Negative Space

by Tamuira Reid

It is not important that you don't know why you cry anymore. That you just do. It is not important or monumental; just a part of your day like anything else. Like driving to the bank or picking up the dry cleaning.

It doesn't help to talk about it. To hear words slip out of your mouth like slow-running water. The geography of your body not a puzzle to solve.

It is not necessary to name names, to name the man that did it, to give first and last, age, occupation. To say he has blue eyes that can charm and pierce, soothe and destroy, make you shout out in anger, make you shrink and fold into yourself.

It is not necessary to pull it to the surface again, once more, all over. To sift through the memories like hands moving through soil.

It doesn't matter that you hurt then or you hurt now. That it started on a Tuesday. That he bought you a turtle. That he wasn't always bad. That the bedroom door was still open.

It doesn't matter what was on TV (was it the news?). That he was a drunk. That the sky was full of holes where birds should have been. That your hands were still child-like.

It is not necessary to point fingers. To wonder why you were the only one. It is not necessary to count the glow in the dark stars on your bedroom ceiling because they are gone now and you have your own apartment and there are no stars there.

The past is the past. It will stay there and you are here. You are moving forward in time. Those clothes don't fit you anymore. Your hair is longer. You had braces then and you don't now.

It won't make it easier if you think about it less. If you close doors and windows. Drink more water. Run faster and harder until your dead heart comes alive in your chest. It won't make it easier to say it isn't necessary, to say it doesn't matter, to say it isn't important because it is and it isn't. Memories will gain momentum and swallow you whole. They are a part of you; live in the blood and muscle and tissue of you.

It doesn't matter if you write about it. Sing songs about it. Curl up in your chair hoping the night will come in and take you away. It doesn't matter that he made you strawberry pancakes for dinner, that he loved you a little or a lot, that he treated you like his own daughter. That his name was Dennis.

It is not necessary to lie in bed all day, to sleep past noon, to be afraid of the day closing in on you. Your hair is longer. There are no stars now. Just holes where birds should be.

The reasons are still unclear. He drank too much. He had been abused.

The exact time is still unclear. Was she eleven or twelve when it started? Before or after he married her mother? The duration, the months and years and minutes that it took before it stopped, before the truth leaked out and away and into their family like a poisonous weed.

She can't walk down the beach, feel the sun move across her face without that fleeting thought, that bullet to the stomach that says maybe this was all her fault. That she is the one to blame.

She can't dance without fearing the music will cut out on her, leaving her limbs in mid-stride, hanging there in space, awkward and alone.

She can't drive over to her mother's house to say hi without having to call first, slowly pulling into the driveway, the fear rising inside of her that she'll catch a glimpse of his Hawaiian shirt in the window, notice his downcast eyes, waiting for her mother to run out to the car and hand her the algebra book she forgot, smiling profusely to hide the guilt.

And she wants to break when she sees all of this. Just break. Split down the middle.

***

The ring of the phone cut into my Budweiser-induced sleep and I knew it would be her; late night calls were what she was best at, the only time of the day she ever had left. Sometimes she would manage to squeeze me in between classes or when she sat on the toilet or in the bath. But it was late night that I'd come to expect.

She's depressed. Can't sleep. Wants to go somewhere but doesn't know where. I tell her to take two Excedrin P.M. and call me in the morning. She doesn't laugh. Her voice doesn't move at all. I start talking about my life, something I do when I get anxious, filling the silence with random bits of information. “Watched TV today.” “Cleaned my room.” “Farted on the subway.” Things like that. I know to tread lightly with Maddie, have come to recognize the warning signs, the red flags, the way breath comes out of her mouth, the slight inflections of her voice.

That while we grew-up in the same small town, on the same block, houses practically touching, my best friend remains, at times, a mystery to me, a work-in-progress, her features having the capability of suddenly becoming strange and disorienting.

Maddie had a receding hairline at five years old. She'd pull out the front section of hair when she was nervous, which was often, and her mother stuck her in hats for a while. Ugly things with big purple bows and enormous flaps. Eventually she gave up and let her roam free, her balding head gleaming in the sunlight. As she got older and her nervous ticks moved inward, the signs of her distress became harder to read.

***

I was a pathological white liar by age seven, had mastered the craft of telling people what I thought they wanted to hear, filtering out what I believed they couldn't handle. I'd been taught by my mother that hurting people's feelings was wrong, that not getting what I wanted was wrong, and that there were plenty of “good lies” to go around.

“I'll be in my office doing work. If you answer the phone and it's Grandma, I'm not here.”

“But, you are here.”

“She doesn't need to know that.”

“So – you want me to lie?”

She started laughing and sat back down at the kitchen table where I was finishing my breakfast. She put her hand over mine. “Do you know the difference between a real lie and a white lie?”

I shook my head no.

“You know what lying is, don't you?”

“That's when I don't tell you things because I don't want to get into trouble.”

She lowered her eyes at me, trying not to smile. “Exactly.”

I didn't get it.

“Then what's a white lie, Mama?”

“It's when you say something that might not be the complete truth because you don't want to make someone feel bad.”

This hadn't occurred to me before. You could avoid hurting people. I quickly developed my own vast repertoire of white lies, honing my skills and perfecting my execution.

In the shower / Still at work / Has water on the stove / Couldn't have picked a better one myself.

I learned that while these lies were handy, that absolute silence also worked well. If you didn't talk about it, didn't verbalize it, then it didn't happen. Silence was power. I could change the reality of any situation, propelling myself into a world where nobody got hurt, where families were normal, and where kids could just be kids.

I would teach Maddie about this while we climbed trees overlooking the vacant dirt lot. The art of the white lie, the art of silence. Teach her about the politics of truth, that some things were just better left unsaid.

***

She's depressed. Can't sleep. Wants to go somewhere but doesn't know where. She starts crying and it's low and guttural, like a dog backed into a corner. She went to a workshop on campus, she said. It brought up a lot of shit, she said. She hates him.

They sat in small groups and did healing exercises. She can't stop thinking about him. She doesn't want to be angry anymore.

Her mother left him at first, but went back after endless promises of therapy and sobriety became believable. She would weep, alone in her bedroom, her husband holed up in a motel somewhere across town, exiled from the house.

She waited until Maddie went off to college before asking him to move back in. The crying stopped and he showered her with flowers and attention, it will never happen again, and she was happy because she was no longer alone.

***

I remember the way you fit behind me when we slept, your knees fitting into the spot behind mine, your arm looped around my waist.

I remember the camping trip when you got gum stuck in your hair and we had to cut it out with a pocketknife.

I remember the skiing trip to Lake Tahoe when you burned the cornea of your eyes and had to wear a blindfold for two days. I made you walk into walls and fall down stairs.

When you went to space camp in Florida for the summer and had simulated missions in space. You came back and told me you could name all of the planets according to their proximity to the sun and you could.

The way your eyes are brown then green then gold in the sun. How they change depending on the color of your shirt.

When I knew something had happened. How you wouldn't look at me. The way you carried yourself. How silence failed me.

I remember all of this and don't remember it. I remember when I look at the picture of you on my bulletin board, the one of you lying on a beach in Australia, a hand shielding waving at the camera. I remember when the phone rings late at night. I remember when you come to me in my dreams, moving like a shadow across my sleep. I remember when the smell of banana nut bread reminds me of your mother's kitchen, and I see her standing there, in front of the oven, sad and beautiful.

***

I'm not much of an artist. Never moved beyond stick figures and dogs that could pass for elephants. So they all look the same to me; good. And she did them herself, which makes them even better. She bought the paint and the canvas and the charcoal that would stain her nails for weeks. The pastels and acrylic that would live on her jeans and in her hair in little splattered clumps.

I couldn't tell you exactly what it is that she does, what the medium is called. I know genres of writing. But how these transfer into the world of art – I don't know.

Some paintings are small and boxy, centered and controlled something easy to handle, to know what to do with. Others are massive sprawling forests of color.

There's a lot of white. Tons of white. Holes of white. “That's negative space,” she explains. “Space can be negative? But it's there, isn't it?” “Yes. It's always there.”

I'm nervous. Maddie looks nervous, twiddling the end of her braid, cheeks flushed, as her professor surveys her work, gnawing on the end of a pencil.

I'm looking through the student gallery window, spying. Maddie perks her head up and catches me, my face stuck to the glass like a stunned fly. She gives me a dirty look and dismisses me with her hand and I pretend to leave but return seconds later.

This is the first time Maddie will show her work. It was okay when she was studying science; pesticide alternatives and entomology both demanding fields, requiring an unerring sense of concentration and exquisite control of the right side of the brain. Her interest in entomology came as no surprise. She'd always played with bugs. When she was two her mother found her in the bathtub befriending a black widow, fondling its slick black legs with the tip of her finger.

But art. Art is different. Art is your insides clawing out, leaving you exposed and vulnerable. Art is colors. It's holes. It's making sense out of something that just doesn't. You need to be smart, crazy smart, unbelievably smart to be a scientist. But your insides remain inside, the purging of the soul not a prerequisite.

The gallery slowly starts filling up with people. Strangers moving in circles. “I never knew she had it in her.” “So talented.” “Could really do something with this.” “She's good, but such a shy girl.” And there she is. In the center of all the chaos, calm and collected. Taking it all in.

I roll the title of her show, Metamorphosis, around on my tongue when I lay down to sleep that night in my hotel room, trying to block out the sounds; the steady thud of soda cans dropping from a hallway vending machine, the crunchy static of a TV, drunken teenagers screwing around next door.

Metamorphosis: a striking alteration in appearance, character or circumstances. Like dying, I think to myself. No, negative space, I hear her say.

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