The Muralists

By Aimee Brooks

I showed up early with a few suitcases of paint-splattered clothes, feeling more like a sojourner than ever. The church was unlocked, so I left my things near the entrance and followed the labyrinth of hallways to the sanctuary. My feet squished into the dark red carpet, and fragments of stained glass filtered light danced all around me and over my body. I took my seat at one of the wooden pews and briefly examined the cloth covers of the red King James Bible and black hymnal.

My body conjured up a powerful hollow sensation against my wishes, the intermingling of anxiety and longing that often pierces my chest when I exist in wide-open spaces. I tried to lean into it, to remember that feeling and hold it tight as if it were some sort of physical object.

Soft footsteps left the tile from the hallways that led into the sanctuary, and goosebumps prickled my arms.

“Isla?” A voice called my name.

When I looked up at the person coming towards me, I came to the realization that I would be spending the summer with my ex-boyfriend.

“Javier,” I said his name back, unsure how to respond. It felt inappropriate to hug him after our skin had not touched in so long.

He took a seat several pews up from me. I felt even smaller with the two of us in the vast room.

“How have you been?” I could see something cross over his eyes — pain, maybe confusion. He was trying not to make too much eye contact.

“Fine.” My answer was hollow. It always was. Empty words describing an empty person. He knew that already.

“And you?”

“It’s been okay. I’m making it.”

His profound honesty struck me. There I was, in disguise in plain sight.

They say ‘take her swimming on the first date,’ — the nasty men that are in the business of sizing women up like a piece of meat at the butcher’s. You wouldn’t want to get a bad one, someone who doesn’t live up to the narrow expectations of what it means to be beautiful.

Javier had taken me swimming. Not on the first date or ever, really to my recollection. But he saw my makeup melt off of my face, mascara drip from my lashes. My foundation flaked away, revealing acne-scarred cheeks and dark circles under my eyes. He had seen my body as it dove into the water, the bit of pudge that my swimsuit couldn’t hide, the cellulite on my thighs.

Take me swimming.

‘Take me swimming,’ I wanted to say.

Reveal me. I’ll strip myself down before you can do it with your eyes. I would have taken a sponge to my face right there. Because I wasn’t afraid of showing what was already apparent — what clothes, or powder, or even a false sense of confidence couldn’t hide, but of what I could not show on the first date or the last.

Before I could embarrass myself, the pastor entered the room, introduced himself, and began explaining our first tasks as the muralists.

The internship application promised that it would be a summer full of networking with other artists while doing good for the community, painting large-scale works that all could enjoy. As the pastor droned on about the next two and half months, I became increasingly aware that all of the networking had already been done.

I rode in the back seat to the rec center owned by the church, staring down the dusty streets with colourful houses. I leaned my head against the window, looking up at the sky. The clouds chased each other as the wind blew them parallel to where I sat. That small moment of peace felt like a consolation prize for being stuck in one of those towns where my nationality was a slur.

The pastor explained to us that we would be preparing the wall of the center facing the highway so that cars passing by could see and planning another near the basketball courts for kids to take pictures in front of.
I began to sweat upon arrival. My hair became hot to the touch, and I tried not to make it obvious that I was checking its temperature every few minutes just in case it were to spontaneously combust.

He told us that all of the supplies and water bottles that we would need were in the gym and that he would be back to bring us lunch.

“I don’t know about you,” I said, staring forward at the grayish wall, side by side with Javier. “But I already think I have regrets.”

“No kidding. Let’s go inside and get some water right now. We need a game-plan.”

Our calculations showed us that our best schedule would follow the sun, rotating between both murals to avoid overexposure, not that it was completely preventable in that barren wasteland.

We sat with our damp backs to the cool inside of the gym, keeping our distance while we took small sips from ice-cold water bottles. A group of kids was playing basketball. Shouting voices, the distinct squeak of rubber on vinyl, and the sting of each dribble echoed off of the walls. No one seemed to notice us. It was not our frontier, though I assumed we would be spending quite a bit of time in there until we finished.

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After scrubbing the dried mould and other potentially harmful scuff marks off the gym’s stucco wall, Javier informed me that we would need to prime the surface before we started with any kind of paint. I could tell that this was more of a process than I had imagined.

“I can’t believe that guy left us here.” He let out an exaggerated sigh and wiped the sweat from his hairline that was threatening to run over his sharp brow and into his eyes.

“Did you bring your car? We can take mine tomorrow if you want.”

He didn’t bring his. A city boy at heart, he hadn’t thought much about the lack of transportation in the rural south. We both agreed that it was the best course of action to take my car the next morning.

There I was, already giving in to temptation. Or was I simply being nice? I had the sun, my ruthless interrogator, to force me to grapple with this for the rest of the day.

By the time the pastor came to pick us up at the end of the day, we were fairly war-torn looking for artists. Our skin was that reddish hue that pointed towards damage later down the line, and our clothes were stiff and salty. Neither of us said much on the car ride to the little apartment complex that the church had put us up in.

I said my goodbyes and walked upstairs, not even bothering to shower before lying across the plastic mattress and falling asleep.

In the middle of the night, I woke up and stood under the lukewarm shower, unable to move. It served as my sensory deprivation chamber and allowed me to wrestle with my thoughts while water dribbled over my body.

If I were to spend the rest of these sixty or so days with Javier, we were going to have to talk things through. We were the only people our age in this entire town. Our days were going to be spent alone together with the scorching sun beating down on our backs and faces. We were going to see each other and all of our ugliness, so we better make the most of it. As our bodies wore down, got sore from the labour, blistered our cheeks and cracked our thirsty lips, the conversations to come were all we had.

“How did you find out about this internship?” I asked early the next morning. We had gotten out before the sun was fully up to avoid the most powerful rays.

“If I’m being honest, my mom found it for me.” He did not look at me, just kept priming the wall. “I think she thinks I’m some kind of burnout or something and that I’m never going to do anything with my life. You know.”

I did.

There were many reasons why we cut ties. The constant comparisons got to him. His parents adored me and my conventional style of fine art while trashing his illustrations, telling him that he wouldn’t make it in the art world and that he needed me. He needed to seal the deal with me while he still had the chance. Javier had an aversion to settling down, and I liked being idolized as a concept more than respected as a whole human being. That was just the beginning of it. It’s hard to love when you feel dead inside.

The day was long, and by the time one of the ladies from the congregation dropped off a casserole for us, my body throbbed my sunburn started to peel. I sat at Javier’s desk chair and picked through my flavourless ground beef and beans. He sat with his back to the bed, knees up on the floor, slightly wide-eyed at the amount of visible grease pooling at the bottom of the clear plastic.

“Would you want to get pizza?” He suggested.

“That sounds great.” I was relieved that I didn’t have to ask first.

We walked to the local place right around the corner. We then sat on some of the splintery picnic benches outside to enjoy an only slightly less concerning dinner.

This became the beginning of our rituals that summer — walking to the pizza place, driving around after a quick trip to the drugstore and just listening to music. We formed a secret society, just the two of us, outliers in a town that seemed all too much the same.

Sometimes Javier wanted to drive my car, so I would let him and lean my head against the window on the passenger side, feeling like a stranger in my own mode of transportation. It was best when it was night, and I could see the stars at a standstill even in my motion. I felt small and began to crave that feeling, the first sips of summer air.

Towards the end of the rec center murals, we started to get sloppy. Filling in some of those finer details felt useless and tedious when they couldn’t be seen from the road. I knew Javier was thinking it too, but he was too prideful to ever speak it out loud.

I took more breaks, sometimes drinking long slow sips of the steamy water from my bottle so I could at least pretend like it was part of the process. Still, Javier got faster, looser, messier. His brushstrokes became inconsistent with any previous blocking that we had done. But I liked it. It felt like him.

One afternoon, in the hottest hour of the day, I sat watching him. He was up on a ladder, his face and arms bronzed, the ripple of his muscles through his shirt.

I crouched in a duck pose, popping both of my knees in the process, knowing that I wouldn’t want to get up if I sat down. The feet of the ladder rocked, and my eyes darted back over to Javier.

He was reaching his brush so far out that he only had one foot on the wrung where he should have been firmly planted. I wanted to call out to him and tell him that he should take his time or just be careful, but I didn’t want to micromanage him.

The incident happened before I could even inhale to shout — the ladder slipping out from underneath him, the clatter of metal against concrete, his body falling and the sharp crack that coincided with the impact. He lay crumpled on the ground, the stillness hanging heavy in the air before the fibres in my muscles frozen to stone eased, allowing me to move towards him.

For those brief moments with that heavy dose of adrenaline coursing through my stiff veins, I was not myself in my own body, unable to move, powerless to breathe. It felt like too long before I was at his side.

Javier was flat on his back, his eyes fluttering to stay open, unequal pupil sizes. However, I only remembered this in retrospect.

“Are you okay to sit up?” I asked with full knowledge that we needed to get to the tiny hospital as soon as possible, briefly wondering if they could even treat him there.

“Yeah,” he said but didn’t move.“It’s okay. Just give me a second.”
He started to maneuver very slowly into a position where he could sit up, and that’s when I noticed that his arm was clearly broken.

“Wait.” I panicked in forceful voice. “Let me help you.”

I knew he wouldn’t want it, but there was no other choice. Looking back, I guess there were other options, like EMTs stabilizing his neck and making sure the bones in his arm did not move around too much. Again, I was not thinking as clearly as I could have been.

Pushing from behind, I helped him come up to a sitting position, careful to make sure that he didn’t put any weight onto his arm, which he has since noticed and was staring at intensely.

“Does it hurt?”

“I can’t feel it.”

“Okay, we can hurry and get you to the hospital.” From what I remembered about anything medical, the shock of events like that could wear off all of a sudden, and the pain comes on quickly.

He stood slowly. I grabbed his other hand and helped pull him to his feet, trying both to be gentle and to use all of my body weight.

The ride to the hospital was mostly silent. His pain had begun to grow severe from the look on his face.

I was driving like a maniac. Every time we took a sharp turn, I would whisper, ‘sorry.’ He wouldn’t respond. His eyes were closes, and his head tilted back against the rest. He held his broken arm around the back of his tricep to help keep it still, close to his body.

After he checked in and I filled out his forms for him, we waited in the emergency room lobby for what felt like an eternity. I know that ER’s are not known for their speed, but it seemed ridiculous how long we waited, with almost no one else in the waiting area.

The transition from the boiling outside to the sterile interior of the hospital made my arms prick with chill bumps, and I tried to run my hands over my arms to warm them. The sweat on my back was ice cold. But it felt wrong to comment on it, even if I voiced it as an observation and not a complaint.

“Good luck,” I said when they called his name after what seemed like ages. I contemplated following him, but I didn’t want to overstep my bounds.

He hesitated, opened his mouth a little, but said nothing and followed the nurse back through the double doors.

I started to cry, just a few warm tears on my cool skin. I had too much dignity to let myself fall into one of those deep shudders meant to be practiced alone. My eyes fixed on the white baseboards closest to my row of plastic chairs so that if someone did happen to notice, I wouldn’t have to meet their gaze.

I think my shock had worn off, not just from this event which was undoubtedly traumatic, but from months of suppressing emotions that came rushing in all at once.

Instead of wailing in the shower and eating tubs of ice cream for a few days until I could muster up the strength to hit the gym to get my revenge body, I carried on like Javier, and I had never broken up. I didn’t even tell anyone unless they asked. But my pain was waiting for me, never processed, an untreated wound festering somewhere deep within my flesh that I could not see. Part of me believed that those kinds of things go away with time, but this public display of weakness proved otherwise.
Half of me wanted to steel myself, harden my heart and lessen my capacity for love for then and forever. It would be the same as it had always been. I was an emotional hermit crab, and no one could pry me from my shell.

The other part of me wanted to embrace Javi as soon as he walked back through those double doors and gingerly kiss each finger poking out from his cast and read to him out loud while he closed his eyes and recovered from his concussion.

I assumed that the church would send him home from the internship with his dominant arm broken. Still, I visualized us running through the church like children and kissing in the sanctuary when no one was around. God, I missed those lips.

I waited for hours alone in the lobby with nothing but my thoughts, weighing my options and calculating my risks, making promises to myself that I didn’t know if I could follow through with.

“Take care of him.” The nurse told me as he opened the door for Javier, ushering him into the lobby with his hot pink cast reflecting a warm glow onto the bleached walls. We locked eyes, and though a little weaker than usual, a small smile graced his face.


Aimee Brooks is a twenty-something pseudo-hippie living in Texas. She spends her time coffee shop hopping, eating Koren breakfast foods, and wandering the local college campus searching for Andy Warhol prints. Sadly she’s not from Canada but has visited and found it quite an enchanting place. Follow her on Instagram

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