“C’mon Jake, don’t bail on us again. You haven’t shown up the last three times. We’re worried about you, man.”
My friend’s voice crackled through my phone, reaching my half-attentive ears.
“Yeah Pat, I’ll do my best. I’m busy with stuff, so no promises.”
“Not good enough, Jake. Tell me right now you’ll be here. Promise me, dude. None of this half-committed crap. We’ve had this planned for months, there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to make it.”
“Alright, fine. Sure, I’ll be there.”
“Promise me, Jake.”
The statement was released from my lips before my brain had fully committed to the words. For a few seconds, I wished they had never left. It was too late, though. Pat had already ended the call, and I committed. It wasn’t the first time I had promised something before backing out, however. I could do it again, like the countless times I had before. They’re just words anyway, it’s not like I made some blood pact with Pat that would turn me into a bat if I didn’t follow through with my promise.
I looked around my studio apartment, focusing on my breathing — in, out, in, out. It’s amazing what the body does unconsciously to keep us alive, but it’s nice to know I can still control it if I want to.
Comic books littered my desk and floor. Some were professionally framed on the wall. I stared at the art that was featured on most of them — my art. Work that I was once very proud of. When I looked at them now, the many mistakes I had made on them were now blaring. I can’t believe anybody thought they were good enough to be published.
The bright light on my drawing tablet called for my attention once again, pulling me back in from my wandering thoughts. Gary the Giraffe stared at me, a giant smile across his face as he helped his friend Henry the Hippo find his lost skateboard. It was a dumb character, but it was work that a friend had referred me for. I didn’t normally illustrate children’s books, but the client seemed desperate and work had been slow lately. My eyes returned to the skateboards found by Google search that I had been analyzing as references before Pat called me. There were a few that I could have used, but none of them struck the inspiration I was hoping for. A red one with a giant golden star on the bottom and light blue wheels became the winner. It’d have to do, anyway. The art was due by the end of the week, and I had only finished about half of what I needed to. This should have been my excuse for Pat when he called earlier, but it was the excuse I’d probably use tomorrow when he would inevitably call after I failed to show up.
I got to work, my hands effortlessly creating the cartoon skateboard without much thought. I looked at the digital clock on my desk; five minutes had passed and the skateboard was complete. Almost impressed with myself, I stretched my arms above my head before starting on the background portion of the drawing. That’s when everything went black. Everything in front of me that is. The lights in my house were still on and the Bluetooth speaker was still playing lo-fi music, but my computer had died on me.
“Are you kidding me right now?” My words echoed in the empty room. I scooted back my chair to look under my desk as expletives flowed from my lips. The computer was still plugged in, so I hit the power button on my desktop a few times with no response. Probably a power supply issue. That’s what I get for being cheap and buying used. The worst of it all, though? I hadn’t saved my work from the last few hours.
It was late, so no computer supply store would be open. It made sense to call it a night so I could get an early start tomorrow on Gary’s grand adventures, but my promise to Pat came back to my mind. Maybe I did need to get out and get some fresh air. I needed some time to think about how I was going to finish the illustrations and the subway ride to the party seemed like the perfect conduit for that. After slipping on the shoes resting under my desk, I made my way to the front door where my jacket hung limply. After putting it on, my hand instinctively went for the breast pocket, searching for my worn sketchbook. It was there like it always was; one of the few reliable things in my life. Taking a sketchbook everywhere I went was a habit instilled in me by my favorite professor that I hadn’t broken since I started it at art school. It was also what I contributed most to my “successful” career as an artist. Practice makes perfect.
A cynical laugh filled the air as the old adage ran through my mind. Practice makes a mad man insane.
This thought seemed to fit me much better.
The cool air filled my lungs, sending my brain into a more alert state. A physiological response I learned from some dumb article I read while procrastinating work. Funny enough, the tactic had stuck with me because it worked surprisingly well when needing to kickstart my creativity. Though I hated to admit it, the walk had helped. I had the final illustrations needed for the book fully visualized when I had reached the subway station.
“One ticket for Downtown Manhattan, please.” I slid my credit card under the protective screen to the ticket clerk. The young man had dark blue circles under his eyes, and his untrimmed nails were very apparent as he returned my card and a subway ticket back to me.
“Have a good night,” he muttered, barely audible with all the other noises competing around us.
I weaved my way through the crowd, finding my way to the public transit that would take me to Jim’s birthday/bachelor party. My brain had a momentary injection of adrenaline at the thought. It had been a while since I had done anything fun and longer than I should have allowed since I had seen all my college buddies.
It’ll be good for me. It’ll be good for me. It’ll be good for me.
My repeating thought was interrupted by a girl that sat kitty-corner to me in the subway train compartment. Her auburn hair was held back by a glittering, gold headband that seemed to perfectly complement her skin complexion. She had on a slightly baggy band t-shirt with tightly-fitted black jeans. To match her golden headband, she had chosen a pair of sparkly gold high-top Converse, with a golden band fitting perfectly around her wrist. Probably sensing my awkward gawking, she raised her head from her phone and flashed me the most photogenic smile I had ever seen. Topping it all off was her brilliant emerald green eyes that shined more than what should have been allowed by the dim subway lighting. I smiled back, giving a slight head nod, and looked back down at my hands. After a few seconds, my hands became operational again, allowing them to reach for the sketchbook located in my right jacket pocket. I took the pencil attached to my book out of its sleeved home and began flipping through the pages full of my numerous other sketches — most recently being the nearby nature park full of ducks and some other local landscapes — finally fumbling upon an empty page. There was no way I was going to let what I just experienced slip away from my crowded mind, so I let my pencil begin sketching with urgency. It took a few quick glances her way to verify a few details, but the end product astonished even me. I hadn’t created something this beautiful in quite some time. The graphite eyes captured the charming gleam I had experienced even better than a photograph could have, and the shading gave the piece a sense of coziness one would experience while sipping hot cocoa next to a fireplace as a fierce blizzard stormed outside.
I carefully tore the page from my sketchbook, taking the first step towards sharing what I created with someone other than myself. This wasn’t something new; I’d often sketch people or things while riding the subway or sitting at a bench in the park, even giving my artistic impression of something captured on paper to the source from which it came. This time was different. I had experienced a flame I was scared of extinguishing. What if she wasn’t as impressed as I was with the interpretation of her striking features?
Sharing art allows your flame to light the potential of those who surround you.
The quote hanging in my professor’s office reverberated in my mind. It was what I needed, it gave me the strength I needed to share my newborn creation.
“Welcome to Downtown Manhattan,” an overhead voice announced. After a chime sound, the sliding doors on the train opened. The girl stood up, making her way to the exit that I sat by.
Now, you fool! Give her the drawing! Ask for her name! Start a conversation!
She smiled at me again as she floated by, the scent of cherry blossoms emanating more strongly the nearer she was. I watched her leave the train, becoming one with the onslaught of nameless people that crowded the station.
My brain became aware of my hand grasping tightly to the drawing, slightly crumpling the side of the off-colored parchment. Slowly my paralyzed body felt the blood pumping within it once again.
You’ve done it now. You cursed introvert! She was the spark! The flame you needed!
I spent the rest of the night taking the subway back to my empty home, never making it to the party at all. I overheard the dark-eyed man continue his rehearsed verbiage to more random strangers as I passed back through the way I had come previously. A black cat crossed my path right as I returned to the bricks that loomed over me like a prison.
Of course. How fitting.
My venomous thoughts injected themselves into me as I pressed forward to unlock my front door.
The next morning I ignored the vibrations that possessed my phone, causing it to rumble onto the floor. I knew who was calling, there was no need to answer. I rolled out of bed nonetheless, my foot coming to rest next to a crumpled sheet of paper. Picking it up, I scornfully looked at the depiction of the auburn lady. Despite my internal rage, something inside me prevented my hands from shredding the paper. The image was beautiful. I smoothed out the paper, laying it to rest on my nightstand.
Throwing on my most comfortable hoodie and a wrinkled pair of jeans, I made my way to the bathroom. After getting myself to a level of presentation my mother would still be ashamed of, I made my way out the front door. The brisk wind that hit my face as I left the front doorstep did not have a positive effect on my mood but rather soured it further. I let Gary the Giraffe invade my thoughts as I made my way to my morning mocha, trying to reflect on my to-do list for the day.
My daily routine always started at Smalltown Coffee Shop, a locally owned establishment that took pride in its name that contradicted quite drastically with the two skyscrapers it sat between.
“The usual, Debbie,” I said to my waiter, giving the best forced smile I could muster.
“Of course, dear.” The elderly lady who I had come to know quite well returned with my mocha within seconds, leaving me to stew in my own thoughts as I pulled out my sketchpad. Even on the worst days, I still made time for my sketchpad. It had become as vital to my well-being as oxygen.
Despite the hustle and bustle of millions of feet stomping their way around the city, I noticed a small robin hopping its way around the grimy sidewalk, oblivious to the chaos surrounding it. The contrast caught my attention for several minutes, giving my pencil a purpose.
“A refill for you, dear?”
Debbie’s question drew my attention away from the page. I normally didn’t drink a second mocha, but today I made an exception and accepted her offer. As my eyes were returning to the page, a flash of red from outside the window garnered my attention, causing my focus to leave the bird.
It was the girl with the auburn hair.
I watched as she strolled along the sidewalk next to the coffee shop, eventually passing the entrance. Not seconds later, I saw her return, opening the door to the familiar jingle I’d heard close to a million times. She stood at the counter in a new outfit, one quite different from last night but just as breathtaking. Her auburn hair had a large unique braid running down the side, with the rest flowing freely, yet perfectly, down her neck. She wore a white sweater with a pink corduroy dress. Bright pink high-top Converse adorned her feet, and her overall look was embellished with golden leaf-shaped earrings.
I couldn’t look away this time as she placed her order and made her way towards me. When our eyes locked, she once again flashed her unforgettable smile as her luminous eyes sparkled.
“Hey, I saw you last night, right? On the subway?”
My jaw was frozen, unable to move.
“Wow, did you draw that?” She looked down at my sketchbook, her eyes lighting up with excitement. “That’s beautiful!”
“Th—thank you,” I managed to stammer, setting my pencil down on the table.
“My name’s Autumn. Is this seat taken?”
“Uh, no, I was saving it for you.”
“Oh, perfect! I’ve been wanting to try this coffee shop for ages. Today felt like the perfect time to try something new.”
A genuine smile grew on my face; something I hadn’t been able to summon for quite some time. I felt something inside me light; a spark that just needed a second chance to ignite.