Painting by Numbers – A Story by Sandra Tzvetkova

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howling noise swallowed the small house on the corner of Greene and Heart St. Inside, Geraldine Cooper wielded a dated vacuum cleaner with ferocious precision. Thanks to this practice, the living room carpet remained the very same cream color, if not a purer one, as the day it was laid some twenty years ago. Robert Cooper, straining to read lips on the drowned-out TV, raised his feet mechanically as Geraldine plowed through the section beneath him.

“Could you hold it for a sec dear?”

She was hurtling over the nearby kitchen linoleum with no indication of having heard her husband, pausing only to adjust the setting to ‘hard flooring’.

“They’re saying something about Stanford…” he said in afterthought.

The vacuum’s asthmatic wheeze at once ceased, unleashing channel six’s now booming report: “And today marks the seventh day that Joan Pembrooke, an undergraduate student at Stanford University, Palo Alto California, has spent locked and barred inside her dorm room. Fears are mounting that the junior may attempt suicide if the door is forced, while food and water supplies inside are dwindling. School officials are scrambling to handle the situation.” The screen cut to a clip of what was presumably Joan’s door, adorned in literary quotes and a photo of two grinning girls holding quills.

Geraldine gave a snort. “Self-pitying arts major! You won’t see anyone in the sciences pulling this kind of stunt.” The vacuum cleaner was switched back on, and she called over it, “Definitely not Cynthia!”

 

Mondays in the Cooper household came with a strict timetable. The alarm shrieked unequivocally at six a.m., Robert grumbled in good-natured half-sleep, and piled sheets over his ears. He always made it up on time to shave and brew their coffee. Though lately he found himself doing odd things, like pouring the coffee a centimeter away from the cup he had placed to receive it, splashing it onto the counter. His thoughts were wandering. Years ago, he had latched onto Geraldine’s post-marital, post-natal momentum with a kind of curious excitement. Lately, it felt more like he was being dragged in her wake. And now, he thought back to an earlier Geraldine who he found shockingly easy to summon in his suddenly sentimental mind. Like flipping through the pages of a weathered book, he sank into these embellished memories. Geraldine sitting Indian-style on his dorm bed, filling the room with a contagious energy. Geraldine directing this energy into fits of interest, half-baked passions about the way things ought to be in the world. Her smooth face stung with tears after a reconciliatory kiss. Had he just been leeching off of her, unable now to revive some of what used to be abundant between them? Worse yet, had he no control? He couldn’t argue that the way she had evolved wasn’t working. It was. The woman had risen from a housewife to the district manager of the largest bookstore still in business. Their daughter was attending Stanford. But he wondered if it wasn’t time the spell was broken. He looked up at the clock, an ornate hen with numbers for feathers, and jumped a little. It was nearly 7:30 and the car had not been warmed up!

Geraldine meanwhile, had been up without hesitation to pack their lunches. She cut bland-breaded sandwiches with the efficiency of a sous chef and packaged herself proudly into one of several indistinguishable suits. As she did most mornings, after putting on her makeup, she glanced down from the mirror to her collection of corporate awards – hunks of perfectly cut glass beaming up at her. Then, before heading downstairs she popped her head into Cynthia’s room to survey her daughter’s trophies and plaques, which were set in a sort of standoff with a neatly arranged menagerie of stuffed animals.

Geraldine had figured out an important lesson quite a few years ago, and she applied it methodically to all that she came into contact with. She had found that life was constructed upon a series of exchanges: exchanges in money, exchanges in time, exchanges in secrets. The trick was to always give a little less and get a little more, eventually achieving a positive balance in all of your transactions. It was a science like this, with tangible inputs, and outputs that could be universally recognized in the vacations you could then afford to take, the power you gained among others, and the feeling of having snagged a good deal. It was not a squishy sense of goodness that didn’t last and was silly in hindsight. Her vague regret was that she had not figured it out sooner, before college and Robert. But at least now she had Cynthia.

*     *     *

Thousands of miles away, Cynthia was hopping off the set.

“Great work everyone, you really put passion into this one!” The director said, beaming.

Cynthia was taking the preliminary courses of a biology major, with a minor in theatre. Of course, the minor was something Geraldine regarded as purely dispensable, possibly worse, a hindrance. But that was her mother; at least with this many states separating them, she had a little less say in the matter. Nonetheless, Geraldine found ways to voice her opinion. Cynthia still got an allowance from her parents, and as had long been the case, the allowance fluctuated with her academic performance. This, to Cynthia was verging on outrageous. It wasn’t that the variations in money were significant enough to inflict budgeting problems, but rather that the she felt it was undignified to continue the patronizing practice at this point. And so, with the new freedom that she had found in Stanford, Cynthia had also found herself a job.

*     *     *

It was Thursday evening, a day on which Geraldine’s spirits were typically higher because she had Fridays off from work. Today, however, she exited the office’s revolving door with a clouded expression. Outside, Robert was waiting in the car.

“I’m concerned,” She stated in lieu of greeting.

“Hello to you too Ger!”

He expected it might have something to do with the slow progress of the basement renovation.

“It’s Cynthia’s account – she’s hardly touched it in months.”

“Well hun, I wouldn’t call that bad news what with our finances and the new basement,” Robert replied, “She’s smart enough to keep track of her own account, wouldn’t you agree?”

Robert started the car and patted Geraldine’s thigh with a smile. He was hiding a bubble of nervous excitement and the latest Cynthia-concern was not going to pierce it. Geraldine nodded, noting that she would be sure to call their daughter after her Chemistry exam, which she knew was scheduled for 2 p.m. on Friday. That was fine with Robert. He pulled out of the parking lot still smiling mysteriously. So long as the evening went according to his secretly hatched plan, it would all be fine.

 

At home, the evening proceeded at its usual pace. Geraldine made some calls and sorted through their bills while a sitcom audience laughed jovially from the TV. Only Robert was uncharacteristically closed up in the bedroom upstairs. She had to call him twice before he came down to clink teacups and hear the woes of passive aggressive colleagues, and noncompliant “floor staff”. He responded animatedly to the gossip, making well-placed jokes about the insufferable Craig in merchandising. Geraldine felt a warm comfort at having someone to share her trite experiences with. Then, while he tidied up the table, under cover of superfluous clanking in the dishwasher Robert asked her, “Hey remember the surprise?”

“Oh, I had forgotten!” In fact, she hadn’t quite registered him mentioning it earlier in the week.

“Well,” he turned to her from the dishwasher, “It’s tonight.” His cheeks flushed a little as he looked at her. Turning back to the counter, he poured several gulps of whiskey into the same two teacups. They hardly drank – only at dinner parties and rarely just the two of them – but this impromptu behavior ushered Geraldine into its fold. She admired that Robert was brashly, if shakily, taking the wheel for a moment, and raised her teacup in toast. “To the surprise!”

Upstairs, Robert had Geraldine wait an extra moment at the door before he slowly cracked it open. The master bedroom was lit only by the flickering glow of luxuriously smelling candles. Flower petals were strewn with a flourish over the frilly wedding-night bedding that had last seen its intended use over a decade ago. Hand to her mouth, Geraldine lifted from the bed a little package neatly wrapped and sealed with a tiny bow. Without asking any questions, she peeled off the tape and slid out a DVD. Her eyes widened as she read the title. Deliberately, Geraldine walked the length of the room and handed the DVD back to her husband.

“I’m going to change into something more appropriate,” she said with a slow smile, “Then we’ll play it.”

Robert watched in awe as Geraldine slid into the bathroom. It had worked! It had worked! His heart pounded a rising rhythm as he thought back to his clandestine preparations. Ah the research, the doubt! The day he had finally worked up the courage to drive two towns over to the specialty adult store. There, spooked again by what he had taken on, he had jogged briskly to the small section titled “Rare Art Erotica” and snatched the first item to meet his eye: a demure DVD set entitled “Painting by Numbers” with nothing but a pair of cat-like eyes winking a promise from the cover. Back in the car, he had wrapped it up and stowed it away immediately – at once coy and proud of himself for landing on something so fitting. After all, Geraldine had been an art history major in college!

When she exited the bathroom, Geraldine looked different. Her hair was piled up loosely, with one stray curl wrapped lazily around her chin. Her eyes reflected the twinkle of the candles as she moved viscously onto the bed. Robert had loaded the DVD, and as she wrapped a leg around his, he pressed the button.

The black TV screen flashed to life. On it, clad solely in paint and narrating in a perfect purr, Cynthia gazed seductively at her parents.

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