When Pam’s art teacher first passes out the charcoal blocks to each student, the thin butcher paper fluttering in the breeze as he moves past her easel, she’s disappointed. She was done with watercolors and faint lines, with silent screams and not knowing what she wants. She’s aware that her life and her art aren’t exactly the same thing, but she likes the comparison.
Pam wants bold colors, reds and royal blues and yellows that could blind the sun, because she feels like she can speak through her canvas and she’s ready, finally ready, to shout.
But once she touches the dusty medium to the paper, once she strokes it against the surface in a single whoosh, she knows this will do. Even though the color is standard and neutral, she finds it bold in ways she’s never been able to be in the past.
Pam lets her hand drift, forming patterns and rounded shapes, sharp angles contrasting circular dips, doesn’t let the blunt end leave the paper once.
When she steps back two hours later, as the other students are packing up their supplies and making plans for the weekend, she realizes she had drawn a deserted parking lot, and she isn’t sure how she feels about that just yet.
She begins to notice the shadows more, how the hollows of a person’s face define them more than those in the light, in the same lineage as how you can tell more from what a person doesn’t say than what they do (she knows that all too well). The geometric crevices of her keyboard shiver as she types a generic message to her mom and step-dad, hoping they’re having a good time in the mountains on their second honeymoon.
Since when does my mom have more of a life than me?
She shakes her head at the thought and answers the phone with her signature greeting, making sure to speak in positives and to keep her annoyance just out of earshot, concentrating her attention on the coiled cast of the phone cord. Pam transfers the call and returns the headset to its cradle, recommencing her inspection of the office.
Each head is bowed low over their computer, gazing intensely at the screen while trying to make the most of the few hours not interrupted by useless announcements or vestigial meetings. Those not typing are conversing in neutral tones on sales calls. She can read the under-eye pillows as restlessness and the down turned lips as deep-set frown lines, as her gaze skims over each face, trying to make sense of the scene playing out before her.
Her eyes finally fall on Jim. Or rather the back of his head. He is the one she’s mastered at interpreting, from months of carefully phrased responses and averted eye lines. She’s resorted to having conversations with his neck and, as strange as it may seem, it makes her feel a little better. Because at least his neck doesn’t lie.
Her eyes trace the slump of his shoulders, the shadow of his hair’s flip against the collar of his shirt, the ravine just behind his ears, the cuffs of his sleeves just begging to be rolled up as he reaches for something in a bottom drawer. He unwraps the stick of gum and Dwight looks up.
“Fact: a swallowed piece of gum will remain in the intestine for up to thirteen years.”
Pam stares down the back of Jim’s head, and if she cracked open his skull she’s sure she could see the cogs turning there.
Maybe convince him that it’s actually toxic and Jim has five hours to live...?
But instead Jim just rolls his neck, the shadows spilling over and pouring off his shoulders and onto the floor and Pam’s close enough that she can hear the faint pop of a joint.
The unutilized tension that would usually be depleted in a prank settles onto his upper body along with its cousins from the days and weeks and months before. She can tell because the shading there becomes slightly darker as he sinks further into his chair from the weight of it. The day goes on like that, and at the end Pam pretends she’s tracing the silhouettes of Jim and Karen on the carpet and the wall by the coat stand instead of avoiding their eyes, because she’s afraid that she won’t recognize him at all.
Pam sits alone on a high stool she picked up from someone else’s roadside garbage, weather beaten and scarred and reminding a little too much of the soul she trying to find hidden inside, somewhere between her heart and her ribcage but she hasn’t had much luck so far. The blank expanse of her paper is spread before her, more like a hollow echo than an opportunity. She’s been perched here, surveying the white as if somehow a map will fall onto it and show her the way, show her where to go and what to draw. The only light is spotted on her and her paper, and the rest of her apartment is eerily quiet contrasting with the memories bouncing endlessly in her mind.
“Why would you want to date me, Roy?”
“I’m so sorry Pammy, we just blanked out.”
“Of course I’m taking you to prom. Who else would take you?”
“It doesn’t even hurt that much.”
“I just don’t get you.”
“But where else would you want to go but here?”
“Yes I’ll marry you.”
“We just need to save some more money for the wedding.”
“Hi, I’m Jim, and I just wanted to inform you that if you make it through the first day you officially qualify for sainthood.”
“Why do you want to rush this Pammy?”
“Sometimes I just don’t get Roy .”
“You gotta take a chance on something sometime Pam.”
“You want to spend that much money just so you can paint and stuff?”
“I’m the one who complained about you.”
“Pam, Jesus, it’s the middle the game, just wait.”
“I just needed you to know… once.”
“I can’t marry you Roy.”
“You wanna get out of here?”
“Are you kidding me Pam?!?”
“I had fun today.”
Pam sets the tea mug on her coffee table with a heavy clank, wiping her hands on the sides of her pants. She grips the charcoal pencil nervously between her thumb and forefinger, hoping something will come to her. It’s then that a hazy recollection rises from the din, a myth she must have learned about in high school, when Roy was still her future not her past and she could get a thrill from holding hands.
Pam touches the charcoal to the paper, not one ounce of hesitation left in her fingers because this was just so perfect.
She starts with the body, curving over the hollow breastbone and rounding out the delicate spine. She flutters her pencil over the tapered feathers, never pressing down hard enough to leave more than a ghostly mark of graceful lines or subtle cross-hatching. The sharp point of the beak clips into the sandy backdrop, the African landscape rolling behind it. Its ebony eyes stare proud and confident from the sides of its head, alert and almost glowing. She swirls over the tail feathers that cascade through an invented gravity into the flames beneath, singed but far from destroyed. Pam wishes she could use reds or oranges or some other fiery color to capture the passion and the struggle and the pain. But instead she uses the negative space to speak it, the canvas left untouched, and when she finally adds the lingering flames to the bird’s coat and the wispy ashes beneath, she realizes how much it reminds her of herself.
“A symbol of resurrection,” her history teacher had begun, strolling between the lines of desks, “the phoenix comes from Egyptian mythology and was said to set fire to itself every 500 years, only to rise again from the remains.”
When she steps back, the phoenix is ascending from the ashes and making its escape off the paper and Pam can’t help but smile.
Sometimes she feels like it’s the story of her life; she takes one step forward and someone pulls her back two more.
There were times where she’d been annoyed with Michael, offended even, but she really hated him in that moment, just another in the blur of faces who didn’t believe she could push herself or do anything radical. She needed to do something, something more than slips of truth and kitten heels. But eventually people filtered away from the coals, curling up by the fireside a few meters away and only one ear on Michael’s speech.
The anger goes with them, indignation is left standing.
She’s done with listening to larger voices, with playing to her weaker side, with ignoring what she wants simply because it might stir a ripple. This emotion that bubbles up into her throat is foreign but she thinks they call it bravery and without giving it a chance to simmer down she flings her first foot onto the coals.
Pam thinks it’s kind of like walking on gravel, if she was in hell and her feet could scream. But the pain is pushed out by pride and a drive to keep going, to step forward again before there’s any thought from others to push her back.
She speaks her peace about the art show, words etched across her lips instead of in the bite marks on her tongue, truths she wouldn’t have dared put a voice to just days before simply because they were so.
But it’s still not enough.
There are phrases and silent moments and years worth of the unsaid remaining in her gut and she can’t stop here because she doesn’t know if she’ll ever have the strength to empty them all out again.
She had to make this last.
Pam turns to Jim, for most of the mute conversations have his name written all over them. She’s not putting much thought into which she’ll say and which she’ll keep hidden, because the reason why they’d been buried was the same reason that this was the time that they should be uncovered.
As she speaks she can see the shadows etched across his face and her fingers itch to draw him, trace the lines and creases and frown markings, to translate him into her world because she’s out of practice reading his face from having to make do with his neck for so long. Slowly his eyes go blank and his face smoothes and she wonders if he’s even still listening. But then he flinches and she motionlessly raises a fist in triumph. After all this time she can still get to him.
But she knows that he can’t handle anymore. He’s like a sink that’s all clogged up and he needs time to drain, to process, and even though she could really go on for hours, only half of this is for her own throat to speak and her own ears to hear.
“It’s a good day,” she says, because it is, and even if nothing ever comes of it, she’ll know somewhere deep that it was enough.