My first Spark
A writer friend, Robin, told me about a writing and art event called Spark. It happens annually and the gist of the thing is that two creatives swap work and use the other person's piece as a prompt. The next Spark is happening soon, May 20-29, 2020. So you can still sign up and participate!
My partner last year was Tora Estep, a very talented visual artist in Virginia. I sent her my poem, Stargazing, and she sent me a portrait she painted.
Stargazing is a poem I wrote in 2017. It was published in Goodnight, Poet in late 2018. I was inspired by eavesdropping on a couple at an outdoor cafe table. The young lady, who had the most incredible, gorgeous freckles over every inch of her, wanted a tattoo and was rattling off ideas to her male companion. He didn't seem keen on the idea, telling her over and over how beautiful her skin was. Like most young women, she shrugged off his compliments and in one act, put herself down and made his feelings invalid. As I watched and listened, I saw the whole universe in her skin, all the stars, the Milky Way... Here is Stargazing, followed by the painting Tora Estep made, oil on canvas, when she read it.
You’re considering a tattoo on your shoulder in what I like to think of as the Orion system, located between here and here on your skin. My universe, your skin, all alive, sweet, the multiverse of you-ness. A rose, you say, or perhaps a chain of ivy? An alien invader of my eternal constellations, the freckles that trail your arms and neck. Recognizable patterns and forms create legends across you. Often my mouth leads me to the system of Andromeda. Will the sword of Perseus cut me down, I wonder as I glide along your spine, breathtaking distinctive flecks already marking you, lovelier that the goddess herself. Hers, a story of a beauty brought down by boasts. The night sky holds 88 such tales. Your body, though, so many more, each ever new to explore. Centaur points his arrow, and you ask What about a heart or a word, something with meaning? I try to imagine it etched in ink on the cosmos. At the edge of your neck, my lips connect stars, you to me. Stargazing into the darkness, I encounter ruling planet Venus as you settle on infinity.
I absolutely love love love the painting Tora made for the poem. It truly is a universe, represented in a woman's body. And really, who can deny the truth in that? :)
For Spark, Tora sent me a untitled portrait to use as a prompt for a short story, pictured below. I honestly found challenges with it. I saw a woman with motherhood out of reach, or perhaps she was pushing it away. Not being a mother myself, I struggled with this painting. And then, the house flooded, adding to the stress of writing for Spark on deadline. Still, I searched my soul as I observed Tora's painting, also oil on canvas. There was something like a seashell over it all. A woman and child, being given or pushed away. There is pain, complex emotion. I felt like blood carried a presence. Under the painting is the story I came up with.
Natalie glanced nervously around the waiting room. Beige walls with framed posters showing smiling women and tranquil beach scenes hung over tables piled with well-read magazines and askew stacks of pamphlets. Her younger sister was in the next chair. Lilly’s delicate frame slouched on the wooden armrest and her feet were tucked under her. She was skimming her phone.
The picture directly across the room was a close-up of a seashell nestled in the sand, water eddying around it. Natalie put her hand on her tummy and sighed. Something lived in that seashell once. What lives in shells anyhow? Clams? Snails? Her mind drifted back to high school biology but the distraction didn’t last. It doesn’t matter what lives in seashells.
“Remember that time Mom took us to the beach and all the shells were washed up on shore? I think we picked up a whole bag of them,” Lilly said, following Natalie’s gaze.
“Yeah. We were so young. Mom had a way of, I don’t know…”
Natalie couldn’t think of the words.
“Making everything special,” Lilly finished the thought.
Yeah, that was it. Mom did make everything special. Fucking cancer. If Mom were still alive, she would know what to do. She would have somehow, someway, said the right thing, made more possible. But Mom had been gone three years. Natalie was 28, divorced, recently laid off, and except for Lilly, felt more alone than ever in life.
A long sigh escaped her lips.
“Hey, Nat,” Lilly’s hand was on her arm. “You’re going to be okay. It’s the right call, you know it. We’ve talked about this, yeah?”
Natalie nodded. She couldn’t bring herself to look at Lilly. Sweet Lilly, always practical yet upbeat. Growing up Lilly had been level-headed, never effected by gossip or girl-world politics. As an adult, the 25 year-old was steady, confident. Her shoulder length hair was neat even now, in a place no one cared. Her nails were short, but filed and manicured a pale, conservative pink. Lilly was every bit the practical woman their mother had been. Suddenly Natalie understood.
Lilly had gotten all the best traits from their mom. Just like Mom made things better, easier, so did Lilly. Which left… our father’s scrappy, mediocre traits for me? She acutely felt it hit her chest. She was the dark sheep. At family gatherings, aunts and uncles cousins gave her the “understanding smile,” like maybe one day she’d get her shit together. Today wasn’t that day. In fact, as she looked around the clinic, she decided that today meant that might never come.
A woman in light blue scrubs appeared at the sliding glass window to the offices.
Natalie sat upright. Please, let this be it, let this be over with.
“Kara Thompson?” the nurse called out.
As the petite woman at the end of the room got up and disappeared into the office behind the painted metal door, the hollow pain in Natalie’s chest deepened. How can I do this? How can I just… give up like this? When did my heart die? My hope?
“Do you still have any?” Lilly asked absently.
“Any what?” Natalie said. Heart or hope? Probably neither…
“Seashells. I know you held onto a bunch of them. When you and Thomas had the house on Maple, remember? You had shells in all those shadowboxes. They made me happy, especially when Mom was gone. Seeing them… it was like she was still here and we were little girls at Rehoboth, running in and out the waves in sundresses and picking up shells,” Lilly’s smile was warm as she turned in the chair. “Remember how she told us the story about shells being for special fish that needed a house in the ocean?”
Natalie crossed her arms tightly around her torso and focused on her breath. Her face burned hot and bile was rising in her throat. No job. No husband. Lonely. Men on dating apps and stupid, stupid decisions. Far from the little girl on the beach. Now she was about to rip a life from its shell before it even got a second in the ocean.
Without acknowledging Lilly, Natalie rose from the sofa and hurried into the rest room. She locked the door behind her and kneeled in front of the toilet, holding back her unwashed brown hair. Yet nothing came. She had dealt with nausea since 6am, and her gut was totally empty. Concentrating on breathing helped…
The floor was cool. She wrapped her arms around the sterile-smelling white toilet bowl to cool her skin. Tears were easy. They started with zero effort and beaded off her cheeks, dripping into the toilet below.
A soft knock came at the door and echoed through the empty rest room. Probably Lilly. Shit, what if it wasn’t? What if someone else needed the rest room?
“Just a second,” Natalie called towards the door, trying to swallow her sobs.
Her mind raced through the past year. Thomas, her high school sweetheart, her most trusted friend sitting her down in the kitchen and saying he was leaving. He was marrying a woman from work, who was carrying his child.
“It never worked out for us, anyhow,” he said. “We tried for years.”
That patronizing kiss on the cheek when he drove off in the U-haul. The empty house. Days passed into weeks, going through the motions, but barely alive. He had a little girl. One day his daughter would wear sundresses and take gymnastics and go to sleep with her favorite doll. A life I didn’t give him.
Then the loneliness set in. It unfurled like a coiled animal and spread through her like poison. Almost any man was comfort, at least for a moment. If she hadn’t lost her job, her health insurance, the house… it wouldn’t have mattered. There was no way.
“Natalie?” Lilly’s voice was muted by the thick wood door.
Standing up, Natalie brushed her hair back and used her sleeve to wipe her face. Her cheeks still felt warm. Because Lilly was at the door, she flushed the toilet. At least it would seem legitimate. She shuffled to the sink and turned on the cold water, splashing some on her face, eyes clenched. There was a mirror right in front of her, but she didn’t want to see it.
“Are you okay?” her sister’s muffled voice inquired.
“Yep, just finishing up,” Natalie called out, feigning normalcy.
Can I ever be normal again? Rejected by my love, toss aside by my career. The beach drift that no one wants, one of those partial shells that could have been beautiful but ends up washing in and out of the ocean until the water breaks it down to tiny particles of sand…
Natalie turned off the water and stood up. No avoiding the mirror. Her eyes flicked to the reflection above the sink. Golden hazel eyes surrounded by dark purple circles from sleeplessness, pale lips from days of morning sickness and fringe of stringy hair looked back at her. Water finished drizzling down her cheeks and from her chin. She reached toward the mirror and lightly rested her fingertips against the unyielding solid of perfectly-wiped-clean glass. Hard and cool, like a seashell. She almost smiled, reminiscing about her mother. Natalie did have her mother’s eye color and was getting the same wrinkles on the edges.
She dropped her hand lightly to her belly, wondering which of three men belonged to this child. It didn’t matter. Not one of them was part of her life. Under her fingertips though… this someone was hers. To love or not; to care for, or allow to wash back out to the sea.
Another knock at the door.
Natalie quickly wiped her wet face and unlocked the bathroom.
“They’re in storage,” she said to Lilly.
Her sister had their father’s brilliant blue eyes. The response clouded them with confusion.
“The shadowboxes with Mom’s shells. I put them in storage when I moved into your basement. I wasn’t planning to decorate, you know?” Natalie said. Good memories are safe packed away in a long soulless row of containers, right?
“Oh… yeah, that makes sense,” Lilly nodded, fidgeting with the cuff of her blouse. “They called your name a minute ago. I said we’d be in as soon as you finished pottying.”
Natalie recalled the counselling session. The entire procedure would take five to ten minutes. Less time than getting a pizza or answering emails.
“Are you ready?” Lilly asked, furrowing her perfectly shaped brows. “I’ll be with you the whole time. It’s going to be okay.”
That’s how I ended up here. I’m never ready for anything. If only I could have a shell to live in. Natalie pushed the swirl of her emotions back, like the bile in her throat as she took Lilly’s outstretched hand and walked from the bathroom.