The parakeets are frantically chirping out on the patio, their little bodies pumping like beating hearts. They seem to know when the weather is going to change and they are demanding to be moved to a place under the eves where they will be safe from the rain. It hardly seems possible that I will be leaving Mexico once and for all in the morning. I am returning in shame, in defeat, to a place I hate and without even a glimmer of the hope that gave me the strength to go off on my own. I was young and naïve. My friends all warned me to stay away from the famous painter, but I was drawn to him as a moth to a flame. As I close my eyes, that year unfolds again as if for the first time.
“Yes, Miss. Your bags are checked straight through. Immigration and customs are in Oaxaca. You will have no worries in Mexico City, just a change of planes.”
Excitement is too ordinary a word to describe how I felt that day. I felt bliss, pure bliss. I was going to become a great painter like Mariana Yampolsky became a great photographer, on the strength of my own will. I had the power that such confidence provides, enough to defy all my friends and family who were united against me. Only my Uncle Cole, whom I adore more than my own father, was there to encourage me when I left.
“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” He quoted Pascal as he smiled his goodbye and kissed me softly on the cheek. Then he slipped a hundred dollar bill into my hand. “Buy something nice for yourself and always follow your dream, Stephanie, even when it seems impossible. Remember, I’ll be here for you always.”
The first day I saw Garcia, he arrived with an entourage looking majestic in his white pants and shirt, his long inky hair, and his face unshaved and rugged. The event was to honor the painters of Oaxaca, their impact on the city and the culture, and he was the guest of honor. I stood as close as I could to where he would be walking. Miraculously, he stopped when he saw me. He looked startled as he stared into my face.
“I must paint you,” he said.
“No, I will paint you.” The boldness of the remark made me shiver.
He laughed loudly. “We’ll see about that.” He walked on into the crowd. That’s all I remember of that night. Nothing could compare to that short exchange of words, or at least I did not think so at the time.
He had me out of my clothes in a week. I found him irresistible. He painted me first with his eyes and his hands just as I painted him. So, in a sense, we both kept our word. Later he did apply brush to canvas, and that is the story I must tell. The world must know the truth. So many rumors abound, all false. I know that it is a hopeless cause. No one really wants to know the truth when the fiction is so much easier. But, the truth is all I have left to restore my sanity and perhaps my pride.
Sanity and pride, does that sound narcissistic? I cannot imagine anything worthwhile in life without either.
The Hacienda de los Pintores had been established by Garcia Garcia as a sort of retreat for young aspiring artists. I was the only American in residence and the only girl. That, and my special relationship with Garcia, made me an object of curiosity and jealousy among the other students. In spite of being the butt of their jokes and derision, the early weeks at the Hacienda were magical. Loneliness and the compulsion to overcome it forced me to create a fantasy world, a virtual world that ultimately replaced the real world which was so often a disappointment. My art provided a superior type of satisfaction that held my life together.
Aside from Garcia, there was one other human being with which I maintained some type of contact. A common language brought us together. I met Michael Lawrence, the Englishman, when I was walking one day in the courtyard. Old and fat, professorial and nostalgic, the worst kind of bore, he cornered me as he sat drinking mescal and eating peanuts. The purple skins slipped off and peppered his shirt and chin while little white balls of saliva ran down both sides of his mouth. He told me the story that later he would repeat over and over again.
“As a young man, I arrived in Oaxaca by bus in the dark of the morning. I walked up the hill to Monte Alban to watch the sunrise. The merging of the colors was exquisite, but there was something else there amidst the silence of the giant stones, something inexplicably frightening, a sort of foreboding of doom. I think it is still in the blood of these local Indians. Have you watched them closely? Their eyes are like windows into the soul.”
He took a sip of mescal. His shirt was too tight and gapped at the buttons down the front in a way that exposed his bulging white flesh.
“I spent a year in the mountains with the Indians, you see, and would have gone completely native if I hadn’t come to my senses. Lost my grip on reality, I did. But now, I am desperate to go back, you know. I’m going to go back and walk through the mountains and never return.”
The Englishman was one of a group of flatterers and sycophants that surrounded Garcia Garcia, lost souls hanging on in the hope of resurrection. I might have taken what he told me as a warning had I been able to overcome my implacable optimism, but I sloughed it off as the chaff that clings to the periphery of great men. I knew better than to be taken in by failed dreamers like Michael Lawrence although I will admit that I was drawn to him as a fellow sufferer.
“Are you a painter?” I inquired, thinking to change the subject.
“Ah! There are no painters here my child, only ghosts of painters and bodies of those who pretend to be painters.”
He disturbed me. I excused myself to go to my room.
“You won’t find any answers here, young lady. These walls echo with unanswered questions and unfulfilled hopes. If it’s wisdom you seek, go to the mountains. If you wish to be a painter, go back where life is more familiar. There are no painters here. Go back.” His hand shook when he lifted up the glass for another sip of mescal.
Garcia himself was seldom at the Hacienda. His fame and wealth kept him travelling. It was a mystery to some how he managed to produce a masterpiece a month, paintings that gained an international audience and inspired a generation of young followers, but everyone that knew him was enthralled by his magnetic personality and his unsurpassed abilities. Unlike other painters, he had no distinctive style. His reach was broad. He painted all styles and all manner of themes. His method was an enigma, but his success created a legend that transcended the details.
As the months passed, my relationship with Garcia Garcia deepened and created discord between myself and the other artists in residence. He would often arrive unexpectedly and come to my room at all hours of the day or night. He seemed genuinely interested in my work and sometimes commented enthusiastically, something he seldom did with any of the painters in residence. I wanted to hope that he actually believed in my skill as a painter as much as he enjoyed my body. Whether unfounded or not, it was a comforting belief that sustained me during his absences when I was often ostracized by the others.
Once when he was very drunk, the Englishman warned me about Garcia.
“Jeez Chris, the snake … don’t slither … mocks God ‘e does … walks on borrowed feet … ‘e does… Mine … my words, young lady … go back … go … back.”
At first I felt sorry for Lawrence, but we didn’t grow close. Later, I paid no attention to him at all. I was afraid he would drag me down to his level. He became a fixture in the courtyard like the stones in the walls. Eventually I failed to listen to anything he said as he rambled on incoherently when I walked past. I was surprised to see him painting from time to time although I was never able to catch a glimpse of his work. I made a note of it then, and now it all makes sense.
It took me awhile to notice that the turnover of artists at the Hacienda was unusually rapid. I kept to myself and seldom spoke with the others. I was surprised one day to discover that I had the distinction of having been there longer than any of the others except for the Englishman. It created a strange tie between us. The new arrivals treated me like a seasoned veteran. The asked me questions about what to expect and sometimes came to me with their fears and trials.
One day, without any explanation, the Englishman too was gone without a trace.
I suspected at first that he might be ill. I knocked on his door several times, but there was never an answer. The manager, whom I know resented me, saw me knocking. “Señor Lawrence, he leave two days ago.”
I was astounded and hurt that he left without even saying goodbye, but I suppose I gave him no reason to think that I would care.
A few days later, Garcia arrived. Clouds had gathered in the sky and it looked like rain. It wasn’t my place to feel ignored when he didn’t come to my room to say hello, but I will admit that it bothered me more than I expected. I wanted to inquire further about the Englishman. That evening at dinner Garcia ignored me. He sat at a table with a few of the new arrivals joking and carrying on. I went back to my room and waited, but he didn’t come.
It was silly, but I began to cry. Later I felt foolish and then angry. I wiped away my tears and tried to put on a strong face. It was not that late. I thought he might still come to me, and I was prepared to give him a piece of my mind.
After awhile, there was a knock on the door. I ran like an excited child and opened it unable to stop myself from smiling in anticipation of soon being in his arms. Taken aback, I was greeted by a woman that I had never seen before.
“I am Yvonne. I know that you have been carrying on with my husband. It is of no concern to me. I am not here in a rage. He needs his little flings, and I have always accepted that. I have not come to scold you or to moralize. I fear that you may be in danger. You do not know him as I do. I have come to warn you and to ask you to leave for your own good.”
Needless to say I was stunned, embarrassed of course, and confused. I didn’t know this woman, but I knew Garcia, and I trusted him. In a way I had grown to love him although I always knew that he was married and that as an artist he had to live in a world of his own. I was convinced that he believed in my talent. I needed that more than anything else, someone to believe in me, in my ability as an artist. Because he provided that for me, I closed my eyes to the rest.
“I don’t know what to say. This is very awkward. I will accept that you come with pure intentions, but I cannot leave. My relationship with Garcia is one between two artists who inspire each other and drive each other to new heights. Leaving would be the end of me.”
“You are very young. Yes, you are also very talented, more so than any of the others that have been here. I have seen your work and watched it evolve in ways you might not suspect, but please believe me. You are in danger and you must leave.”
So, he had been showing my work to his wife. I felt both angry and proud.
“Thank you for the warning. I will think carefully about what you have said. You are very kind under the circumstances.”
She left without further comment. The next morning at breakfast I learned that Garcia had left the Hacienda. I couldn’t decide what to do. The capacities of human beings are so erratic. You find someone and you think that you are made for each other and then you find that there are times you cannot stand to be with them. I was happy that he was gone. There are days when I want company and days when I must have absolute solitude.
I threw myself into my work. The next few weeks were among the happiest times I spent in Oaxaca. I took walks and trips outside the Hacienda almost every day to make sketches and gather ideas. I produced several new paintings working every day and often late into the night. Sometimes I forgot to eat or to put on my face or even to change my clothes. I looked at myself in the mirror and realized that I had become dowdy and plain, but I was driven by forces beyond my control. I had absorbed the extremes of Mexico, smelted them like ore into colors and forms that burned in my head and spewed them out onto the canvas without even thinking. I had become my paintings.
I am told the breakdown occurred around a month ago, but I can’t write about that, I can’t remember. I was given medications and confined to my room. All my paintings were removed, and I never saw them again. They told me yesterday that I was strong enough to leave, to go back home, and that the arrangements had been made.
They don’t know that I managed to save one of my paintings. Taking coarse pigments which could easily be removed, I daubed over the exquisite figures which I had brought to life, the irreplaceable backgrounds that I had created of Mexico and then, on the blank surface, I painted the juvenile ravings of a young girl gone mad, a jumble of meaningless scribbling.
Garcia frowned when he saw it, and I was afraid that he had seen through my plan. He looked into my eyes, the man who once held me in his arms, and stepped away disgusted.
He turned to the manager. “Let her take this piece of trash. It’s worthless. Her family will see that she has no skill and that her compulsion to push beyond her abilities led to her destruction.”
He left me alone in the courtyard. I noticed a newspaper folded on the chair where he had been sitting. It was a copy of the Sunday Observer. I glanced at the front page, and there it was for me to see.
Famed painter Michael Lawrence disappears in Mexico along with all the unseen work of his final years …
The parakeets are frantically chirping out on the patio, their little bodies pumping like beating hearts. They seem to know when the weather is going to change and they are demanding to be moved to a place under the eves where they will be safe from the rain. It hardly seems possible that I will be leaving Mexico once and for all in the morning. But, I will go. I am taking one painting. Someday I will uncover it and show the world the truth.