Monday, November 02, 2009

Cuento de Mi Id

“The Beckoning Dark One”

If every picture tells a story, then just imagine how many a single photo album must tell.

Granted, they are not always exciting stories. Nor even interesting ones. However, you do tend to come across an odd tale or two every so often -- and in the most unexpected places.

Take my family’s photo album, for instance. One picture shows a young toddler -- myself -- laughing in the foreground while a dark, brooding figure in the background frowns at the camera. The figure is my cousin Miranda, of course, and as long as I had known her, I had never seen her take a particular dislike to being photographed. So why was she frowning in this picture? Had the picture-taker interrupted some private ritual between us? And if so, what kind? Cousin Miranda was only two years older than me so the ritual could not have been that private- - but then I was only a very young child at the time -- and I still don’t have all that many clear memories of that era. To this day, my Aunt Eulalia -- Miranda’s mother -- remembers incidents which occurred at that time about which I have absolutely no memory -- even though I was often a key participant in them. And what happened between me and Miranda when Aunt Eulalia and the other relatives were not around I have absolutely no way of knowing.

After all, my earliest memories of Miranda began when I was five years old. And I was obviously a lot younger than that in the picture. In fact, I did not even know that a picture like that had ever been taken until I had spied it in the family photo album just three years ago -- when I was twenty-seven. Which makes me wonder what else happened back then that I might have forgotten…

Ironically, it was Jane’s friend Lisa -- the most inartistic of our crowd -- who first saw it.

Everyone else at our housewarming party -- or to put it more accurately, our apartment warming party -- was too busy drinking, smoking, listening to loud music or else making dumb comments to Jane and me. My friends preferred Z.Z. Top, her friends, the Cowboy Junkies. My relatives kept voting for Aerosmith -- and being half-Mexican, easily outnumbered the opposition. However, one mischievous soul kept sneaking Amy Grant songs into the tape deck, and where the Randy Travis tapes kept coming from, I’ll never know.

Anyway, everyone at the party was engaged in various trivial pursuits -- including an actual game of Trivial Pursuit -- when Lisa happened to glance at one of Jane’s paintings on the wall and asked, “What’s that?”

“Oh, just a painting I did of some scenery I saw out at White Rock Lake a few years ago,” Jane replied. “Do you like it?”

Lisa frowned. “Not really. It looks kinda scary.”

“Scary?” Jane laughed. “What makes you say that?”

“That figure in the corner,” said Lisa. “It looks like it’s watching me.”

“I must be a better artist than I thought,” said Jane. “There is no figure in that painting. That entire area was deserted when I started my sketching.”

“Well, there must been someone there, Sis,” said Mike, my would-be brother-in-law. “I see it, too.”

“So do I,” said another guest.

And another one after that.

“This is crazy,” said Jane. “There can’t be a figure in that painting. I painted that thing myself -- surely I would have noticed a little detail like that.”

I walked over to her to reassure her. I started to put my arm around her shoulder and say something witty. Then I glanced at the painting and my voice died. There was a figure in the painting, all right; it was standing by a tree in the left hand corner. And what was even stranger than that was the fact that it was a familiar figure. But there was no way Jane could have deliberately painted that figure into her painting. Not even subconsciously. It had to be a joke. One of her artist friends playing a trick on her, perhaps. Or even --

“Wait a minute,” said my sister Claudia. “ I know that person. That’s Cousin Miranda.”

And she was right. The figure’s profile did resemble Cousin Miranda’s. But that was impossible.

Miranda had died ten years before Jane and I had ever met.


I did not have the heart to mention it again until after all the guests had gone home, but I could tell Jane was disturbed.

“It has to be a trick of the light,” she kept saying. “Maybe if I hung it in another part of the room?”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Perhaps you just happened to see her face in an old photo album or something and just unconsciously added it to the painting. I’m sure stuff like that happens to artists all the time.”

“Not outside of the movies, it doesn’t,” she said. “And anyway, I completed that painting three months before we even met -- so I could not have unconsciously added your cousin to my painting even if I had wanted to.”

“Perhaps someone altered it,” I suggested.

“Get real,” she said. “None of your relatives have any talent for art -- at least not enough to pull that off. And no one else that we know even knows what your cousin looked like. Besides, the painting does not look like it has been altered. It looks the same as it always did. Except for that.”

She pointed at the dark-haired figure that had looked so much like Cousin Miranda and I noticed for the first time just how much of it appeared to be in the shadows. Granted, the figure was standing in the middle of a wooded area, but it wasn’t hard to see that it was also standing on the sunny side of a tree. Moreover, the figure itself appeared to have moved. When I first saw it at the party, it was standing on the left end of the painting. Now it appeared to be much closer to the center. That was impossible, of course. But still...

“We’ll figure it out in the morning,” I said. “After all, we have more important things to concern us right now -- like, say, sleeping arrangements.”

“Not tonight, honey,” she said. “I have too much to think about right now.”

And think about them, she did. Staring at that painting the whole time that she did so…


The next morning, the figure was still there. It had not moved, of course. But then it did not have to. It had just gotten larger.

“Impossible,” I said to myself.

Then I ignored it.

After all, I had other things to worry about. Bills to pay and all that Harry Chapinlike stuff. So when I woke up the next morning and saw what had happened...

No, I thought. It was just my imagination. Just a trick of the light like Jane had said.

Perhaps the painting had gone moldy while in storage. Yes, that was it. The blotch on Jane’s perfect landscape which we had all thought was my Cousin Miranda was merely an odd-shaped piece of fungus.

Perhaps that’s why the figure seemed to have changed directions. After all, it’s not as if a painted figure can actually turn its head…

The next few days, everything was normal. I wrote -- or at least, I tried to write -- and Jane painted. Everything appeared to be returning to normal.

No one gave the painting a second thought. Why should we? It wasn’t as if Miranda herself was going to jump out of the painting and strangle us. And anyway, Miranda was dead. Ten years dead. And not one of those Other Side of Midnight-type deaths, either, in which the girl falls off a boat one night and ends up being magically resurrected whenever the author wants her to be. No, Miranda’s death was more definite than that.

I still remember the way my mother looked when she first got the news from my Aunt Eulalia.

“Your cousin Miranda’s dead,” she had said. “She died in a car crash. Her and some other girl. The police tried to save them but…”

Miranda was the first real loss I had ever suffered in my life. Perhaps the only one that ever really counted. All my life I had taken her for granted as my one real friend in the universe. The one girl I could turn to when no one else seemed to understand me.

I had even grown conceited about it -- never daring to date any of the Anglo or Hispanic girls in my own school because they always fared so badly in comparison with my cousin. Not that Miranda and I would have ever married. I know now that was quite unlikely. But it would have been nice to have had the opportunity.

Now we were permanently separated. Not even the most fervent letter or phone call would ever bring her back.

But I did not complain too much. Eventually I moved on and now I had Jane. Jane, the perfect opposite of the little Mexican girl I had once fallen in love with. I had never thought I could fall in love with an Anglo girl until I met Jane. After all, the one Anglo girl I had ever tried to court previous to Jane had ended up conceiving another guy’s child. And God knows I did not want to go through that again.

But Jane was different. Jane was more mature. Jane was more intelligent -- and more importantly, she did not feel it necessary to hide that intelligence the way most Anglo girls do. Jane had had her share of bad romances, too -- an unemployed boyfriend who had driven her into debt, a blowhard fiancé who had tried to pressure her into marriage -- even a would-be date rapist. And yet Jane had survived.

I admired her for that. And I admired her more for admiring me. It had not been easy for me to come out of my shell after my last girlfriend. And it was not easy for Jane to summon up the courage to entice me. But she did. And I enticed her. And now here we were -- the perfect survivors of the romance wars now living together in semi-holy pre-matrimony.

But now this thing had started with the painting.

Why now? I wondered. Why not three years ago when I was still chasing after Ms. Shotgun Wedding of 1990?

Was there something about me which attracted such weird phenomena? I doubted it. After all, the one time I ever tested for psychic ability was back in high school and back then I had flunked. So much for that theory.

Yet every morning when I looked at the painting, the figure that looked like my cousin seemed to me to be a little larger. Moreover, it seemed to be changing its shape every time I looked at it. First it would be pointing in one direction. Then the next time, it would be pointing in a different direction. And one time just before bedtime, it appeared to be pointing right at me.

I ignored it, of course. I placed my word processor in a spot where I would not have to see the painting and attempted to immerse myself in my latest work of timeless fiction. But it was no use. Thoughts of Miranda kept creeping into my head.

I kept imagining how she used to look in all her old pictures. Her dark Latin face, her bright ebony eyes, her shoulder-length raven hair, and so forth. Despite Dallas’s own reputation for beautiful women -- and the fact that I was currently living with a girl who put most Barbizon graduates to shame -- Miranda’s face still haunted my memory. Perhaps it was because she was my first real love. Perhaps not. After all, it is always easier to be hopelessly in love with a woman you can’t have. My own experience proved it. And death, after all, was the ultimate barrier. Would I have loved Miranda as much if she had never died? If I had never moved out of my native Chicago? If she and I had gotten married and settled down to raise a family? And what would I have done if I had discovered that I did not really love her? If I discovered that I loved her more as a romantic symbol than as a person? Would I then find myself attracted to someone like Jane?

Questions like that I could not answer. Questions like that I did not want to answer.

Not until the day Jane said she was meeting her friend Lisa somewhere for lunch -- and then Lisa called up thirty minutes later asking to talk to Jane.

“Isn’t she with you?” I asked, not sure what was going on.

“Isn't who with me?” she asked.



“Yes, she said she was meeting you for lunch.”

“That‘s funny,” she said. “She said nothing about that to me.” Then she paused for a moment. “Er -- I have to go now. Tell Jane I‘ll call her later.”

She hung up in a hurry -- and I did not blame her. Something was up. I just did not know what.

I glanced at her latest painting. Another landscape. Only this time there was a man and a woman in the background. She and I, I thought.

Then I looked closer and noticed that the man‘s hair was yellow. My own hair was brown. And the girl’s hair was yellow, too. The same color as Jane’s hair. Just a coincidence? I tried to think so.

After all, if Jane was having an affair, she would not be stupid enough to leave such a vital clue in front of me. Or would she? Perhaps this was her way of flaunting her infidelity. Perhaps -- but no. I was being stupid. Jane obviously loved me. I had seen proof of that many times. And she had gone after me. Not vice versa. So it had to be a coincidence.

Even if the figures in the paintings were holding hands, that did not mean anything. It could have been some other people she was painting.

So why did the blonde girl look so much like Jane?

I left the apartment and proceeded to get stinking drunk at the nearest bar. When I came back, Jane was still gone and the figure of my cousin had grown even larger. But I pretended not to notice and fell upon our double bed in a drunken stupor…

When I awoke, I heard Jane whispering to someone in the next room. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but it was something like “te quiero, te quiero.” Now where would she have learned that? I had never told her I loved her in Spanish -- I only told her so in English -- and of course, I had never taught or encouraged her to learn Spanish. Nor did any of my relatives. And in high school, Jane had taken French, not Spanish, for her foreign language requirement.

“Honey,” I said.

The whispering immediately grew silent.

“What is it?” she said.

“Who are you talking to?”

“No one,” she replied.

I could swear I heard a giggle from the other room.

I got up and went in. No one else save Jane was there. She was standing in front of Miranda’s painting in the same blue dress she had worn to lunch, and she appeared to have a guilty expression upon her face.

“Who were you talking to in here?” I asked.

“Why, no one,” she answered.

I resisted the urge to slap her face.

“You sure?”


She seemed sincere. But then so had that other girl I had once dated. And the one before her. And the one before her…

I decided to go out.

“Wait,” she said.

But I did not turn around.


After that, the arguments grew frequent. I’d accuse her of seeing someone else, she would accuse me of being irrational, and we’d both start throwing things at each other. And that was on a good day.

It seemed quite obvious to me that we were never going to make it to the wedding altar. Hell, we hadn’t even lasted ten weeks in the same apartment. And the worst part about it all was that she was right. I had no right to be jealous of her. It wasn’t as if we were married. Yet in a way -- in my mind -- we were. Then this had to happen.

The final straw happened on November 1. Miranda’s birthday.

Jane had gotten mad at me again and she had stormed out. Then I had started to storm out. Then I glanced at Miranda’s painting again.

I hadn’t looked at the painting for days. But there was no mistaking it now. The figure in the painting had changed -- but it was still Miranda. Only now she was almost a hand’s length in height whereas before she had only been the size of a man’s thumb. In addition, she was looking straight at me. And beckoning in my direction with her left hand.

I turned away and ran out. I knew that I needed a drink -- and bad. My own troubles with Jane were bad enough -- but when I looked at my own dead cousin’s image in a painting and saw her fingers begin to move…

Yes, I needed a drink all right. Several, in fact. So many that I was staggering by the time I decided to return to the apartment. Only Jane had gotten there before I did. And once I saw her there, I really did need a drink.

She had hung herself from a light fixture. She had made a noose from her pantyhose, tied one end of it around her neck, and then jumped off a chair. Just like that. The ultimate reprimand to a jealous lover.

But that was not the worst part. The worst part was glancing at Miranda’s painting and seeing not one but two figures standing among the trees. One was blonde, the other brunette -- and both were female.

I eventually found the other paintings Jane had done. The ones she had never shown me but instead hidden away in the hope that I would never see them. The painting I had seen with the blonde man had been a mistake. The man was obviously a woman with her hair cut short Sinead O’Connor-style. As for the other woman in the painting, her hair too was altered. Jane had changed it from yellow to black. Miranda’s hair color.

Of course, the clues had been there for me to see all along. Jane’s trouble with men. The way Jane had been so obsessed with Miranda’s image. The fact that Miranda had died in the company of another girl -- not a boy. The way Jane had said “I love you” when she was all alone with the painting, and so forth. But that did not make it any easier to take.

Worst of all was the questions that keep echoing in my head. Was it really the picture-taker Miranda had hated in that snapshot I had described earlier? Or was it me?

And if not, why take Jane away from me?

For that matter, if Miranda was going to come back from the dead for anybody, why not me? Had not Miranda and I been friends? Or was that part of my life just one big mentira?

Of course, there is only one way I will ever find out the answers to these questions. That is why I am writing this manuscript. I need to leave behind some record of what happened so that if anything goes wrong, someone will be sure to read it and take the appropriate action.

I hope Mike does it. I have always liked him and I know he can keep his mouth shut. And if not him, then Claudia.

Not that it matters to me exactly who does it. Just as long as it gets done and the painting ends up destroyed.

As for me, I do not really intend to stick around and see what happens. I already got the noose around my neck and any minute now I will be stepping off the same chair that Jane used.

And it is such a perfect day to do it, too.

November 2.

The Day of the Dead.

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