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vol iv, issue 5 < ToC
The One I Fell Into
by
Cory Swanson
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Deleting theRed Shoes
Dream Machine
The One I Fell Into
by
Cory Swanson
previous

Deleting the
Dream Machine




next

Red Shoes
The One I Fell Into
by
Cory Swanson
previous next

Deleting the Red Shoes
Dream Machine
previous

Deleting the
Dream Machine




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Red Shoes
The One I Fell Into  by Cory Swanson
The One I Fell Into
 by Cory Swanson
Menke is a painter.

Menke has no paints.


It used to drip from him as a child as he toddled around his parents' apartment in the Lower East River District. From the perspective of his mother sitting on the couch, the first sight of him was always his hair, the big poof bobbling around and bouncing with his gait.

But after Menke would pass, chasing the cat or looking for a toy, there it would be in bright and brilliant puddles. Or in little drops scattered like the leavings of a bitch in heat. It would depend on his momentum--on his velocity--how much would collect.

We all leave our essence wherever we go, changing and affecting those around us. For Menke, however, it was tangible. So much of it gurgled and boiled forth that it couldn't be contained. Not by his diaper, nor by his clothes.

His mother loved it. She would find the puddles of it on the floor and, instead of mopping it up, she would rub it into her hands like lotion and enjoy the shimmering warmth of her baby boy for hours. When Menke grew older, she would go into his room when he was at school and lie in the puddle left on his pillow, resting her head in the liquid epitome of her son.

In contrast, his father would grow frustrated at the constant mess. He could not understand why his son was unable to control his secretions. "I contain myself," he berated his son. "My father contained himself. Everyone I know contains themselves. What's the matter with you, Menke?"

But Menke couldn't help spilling himself everywhere. As he approached his sensitive teenage years, he began to feel bothered by it dripping and sloshing in every direction.

"The thing I love about you, Menke," one of his teachers told him, "is that you're completely you. It's everywhere. Don't hide from yourself."

*     *     *
When I first met Menke, he promised to teach me how to paint.

"It's easy," he'd said, red Solo cup of keg beer in his hand. "I don't know why everyone says it's so difficult. It's not."

I remember my first sight of it, shining bright at the corners of his mouth. It enraptured me, glowing and swirling like a moving piece of raku pottery.

"Dude," said another partygoer. "Something's dribbling down your leg."

There it was. More of it, running in rivulets down his calf.

"Oh. Ha!" Menke said. "That happens when I drink."

The others laughed, and I worried that he might feel embarrassed.

"How could I worry about that?" he later told me when I asked about the incident. "That stuff is just me. I'm funny. Why not laugh when you're funny?"

Several days later, I took him up on his offer and visited his studio.

"Do you like it?" he asked as I stood in front of one of his works.

My jaw dropped. I eyed my new friend as he smiled and beamed at his creation.

"Well?" Menke urged.

"'Like' is an inadequate word."

His brow curled. "How do you mean?"

"'Like' implies a mere affinity. I guess I could use the word 'love,' but that feels inadequate as well. 'Love' would imply that it only inspires positive feelings. But this, this painting is..." I noticed that I had been reaching out to touch it. "May I?" I asked.

"Of course," Menke replied. "I would be honored."

I laid my fingers on the surface and they sunk into the swirling shimmer of the substance on the canvas. Nervously, I looked over at Menke, who smiled and nodded his encouragement. I sank my hand deeper into the canvas. It felt warm and my hand seemed to glow and tingle. Waves of emotion flowed down my arm like the thick currents of some liquid drug. A tear formed in the corner of my eye and slowly moved down my cheek.

Eventually, I breathed and remembered myself in the real world. I withdrew my hand, the surface of the painting swirling where my fingers once were. Even the oil-slick shine of the surface left me shaking inside.

Menke observed the look on my face. "Good. I'm really glad you like it," he said, that indomitable grin stuck in position. "You want me to show you how?"

Before I could respond, he'd moved his painting and replaced it with a clean canvas.

"Look, Menke," I said. "Something like that, it could make you rich. Maybe you shouldn't just show everybody how it's done."

He waved off my comment as he gathered his brushes. "Why would I be concerned with such things? Give me a warm bed and enough to eat. I love it so much, and it's easy. Maybe I can share it with the entire world."

From the sink, he pulled out a clean pallet. I looked around, expecting the usual piles of mixed and unmixed paints lying around, but no such thing existed.

"I think everyone is born with the ability to paint," he continued, eyeing the blank canvas and fussing with its position. "Most of us just forget how to do it."

I opened my mouth to ask where his paints were, then stopped short. Menke lifted his shirt, exposing his somewhat gaunt and mildly hairy midsection.

"But I believe in relearning," he said. "Look at the Renaissance painters. Painting like they finally remembered how things look. That is the key."

Holding a brush like a pencil, he pressed into his belly with a practiced motion of his pinkie, removing a finger-full of glittering paste.

"Just remember how things look--how they really look--and you'll be fine."

He wiped the glob on his pallet, poking at it and mixing it with his brush. Three more times he swiped his pinkie across his belly, mixing and blending the tones together until the beautiful stew seemed to pulse.

Menke smiled at me and dipped his brush in the mixture. "Then, when you remember how things really look," he began spreading it on the canvas with sure strokes and wild flourishes, "try to remember how things really feel."

*     *     *
We all struggle to put our essence to use.

Menke's journey through his teenage years had been difficult, what with his father's inability to understand his character.

"Keep it to yourself," his father said. "Don't let anybody see it. If they know what you are, they'll know where you're weak."

"I can't help it, Dad," Menke complained. "It spills out of me. I flick my wrist and it sprays on the walls. I turn my head and it flies in every direction."

These conflicts led to vicious rows and angry words. After, Menke's mother would invariably find him sulking in his bed.

"Don't hide it, Son," she would say. "Put it to use. It's a shame to have all of that 'you' flying around with no purpose."

So he vowed to find the meaning of his gift.

His first attempts to find a creative use for his overflowing self yielded disastrous, if comical, results. A stint in his school theater program left the other students flecked and shimmering as he sprayed his lines to the audience. The difficulties of portraying characters who did not exude his exact je ne sais quoi proved impossible.

His semester spent learning the trumpet in the school band proved equally untenable. After even short passages, his sound would begin to gurgle. He would duck his head beneath the music stand to empty the tubes of the instrument using the water key, only to leave glowing streaks all over the band room carpet.

"Band is about what we can do together," the director told him after pulling him into his office for a chat. "It requires you to put yourself aside and let your sound become one with the group."

Alas, Menke's gurgling trumpet never blended and balanced with the other sounds, and the growing puddles beneath him, though fascinating, proved distracting to the performers and the audience alike.

One day, as she came home from work, his mother found him at the kitchen counter bent over a piece of paper.

"What are you up to?" she asked, not seeing his usual schoolbooks and supplies surrounding him.

"Drawing," he said.

"Drawing what?" she said as she walked over to him.

"I don't know," he said. "Self portrait. Something like that."

She saw that he had been dripping all over the counter, his opalescent essence streaming down his face as he leaned over the paper. She grabbed one of the rags they had stowed all over the apartment just for such purposes.

"I didn't know you were interested in drawing," she said.

Menke grunted, not breaking his focus.

She saw him dip his pencil in one of his puddles and spread it on the paper. Intrigued, she looked over his shoulder.

The picture was indeed a self portrait, but not in the traditional sense. There were no eyes or ears. No depiction of his strong chin or the wild hair that he'd had ever since he was a toddler. But what she saw captured the essence of the son she knew and loved so perfectly that tears began to roll down her cheeks.

"Menke," she whispered. "That's beautiful."

"You think?" he said, smiling and holding the picture up.

"I think you've found your voice, Son."

Even his father thawed at the sight of his work. Menke once spotted him on the couch, slowly letting his finger sink into the artwork, a look of pure awe on his face. Despite this, his father reached very different conclusions than his mother had.

"It's nice to be able to express yourself, Menke," he said. "But art isn't a career. Why don't you study finance or medicine?"

Menke wanted only one thing from that day on. To share his vision with everyone he met. To bring them the joy of his creation. To fight to be heard among the crowd.

*     *     *
"I don't think I can do that like you," I told him at my second art lesson.

"Nonsense," he said. "Everyone's made of this stuff. Just do it like this." Menke pressed into his belly, the substance secreting onto his finger like toothpaste on a toothbrush. "See?"

I lifted my own shirt, embarrassed at the contrast of my pale and flabby midriff to his toned physique, and pressed into my own belly the way he showed me. Of course, nothing came out.

"You're not doing it right," he said, smile remaining. He pressed his finger into me and I felt a surge of warmth and a twinge of desire. He held something up like a child showing off a recently caught ladybug, revealing a small amount of the substance resting on the pad of his index finger.

"See?" Menke beamed. "I told you we were all made of this."

"That could have come out of your finger as easily."

Shaking his head, he grabbed a pallet for me and wiped my paint in one of the waiting divots. "No, this is yours. It's totally different from mine."

Though I couldn't see the difference between his and mine, I decided to stay quiet and let the master show me how to execute such monumental works.

"Just mix it up like this," Menke said, swirling several of his own dabs together on his pallet. "Then, just make something."

"What should I make?" I asked.

He looked over at me, confused. "Whatever you feel like making. I certainly can't tell you what that is."

Menke focused on his own painting while I mixed my small glob on my pallet and lifted my brush to the canvas. Try as I might, I could not get the substance to stick to the canvas. It dripped and collected. My sad attempt to paint a face became a drooping and sick nightmare.

"Tsk, tsk," said Menke as he looked over. "You must feel very badly about whoever that is."

"It's," I started sadly. "It's a self portrait."

Menke looked on me with great sympathy in his eyes. "You must learn to love yourself," he said. "I must show you how to love yourself."

*     *     *
Menke tried art school. Needless to say, his views on art did not conform to what the professors were trying to teach him.

"I don't know why I'm paying for this," his father told him when he saw his grades.

"Neither do I," Menke said, frustrated with what the professors had tried to shove down his throat during the preceding months.

"Menke," his father said, "if you want to be an artist, you need to learn about design, history, marketing. If you can't do that, you need to go into a more sensible field."

Menke scoffed. His father pressed harder. Menke became defensive.

By the end of the night, Menke had moved in with a friend and withdrawn from school.

He refused to learn the terms by which a normal artist becomes successful. As always, he wanted to invent his own way through life. It's just the way he was.

*     *     *
"Look, Menke," I said. "I never really wanted to be an artist. Don't worry that I'm bad at it. It's not a big deal."

"No, no," he said. "Everyone is an artist. Everyone has something important inside of them."

"No, really," I said, brushing my hair out of my eyes. "Don't worry about it. It was fun, really." I smiled at him.

He smiled back. "I haven't given up on you, but you can take a break. Let me finish up and we'll go get some coffee."

"I'd love that."

I wandered around his studio while he painted, looking at the various works collected in the nooks and crannies. A dog. Mountains. None of them took the form of the actual objects, but I could feel what they were. The dog felt like loyalty. The mountains felt like exhilaration. Something about his paintings enraptured me.

I turned to see a newer painting still drying on an easel. I gasped. Something about it seemed familiar and warm, though I couldn't tell exactly what it depicted.

Why not ask him? I thought.

"Menke?" I said, turning around. My foot caught on an imperfection in the concrete floor and I felt myself beginning to fall forward.

Menke spun around just in time to see me disappear inside the painting.

*     *     *
Menke slept on his fair share of couches in those early days. His mother struggled to locate him as he imposed on everyone he could, stretching their lease agreements to the limit before finding another place to crash.

"Are you okay?" she asked him over a diner breakfast after finally tracking him down.

"Yes, Mom. I've never been more free."

"You need your own place."

Menke shook his head. "Mom, I'm doing fine."

"You need somewhere to put your paintings. Somewhere to make them."

Menke bowed his head. She was right. Getting a toehold in galleries meant he had to have something to sell. Right now, working on his art proved difficult, at best. His endeavors required him to carry his supplies from place to place along with his one change of clothes and his sleeping bag.

Then he got lucky. An older friend of the family took pity on him and offered him their insulated garage as a studio and a place to sleep. With a few dollars he'd been able to scrape together, Menke bought a space heater and a hot plate. The benefactor allowed Menke to use an old mini-fridge that had been stored in the garage since college and tolerated him coming in the house to use the restroom.

Menke wasted no time putting the opportunity to use. Each night, he worked until he collapsed, spent and, quite literally, drained. By day, he took these works and shopped them to the galleries, calling in favors from friends to transport him from place to place.

Slowly, he worked his way into a gallery or two. Little by little, his work sold.

By the time I met him, he'd been able to rent his studio space, sleeping on a cot in the corner, his hot plate and space heater still in use.

*     *     *
At first, I felt like I'd fallen into a lake or a river instead of a painting. My eyes and mouth locked shut, trying not to let the substance in. I thrashed and kicked and generally panicked until my heart beat like a jackhammer.

Drowning like this seemed to come straight out of my nightmares. My lungs felt like they would explode. Just before I lost consciousness, my mouth opened and I breathed it in. I breathed Menke in. His essence filled me. It nourished me. My eyes opened to reveal the light and color that surrounded me. Menke stretched in every direction. My heart seemed to fill with it. With him.

As I opened my eyes on the grandeur of Menke's creation, nothing to that point had ever felt so complete. So right. I breathed the thick liquid deeply, letting it nourish my brain. The light. The shade. This painting is a masterwork, I thought. I've never experienced anything so complete.

I swam one direction, then another, exploring the various structures and forms that made up this world. Time seemed immaterial and stretched infinitely to the horizon. Everything felt pure and right and good.

Eventually, I looked up towards the source of the light that rained down on this realm. I saw a hand, his hand, reaching down and frantically grabbing and grasping around.

Funny, I thought. Menke seems upset. I wonder why.

Then I saw his head in the opening, his wild hair swimming around his head like the tentacles of a jellyfish, his face clearly distraught.

I tried to ignore him at first. He has no right to try to rescue me. I'm enjoying myself.

But as he shouted and searched the depths for me, his substance washed from his mouth and eyes in panicked streams and began to snake and wind through this world. It leaked the bright colors of panic and dismay and I could not deny that it changed the character and feel of my environment. Don't ruin your painting, I wanted to yell.

Reluctantly, I swam up and grabbed his hand. With strength and sureness, he pulled me up and out.

I flopped on the grey concrete floor of his studio.

"Oh my God. Are you okay?" Menke shouted.

My eyes opened and I tried to reassure him that I was fine. Nothing but the gagging sound of liquid being forced out of my lungs came out. Slowly, the substance dripped out of me.

"Talk to me," he said. "Are you okay?"

The substance dripped from his hair and new rivulets of it formed at the corners of his mouth.

He was beautiful.

I grabbed him and kissed him.

*     *     *
"You can breathe it," I said later, finally able to speak, thrilled that he'd kissed back.

Menke seemed unimpressed. He brooded and sulked.

"You don't understand," I said. "There's more to your work than what you've set down in two dimensions. There's a whole world in there."

"I never knew that what I'd been making was dangerous," he said.

"I wasn't in danger. It was like a beautiful drug."

His mood grew darker. "I never intended to make drugs."

I felt something wet underneath my shirt. "Oh, my God. Look, Menke." I held up my finger to show him the glob of the substance I'd collected.

"That's just leftover," he dismissed.

"I dried off. This is new. This is me."

His mood grew more brooding.

"Oh, that's good," I said. "Twenty minutes ago, you wanted to teach the whole world how to paint like you. You told me that anyone can and should learn how to do it. Now you're upset that I'm leaking it too."

Menke looked over at me, his dark eyes beautiful and sad. "I didn't know that could happen. I'm so sorry."

I hugged him. "Don't be sorry. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Please, tell me. What was that a painting of?"

Menke smiled, clearly relieved. But instead of telling me what kind of painting I'd fallen into, he kissed me.

*     *     *
Life could not return to normal after that. Every day proved a fight against the thoughts and daydreams, all of which led back to the memories of being inside that painting.

The only thing that could scratch the itch was being around Menke. Looking back, I must have been such a burden on him. I constantly hung around him, showing up at his studio unannounced. He never turned me away. If he'd been more like me, he would have kicked me out in a heartbeat, but he seemed to like having me around.

I sat there like a junkie, watching him paint. At parties, I would joke that he was my dealer. In reality, he was my drug.

Menke shared what he could with me, throwing me scraps of food like I was a hungry dog. And like a dog, I remained faithfully by his side. He never asked me to fetch his slippers, but I would have.

I returned the favor as best I could. I had a car and gave him rides to the galleries. I ran errands for him, did his shopping, took his packages to the post office. All to remain at his side.

I shunned my responsibilities as well as my relationships. I stopped going to work and got evicted from my apartment.

But there I would be, at his feet, in his bed, soaking up that essence, that substance that I craved. When he went out, I would find his little puddles and soak my hands in them. I would rub it in my hair and lick it off my fingers.

It was never enough. I knew I had to go back into the painting. It was the only way.

*     *     *
"I want to go back in," I told him.

"Again?" Menke said. "I'm tired."

"No," I said, wiping at a thin stream of his substance trickling out of his eye with my finger. "In the painting."

He shook his head. "I don't want you to get lost in there."

"We can use a rope. You'll be right there."

He sat quietly and I worried I'd offended him. Heedless and desperate, I continued.

"I need this, Menke. It's the only thing that makes sense to me anymore. I'll pay you anything."

His brow furrowed. "You have no money. That much is certain."

"I'll get a job."

"You had a job."

"I'll get another one. I'll give you all the money. Please, just let me--"

Menke put his finger to my lips and shushed me. "I've suspected you'd want back in. I'll admit, it's exciting to me that my work has another dimension to it that I never understood. But I need you to promise me one thing."

"Anything."

"Promise you'll never go back into that same painting you fell into before."

*     *     *
Giddy, I picked a small painting of a rabbit for my first adventure. I figured no harm could come from a fuzzy rabbit. My shoulders couldn't fit through the frame, so he took it off and I slid in, a rope tied around my waist, the other end tied to the radiator.

Only a few seconds later, I tugged on the rope and he pulled me out.

"What's the matter?" Menke asked.

Once I could breathe the air again, I gagged. "That poor animal. Trapped in a cage, sitting in his own shit. How terrible, I thought it was a cute bunny."

"But that's how I felt when I painted him," Menke defended. "I wanted to open his cage and set him free the entire time."

"But from the outside it's just a cute bunny."

"That's the duality of our emotions towards animals. On one hand we want to appreciate their affection and their warmth, but on the other hand, we have to understand that we have fundamentally changed a wild animal and, as a consequence, it can never be free."

"Why would that need to be in your painting?"

"Because it adds to the richness of the animal. It wouldn't be as good a painting without that kind of depth."

I shook my head, at once impressed with his artistry and disappointed.

"How about this one?" I asked, pointing to a different canvas.

"The sunset? I love that one."

Taking this as a vote of confidence, I dangled my feet for a second then pushed off into it like it was a swimming pool.

Seconds later, I tugged the rope and he pulled me out. When I could speak, I began to cry. "That was so sad. Why was that beautiful painting so sad?" I asked him.

"Sunsets are sad."

"Sunsets are beautiful, not sad."

"Of course they're sad. The bright day is ending. Nothing lies ahead but the dark and foreboding night."

I shook my head at him in disbelief.

We moved through several more paintings, none of which matched my experience with the first one, and all of them were difficult in different ways. The old couple dancing felt like the fleeting impermanence of beauty and happiness. The boat teetered in a vast and unforgiving ocean. Even the bee in the flower felt like a desperate bid for survival and a fight for scarce resources.

By the end of the night I sat sulking, generally making both of us miserable.

"I want to go back into the first painting, Menke."

"No," he said simply.

"Why not?"

"Because it scares me," he said. "Besides, I sold it."

My heart felt crushed. As I lay next to him trying to sleep that night, I started to wonder how I would go about finding that painting.

"I don't even know what it's a painting of," I said.

Menke grunted, already mostly asleep.

*     *     *
My affliction grew worse with time.

"You're not eating enough," Menke told me.

"It's fine," I said, cleaning a drop of his substance from the corner of his mouth and rubbing it between my fingers, feeling its warmth.

"It's not fine," he said. "I'm making more money now. There's plenty of food. Eat it."

"I'm fine," I insisted, the warmth of his essence filling me from my fingertips out.

"You're not fine. I'm worried about you. Look." He wrapped his entire hand around my bony upper arm and was able to touch his finger to his thumb. "You're wasting away."

Angry, I pulled my arm back. "You know what I need."

"I told you, I sold that painting."

Later at a gallery, as I tried to haul some of his works in for a show, I stumbled at the curb, too weak to lift my legs high enough.

The gallery owner helped me to my feet. "Look, I know a great rehab clinic," he told me.

"I don't need rehab," I spat at him. "I'm not a junkie."

"It can be hard to admit. Menke's worried about you. He cares for you."

"Junkies need drugs," I said, my speech slurring. "I don't have drugs."

Later that week, my parents and brother came to the studio with Menke. They found me in the corner, lying in a cot, rubbing a stray drop of his essence between my fingers.

"Come home with us," my mother pleaded. "Get healthy, get back on your feet."

"I'm fine," I said, my speech garbled. "I have everything I need here."

Menke helped me to my feet and into the car. "It'll be fine," he said. "You just need to get grounded again."

And for a while he was right. For several weeks at home, I truly tried to forget what I'd seen. I ate, I exercised, I began to feel normal again.

Until one night. My parents went to the theater and left me home alone. I missed Menke so much that I took out the small three inch painting he'd given me as a birthday present.

Just a little, I thought. It can't hurt me.

What began as one finger knuckle deep in his substance quickly progressed to rubbing it on my gums and under my eyelids. Anything to make this little bit go as far as possible.

My parents came home to find me incoherent, rolling on the floor. In the morning, when they confronted me about it, I grew angry, shouted, and left.

Menke took me back into his studio. "I missed you," he said.

"Me too."

*     *     *
The time at home only made my relapse worse. I wiped his messes with rags and tried to breathe it in like vapor. I snuck bits and pieces from his paintings when he wasn't looking. My body deteriorated.

There was only one thing I wanted, though.

"What was that painting of, my love?" I asked.

"Which one?"

"The one I fell into."

Menke again met my question with stony silence.

My desperation growing, I tried looking through his receipts. I broke into his phone and checked his mail to see if any paintings I didn't recognize had been sold.

Nothing.

I called the galleries and asked if they remembered a painting that fit its description.

More nothing.

Then it dawned on me. He's hiding it from me. That son of a bitch is hiding it from me.

Frantically, I began to leaf through his stacks of finished paintings. Behind shelves, under the furniture, I searched.

Then I found it. Underneath our cot. His substance had soaked through the mattress and dripped onto the back side of the canvas and dried, obscuring the title.

"My God," I whispered, flipping the painting over, finally seeing it again after so many months. Its beauty exceeded what I remembered.

How come I can't tell what it is? I thought. Every other painting of his, I can tell right away. I can see it and feel it. But this.

I sighed.

This is beautiful.

*     *     *
Later, Menke told me that he walked in to find the painting on the floor with the rope dangling in it.

"No," he yelled. "Dear God, No!"

He yanked the rope, but didn't feel the familiar resistance. All that came out was the dangling loop.

*     *     *
Inside, I found the painting as I'd left it, beautiful and perfect. I'd gone in with the rope and every intention of returning to the world. But once I was in, the purpose of the rope escaped me. When it prevented me from going as deep as I wished to explore the structures and forms around me, I slipped it off my waist.

The warmth of the painting consumed me. The architecture of brilliance surrounded me and drove me to another plane. I'd never been this far or this deep, but there seemed to be no limit or border.

Time didn't slow. It simply became irrelevant, its only purpose to give sequence to my actions which also became unimportant.

I don't know how long it took him to find me. It must have been terrible for him, gagging on his own secretion.

I became aware of his arms around my waist. Somewhere out in that endless abyss of perfection, he pulled me back. I reached out, trying to swim away, but I was rendered weak and helpless, every movement a limp, slow-motion flailing in the thick liquid.

Back on the floor of the studio, the sound rushed back as Menke's essence bubbled and drained out of my ears. Sirens. Menke coughing and gagging.

Hands lifting me. Speeding in the ambulance next to Menke. Tubes and pumps in my stomach and lungs. Menke sitting up, breathing through a mask.

All I wanted was to go back in.

What a beautiful painting, I thought.

Later in the hospital, Menke leaned over my bed and held my hand. I opened my eyes for a moment.

"What was it a painting of?" I asked, my voice a breathy whisper.

Menke squeezed tears and the opalescent substance from his eyes. "You," he croaked. "It was a painting of you I made when I first fell in love with you."

*     *     *
On our first anniversary, we brought our red Solo cups to a nice restaurant and had the waiter fill them with cheap beer to commemorate the party where we first met. No fine wine could have accompanied our filet mignon better than that cup of Bud Light.

The following morning, he made me sit for a painting. I agreed, giddy with delight.

"You're not going to like this one as much," he said before he turned it around.

"That's probably a good thing, considering," I said.

He was right. I didn't like it as much as the first one. The first painting had been a painting of new love. It felt exciting and shined in its bright hues. That first painting was a magical--even mystical--thing.

This new image was of a love that had steeped and brewed for a year. The bright tones had cooled. The abstract structures had solidified. Its lines had become neater. I sank my hand in and felt warmth. The substance felt firm.

It was good that I didn't want to live in it like I did the first one. It can be deadly at worst and stifling at best to expect a relationship to stay in those initial stages. Infatuation can be thrilling and wonderful, but there's a reason it doesn't last forever.

Menke looked at me expectantly. "What do you think?"

I kissed him.

This became our tradition. We marked the passage of each year with cheap beer and good food, followed by another painting.

Yes, they grew darker every year as they filled with our experiences. Our joys and accomplishments as well as our disappointments and losses. Inevitably, life becomes filled with such things.

But every year, Menke's lines grew firmer. His forms matured. As our relationship moved from the abstract to the real, so did his paintings.

Every year he asked me if I liked it. Every year, I gave him a kiss.

In his dotage, Menke became ill. In the last painting before his death, the abstract had melted away. The painting seemed to me to be no different than a photograph. The many lines in my face were realized with an exactitude that only the deepest knowledge of them could have conveyed.

"Do you like it?" he asked.

"There's no more abstractions," I said. "It's so austere."

Menke placed the back of his hand on my cheek. "There's nothing left to guess at. It's all been written."

I gazed into his eyes and he closed them tight, the tears flowing in phosphorescent streams, his essence as pure as it had ever been.

"Do you like it?" he croaked, his voice unsteady.

"No," I said. "I can't like it. It's too real. It's too firm and clear."

Menke sobbed. I kissed his cheek, his essence warming my lips.

"But Menke, love is also an inadequate word."

(next)
Red Shoes