The Heart of a Painter by Shani Haim
I closedmy eyes and prayed as hard as I possibly could: If there’s anyone up there who might be listening to my prayers, please won’t you make this nightmare end?
After getting home from another evening of drinking half the bar, the sweaty creature I called my boyfriend climbed on top of me, and I agreed to having sex. It’d never been my favorite, but we’d been together for three years and that was just what couples did, so I agreed.
Since then, I’d been lying here, for say, the past thirty minutes, bored and staring off at the plain white ceiling of this plain white room. He, on the other hand, was into it. As much as an obnoxiously drunk man could be into something and moved on autopilot, jerking himself back and forth, going through the motions instead of making love. Sweat dripped from his greasy forehead down my chest, filling my nostrils with remnants of alcohol that flowed from his pores and out of his mouth.
And this person was a year away from graduating and becoming a doctor. Treating human patients. Huh.
The meager comfort I had from this entire situation came from his disinterest in kissing me. It didn’t bring him any closer to the finish line, so my less-than-caring boyfriend passed on it whenever possible. I approved.
He did his part in this thing he called sex and, being as disinterested in this as he was in me, my mind ran somewhere far away. It wondered, for the first time maybe in years, how I got myself into this mess. Into a relationship that screamed toxic.
I worked on conjuring the positive aspects of our relationship and found nothing. I could’ve ignored the not-so-great sex and his growing love for alcohol, if they’d been the only two things that were wrong with him. The former I could conform to; the latter could be treated.
Greg’s problem, which consequently resulted in my problem, boiled down to his lack of genuine interest and love for me. I’d been living with him for the past three years, yet he treated me like he treated the plants in the house. A nice, easily ignored decoration.
Then again, if I was being honest with myself, which I tried to be in this low point of my life, he considered me as even less. Decorations weren’t belittled at every chance. Decorations weren’t told that their work or studies were boring and inconsequential.
I envied our plants, because at least he didn’t call them stupid.
But back to our bed and the unfortunate situation of Greg not coming, which shouldn’t have been a surprise considering, well, alcohol. It frustrated me, watching him pinch his eyes shut and try to force an orgasm out of himself. What I could do, until the awaited moment arrived, was to close my eyes like he did and to not exist in these minutes that highlighted just what a means to an end I was for him.
Eventually someone up there answered my prayers and Greg finished. He pulled out and staggered sluggishly toward the trash can where he disposed of the condom, not even caring to wipe himself before falling on the bed with a thud. My side of the bed hopped in the air, but he wouldn’t have noticed. Since he didn’t care.
Relieving himself of saying good night, he fell asleep immediately. Once again, I accepted that this was Greg. This was my life.
Why, though?a little voice inside me whispered. I’d never asked myself that, too busy accommodating Greg and his needs. I also accommodated the hurt, accepted the humiliation in his words as well as his ignoring me.
But why?the voice asked again, and I couldn’t deny it anymore. I had to leave if I wanted any chance to have a better life than this before my momentary courage fled from me.
“Greg, wake up.” I poked his arm when he didn’t wake up.
He peered at me through one bloodshot eye. “What happened?”
“I want to break up,” I continued to whisper, although we were both awake. Greg had to be dealt with gently, if I didn’t want to deal with one of his harsh looks or be yelled at.
His second eye cracked open, both looking at me with confusion. “Erin, what are you talking about?”
“I want to break up. With you.” Easy, simple, accurate. Anything more and I’d start stuttering.
“I don’t understand. Just go back to bed; everything was great before that stupid comment of yours.”
I drew in a long, relaxing breath and rode on my bravery streak, the words rushing out of me. “Things are great for you. I pay attention to you, how your day has been, what your family’s like, things you love and those you wish didn’t exist. Like my paintings, or my mom and brother.” I choked on the last sentence, remembering the disgusted expression he gave me whenever I mentioned either of my family members.
“First, why do you take it so personally? Your paintings just don’t fit in. They’re too messy.” He sat up straighter, leveling my gaze with the beginning of what I recognized as his ominous look. “Second, don’t you think it’s about time we cut that umbilical cord with your mom? It’s what’s best for you. For us.”
He repeated both offending statements more than once, but they were nothing new. I was the one who changed that night, and that change took effect right then by raising my voice, by wanting to be heard after years of being silenced.
“For me? What do you even know about me? Do you have any idea what my favorite…hmm…anything is? Do you maybe finally remember I got accepted for the TA job I applied to, the one that starts in the fall? For fuck’s sake, do you even know how old I am?”
“Seriously? Am I supposed to keep tabs on all these things?” He matched my tone, and I gritted my teeth to keep myself from flinching, from showing him weakness. “I have a lot on my plate these days at the hospital and—”
“That’s exactly it.” I heaved a long, tired breath. “Your life is much more important than mine since you’re about to become a doctor and I’m nothing but an artist. Newsflash, Greg, my life does matter.”
Tears pricked behind my eyes and I willed them away. “And by the way, I’m twenty-three. Not that it ever mattered to you. As long as I’m legal, right?”
“There’s no need to be so…petty.” Instead of caring for the dampness in my eyes, he patronized me. “Honestly, I have no idea where all this is coming from. We agreed I’ll put in the hours and effort into my studies to make a better future again, for us, so that you won’t work. All you ever needed to do was support me.”
Nearly having an out-of-body experience, I rose to my feet, stumbling back and nearly bumping into the nightstand. The water glass on it dropped on the lush rug, water spilling everywhere. I didn’t care, not anymore. All I cared about was leaving this man who, without my knowledge or approval, had become my prison guard.
“We agreed?” My eyes narrowed into thin slits.
I already had the answer: we never did. Then again, his lying wasn’t new. Greg perpetually told half-truths, misled me, or told full-blown lies, then claimed I forgot things. He made me question myself, made me think I was an idiot.
Even in the few times I caught him, with hard, real evidence, he called me a liar. Not today.
“When we started dating you at least pretended to care about my goals and career,” I accused him, tearing another hole in the insecurity blanket he smothered me with. “And now this? You decided I wouldn’t work and that’s that?”
Greg’s brows furrowed, attempting to uphold his mental control over me. “If you want you can draw as much as you like, as long as you’re there when the kids are home from school.”
“I don’t draw, I paint! I paint!” I raked my hand through my hair, my tears of frustration becoming tears of anger.
The walls closed in on me, a crippling sensation. I nearly backed out on my resolve.
Don’t. Be brave. Go.
The voice propelled me out of my stagnation. I collected my clothes from the floor, dressed in a hurry, and faced him. “This is it, Greg. I’m going to start a new life. One where I’ll be paying my own bills and teaching wonderful kids.” I wanted to add so they will never be as close-minded as you, but the look in his eyes told me to think better of it.
“Erin, I don’t know why we’re having this conversation at”—he glanced at his watch—“one in the morning. I’m bored with your dramatics and am going to sleep.”
I recoiled at the malice in his voice, tempted to return to the monotony of our peaceful routine that didn’t consist of yelling and fighting.
Run, Erin. Get out.
“Goodbye, Greg.” I slipped on my shoes as fast as I could.
“Fine Erin, run off to your imaginary world of drawing or painting or whatever the fuck it is throwing paint on paper is called. I don’t know who will even want to take you.”
With my back to him, my hand on the door, I refused to let him throw another insult at me. “I wanted this to work, I really did. But you’re looking for a doormat and I don’t want to play that part anymore.”
Without waiting for his response, I opened the door and slammed it shut behind me.
I stepped out of my prison, freed, and headed to my best friend Laura’s apartment after texting her I was on my way. She replied with Can’t wait, not asking questions, simply accepting.
The knowledge of having someone I loved waiting for me made this whole situation somewhat more tolerable.
The farther away I stepped from Greg’s house, the fresher the air became. South End Boston never looked this beautiful without carrying the weight of Greg on my back, and in my growing enthusiasm, I twirled, flapping my duffle bag in a circle.
I twirled and twirled, humming “Singing in the Rain” in my head without the actual rain, but with a whole lot of freedom and happiness and joy. I nearly started tapping Gene Kelly style, and then my happy dance reached its abrupt stop. Not due to me getting bored of one of the best, most iconic songs ever.
I stopped because I noticed, at a very late hour of the night, a man walking right behind me.
A tall man. If I had to guess, probably six foot four, or five. He had his brown-blondish hair up in a man bun with a darker, fuller beard and wore a white T-shirt with faded jeans.
Normal on the handsome side.
Then again, so was Ted Bundy.
The pepper spray my mom told me to carry with me always weighed heavy in my pocket, reminding me I wasn’t completely helpless. I gripped it tight as I walked forward, no longer dancing. If the need came, it would’ve given me enough time to run to Laura’s house while he’d go temporarily blind.
The stomping of the man’s footsteps sounded louder and closer behind me, when I took the turn to the street where Laura lived. The hairs on my arms stood and I rushed to get there before I needed to use my self-protection measures.
Stop being a victim.
My hurried steps came to an abrupt stop at the thought. I refused to be one, not again.
The canister felt like a machine gun in my clammy palm, and I placed my thumb firmly on the trigger when I turned around, ready to unlock the safety mechanism and spray the hell out of this guy.
“Don’t!” he yelled, crossing his arms over his face reflexively when I pointed it at him.
Thundering pulses of blood whooshed between my ears, fearing he’d use this opportunity to attack me. “Don’t come any closer! Why are you following me?”
“W—what?” When he lowered his arms, I saw his golden-brown eyes glaring at me with a mixture of anger and shock. “Who’s following you? I live here.”
“You what?” His statement messed with my resolve. “No one just walks around this neighborhood in the middle of the night.”
“You clearly do.” He sounded as upset as he looked. Upset, and yet not as menacing as I initially thought. “Could you please put that thing down?”
I lowered the pepper spray to my side, something in me trusting him.
When he released his arms, I noticed he looked more than handsome. He was beautiful. I pinched my eyes shut and shook my head from admiring how good he looked. The last thing I needed was another upset male figure in my life.
“Not that I owe you any explanations…” The stranger frowned. It annoyed me, acknowledging that even a frown looked good on him. “But I’m having the worst jet lag and I went out for a walk.”
The conditioning Greg ingrained in me pushed the apologize now button. The free bird I became in the beginning of the evening insisted I had every right to defend myself. Battling the two, I remained silent.
“Look”—he passed a large hand through his beard, exasperated—“if anyone shouldn’t be out here, it’s you. It’s supposed to be safe, but a clever person solves a problem. A wise person…”
“…avoids it.” Throwing around Albert Einstein quotes while being this annoyingly hot didn’t lessen my resentment of having him tell me what to do. “Last I remembered, it’s a free country,” I mumbled under my breath.
He closed his eyes and twisted his mouth. He probably wanted to say something. I braced myself to any lashing out from him. With a short, annoyed grunt, he opened his eyes. His glare, still upset, still not menacing, was fixated on me for the whole of two seconds before looking over me at the street.
Without another word, the stranger took a step forward, then sidestepped me, and in an instant, he was gone.
When I recovered from the shock of my recent encounter, I turned around to see the empty street. No stranger, no one else either.
Taking his advice, reluctantly, I jogged over to Laura’s and knocked on her door.
My friend since our undergrad days ushered me in with compassionate eyes. After getting one look at my duffle bag, she hugged me close, listened, commiserated with me, and offered me a place to stay, promising to help me find an apartment in the morning.
I flopped onto the bed in her guest room, where sleep couldn’t have been more peaceful.