Fumes gathered in the air, filling the small room as Alyssa painted, but she didn’t bother to open the window. It was February, too cold to let them escape, and she did not mind sitting in them. They were almost a comfort. She dipped her brush back in the bottle and leaned over to make certain she was painting a straight line.
There really was nothing special about this painting, apart from the fact she was using nail polish as her medium. The idea had come to her one evening after a few beers and had sounded great at the time, some kind of brilliant social commentary probably, and she had gone with it. A series of abstract paintings done in nail polish, shiny and glitzy and proving a point. It didn’t matter that she didn’t know what exactly that point was; if asked she would simply make something up. It was more important that she was standing out, after all, expressing superior creativity.
Alyssa paused to examine what she had accomplished already. Two smaller, square canvases, both blue, though one shot through with purple accents, the other with silver, sat not far off, finished. She was working on a larger, mainly-red one now, and a thin rectangular canvas leaned up against the wall, half-finished. That one was in yellow, gold, and peach nail polish, and she hated it for reasons she couldn’t pinpoint.
“Stupid thing,” she muttered to herself, reaching for her shoebox of assorted nail polish. She would finish the damn thing last, or maybe just consider it finished as it was. She rummaged about the box for a red and came up gripping a child’s bottle of nail polish, gaudy neon pink, and stared at it. It was hers. Why had she kept it?
She glanced at the horrible yellow canvas and swallowed, remembering, and had to sit. She realized where she had gotten her idea from and found she hated it now, the tiny memories of childhood. It had all started with the yellow, that’s why she hated it. She closed her eyes and could almost transform herself into a five-year-old again.
Children’s nail polish was in such ridiculous colors. She had an entire set she had gotten for Christmas, she remembered, and she took it out whenever she was alone in her room. She had painted and repainted her nails, and she had been certain she had been so good at it. She remembered painting them when her mother got the call that her uncle was dead, and that time she didn’t have enough nails to paint. She had only been a child, after all, and children have tiny fingernails.
Alyssa remembered the arguments her mother had with her father after that, and how she hid in her room. When she didn’t have any more nails left to paint, she leaned back behind her bed and started painting the yellow wall, better than she had done her nails. Alyssa remembered that. Her first real work of art, maybe. She stood and moved over to the apartment wall, stared at it, tried to laugh at it. Painting an entire wall with children’s nail polish? Insane!
This was why she was never having children, she told herself. She returned to the red canvass and found a magenta bottle. She shook it, unscrewed the cap. When she was that age, that young, she had gotten just as much on her hands as she had her nails. And much more on the wall.
It had begun with the glittery gold, because it was shiny and bright, and she had wanted to cheer herself up. On nights when her mother fought with her father she painted in gold. On days when her mother drank she used orange, but she had only used that awful neon pink on the day she had been discovered.
She had been proud of her work of art. It had been beautiful, as beautiful as a five-year-old could make anything. It had shone. And her mother, her self-depressed mother, had hated it.
She remembered the shouting. She wondered why she had forgotten that, when it was always first, always before the door slamming and the engine turning and the drinking. Before the fall of angry hands.
Alyssa blinked herself back to reality and frowned at the yellow canvas, setting aside the magenta polish. She could almost hear the shouting again, but that didn’t matter now. Shouldn’t matter. Art was now, for the now and into the future, not from the past. These canvases were more than a child’s bedroom wall, after all.
And yet she found herself staring at the yellow and gold painting as though her eyes had been sewn to it, unblinking. She didn’t know what she was expecting to see or find in it. When she finally was able to look away she realized she was gripping her arm with her hand, hard enough to leave marks when she removed it. Startled at that, she staggered back, wanting distance from the canvas, wanting to separate herself from it. She tripped over the box of nail polish and the contents scattered across the floor in all directions like tiny memories, and she took a deep breath, her eyes watery.
Alyssa remembered. She remembered the shouting, her tears, the nail polish flying. She could feel the sting of her mother’s hand again, her rage giving birth to bruises, her own ignored sobbing. She had been locked in her room with nothing but her aching body and a scouring pad while her mother drank and drank.
Her hands shook. She gathered up the nail polish and tucked them back in the box, one by one, until she found the neon pink jar, small, a child’s nail polish. Alyssa turned, stared at her work in progress, at the reds that blended together so well, and unscrewed the cap. The neon pink would be ugly, but she was certain now that it was just what the painting needed.
Jessica Payseur lives in Eau Claire, WI, with her partner and their cat, who is convinced he is a jaguar.