I find out, quite early, that scrubbing spilled wine off the carpet is a waste of time. I find this out not by myself but from the mouth of Olive. She's still talking, carefully putting away the disposable cups and plates in a bag.
"They don't know what it feels like," she says. She's been repeating the same line whenever her hands touch a cup or a leftover pizza. It's somehow become an anthem for cleaning and I have since come to appreciate the way her lips signal words to come out, to tear the silence away.
I am kneeling on the carpet now, touching the wine stain. The red patch of Italian wine has formed a circle in the rug and I can't help but admire the uniqueness of the circle. It's almost like brushstrokes; of a painter's last attempt at lucidity. The red has soaked deep into the carpet so that, now, it looks like bloodstains on the snow.
Olive goes into the kitchen with the trash bag, whistling a tune we used to sing at school. I let my hands smear the red deeper into the carpet and almost imagine I'm in my workroom, painting the edge of a woman's heart. Like putting all your dreams beneath the surface of watercolors.
Then she reappears and starts to grin. "Zoning out again? You're an idiot."
She's right. She's been right since zoning in and out became more a habit than an escape.
"It just came," I said and straightened. "And I didn't use it to escape."
She touched her face and let her hands linger on her lips. Three hours earlier, I'd come so close to kissing her, trailing my fingers against her skin, touching her. But I hadn't. Not for fear as I'd imagined but because she'd not known of my intention. I wouldn't ruin our friendship because for a fleeting moment, I wanted to taste her lips and to drown in my subconscious of her.
Sometimes I zone out because of her. Because in my subconscious, she's not just my best friend but someone else entirely. In a different world, one only I am the architect of, she has red hair and green eyes and smooth Olive skin. In my world, there's a reason why her name is Olive. Often I kiss her in my world and lay my head against her chest, feeling her heartbeat, feeling her hesitancy.
I draw her in my world. She's a mixture of watercolors, blue and green and red, spilling over the canvas like moonlight. In the real world, her eyes and hair are brown, almost golden. This is why I don't trust my subconscious.
Olive folds her hands across her chest and leans her head against the doorframe.
"Am I a bad host?" she asks, curling her lips.
I look at her stocking feet and sigh. "Of course not. Why would you think that?"
"I don't know," she groaned. "I've been complaining about the cleaning and how stupid all of them were. Does that mean I'm a bad host?"
In this instance, a part of me knows I should go closer to her and hold her and kiss her neck but that part of me is not the real me. At least not in this world. Because if I got close to her, inhaled her perfume and her evening sweat, I'd drown.
"You made the party lively. Everyone had a good time. And if you think they were stupid, they probably were."
Olive giggles now and puts her hands down. "That stain won't leave?"
"Should I keep scrubbing?"
"No —leave it."
We walk into the living room. The tv is on. There's a commercial going on about baby diapers. Olive turns the tv off and walks to the window. In the other house, we can hear a low fight.
"You don't think the neighbors are fighting again do you?"
They are but I say I don't know.
"I should call the cops."
But Olive doesn't move from the window. The fight stops and Olive turns to me.
"How are you?" she asks, staring at me.
I start to feel uncomfortable. And I'm not here again. I'm somewhere in my head, staining her in a canvas, painting her with her hair against the wind, torturing myself with her existence.
When I come back to reality, Olive has got her back against me. She's pulled the curtains apart to show the moon in its splendor.
"You zoned out again," she announces, her back still against me.
I'm seated on her couch, next to a small box she's left open. On the floor by my feet, I find two plastic plates. I pick them up and make my way into the kitchen. I know Olive can hear me when I throw the plates into the trash bag. I know she hears me when I start to whistle the old tune.
Then I come back to her and resume my former position. She's still at the window but the moon has painted her in a faint eerie glow. The moon is slowly taking my place and it hurts so much. There's a slow reminder to this moment. And I can remember it, can almost taste it against my throat. In my memory, Olive is in the water, her hands above her head. Those hands that have been smeared by moonlight.
In my memory, Olive is dead. And it replays in my head and it burns me and I want to hold something and I want to hate someone.
"What are you thinking about now?" she asks and comes to the couch, next to me. Her slender palm traces mine, gently, recklessly and the tears start to burn.
"I don't know what I'm thinking about," I answer.
"Oh, come on. Tell me."
"I'm thinking about you, Olive."
This time I can't breathe. Her name on my lips is beginning to strangle me and I'm obsessed with the idea that this might be her or, at best, my one chance at seeing the way she curves her lips at a prospect. I sniffle and panic and get up on my feet.
"There's always something wrong with the picture, you know," she tells me in a whisper and runs her hands through her hair. "You almost start to believe everything until you realize that there's something wrong with the picture."
She's right again. In my paintings, upstairs in my workroom, I've made mistakes. I've smeared the canvases with her picture and instead of the golden hair that I know, I've used red. Like the wine spill on the carpet. That's how I know the picture is wrong. That I am wrong.
"I know I should have kept searching. I know, I know."
She groans and closes her eyes. "I heard your voice but I suppose there was no stopping the inevitable."
"I blame myself," I am half-aware that I am crying now. That Olive is disappearing. That I am alone in the living room. "I should have kept calling your name."
"I heard you but it was not your fault. Whatever happened that night was not your fault."
* * * *
I wake up sweating in my bed. I am naked and panting. Beside me, the bed is cold but the sheets are stained with green. My phone is ringing again. It's my son from Ohio, the one too confident about my moving to see his new daughter this weekend. I want to cancel the trip, make up an excuse about being sick but I take the call.
Since Olive, I'm not a fan of birthdays or parties. Often I wonder how I raised him and how his birthdays were before he grew and moved out.
It's more a blur of activities. He's speaking quickly, like Olive, like the constellations on a gray sky, and for a second I start to zone out. Into oblivion.
"Mom? Can you hear me?"
He brings me back without meaning to. "I'm here, Pete," I say, suddenly feeling ridiculous. "What were you saying?"
"We are so excited to see you."
Pete can tell when I'm lying and he recognizes it as I say this.
He tells me he knows I won't come. I tell him that I'm sorry. He groans and says he understands. Her name stands in the balance, in-between his sadness and my attempt at staying calm. Like a spell, weak and powerful at the same time. He would never bring up Olive, I know. So I hang up and call myself a bad mother.
I get up from bed and walk into the bathroom. The faucet has issues and I've called a plumber but I've gotten used to the drip-drip sound it makes. Keeps me sane.
I wash my face and stare into the mirror. I am older now, with wrinkles and frail skin. My body is weak and my legs are unstable but in my reflection, I see her. Again.
The last time I see Olive alive is the night of her birthday party. Perhaps that's why my dreams are a repetition of what could have been if we'd cleaned up and watched tv commercials of baby diapers. Sometimes I wonder what kind of child she would have had or what kind of mother she'd have grown into. But that night, alone, we skipped the cleaning and left the wine spill on the carpet. That night we ran down the empty street to the river and we took off our clothes. That night the moon had bathed her in its glow.
I know that my dreams are a combination of what I'd have wanted and what had happened. She fills my dreams now and I can't help but think it's perhaps because I could have told her I loved her, deeply, intensely, like the way the water and the moon had, but I had kept it hidden in my brushstrokes.
I move away from the mirror and back into bed but I can't sleep. The alarm clock beeps and I let it ring out against the silence of my apartment. I start to think about Olive and my failed attempts over the years to see her face, hear her laughter, and pretend that she hadn't died on her birthday. We ran down to the river together and I came back alone.
In the afternoon, I enter my workroom and I attempt, again, to draw her in her real form and to touch her face. I stain the canvas with a mixture of watercolors and let my brushstrokes do the work. My mind is a game and it replays her over and over again as her legs slipped and she entered the water and I couldn't find her. The men had but it had been over long before I skipped back home to tell her parents. Her birthday cake was still in the kitchen, halved by the friends she couldn't keep.
I paint her as she'd been, running down to the river, happy, and free. I paint her hair, flapping free behind her. I paint her from the back because I can't remember why I wanted her eyes to be green. I make another mistake with her hair. And instead of the brown, I color it with a delicate red, a primal recollection of the wine stain as her mother collapsed on the floor.
When I'm done, I sit back to stare at Olive. It takes effort. There's always something wrong with her pictures but in all of them, Olive is beautiful and she's young and free. Not like me, confined by old age and grief. And I miss her.
I take the picture down and sigh. The doorbell rings and it echoes around the house. It's the plumber, I know, but I relax against the wall, holding her closer, zoning in and out. Remembering. Forgetting.
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
Congratulations Abigail! What an amazing "start over" and such a deserved shortlist!
Riveting and deeply moving. This piece can easily be regarded as "grabs the reader and pulls them along..." type, but I would gratefully disagree. I think you, from the first paragraph, 'opened' a window for us into yourself, and I for one, was watching intently from the outside with pale-knuckles clenching the sill! I knew what was coming, but denial was a small price to pay to watch a beautiful, albeit sad, story unfold. Bravo.
I love all the references in your story about painting. I am a painter myself and that really helped connect. also, Je sais pas danser I am such a sucker for French music, so I had to listen, and I have to say, I love your taste in music. ;)
Beautiful. I love the twists
Thank you, Cathryn!
wow. wow wow WOW. you are SO talented. this is quite possibly my most favourite story on Reedsy, you write SO well.
Thank you so much