On Saturday everyone sat around the table for dinner, which turned out to be black beans and rice, one of Leah’s favorites. I sat between Cohen and Adam, across from Leah. As the first dinner we shared together since I’d moved in, it seemed kind of weirdly natural. Adam insisted on a prayer. I eyed him. Mr. Grant grumbled.
“Let him pray, Dad,” Leah said.
He gritted his teeth, gave in. I got the feeling this happened a lot. So Adam did a really short prayer and everybody started passing the food around. Nervous about eating in front of everyone, I shifted in my seat. I’d only ever eaten with Uncle Stephen. I didn’t understand why food had to be such a pivotal thing in all cultures. It was one of those universals. Yay. And I just didn’t dig it. Adam kept putting stuff on my plate as I passed them along to him. Brown rice, black bean stuff, snap beans. I thought that much food was still maybe beyond me. I could feel them all watching me, looked up. Mrs. Grant smiled, drank some water. I did the same, then looked back at my plate. Maybe I could handle the vegetables.
“So,” Adam said. “Like, we’ve got twelve really good songs, now. Totally a solid demo tape. So we were thinking of driving down to Anchorage this weekend. There’s a recording studio there and Sam knows a guy. What do you think?”
Mr. Grant raised an eyebrow at Mrs. Grant. She shrugged, raised both her eyebrows.
“Is this the most appropriate time to ask that, Adam?” Mr. Grant said.
“Uh, well, uh...”
“I think this is the perfect time to talk about it, Clay,” Mrs. Grant smiled at Adam. He grinned at her.
Mr. Grant sighed. “All right. Who’s driving? What vehicle? Where are you staying? What adults are going with you? It seems a foolhardy thing to jump in a car and run to Anchorage on the slim prospect of possibly getting a demo tape made.”
Adam pushed his hair out of eyes. “Sam knows this guy. It’s solid.”
“Sam knows a guy. That’s great.” Mr. Grant set his napkin on the table next to his plate. “What about the adult? You’re not going by yourselves. And how will you be paying for this? It’s expensive, really expensive.”
“We’re four guys, Dad. We’re all seventeen. Practically adults. It’s a two day trip, max. We’ll stay with this guy Sam knows. And we’ve been saving up since we got together six years ago. The money isn’t an issue.” Adam set his napkin down, too, next to his plate. He stared at the food still there. I tried not to breathe, to blend into the furniture. My hands twisted and shook.
“What kind of guy is this? Some psycho who befriends high school boys and lures them to his house? I don’t think so.”
Adam shook his head, pushed back a little, away from the table. “Dad.” He sounded frustrated. “We’ll stay in a hotel, then. We’ve got the money, okay?”
“Do you plan on taking your own instruments?”
“Yeah. Everything fits in Gordon’s VW Bus. It’ll be okay, Dad. We’re good drivers.”
“You’re seventeen-year-old boys, Adam, as I once was. I’m aware of how you’ll drive. And you’re going to take an adult with you, if I have to go myself.”
Adam leaned forward, eyes wide, the beginning of a smile on his face. “So it’s okay? We can go?”
Mr. Grant tipped his head to the right. “I’ll have to talk to the other parents, but, yes, I suppose so. Anna?”
She nodded at him. “Yes. It sounds as though you’ve really thought about it, Adam, have really planned it out. I think it will be a good experience.”
They continued to talk about the finer points: the money, the hotel, the equipment, the Bus. I faded out, thought about dinner with Mother. Most often she wouldn’t be there but when she was it had been total silence, no exceptions. I would cook, she would stand by the sink and let me know whenever I did something wrong. She would eat while I cleaned up and then go to her room while I ate. She said she couldn’t stand to watch people eat. With her job and all.
“Violet,” Cohen whispered to me. “Ya gotta eat something or they’ll be pissed.”
I stared down at my plate, nodded, swirled stuff around, made all the movements of eating, drank all my water, refilled the glass. Dixon and Cohen started a quiet discussion about some new computer game. I ate the snap beans, some rice. Very exciting. I started thinking about Ivan, how he was adopted after they’d fostered him. They were fostering me. I wondered if they’d want me. My situation was, of course, different. My mother wasn’t dead. But if they had the choice, would they want me?
I certainly wouldn’t want them. That was for sure. Too full of themselves. They forced me to eat. A big bother, living here.
But it might’ve been nice, maybe, to know they wanted me.
The happy-trip-to-Anchorage conversation slowly petered out and a silence filled up the room for a bit until I suddenly, without thinking about it, burst out with, “Tell me about Ivan.”
Everyone blinked at me, looked around at everyone else. I would’ve liked to crawl under the table, light my toes on fire, maybe.
Adam leaned back, smiled at me. “I miss him. He’s just so cool.”
“Well-traveled,” Leah said. “Always wearing wool and tweed and leather.”
Must’ve fit right in, the missing piece of the puzzle. I was a piece from another picture entirely, one of those It’s-So-Hard-You’ll-Kill-Yourself-Before-You-Can-Finish-
Dixon said, “He’s smart.”
“And fun,” Cohen said. “A really good soccer player.”
“He’s a painter,” Dixon added. “Like you. Did you know that?” I nodded. “He’s the best. We were eight when he moved in. He was sad, then. Like you.”
I stared down at the food on my plate. I was sad?
Adam shifted the focus back to Ivan. “He’s like this great oracle, like everything he says is divine. I totally idolize him. I mean, I owe him my life.”
I raised my eyebrow at that. A stir shifted around the table, a collective intake of breath. I wondered what the deal was.
“I remember this one time,” Cohen said quickly. “He’d just gotten the Harley, with some of his trust fund, and he was giving us rides, when he took a corner too sharp, ended up in the hospital with a cut on his face and a broken leg. Mom was so relieved, because he couldn’t ride it anymore that year, with winter coming.”
“And that time.” Mrs. Grant laughed. “When he was, oh gosh, how old was he? Sixteen? He decided he was going to paint the house without telling us, as a surprise for our wedding anniversary. Remember, Clay?”
Mr. Grant nodded, smiled. “He picked a smoky orange which looked perfectly acceptable on a little chip but which was ghastly on the side of a house. It was as if we’d turned the place into a brothel.”
They all laughed, remembering. I wished I hadn’t asked. Too much information was just too much information. Everyone was so well adjusted. Had I stepped into a clone factory?
They went on, telling each other stories. Ivan sounded perfect. I hated him, wished I was him.
I worked on the painting of my family in class. Even though I’d known what Samantha was doing, the idea had intrigued me. Where would I place everyone? What would they be doing? Should I make it realistic? I had to think about the colors, the symbolism. Who would I include? Mother, Uncle Stephen, Dad, and me. My family. I started with a wash of burnt umber and raw sienna and lots of titanium white, a middle value of the land around Santa Fe. Santa Fe, not Alaska, even though I’d always lived in Alaska. I heard the story, then, of Dad meeting Mother in Santa Fe, entrancing her enough to move to Alaska with him. Her trailing behind him like a duckling, all the way north to Fairbanks. Plop.
I marked in the placement of the people with a darker value of the same color, started to work in the background, make the sky a hard blue. The sky on a hot day in mid-August.
Shay wandered over to where I worked, stopped to my left, watched the canvas develop.
“What’s this?” he said. “People? I didn’t think you did people. Tell me about it?”
I shrugged, mixed some yellow ocher into a bit of alizarin crimson.
“It’s homework, kind of. I’ll get back to the interiors soon.”
He looked at the painting some more, pointed to the figure at the far right.
“That one looks like you.”
He stood there a little bit longer, studying the canvas. “Is this in New Mexico?”
I daubed in the yellow orange I’d made, nodded.
“Have you ever been?” I asked.
“Only to Santa Fe.”
I turned around, surprised. “But this is just outside of Santa Fe, like you’re headed to Albuquerque.”
“This is where you’re from, then?”
I turned back to the painting, stared at the hills and sky, the figures just forming. “Yes.” My place of origin.
He smiled. “This is exciting, Violet. I’ll leave you to it.” He wandered off to the next easel.
I got back to work, feeling okay about it. I wanted to know how it would turn out. I thought it might be good. To get it out like this. To see it on canvas, written in paint and blood and memory.
I paced in my room from the closet to the little window to my desk and back to the closet. The finished painting of my family sat on the bed, staring at me. I thought it might be one of my best and it frightened me just a little bit, the quietness of it. Like we’d all been entombed with Uncle Stephen, eyes sealed against the world around us. I stopped and stared at it again.
Dominated by warm tones, browns and oranges and yellows, swirling across the canvas. The Joshua trees around us were painted indigo blue, for sorrow. I had created amazing people. I hadn’t known I could paint people that looked so real, despite their unnatural color. I’d decided to go all the way with the symbolic color, so I was gray and black, Mother was orange and blue, Uncle Stephen was gray and blue and purple, and Dad was yellow and blue.
Dad stood on the far left, his back to the rest of the painting. Mother was next, but far away, on the top of a hill, her back to us. Uncle Stephen sat lotus style, between Mother and me, in the foreground. He faced my figure, his hands on his knees, face turned down. The hills around Santa Fe surrounded us all, where Uncle Stephen would take me for hikes; the landscape seemed amorphous, now that I looked at it, really took it in. Like a womb, alive and nourishing.
My birth place. Somehow safe.
I wondered if it was any good. Generally I’m a decent judge of my work. This felt right.
For some strange reason I kept thinking about showing it to Adam and so I started to pace again. Adam couldn’t care about it, Adam wasn’t interested in me, Adam’s opinion wouldn’t be important.
But it truly was.
I stopped in front of the painting again, picked it up, quickly went up the stairs before I could think too much about it. Adam’s door stood open and I stopped when I heard Mr. Grant’s voice.
“...if you’ll just give it a chance,” he said.
“Dad.” Adam sounded frustrated. “You know this isn’t a whim. I’m serious. We’re good, Dad. Really good.”
“I understand that, Adam. You generally are good at the things you care about. However, college is terribly important now. Jobs are more scarce. When this falls through, you’ve got to have a solid base.”
I stood in the hallway, painting leaning against my leg. Torn, I knew I shouldn’t be eavesdropping but I wanted to hear them talk to each other, wondered what they’d say.
“I understand where you’re coming from,” Adam said. “Really, Dad, I do. I have a clear idea of the job market. It’s bad out there, okay?” That didn’t sound like Adam at all, but then again, I really didn’t know him, did I?
“Then why do you insist on pursuing a dead end dream?”
“I’ve thought about this a lot. See, everybody’s getting laid off, right? Kids who go all the way through college, who have these stellar degrees, they’re, like, working at Wendy’s, okay? So the way I see it, going with the band is like, totally the only way to survive.”
“Adam, that’s not how it works.”
“Yeah, well, everybody’s got their pet theories. I want to give this a shot, Dad. It’s important to me. I don’t want to be some frustrated guy sitting in a gray cubicle, wondering how it could’ve been different. Wondering if I could’ve made it different.”
“Adam, I want you be something great, to do something worthwhile. You’ll waste your life, waiting for something to happen.”
I turned and walked back downstairs, set the painting against the wall. I studied it again, then lay on my back on the floor. When the burns started to hurt too much, I gritted my teeth.
There had been something right about that conversation, something about Mr. Grant wanting Adam to do something that would support him. True, Mr. Grant couldn’t see how important Adam’s music was to him, but it was the thought that counted here. Mr. Grant didn’t want Adam to fail, to be miserable. Mr. Grant was attempting to give Adam a legacy of support and love, no matter how trite that might appear.
My mother had given me nothing worth keeping. I sat up, pulled out my journal.
Journal Entry - October fifth
I don’t understand the idea of family. What makes a family a family? Why are they so important? Why do they tear down, rather than build up? Why do I have this need inside of me for approval from my mother? Why do I need her to love me? I should just be able to give it up, say “no worries,” turn away as she did.
I’m envious of the Grants. How Mr. Grant still loves Adam, even when he’s doing something that Mr. Grant doesn’t want him to do. How Dixon and Cohen sit next to each other and know what the other is thinking. I’m envious of them all for getting Mrs. Grant. They must have done something right in a past life.
I think about my own family, my own mistakes. Empty dinners, silent Saturday mornings. Holidays. I remember the Christmas after I turned eight, running into the living room, stopping in the doorway. Mother had been sitting on the couch reading, drinking coffee. She looked up at me. I must have made some sort of noise, staring at the Christmas tree. There were no presents under it, except the carefully wrapped blue and green present I’d placed under it the night before. Mother sighed, set her book down.
“Merry Christmas,” I said.
She wrinkled her nose. “Violet, dear, you’re too old for Christmas, now. You’re a big girl.” She glanced at the present under the tree for her. “We should probably take that back to wherever you got it, all right? It wasn’t fair of me not to tell before this, but I didn’t think you’d be able to get a present for me without my knowledge.” She sighed again.
I don’t really remember what I said, insisting that it was her present, that I wanted her to keep it. Finally she opened it. It was the best present I’d ever given her, a snugly angora sweater that matched her eyes. I’d been saving since last Christmas, and had found the sweater online from one of Mother’s favorite sites. She never wore it, that I can remember. She might have even sent it back. I remember her sighs so well. I was such a burden to her, doing the wrong thing every chance I got.