your attention to the wall itself, not letting you forget that it was a wall, and that it was something special to be painting on it.

It was also around this time that I acquired, by chance, the shirt that I am wearing in this picture. Someone left it behind in the photographer's apartment, and one day I put it on and went out for a walk with a book, I've forgotten which one, in my pocket. The shirt had an unfamiliar smell, but I felt immediately at home in it, and even took a liking to it. It was red, like the birds of Kalimantan that Shiraishi describes in his poem. Wearing it became something of a habit until I, too, left it behind somewhere, and now I suppose someone else is going around making a life in it. I'd forgotten it until just now when I saw this picture, in which, as you can see, my painter caught me in a moment that is somehow rare and yet not uncharacteristic.

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