"I Painted My Toenails Red"
I painted my toenails red.
I painted my toenails red to match the color of my fingernails.
I don't even like the color red.
But fancy ladies in those fancy magazines
On the table at the dentist's office--
And yes, Mommy, I'll stop eating sweets--
They wear the color
Like it isn't a color,
Like it means something.
There must be something to the color red.
Every time I look down at my nails,
I see the firetruck red of the crayons
I used today in class,
I see the red of the little girl's hat
On the cover of the book
The Librarian read to us,
Us huddled in a circle
In hushed voices
Like we were sharing secrets
The adults couldn't know.
I like the color blue.
Blue is the color of the sky above me,
The color of the sea below me,
Blue is the color of my eyes, of my books,
Of the light of the projector,
Of the markers for the whiteboard
That always seem to be lost.
Maybe I will paint my toenails blue tomorrow,
That is, if I can discover,
How to wash the red away.
Every morning I am faced
With the back of your head.
Your freckles and your sunburnt tans--
I saw them all.
When the little hairs at the nape of your neck grew long,
It was an average head,
As far as heads go,
And although we never once spoke,
And I never saw your face,
I knew the back of your head better than anybody,
So I'm sorry
For the intimacy behind my eyes
The day you finally turned around.
Even in the silence, I can hear music. My pen scratching on paper; the wind wailing at the bay window; snowflakes sticking to the ground and beginning to pile in the field beyond. The words I write, in those letters I’ll never send, are music to my own ears.
And I am the conductor, constantly leaning into the sound, my hands willing and prying the music from the woodwinds, then the strings. If I close my eyes long enough, I can still see his hands at the piano, playing that a symphony of emotions alive in my head, with a trembling vibrato and burning crescendo. And as the movement draws to a close, as the fermata holds that last glistening note--
“Melancholy were the sounds on a winter's night.”
…Virginia Woolf? Probably.
I set my pen down, eyes staring blankly at the world outside. My own reflection gazed back at me, and for a moment, I couldn’t recognize myself. My features were mine, but also not mine. I raised a hand to touch my face, the skin dry and cracked; but I recognized the structure underneath. The window had been a mirror, foggy after a scorching shower—yes. It’s clear now. There she is. Somewhere behind the steam.
Is it possible for someone to change so much without having done anything at all?
Or, I suppose, a better question:
Is it such a terrible thing to mourn the dead when they themselves have not yet died?
Well. He’s dead to me, I suppose. Gone. Never coming back. So it’s the same thing, really. Maybe I should write a eulogy, or an epitaph, really set his death in stone. I chuckled a bit despite myself, leaning back in the chair and stretching. The leather desk chair screeched in protest, waking Licorice with a jolt from his nap on the windowsill. I could see the indignation in his yellow eyes as he yawned, reminding me of his sharp teeth, and resettled himself.
Serves him right.
I jumped in my chair with a start. Licorice snarled at the noise—I really should just buy a new one—and he hopped down from his seat and walked away, black tail raised in the air.
“Sorry?” I managed to say, swiveling the leather chair around dramatically, like I was some nameless Bogartian gumshoe who always swung his desk chair around dramatically.
“You said, ‘Serves him right,’” said Heather, suddenly before me.
“Oh,” I said, having not heard her come in. “I didn’t know I said it out loud.”
Heather offered me a small smile.
I hated it. It was gorgeous for one thing, and always painted a bright red apple color, for another. Tempting, I bet, to certain people.
She stepped further into the room, the shadows of snowflakes falling down her pale face. “But you weren’t just talking about the cat, were you?”
I folded my arms, swiveling the chair back around. I could almost hear Heather wince from behind me at its groan.
“You know, you could just buy another chair. God knows you can afford it.”
I absently picked at the worn leather. “Nah, think I’ll keep it. Growing on me.”
A few seconds passed, and I could tell that she hadn’t moved away. “No,” I said at last. “I wasn’t talking about the cat. Well, I was, but also…yeah. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
Heather sighed. “It would be easier if you just told me what was going on. I’m worried about you!”
I had to laugh. “You. Worried?”
“We’re all worried,” she said, heels clacking on the white oak floor as she stood beside me at the desk and placed her hands on my shoulder. “You look awful."
"No, no—I just mean, well...regardless of what you might think... I do care."
"Sure," I said.
"Damn it, Charlotte! God, we're not kids anymore. Please, just tell me what—what's this?”
I slammed my arm down on the desk with more force than I intended, surprising us both. “Don’t.”
“I said, don’t.”
“And why not?” she asked, a smirk disfiguring her pretty face.
“They’re personal. Need any other reason?”
“...I was just curious. You don’t have to bite my head off.”
“Ha!” I said, gathering my letters in my hands, straightening them and sliding them in the drawer. “I wouldn’t if you dared me. Disgusting.”
“You’re so weird.”
“You know, Mom used to said the same thing, but who is it that's now paying her bills?"
Heather flicked my shoulder with a far too-perfect, apple-colored fingernail, but said nothing.
Acrylic had never really been my thing; they ruined your real nails, with all the glue and filing. But I supposed they looked nice enough. To some people.
We both stared out the large windows into the snowy abyss. The day was nearing its end, the woods at the edge of the field deep blue-black silhouettes against the darkening sky. The snow kept piling up, fitting the pine trees in white dresses. My world, like the keys on his piano, black and white. How could I be both colors at once? But it was dangerous to let my mind drift like the snow, so I tried to remember what the weatherman had said this morning on the radio, how many more inches? Eight? Twelve? Too much, I had thought. Or not enough? Everything was still so foggy.
But then I heard the music in my letters calling me, and I twirled my baton—no, my pen—in my fingers.
"You know," said Heather, in a voice that sounded very far away, "This kind of reminds me of the Adirondacks, with all the snow."
"Really?" I said, grip on the pen growing tighter.
"It's fitting, don't you think?"
"The...irony...is not lost on me, no."
"We should go up there again! Just the three of us, this time. I mean, unless you would want to bring someone—"
"Fine. It's fine. I'm fine."
She batted her eyelashes, nudging my arm with hers, "And you're sure about that? From what I remember, you certainly had more color in your cheeks on that last trip. Was it that ski instructor, where was he from, Switzer-"
"I said it's fine."
"...Okay." Heather shivered. “Have you really been in here all day?”
“Does it matter?”
“Not really. But it’s kind of depressing, isn’t it?” She giggled a bit, "Not exactly like the Charlotte I knew, you know?"
“I guess you’ve just never been depressed then.”
“No. I can't say I have. But I can imagine—"
“Imagining is never the same as the real thing. Look, did you come here for a reason?”
“Just checking up on you. Did you even go to bed last night?”
“What's it to you?” I said at last, "I'm sure you have so many other things on your mind that need attention—"
As if she had been holding it in all along, she blurted in a garble, “I’m-so-sorry-about-David!”
It was like one of those moments on cheesy medical dramas, you know, where they tell you that your favorite character has terminal cancer, but it’s not like you believe them at first, and maybe the diagnosis is wrong and it’s just to draw in more viewers. But then the audio starts playing Snow Patrol’s "Chasing Cars", and all of a sudden, the reality hits you all at once. I didn’t move. I couldn’t.
“Was that it? Is that why you're acting so funny?”
She was sorry about David? Really and truly?
But then, what did she expect for me to say? Thank you for being sorry for bringing him home with your friends your first Christmas at Pratt? Sorry that after that skiing trip in the Adirondacks, the one where you stood around like a helpless snow bunny, that he bought me a coffee? That we grew close? That I was so lonely I accidentally fell in love with the man you’re marrying next week? Sorry, that I had to watch from the sidelines as you drew him in with your apple lipstick? Sorry that he wasn’t who I thought he was? That I wasn’t who I thought I was? That I'm not...That I don't know... I thought about my reflection, and the shock I'd been greeted with.
I sucked in a deep breath, collecting up my thoughts alphabetically and stuffing them somewhere else. He was dead; dead, dead, dead. Death is a permanent affair, and I could no more prevent it than reinvent it. But did she know that? Did she know he was dead, dead to me? She wasn't meant to know...
“I mean," said Heather, "I know he didn’t mean it when he made that comment last night during dinner. What you made was lovely. Really. He has such a wicked sense of humor!”
Dinner? Dinner? Well, that hadn't been the D word I'd been expecting, but--
"You're right," I said, "What a sense of humor. What a wicked sense of humor. I'm so glad you think so, because last night, you were the only one who laughed."
"But I just told you. He has a sense of humor, so I laughed."
"It wasn't a joke."
"Anyway,” she continued, cheeks reddening, “Thanks so much for putting us up here for the weekend. I love your place. It's gorgeous. God, I hope we can buy a house like this when we’re your age.”
“I’m not that much older,” I said automatically.
“Sure,” Heather said, kissing my head, “Keep telling yourself that, Sis.”
I hadn’t realized she’d left the room until I heard a car pulling out of the gravel driveway. By then, it had already been too late. I was glad she didn't know. Really; I was. I think I was.
It wasn't until I heard a Licorice's high-pitched cries from downstairs that I looked up and realized it was fully dark now. I switched on my desk lamp, blinking twice, and carefully withdrew the letters one by one. Letters dating back months, years, all to the same person and all never sent. Vulnerability requires courage, which I never had, which was why he would never know how much of myself I had spilled onto those pages; how much music I had composed that would never be heard. But there was a distortion now between the music I heard and the music in the words I wrote.
I had loved him, even when I realized that I couldn't anymore. I had thought he was so many things, that I could be so many things, too. But there are some bridges even my imagination can't cross.
And so, taking in a deep breath that made my lungs feel cold and heavy, I stuffed the letters underneath forgotten manilla folders in the bottom drawer, and locked it shut.
What matters is what is real.
I chuckled again, leaning back and relishing in the deafening groan of my shabby desk chair.
I just like to write.