By Anton Dudley
“Could you turn away from the light?” Elijah would do anything to avoid his subjects’ eyes.
And now the brush began its solitary dance. In a drunken tango, the fine hairs swayed back and forth across the canvas.
I walked down the rotting wooden stairs that led to his studio, tired of watching boy after boy turn away from the light. Whenever I begin to feel invisible, I move to the water. Living on an island provides the accessibility a frequently invisible individual like myself requires.
Underwater, hearing is reversed. All you can hear is your heartbeat and your lungs ache for their next breath. Your sense of smell is stopped and to taste would invite death. Sight nothing but a blur of blue.
Touch is the only sense unaffected by water. The grasping for experience, as the mind strains to understand all that brushes against the skin.
The evening was hot. I had just got my driver’s license and I drove. Downtown I had seen what looked to me like a gay bar. Its purple windows had always drawn my eye as Mom drove me to the gallery in the city center. Mom had a burning passion for art and an equal passion for teaching me everything she knew about it.
“Of what?” I asked.
“Just be careful.”
Mom always said that every time I got in the car by myself, even if I was only running out for bread.
The club had a large parking lot. I parked my car in the back of the lot fearing someone might see my private school parking sticker and report my deviance. Once inside, the colored lights and imitation smoke hid the walls, so the room felt like an endless cave in which time was forbidden.
“You want a drink?”
An older man, thirty, held my shoulder.
I said this word with such conviction that the man assumed I was of age.
“My name’s Peter,” he said.
“David.” I had concocted an equally believable phone number.
“David. That’s a solid name. Do you want an import or domestic?”
I asked for something dark; light beer makes me burp and I was trying to act mature.
Peter put his hand on my leg.
Sex is a lot like beer. You hate the first few, but after you get used to it, you can pretend you enjoy it. Further down the line you can’t get enough of it.
The bathroom was dark, lit by a solitary red bulb in the corner. All around us were men in various stages of undress, engaged in various attempts at physical connection. We found an empty stall and fell in. My heart was beating so loud I could barely make out the beat of the music in the other room. I held my breath and closed my eyes. I pressed my hand against the cold metal wall of the stall and dreamed of ice.
* * *
The sky was rapidly growing darker as some clouds etched their way into the halo of the moon. As I emerged from the water, I saw Elijah standing on the dry part of the sand, waiting for me; his open shirt rippling in the lazy breeze.
“You turned into a mermaid?” he joked. “What’re you doing down here?”
“Too dark to paint.”
Elijah had a phobia of electricity.
“The moon’s cold tonight. Pearl, not Silver. Aren’t you cold?”
“I thought you’d be in bed with him by now,” I said.
Elijah pouted the same way he had the first time we met.
* * *
“There’s the bronze David,” my mother said.
It was the third David we had seen that day. This one was green, where the other two had been white. David enthralled me. He possessed what no commercial image had managed to exploit in him.
“Take a picture of me next to it.” I said.
“Prom night!” She said with a mercurial smile.
If you’ve ever been to Florence, you know that restaurant on the hill, the one with the view of Brunelleschi’s Dome.Mom took me there to eat and to meet up with her friend from college: Elijah.
“It’s such a coincidence we’re in Florence at the same time, I haven’t seen him for years,” she said.
Yet they were closer than any couple I’d ever met. Elijah sent my mother paintings; she sent him songs she composed on her shiny, black piano. I couldn’t help but feel that more was discussed in this exchange of art than was ever dreamed of in most literary correspondences.
“There he is,” she said.
He had thick black curly hair and long fingernails. He talked in no particular accent but with that light affectation which made American businessmen nervous.
Halfway through lunch, Mom excused herself to the bathroom. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Mom likes to brag.”
“I’d like to show you my studio sometime.”
“You don’t like art?” Elijah said, putting his hand on my thigh.
I couldn’t tell if I was being dismissive or flirtatious; I don’t know if there’s a difference. “Your mother said you loved Masaccio and Caravaggio.”
“They’re dead, I can trust them with my affections.”
And then the pout; that stupid doggy pout that said ‘why are you so mean to me?’
* * *
It also meant Elijah was in the mood for sex. I sometimes felt Elijah only wanted me when he realized how much he missed her. As if taking me would, in some way, bring her memory alive in his mind. I sense my mother in everything – her songs, her face, her laugh, her voice, her smell, her warmth. Elijah only sees her in me. I inherited her eyes; eyes that seem to have grown darker since her death.
“So, why didn’t you do him?” I asked.
“It’s a bit dark to be swimming, isn’t it?”
“Moon’s high enough.”
He just stared.
“Why’d you come down here?” I asked.
“Wondered where you went off to.”
“Didn’t seem to notice me leave.”
“You know I get tunnel vision when I paint.”
Whenever Elijah said ‘tunnel vision’ he clasped his fingers around his eye sockets like thick-lensed glasses and shook his head back and forth. It made him look like a cartoon. “Do you want to fuck?” he asked.
“Go finish your painting.” I said.
Back into the water; I wanted to drown in blue.
* * *
Mom’s favorite flower was the Iris; her funeral was like a greenhouse – one that specialized in the fragile bloom. Her coffin was lowered into the earth and I remember thinking the sky would collapse, crash down and pummel me into the ground like a nail in soft wood. I walked up to the ditch that had been dug to contain her, as if that were possible. I looked in and saw that bluish-gray box gasping for air. A man pulled me back. It was Elijah.
“I know,” he said.
I remember thinking he didn’t know anything.
“I know,” he repeated in the same pulse as before.
I threw my gaze onto the multitude of Iris. I thought I saw my mother running across each petal, as if she were responsible for the yellow streaks that sliced that dusted each flower. “We don’t have to go to the reception.”
“Fuck.” I said.
Mom hated me to use that word, but none other came to mind. The day was hideous, meaningless, eternal.
* * *
There is a splash behind me which sounds like a distant explosion. I feel something touch my leg. Because of my over-active imagination, I think it’s a shark, fuck. It’s Elijah – my instincts are often correct. Elijah hates to swim; he only comes in when loneliness has twisted away the fear inside him. I force him far from the beach.
“It’s so dark,” he spits, wiping the salt from his eyes as he treads for dear life. “We should go in.”
I stay silent.
“You hear me?”
His shoulders glisten like ice. His hair sticks to his face like seaweed. His eyes like beach glass. He is the ocean. Like this, I could dive into him and disappear. “Please?”
I shoot past him. He can beat me on land, but I’m the dolphin.
* * *
Splash. Splash. Splash. The pounding of arms on water like thunder. I was swimming as fast as I could, wanting more than anything to make her proud. I came in third.
“What are you complaining for? I don’t have any bronze. Look at my rings,” she twinkled her fingers in front of me, “gold and silver – now you’ve completed the set!”
I stood on the stand in my towel, stinking of chlorine. I looked across at her as the junior YMCA played the national anthem over its loudspeakers. She had a precious diamond tear in her eye. If I had known then she would not live to see me turn eighteen, I would have pressed my forefinger to her cheek and let that tear roll into the palm of my hand, then sealed it tight in a jar to keep out time.
The other parents flocked around their shivering kids: women and children in a sea of fathers. Tall, well-fed, balding men in suits who’d skipped out on work to see their kids swim in straight lines for faux metal medallions. These men disgusted me. I didn’t know why, given their numbers, none stood by me.
Mom put her arm around me and laughed the sort of laugh that melts snow.
“Ah well, at least I don’t have to share you.”
* * *
As we walked up the beach, Elijah put his arm around me.
“Let me paint you.”
“I thought it was too dark to paint.”
“You’ll strain your eyes.”
The moon tucked in.
“I want to stay outside a little longer,” I said.
We sat down on the floury sand, naked. I lay back and gazed up at the heavens, or whatever lies beyond. Elijah moved his hand onto my leg and slowly caressed my thigh.
“Go on,” he whispered.
“I can see you looking past the sky. Go up there.”
“Shut up, Lij.”
“You think she’s up there and you’re probably right. Can you hear her?”
“I would give the world to have your hearing. That’s why you’re silent so much. You’re listening to her. Go.”
“What’s with you tonight?”
“I saw her,” he said.
“I was painting and the brush just went. Go look upstairs, if you don’t believe me. I painted her face.”
We fell silent. Silence was something we could do well.
* * *
After we met in Florence, Elijah decided to rent a studio apartment in the city. He was independently wealthy and followed his impulses. I started seeing Elijah more frequently. Afternoon visits to his studio on my way home from school in the fall of my senior year lasted into the cold winter evenings. In the center of his apartment was a large, old porcelain tub. I lay in the steaming water and he painted me – variations on the Death of Marat Sade.
In the midst of this facade, Mom discovered a lump on her left breast, and, without my knowledge, put in her will that, were she to die, I should move in with Elijah until I was legally old enough to be on my own.
I looked at my image in his paintings and saw an empty face. I told Elijah I didn’t believe we truly knew each other. He just stared at me. After a long silence he muttered under his breath, “You’re not like her at all.” He fled the city and moved to the Caribbean. Elijah would have impulses in which he’d follow the path of a painter he revered; this time, Gauguin. The art still arrived in Mom’s mailbox, but I neither spoke nor wrote to him, nor he to me.
Six months later, Mom left too, but with no possibility of return. I didn’t have to move in with Elijah since I had turned eighteen with the New Year, but he insisted at the funeral I should, perhaps from guilt, most likely from dedication to my mother. I agreed; I had nowhere else to go.
* * *
His hand moved up my leg after a long silence. I lay motionless. Elijah rolled over and kissed me. It must have felt like kissing a corpse, but it didn’t bother him.
The sense of touch is awkward in the fact that, unlike other senses, it is equally effective on the receiving end. I let Elijah make a map of my body. He did so with an intense desperation. “You’re going to leave soon, aren’t you? Just like her, you’ll leave me too,” he said. “Where would I go?”
He kissed me and went to sleep. I watched him. I could learn to love him. I loved his art. When the silence grew awkward, we could talk about her.
Somewhere I heard a giggle. As if a wish had somehow come true.
“I love you, Lij.”
He was already asleep.
The stars seemed to weave a ladder through the sky. One day, I’ll shed my body and climb it. For now, I live in the world of touch.
Author Bio: Anton Dudley’s (he/him/his) plays and musicals have premiered Off-Broadway with Playwrights Realm, Second Stage Theater, Cherry Lane Theater, and at Theater Row, and across the country at theaters including Signature Theater, LaJolla Playhouse, Walnut Street Theater, Williamstown Theater Festival, Adirondack Theater Festival, and Ensemble Studio Theater. His works are published by Sam French, Playscripts, Applause, Backstage, and Vintage. His play “Letter to the End of the World” was a finalist for the 2012 Lambda Literary Award in LGBT Drama.