Dan

A Painterly Muse

Black and blue seams stretch through the red sunlight on your eyelids, as you wake up with your head pulsing. You groan in pain and go to push on your temples, but her hands are already there.

Baby, she says. You woke me up with your moans, and, uhh. Not in a good way. Aren’t you taking your meds? I thought you and the doc had it finally figured.

I know I should, but. You stop. The flares look like inverted stars overlapping the morning sun, a brighter black than your mind can handle right now. I can’t. I can’t… explain. I’ll explain. Later.

Even through the haze of the oncoming pain, you know that’s just going to make her angry. It makes you feel even worse when she starts crying instead, and gets out of bed, sobbing.

Don’t cry, you squeeze out through splintering teeth. But your echolocation on her sobs (between the pulses of pounding at your temples) assures you she’s gone.

I guess it’s time I finally come clean, you say. You’re not sure if that came out your mouth or only your mind, but it doesn’t matter.

Here’s some water, she says quietly. Suddenly she’s back? You’re getting confused.

You can’t move to get up and drink anything yet, so you try to start explaining. Remember that painting… when we met? You grit your teeth as the train heads toward your skull.

Of course I do. Her voice softens. It’s the most beautiful thing. I remember everything about it. She starts to whisper. I remember how you had it up for sale, but wouldn’t sell it to me unless I had dinner with you first. She laughs, and that makes you smile through the tears and teeth.

Go look at it again… when you… You pause for a second, rolling over and gritting your jaw against the nausea. When you grab my pills. Sorry — thank… you…

Squashing your palms into your eye sockets, you roll back over into the pain as the skin on the sides of your head seems to shrink. She’s back already, or maybe your sense of time is already starting to warp and bend, and with her help you sit up and take the medicine.

The storm is thundering away in earnest now, but a thread of you is still able to trace the path of consciousness. As you instinctively roll into a fetal ball, that thread tries to think how to explain it to her. It leads you back to a different lightning strike.


Dark purple liquid bruises seep in to your vision, as your clock radio clicks on and plays an unsettling baroque pop song that sounds familiar. You can’t quite place it, and that confusion is the signal. You can tell instantly the headache is oncoming.

Your phone tells you it’s going to rain by noon. And just your luck, it’s a Friday. They’ll mow the park in the morning. Time for another attempt. The perfect storm. You chuckle, rolling your eyes at yourself, as you pile supplies into your bag.

A travel pillow, a poncho, some water, your phone. A half-eaten bag of chips, a book, in case it doesn’t actually trigger. A sketchpad, some pencils, portable watercolors, brushes, a tin of mints, in case it does.

Sitting on the bench watching the clouds roll in, you feel strangely awkward. But you feel far more uncomfortable when the man with the mower in the back of his truck stops and rolls his window down.

Hey, you, he says. You okay? You keep thrashing around like you’re dying on this bench, people are going to worry about you. I mean, well, I’m worried about you.

You look away, and say nothing.

You okay? He asks again.

It’s fine, you say. I’m an artist. This is part of my, uhh, thing.

Crazy artist stuff. He tips his hat and nods sagely. Got it. Welp, good luck, let me know if you need anything! I’m Mike.

I’m Sam. You nod. I’ll be fine.

Shit. I gotta get rolling fast before it rains. Bye, Sam! And with that he drags the trailer further into the park, to start his own art of concentric circles in the grass. You briefly wish you had a lawn of your own, or that your apartment had any fresh-cut grass to use as a trigger. But then, it’s nice to keep these things separate, right? Conception, implementation.

Soon enough, the breeze blows the smell of the wet mown grass to you, and the pulsing becomes a cosmic accordion of pain behind your eyes. See, the painter’s most useful tool is their eye, you say to yourself, trying to distract from the awful crushing.

Some people don’t have a strong mental eye, so they paint the world around them. Replication. Powerful in itself, to explore that way.

Some people just simply don’t have a mental eye at all. You’ve read about aphantasia. People who are otherwise completely normal say they are completely unable to imagine things in their minds eye.

Sadly, though you love to paint (your inner soliloquy distracts you from the crushing blood) your eye is not strong. Aphantasia, almost; you’re close to blind, in your mind’s eye. But in this feeble state, something in you gets stronger. Something that can see.

An orchestra of out-of-tune horns blare over the gentle screeching of rocks dragged slowly across glass. Uncontrolled, you picture a symphony of squirrel musicians, blowing tiny horns and frantically bowing teeny violins. For some reason your dad is the conductor, shrunk down to squirrel size.

You imagine the scene far off, held at arms length, dim and dark behind your eyelids as you push on them, and then suddenly something clicks in your ear, you open your eyes, and you are in the audience at the Squirrel Philharmonic. Everything looks so real. Those must be real trained squirrels, you think, impressed.

You are not dreaming, but it seems so real. Like a lucid dream. It’s working! You are exultant, hiding in some small space away from the all-consuming fire of your migraine. Snapping back to reality at the bench, you laugh painfully as you clutch your head.

Testing it further, you imagine people you know. First they are blurry and far off in your imagination. Inexact figures suddenly snap into focus, and three of your closest friends stand in front of your bench in the park, looking at you all confused.

Curious, you relive the past, a recreation you ride in style. Your mind pulls up a painful breakup, a triumphant gallery show, when you first met your sister’s perfect little twins, and all the memories become real around you.

Next to imagine more impossible things. A giant, flying pineapple that you could reach out and ride soars past you on eagle wings. As the pineapple’s shadow passes over the far-away man and his mower, gravity halts and they begin to float away from the earth.

This is it. This is what you had been waiting for. Now is the time.

You begin to think about the world as it truly is, and it comes alive around you. Comes alive inside you. It becomes you. You are the universe, you know it fully, and reality is happy to whisper its secrets to you.

The glorious patterns are like nothing you’ve ever seen. You frantically paw through your bag for the sketchpad, howling with pain and the rush of discovery. There on the bench, you attempt with your pencils to somehow catalog the impossible.

Then the grip of the torment becomes too tight, you collapse back on the bench clutching your tiny travel pillow as if it were a flotation vest, as your head makes your tree of nerves rebel against you.

Do minutes pass? Do hours? The black covers you, and you fade out.


When you come to, your head is still pounding and you feel ready to vomit. You can’t open your eyes yet, but you feel the thick of the mindstorm has passed. Someone is shaking you gently. Excuse me, they say. You okay?

Don’t worry, you tell the unseen stranger. It’s just a really nasty headache. I already took the pills. There’s nothing else I can do, you say. You reach in and shake the tin of mints in your bag for effect.

Okay, feel better, they say, as they wander on.

It begins to drizzle, so you quiver and retch hidden under the poncho, alone in the park at last. Sucking on a mint, you float in a dazed state of uncertainty through an ocean of nausea and clenching mind.

You try for what seems like hours to find your way back to the place of true seeing, but it eludes you through the forest of your agony.


As your mind floats back up from the slimy depths, she slides her warm body under the sheets behind you and strokes your hair lightly.

A clicking in your ears fades from your memory. That’s where the painting came from, you mumble. The true paintings.

I understand, she whispers.

How long… how long have I been out?

For hours baby. It’s okay, Sam. I’m here. Rest. Her arm slides around yours and she rests her careful hand between your breasts to feel your heart. While you lie there and wish you knew the right thing to say, your eyes water, and your mouth fills up with the bad kind of saliva. The kind that signals your body is preparing to project everything out, even if nothing is left inside.

Maybe you should move in with me, finally, she says.

You swallow carefully. But I need–

I know. Keep the studio for painting. Just stay with me more often, she whispers as she kisses your neck. I won’t get in your way too much. I promise.

The spiking lightning behind your eyes finally lets up enough for you to smile. You nod. I’d like that, you say. I’d like that very much. Then the tide of nausea pulls you under.

Good, she says, and the electricity as she nuzzles you merges with the hammering piano in your head to create a beautiful, painful sort of music. Your anxiety and your nausea begin to dance.

Sorry, you yell, I’m not running away, I swear! I love you! And you somehow start laughing ridiculously as you roll out of bed, making a desperate run for the bathroom to finish letting everything out in the right place.

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