She stood there, staring at an enormous blank canvas. Her hair was pulled up in a messy, sloppy bun and sat in a frizzy heap on the top of her head. She had a piece of charcoal in one hand and a can of dark indigo spray paint in the other. She had been standing in the same place for over an hour. Aside from occasionally rubbing her nose or adjusting her glasses, she stood completely still. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6, Pathétique, played quietly from the loft of the open studio apartment.
She had no idea how to fill the space. She closed her eyes and clenched her fists. She felt her knees lock beneath her. As the song reached a grand crescendo, a tear left her eye and she squeezed her hands so tightly that her charcoal snapped, covering her fingers in black dust.
She looked down at her hand and breathed deeply before hurling the useless bits of charcoal at the empty canvas. Some of the pieces shattered against the white, leaving dark smudges in their place before they fell to the floor. She dropped her paint can and walked away.
She dragged her feet as she wandered to her small, disheveled kitchen and washed the dust and smudges of spray paint off of her hands. Her eyes followed the steam as it rose from the sink until she met her own gaze in the window in front of her. There was a dark smudge on the side of her nose. She raised a hand to wash the smudge away, dripping hot, soapy water onto her t-shirt and the hardwood. Turning off the sink and shaking the excess water from her hands into the basin, she cursed under her breath. She tried to reach across a messy pile of china for a rag to dry her hands, but slipped on the small puddle and her elbow crashed into the china, sending them cascading onto the floor.
She sighed and slumped onto floor next to the pile of shattered plates. Tears of frustration began to stream down her cheeks and her face burned with anger. She kicked the china, smashing bits and pieces into kitchen cabinets. After a couple minutes of thrashing about, she calmed down. She stood and walked to a small closet. She grabbed a broom and dustpan to clean her mess.
Just as she got back to the pile, the doorbell rang. Frustration set in again and she threw the broom and dustpan down with loud thuds on the hardwood floor. She marched over to the door, muttering curses the whole way, and pulled it open.
With the door still in mid-swing, she blurted, “What do you need?”
A tall man stood at the door. He had his hands clasped in front of him and was staring at her intently. “Uh, hi. ‘Member me, Riley?”
A familiar voice jolted her to attention. She looked up. A handsome Marine in his dress uniform stood before her. He didn’t smile, but his eyes brightened as he saw her looking back at him. She stood there for a moment, looking the Marine up and down. In the few seconds she spent studying him, she noticed several things. She noticed a long, jagged scar on his right hand. Also, there was a scuff mark on his left shoe, but otherwise, they were polished and gleaming. His eyes were blue, as they had always been. The scar was over a decade old; an accident in his father’s auto body shop when he was fourteen awarded him that particular trophy. And the scuff on his shoe was undoubtedly from some unkind step or ladder rung, as this Marine developed a slight limp in his walk after a high school football accident. The Marine hadn’t changed much since she last saw him over four years ago.
She closed her eyes. She felt her knees locking again and she clenched her fists, as she had before. Pathétique was still playing in the background. She inhaled and exhaled slowly, then spoke with an unusual calm.
“Why are you here, Liam?”
A surprised look took over his face. He had expected a different, more pleasant greeting. Stammering, he said, “I heard you lived here. I–I wanted to come say hi.”
Emotionless, without missing a beat, she replied, “Well, you’ve said hi, twice. Is there anything else I can do for you? I’m busy.”
Liam fought desperately to avoid rolling his eyes, but was unsuccessful. He sighed, “Oh come on, Riley. Don’t be that way. Can’t we just be civil and make up for lost time?” He let his hands fall to his sides and sighed, “I just wanted to see you. I just–” He shrugged. “I guess I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
She was getting impatient. Her stare grew colder and her eyebrow rose in disgust as he continued.
“I came here to apologize. I shouldn’t have left things the way I did. But I came here to make things right,” he pleaded. Riley closed her eyes. She could feel her nails digging into the palms of her hands.
“What can I say to make things better, Riley? Just tell me and I’ll do it. I want to fix this, babe.”
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped. “I’m not your babe. I’m not anything to you anymore. If you don’t recall, the night you ran off with that girl is when you lost me. You can’t just apologize and expect things to suddenly go back to normal, Liam.”
She could feel her anger building up inside of her. Everything she had wanted to say for the past four years was spilling out of her brain and rushing towards her tongue like a raging river. She was suddenly engulfed in four years of pain and anger and heartache. She could feel herself losing control of the situation. If she snapped now and showed her weakness, he would win.
Riley stepped back into her apartment and closed the door, locking it almost immediately after it clicked shut.
She walked to the kitchen, picked up her broom and dustpan and began to sweep up the broken china.
“Riley, please come back out and talk to me.”
After she finished cleaning up the mess, she returned the broom and dustpan to their original places inside the closet. Then, she fumbled through the closet and found a half a dozen cans of spray paint in an assortment of blues and grays. She also managed to find a can of bright red spray paint. The color reminded her of the old, beat-up fire engine her father used to take her on rides in when she was little.
“Riley, please! I said I was sorry. I said I want to make it up to you. Just let me fix it, please!” Liam shouted from the hall. Riley heard him banging on the door, trying to get her attention.
She walked back out to the canvas, cradling the seven cans in her arms. Back to her spot in front of the blank, she let the cans fall onto the tarp at her feet. She listened to each clank as the cans fell. The last can to fall was steel blue; it was running low.
“Riley! Why won’t you just talk to me? We can’t fix this if you don’t talk to me!”
Riley turned towards the door, but only for a moment. Then, she adjusted herself to face the stairs to the loft. She jogged up the steps and walked over to her stereo, where the symphony was still playing quietly. She turned a knob, bringing the music to an almost deafening volume. She turned the speakers out to face her work space and then went back downstairs.
“Please, Riley, please! Let me in,” Liam was still outside, pounding on the door and yelling. But, Riley could scarcely hear.
Back to her original place, she picked up a can of slate gray paint and sighed. Eyes closed, she rubbed her nose and adjusted her glasses. The pounding on the door began to fade into the background of the symphony’s finale. Riley stepped forward and began to work.
Two hours and two symphonies later, Riley finished her piece. The pounding on the door had stopped, the yelling and begging had ceased, and the music was adjusted back to a normal volume.
As she reviewed her work, she smiled. The white background was adorned with steel gray and UCLA blue splashes of color. Soft blues rolled down the canvas, ending in round pools at the bottom. Gray puffs, like smoke, seemed to dance around the light blue streams before drifting off into an unseen part of the painting. Then, heavy, rigid slashes of red streaked across the canvas.
She was almost beaming with pride. But, something was missing. She breathed, “Almost there,” and stepped up to the canvas again.
She bent down and picked up the largest piece of broken charcoal she could find. Crouching down, she marked several short, quick lines near the bottom of the canvas. They looked like slanted tallies from some old handwritten score book. Still hunched over, she etched one dark, jagged line a few feet above and slightly to the left of little tic marks. Then, she stood drew two eyes, floating out of the pool of light blue.
She stepped back and viewed the piece as a whole. Nodding to herself, she was satisfied. Dropping the charcoal onto the tarp, she crossed the hardwood floor to the stairs. She struggled up the steps, exhausted from the long hours past, and wandered to the stereo. Pathétique played quietly still and she thought about leaving it on for the night, but instead switched the stereo off. The symphony had run its course a dozen times already; it’s job was done for now. She scuffled over to her bed and sat at the edge. She just barely managed to kick off her shoes before falling backwards and drifting to sleep. For the first time in a long while, she had fallen asleep without wishing a good night to Liam. And, for the first time in years, that was fine by her.