“The Colors of Maps” by David Mohan

I went out with a painter once.  He was always on the look-out for a new color he’d never seen before.  It could be a store sign or some spice or fabric at the market—he’d rush back to his apartment and try to mix the color on the spot.

He used to wear these thin-soled loafers. He would say they were so comfortable it was like strolling down the sidewalk in your slippers. He thought the whole city was his home.

When we first met, he said to me, “It might be the color of your eyes, but you look like someone I know.”

I thought, “This guy’s full of cheap lines”, but he was serious. Over time he looked closely at my eyes and told me they were grey-blue, cobalt, aqua.

I said, “Can’t you decide?”

And he would reply, “They change depending on the light.”

The last time we met, I discovered him painting this nude guy in his studio. He jumped slightly when I came in, and then settled down to paint again, but I felt there was a tension between them. I browsed around the studio while my painter finished his painting. Everywhere I looked there was painting after painting of this guy in every colour you can imagine.

It was then that I knew my painter and I were finished.

Once, our apartment had been full of paintings of my face. That’s the sort of thing love produces. When I looked up at this new kid, I saw that his eyes were possibly sea-green, or basalt, or mint. One of those. I couldn’t figure out which. I could also see that my painter would be lost in those eyes for some time to come.

We split up. I don’t do scenes, so it was fairly dignified. He cleared out of my life and the last thing I heard he was living in his studio. I suppose it was convenient. He could just live for his work without having to care about ordinary life. Which was exactly what he liked.

He took a few of the things we had shared, but he had always cared more about people than about things, and so he left most of his stuff with me.

I sold all his paintings except one—the first one he painted of me. When I looked at it, I could tell he had been paying full attention.

He left behind most of his paints and brushes and for some reason I held onto them. The actual sketches held too many memories, and so I burnt them in our fireplace, but the paint boxes and empty canvases comforted me. Every time I looked at them I thought of a new beginning.

Don’t get me wrong—I was never interested in becoming a painter. I just liked to look at the raw materials of the craft sometimes. I would sit on my bed and pour a paint box out onto the bed covers. The tubes of paint were invariably bearded with old paint—like barnacles. Sometimes the paint had dried inside and wouldn’t shift when you tried to squeeze it out. It had become a sort of plastic. I threw those ones away. That paint wasn’t going anywhere soon.

My painter used to instruct me in the art of painting. He’d tell me that Aquamarine, Prussian Blue, Burnt Umber and all the rest of them were not real colors. Instead, he’d say it was better to think of them as First Principles. The real colours you use to paint skin or anger or melancholy are always found by mixing on the palette.

I liked this idea. I would carry a tube of paint with me sometimes when I travelled on the subway. I felt as though I was travelling with an ultimate truth in my pocket. I would bring Lamp Black with me on a journey to an uptown restaurant and feel protected.  I would hear my painter explaining that there was something fundamental about these colors, and that this was why we returned to them, mixing up new versions of what was.

I moved out of the city eventually, and grew older, like you do. I found other men along the way with various-colored eyes. It was never the same experience. I ended up in one of those buttoned-up resort towns on the East coast with a guy from the Midwest. It was a respectable sort of place, artsy in a traditional sort of way. I kept well away from painting, though I still thought about colors from time to time.

I would get sad and think about my time in the city. I would take out old maps and look at the colors of the subway routes and the grid of streets. I could spend whole afternoons lost in study. I would crackle and smooth old paper, attempting to match a street name to the color it was marked with on the map. I suppose it was nostalgia or something, but it was like the old way I used to look at a painting. I would trace a line in my mind to where it paused, or follow a curve to where it melted.

I would fold my maps away then and feel slightly sad and happy at the same time. That was the past, I thought, and put it away in a drawer. I would go outside then and walk beside the ocean.

It was only sometimes it would all return to me in a way I couldn’t control. I would dream of the subway and the apartment I had left behind, and then the city’s vast map would burst open in my head. I would wake feeling overwhelmed, my eyes as wide as some Hicksville innocent just off the train. I would grope in the dark for the light switch, my thoughts dazzled by the lights and signs of Grand Central Station.

More fiction at Used Furniture.

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