Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Through the Open Window" by Anne Faye, Chapter 6 Part 1

When I awoke in the morning, the ring was still in my hand. The morning light coming through the window shone on the inscription inside, Love is Forever. Except that it wasn't - at least not in my case. Did I still think that it could be? Maybe, like the older couple I always saw at the library. I thought about what Sara had said, that she didn't have time to wallow because of her children. I guess I was the opposite – I had too much time to think. Maybe that was part of the problem. I tossed the ring back into its box, disgusted with myself.

I look like crap, I thought as I looked in the mirror. My eyes were all puffy and my face was blotchy from crying. Even coffee and makeup would not help me today, but I had to do what I could to pull myself together. Please don't let Mike come into the library today.

Well, he must have because I saw that he had written notes on the NaNoWriMo bulletin board, but thankfully I didn't see him. Either he came when I wasn't working or he didn't come to find me. Either way, it was OK. I didn't want to see him.
On the bulletin board he had written on a large sheet of paper: “Week #2: Your Characters Will Start to Do Unexpected Things.” I had resumed work on my novel after my two-day hiatus. I started the week at 12,452 words so I wasn't horribly behind, although I definitely had some catching up to do. There was something remarkably comforting in typing a few paragraphs and checking the word count. I liked to watch the numbers increase, even it was only by a couple hundred words. Each word was one step closer to that elusive goal.

Indeed, my characters were, in fact, starting to do some unexpected things. Truth be told, I had considered scrapping all that I had done to date. My semi-autobiographical story was therapeutic to write, but it didn't make for very entertaining reading. I didn't even want to write it anymore. I was tired of thinking about the past. I truly believed that my writing belonged in the garbage bin. At the same time, I couldn't bring myself to hit the delete key. The point of the novel writing month, I reminded myself, was to just write and shut off my inner critic. That was much easier said than done, however, especially considering that I spent most of my life in a library surrounded by great books. Nevertheless the whole purpose of the exercise was to just keep going, and no matter how much of a mess my life was, I was going to do this. I couldn't surrender now.

That being said, my heroine, otherwise known as Anna, definitely needed to get a life. What could I do with her to bring some excitement to her world? I scanned the shelves for ideas when I was at work. Although I was supposed to write about what I knew, I didn't want to anymore. I wanted to write about something I didn't know at all. I wanted my heroine to have some adventure. I wanted to stop wallowing, once and for all. Maybe I could have her take a trip to France and fall in love with her French tour guide? Or, perhaps, she could have a quarter-life crisis and decide to quit her job, get a motorcycle and ride across country. I had always wanted to do that – the ride across country part, not the motorcycle part. There was so much of the world to see, and I had seen so little of it. Maybe my fictional character could go places I had only dreamed of. Perhaps she could come down with some serious illness and end up in the hospital where her roommate would be a wise old woman who would teach her about all the things that mattered in life. When she recovered and got out of the hospital, she would be a changed woman, facing life with a new sense of purpose. Perhaps my character could do all those things. I would need to do some research. Yes, indeed, my character was going to do some very unexpected things.

I was surprised to see Mike come into the children's room Friday afternoon, just before closing. Rachel and I were putting up paper turkeys for the annual Thanksgiving turkey hunt. He was carrying a large rectangular package wrapped in brown craft paper. He smiled as he walked toward me.

“Hi! I am so glad that you are here. I was afraid you wouldn't be working. I realized I didn't even have your phone number or address or anything.” He seemed really nervous. “I'm sorry I wasn't in the library much this week. I was writing and painting and teaching and busy with the kids and the week just got away from me.” He paused to catch his breath.

“You hadn't been around? I hadn't really noticed,” I lied. He gave me a puzzled look.

“Well, I wanted to give you this,” he said as he handed me the package.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Open it and see!” he insisted. I tore the paper off. Rachel gave a gasp when she saw what it was.

“Wow! That is incredible!” Rachel exclaimed. “You didn't tell me you were having your portrait painted! What are you doing keeping secrets like that?” She was my friend, but at that moment, I wanted desperately for her to disappear. I had to agree, though. The painting was incredible. The colors were somewhat more muted than the other paintings of his I had seen, but he truly captured the gentle light coming through the window caressing my face. It was beautiful. Mike had made me beautiful! How I wanted to see the world the way he saw it.

He was standing there, studying my face, waiting for a response. “It's lovely. Thank you,” I finally managed to say.

“Oh, good!” He breathed a sigh of relief. “From the way you were looking at it, you had me worried there for a while.”

“I'm sorry. I was just surprised, that's all. It's not everyday that you get a portrait someone has done of you.”

“I should say not!” added Rachel. She was still standing there. Didn't she have anything that she could be working on?

“I don't feel like I should accept this. Shouldn't I pay you for it or something? What do you usually charge for a painting like this,” I asked.

“You don't owe me a thing! I won't take a penny. I enjoyed painting it and I hope that you'll enjoy having it,” he stated matter-of-factly. I stood there, continuing to admire the painting, grasping for something else to say.

“There is something you could do for me, though,” Mike said.

“Oh, what's that?”

“I was wondering if you would like to go out to dinner with me tonight. Nothing fancy, just somewhere casual. I've been so busy working, I've been forgetting to eat, and I'm starving.”

“Uh – I don't know.” I looked at Rachel. “I was planning on staying late tonight to finish these turkeys and get everything ready for the Thanksgiving party we are having here at the library tomorrow.”

“Don't you even think about staying here and working!” Rachel ordered. “I can do this myself just as well. We're almost done anyway.” That wasn't true and I knew it. “You and this nice talented gentleman go off and have yourselves a good dinner. In fact, you can leave right now.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes, I'm sure. You just be here bright and early in the morning, ready to entertain those kids.”

“Alright, thank you.” I turned to Mike. “Just let me get my coat. I'll only be a few minutes.”

“OK, I'll wait for you over by the entrance.”

I found Mike over by the bulletin board, writing a few notes on people's word counts that they had posted. “How's everybody doing?” I asked, gesturing toward the board. I was still holding on to the painting. “Most are doing well. A couple of people have dropped out already, though. I noticed you haven’t been coming to the meetings. How come?”

“Oh, I’m not much of a joiner. Besides, I really do spend a lot of time here. After work, I like to go home and do my writing there. How come the people dropped out?”
He shrugged. “It happens. Life gets in the way, or people decide that they liked the idea of writing a novel more than the actual writing. This isn't a project for the faint of heart. It takes commitment and endurance, and a little bit of insanity!” he smiled. “I see that you are still going strong,” he said, pointing to my latest word count.

“Is that supposed to be a crack on my sanity?”

“No, not at all. After all, I believe my count is still ahead of yours which obviously would make me even more insane.”

“I didn't realize it was a contest!”

“It's not. I was just wondering how the writing was going for you.”

“It's going OK. There were a couple rough spots earlier this week when I was considering abandoning the project, but I decided to keep going.”

“Yeah, everybody has days like that when it seems pretty pointless. You need to just push through them.” He scribbled a “great job” on someone's note, then he turned to me, putting his pen back into his pocket. “Are you all set to go?”

“Yes. What do you say we take my car this time? It's cleaner.”

“OK, sounds good. Lead the way.” We headed out the side door into the cold evening.

“Oh, and I insist on buying you dinner. It's the least I can do after you painted such a beautiful portrait of me.” I held up the painting.

“No arguments here,” he answered. “I'm always happy to have a free meal.”

I opened the car door for him and put the painting gently in the back seat before getting into the driver's seat. “Will the painting be alright back here while we go eat?” I asked.

“Sure. I wouldn't make that its permanent home, but for a couple hours it will be fine,” he answered.

“Is there someplace special that you wanted to go?”

“No, I thought I'd let you choose.”

“Well, I don't know too many places around here, but there is a little sandwich shop over near where I live. They have a nice warm fireplace I like to sit near on nights like this. Would that be OK?” I asked.

“Sounds great,” he said.

At the restaurant, we ordered our sandwiches and sat down in my favorite spot. “This is nice,” he said, looking around. “I've never been here.”

“I come here often. They do breakfast sandwiches, too, so I sometimes stop by in the morning before work to grab something to eat then, or to order a lunch to bring with me to the library. I'm not very good at keeping food in the house, especially since I live alone. Well – not totally alone – I do have my dog. Anyway, the food here is good and it doesn't cost very much – a winning combination in my book.”

“Absolutely,” he added, taking a bite of his warm turkey and cheese on rye.

“I'm sorry. I'm babbling, aren't I?” Was it extra warm in the restaurant or was it just me?

“No, you're not. Besides, you have a nice voice. I like listening to you.”

“Really? I think you are the first person to ever compliment my voice.”

“I shouldn't be. It has a real nice quality to it – a gentle tone.” I smiled and began to eat. We ate in awkward silence for a couple minutes. Mike was glancing around at the other people eating dinner and the artwork hanging on the restaurant walls. “I've always liked that painting,” he said, pointing to a picture of a girl standing by a window holding onto a water pitcher. “It's by Jan Vermeer.”

“I've heard that name,” I said. “He painted Girl with a Pearl Earring, didn't he?”

“Yes, exactly.”

“I read the novel about the girl in the painting. It was fictionalized, I know, but it was a great book.”

“I've always admired his ability to take ordinary people and ordinary occurrences and make them so beautiful, so that they are anything but ordinary. I try to do that in my art.”

“I think you succeed,” I answered wholeheartedly, thinking of the painting in the back of my car and the ones that I saw in his studio. “How did you get started painting?”

“I've always loved to draw or paint. I can remember being in 1st grade. My teacher had an easel set up and if we got our work done, we could go paint with watercolors on it. The other little boys would be off building things with blocks, or racing cars, and I would be there painting. I liked to do those things, too, of course, and if the easel was being used by someone else, I was the first one there building a tower to knock down, but painting was definitely my first love.”

“You must have been so cute, standing there at your easel!”

“My mom thought so!” he answered. “She was always so supportive of my artwork – hanging it up around the house, putting it up on the refrigerator. She was always getting me new art supplies to work with and when I got a little older she began to send me to classes downtown at the Springfield Art Museums.”

“What did you study there?” I asked.

“Everything I could – drawing, painting, photography. I loved every minute of it. It was, and is, a magical place,” his eyes lit up as he talked. “They have a whole room of classical plaster casts. I fell in love with the Venus de Milo! I used to go and take my sketchpad. I could spend the whole day sketching the sculptures or trying to copy one of the paintings that hung in the galleries. After a while, the artworks there became like old friends. I felt like I knew every one of them inside out.”

“That sounds amazing,” I said.

“It was. My Dad wasn't crazy about it, though. When I was young, he didn't care much. I think that he thought it was a passing fad. As I got older, however, and continued to spend every minute I could with my art, he got more worried. After all, he sold insurance for a living and it provided us with a comfortable existence. He wanted me to do something practical, to be able to support a family and make my way in the world. As far as he was concerned, artists were poor eccentrics – good to have around for the general culture, but you wouldn't want to have one in the family.”

“Did he ever accept it?”

“Mostly. Eventually. It took a long time, though. When I told him I wanted to study art in college, he almost refused to help out with the tuition. Thankfully, I did get a fairly large scholarship thanks to my grades and my mother was able to convince him to provide the rest. I told him I would study education as well so that I could be an art teacher. That seemed to placate him a bit. At least I would have some job prospects.”

“And did you?” I asked.

“Did I what?”

“Study education?”

“Oh yeah, I got my certification and everything. I taught kids when I was a volunteer after I got out of college. You should have seen my father's face when I told him I was going to volunteer for a year.”

“I can imagine. Did you like teaching?”

“I did. I taught art in an inner-city school. The students were so poor. They had holes in their shoes and holes in their clothes, and for many of them, their sole purpose in going to school was to get the free meals it provided. For a lot of them, it was the only food that they got.”

“That's so sad.”

“Yes, it is. But the kids were great. Life had handed them a rotten deal that they couldn't see their way out of, but for the most part, they still had hope and love. We did this one project with them where we gave them each a disposable camera and had them take pictures of their world. It was like a photographic 'all about me' kind of project. We taught them how to develop the pictures (this was pre-digital) and then write about what they had taken photos of. It was amazing to see the beauty that they found in the strangest places – an old factory, a run-down house, a collection of worn-out toys. They also found beauty where you would expect it – a wildflower growing in a parking lot or the eyes of their baby sister. Those kids taught me as much about seeing beauty in the world as I ever learned in a classroom.”

“It sounds like it made quite an impression. Why did you stop?”

“The volunteer program was only for a year,” he said. “When I got back home, there were no openings in the art departments of any of the local school systems, so I decided to go back to school so that I could teach at the college level. A friend of a friend of my mother's heard about my painting ability and asked me to paint a mural in her house. She liked what I did and through her word of mouth, I was able to get a few more projects. One thing led to another, and I soon found I was able to support myself with my art. It was a good feeling. Then, after I graduated, I got the teaching job at the college. Needless to say, my father was amazed, and forced to admit that I wouldn't be penniless after all.”

“I'm glad that you succeeded. You are lucky to have found something you love so much. When you talk about your art, you have such passion. I wish I had that much passion about something, anything!” I admitted. “I wish I could see the world the way you do. You don't seem to be looking at the same world that everyone else is.”
“Anyone can learn to be an artist,” he answered. “It really is all about truly looking at things – not just glancing at them superficially, but taking the time to pay attention. Take this for example,” he held up the salt shaker. “What do you see?”

“A salt shaker?” I answered.

“Yes, it is a salt shaker, but look closer. See the facets in the glass and the reflections on the silver top. Look at the way the light is reflected. If you look hard enough, you can even see your own distorted reflection in it.” He held out the salt shaker for me to take it. I tried to really study it. To, as Mike said, pay attention.

“Wow, you are right!” I said. “I can actually see all the different ways the light is reflecting. It is really pretty.”

“See, I told you. The whole world is like that. God created this amazing planet, and most people just pass it by without paying it any notice. I want to help people pay attention.”

“Well, you have helped me.”

“Great, one person down, six billion to go!” he laughed, then grew more sober.
“There is something I wanted to ask you. If it's too personal, just let me know.”

“OK,” I said anxiously, “What's that?”

“You have a great personality and a good sense of humor and I really enjoy talking with you.”

“That doesn't sound too bad so far.”

“Let me finish,” he said. “When I look at you, and in the photos I took of you to do the painting, I couldn't help but notice that you have the saddest eyes of anyone I have ever met. Why is that? What is hiding behind that smile that hurts you so much?”

“Wow.” I took a deep breath and looked out the window at the cloudy night. I didn't know what to say – whether to say anything at all.

“I'm sorry – I shouldn't have asked. You don't need to say anything.” I could feel my eyes welling up with tears.

“I haven't told anyone. Not since I moved here, and the people at home don't know either – not really.”

“Here,” he handed me a napkin to wipe my eyes. “I didn't mean to make you cry. You don't need to tell me.”

“No, I'd like to.” It was the truth. For some reason, I felt like I could trust Mike. “Do you promise to keep it a secret?” I asked. “Not to tell anyone in the library or write about it in your story or anything.”

“I promise,” he said. I believed him.

"Through the Open Window" is available at
Visit Anne Faye's blog at

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