On day one of Beginning Painting, you asked the class to call you Poopy. The Miami Dade Community Arts Center smelled like raisins. We went around the room and each said where we’d seen the flyer. I saw mine at Cozy Corner Café. You saw yours in line at the Publix bathroom. Another man shook his head, gestured for the next person to speak. I suspected he’d seen his flyer at a sex shop or something like that. A pot of fake flowers sat in the center of the room. We did still lifes. At the end of class, we turned our easels to unveil our final products. You were too good for us.
This was a week before you received a call from your oncologist. You picked up while you were shaking cereal puffs into a bowl. The call ruined your snack. That night, you sat at the easel beside mine and painted five children standing in a row. Their faces were adult, elderly even. Wrinkles around the eyes. Little grumps.
“Poopy,” I said, “that’s real creepy.” You hadn’t told anyone the news. You smushed fat grey globs over each child’s shriveled face. Wrinkly skin turned smooth as stone. Some streaks swerved upward, some down, and it looked to me like the children were moving. Like they’d glanced away the moment I locked eyes with the painting. “It’s creepier now. I really like it,” I said.
End of class. Zippers yowling. You handed me your canvas, and said, “Since you liked it so much. Careful. It’s still wet and all.” Back home, I laid it tenderly on the carpet. I heated a microwave lasagna and ate straight from the plastic package, looking down the whole time at those blank faces, trying to catch them on the move.
The following class, you didn’t say a word to me. I blew it, I thought, I did the thing I always do. I come on too strong. I say the wrong thing. I’m so eager that people recoil. I’m reminded of myself at age six, nodding at my first-grade teacher though I understood none of the English words she spouted. I remember that I learned early to smile and agree, to admire the things that eluded me.
I left the art center and found you parked near me, supine in your fully reclined seat. You invited me in. It was strange not to feel strange in a strange man’s car. I was comfortable, happy even, when I pulled a lever and fell backwards to match your posture. I asked you what was wrong. We stared at a rust-colored spot on the ceiling upholstery. It was shaped like an ice skater. You held your arms out and said, “I’m what’s wrong,” and told me precisely how you were dying.
Recently, my dreams have had subtitles. But they never match the words being spoken. For instance, in the dream I’ll say, “I’ve missed you,” and the subtitles will say I DO NOT WANT THE SALAD. Sometimes, when I say things in real life, people pause and look at me like I’ve laid an egg. On the way from my brain to my mouth, my thoughts are mistranslated, scrambled. This is what I liked about you. When you told me you were dying, and I said, “Well, I bet you’ll be just fine,” you didn’t look at me like you were reading a wonky subtitle. You laughed. I thought: I barely know this man, but if I could, I’d will the devil to show his red face and I’d make a wager right here. Take my stupid mouth, take my soul. Fix Poopy.
When I look at the painting you gave me, I think: I do not want the salad. I want to pick at those paint scabs until the children’s grey masks chip away and give them room to finally breathe, to become old.