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The Love Ceiling draws readers into the soul of a universal theme for women: the pull between family and creative self-expression. It is the story of a daughter, a wife, a mother and grandmother, and a journey into creativity.
The exhibition's title was splashed in blazing letters across the huge banners surrounding the entrance of the museum. ALEXANDER GUNTHER: 1947-2007: A Retrospective. I felt queasy the minute I saw my father's name and it struck me as ironic that as often as I toyed with the idea of inventing some ailment, something harmless and quickly curable, which would give me an excuse to skip his opening tonight, now that we were here-I actually did feel ill. Stomach cramps, which had been dormant for decades, had been my historic response to him and I could only think of the old warning: be careful what you wish for.
From the car I could see the banners had been carefully designed to reflect the palette of his most acclaimed work from the early fifties: black, white, gray with slashes of brilliant reds. Crimson and vermillion, like fire or blood, always predominated and the critics invariably related them to elements of passion. To me it looked garish, even a little obscene. The dates of the exhibition were at the top of the banners ... April twenty-eighth to July fifth. How true it was, I thought, as we stopped at a light just south of the museum, that April is the cruelest month.
"Annie, what are you doing with that window?" Jack looked over at me, tapping his fingers against the wheel, impatient for the light to turn.
"You've been fiddling with the button-it's been going up and down for the past two blocks. It's driving me nuts!"
I put the window up and folded my hands in my lap. "I don't want to go in there."
"Fine. We'll go home," he said with a smile. "And what would you tell everyone?" His tone was gentle, and it reminded me of the sweet way he would tease Cass and Ian when they were little.
"That I got sick. Which isn't far off, because he makes me sick." I looked at my hands in my lap, trying to keep from fooling with the window button. The skin on the backs of my hands was decorated with tiny brown dots as if I'd been splashed with rusty water. I can't remember when the spots first appeared. Maybe ten years ago-when I was fifty-three-and this year I'll turn sixty-four. What happened? Ten years? Where did that go?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four? I looked over at Jack, handsome in his dark suit. He is boyishly handsome, like Russell Baker or Tom Brokaw, although he has a bit of a chin bag, and a bald spot on the back of his head, but the rest of his hair is lovely and silver. Jack isn't vain, although he'd had a brief flirtation with Rogaine, which lasted about four days. But in spite of the fact that he's nine years older than I am, the years have been nicer to Jack than to me, and he's never had to force himself to exercise like I do. Starting with the Jane Fonda workout, I think I've tried (and quit) every exercise every invented. I'm at least ten pounds overweight, okay, maybe twenty, and it's the same perpetual poundage I've been trying to lose for the past twenty-five years. I'd also probably look younger if I did something about the dishwater gray threads multiplying explosively in my hair, but ever since my last birthday I decided I had better things to do with my time than sit in a salon with tinfoil on my head.
I felt flushed and I put the window down a few inches. "I really need some air." The evening was a little chilly, but a clear night with no sign of rain. I stuck my nose out the window like a dog. The weather had cooperated for Alexander the Great.
I turned back to Jack. "Or I could say I had a conflict-something came up that I couldn't get out of."
"Like what?" The light changed and he drove ahead toward the museum.
"Like needing to cut my toenails." I sighed, only half-smiling. "Or floss my teeth."
"Annie-" Jack glanced at me, shaking his head.
"Honestly, I do feel a little sick, sort of nauseated. Let's just go to Tomiko's and get a drink first. A little liquid courage so I can face it."
Not that Jack cared, but I'd replaced "Dutch" with "liquid" when I learned "Dutch courage" had been a British putdown of the Dutch. I'd welcomed taking Jack's name, Duppstadt. Unlike a lot of women in the seventies who kept their maiden names, I had been only too eager to dump "Gunther." I wanted nothing to do with my famous father.
"We can stop at Tomiko's- but if you want my advice, we're better off to just get this over with and then get a drink." Jack moved over to the right lane. "Okay?"
"I still can't believe he's going through with this. She's only been dead three weeks. Three weeks, Jack."
"I doubt the museum could cancel a big exhibition like this, they spent-"
"Look, I'm not nuts-I don't expect that he'd act like someone dear," I interrupted, "like Mr. Rogers in a cardigan sweater with a nice little bow tie, someone soft spoken and patient. That would be delusional-but is it too much to ask for just a bit of basic decency? And I'm not saying the museum should cancel, either. But he could have rescheduled the reception-he could play the grieving widower, people would understand. It could've been changed to a reception at the show's close, in July, right around the Fourth which he'd love because, of course, he'd assume all the fireworks and hoopla were for him."
"I'll drop you off in front and then park."
"You don't have to," I frowned. "I hate going in alone."
"Just wait for me on the steps." Jack reached over and patted my hand. "There's usually space in the Ampco garage or Harbor Steps. You won't have to wait long. You might run into Cass and Richard or Kelly." He pulled up in front of the museum. "Go ahead, honey I can't stop here for more than a second."
"Okay," I agreed reluctantly. "I'll be on the steps." As I got out of the car, two young women walked by; both had cleavage that rivaled a produce display at the supermarket and one of them had a swatch of bare stomach peeking over the top of her pants. I thought they were regular people, not prostitutes; they walked along as if they had a specific destination, wearing these really stupid shoes-high heels like pencils. Weren't they afraid they'd fall on their fannies? I can't fathom for the life of me why this trampy look is fashionable. But at least Cass hasn't gone in for it. I glanced up toward the museum entrance, hoping I might see her and Richard. She said they'd both be coming-he didn't have to be on call at the hospital for once. She sounded happy, which was reassuring because Cass hasn't been herself lately and I've been worried about her. It's nice for her that he's coming, but I have to admit that I'm never too excited about seeing him. In fact, I sometimes wished she'd dump him and find some guy who could commit. Not marriage to any old person, not to some creep. I just wish Cass could have a reasonably happy marriage, a good enough marriage. The main thing that bothers me about Richard Matsunaga is his reluctance to marry my daughter, and I'm pretty sure he's the one dragging his feet. I can't see or talk to him without just wanting to goose him.
I stood on the steps waiting for Jack, looking up at the banners heralding my father's lifetime achievement. They say all children are artists, they create freely, naturally, without reserve or inhibition, and I certainly wanted to be one from the moment I first opened a box of crayons and knew to draw with them rather than eat them. I think my mother knew this, but in our house there was only room for one artist. She infantilized and indulged my father-probably partly out of fear, but everything he did was tolerated and the result was that he was the only one allowed to be a child. The great Alexander Gunther took up all the space, all the air, even the light.
Annie, you have a gift. An unusual sense of color. An intuitive feeling for light.
Mr. Fillinger had penciled his comments on the back of my pastel. I remember staring at the words and memorizing each one, breathing them in, holding them in my heart.
He'd taken our class on a field trip to Seward Park to learn to work outdoors. It was a crisp spring day and we sat on the grass in the upper picnic ground facing south where Mr. Rainier rises over Lake Washington. I was fifteen; it was the first time I'd ever worked in oil pastels and I loved them. The mountain was so beautiful and it was exhilarating trying to capture it, the deep green firs and the light dancing on the surface of the lake.
That day after school, I stood tentatively in the doorway of the studio at the back of the house. "Dad? Are you busy?"
"What is it?" He looked up from the issue of Art News. "I'm sure whatever even you have to say is better than this asshole critic." He hurled the magazine across the floor.
"Maybe I should leave." I pulled the pastel close to my chest.
"No," he barked, "go ahead, what is it you want?"
"I made this in my art class. My teacher, Mr. Fillinger, said-"
"Fillinger. He also teaches at the community college, he's had shows in galleries and he said-"
"He said something you did was good."
"Yes and he wrote on the back and I just thought-"
"Bring it here." He adjusted his leg brace and pulled himself up and limped to an easel in the center of the room. "Give it to me."
I handed it to him and my father read the comments on the back, and then clipped the little pastel to the easel. My stomach began to cramp and I was almost afraid to breathe as he stared at my delicate rendering of the mountain. His jaw was clenched as he walked with his awkward gait to a table where tubes of paint, brushes and palettes were scattered. His back was to me and I couldn't see what he was doing. After a few seconds he turned and returned to the easel.
"Now, what I'm about to do is for your own good." His eyes narrowed as he looked down at me. "This Fillinger is just trying to get in with me. He's using you." He motioned to the easel as if he were brushing away a gnat. "This work is Sunday hobby painting and pedestrian." He spat out the words, "it's representational, decorative crap. You'll never be a serious painter-you don't have it. I'm doing this so you'll never forget this moment, to save you a lot of pain." He paused, holding the palette knife poised over the pastel. "The art world is filled with rejection and betrayal and you're far better off if you learn now to stay away from it." The palette knife was loaded with brown paint and he gouged at the pastel, pulling the dark pigment from one corner to the other like smeared feces. I fled from his studio, my stomach roiling. The onset was so violent that when my mother heard me in the bathroom, she thought it was food poisoning.
The night air was cool and brisk and I hunched my shoulders against the chill. I placed my hand over the silver pin near my collar, running my fingers over it like a talisman. It was a silver frog, designed by Bill Reid, the Haida artist, and had belonged to my mother. The frog, a reproduction she'd gotten at the museum store in Vancouver, had been one of my mother's favorite pieces. My dear, sweet, sad mother. She was the only reason ! was here at all, and if there was any consolation I could find about losing her, it was that after tonight I'd never have to deal with my father again. At the most the future might hold a courtesy visit at Christmas, and I suppose I could stomach that, if it was short. Hello Dad ... Merry Christmas ... Good-bye.
I didn't see any sign of Cass and Richard or Kelly, my daughter-in-law. What if they never came and I just turned around and left? How wonderful, I could just picture the pompous old rooster looking around the crowd, making excuses for us, and then finally realizing that he, the great Alexander Gunther, had been stood up. Too bad, you jerk.
Cass and Ian always liked these openings, although fan was in Chicago on business and wouldn't be here tonight. I sometimes wished my kids felt the way I did about my father: the same conflicted, retaliatory mess that would make it equally impossible for them to spend more than ten minutes in the same room with him. I'd never say so directly, because I knew it was childish and I felt stupid about it, after all he was their grandfather-not their father-but I always felt slightly betrayed when they made more than a token appearance at one of his affairs.... Affairs. How many would show up tonight? Art groupies crawled around my father like ants at a picnic, the only question being how many would appear.
"Annie! We're over here!" Kelly shouted from the steps near the main door.
I turned and waved, my spirits lifting when I saw Sam. With my mother gone, my grandson was like oxygen. Kelly, as usual, looked perfect in her essential little black dress, and Sam, who had just turned three, looked like a miniature adult in gray pants, a navy blazer, white shirt and tie.
From the distance, where I stood at the bottom of the steps, I was struck with how strongly Sam resembled Stan Bailey, Kelly's dad. I'd always wondered what narcissism or wish for immortality made us search for ourselves in our grandchildren, hoping the roll of the genes would come up with our eyes, or mouth or any one of our assorted features in this new little member of the tribe? It seemed shallow and vain to me, and my mild disappointment that Sam looked more like Stan Bailey than my family embarrassed me. When I thought about it, if you went far enough back, everyone in the human family resembled Curious George anyway, so what was the point of all this effort to identify whose nose showed up on the baby?
I climbed the steps and held out my arms to Sam, who in spite of his dressy attire bolted from his mother and cuddled with me as if he were wearing his snuggly pj's.
"How handsome you look." I held him close and leaned over to peck Kelly's cheek. "Hi, Kelly. You look beautiful, as always."
"Thanks. This is quite the event isn't it?"
"Yes, quite." There's something about the way Kelly tosses her head and runs her hand through her long blonde hair that reminds me of Ann Coulter. Kelly's personality isn't junkyard dog vicious; it's only the little head thing she does that seems similar. And of course, this is not an observation I would make to anyone, not even Jack. I have tried to like her. Truly, I have.
"I have a tie." Sam said proudly, lifting it so close to my face I had to look cross-eyed to see it.
"It's a fine tie, Sam." I laid my cheek against his. "Have you seen Cass?" I scanned the steps of the museum as more people began arriving. The guests attending tonight's opening reception were my father's family, friends, colleagues, museum members and members of its board, donors to the museum, the academics, art critics, collectors, and one other group: a selection of students he'd invited from his teaching years. How many of the ones he'd been screwing would show up, I couldn't help wondering again as I watched more guests arriving. Wouldn't he have the decency to resist the attention for once? I always picked up on it and had from the time I was fifteen. You'd think by eighty-three he'd try for some statesman-like dignity, but he'd just become a lecher emeritus, strutting like a peacock oblivious to his aging, tattered tail.
"We just got here." Kelly looked around. "We thought Cass would be with you."
"We decided to come separately, we're not going to stay long."
"I thought Sam and I should just come alone, too." Kelly smiled. "I never know how long he'll hold up."
I tipped my head back to look at Sam. "I'm with you, Sam. I never know how long I'll hold up." Sam giggled and I gave him a little kiss.
"There's Jack." Kelly waved and I turned to see him mounting the steps. He really did look handsome in that dark suit. His gray hair added dignity to his lined, boyish face-Mother Nature was certainly kinder to her sons than her daughters. Although to look at Jack, you'd never know that lately he'd been kind of lost. At the height of his career he was one of the country's leading researchers in hematology, but his latest grant wasn't funded and he was slowly being forced out. I knew it had been eating away at him, but Jack was a master at acting like everything's fine. He fit in easily with this kind of tony, well-heeled crowd, whereas I invariably felt awkward, as though I'm ten years out of style, in a dress with underarm pit stains beginning to seep into the fabric, while my slip is showing (even though I was wearing a black pants suit).
Jack held out his arms for Sam and I passed him over.
"Hi Grandpa." Sam grabbed his tie and held it under Jack's nose. "I have a tie."
"That's quite the tie!"
"Hi Jack." Kelly kissed him, then stood back and looked at Jack and Sam appreciatively. "I wish I had a picture of you two. I didn't bring our camera, I was sure you'd have one," she said to me.
"Actually, no." I watched the crowd again. "I suppose Cass will find us. Maybe we should go in."
Excerpted from The Love Ceiling by Jean Davies Okimoto Copyright © 2009 by Jean Davies Okimoto . Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 16, 2012
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