From Saving Forever, “brushstrokes and ruins” (CADE)
Except for the months of pleasure I’d known with Ever before the accident, it seemed like my entire life had been nothing but pain. I knew, intellectually, that wasn’t true. Mom had died when I was fourteen and life had been great up until then. Mom and Dad loved me. Grams and Gramps loved me. I spent summers at the ranch, and had my art at home. I’d had fourteen years of happiness. I was nearly twenty-three. That meant not quite ten years of hell.
But never had pain felt like this. Ever needed me. She refused to face the truth I knew she saw in me. I knew she’d seen the guilt in me. I’d nearly told her the truth a few times. But I always chickened out. Justified it by telling myself Ever need more time to heal, to recover, to regain herself, her life.
So months passed, and my guilt ate me alive. I loved her as fiercely as ever, but it was overshadowed by the lies, the guilt, the agony of knowing I’d betrayed her. I wasn’t sleeping more than a few hours a night. I woke up tormented by nightmares, wracked with guilt. I woke up and stared at Ever, asleep in our bed next to me, clinging to me, her sweet soft arm across my chest, her breathing soughing in the darkness. And I wanted to shake her awake and tell her to leave me, to find someone worthy of her perfection. I wanted to confess, so I could be free of the secret, rid of the weight of my silent sin. It festered within me, rotting and acidic, poisonous.
I couldn’t eat. I worked, went to the gym, tried to chase my demons away. Tried, and failed.
I felt weak. I felt like life was passing me by, and I was missing it. Ever was getting better every day. She was speaking normally, moving around on her own. Dressing herself, eating by herself. She wasn’t an invalid anymore. I didn’t have to take care of her, much. She needed me for things here and there, but overall, she was making almost miraculous progress. Which meant the day I told her the truth was growing closer. And that meant I was that much closer to letting her go. I’d tell her the truth, and I’d leave. She’d be heartbroken, but it was better than this web of falsehood I was caught up in.
She made love to me with wild abandon. Kissed me as if she was drowning and I was her air. I once had been, but only I knew that I couldn’t be any longer. I kissed her back, because she needed me to, and I couldn’t help but to kiss her back. But I felt as if each kiss was tainting her with the venom of my guilt. As if she could taste the truth on my lips. As if she’d kiss me, touch me, hold me, make love to me, and she might look at me and know. Divine the truth of my sick sin and confront me before I could tell her myself.
It was my nightmare, waking me up every night. Caden, she would say. Her mouth wouldn’t move, but I would hear her words tolling like bells in my skull, and her eyes would be sad and tearful and angry and confused and lost. What did you do? Why? Why her? Why couldn’t you wait for me? Why couldn’t you have faith that I’d come back? WHY HER? And I wouldn’t have any answers. I could only offer her apologies, and those were useless. They were as pointless as the condolences at a funeral. “I’m sorry for your loss,” people always said, as if that had any power to soothe the grief.
Just the same, “I’m so sorry, Ever,” couldn’t possibly contain any salve for the ruin of her heart when she found out what I’d done.
~ ~ ~ ~
Four months after she woke up, Ever came to me one day as I was making lunch for us both. “I want to paint again,” she said.
She hadn’t so much as looked at her paintings. She hadn’t gone into the studio, hadn’t attempted to draw, hadn’t even mentioned her art. It was too painful, I suspected. It was the hardest thing for her to have lost. Any other pain she could have faced, if only she had her art. But with that ability taken away, she had no way to cope. I didn’t think she had the courage to face the studio, to face the loss of the one thing that made her her.
I set the wooden spoon down on the stove, turned to look at her. She was holding on to the post of entryway to the kitchen with one hand, the other fidgeting with the hem of her T-shirt. She was watching me intently for my reaction.
I stepped toward her, wrapped her up in my arms. Her hair smelled like coconut shampoo, a different scent than I was used to. She still used the vanilla lotion, though, and I could smell that on her. That smell, the vanilla sugar lotion, it had the power to wreak havoc on me. I pressed my nose to her neck and inhaled, catching the scent of the lotion, and I was torn out of the present, thrown back two years to the moment when she opened her studio door and let me in, and I kissed her, smelling this same lotion on her skin, wafting from her in waves of seductive sweetness. And I was thrown back as well to the months of her coma. I’d stand at our dresser, holding the bottle of lotion. The cap would be open, and I’d squeeze the tube, just enough to let a current of the scent hit my nostrils, enough to torture me with missing her. And now I smelled it all over again, and it was her, and I’d destroyed us. She just didn’t know it yet.
I inhaled again, seeking courage in the pain of her scent and her arms around me, so trusting and so innocent and so needy. “You’re going to paint again?”
She nodded against me. “I have to try. I’m just warning you. I’ll probably have a nervous breakdown. So just…just be ready.”
I took her face in my hands, brought her chin up, met her vivid, fear-fraught green gaze with mine. Tried to seem steady and strong and loving. Tried to hide the guilt, which was an every-moment-of-every-day labor. “If you have a breakdown, I’ll be there to hold you.”
“That’s all I need.” Her eyes shone with faith.
The horrible thing about this guilt was that I still needed her, still loved her, still wanted her just as much as I ever had. More, perhaps. I would take as much as she would give me until she knew. Her faith may have been misplaced, but I would do my best to be there for her, for as long as I could. Time was short. Soon, everything would change. I knew it, and I was pretty sure she knew it as well.
Ever lifted up on her toes to kiss me, and her lips were gentle on mine, yet still demanding. I kissed her back, because I couldn’t do otherwise.
She backed away from me, and I followed her to the closed door of her studio. I wondered if she knew I’d seen her standing here, late at night, her hand on the knob, her shoulders shaking. I watched, and she never turned the knob. Never went in. So now, the scene was familiar. She stopped at the door, her hand on the knob. Her shoulders shook. I stood behind her, slid my arms around her waist. Kissed the back of her neck, just above the knob of her spine.
“What if it’s gone forever, Cade?” Her voice wasn’t even a whisper. It was…shreds of sound, ripped from somewhere deep within her.
“You’ve learned to walk again. You’ve learned to talk again. You can eat, dress, write. You can do this, Ever.” I had to give her hope, had to give her everything I could, while I was still here to give it to her. Even hard truths. “It will probably be hard as hell. You’ll think about giving up. But you won’t. You’re too strong and too courageous to give up. Art is in your veins, Ev. It’s who you are. And if you can’t paint, by some strange fluke, you’ll find some other way of making art.”
“I’m scared.” She leaned back against me, and I took all of her weight.
I crossed my my arms over her chest and stomach, kissed behind her ear. “You can do it. Just go in, Ev.”
I chuckled. “Baby steps.”
She twisted the knob and gave the door a gentle push. It swung open on silent hinges, bumped against the wall and shivered to a stop. Everything was as she’d left it. I hadn’t dared touch a single thing in this room. An unfinished painting waited on the easel, a piece that reminded me of something Georgia O’Keefe might have painted. A Gerbera Daisy, seen from up close, an almost unlikely shade of violent orange, each petal seen in dramatic detail. The center of the flower dominated the piece, a ring of orange-red, each tiny fiber looking soft and real enough to touch. Only the edges of the painting remained to be finished, the outside of the petals. Ever stepped into the room, her eyes focused on the easel, on the painting. She walked to it as if in a trance, feet shuffling, one hand extending to touch the surface of the canvas. Her finger stroked the center of the painting, nail skritching on the dried oil paint.
“I remember painting this. I was trying to channel Georgia O’Keefe, but with my own touch on it.”
“You got it perfect.”
She remained stone-still, her fingers splayed on the canvas as if in some silent farewell. After a long silence, she spoke in a hesitant, reverent whisper. “It’s like me. Interrupted. Unfinished. Even if I could finish it, it wouldn’t be the same as if I’d finished it then.”
“Ever, you have to know—”
“I’m not that person anymore, Cade.” She let her hand drop, curling her fingers into a fist.
“I loved the person you were then, and I love the person you are now.” That, at least, was the pure, unvarnished truth.
“The problem is, I don’t know who I am anymore. I lost something. Some part of myself, and I don’t know what it is or how to get it back. And I know you love me.” Ever turned in my arms, brushed my hair away from my face. “And I love you. But…it’s not enough. You loving me doesn’t fix what’s wrong with me. And…goddamnit—” she squeezed her eyes shut and sighed, stifling a faint sob. “You’re not the same either. You’re broken too, Cade. Everything…everything is broken.”
I’d never seen this side of Ever, this raw and agonized despair. I didn’t know how to make it better. “I know.” It was all I could say. The only words that would come out. “I’m sorry. Fuck, Ever. I’m sorry.”
For betraying you. “For being broken when you need me to be whole.” I just couldn’t get the words out, the truth was lodged in my chest. “For…for everything.”
Her eyes searched me, and I saw the knowledge there. She knew. Not what, but that there was something to know, a truth hidden between us. A moment passed, and I met her gaze, unwavering. Pleading with her silently, begging her to demand the truth from me, to vilify me as I deserved. Instead, she clutched my face with shaking hands and drew my mouth down to hers and kissed me, and it seemed a vampiric kiss in a way, as if she was sucking strength from me, courage from me. I gave it willingly. She could take all of me, leave me limp and dead, if it would mean she was alive and happy.
Pulling away, breathless, she stepped back, searched the room for something. Found the age-soft and paint-splattered button-down white shirt, hanging on the back of a kitchen chair. Took it in her hands and stared at it. Memory showed in the bow of her shoulders. I stood, watching, waiting. Ever set the shirt on the chair back once more, reached down to the hem of the green V-neck she was wearing, pulled it off, folded it and set it on the seat of the chair. She didn’t spare me a glance; this wasn’t about me anymore; I was merely witness. Her fingers shook as she unzipped and unbuttoned her jeans, put them neatly atop her shirt. Standing in gray cotton panties and green silk bra, she was more beautiful to me than she’d ever been. Courage made her beautiful. Tenacity made her glow. To retake what was stripped so unfairly away took more guts than I’d ever have.
She had to pause for breath, pause to gather her nerves. And then, she reached up behind her back, freed the clasps of her bra and hung it from the corner of the chair back. She was facing away from me, and I couldn’t breathe for the sight of the curve of her bare back. I stared, branding the image into my mind. This moment, this vignette, it was now something sacred to me. She was physically exposed, emotionally vulnerable, braving her deepest fear, and she was doing it alone. I didn’t think she was even aware of my presence any longer, and in a way, that was as it should be. She’d have to learn to live without me.
She stepped out of her underwear, set them on the chair. Ever stood naked in her art studio, her pale skin pebbling from the chill in the air. I devoured her naked form with my eyes, buried the memory of this moment deep within me. I would need something to hold on to, when all fell apart.
At long last, she slid her arms into the sleeves of the shirt, buttoned it with shaky fingers, smoothed her hand down her front, over her hips, as if to press the reality into her skin, as if to tell herself that she was truly doing this, and that she could. I stood with my back to the wall near the door, willing her onward.
She took a black Sharpie from the tray of the easel and signed her name carefully to the bottom right corner of the daisy painting, and then, beneath that, wrote: “Interrupted”. Ever heaved a deep sigh, and lifted the four-by-six canvas from the easel, carried it across the room, set it on the floor with a stack of other finished paintings.
She considered it finished, I realized, and I understood the symbolism in her choice.
Four-by-six was her favorite size canvas to work with, and she had a stack of them pre-stretched. Ever chose a canvas, set it on the easel, added fresh paint to each primary color splotch on her palette. Chose a brush. Held the palette in one hand, her brush hanging at her side. Her chest rose and fell with heavy breaths, nervous and afraid to begin. I could almost hear her thoughts. What if I can’t do it? What if I forgot how?
She stood still and silent for a long time, staring at the blank canvas. I was beginning to think she’d frozen. She nodded once, and then set her brush down and chose a different one, a thick, fat brush for broad strokes. She touched the tip to the black paint, and I could see her hand trembling as she drew the brush across the middle of the canvas. It was a thick, gloppy stroke, a harsh line of black on the clean white. Another long pause, and then she flattened the brush against the black paint and spread it around, added more, and more. With every stroke she grew more confident, and soon the whole canvas was black and she was filling in missed slices of white.
I couldn’t even begin to wonder what she was doing, and I didn’t dare ask. This was a private moment, one that belong only to Ever, and I was privileged to watch. I crossed my arms over my chest and kept silent, making sure even my breathing was quiet.
Ever set the black-smeared brush on the tray and picked up the one she’d originally chosen, a medium-point brush. She dabbed at the white paint, brought it in an arc horizontally across the canvas, refreshed the paint on the brush and made a mirrored arc to match the first. Slowly, then, she filled in the space between the arcs, merging the black and the white so that it seemed almost pixellated, as if the black was fading to white.
It wasn’t until she stepped back that I understood what she’d painted: an eye, opening.
“The moment you woke up,” I said. She only nodded. “You haven’t forgotten.”
Ever set her brush and palette down, turned in place to look at me, hesitated, and then ran and threw herself into my arms. She cried long and hard.
“I haven’t forgotten.” Relief filled her voice. “It’s not the same, though. Even that is different. I don’t—I’m not sure I can explain it. I don’t see things the same. When I think about painting something, even the images in my head are different than I remember them being, before.”
Her life was split into before and after.
For me, it wasn’t so simple. There was before, and there was after, and there was the unmitigated hell of between. During. That time, the during, that was what had broken me. I’d survived the loss of my parents, my grandparents. I may have survived the loss of Ever, if she’d actually died. But she didn’t. I’d lost her, but not completely. It wasn’t the pain of her loss, the agony of limbo, nor even the uncertainty of not knowing if she’d ever wake up that had done me in, though; it was the choices I’d made. The fact that I’d lost sight, lost hope, and betrayed her. And she’d woken up. I couldn’t undo it, couldn’t take it back. And even now, I wasn’t sure if I could have done anything differently. But that didn’t change the reality of my now. It didn’t alter the fact that when Ever found out, it would gut her.
And that would crumble even the ruins of what remained of me.
PRE-ORDER LINK HERE for Amazon HERE for iTunes