TWO IMPERFECT PAINTINGS
When she was just a young child, her father and mother first noticed, to their horror, that she seemed to favor her left hand. They were a strange combination of erudition and conventionality, these two, granted the power to nurture or to destroy the child who they believed was theirs, but who was actually God’s, given to them to raise. The father told the mother that the Latin word for "left hand" was "sinistre", from which the English word "sinister" was derived. "In the ancient world, the left hand was considered to be the side of evil and misfortune, and those who were left-handed were consequently shunned. They were looked down upon as inferior persons, if not dangerous and untrustworthy."
"Nowadays," the mother said, "they have to follow directions in reverse. To live backwards. The way they cut paper dolls and make puppets, in school… It’s terrible for the brain."
"Cars are made for right-handed people. The gears, the clutch… The way doors open, swinging to the side rather than into the body. The way jar lids are designed to open, towards the wrist’s strength."
"Aerobics classes on TV. Ballet lessons. How can you keep up when you have to flip everything you see on its head?"
"The stigma of being different."
"Kids notice which hand you’re using when you hold your pen."
"It’s a right-handed society…"
And so it was agreed. Their daughter would be taught to be a rightie. Every time she tried to use her left hand, she would be scolded, hit if necessary. They would make sure that she held her spoon in her right hand, and the crayons with which she enlivened the outlines of people and animals in her coloring books. They would make sure she opened doors with her right hand, and brushed her doll’s hair with her right hand.
In the shadow of benevolent terror, with a mental guard dog planted in her head to snarl every time she reached for something with her left hand, she grew up straight. She was not sinister. But deep inside, a genie raged against the sin of normalcy, it retaliated against the intervention of her parents with a seething, stubborn rebellion which took the form of clumsiness. Her right hand refused to abscond with the birthright of the left; her handwriting became well-known, from the first grade through college, for its nearly athletic illegibility, and no one trusted her to hold a glass or to handle anything that was in any way fragile or of value.
In spite of this deep-seeded but undetected revolt against the imperative to conform, she found her calling in art, a field in which her unbridled imagination and untamed inner eye, in great part overcame the limits of her stunted hand, the hand without talent which she had been forced to adopt. In her mind, she painted unrivaled masterpieces; her visions burned like horses walking on fire, in skies that were blossoming like roses of thought in the summer of her soul. Savage oceans ceased to shout, and whispered at her feet with embers of waves, moons of ours and other planets lowered themselves so that she could look them in the eye, volcanoes erupted into her palette, diamonds tore themselves out of the earth to dance for her. "Too bad," her mentors said, "that there is such a void in her technique, for her ability to conceive is unique." She pursued a modestly successful career, fighting her way into galleries and exhibitions with an unarmed imagination.
His story was different, but not distant. He fought tooth and nail to be an artist, from the day he was born. His parents were working-class, and conditioned by the vulnerability of life to be practical. Anything that struck them as a daydream infuriated them, for they protected the things they loved like beasts protect their young, and they despised those who were not willing to break their backs for a loaf of bread. For them, brotherhood meant joining hands to die together. But one must die from labor, not from idleness.
The boy’s skill was like a fine-tuning of his father’s brilliance with the drill, he drew on canvas instead of making holes in metal. In order to be an artist, he had to go through a terrible night of being mocked and disowned by his father’s words, each of which smelled like alcohol: cast like a worthless, selfish thing into a world that was not ready for him, and for which he was not ready. It was not raining as he walked out of the door, but it should have been.
He went hungry, he suffered. His soul ran out of gas. He pushed it like a car along a dark road in the night, hoping to find a light on, somewhere down the way. He clung to the dream, which he alone could see was not a delusion; the skill of his lines, the believability of the faces, urged him to continue. To prolong his capacity to resist, he went back to the factory town, he got a job, he worked by day, standing by a ruthless machine that made artless things, then returned home at night to live by the silence of the canvas, which was like the sky you stare into when you are expecting meteor showers to come. His precise sketching, inherited from mechanics, was the foundation; then, as time went on, he began to add colors. They did not come easily from his gray world, but he began to learn to dream with boldness. He could feel his ascent, impending from his discipline.
But then, one day, dreaming too much by the fierce machine with which he earned his bread and kept the canvas in his room, the savage blade he had used a million times, made deadly by habit, came crashing down on his hand, and with a scream of pain, he became a painting, a painting of blood with a weeping hand, like a beached fish, lying on the work table. It happened in other decades, before the miracle of microsurgery, before the science of reattachment. The excited workmates put the severed hand into a bag with ice, and held rags over the spurting geyser of his wrist as they carried him into a car and drove him down the road, past dead lots and electric wires, to the hospital. They saved his life, but the hand was gone. After a while, someone threw it out in the garbage. In despair, once more on his feet but without any reason to be, he buried his brushes in the graveyard in the middle of the night. The policemen who busted him and a sympathetic worker among the tombstones behind the locked gate let him go with words of encouragement, that made him feel twice as useless.
But his forebears had not survived by breaking. They had smashed rocks to bits with hammers, made roads over mountains and through them, united lakes that were not on speaking terms with canals, made the world rich under their smokestacks. They had been mistreated, but their souls were as hard as the iron they worked with, as brave as the coal mine is black. Surrender was not in his blood. And so, without a hand, but with art swarming all over his heart like vines that not even reality could cut back, he made up his mind to learn all over again to draw, and to paint, with his left hand, the only hand left to him. And he did. He slipped and fell, he rose; he wept, he wished he were dead, he gave up; he cursed himself for being a coward; he despaired, he loved; he climbed the mountain. Time had been lost and his left hand was not his right. It was not the same, and the mountain he climbed was half the size of the one whose peak he had almost reached, before industry had triumphed over creativity. But climb it he did: the highest mountain that he could.
One of her paintings, and one of his paintings met, one day, at an exhibition in New York City. It was not in the heart of the gallery district, where the millionaire buyers and the seasoned culture lovers swarm like bees in a garden, crawling over flowers which they covet; it was in an outlying district, on the other side of the East River, in a place where old factories and warehouses ruled streets that were utterly deserted at night. But it was still a place with a pulse, a place where the will to create, impossible to crush, survived thanks to the charity of lower standards. Everyone has the talent to have a baby, and it is in everyone’s soul to love the babies that they have.
Side by side, their paintings stood mounted on the wall, hers exotic and brilliant if you knew what she was trying to do, if you could find it on the other side of the technique which she did not have. His was ravaged but suggestive, like a building whose side has been blown out by a bomb; his skill no longer had skill but if you looked hard enough, you could see that it once had, you could imagine the lines recovering their powerful delicacy, the blur on the canvas becoming detailed and intricate like a Swiss clock. Some people can see ghosts, and some people can see fairies. Those who have failed behind the brush can see the beauty the brush was trying to reach.
He saw her standing back, a little, from the small cluster of people that was looking at her painting, which stopped only briefly before moving on. She saw him, without his hand, looking at her. At once they knew each other. She saw him in his painting, and he saw her in hers. She saw his heart and knew its force from the sound of its falling; he saw her soul and knew its expansiveness from the way it had crashed.
History would remember neither one of them. The history of art is merciless. But we need not be so merciless.
In a mediocre painting, he saw a great woman.
In a mediocre painting, she saw a great man.
After a moment, they approached each other to speak.
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