“That looks like it could be a paint-by-numbers”, I say, looking at a small, framed, cliche painting of a sailboat on the water on a sunny day. It’s hanging in between the twin beds in the cedar wood paneled bedroom I’m sharing with a girl whose parents rent this vacation house by the shore every summer. The painting is made of little shapes of color that fit together - I can see some brushstrokes but they don’t overlap or blend. There are about twelve different shades of blue and three shades of yellow. It’s a small rectangle, and there is no glass in the frame. It’s not signed.
I’m fifteen. I like science and art and They Might Be Giants. She’s eighteen. She hates my music and loves shopping. She’s sick to death of dealing with me this weekend and rolls her eyes at everything I say.
“It’s not,” she turns on me, little pieces of spit shooting towards my face. “It’s not a paint-by numbers. Obviously it’s not.”
I look closely at the painting. It’s the right size to be a paint-by numbers painting, approximately. I guess. It’s been a while since I saw a real paint-by-numbers painting. My great uncle used to paint them when he was very sick and bedridden. He’d do ones of landscapes, or horses, or red barns in the countryside. He told me that it’s important to do the light spaces first and then work your way towards the darker colors, because you can’t cover up dark colors with light colors very easily. He also said that it’s better to do each section twice, if you have enough paint. I remember sitting on my front porch when my mom told me that he had passed. I wanted to cry, for my grandmother’s sake, losing her brother. I wanted to cry, for my father’s sake, losing his uncle. I was five. I cried because I thought of his unfinished paintings, how I was sure that no one would let me take them and finish them for him. And I was right. They didn’t.
“Right, of course it’s not,” I back down instantly. I look at her red face and her blonde curls and her pink and green plaid shorts. She pumps perfumed lotion into her hands and starts rubbing it into her legs, getting it all over the bedspread. I can’t help myself. “I’m just saying it LOOKS like a paint-by-numbers painting. That’s all.”
“It’s NOT paint-by-numbers!” She balls her hands into fists and slams them into the mattress underneath her, causing her to sitting up straight and bounce a little. Her intensity is ridiculous and frightening. She stares at me, daring me to keep going.
Is this the difference between being dumb and being smart? Is being dumb less about what you know and more about what you refuse to wonder? Is being smart less about what you memorize and more about being open-minded? The lotion smells like stupidity. Idiotic vanilla.
I rummage through the drawer in the bedside table between us and find a deck of cards. “It’s not paint-by-numbers,” I concede. I lay out the cards to play solitaire. She throws her lotion across the room and shouts, “I KNOW!”
I turn over my first card. It’s an ace. So I say it.
“But it sure looks like one.”
Sarah Elovich is a writer and performer based in Oakland, CA.