Aspirations

(This short story was shortlisted in the All Pakistan Women’s Essay Writing Competition.)

I was only four years old when I first became consciously aware of the fighting. Late in the night, when the moon took center stage in the clear, Cleveland sky, I would hear my parents go at each others throats, yelling themselves hoarse. My confused, childish little heart broke as I heard my mother’s voice falter as she broke into tears.
In the beginning, I would lock myself in my room, cowering in fear under my bedcovers, asking God to forgive me for causing my parents so much pain. As the years passed, I grew accustomed to the nightly battles waged in the living room and started to leave the house whenever they erupted. There was a window in my room that faced the back alley of our house and I never hesitated to climb out of it, shinny down the rain gutter and go for a walk during their fights. Sometimes I would walk all night, losing myself in the maze of winding streets, lined with picturesque houses, perfect from the outside, just like my own. Sometimes I cried, but

rarely.

“Crying is weakness,” I constantly repeated to myself, determined to engrave it in my memory, “and weakness is not allowed.”

Soon, I started to look forward to creeping out of the house after midnight and as the years passed, grew bold enough to stay out until after sunrise. Occasionally things in the house would mellow down and for a few days my family would become what it was supposed to be: happy. That joy, incredibly sweet as it was, was always short-lived. All it took to tumble back into the hurricane of anger, confusion and above all, sadness was a minute mistake. One of my parents would say or do something wrong that would make the other’s blood boil. Then they would go reeling back into the pit of hatred and madness that they were now so used to, dragging me in with them.

I used to think it was my fault. I was to blame for all the pain they were causing themselves. They had been happy before I was born. I had seen the pictures, and pictures don’t lie. I despised myself for reasons that I didn’t even understand. I didn’t know how I had hurt them so badly that they now had to constantly tear each other to shreds, and I didn’t know how to fix it. The feeling that I was to blame for my family’s misery was further enhanced when my drunken father began to verbally and physically abuse me. If I ever made even the slightest mistake, or sometimes without any justifiable reason at all, he would grab whatever object was close at hand, and hurl it at me. When nothing lightweight was within arm’s reach, he resorted to profanity.

I had always dreamed of being a painter. I buried myself in art history and theory books checked out from the local library and often stayed awake through the night, studying design and technique. I kept my aspirations and goals secret from my parents, for I knew that they would never have any time for my dreams. They would ridicule me beyond belief. They would say I would waste my whole life dreaming of something that would never happen and would never amount to anything. My mother was a broken spirit, worn-out and now used to the drudgery of servitude and obedience to her husband. My father was a raving lunatic, an addict, who had lost all sense of responsibility years ago.

As time passed, I grew quieter and quieter. I realized that my parents’ conflicts had nothing to do with me. I nurtured my artistic soul with the help of my high school art teacher, Mrs. Jones, the only person I felt truly believed in me. With time, I, like my mother, learned to hide both my emotional and physical father-inflicted bruises from the world and maintain a more or less happy-go-lucky countenance. Every now and then my happy façade would crack. The fake smile that was so forcefully plastered on would fail to appear and would leave my battered heart exposed to the world. The only thing that could comfort my at times such as these was my art. I poured my heart and soul into the paintings I created. Every stroke was filled with emotion, and every time I finished a painting, a beautiful smile lit up my face.

I dreamed of painting on full-sized canvases and having my work displayed in galleries. I saw myself painting masterpieces that the world would not only appreciate, but also understand. Paintings that would reflect my life’s hardships and sorrows, reflect the things that made me smile and cry at the same time. Mrs. Jones hung many of my better, more artistically advanced pieces in the art room to serve as inspiration for the beginners in the class.

One day the school’s board of directors made their annual visit to the high school. They took a round of the premises and the chairman of the board, a Mr. June Duval, an art admirer himself, insisted on being taken to the art room straight away. He started with the paintings nearest to the door, and took his time walking past them, studying them, commenting on those he found interesting.

I had volunteered to stay after school and clean the easels and paint brushes and was in the room at the time. I knew I had nothing more interesting to go back to at home. My heart pounded as I saw Chairman Duval inch his way closer and closer to my most recent painting. It was my most ambitious one yet, titled My Rue Montorgueil, an almost perfect copy of the original by Claude Monet. I watched anxiously as he moved towards my painting. At first he looked at it in surprise; it was a most extraordinary attempt by a high school student! He tried to control his excitement but the art lover in him took over. “Which marvelous child painted this one?” his excitement came bubbling out, his French accent more pronounced than ever.

All the other members of the board, who had also been looking at the various paintings and sketches, turned as if on queue as Mrs. Jones practically shoved me forwards. “I – I did.” I muttered, looking at my shoes, too nervous to speak. “It is quite good for such a young one like yourself! I am very impressed. You shall take part in the art competition this summer my dear, you must!” I was caught off guard. “What? An art competition? But I’m not nearly good enough. I’m not ready!” His brow furrowed and his voice became more serious, “I see you are hesitant. You would not like to do it, then?” Mrs. Jones stepped forward and put a hand on my shoulder, “Of course she would. You just surprised her sir.”

Mrs. Jones gave me a pamphlet the next day containing the contest information and rules. Contestants had exactly three months to produce a masterpiece that would win them not only some very generous cash prizes, but also a chance to be signed by an art agent. The winning painting was to be displayed in fourteen galleries across New York City with the artworks of other up and coming inspired individuals. I was, of course, tremendously excited. The flame of hope that had grown in my heart since the day I picked up my first paintbrush seemed to burn a little brighter.

Years ago, when I was in elementary school, I had discovered a lone meadow behind a row of houses at the far end of my street. It was a hilly, sloping area and a small creek ran through it. Across the meadow there was a clear view of the interstate highway and further in the distance, the gray skies of the city’s factory-filled industrial area. It seemed to be the only untouched and undeveloped piece of land for miles around. It held a special place in my heart. For me it was serene, in every sense of the word. I went there the day after meeting the Chairman, dragging my easel and paint supplies with me. After setting up, I took several deep breaths, dipped my brush in a pot of brightly colored paint, and painted a thick stroke across the canvas. I was now in my own little world. No one could disturb me and nothing could distract me. Usually, I felt the wet paint touch the canvas as the hairs of my paintbrush pressed down on it. Usually, I could feel the paint coming alive, forming an image, a picture that had several meanings and immense depth. This time, however, I didn’t feel like I was connecting with the image my hand was forming.

Three hours later, when the sun’s last rays of light had all but sunk into the horizon, I looked down at what I had created and sighed discontentedly. It looked horrible, not at all like I had imagined. The next two weeks seemed to pass in a blur. I developed a routine. Everyday I would traverse the meadow, art supplies in tow, and set up right in the middle. Every afternoon, I would return home, dejected, and tear up the day’s unsuccessful endeavor.

On Monday, June 14th, I found my mother sprawled on the floor of the small five by ten bathroom attached to the master bedroom of our house. The fact that she was dead was painfully obvious. Gruesome cuts stood out against her skin like blemishes. The sight of dried blood on her hands, under her nails and on her arms horrified me. My father wasn’t home. I called 911, and spent the next four hours hunched up in a swivel chair watching federal agents and paramedics take snapshots of my mother’s corpse, of our house, of me. They took me to a center where they keep children from dysfunctional families. I was in a state of shock, but they let me take my easel and paint box with me.

The blood test results confirmed that the blood all over my mother, all over the bathroom, was her own. The shards of glass found on her person and embedded in her skin confirmed that she had cut herself so badly that she bled to death. It is estimated that when I found her she had already been dead for three hours. I didn’t attend my mother’s funeral. While everyone else, relatives, neighbors, were out in the graveyard, watching her coffin as it was lowered into the ground, I was the in the youth care facility, with a hundred and seventeen other forgotten children. I didn’t talk to anyone, and I didn’t shed a single tear. I just painted, for that was my true salvation.

I called Mrs. Jones from a payphone. She picked up my finished painting, the one she would submit in the art competition. It was beautiful, full of feeling, gripping, almost haunting. The results were announced a week later. I won the competition. Over the next ten years my work came to be recognized and respected in the art community. The New York Times named me Artist of the Year in 2004. I had always aspired to be a great artist, and I had always been prepared to put in the hard work that my dream required but I had never known that it would take so much heartache for me to achieve my goal.

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