Fingers stained with paint, right leg itchy, tingling, on the edge of that non-burning burning from the turpentine that spilled and soaked my jeans, I dug for the last cigarette in the crumpled paper pack, lit it quickly, and slid down the wall onto the floor.
Tobacco and oil and turpentine mixed like a magic potion coating my tongue and filling my nose. That combination…like a small gift from a god I never believed in, but thank from the depths of my lungs.
That kid was still in the hallway. I hadn’t left the studio and I did feel a little juvenile, spying on him through the crack of the door. I could see him lingering, pretending to look at a painting on the exhibit wall.
Something he said during class. Something about his demeanor. I couldn’t shake it.
His art is so complacent. So predictable. So, god — I hate myself for saying this shit: so trite. If we were merely acquaintances, not fellow artists, and I didn’t want to offend, I’d call it “interesting.” Interesting it was at best — and it was not even close.
He’s stagnated. I saw his high school portfolio. I was part of his class’ admissions; he didn’t have a typical high school view. His talent was extraordinary. But, here he is. A sophomore painting major, painting from photos of Key West. Not interpreting, not using them as fodder for some vision. More like following a paint-by-numbers — just painting them as they are. And ripped out of travel magazines is as they are.
Fuck. He’s coming toward the studio. I stomp out the cigarette and hop up to grab my backpack, burying my face into it.
“Hey,” he announces.
“Hey, uh, Trin?” He’s asking — instead of announcing?
I startle my expression as I flip my hair and face toward him and say, “Oh. Mm. Yes? Jeremy?” I clear my throat and look back at my pack for added effect.
“What you said? Uh. About my piece today?”
If, by piece, he meant ‘trash,’ I’d call it a piece. I dig out a mint, and my keys.
“Yes, Jeremy?” I stood up, slung the pack over my shoulders, and looked at him directly. Looked at his shifting, left to right, like a pigeon trying to steady on a wire.
His long legs wiggle. His arms seem confused and finally he shoves his hands into his pockets.
There’s a long pause. He’s studying the floor.
“Jeremy, I really do have to…”
“What you said…I think you were wrong.”
“You have every right to your opinion, Jeremy. I’m here to teach and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
“Can you just look at it again?”
This kid. If, when he’d applied, his portfolio hadn’t been so beautifully conflicted, so filled with anguish and freedom, so challenging, I’d say no.
He pulled out the massive canvas from the racks. Monstrous. So…turquoise. And green. And, my god, that hulking spread of sky blue. For sale at your nearby Marshall’s.
“Don’t you see it?” Jeremy was pleading.
“See what?” I asked, biting my tongue from saying the Marshall’s price tag?
That was it. End scene. I needed to break this kid.
“Vision? Of what? Jeremy. Your work has drastically shifted since you started here. And by drastically I mean your original portfolio could have been works created by another person. It’s THAT different. What are you trying to say here, Jeremy? That you like the water in Key West? That travel magazine photographers have skill? Where is your voice, Jeremy? What is your perspective?”
“Well, my portfolio wasn’t created by another person. I resent that, Trin. I. I have talent.”
“I didn’t say you don’t, Jeremy…”
“Actually. Just. Fuck you.” Jeremy grabbed his bag, and the monster from the shallow end blue, and made his way out of the studio.
“I fuckin’ quit,” Jeremy yelled as he left, and followed quickly with a “Go to fuckin’ hell, bitch!”
I headed to the dirt church — the local bar, not named that but should’ve been, to get a pack of cigarettes. I usually only smoke after painting or teaching or walking — let’s not kid, I smoke a lot. When doctors ask that inane question: have you ever smoked more than 100 cigarettes in your life? I laugh so they can hear my raspy smoker’s laugh.
Questions like that and the drinking question — how many drinks per week — I simply refuse to answer. They could also ask: how much Kool-Aid did you drink as a kid? how many pounds of meat did you eat last year? do you go outside? how many chemicals, carcinogens, and diseases do you come in contact with on a regular basis? do you live on earth?
I had to grab dinner with a new patron, and the air smelled fresh, like spring was just swinging through and might linger for a bit, so I decided to walk. I loved walking this bridge anyway — any chance I got. And, since the campus now extended to the other side of the bridge, I got a lot of chances.
Since I was a child, before I even attended this school, before I became a professor here, the bridge, its smoothly arched steel trusses, thick bolts, curving struts and braces, was a sort of destination. I never saw it rusted, my parents would tell me when we drove it when I was a kid. In my memory, it was always like this: a multi-colored crayon bridge, a bright steel sculpture set between opposing sides of town, as bridges often are. From afar, it is a full statement written in title case. From inside, it lets you dissect it and create abbreviations with its bright angles carving and reshaping the world around it.
I took the steep, cavernous stairs down to the bridge. When I got to the bottom I saw him. He stumbled to steady himself on the sidewalk, the wind pushing against the Key West canvas. When he reached the center of the first arch — just about, he walked to the barrier facing the school, lifted the canvas, and dumped it to the train tracks below. He leaned over and stared at it. As I got closer, I could see his face: red, swollen; he’d been crying. Or was that anger?
“Jeremy?” I yelled.
He looked back at me and started running ahead.
I thought nothing of it, honestly. Students are, art students especially, emotional about their work; I’d trashed more art than kept — and, in my opinion, doing it dramatically was often the best way to get rid of the shit that eats at your soul.
I doubted he wanted to talk to me, after what he’d said on his way out. I lit another cigarette, looked over the barrier and saw the sky blue monster, framed by rust and rock, shouting up at me. It looked better down there.
Continuing across the bridge, Jeremy was just at the second arch when he looked back at me again, held up his middle finger, hopped onto the barrier and, almost like he was diving into a pool, he leaped, arms first, into the brush of trees and the river below.
A car stopped and the driver ran out. Others honked and yelled, unaware of what happened.
A rush of panic flooded me, I couldn’t move fast enough as I ran to where he’d jumped and looked over. He was flat, contorted, still. His arms disjointed, blood pooled from his head. The driver called 911; I ran to find a way down to him.
Electrical workers helped me get back to where many of them had now crowded him. One placed a shirt under the gash on his head. They were shouting, alarmed, “don’t move him!”
I shoved through and sat directly next to his face. Felt his pulse. His eyes fluttered.
“Liar,” Jeremy’s voice cracked.
“Oh, god. I’m sorry, Jeremy…”
He went to move, lift himself I think, but his body — his cry was guttural, feral.
“Jeremy, don’t move. Don’t move!” I touched his back lightly — god his back, his body, what had he done?
“I’m a liar,” Jeremy mumbled slowly. His jaw was swelling. His eyes were heavy. His breathing was strained. He started to gag.
The sirens were right behind us; a woman pushed me aside. Paramedics strapped him to a backboard and rushed him into the awaiting ambulance.
“Can I go with him?” I asked as they loaded him in.
“No, ma’am,” the woman paramedic answered.
“I fucking have to go with him!” I yelled back.
The medics looked at each other, one shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, a signal of apathetic agreement; the woman medic directed me, with a turn of her head, to the back of the truck.
As they took care of Jeremy I sat in silence, biting paint out from under my nails. I really wanted a cigarette.
I texted the dean to let her know what had happened and to get the appropriate people doing the appropriate things for him.
“Trin,” Jeremy murmured.
“Yeah — Jeremy, don’t talk,” I wasn’t sure what I was doing or supposed to do. This was the first time a student hurt themselves in front of me. Maybe not the first to do something because of me, I could never be sure.
He grunted in frustration.
He was gagging; his jaw wasn’t working.
“Please stop talking, Jeremy…” I urged.
He grunted again. “Rashid Jones,” he said. Or is what I think he said.
“Westside,” his voice was swimming out through a gurgle of fluid, and we were at the hospital.
Parents don’t like to hear their child jumped from a bridge. Nor do they like to see what their children’s art professors really look like after a day of painting class. They like to see the cultured glamor of an art professor. The thick frames glasses, maybe a jaunty hat, handmade bohemian shoes. Something that suggests success in the extremely unreliable, nearly impenetrable art field. Well-seasoned, stained jeans with a ripped 1980s-era Bad Brains t-shirt over a dingy, cream-colored long john shirt does not scream ‘accomplished’ or ‘prodigious’ or ‘scholarly’ to the parent of a prestigious art college painting student.
But here we sat. Me, jumping up every chance I got to go outside for a cigarette and get away from Jeremy’s parents. Them, dressed in stiff, formal business attire, frigidly silent, staring at me from three seats away, angry and scared expressions swirling on their faces.
Jeremy was in surgery. And the dean was at a charity function. I was there for the duration. Truthfully, I wanted to be there. I just didn’t want to sit there, with them. When I told them what I saw, I left out the part about him telling me to fuck off before he left the studio, and the fact that he gave me the finger before swan diving off the bridge.
And, now, I’m pissed at myself for not being completely forthcoming.
After inhaling one more cigarette, I popped a mint in my mouth, went back and sat one seat away from them.
“Mr. and Ms. Falk…”
Ms. Falk interrupted, “Please — I’m Sherry, this is Joel.” She smiled weakly— a politeness reflex.
“Call me Trin.” I don’t know why I said that; I’m pretty sure I’d said it when they first arrived.
“Um, Sherry, Joel…Jeremy mentioned a name — Rashid Jones? I don’t know why, but he was insistent on telling me that in the ambulance.”
“No idea who that is,” Sherry responded flatly. “Is he a student?”
Joel excused himself.
“Not that I know of. I just thought it was curious.”
Silence again. This time, more awkward because I was sitting closer. I was sure all she smelled was cigarettes mixed with mint, turpentine, and hospital. And three-quarters of that odor came from me.
I looked at my phone and excused myself to go “make a call.”
Outside, Joel was shifting side to side, like Jeremy had been earlier today, watching the traffic. His back was to me, so I found a corner away from him, lit a cigarette, and stared at my phone, praying it would ring or ping or do something to remove this feeling in my stomach.
I flipped through the news, sent a text to a friend about an opening we needed to go to, and then opened Instagram. I looked up “Jeremy Falk” — found a few possibles, then found him. His Instagram was as mundane as his art had become. A few ‘artsy’, highly-filtered shots, a lot of him at parties, a few selfies with a guy — ‘the-rjones99’. I glanced up — Joel was still there staring at traffic.
Clicking on the-rjones99 was like a flashback. Everything I remembered from Jeremy’s portfolio was alive in this feed. More so. Formidable. Breathtaking. Genius captured in 1080 x 1080.
I looked over at Joel. He turned back and saw me looking.
When he came over, I closed Instagram. There was a strange look on his face. Not worry about his son. Not frustration.
“Trin,” he started, but stopped. He shifted back on his feet. Pulled away from whatever he was about to say. Studied the ground, just like Jeremy.
“Sherry and I’ve always believed in Jeremy. He has so many talents.”
This was a strange topic to bring up right now; like Joel was sitting with me for a parent-teacher conference.
“My father did little to support my dreams,” he continued, his voice cracking a bit. “But, when you have money, you can do things to support your children. You can do things you may not think through. You may go too far.”
Joel stopped. Still staring at the ground as if it would suddenly open and remove him from this time and space.
Maybe it was my less than stellar outfit that put Joel at ease to start talking. Maybe it was that his son may have just killed himself because he’d wanted to go to art school, when he clearly wasn’t the artist whose portfolio won him entry into the school.
Joel turned back toward the traffic. His phone rang.
“Sherry said the doctor wants to talk with us,” he told me without turning around. I nodded at his back, saying I’d be in the waiting area.
The sky had turned orange, purple, and black. The spring smell had slipped out of town, replaced by the returning pierce of aged, empty winter air. I took out my last cigarette, lit it, took the smoke deep into my lungs, crumpled the empty pack, and threw it in the trash.