by L. Vocem
First published in The Paumanok Review
(Atlanta, Georgia – Summer, 1979)
The knock on the door followed by Sam’s voice filled the empty studio loft, reverberating in her head, bringing her back from that one chance she had hoped to be able to sleep, even though it was in the middle of the afternoon, even though she would prefer to sleep at night like normal people, yet no longer could –– but when was the last time she had felt normal, or even human for that matter. She rubbed her face and like a somnambulist, went into the living room. Sam, a painter who lived in the studio loft next to hers and the only person she had allowed close to her since arriving in the U.S. from Argentina stood in the middle of the entrance with a smirk on his face, as if he was about to do something mischievous.
“I’ve got three gifts for you, so don’t say anything.”
She combed her fingers through her hair and tried to readjust part of her dress. There were seam marks on the side of her face from the army bag she used as a pillow. She walked closer to him.
“Stop, right there,” he said. “And don’t look until I say so, okay.”
He went outside her loft and brought in the canvas with the painting that looked like her, the canvas he did entirely from memory, that somehow had managed to show some of what she felt inside. Each brush stroke, each line, each shade of color conveyed what she did not have words to say, not to him, not to anybody, not even to herself. Yet the painting also had something pleasant, perhaps hidden in the eyes, or the slight indentation of the lips; she wasn’t sure, but it made her feel at peace.
Yes, Sam had talent, lots of talent. She on the other hand had gravitated towards photography, but it was photography that got her in trouble, noticed by men with aviator sunglasses, army boots over civilian clothes, who prowled in their Ford Falcons the streets of Buenos Aires. No, she could not touch a camera again, but she had the need to create, to get some of that which drives an artist, like a drug, like an addiction, out into the open into a new form.
“I know you like this Beatriz, so you can put it on one of these walls. That is with one condition, that when I get a show I can get it back, just to show. Okay?”
He went outside again and came in with a rolled canvas as big as him.
“This here you’ll love. And since there’s nothing on that wall over there, we are going to re-decorate with it.”
He went back to the door and brought in a stool. He placed it next to the wall emphatically as if trying to make a statement.
He unrolled the canvas, revealing the back of it. “Now Beatriz, you can’t come past the dining room until I’m done.” He went outside and brought in a hammer and nails and banged the canvas to the wall.
“What are you doing?” She cried, startled, and walked closer to the living room, curious as to what was on the canvas.
“No, ma’am. You can’t come in here yet. You must wait for what is behind curtain number three.”
He went outside and brought in a wooden box the size of a briefcase. He set it on the floor and released the latches.
“One of our art supply stores in the suburbs closed. So what they could not sell, well, they gave it to us starving low life employees, with useless art degrees,” he said.
He opened it and turned it around, letting Beatriz see the content.
“Brushes, oil, conte pencils, charcoal. You wanted to learn how to paint? Well, here it is. If you need some turpentine I can give you some of mine. Now you want to see the best thing? Take a look at it.”
He looked up at the wall where he had hammered the canvas and stared at it as if it was his best creation.
“Look at it Beatriz, isn’t it beautiful?”
She was still by the dining room, not quite sure what to make of what he had done. Sure, her studio was bare, with no furniture, no lamps, with only two milk crates covered with candles. She didn’t even own a bed. But, how long had she been in the country? Not long enough to buy anything, not yet, not the way she felt, not while all the memories kept twisting in her head. But what was on the canvas? She didn’t recall seeing anything that big in Sam’s studio. What would this painting be? Some of his paintings were quite astonishing, but the majority of his work was simply too strange for her to even like. She took several steps into her living room. She stopped right in front of him, without looking at the large canvas that was right behind her, giving him a wry look, piercing. Quien te creeis, who do you think you are, she thought, now more awake.
He should have asked before imposing his own stuff on her space. Jesus, this was a warehouse for artists, cheap and spacious and bare, so they could create, have time to think, to forget, to be alone. She moved close to his face. And was thinking how to say in English that he needed to take it down. That she liked his work, but she needed room to do her own thing, whatever that would eventually be. And even though she had told him several times while in his studio that she would like to learn how to paint, it was up to her, not him.
He made a funny face, lifting his eyebrows and looking past her. She turned quickly, as if to ease the shock of what it might be, only to find a completely white canvas instead of a painting. She moved closer to it, studying the undulations of the material, the texture of the weave, the fraying strings in one of the corners. She turned again and told him that she didn’t understand. He had a mischievous grin stamped to his face, as if all his calculations had been correct and now he was ready for the grand finale.
“Of course, it’s blank. This is going to be YOUR canvas. On it you are free to scratch, draw, paint, write, be free, be YOU.”
“But I am not good, like you are. You going to teach me? All I know are stick figures.”
“I’ll teach you, but first start with whatever feels right. Scratches, splatter paint, or leave it blank, your choice. You and only you control all the possibilities. Once you’re comfortable with the space, I’ll teach you anatomy, perspective, anything you want.”
She stared at the canvas, as if it were a huge window into something new, and for the first time since going free, she didn’t feel numb, lifeless. She leaned forward and going on tip toes, gave him a kiss on his cheek. It smacked and left the area dewy.
He told her how to use some of the tools, the brushes and work with the color palette.
For the next few days Beatriz stared at the white canvas with great hope and exhilaration. Perhaps she could paint on it something beautiful, something that would allow her to forget all that happened to her while in captivity. Maybe a big white horse, pure and heroic and noble, like she had seen in the history books of Jose de San Martin and the heroes of the Independence. But that felt too contrite, perhaps even too cute, and of course she had no idea how to draw one. Then she thought about doing an abstract, or better yet, something like Picasso’s Gernica. That could show the whole world what she had gone through at the detention center, what they had done to her and so many others. But how could she turn into images all that, particularly since they had kept her blindfolded all that time and everything had become sound and smell, and even though when she was back there she could visualize and get a feel of the place, now she simply couldn’t. It was nothing but a huge visual void filled with screams, moans and voices, that each day sucked her in deeper and deeper, to the point that she felt she was still there.
She could paint a field of flowers, so she pulled the wooden case and opened it in front of the white canvas. She took a piece of charcoal and held it like a director’s baton in her hand. She moved her hand forward but stopped half an inch from the white space. Her hand shook. She wanted to go forward, to scratch the surface, but something, like a force inside of her stopped her and told her that there were no flowers, there were no beautiful pastures and houses or a happy countryside inside of her. She took a deep breath, as if coming up for air after being under water for a long time. She pulled away from the canvas. She turned around and looked at Sam’s painting, so wild, with blues and yellows, thick brushstrokes like a Van Gogh painting. It was her alright, even though she had never posed for him nude. But that was how she felt, that was how she was kept in that foul smelling attic at the detention center. She had never told him that and could never tell him and yet he’d managed to paint her, unveil what she could not unveil.
So each day she stared at the massive white canvas not knowing what to do.
The whole white space felt so pure, so perfect that to make a scratch would ruin it. It was as if she wanted something new and fresh to inhabit the white canvas, with no contamination from her past. Yet the more she tried to think what she could draw, paint, splatter, that would be part of a new life, new road, the more frightened she began to feel, unable to put a mark on it.
She looked at one corner, studied the nails that Sam had driven through the fabric into the wall. Somehow she related to them, and them alone, at how they had broken though the surface, torn the fabric, to be the ones that kept everything together. But was it fair to the rest, to the millions of threads that under the white gesso did the real job of keeping, forming, and giving substance to the canvas, yet remained blank, unassuming.
She developed a certain compassion for the whole white empty space, and was kind of jealous that she could not be that way. The great white space filled all her senses by not having to see, feel, smell, remember –– it provided an emotional sabbatical.
The white was pure, clean, perfect, a model for the possibilities that could be. She felt like that at one point in her life, when she volunteered at the Villas Miserias, the slums and took photos of poverty – click– of Maryknol missionaries –click– priests, nuns, university students – click, click – volunteers helping, teaching – click, click – children smiling, running, lusting for life.
Several nights she slept in front of the white canvas, enjoying the emptiness that it had allowed her to have. But the feeling of uneasiness filled her again. It was as if the purity of the white canvas were obsolete, corrupted by its own weight, by time, by the constant image of a purity that demanded reassurance of its own purity. That purity was indeed vanity, no longer pure yet desperately willing to do anything to maintain that illusion. After staring at it for endless hours, looking at the continuity of the fabric pattern, at the few mismatched threads frozen by the sudden coat of gesso, she became terribly aware of the two edges that were perfect, the product of the factory, the end of the weave, while in contrast to the other two edges. They had imperfections, even as straight as they had tried to cut it, she could still see little threads sticking out, a change of the angle, and indentation that indicated that they had put more pressure in the cut, the imperfect human factor.
For a while she thought about which was she, the rough edge defying the canvas, or the perfect edge, proud of itself, yet without any choice over anything else beyond what the pattern provided from the factory. She actually agonized over these simple issues, thinking about her parents, the fabric that had produced her, about how conformist they had been, swallowing everything that was given to them to believe; and her whole country, sucked inside a bigger fabric, more polarized –– communism, capitalism, democracy, dictatorship, peaceful change, liberation theology, revolution, evolution, guerrillas, dirty war. Only that she had chosen the path she thought right, with a different way –– peaceful, yet armed with cameras, teachers instead of soldiers, Bibles instead of Das Capital, plows instead of guns. But even that failed in the end, either you conformed to the extremes, the Junta or the guerrillas or you were exterminated, rendered useless, black or white. The only thing that remained was not what she had seen, photographed, expressed, but what was thrown back into the weave of the fabric, of which she was a part of without having a choice, even now, even after having, as Sam had said, “choice,” “freedom.”
Oh, what great meaningless words they were. Used and abused because they were in fashion. She laughed the moment she thought that, thinking about how in the country where she had expatriated to, the U.S., also overused similar distortions, such as the “Free” meaning, you don’t pay for, instead of the “BE Without Fear,” and the ever-pounded “New and Improved” which didn’t mean anything in either place. They all emphasized the element that they didn’t really have. Nothing was free in this country, or new and improved; while elsewhere, back home, freedom, democracy, human rights, security, were illusions constantly being sold through the propaganda machine of the Military Junta, yet meaning nothing but the opposite. Everything was perfect, everything was all right, everything was the illusion of perfect white.
The canvas was white and yet it had all the million indentations of the weave running up and down. It was made of individual threads, one connecting with the next, intertwining until they could not be free from the fabric they had formed.
She wished she could cry with abandon, not for herself, but for how much she pitied and felt sorry for the white canvas, so pure, so white, carrying not the hope of the future, but the burden and the deception of a perfect past — cleansed, purified, deified, all imperfections destroyed, removed from the public eye, and demanding that the canvas always remained white. History only likes to talk about the good things. So whatever happened to her, never happened, didn’t exist, even though the American TV’s were showing all those women, all those mothers as they called them with pictures of their sons standing by the Plaza de Mayo. But the government said nothing was going on, just like some groups said that the Holocaust never happened, that it was all made up.
Sam came to visit. He knocked several times and walked into her living room, giving the white empty canvas a quick glance and then looking at her.
“Where have you been? You’ve disappeared since…” He said to her, studying her face, his eyes bouncing around, dissecting everything. She folded her arms and began to say something but he interjected.
“Have you been eating?”
“Some, yes,” she said, running her hand over her hair then holding it behind her ear.
“You look, I don’t know, thinner, weaker.”
“I have been…” she began to say but stopped and looked at the white canvas, with an expression of apprehension on her face.
“Look,” he began but stopped. Then after a silence, he continued,
“Sometimes you need to get away. Let’s go for a hamburger. You’ll feel better after that.”
She looked at the canvas as if asking permission to go, as if by leaving, there would be something she would miss, not be able to communicate or able to understand.
“It’s all right,” Sam said, as if he was able to read her mind. “It will be there when we get back.”
At the hamburger joint Sam ordered a couple of burgers, cokes, and fries. He asked her about how she was feeling. She was not very talkative and barely took a bite of her burger. He told her about some painting he had some trouble with but her mind seemed to go back and forth from the canvas to his words, to what she wished she could do, to what she should have done, to what had to be done. Then through the miasma of words and thoughts, she heard him say “sometimes it will consume you.” And she stared at Sam’s eyes. He extended his hand and held hers. “I know something big is eating you, Beatriz. I can see it in your face, in the way you look at the Canvas, in the way you stand before it, how you agonize over it.”
He turned over her hand and patted it. Her fingers were thin and bony and her flesh was almost translucent as if it belonged more to a wax figure than a person. He pressed her cold hand between his and said, “you need to let go. Just let it happen.”
Let it happen, that was so easy for him to say.
She was determined to change the canvas, to make her mark, to go into that which was going to be the new her, her future. Perhaps there was hope for her. She grabbed one of the charcoal pencils again and glided towards the canvas. She was ready to make the difference. Let it happen, as Sam had told her. She suddenly felt a rush of violence go though her body, wanting to scratch the whole face of the canvas with a large blob, abstract, nasty, full of hairy edges, without a definite form, unleashing all the hate she had for them. And she could hear their voices, sometimes close by whispering, or far away, echoing in a large chamber, screaming, asking, demanding –– nom-de-guerre, nom-de-guerre, nom-de-guerre.
She trembled, and her hands became sweaty and she could hear the electric shock, smell the burning flesh, and their questions, their insults echoing around the room. Her head spun, she closed her eyes, but felt like throwing up, so she opened them again and settled herself in the severity of white.
But the canvas was static, unmoving, unaware, not caring. She had to take that first step and made a mark, overcome the rigidity that imposed on her, commanding every line over her existence, telling her, reminding her how insignificant she was.
No. Time to break away, she thought.
She took the charcoal pencil to the surface and made a scratch, an indentation on the surface of the whole white canvas. Let it happen, she said to herself. The moment she did that, it felt good, reassuring, throwing chills up and down her spine. But she couldn’t help it and kept going, smashing the whole charcoal into that one spot, until it became pulverized into nothing. She looked at her hand, now black and dusty. She took three steps back, wanting to see how it worked in relationship to the whole discipline of the canvas. There it was, her scratch, her little dot, made mainly of some little charcoal pencil that soon could be washed off by the circulating air. Her mark suddenly was swallowed by the perfection of white, by the ever going fabric, by the idea that even though it tolerated imperfections, they could not be beyond the perfection of white, and white was indeed perfect. So what was she attempting to do? Who did she think she was? How could she think she could overwhelm the purity of the white canvas, unless of course, she could come up with greatness. But what if she were just an average person, normal like everyone else. Sure, she could start doing what Sam said, go crazy, scratch the surface until it was all black, or fill it with indefinable scratches. She could as well do that. To what meaning? To what avail? That was not the freedom that Sam talked about. In fact, he was a liar, just like all of them at the detention center! He had attached her to a new torture – the white canvas. Manipulation, that was what it was all about. Death in itself is freedom. But to manipulate they extended your life and abused that basic instinct to survive, of being optimistic, wanting that next breath, having that one thought that says hope, you will make it. And you inhale and exhale drowning first in your own pain and later in your own numbness. And what keeps you alive is a thin string attached to hope, delicate and fragile, breaking all the time around you.
And then the worst thing that could happen, happens:
You make it.
Now you have to live with it.
Then there’s emptiness.
And in a way, that was a white canvas.
While before she had “hope” now all she had was the memory of that place that would not go away, wanting to renew hell, seeping to the surface of her consciousness and taking her down. What right did she have to survive? Why her? She didn’t deserve it. There were others more worthy of life, of their struggle, with real causes, with children and families, with wives and husbands, but they were gone. Plane rides, she had heard in whispers, to the middle of a dark ocean and like rag dolls thrown off.
She ran to the kitchen and picked up a wet rag and went back to the blob that she had made on the canvas and tried to clean it. She passed the wet rag across the area mixing with the charcoal pigment. In the immensity of the white, it became a stain, with some of the dark charcoal running down, dripping like black blood down the white canvas.
She managed to clean most of it off, but it left a large faint stain.
It was ruined.
Looking at the stain running down made her remember everything she had done and believed –– pronounced first, but after all, faint, almost invisible.
It all had evolved to this: restless, quiet, a meaningless sense of nothing.
The white swallows you.
Touché, they won, no matter what. The stain was there permanently. And it wasn’t even her choice. It suddenly made her mad. Her nostrils flared, she wanted to prove them all wrong. She wanted to prove herself wrong. The whole universe was wrong. She screamed at the canvas, first, nonsensical sounds, then all the obscenities she could possibly put in her mind, not only in Spanish, not just the ones that a girl of her standing should not use, but those she could remember in that proper English that she had learned, and that Sam kept colloquially expanding everyday.
The white canvas remained a white canvas with a stain in the middle, wanting to be cleansed, removed from the possibility of not being perfect, white, pure. And she had inflicted the blow that had changed all that.
What an illusion that was, she realized.
She was nothing, another shadow into the fabric of the whole thing, that like a stain could soon be obliterated, reduced to a manageable stain, eventually cleansed, non-existent. Now she wanted to be able to pour big, gargantuan tears out of her eyes, and feel, by God feel, feel pain, agony, resentment, guilt, all of them at once, boiling up inside of her. She wanted to stretch every muscle in her face, contorting, twisting, forcing, beckoning for emotions. Yet none came out.
She had this great numbness inside of her. Pain and numbness, a contradiction in terms, yet real. It was how she lived with all the memories, suppress, suppress, but their voices always seeped to the surface: “Please, if you get out, tell my children. Tell my wife, tell the world. Yo soy…Jorge Martinez… Elena Sanz…Felipe Manzi…Carlos Smith…Ana Maria Quiñones…”
Eventually the weight of it all made it impossible for her to carry another thought and she felt as if she were drifting, fading not into white, but complete nothingness. At some point, which she was not sure when it had happened or why, or the meaning that she wanted to give her actions at that moment, she picked up a pen from the box, went to an edge of the white canvas and remembered that at one time she had tried to resist them, tried to remain herself, a person, not a number, their number, a dossier full of any lie they had wanted her to cry out. Nom de guerre? Nom de guerre! Nom de guerre!
And she leaned down and pressed against the pureness of white and scratched on one edge M-54, the number she was to respond to in the detention center. And wrote it from edge to edge. In small letter and large ones, spelling it out and in numbers. Then she wrote the names of all those that had whispered to her their names. She could hear their breath, their quiet moans, their coughing, their words as clear as if they were still alive, there with her.
She pulled back and saw her scratches coming through the tyranny of white, even if it was no longer her, but the creature that they had created. She felt some great weight being lifted from her. And as she stared at the defeated whiteness she took off her blouse, her skirt, her undergarments and assuming a fetal position, mentally exhausted, she was finally able to sleep in peace.