Saturday night, Todd picked me up and we drove to the bowling alley. He didn't say anything on the way there, but he smiled as he put his arm around my shoulder, so I put my hand on his leg. I was used to taking my cues from other people in order to figure out what to do. It didn't seem like he had any issues, so I wasn't going to push anything. The bowling alley was packed, and so smoky I could hardly see. We ended up sharing a lane with an older couple we didn't know, so we didn't talk much.
After bowling we went over to the Landon Diner, but Todd was quieter than usual. Long years with Stella had taught me to play it safe, observe, and be quiet when I wasn't sure what the other person was going to say next, so I didn't say much. I gave one- or two-word answers to his two questions about my day. I was comfortable with my own silence. I was concentrating on his. Todd ate a whole plate of fries while I ate two of mine. I doodled in catsup with another one.
Todd said, "Are you going to eat those?"
"No," I answered, pushing the plate across the table. "Help yourself."
When he finished eating, he said, "I've got to get home to do some calculus. And my family is harvesting tomorrow, so it will be a long day." I willed myself not to react. I opened my purse and looked for lip balm. While I was putting it on, the waitress came and brought the bill. Todd walked over to pay it. I watched him, glad that I hadn't let him see my eyes. He might have seen pleading in them, and I didn't want to be pathetic. I was sure my eyes would have told him that I wanted more than just bowling and small talk. I wanted to feel safe, reassured the way I had before, when I had been in his arms.
When he came back, he sat down. I was surprised that he wasn't immediately moving toward the truck. I pretended to brush food off my legs, but I was really kneading my knuckle on my thigh. Then I stacked his plate on mine and pushed our glasses toward the edge of the table.
"You want to go for a ride?" he finally asked. I almost fell sideways with relief. I hoped the ride would end up with us making love. I wanted him to slowly kiss me all over, telling me that he loved me. But when we parked, Todd just pulled me around to the back of his truck and it was over in a few minutes.
Afterward, Todd pulled the quilt around us. Then he hugged me as I shivered on the cold truck bed. I whispered to Todd that I loved him. He kissed me on my ear. We heard a car in the distance, and we stuffed ourselves into our pants as fast as we could.
He didn't say anything when he dropped me off in front of the apartment. As I went upstairs, my brain said, See? Everything is fine, but a little buzzer located somewhere near my stomach kept going off like a demented alarm clock. It said things weren't so fine.
As I got ready for bed, I realized that he hadn't said that he loved me. They're just three words, and God knows they're overused, but I wanted to hear them anyway. I couldn't help it.
I whispered them out loud in the dark. I could almost see them drifting up toward the stars on my ceiling. The very sounds of the words themselves could produce reality. They did for me. If Todd said them to me, they would lay claim to a part of his soul, like fence posts around a field. Of course, he could just lie and say those words to make me happy. But Todd wasn't like that; there was a deep-down honesty about him that I believed in.
When we lived in California, I slept in the laundry room. One night, a bird flew into our dryer vent and got stuck. The awful flapping of its wings as it kept beating against the vent woke me up. I wanted the bird to get out, but I didn't know how to help it. I peeked into the dryer, but it wasn't in there. I yelled for Stella, but she didn't come. The bird kept making this awful screeching noise, and when I couldn't stand it any longer, I jumped out of bed and hid in the closet. I covered my ears and hummed. An hour or so later, when I came out of the closet, I heard one noise, and then it was quiet. I screamed for my mother again and again, but I was alone with the dead bird in the vent.
Sometimes I wake up feeling like the bird is inside of me. It's beating its wings, and this god-awful screeching is going on. When the noise stops, I'm left with the dead silence. It wasn't a good sign that I woke up with the bird on Monday morning.
In poetry we were reading Ezra Pound and starting our big writing projects, writing our own poetry books. A lot of my poems had ideas from van Gogh. I read his letters at night when I couldn't sleep. My poem for Tuesday was "A Way of Looking."
Van Gogh had gone on believing and looking for the same things, even though his life just took one bad turn after another. I still loved Todd. Was that so dumb? I didn't think my love life was going to turn out like van Gogh's tragic romance. I hoped not. Look what it did to him. I could feel the frenetic cells inside my head. Were they van Gogh's or mine?
I was beginning to hate the melodrama of it all. It was becoming too Stella. Was the melodrama floating around me like the leftover smell of cooked fish in the kitchen on a winter day? Could others smell it?
John Mark said that he was getting a car sometime that week. He and his dad were going looking, and he was starting practice for Romeo and Juliet, even though the play wasn't until March. That translated to we wouldn't be seeing him much.
Our football team had made it to the district playoffs, so Todd rushed out of art class after ten minutes. More practice.
I tried to paint a sweet gum tree, but I couldn't get it. The colors ran together. They weren't strong enough. They muddled into gray, gray, gray.
Excerpted from The Eyes of van Gogh by Cathryn Clinton. Copyright © 2007 by Cathryn Clinton. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.