The Artist

She was an artist, my mother, although she never picked up a sketchbook or shaped a piece of clay. Her specialty was the tableau of domestic bliss: children laughing around a Christmas tree, a family cookout on a summer afternoon. As the oldest, I was given all the best roles, all the key lines. Until one day, in the midst of a scripted speech, my throat closed up.

My mother frowned. We are waiting, she said.

I forgot, I said. But that was a lie. I knew the next line; it had just jammed in the back of my throat like an unbroken corn chip.

Take a break, she said finally, easing out of her director’s chair. But her brow was furrowed. Missed cues, fumbled lines. I was not known for making mistakes.

Rehearsal continued. I spoke my lines. But less and less was my mother pleased with my efforts. There was something in my face, she said, that was bringing down the room. You used to be the most talented, she said, out of all my children.

But somehow I couldn’t make myself act any better. During my scenes, I found my mind wandering to far-off places, people I’d never met. In stolen moments, I wrote coded notes to myself on scraps of paper. Proof, I thought. But of what?

When my mother found the notes hidden under my mattress, she became agitated. What does this mean? she said, waving them in front of my face.

I don’t know, I replied.

But she didn’t believe me. She smelled resistance in the air. And that did not bode well. There were five of us children, and five was the perfect number, the ideal constellation. Things would not work with one less.

So that was how our war began. Her asking, and me refusing to tell. The battles between us were silent, waged underground. When she gave instructions, I was just a shade too slow to respond. When I spoke my lines, there was something ever so slightly off in my delivery, something odd in the way I held my props. My mother noticed, of course, her eyes narrowing dangerously. But she said nothing.

Sometimes I felt ashamed. Why did I have to hold something back?

I began to write poems, tucking scraps of paper under my skin—a new hiding place, somewhere she wouldn’t think to look. But I hadn’t counted on the ink, which seeped into my bloodstream, a slow poison. I became weak, nauseous, wobbly on my feet.

On the Fourth of July, I fainted. My mother put me to bed and cared for me as she had when I was little, delivering glasses of Sprite with lots of ice and letting me watch reruns all day. It was almost worth it, being sick, to feel her there in the old way—her hand on my forehead cool and soft, like a feather.

You’re sick, she said, and you have to set your mind to getting better. At that, her gaze fell on the inside my forearm, where letters hovered under pale skin. I pulled my arm across my chest, hiding the words from view.

That night, I made a resolution: I would get better, try harder. Become the child she used to love. No more words floating through my veins; no more thoughts slipping where they shouldn’t.

In the bathroom the next morning, I vomited up the poems, purging every last letter. And when I returned to the stage, recommitted, I was better, even, than I’d been before. So good, in fact, that my siblings whispered amongst themselves. Now it was their eyes I had to be wary of, their daggered looks scraping my skin.

I forgot the poems I’d written. I forgot that there had been poems. My mother embraced me, holding me against her cool, soft skin, but it didn’t feel like it had before. I felt hollow, weightless, a Christmas tin emptied of cookies. My body moved around and did the right things, but I seemed to be only a cardboard cutout of a person. In front of the bathroom mirror, I turned to one side and saw that it was true: while I looked normal from the front and back, side-on I disappeared.

The disturbing thing was that no one seemed to notice. The cardboard me, it seemed, was just as good as the real thing. In fact, preferable. The cardboard me never faltered, never sulked. I smiled on cue, and my mother glowed.

But once you mess with one dimension, you see, the others begin to waver too. By autumn, I’d begun to fray at the edges, leaving flakes of cardboard on the dressing room floor. In winter, when the rains came, I dissolved completely.

And there I was: in nothingness.

Initially, I panicked. But then a kind of relief flooded through me. For the first time in a long time, my outsides matched my insides. Nothingness was the right place for me. I saw clearly here. No costumes, no fancy lights.

From this private place, I watched my family as if they were strangers. My brothers and sisters, who always seemed so effortless, so sure, looked stiff and strained, their jaws tensing when they smiled. And my mother: how small she seemed from here, how fragile, her eyes haunted by something she could not name.

In the nothingness, I felt a nudging against my skin, soft and insistent, like housecats begging to be fed. It was the words, the ones I’d cast out. Now I let them back in, and they filled me up, weighed me down, gave me substance again.

In the mirror, I studied myself. Front, back, sides. Consonants curled around my collarbone; vowels lurked in my eyes. Slowly I traced the lines etched into my skin. I had been rebuilt with words. A freak. A sideshow. But something else too. With this body, this secret self, I had made something. A kind of art.   

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