On a cold, autumn night sometime after ten, I let myself into what was once Mundelein Women’s College and rode the creepy, old elevator to the upper floor that housed the art rooms. In the drawing studio at the far end of the hall, Harvey hung on his stand, a human skeleton who had taken up residence there decades before and had been teaching young artists to see and to draw ever since.
They say Da Vinci used to dissect human faces in order to get an understanding of how to paint them, to see how the muscles moved around the mouth when a person smiled. We never went so far and Harvey was already bare: our assignment only to draw a part of the skeleton on dark paper and then abstract it by cutting up the sketch and rearranging the pieces. I pulled Harvey to the center of the room and adjusted the spotlight, set up my drawing board and laughed a little to myself, thinking “This should be much creepier than it is. I’m alone at night in a darkened building with the remains of a dead man.” But that was the last of it, and I started drawing.
Hours passed as I sketched the proportions of the head, layering highlights until the shadows of Harvey’s skull began to emerge from the dark paper like bones from dirt. Harvey’s skull didn’t look much different to the plaster skulls we’d used for the other assignments. Maybe he was a bit browner (I don’t really remember), but otherwise indistinguishable, I’d say, except for the teeth.
The teeth were severely crooked, which, after years of near-traumatic orthodontia for my own teeth, gave me a bit of that shivery feeling in my own bones that this was not a plaster cast, but indeed an actual human. It was when I began to draw the teeth that all the usual questions started. How old had he been when he died. What had he died of? What had his plans been for his remains? Had he been hoping for the science department?
I thought about these and other things, cut up the sketch as I was assigned to do, and left. But the lecturer wanted more abstraction, so I took it back and cut some more. And cut. And cut. I’m not sure I could stop cutting, really. I cut until there was no semblance of a skull left, only wisps of white on shards of black paper, arranged in the shape of a butterfly. The lecturer was quite upset I’d taken a “delicately drawn skull” and turned it into a kitschy abstract. But for some reason, I didn’t really care. I had been taught to bury the dead, and that was my way of burying Harvey.
I’m not sure if that was the exact moment it happened, but somewhere between a purple-clad Relay for Life event and Harvey-turned-butterfly, I began to realize death is not the exception to the rule; it comes for all of us, and it was coming for me. The men dressed in old uniforms, folding flags with memories of friends who hadn’t made it so far, the mournful sound of taps and the shattering sound of the 21 gun salute wasn’t just for old veterans. The sound of the casket closing echoes across the bodies of the young as well as the old. It was something I had felt but never noticed in all the funerals I’d served, in the memories of families, of wars, of a time that was fading around me like a whispering lullaby drifting to sleep—the song of the fiddler on the roof mourning all that was gone with the wind. Someday soon my own story was going to end, and there was no way of measuring in how much time that would be. It was then that I decided to wear purple, and no person, fear or social standard was going to stop me.
(Wearing purple is allusion to the poem “WARNING,” by Jenny Joseph.)
And so I did. I went on adventures, did things I wanted to do and things that scared me, found an emotionally-stable man with nice legs and crooked teeth, who made me laugh and eats chicken like my Nana (but also who complains like an old woman), and basically discovered that no matter how far you roam, even in running away to Africa with a man whose background couldn’t be more different than my own, we more or less run home.
I always liked purple as a child. I had a green phase in my teens, and I don’t know if any color could ever match the beauty of a cerulean crayon, but we don’t always prefer what is most attractive, and purple has its price. Purple is also the color of bruises, and the farther you go from the well-trodden path the more spiky things you bump into. Not to mention the more you see of the world…well, the more you see. But that is perhaps another story for another time. For now I’d rather think of hope and peace and pleasant things, and of the fact that not very long before this violet phase the world had been crimson and I had been quite deeply in love. Before Harvey, before South Africa, I had been in love.
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