A PERFECT STORM
The rectangle of pure sky blue framed by the peeling kitchen window frame was all it took for Lily to pour the remainder of her coffee in the sink and pack her painting kit. This was a playground morning. She locked the door of her studio apartment and, easel bouncing against her bottom, trotted down the stairs to the street. The glass lobby door sighed shut behind her, and Lily inhaled deeply. A light rain the previous night had purged the air, at least temporarily, of car exhaust and the tinge of grease from the diner over which she lived. She squinted into the morning sun and angled her hat brim to intercept the light.
“Good morning, world,” she sang a snatch of song from a Levi’s ad from her childhood. “Good morning to you, you-oo-oo-oo, hoo-oo-oo…” Lily took the uphill climb to the park five blocks away at a brisk pace. “I’m wearin’ my Levis, Lee-ee-ee-evis!” Her favorite paint-spattered jeans and equally-artful sweatshirt and two tees underneath because early morning in San Francisco was always cold. Her fingers began to chill – she wished she’d thought to put her coffee in a thermos rather than pour it out. Nah, it would make her mid-morning latte during her break that much more pleasant.
She was barely breathing hard when she arrived at her favorite spot under the elms. Her spirits ratcheted up another notch as she saw the playground was empty. Seven AM was the best time to paint the play structures - the toddlers were still at home finishing their breakfasts. They wouldn’t swarm the area for at least another hour. Lily didn’t mind sharing the park with a few dog walkers and the occasional jogger but the play structures, for now, were all hers. She eyed her subjects with appreciation. The primary-colored play forts, with their corkscrews of slides and knotty cargo net, appealed to her sense of functionality and fun. They were a far cry from the forbidding skeletal playground apparatus of her youth – bare gray metal bars that threatened to burn hands in the afternoon and knock out more than a few teeth. These modern incarnations, with their bright plastic coatings, invited children to climb the brilliant canary yellow poles, run across the rough wooden planks to slide down the fire engine red slide. It was the implied fun that she responded to, the invitation to clamber over the blue nylon ropes, hang upside down by the knees with hair dangling inches over the tan bark ground. Lily felt the pull and, setting her easel up and putting her paint box down, she trotted over the springy rubber mat to the fort and started to climb. Lily squeezed herself into the chute designed for butts half the size of hers and pushed off, only discovering a split second later the remaining raindrops on the plastic surface that instantly saturated the seat of her jeans. Her feet hit the tan bark and she scrambled away from the cloying grip of the slide.
“Well, that was really stupid,” she chided herself. Grimacing, she swiped ineffectually at her wet pants, then removed her sweatshirt and tied it around her waist. Lily returned to her easel and set to work. She sketched in the play structures, the surrounding trees and the remnant clouds from last night’s storm. She just finished the seesaw, shaped like a smiling alligator, when the first children arrived. A little girl, maybe four years old, wearing a pastel pink sweater sat on the alligator’s tail and bounced herself up and down, her white sneakered feet barely touching the ground. Two boys, dressed in identical brown jackets and jeans, scrambled up the fort and slide down the chute Lily had conveniently pre-dried for them. More kids arrived, eagerly pulling slower, sleepy parents in their wakes, and Lily smiled. The energy of the children brought the scene to life. Now she could bring out the colors – the sound of their high voices seemed to focus her fingers, drew them to exactly the right combinations. She didn’t draw in any of the children – she never drew people. She preferred still scenes. Still life – life that didn’t move. Plants were fine because plants didn’t run, wave back and forth or jump. They didn’t squirm in chairs, feed themselves using silverware or turn pages in a book. All that vital motion, that extra aliveness she found impossible to capture on paper.
Shadows formed and dropped away and the scene darkened momentarily then returned to original brightness as the clouds scudded across the sky, pushed along by the breath of winds not felt at ground level. Lily’s attention was drawn to the curling billows of white and Grey overhead, the source of her changing light. Not just white and Grey, of course – thin feathers of blue and violet underscored their cottony shapes as patches of warm yellow and orange dotted their upper reaches. Lily picked up one of her finer brushes. Her hand led her brush unerringly to dab dots of paint and mix them to produce just the right hues. Lily painted the clouds. Granted, they moved slowly, like great cutter ships plowing through the blue horizon, but they were still the most movable object she’d ever painted. Her eyes brightened and a small smile played across her lips as her clouds came to life before her eyes, became more than condensation. Somehow, she had imbued the clouds with the life of the children. She discovered innocence in the curl of a wispy tendril, the rush of joy from reaching the top of the arc in a swing and touching the sky itself. “Just like the clouds,” she whispered. She tilted her head to watch her unknowing models on the swings. Music filled her head. When her painting went very well, a soundtrack played in her mind that matched her mood. Usually she heard the Beatles and maybe the Stones, but today’s soundtrack was intermixed with Carmina Burana, a celebration of accomplishment and this breakthrough in her art, and Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, “O Fortuna/velut Luna/statu variabilis/Would you be mine/could you be mine/won’t you be my neighbor?”
Lily didn’t notice the movement of the sun across the sky, she saw only the clouds. She was highlighting the underside of one cloud navy blue when she heard the approach of sneakered feet from behind. The soft tread slowed and stopped. Lily’s back stiffened as she sat forward and brought her face closer to the canvas. Observers were a common occurrence when she painted in public places. She waited for the inevitable questions, the unsolicited appraisal of her work. Most were complimentary, some were outright obnoxious, a very few were actually helpful. But Lily was in the zone now, she didn’t need anyone’s interference, well-meant or not. She prepared herself to turn and smile vaguely, a distant look on her face that conveyed, “Thanks for your opinion, you can leave now.” She almost knocked over her palette as a laugh of pure delight broke over her head, followed by the words, “Those are the happiest clouds I've ever seen!”
It was the only pickup line that could have possibly worked on her, the most compelling reason being its total spontaneity, the unexpectedness of it. Added to it the fact that it wasn’t meant as a pickup line at all. But Lily was intrigued. She turned and craned her head upward and smacked her forehead into the speaker's chin. He had stooped to look over her shoulder. And it was a very nice chin, a bit too long perhaps, and it sloped gently down from a firm jawline and cheeks with a fine bristling of an early beard. Lily sat unmoving and stared into his eyes, six inches away. He didn’t see her, he looked at her picture. He was the most handsome man she’d ever been this close to in real life. The last time she’d been this close to a gorgeous guy was at a friend’s party two years ago, when she’d mugged with life-size cardboard cutouts of Cary Grant and Hugh Jackman.
The overall effect, though quite pleasing, was nothing compared to his smile. That smile – it radiated such sincere appreciation that for a moment Lily forgot herself. She pushed a lock of hair from her face, forgetting she still held her brush, laden with pigment, and painted herself a rakish royal blue eyebrow.
Her artistic admirer caught her unplanned application of makeup. “Oh dear! I’ve disrupted your creative bubble. I’m sorry!” His look of chagrin was so dramatic that her momentary pique vanished and she wanted to tell him it was all right. It wasn’t just the fact that he was a handsome man within arm’s reach, it was the whole audial experience of him: the laughter, the first words he'd uttered down to the use of such an old-fashioned expression of distress. “Oh dear.” Who even said that anymore? Maybe a maiden aunt or distant relatives in the Deep South, but Lily had neither.
Then the truly unimaginable happened: this incredibly cute guy who she had never seen before in her life licked the pad of his thumb and brought it to her forehead and started wiping vigorously at the paint smear. After a stunned moment, Lily pulled back, but his thumb followed her. His eyebrows knitted in concentration as he rubbed, oblivious to her slight recoil. The genuineness of his actions, his attempt to make things right overcame her revulsion at a stranger spreading his spit on her forehead. She imagined a mother frantically rubbing a stubborn dirt stain on her child’s face moments before taking a family portrait. Her giggle became a full laugh, and the relief that filled the man’s face was just as real and sudden as his delight in her picture. His smile broadened with pleasure as he really saw Lily for the first time. She didn’t know it then, but that was the moment Lily fell in love with Kyle.
They took Lily’s coffee break together. Kyle insisted on paying, which pleased her. They both ordered the same drink – decaf latte, no foam. Sitting across from each other at one of the café’s rickety outdoor tables, they bared their souls, confiding their artistic aspirations in the face of familial opposition and cementing their budding romance. Kyle had dropped out of Cornell medical school and moved to San Francisco to write a novel.
“That novel was supposed to be the late twentieth century recreation of ‘Of Human Bondage.’ But so many other guys are writing or had already written the same damn book. It got me thinking, why was my version going to be any better than theirs?” He leaned back in his seat and addressed the metal tabletop, “To make a long story short, I had a mini-breakdown about five years ago.” Lily silently slid her hand over his and squeezed it gently. Kyle grimaced, but he smiled as he said, “Don’t feel sorry. That breakdown turned out to be the best thing to happen to me.”
He found a psychologist who helped him get over the fact he was not the next W. Somerset Maugham. “I was so appreciative of Dr. Ling. She really saved not just my emotional balance but my life.” He looked intently at Lily, and she felt a blush steal up her face, warming as his eyes linger. “You look a lot like her.”
Kyle returned to graduate school at SF State and earned a masters degree in both clinical psychology and social work. He was working on his experience requirements to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. “I want to help people,” he says. “Pay it forward, if you will. Without Dr. Ling’s help, I would have gone on hating myself. Here I was, trying to prove to my family I could be successful as a writer and making myself miserable. I can use that same determination and energy I’d had writing a novel instead to help people.”
Listening to Kyle speak, watching the way his lips curled around to shape his words before pushing them gently toward her on his breath, Lily could only fall more in love with him. Handsome and altruistic! Making it his life’s work to help others!
Kyle tipped the last of his drink back, and Lily admired the way his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “So how about you, Lily? What did your family do when you declared yourself as an artist?”
Lily hid a secret smile, pleased at the image “declaration” evoked, of defiance and bravery when really she’d just tuned out her family’s arguments. “Not well, as you know. After I earned my business degree from UC Berkeley I stunned my family by turning down admission to Cal’s MBA program and enrolled at CalArts.” She shook her head. “My older sister Doris said, ‘I didn’t even know you were interested in art!’ but she never pays much attention to anything not related to either her own family or the legal world.” Lily sighed. “And my younger sister Gina reminded Doris of all the portraits I used to doodle in the pages of my notebooks, ‘quite good ones,’ and all Doris said was, ‘But art is a hobby!’”
Lily delivered Doris’s words with forced lightness. Kyle tilted his head to the side and gave her a sympathetic look. “Still hurts, doesn’t it?” he said.
Tears filled Lily’s eyes suddenly. No one, not even Gina, had ever sensed the sting Doris’s words still carried. She took a deep breath and said, “Eight years ago, I gave myself a deadline of ten years to make a name for myself in the art world. So for now I’m working part-time in an art supply wholesale store in the Mission and eat a lot of ramen and peanut butter sandwiches.”
“And what happens in two years?” he asked gently.
Lily shrugged. “And then maybe I have a mini-breakdown.” She glanced up, almost shyly. “You can be my counselor.”
Kyle smiled crookedly. “I can do better than that right now.” He rose and Lily, surprised, copied him. “Sometimes, Lily, those pesky siblings can be good for something.” Kyle held out his hand, palm up, to her. “I want you to meet my brother’s friend Janice. She’s an art agent, and she can tell you if your work is good. Would you like that?”
Lily stared at his hand, like an offer of salvation. Would she like a free professional opinion of her painting? She grasped his fingers tightly. “When do you think she’ll meet me?”
Kyle laughed. “How about now? I’m supposed to meet Jim and Janice this morning for brunch.” Before Lily could protest to crashing a family event Kyle hefted her portfolio. “We’re bringing your clouds.”
Janice Donohoe was more than Kyle’s brother’s friend – she was Jim’s live-in girlfriend. She was also more than an art agent – Janice owned a respectable art gallery in SoMa. After their surprised yet cheerful introduction to Lily (“at last, Kyle’s bringing a nice girl home to meet the family!”) and another place was set at the sunny table in Jim and Janice’s Marina flat, she studied Lily’s single canvas. Lily shifted nervously on the low black leather couch. She had imagined this moment for so long, but rather than the clean portfolio filled with her polished works she was showing this representative of the artistic world that she so wanted to belong to a work that was barely dry. She swallowed and wondered whether she could go to the bathroom and throw up quietly enough not to attract attention. She was hungry and nervous and the combination had never been a good one for her. So Lily almost fainted when Janice said, after several silent minutes, “If you have more paintings like this one, I want to see them. Can I drop by your studio this afternoon?”
Lily’s art show at Janice’s gallery opened a week after Kyle received his LCSW. The gallery was awash in colors: peach and emerald swirls alongside ghostly gray figures outlined in aquamarine and vermilion. The show, called CLOUDS, was a success – eight of Lily’s pieces sold before the end of the exhibit. Critics were struck by the emotions and energy in her work. “Though they’re just clouds,” one reviewer opined, “they convey so much force, so much LIFE.” Janice became her agent. Lily was invited to enter her work in art exhibits and selected for juried shows around California. Enterprising merchandisers contacted her about licensing her clouds for linens.
Kyle opened a private practice that soon became very busy. Most of his patients were women, but everyone had the same comment: Kyle was funny and empathetic. He delivered his advice with a sense of humor, and most of his patients laughed as much as they cried during their sessions. At the urging of several patients, he wrote HELP YOURSELF, which followed his own experiences in letting go of ego and helping others to achieve happiness. He dedicated it to Dr. Hua-Yu Ling and Lily Tsang. HELP YOURSELF hit the New York Times’ Bestseller list a week after Kyle and Lily’s wedding. They read the news in USA Today over breakfast in Maui.
“Look at that!” Kyle said, waving the paper overhead like a banner. “I’m a writer after all! Just not a novelist!”
Lily smiled at her beaming husband, caught the twinkle of the morning sun on his still-shiny wedding ring. “You wrote your own version of ‘Of Human Bondage’ after all,” she said.
Kyle laid down the paper and took her left hand. Lily shivered as his finger ran gently over her matching wedding band, then over the back of her hand and the underside of her arm. “This is the only human bondage that matters to me now,” he murmured. Lily had the sudden urge to draw Kyle. Naked. Now. Reading her look, he threw his napkin over his half-eaten breakfast and stood up. “Shall we, Ms. Tsang?” He held his hand out to her, palm up.
Lily took his hand, and he pulled her out of her chair. They hurried back to their room.
Lily places her breakfast dishes in the sink and turns to face Kyle sitting at the table and reading the newspaper, crumbs surrounding his plate. Growing older suits her husband well. His hair is Grey at the temples and he’s ten pounds heavier, which adds to his air of authority when he appears on local and the occasional national television talk show. Kyle’s taken to wearing reading glasses that he doesn’t need for an academic panache. Five years ago Lily bought him a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, sure he wouldn’t see the irony. He wore it to a radio interview the following week.
“Happy anniversary,” she says.
Kyle glances up from the paper and smiles absently. “Eight years,” he answers. From his tone it’s impossible to tell whether he’s happy or pleasantly surprised or merely relating a fact. Silence stretches, grows thin. He looks at her patiently, as if waiting for a question. Maybe he’s waiting for her to ask where they’re going for dinner tonight – Kyle always makes reservations at a new and hip restaurant for celebrations. Lily loves experimental cuisine and eclectic eating establishments, but his lukewarm acknowledgment of the date rankles her.
Kyle’s parents, who visit twice a year, say their son hasn’t changed a bit since the publication of HELP YOURSELF, but Lily knows better. She can trace the lines of arrogance bracketing his mouth that deepen when he’s displeased. His gaze is sharper, almost piercing, when he sums up a person’s monetary and influential worth in a quick glance that dismissed or became welcoming with uncanny swiftness. It’s just as well Kyle has all but closed down his practice, seeing only a handful of celebrities, as the warm, empathetic man who saw happiness in painted clouds had been replaced by this public relations automaton. Lily’s not even sure whether he’s assessing her right this moment. “I’m going to my studio now,” she says. Every day, immediately after breakfast, she retreats to her studio to work until early evening with only a short break when their housekeeper Rosa brings her lunch in a picnic basket.
Kyle shifts in his chair. “Be sure to catch the good morning light,” he says, looking to his paper.
She hears jealousy, sarcasm and self-pity rolled into his words. Kyle’s supposed to be working on his third book. His diehard fans loved ANOTHER HELPING, published three years after HELP YOURSELF. Most reviewers, though, brushed it off as a retread of the first book. “Even some of the stories are the same, just retold and analyzed all over again,” on critic groused. A particularly acerbic reader summed up her opinion in four words, “ANOTHER HELPING? No thanks.” She knows his self-confidence has taken a beating, but her efforts to support him have been received poorly.
Usually they exchange gifts after dinner, but now she says, “I was thinking, for our anniversary, maybe we could take a week in Maui.” She waits for some reaction – nothing. Suddenly she’s nervous, which she knows is ridiculous. This man is her husband – they have no secrets – or at least no drastic ones. That ping of guilt makes her reckless, and she plunges on, “Maybe a change of venue would help you relax and… refocus.”
Kyle’s eyebrows come together, and she realizes she’s presented it wrong. Kyle has been working on his third book, long overdue to his publisher, for the last four years. Bringing up his inability to write, even in such an indirect way, has put the kibosh on her proposal. His mouth puckers in that way that tells Lily he’s struggling to come up with some sort of half-plausible reason as to why her gift is a bad one without saying it quite so baldly. Finally Kyle throws up his hands and says, “You just don’t understand.” He rises abruptly, scattering the newspapers on the ground, and stalks off in the direction of his office.
Lily listens to his footsteps thud up the stairs. When the click of his office door reaches her, she almost laughs – he is such a bad caricature of a blocked artist. As if she has never had dry spells in her work or negative reviews. Lily knows he’s under a lot of pressure, but she tired of pussyfooting around his moods. She wants the old Kyle back, the man that could make her laugh, the one who helped so many patients in the past whom he now refers to, without rancor, as “those miserable souls.”
No – she just wants to get to work.
She glances down at the paper scattered on the floor. The article Kyle has been reading is a glowing review of the latest pop-psyche book - his pissier than usual mood explained. She gathers the papers and leaves them on Kyle’s chair, the book review on top. She opens the French doors to the back patio and closes them with a decisive click. Crossing the manicured lawn and climbing the small incline to her studio gives Lily a few minutes to breathe deeply of the crisp morning air. The dew wets the tips of her sneakers, and her toes are damp when she reaches her work space.
Lily glances around her studio and sighs. She has always loved her studio. Vaulted ceilings and skylights give the room indirect natural light. One wall is lined with portfolio drawers and her paint supplies. Her easel stands at attention in the middle of the room. She looks at the empty canvas on her easel. Clean, awaiting her.
She prepares her palette with deft squeezes of paint tubes. Lily closes her eyes and exhales slowly. She hears a wailing Hendrix solo, underscored by Kyle’s last words. Jimi’s guitar segues into an electric rendition of “Aloha ‘Oe.” Suddenly she lifts a spatula from her tray and thrusts it into the middle of a blob of crimson paint. Spreads it across the white background in a sweeping arc. Muddies the sky with deep reds, browns redolent of decay and force. She slathers more pigments onto the canvas: slashes of blue through black-rimmed figures. Drops of white she flings with her fingertips. The images erupt under her hands. Lily works for seconds, for minutes, for hours. What emerges roils across the canvas, tumescent shapes bristling with anger and frustration. She stands back and eyes her creation as if it’s a wounded predator, somehow captured on her easel. She’s stunned at the power that pulses on the canvas, horrified yet at the same time exhilarated. Janice has told her she is capable of so much more. Janice has no idea how right she is.
Lily wets a rag with solvent and wipes her hands. Kyle doesn’t come to her studio anymore, he will never see this painting. Janice would love it. Lily cleans her tools and work space with slow, precise motions – scraping the excess paint from her palette, returning the tubes to their box. When Rosa brings her lunch basket at noon, Lily meets her at the door and takes the aromatic meal into the studio without letting her see inside. Lily pulls up a folding chair and eats her meal facing her painting, watches the colors change hue with the changing light as the sun moves across the sky.
It is almost six o’clock when Lily rises from her chair. Joints creak and pop in protest as she stretches. She rubs her face with her hands, still smelling of paint remover, and sighs – a sound of content. Carefully, she removes her newest painting and crosses her studio to the curtained-off area tucked into the farthest corner. She puts this painting beside the half dozen others like it. They crouch together, masses of angry thunderheads, a bank of threatening clouds biding their time before the storm.