If Vera’s pencil broke one more time, she’d probably give up on art forever.
To be fair, she was placing an unnecessary amount of pressure on that innocent little pencil, all for a sketch that she’d probably paint at home later. It was one of a smiling woman, but she just couldn’t get her eyes right. This was probably her 800th time erasing them, to the point where this woman on paper was given raccoon eyes she never even asked for. Yikes.
She sat at a corner table at her favorite bakery, her usual drawing spot in the mornings. The space was cozy and intimate, with knickknacks and small antiques skirting the walls. But with her usual drawing spot and her usual pencils betraying her, Vera couldn’t help but let out a sigh. She turned the pencil upside down to closely observe the broken point, as if the pencil would somehow explain to her why it broke as apologetically as possible. I’m sorry, the pencil would cry. I’m sorry I failed you. But I can’t take all this pressure!
But there was just something missing. This woman on paper was supposed to be youthful. Happy. Her mouth held a childlike grin, but Vera couldn’t get it to meet her eyes. Hence the deep dark circles she was gifted from the kneaded eraser that tried to take back all the botched attempts. Vera pulled back from the drawing and leaned back in her seat, looking at the eyeless woman with a glint of sadness. Her hair lay on her head in kinky curls, crowing her defined cheekbones and jawline. Plump lips and a beautiful nose to match, but no eyes. Just dark marks of where past attempts used to be.
Picking up her pencil to attempt drawing the eyes just one more time, Vera was startled by the alarm on her phone that had just gone off. Looking at the notification, she quickly remembered it was time for her to go to work and she’d be late if she didn’t leave, well, right now.
Closing her sketchbook and placing her supplies in the book-bag she picked up from underneath the table, she let out another sigh. Time always seemed to fly way too quickly when working on her art, and frankly, it sucked to Vera that she could never complete a sketch in one sitting. And at this point, she knew she needed to call a cab to get to work on time.
After putting on her coat and waving at the small woman behind the register, she stepped out into the brisk Portland air. Vera came to Maine for art inspiration and her love for the scent of the sea air, but lately it seems like her charm’s been disappearing. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and ordered a ride-share to her job, hoping that a certain person there wouldn’t be too angry at her.
But this wasn’t anything short of normal for Vera, honestly. Getting so lost in creating an art piece so lifelike that she forgot about the real-life around her, at times. There was comfort in holding a pencil or a paintbrush, because she was in control and decided how the piece would look. She knew the landscapes and characters she created like the back of her hand. In the real world, there wasn’t much certainty.
Hopping out of the cab and running to the front doors, she sighed in relief that she wouldn’t be late to work. Greeted with a sign that read ‘Welcome to the Graham Center Nursing Home,’ she swiftly ran to the locker room to change before heading to the courtyard of the nursing home, gently smiling at other patrons and co-workers she passed. Though the air was chilly, the sun was still out, and the large green space was populated with other nursing aides facilitating various outdoor activities, most of which looked to be having fun. Some tables were drawing, others playing some card games, others having group book discussions, but there was one table she was looking for in particular.
Vera scanned the tables, before her eyes landed on one of the tables toward the garden flowers, where a man was sitting in front of a chess game he had set up. A faint smile grew on her face as she approached him, happy he was there today. Walking up to the table and pulling out the seat across from him, he looked up at her in mild surprise.
“Whew, thank goodness you made it! I thought you were standing me up today,” he said with a low, gruff voice.
“Now, Harry, you know I wouldn’t miss these chess games for the world. What else would I show up to work for? It’s definitely not to clean up after the group bingo games, that’s for sure,” Vera said with a laugh.
Harry was her favorite, and had come to live at the nursing home around the same time Vera started working there a year and a half ago. After making her rounds she always made sure to spend some time hanging out with him. He always provided good conversation and frankly, was a pretty formidable chess opponent. Vera knew he was in his eighties, and while his face and glasses may have given that away, his personality never did. He always dressed unreasonably proper (as today he wore a blue cardigan over a button-down shirt and slacks with boating shoes), but at this point Vera just assumed that that was an old people thing.
The garden served as a backdrop for their chess matches, which Vera often used to pick his brain and hear stories about his past. “Let us begin, shall we?” Harry made the first move, before placing his glasses on the bridge of his nose with a shaky hand.
Vera made the next move, and Harry quickly followed. “So how has your morning been, young lady?”
Picking up a piece and moving it across the board, she sighed. “It’s been okay, I guess. I sat at the bakery for a little bit and tried to draw, but I just couldn’t finish this one for some reason.” Before making his next move Harry took a quick glance at her face, seeing her brows slightly furrowed together. He’s seen that face quite a few times, and knew instantly that it was more than just this drawing that was on her mind.
They exchanged a few more moves silently, as he thought of what to say, as he knew a simple ‘what’s wrong?’ wouldn’t suffice. “Who were you trying to draw? You’re usually excellent at portraits if I say so myself,” he said. As he made his next move, Vera looked down at the board in shock as she saw he already had her in checkmate.
He pushed his glasses higher on his face, making eye contact with her this time. “You’re obviously distracted, young lady. And you never answered my question.“He spoke gently, and Vera looked down in embarrassment.“Sorry, Harry. I... I was trying to draw my mother. I just can’t get the eyes right and I don’t know why. They’re burned into my mind with every expression: sadness, joy, anger, sleepiness, every single one. I just can’t get them on paper for some reason.”
Vera always felt a burden when she spoke about her mother, especially to Harry. She knew he was a Vietnam veteran, and had experienced more trauma than she’d likely ever see in her entire life. But he never judged her for it, and for that Vera was eternally grateful.
Harry tilted his head to the side, trying to catch Vera’s down-turned gaze. “Why are you apologizing to me? But in my honest opinion, once you heal the guilt you feel in your heart when you think of those eyes, you’ll be able to put them on paper once more.” Her eyes snapped up, as if right as he said that, she felt that same fabled pang in her chest.
Shaking his head slightly, he began again. “It pains me that I can’t help you in a way I wish I could, as I know exactly how you feel. But I’m not a professional in any way.“A frown appeared on his face, and Vera couldn’t help but mirror it.
“What I can say is, that feeling won’t last forever. But you have to be willing to talk to someone who’s in a position to help, not just your favorite old man at a nursing home - even though I’d listen to you up until my final day,” he said.
Vera knew what he was talking about. A few weeks ago Harry had suggested group therapy, as it was something that helped him when returning from the horrors of war himself - not just the feeling of having someone listen to you, but that others are going through the same thing. She had done her research on it, but every time she felt she dared to go, some invisible force seemed to stop her.
The sun started setting in the sky, and the courtyard was nearly empty. Knowing that Harry had to go back to his room, she stood up from her chair and helped Harry do the same before linking arms with him for support as they walked back to the elderly care facility. “I...I know you would, Harry. And I appreciate that more than you’ll ever know. I’ve tried going, but something always seems to stop me,” she said, looking straight ahead.
“The feeling of relief you’ll have when that feeling no longer weighs on your heart will trump anything you’ve experienced before, once you learn to release it. I know it’s not easy, but it will be worth it, and that’s a promise. You know Harry never breaks those.” He used his free hand to pat her arm endearingly.
She turned her head to look at him, and as they made eye contact, she used her free hand to give him a loving squeeze. Vera nodded her head and let out a chuckle. “I know, Harry.” As they approached the door, she moved to hold it open for him while using one of her hands to help him up the small steps that lead inside. They moved into the lobby, and Vera pressed the elevator button and they waited in silence.
A chime sounded as the elevator doors opened, and Harry walked inside. “Are you sure you don’t need my help getting to your room?” Vera asked.
“I’ll be just fine, young lady. I know this is a nursing home, but I’m not that old,” he said with a laugh. “Plus, I think you have somewhere else you should try going tonight.” Before Vera could respond, he pressed the button corresponding to his floor and the elevator doors shut. She stared at the closed doors momentarily before lightly shaking her head. Harry may be a peculiar old man, but she knew he merely wanted the best for her, and she knew he was right in his suggestion.
She headed back into the locker room to change and get her bag before taking another cab back home, unable to take her mind off of what Harry had said.
But she knew he was right and knew what she had to do.