Wendy J. Cholbi

Most people play solitaire with cards. For others, it's not just a game -- it's a state of mind.

It is my twenty-first birthday. It's also a Friday night. I can do whatever the hell I want. Everything except paint.

Is there such a thing as artist's block? Writers get blocked, and they're artists, sort of. Or is there some other reason the paper stays blank, all the brushes in their holders, tubes of paint unopened?

I have my back turned to my work table as I deal cards onto the floor. I made that table myself, particle board on cinder blocks, and it's just the right height for me to sit at and paint. It's even and solid and square. I spent a long time moving the cinder blocks under the wood to balance it and compensate for the warping of the floorboards.

It's the right height to sit at and play solitaire, too, but even though it's empty, I am playing on the floor. I feel too guilty for not painting. The emptiness of the table would accuse me.

I feel hungry. As I finish the game that I'm losing, I promise myself that as soon as I win once, I'll eat. I deal myself another game. Looks bad. No aces in sight and I can only do one move at first, put the seven of clubs on the eight of diamonds. I start to flip my way through the deck.

I am a master of solitaire. It is a constant in my life. I use it to dull my mind when I'm upset, to while away the time when I can't sleep, to smooth the flow of my subconscious when I'm frustrated with working on a painting. I also use it to bribe myself -- I promise myself an uninterrupted round as soon as I finish a painting. Or after I call my mother. Or I use it to delay the inevitable, as I am doing now. As soon as I win, I will look up from the worn cards, survey my shelves, try to find something edible.

The games are also keeping me from panicking over the naked sheets of thick paper, thirsty to soak up water and color. I haven't set brush to paper in two weeks. The last thing I painted that I was really happy with was about three weeks ago. It was a crow sitting on a streetlight. I was pleased with the way I managed to catch the highlights of his feathers, with that kind of dusty shine crows have. And his one yellow eye, his head cocked. Last week I turned that painting to face the wall, because it had begun to seem like he was staring at me accusingly.

I'm worried that my brain will dry up with my paint, if it hasn't already.

It's also been two weeks since I've been to the grocery store. The last two nights I have ordered out -- pizza last night, Chinese before that. I went to the liquor store today, though. On my way home from work I stopped and bought a bottle of scotch with the last of my petty cash to celebrate today. Tony at the liquor store knows me. I've been buying stuff there since I was seventeen.

Two aces show up in a row: hearts and spades. Hearts in spades. I should have spades and spades of hearts. I don't want to think about that now.

The year I moved out I was seventeen. My parents split up when I was fourteen, and the day the divorce papers were signed I resolved to get out as soon as I could. It was the usual arrangement: I lived with my mom, spent weekends once in a while at my dad's place. Nobody asked me who I'd rather live with.

They're OK, my parents -- they didn't beat me or anything. My dad even came to see the student art show my sophomore year. It's just that the divorce was very messy and anyone could see that they had more important things to deal with than me. I checked out my options.

I was working one night a week stocking at a local comic book store, and they needed part-time work at the main warehouse. So I worked there after school most of my junior year. They hired me full-time as soon as I got out for summer, and I never went back to school. After a month I was making twice minimum wage, taking orders over the phone. I rented an apartment on the south side of City Park, a small place, just to get out. After my first six-month lease was up, I found this place. It's much better than the last one, on the north side, closer to work, with lots of windows. I could say to my friends that I had light to work with now. I told my mom I was barely making the rent payments, and with the two hundred dollars she gave me I bought a brown-and-red Ford Fiesta.

The first time I made love with Jason was in the back of that car. But I'm not thinking about that now, as I lay the four and the five and the six of hearts on top of the pile. I sold it for parts three months ago and bought a Chevy Citation with an oil leak. I repaired the leak myself with duct tape.

Besides, it wasn't making love. It couldn't have been.

The sun is setting. I can tell because the light is getting red. I can't see the sun when it sets -- the buildings of downtown Denver are in the way -- but I don't mind. Afternoon light is best to paint by, and the afternoons will be longer soon, when daylight savings time starts.

My dad's place, where I used to spend weekends, had great light. It's in the mountains, and it's very quiet and all that. I used to wish that they would let me live with him instead of my mom, but there would have been no way for me to get to school. So I had to spend weeks at my mom's place, with her and Dave. Dave always tried to be nice to me, but his idea of being nice was offering me a beer. I hate beer, and they drink too much. Besides, I didn't care if he was nice to me. I just wanted him to leave me alone, so I could play solitaire and think about what I would paint the next weekend at my dad's. I had a deck of cards with cats on the backs that I used until I lost the jack of diamonds. These days, cards take a couple of months to wear out between my fingers, but I keep a spare deck around just in case.

When I started drinking, I drank vodka, just like every high school student. It's cheap. But the first time I went into Tony's liquor store, I knew if I tried to buy vodka, especially dressed the way I usually was, in jeans and tennis shoes, he'd know I was underage. So I put on a pair of costume glasses and styled my hair in a French twist. My hair was long then.

After Jason left for college I cut my hair. I read somewhere that a lot of women cut their hair after ending relationships, but I didn't end it. He did. I cropped it short, not more than an inch long. I did it myself, standing in front of the bathroom mirror. I did a pretty good job of it, too, and I've gotten better, since I have to trim it every month or so.

I wore heels to the liquor store, and a skirt and blouse. I asked the man, who turned out to be Tony, for his recommendations on what wine to drink with grilled fish and rice. He asked me what kind of fish, and I said halibut because I knew it was a fancy type of fish. He recommended a French dry white wine from Meursault-Blagny, whatever that means. I only remember it because I saved the bottle. I put flowers in it once in a while.

I thanked him, and bought it, and he didn't card me, so the fifteen dollars I spent on the wine was worth it. The next time I went into the store, I wore a short skirt and a blouse with three buttons open and bought some Grand Marnier. After that I knew I was safe. He's never carded me, even when I've bought vodka.

When the jack and queen of spades show up in the right order, I know I've won the game. But I play to the end as I always do, and then slide the cards together into a pile. I've played so much solitaire, it's become another art to me. I know a lot of different games, from clock solitaire to forty thieves, which is a two-deck version, to portable solitaire that you can play in one hand. The person who taught me portable solitaire said it was great for airplanes. I've never been on an airplane.

I still have staples left. Rice, flour, spices, that kind of thing. Some cans of tomato paste. I put a pan of water on to boil and measure out rice. I don't sit down to play again because I know that if I do I will let the water boil down to nothing rather than interrupt my game. I glance at my painting corner as I salt the water.

I really should paint something, but I've been telling myself that for days. My half-finished efforts, except for one, are stacked behind the table. I hate most of them. I tried painting my hand holding a deck of cards, I tried painting a group of people playing poker, and finally I just tried to paint a big king of spades. When I noticed that it had Jason's nose, I tore it up.

I wander into my bedroom and throw a couple of dirty shirts into the clothes basket. I'm normally very neat, it's only during this dry spell -- that's what I'll call it, it has a nice ring -- that I've thrown my dirty clothes into the corner instead of in the basket.

When I was finally ready to show Jason my place, my apartment that was a studio even though it wasn't a studio apartment, I thought maybe I should throw some things on the floor. It's usually very clean, and I didn't want him to think I had cleaned up for him. We made love -- no, we had sex on my bed, which is really a mattress on the floor. He didn't stay the night, because his mother didn't know where he was. He was eight months younger than me. I had forgotten that people my age still lived with their parents, still listened to their mothers, still called if they were going to be out late. So he left me with kisses, saying he wished he could stay. At three in the morning I woke up and couldn't get back to sleep, because I could smell him in the sheets. It bothered me. I felt fiercely territorial about my place. So I got up and took a long shower and changed the sheets on the bed. I put the dirty ones in a pillowcase to separate them from the other untainted laundry. Then I felt better, and I went back to sleep.

The water is boiling, and I dump in the rice. I make a deal with myself that I can play solitaire, but I will interrupt my game to get the rice. In payment for this, I am allowed to cheat. I have devised several ways of doing this. There are rules even for cheating. Sometimes I give myself permission to go through the deck more than the specified number of times. Sometimes I can switch the positions of certain cards. Sometimes I let one card be wild. Tonight I play that black can go on black and red can go on red, but only if they're opposite suits.

Jason had this deck of cards that he had drilled a hole through. That was the first thing that I noticed when I met him. He had a job at the same warehouse I did, but in a different department. It was my second summer there, and his first. He was going to work full time for a year, to earn money before he went to college.

I came down to the break room for a Coke and he was playing solitaire on the lunch table. I noticed that he didn't play very well, and that there was a hole in every single card. The holes weren't in the middle -- they were a little off center, toward the top left corner. We were the only two people in the room. I knew better than to suggest moves to him. I also knew that everyone probably asked him about the holes in his cards, so I didn't. I just sat down across from him and drank my Coke.

He was kind of cute, I'll admit that. He wore glasses and had curly brownish-blond hair. His fingernails looked like they hadn't been cut in weeks. He didn't look up, even though I knew that he knew I was there. I knew that the holes in his cards were a conversation piece with him when he picked up the jack of diamonds from his pile, and, before playing it, held it up at arm's length so the light shone through it.

"Don't you ever cut your nails?" I asked him.

He opened his mouth, then shut it and looked at me funny. "What did you say?"

"I said, `Don't you ever cut your nails?' They're pretty long, for a guy." I raised one eyebrow.

"Yeah, so?"

"So, nothing. I was just curious." I tossed my hair back and drained my Coke. "I gotta get back upstairs. Where do you work, anyway?"

"The subscription club. It's hectic today, and I just had to take a break." He spread his hands over his cards and smiled. He had a nice smile.

"Listen." I lowered my voice. "You must be new around here, because you don't know how bad it would be if they caught you in here playing."

"What can they do?" He smirked.

"Fire you."

"No they can't."

"Sure they can. Darth Vader up there," I pointed at the ceiling, toward the office of William Kozanski, the president, "owns this company. He can fire anyone he wants to. And he's not very nice to anyone who plays cards on company time." I was going to catch it if I was away from my desk much longer.

"Well, I may be new here, but there are two things I know that you don't. The first thing is that I punched out before I started this, so I'm playing on my own time. The second thing is that this is my lucky deck." He tapped a card with his fingernail.

I rolled my eyes and said, "OK, I give up. Why did you punch a hole in every card in your deck?"

"It's a bullet hole." He said it very calmly, but he had the same extra tone in his voice that my dad does when he's playing a trick on someone. I knew he was making it up.

I raised the other eyebrow and gave him a half smile. "Look, I really have to get upstairs. I'm going to be in trouble if I don't. What's your name?"

He looked disappointed. "Jason. What's yours?"


Three games of solitaire later, two of which I win thanks to my extra rule, my rice is ready. I like butter on my rice, but all I have left is margarine. I make a face at the fridge and dump the rice, butterless, onto a plate to cool. Then I pour myself a shot of scotch. It smells less like rubbing alcohol than vodka does, but I pour myself the last of my grape juice for a chaser anyway. I drink another shot and deal myself a game.

"But aren't you going to college?" He was walking around the warehouse with me on our morning break. It had taken him about a week for him to digest the fact that I was nineteen, I lived by myself, I was a high school dropout, and I was perfectly happy.

"College? What would I want to go to college for? I'm an artist." I laughed.

"Do you really think you'll be able to make a living doing that? I mean, what if you end up working here for the rest of your life?" He didn't need to point at the warehouse. It dominated us.

"Jason, it doesn't matter if I work here for the rest of my life. I don't need to make a living from my paintings. All I need is to be able to do them. I work here so I can pay the rent, and then I go home and paint. It's simple."

"But how can you stand to know that you'll be working here? I know I'll only be working here for a year, and most of the time I still hate this place. I mean," he stopped and faced me, "until I started talking to you, I ate lunch with my lucky deck."

I shrugged and smiled at him, and that was when he kissed me.

I tell myself that I wasn't surprised, that I had noticed how he touched my hand every so often when we talked, that I had seen him looking at me. I tell myself that I knew all along that he was interested in me.

But I was surprised. I was surprised and delighted and I felt warm inside even though he was a lousy kisser and I had to wipe my chin afterward.

I win one more game of solitaire, using a different rule this time (all face cards can be put in an empty space, not just kings), drink another shot of scotch, and finish my grape juice. The rice is now cool enough to eat, and even without butter it tastes like the best rice in the world.

I hope I'll be able to sleep now. I don't want to think anymore, don't want to worry about not being able to paint anymore. Don't want to remember anymore. It's seven o'clock. I curl up in my blanket without bothering to take my shorts and t-shirt off and doze. I do not dream.

When I wake up the clock says it's only two hours later. I feel defeated. Nothing is right. I can't even sleep through the night. This is crazy. I'm too hot from being twisted in my blanket and there's a sour taste in my mouth from the scotch. I'm hungry again. I feel like I want to cry but I don't.

"You stupid fuck, stupid fuck, stupid fuck." I can't tell if I'm talking to myself or Jason as I trudge into the kitchen. I have to get out of here. I know that I probably shouldn't drive, but I put on my shoes anyway and have one more shot, no chaser, because I don't care.

He shouldn't have promised me it would work. And I shouldn't have believed him. He was going to Colorado Springs. Only fifty miles, but it might as well have been a thousand. We both had cars but he was usually too busy to come up to Denver for the weekend. "College isn't like high school," he told me. "Things don't just stop on Friday after classes." So I drove down to visit him a few times on weekends. His roommate was really freaked out about me staying in their room the first time. He was a little nicer about it later, but he was creepy in general. And I started noticing that Jason had all these friends, friends who were going to have careers, friends who were in the same clubs, friends that had more in common with him than happening to work in the same warehouse all year with no one else to talk to. I couldn't talk about the same things as they did. I could only tell him I had finished a new painting, when I actually had. It was hard for me to work for awhile after he left, and I mostly did boring park landscapes. Or I could tell him about things that were happening at my job, which he didn't care about. My last resort was to take my clothes off. Then we wouldn't need to talk at all. But even that didn't work for very long.

The last time I visited him was in November, for his birthday. He was twenty. His college friends threw him a party and brought a keg and they all got drunk. I didn't. I left after he disappeared with a girl from his drama class. It was a long drive.

It's a clear night. There seem to be very few cars out tonight. I check the clock in my car to be sure I read the time right, and I did. I drive towards Bill's house. Bill manages one of the branch stores, and there are usually people hanging out at his house on weekends. Sure enough, there's something going on. It looks like a party, in fact, even though no one knows it's my birthday.

The door is wide open with music and people floating in and out. As I walk into the hallway a man appears from another door in the hall and points at me, saying, "You, you, I haven't kissed you yet." He grabs me and kisses me and I let him because I can't think of a reason not to. Then he walks out onto the front porch and I hear him saying the same thing to someone else. I continue into the house, looking for someone I know. There are people dancing in the living room, mostly high school kids in leather jackets, and two girls playing with a cat in the bedroom.

I find Bill pouring drinks in the kitchen. He hands me a glass with about an inch of brown liquid in the bottom and introduces me to Eric, Sebastian, Angie, and Willow. Friends of his.

"What's this?" I hold up the glass.

Bill shrugs. "Someone brought it. It's some fruit thing, I think." It smells like whiskey. I chug it and make a face. One of the guys claps. The other three continue their conversation with Bill. They're discussing levels and spells. It blows my mind that Bill must be thirty and still hangs around with high school kids and plays Dungeons and Dragons.

"Are you Eric or Sebastian?" I smile at the one who clapped, who's staring at me appreciatively. He's got round black sunglasses perched on his head and I can tell his black hair is a dye job because lighter hair is showing at the roots.

"Sebastian Wolf at your service." He bows deeply and I snatch the sunglasses.

"Thanks." I put them on and strike a pose to make him laugh. Sebastian Wolf, yeah right. No one is named Sebastian Wolf. If I hadn't already been introduced as Miranda I would have said my name was Moonlight or something.

"I'm going to dance. Coming?" He follows me and we dance in the living room to loud music with lots of synthesizers and drums. I lose myself for a while in the movement of my body and the rhythm shocking up through my feet and legs to the rest of me and the faint smell of alcohol being sweated out of people. I do not think about Jason and his college friends. I do not think about Jason having sex with his college girlfriend and calling it making love. Someone changes the music to a ballad, still with synthesizers and drums. I walk to the porch and `Sebastian' follows me. There are three or four people standing outside, smoking or making out. I've only been leaning against the railing for a few minutes before Bill comes outside trailing high school kids. "We're going for cigarettes. Want to come?" I shake my head and wave at them. They pull the other people on the porch with them.

`Sebastian' edges closer to me and I don't move. I think, I know what he is going to do and I don't care. I'm mostly right, except he's not pushy. He puts his arm around me and in a minute he's kissing me, and in another minute he has me pressed against the railing while he kisses my neck and tries to slide his hand underneath my shirt. I hear the noise of the people coming back from buying cigarettes and I push him away and say, "Do you need a ride home or something?" I jingle my car keys.

At his place, his roommate is asleep and we watch Star Trek. When he starts kissing me again, I let him push me back on the couch and after a while he stands up and takes my hand. I let him lead me back to his room. He does me the favor of turning out the lights before we undress.

In the dark I close my eyes and let him fuck me. It is easier than I thought it would be. I let part of my mind float away and imagine I am watching myself from the corner of the ceiling. I want to laugh but I change it into an appropriate noise. I feel nothing.

When he is finished, he lies on me for a minute and then rolls off to the side. I am wide awake and looking at the ceiling. My eyes have become used to the tiny amount of light that seeps in from below the thick curtains from the street light outside. I'm cold and I pull the blanket up over me. He helps me and I'm surprised because I thought he was asleep. He puts his arm over me and pulls me a little closer. It is a small act, probably meaningless because he doesn't know me at all, he doesn't even know my last name, and he certainly doesn't know that I'm a painter or that it's my birthday or that I never do this kind of thing but I'm so lonely tonight that I was willing to do anything to feel close to someone.

And of course it didn't work. I tried to convince myself that I maybe felt a little bit close to him, and maybe for just a few seconds while we were physically close I almost believed it, but then it was over and I realized that all I felt was empty, empty and hollow and worse than I did before. And him putting his arm around me has just enough tenderness in it to make me realize all of this. I will never make love with anyone. I did that and then it turned out not to be lovemaking at all. It was just sex and that's what this is now. Foolishly, I start to cry. I am very quiet but he is right next to me and he must feel me shaking.

"Hey, hey, what's wrong? Are you OK?" He touches my face and then pulls the sheet up to dry my cheeks.

"I'm -- I'm OK." I struggle to control my voice. I refuse to hold on to him and press my face into the hollow of his neck and say something ridiculous like `hold me.' I take deep breaths and finally I'm able to laugh just slightly and say, "I'm just pretty tired, I guess. I'm sorry."

He doesn't say `everything's going to be all right.' He doesn't say `tell me what's bothering you.' He strokes my hair once or twice. I am grateful.

His clock says it is 12:03. Goodbye, birthday. I am still trembling inside even though I know I won't fall apart again in front of him. I close my eyes because it's true that I am tired. But I realize that I can't face waking up here, with this person who calls himself Sebastian Wolf. I know he won't hurt me and he's nice enough in his way, but I need to be in a place where I know where the light comes from and the sheets smell familiar. "Sebastian." I kiss him on the forehead. "I need to go home." I get up and find some of my clothes.

"Are you sure?" He props himself on one elbow, a dim outline.

"Yeah." I do not lie and say there are things I need to do in the morning or that my parents are waiting for me.

"I'll let you out." He starts to rummage for his own clothes. He sees me to the door. That's nice of him, I guess. We don't hug or kiss or anything. I have the brief thought of shaking his hand and almost laugh. I say goodbye and turn to walk to my car. He calls after me softly, "See you around." I don't say anything.

I get into my Chevy and drive three blocks, so he'll know that I am gone, before I stop. I let the engine idle as I lean my forehead against the steering wheel and cry quietly. I cry until I'm finished, and when I am breathing normally again I shift into Drive and go home.

I turn on every light in my apartment and take off my clothes and put them in a pillowcase. Then I take my deck of cards and rip each one exactly in half. It doesn't matter because I have a spare deck. I'm just sick of the old one, that's all. Then I'm on my way to take a shower, but before I get to the bathroom I see myself walk past the full length mirror in my bedroom. I watch myself and I do not look at my face. Without thinking about it I walk to the mirror and turn my back on it. I stand with my feet a yard apart and bend from the waist until I am facing the mirror again, one good hard look and then I stand up straight. I close my eyes and see the negative image of the tangle of hair between my legs and fix it there.

I kneel deliberately at my painting table, close my eyes once before I rub my brush in the paint. It comes very easily, surprising me with the long strokes that flow from my hand. It is quickly and deeply done. When I am finished, my knees are numb and there are goosebumps on every inch of my bare skin but I ignore the cold. I am breathing normally and I look at what I have painted, and it would probably scare a lot of people. It is simply painted with broad strokes of red and black and pink and peach. It looks like Georgia O'Keefe has taken some bad acid.

I get up to clean my brush and my knees explode into feeling. I decide to take a shower before I paint any more.

When I am warm and clean and dry I put the first painting on the floor and start another one. This one is mostly peach, and gray and black. I blend the colors more carefully this time. I work on the edges. Things have to have edges, but they can't look like edges. I keep my mind fuzzy and I am pleased when I am nearly done. It looks very much like a desert landscape, I even make the background a wash of the palest shade of blue. But a few more minutes of working with a black and gray spot and I can tell that it's a navel. I make sure that the rise behind the woman's body is a slightly darker shade so I can tell it's a man next to her. I am pleased enough with this one that I sign it with my tiny curling M in the corner and the date. The stars are beginning to fade as I turn out all the lights.

It is Saturday morning and I am twenty-one and I sleep naked in sheets that smell like me.

Wendy J. Cholbi ( lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with her husband. She is a technician in a biology lab by day, a writer by night. Her absolute favorite thing to do is read. She also likes to cook, though she cooks more than just plain rice. Her life is slowly being consumed by the Internet.

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 Wendy J. Cholbi.