I am not alone. Of course I'm aware that those are words people tell themselves at precisely the moments in which they feel completely alone. But I'm trying to shrug that off as I stare at the blank wall in front of me and try to picture what should go there. Fine, so it's not an entire wall--it's a canvas on a wall in an art studio--and I have precisely twelve minutes to paint something before Sidney Sleethly, the director of Downtown Studios, kicks me out for the day so other, "real" artists (read: ones who sell things and therefore make him money) can take over my tiny space.
He likes to be called Sid because he worships punk rock icon Sid Vicious, but this man is a far cry from that kind of crazy-cool. In fact, the only reason I tolerate being tolerated by Sleethly is because his studio, with its cavernous rooms, floor-to-ceiling windows, and various walls on which to display art, is the only place I truly feel at home. Even if within that feeling of homeyness (a word I can't stand since it reminds me of needlepointed pillows and stale sugar cookies that look good but taste like crap) is a morsel of loneliness.
All in all, though, I'm not a lonely person, at least not in that crying, snot-on-the-sleeve, I-just-watched-some-parent-child-reunion-on-daytime-TV way. I'm just alone, as in unaccompanied for another ten minutes before I slog through the belt of late-summer rain to pick up my sisters from camp. After that I'll go back to my house, where it's impossible to be alone, and not only because of my sibling overload (twin sisters and a brother). The idea of personal space (not to mention personal freedom) isn't high on my parents' list of goals (and yes, there's an actual list on the fridge). Number three on the list--"Try until you get it right"--was added by my mom and dad after one of our theme dinners (this one was fajitas and virgin margaritas on the lawn, complete with a pi–ata my mother made in a fit of craftiness). Everyone (everyone includes me; my brother, Russ; my sisters, Sierra and Sage, aka the whiny twins; and my ultracheerful and khaki-loving parents) had to wear floppy sombreros and listen to lame mariachi music. The evening wouldn't have been so bad (in fact, the food my dad cooked was pretty tasty) if only I hadn't had to deal with batting at the pi–ata.
Unlike the rest of the Fitzgerald clan, I am not, as they say, athletically inclined. Or as my gym teacher commented to my mother, "Jenny's lack of skill is only outdone by her lack of enthusiasm in class." Basically, if there's a field, a ball, and an implement with which to hit that ball, I suck. Russ (short for Russet--he's two years younger, but way ahead of me in the high school social sphere with his cool jocky friends and sporting talent) hit the fish-shaped pi–ata blindfolded and backward. Sierra and Sage, their long straight hair swinging in graceful ponytails, whacked the thing until it nearly burst. My parents hit it no problem, and just when you could see the candy poking out from inside, it was my turn. I knew everyone had tried to prep the pi–ata for me, making it so easy I couldn't fail.
And yet I did. No matter how long I stood there, I couldn't make the bat connect with the papier-m0che fish. I couldn't make the candy spill out. I couldn't be what everyone wanted me to be: another sporty, varsity-playing Fitzgerald. With all due respect, I am the I in team. After the pi–ata incident, I wasn't that surprised to see the addition of "Try until you get it right" on the list of family goals taped to the fridge.
I'm centered enough not to fall apart over seeing that on the list, even though it was added right after I stormed out of the family fun with the pi–ata still relatively intact. I watched from my bedroom as Sierra spun Sage around until she could hardly stay upright and yet managed to aim the bat perfectly at the mangled fish, bonking it only once, to cause a shower of rainbow-colored candies to fall on our green lawn.
Maybe that's what I should paint now on the canvas. A green lawn with dots of pastel candies on it. It's kind of a cool image, a rain-wet lawn with splotches of colors, some hidden amid the grass. Or maybe I should draw something outside my suburban existence, some cityscape or a foreign country's teeming streets. I can't decide. Before thoughts of my crowded house get to me, I turn back to the canvas. Blue? Blech. No one likes to look at blue art. It's too done, too easily readable.
What if I mix cerulean with light gray? I test out a couple of colors on my palette, which in this case is a recycled egg carton. Real palettes cost money, and the good one I have is kept in my closet at home. I figure I'll use it and the white-boar-bristle brushes I saved for but haven't tried out when I consider my work worthy, which at this point I don't. Not that my paintings are bad. This one is taking shape, sort of an arching design in muted colors that gives way to the bright hues I'm adding now. The indigo fuses with the deep red, which resembles the color of a certain boy's delicate-looking lips. I'm actually thinking that my work isn't totally awful, when . . .
"Dear Diary, Today I made a piece of art that looks as though a first grader got hold of my brush." Sid Sleethly's mocking voice disrupts my last few minutes of quiet, causing my paintbrush (and my ego) to slide down. He is notoriously obnoxious (the British accent only makes it worse), and this moment doesn't do anything to disprove that. Still, I've become accustomed to the way he acts. After climbing the ladder of art success in the 1980s in New York and then oozing back down, one is bound to have a severe attitude problem.
"Now look what you've done," I say under my breath, wiping off the spot where green has intruded into the red and blue.
"I'm only being honest with you. Isn't that what all artists want, brutal honesty?"
I like being classified with "all artists," but other than that, Sid's words get under my skin.
"I could do without the brutal part." I start to clean the brushes, dipping them in turpentine, which stings my nostrils and makes my eyes water. Or maybe that's just an emotional reaction to his comment. Granted, I know this particular painting isn't fantastic, but I'd like to think . . .
"You probably think that this work is"--Sid flings his hand in the general vicinity of my painting like he's trying to diffuse an unpleasant smell--"on its way to being something. But it's not."
Instead of arguing with him, I blush and clench my stomach muscles and mouth so as not to reveal anything. I don't have the time for arguing, anyway. My studio time is limited and my parents demand my presence at dinner, even now, in what's left of summer. I also have to shuttle my sisters from their day camp, so leaving now is key if I'm going to make it on time. Besides, I hate arguing in my defense. Part of me thinks that when everything works, it's without the aid of words. You're just supposed to know what's right, or what people need.
"Thanks for the advice, Sid," I say with enough sarcasm that I feel a bit better but not enough that he can call me on it.
"You will thank me one day, Jenny Fitzgerald. All art needs criticism in order to grow, and, well, yours might need extra since all it is right now is your vision of what you think other people want you to be." When he uses my full name like that, it drives home the fact that he hasn't sold one of my paintings and that none of them really requires my signature at the bottom.
Without saying anything more, Sid (thankfully) leaves me in the mess of my paints and the muck of his harsh words, which feel particularly harsh today because of my suspicion that they're true.
Outside, the rain pelts my head, soaking my hair and my carefully selected not-too-tight white T-shirt. I can only imagine what I look like, and it can best be described as someone who belongs on the cover of a "men's interest" magazine. I cross my arms over my chest and wonder if I can just pull up at Camp Cedar and beep or if I have to actually go inside and physically claim my sisters. Usually they get a ride with my mom, but in an attempt to encourage my "family bonding time" (Mom's words, not mine), I have been enlisted as the twins' chauffeur.
Driving is pretty new to me still, so I automatically go through the list of what I'm supposed to do before backing up--put on seat belt, adjust rearview mirror, check side mirrors, and look for oncoming cars. All fine--that is, except for the glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror: my normally average hair (Russ says it's the color of toffee) is a shade darker and slicked to my face, and my nose is running. Lovely.
I turn up the heat in the car in the hope it will dry my shirt by the time I get to Camp Cedar, which is all of eight minutes down the road on the far side of town (town being Cutler, Connecticut, your typical white-steepled New England historic vale). Of course, the heat makes the windows fog, causing my hair to get that weird peach fuzz frizz on the top, and my shirt is no less wet than it was before.
Even though I want to be that artist girl who is so wrapped up in her paint box and deep thoughts that she doesn't think at all about her looks, I'm just not. However, I don't care that much. My clothes are splattered with various hues from my artistic renderings, and my hair doesn't change per the latest fashion mags, but I'm not oblivious to looking decent (or trying to), either.
For example, right now I care quite a bit how I appear. Not only do I have to snag Sierra and Sage from a bevy of preteen beauties, but I have to do so in front of a certain someone. A certain someone I can't look in the eye or admit to admiring, at least not out loud. There's a part of me that still believes if you say things out loud, it's as though you're not only admitting them, but giving in to something beyond your control, and I'm loath to do that.
I drive through the wide gates, with the Camp Cedar sign on my right, and turn the windshield wipers down. It's not even raining anymore, so I'm more self-conscious. I look as though I decided to take a shower with my clothes on. Stunning. I unbuckle my seat belt and sigh. The day is never complete unless Sierra and Sage have dumped on me, and considering how pathetic I look right now, they'll have plenty of ammunition.
I get out of the car and approach the main building at Camp Cedar. The organization has two parts: the coed day camp, where I went years ago, which is housed in an old Sound of Music-style lodge; and a gymnastics and dance program for older campers, where twelve-year-old Sierra and Sage perform ballet and do backbends that I could never do.
Kids holding various pieces of sporting equipment lounge around the benches outside, waiting for lifts home. This reminds me of how close I am to going back to high school--the countdown is at two weeks. Still, it feels as though any minute now the humidity-heavy trees will give way to the first signs of fall foliage, and I can't seem to quiet that slightly nervous voice inside telling me to make the most of what's left of my summer.
I scan the groups of campers but don't see my shiny, perky sisters. (They are tall for their age and tend to stick out, not like sore thumbs but like movie ingenues.) I have to go inside the building and bring this one-girl wet T-shirt contest to the masses. Silently, I thank the clothing gods who enabled me to choose dark shorts today rather than khakis that would showcase my red-and-white-polka-dot underwear (note: must remember to do laundry). Then, bracing myself for the worst, I walk through the front doors, past gawking boys and giggling girls who clearly notice that my arms are crossed over my chest for a reason. Or maybe I'm just paranoid.
"Nice boobs, Jenny!" Sierra yells from down the hall. She has Sage on her arm. Both of them are long-limbed and poised in their dance-floaty skirts and leotards, but they are not above laughing at me when I approach.
"Do you want a ride home or not?" I ask, dangling the car keys. It would be such great revenge to just turn around, walk away, and strand them in town. But then I'd probably feel guilty, not to mention risk getting in trouble. Ditching the twins isn't exactly "family bonding."
"You have to take us home," Sierra says.
"And you have to cover yourself!" Sage tacks her sentence on to Sierra's so it sounds like one fluid expression. They always seem to know what the other one is thinking and feeling. It kind of makes me jealous. I definitely don't have someone who is forever understanding me. "Mom'll ground you if you leave us here," she adds.
I would never really leave them to fend for themselves, especially not in their dance gear, but I squint at them to make it seem like it's a possibility. "Give me a shirt and I'll think about it."
Sage rummages through her backpack and produces a fine light blue shirt, but Sierra shakes her head. "Don't lend her that. It's your best one."
"Yeah, God forbid your other sister needs a favor." I sigh and reach for the tiny T-shirt, which will still be revealing, but at least not see-through.
"It's not that, Jenny," Sage protests. "It's just, like . . ." She doesn't even have to nudge Sierra to get her to complete the thought.
"You always get stuff on your clothes." Sierra looks at me and crumples her mouth.
"Am I really that bad?" I ask, laughing at myself. I let my hands drop to my sides, then notice that a couple of the guy counselors are checking out my rack and immediately cover myself again. I notice that my clothing is splattered with oil paint, stained from solvents, and generally in the wrinkled category. The twins are right. I am such a mess. "Forget it." I hand Sage her T-shirt. It's only big enough for a preteen anyway. "Let's just go."
"Here," Sage says in an effort to make amends. "Take my backpack."
"I'm not your Sherpa." I flick her away.
"I was asking you to carry my bag so you could block your . . ." Sage gestures to my boobs.
From the Hardcover edition.