How full the walls are, teeming with paintings that he isn’t sure deserve to be called that. How he fed her, all her life. How her mother had to return to the workforce because he was adrift and they needed health care. How, as he doled out little bayous of carrot or boggies of peas with her giraffe-neck spoon he intoned aloud the names of the colors. How he ignored the experts who insisted this was lost on her, her eyes not yet capable of grasping them in their distinctness. How he’d plied her with them regardless, her tiny pupa of a finger not making it all the way around the crayons: Burgundy, Fuchsia, Maroon, Timberwolf. How could there be bones in there? How he started to think of those last three as her name. How he brought her to museums during the days, tilting the carriage up on its rear wheels till she pointed. How even when he was working, he’d taken days off. How he kept calling them days off, though he was home for months on end. How they grew apart even before he’d moved out. How he watched her increasingly from afar, marveling at her growing aptitude for making pictures, as if he could see manual dexterity insinuating itself into her wrists like a creature moving through the ocean in a time-lapse film, fingers as fluid as anemone tendrils but also hypodermic-exact. How he encouraged her! Brought her brushes and joked that she herself was his little paintbrush, gripping her hair and tugging it ever-so-gently to the top of her head till it all pointed upward, how then he hoisted her aloft and angled her till it tumbled over like horsehair as if she was the world’s largest heaviest giggliest shriekingest paintbrush and he working up a masterpiece on the canvas that was their wall. How her mother worried because it was late and he was getting her riled up. How he ignored her and lifted her still higher. How often he did this, how heavy his brush got! How once he dropped her but she was okay. She hadn’t blacked out, she promised, and she hadn’t started crying until she woke up at 3:18, hyperventilating and clawing the air. How years later on the field hockey team she started getting dizzy spells. How he learned that she wasn’t going to practice any more and hadn’t for over a month. How her first tattoos were all concealed from him with diabolical brilliance. How he wouldn’t have minded, really, if only he had seen them. How had she paid for the tattoos? How he figured out how she’d paid for them. How she had still shown artistic flair even when everything else was going down the shitter. How when he moved out and moved across town to a high rise, the tallest building in their city and the one that marked its demise for so many, and when he’d gone to see her on weekends, they’d still gone to the museums. How sulky and withdrawn she’d be on these visits now. How he’d encouraged her. How he’d brought her to see everything—the Renoir, the Damien Hirst when it came into town. How he’d taken her to see nude photography to show that he was cool with that, he could roll with it, be all slouch and lip-twang. How uncomfortable he’d been, how he’d felt himself tremble and buried his nose in the program materials and how noticeably uncomfortable she’d been until she saw some friend, girl she knew at which point she suddenly became fully and preternaturally at ease. How she’d gotten too busy to see him for a few weeks after that. How those weeks turned into months. How the tattoos got wilder and woolier. How he saw them in his dreams, grand mals of Boschean proportion that encompassed all manner of objects and situations that long ago had outgrown what was on her body and, in his sweat-churned catatonia, metamorphosed into other elements of his life, their lives. Slights, disappointments, bosses, exes. How by “their lives” what he meant—he told the therapist this, because he’d started seeing one, because he’d been on a downhill for a while now, and not a skiable one—what he meant was both the lives that they should’ve had and the ones they did have, neither of which he could really distinguish any more as the real one. How, after all, could you tell which was which? “For reals?” she’d taken to saying at eleven, still endearing in most ways, her broodingest yet to come. How arrogant it felt even to call your life the real one. How, these days, was she paying for that apartment? No, for reals, how? How long before he could convince her to accept money from him, but have it directly invested as tuition and not deposited into her bank account, since, as far as he was concerned, she was a victim of identity theft even if no code had been cracked, no firewall breached, no information shunted from hand to hand? How, if she would agree to some basic terms, he was going to propose that they do a Grand Tour themselves of some of the world’s great museums, one in Florence and the ones in Paris and another, a third, a wild card that he was going to leave up to her. How stupid could she be not to take what was dangling in front of her. How he’d heard from a friend of a friend of a friend who had gone to skating lessons with her seventeen years ago that she had taken up painting again. How his heart had leapt! How he’d tracked down the gallery and learned that the opening had not passed him by like so many birthdays and bat mitzvahs and other events that either had happened or hadn’t. This one would yet. How he’d driven there a couple of days early to watch them setting up, had seen a man in a stainy wifebeater upstairs slosh some liquid out the window, had wanted to shout up, “Hey fucker, do you even know you live upstairs from an art gallery? Any clue what art is? Any clue about anything?” How much restraint he’d shown. Not to have broken in in the days before, to have waited for opening night, to have dressed fatherly but chic, like some Lou Reed-humming motherfucker who still puts the peas and the carrots on the table, would work the squash into one of the sculptural semblances of yesteryear if it would crack the brittle brûlée of her lips into something like a smile. How when he enters, he comes in casual like he’s just wandered off the street, some patron of the arts, maybe a collector who looks out for the latest, unheralded upstarts, who walks through the downpour under lowlifes to discover the next Banksy. How striking she looks in a thing made of white sequins, like she’s some walking ancient abacus. How is that even an outfit? How she has yet to recognize him. How he stands before one of her paintings, its morass of dark, smeared purples and reds, an apocalypse-drenched sunset (yeah, he read the promo materials), and now he notes the squiggles and what he could swear is writing and he thinks he sees the words “hate dad hate dad hate dad,” but no, they are just brushstrokes meant to look like language, meant to goose the mind’s eye. How at once he detests and loves this—everything about it—if this is what art has become, if this is what she has become, then he is glad that his days are numbered, and yet something in him knows that this is worthy, that she’s taken whatever meager gifts he bestowed upon her and turned them into something beyond or apart from what he could’ve envisioned, something he won’t understand before the next life but might as well try, and already she’s spotted him, done the doubletake, begun to politely disengage with whoever she was talking with, and shortly she will make her way over, he feeling fat-lip dumb now since the one thing he hasn’t anticipated is what he will say to her after all this time, the first word welling up of its own accord from the dry depths of throat where words begin, “How,” but then what, after that, what then?
TIM HORVATH is the author of Understories (Bellevue Literary Press), which won the New Hampshire Literary Award, and Circulation (sunnyoutside press). His work has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, Conjunctions, The Normal School, and elsewhere, and "The Conversations" was an Honorable Mention in the 2014 Pushcart Prize Anthology. He teaches in the BFA and low-residency MFA programs in Creative Writing at the New Hampshire Institute of Art and is currently at work on a novel about contemporary classical music.