She saw them through the raindrops. Their figures dripped down the window of the city bus. She’d been dodging his calls for a few weeks now, the father. Their little girl splashed in the puddles with her oversized rain coat. Astrid was supposed to pick up her daughter a few weeks ago, but never showed. And there they were, splashing through the rain together, her boots on the wrong feet. That window reflecting a million times over everything that Astrid was running away from.
Astrid pulled up the hood of her coat, the bangles on her wrist chiming loudly. She slouched down into her seat, attempting to lose her body in it. She couldn’t help but overhear her daughter’s squeals of delight, Robert’s triumphant laughter. Their sounds drowned the rain and she closed her eyes, trying not to imagine what they would do later or where they were going.
An older man in a vest took the seat next to Astrid. He grunted loudly and adjusted himself in his seat, bringing her back to her body. She crossed her arms and scoffed, turning away from him as the bus raced off. She watched the distant outline of her dark hair against ever changing backdrop.
White walls with marble gray floors- no windows. It was a sanctuary on the good days and a prison cell on bad. The smell of acrylic gripped the air until it clung so tightly that your nose ignored it- a guy you slept with once who wouldn’t stop calling you. There was the lapping sound of thick paint against a canvas and the occasional awkward farting noise when the paint is squeezed from the bottle.
The class was mostly older couples in their early fifties. A few people chatted excitedly, giggling at every brush stroke they made. One in the far right corner looked like this was supposed to be their form of marriage counseling and it wasn’t working. The man’s brush strokes were lazy. He’d look over to her every few seconds as he splattered something on the page, as if to say, “See I’m doing it, happy now?” or “I hate you.” Further toward the back there was one young couple. They were drenched in tattoo art and sported all black with multiple piercings, including gages. She glanced excitedly back and forth between his page and hers. He ran his hand gently up and down her thigh. She didn’t move it.
This community art class was the most that Astrid could afford. An amateur artist herself, Astrid had always dreamt of one day learning to paint, but never got around to it until it was too late. Well, better late than never. Or rather it had to be late or it would be never.
Astrid sat in the very back corner of the room, closest to the door. Her bangles rang musically along her wrists as she hesitated from the canvas to her chin. Do something impulsive. Her first instinct was to splatter paint, but that was so cliché. She ran a line of red paint horizontally across the pristine white. She groaned. The line was blatant and unavoidable. It had no arc or curve or character.
“Everything alright over here?” The class instructor asked in her mousy voice. Her outfit a little too put together and her hair a little too well done for someone who was around paint all day.
“Yeah, I got it.” She said confidently. Everyone around her had almost finished their mediocre paintings. Almost all of them had used cold colors. She smiled, suddenly happy that she’d chosen red.
“Are you stuck, sweetheart? I could grab you another canvas if-”
“I said I got it.” Astrid suddenly had the urge to splatter paint again, but not on the canvas.
The instructor shrunk back and walked around, showering everyone’s paintings with Oo’s, Ahh’s and the occasional “that’s wonderful”. Astrid spent the remainder of class in limbo between the canvas and some kind of no man’s land. That red line taunted her. It made rules about the colors she could use and the strokes that she could make. It made rules about what the painting could be and how she could live. It mocked her collection of headbands and the way she passively made love. It told her she was a phony and when she replied, “what is this, a Salinger novel?” it said “yes and you’re a smartass too.”
By the end of class all of the older couples had something to take home and hang on their walls. Something to show off to their kids or even grandkids. The one younger couple had something to fuck in front of later. Astrid waited till they’d all merrily gone before tossing hers.
“Fuck you,” she violently shoved it into the trash.
“See you next week, Astrid.” The mousy instructor called with sympathy.
“See ya, teach.” She saluted her and slammed the door behind her.
Moonlight drenched the paved roads in a sensual glow. Her boots shuffled, lazy against the stone. There was little to hear, but for hushed conversation and the occasional car.
As she passed a small lake she saw the young couple from her class. They ran their hands over each other enthusiastically. In the dim light it looked like they morphed into one big Goth blob with four arms, four legs, and too many tattoos to count.
“Get a room.” She muttered to herself. She shuddered; they’ll probably rip each other’s piercings out when they fuck. That’ll make a funny story in the ER.
There was a little girl skipping along a few steps in front of her Mom. She smiled up at Astrid, running her hands playfully over her pink skirt. Astrid cleared her throat and hurried past.
She looked at the paint on her fingers, a mesh of red and yellow and purple stared back at her. At least she managed to paint something. Most of it had dried, but a tiny red drip on her thumb was still damp. She swirled it between her thumb and pointer finger. Closing her eyes, she felt the texture. She wanted to know all of the atoms that made it up. Where they’d come from and where they were going, which wasn’t much further. Silently she apologized that they wouldn’t get to be a part of something glorious. That they wouldn’t dry and hang in a museum for thousands of years, but drown in her sink at home. But when she painted, she wanted to own them. Whip them. Make them her bitch, make them dance for her.
“Excuse me, miss-” a raspy voice came from the ground.
Astrid stopped, opening her eyes. A man sat on a rough blanket, a canvas propped in front of him. A bucket filled with a few coins sat on the edge of the blanket. It took Astrid a few moments to notice he was blind. His hair had grey streaks through the brown. A fishing net was draped over his shoulders. He was so thin that when he hunched over it looked like his spine had surrendered to gravity. In front of him he had placed and apple and a banana on two labeled piece of cardboard only the apple was labeled “banana” and the banana as “apple”.
“I think you mixed up your display here, man.” She bent to switch the fruits.
“No, I didn’t.” One of his front teeth was missing from his smile.
“Alright.” Astrid nodded, her lower lip jutting out. She tossed a few stray coins from her pocket into his can.
“God bless you, my child.”
“Uh huh, you have a good night.”
As Astrid began to walk away she caught a glimpse of the man’s painting and froze. To say that it was exquisite would not be close to enough. To say that it was extraordinary would be giving too much credit to the word. It seemed to hold every color and every combination of them. It was made in a shape that Astrid couldn’t distinguish yet it seemed to hold every shape as though it could have been anything or everything. It swirled and blended in ways that didn’t seem possible. It leapt from the page and danced through the square and into the stars and beyond. In an instant Astrid was the painting and it was the artist, looking on its mediocre creation.
“Shit,” Astrid’s voice cracked. She cleared her throat, “What kind of paint is that, man?”
“Acrylic, you can find it at any craft store.” He lifted the bottle for her to see. She swirled the paint between her fingers. It was dry now.
“Could you, uh- where’d you learn to paint like that?”
“Oh… shit. Is he famous?”
“Sort of.” He looked down and began swirling colors on piece of cardboard.
“Who is he?”
Astrid paused, swinging her fist against her palm uncomfortably. She waited for him to say something else. He didn’t.
“Like, you’re super religious or you think you’re Jesus fuckin’ Christ?”
“The second one, unfortunately.”
She cracked her knuckles and blew out a puff of air.
“Alright well, you have a good night then.” She lazily saluted him with two fingers.
“You as well.”
When Astrid was at home that night, all cozy with her sweatpants under two soft comforters, she closed her eyes and saw that painting. And every night for the next week she dreamt of it. The dreams turned to nightmares and the infinite spectrum of colors told her that she wasn’t real.
The following week on the day of her class she was woken by a pounding knock on her apartment door. After ignoring it for a solid five minutes she mustered the strength to get out of bed. She clenched her fist and stomped toward the door, violently swinging it open.
“Where the hell have you been?”
Robert stood awkwardly in her doorway. His hair, which was usually done a little too nicely, was disheveled. The skin underneath his eyes swollen and his clothes reeked of sweat. His lanky body hung sleepily and he began flailing his arms.
“I have been calling you for weeks, I thought you died.”
“You stink, dude.”
“Are you kidding me? That’s all you have to-”
Astrid started grabbed her bag.
“You’re not leaving-”
“Look I’m trying to figure some stuff out with me- You know what, I’m not talking to you about this.”
“Is that what I’m supposed to tell your daughter? You were supposed to take her weeks-”
“I will get her in a few days, okay? Get out of my way-”
“Come on Astrid, we have to talk about this-”
“Get the hell out of my way.”
She pushed past him and headed for the door, not looking back. On her way to class she walked past the park and saw the tree where the two Gothic lovers had exchanged saliva the week before. She also saw the Jesus man. He had his things set up exactly the way that they were the previous week. Every time she blinked she saw that painting. She huffed and clenched her fist, inching her way toward him, trying to catch a glimpse of his latest creation.
“I didn’t catch your name last week.” He called as she could almost see over his shoulder.
“It’s Astrid.” She muttered.
“Astrid. Beautiful name. What can I do for you?”
“Nothing.” Her voice was hostile. He nodded.
“Ya know what, yeah actually I have a few questions for ya, bud,” she chuckled, “so you’re Jesus, right? So is this supposed to be like the second coming?”
“No, actually, I’ve returned many times and between you and me, my life as Jesus wasn’t my first.”
“Yes, I was first brought to Earth as the Egyptian God, Horus. But that life was pretty similar to my life as Jesus, born to a virgin mother, tempted in the desert, walked on water, crucified and resurrected. Quite frankly I am not sure how Christianity missed that.”
“Well why do you keep coming back then?” Astrid shuffled her feet uncomfortably.
“After I was crucified again as Jesus, my Father decided that He wanted to understand the human condition.” he spoke softly, “He didn’t feel as though I really got a very good understanding of it from my first two lives. You know, proclaiming myself as the god and messiah and being exalted by many and remembered next to him. I mean, yeah the crucifixions hurt, but I had a good childhood and everything.”
Astrid chuckled ruefully.
“Huh, your Dad has a pretty good point there. So- uh, how many lives?”
“Since Jesus, quite a few.”
“Worst and best?”
“Uh- I was a woman in North Korea during the Japanese invasion and I was a Jew in Nazi Germany during World War two.”
“Shit, which is the good one?”
He laughed, his eyes twinkled. “The Korean woman. I fell in love in that life.”
“Wow,” she sat down next to him on his blanket and crossed her legs, “I mean, no offense, but if he wants to understand so badly, why doesn’t he get off his lazy ass? Why does he put his kid through that shit?”
“That’s a good question.” He shook his head, his laughter a bit forced. He cleared his throat and began swirling paint in his tray.
“Well, I have to go to my art class, but um, I will see you around. Good talk.”
“Yes, thank you. Bless you, child.”
She walked away quickly, realizing that her skin had grown warm. She passed a van, a father was buckling his son’s seatbelt. His son was screaming uncontrollably. The father didn’t seem to notice.
The room was a prison cell today. Everything felt louder than usual, every cough and sniffle stabbing Astrid in the gut as she tried her best to forget. And as the class went on sounds only got louder until Astrid could hear every scrape of friction between the brush and the canvas. They screeched at her from every direction.
Astrid’s fist balled around her own brush as she tried to push the inspiration out of her mind. When she closed her eyes all she could see was herself, alone in a room. She was naked and all of the walls were mirrors. Each of her reflections spoke to her. The one on the ceiling said it was too late. The one below her told her she wasn’t good enough. The one behind her whispered her daughter’s name over and over. And the one in front said, “You’ll never know who I am.” She could still hear the distant sound of the brush scraping the canvas echoing behind their screams. Astrid, the real Astrid, sliced her arms all the way down and began painting the walls with her blood.
“Hello Astrid,” Astrid jumped, the instructor was standing beside her, “how are you doing this week?”
“Yeah I’m fine.” Astrid rolled her eyes as the instructor pulled up a stool next to her.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what made you decide to join our class?” She whispered.
Astrid opened her mouth to answer sarcastically and then saw her blank canvas. She sighed.
“Something happened in my life a few years back, ya know something kind of life changing. And since then I’ve felt kind of stuck. Like I haven’t been moving forward and I sort of gave up on figuring out who I am. I just sort of put it on hold for this… thing.”
“Mhmmm…” She nodded encouragingly.
“So I don’t know, I started to get scared that it was never going to happen. That I’d just keep losing myself until I was gone.”
Astrid cleared her throat. The instructor looked at Astrid, her eyes narrowed.
“Well, I would say, judging by your art, that whatever this thing is that happened, it is already a part of who you are.”
Astrid sat for a moment, the sound of the paint brushes being drowned out by the sound of her quickening breath.
“No.” She whispered.
Two men were smoking outside of the building when Astrid burst out. She ran down the street, coughing partly from the smoke and partly because she hadn’t been able to breath for a while.
She hadn’t been able to sit through class the whole class. The clock ticked and she’d closed her eyes and seen everyone’s paintings in her head. Tick. Then she’d seen the Jesus man’s painting. Tock. She’d seen her daughter. Tick. She couldn’t pick up her brush.
The park was deserted except for the Jesus man. Astrid stopped for a moment, letting her breathing slow.
A cardinal flew to the top of the Goth couple tree. Four or five baby birds leapt as she arrived and she fed them gladly from her own mouth. She hopped about, kissing each of her babies with the worms she’d brought. The tree shrouded her. She stood at the helm of the nest, staring down at Astrid.
Astrid dusted off and strolled over casually to where the Jesus man sat. He was hunched over his painting, smiling to himself. She sighed and sat next to him.
“So um… do you still love him? Ya know um, your dad? After all of it.”
He sighed, stopping the brush on the canvas.
“I know I should say yes, but I don’t know. The longer I’ve been here, the more- human- I am- I’ve sinned. Many times, now. I’ve resented him, too. I still know who I am, but after this is all over I don’t think he’ll take me back.”
The sound of ducks quacking distantly in the lake. She leaned over toward his painting. It was different- different colors, different shape, but it seemed to still hold everything somehow as though was the same painting.
“Okay um…” she groaned loudly and sighed, “Maybe he’s pissed at you because he had his own thing going, his own fucking- thing. And then you show up and now he’s gotta- I don’t know, drop everything about who he’s supposed to be or what he wanted to do and make some room. Maybe he just thinks you’ll be better off on your own, with your D- on Earth.”
She cleared her throat and scooted around on the blanket so that she didn’t have to look at him.
“Honestly, Astrid, I wish I knew. It would make getting through this- everything- so much easier. I just wish I knew-Him.”
The two of them sat together- Jesus man and Mom- until the sun came up the following morning. They didn’t talk much, she spent most of the night watching him paint. And when she said good bye, she meant it.
That morning when she went home she pulled out her easel. She poured out paint and violently swirled it around. Closing her eyes, she slapped some colors on the canvas sporadically. One color from the edge, one color from the middle, they might be the same color- she wasn’t sure. She opened her eyes. It was a mess. The colors didn’t go, all of the paint was on the left side of the page except for one or two stray lines- it looked like a child had painted it. She tossed the canvas out the window.
She slammed her body onto the arm chair in her living room. And she sat, for a long time. For some of that time she tapped her foot, bit her nails and every once in a while she’d give the chair a heavy punch, harming her hand. For some she sighed loudly and groaned and hung her head. And for the rest she cried silently, she said goodbye to part of herself.
Astrid walked outside and retrieved the painting that she’d thrown. The phone rested between her shoulder and ear as she, grudgingly, hung up her ridiculous piece of art. Robert, she said, can I pick up Ariella today? I want to show her something I painted. Outside of the window, the sun was obstructed by pristine white clouds. The star was invisible and the clouds glowed beneath its rays.