I cried the night Gustav Klimt painted the moon. My lips were damp with the tears, mixed with the lingering tingle of a kiss, as I made my way home. I tried to push Elise from my mind, filling it instead with thoughts of how far I had drifted from the plans I had made as a child. Refreshing thoughts full of growth and gain —thoughts that could not relieve the sense of loss. I asked myself if perhaps I would rather have stayed with simpler times, simpler plans.
In third grade, I wanted to be an inventor. I thought I could create a happy formula mixed from laughing gas and other stuff that could be sprinkled from a hot air balloon to make people stop hating each other. I also began writing in third grade. I still remember the small boxes in the back of the room, each containing cards with either the beginning or ending to a story. We would have to write the rest. My stories were usually read to the entire class. The kids laughed.
I loved the attention. I’d do anything for it. School plays, mostly. In fifth grade, we got to read a script from MASH. The studio that made the show had sent them to schools as an English activity to promote one of their special episodes—the one where Hawkeye has to save a life in thirty minutes, real time. I got to be Hawkeye. I read ahead, so that I’d be ready to deliver my lines, on cue. I noticed that Hawkeye, at one point in the scene, says Damn it! It crossed my mind whether or not it would be appropriate to say damn, out loud, in a classroom. In the end I decided that if it was in the script, it had to be too important to ignore.
When the time came to deliver my line, I offered up, “Damn it!” with such gusto that the class immediately erupted in laughter, including the teacher. I waited for them to stop to deliver my next line.
Ultimately though, I always felt I would end up choosing a more practical vocation. By high school, I wanted to be a geneticist. I read every article on genetics in Omni, Discovery, and Popular Science. I watched specials that came on news shows like 60 Minutes and 20/20 that discussed breakthroughs, like the creation of the sexless fruit fly. I was enchanted by the magical, medical possibilities. I just knew I would be the first to clone whole organs. Spare organs would be produced from the cells of a person’s body. If that person ever needed a transplant, an organ, his organ, would already be available, making organ donations unnecessary and organ rejection a thing of the past.
In my senior year, I was even able to take a genetics class. My interest in school had waned by that point. I’d lost my friend, Eric, when he was hit by a car while riding his bike on Dundalk Avenue, just before the end of junior year. I spent most of my time hanging out alone in a little fort a few of my neighborhood friends had built under a railroad bridge that spanned Eastern Avenue, dividing Highlandtown from Greektown. I’m not sure how I passed anything that year, but I aced Genetics.
Not that it mattered. My grades dropped so bad that I lost any chance of going to a decent school. I enrolled into Baltimore Community College to study computers, another love of mine. Computers and I had come of age together. The time I didn’t spend hiding bunder a bridge I spent with my friend, Mike, coding programs on his Commodore64. We played games, a lot. His parents got him a modem for Christmas in 1986, and we spent a lot of time hanging out in Bulletin Board Systems—BBSes, precursors to internet websites.
It was on one of those BBSes that I met Misty. She was the sysop of the Inner Sanctum BBS, known for its bawdy, adult content. Misty worked loading cars off ships docked at the Dundalk Marine Terminal. She would get home at around two in the morning and check to see who had, and was, on her site. That late, it was usually me or Mike. Traffic was lighter, then; and we were kids, prone to use any excuse to stay up late.
Together, while Mike’s parents slept.we would browse the adult photo board. Then , we would take turns either playing games, or more likely in my case, adding to stories posted on the writing boards. Like exquisite corpses, the stories were written in pieces by various users. I especially liked the erotic stories board. So did Misty. Most of the stories there were collaborations between Misty and me. We would trade sexual fantasies back and forth until we had something close enough to call complete, then start a new one.
Misty and I began chatting online during those late night sessions. Chatting turned into snail mail, handwritten letters we sent by post. We met, eventually. She offered to pick me up and drive me to Dundalk to see where she worked. She warned me, however, that unlike her fantasy persona, her real self was overweight. Even so, I imagined that upon meeting we would eventually begin flirting, which would lead to living out some of the fantasies we had shared.
I was nervous when her car pulled up. I was seventeen, and I had shared so many intimate things with this woman I had never seen in person. I got into the car and was taken aback, even with the warning. She was heavier than I’d imagined. I looked for something appealing about her, but I couldn’t find anything. She was nervous, too. She was in her thirties, and here she was driving around with a minor with whom she’d exchanged dirty stories. Nothing happened. We talked a little and she took me home.
I got on the Inner Sanctum after that, but it was never the same. Reality had ruined it for me. But it didn’t ruin computers. That was my calling. Writing would always be a hobby, but the Computer Age had begun.
It didn’t last long, at least not for me. The math classes became more difficult, and the part time jobs I took to pay for things became full time jobs, became better paying full time jobs. My classes were a breeze until I hit Calculus. It hurt my brain too much. I made careless errors with the easy math and barely passed tests & exams. When having money got more fun than college, I started selling cameras and dropped out.
It was one of those jobs where no one was really a salesman. The job was only a pitstop on the way to greater aspirations. Rick, the manager, was a screenwriter from Towson State. Tonya, who ran the photo lab was doing research for her own lab. Matt was a model builder who claimed he could build any architectural structure with nothing but cardboard, toothpicks and magic markers. He wanted to build small scale models professionally. Tod, the only one who admitted to being nothing but a salesman, left for dental school after three months. I was just lost, unsure of where i was going—until I picked up a camera.
Employees could borrow cameras to try them out. That wasn’t always a good thing, like the time Matt strapped one of our video cameras to a remote control car we were giving away with them and sent it rolling through the mall as everyone looked on—pure fun and games until the car, duct taped camera on top, tumbled down the up escalator. Fortunately, no one got hurt, except Matt, who had to go figure out how to make money with toothpicks, or find something else to do. So we hired Kenny who went to Coppin State and also wrote. He seemed as lost as I was.
We were banned from borrowing cameras, after the incident. I didn’t let that stop me. Rick and I got along, well. I did his paperwork and generally helped him run the store. We would do inventories by ourselves—just the two of us and a six pack of Killian’s Red, and we would count every item in the store faster than a team of four. We would talk about our favorite fantasy books and making them into movies. So yeah, he let me borrow cameras. It helped me sell them better.
When I printed my pictures, things would happen. My co-workers would praise me with, you got a good eye, and Rick would blow up some of my shots to promote enlargements. Customers would see them, and buy them, shots of the surrounding harbor—boats, docks, harbors, a car that I just happened to see burning while walking out of work—shots I thought nothing of as I took them. The attention did little except to leave me more confused about my place in the world, so I decided to try art school.
The smell of turpentine stung my nose as I walked in. In the center of the room a single egg stood upright in a pile of salt, atop a white podium. I scanned the room and noticed a few students already painting. Others were setting up. One was stretching a canvas, pulling the course fabric tightly over the wooden frame with one hand, stapling it down with the other. I looked for a place to fit in.
Off in a corner there was a girl on a stool, contemplating the egg. The sunlight came in strong behind her, enveloping her in an aura of white brightness, but obscuring her features. As I walked towards her, they became more apparent—the unkempt auburn hair, the slight, obscurely shaped lips, the small, slightly upturned nose, and those eyes. They were a deep green, the kind of deep that pulled you in, like the deep green waters of the Caribbean that I recall from my childhood when my family could still afford to spend summers in Puerto Rico. I resisted the temptation to dive.
I smiled hello as I set my supplies down near her. She pulled herself out from her trance only long enough to mouth, hi. As I fumbled with an easel, I couldn’t help throwing glances her way. By the time I was set up, she was finally working on her canvas. It seemed like she was using a rather large brush for such a small egg. But then again, I had never painted anything that wasn’t by numbers. Up until I got accepted, I pretty much figured that there was no way I was getting into one of the best art schools in the country, local boy or not.
Somehow, I managed to throw together a portfolio with Melisa’s help. She went to the Institute and worked in our photo lab, part time, for spending money. I put together my best photographs, a few collages that incorporated some of my writing, and some terrible drawings. I had also pasted some newspapers together and created a mural inspired by a few months I spent painting graffiti with friends. Some of them had applied to the school. None got in, until I was somehow able to bullshit my way in.
I noticed a smudge of charcoal on my cute classmate’s cheek, and I immediately feel compelled to wipe it off. The instructor came in only long enough to pass out a syllabus. As I picked up a brush I became increasingly worried that art school had been too lofty an idea. I could feel Green Eyes looking at me. It made me nervous. I could feel the sweat beading on my forehead. I saw her coming over from the corner of my eye, and my paintbrush began to shake.
“What are you doing?” were the first words I ever heard from her mouth. I knew we were the only ones that heard them, but it felt like she had yelled them out loud enough to echo through the hallways of the Institute.
Meekly, feeling sweat run in rivulets down my arms and ribs, I answered, “Painting an egg?”
“I know that,” she said a little testily, “but you haven’t even gessoed the canvas, yet.”
I felt a thrill as she stared at me through scowling eyes. Didn’t you know this was an advanced painting class?”
“Well, yeah. But it was the only one open. I had to take one this semester or wait until next semester to start classes. My advisor told me that the instructor would help me... catch up?”
Her frown was a distraction. I wanted to kiss it.
“Well, you got bad advice. Pappos Econopolos doesn’t have the patience for beginners. His mission in life is to advance the talents of those already gifted with the ability to paint, and to weed out those who don’t deserve the privilege of holding a brush.
“Great!” I say, flustered, “That’s just great. I’m gonna die. I’m going to end up killing myself if being ripped apart in front of everyone by my teacher isn’t enough to do it.”
I looked at her and saw something soften in her face. “Look, don’t worry about it. Just go down to the bookstore and bring back a canvas that’s pre-gessoed. Gesso is a coating that seals the canvas so the texture of the fabric doesn’t show through your work—you actually have a bucket of it, right there—and I’ll help you get started.”
I looked down at the bucket I had just bought minutes ago, clearly labeled Gesso, looked back at her and nodded. “Thank you,” I said, “you didn’t have to help me.”
I don’t have to. You better hurry,” she stated, the scowl returning to her face.
I got the message and began heading out of the classroom. But then it struck me, I wanted to know my savior’s name. I whirled around. “By the way, I’m Hector.”
For the first time, I saw her smile. Her eyes lit up with a bit of glitter. She sighed and said, “Hi, Hector. I’m Elise.”
Elise, Elise, Elise, I repeated to myself on my way to buy another canvas. I had walked right into something wonderful.