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The Artist

by Yelena Litinskaya

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

Open the Russian original

Maria came to the designated spot just as it got dark. They hid themselves from curious eyes and idle tongues behind the walls of the hut and gave themselves over to kisses and caresses without passing beyond the permissible. They were both virgins and afraid of tasting the forbidden fruit, dimly realizing the repercussions.

They met like this every night, until the time Tom’s brother, 12-year old Billy, followed them and told his mother what he had seen. The mother, knowing the hot-blooded nature of her eldest son, decided to return to the U.S. immediately, without either attempting to find out the details or getting involved in a confrontation.

She traveled to the city, sold the expensive jewelry that Tom’s father had once given her and bought plane tickets home, telling her sons that their grandfather was dying and that they had to hurry home if they wanted to see him while he was still alive.

In his heart Tom understood that his romance was doomed, that he would not be able to take his Indian beauty home in his suitcase along with the rest of his things, and that even if he managed to get a visa for her, there was nowhere he could take her. Not to his rigid and nearly senile grandparents, nor to his alcoholic mother; nor to his father who had started a new family and had completely forgotten about Tom and his brothers. There was absolutely no place he could take Maria.

Could he perhaps remain in Guatemala himself and become one of the descendants of the Maya, mixing his half-Mayan blood with their ancient blood? No, all this was ridiculous, totally impractical and impossible. He would have to go back home and attempt to forget his first love.

At what he knew would be their last night together, Tom did his best to explain to the girl that, although he loved her passionately, he would have to obey his mother and return home. Of course, he would never forget his Maria and certainly, definitely, the minute he turned 18, he would come back for her and take her back to the States. And in the meantime, they would have to part; after all, it wouldn’t be forever.

Maria failed to understand a thing that Tom said. But because he was so upset and kissed her so passionately, she sensed that this was their last time together and that she needed to do something to tie Tom to her, to make him closer to her, to make him belong to her.

Maria knew only one way to win Tom; she gave herself to him, decisively, desperately, as if she were leaping off a cliff into the sea. At first, Tom tried to resist, attempting to act like a gentleman, but he was unable to bring himself to refuse this parting gift. He was 17 years old. And in his veins too there flowed the hot blood of the ancient Mayas.

They made love all night on the floor of the abandoned hut, in a state of half-drugged ecstasy. His first experience with a woman. The intoxicating smell and honeyed taste of her strong young body. The nearness of their parting and the fact that their love was doomed further enhanced Tom’s emotions. Toward morning Maria dozed off and Tom, casting one last glance at his sleeping love, silently on tiptoes, retreated.

On the next day, without seeing Maria, without kissing her goodbye, like a traitor and coward, (how he cursed himself afterward for this betrayal!) Tom flew home with his mother and brothers. At home, as he had suspected all along, his grandfather was alive and as healthy as ever.

At the sight of the vigorous old man, Tom glared at his mother, who, as had been agreed, delivered the boys directly into their grandparents’ hands but refrained from reproaches and scenes, realizing the pointlessness of domestic quarrels and the hopelessness of his love affair with Maria.

A number of years passed. Tom finished high school and entered college to begin the “serious” study of art. As a good student with no financial resources of his own, Tom was awarded a college scholarship. Since they did not have to pay, Tom’s grandparents were less inclined to object. Furthermore, they had aged considerably and their ability to influence the lives of Tom and his brothers had diminished. The boys merely slept and ate at their house, and in all other respects were raising themselves.

The memory of his beautiful Maria and her caresses grew dim and became a safe part of the past. Only sometimes, when he had had too much to drink (Tom, like his mother, had a weakness for strong drink, but had not yet become an alcoholic) he got the portrait of Maria out of his secret box and gazed at her young and beautiful face, kissed her eyes and wept the drunken tears of the repentant sinner. But this happened on the order of once a year, not more frequently.

In all other respects, Tom lived the normal carefree life of the American college student. He matured and began to have girlfriends. Tom turned out to be a real Don Juan, blondes, brunettes, Caucasians, Latinas, he loved them all, his discerning artist’s eye noticed and appreciated every variety of feminine charm. Very soon, Tom gained the reputation of a ladies’ man, but this reputation did nothing to interfere with his other source of fame, as a talented portrait painter.

In his second year of college, Tom left his grandparents’ house and took an apartment with a roommate. During the day he attended classes, and at night he worked as a waiter in a café. On the weekends he painted portraits on commission, and in general made more than enough to pay for his room and board.

Soon, a reporter wrote an article about Tom in the local paper, giving it the impressive title “Brilliant Descendent of the Mayas.” The article caused a sensation. Tom had been noticed and people began to talk about him. Tom soared above the student milieu of Albany and found himself alighting smoothly in the elite circles of New York State. Sponsors appeared and rented a studio for Tom.

The young artist felt himself to be a young god on the peaks of Olympus. Commissions began to come in from influential people, politicians, their wives and mistresses. Tom began to have money, which he flung left and right, since he had not learned how to deal with the fame and wealth that had fallen on him from the sky.

Tom quit school. There was no longer any reason to go and at any rate he had no time for it. His work, exhibitions, receptions, nights of drinking, women. Life was beautiful. Life was definitely worthwhile.

Years passed. Tom was already over 30. He grew heavier and there were streaks of premature gray in his black hair. He had never married, since no one woman could provide the harmony of feeling and serenity he demanded in a wife. On Thanksgiving Tom went to visit his aged grandparents in Albany, and at Christmas he went to New York, where his mother, who had completely given herself up to alcoholism and drug addiction, lived in the Canarsie low-income project.

Tom never came with empty hands. Generous by nature, he arrived like Santa Claus, with a suitcase full of gifts and a wallet stuffed with hundred-dollar bills, which his grandparents carefully hid under the mattress, and his mother immediately, in her son’s presence, used to obtain drugs and drink.

Tom’s mother was 50 years old, but she looked 75. A dried-up, toothless, wrinkled, disheveled old woman with a half-mad look in her swollen, no longer shining eyes, and gray, matted hair. She was angry at the world, including, for some reason, her son.

“Who told you to come again? I didn’t invite you. Who needs you!” she would greet him at the door.

“Merry Christmas, Mom! I love you. I brought you some gifts... and here... a couple of thousand dollars. We can go and buy some new furniture or whatever you want.”

“He loves me! Look at him! If you love me, why do I live like that? Ha! Your father also loved me. He loved me so much that he never married me and saddled me with three kids.” She began again on her same old song, however, she took the money and gifts, while continuing to curse Tom, his father, and at the same time his grandparents.

A real old witch! No matter how Tom tried, he could not take more than two or three hours of his mother’s company. He quickly put on his coat and escaped in the middle of Christmas. The next year the identical scene was played out.

Once Tom had a dream about Maria. She was dressed all in white, with a red rose in her hair, just as she was in her portrait. Maria moved away from him but kept stopping and turning to him, with a mysterious smile she beckoned to him.

When he woke up Tom did not realize immediately that the woman in his dream was that same Maria whom he had loved as passionately and tenderly as only a 17-year old boy can love the first woman he has knowledge of.

After this, for some reason, the same dream began to occur over and over. Not every night, but often enough so that it turned into a recurrent nightmare. “It was her again!” Tom would think in horror when he woke up. “Why? After all these years... Why? What does she want? Yes, I was a coward. I know it and I curse myself. But it was almost twenty years ago. A whole lifetime, an eternity... This dream has a meaning. She needs something from me. She is poor. I should send her money. But where? She probably is no longer there in that village. What should I do? What, what? How can I get rid of this nightmare?”

Tom thought feverishly, but couldn’t think of any more sensible solution than going to Guatemala to look for Maria. He called his mother in Brooklyn and found out the exact name of her native village and decisively flew to Guatemala City. He had just managed to fall into a doze in the airplane when the softly incorporeal ghost of Maria appeared in his brain. Tom woke up in a cold sweat. ”Get lost!” he nearly shouted out loud to her. “I am coming to see you. Just wait a little, you witch!”

Tom waved away his dream like a persistent insect. He asked the stewardess for some coffee. He was afraid to fall asleep, afraid of himself, of Maria and of this meeting with the past. But the aircraft continued on its course, and the past was rapidly growing nearer.

In Guatemala Tom had no trouble finding the right village. It was just as impoverished as 20 years before. Civilization and progress had completely bypassed this corner of the world. The same tumble-down huts, the same sad sunburned faces of the women, the drunken, tobacco-cured, hostile looks of the men.

Tom stopped at the house of his mother’s cousin, who, strange as it may seem, recognized him immediately and did not have to be urged to tell him what she knew about Maria.

After Tom had left, Maria soon realized that she was pregnant. She did nothing but sit in front of the house, watching the road and waiting for her lover. Her pregnancy was already noticeable but Tom still didn’t come. Her parents and older brothers drove her out of her home.

She found refuge in the same abandoned hut where she and Tom had made love. Maria became a pariah. She was despised by the other villagers, but some pitied her as well. A few kind souls brought her food and clothing so that she did not starve or fall ill. Pregnant and ragged, the half-starved Maria was afraid to leave the hut. She continued to spend days watching the road, but Tom still did not come.

Her time came and Maria gave birth to a little boy. She bit off the umbilical cord herself, wrapped the baby in rags, left the bundle in the doorway to the hut and disappeared, as if she had gone up in smoke. The baby cried and was found and given to Maria’s parents. They tried to feed him, but he was too weak and didn’t live to see his second day.

Twenty years passed. Maria never returned to her village. The abandoned hut stood at the village edge just as it had. The villagers were afraid to go there. Someone had seen a girl in white with a red rose in her hair there. They said it was Maria’s spirit.

That was the whole story, Maria had disappeared. She was not there. Tom did not believe in spirits. He might have simply turned around and gone back to the airport, but he was exhausted and decided to spend the night with his relatives. He fell into a deep healing sleep, without nightmare visions. And that’s when they showed up: Maria’s father and brothers. They pulled Tom into the street by his legs, threw him down on the rocks, and kicked him long and furiously. Then they threw rocks.

When they had completed their terrible revenge, there was nothing left of Tom but a bloody pulp. He remembered nothing further. He was in a coma for several months, and then underwent an endless series of operations to restore his body. His arms, legs, and ribs were broken. His kidneys were damaged. An intracranial hematoma developed into swelling of the brain. His genitals were mutilated.

Tom was repaired, sewed and glued together, using state-of-the-art methods of medical science. There was only one area where medicine failed. Tom began to puff up, like dough, and stopped growing facial hair. He gradually turned into a eunuch, an asexual being, and the doctors were unable to stop this process. That at least was what Tom himself told me.

But I think that perhaps he was not telling me the whole truth. It seems to me that after everything he had gone through, after the torment and repentance, Tom had ascended to a spiritual level, similar to that of the angels, where it is no longer important whether you are a man or a woman. And most likely he himself did not wish to return to his previous male fleshly incarnation, which had caused Maria and himself so much suffering.

After all, haven’t modern physicians mastered the secrets of hormones, enabling them to turn any asexual being into a man or a woman to order? Of course, all this must cost an incredible amount of money. I doubt that such “cosmetic” operations are covered by Medicaid. However, these are just my own speculations.

Tom’s so-called recovery process lasted a number of years, which Tom spent in hospitals in New York City and Albany, until he was finally set free back into the world without money, which had long since run out, without anywhere to live, and without possessions. He was given SSI and Medicaid and, since he could not afford to rent his own apartment, they suggested either he live with other homeless men in a Group Home or go to live with his mother in Brooklyn, if she would have him.

Tom visited his old artist friends, and from them obtained several of his old paintings, which had survived by some miracle, and a pile of art books. Stuffing his modest estate into his backpack, he went to his mother’s in Brooklyn.

Tom’s mother didn’t know him when she first saw him. And who would recognized the slender and handsome young picture of success in this poor, sexless, round as a ball vagabond, leaning on a cane?

After having wept and thought it over, Tom’s mother decided to take him in, figuring that two SSI checks were better than one. For a while they got along together well, remembering better times, but this phase did not last long. Very soon his mother retreated into alcohol and drugs and the house became a hell.

Several years had passed since his return, when Tom began appearing at our library. He is still coming regularly every day and teaching the children drawing and painting as if this were a regular job. The children continue to hang on him and pull his hair, while he just smiles helplessly, permitting them these small mockeries of his poor long-suffering body. After all, what is the body! It can be killed, mutilated, and transformed. While the spirit is omnipotent and immortal. It cannot be destroyed.

I have asked Tom many times whether or not he could or would want to return to being a paid professional artist. I never had the opportunity to see his previous work, for which he had earned his name and his living. Yet, every day, I have observed how he spends hours during the first part of the day when our gifted young artists are still confined within the walls of school, copying portraits from books and art journals.

In my opinion, and in the view of everyone who has seen his recent work, he has lost neither his talent nor his skill. In response to my questions Tom has either said nothing or repeated the same sentence, “Maybe one day I’ll have the guts to start all over again. Meanwhile I am so happy and grateful to be alive and that’s more than enough for me.”

Copyright © 2012 by Yelena Litinskaya
Translation © 2012 by Lydia Razran Stone

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