The girl stood on top of the railing. I watched in wonder – how could the girl balance? Still, that was not the real question. The real question was if the girl would jump. The ocean rolled with winds from a far-off storm, and while someone could conceivably jump from the pier into the water and live, someone else with an intent to die could probably succeed. I thought of Lourdes who was supposed to join me today, an adventure, a day out of the studio and to the ocean to feel that fresh air – so different from the dusty downtown air – and enjoy each other’s company without the stress of making art. But Lourdes had to make art today; she insisted that she dreamed a new idea and she had to do it, and really, Hannah, she said, it would be best to be alone, so go ahead to the pier and come back and tell me about it. Later, like at dinner time. So, I was out of the studio for the entire day (would I be welcomed back early if I wanted to work on my own art?), and now I am at the end of the pier with a crowd of people all quietly chanting to the girl on the railing to come down, it’s not that bad, don’t do it.
But. She did it. She lunged headfirst into the water, and I rushed to look over the railing along with the others. The girl surfaced for a moment, long enough for a wave to slam her into one of the pier pilings, and she slipped out of view.
There was a collective groan as everyone watched the lifeguards and the Coast Guard circle around. It took time for the girl to surface, and by then it was clear she had succeeded. Her body floated face down, and a lifeguard on a surfboard made several tries to grab her hand and pull her to him, pull her to the Coast Guard boat drifting just beyond the pier. The girl was turned face up once on the boat, and a useless attempt to revive her began. Others on the pier said prayers aloud or mumbled to themselves. I studied the girl’s face and its attitude of despair; I could make a drawing of that face. I could, except that I knew the drawing would be of me, drowning on land, and not this unfortunate girl drowning in water. I felt instantly connected to the girl, inside the girl, despairing like the girl, I was the girl if only for the briefest of a second. The pain in my chest was real.
I walked away. Reflexively, I pulled out my phone to call Lourdes and tell her what happened and then knew it would go to messages. I sat on a bench and cried, feeling this odd sensation of a string, a rope, an umbilical cord connecting me to the girl in the ocean. I imagined what the water was like, looking up to the sky from under the surface. Did the girl try to push herself to the air, or did she relax and sink deeper, saying goodbye to that world of air? What did she find down there? Did it make her content, was it what she wanted? I pulled out my sketch book, drew the girl’s face as I remembered it, then the words that would – if I continued – be in the drawing.
I love fish and I love the ocean and I dream of dying by being eaten by a shark. There have been many shark warnings in the past week, so this is the perfect time. My body on earth is useless. I am not taking my life. I am giving my life to the sharks or the fish or whoever will have me under the sea. I love fish and I love the ocean and I hope there is a shark there, ready to feast on my sad, sad body.
I checked the time. Four more hours before I could head downtown. I imagined Lourdes painting; I loved my image of her: long dark hair tied up and back, her brown arms bare and moving constantly, swiping the brush with one hand and adding accents with the fingers of her other hand. Painting for Lourdes was a physical workout; I felt inhibited about my own stillness at my drawing board, inking in tiny black outlines on small pieces of archival paper. Perhaps our vast differences carried us together, the way she filled a room with her presence and her paintings and me happily watching from the sidelines. And I was happy.
Checking the time again: three hours and forty-five minutes to go. I watched the crowd at the end of the pier spread back toward the shore, watched the lifeguards paddle their boards through the waves, returning to their stations, watched the Coast Guard boats zip off toward the Marina with the dead girl on board. My love for Lourdes soared in the wake of all these people attending the end of a young life. I could not wait; I headed to the parking lot, the 10 freeway, the downtown streets and home.
It was the talk of children that sent her away. I should never have mentioned it. I came back from the beach, I interrupted her, I told her of the dead girl, I told her of my love, and I told her how a baby would be incredible, would be life. We have only lived together for a year, but I was convinced it would be forever. She reminded me that I am naïve, a romantic, unrealistic, and many more adjectives she conjured up, a litany that continued into the week as she packed her art supplies into boxes and had her friends – friends I had never met and did not know she had – move everything into a waiting truck.
Lourdes would not give me her new address. When someone wants to disappear in L.A., it’s quite easy. Sure, I would see her at art openings and galleries, but finding where she lived – well that would be a stalkers game, and I might be romantic or naïve but I am not a stalker. Last time we were apart, six months ago, it was me. I walked out. But I couldn’t stand the separation and I came back, and she welcomed me back. She stood in the doorway and spread her arms, and I folded right into them and felt so much at home.
My childhood home had disappeared, and there was something in its disappearance that was a personal affront to me. The airport bought it, bought up my whole neighborhood and stripped the land of all the houses, like a monster smashing a village. The streets are still there behind chain-link and barbed-wire fences. Weeds grow in cracks in the pavement, and shrubs grow where houses once stood. Where my friends and I played in yards. How do you know you had an idyllic childhood until you look back on it? When you are in it, immersed in being a child in a neighborhood with so many children, in a location that is one road away from the beach, an easy walk down the hill, a quick run across that road, down the steep steps to the sand and across the hot sand to the waves, you do not know this is special. It just is. It is what your life is.
Lourdes reminds me . . . reminded me that very few people have such a perfect childhood, or such a perfect neighborhood. She has told me often that she believes the root of my naivete is this childhood that sheltered me from the troubles of the world, the ills of L.A., the struggles of children like her. Lourdes makes a good point except that I know she grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the child of wealthy landowners. But I love her for her passion. For her desire to create a better world for the oppressed and the poor. She loved me, so she said, for my optimism and hope.
My drawings intrigued her. Until they didn’t. She used to rave to other artists about my attention to tiny details, my ability to make color pencil and marker be as impressive an art medium as oil and acrylic paint. She made sure a lot of people came to the opening of my first solo show. Friction happened later when the show closed, and she realized I had sold every single drawing. Her show – a few months earlier – closed without a sale. The Times gave her an amazing review, commending her on the use of imagery to bang us over the head with the unfairness of our lives. Perhaps, I thought, people did not want such imagery in their homes. I was wise enough not to say it. Lourdes intuited my thoughts and threw them back at me after my show sold out. A week passed before she spoke to me again.
I love Lourdes. I love her brash personality, her dedication to her ideas and causes. She marches in every conceivable march; she rants online and in person about the inequities of the city. A friend of mine who is not a friend of Lourdes said she is performative, and I said yes, she has a performer’s side to her. She gestures in broad strokes. She is wildly funny and laughs often. When she is loving to me, it is all-consuming; how could I resist, being loved, and adored so well? I drew us, for my new body of work, this does not exist.
I held in my head, in my imagination, girls and words and love, none of it existing, but all of it possible. It was the possibilities I wanted to draw. The chances I could take. The love that I could have. The way I could express my love of Lourdes with lines and color dancing across paper. I knew each drawing and what it would become.
My first completed drawing was the girl on the pier, in the ocean, blissfully rolling in the waves with fish and a grinning shark. Fragments of her monologue floated around her. When Lourdes looked over my shoulder, she said nothing but took a deep breath and sighed.
I drew myself as an ethereal being, not quite wholly in the world, and I drew Lourdes as a superhero, hands on her hips, her long dark hair blowing behind her and a smile of determination on her face. My ghostly body coiled around her, enveloping her with my love. Lourdes laughed when I finished and showed her. Are you laughing because I got it wrong, I asked, or are you laughing because it’s exactly right? She wouldn’t answer then, but that night in bed she pulled away from me and said, I was laughing because it was stupid. A childish drawing. Really, she added, you need to grow up.
That’s when I started thinking about having a child. I began drawing unborn children, babies in a magical floating world where they waited to exist. Babies like little fish swimming in the uterus of my ghostly body. You aren’t serious, Lourdes said when she saw my sketches. I am serious, I answered, then asked, about what? What are you asking me about?
Then, berated, I learned I am selfish, irresponsible, middle class, living in an impossible fairy tale. I countered with my love for her, and she laughed. One of her wonderful laughs yet it sliced through me like a knife. In the days that followed, as she packed and made hushed phone calls and a truck appeared at our door, I drew my love and my self in pieces. I kept my back to the room, to the front door, to the variety of men and women taking Lourdes away. The studio echoed in its emptiness, and I thought of the dead, drowned girl and she spoke to me, saying you knew this was coming and you performed incorrectly. On the concrete floor, I lay down in the paint splatters on Lourdes’ side of the studio imagining the love I could draw but could not have.