I am exuberant fleeing into the dark tossing supplies into the back seat and jumping into the Excursion. Pebbles pop and crunch beneath as tires accelerate down the twisting gravel path. I glance in my rearview mirror. The incandescent light generated by the blazing pyre momentarily blinds me. Swerving to miss a car ambling up the driveway, paint brushes scatter like pick-up-sticks along the back seat. Dented paint cans tumble and knock each other. Swirling flame colored lights, with their ear-splitting alarms, rush past, as I make my way onto the interstate.
Towering steel torches illuminate my way. The wind rushing through the windows blasts away lingering traces of wood smoke. The pavement unfurls before me like a magic black carpet and transports me away from her, the doe-eyed beauty with golden serpents on her wrists.
One Year Ago
Michael Edwards sighed with relief when he heard the clinking sounds of his wife Padma’s gold bracelets as she walked down the hospital corridor. Like the ring of a school bell that signals the end of the day, Padma’s melodious bangles meant the end of his confinement. Michael was going home.
Padma nearly made it onto Interstate 95 before her husband finally spoke.
“The doctors told me he was ill for three weeks.”
Padma looked over at her husband and nodded.
“Why do you refer to yourself as ‘he’ and ‘him’? You’re bipolar. You don’t have a multiple personality disorder.”
Padma’s slight London accent resurfaced. That only meant one thing. She was irritated. The cost of Michael’s medical expenses, runs to pick him up from as far away as Key West and trips back to Richmond wore her out.
“We are nothing alike me and him. He is reckless and undisciplined. Those lunatic rantings he paints are not art. I worry that he is a danger to you.”
In the past, Michael’s manic works bore absolutely no trace of anything recognizeable. However his last piece was only partially abstract. Amidst the chaos of trash tacked on the canvas he recognized an arm. The hand gripped an orange. Gold ropes, tied like hangman’s nooses coiled around a bicep. A twisting black ribbon unfurled from a gash in the crook of the arm and descended down the canvas into ripples of turqoise blue.
“I don’t feel like you’re a danger to me,” said Padma. “Yes, you’re often agitated with me but I don’t feel threatened. It’s people on the interstate I fear for. We could move to Key West. Save you the time and trouble of trying to drive there in the middle of the night. We could sell our farm and buy a bungalo. You could paint oceanscapes. You could ..”
He cut her off.
“I paint pastoral landscapes. I have a studio where I feel comfortable. That farm has been in my family for generations.” Michael’s voice cracked with emotion.
Michael’s illness deprived her of the man she fell in love with. Her dynamic chemistry professor, the man she had a scorching affair with 8 years ago in graduate school was gone. Oddly enough, the only time she sees a resemblance to the old Michael is when he is in the throws of a manic cycle. Since Michael’s forced retirement, he turned his hobby of painting into a moderately profitable vocation and retreated, mentally and physically, into the isolated lifestyle of a reclusive artist.
“I spoke with your doctor back in Richmond. He referred to the increase of manic episodes as ‘kindling.’ Stressful events lower the threshold at which mood changes occur. At some point these mood changes occur spontaneously. More episodes will occur with or without any outside triggers.”
Michael felt the fog of depression crash into his perpetual state of fatigue. The afterburn of the three week manic binge, combined with the knowledge that his episodes, despite taking meds, would occur at any time overwhelmed him.
Padma felt Michael begin to slip away. She reached over a bangled arm to smooth his hair. He closed his eyes as her finger tips massaged his scalp. The soothing ritual and the soft chiming of her bracelets relaxed him.
“I know why he goes to Key West. I mean, aside from the fact that he fits in there with all those artists and unstable people. He needs to feel what it’s like to come to the end of something and yet find another beginning as well. He thinks so differently that it’s hard to explain. He drives to Key West, the corner of South Street and Whitehead Street, the southernmost point in the United States because it represents the end of something. Just a few feet beyond is the limitless water, the beginning he needs to create.”
Michael’s admission fascinated Padma. He’d never given such an extraordinary glimpse into his manic mind.
Michael found refuge in his studio. He pushed through the weighty fatigue he has suffered from over the years and pulled out ‘Autumn on the Farm.’ A piece he started last year before he was hospitalized. Focusing on fine details, mastering them, gave him back what his illness stripped him of, control. He looked forward to painting golden yellow and crimson colored leaves with their crinkled and veiny patterns. Michael pulled open the partitioned drawer where he kept his paints in color spectrum order. The cadmium yellow was missing. In its place was a crumpled matchbook from the Green Parrot bar in Key West. Michael flipped it open.
Despite the frenzied handwriting, Michael knew he wrote it. No doubt while manic but couldn’t recall doing so. He didn’t find another matchbook but cadmium yellow’s neighbor’s -- cadmium orange and cadmium red -- were missing.
He recognized the name ‘Burberry.’ A British fashion label. Padma owns a small case with their signature tartan pattern. Wanting to spare Padma from finding something unpleasant, Michael set off to find it. The studio door slammed behind him. Anxiety had breached his painting retreat.
Before heading upstairs, Michael paused outside the kitchen and observed his wife. The kitchen was Padma’s domain and her laboratory. Within it’s cayenne colored walls she mixed and experimented with exotic seasonings like cardamom, cloves and cumin. She toasted and ground aromatic spices creating her own curry and garam masala.
Padma held the phone between her cheek and shoulder as her delicate hands stirred the contents of her Le Creuset cast iron pot. She laughed at something, a schoolgirl type of giggle, a sound Michael hasn’t heard in a long time. Her beautiful black hair, long and soft as a cashmere scarf, swayed gently across her back. She reached up on tiptoe and opened a cabinet above the sink. The sleeve of her blouse fell back exposing an amber-colored arm encircled with gold. The vision of Padma, confident and playful, sparked a passionate memory from long ago. Over the years various medications robbed him of sexual desire. Padma always offered reassurance that his mental health was more important to her.
Padma squeezed a saffron colored paste into a mortar and replaced it in the cabinet.
“I’ve got to go. See you later for dinner. You too. Bye.” Padma hung up just as Michael entered the kitchen.
“Oh, hello, that was Jordan. He’ll be here by seven for dinner. He has news. I think he might have a buyer for one of your paintings.”
Michael’s art broker and longtime friend, Jordan Buchanan, encouraged Michael to disclose his illness. He believes Michael’s honesty would help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and widen his patron base. Michael refused.
“Let’s hope so. We need a big sale. What’s that you’re concocting over there?”
“Your favorite” replied Padma.
Michael missed the exquisite aromas of Padma’s cooking. He blamed his meds for the dwindling loss of his sense of smell but he still enjoyed her range of flavors; the citrusy zest of her orange curry, the fiery heat of her red chili sauce and the spicy tang of his favorite, chicken curry.
Michael went to search for Padma’s Burberry case before Jordan arrived. He checked the master bathroom cabinets and under the sink. He walked into Padma’s closet and looked on all the shelves. On bent knees, Michael pushed back several hanging garment bags from Nordstrom. He spied the case on the floor behind a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes.
Empty tubes of paint, rolled up like used tubes of toothpaste filled the case. Michael unfurled a few revealing their color names. Cadmium red, cadmium orange and cadmium yellow. Michael was relieved. He expected something more ominous than used paints. Before he could decide whether or not to tell his wife, the doorbell rang alerting Michael of Jordan’s arrival.
* * * *
Padma poured a glass of wine for Jordan and opened a Kingfisher Ultra for Michael. Multicolored candles reflected by the Jali ironwork mirror flickered throughout the dining room. A hardwood fire hissed and crackled behind them. Padma removed the lids of two earthenware pots releasing enticing scents of curry and lamb.
“Padma this looks and smells delicious. I can’t wait to try it all” said Jordan.
Padma spooned a generous portion of the green curry on Jordan’s plate.
“I made the green curry lamb for us. Michael doesn’t like lamb and I’ve been craving it. You’re my excuse to indulge” said Padma.
Michael helped himself to a serving of chicken curry. They toasted to friends and patrons with deep pockets. After they finished eating, Jordan complimented Padma on the sumptuous meal.
Padma looked at Jordan with a coy smirk. “I’m not the talented one in the family. You know as well as I do, my creativity ends in the kitchen.”
Padma’s self deprecating remark seemed to embarrass Jordan. He quickly changed the subject.
“Michael I don’t want to put this off any longer. The paintings the buyer is interested in are your, ah, untitled abstract works.”
Jordan held his hands up in a hear-me-out gesture and spoke faster.
“Please don’t be angry but I asked Padma to send me some photos of your abstract pieces. I showed them, anonymously of course, and the feedback was incredible. I think .
. .” Jordan’s plea was cut short.
“No.” was all Michael said as he got up from the table.
The betrayal he felt was palpable. The cozy dining room lost all it’s warmth with his departure. Jordan remained at the table and talked louder.
“Michael please listen to reason. The pieces, and yes, God Damn it, the provenance behind them, might fetch you and your wife five figures. This would turn your financial situation around. Please think about it.”
Michael thought of his early academic career and the respect he’s earned as landscape artist. His reputation would be diminished by his illustrations of trash and madness. Michael stood inside the kitchen listening to Padma and Jordan talk in hushed voices. One of the only things Michael’s meds hadn’t affected was his hearing. The phrase ‘Power of Attorney’ came up more than once. Michael always refused to sign the document. He searched for some chamomile tea hoping it would calm him down. What he found in the cabinet above the kitchen sink was a partially used tube of cadmium yellow paint.
Padma and Jordan stopped talking when Michael reentered the room. He paced back and forth in front of the fire. He mumbled to himself while running his hands through his hair.
“Like the fire Jordan?” asked Michael.
“Yes. It’s been burning beautifully all evening” replied Jordan.
Michael looked directly at Padma. “You know we chemists know exactly how to build several kinds of fire. Don’t we Padma? All it takes is knowledge of the right elements and nature does the rest.”
Padma looked a bit confused but agreed with him.
“Tell you what Jordan. Meet me here tomorrow night after you close the gallery.” As he looked from one, to the other, the fire glinted in his eyes. “I think I can let go of something that has no value to me but obvious attraction to someone else.”
LBK was born in Washington DC and grew up in Northern Virginia. She lives in South Carolina with her husband and three daughters.