It felt like absolutely nothing could drag me down. I was with my friend Kaley* driving around a bustling New York City on a cool, summer evening. Just a couple weeks prior I had received my bachelor’s degree, and I was still riding high on the euphoria graduation leaves in its wake. With seminary still months away, I knew the intervening summer would be filled with long naps, road trips through breathtaking landscapes, and late evenings of carefree conversations over drinks and pizza. While coasting along one of the avenues and with Erasure playing in the background, I felt a lightness that comes with knowing that I could toss all my cares to the wind. In fact, as I rolled down the window to take in the nostalgic smell of the city, I knew I actually didn’t have a care in the world. The world is my oyster, I thought. And I’m going to use this summer to crack it wide open. The worst case of senioritis can’t hold a candle to this.
“Hey! You want to swing by my studio?” Kaley interrupts. “I’d like to show you some of my work.”
I turn my head to look at her, and I think, What a great way to start the summer—looking at some beautiful pieces of artwork.
“Sure,” I reply. “That’ll be nice.”
We drive a few more blocks, park on the street, and walk through the campus to the art studio. I can tell she’s eager to show me her stuff. Every few steps, she turns to me, and while walking sideways, almost skipping, she talks about whatever comes to mind. Giddy is the word that probably best captures everything about her in those moments, from her body language to the tone and energy of her voice and her facial expressions.
When we finally step into the studio after navigating some halls, we are welcomed by a spacious, open room which is brightly lit and filled with large, square, light-colored, wooden tables anchored to the floor. Along the sides of the room are rows of wide, matching drawers containing many pieces of artwork.
Kaley walks to one of the drawers, and pulls it out. She gestures for me to come.
“These are all paintings by students in my class,” she says. “Take a look.”
When my eyes fall on the first painting, I am not disappointed.
I gush, “My goodness. How in the world do people paint like that? It’s absolutely beautiful. It looks like a photo.”
She carefully flips the square meter canvas and exposes another brilliant piece of art.
“Who painted that one?” I ask.
“This girl in my class. She’s got some mad skills.”
At this point, I’ve taken over flipping the canvases, and with each new painting, I am wowed anew. I quicken the pace because I simply cannot believe every piece can be this good. Then, about three-quarters of the way through, I see one that doesn’t do it for me. I actually only give it a glance, and I notice it’s painted in grey tones whereas the other ones are in color. It stands in sharp contrast to the other pieces in that it’s very muted. I can’t really make out what it is.
I comment, “Oh, this one’s ugly.” And then, without a hiccup, we proceed to flip through the rest of the paintings.
When we get to the end of the pile, I say, “Wow, those were seriously amazing. Thanks for showing them to me, Kaley. Can you show me your work?”
Kaley flips back in the pile, and immediately a sinking feeling begins to form in my gut. She turns to the grey painting, and reveals, “This one is mine.”
In an instant, my oyster is crushed, and the summer feels like it’s already swirled down the drain. The horror I feel is indescribable.
I’m not sure if I’m sweating, but in a fraction of a second, my mind has considered every possible thing I could say to try to recover, and none of them sound even remotely good. So I decide not to say anything. Instead, I attempt to move on as if nothing happened.
With as much cheer as I can muster, I say, “Hey! Do you have any other paintings?”
She replies with a smile, “Yea, over here.” She pulls out another drawer, and flips directly to another painting of hers. It’s the same painting, but in the foreground are bright, yellow forsythias (her favorite flower). And on the grey background, they really jump out at you. The other painting was simply an earlier version of this one, and she deliberately muted the background so the eye settles on the foreground. In fact, the background represents the darkness of winter, and forsythias, which bloom at the onset of spring, mark the cold season’s end. It’s actually executed very well. And, in context, I’m finally able to decipher what the background is—it’s foliage and reeds on the bank of a river, a place where forsythias often grow. If only she had shown me this one first, I think despondently.
With sincerity, I say, “This one is really nice.” But it doesn’t sound right, of course. And I realize that it will never sound right.
Walking out of that studio, I feel as if the course of our friendship has forever been altered by a stupid and completely avoidable blunder in social protocol. Under the influence of post-graduation bliss, I unconsciously cast restraint aside, and words poured forth with an unfiltered ease that is typically characteristic of only the most inebriated folk.
Thankfully, our friendship didn’t skip a beat, and we still remain great friends to this day. I tried confronting the elephant in our relationship a couple years later, but it fell flat even then. I just was not able to describe what happened adequately without sounding defensive. So, over a decade later, this written account is my attempt at explaining what happened, and apologizing once again. I also hope it gives readers a good laugh. To those who don’t know me, I ain’t as smooth as I let on. To those who do know me, you know I just ain’t smooth.
Kaley, you’re the best, and that night was seriously my bad. It really is a great painting. But the sequence of events unfolded in probably the worst possible order, especially for a person who needs his hand held** when walking through an art museum.
*Name has been changed.
**Not literal, of course. Instead, I simply mean, I’m incompetent at art, and I need to be guided like a child.