ADVANCED PAINTING II: AN ACCOUNT OF THE EXPERIENCE OF LOOKING
We are supposed to be painting ourselves, but all I can think is, what is a self? I don’t know what my sister would say if you asked her, but I bet she’d say she’s had at least two. Selves that is. You see, we used to be different, my sister and I.
I remember the night it all changed. We were having one of our infamous sleepovers and Evangeline, my older sister, was reading aloud from our mother’s embalming handbook. She said, “If the body is stiff, massage the legs and arms to relieve rigor mortis.” Our friends covered their eyes and stuck out their tongues in disgust.
“Oh, here’s a good one,” Evangeline said. “The first step in embalming is to check if the person is actually dead.”
The thing about living in a funeral home is that everything gets mixed together. Meaning, it’s not as though your life is happening in one part of the house, and the funeral home stays neatly contained in another. Rather, it’s all happening inside and on top of itself. For example, we saw bodies brought in after soccer games, before school, and as we brushed our teeth before bed. We confused their arrival with pizza delivery boys, missed softball games for late hearse drivers, and watched men slip on ice as they juggled stiff bodies. We went to school humming funeral marches and the smell of flowers mixed with everything.
I asked my sister to read the part about how to close the mouths, but our slumber party guests were spared, because the telephone started ringing. One of our parents picked up on the second ring and Evangeline said, “Let’s listen.” We all huddled around her as she picked up the black rotary phone in the living room and placed one finger in front of her lips to quiet the crowd.
My sister and I were good at sneaking around. We spent most of our childhood hiding behind a removable vent in the bathroom wall. We’d climb in and peer through the slits of the vent on the other side of the wall, facing the parlor, watching the guests come and go. Through those slits, we felt like God. We watched our father say, “I’m sorry to hear that. How are you feeling today? We will be thinking of you.” Crying was something other people did. We brought peanut butter sandwiches inside the wall, made bets on which old ladies would cry first, cracked Coke cans as quietly as possible, and stifled giggles when old men dozed off during the eulogy. Our parents never caught us. Or if they did, they didn’t let on. We’d say, “We’re off for a bike ride,” or, “Walking downtown to buy some candy.” Stuff like that, but instead we’d pop into the upstairs bathroom and enjoy the show.
As expected, Father was making arrangements on the other end of the telephone line. We waited in anticipation for the details. Evangeline hung up the phone, and in the tone our father used to speak to guests in the parlor, she told us that Dahlia and Lakshmi, the Indian sisters from school, were dead. Dahlia was in my class and Lakshmi was in my sister’s. Everyone wanted to know what happened. “Didn’t say,” Evangeline said, “but Emma and I see this stuff all the time. Don’t we Emma?”
I said, “Sure do.”
Evangeline said, “There are all the easy ones, of course: shot, hung, buried alive.” Jaws dropped and mouths were covered. “Or, something a little more interesting, say, cut up in a magic show? Drowned in the City Lake? Bled to death from a thousand paper cuts?”
Evangeline closed her eyes and touched her forehead. “What’s that?” she said. “Yes, I think I’m getting something. They were at the amusement park riding that old wooden coaster. They watched the change fall out of their pockets and their hats fall to the ground on a steep curve before their bodies tumbled after.”
“It’s possible,” I cut in, “but I’m pretty sure they were shopping for back to school clothes at the mall. Lakshmi was gnawing on one of those buttery pretzels with too much salt and Dahlia was licking soft serve with rainbow sprinkles. They were riding down the escalator railing when the machinery jarred and they both fell off.”
Evangeline dimmed the overhead lights and pointed a flashlight at her face. “They were out for a hike in the woods down at the state park and they saw a baby bear—the cutest little thing—the eyes kind and curious—the fur soft and jet-black. Dahlia picked up the baby bear and put him on her hip. They only heard a rustle of leaves before the mother bear took one deathly bite out of both of them.”
It makes me uncomfortable to think about the control we had over our friends. I grabbed the flashlight microphone and continued. “Didn’t you hear? They went down to New Orleans on a family vacation, spent the morning getting fattened up on beignets, marched in step with a second-line band, blew a few notes on a tuba, and skipped through the St. Louis Cemetery all before noon. After lunch, they got eaten by an angry croc.” I punctuated the word croc with a playful bite on my friend Angie’s shoulder. She screamed.
Evangeline said, “You know, they live out in the country, and tonight’s the lunar eclipse. They tiptoed through the dark house to gaze at the moon and were bitten by a family of poisonous brown recluses.”
And just as I started in on a version with a hot air balloon, we heard someone on the stairs. Evangeline whispered, “Everybody quiet,” and we all acted like we were sleeping as Father came down the steps.
I kept my eyes open just enough to see him counting the sleeping bags—making sure we were all there—that we were alive. Underneath his funeral director mask, he looked anxious and frightened, like a little boy. I guess that’s the first time I started thinking about multiple selves.
After Father left, Evangeline said, “Well, there’s only one way to find out.” Evangeline turned the flashlight back on, casting dramatic shadows across her face, and said, “Bloody Mary.”
We took the candle and matches from the coffee table and piled into the bathroom with the lights off. Evangeline lit the candle and said, “Tell us how they died.” Then, she started chanting in the usual sort of way, “Bloody Mary, Blood Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary.” Slowly, the rest of the girls worked up the courage to join in. We chanted like this for a while before Evangeline got bored and turned on the faucet. That’s when Cindy started screaming and pointing at the mirror. “I see her. I see her,” she stammered between screams. And then the rest of the girls started saying that they saw her too.
“She’s drowning,” Cindy said. “She can’t get out of the water.” Cindy started shivering and gasping for air. Angie screamed, “Make it stop. Make it stop.” Evangeline rolled her eyes, blew out the candle, and turned on the light.
My sister and I, we were too self-absorbed to see something like that, but Cindy was different. Cindy was the kind of girl who knew you were sad before you said a word—the kind of girl that once rescued a bird on the side of the road with a broken wing and made a splint out of Popsicle sticks and string. We were the kinds of girls that killed lightening bugs to smear on each other’s faces, teased the girls with extra flesh at the gym, and played pranks on the priest.
Sometimes I finger the metal edge of the bathroom mirror in my dorm, think about calling my sister up, asking her to go into her bathroom, light a candle and chant, “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary” together on the telephone, look at Mary with the eyeballs we’ve got now, and ask her how we’re going to die.
Our parents were more like Cindy. In my first semester of art school, I read that David Hockney did the same thing with his friends that my father did with dead bodies: collaged multiple photos of the same person into a cohesive piece. I wonder if he knew Hockney’s work or if it was just a coincidence or if it was shared DNA or if it was a self spread across two selves. At any rate, they were both interested in looking at things from multiple perspectives.
I remember the first time I found him snapping away with his Polaroid in the basement. He looked like an athlete, bobbing up and down, twisting, and snapping every angle of the deceased imaginable. Was my father an artist? I’d say he was as much of an artist as I am. The same goes for my mother. She specialized in restorative art or demi-surgery, which is the process of embalming and fixing up bodies that have suffered severe deaths such as drowning or freezing. She’d go down into the basement and listen to Beethoven for hours: tweaking, pumping, massaging, and looking. People said she was able to access a special part of the deceased’s soul. A husband once said, “I haven’t seen her look that peaceful since our wedding day.” Or the time a woman covered her heart and praised our mother for recreating her sister’s face just as she looked the day she saw the ocean for the first time. I guess you could say that my mother specialized in expressions.
In my second semester of art school, we learned about outsider art. What a bunch of crap. Who decides what is in and what is out? What I do know is that in addition to her bodywork, my mother made the best sweet and savory pies. Half of the pie was something sweet like strawberry rhubarb, lemon meringue, lemon berry, and the other half was something savory like mincemeat chive, beef gorgonzola, or curried chicken. The best piece was half savory and half sweet. I think of my mother when I go to the movies. I drop M&M’s into a bucket of popcorn and gorge on the savory-sweet combination until I’m sick to my stomach. My mother spent whole afternoons making perfect crusts and evenings preparing bodies. She used the same hands to mix ice water with dough and form edges into peaks as she did to dab foundation onto faces and adjust mouths with needles. She liked to dance the merengue while she worked.
Both of my parents looked the happiest when they were working. I remember the time I found a picture of my father standing in front of a table of knives. I asked my mother about it. She said they used to live in New York City before we were born. They were performance artists and lived in a loft with a group of activists until Father’s dad passed away, and they came back to run the funeral home. The look on my father’s face—standing in front of the table of knives—it’s the same look he got after being down in the basement, alone with his Polaroid and a new body. I wonder if he thought of it as two selves: Father the funeral director and Father the New York City performance artist? To me it’s all him and it’s related, but having this feeling about myself, the two selves that is, I imagine he would feel the same way.
All of this is running through my brain as Professor McGowen is walking around the room watching us trying to paint ourselves. She stops behind me and says, “What’s this all about?”
“That in the middle is the house I grew up in and that person on the right is the person I am now and that person on the left is the person I used to be,” I say. Professor McGowen asks what the house has to do with it. I tell her it’s hard to explain. She says I ought to try otherwise I might fail Advanced Painting II.
After Bloody Mary, everyone ran out of the bathroom and Evangeline said, “It sounds like the bodies are here.” And she was right, because I could hear Mother’s merengue music. It was all part of her process. Usually the body arrived and they’d leave it in the mortuary fridge for a while. Mother had a way of gearing up for the whole embalming thing and it involved the merengue and pies. She’d turn up the music in the kitchen and her hips got to moving. She took breaks from dancing to cut fruit and form crusts, but then her feet would get to pounding the tile floor again as she merengued across the kitchen for a dash of cinnamon or a shaving of clove. Sometimes Father joined in too. His steps were soft and tentative, while Mother’s were fierce and staccato. We could hear both of their feet sounds, so we knew the body was in the fridge and that both of the parents were occupied.
Evangeline said, “Do you babies want to play a real game or what?” And everyone nodded along like, sure. Evangeline looked at Angie and said, “Truth or Dare?”
Angie said, “Truth.”
Evangeline said, “Try again.”
Angie said, “Dare?”
Evangeline said, “That’s right. I want you to go down into the basement, open the mortuary fridge and cut a piece of hair off of one of the bodies.”
Angie said, “No way.”
Evangeline said, “Fine, Emma and I will do it.” And this wasn’t a big deal, because we did this kind of stuff all the time. Sometimes we even helped Mother put makeup on the bodies.
When we got down to the basement, Evangeline grabbed the scissors off of Mother’s embalming table, and we entered the walk-in fridge. Our nightshirts, sticking to our backs with Midwestern sweat, released as the fridge cooled our bodies. The rest of the house buzzed with merengue, Sousa Marches, and ringing telephones, but the only sound in the mortuary fridge was the drone of the cooling system.
As expected, we saw two bodies laid out on gurneys, underneath sheets. Evangeline pulled back one of the sheets and said, “Guess Cindy was right.” And what she meant by this was that Dahlia looked more like a purple, carnival balloon than a girl, that seaweed dotted her hair, and that her mouth was frozen in a permanent articulation of the word ‘OH.’ When referring to these types of bodies in her embalming journal, our mother would note, “death by misadventure,” which is just an ironic way of saying that someone has drowned.
I was aware that I should feel sad, but all I could think about was how long it was going to take Mother to perform the demi-surgery with all of that bloating.
Evangeline took a snip of Dahlia’s course, black hair. She turned to face me, the black strand hanging in one hand and the scissors in the other and said, “Braid this into your hair.”
I removed my ponytail and wove the lock into a side braid down the front of my shoulder. The way the black hair mixed with my light brown reminded me of the caramel and molasses swirl pies Mother made when she was feeling sad.
That’s when the colors in Dahlia’s face started looking more beautiful than any painting I’ve ever seen. I saw the way the blue bled to purple, the purple bled to red, the red bled to brown, and every color had a sound, a personality, and a history. I started to understand what my Father might be up to with that Polaroid camera, capturing the beauty in every angle, every hue. The blues looked bluer, the reds looked redder, and the browns meant something. It may sound strange, but once I understood color, I was open to soul.
Evangeline walked over to Lakshmi’s body and cut off a handful of her pubic hair, threw the curls into the air, and said, “Look sis, it’s a party.” As I looked up, strands of hair fell onto my face and the sensation reminded me of the time we got caught in the rain in the churchyard one Sunday afternoon after service. Our parents were inside prepping a potluck meal and we were told we could play tag outside until the meal was ready.
We were out in the lawn: me, Dahlia, and about five other kids, when the rain started coming down in sheets. Just out of nowhere, buckets of water came pouring out of the sky accompanied by crashes of thunder and lightening. We ran back to the church for shelter. Dahlia was the last of the kids to reach the church, and I don’t know why I did it, but I closed the sliding glass door before she could come in and flipped the metal switch up to lock the door. Dahlia was standing there in that torrential downpour banging on the glass, and I just looked—watched the rain run down her face. In my hand, the lock felt final and precise, like a weapon. I got to thinking about what would have happened if I hadn’t flipped that lock. Or, say that I had, but then flipped it back and let her inside, said “I’m sorry,” said, “I don’t know what I was thinking,” got her a towel, asked her what it’s been like anyway, moving to a new country, invited her to come to swim class, showed her how to do the crawl, how to tread water, how to slam your hands down against your sides if someone is trying to hold you under, learned a lesson or two from her, really listened, formed a relationship.
I realized that I’d spaced out for a few minutes in the mortuary fridge, and when I came to, I saw that Evangline was also having the experience of looking. Her eyes flicked from side to side as though she was watching a violent scene from inside of a moving car. Eventually, she noticed that I was looking at her, and she said we ought to go back upstairs.
I expected Evangeline to brag about our adventures in the basement, but when we got back to the sleepover, all she said was, “It’s time to ride bikes.” So we all snuck out of the house, climbed onto our bikes in our pajamas, and road towards the big hill. “No hands,” Evangeline said when we crested the hill.
I have done some bad things—some crazy things. Stuck needles into my arm, skinny dipped in strangers’ pools, taken ayahuasca until I’ve puked. Once, I stole a pair of designer shoes and gave them to a homeless woman on the street. I clean my paintbrushes with all the windows and doors shut tight, and let the Turpentine seep into my brain. I guess it’s all a way of looking for that moment again—the moment on the hill when I took my hands off the handlebars.
We were a rhythmic child-band on wheels—our plastic spoke beads plunking down on metal rims in syncopated rhythms. The lunar eclipse blocked out the light from the moon, but suddenly, I could see everything: every soul behind every illuminated window in every house as we went speeding down the hill. That’s when my sister started screaming out, “Ay-Ay-Ay–Ay.” And the rest of us joined in, calling out like hyenas, our arms extended above our heads, our fingers stretched wide, and I swear, in that moment, I could hear the whole world screaming, too.
N. Michelle AuBuchon holds an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn. Her stories and essays have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in Minola Review, No Tokens, The Iowa Review, The Collagist, Hobart, BuzzFeed, New Orleans Review, The Weekly Rumpus, Caketrain, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Washington Square, and Gawker. She was a finalist for the 2015 Indiana Review 1/2 K Prize and the 2014 Iowa Review Award in Fiction. She is currently working on a novel told in the form of a memoir.