–– 009 ––
Sometimes, if she was lucky, Annabelle could slip out around a quarter to seven for a smoke. Thursdays were a sure thing because Thursday was Terry’s day off and nobody else at the store gave a fuck. Today was Thursday.
As she drifted past the ends of the glaring aisles and slunk into the break room, she imagined the things she would say if anyone bothered to challenge this pathetic little respite, this lone moment of self-soothing in the midst of her unending night shifts. The corners of her mouth lifted a little at the prospect of new insults flung from the dark side of her mind and into the gaping mouths of her unsuspecting colleagues. Then Annabelle blushed back into her own reality. Polite apologies with a silent gag for the chaser. That was her true speed.
She grabbed a pack from her jacket pocket, then pushed skittishly back out through the break room door, edged away from the pharmacy desk, cut down through the ‘personal care’ aisle (the one least likely to be getting a restock this morning) and, without even a polite nod towards Suzette, the lone cashier, she flashed out through the sliding glass door. The early morning air was bright gray and mild, just as she wanted it at the turn of the season. She pulled out her phone to check the time –– 6:35, no missed calls, one text from her oldest boy, Leo.
“mom, im playing soccer with Chris after school and might eat at his place. ok? how is work?”
Once again, as had always been the case throughout the fourteen years since he was born, Leo was capable of transporting her to a parallel place and time in which she could almost be happy.
“Sure hon. Have a good day and be home by 8. Oh and please remind your brother that your dad will pick him up today. Luv u!”
How is work? As a forty-three year old woman working nights as a stockist and supply manager at Rite Aid, Annabelle considered this a question best left unanswered. She had taken the job as a last resort after months of scraping by. The scraping by had been inspired by her divorce. The divorce had been inspired by her depression. The depression had been inspired by alcohol. And the alcohol had been infused with the shock of widespread layoffs in the local public school system, which effectively ended her budding career as an art teacher. She had taken this shit job only after convincing herself it would buoy them for a season or so, an impermanent catamaran launched only to keep them above water until she found a new teaching gig. That was nine years ago.
Even the teaching had been a fallback. Painting was her first love. She hadn’t stuck with it long enough to find her angle, or so she always said when asked, but she had the talent. She drew precocious portraits of all her friends from the age of nine. She traced photographs, then sketched them with the photograph nearby, then sketched them from memory, then embellished them to meet her deepest whims. She grew through the ranks of colored pencils and pens to watercolors, then acrylics and oil paints. By the time she landed in her first year at SUNY Purchase, her heart was set on what she imagined to be her own odd kind of landscape painting. She couldn’t quite describe the scenes she was looking for but she knew them when she found them. She was looking for the longing and beauty of classical landscapes in the midst of the only city she knew. She liked the sadness and absurdity at play on certain corners, in certain seasons, at certain times of day. She would wait for hours with her point-and-shoot to get a clean reference frame with no passersby contaminating the stage. She wanted her scenes to be completely empty and pregnant with possibility. She wanted her very own urban similitude of a quiet little patch of shade under an old oak tree, beside a babbling brook. She saw these scenes in her mind’s eye. She dreamt of them, both sleeping and waking dreams, and then she painted them. And when they were right, not every time but once in awhile, they were like nothing she had seen before.
After college, she rented a studio apartment in Bed-Stuy and began what she thought would be her life’s work. In short, she painted. She wandered the city most mornings with her camera, then painted all afternoon, all evening, and well into the night. Week after week, month after month, she painted. When her money ran out, and it always did, she would find a part-time job for a few months –– temping for a production agency in SoHo or waitressing at a wine bar in Fort Greene, whatever she could find with the lowest possible commitment and the greatest possible space for her mind to float freely.
Annabelle met Tony two weeks before 9/11 and they were married a year later. If she had been honest with you then, she might have told you that she was afraid of the world to come. As a wedding present, Tony secretly arranged to have all of her favorite paintings displayed as a backdrop for their wedding dinner. There were nine paintings on the walls while the families had their choice of NY strip steak, chicken marbella, or baked tilapia. She had made nine successful paintings in six years. If she had been honest with you then, she might have told you that she was afraid of what she realized to be true that night during the champagne toasts and cake: she knew then, instantly, that this moment marked the peak of her creative life.
She went back to school to become an art teacher a few months after Leo was born. “It’s a smart move,” said Tony, and she agreed. The little studio she kept in their apartment became Leo’s room and the nine paintings went into a storage facility in Midwood near her mother’s house. She liked her new work as a middle-school art teacher, more or less, but she loved Leo much more than the work. So with each passing day, she gave a little bit more to Leo and a little bit less to herself. Then her second son, Charlie, was born, and she loved him very much too. So as the water ran across the rock of Annabelle’s life, the memory of her first love dried up. Those odd landscapes went unnoticed and, without the means to refill her own well, she had a little bit less for her teaching work and a little bit less for Tony. A little bit less. A little bit less.
A bus heaved by and startled Annabelle back. She checked her phone again –– 6:44, no missed calls, no texts. Her twelve-hour shift was almost over. In two hours, she’d be asleep. She took one last long drag, then turned to stub out her cigarette at the root of an old oak tree, beside a babbling brook.