A Day in the Life – Elizabeth

Elizabeth’s Day

by Linda S. Barth

Our writing group met last night in Jacob’s study, as we do every other week, but for the first time since it began months ago, I did not enjoy it. Everyone in the group has been warm and encouraging and supportive, just like I knew they would be, and Michael is doing an excellent job as our guide and group leader. He may only be a sophomore in college, but it’s easy to see that he will be a wonderful teacher someday, maybe even a college professor. I have already learned so much about the process of writing from him. But I don’t know how to cope with the new assignment he has given us.

That makes me feel quite sad because I do enjoy being part our group. I would not have continued with it if I didn’t enjoy it, even if that meant hurting Michael’s feelings. I wouldn’t want to do that, of course, but when you’re my age, you don’t have a lot of time left to waste on things that aren’t meaningful, that don’t bring joy to your life, or at least a little happiness.

But this has been meaningful and pleasant, so I have stayed with it. It has been quite an amazing revelation to find I can communicate quite well with written words when I have always relied on painted images to be my voice. It is Michael’s intention that we learn more about ourselves through our writing, and that certainly has happened, I believe, for all of us. You might think that at my time of life, there would be nothing left to learn about one’s self, but you would be wrong.

The various topics he has come up with have resulted in a self-awareness I had not expected to find so late in life. A favorite possession (my beloved paint brushes, so like an actual physical extension of my hands and heart); your life from an animal’s point of view (an owl perched in her tree, hunting by night just as I paint into the wee hours, high up on my ladder, searching for new ideas and images); a person who has made a life-changing difference in your existence (that was a very difficult decision, and it should have been Anna, but I chose to write about Vincent instead).

All the assignments have been intriguing and inspiring, and I have approached them eagerly, until I was faced with this new one. “Write about a day in your life in the tunnel community. It can be a special day, an ordinary day, any day of your choice.”  That topic is all well and good if you’re still relatively young, and especially if you’ve lived here all your life. In that case, you don’t have a great number of days or even much variety to choose from, and with any luck at all, most of those days will have been good and worthwhile. But I have had so many days, maybe too many, and with quantity there comes a question of quality. For me, this assignment is an entirely different story. Actually, it won’t be a story at all if I can’t make a decision about what to write. Or if I find I am unable to write anything at all.

I suppose I could just write about a day spent painting in my precious Painted Tunnels. But what’s the point in that? Everyone in our community already knows exactly what I do, and most have a very good idea of how and why I do it. What interest could there be in a story about something that offers not one new or interesting idea? They know my paintings are derived from descriptions of events shared by trusted friends like Sarah and Mary and Mouse, or imagined from stories I hear in passing from my tunnel family and Helpers alike, and still others are based on shards and splinters of my own experiences and memories, memories of so long ago when I was part of the world Above.

I have spent so much time, more years than many of my friends Below have been alive, trying to forget so many of those days, trying to bury them in darkness where they should stay forever. I don’t want to relive a single one of them, to preserve any of them in writing just as my artwork preserves events in paint.  My paintings are designed to evoke both joy and sorrow, but there is always a reason for the sorrow, a lesson to be learned – that we must remember to cherish the beauty in life, while striving to keep the ugliness at bay. And yet beauty and ugliness are two sides of one coin, and one cannot exist without the other. That is another lesson so often learned only through pain and suffering.

If Michael had requested that we write about any day in our lives, no matter where that day was lived, then I could draw on memories…memories of other days that no one here knows anything about now that Anna has been gone for so long. I never knew how much John had gleaned from what Anna might have told him, but now, thankfully, he is silenced forever. Of course, Jacob might remember, but perhaps he has forgotten most of it by now, just as I wish I could. If I write about a day from my other life, a day among so many that I have struggled to abandon to the past, it certainly would be much more interesting for the others to read.  And yet it would hurt them to learn of what and who I once was. I cannot do that to them, or to myself.

And so, I must look to my days in this community, just as the assignment calls for. I need only to look at the walls of the Painted Tunnel for inspiration. I have painted scenes of life both Above and Below because it is my strongest belief that we are all a part of one great world, one great community, one great city. Our lives are intertwined, for better or worse, and we must find ways to exist together harmoniously. If we do not, then we will die together instead.

But, as I said, everyone knows that’s what I believe, and everyone knows that’s what I do. They do not want or need to read a story telling them what they already know and understand. It would be a terrible misuse of their time and of mine, and time is such a precious commodity, one that for some of us is becoming more valuable and scarce than ever before.

There must be another answer, one I haven’t thought of yet. I must remind myself that I have never given up entirely on anything. Even when everything that I cherished most was taken from me, as if by some miracle, I found a way to hold onto at least a part of it, its essence, its heart, and to bring it back to life. Maybe not in the way it should have been, but instead in the way it had to be, like surviving what was thought to be a fatal illness, then moving on in a life that has been changed but not destroyed.

Perhaps I’m making too much of this. My life in the tunnels has been filled with wonderful moments, so many of which would make a lovely, if somewhat predictable, story. I will choose one of them and get on with it. It’s only a writing assignment after all, not a matter of life and death. And if I find, as I suspect, I cannot write anything worth reading, I will simply speak to Michael and skip our next meeting. Then, I could avoid writing the story altogether. The problem would be solved.

And yet, something about it calls to me. It is not what I want to do, but maybe it is what I need to do.

I cannot sit still any longer with this dilemma twisting through my mind. Instead, I walk through the Painted Tunnels, gazing at myriad images of our interconnected lives, hoping for inspiration for my story. I see William smiling with satisfaction as he puts the finishing touches on elaborate cakes for Winterfest; the children’s choir practicing for a concert, sweet Olivia and Rebecca, only seven years old, looking like tiny angels; the sun rising over the Williamsburg Bridge on an early spring morning; young Pascal studiously learning pipe codes under his father’s watchful eye; the library lions, Patience and Fortitude, guarding far more than a repository of books; Vincent cradled in Jacob’s arms, still a tiny baby, another lost soul rescued by Anna.

The idea comes to me suddenly, but I think it has been floating in my mind for some time now, just waiting for me to acknowledge it.  I will write about the day I first entered the tunnels. That must count as a day in my life in the tunnel community, mustn’t it? Yet before I can write about it, I must force myself to relive it. I can feel my heart hammering and the pain beginning in my temples, but I sit on a nearby bench where I often rest while painting, close my eyes, and go back.

It was an oppressively hot and humid summer night, the air so damp and heavy that I felt like I was drowning long before I stood on the bridge. I had waited until after midnight to leave my empty apartment, wanting to lessen the chance of anyone guessing my intention and trying to rescue me. They couldn’t know that their attempts would be useless. I was long past rescuing, but some well-meaning strangers might feel it was their duty to try.

As I walked the few blocks to the bridge, I thought about my paintings, and for just a moment I wished I could see them one last time. But they had been destroyed and I made sure no trace was left behind. That thought put me more at ease. An artist’s paintings are always an extension of herself, and my fate would match theirs.

I followed the metal walkway onto the bridge and stopped at its highest peak. I leaned against the railing and looked down into the water far below where oily rainbow smears drifted on its jet-black surface. It seemed to be a sign that I truly had found the only sanctuary left to me. I reached into the pockets of my smock and pulled out several crushed, half-empty tubes of paint. One by one, I dropped them into the water, their impact fracturing the colorful smears, like arrows bursting the skin of a target.

With my paints dead and buried, I had only one last task before I, too, would be gone. From another pocket, I took three paintbrushes. I had burned the others, the ones he had given me, and left their ashes on the street. I did not want to share my final resting place with any part of him. But I had held onto three brushes for as long as I could. Even now it hurt to give them up. Worn and well-used, well-loved, bought with money I could not afford to spend, years ago on my first day at The Art Students’ League.

But now their time, like mine, was over. I stretched out my arm, and the first entered the water with a tiny splash. Then it bobbed to the surface and floated like a splintered timber from a shipwreck until the weight of the water-soaked bristles pulled it under. The second joined it, and then there was only one left. My fingers trembled as I held it suspended above its graveyard. I found I could not let go of it. I put it back in my pocket and closed my eyes.

A voice called out, words rippling through the murky air, naming a person I had not been for what seemed like a very long time. “Miss Dennison? Miss Dennison, is that you?”

Of course, I recognized the voice. She had been one of my best students, so promising and gifted, so certain of success as she prepared her portfolio for college entrance exams. I’d had such hope for her.

As if in a dream, I turned to watch two figures approach, one a slender woman with pale, wavy blonde hair, still ethereally youthful even though it had been more than ten years since I’d last seen her, and the other a man thin to the point of gauntness, his lanky angular body inexplicably shrouded all in black on such a hot summer night. I waited as they moved closer, imprisoned like a wounded animal with its bloody leg locked in a trap.

Her face glowed with a smile I remembered well. “Miss Dennison! It is you!” She turned to her companion. “Miss Dennison was my art teacher. Without her, I never would have gotten into college!” She looked back at me. “This is John, my husband.” He looked at me, his eyes narrowing slightly as he nodded once but said nothing.

“We’re on our way home from visiting friends in Brooklyn,” she added, “but what are you doing here on the bridge so late at night?”

I did not answer. What could I have said? And so she continued, “What a wonderful surprise to run into you like this! How have you been?”

It hurt too much to look at her, at what I once had been, and yet I could not look away. Maybe some infinitesimally small part of what was left of my heart still clung to hope. Then, her hazel eyes widened in what I knew was sudden instinctive understanding. Her voice grew soft. “Is everything all right? Is there something we can do to help?” She waited for a response I could not give her.

If I still had been able to pray, I would have fervently begged God to make them leave me alone so that I could follow my chosen path to its conclusion. Instead, after what seemed like eons of silence, I let her take my arm and lead me from the bridge, her husband following close behind like some dark, hovering phantom.

We stopped by a bench near the river, but I resisted as she urged me to sit and talk for a while. As if in a daze, I turned in one direction and then another, intent on nothing but finding some way to escape, until her insistent questions pierced the shadows. “Can we take you home? Do you have somewhere to go?”

For one horrible moment, I almost told her the truth, but then I shook my head and muttered, “No.”

“Then, would you like to come with us?”  She waited expectantly, her smile gentle and encouraging.

This was not part of my plan, the plan that had been my only means to an inevitable end, and I did not know how to cope with the brutally abrupt assault upon the eternal solace it had promised. I could hear her continuing to talk to me, but I could no longer speak. I’m not sure I continued to breathe.

But I watched her turn to her husband, looking up at him with a face full of love and trust. “Tell her, John. Tell her she must come with us.”

His voice startled me from my trance, a voice with the smoothness of finest ebony silk and the deadly sharpness of a razor. I can still hear its sunless depths in my nightmares. “Of course, Anna, she must come home with us.”

“Oh, but should we speak with Jacob first?” Her voice grew tremulous. “We must get his permission.”

John laughed, a horrible raspy sound like the wooden lid of a coffin sliding shut. “Why would we need his permission, Anna?  He does not rule our little world.”

I cannot remember how we arrived at their home, only my shock and amazement when I entered it for the first time. I thought perhaps with all that had happened, I at last had succumbed to madness. Such a place could never exist. And yet it did.

And yet it does. And I have been a part of it ever since.

I rise from the bench and return to my private chambers. I reach for my journal and begin to write. I will share a story with the group, but it will not be the one I have just torn from the depths of my dark memories. That one must sink back to where I keep it locked away, maybe this time forever.

I will think of something else to write about instead.

Another story, another time, another day.

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

email the author: Linda

4 Comments

  1. Oh Linda, this is a treasure. I am partial to a first-person story, so this is just my kind of catnip. I love the deep insight, while also the understanding that the narrator can’t see everything about the world or themselves. I really feel that push-pull here. And to also place the story in the context of an assignment. That was so clever and creative! It was a wonderful take on the idea. Thank you so much for sharing it and for coming up the theme for these stories.

    Reply
  2. Karen, I am absolutely delighted and grateful that you like my story so much. Please know that I truly appreciate your feedback, more than I can adequately say. When I started thinking about Elizabeth, a character with no canon backstory, I kept picturing a very traumatic past prior to her tunnel life. To stay withIn the guidelines for the project, I had to find a way to work that past into a day in her life in the tunnels. I was perplexed and frustrated until one of those late night/can’t sleep moments gave me the idea I ended up using. I’m so glad you feel it works!

    Reply
  3. I really, really like a first person reminiscence. The depth of character is amazing. I was *there*, walking with her, standing with her, breathless with frustration and with gratitude once Anna arrived.

    That whole, nearly-her-last, scene on the bridge was painful but wonderful. I particularly like this sentence: ‘It was an oppressively hot and humid summer night, the air so damp and heavy that I felt like I was drowning long before I stood on the bridge.’ I was glad she didn’t toss all her brushes in the water. That was significant, almost like asking for a sign … and then Anna arrived. And then …

    Carole

    Reply
  4. I so appreciate your taking the time and care to send comments about my story. Feedback like this is so important and meaningful to writers, as you know, as it helps validate what we have done and encourages us to keep growing as we continue doing something that we love. I’m also very happy that you feel the first person perspective worked well. I think I’ll continue experimenting with it!

    Reply

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