Self Portrait With Vanishing Point
All the perspectives of my childhood converged on Miss Middleman, and when she announced there was going to be a drawing contest in my elementary school, I simply had to win. I was giddy with a confidence I had never before experienced, and never have since. The designated medium was crayons, a technique I felt particularly adept at.
I was sick in bed with chicken pox at the time, and reluctantly sent my mother to school to pick up my supplies. Now, the idea of my mother’s walking into my classroom, speaking to Miss Middleman without my being there, without my strict young eyes guiding her in the protocol of first-grade etiquette, terrified me, but my mother somehow managed to rise to the occasion and appeared at my bedside holding out those bright crayons for my small spotted hands. For months afterward, whenever Miss Middleman mentioned parents in general, or politely asked after my mother in particular, I was terrified that she might mention some peculiarity. “Kim, is that your mother’s natural hair color?”
My crayons included the usual colors, a sort of waxy rainbow. But what made me particularly fond of them was the line they produced, a cracked, tremulous line like adult handwriting. I believed they made my drawings look mature. I already had my subject matter planned-American football, something that seemed exotic in my Canadian childhood. In those years, I always searched for non-domestic subjects-horses, battles, sports—convinced that if I portrayed my real family with their idiosyncratic hysteria, I would be banished from the world of my bland peers. The football game I wanted to draw was unlike any football game I’d ever seen. There were to be no team players in my creation; each man would be out for himself. Like a ball game of braggarts, my players would be frozen in their most daring postures, ignoring everything else–the pigskin ball, each other, even winning—in order to be immortalized by my crayons. Of course, I simply assumed that their virtuosity would rub off on me, and spent the whole afternoon beginning my creation.
I don’t believe that fever accompanies chicken pox, or any other physical discomfort except itching. It’s as if your body falls victim to a form of social banishment; the hideous poxes, harmless in themselves, can be miraculously transferred, like wet, sticky red paint, onto all other children except those who have already shared your fate. Every morning I’d immediately scrutinize my limbs to see if the spots had vanished. I would study them with the same awe I’d bestow on a fading bruise, fascinated that my body, without my having urged it, could take it upon itself to erase the mistakes of a bashed elbow, a bruised knee.
Every day, with diligence—for even then I fathomed the unrelenting demands of my art—I’d work and rework my drawing until my ball players seemed to eclipse my illness, becoming indelible and bold even as I was fading back into normality. I filled in their faces, as children fill in the blank, jigsaw-puzzling shapes in coloring books (my only education thus far), until one morning, in a mysterious moment, a moment that even with age ceases to lose its mystery, I knew I was done.
At seven years old the satisfaction of bringing a task to completion was almost tactile. It was as if I’d been swathed in pride. But since I had just recently grasped the illusive nature of time—its imp-like trick of whisking away moments of pleasure while demonically stretching out seconds of drudgery—I was terrified to indulge in it. So I wore my pride sullenly lest it be snatched away. And in those long afternoons of recuperation, I picked at it as I habitually picked at the last clinging scabs of my illness. This, I believe, is how doubt linked up with the daisy chain of my childhood emotions.
My mother prided herself on being my emissary to the adult world and I in turn saw her as a phantasmagoric wedge into reality. She would be the first audience for my drawing. She professed to be the only one among her friends who knew how to raise children because she alone told children the truth. “I have always loathed your father, Kim, and have no idea why I’m alive.” Later on, she explained, these truths would be the handles by which I could grasp reality.
I stood her in front of my drawing. Perhaps I hoped that she might finally reveal what I secretly wished, that I was a child prodigy; that, unlike those gaunt, sallow little mathematicians who can untangle a knot of trigonometry before being able to tie their shoes, my secret, up until my illness, had been camouflaged from her by my healthy, ruddy looks.
“Do you want my honest opinion, Kim?”
“I guess,” I said.
“I think you’re going to win.”
Although the gap between win” and “prodigy” was immense, I was ecstatic.
“Do you really think so, mom?”
“I do,” she assured me, “unless, of course, the contest is rigged.”
Returning to school after a long illness is akin to being a minor celebrity. Standing in the playground with my drawing rolled under my arm, I answered all my classmates’ questions about scabs, spots and the delectable habit of remaining in bed for hours. But even then, receiving adoration for what had accidentally befallen me (after all, I hadn’t made my illness) left me bored.
Miss Middleman was my teacher and I revered her. A word from her, some absent-minded stare that singled me out from my restless classmates, left me dumbstruck. Yet I don’t believe it was puppy love, but something deeper: a presence of inscrutable authority to whom I could bow down, and by doing so rid myself, once and for all, of the unbearable burden of my will. Her suggestions for classroom behavior were transformed by me into axioms. When she mentioned that all children should become right-handed, she cracked my ability to be ambidextrous, leaving me in this halved world where my left side has become a worthless appendage. Only once did my image of Miss Middleman falter. I was shopping with my mother on Saint Catherine Street when I spied Miss Middleman several store windows away. I was stunned. It seemed unbelievable that Miss Middleman would venture into the world and, perhaps even more astounding, shop. She had always worn the same sort of dress to teach in and I’d automatically assumed that it was an organic part of her, like hair. She began moving in our direction. In space the slight nudge of a meteor can cause a planet to careen light years off course and I, in my calculating panic, tried to bump my mother and deflect their eventual collision.
“Isn’t the sidewalk wide enough for you, Kim!”
Miss Middleman was only yards away. I practically begged my mother to hide, when suddenly a miracle occurred. Two workmen carrying a store window sliced the sidewalk in two and we could only wave at her as though from one dimension to another.
“Did you notice her big black eye?” my mother asked as soon as she was out of earshot. In my terror I hadn’t registered anything. But now I could remember a slight bruise that, under my mother’s influence, swelled to gargantuan purplish proportions.
“How do you think it happened, Kim?”
I reeled off a list of possible homemaking accidents. “I doubt it,” my mother said.
“How do you think it happened, mom?” “Her boyfriend probably slugged her.”
Imagine holding up a heavy glass pitcher while simultaneously knowing that you’re going to drop it. Inevitably it does escape from your grasp, yet you continue to hold its shape forlornly in the air. In this way, I clung to my image of Miss Middleman.
As soon as I walked into the classroom, I presented her with my drawing. I unfurled it before her bespectacled eyes. Although I could easily decipher my own parents’ expressions, which had a theatrical exaggeration about them—anger was literally bared teeth, sorrow was catatonic rocking—I was still unable to read the subtle hieroglyphics of most adult faces. I gazed uncomprehendingly up at Miss Middleman.
“This is very good, Kim,” she said, “but what on earth do all these football players mean!”
To me they meant only one thing—the possibility of my winning the contest. But even at that age I knew the vanity of such an admission. I looked back down at my ball players. They were all fixed in their moment of glory and suddenly it occurred to me that I had simply rendered, with brash, indelible crayons, the undeniable evidence of my longing.
I prayed Miss Middleman wouldn’t notice. I had no religious background and imagined God to be an all-seeing head, as enormous as a hydrocephalic’s I’d seen in one of my mother’s tabloids.
“Do you think you could articulate it to the class, Kim?”
“Well, perhaps we shouldn’t ask artists to explain their work,” she said kindly.
I reeled around and sank into my assigned chair.
Up until that moment I had always felt that my being, what my mother called “that personality of yours, Kim,” was safely trapped inside me. It might surge and roll around, ricocheting within the helmet of my skull, yet it could never escape. But now, seated in front of Miss Middleman, I felt porous and pregnable, as if the world could leak in–or worse, I could seep out. For the rest of the day I performed my written lessons by rote. But every now and then, if I thought I spied a trace of my personality creeping through, I’d rub it out into the pink ashes of my eraser and blow it away.
Whatever happens to me today can easily be tested in the laboratory of my past, but as a child those scanty years accumulating behind me seemed devoid of graspable matter. And so I tested things out on my mother. As soon as I got home from school, I ran through the house to find her. She was seated, as usual, in front of her vanity mirror, dismantling her platinum bouffant for its weekly peroxide treatment. Her hair of late had become extraordinarily thin and tufts of it, ensnarled in her comb, lay discarded on the counter. For a moment, I looked at her with a detachment I’d never experienced before. Hair, according to Miss Middleman, refuses to accept death. It continues to grow even after the heart has stopped and once, when she offhandedly mentioned this during a hygiene lesson, I came to believe that hair, above and beyond all our bodily organs, contained our souls. Miss Middleman’s hair was worn in a stiff knot. Mine was shorn off because I loathed combing it. But my mother’s hair, now falling out from her peroxide treatments, was continually changing colors. Suddenly, a feeling of absolute and utter sadness came over me.
“What did Miss Middleman think of your drawing?” my mother asked.
“I guess she liked it,” I said.
“She wanted to know why I drew so many football players.”
“What’s it her business?”
“Oh, mom, I’m so worried that Miss Middleman thinks I only care about winning.”
“Kim,” my mother assured me, “I’m sure Miss Middleman doesn’t give you a thought.”
In the back room of the Musee de Montreal is an untitled still life that I worshipped as a child. For years I thought it was called Untilted. The apples, grapes, plums and oranges were rendered in remarkable detail, their stems had veiny leaves and some of their skins were glassy. But what entranced me was that each piece of fruit was frosted on one side, as if in perpetual winter, while the other half was drenched in the light of some invisible source. It made them look timeless, but not in the way my mother used timeless. “Grace Kelly’s looks are classical because blond hair has a timeless beauty” or “Stop sulking about new clothes, Kim, saddle shoes are timeless!” These fruits in their seasonal shifting (for I truly believed they revolved imperceptibly around the axis of their stems) existed in sidereal time, and whenever the hours lurched and sagged for me—the winners of the contest were going to be announced the next morning—these fruits would remain the same, never decaying, but turning forever in the constancy of seasons.
That night I devoured my first fingernail (a taste that carried within its brittle texture a lifetime of craving) and early the next morning I dressed in my saddle shoes and I hurried to school. The competing drawings were going to be unveiled during our school assembly and I desperately wanted to see how mine would stack up against those of my peers. I took a seat in the first-grade section of the auditorium where children in various postures of anxiety squirmed in their chairs. I proudly remained stoic.
Miss Middleman tapped on the microphone and asked the janitor to roll back the curtain. For a moment I scrutinized a whole panorama of childlike worlds halved by simple horizons. On top of the horizons were all things ethereal-clouds and sky and stars. The suns were strung up by their own rays. Below weighted down by the gravity of subject matter were parents, teachers (one of my classmates had done a portrait of Miss Middleman), houses, and my football players. But what astonished me wasn’t so much the differences in these clumsily rendered worlds as their undeniable uniformity. These lopsided houses, crooked trees, spindly figures were the saddest things I’d ever seen—no matter what we’d drawn, we’d all seen the world exactly the same way.
I suddenly wanted to cry. But Miss Middleman had once said we are made up mostly of water and a handful of chemicals, and I was terrified that if I did cry, I simply wouldn’t stop, and then what would be left of me? According to Miss Middleman, there would be enough carbon to fill nine thousand lead pencils, a cube of sugar, one and a half bags of calcium, and enough phosphorus for just enough matches to illuminate the small place in the world I occupy.