Inside the exhibit, a butterfly’s opalescent wings flitter around the paintings before settling on the Corinthian order–styled frame. Below is an image of a dove with an olive branch lolling between its teeth, trees dwindling from behind as it soars toward the blinding horizon. The proverbial painter stands six-two on a platform, donning a three-inch Bottega Veneta pump as she clasps her hands together before the crowd, buoyed by the cacophony of applause.
Our manager motions us to stand by our respective places and raises her index finger, a caveat to not fuck up as we’ve been told a dozen times in the previous months. Fragments of overdue bills, abandoned canvases, constant job hopping, and remarks of sallow eyes flash through my eyes, prompting a twinge in my temples despite taking a tablet of paracetamol two hours ago. Shifting my eyes away from the butterfly, I breathe at a steady pace. Trying to balance a tray of martinis in one hand is a hard feat in itself but more so in extended minutes of doing so, thwarting a possible event of the glasses falling all over the place.
‘I used to paint inside my garage despite the scorching heat because it had always been my dream,’ the painter’s speech begins. Five minutes in and she’s saying painting is in her blood, having held a paintbrush at six months old. Fifteen minutes and it’s about her experience at a world-class art school in London with a four-percent acceptance rate. At twenty, it’s about curating her first exhibit in New York. At the twenty-fifth minute, it’s about the dove painting titled ‘Death of a Daydream,’ alluding to her artistic journey from childhood up to having achieved success from nonstop strides throughout her life. Thirty minutes in and my hand, as if having a mind of its own, stiffens to prepare for the job.
‘I’ll end this speech with one thing: as the quaint picturesque dove and olive branch symbolize peace, you too can reach it once you’ve stopped fantasizing about success and start burning through the embers of your latent talent.’ Another round of applause and our manager beckons us to move, each one of us in our white button-down shirt skirting around tables of guests offering refreshments.
The painter stands by her painting as the room grows abuzz with men in three-piece suits blabbering about stocks and women flaunting the latest fashion. Noticing the butterfly that was still in its spot, she flicks it off and trampled its wings with her three-inch Bottega Veneta pump.
The fog-glazed windowpane and the trees dancing to the nighttime breeze were oblivious to the fanfare inside the cabin. Slices of pizza strewn on the carpet that last saw the laundromat before mother’s passing, succumbing to bouts of addiction. My mother called on Facetime days prior, her sunken and bloodshot eyes apparent despite the dead of the night to ask if I had breakfast, the first time she’d ever asked and apparently the last.
Mildew from pepperoni slices grew on the carpet’s fibers as if creating a labyrinth of its own. Coffee rings on the sink, the ashen spoons stowed on a cabinet corner with a bunch of forks in all its spotless tines, a squalid attempt at hide and seek—the game we never agreed to play as kids, and yet here we are, in constant gameplay, hers in a routinely fashion despite a slew of promises and rehab visits, mine a montage of fragmented daily time skips in-between 12-hour shifts for the past two months.
I cursed under my breath before plodding on an ocean of used syringes as if I were playing Minesweeper. Propping her elbow on the edge of the sofa, she peeked through her fingers, her pockmarked arm a telltale of the series of events that transpired earlier. ‘You’re not supposed to be here,’ she drawled, her eyes still in a trance, desultory stares permeating the thick atmosphere inside this cramped space. I traipsed past the sofa, treading in a pile of clothes and putting them in the hamper before clenching my fist. ‘I have nowhere to be,’ I mumbled, hoping it was out of earshot. It wasn’t. She gave a snort and called my name, smirking at my navy blue scrubs with ardent disgust. ‘Like you had nowhere to be five years ago? Until when this time?’
Bridges built from shoddy matter without caveat. Grind fragments of concrete from the aftermath and sieve its ashes on my afternoon coffee, the silt rough on the tip of my tongue as it skirts my pockmarked tonsils. Forget bogged-down days of acquiescence, sorry’s churned like stories in morning papers, and sucked up ignominy from years of droll mockery. Watch me kindle this latent vanity buried beneath bottled-up remarks and fan through its embers to keep the fire ablaze.