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At six-thirty Emily got to the station, just in time for the sunset, if not for the train. She sat down on a particularly uncomfortable bench and looked up at the sky, watching pink merging into blue. The two shades blended like watercolours on wet paper, and Emily could almost see the strokes of invisible brushes that had created this sky. She resisted for a moment, then got lost in the pictures that appeared before her. There was one with bare black trees carelessly painted over the background of pale lavender, but then she turned around and instead saw a pastel drawing of skyscrapers glittering in semi-darkness. Exactly half-way between those two, surrounded by hundreds of other images, there was the self-portrait of her, waiting for the train, sitting on the bench with her hands in her pockets and her eyes fixed on the sunset.
Emily saw paintings everywhere, and it drove her insane sometimes. The problem was that before she even managed to properly capture an image in her head, it would change; the colour of the sky, the light, the way the branches curled, everything would be different. And that picture she had been desperately trying to seize would be gone, lost forever, before she could even pick up her brushes and canvas. Sometimes she took photos with her phone, so that she could use them later to help her remember, but for some reason it never worked. What Emily saw when she stared at the sky was a masterpiece, but her camera somehow transformed it into an ordinary sunset at a subway station.
Finally the train came. Her art school was near one of the last stations of the line, and the car she walked into was relatively empty despite the time. Emily found a seat by the window and prepared to see hundreds of paintings blur into one another and disappear without a trace. She knew it wouldn’t last long, just a couple more stations and the train and everyone in it would dive into a dark, stuffy tunnel, and that was just about one of the few places on earth where Emily couldn’t see any pictures, none whatsoever.
By the time it happened, and she had to look away from the window, the car was packed, and Emily decided to stare at the passengers to kill the time. Sadly, living breathing things were no more inspiring to her than the view from a window of a train trapped in a tunnel. She just wasn’t interested in people in that way for some reason. When she had to put human objects in her paintings for her school assignments, they were always just tiny dots in the background. Her teachers shook their heads, but gave her passing grades anyway.
Suddenly, Emily spotted someone familiar at the end of the car. She quickly turned away and pretended she hadn’t noticed him. After all, she wasn’t even sure it was him. That guy did look like Kyle, but it had been a while since she’d last seen him and there was no way to tell really. After they had broken up, she had thought she had run into him so many times; the city must have been full of people who resembled him. At that point it didn’t matter to Emily whether it was Kyle or just one of his doppelgangers: the prospect of wasting her breath on meaningless pleasantries was exhausting. Instead, she just stared out of the window. She had forgotten about the fact that her ex-boyfriend might be in the car by the time her stop was announced, and she got off the train without a second thought.
It seemed to her that she had been following faint traces of chocolate and vanilla all the way from the station to the apartment, but in reality it wasn’t until she was standing in front of her door that she could really smell them. Emily took out her keys and hesitated for several seconds. In her head, she could already see him, the look on his face and the way he moved, every single detail perfectly clear, as if the wall that separated them was made of glass. She tried to rearrange her face into something that would not read as tired and sad and opened the door. He was there, in the kitchen, with exactly that look on his face she’d known he would have. The scent was now strong enough for her to decipher: he had chocolate cake in the oven. She dropped her bag on the floor, approached him, and gently touched his shoulder.
Will turned towards her, and his ‘hey’ had a much longer vowel sound. He smiled. It was the smile of a child who had just seen something he had been wanting forever.
‘Smells nice,’ said Emily trying her best to be enthusiastic. ‘What is it?’
‘It’s almost ready, you’ll see. How was school?’
‘Not bad, I guess.’ Emily sat down on a chair. ‘Anything new with you?’
He started to tell her about the project he was working on. Emily didn’t really listen. She just sat there nodding when she was supposed to nod, smiling when he wanted her to smile, and occasionally saying ‘Oh, really?’ The flow of his voice was almost soothing, and she was able to tune out most of what he was saying apart from occasional engineering terms that remotely echoed in her brain. He was dividing his attention equally between the oven and Emily, and she watched the nape of his neck and the contours of his back visible through the thin fabric. He could be an interesting model, but she just didn’t want to paint him. Emily almost sighed, but then remembered where she was, suppressed the sigh and smiled instead.
As he was setting the table, she thought that she should help, or at least offer to help, but her body felt so heavy that she couldn’t really move a muscle. So she sat still and let him put the food in front of her. She forced a smile as she dug the fork into her piece of cake and took the first bite. The crust was all butter, and there was too much cocoa everywhere, so much that even all the sugar he had put there couldn’t camouflage its bitterness. It wasn’t good, and she would have much rather had something blunt and simple, but she kept on eating. She knew very well what would happen if she told him she didn’t want to finish her piece. There would be that look on his face, as if she had pricked him with something sharp. Every time she saw that look, she wanted to run away.
After she had swallowed her portion, she suggested opening a bottle of wine, hoping to wash away the greasy aftertaste. Two glasses couldn’t really do that, but her limbs started to get lighter, and she felt like something that had been weighing on her was slowly going away. The rest of the night went rather smoothly, and, before she knew it, she was lying in bed feeling his breath burn her in the back of her neck, wondering whether he was already asleep, so that she could slip away from his arms without him noticing. Emily thought about the guy she’d seen on the subway several hours earlier. She remembered it wasn’t that uncomfortable sleeping with Kyle, his breathing never irritated her.
Kyle was a weirdo. He’d had that habit of writing his ridiculous poems everywhere: between the lines on the pages of his textbooks, on paper napkins at restaurants, once he did it on Emily’s shoulder blade while they were lying in bed together. Those four months with Kyle were the most wasteful period of her life. Emily didn’t paint a single picture worth keeping. She tried, but it just didn’t work. It wasn’t like he was taking all of her time, he just occupied too much space in her mind, and there wasn’t any left for the images. When he left her she felt liberated more than anything, and if there was any sadness it all went into her paintings.
After Kyle, Emily discovered that finding a boyfriend was easy, there was always someone interested in her, and she didn’t have to do anything apart from letting them woo her. Of course that only worked for some time, and her relationships tended to be short, but it didn’t bother her. She met Will in a bar, two weeks after her previous boyfriend had left her. They talked about something, then he asked her for her number. He called, and they started seeing each other. At some point her lease ended, and he told her she could move in with him. She had been short on money, so she had said yes. Now, lying so close to him, she wondered why and how two strangers just ended up being together. It had been impossible to imagine she would live with him, then at that smoky bar, when he had said ‘hey’ to her for the very first time.
The next day at school they had still life. It wasn’t particularly inspiring for Emily, but at least the vase and the plastic apples didn’t move. Of course, the light was still gradually changing, but it was nothing compared to the fleeting images she saw in the streets. Emily relaxed, feeling that finally she could concentrate on the physical representation of her picture rather than on what was happening in her head.
‘Emily, the way you paint, it’s so unconventional… so not like everyone else. You always have your own way of seeing things,’ said Robin, the girl who sat next to Emily, as she was studying Emily’s half-finished painting.
‘Yep, her own screwed-up way,’ said Celia, who was on Emily’s left. There was spite in her voice, but Emily found her comment refreshing. Occasionally she got tired of being admired, feeling like she herself was a piece of art that people complimented, pretending they understood it, when in fact they didn’t. Envy was a more reliable indication of true acclaim to her, and that was why Emily liked to be around Celia. She didn’t say anything to either of them: the light was slowly going away and she didn’t have a single second to waste.
The class session was coming to an end, when Emily heard Robin’s voice say, ‘We are going out. Do you want to join?’
‘Sure,’ Emily responded automatically.
‘And bring Will, if you want. The more the merrier, right?’
Will showed up, and there were six of them: Emily, Celia, Robin and two other friends of Robin’s, a guy and a girl who were together. The lively cheerfulness of the bar, with its lights, loud music and the smell of beer got Emily surprisingly excited. The unknown couple sat next to Emily, separating her from all the others. The girl was quiet and unremarkable, but her boyfriend was very friendly.
‘So where does it all come from?’ he asked Emily. ‘You being the artist, I mean. Does it run in the family?’
‘I guess. My great grandfather, on my mother’s side, he was kind of a mad artist. He used to bring his pictures into the yard and burn them in front of the neighbours.’
‘Wow.’ The guy sipped his beer. ‘Did you ever meet him?’
‘Oh, no. He died when he was like forty, even my mother didn’t get to know him,’ said Emily. ‘He was an alcoholic. Got run over by a train, was so drunk that he didn’t notice it.’
‘Sounds pretty cool.’
Emily laughed. ‘Does it?’
‘Well, kind of. In a dark way,’ he said. Then after a barely noticeable pause, he added, ‘So, I suppose you got it from him?’
‘Hopefully not that part about burning my paintings and dying early.’
‘Certainly not.’ They both laughed.
They talked a lot. At some point the guy had to go the bathroom. When he left, his girlfriend took her purse, went to the bar and ordered two beers, showing no intention of coming back to the table. Will and Robin moved closer to Emily, and she suddenly felt trapped. She knew what to say to strangers, she had no idea what she was supposed to talk about with people she had known for quite some time. She reluctantly contributed several remarks to their conversation, then glanced over Will’s shoulder and saw that the guy had come back and was now kissing his girlfriend. Emily turned away and decided to concentrate on her drink instead. As soon as she finished it, Will offered to bring her another one. She said yes, not because she was thirsty, but simply because she wanted to take a couple of breaths while there was no one next to her.
Halfway through her second glass Emily began to feel lightness spreading throughout her body, starting from the tips of her toes and slowly going all the way up to her head. Robin was on her right, murmuring something in her ear; Emily only picked out ‘so talented,’ and ‘not like poor Celia.’ She glanced at her bag and saw the white tangled cords of her earphones sticking out through the open zipper. It would have been so nice to put them on and to listen to her music instead of Robin’s chatter. She started to reach for them, then realized she couldn’t do that. Emily looked at the people around her, thinking that what she really wanted was to be left alone with her canvas and brushes.
‘You and that couple got along so well. What were their names?’ Will asked as they were driving home.
Emily came back to reality. ‘I didn’t remember.’
‘You talked so much. What were you talking about, anyway?’
‘You know, just nothing in particular.’
The lightness was almost gone and Emily was annoyed. She had been thinking about all those great paintings the world would never see, and Will was talking about the people neither of them really cared about. They both were quiet for the rest of the drive. After they got home and as Will was showering, Emily grabbed a beer from the fridge and sneaked out to the balcony. She used the edge of the metal bars to open the bottle, took a sip, wrapped her arms around herself, and stared at the night sky. She had just wasted the whole evening on something she hadn’t even enjoyed, and the worst thing was that she knew that if she had been working on her pictures that whole time instead of going out, there was no guarantee she could have painted something worthy. Emily tore her eyes from the sky and looked around, spotting a jar of white acrylic in the corner. For some reason it maddened her, and she picked it up and threw it from the balcony. It fell to the paved ground and smashed into pieces, making a loud sound. Emily looked down at the white mess, wondering whether something she had just done was borderline crazy artist kind of behaviour. She went back inside and tried to calm herself down by reorganizing her sketches, so that tomorrow when the light returned she wouldn’t have to spend time doing that. Will came out of the bathroom.
‘Can I have a look?’ he asked.
‘No, sorry, they’re not finished yet.’ That was her usual excuse.
He sat down on a couch and smiled, drying his hair with a towel.
‘You are such a great artist, you know that? Those pictures you showed me, they were amazing.’
When they had just started dating, she’d shown him a couple of her paintings. He’d loved them. Maybe even too much. She was listening to his comments, but all she wanted to say was, ‘Of course you liked them, but not because you really liked or understood them, but because you like me. You had liked them before you even saw them. And all that you are saying doesn’t really mean a thing, not from you.’
The next day she finished her still life, and she thought that it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t perfect either. At the station she sat at her usual place and watched another sunset, completely different from the one she had seen two days earlier, but equally beautiful. The train wasn’t coming and she was trying to find a position that wouldn’t be too uncomfortable. She remembered that Kyle had once joked that someone must have gone into so much trouble to design benches that were impossible to sit on. She smiled, savouring the memory, but then realized there was no such memory at all. They had changed the benches two or three years ago, after she had broken up with Kyle. He couldn’t have said that to her. Who had then? Maybe Will, but he hardly ever rode the subway, so it wasn’t likely… It must have been somebody else, one of her exes, or a friend. She remembered that the sky had been deep azure then, that the first leaves had started to appear on the trees, and that the dark branches had looked like someone had sprayed them with salad green paint. She didn’t remember who she had been there with.
Suddenly, the train came and blocked her perfect sky. She couldn’t move. It was as if someone had tied giant boulders to her hands and feet. Train doors opened, then closed, and finally the ugly array of metal boxes disappeared along with the people trapped in them. The view was back, but it was not the same picture. Still, what she saw was so beautiful that it almost hurt. She ignored the next train, and the ones that followed too. She sat there, trying not to blink, to absorb as much sunset as possible, knowing that soon it would slip away from her forever and there was nothing she could do about it. Feeling so small against the vanishing images, the heaviness, the prospect of seeing Will, she thought that she just needed to get a little lighter. Then maybe she would find the strength to deal with all of it. But it was impossible to get beer at a subway station.