The Promised Land

Kit sat on the ice covered stones of the beach blowing dense clouds of breath as she rocked back and forth. Bundled in thick clothes, still she felt the cold, felt a salty knife edge ride her breath in, cut deep inside her. The small bottle of peppermint schnapps lay tilted against a rock, less than half gone, and some of that last night, so she was nowhere near that state of uncaring inebriation in which she could start stripping off the protective layers she had so carefully wrapped herself in, what, only an hour ago? Already her mind was drifting back to the house she’d rented for the month and visions of a pot of Oolong tea and the warm, incredibly overstuffed bed that had so amazed her when she’d first seen it. This was her annual ‘vacation’ in which she did two things: painted and contemplated suicide.

Of these two things, only one was common knowledge. That she contemplated suicide almost constantly would have surprised most people, that she went to these wild, desolate places with the express purpose of allowing herself the possibility of actually doing it would have scared them witless, for she was known to be a very determined lady. Still, nobody knew because she obviously never did, only pretended once a year, gave in to the desire, the almost visceral need to melt back into a landscape as barren as her life. As if the similarity would somehow make her real.

The paintings were scattered, here and there, in the houses of friends, acquaintances and, once or twice, a stranger who stood still, except for the eyes which moved in frantic exploration of the canvas, a desperate search for the glamour, the enchantment, some thing they could point to and say, yes, this is what did it, this means something. Few people could really say why they liked these paintings, and, truth be told, it was an uneasy, slightly disturbing kind of ‘liking’, as if the landscape (they were always landscapes, somehow,) had some subliminal truth that, like an earthquake, rattled their souls from the foundation up.

Here, on the cold, dark November shore of a down east Maine island, two weeks into her vacation, she had already begun to feel the painting take shape, rising up from deep within her like some pelagic creature, dripping seaweed and living mud from the depths of Mother Ocean, moving awkwardly at first, unaccustomed even to the dim light that slanted in from a dark sun slung low on the horizon. Fear shook her, as it always did. Fear of painting from such a primal source, of going at once so far inside and outside herself, but the compulsion grew. Pushed out the fear. Pushed out the suicidal impulse. Pushed her back to the house, the schnapps already forgotten, to be washed away on the next tide, a message in a bottle to be read and perhaps pondered over in some other part of the world.

“Well, this is definitely your best yet!”

Kit watched Carlotta as she stood in front of the painting, vaguely amused because, while Carlotta always praised her ‘vacation’ paintings, Kit had never seen her so intense in her scrutiny, never heard her speak as if she were alone with the painting, alone and unafraid of admitting that it reached something inside her. Or perhaps none of the others had.

“It’s yours, then.” Kit said, knowing she had found a home for this painting, which had left her so drained by the time it was done, that she’d extended her vacation another week just so she would have some strength built up to face the world again. There was something different about this painting, or perhaps just stronger, as if the wildness had come through more clearly. The painting had a brutal feel to it, something about the way the sunlight altered the shape of the rocks, turned the tidal pools blood red, as if the rocks themselves were bleeding forms, the carnage of some cosmic battle fought at the edge of the universe.

“But you should keep it!” Carlotta replied, turning (with apparent effort) from the painting. “Put it in your next show.” She went on, “Everyone should see this!”

But Kit only shook her head. “Beth wouldn’t let me, you know that. The critics wouldn’t like it and their reviews would harp on it as a change for the worse. You know how they hate change. It makes them think.” Or worse, she thought, they might like them and want more. Did she have that in her? Kit looked past her friend to the painting, wondering if she’d shown it to Carlotta first because she was from a small Maine fishing village, because the dark stone and cold green water would reach her through her past, through the years of growing up gay, of walking alone on beaches just like that and, oddly, finding a kind of peace in the grim landscape. “No,” she said, finally, “It’s yours, take it.”

“What’s with you kiddo?” Carlotta asked, stretching herself out on the other end of the couch with a languid ease that Kit envied. “Why do you paint that straight trash when you’re capable of work like this?”

Kit shrugged. “It pays the bills.” She answered, “I can’t live on the streets.”

“Who says you’d have to? Beth?” Carlotta replied, a sharpness in her voice betraying her dislike for Kit’s ex. “Best thing that woman ever did for you was walk out the door. What’d you two ever have in common outside of sex?”

“She gave me my start, taught me to paint.” Kit said, “Without her I’d still be …”

“Bullshit. OK, so she supported you while you learned, but what did you learn from her? Nothing but how to paint what she wanted you to paint. You’re the artist, she’s a business woman. She has no heart, love, all she knows is what sells and how much she can sell it for. And to straights at that. When was the last time you saw a queer in her gallery?”

A heavy silence settled over the room. It was an old argument, one they both could finish without saying another word, but somehow this time she felt Carlotta might have a point. Kit let her head fall back against the back of the couch and settled into the familiar vertigo she always felt when this subject came up.

“What’s that got to do with anything?” She asked. “Art’s art.” She said, flicking her head back at the painting. “How can a landscape be queer?”

“If that’s not queer, why did you have to go to Maine to paint it? Why won’t you share it with anyone who isn’t queer?” Carlotta got up and walked over to where she’d left her jacket. “It’s queer because it disturbs the straight part of us. Our art binds us, hon, just as their art binds them, and it disturbs them because it says we exist and we’re different — that they don’t own the whole fucking world.”

After Carlotta left, Kit stared at the wall where the picture had hung, still feeling its presence. She’d always felt as if she’d brought something else back with the paintings, something wild, incongruous, at odds with the steady ‘north light’ that came in through the skylight of her New York loft, but this time the presence lingered. Carlotta’s words came back to her and she wondered if this time it was not she who had captured wildness in a painting, but the wildness which had captured her.

A few months later, she was sure. The ‘cityscapes’ which had been her stock in trade for some fifteen years now had changed, taken on the same subliminal brutality as the painting she’d done in Maine, all sanguine shadows and cold gray walls. Not the kind of painting Beth would hang in her gallery. Not the kind of paintings that hung on the walls of Park Avenue penthouses. Not ‘Happy New York’ paintings, or ‘Quaint New York’ paintings, or even ‘Historic’. She couldn’t even place any real claim on ‘gritty realism’ and even if she could, Beth wouldn’t show them. Beth who took one look at her first ‘vacation’ painting and went pale as moonlight. Beth who had moved out the very next day.

Not that she had to worry about money, not just yet anyway. Her savings account was still comfortably significant, despite the insistent drain of food and rent, that steady hemorrhaging that acompanies any attempt to go against the wishes of the world. She could still take her midnight walks and think about the change that had come over her, oblivious to the inevitable result of not producing anything salable.

The end result was graffiti. Looking back it amazed her that she could have so blithely bought a knapsack and a dozen cans of spraypaint without realizing that there was no precedent for this in her career, without the slightest bit of hesitation or self-doubt. Crouched behind a trashcan in an alley less than a block from Beth’s gallery, she studied the wall, looked beyond the perfect geometry of the brickwork and saw the wildness. Her hands had a mind of their own, fingered the cans one by one, knowing the colors as surely as if they had eyes.

Her mind fought the steady, rectangular order of the courses, sought out the flaw she could exploit, finding it in a minute crack that ran less than six inches up from the foundation. In a heartbeat she was up, and from the crack sprung a vine, that grew and grew, clinging to brick and mortar, sinking tendrils deep inside, and all the while she thought, this is life: order, but with a heart and soul of its own. The more she covered the wall, the better she felt. Red brick and grey mortar gave way to deep green leaves, with ruddy veins and serrated edges, warm brown stalks that seemed to stand out from the wall, less an image in paint than some kind of holographic projection. In the end, it ran the whole length of the wall and reached some nine feet up, the six feet she could reach plus the trashcan she’d upended because that damned vine wouldn’t stop growing until she had literally reached her limit.

The next day she sat on a bench at the bus stop, watching the people who passed by, waiting for the ones who stopped to look. It was the variety of reaction that amazed her, that the same painting would invoke a look of fear in one person, wistfulness in another, brought tears the the eyes of a passing bag lady, who stopped, stared for a moment and then set up housekeeping in the alley until the cops came to drag her off to the local shelter. In all, it lasted halfway through the morning, for shortly after the cops there came a crew of painters, and in the end there was neither the wild vine, nor the civilized wall, just a monotonous sheet of color that a less discriminating eye would have called brick red.

Kit alternated between pacing and staring out the window as the sky grew dark, a velvet backdrop for the constellations of the city’s lights. To lose the better part of a night’s work was mere annoyance, she’d expected that. No, it was her failure to learn anything from it that ate at her. Somehow she’d expected a revelation, if not from herself, then from those who’d seen her work. There’d been recognition, on the part of some, of that much she was sure, but nothing she hadn’t already seen, nothing that echoed the power of the wildness that had taken up residence inside, had begun to posses her. For possession it was, that much she knew.

Carlotta showed up around seven with a cat-like grin on her face. Torn between wanting to be alone and the frustration of watching her mind race in circles, Kit let her in, fell into her warm embrace.

“I liked it, thank you.” Were the first words she spoke and she laughed when she saw the wonder on Kit’s face. “You forgot, maybe, that I live across the street?” She asked and Kit blushed to have forgotten so simple a thing as where her best friend lived.

“It was a lovely thing to wake up to, love, really,” and she spun them around until they both were laughing. “Just when I think I have you figured out, you up and surprise me. You go from painting buildings to painting on them! You should do murals, you’re good at it! Besides,” she whispered in Kit’s ear, “it just so happens that Sappho’s Art is looking for someone to do just that.”

“How do you know that?” Kit asked, pulling back to look into Carlotta’s eyes.

“I asked, silly.” She replied, “What do you think I spent the day doing? It was the least I could do after you gave me such a lovely present this morning. In fact,” she said, pulling Kit gently by the hand, “there’s only one thing I’d rather wake up to.”

Kit sat up well into the night, torn between excitement and regret, Carlotta’s soft breathing a gentle background noise for her thoughts. Part of her said that she should say goodbye to the loft, to everything ‘fitting in’ had meant, but another part refused, said she couldn’t know that would happen. She knew what she had to do, but not where it would take her. Like the vine, she would wrap herself around anything that offered support, find purchase in the inevitable cracks. She would grow. She would live. Her life, her life, stretched out before her, frightening, inviting, familiar and unpredictable.

The promised land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.
Havelock Ellis