The Conversation

“From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands, I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.”

--Henri Matisse

"The Conversation" by Henri Matisse, 1909, oil on canvas, 177cmx217 cm

The Conversation

a short story by Lauren Kindle


Three months after he got laid off at the diaper factory, Michael painted all of the rooms of his house a deep, Ultramarine blue.  He was going for something divine: the blue of the ceiling and walls of the Arena Chapel in Padua.  He wanted to paint little angels, peeking out of the blue, just like Giotto, the fourteenth century Florentine painter.  Michael wondered how one might go about painting little angels.  After all, he wasn’t an artist…

Angels got Michael to thinking about babies, and babies made him think about diapers.  Thirteen years working for Luvvy’s Diapers, and for what?  Fantastic health benefits, certainly, and a bloated IRA, a nice house, and a garage filled with thousands of free diaper samples, enough to protect the butts of half a dozen babies.  But there were no babies; Julia was adamant.  She wasn’t the mothering-type.

“Hey, honey, what if I tried to paint a little cherub right here, where--” Michael began.

“Don’t even think about it,” Julia cut him off.  She found the blue walls to be dark and oppressive, like her husband’s restless presence.  All day long, he moped about in his pajamas, watching art documentaries on you-tube, or eating cereal straight out of the box, just shaking the dry flakes straight into his mouth.

“It’s not your fault you got laid-off,” she told him, trying to be sympathetic.  “I know you’re bummed about it.  But you really should be sending out your resume to some new places.”  She wrote out a schedule for him, with daily and weekly goals.  Julia excelled in time management, or, as she called it, “time-domination.”  She tied up the hours into neat little knots of anxiety. 

“I think I want to be an artist,” Michael said dreamily, picking a flake of cereal out of his beard, and popping it in his mouth. 

“You’re ridiculous,” Julia snapped.  She couldn’t understand why he continued to stare off into space, when he could be applying for more jobs.  It drove her crazy to see his days being wasted away.  And most of all, she missed her solitude, the long hours when Michael had been away at work.  “You’re almost forty,” she continued in a venomous burst of sarcasm, “and suddenly you decide you want to be an artist?” 

The next day, Michael bought a set of oil paints and brushes and a large wooden easel.  He set it up with great satisfaction; he loved being laid-off.  Back when he was a shift manager at Luvvy’s Diapers, commuting two hours each way, there had never been a moment to just be.  Now, time expanded before him, all around him, with a fullness, a blue-ness.  He was in a wide meadow of time…

“At least go outside and cut the grass or something!” Julia said.  So Michael went outside, in his pajamas, and spent the day digging holes in the lawn.

“What on earth did you do?” Julia nearly screamed, when she looked out the window and saw three large holes in her perfect lawn.  Her face was white with rage.

“They’re going to be fishponds,” Michael smiled sheepishly.  “I’ll fill them with water, and gold-fish, and water lilies.  Then I’ll paint them, like Monet did with his garden at Argenteuil.”  He felt pretty knowledgeable about Monet after watching another you-tube video the night before, and he was brimming with self-satisfaction.

Julia fumed.  She stormed out into the garage, and nearly tripped on a box of Luvvy’s diapers.  She gave the box a sharp, angry kick, and then spent the rest of the day feeling guilty, without really knowing why.  Later, when Michael was busy fussing with his newly dug holes, she crept back into the garage and rearranged the diaper boxes into neatly organized stacks.

As the summer weeks passed, Michael did indeed turn the holes into real fish ponds which rivaled Monet’s.  He spent his days outside in the yard, painting terrible impressionistic paintings.  He knew they were terrible, but he couldn’t stop painting them, nor could he suppress his joy in them.  He loved everything about them: the hedonistic excess of his brush strokes, the garishly overworked colors, the sensual pleasure of mixing paints.  He was so happy, he forgot to shower for days at a time.

One day, he came in to get some more cereal, and Julia was waiting for him, sitting rigidly in her chair, ready to have a Conversation.

"I regret marrying you," Julia said, instantly.  "I don't love you.  Maybe I did once, but I don't anymore.  Also, you smell bad.”

It was too late to hold back her words; even as they came out, she felt the meanness of them, like a bitter taste on her tongue: earthy and intoxicating.  But it was pleasurable to speak this way, and she couldn't stop.  He stood dumbly before her, in his filthy pajamas, his large hands shoved into the pockets.  His thick neck, thrusting out of his collar, reminded Julia of a bull’s neck: a stupid bull.

"You don't even care," Julia continued.  She couldn't stop talking.  "Nothing I say bothers you, because you don't care."  Even as she said it, she felt ashamed.  She knew he did care, and she knew she was hurting him.  She imagined her shame like a great darkness in her mind, or even a birthmark on her forehead, visible to the world.

"Why are you saying these things?” Michael demanded, angrily.  “You’re so selfish!  You won’t say anything encouraging to me.  Can’t you see that I’ve fallen in love with painting?”  He flushed red to the roots of his dark hair.

Julia got a strange thrill in her chest when she saw her husband's look of anger.  Look, I have finally aroused something from him, some emotion from that cold statue.... Her thrill was like a bird, trapped and fluttering in a box.  The taste of meanness on her tongue had become precious to her; she treasured it.  It was a kind of power.

Julia prepared herself to say even more.  She opened her mouth to say something, but then a movement outside the window distracted her.  Perhaps it was a flash of sunlight on the surface of one of the fishponds… What had she been about to say?  The black iron railings outside the window danced before her eyes, suddenly wet with tears.  The curlicues moved to spell Non.  No.  She must not continue her tirade.  She must find a way to stop herself. 

Non.  This conversation was a waste.  Nothing about it had really been true, it was all just an experience of power.  Her words, and even her emotions, merely floated on the surface of what was true.  The deep, true, unspoken part of the conversation was love: her love, and her passion, her desire to control everything, and, deeper still, her even greater desire to have the control taken away from her.  To be free…

She looked again at his neck coming out from the collar of his pajamas.  Was it really so offensive?  She saw his neck tense with emotion, and she admired the muscularity of it.  Again, she was reminded of a bull, but this time, its virility.  She thought about all of the diapers in the garage, and blushed.  Now that was real waste….all those diapers, just sitting there…


"I'm sorry."  She said.  And then again, with a little more sincerity, “I’m so sorry.  I didn’t mean those things.  I’m so emotional…”

The softness of her tone eased Michael’s mind, like a light slowly spreading in the darkness.  The blue walls of the room opened up, swelling like a balloon.  It was the sky after all, the divine blue light of northern Italy, pregnant with meaning.

“I changed my mind,” Julia said, after a pause.

“About being sorry?”  Michael frowned and looked down at her again, thinking maybe he would like to paint her, sitting in that chair.  She smiled and caught his eye.

“No…about the all those little angels.  I do want them, after all.”

And she rose to kiss him.