My face and my head pulse, and so does the radio. I’m losing track of time, but I can tell that we’re close to the beach when the police officer stops us—the ceaseless strip of road has gone satisfyingly gritty with sand.
My face and my head pulse, and so does the radio. I’m losing track of time, but I can tell that we’re close to the beach when the police officer stops us—the ceaseless strip of road has gone satisfyingly gritty with sand. Cyrus rolls down the window, and the air that seeps inside the car, briny and warm, confirms the nearness of the ocean. He is calm as he hands his driver’s license over to the stocky man, whose face is more pink than white. The police officer is calm. I am the only one, it seems, whose heart is beating in her chest.
I think that when your father is Black, when your brothers are Black and your sons will be Black, you wait for this moment all your life. The closest I’d gotten to it was years ago, when my brother was followed around an art museum. He was thirteen, but even then, he was used to his shadow: eagle eyes in white faces that trailed him in department stores and clothing stores and grocery stores. When it happened, he was wearing a durag. I can’t remember the color, but I remember that around the time of the incident, he’d been obsessed with neons. He’d called me from outside the museum to pick him up just ten minutes after I’d dropped him off.
My brother cried in the passenger seat on the way home. He had just learned about Basquiat in his eighth-grade art class, he could barely spell Basquiat without mixing up all the vowels, he was a child. I remember asking, “What did they even think you were going to steal?”
I didn’t know much about art, back then, besides the Mona Lisa, The Girl with a Pearl Earring—white women who had been frozen for eternal admiration. I didn’t care much for art, back then, but I liked the idea of being frozen, too. And I liked the idea of a Black man who was an artist, a Black man who belonged in an art museum, no matter what.
The officer hands back Cy’s license, and I’m frozen in time, there is an easy smile frozen on my face. We drive off. We’re both quiet as the road grows furiously more sandy.
“What are you thinking about?” Cy asks me.
“My brother,” I say, and I tell him the story.
Nostalgia is an emotion that agrees with Cy. On his dark face sits wistful eyebrows and carefully-lined eyes, dazzling white teeth that don’t stop worrying a plump bottom lip. His cheeks are halved with dimples that make you look back at his eyes and wonder if they are really so old; his face is one made for searching the past.
In the present, he is a painter. When he makes a mistake he lengthens the stray line, unceasing, and I love him.
He coaxes the car into park, and I stretch my arms above my head. We have driven eleven hours, and the sun is setting now. Cy has rented a cabin, and we load dozens of canvases inside in minutes. He is so eager here, and it’s infectious. We leave our shoes with the canvases and laugh at nothing as we run to the shore. I feel sixteen again and my brother’s durag burns behind my eyelids and when I open them Cy is sliding his own off.
The waves crash into the sand. This a dance they’ve danced before Cyrus and me, a dance they will dance when there is no longer a Cyrus and me. The dull colors of the sea and sky meet at the horizon, and that makes them brighter. I feel younger than sixteen now. I don’t know whether to dig my toes into the sand or soak them in the sea, so I run back and forth, conflicted. Then I sit and let the tide decide for me. I can’t stop smiling. I smile so wide that the bruises on my face start to sting like they’re fresh. It’s almost too bright to look at, so I look at Cy, instead, and he is already looking at me.
He is a Black man who belongs in an art museum.
His camera has appeared from nowhere to swing around his neck. He raises it to his face and takes a picture of me grinning at him. It’s darker every second, but he doesn’t use flash —there’s only the privately quiet click of the shutter.
Then his voice, just as quiet.“I’m sorry,” he begins.
I’m cringing, I’m stepping out of the water, I’m wrapping my arms around him before he can continue. “It’s forgotten,” I say.
“It’s not,” he insists. “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
I swallow. I repeat, “It’s forgotten.”
The sun is just a memory, now, too. I think of the art Cy will inevitably make of today, and then it really is forgotten. He slides my hand into his own and squeezes. I remember that when we met I was obsessed with his hands. They’re not the delicate ones of a painter, but rough, hardened things. I’d trace the lines of his palm with my finger. When we started dating, for weeks he only sketched hands. Mine in my lap, mine in my hair, mine intertwined in his. They can tell so much, he likes to say. I believe him, of course. I know that hands are as powerful as words.
For days I sit on the beach and write while he paints in the cabin.
It’s a testament to Cy’s talent and recent success that we are able to do this. Laze on the beach indefinitely, indulge in art—these are things we never dreamed of as children. As a child, I didn’t even know that these were things people did, things I should have thought to dream of. The cabin is comprised more of windows than walls. He never says, but I imagine that Cy picked it because of those windows that stretch from floor to ceiling, that fill the place with light as we fill it with darker things. Everything else, the yellow kitchen, the halcyon bedroom, the tiled shower, is small, and demands that you must dance and smile as you float from room to room. It is small enough that I imagine when we leave, I will miss it intimately.
My skin darkens in the sun, and as days pass, it begins to heal, too. For the most part, we leave each other alone until night. Sunset, dinner in the yellow kitchen, bed—sometimes he fucks me until I sob, sometimes he kneels and presses his lips to my knuckles. When I rise in the mornings, Cy is usually already painting. Light shines blue through our bedroom window, perhaps because I am expecting it to be any other color. When the sun rises, I am thinking blue, blue, blue. Blue like the grass, blue like the trees, like the birds that sing good morning before morning is ready.
I make friends with the birds when I’m not reading and learn that nests are not used for sleeping, perhaps because I am expecting them to be. Nests are for protecting, like blue light when it rocks me to sleep. Like blue light that caresses me good morning.
I dance through the cabin when it’s too cool on the beach. The birds, so small and pitiful, make me think of my brother. I call him.
“I miss you,” I say.
In my head, he is forever a child, but really he is too old for my coddling. He is working his way through medical school now. I tell him a little about our vacation. He’s incredulous at the idea of us traveling the country to paint pictures and write stories, and his familiar laughter does make the whole thing feel silly.
“How’s Cyrus?” he asks, voice low.
“You know,” I say. “The same. Painting.”
He snorts and repeats, “Painting. Must be nice.”
“I miss you, too, Nia,” he admits finally.
I tell him I know, I ask him to be safe. I think about the way he laughs at Cy, and I remember a time when my brother might have been an artist, too.
One morning, I pad barefoot to the room Cy has converted into his temporary studio. I marvel at how he’s fashioned it to exude his specific brand of charm so quickly. He’s littered photographs and sketches on every surface. There are paint splatters over it all—a mosaic of chocolates and russets and umbers and taupes. It’s not that the paintings themselves are dark, but the subjects, they always are.
“I have something for you,” he says, and I know it is a painting. They are always for me, never of me. I love him.
And in the middle of the studio, there I am, another shade of brown: blue.
“What do you think?” He asks me.
He’s reproduced the picture he’d taken on the beach, but the painting is more real than the picture, more real than the moment was as it happened. This new version of me is navy, and smiling so wide that you might think it’s the first time she’s tried out the expression on her face. I stare at her until the most wondrous thing happens, the thing that happens every time Cy sketches or draws or paints me. I begin to feel like a person. I let myself be floored by the notion, and in those long minutes, I believe it must be true. You are a person, the me of the painting proclaims.
Cy is pleased with the tears in my eyes.
“It’s beautiful,” I say.
“It’s not as beautiful as you,” he argues, though we both know that is a lie. He is still apologizing, I think. I’m used to the way these things work in cycles. A photograph, a sketch, a painting. Bruises, I’m sorry, a girl in blue.
I laugh—that is part of the cycle, too. “Better than a da Vinci,” I continue.
He taps my temple. “Crazy girl.” He replaces his finger with his lips, which then drop to my mouth. “Bye.”
I go back to the beach and the birds; he continues to paint.
I stretch my legs out on the sand. They’re not blue, but almost. I think about the girl in the painting, who is me, but not. She’s the type of girl who clearly knows a lot about her own face, which in the painting is noticeably unlined and unscarred. For example, in the painting, she looked at me from an angle that suggests she is nothing but happy, and there’s no room for discussion on the matter. I can imagine her spending a lot of time in the mirror. I suspect that she never glares or rolls her eyes because her nose threatens to scrunch whenever she blinks too hard. I suspect that people have a hard time reading her any other way than she wants them to. Cy only ever looks in the mirror only when it coincides with something else—shaving, teeth brushing. Wiping blood from it.
There are other things about him: He likes jokes, but only ones that are more smart than funny. He’s quiet when he paints, he’s loud when he sobs at a happy ending and screams that I don’t fucking listen to him and shouts that an artist he admires has reached out. His face is perpetually in the shape of a sigh. His name is a sigh. His breath is a warm sigh when it fans over my skin. He doesn’t like to sleep with the fan on because it scares him when he can’t hear me breathing. He falls asleep before me regardless. He snores; that is loud, too. He’s not an outlier. He is a man like other men who loves the beach. He wakes up early to sketch and check his emails. He gets sent things like Painting of the Day and Baby Name of The Day and The Ancient Greek Word of the Day. This morning it’s dendreon—δένδρεοv— meaning, to be turned into a tree. Tonight he’ll dream of himself as a tree, a tall green maple that everyone respects and admires except for two misfit kids, a boy and a girl from the projects who fall in love and inscribe their initials into his trunk with a heart carved around them. The soundtrack of the dream must be the sound of my breathing but when he tells me about them, his face is nostalgic for a time before me, after me.
“You deserve to be art,” he tells me, and I already know it. He will photograph me and sketch me and paint my face with bruises until a version of me, a girl who knows a lot about her own face, hangs in the same places that the Mona Lisa and The Girl with a Pearl Earring do. I deserve to be art and Cyrus deserves to be an artist and we deserve this over and over again until my brother can walk into an art museum and not cry as he walks out. Whatever happens between now and then is worth it. I protect him as he paints only pretty things, because his life’s been ugly and if I don’t defend him, who will?
I’m losing track of time, but we are so close to the beach when a police officer stops us and asks: Where are we going, what’s all this stuff in the car, why is your face so swollen?
We explain: the beach, his art supplies, I fell.
Were we speeding, Officer? Cyrus asks, because we were not. He looks calm, though for some reason I know he is thinking of my brother, and the first and last time he had been to an art museum. He can’t possibly have known the story, for the simple reason that I haven’t told it to him yet. But he hands his license over so scarily calm, that I’m sure he is thinking of it, too—because it is a story we all know. When your father is Black and your brothers are Black and your sons will be Black, you know.
You fell? The officer repeats. His face is more pink than white; in no lighting will he ever be mistaken for blue. Are we sure everything is alright?
I think of my brother, and of course, I protect him.