“The world’s on fire and you’re aaaall talking about your inconsiderate roommates, banging like monkeys and then coming out afterward for fruit?” Behind him, the old painter has pinned a poster of his show at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Even on my computer monitor, I can see that the corners of this poster are ragged, as if the old painter has moved the poster from apartment to apartment since the 1980s. The top right corner thumbtack drops and the poster curls.
I registered for this virtual painting class on a whim. For the occasion, I have gathered paper, a mug of water, and a drugstore watercolor set. I wanted something to report of my weekend come Monday morning. This class was free to register; you give via Venmo at the end, and it’s optional.
Most participants are muted, but the old painter’s assistants are live. That’s how the teacher knows what they were talking about before he turned his camera on. “I’m just saying, it’s hilarious that before class started, everyone was talking about Pride Week, as if gay rights are even a thing now that civilization is roaring to an end.” His faded hoodie is tight across his belly, bunched at the armpits.
“How about the way it’s 112 degrees in Portland today? How we are all gonna die, like really, really soon?” The assistants, clearly stoned, laugh politely and in one case, manically.
Someone asks when we will start painting. The painter flashes a hand. “Wait!” There are only 16 people total in the Zoom gallery. A couple of them shake their heads and their boxes disappear. The old painter seems not to notice this. “I’m getting aggravated by you people laughing. You’re inter-fucking-rupting my thoughts.”
The old painter has terrible teeth. “Okay, sorry to be a downer. Let’s start again,” he says. I am overdressed. I wonder how quickly I can turn my video off, change clothes, and get back on camera without being singled out.
“SAY! What’s better than a retweet?” the painter asks. “Love? Pssh. Love fades. Love flees. But — hear me out — you might come home from being told you have Stage IV cancer! You might come home with this terrible news and find that your Instagram post has been hearted 300 times. That’s when you’ll say, ‘Hooray, now I just know I’ll be in remission soon!’”
More gallery boxes wink out. The old painter reassures us that he is funny when he wants to be but opines that none of us burnouts really want that.
I am not stoned. When he asks us all to take a moment and regard his face, I oblige. I am overwhelmed to behold in closeup the face of someone I do not know, someone who — because he has finally located his monitor’s camera — is talking directly to me. “This is the face of someone who has lived,” the old painter says softly. His eyes must have been pretty once. I register within me his long years of struggle and joy and pain. Will he ask us to paint him?
“And folks, since the pandemic, my erections have been a-maaazing.” Some of the participants’ eyes dart in the way of people who are not sure they are hearing what they think they heard.
“Fuck yeah!” The assistant laughs her crazy laugh again. I am grateful for her. Especially now that the old painter is telling us that his parents wanted him to be an orthodontist, yet never got him braces for his own teeth. This is why, if we were together in person, we would be wiping droplets of spittle off of our chests, as he needs to wipe his computer screen now, he says.
The next question is one of those “more of a comment” ones and it’s from another of the assistants, a straight-haired woman in one of those band shirts from which the neckline has been scissored out. “I’ll show my tits if Venmos reach five hundred bucks.”
Silence. The gallery faces are unmoving.
“I mean, what the hell; my kids are asleep upstairs.”
The painter looks disappointed, but also expectant. I want to message this woman that she is as good as anyone here. Most of the gallery faces look amused with a sprinkling of effort to appear nonchalant. But you can also tell they can’t fucking wait. It is an excruciatingly awkward moment, and yet it is one of genuine human connection.
Finally, the old painter finishes rubbing his face and mutters that being stylish is important and that his wool cabbie cap is something he does for all of us. Then he says he is tired and must bid us all adieu. The faces wink out.
My finger hovers above the red Leave button. But I don’t Leave. Now it is just me and the painter and the assistant who offered to show us her tits. I realize the old painter doesn’t know how to click off.
There will be plenty of time to paint after this. A lifetime of whatever length. But we won’t be together like this ever again. The assistant raises her top over her face and I press my open mouth to the screen, and under my lips bloom beautiful tiny rainbow-hued circles and circles and circles.