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Shades of Gray

Karin Dickinson

12-25-2010

 

Shades of Gray

 

          She’d called me out of the blue a week before and insisted I let her treat me to dinner. She wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. It had been 14 years since we’d last spoken.

          I shifted uncomfortably and knocked softly on the door. I was beginning to think I’d misread her email and was at the wrong address when a barely dressed Ellie suddenly swung the door open.

          “Oh, sorry. It’s not time, is it? I thought I still had 20 minutes.” She was wearing nothing but a black bra, matching panties, a pair of knee-high socks, and a towel on her head.

          “Jesus, Ells, did you lose your robe?” was all I could manage.

          “Jesus yourself, Tony. It’s not like you’ve never seen me without clothes.”

          I glanced uneasily up and down the hallway.

          “Ok, I’m sorry,” she sighed, seeming to notice my discomfort. “Come in, Tony, before the neighbors see me in all my gloriousness.” She reached out and pulled me through the doorway by the neck of my shirt, slamming the door after I was inside.

          It was unnaturally dark inside the apartment, with black curtains over the windows. The furniture was mainly gray, save for a red leather couch that faced a side wall, as though she’d been in the middle of moving it and lost interest.

          “Gimmie just a minute, ok?” she said as she hurried down a short hallway to another room.

          I couldn’t help but notice the soft curves of her body, her long legs, and the red rose tattoo at the nape of her neck. I’d been with her when she’d gotten that tattoo, and I would often nibble at it before we’d make love.

          I gazed around Ellie’s living room while she blow-dried her hair in the bathroom. A violin and a stack of music sheets lay on the floor, a Kurt Cobain poster was awkwardly pinned on one of the walls, and a Pablo Picasso print on the opposite wall stared back at him. A sewing machine sat in one corner now covered in a fine layer of dust below a shelf lined with empty wine bottles. Ellie never drank back in the day, but she loved wine bottles. She’d buy a new bottle of wine almost every week, ask me kindly if I’d like a glass (or two or three), and then dump the dregs down the drain so she could display the bottle with the rest.

          It looked like she had taken up painting recently. An easel had been set up in the middle of the room with a massive canvas waiting for paint on it. I wandered over to the desk near the easel and discovered a series of sketches she’d done, all dated (her OCD wouldn’t let her not date something) within a few weeks ago. Most of them were drawings of old photos of me and her.

          “You like?” she asked from the doorway.

          I jumped involuntarily, and she giggled at me.

          “God, Tony, I’m not that scary, am I?”

          “Oh, no. Sorry, Ells, I guess I was just spacing out a little bit. These are really good, though. I never knew you could draw.” I tried my best to cover my shock at finding dozens of sketches of myself.

          “There are a lot of things you never knew about,” she said with a laugh. “Shall we?”

          “I guess so.”

          I followed her out the apartment door and down the hallway to the elevator. She had pulled her hair back into a low ponytail, and I watched as it gently swung back and forth with each step she took.

          “So where are we headed?” I asked once the elevator doors had shut.

          “Isn’t this the best elevator ever?”

          “What?”

          “Look! The ceiling is a mirror. Sometimes I ride it up and down the building while I spin around and stare at my reflection. It puts things in focus, you know?”

          I looked up and saw that there was, in fact, a mirror on the ceiling, but I quickly looked away when I realized I could see perfectly down her dress in the mirror.

          “Tony, when did you get to be so modest?” I could never hide things from her in the past, and now seemed to be no different.

          “Sorry. It’s just…uh…it doesn’t seem right.”

          “Why? Is this about the whole marriage thing? Jesus, Tony. Just let it go.”

          She briskly exited the elevator when the old doors thundered open, leaving me standing there in disbelief for a moment before I remembered I didn’t know where we were going and I needed to follow her.

          She hailed a cab once we were outside and gave the driver instructions in French, another product of one of her obsessive phases.

          Ellie was a genius, and maybe that was her biggest problem. Everything eventually bored her, because she could master anything. She had mastered me, I’d proposed to her, and she moved on.

          Despite her waif-like appearance, she was fearless. People, she had always said, were nothing more than lumps of cells, and there were few things they could do that could really hurt someone else. I would always come up with a mini-list of things to try to disprove her—guns, drunk driving, fist fights—but she would just shrug it off and tell me to stop living in fear.

          The cab pulled up in front of a little café on the corner of a busy intersection, and she grinned at me before she paid the driver and scrambled out to the sidewalk. I followed her dumbly as I slowly realized we were at the café where I’d proposed to her.  

          It was different now. They’d remodeled sometime in the past 14 years, replaced at least two of the four outside walls, repainted the once lime green surfaces to sky blue.

          She took me by the hand and led me to the front door, practically skipping in her stilettos. The theme inside was still the same—kind of like an old, 50’s diner, though with odd additions here and there: a fig tree in a corner, cowboy hats on the wall above the bakery, a selection of fine wines by the register, and so on.

          She sat me down at one of the tables in the corner—our old table—and continued to grin at me.

          I snapped back to reality. “What are we doing here?” I asked incredulously.

          “I figured you’d enjoy visiting some of our old haunts while you were in town. It’s a head-trip, no?”

          “Yeah, it really is,” I stammered as a waitress placed a menu in front of me.

          “Oh, we don’t need these.” Ellie beamed up at the woman. “Tony’s gonna have a Caesar salad to start and the steak as his main, and I’ll have a cup of the tomato soup and the grilled chicken. Just trust me on this one, Tony. Oh, and what do we have in the way of drinks? Hmmm.”

          The waitress gave her a half-smile as Ellie let her finger wander down the list of wines on the last page of the menu.

          “I guess you did need the menu, huh?” she asked.

          “I suppose I did, but just for the vino.” She gave me a sideways smile and briefly stuck her tongue out at me before she ordered one of the wines in perfect French.

          And then we ate, and the steak was perfect. And we drank, and drank, and drank. And there was so much laughter about the good old days.

          She asked me if I had gotten a hotel for the weekend, and when I said I was planning on crashing at a Motel 6 a few blocks from her apartment, she insisted that it was nonsense and her couch would be a much better place for me. Drunk and tired, I agreed and later found myself sprawled on her red sofa in the dark living room of her apartment.

          Sometime after midnight, I was startled awake and found her sitting on the end of the couch in her bathrobe.

          “I got cold,” she said as she stood up and untied her robe.

          “Oh, well, do you wanna get under the blanket?” I groggily asked.

          “Yes.” She let the robe slide off her naked body and crept under the blanket with me. “You’re so nice and warm,” she whispered as she pressed her cool backside into my chest and groin.

          I wrapped my arms around her and drunkenly began to nibble at her tattoo. We stuck to the leather couch more than to each other, and it was far from my idea of perfect sex, but she was beautiful, and I was drunk, and it was still a good way to end the evening. She left me sometime in the night, probably for her own bed, and I found myself alone the next morning on the couch.

          “There’s coffee in the kitchenette,” her voice rang through my dreams. “The creamer’s in the fridge, and I keep the sugar in the cabinet above the sink.”

          I slowly cracked one eye open and grimaced at the light coming through one of the curtains. “How do you know I still drink coffee?”

          “Trust me: I know.”

          She was at her easel working on a painting, and it took me a moment to register that she was still completely naked, save for a pair of pink bunny slippers on her feet. “Do you always paint in the nude?” I asked as I reached for my pants.

          “Pretty much. I had one-way glass installed in most of the windows about six months ago so the neighbors across the way would stop calling the cops. What a bunch of jerks, you know? Here I am expressing my artistic side, pretty much minding my own business, and all of a sudden the police are knocking at my door for the billionth time asking me to at least close the curtains. What they don’t understand is the curtains are closed most of the time. I close them when I change and shower and stuff, but I need the natural light to paint.” She took a step back from her easel, cocked her head to the side, glanced at her paintbrush, and stepped back toward her work.

          “It’s not like I insist on doing this downtown in the park or something like that. That’d just be weird. But it’s my own living room, for heaven’s sake, and I should be able to do what I want.”

          “And that’s where the one-way glass comes in?” I asked as I wandered into the kitchenette and poured myself a cup of coffee.

          “Exactly. You can’t be completely creative when you’re wearing clothes. It’s against our animal nature, you know.”

          “What about the slippers?”

          “Oh, my feet get cold. The slippers are my one exception to the no-clothes-while-doing-art rule.”

          I sat back down on the couch and chuckled to myself. “Oh, Ells, you’re still hopelessly neurotic. You really haven’t changed a bit.”

          “Neither have you, Tony.”

          I watched her work while I drank my coffee, and she hummed “Blackbird” by the Beatles to herself as she mixed the different paints, sipped at a cup of tea, and occasionally took a bite of a muffin she had been slowly eating.

          “Ellie,” I finally said.

          “Hmmm?”

          “I’ve missed you. And I don’t know why I’m here, or why you suddenly wanted to see me, but I’m glad I came.”

          “I’ve missed you, too, Tony. I think that’s why I’ve been painting you these days. I mean, it must be, since you’re kind of an odd subject to paint without a real purpose.”

          “Hey! Just what are you saying here?” I asked playfully.

          “Well, there’s that cowlick of yours, for one.” She still had her back to me, but I could tell she was grinning again.

          “That’s not fair. I just got up.”

          “Nah. It’s always there. You just don’t realize it.” She gave me a mischievous look over her left shoulder and began to giggle.

          “Yeah, well, you have knobby knees and, um, pointy elbows.”

          “Everyone has pointy elbows, Tony.” She suddenly took on a more serious tone. “But not everyone has a cowlick that never goes away. That’s a feat there, love. I’ve got some gel in the bathroom if you’d like to use it.”

          “You can be so irritating.”

          “I know.” She set down her paintbrush, walked over to where I sat, and retrieved her robe from the floor. She tied it shut and plopped down next to me.

          “Why am I here, Ells? It’s not too often a guy gets a phone call out of the wild blue from an ex, has 14 year late make-up sex, and gets to watch while she paints naked.”

          She sighed and bit her lower lip.

          “Well?”

          “You know how there are Christians and Hindus and Muslims and atheists and agnostics?”

          “Uh, huh.” I raised an eyebrow at her.

          “Well, I was reading this book, or, rather, books, a while ago about different beliefs and the creation stories of different followings. The Buddhists say it happened one way, while the Scientologists claim it was something entirely different, and I got me thinking.”

          “…about joining a cult?”

          She rolled her eyes at me. “No, Tony. It got me thinking about math and logic and critical thinking and stuff like that. And then I thought about you.”

          “Studying world religions reminded you of me?”

          “No, different solutions and theories reminded me of you. I thought I’d solved you years ago, but then I got to thinking about possible solutions, different realities the way religious people see things, and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe telling you ‘no’ wasn’t the correct solution.”

          I shifted uncomfortably.

          “I don’t think ‘yes’ would have been the right solution, either, but ‘no’ definitely wasn’t right,” she continued.

          “Why are you bringing this up now? Fourteen years is a long time, Ells.” I was suddenly beginning to feel the hangover I’d earned the night before, and I could feel my temper rising.

          “Because if ‘no’ isn’t right, and ‘yes’ isn’t right, then what is? It’s gray, Tony, all gray. Like my living room. Like the dusty bottles on the shelf. Like the damned pigeons on the power lines outside. Gray, gray, gray! And I thought if I made you colorful,” she motioned toward the painting on the easel, “the right solution would come to me. But it hasn’t.”

          “This is insane.”

          “No, it’s not. It’s part of the process.”

          “What process? What are you even talking about?”

          “My process. I’m trying to solve you. And making you colorful didn’t work, taking away the gray did nothing, so I decided I needed to see you again to reevaluate things.”

          “And have you concluded anything meaningful and profound?” I asked, no longer able to hide the irritation in my voice.

          “No. You’re still gray,” she sighed.

          “And you’re still crazy.”

          “Yeah, I know. Sorry.” She stood up suddenly and turned her back to me. “There’s a clean towel in the bathroom if you wanna take a shower. It’s the pink one behind the door. I’m gonna go take a little nap. I’ve been up for hours, you know.”

          And she left me, sitting dumbfounded, on her red sofa in her black and gray living room.

          All she had in the shower were fruity and flowery soaps, shampoos and conditioners, so I dried off smelling like strawberries and jasmine. Ellie was awake by the time I got dressed, and she was somehow bright-eyed and bubbly again. She’d dawned a pair of jeans, sneakers, and a tightly-fitting sweater.

          “I have an idea,” she said.

          “Does it involve some lunch?” My irritation with her and my hangover had mostly washed away in the shower.

          “Absolutely. I’m starved, and you must be, too.”

          She took me by the hand and led me to the elevator and back down to the street. We made our way to the end of her block and crossed at the intersection to a park surrounded by trees. Children played on the structures, and dog owners threw balls for their dogs. It was almost like walking through a storybook or children’s cartoon.

          She walked quickly, seeming to ignore the people we passed on the path that led to the other side of the park. I practically had to jog to keep up with her.

          “There’s a hotdog stand that usually shows up on the other side around 1:30,” she said. “If we hurry, we should be able to make it before he leaves.”

          “Hotdogs? You don’t like hotdogs,” I replied as I trotted alongside her.

          “These ones are phenomenal. Just trust me on this one.”

          We made it right as the vendor was beginning to put his toppings away. Ellie apparently visited the guy often, because he smiled and waved as she approached.

          “Eddie, would you sell just two more?” she asked in her sweetest voice.

          “Of course, Eleanor. Anything for you.” He passed her two hotdogs, smiling warmly.

          She thanked him, and we slowly walked back into the heart of the park.

          “This is weird,” I said after swallowing another bite.

          “No it’s not, it’s delicious,” she beamed.

          “No, not the hotdog. Today. Today is weird.”

          “But the hotdog is good, no?”

          “Ells, forget about the hotdog for like two seconds, ok?”

          She gave me a pouting look and sat down on a bench under a clump of maple trees. “Ok, Tony. Hotdog forgotten, though not abandoned. Why is today weird?”

          “We were fighting earlier, weren’t we?”

          “Well, yes, but not wholeheartedly. At least, I don’t feel like I was giving it my all.”

          “And things are just normal again?”

          “None of this is normal, Tony.”

          “Well, ok, yeah. That’s exactly it. What the hell, Ellie? None of this is normal. None of it’s the same. You’ve changed, and I’ve changed, and everything’s different.” I began to pace back and forth in front of the bench, annoyed again.

          “Oh, my God, Tony!” she suddenly yelled.

          “What?”

          “Oh, my God, stop.” There was suddenly fear and light and inspiration in her eyes all at once.

          “What is it?”

          She stood up and walked to where I had frozen. “Tony, you’re green. You’re not gray anymore. You’re green. Look.”

          I looked down at my hands and bare forearms and realized my skin did, in fact, possess a green tint.

          “It’s the light, Tony. Look up,” she whispered.

          The sunlight filtered down through the maple leaves and cast everything where we stood in a green glow. Birds chirped from the branches above us, and squirrels chased each other from tree to tree. Time suddenly seemed to stand still as we stood there under the trees taking in the lush green of the leaves.

          “You’re green, too,” I whispered.

          “But not as green as you.” She threw her arms around me and pulled me close to her. “Tony, you’re so, so green. Oh, this makes me so happy.”

          I returned her embrace, and softly replied, “Good. It sucked being gray.”

          She joined me on the couch again that night, just as coyly as she’d done the night before. And after she fell asleep (this time still in my arms), I found myself thinking again of how things had been with her years before. What I’d told her was true: I’d missed her, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. I had been completely smitten with her, in awe of her beauty and brain. And I loved her more than I’d ever loved anyone else…at least, I believed I did. Lying there on the couch with her curled against me that night, I wondered what life would have been like if we’d stayed together. Every scenario I could come up with ended in heartbreak, though, and I figured in the end, it was just as well things didn’t work out.

          Jesus, I thought to myself, have I finally let go of her?

          I awoke early the next morning and slowly crept off the sofa so as not to wake her. I dressed in the near-darkness the black curtains provided and gathered my few travel items back into my bag and left it by the door. When I was completely ready to go, I sat down on the edge of the couch.

          “Ells,” I whispered as I kissed her ear.

          “Hmmm?” She rolled over and stretched her arms over her head.

          “I’m going to take off now.”

          She opened her eyes halfway and smiled at me. “It was good to see you again, Tony.”

          “Take care, Ells.”

          “I love you, Tony.”

          “You too, Ells.”

          I left her apartment without looking back and made the long drive home in silence. It really was better that way.

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