I knew there was a problem when she started smearing her poop on the wall and calling it “art.” She’d just reach in there after she did her business, forget the germs or the oddness of it all – the bacterial waste was part of her creation.
My daughter is six years old and in first grade. I had a parent-teacher meeting with Ms. Swisher last Monday. Ms. Swisher is a sweet younger woman who wears dresses with too much lace and ties her blonde hair with red ribbons. She likes to smile with her eyes closed, almost as if she doesn’t know how to see anything in the light of true happiness. I sat across from her wearing a blue jean jacket and jogging pants. I wore this not because I liked the way it looked, but because she is a professional and I am not.
“Felicity is a beautiful soul,” she said, deflecting from the real issue. Felicity gave magic marker tattoos in class one day. She ran up to someone while Ms. Swisher was in the middle of teaching math and said, “I think you need a rainbow on your face.” We recently went to the circus and she got a rainbow on her face, and now she wants everyone else to have one, too.
Mom likes to tell me with her eyes that it’s my fault. At her birthday dinner, Felicity stuffed cake in her mouth by grabbing it with her fists. She just likes to be hands-on.
As mom stared at her and slightly winced, she turned to me and asked, “When’s the last time you’ve talked to Daniel?”
I didn’t respond. I grabbed the funfetti pony cake in my fists and stuffed it in my mouth, the creamy icing left on my palm like a brand.
Daniel and I were eighteen when we met, and he was a visual artist. He still is a visual artist, but I guess part of his work is disappearance. Maybe this is some large performance piece – he’ll leave his daughter and fiancée for a few years, show up again, come back, and then in forty years he’ll shout “ta-da!” and say he planned it all along. The purpose behind the charade will be that he wants us to feel the pain to know we need him, and then for the rest of our lives we’ll be good to go, though by then we’ll barely know him.
He’s a troubled soul, I tell all my friends and believe it. Felicity, though – I tell her that her daddy’s looking real hard for something. She always asks what, and then I tell her that it’s a special secret.
Ms. Swisher suggested that Felicity take an after-school art class, so now I take to waiting on Thursday afternoons, standing against a brick wall with my daughter’s snack in my hands – a thirty-one-year old woman with a juice box. Today I am wearing a work suit and Ms. Swisher will not see me.
Felicity runs outside with a colorful piece of paper in her left hand. She still wears pink overalls and hurries fast to see me. I can pick her up and embrace her and have her love me so hard that even my arms feel it. I squeeze harder than a mother should.
“Mommy, let me down, I wanna show you what I made!”
She hops down and her pigtails bounce a little. It’s a drawing of a scruffy-faced man in a pirate ship out at sea. The pirate ship is full of what looks like gold doubloons and on top of the pile sits a small girl with warm auburn hair like Felicity.
“Daddy found what he was looking for.”
She looks up at me so pleased and content, and for the first time, I see her years later as a teenager, angst-ridden and full of the world.
Daniel sat on the floor of his room painting a self-portrait with mud as Sonic Youth quietly breathed into the background. I was lying on his bed, staring at the crusty, white bumps on his ceiling. I poked at them with his special art ruler and let the snow fall on top of my mountainous belly. Daniel scooped the mud from a plastic Solo cup and smeared a chin on his canvas.
He dug a giant hole in his front yard and when his landlord asked, “What the hell are you doing?!” he just told him it was a school project.
“So your school told you to put a crater in my lawn?”
Daniel looked at the plump man steaming in front of him and said a simple and emphatic, “Yes.”
His portrait was almost done, but before he placed it against the wall to sit until his class in the morning, he signed the bottom right corner, For Felicity.
I rolled my pregnant self over and off the bed and crawled on the floor to hug him. His mud-splattered face, broken in some places due to the hardening on the canvas, was a vision of my future.
Seven years later, this same picture hangs in my daughter’s room and becomes her inspirational muse. She put the picture next to her white and pink dresser. Her room is full of bunny stuffed animals and she even has her own easel. There is no TV. She says she wants to be an artist like Daddy, and I hope it’s just because my honorable profession of being a bank teller isn’t as glamorous or attainable to a six year old.
Daniel named our baby girl Felicity and I guess I hate him for it. Maybe I hate the way she curls her letters with light, wispy strokes, the creative genetics seeping into her giggles and skin.
He first left when she was three years old and it was only for a week. He went to California to look into the college, CalArts. All the money he made bar-tending went to this trip and all my money as a temporary sales representative went to our one bedroom apartment, mine and Felicity’s tummy, and Harold the Turtle’s upkeep. This was the Daniel that gave me fake roses because they were “infinite,” but I knew he really didn’t want to keep buying me flowers. Mom liked to tell me it was my fault with her empty words when I told her to watch Felicity that week while I had to pick up more shifts. All the while, I drove to work and guessed what each person’s profession was in each of the cars. When Daniel got back, he bought Felicity a pint of cookie dough ice cream. She hadn’t eaten dinner, but it’s ice cream she kept whining. My fifty-hour work week said okay.
Mom called and put Dad on three-way because she doesn’t know how to talk without her better half. I had to tell them about the “potty art.” I guess I didn’t have to, but I did have to. They’re Felicity’s grandparents. When my mom first met Daniel, he was standing in front of the doorway as a frozen teenage statue. Her pearly white bracelet jiggled on her wrist when she held out her hand to shake his. She shouldn’t have liked him, but she did. We ate green beans in our sterile white living room, and Daniel said he was going to do great things.
We left after dinner, and in his car, I rolled the window down to cut my arm in half with the wind. Cars sped past on the highway as red and white blurs of metal, and any one of them could have taken my arm off. Daniel told me to put my arm back in, but I didn’t. I liked to feel the air that we caused all on our own with our own blur of metal.
“Do you think I’ll do great things, too?”
He grinned at the road in front of him, because he was more careful about our mortality. “Of course.”
There was a pause, and Dad finally spoke and said, “Why don’t we go to the art museum, all of us, so she could have something a little more . . . er . . . polished to imitate.”
The art museum in town isn’t exactly all that great. It has a section specifically dedicated to the grand frontier and our small town heritage. It’s full of broken, Southern drawl dialogue playing in some audio in the corner while the room is full with pictures of wagons. There’s a reason Daniel left for L.A., or New York, or something. The last time he left, he said “sorry” and didn’t put a place to it. But, when we walked in to the museum, things were painted differently than the last time I went with Daniel and our little girl. The receptionist desk was on the left instead of the right and the white on the walls was a much more velvety albescent. I told the welcome lady that I liked what they did with the place.
“Honey, we haven’t changed things in here for the past forty years.”
Felicity ran to the life-sized dollhouse. The last time we were here, she spent some two hours petting grimy, old dolls with sandpaper hair, calling them her babies. She made them breakfast in the “kitchen” and sang them to sleep in the rocking chair in the “foyer.” I believe Daniel slept in the tiny bed pretending to be one of her babies while she laughed and I watched the door for the museum employees so we wouldn’t get kicked out. The whole backside is opened up and parents can sit on a bench, watching their children pretend to be home-makers without having a clue. The front is what you see when you walk into the exhibit. It’s a beautifully painted house, yellow, with fake, potted plants hanging from the windowsill. You can’t know that it’s sliced open on one side unless you investigate.
As she rocked her strange little baby, she hushed and “burped” it with a giant slap that made Mom and I giggle from our bench. We were watching the Felicity Show. She then started singing and told her baby that her daddy would be back soon with his treasure just for her. I felt Mom shift in her seat beside me. The Felicity Show was coming to a close and I told her that we should go look at some paintings since this was an art museum after all.
We skipped the frontier land crap and headed straight to an exhibit about birds. Every single damn painting was a bird. I’m not too crazy about them because birds wake me up in the morning from a deep slumber full of dreams where there are no noises, just an empty canvas of anything I want, and there are no birds. Felicity ran around elated and stopped at a fuzzy, poof of a bird, laughed and pointed and asked what it was. The title was called, “The Bushtit,” so I told her I don’t know. Birds have unfortunate names, I learned. There was “Anis,” “Dickcissel,” and the “Woodcock,” which is unfortunate in name and appearance. But Felicity flocked toward the framed picture in the middle of the room – the Mockingbird, our state bird. The Tri-Star flag hung right next to it oh-so-conveniently.
“We learn about this bird in class! They like to sing.”
Felicity then began to scream. She was actually screaming, but I think she believed she was singing. I stood there staring at the Mockingbird and then looked to Felicity as she waved her hands back and forth like a conductor at a symphony, and I hummed. Mom ran over to her, bent down and told her that she should sing softer.
“But Mockingbird’s don’t sing softer.”
I laughed, and I received the look again. Mom told her that we should go buy some watercolors so we could paint the Mockingbird like the watercolor hanging up. I didn’t notice, but all the art pieces in this room were watercolor. They were beautiful actually, the soft mix of simple and meticulous brushstrokes into white frames on a blank wall, like a splash of color in the midst of a drowning sea of the somber.
The only problem with my mom’s theory is that Mockingbird’s don’t have color. They are gray and white and are tricky little things that hop around in the mud. They copy the sounds of other birds – they aren’t original. I stared at the Mockingbird in front of me. While it mocked everyone else, he and I, we sung together our own song that no one else could hear. The gray bled into the white with purpose and ease, the lines blurred and though one could say all there was is black and white, this wasn’t true at all. This painting, in the midst of all the color, was the most striking painting in the room.
“I think that’s a great idea. Let’s go paint gray.”
Mom was confused but Felicity, when we got home from the store after buying four canisters of watercolor paint, couldn’t stop painting Mockingbirds. The floor was covered in what looked like gray and black blobs of little round things on sticks. I couldn’t have been more proud.
She ran up to me, her black painting hanging in her left hand, and said, “Look, Mommy! I’m a real artist now.” And we hung one of the black blobs behind the toilet – her new potty art.