TUESDAY: Big L’s

BY NISHA COLEMAN

Copyright is held by the author.

GOD DIED gradually but love went all at once.

As a girl, you were brought to church and taught stories that, unlike your picture books, were all about grown-ups. Men mostly. One lived inside a whale’s tummy, another split the sea in two, and one with long hair and big muscles pulled a building down on top of himself. God, they said, is like the wind. You can’t see him but you know he’s there. Until high school there was a light breeze, but it softened in university and eventually there wasn’t enough velocity to turn a leaf. Atheism came easy, like a chewable vitamin, and soon it was as obvious as the Earth’s curve. Every time you passed a church or noticed a cross around someone’s neck you thought, Really?

Love was different. You were at a summer arts scholarship at Brooklyn College. It had only been a couple of weeks, but you had fallen hard for the city. It quivered with charming contradictions — potholes on 5th avenue, pizza slices aside caviar. New Yorkers were kind and dynamic. They met your eye without flinching. The sidewalks shone with individuals, each buzzing and blinking at their own frequency. No one was a number there. Especially not you. Your potential poured out from between your cupped palms.

Ben spun on his heel as you passed each other on the street.

“Your eyes,” he said, “are unprecedented.”

You liked his too: black pools with a glister that made you feel delightful. You thought he seemed like the kind of guy who would stroke your hair and adore you as you slept, who would be a good cook, mix you drinks and move his tongue across your skin as if it was fruit flavoured. And he was.

You politely neglected the friends you had met in the program. They were threatening, not artistically, but because they would take time away from Ben. You moved into his apartment, which was spacious with exposed brick and a bay window where you set up your easel. You scratched a few portraits and a cityscape, but your painting wasn’t fuelling you anymore. Art was no longer the tungsten in your lightbulb. Ben was. And you were the tungsten in his. I’d eat your vomit, he told you.

Ben was a musician and a sound engineer. He stayed up until the purple of dawn and slept deep into the afternoon. When he wasn’t working, the two of you spent hours in his basement studio, which had a cozy bunker feel. There were coloured lights and lava lamps and the heat from the machines made the climate tropical. Ben liked to show you music. He introduced you to Strauss and Prokofiev. He played you Bulgarian slam, Bollywood soundtracks, Mongolian throat singers. Even Britney Spears. The two of you shot tequila and moved like maniacs to Toxic. You were full of grace then, on the verge of combustion.

Summer courses ended and you stayed. Your visa ran out and you stayed. You started working at a local coffee shop. You barely painted anymore. You had no ideas or inspiration but that was OK. You liked your job. Your neighbourhood. And you liked living with Ben.

Love died on an afternoon ripe with spring. You made a mochaccino to take Ben on your break — xtra large, sweetened with honey and smothered with sprinkles, cocoa and cinnamon. You hummed as you skipped home with it warming your palms. It was your first day not wearing winter boots and you revelled in all the texture your thin-soles allowed.

You entered the apartment and laughter coming from the bedroom feathered your ears like an echo across a lake. Heat splashed against your ribs and your ears rang as if you’d just stepped out of a rock concert. You floated to the kitchen, turned on the tap and watched the bubbles make a stream. All you could think was that you had gotten used to New York water and soon you’d be drinking Montreal water again. You had allowed yourself to feel special, but now you understood that your life and your feelings were no less trite than anyone else’s.

Ben came into the hall dressed in boxers. You scanned his face for regret, a scrap of sorry that would allow you the upper hand, but his calm was solid and terrifying. You told him you were leaving. That night. For good. He had intended for you to find them, he admitted later that evening as you packed your things, not to hurt you but to make sure it was finished. “You have to leave before love dies,” he explained. Love was a holiday to him. Your relationship had been pleasant, but it had gone on for too long, was becoming garden variety. You no longer surprised each other. Your bodies were too familiar, your conversations lacklustre. He did what he had to.

In the bible, Samson kills a lion and later, on his way to get married, he discovers that bees have nested in the carcass. Love, you declare to your friends, is honey scooped from a decomposing ribcage. You used to sweeten your tea with it, but now all you taste is death. It would take something extraordinary to make you believe in love again. It would take a miracle.

As the months draw on, you get really good at being alone. You paint and paint and your canvas size explodes. You bask in the indulgence of oil shades and the smell that reminds you of museums in Paris. A small gallery on Saint-Laurent offers to do an exposition of your recent work. You adopt a grey tabby from the SPCA who doesn’t cuddle but keeps you company. You go for long walks and with no one to curb your thoughts, they churn freely, wildly. You don’t cook really, but you can survive a long time on toast. You buy your bread from the bakery next to your place, and it is there that Nicholas, the new guy with the black curls, hands you your sliced loaf of blé entier and says, “You have amazing eyes,” to which you smile and ask at what time his shift ends that afternoon.

9 comments

  1. Charlene Jones

    The rhythm in this writing creates it as poetry: moving, dynamic. And that beat sustains the voice—clear, unapologetic, unsentimental. Compelling writing.

  2. Charles Pinch

    This is good ‘writing’. The author handles her craft with skill and considerable authority. Many, many sentences in this story are marvels from the dynamite opening line to ‘pot holes on Fifth Avenue, pizza slices with caviar’. I particularly liked the subtle resonations that pick up the ‘a’s and ‘r’s in ‘You started working in a local coffee shop. You barely painted anymore’. There is an intense, underlying rhythm at work here, that burnishes the strong narrative voice.
    That being said, in the end I found the writing better than the story. Not so much the cliche element of boy meets girl, boy cheats on girl — cliches exist for re-invention, but rather the way the voice weighs against strong characterization. The POV is in passive tense and this is a difficult voice to master. It comes with a certain flatness and characters are apt to flounder in the sustained evenness of tone. It can be effective indeed when it works (read Margaret Laurence’s ‘A Jest of God’) but it’s a challenge for any writer. Despite these reservations, there is much to impress here. I believe you are up to the challenge and more important, that you have something important to say. I look forward to reading your next story.

  3. Moira Garland

    I enjoyed this story — it spoke to me, and no doubt many others — of familiar feelings and experiences.
    I’m a little puzzled by Charles’ comments: I can only find one instance of passive use right at the beginning: “you were brought to church and taught stories”.

  4. Charles Pinch

    Hi Moira,
    Tense was probably the wrong choice of word–my error and thanks for catching it. The story is written in the second person present passive — that is the voice. This POV is like a documentary camera that follows and describes the action in the narrative while at the same time stands apart from it. It doesn’t refer specifically to verbal tense, which is something different. Present passive voice can be written in first, second or third person, depending on the author’s intention, but in all cases, the element of detachment is characteristic and when, effectively used, gives the story its special appeal and character. Cyril Connelly likened it “to reading the action as if it was happening in slow motion.” Regards, Charles

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