Fifth former Abby Davis ’20 has been one of the most prolific writers in this year’s Creative Writing class. She was selected as the student reader for December’s Fridays at Westminster reading where she read along with English teacher Terence McCaffrey and essayist and humorist Gina Barreca. The story below is the one she read that night.
I was told that when I woke up, I wasn't able to do much. I couldn’t eat, they said, and could only ‘drink’ from an IV bag. I couldn’t speak or write or draw, or communicate at all really except for slight movements of my eyes and my head. I couldn’t do anything on my own. At first, I didn’t even know my own name. My brother told me that I was a shadow of my former self, but that didn’t help me remember who I was. I was a blank slate, my memory wiped clean like a burnt computer drive. He tried to show me by bringing photos that I had kept in a journal. I didn’t like looking through them at first. I felt like I was intruding on somebody else’s life, studying their existence and trying to imagine what their life was like, trying to step awkwardly into their shoes. He showed me my unfinished artwork: half-painted canvases with exciting colors, brush strokes carefully crafting something that I could no longer picture. They sat in piles against the bleak walls of the hospital room, with paint palettes tucked behind them, in case I became motivated to finish a painting. They all looked foreign to me, and a bit intimidating. While I was alone in the otherwise empty room, I would look through them, sitting up in bed with a needle stuck in my arm, my unsteady hand feeling the different coats of smooth paint, tracing the faint pencil marks still visible beneath the unfinished layers. I wondered what this would have looked like if I had gotten a chance to finish it.
My brother kept his distance from me for a while after I came home from the hospital. It must have scared him how much the routine at home had changed – I didn’t recognize our house, other family members, or any of the keepsakes in my room – but eventually, we became close again. He would dig through our parents’ attic to find projects I had done in fourth grade, the black cat ears that I had worn as part of a Halloween costume in middle school, a report card from high school. He would tell me stories of when I was kid. I soaked it all up with fascination, but it felt alien to do so. It was as if my brother was telling me about a great-aunt that I’d never met; it was interesting to hear, but hard to imagine a different life in a distant past. I tried anyway: I re-found my favorite cafe, I re-appreciated my favorite sweatshirt, I re-loved reading my favorite books – especially since I got to experience them again without knowing the ending. I slowly felt like I was regaining who I was, finding my personality and my place in life through my trinkets and through my history and through my rediscoveries, but, for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to relearn how to paint.
“You used to spend hours sitting in the garage painting,” my brother told me with a sad smile. “You would shelter yourself from the rest of us by stapling blankets and a plastic tarp to the ceiling to create a barrier. You wouldn’t let anyone else see what you were working on until it was just the way you liked it.”
“What did I paint?” I asked him.
“Whatever inspired you that day. Sometimes you’d paint flowers, sometimes sunsets, sometimes people, sometimes abstract shapes and colors.” My brother chuckled, reminiscing: “I asked you once if you would paint a portrait of me and you said no because for you, painting was a beautiful expression of who you were and you didn’t want to paint something as ugly as me!”
“I said that?” I was startled. “I’m sorry!”
He laughed. “It’s fine, you were twelve. We used to insult each other like that all the time. But, either way, I didn’t ask again after that.”
I looked at the paintbrushes and the easel and paint-splattered floor and the empty canvases that lined the back wall waiting patiently. I sighed.
I didn’t go back into the garage after that. I didn’t like to look at the scene. It haunted me, reminding me that, even as my life began to return to normal, there would always be a part of my past that I couldn’t recover – that I was too scared to recover. I worried that I wouldn’t know how to paint, that I wouldn’t be able to express myself the same way I’d used to, that I’d never be who I truly was. Who was I anyway? I wasn’t a collection of paintings or favorite mundane objects, I knew that. But who was I if I didn’t know how to express myself? Like my brother had said, my paintings represented my feelings and my creativity and my passions. If I lost my ability to express those, was I really anyone at all?
* * *
It was months later before I decided to brave the back corner of the garage. It looked exactly the same as when I had seen it last. Even though it was unnecessarily taking up a lot of space, no one in my family wanted to touch anything and up until this moment, that included me. I carefully picked up the tarp that was sagging on the floor, lifting it over my head, and then let it drop behind me. The confined space felt like an attic, an unventilated area where the smell of paint lingered, even after being long dry. I breathed in deeply, trying to find a connection, trying to stimulate my brain to remember what it felt like to create art.
I sat on the stool in front of the easel, absentmindedly twirling a paint brush through my fingers. I put it back, stood up, and walked around in slow circles as if I were lost in a thick hazy mist, unsure of where to go. I found myself in front of a small blank canvas leaning against the wall next to a set of unopened paints. I picked them up and brought them to the center of the room, placing them on the floor, the canvas propped up against the easel and the bottles of paint lined up off to the side in no particular order. I sat down cross-legged in front of the easel. My fingers hovered over the paint options. I couldn’t choose, so I decided to start with the one farthest to the right. It was lavender. I opened it and breathed in the strange yet oddly familiar smell of acrylics.
I reached for the brush again. Holding it felt surreal, foreign even. I held it delicately, like a pencil. I tried gripping it like a two-year-old about to vigorously scribble with a crayon. It didn’t feel right either way, so I placed it back and, not knowing what else to do, stuck my finger into the paint. It felt cool, almost as if I were sticking my fingers into refrigerated jello. I swirled the paint a little, coating my skin with the color of spring flowers and fragrant soaps.
I slowly lifted my finger out of the paint, letting the excess drip back into the bottle, and, once again not knowing what else to do, pressed my finger onto the center of the canvas, feeling the thick papery material bend slightly under the pressure, and smeared the paint until I had a light purple horizontal streak. I started opening more and more colors of paint, laying them out in front of me in a messy array. My ring finger became a forest green, my thumb a midnight blue, my pinkie a shade of salmon, my middle a brilliant yellow. The canvas turned into a polychrome landscape: the trees were different shades of blue, the sky was tinted emerald, the hue of the background mountains would match a cranberry sorbet (if such a thing existed). And right in the center, a beautiful lavender sunrise.
I closed the lids to the paint bottles and wiped the wet paint from my hands onto my jeans. I sat in front of the canvas for a while, admiring my artwork, captivated by the power of creation. I felt overwhelmingly content, my eyes searching over every inch, every uneven blob, every smudge, and finding no imperfections, I looked around the room and started to imagine myself sitting at this easel, in front of me all the paintings in their unfinished stages, and I felt in my soul a swell of pride. These paintings were my creations. I had made these! Even if I didn’t remember, each individual stroke of paint at one point represented who I was at the time that they were made. This – this room, these bottles of paint, this gallery of art – was my biography. This was who I was!
“Hey, I haven’t smelt paint in here in a long time,” my brother said, entering the room by sliding through the gap between the tarp and the back wall.
“Well, I was feeling inspired,” I told him, grinning.
“I’m glad. What did you paint?”
I looked at the canvas filled with mismatched colors, a fantastical scene, shrugging.
“I don’t know.” I squinted at the canvas, tilting my head, analyzing my work. “An alternate reality maybe. One where I don’t know how to paint.”
He chuckled. “I think you’re doing just fine.”
Abby Davis ‘20