Break, by Shelby Zurcher
The night before your plane left, I broke my left pinky toe — or as the doctor diagnosed, my fifth metatarsal. I was getting out of the shower, wringing my ratty hair in a towel, when I noticed the bathroom rug was the same colour as your eyes. I buried my eyes in the damp towel, and slipped on the ceramic floor, somehow wedging my toe between the bronze pieces of the tub’s drain.
“Just go to the doctor,” Jasmine urged, bagging ice cubes from our freezer in a Ziploc for me.“
Tomorrow,” I told her.
“Tomorrow” was what you told me after I asked when your flight was. I wasn’t expecting that. I cursed at you for the first time, slamming the door of my apartment behind you, between us, like the Equator would be once your plane landed.
“I didn’t know how to tell you.” Your spearmint-coloured gaze was wet, sparkly; mine was frozen. I glared past you at Jasmine’s National Geographic map plastered on the wall. I traced my eyes from Los Angeles to Bolivia, and somehow, down my cheek, emerged a river. You felt like you had to go now, that you needed to see the world and find yourself, by yourself. Joining the Peace Corps would be the answer to your happiness. I’d spent two years under the impression that I was. You hadn’t even told me you’d applied. There was nothing peaceful about that.
I numbed my foot with ice since apparently the break was too small to cast. Meanwhile, Jasmine tried to distract me with Netflix.
“You need to get out of this apartment.” It was three days after you’d left. I hadn’t been out since the doctor’s appointment. She peered across the couch at me. I didn’t like the nervous pity that blazed in her wide eyes. “Fine,” I handed her the ice and hobbled out the door. The doctor had advised me to take it easy; I figured driving was okay. You’d figured graduating early and teaching English in South America was okay too. I punched the steering wheel of my car, horn screeching. I was parked somewhere on Main Street. For whatever reason, the coffee shop here was the only place I could think of going; it was the one we’d found when we first started dating, the one with the vibe you’d decided you didn’t get.
Limping crutch-less through the door, I was stopped by a man, probably in his sixties, with sea-blue eyes a little darker than yours. “You look like you could use a Scott Jones original.” I’d forgotten the place was like an art studio for self-proclaimed abstract philanthropists. He held up a large watercolour pad, flipping through several canvases, each adorned with its own array of vibrant, fading lines. I asked if they were tree roots. He said if I saw tree roots, then tree roots they were. I stared hard at the one he lingered on; his stained hands, cracked with dried paint, tore the painting from the rest of the collection and gave it to me, free of charge. I ordered a chai latte and wondered if you’d see tree roots too.
“That isn’t beautiful to me,” you’d retorted, tugging my hand away from a copy of Mark Rothko’s “Number 61.” There were three lines in the painting — pigments of indigo, eggplant, and that post-sunset, full-moon sky glow. It was the time we’d stumbled upon the coffee shop after getting pizza up the street. The walls were cluttered with abstract works from floor to ceiling, some replicas of more famous pieces, others originals donated by the local artists who congregated here. I asked you why it wasn’t beautiful. You told me art had to have a purpose, that beauty should make you feel small. On the drive home that night, you told me I was beautiful. I didn’t mention that sometimes you made me feel small. I looked up Rothko’s website after you’d dropped me off at my apartment. The painting was inspired by staring at flames for too long.
My eyes searched the brick walls for it now, but it was gone, replaced by a Picasso and numerous variations of the tree roots I’d been given. I scrutinized the swaying, pigmented lines, wondering what had inspired them. I carried the sheet back to Scott’s table. He set down his paintbrush as I approached, eyes reflecting the same pity Jasmine's had. I ignored it.
"What inspired this?" I held up the tree roots.
"The subconscious," he said with a smile, stirring his eight-ounce cup of mildew-coloured water with a brush.
"Do you think your paintings are beautiful?" I hesitated, hoping he wouldn’t take it the wrong way.
He told me I was a beautiful person. I asked if I made him feel small.
"Beauty should make you feel big and small at the same time."
"Huh," I muttered, staring at the canvas. I thanked him as I walked out the door.
“Thank you for being a lovely person,” he said.
I drove home and lit a candle; I was big enough to blow it out, yet small enough to get burnt. I couldn’t decide which was worse, getting blown out, or burning someone.
I placed the painting on top of Jasmine’s dresser and Googled a picture of “Number 61.” My printer fed it to me in black and white. I taped it to the wall above the dresser, beside the tree roots. I knew that forests and fires were not supposed to go together, but somehow these did, like we used to. I’d leave them side by side for now.
I immersed my purple pinky toe in another bag of frozen cubes. This was the only thing the doctor had prescribed. I don’t think he understood that my foot wasn’t what seared relentlessly. “You’re just gonna have to be patient,” he’d said. “It’ll heal in no time.”
Shelby Zurcher is an aspiring English teacher studying at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California. Originally from Portland, Oregon, she is inspired by the beauty of nature as well as the beauty represented by the diversity of human beings. Feel free to check out her blog at https://wordpress.com/posts/shelbyzurcher.wordpress.com.
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