[img_assist|nid=10041|title=12 Years by Lisa Tarkett Reed © 2013|desc=|link=node|align=none|width=400|height=384]
“Butter is too bold,” Caroline announced, tossing the sheet of color samples to the floor. “In fact, this entire strip is too loud.”
“Why not buy the sofa first and paint the walls after?” Paul suggested.
“I’m waiting to find one I absolutely love-but I can’t live another minute with these tacky white walls.”
Paul wanted to say that dingy beige walls were no less tacky than white ones. Or that he’d rather have a place to put his ass. There was a time when living without furniture seemed appropriate, if not welcomed, when an extra chair equaled an old fruit crate and his dresser was made of plastic, but now that he was nearing forty, an empty den felt like a regression to his failed twenties. Still, they were in the cautious stage of living together, when she closed the bathroom door to pee, and he waited to trim his nose hair when she wasn’t home.
Paul handed Caroline the paint samples and kissed her forehead. “You choose the color, and I’ll paint the walls.”
“Don’t be silly, I’m hiring professionals. Instead of wasting those hours on menial labor, you could be learning techniques to improve your efficiency or just relaxing. Do you know how many dentists burn out before their prime? Really, Paul, we met at one of my “Using Your Free Time Effectively” lunch and learns, weren’t you listening?”
“I was too distracted by your legs.”
“People sign up for my lunch and learns to hear what I have to say, not gawk at my legs.”
When he opened his mouth to reply, she yanked down the hem of her skirt and headed for the large bay window. Paul took a step towards her on the off chance she’d asked for help, but she attacked the task with same precise, quick fashion she did everything. As she stood on her tip toes and stretched her lean arms to extend a metal tape measure to the top of the window frame, he marveled, yet again, that she was his.
She was beautiful, more beautiful and successful than he ever thought capable of attracting, and she knew it. With a flawless face and a few impeccably tailored suits, she had built a career as a D.C. dental sales rep with a higher paycheck than his, for the time being. There was an imbalance between them that would steadily shrink over the years, as she aged and he built his practice. He would ask her to marry him when they were on more equal footing, when to be refused by her would leave him shaken, yet able to move on. In the meantime, they would share a house, beige walls, and, eventually, the sofa of her dreams. Unromantic perhaps, but like everything in his life, he had learned to be more rational with his feelings.
From the endless bland samples with delicious names like popcorn ball and toasted oatmeal, Caroline finally chose winter garden, a greenish beige that resembled the detritus of supple summer leaves. She had placed the color strip on the table between them during breakfast and lauded the color’s versatility, never asking what he thought of it. As he waited for his eight o’clock patient to arrive, Paul browsed home improvement websites, searching for an alternative: a cadmium red or vermillion or alizarin crimson, a pulsing color to arrest his attention each time he entered the den. He wanted something that forced him to stop, for just a moment, and feel the blood pounding through his veins.
Reds always had that effect on him. Of the hundreds of paintings he created in his twenties, only three were stowed in the attic of the new house, and all were predominately red. The rest, a decade’s work of varying success and palettes, lay rotting in the Henrico County dump beside the double mattress he had shared with his ex-wife Emily.
Emily had favored blues. Ceruleans, sevres, and cobalts featured heavily in her work, at least while they were married. Though he hadn’t spoken to her in years, he still kept one of her paintings, a portrait of him sitting beside a barred window in their studio, examining the dust floating in the interrupted light. She had glanced up from her easel one morning and smiled at him until he abandoned his still life to pull her onto the paint-splattered drop cloth beneath their canvases. When they finished, she had asked to paint him, and he had sat with his skin covered only in flecks of oil colors, watching the dust they had disturbed move in and out of the light.
She gave him the painting when they separated, asking him to keep a small part of her and their life together even after he threw his own work in the dumpster behind their apartment. On the day she moved out, he watched her pull a small canvas from the trash and load it into the tiny U-Haul she had rented for her share of their meager household. It was a nude of her, abstract like all his paintings, yet he doubted any woman could walk by a dumpster display of her naked breasts unmoved, no matter her feelings for the artist or the quality of the rendering.
After she had driven away, he had descended the four flights to the ally and salvaged the remaining three nudes, leaving the rest of his work behind the sagging mattress with all his paints, brushes and canvas. He never painted again.
The paintings remained sealed with the same bubble wrap and tape he used when moving them to Baltimore for dental school. He had carried them, unopened, to a series of progressively nicer apartments until Caroline helped him heft the four bundles up the stairs to the attic of their new house. She never asked what lay beneath the nearly opaque layers of plastic, just as he had lifted several heavy boxes of hers to the attic without comment. As far as she knew, his only artistic skill was matching composite shades to teeth, and he saw no reason to correct her. Years of coaxing endless dollops of paint to blend and express the world he saw and felt had been reduced to a mere sixteen, premixed shades of beige: the yellowish As, the brilliant Bs, the gray Cs, and the reddish Ds, each with four levels of brightness to represent every tooth in the world.
He once clung to the belief that he could live an artistic life as a dentist. One of his first-year professors in dental school had likened building a posterior restoration to sculpting, saying: “You must replicate the natural shape of the molar using composite and a condenser, just as Michelangelo chiseled perfection from a slab of granite.” Granite. Not marble. As though Il Divino installed countertops for upper-middle class Florentines. Had Paul been a true artist, he’d have catapulted from the uncomfortable lecture hall seat, stripped, and tossed his scrubs in the trashcan by the door. It would have been more dignified to walk across campus in his boxer shorts than remain seated as he did, choosing to embrace the professor’s poorly executed metaphor as confirmation that he was still an artist. His medium had simply changed.
“Dr. Weston, your eight o’clock has arrived,” his assistant Megan announced from the doorway of his office. Her eyebrows rose slightly at the end, as if to add a silent finally. “He’s complaining of pain on tooth number twelve.”
She handed him the chart and stepped aside so he could walk ahead of her. Such deferential gestures always made him feel slightly uncomfortable, but every dental assistant he ever had behaved the same way. He eventually realized that their training must include a minute understanding of the doctor-assistant power dynamic.
“Thank you, Megan,” he said. She gave him a perfunctory nod, and he hoped that in her personal life, which he knew nothing about, others stood aside for her.
As they walked to the operatory, Paul flipped through the hastily scribbled medical history and decided Andrew Brookfield may have a slight sense of the inconvenience he might cause by arriving late to his introductory appointment. He glanced up from the chart to see the patient and stopped so suddenly that Megan collided with his back.
“I mixed the color myself,” the young man said in a proud voice. He tucked a strand of electric purple hair behind his ear and stared back at Paul in mock astonishment.
“It’s nice to meet you, Andrew,” Paul said, forcing a smile. “I’m Dr. Weston.”
They shook hands briefly while Megan took her seat on the other side of the reclined dental chair, and Paul couldn’t help thinking that Andrew Brookfield had been handsome before he dyed, pierced, and tattooed himself into something else. Beneath the heavy eye makeup and facial piercings, his face was perfectly symmetrical and his irises were an arresting shade of green, nearly the same as Emily’s. Weeks or months typically went by between Paul’s thoughts of his ex-wife and yet in one morning, he seemed incapable of thinking of anyone else.
At the realization that he was again staring, Paul fumbled with a pair of the Megan’s small, pink gloves before snapping on a pair of his large, blue ones. “Which tooth is bothering you?” he asked since most patients rarely understood the inside of their own mouths well enough to direct him to the same place as Megan.
Andrew pointed to number twelve with the tip of his tongue and banged a piercing against several non-offending teeth. Paul wanted to tell the young man it was a wonder he had any teeth left with so much metal assaulting his enamel. Instead he used an explorer to pull at an amalgam filing on twelve and asked “Does this hurt?”
Andrew simply nodded and closed his eyes, retreating into himself from the pain. Most people let out a little moan or jumped slightly whenever Paul found a trouble spot. The more dramatic the reaction the more he disliked the patient. It was bad enough knowing he was hurting someone, however temporary, without the accompanying sound effects and flailing. He decided Andrew Brookfield, despite his lateness and questionable fashion choices, might be a welcomed addition to his clientele.
“Is it a dull, achy pain or a sharp pain?” Paul asked.
“Definitely sharp and only when I chew.”
“You probably have a slight crack. I’ll need to replace your old filling with composite, but you could need a crown.”
“Just take the tooth out,” Andrew said, opening his eyes. “I don’t want to have to come back.”
“That’s really a last resort,” Paul said gently, searching for fear in the usual places: pursed lips, shifting eyes, a sudden foot jiggle. He’d come to expect the tell-tell signs of dental fear from a certain percentage of otherwise reasonable patients, grown men and women who sat trembling in the chair as though he were a sadist about to get off on torturing them. But Andrew’s mouth and feet were relaxed, his eyes focused directly on Paul’s face. “It might only need a new filing,” he added in a more assertive tone. “Worst case scenario, we do a temporary crown and then a root canal, but either way, we can save this tooth.”
“Just take it out. I don’t want to have to deal with it.”
Paul pretended to read the young man’s chart and breathed deep to stave the anger he felt building. Everything he had been taught urged him to try a filing, then a temporary crown, then a root canal, if needed, before removing the tooth. But despite Paul’s years of schooling, Andrew Brookfield had the option, however asinine, to do what he wanted with his own mouth, and Paul would comply as long as it wouldn’t lead to a lawsuit. When he started dental school, Paul thought giving up painting would be his greatest challenge. He never anticipated the daily torment of convincing complete strangers to let him do what he wanted with their teeth.
“Andrew, you’re only twenty-five. If I take that tooth out, you’ll have a hole there for the rest of your life. People will see a gap when you smile.”
The young man shrugged. “I don’t smile often.”
“Andrew, the tooth might only need a little composite to feel and look as good as new. We can even work out a payment plan if you’d like.”
“Take it out,” he said, opening his mouth wide.
Paul nodded and used the seconds it took Megan to ready the instruments to force his breathing to slow.
After the extraction, Paul decided red walls might be too drastic of an alternative and googled neutral interior paint. As he searched for a color that fit Caroline’s couch plan without resembling rotting vegetation, he discovered samples to match every number and letter in his composite shade guide. He even found an interior paint called Country Dairy identical to A2, the closest shade to Andrew Brookfield’s left premolar.
He turned off the computer screen and decided to continue the search later, forgetting Caroline’s impressive ability to get things done. The winter garden walls that greeted him on his lunch break cast a gloomy pallor throughout the spacious den that no amount of sunlight could brighten.
“It’s so soothing,” Caroline squealed when she found him staring at the drying paint. “It really makes the whole room feel balanced.”
He examined her perfect face for a moment, hoping for some sign of sarcasm, but finding none, asked cautiously, “You don’t think it’s a little plain?”
“It’s tasteful,” she said, narrowing her indathrone blue eyes. “I’ve decorated over nine apartments since I moved to Northern Virginia. Trust me, Paul, I know more about paint than you.”
In the weeks that followed, the color of decay slowly permeated the rest of the house: a lamp in the hallway, a throw pillow on the oversized bed they shared. Decorative ties, Caroline called them, all the color of brittle leaves. By the time Caroline found a bland sofa to complete the house, winter had settled in Northern Virginia, the outdoors muted to the same shade as the den walls. Their bodies drifted slowly to opposite sides of the bed once the novelty of sleeping entwined had worn off, and they settled into a routine that eerily mirrored Caroline’s PowerPoint slide of a sample day in the life a successful person.
Everything had become so colorless, that Paul found himself hurrying into the operatory when, after several cancellations, Andrew Brookfield finally returned for his follow up appointment. But the young man had stripped the dye from his hair, leaving it a pale yellow that dulled his impressive eyes to the color of moss.
“How’s that extraction healing?” Paul asked in an overly chipper voice to hide his disappointment.
“It’s fine,” the young man said. He smiled, flashing the gaping hole where number twelve had been. “Actually, I want you to take out the tooth on the other side. I like the gap here,” he said, sticking his tongue between eleven and thirteen. “But I think there should be one on each side.”
Megan pulled a surgical mask onto her face to hide whatever reaction she was having to Andrew’s request, forcing Paul to realize that his own jaw had gone completely slack. He closed his mouth and sat numbly for a moment before he felt capable of speech.
“I can’t extract a perfectly good tooth, Andrew,” he said finally. “That goes against everything I believe.”
“I want you to take out a tooth, not murder me. Besides, it’s my mouth, and I want it to be balanced.”
“Fuck balance,” Paul said before he could stop himself. “Life can’t all be about making everything the same.”
Megan swiveled in her rolling chair and began arranging toothpaste samples on the far end of the operatory.
“Sorry,” Paul added quickly, taking a deep breath.
“Don’t apologize.” Andrew unclipped the paper bib from around his neck and swung his feet onto the floor. “That’s the most honest thing you’ve said to me. I’ll give you some time to think about it and come back later.”
As the young man left the operatory, Paul stared at sterile gloves he had reached for to begin the examination. He let out a gasp when he realized that instead of the usual blue, they were beige. Looking around the room, he saw that everything, the instruments, his clothing, even Megan’s anxious face, had faded to various shades of brown. He blinked a few times and rubbed his eyes roughly with his balled fists.
“Dr. Weston?” Megan asked.
By the time he removed his hands from his eyes, she had crossed the operatory and was
leaning over him. “I need to go home,” he said. She was apparently too startled by his behavior to remember her training, forcing him to push past her into blanched hallway.
On the short drive home, his eyes flitted to as many things as possible: Storefronts, pedestrians, stop signs, an endless sea of nearly-identical houses, all sepia-tinted. The homes in his subdivision were so similar without different exterior paints that he had to rely on the street numbers to find his own. In the kitchen, he opened the fridge to jars and jugs with contents all resembling mayonnaise. He rifled through the drawers to confirm that every item had faded and accidently raked his thumb across a cheese grater. A small drop of alizarin crimson rose to the surface of his skin.
Relieved to finally see a color other than beige, he began searching for red throughout the kitchen. The panic that had begun when everything faded threatened to overtake him when he realized the red apples on the countertop still appeared a rotten brown to his eyes. He ran up the two flights of stairs to the attic, shoved aside the boxes where Caroline had buried her own past, and tore the bubble wrap from his paintings. Each vibrant image of Emily’s supple curves ignited the wash-out world. He examined her painting last, and felt his racing heart slow as the sober mood of her work overtook him.
She had captured the moment so differently than he remembered, the blues tones making the arch of his fingers more seeking than analytical, almost nostalgic. It was as though she had sensed, months before the fighting started, his increasing impatience to feel successful, to move beyond a life of fruit crate furniture and eviction notices, and painted him a prophetic memento of who he had been with her. He laid all four pieces carefully across the attic floor and went back downstairs.
In a drawer of seldom-used cooking gadgets, he found a basting brush similar to a crude hake. He then pulled each knife from the wooden holder on the countertop and pressed his thumb against the blades before selecting a sharp paring knife. He carried his tools to the den and, turning his left hand palm-side up down, made a tentative cut between his wrist and elbow. His hands shook slightly when he pressed the basting brush against the small line of blood, but the tightness in his chest began to relax with the first, imperfect stroke on the den wall. The tremor in his fingers stopped as he made a second arch in one fluid movement. He paused to examine his work and frowned when he realized the color had tapered near the middle of the stroke. Before making his next mark, he drew the knife directly across a vein near his elbow. His breathing slowed with each brushstroke, and despite the pain in his arm, he felt elated, calm. By the time Caroline arrived, he had finished painting and lay exhausted and weak on her beloved sofa.
“He isn’t answering my calls either, Megan,” she said, stepping into the den with her cell phone to her ear. When she saw him, she backed silently out of the room as though an intruder lurked in the kitchen. Only from the doorway did she comprehend the scene before her and began shouting orders to Megan.
“What have you done?” she asked, dropping the phone to press her hands against the deepest cuts.
He smiled at her and motioned with his chin to the wall beside the fireplace.
“You did that?”
The indathrone blue returned to her wide eyes as each of the colors in the room emerged, one by one, and blended to the truest black Paul had ever seen.
Before moving to the Philadelphia suburbs, Kathryn Hively Lane earned an MA from Rutgers University and an MFA from George Mason University. She has taught at Rowan University and is currently completing her first novel. Though a native of Virginia, she has settled into life in South Jersey with her husband, daughter, and an amazingly supportive clan of in-laws. This is her first published story.