The Reason Vincent is Alone
It is a Sunday in August in 1987 in New York and the heat, the terrible humidity rises from lumpy East Village sidewalks. The light is the color of lemons, of white grapes. It shimmers. Taxis zip uptown on wide avenues. Streams of dust upended in their wakes. The sidewalks are clotted with pedestrians. They cough. Complain about pollution.
Kate is cutting Vincent’s hair. Her face is serious, concentrated, her dark brows furrowed. She is bent at the waist, working on the back of his head. Vincent fidgets like a little boy.
Lately only fighting. She feels constantly as if tied in a knot. She has hoped for the unblighted happiness she felt with him in the early months to return. She has hoped for many things. For the return of the cinnamon toast made from bagels they bought together at the Second Avenue Deli. Sunday mornings Vincent served them to her in bed. Placed ceremoniously on the great white plate they bought at the flea market on the west side.
Early this morning she declared over toast and coffee that Vincent needed a haircut. He shrugged.
“In ancient times it used to be a sign of great love for a woman to cut a man’s hair.”
He raised an eyebrow. Shrugged again.
“If you say so.”
“Sit still, won’t you?” She purses her lips, examines the back of his scalp, leans back, tilting her head.
“I wish you weren’t always trying to fix things.” Vincent mumbles this, just loud enough for her to hear.
“What are you talking about? I’m not always trying to fix things.”
She snips some hair. Tendrils flutter to the floor. She uses a slender black comb as a guide around his ears.
“Cleaning up, folding up, always always.”
He sits in the chair as if astride a horse.
“I just like to have things put away a little. That so bad?”
Vincent mutters, a touch of phlegm in his throat. Too many cigarettes.
“Always trying to fix things…”
He shakes his head ever so slightly, coughs.
“Telling me how to paint a goddam picture.”
“I wasn’t telling you how to paint anything. Jesus! I was only telling you what I thought about someone else’s work. If you don’t like to hear my opinions don’t take me on any more of your insipid little gallery outings. You only go so you can rant about how bad everyone else’s paintings are.”
Kate mutters, under her breath, “Jealous, that’s all.”
“Nothing.. Let’s just finish your haircut.”
Kate straightens the red towel over his shoulders. He twitches violently like a man infested with insects.
“If you’re not going to sit still… You know, forget it.”
She pauses feeling what is suddenly unfolding. Sees what she is going to make happen.
“You know what, Vincent? I’m done cutting your hair. I’m done with you.”
He explodes. A geyser of a man. Turns, facing her now. The flame red hair, cut, half finished, trim and neat to one side, on the other, still flapping. Hair in wet loops stick to his pale white neck, the only place his hair curls like that. Kate sighs, pushes the cotton of her t-shirt between her breasts, wiping up sweat. She sighs again. A tide going out.
His words crack like the snap of a whip in the air.
“Be done then. Fine. Perfect.” Snap. Snap. Snap.
This week has been particularly bad. Nothing but cutting knives slicing deep into the tender spots only they know. Kate has left their bed each night to stare out into the pulsing semi-dark. Falls asleep late on the futon next to the fire escape. She dreams of torture chambers. Blood seeping everywhere. Pale bodies suspended. Dangling light bulbs. Twisting labyrinths leading back to more bloodshed. Sometimes the blood is hers. Sometimes Vincent’s. She awakens in tears.
Now, here they are.
Time has slowed to a crawl, yet outside the city still bleats and blares. A horn honks. Bass speakers roar.
Kate breaks the moment. Flicks her eyes to the floor then back up to Vincent.
“Fine Vincent. You’re right. It is perfect. I am done.”
She flings clothes off hangers, out of drawers. There is a blue bag. An old Navy sea bag of her father’s. The white letters; name rank and serial number, the name of his ship, fading. The white drawstring cord stiff with age. She stuffs the bag. Frantic. Vincent stands speechless at the door as her hand clutches clothing, sweeps it into the bag, shoves it to the bottom. Sweat streams down her neck, into her eyes.
Vincent sees her obliquely in the mirror over the dresser, wonders if she is crying or if it is the heat. He realizes he no longer knows her. In the mirror, there is his painting of Saint Sebastian, run through with swords, with knives, blood running freely from all his wounds.
Kate is sweeping books off her shelves next to the bed and into her rolling suitcase, the kind flight attendants use. She zips it closed, stands it up on its wheels and little feet. She grabs the last item on the shelf, a teddy bear. A Valentine’s Day teddy bear. Small, pink, with a bright red bow around his neck and a red plastic heart glued to the middle of his chest. In the center of the heart, script writing, I Love You. She straps him to the suitcase with a sharp snap of the black elastic cord X-ing across the outside pocket of the bag, which, according to manufacturer’s suggestions, is usually intended for newspapers. So now there he is; this pink teddy, on his back, looking a bit agog, arms, legs spread wide, blind, black plastic eyes and red, red heart tilting face up to the ceiling at a forty five degree angle. Ready for departure.
“What are you doing?”
For the moment she says nothing. Her every move is a tirade against what they have become, against him, his moods, his very existence. Vincent watches. Knows why storms are named after females. Certainly, this is Hurricane Kate.
At the bureau now, she seizes a small photo in a silver frame. Picks it up, feels his eyes on her. A picture of happier times. She and Vincent, faces jammed together, grinning. Woolen hats, at the skating rink in Rockefeller Plaza. The great golden statue fuzzy behind them. She shoves her emotions into the bag she has found that she carries around in her gut.
“Mind if I take this?”
Vincent shakes his head. He stands still by the door leaning, watching. Decides this looks bad, his hanging over her like a dog. He refuses to be the dog. Wonders how their positions became reversed so strongly, suddenly. She is the strong one now.
“Let me know when you’re done.” She hears the refrigerator door suck open, like a clam being pried apart, then the solid wham as it closes. Bottle opener to beer to counter. Shouldn’t he fight her departure, rail against it like he does against nearly everything? She feels a slight softening inside. Pauses, breathes. Looks straight ahead at the only white wall in the whole apartment. Because Vincent thought there should be some clear “meditative space” amidst the swarm of colors. Paint swatches litter the floor from her trip to the local hardware, an Ace run by an incomprehensible brown skinned man from Sri Lanka. Kate always squints, leans forward, watching his lips when she listens to him speak as if that might help her understand the swirling sounds that come out of his mouth.
Then she is by the front door. Feeling not quite done. Vincent sitting in the glossy chair again. Trying not to look. Kate behind him.
“What about my painting?”
A stupid question, he knows. It is the painting he made for her last year. The painting sits, enshrined on the mantle piece over the inoperative fire place. A woman, it is Kate, she can see herself there, stands alone on the sidewalk next to the sign for the number 9 train downtown, the red line. A scarf around her neck a deeper shade of red than the subway sign. The surface of the sidewalk, the top of the sign, appear to be falling away from solidity. Viridian flecks her scarf and the air around her small face. The street lights, yellow and nimbused against the darkening blue mix with imagined stars and flickering neon signs, while Kate stands alone, not yet descending to the subway, as if someone had called her name, casting a questioning eye back, one hand on the iron rail.
She is with her bags by the door. The sea bag on top of the rolling suitcase, secured by a frayed green bungie. The teddy bear stares wide eyed at the ceiling.
“Don’t be an idiot. You know what painting I’m talking about. It’s me after all.”
He will not want to surrender it. She is ready to go. But there is just this one last thing. It occurs to her that she is unsure who she is testing, herself or Vincent and for what reason.
They turn, look. Their actions still linked. Months from now they will each remember this moment, wonder at the feeling of connection. How it endured despite everything.
“Kate, don’t cajole me, okay?”
Vincent, pauses, folds his arms in front of his stomach. “You can’t have it. Things were different then.”
Kate steadies herself. Concentrates on the mantle. The cool white wood, touch of blue from below, reflection of blue tile underneath, like the inside of an oyster shell. Soft and hard at the same time. Of all the times she and Vincent have been through, this is the most bitter and sad. She can’t stand to be with him one more moment but at the same time loves him still. Impossible but true. Kate young enough to still find this fact perplexing.
At least she should have this painting. His mark and in a way, just as much hers. A souvenir. A clue or a puzzle piece to be solved later. And yes, she thinks, of course it was sentimental but there it is. What can she do? As her great grandmother Virginia had once said, “Well, there one is. Isn’t one?”
“You never even would have painted it without me. Give me a break.”
She loves it. This mysterious image of herself. She often wonders what the Kate in the painting might be thinking. Feels her as a piece of herself in another universe, parallel to this one. She feels a stubborn nut inside of her that refuses to say, “Vincent I love this painting. It’s become a piece of me.” But she doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction. She just wants to get the painting, go away and sort it all out in her own head.
Looking at it now she thinks when they met at Saint Mark’s. She had been pretty desperate. So tired of just living. All the crap with her family. Her mother’s cancer. Her idiot brother’s antics at the funeral. New York had been wearing her out. But now. She felt strong.
“You know what you’re like? A snake biting your own tail,” she says. “Did you hear yourself today? The irony! You trying to say that I’m the one always trying to fix things. Ha! The truth is you don’t know how to just be. Don’t know how to just love. Your love makes me sick.”
It is as if, she thinks, and she doesn’t know where this image comes to her from, but it seems as if she can see him, riding a bike and working so hard, as if peddling up Everest, when he is in fact only riding along level ground.
“You see Vincent? You never relax. About anything. I’m tired. I don’t need to do this anymore. I don’t want to. But I do want my painting.”
She lurches for the canvas which sits against the wall, unframed. Her wrist, thin, decorated only by a slim green watch and single silver bracelet without charms, looks pale against the brilliant color. He grabs it, clenches her tightly in his hand.
“You’re not taking it.”
She has it in her other hand, grasping the top stretcher.
“Vincent! Let go of me.”
She feels things beginning to spiral. His fingers are tight on her arm. She pulls against him, short, sharp little jerks.
“You can’t take it Kate.”
She sees his other arm start to move, the fist forming. Seemingly, in slow and fast motion all at the same time. She yanks herself away. Vincent topples after her and they pitch over together. They hit the table, Kate’s shoulder first, they careen, hit the floor. The canvas is run through by the purely decorative cast iron fire place poker in it’s stand. The sound of the canvas tearing is drowned out by the clatter of their fall.
“Vincent,” she screams, “God damn it.”
Then banging. Loud. Heavy. A voice from the downstairs apartment.
“What’s wrong up there? Shut the fuck up will ya?”
Vincent shouts back.
“Mind your own business, asshole.”
Kate pushes him off of her. She’s scrambling like an insect trying to right itself.
“You’re crazy. Nobody – No Body Hits Me.”
The one thing he can not bear to hear about himself because he often fears it is true, or soon will be. She is up now. Sees the torn painting.
“What do you know?”
Kate points to the painting, the fire poker sticking through it like a derailed locomotive.
“Great. Look at it! Fucking great.”
Her voice sounds shrill, unfamiliar. Louder than she means it to be.
“You bitch,” says Vincent. “Look what you did. You stupid bitch!”
Tears stream down Kate’s face, over the angry red splotches.
She bolts for the door, grabs her bags with such fury it seems they will break. She calls back to him again. Really loud.
“Fuck you Vincent. You need a doctor.”
As she rolls her bags down the hall, a head peeps out from behind a door then disappears just as quickly. She gets to the stairs and looks down the four flights. The steps are hard and black and worn down on the right, along the hand rail.
She tries to carry the bag down but can’t see over it. Afraid of tripping, she gives up, puts the bag down, wheels on the stair in front of her.
She plunges down the steps, bag cracking obscenely loudly, jolting sharply off each step as she goes, chopping into the one below her with a terrible bang. Each set of stairs has sixteen steps, she counted it once. Now the building resounds with this horrible BANG BANG BANG BANG. Soon all the tenants are shouting. The man who owns the locksmith shop down the street and lives on the first floor, in the apartment next to Clarice, the landlady, looks up from his television set to his ceiling wondering what the ruckus is about. Clarice just getting home from mass sees Kate burst from the front door.
Upstairs Vincent sits on the couch and holds his head in his hands. It hits him that he’ll probably never see Kate again. That he’s made a horrible, horrible mistake. He leaps for the window, already open. He’s shouting her name. He can see her pounding west along 11th Street. He thinks, she’s not too far yet. He can see the teddy bear strapped to her suitcase jolting with each dip of the wheels as they dip between squares of cement in the sidewalk.
Down on the street Kate hears only the smooth rumble of her wheels as she blasts ahead. The sound like old roller skates in Central Park. The dull grinding roar punctuated by the repeating thunk-thunk-thunk as the wheels fall into the narrow hollow strips cut long ago into the wet cement by bricklayers, God knows how long ago. Regular as the ticking of a clock. Whirrrrrrrr thunk Whirrrrrrr thunk.
He stares after her. There is the pink bear bobbing on the back of the suitcase. Pedestrians obscure them briefly, then part like water. There they are again.
“You asshole. She was the one. She was the one. You fucked it up. God, you Idiot!”
He grabs a shirt, plunges down the stairs after her, taking the steps two, three at a time. When he gets to the bottom he rushes out the door. Clarice still there glares at him accusingly. He bolts to the end of the block, it is not far. He cranes, squints, calls Kate by name. He sees what he thinks is the back of Kate’s head, her shoulders looking smaller, slimmer already as if she were being transformed before his eyes. He can see the suitcase, now, the Valentine bear, growing smaller and smaller. He starts to run again, into the street. Against the light. Horns honking. A voice yells.
“Hey! Watch where yer goin’!”
Vincent’s hand on the hood of a old Renault as he dodges the fender, his body a stroke of paint in blurred motion. An impression. Running after her. He can’t see the bear, see Kate. Her brown hair has vanished. He is on the other side of the street now. Running.
His voice falls to the ground, limp in the heat. He can’t see her anymore. Wait, there’s the bear again, small and red, bobbing along above the sidewalk as if it were floating along with this thronging, jamming river of people. Where the hell had all these people suddenly come from he wonders. The bear grows smaller and smaller as it moves away from him till he can’t tell if he’s even seeing it any more or an errant balloon. He squints. Stops again. Can’t see her at all any more. Can’t see the bear. Kate is gone.
Hillary Johnson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College. She’s currently at work polishing her short story collection, titled, “The Reason Vincent is Alone,” and researching a new novel. She lives in Chicago, where she is the proud caretaker of Tiger, unofficially the world’s fifth oldest living dog.