by Linda S. Barth
ON THE OTHER SIDE
“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side.
Or you don’t.”
(Stephen King, The Stand)
Our writing group met last night in Jacob’s study, but for the first time since I joined months ago, I didn’t enjoy it. Of course, it wasn’t because of the group itself. Everyone has been warm and encouraging and supportive. And even though he’s only a sophomore in college, Michael is doing an excellent job as our guide and group leader. It’s easy to see he’ll be a wonderful teacher someday, maybe even a university professor. I’ve already learned so much about writing from him. But I don’t know how to cope with the new assignment he gave us.
It makes me sad because I want to be part of our group. I wouldn’t have continued with it if I didn’t like it, even if that meant hurting Michael’s feelings. Of course, I wouldn’t want to do that either, 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 pleasant moment or two.
The writing group really has been meaningful and pleasant, so I’ve stayed with it. What an amazing revelation to find I can communicate quite well with written words when I’ve always relied on painted images to tell stories, often tales that belong to others but a few of my own, too. It’s Michael’s goal that we learn more about ourselves through our writing, and I believe we all have. Anyone might think that at my age, there would be nothing left to learn about oneself. But they would be wrong.
I love it when we volunteer to read our stories aloud. I’ve learned so much about the generous souls who are willing to open their hearts to us. Now I know that William treasures a handwritten collection of his grandmother’s original recipes, which he uses when preparing dishes we’ve enjoyed without ever knowing of their origins. That Mary had once planned to volunteer for the Peace Corps, hoping to work somewhere in South America, helping build obstetric clinics in remote mountain villages. That Pascal secretly composes music in the pre-dawn hours when the voices of the pipes are mostly silent. Maybe if we encourage him, someday he’ll perform one of his songs for us.
Sometimes I find it quite a challenge to look so deeply into my heart and mind, but it has been a risk worth taking. Once, Michael asked us to write about a favorite possession. I chose my beloved paint brushes, realizing they’re an actual physical extension of my hands and heart. On another night, he urged us to describe our lives from an animal’s point of view. I immediately saw myself as 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 to pounce on and capture.
But not all the themes have been easy to deal with, like the one requiring us to write about people who have made dramatic differences in our lives. That was an exceedingly difficult decision for me, and I should have written about Anna, but I chose Vincent instead. Predictable but far less painful. Some stories are not meant to be shared.
All the assignments have been intriguing and inspiring, and I have approached them eagerly — until the latest one. “Write about a day in your life in the tunnel community. It can be a special day or an ordinary day, any day of your choice.”
I’m so confused, so thrown by this one. I have had so many days, maybe too many, and with quantity there comes the question of quality. And for some of us, too many of our days hold secrets we can never reveal. This assignment is all well and good for most people, but for me it is an entirely different story. Actually, it won’t be a story at all if I can’t decide what to write about. Or if I find I’m unable to write anything at all.
I suppose I could just write about a day of painting. But what’s the point in that? Everyone 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 that offers not a single new idea? It’s no secret that my paintings are inspired by descriptions of events shared by trusted friends like Sarah and Mary and Mouse or imagined from stories I’ve heard in passing from my tunnel family and Helpers alike. Still others are based on shards and splinters of my own experiences and memories, echoes of so long ago when I was part of the world Above.
There were some wonderful days back then, a lifetime ago, but for each moment of light, there were hours of darkness. I have spent so much time, more years than many of my friends Below have been alive, trying to forget that darkness, trying to bury it forever. I don’t want to relive or preserve a single minute of it. True, my paintings are designed to depict every shade of existence, but some things are too painful to examine in the light.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lesson to be learned from darkness. We must always remember to cherish the joy in life, while striving to survive the sorrow. And yet joy and sorrow are two sides of one coin, and one cannot exist without the other. That’s another lesson that can only be learned through pain and suffering, and no one, not even the luckiest among us, can avoid it forever.
I must set these thoughts aside. I need to focus on the assignment. I’m grateful Michael said the days in our stories must have taken place Below. It saves me from the risk of unearthing memories of other days, days Above that no one here knows about. Long ago, Anna heard my confession, but I think she kept her pledge of silence, and, of course, she has been gone for almost thirty-five years. Still, I never knew how much John had gleaned from what she might have let slip by accident, or what he discerned on his own in that uncanny, unnatural way of his. But I don’t have to worry about him. He, too, has been silenced forever.
Of course, Jacob might remember what small scraps I once shared with him, but he’s likely to have forgotten it all by now, just as I wish I could. But I can’t, and I have no desire to immortalize any of it in paint or print. It would only hurt my friends to learn of what and who I once was. I cannot do that to them, or to myself.
And so, I choose not to. I must turn to my days in this community, just as the assignment calls for. I need only to look at the walls of the Painted Tunnels for inspiration. I have created scenes of life both Above and Below because it is my strongest belief that we are all 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 be destroyed together instead.
But what can I write that is new and interesting? It would be a terrible misuse of everyone’s time – including mine — if I rehashed something we already know. And time is such a precious commodity, one that for some of us is becoming more valuable and scarcer than ever before.
There must be another answer I just haven’t thought of. I know I can do this. I must remember that I have never given up entirely on anything, although once I came so very close…when everything I cherished most was taken from me, and I was alone, lost in darkness.
These thoughts are becoming relentless and they will consume me if I let them. I cannot give them such power. I will concentrate on other things.
Yet those memories still call to me, demanding to be acknowledged. And I realize that although it is not what I want to do, maybe it’s what I need to do. I just don’t know.
I can’t sit still any longer with this dilemma twisting my thoughts. So, I walk through the Painted Tunnels, gazing at myriad images of our interconnected lives, hoping for inspiration for a story I can tell. I see Cullen smiling with satisfaction as he puts the finishing touches on a cabinet to hold Father’s precious maps; the children’s choir practicing for a Christmas concert, sweet Olivia and Rebecca, only six years old, looking like miniature angels; the sun rising over the Williamsburg Bridge on an early spring morning, this painting’s meaning known only to me; young Devin with a wide, gap-toothed grin as he holds a prize discovered in the trash Above, a battered guitar missing only one string; the New York library lions, Patience and Fortitude, guarding far more than a repository of books; tiny Vincent cradled in Jacob’s arms, another lost soul rescued by Anna.
The idea comes to me suddenly, but I think it has been drifting in my mind for some time now, just waiting to be noticed. I can write about one of the days when I first came to live in the tunnels. I can tell the story of how I set up my studio, how I chose my first subject, how Helpers donated paints and brushes and…
I would be wasting an opportunity to face my fears and perhaps somehow lay them to rest once and for all. I’ve always believed that would be impossible, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe if I write about that long-ago night when I learned of the tunnels’ existence, when I was changed in unimaginable ways, trading what I thought was an irrevocable fate for an unfathomable second chance, then maybe at last I can find some respite from all the pain.
Somehow, I think I can do this now. Or at least I can try.
Yet before I can begin to write my story, I must force myself to relive it, to unlock the memories I’ve worked so hard to suppress. I can feel my heart hammering and the pain beginning to throb 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 well 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 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’d made sure no trace was left behind. I took comfort in that. An artist’s paintings are always an extension of herself. I couldn’t leave them behind, vulnerable and unprotected, and now my fate would match theirs.
I followed the metal walkway onto the bridge and stopped at its highest point. I leaned against the railing and looked down into the water far below where oily rainbow streaks drifted on its jet-black surface, reflecting the smallest traces of light in all that darkness. It seemed to be a sign guiding me to the only sanctuary I had left. 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 greasy 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 these three brushes for as long as I could, and 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.
And now their time, like mine, was over. I stretched out my arm, and the first entered the water with a tiny splash. It bobbed to the surface and floated like a splintered timber from a wrecked ship until the weight of the water-soaked wood 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, and I found I could not let it go. No matter. It could stay with me, like an old friend on a final shared journey. I put it back in my pocket and closed my eyes. I took long, deep breaths, ready to continue on the path I’d chosen. The path that had chosen me.
I don’t know how long I stood there before I heard it. Words rippling through the murky air, a voice naming a person I had not been for a very long time.
“Miss Dennison? Miss Dennison, is that you?”
Of course, I recognized her 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. She wanted to be a portraitist, and she could have been a fine one, a sister to Cassatt and Morisot. I’d had such hope for her.
Against my will, I turned to watch two figures approach, one a slender woman with pale, wavy blonde hair, still ethereally youthful even though it had been years since I’d last seen her, and the other a man thin to the point of gauntness, his lanky angular body inexplicably shrouded heavily in black on such a sweltering summer night. They moved closer to me, a wounded animal with its bloody leg locked in the teeth of 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 painting teacher. Without her, I never would have gotten into college!” She looked back at me. “This is John, my husband.”
He stared at me, his impenetrably dark eyes narrowing slightly as he nodded once but said nothing. I felt a prickling along my spine, as if the blade of a razor jabbed a warning against my flesh.
Her incandescent smile never wavered. “We’re on our way home from visiting friends in Brooklyn, but what are you doing here on the bridge so late at night? Are you looking for inspiration for a new painting?”
I did not answer. What could I have said? And so, she continued, her light, lilting tones making my head ache. “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 infinitesimal part of what was left of my heart still clung to hope. Then, her hazel eyes widened in what I knew was sudden 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 a dark, hovering phantom.
Even in the midst of my nightmare, I found myself almost mesmerized by this man. Who was he? Certainly not anyone I ever would have expected Anna to choose. And yet, who was I to judge such matters, considering the man I’d let imprison my heart?
We stopped by a bench near the river, but I resisted as she urged me to sit and talk for a while. I couldn’t do as she asked. I needed to get away, to return to where I was meant to be. But her insistent questions kept piercing 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 encouraging and kind.
This was never part of my plan. I had made peace with my only means to an inevitable end. I did not know how to cope with this brutally gentle assault. I did not want it. I only wanted the eternal solace waiting for me back on the bridge.
I could hear her continuing to talk to me, but I could not speak another word. It took all my strength just to breathe. I twisted my neck from side to side, frantic to find a way to escape. Then, I saw her turn to her husband and look up at him with a face full of love and trust. “Tell her, John. Tell Miss Dennison she should come with us.”
His voice had the smoothness of finest ebony silk and the deadly sharpness of a hunting knife. I can still hear its sunless depths in my nightmares. “Of course, my dear, she must come home with us.”
“Yes, she must!” Then, the excitement in her voice grew tremulous. “Oh, but shouldn’t we speak with Jacob first? We will need his permission.”
John laughed, a horrible splintery 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 never knew why he agreed to Anna’s plea, but for a long time my imagination painted vivid pictures. Thankfully, most never evolved into reality.
I cannot remember walking away from the bridge with them, but of course I must have. And I cannot remember how we arrived at their home. I only recall 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 notebook and begin to write. I will share a story with the group, but it will not be the one I have just allowed to resurface from the depths of my dark memories. All that is part of me, of who I am, but it is not a part I choose to share. It 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
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