The peaceful silence which settled over Jack’s room made me feel like we were underwater. He had put some kind of soundproofing insulation into the walls last summer, to contain the noise of his band practices, but I preferred the way the room filtered out the sounds from the rest of the house. Jack sat on the corner of his bed and flanked an easel with his legs, a still life in subdued colors gradually taking form upon the small canvas. He faced a window which opened out to snow-dusted cornfields. The desolate landscape shimmered under the dark sky, like the surface of another planet. I sat with my back pressed to the headboard, an open Moleskin notebook cradled in my lap, its empty pages illuminated by candles flickering on the nightstand. I couldn’t think of any words to write, so I drew a spiral in the top right corner, which grew and grew until the pen jutted off the page and made an errant mark on the gray duvet. I licked my thumb and smudged it away. “Jaaaaaaack, I can’t figure out how to start.” My whine did not break his gaze upon the canvas. I always thought still lifes were the most boring kind of painting, until Jack became obsessed with them. As I watched him work, radiating calm control from his narrowed eyes and steady hand, it made me wish I was someone whose attention could be sustained indefinitely by a bowl of fruit. “Yes, you do. I love the idea just the way you described it. Write it just like you're talking to me.” I had been sharing sporadic short stories and poems with Jack since I started writing them in middle school, and he had liked every single one of them, read them completely uncritically. This made me all the more afraid of giving him something that sucked. Intent on impressing my one devoted reader, I put my pen to the page, and wrote a sentence slowly, in smooth black ink. Without a knock, the door swung open, blasting artificial light from the hall into our candle-lit haven. Our mother stood in the frame. “HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!” She blew on a pitiful party horn, and its wail sent a stab of wincing pain from my left ear to the center of my brain. Jack refused to let her disrupt his concentration, keeping his eyes glued to his palette. “I see you two haven’t changed in the new year.” She lowered the party horn and took a few uninvited steps further in. Her eyes scanned, transforming the plethora of paintable objects into a disarray of junk—the half-assembled drum kit collecting dust, the desk covered in empty pizza boxes and Sprite cans, the mound of jeans and t-shirts spilling out of the closet, the off-white guitar leaning precariously against a dented wall. I was struck by an urge to take a shower. “So, Jack.” She crossed her arms and tapped her foot on the grey carpet spotted with stains. “Did you get all your applications submitted?” Jack’s hand froze, leaving his brush dangling mid-air, a drop of pink threatening to drip from its tip onto the floor. Still, he declined to look directly at her, gathered his thoughts slowly and continued his strokes, though I doubt they were the ones he had intended on making before she spoke. “Jackson Andrew, look at me.” She moved to the other side of the bed and loomed behind his canvas, trying to force herself into his line of sight. He did not look up. “Did you, or did you not, get your applications submitted?” A white wisp of smoke curled off a candle. She had to know what was coming. Jack looked over his shoulder at me, and a calmness passed between us. We were united, and she could not take down the both of us. “Don’t look at each other like that. Sylvia needs to hear this too. You didn’t submit them, did you?” “Nope.” His voice was quiet but steady. “I already told you, I’m not going.” She let out a sharp exhale and crossed her arms tighter. Jack brought his face closer to the painting, honing in on some microscopic detail, and a strand of curly brown hair fell from behind his ear onto the canvas, coating itself in red. He flipped it over his shoulder, unbothered. “I know you think that you don’t want to go,” Her nostrils flared as she spoke. “But when Eve and all your friends are moving out in August, you’re going to feel differently.” “Eve’s not going either. Applying is a waste of my time.” Her whole body tensed up at the word waste, and then she lunged at him, snatching the brush out of his hand mid-stroke, creating a pink streak which jutted across the painting, unsalvageable. “THIS is a waste, of the time I have put into raising you.” She punctuated each phrase with a jab of the brush, causing small splatters of paint to appear on Jack’s black t-shirt and on the comforter below my feet. Jack’s hand remained postured around an invisible brush, his eyes fixed on the streak. “What the fuck are you doing, Jack? I only let you leave the party downstairs because I thought that you were up here submitting your applications, and all you’re doing is painting these shitty pictures!” A pink spot bloomed on my white sock. “You cannot expect to do this for the rest of your life and survive, Jack! You’re going to college!” I took refuge in that spot, which reminded me of pink marker on white paper. When Jack and I were very little, we would sit at the purple plastic kid’s table on the kitchen floor, making what we called “movies” with nothing but fluorescent markers and sheets of printer paper. Reagan and Mel were always too old to let me do the things they did, but Jack played along, tickled by my excitement to emulate him. Mom watched us from the kitchen counter, a warm and distant presence, as we drew casts of people who looked like potatoes with sticks for arms and legs. She smiled about us, inwardly, the right corner of her mouth coming up higher than the left. After sliding a tray of banana muffins into the oven, she would wipe her soft hands on her apron and come sit down with us. Elbows resting on her knees, she listened intently to the impassioned and fragmented speeches which bubbled from mouths, our stories rendered incomprehensible by our eagerness to impress her. And still, she always was impressed, in exactly the way we wanted her to be. She ruffled our wispy blond heads, radiating a love that surrounded us, which we thought we had earned with our pictures, but which I later came to realize was just a condition of our existence, as tangible and inescapable as the buttery banana smell that enveloped us. As I watched her yelling, angry flecks of saliva flying from her mouth onto Jack’s expressionless face, I didn’t know whether it was her or us who had changed. My body felt paralyzed upon the foam mattress. A shaky voice escaped me and blurted out what I had always felt but had never articulated. “I still love Jack’s art. All of it. Why don’t you anymore?” She slowly lowered the paintbrush, dropping it into a cup of milky gray water perched upon the bedpost “You used to.” I bit my lip, trying not to render myself inarticulate with tears. “You always gushed about how talented and creative he was. Either you weren’t telling the truth then, or you aren’t now.” Mom’s face softened, and I sensed her signature backpedal impending. She sat down next to Jack and tried to hug him from the side, but it was like hugging a tree or a rock, the way he tensed up his whole body, unyielding to her embrace. “Sweetie, I wasn’t lying then, and I’m not lying now.” She stroked his coarse, greasy curls with a half-hearted tenderness. “I’m sorry, Jack, I didn’t mean any of that. I don’t think your pictures are shitty. You are very talented, but you’ve got to understand, even Vincent van Gogh died poor and miserable. Everyone needs the ability to support themselves. I just want what’s best for you—” A detonation. In the blur of motion, a desperate move to flee her grasp, I didn’t see Jack make contact, but she rubbed her elbow as if wounded. He was on his feet now, in the corner by his instruments, putting as much space as possible between them. She cowered in front of his canvas. “Why do you always say what’s best for me when you really mean what’s best for you?” He pointed an accusatory paint-crusted finger at her, and she gathered her mouth into a tiny frown. Part of me wanted to stand up with Jack and echo him, but the part of me that wanted to quietly dissolve into the sheets won out. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, honey. I’m your mother. I know I’m not perfect, but no one else in the world loves you as unconditionally as I do. I just don’t want a kid living in my basement until he’s 40, especially not one with as many talents as you have...” “That is such bullshit, and you know it!” He closed back in on her, putting himself between her and his canvas. “All you want is another kid that you can parade around at family reunions and brag about at work dinner parties, just like you do with Reagan and Mel. Admit it—you don’t really see me, you see a reflection of yourself!” “Jackson, my God, that is not true! I love you all equally! I talk about you just as much as the rest.” And I could see in the way she pushed out her lower lip that she really believed that, had really made herself believe it. “Literally two hours ago, downstairs. I was there, I heard you.” I had spent that party hiding out amongst the baby cousins too young to speak coherently, because I knew they wouldn’t ask me where I wanted to go to college, what I wanted to study, or any other questions that made me want to disappear. “You were practically glowing while you gushed about Reagan’s startup and Mel’s new engineering firm,” Jack grabbed his easel and scooted it away from her, into the corner by the drum kit. “And then when somebody mentioned me, your face fell and everybody got these uncomfortable looks on, like they smelled something dead. You changed the subject as quickly as possible to Sylvia’s recent finishes at math competitions.” I slouched further down the headboard, implicated on the wrong side of things. Jack sat down at the seat of the drum set, aligning himself so that the canvas in front of him blocked her view. “That is not how the conversation went all! I’m sorry you interpreted it that way. I was just really excited to share the news about Reagan’s VC funding and Mel’s new management position. Is there anything wrong with that?” “My band played five paid gigs last month, the most we’ve ever played in one month. I thought that was pretty fucking cool, but you never tell anyone about that, so I guess it’s not.” He tucked his quivering mouth into the palm of his hand. “Jack, I’m sorry, I just honestly didn’t even think about that… Sylvia, help me out here, please.” She turned to me with wide eyes and placed a hand over my foot, trapping it. I hugged my knees tighter to my chest and bit a piece of skin around my left thumbnail, making an effort to be as little help to her as possible. “You still write, don’t you? Poems, stories, and things?” “Yeah. Sometimes,” I directed my reply towards my right knee. “And that’s great! I love that you do that.” Her smile was inhuman, like she was trying to sell me something. “But you also get stellar grades in math and science, just like Jack does.” It was easy to excel at everything in rural Illinois public school. For as long as I’ve known my multiplication facts, I remember Mom going around telling her friends that she was going to have two Women in STEM daughters, and what a win for diversity that was, and how companies would be clamoring to hire them! All the books in my room which populated my free time apparently amounted to a hobby, while putting minimal effort into my pre-calculus homework counted as my future vocation. “I guess I do alright.” “And so,” she cocked her head to the side, “what is it you’re going to study in college?” I felt a constricting sensation in my chest, like my lungs couldn’t expand all the way. “Chemical engineering.” I said to my left knee. “With a creative writing minor.” It was an automatic reply, a playback like an answering machine, but it made the sensation dissipate. It was what people wanted to hear, so that could be the end of the conversation. I couldn’t stand to spend any more of the present, where I was just trying to figure out what I wanted, planning a future as though I already knew. “So you see, Jack,” Mom beamed at me, relieved that she could still count on me to feed her the bullshit she wanted, “... you can have artistic aspirations without throwing away all your other gifts and leaving yourself with no backup plan.” From behind the easel, Jack’s glare pierced through me, revealing the betrayal I’d just committed. I felt my heart pound deep in my stomach. Mom gestured vaguely to the canvas and the scattered instruments. “Paint and make music in your free time, do it all the time when you retire, in comfort.” She spoke with wild hand motions that filled the space around her. “If you pinch your nose and do the less fun things now, while you’re young, your future will be so much more enjoyable! You’ll be free to do anything you want, Jack!” She was almost yelling at this last phrase, overtaken by capitalist exaltation. “And how free are you, Mom?” he asked the canvas. Her arms fell to her sides, and she brought her eyes to her feet. A pregnant pause. “My job and you kids are my projects. I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.” She went over to Jack and gave him a desperate kiss on the forehead, reassuring herself of something. “But enough lecturing for tonight.” She brushed her palms together, as if all our troubles were over just like that. “It’s wayyyyyyy past my bedtime. Please, just apply, Jack—there’s still lots of colleges with later deadlines, and I think they would all be lucky to have a brilliant young man like you. Just keep your head on straight.” She sauntered out and shut the door. Jack’s fingers brushed across the strings of his guitar as he made his way to the window and stared bitterly out at the lunar landscape. I could see my heart moving beneath my sweatshirt. The guitar suddenly lost its balance, and one of its tuning pegs scratched an arc into the wall as it slid down onto the carpet. Jack did not move to its rescue. “Jack, oh my God—” I was nauseous, trying to blurt out everything I felt one word at a time—“I’m SO SO sorry I didn’t mean to take her side I I didn’t agree with anything she said I I I was just saying what I always do without thinking I didn’t mean—” “Just stop.” With his crossed his arms tightly, he looked so much like her trying to mask anger with disappointment. “I don’t want to hear it. All I’ve ever done is support you and your writing, and when the time comes for you to back me up…” He shook his head again and again, unable to look at me. “Un-fucking-believable.” “Jack, I’m sorry. I, I don’t know what else to say...” He spoke theatrically to the window, as though addressing some imaginary audience gathered in the backyard. “A creative writing minor, huh, a creative writing… God, I’ve never heard anything so... pathetic.” He said the last word with a puff of air that made a foggy spot appear on the glass. “You believe every word she says, don’t you?” I wasn’t sure if he was speaking to me or his own hazy reflection in the window. “You think you can become like your great authors by doing writing on the side. Fucking forget about it! Art is not your goddamn side project. People become great artists because it is their project.” I felt like we were on a ship sinking in the middle of the ocean. Neither of us said anything for several seconds. “How, how do you know?” I stammered. “I don’t see what’s wrong with being pragmatic, with doing something else until writing works out, or in case it doesn’t. Lots of my favorite authors did that. Kurt Vonnegut was a chemist, George Saunders was an engineer—” “Shut the fuck up, Sylvia! You only know these things because she told you them.” I never knew whose words came out of my mouth anymore. My brain felt hollowed out and empty. “You may think that the perfect child is just a role you’re playing, but it’s not.” Glancing back at me over his shoulder, Jack saw my silent tears, but turned away again, unrelenting. “It’s who you are. You’ll always be too afraid of disappointing Mom to do what you really want.” “Who says what you want is what I want? Just because you sit up here getting stoned and making Cezanne knockoffs doesn’t mean you’re an artist.” I wanted my words to bite like his, but the teary snot which gurgled in my nostrils as I spoke softened their impact. “I just don’t understand how you can talk like this, like you have everything figured out, like you just know exactly who you are.” He finally turned to look me in the eyes. “Listen, Sylvia. I want something, and I want it enough to sit up here and do it everyday I can. I want it enough to abandon the safe route for it, something you would never do. All you have are a bunch of half-baked ideas, and no motivation to actually think through them and write them down. You hardly even try anymore, do you?” I looked away, thinking of the stack of empty notebooks gathering dust on the corner of my desk. Why hadn’t I written more? Why had I barely thought about writing? “I want you to stop hanging around me and pretending we’re two peas in a pod when all you do is kiss her ass and help her tear me down. You are not like me, you and Mel and Reagan—” “Jack, please don’t lump me in with them, you know I’ve always felt closest to you...” I shifted my body, intending to get up and give him a desperate hug, but he made an equal move in the opposite direction. “Jack, I’m sorry for what I said. Please don’t shut me out.” He sat down on the stool of the drum kit and turned his back to me, rearranging his workspace to remove my presence from his field of vision. “Don’t tell me you’re sorry. I’m sorry for you.” He grasped the paintbrush and swirled it around in the water, loosening up the pink which had already begun to congeal on its bristles. The room was suddenly cold and metallic. The silence which fell between us felt sterile. He continued to paint with the same quiet fervor, perhaps his final move to demarcate his artistic territory, to distinguish himself from me. He was back to the delicate work of mixing colors, this time trying to replicate the grey of the background. He took some on the tip of his brush and began to pat it onto the canvas over top of the pink streak, but even from this far away, I could tell that the grey he’d mixed was too light, that it wouldn’t meld with the rest of the background. I looked down at the line I had written— Colors spoke to her like prophecies, indications of the future embedded in their hues. —and it gazed hollowly back at me, unsalvageable. I stole another glance at Jack’s painting. The whole piece was suddenly muddled. He had tried too soon to paint over the pink streak which had not fully dried, which refused to be covered, which instead mixed itself in with the grey to form an aberration of an entirely new color. I turned to a blank page and stared at it, not knowing where to go from here.
By Carly Taylor