Ramirez shows up three minutes early everyday. I am to be here ten minutes earlier. Somehow she knows if I’m not. The wall is blank. It was painted over in the night. A lost white. As if a blizzard had swept in to confiscate the previous day’s mural. I am allowed one brush and two colors. I may choose the colors the night before, but I must do so having no idea what Ramirez will ask me to paint. According to her, she doesn’t even know what she’s looking for until she walks into the studio.
The wall is three times as high as either of us. The teacher and the student. There is a ladder we use when we need to reach the higher portions. I am scared of heights, but I would never share that with her. I would never share any vulnerability with her. She told me that her last student had lost his mother at a very early age, and everyday after that she made him paint her from memory until he stopped showing up.
Then she found me.
I was working at the Battlefront Arts Collaborative on the East Side when she walked in and pointed at me. My boss, struck by the great Ramirez entering his humble storefront, ran up to her and began chattering about some other, more suitable, more experienced members of the collaborative that might be a better fit for her. Ramirez wouldn’t hear of it. She gave my boss an index card with a time and place on it, and he passed it on to me. She spoke no words to me that day. Even when I showed up at the address the next morning, she came in and said nothing. There was a wall of brushes on the other side of the room, and against the wall, there were hundreds of cups with paint in them. Every color of Creation.
She chose a brush, dipped it in a fuschia, and walked over to the wall. She began to paint. I stood there, not sure of what to do. Not sure of myself. I saw that a small brush had been set aside on the floor with my name on it. Next to it were two cups of color--both versions of gray. I bent down to pick up the brush. Following her lead, I dipped it in the lighter of the two grays, and made my way to the wall. Once there, I froze. What was I to do? What were we painting? Ramirez came over, took my hand, and moved it assertively across the wall placing a diagonal streak over what had been simply white.
That was the only cue I needed. I began to paint out from the streak. Ramirez worked on her side of the wall making her famous shapes--triangles, squares, etc. On my side, I found variations on the gray stroke. I found lines, dots, and curves. This was what interested me back then. I concentrated on beginnings and endings. Things that end before they begin. Things that never begin at all. When the day was done, Ramirez handed me an index card. Written on it was the directive “Choose two colors” and an email address where I could send my selections. It was not her email address. I would never be given a way to contact her directly. She exited the room. I looked at the wall. There was a conversation happening, but one side wasn’t listening. It wasn’t my side. My side was dying to be heard.
Soon, speech was introduced into our sessions, but it was curt. Mostly “Yes” or “No.” More “No” than “Yes.” Every “No” directed at my courage. A risk was usually met with a “No.” A stroke resembling that original gray placement would begrudgingly receive a “Yes.” I learned how to paint like Ramirez. The closer I got to her identity, the faster the work went. When the wall was covered, we were done for the day. There were sessions that went on close to midnight. We never broke for food or bathroom necessities. Ramirez never left the room once she entered it until the task was done. The next day, it was all gone. I never asked questions. I never asked where we were going with all this. I would come home and beg my bed to welcome me quietly. I lost touch with friends. Most were jealous anyway. How dare I get to work with Ramirez. Who was I? Why was I so special?
I had never felt less special in my entire life.
The last day of my tutelage, we had covered the wall in mostly reds. It was violent, but soothing. A violence you know is coming. An expression of a cut. A symbol for the cost of liberation. It could have been anything. I had nothing to dissect. My brain turned off now as soon as I picked up my brush for the day. It had been nearly a year since Ramirez plucked me out of the collaborative. I was there to follow; nothing else.
There was one white spot left on the wall. Ramirez looked at me. I picked up my brush. I wanted to jam it straight through the wall. I wanted to create my own violence. I wanted to say something that wasn’t a choice between two things that were both shades of something else. I stood there. Ramirez walked over to me and took my hand. She went to make a stroking motion, but I resisted. She gripped harder. I stiffened my form. We looked at each other. Taking advantage of her surprise, I made a perfect line across the white space. A red line that was as strong at the beginning as it was at the end.
Something made with assurance will always center itself no matter what you put around it. That line became an anchor in a stew of confusion. Ramirez enjoyed the confusion. She always had. I liked clarity enough to fight for it. I wanted to hear and speak and feel clearly. She walked over to the wall on the other side of the room, and put her brush away.
Walking back over to me, the hard sound of her shoes against the floor seemed to be a death knell, but I couldn’t fear it. Death or anything. Violence or anything. Red or gray. It didn’t matter. I had made my line.
She stopped and posed the first very question she’d ever ask me.
“What is your name?”