Study in Red

Red.  The color creeps in, at the edges of my dreams, through the windows of the studio.  Outside, I see it growing in neat rows in the park, in blossoms on the trees, and in the sunset.  Night falls, and it drips from neon signs and taillights, pools in puddles left from the rain.

I’m not usually this fixated.  Yes, I notice colors.  You don’t get to do what I do if you don’t.  I notice pattern and light, texture and color, and my brain turns them all into compositions of lines and curves and shape, and my hand interprets those things and splashes it on canvas.

For some reason, though, I am stuck – obsessed at this point, really – with red.  I think it’s her lips.  I can’t seem to find the right shade, and I’ve tried more than a few.  Crimson, carmine, red, auburn, burgundy, vermilion – they all seem wrong.  Fifty-two colors, and I can’t find a fucking match.  Some artist.

I should’ve listened to my mother.  She always said I should’ve been a surgeon.

The charcoal scratches on canvas, and her eyebrow is finished.  It’s a delicate thing, soft and feathery.  I smudge it a bit and get shadow where there was none.  I’m avoiding her lips.  Avoiding her stare, and that pout under her nose.  I set the charcoal down, and walk away.

I pass the coat rack, where my jacket hangs like a limp rag.  After a moment of indecision, I tug it on and grab my keys.  The door slams behind me, and I stomp down a dark wood hallway to stairs that creak with every step.  Afternoon light slants through the window set in the front door, and I watch dust play in it before I step through.

Outside, the world goes on.  A couple passes by on the other side of the street, arms around each other.  Cars occasionally pass, their tires whispering on the asphalt.  Sometimes I hear words in them.  I glance over my shoulder, at the front door, and feel a pang of guilt.  I usually do when I’m not working.  She’s there, waiting.  She can afford to be patient, though.

I walk to the park, the cool spring breeze ruffling my jacket, sending stray strands of hair wisping off in the wind.  The buildings to either side of me take on an almost merry look, inviting.  This close to the park is tourist ground, and I notice the occasional person passing me on the sidewalk has become people, first a few, then a stream, like a creek emptying into a river.

I turn off and cross the street to the park.  This early in the day, it’s still relatively unmolested, green trees and grass and daffodils and lilies all nodding their heads in time to the breeze that shuffles by.  I walk by a bed of tulips and suppress the urge to lash out, to kick their stupid fucking red heads off.

I decide to keep walking.

Out of the park, buildings rise up beside me again, then fall away to my left as the river begins to edge closer to the road.  The breeze is stronger here, colder, and whipping up whitecaps that break on the rocks of the bank.   Spray tickles the back of my neck, and I turn my collar up.

When I look up, I’m at a dead end.  Someone Built a warehouse here years ago, and it’s fallen into disrepair.  Apparently, the city hadn’t thought it worth the cost to just tear the damn thing down already.  I decide to take the roundabout and walk home.  On the other side of the street, something moves in the shadows of an alley, and I stop.

Probably a rat.  Just a rat.

Feeling brave, I stick my head into the narrow space between two brick buildings that smell like grease and motor oil.   Nothing moves, and I take a step, which is just enough movement to spook the rat that had been snacking.  It charges past me with a squeak, and I aim a kick and a curse at it as it flies by me.  Three more steps take me into the dark, and I stop when my shoe bumps against something soft and yielding.

I wait a beat, for my eyes to adjust.  It’s mid-afternoon outside, but in the alley, a maze of ductwork, pipes, and eaves overhead between the buildings drop the light to near night.  I prod the thing with the toe of my shoe and hear the rustle of plastic.  Just trash.  I turn to go and see a smear on the wall beside me.  It looks like someone spattered paint here, dribbled it down the wall, and into irregular puddles on the concrete.

I blink and find my fingers sifting through the sticky mess on the wall.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe artistic curiosity, maybe because unlike the rest of the alley, it doesn’t smell like refuse and shit.  I drop my hand and remember what I was doing, and turn the rest of the way around, back to the light.  It doesn’t take long to put the alley behind me.

I reach the river, and the sun is slanting in long golden rays that pierce the water and shatter into splinters of color that ripple with the waves.  I stop for a moment and watch and realize I was in that alley longer than I had thought.  I shrug to myself.  Not the first time I’ve lost track.

I watch the water for a while – green and gold and blue – and just breathe the cooling air that the breeze brings.  On the other side, people are coming home, lights going on in houses and apartments, cars drifting into drives.  I watch for a while, relatively alone.  Traffic has slowed, and only the occasional passerby even glances my way.  When the last of the light fades into the water, I turn and walk on.

I pass through the park, flowers now folded into bulbs.  Trees throw the paths and grass into dark puddles of shadow.  The colors of the tourist traps in town are muted, and the sidewalks practically dead here as well.  I push on.

In the front door, up the stairs, down the hall, and into my apartment.  I turn on the lights and dim them to a decent level.  Hang my jacket on the hook.

She’s still there, staring out of the canvas.  I pull up a chair and sit in front of her, meeting her gaze.   Nothing comes.  There is a bottle of red (hah!) wine on the counter.  I get up and grab it, and take my seat again once I’ve wrestled the cork from the mouth.

Time and wine pass, and I find myself in the same spot, the only difference being that I’m bleary and melancholy.  My eyes burn, and I set the wine down and close them.

I remember her, Madeline, a redhead from college.  She had pale skin and pink lips and nipples.  She loved the rain, and cheap beer, and talking about Monet and Seurat.  She loved to argue nearly as much, as well, though that was always followed by a sweetness you couldn’t match with candy. 

                In my dream, she is pale and bloodless.  Her eyes are clear, but they seem to see nothing.  I reach out, and touch her, and her skin smears like paint on a canvas.  I try to scoop it back into place, but every stroke just scatters more, until I’m standing in a field of orchids painted from her flesh.  I watch, and the flowers turn red, then the sky, a deep red, and beneath it all, weeping, a low keening like a bird caught in a thorn bush.

                I wake in cool morning light, an empty bottle on the floor, and my face wet.  My head beats in time to my heart, and I raise a hand to my skull to try to keep it in one piece.  Something sticky comes away on my forehead, and I curse softly, remembering that I hadn’t cleaned up after my walk the night before.

I trudge to the bathroom, and flip on the taps, waiting for the water to warm.  I look in the mirror and see blue eyes carrying dark bags, and a streak of red above that, smeared on my forehead.  I forget looking at myself, and instead, take in the color.  Almost maroon, nearly crimson, it’s both and neither, and I’ll be damned if it’s not the color I need.

I raise my still-unwashed hand to my face and stare at the smudges of red on it.  It’s dry and crusted and all wrong now, the exception being where my fingers had crossed my face.  I stick my tongue out and touch the tip to the sticky red.  It tastes sharp and coppery.

Blood, then.  My stomach almost drops out, wondering where I’ll get what I need and how to mix it and how much to use.  In the back of my mind, a very tiny voice wonders about AIDS and Hepatitis and God knows what.  I ignore it.

Reluctantly, I wash the blood from my hand and face, and jump in the shower, hoping the steam and fresh water will ease my headache.  It doesn’t.  I walk to the studio and stare at her.  She smiles back.  My brain is pounding, and I walk by, to my bed, where I shut the curtains, and fall into a deep sleep.


                Knives in the dark.  They glitter like stars, and where they touch, they part the sky.  Beneath, it’s red.  It’s all red.


                I wake in the night, cool sheets and cool dark surrounding me.  I sit up in bed and look around.  Dresser, chair, sheet that divides the bedroom from the studio – all sit in mute observance.  I stare at the sheet, swaying in a breeze either kicked up by the building’s AC, or a window I’ve left cracked.  Beyond it, she still sits, waiting.

I get out of bed and pad to the kitchenette opposite my makeshift bedroom.  I fish a glass from the cupboard and get a drink, not looking at her face on the canvas.  I know what she wants.  I find my hand toying with the knob on the silverware drawer.

Only a little.  I only need a little.

I pull the drawer open and pull out a paring knife with a ceramic blade.  I test the edge against the ball of my thumb, feel it rasp against my fingerprint.  Good and sharp.  I set the glass down and carry the knife over to the chair in front of the canvas.  It only takes me a minute to select a brush, a couple of tubes of red, and some thinner.  I need the smallest amount of paint to thicken the blood, but not dilute the paint – the thinner is to keep it fresh.

I set the palette in my lap, and with a quick jab, pierce my thumb.  A sharp pain lances into my hand – no more than you’d feel from a splinter, though, and blood wells up almost instantly.  I hold my hand over the palette and squeeze my thumb, watching fat beads drip into one of the empty depressions there.  When it is half-full, I stop and suck on the wound to stop the bleeding. I can taste copper.

Next comes a dot of paint, to thicken the stuff so I can paint with it.  I watch it slide into the warm redness, and stir it with the end of my brush.  It takes a minute to spread evenly, like wasabi in soy sauce.  When it does, I add a touch of thinner and mix that in as well.

I dip my brush in, and press it to her lips, soft as a kiss for the first coat.  It goes on smooth and even, and I can see contours taking shape, making them plump and lush.  I watch the paint soak in, and my heart drops.  It’s wrong.

I let the brush fall away, back to its resting place on the palette, and think.  Too much paint?  Not enough thinner?  Not enough blood?  Not enough blood.  I can do this.  If I’m careful, I can do this.


                An hour later, I have the things I need.  An old cord from a broken lamp for a tourniquet.  A mason jar.  Some alcohol, to sterilize the blade, bandages cut from a sheet, and masking tape.  Best I could do on short notice.

I sit and tie the cord below my bicep.  The mason jar sits on the ground, under my outstretched hand.  My hand is still shaking.  I take a breath and make a fist.  The cut is easy, almost too easy.  Hurts a bit, but it’s a sharp knife.  I relax my fist, pull the cord free, and the blood flows down my arm, over my fingertips, and into the jar.  Drops on the floor, but that’s okay.

Half-full.  I make a fist again, and cover the wound with the sheet scraps.  Two twists with the tape, and I keep my arm bent.  Could take a bit to stop bleeding.

I dip the brush in the jar and set to work.  The blood is thin, runs down her chin.  She’s smiling.  It soaks into the canvas, refuses to darken.  I keep painting.

Not enough.  Before long, the brush clicks against the bottom of the jar, and I realize I need more.  She looks better.  Her lips, I could kiss them.

I pull the sheets off, open the cut with the tip of the knife.  Hurt like hell, that time.  I fill the jar.  More red covers her lips; soaks in.  It’s not enough.  I fill the jar again.  I think she’s smiling at me.  Outside, a car passes, I think, and I can hear its tires whispering words to the night air.

Kiss her kiss her feed her kiss her.

                I do.  My arm aches.  Seems like I forgot something, something red…forgot to close the vein…forgot to feed her…I look down, and see her lips have slipped the canvas, are surrounding my chair.  Blackness opens at the center of them, and I smell her breath, like copper.

Not enough.  I open the vein in my arm, and the pain fades.  The red opens wider.

She smiles.

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