Chapter 1- The Unraveling
I was well into my third year of teaching by the time things began to unravel. It started with a very small voice somewhere in the back of my head- A slow awakening of something that gradually consumed and eventually altered the direction of my life.
When exactly it all started I can't say for sure. Though I do recall one morning in particular when I was forced to admit that my behavior seemed to be growing progressively more irrational. I'd been lying in my bed waiting for the alarm to sound at its usual ungodly pre-dawn hour. My internal alarm routinely preceded the one next to my bed by only a few minutes. I sat up and lay my head in my hands. I was exhausted. I reached through the darkness and switched off the alarm before it could shatter the silence.
I lowered my feet to the floor and plodded across the room to a nearby window. My apartment was on the second floor of a brand new twelve-building complex. Miles of nothingness surrounded the place, but the smell of money was everywhere. I knew my residence was just the beginning. I was certain that in time the wide-open spaces outside my window would eventually fall prey to development and overpopulation.
I cranked open the blinds and watched the headlights of a lone car drift along the only road that connected me to the rest of south Florida. I pulled down on the cord and raised the blinds, then slid the window to one side. The warm, moist Florida heat poured into my bedroom. I could smell the sweet fragrance of the eucalyptus trees that populated the area. In the distance, a thin orange line had begun to stretch across the horizon. "Gonna be another hot one," I said to no one in particular and closed the window. As near as I could tell, Florida had only two seasons, hot and really hot. The so-called winter season was gone.
I turned from the window and retraced my steps back across the bedroom. I was headed for the bathroom and navigated through the darkness by familiarity until I reached the doorway. I flipped on the light switch and stared at my reflection in the mirror above the sink. "Goddammit!" I said after assessing my condition. "How could this possibly have happened again?" I asked myself in utter disbelief. My hands were covered with a muddy mixture of blue and green oil paint. Long streaks of the oily medium were smeared all over my face and neck.
I exited the bathroom and marched across the living room. I tripped over something that felt like a piece of luggage. I reached out to brace myself and knocked over the floor lamp next to the sofa. I hit the carpeted floor with a dull thud. The lamp ricocheted off the wall before landing soundly on the back of my head. I lay motionless for a moment then rolled over onto my back."Son of a bitch." I said from behind clenched teeth. I could only imagine what my downstairs neighbor must have been thinking.
At the far end of the room I'd set up a painting area in front of three large windows. The panes of glass were joined at slight angles so that the wall bulged slightly outward. Within this small alcove I'd created a studio space. I rolled over and crawled on all fours until I reached a spot that placed me directly at the foot of my easel. Insufficient light veiled the images on a canvas that sat on the crossbar. Only muddy shadows of what was really there could be seen.
I reached out for my chair and pulled myself up into it. I took a deep breath. The smell of the oil paints was intoxicating. I stood up from my seat and reached for the small shop light I'd clamped to top of my easel. I turned the switch but nothing happened. I followed the cord and found the end lying on the floor beneath the socket. I plugged it in and spotlighted an unfinished painting. I stared at the canvas for a moment. "Piece a shit." I said at last. I'd been working on the damn thing for nearly three months. I was not accustomed to laboring over a painting for such a long period of time. I was certain that I"d never spent more than a week"s time on a single painting.
In the painting, two figures occupied the stairwell outside the front door of my apartment. The painting was supposed to express something both simple and mysterious. The top step outside my front door had been a place for quiet contemplation. It was the perfect spot to unwind at the end of a busy day. Unfortunately, the place that once gave me comfort had become the subject of a painting that I could not finish. I turned away from the painting a looked back toward the living room. A soft morning light was quickly filling the room. I scanned the area looking for the object that I'd tripped over. On the floor in front of the sofa, I could see my black cassette holder. It looked like a small canvas suitcase. The lid was unzipped and folded back. I'd left it there after picking out a handful of tapes to last me through the previous night's painting session. The floor lamp lay not far from the point of contact. Its shade was crinkled and dented.
I looked at the painting again. I'd always enjoyed finding my way through the creative process, but this painting was different. There seemed to be no end in sight. I'd set off in one direction only to wipe the canvas clean and start over again. The color scheme changed from day to day. Shadows appeared then vanished. The tilt of a head leaned left for a while then right. The harder I tried, the less likely it seemed that I would ever finish. I thought about taking a break, or perhaps starting an entirely different painting. I never did. I couldn't. By my own admission, I had become obsessed. I told myself that it was more than just foolish pride. The painting threatened to undermine my confidence. The process of making art kept me centered and I was indeed beginning to feel a bit scattered. Even as a child I recognized the important role making art played in my life. It made me feel good when I was down and it made me feel great when I already felt good. My artistic expressions had always been something more than just fun. Art was healing and therapeutic. The simple act of creation has always taken me to a place of absolute clarity.
I was taunted every day by the image of the two figures from my painting. I'd sketch them mindlessly on pieces of paper like a person might doodle while talking on the phone. I'd mix paints on an imaginary palette while standing in line at the grocery store. I would stay up far too late working and reworking the painting, night after night, until I was so tired that I barely had the strength to drag myself away from my easel and into bed. The state of exhaustion induced by the process often allowed for the absent-minded omission of common sense. I had climbed into bed covered with paint so many times that my morning reflection in the bathroom mirror was becoming increasingly colorful and inexplicably disturbing.