And These are the Things that Color My Iconic Portraits of Her
She came from a long line of artists, a family that was given private tours through restricted areas of The Hermitage, a museum that she reminded me had more paintings than any other place in the world. In Saint Petersburg, where she was born, Olga said artists were taken away by Stalin’s government and her parents were able to get immigration papers but only for them. So her mother told her to be silent, be still and she was hidden under her mother’s coat when they boarded a ship or so the story goes. And she must have watched her father so carefully in his studio, much later. Her exacting gray-blue eyes studying how he handled brushes and colors and restored Rembrandts and these are the things that color my iconic portraits of her. More of myths than facts, I guess. Though what color wheel or point of perspective is there for things like these?
I remember when I called her not too long ago and asked how to hang the graffiti painting in my apartment. I had just gotten back from Pittsburgh, just brought back the painting that I bought off a wall, drunk from four or five at The Library, a bar we left then wandered down East Carson, then we were smoking a whole hookah ourselves at H-Kan on a corner couch in dim light, leaning into each other, faded from all the smoke in our chests. And I said that I wanted to buy a painting from the walls, so she asked which one and I said I didn't know yet, just one from the walls and then I picked one, a painting that she approved of.
I woke up in my mom’s house and barely remembered paying a brunette waitress with a bunch of twenties out of the ATM by the bar. The small canvas had smoggy green and yellowed red, light pink graffiti scrawled across it in interlinked letters that said something like State or Statue or Stare and I had to figure out where to put it. I called her when I got back to my apartment in upstate New York and she said, Don't hang any paintings on a wall that gets direct sunlight. It'll drain them, it'll pull the color out, even if you don't notice right away.
We told everyone that we knew something about soul mates from that day at Kennywood, the day at an amusement park where we rode the Racer and the Thunderbolt with Russian friends we had in common and Olga was dating one of them. Or about to start dating him, then about to break up with him, then she waited to start dating me and the day we met, I flipped through her sketchbook at a picnic table by a roller-coaster, studying inked, cartoon-style cats and photo-realistic eyes and quick portraits of her friends with messy hair and intense gazes and knowing I had a girlfriend, I kissed Olga on the hand, smiling, embarrassed that I couldn’t offer more. So I went to a park with the other girl soon after to see if it still felt the same and I just sat there, staring at bracelets on my wrists, bracelets that Olga gave me and I told the other girl that I was so sorry but I didn’t tell her about the amusement park or letting Olga put her head on my sunburned shoulder in the car on the way home.
And it took me so long to see it Olga’s way when she said, I was the lip-slut of the Pittsburgh art scene for almost a year after we dated. It's just what I had to do, you know? And I guess I kind of knew, laughing at the time, telling myself that it’s what I needed to hear during one of my visits home. We were having drinks at Nine on Nine downtown or maybe at a less posh bar on the South Side or we could have been in her apartment in Highland Park some other night and I wanted being there to mean more than it did. At the very least I remember her saying at some point, If we use each other in our work, then we have to include a gray cat. If it's a painting or a sketch that I do or if it's a story or poem that you write, there has to be a gray cat somewhere. She said it would be our code, our subtle signal to one another that we were a character, an influence, a covert gesture.
Though I didn't tell her about all of the stories it took to try and write her out of me. All the imagined girls and gray cats, all the character-driven plots and for so long I saw her only through my stories, through female characters, characters I wrote about with references to Varo and surrealism and graffiti. And before the graffiti painting I bought off the wall of that bar in Pittsburgh, there was another painting. One of her paintings that we called The Nike Painting. Or she called it that then I called it that. And it was day and night in The Nike Painting, street-lamps and glassy surfaces and she had dirty-blond hair and always-pink cheeks, a skinny European form and bony, careful hands. She stretched her own canvases and mixed her own colors, shades that balanced in The Nike Painting somewhere between ruddy copper and crimson for the smokestacks to the right of the goddess and so many shades of smoke billowing out of the stacks, out of where her head should have been. But it was gone in her painting like it was gone from the ancient statue and her statue wasn't entirely concrete, dripping thick wax of itself over its invisible lower half.
But we still talked almost every night through cordless phones or used to talk almost every night, at least before she dated a guy I called Epic, a gallery attendant at The Warhol. A guy I wanted to hate in my absurd, naive angst, wanting him to be the male antagonist who made Stella, an imagined girl, drink herself unknowing at night in one of my stories. And in her room without any lights on, Stella gulped down red wine straight from the bottle, a bottle she threw against the wall because that's what she needed, because that's what Olga needed, or what I imagined she needed. And there was a charcoal-striped kitten licking at wine on the shag carpet. And so long before that, when we walked by the Carnegie Art Museum, she said, You have theories for everything, do you know that? And I told her that one of the things I adored most was someone who wasn't afraid to question me. And Olga, dressed like an exaggerated Alice in purple tights and a frilly black skirt, blushed and said that she was glad, though she said she never felt smart enough.
I stared at the star she’d drawn beside her eye with carbon black eyeliner and didn’t know what I could say. I didn’t know then how impossibly fine the difference is between walking somewhere with someone as a couple and walking somewhere close enough to be mistaken for a couple. How impossible it would be for us to do the things I imagined then, the two of us carrying groceries up the barely cracked steps to a one-bedroom we shared in Chicago or Pittsburgh or some narrow street of a European city where we could somehow afford to go on vacation.
And so late, too late one night, I was too drunk to get home when I was in town again, so she said I could sleep at her apartment in Highland Park. So she made a bed for me on her living room floor out of a forest green Army blanket and a pale linen poncho. A pillow from her bed or from her couch but I wanted it to be in her room, through that barely cerulean wall, and behind the door I heard half-close.
And by then I was already writing about girls based on her. Little, capricious forces packed into five-foot-nothing. Girls who stayed up for days on five-sugared coffees and chain-smoked Parliaments, doing whatever it took to finish their latest piece. A piece like the scale replica of Duchamp's Large Glass, tagged with “SIZEMIK” in Chesire Cat magenta spray-paint. Sizemik, a graffiti artist I imagined, painted it years before she showed up at an ex-'s apartment, pulling out a little gray cat with big ears and high, Egyptian eyes. And at some point in the night when I was still in a light sleep, one of her cats curled up between my ankles and I looked down and it was Aziza, Olga’s gray cat, and I wanted that fact to mean some kind of something.
But Olga looked at me with those scrunched-up eyes sometime after, when I told her, and she said, You only cared because she's gray and that’s always been your favorite color, and she laughed with her endearing, over-exerted laugh, mentioning the other two cats that I didn't like as much. Though, even then, she knew that I still had trouble with cats. Trusting them, I mean. Because I had already told her a bunch of times that I grew up with golden retrievers, that I always knew how dogs were going to move or what they wanted, and I suppose the metaphor is too obvious or dead or dying.
And eventually it wasn't that she didn't feel smart enough anymore, she said that she always felt like I was judging her. At least the Olga that smoked cloves and had things instead of relationships with guys. The Olga that made out in gallery rooms at The Warhol with painters and photographers, guys and some girls, Elvis and Jackie O on the walls, a gray cat on a shoulder blade or ankle, a Chesire Cat messenger bag from an old lover. The Olga that said, I'm tired of feeling bad for being someone that isn't the girl you dated before or the girl you imagined you were dating.
And she just stared at the Ninth Street Bridge, the traffic ahead of us, sitting there in her Jeep with brakes that barely worked, ignoring things when we walked through the Carnegie Museum together again and she barely glanced at the Pollock or the minimalist art, saying, This painting doesn't do anything for me or This is shit or It's a fucking orange triangle, anyone could make this. So she pointed out how other artists in the museum, artists that she respected, could make light using pale yellows and barely blue mixed with eggshell and I was amazed by the nuance.
And I made another one of my characters, a male this time, paint praise-worthy Surrealist graffiti. Canvases that she might have painted and that I might have wanted, canvases that I might have painted myself if I could because, if someone walked by that imagined painting with a charcoal kitten in the background and if they glanced out of the corner of their eye, spotted the brown dots on the skin of a gala apple in the foreground, they could see the face of a girl or think they saw the face of a girl.
But much later, she knew I still wanted The Nike Painting and I knew she didn't want me to have it, not until she was jobless. If you still want that painting, it's yours, she said, telling me that she'd still sell it for a hundred, saying, I could really use the cash.
And it was probably before she made The Nike Painting that she sketched me, probably when she came to my house and we rented City of Angels because she told me later that she knew it would make her sob and give me a reason to hold her. And after, in the pale blue glow of my TV, I kissed her for the first time and it was probably a little while after that kiss that she sketched me, told me not to move, not to ask why and I felt more artful than I ever had before or since because she was looking at me so carefully, me then the page, then me sketched on the page, lying on my bed, my widow's peaked hair, narrow nose, dark jelly bracelets.
And my mom said, Amazing. Olga, this looks exactly like him. And I wonder where the boy Olga sketched went and the beauty she exacted and I still have the sketch in a frame that I rarely show anyone. And my mom told Olga and I at the kitchen table one night, I’m not telling you two not to be safe or not to use protection, but I wouldn’t mind having grandchildren in the next couple of years. And Olga and I laughed, grinning at each other and my mom told me afterward that she wouldn't mind having Olga as a daughter-in-law and I said that it worked so well, that I even adored Olga’s parents.
And so long after Olga and I broke up and Olga lived in a city I left and I dated other people in other places, my mom told me, Well to be honest, Josh, I still liked Olga the best. She said that this or that other girl was all right but she wasn't like Olga. I know, I said, nodding and staring at the pale yellow kitchen counter or some piece of furniture in whatever room we were in, nodding that I knew that’s how my mom felt but not knowing how I did. And my mom went on, saying, There isn't that connection, the chemistry that you two had. And I wanted to tell her to stop, that I knew she meant well but still. I just stared at the veins tracing up my arms, veins that Olga might call a light cerulean. And my mom told me, You just got each other. It just made sense when you were together. Maybe because you’re artists. I wanted to bring up all the artful grandchildren Olga and I never raised and the hours after we broke up that I shrieked and wept and how Olga and I were never able to use her father’s name as our son’s middle name, to make our own version of the Russian tradition.
And my mom told me, as if it were some kind of consolation, as if it had some kind of bearing on the future, But Josh, let’s be honest—I know you two will get back together. And I just stared at my mom’s steady pine green eyes and her smile and I wondered then like I wonder now, whether it’s Olga that I’ve been waiting to come back or if it’s the beauty and artfulness she let me secret with her, as if they were things that I was as well.