A Short Story
A large painting hangs sideways in my living room. The odd orientation is not immediately apparent because the painting is abstract. The large but illegible signature trails down the left side. It hangs sideways as a reminder. Sideways is what you get when you don’t listen to yourself.
As newlyweds, Alan and I purchased a large bungalow in the suburbs. With beautiful, original woodwork, stripped of 75 years of varnish, the craftsman style home on a large lot made for a perfect family home with lots of growing space. Our first purchase together was a painting for the large living room wall.
I’m not the decorator in the family. Alan has tastes that edge toward modern, but I have no sense of fashion, nor dramatic flair. I’m the scientific bookish type with a graduate degree in microbiology. I’m also the practical one, the handyman of the family. I have more tools than most men--all hard-earned as a single mom when I had to fend for myself or do without. Ask me to decorate a room, though, and I am lost. I was happy to let Alan take the art-buying lead.
Alan is a confident buyer. He knows what he likes and he likes expensive, unusual things. His family is in the men’s clothing business. He knows things about style that most men, and many women, will never know. He can spot a good fabric from across the room. He actually enjoys shopping. He transformed my wardrobe during several memorable shopping trips when I was encouraged to strut and spin for hours. Most women would revel in the attention—I had to grow accustomed to it. He bought me my once in a lifetime, favorite dress--an indescribably gorgeous silk number, perfectly cut for my figure. Each time I wear this dress total strangers stop to tell me how lovely I look.
It was on a gorgeous June day that we walked three blocks from our home to the neighborhood art fair. Of course, Alan led our way through the booths, and he stopped to chat with several artists. He was particularly taken with the woman who crafted intricate tortoises from metal, and covered the shells with something that looked like mother-of-pearl. I pulled him away, and we meandered through the crowd until he halted.
“I like that stuff,” he said, pointing.
I stared around until I found what he meant. The paintings were dramatic, large, and bold. Abstract modular forms. Amazing colors. Olive, black, brick red, gold. Even I could see that these colors worked perfectly in our living room.
I stood idly to one side as Alan spoke with the artist, a petite, soft-spoken blonde named Jane Johnson. He was particularly drawn to a large rectangular painting, much wider than tall. It was a perfect size and shape for the space we hoped to fill, the wall above the couch. Darker than I had hoped, it was a jumble of squares and color, far more complex than the other paintings. At the edges of the painting was a misty green, as if the painting emerged from a fog. It was interesting, but a bit much. “Moody,” a friend of mine later described it.
As I stood there, studying the murky painting that drew Alan, I noticed another painting much taller than wide. About as tall as I am. The background was olive green, but so clear that naming this color is like suggesting a diamond is white. The few shapes in this painting were a beautiful golden yellow; a small surprise of red splashed the lowest quarter.
I started to walk away, but turned back to it within a few seconds. I felt unable to leave but could not figure out why. My heart beat faster and my chest felt unusual, constricted. I started to cry. Confused, I struggled for control while my palms started to sweat. After what seemed like forever I snapped at Alan, "We either need to buy this painting or we need to get out of here!"
He looked at me in surprise. I gulped. My outburst surprised me, too.
“It’s not the right size,” he said. “And it’s kinda boring. This other one is so much more interesting. You could look at it a long time.”
Though I was trembling, I could see the logic. The large, wide painting definitely had a lot going on. But something about the tall painting made me unable to turn away. Jane stepped closer. "It's really speaking to you, isn't it?"
I stared at her, astonished.
“Sometimes art affects people like that,” she said. “You are responding to something about this painting.”
“I am?” I could hardly believe that art could affect anyone, particularly me, so forcefully. I felt rather than understood the truth in her words. “I don’t even know why I like it,” I breathed.
She smiled. “The light is shining through this painting. It is an effect I was trying to achieve. Clarity. Light. They are linked.”
As she spoke, I felt stunned. How could a painting of a few squares of color have any meaning for me, a meaning that my own soul understood but my mind could not? It seemed absurd—a painting had enchanted me. I walked away for a bit to recover, to grip myself more tightly. When I came back, I was resolute.
“Alan, I really like this painting. It speaks to me.” It was true. I had been touched in a glorious way that I have never known. By a painting.
Alan was not convinced. “It really doesn’t fit our purposes. Why don’t we think about it a bit more?” I nodded, swallowing the lump in my throat. It was a lot of money to spend. We should agree.
Alan chatted with the artist. I hunched to one side trying to protect myself from the unexpected and raw feelings while my mind watched in fascination, a few squares of gold in a field of awesome green. Finally, Alan flung his arm around my shoulders and announced that Jane and her husband would bring the two paintings to our house after the fair. We could choose after seeing them inside.
Late that afternoon, when Jane and her husband carried the two paintings inside the house, I nearly burst into tears. I loved my painting.
Alan and Jane’s husband held each painting up, trying various positions in the room. They tried to fit the tall painting somewhere—it certainly could not fit above the couch. Perhaps the dining room. Or the family room?
“We need something above the couch,” Alan reminded me.
I nodded, mutely. Miserably.
“You should buy what you love,” said Jane. “You may not live in this house forever.”
“Oh, we’ll be here for 10 years at least,” said Alan, confidently. In 10 years, my youngest would graduate from high school and we could move back to the city. “This painting is so much more interesting. And it works perfectly right here,” he flashed his handsome smile and flourished dramatically, trying to charm me, as he and Jane’s husband held up the wide painting above the couch.
“But you don’t love that painting like I love this painting,” I burst out.
“It’s just not that interesting,” he said again, smiling gently. I could see he was not going to change his mind. It was up to me. I left the room to think, gain control. I paced and cried.
Finally, I wiped my eyes, took a deep breath and re-entered the living room. “OK. Let’s take the wide one.” Jane shot me a look, but said nothing. I continued, “I’m sure Alan is right. It is so much more interesting than the other one.” It was ridiculous to become teary over a painting. I am more practical than that.
It hung there, above the couch, for four years. It certainly complemented the décor. I didn’t dislike it. I stopped noticing it.
Now, in my new house, it hangs sideways. It doesn’t fit above the couch where there is a large expanse of windows that light up the room. I love my cozy 1950’s ranch that I’ve bought since separating from my husband. Right when I enter the front door just beyond the piano, on the wall that I painted a wonderful, soothing mochachino color I picked out myself, is the perfect spot for a painting, taller than it is wide.