Taylor and I were standing on the roof of his new apartment the other day, creeping around, when his neighbor from below joined us and asked if we wouldn’t walk around on the roof. “I have very sentimental art hanging on the wall just underneath where you guys are standing and I just get so worried the ceiling will cave in and destroy my art.” I took one foot off the ground. “This ceiling could cave in?” “Would you like to see my art? I’d feel better if I showed you, so you didn’t just think I was a cranky neighbor.” The mind is a powerful thing and I could tell this man had an anxious one, one that worried his art would be destroyed by falling bodies and debris, but also about being that cranky neighbor, hollering at young couples watching the sunset to get off his roof. He stood there, wide eyed, a look I give people almost on the daily, and he instantly changed from a cranky paranoid neighbor to someone I could know.
I suddenly remembered the other night when I was at a holiday party where there was an open bar that consisted of two midgets standing behind a low counter serving free whiskey and cokes and selling cigarettes. I stood gazing longingly at them from afar when the woman caught my eye and scowled at me. It snapped me back into reality and I remembered, oh no my face! When just idle, my face rests in a way that makes me look stern, like a mean nun who is going to tattle on you to The Lord. I spend most social engagements trying to compensate for my face by being aggressively pleasant, but I can never play it off right. In my mind I’m Kate Hudson, floating around smiley and confident, casting golden beams of warmth on everyone I talk to, but what I actually am is Angelica Huston on coke, scaring everyone into submission. I spent the rest of the holiday party with one eye on the bar, waiting for an opportunity to have a moment alone with the midgets where I could redeem myself. When it never came, I retreated to where I truly belonged- in front of the platters of catered Chik-Fil-A. I don’t look bitchy when my mouth is full of chicken, I look like I’m in ecstasy, and there all your engagements with strangers revolve around dipping sauce and that is a conversation I can keep going. One that I have been silently rehearsing ever since I ate my first chicken nugget. You must give people chances and you must give anxious, awkward people more than a dozen chances, I reminded myself.
“We would love to see your art, and we don’t think you are cranky at all. They should really put a sign on the door for heaven’s sake,” I told the neighbor. Taylor, who, when just standing around idly looks like a sweet, friendly guy, looked at me with eyes that said, ahhhhhhhh. “I’m Joe by the way,” the neighbor introduced himself, shaking Taylor’s hand and then mine. We followed Joe down the stairs and into his apartment. “Do you see what I mean about the art?” he said pointing to the ceiling. Taylor and I stood in the living room before a huge, floor to ceiling sized mural of a screaming mummy. Taylor and I looked at each other. I was now in full observation mode, lost in my head, and this is where my face becomes idle and most people think I’m bitchy or a deaf mute, probably both, a bitchy looking deaf mute. “Wow, that is an incredible painting,” Taylor commented, breaking the silence. Joe’s eyes were bright. “Who do you imagine painted it? Take a guess.” I woke up and suddenly realized Joe might be on my level. I looked at the enormous bald skeletal head, its eyes wide, its mouth open in pain, its bony arms at its chest. It was the perfect representation of torture, rage and angst. “A woman. Absolutely.” I told Joe, studying his face and trying to decide if I could add, “Oh Joe, I could have painted this, I mean this speaks to me.” Joe looked pleased. “A twenty-four year old woman in Chile,” he said. I threw up one hand. “Nothing says twenty-four like a screaming mummified corpse.”
I could tell Taylor had also realized Joe was in fact functioning on my level, and that if he didn’t take over, this conversation could get far away from him, him being the one and only fully grounded human being in the room. Joe and I were now holding hands with the screaming mummy, all three of us dancing around in a circle, Joe and I all googly eyed over this grotesque mummy that represented all the horror we feel on the inside, but can never release. “Do you travel to Chile a lot?” Taylor asked Joe, looking at some framed snapshots of a car accident hanging on the wall. Joe and my monster mash came to a halt and Joe began a long tale about how he had traveled to Chile and saw the car crash on his way to the airport and had to stop the cab so he could take a picture. As Taylor held that conversation I stood before the mummy, just the two of us, alone. There are many noble pursuits in life- science, medicine, law, but art is definitely one of those things that keep us alive and connect us. People find beautiful ways to put messages out into the world to let others know they aren’t alone. And while pop stars do it through swinging around naked on a ball and chain or air humping a stuffed animal, I find a dramatic, enormous painting of a screaming petrified person a better representation of my inner struggle to become something in a cruel and strange world. Luckily, the world is big enough for both types of expression. I was imagining a twenty-four year old girl in Chile painting this- what was her everyday life like? I thought about how I sit at my desk wearing fake glasses, writing about things that happen to me, trying to make connections and work out the things in life that don’t seem to make any sense, trying to find a way to conquer them. We all are screaming mummies, I thought.
Joe and Taylor were now in a serious discussion. Joe’s eyes were dark and he was using his hands while he talked. I re-entered the conversation, and just at the right time. “I think, now I don’t know, but I think, that the smell in the winter is the mussels secreting something,” Joe was telling Taylor. Joe gets it, skip boring small talk, go straight to the important matters when getting to know people. “Like farts?” I asked. Taylor scratched his head. “Or maybe it’s mating season?” he suggested. Joe and I stared at Taylor. “I think it may be farts,” Joe agreed and I nodded. Taylor coughed, “Joe, thank you for showing us your art, it’s a beautiful painting.” I looked at Joe. “Thank you for sharing your mummy with us.” I said dramatically, my voice almost a whisper. I knew if I said anything else I would tear up and begin to weep. I have a feeling though that Joe would have understood. And that’s the beginning to everything, really.