The Painting


The Painting


She moves closer to her little sister to stay warm. Her sister is already sleeping peacefully in between her and their mother. Her sister snores softly, her sickness lingering without any medication. She finally hears her mother's breathing steady and as she is about to fall asleep, Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez start fighting. She opens the window ever so slightly to muffle their noise with the sound of the traffic. She drifts into a listless sleep. She wakes cold and immediately regrets having opened the window. She shuts it and tightens the blanket around her sister. She is hungry but she knows she will give her sister the rest of the stale Cheerios with the last of the milk. There is no water to shower today so she brushes her teeth with just a drip that comes from the faucet and pulls her tangled hair back. She kisses her mother and sister goodbye. Her mother will be going to clean homes, her little sister trailing behind her doing as much as she can. She will join them after school. She drinks the remainder of the coffee in the coffee pot from yesterday, black and cold, before she leaves to walk to the bus stop in her tattered jacket, and holes in her mittens.

Sitting on the bus she studies her vocabulary words for her test today, trying to focus on the jumbling letters as the bus bounces and her stomach roars in protest. She gets off the bus with the other weary passengers, headed into the same day as yesterday and tomorrow. When she thinks nobody is looking, she grabs the half bagel a girl throws in the trash, her hunger superseding her dignity. She bypasses the students who look past her, as if her poverty is contagious. But she refuses to let her poverty define her. She earned her scholarship with her determination alone. She heads to the bathroom and enters as the other girl finishes throwing up the other half of the bagel. The girl avoids eye contact with her, exiting the stall. She washes her hands and rinses her mouth as the girl waits in the stall for her to leave. She can then wash herself as best she can in the sink, trying to avoid splashing water everywhere. On her way out, some boys on the football team harass her. She is scared, not of them, but of being late to class, which she is again for the second time this week. But on Tuesday her mom was late getting home from her night job and she could not leave her little sister. This will mean that she is in after-school suspension, and she will not be able to help her mother clean. Her mother will need to work twice as fast now. The cleanliness of these student's homes is her family's livelihood after all.

******* The girl tries to sleep but her parents are fighting as her baby brother wails, fighting to be heard. She leaves her plush bed and heads to his perfect little boy nursery, stars twinkling on his walls. He may or may not be her full brother, but it makes no difference to her. He is perfect. She is able to sooth him back to sleep despite the fight escalating. But then her father slams the door and there is only the sound of the crashing waves on her brother's noise machine. She carefully lays him back in his crib, and whispers "1 love you." In the morning, she showers and dresses in a bulky outfit that masks her shrinking frame. She applies her concealer expertly to hide the dark circles under her eyes. And eyeliner to make her eyes, which are too close together, look further apart. She started to worry about this flaw last year when her dad made fun of them. When she heads downstairs, Lucinda is preparing breakfast as usual. Her brother is sitting happily in his high chair gumming his Cheefios while her mother studies the new art piece over the mantle, a steaming cup of coffee in hand.

"What do you think, honey?" She asks her without turning around.

           It's nice," she finally responds. "Well for $20,000 1 would hope it is more than nice!"

"I don't think it's price determines its worth or beauty," she responds but her mother does not hear her. She kisses her brother again and says goodbye to Lucinda, who offers her some breakfast to go, but she declines even though her stomach screams yes. Her mother is still staring at the painting as she grabs her backpack to leave. She slips out without her mother's notice. Her driver is already waiting. She has her Victoria's new Loui Vouton and gasp as expected in reaction to Chassity's decision to break up with Ethan. She will protest that he is "so hot," even though she secretly has no interest in boys nor finds them remotely attractive. And she will eat half her bagel and cream cheese to avoid any suspicion. Her driver then takes them the rest of the way to school. They linger outside waiting for the bell, the girls reveling in the boys glances. She sees the girl, looking scared but so beautiful even in her disheveled outfit. She suddenly feels sick as the bagel churns in her stomach and tells the girls she will see them later. After she throws up, the girl is there again. She hopes she did not hear her retching. She quickly washes her hands and rinses her mouth before heading to first period. As sits her bony bottom down at her desk, she remembers she forgot to study for the test today. The girl walks in late, looking frantic, as she whispers an apology to Mrs. Bauman who only shakes her head slowly in disapproval.

***She wakes up to the sun on her face instead of the shriek of the alann. Satuday eans she does not need to wake up in the dark to catch the hour bus ride to school. She will soon be scrubbing, mopping and dusting alongside her mother. But for these next glorious 25 minutes, she can just lay and soak in her little sister's and mother's peaceful sleeping, unaware of hunger, fatigue or fear. They are starting out cleaning a new house this morning. After dropping her little sister at the neighbors, she helps her mother scrape off ice and snow on the car she prays will start. It takes her mother five times to get the engine rolling. "Gracias Dios," her mother sighs in relief while doing the sign of the cross with her bony and cracked hands. They drive through the streets lined with homeless people too tired and cold to even hold their signs up, surrounded by garbage and filth. But they continue to drive to polish the homes of the wealthy.

For the next 10 hours she will need to make dust her priority while her essay for American History in the 1 800's remains unfinished and she has yet to even begin her calculus homework. The house is on a hill and the car rattles as it climbs up the incline. The girl and her mother grab all the cleaning supplies and head to the door. They wait 5 minutes, clutching their buckets and cleaners until finally a pale woman in yoga attire and fully done makeup answers the door. A chuberic baby, about four months old, is on her hip. The baby appears delighted by their presence, but the woman appears annoyed, shuffling them inside. The baby pulls at her freshly curled hair. "Stop it, Samuel," she says, practically swatting the baby's tiny fingers from her hair. They are shepherded through the extravagant home, though it feels cold and rigid. The woman walks briskly indicating she cannot be late for her yoga class. "You do speak English, yes?" she asks in a frustrated tone when her mother does not respond quickly enough to her expectations of how things "need" to be cleaned. She indicates that the flowers need to be changed out and the vases washed, though the flowers still look fresh. She then points out that the mantle needs an "extra" dusting but warns them to be mindful of the painting above it. The girl cannot help but notice a framed magazine on the mantel as well, the woman dressed in a suit holding the baby on her knee in a stiff looking armchair, with the caption "Women Balancing it All! "

Her mother responds, "yes, of course," and coos at the baby who giggles a deep belly laugh as the woman continues to direct them around the house. She can't help but smile too. The woman stops at a closed door. She knocks once and opens it abruptly, revealing a girl sunken into a cloud of pillows. She is so thin and ghostly she looks almost dead but then her eyes flutter open. The girl recognizes her at once and smiles slowly. "Hi," she says to the girl, who says "hi" back. Her mother says "good morning" cheerily. The woman says nothing to the girl but indicates that her bedding will "obviously need washing but of course the decorative pillows are spot clean only." The girl is suddenly awakened by a feeling of sickness as her mother screeches on. She is horrified that the new cleaning ladies who "hopefully will not be caught stealing my jewelry after everything I have given them," include one of her classmates. As they leave, she peels herself from her tangled sheets and pees in her vomit encrusted toilet. Her pec echoes in the cavernous bathroom. She searches for something to clean it with but her mother does not buy anything to clean with. She grabs a plush white hand towel and smears it with her demise before stuffing it into the trash. The smell is putrid and the girl still finds the evidence when she empties the trash. She feels sad for the girl. She admires all her pretty perfumes and thinks about trying one on but stops herself. She runs her fingers over all of the perfectly aligned makeup, and wonders what it would be like to live even a day as her, a beauty masked in pain.

***** Maria wipes away a spot of paint on Ruby's cheek before they kiss each other softly. She is forever covered in her love of art. They sit side by side on their old and lumpy couch and open their containers of Chinese take out. Ruby ordered beef and broccoli and Maria, cashew chicken, both their respective favorites though they still swap containers at times. Maria must eat quickly as her shift at the hospital starts at 6pm. Ruby must also shower and get ready for her art auction. Tonight's proceeds will be going to help fund education for underprivileged female students. Samuel will be picking her up at 6:30pm sharp. Despite having numerous papers to grade, he insisted that he would still attend in support of Ruby and the auction's cause. Maria's sister would be meeting them at the auction after she gets out of her night class and her mother would be coming with her new husband. Her own parents, whom she has not spoken to in over a decade would not be coming, having disowned her after she officially got married. She is OK with this now.

She is surrounded by those she has chosen, those who love and support her. When Maria finally gets home, the sun coming up, Ruby is lying peacefully in bed. But she does not look small or ghostly. She is muscular and glows tan from her other love of gardening. If not in her studio, Maria can find her in their garden, attending to each and every' plant, giving extra attention to the withering and near dying. Her eyes flutter awake. "Hi," she says.

"Hi, she says back. "How was your shift'?"

"Good. I performed successful heart surgew on a teenage boy. Shot in the chest. He was in stable condition when I left. "

"That's amazing," Ruby says and grabs for her hand. Maria grabs it tightly.

"How was the auction?"

"Great. It was a good turnout. And the painting went for $40 grand. "

"That's amazing, too," she says. Too exhausted to shower, Maria climbs into bed next to Ruby. She falls asleep quickly, comforted in knowing that the boy is in stable condition and that regardless of anything, her wife will always be by her side. And when she wakes feeling rested at noon, her wife will bring her coffee in bed with just the perfect amount of cream and sugar.

Shana Liddell is a poet and writer from Arizona. This is her first published story.


  1. Great read! Thanks for posting this, Shana!

Previous Post Next Post