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Blue Portrait

Matt was a blind date, the only one I ever went on. He was an acquaintance of a girl who had the locker next to mine senior year. She thought I’d like him because he was an artist and was sort of in a band. He played bass. I did like him; he appealed to my latent desire for bad boys. He was thin and strong. He had curly hair, golden like his skin, and it flopped over his eyes. He had beautiful lips, red and full. I can’t remember his eyes.

I also can’t remember much of what we did together all that long summer after graduation. He took me around to the video store where he worked. I perched, bored, on a tattered vinyl ottoman mended with skateboard tape, in the tiny back room behind the counter while he and his buddy watched slasher movies, grunting little bursts of awed laughter at the sickest parts.

I took him around to the restaurant where I worked. I ordered a salad, no bacon, trying to adhere to my well-intentioned, Smiths-inspired vegetarianism. He ordered a fat, drippy cheeseburger and grunted grudging hellos to my friends.

But when we were alone, he was tender, holding my hand, opening doors for me, and sometimes when we talked all his teenaged attitude fell away and he was enthusiastic, sweet, his eyes widening with unaffected interest in the things I said. He was a good boyfriend. At the movies, he looped an arm around my shoulders and gently nuzzled my neck, and I thought if he had a letter jacket he’d have asked me to wear it.

Flying, photograph by Holly Van Voast
Flying, photograph by Holly Van Voast

We hung out at his house, in the basement family room, watching videos. His bedroom was down there, too, but I couldn’t go in there, it was a house rule. After it seemed late enough, his parents asleep, his stepbrothers and sisters off and away, with only the TV for light, we’d have sex on the couch. That was good, somehow. Despite a near-total lack of experience the sex was entrancingly good.

Chemistry notwithstanding, I started to realize he wasn’t very interesting. He didn’t read. I saw very little evidence of art in him, unless a surly expression and a collection of faded black t-shirts make an eighteen year old boy an artist. He spoke with vicious bitterness of the last girl he’d dated. He despised the tyranny of discipline his mother and stepfather imposed on him.

He complained endlessly about how horrible his parents were, how he hated his life, his stepbrothers and stepsister, and everything else. He told me how he fantasized about killing them. One day, he smugly mentioned he’d dropped acid before picking me up for a date the day before. That was too much for me. I was a good, sensible girl, for the most part. When he talked like that, he scared me, and he embarrassed me. My parents were blandly kind. I had no worries like his.

One day, he smugly mentioned he’d dropped acid before picking me up for a date the day before. That was too much for me. I was a good, sensible girl, for the most part.

We’d sit on the phone, and I’d listen sympathetically and offer the best advice my AP psychology class had equipped me for. He’d complain, and I’d offer suggestions on ways he could talk to his parents about what bothered him, get to the root of the problem. He’d reject my suggestions with more whining.

Panicky boredom was already sprouting in me by my birthday in the middle of the summer. For weeks in advance, he hinted about a special present, a painting. He wouldn’t tell me anything more, but I’d catch him looking at me in a way I never saw at other times. Open eyed, face washed clean of sullenness and sarcasm. He looked much sweeter and younger, watching me like that. It made me uncomfortable. When I caught him staring I’d make a joke, or kiss him, to make him stop.

My birthday came, and I dutifully sat blindfolded at the table while he arranged his gifts on the table in front of me.

There was a dinner of Chinese food. He paid his step-brother to go get it in time. A bunch of flowers. There were some other small gifts, I think. I think he made me a mixtape. We did things like that back then. His mixtape would have had a lot of Sex Pistols and very old Cure, and maybe some Ministry. He was a very angry young man, after all. And there was the painting, propped against a vase so I could see it.

It looked like a Matisse, bold colors and outlines in acrylic. My skin was blue, my hair faithfully an oranged brown, the background a murk of green and black. My eyes stood out the most—virid green. I looked sullen, sarcastic. Not happy. I didn’t understand, then, why he used blue for my face, but now I think I do.

I tried to keep smiling when I saw it. It wasn’t good. I didn’t look very pretty. A blue face, what was he thinking? He had used my senior picture as a model. The smile I wore in that photo, taken the summer before, was meant for another boy, that summer’s boyfriend, who hadn’t lasted long enough for the proofs to come back.

These heartfelt offerings made me squirm—I knew, seeing these small things he’d chosen so carefully, that I was tired of him, and that embarrassed me. I didn’t know where to look. My smile felt stiff, my cheeks hot. I thanked him, anyway, with kisses and favors, conferred on the couch later that evening.

At home, I propped the painting against the wall behind my bedroom door. It didn’t match my pastel-and-silver decorated room, which I’d done my best to decorate with no money. The painting’s strange and intense gaze didn’t belong next to the Erté prints in their dime store frames.

Yet, I let things wind on for a few more weeks. Maybe I didn’t want to be alone. Maybe I just didn’t have the courage to be honest, knowing it would hurt him. At the end of the summer, we would part anyway. He was going to college in St. Louis, I was going to Chicago.

I started feeling a mild panic rise in me when I was with him. On the phone with him, listening to another of his miserable rants, I’d watch the clock, wondering what was on TV, or if my friend Erica wanted to go to the mall. I wanted to be anywhere, but not with him.

I sat on the couch one hot, late July night, the phone wedged between my neck and ear, watching videos and listening to him talk on and on about nothing I could help him with, and nothing that I cared about. A paper towel was spread in my lap, and I fiddled with the peel of an orange, rubbing my fingers along the moist white pith.

He sniffed. He had some sinus thing going on. It was gross.

“I just can’t take their fucking annoying rules anymore. They don’t make sense. They’re such hypocrites. They smoke. My stepdad smokes a fucking pack a day.” Mm-hmmm. My mom and dad didn’t smoke. They hated smoke and my dad would complain, very embarrassingly, if he could so much as smell a drift of tobacco from the smoking section in a restaurant.

“And my dad’s a fucking alcoholic. I spent enough time cleaning up after him. That’s how I learned to drink.” Yeah. My dad might have a beer in the fridge. There was nothing to water down, here. I picked at the fine scale of dried orange juice on my index finger. Little shimmery white flakes drifted down.

“My stepbrother Jason stays out as late as he wants. He didn’t even come home last night. My stepdad doesn’t give a shit about that?” No. Parents are different, I know. I didn’t know. I was home at midnight on the dot, and always tapped on my mom and dad’s door to prove it. I knew to the minute when to leave a party; I knew how long it would take to drive home.

Finally, I couldn’t wait any longer. On one of those interminable phone calls, I gently told him that I couldn’t help him anymore. I couldn’t fix his problems. I was very cool, and he was very silent. I invited him to call me back when he got his head cleaned out. He never called.

Back at home during Christmas break that winter, I ran into a high school friend who was at Matt’s college. He had a message for me. He told me, “Matt said to go fuck yourself.” I laughed and rolled my eyes. I had a new boyfriend, one I loved back. I could afford not to care what Matt thought of me now.

My parents moved away after my first year of college. I had to take the painting home to the apartment I shared with that first, important, college boyfriend. We kept it between the end of the couch and the wall in the living room. To see it, you had to sit on the end of the couch and peer down into the crevice. It became a joke. When we had parties, our friends would take turns looking at the stern blue face and giggle, giddy, high and wasted.

I kept the painting for a few more years. One fall, I was moving into a new apartment with my boyfriend. We had placed our odds and ends of furniture in storage for the summer. When we came and got everything, I carried the painting over to someone else’s pile of rickety possessions and propped it against a lamp. I wonder how long my face stared out into the hot gloom of that warehouse, glowing blue, as if lit by a flickering television screen no one was watching.


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