My art professor in college hated butterflies. She said they were basic and painless with nothing more than wings that could break when you touched them. If we were ever to paint them in a project for her class, we’d have to make them shriveled and gray.
Those last two words started to make me think that I had made the wrong decision about college. I had thought it was nothing more than cardboard walls and brick buildings, holding its breath with purple lips.
Those words also reminded me of my father’s pinched face when he told me I had two options. The first one, I thought, was to end up like my mother with makeup past the expiration date and shirts that dipped way too low on her chest. The second one, I couldn’t quite remember, was about peace signs wrapped tightly around my neck and two dirty paint brushes tucked behind my ears.
I think you know what I chose.
I was an artist but I also read books. Books about Vincent van Gogh and Frida Kahlo. The books were stiff and heavy. They reminded me of my childhood drowning in poverty like van Gogh’s. My father didn’t ask where I got the money to go to college. I was glad he didn’t.
Sometimes, when I was at the gas station store where light was snaking through the windows and the homeless men were lingering outside, I thought about the sun. I wanted to paint it someday, with oil paints in hues I couldn’t even imagine. I’d smudge it with my fingers to get the imperfection.
Everyone knew you couldn’t paint the sun.
But I didn’t know that at the time. My professor was supposed to help with my lack of knowledge and previous education, but all she told me was that she hated butterflies with their fragile wings and unblinking eyes. I looked at her in that curious, impenetrable way, and she backed away.
Today a man approached me. I don’t trust them after years living with my father. He offered me a job. It’d pay well so I wouldn’t have to spend every meal at the gas station. At least they know me there with my picky appetite and short, clipped fingernails.
The task was to paint his dead mother. He’d describe her to me with black and white pictures and rusted memory. He said it was for their living room and it shouldn’t be rushed because it better be beautiful and accurate.
“It’ll only be beautiful if your mother was beautiful,” I told him, tying knots with my hair.
He frowned, “Everyone has a little beauty.”
I took this as a sign that his mother was ugly and as twisted as student loans. Thankfully I didn’t have any.
What I also took was the job. The only problem was that it would be full-time thus shoving art college down the drain. I didn’t mind. In fact, on my last day to collect my work, I kissed my butterfly-hating professor on both cheeks and left her a painting of the sun. It was incorrect but who was she to know that?
All my life I had wanted to study art and paint beautiful portraits and landscapes and sell them for millions of dollars. Now, I was not going to study art at a prestigious college but I was going to be paid a good chunk of money for my painting. It seemed to work out for me. I even considered buying a peace sign necklace and wrapping it around my neck until my eyes bulged out of my head, and then sending a picture to my father.
My first day on the job was long. I sat and socialized with the couple and their tight-lipped children because they didn’t have any friends and needed a portrait of their ugly, dead relative.
I asked them about her and they all fell silent for a moment.
“Her eyes were poetic and deep,” the father recalled.
I laughed aloud, choking on the obscurity of life. “Why don’t you just tell me the color?”
The session went into the afternoon. The children had been dismissed hours ago and finally I was too. I leaned against the doorframe in case they thought about handing over a little cash early so I could have a whole meal and not just a half. The father glared and snuck me a few notes.
That night I returned to the gas station. I thought I’d never return but there I was with wet socks and only a few notes. The homeless men eyed me but I only bought a microwavable burrito for myself.
Someday, I knew, I’d paint the gas station. A star-speckled sky in the background and the glow of the shop light with all the blind moths. The men would be there, and the red truck that was always parked beside it. I didn’t think anyone lived in it but I didn’t want to find out.
I’d name the painting “Home.”
It was past my fourth day on the job but I couldn’t tell you which exact day. It was midday and their children were in the room, playing with various bright-colored toys. It was distracting.
I had started painting. The background was done with dark hints of blue and green and black. I had sketched the woman from their description and they had approved it after my umpteenth sketch.
I was starting to paint the woman herself. The eyes came first. The father had told me they were poetic and deep and brown. Brown, what a boring color. I didn’t tell him this.
I thought my own eyes were crossing from all the focusing. My brushes swept lightly over the paper. I made sure not to ignorantly paint out of the lines and I waited for it to fully dry before painting the light in them.
The father stepped around to look at the painting and did not smile. He clasped his hands behind his back and said to paint it again.
No one had ever told me to redo a painting before. Not even my art professor. And it wasn’t going to happen.
“Find another painter then.” I packed up my supplies, drowning out the father’s persistent whines in the background.
After I left the house, I realized they had never paid me. Another night at the gas station with the few notes I had left was ahead of me. I knew that, but still I walked in the opposite direction.
When I showed up at the art college, I found my art professor’s room. There was a class going on with the younger students so I didn’t interrupt. Instead I peered through the window at the woman who was gritting her teeth and slapping her easel with a ruler.
I caught something in the corner of my eye. A butterfly tumbling through the air beside me. It landed gracefully on the ground with a slightly injured wing. Its colors were lovely with yellows like a cat’s soul and blues like chants of a bird’s feathers.
There was a second of hesitation before I stomped my tennis shoe on top of it and heard the crunch of the broken wings. The beauty fell apart under the sole of my shoe and once I lifted it, only the black veins of the creature were left.
I looked once more at my professor through the dusty window and then continued on my way.