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the lost years

I spent almost 25 years living alone in New York. There might be a moment on a shoot, when it became clear we would be running late. Phones were slid from pockets, as the crew had hushed conversations with their loved ones. That solemn, apologetic tone was the same no matter who was talking as they answered the question "When will you be home?" I had no one, nothing but an empty apartment and some dirty dishes. I had half-written books, and guitars leaning against the walls. There was film in the cameras, waiting to be developed.

I have almost no memory of these years now.

Right now, V is sick. Nothing terrible, but enough to stay home and parade around the apartment in her favorite pyjamas. N is cooking various treats for her, unable to predict which one she will actually eat. The doorbell rings, and it might be a doctor visiting from the local clinic but it is her sister. The rooms are full of conversation and fresh cups of coffee. I try not to step on the toys that are a…

how to treat a man

I am listening to Son House, howling out How to Treat a Man. The grey afternoon sky has burned off a little, some wet edges of leaves catching the sun now.  
E sends me a text message. Today we do art class!
I know she likes the teacher, and this is the only afternoon activity she is exited about. The required classes end at one, and half of the kids go home. The rest stay to have lunch, run around the little playground for an hour and do homework, or extra gym classes or extra English classes. It is all optional. 
Hooray. I answer her.
Tell me when it will be over and then I will get U ok? I add.
She sends a smiley.

I go back to work. Son House is thrashing on his guitar, something more crude than chords or melody - just rhythm and stomping. 
Pop. She writes to me.
Pop I feel not good. She continues.
What happened? I write.
Just come + take me. E says.
I pull on coat and shoes, slapping my pockets to see if my passport and wallet are there.
In the elevator I answer.
On my way.

In the street I call her.
"What happened?" I ask. "You feel sick?"
"No." She says, her voice low, defeated. "I am having a bad day."
"From what?" I ask. "Art class is your favorite."
"It is not the same lady." She murmurs.
"OK." I say after a moment. "Just go upstairs and get your books, I will be there in a minute."
She does not answer, just hangs up.

The streets are wet.
People are sucking on cigarettes, making clouds in the damp air.
A streetlight is turning yellow and I run across the lanes.

E is downstairs, her giant schoolbag slumped across her. I lift the weight from her, pull her chin up to look at me. She has been crying.
"The new teacher said I am a bad drawer." She whispers.
"Impossible." I tell her.
"She said I had to draw a dog like she does, but I did it a different way." She explains.
"Was there a picture of a dog she was working from?" I ask.
She shakes her head no.
"She was making a lot of circles." She tells me. "Like a cartoon."
I motion towards the doors, bringing us outside.
"And was everyone drawing the dog in circles?" I ask.
She shakes her head no.
"They were not drawing at all." She says.
"So she actually said you are bad." I say.
She nods yes.
"And she said she is a very good artist and we should all try to be like her." She adds as we turn the corner.

I sigh, that millionth sigh here, that resistance to turn around, slap the doors open, and skewer this woman with every foul word I can muster. I know better now. Nothing stops them. The only solution is strict avoidance. You don't try to cure the disease. You cut out the wound. You amputate the leg.

We cross the street. E is holding my hand tighter than normal.
As the people shove past us, I pull her to the side and kneel down so our faces are close together.
"That woman is an idiot and should not be teaching anyone anything." I tell her in a low voice.
She nods once.
"That woman is a sad, angry person who makes herself feel good by hurting other people." I continue. "There is no teacher of art in the world that can say you are bad. Even if you are terrible, they are not a teacher if they say you are terrible. They have to say 'you can do this better' or 'let's try that again' but they can never say you are bad." I tell her.
She nods, letting out a long breath.
A woman walking a tiny dog passes us.
"Let's go home." I say in a big voice, standing up and trying to break the mood. "Let's steal this lady's dog and take him home and draw him!'
E bursts into nervous laughter.
I pull her arm, following the woman for a few steps.
"Poppaaaaaa!" E shouts, laughing now.
We slow down, and they stretch away from us towards the metro.
"We are going to draw dogs when we get home." I tell her. "But from pictures. Not from ideas of what a dog looks like - but from life."
"Ok." She says. "I want to do that."
Almost home, I see she is starting to skip.

Upstairs, I make her a peanut butter sandwich and we find a picture of a dog she likes. She draws now, a pile of papers and my borrowed pencils next to her elbows. I start at the sink full of dirty dishes early today. I turn the music back on - the rest of that epic Son House track. E is humming along.

Kneeling in front of the oven I start the pilot light and hold the knob down until it stays lit. The chicken is split open, salted, doused in the juice of half a lemon, glistening with a sheen of olive oil I dust it with dried sage and oregano, a few good shakes of Old Bay's. E is drawing a beagle, working on the black and brown spots now.
"Good." I tell her, leaning across the table.
I prick a sweet potato all over, and nest it in the small space left inside the stove. The kitchen already smells of roasting chicken fat.
I show E how to measure the subject, seeing how one head length equals one and a half of the leg. I show her how the corner of the mouth ends, and how to reflect that with the weight of the pencil. The drawing is hers, I am only pointing and explaining. The pencil never leaves her hand.


Valerie Cooper said…
I have seen her drawings. She is a true artist. And you are a really awesome dad!
RHCombs said…
This is wonderful, Marco. I will borrow that - no one who says "this is bad" is a teacher. Thank you.
Mrs. Munchkin said…
Living in Moscow, I here many of these sad stories of Russian teachers and strict Russian schools. I will never understand. Our Russian neighbor girl hates school. Her mom hates it. But it is the same system the mom had. And teachers are around the same age as the mom. Did they not like school growing up? Why? Why treat kids this way? I feel very sad for this lady.....she is not a teacher. Way to go dad!

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