about the author

Melissa Wyse is currently a candidate for an MFA at American University in Washington, D.C. Her writing has appeared in Object d’ Art, a literary journal at Rutgers University, where a selection of her poems received the Mitchell Adelman Award for Creative Writing.

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Artists Paint in Threes

Melissa Wyse

At seventeen, during his brief remission, Mark went to art school. Debbie had rented a studio apartment so she could be near him. In January and the first half of February he was able to leave Boston Children’s Hospital and live with her. Tim, her husband, had stayed back home in Rochester, where he taught microbiology. He called them every evening from the university’s lab.

He missed Mark physically, he told Debbie over the phone once, late at night. “It’s like being hungry,” he said. “All the time.”

During their evening phone calls Tim asked Mark about his paintings, and Mark described them to him as tastes and textures. “If you could feel it, it would be the peel of an orange,” he told Tim thoughtfully, his voice low.

And, sitting there, across from Mark, his sketch pad on the table between them, Debbie felt a sharp pain in her stomach, a deep unfathomable envy, that he should share these sensations with Tim. That, by her very proximity, she had lost this intimacy.

By the middle of February, Mark was back on the hospital’s cancer floor. Debbie watched the rhythm of his heart, an unsteady green line crossing the dark plane of the monitor. Throughout the month of March the hospital allowed her to stay with him all night, and she sat awake, watching the shavings of snow winging their way down past Mark’s window. Holding her hand over the buttons of his pajamas, she felt the pattern of his breath, and matched it with her own.

She didn’t summon Tim in March, or even in Mark’s final days, in that first week of April. Instead she waited, talked to Tim on his cell phone as he paced back and forth between the lab and his office. “Should I come now?” he asked, his voice high and taut, like the pull of fishing wire, like an overextended muscle. Debbie touched her hand to the rise and fall of Mark’s heart on the monitor.

“No,” she told him. “Not yet.”

Many years later Debbie came across a painting Mark had done shortly before he died. From when the three of them were at the cabin in the Adirondacks. By that point the Carbamazepine made Mark burn so easily he was confined to the shade of the sugar maples. He sat outside and watched Tim fish through the long cool morning. On the canvas he painted Tim on the dock. Tim, so impossibly small against the vast lake, rendered in a few short brushstrokes—Tim, reduced to a smudge of beige.

The summer after Mark died, Debbie and Tim went back to the cabin. When she thought about the slow dissolution of their marriage, Debbie pictured an afternoon that summer. She had sat on the screen porch with Mark’s tackle box on her lap. It was where he’d kept his art supplies. The top tray was full of the nubs of oil pastels, which were still partially clothed in their ripped-back wrappers. Beneath them, a tray of colored pencils and charcoal. Here she found Mark’s kneaded rubber eraser. She looked for his fingerprints, wanting to fit her own thumb and fingers where his must have been.

Holding the eraser, she looked out through the screen at Tim, who sat slumped on the dock edge, a fishing pole between his clasped hands. She longed, for a half a moment, to pull his line into her being. But painting depended on threes, as Mark had told her once. He had explained to her the law of thirds, and the principle of triangulation. Without him, she and Tim became nothing but a flat line. They were nothing but two points on the same plane.

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