Hovering by Cheryl J. Fish
Hannah Kleinvelter enchanted me with her paintings. She made them in a room next to an elevator shaft in NOLITA when it was a dilapidated, acronym-free neighborhood. Pasta boiled on a hotplate; we drank endless pots of tea. I picked up a few items at the corner bodega, some wine for the evening, and lit the candle in the center of the altar. Hannah primed her wooden boards.
She slept in the studio illegally, washed up in a sink, and painted most of the night. I met her at a party where she was introduced as the cousin of one of my classmates. An informal visit to the Mott Street hovel precipitated many returns, and my unofficial position as assistant.
Hannah spoke of references to Jewish Midrash, a form of interpretation based on the bible, and I warmed to her habit of consulting the Chinese I-Ching, an oracle embraced by Carl Jung. I had read Jung’s work in a psychology seminar I stopped attending.
She came from money, but as an artist who worked infrequently, couldn’t afford two rents, so settled into her space like a monk. Her landlord Stephan was a painter too; he kept his studio on the other side of the elevator shaft. He could be slapped for building code violations and fined heavily for Hannah’s residency as these rooms were for commercial purposes only.
“I listened carefully for when he locked up, around 10 last night,” said Hannah, her dark eyes gazing towards the plank where she applied green and black paint, conjuring images of amphibians with blotches and lines. Such frightful creatures! I wondered about, but didn’t press to find out Hannah’s age; she had one of those eternal faces framed by short brown hair reminding me of my deceased aunt Rose. Hannah wore long black smocks over paint-stained jeans and always held herself erect. “The frogs, what do they mean?” I asked hesitantly, not anticipating any answer.
Late that morning, Stephan came in for tea and suspiciously eyed the array of pillows and blankets on the floor. He fingered the wooden panels, some rough and some smooth. His beard appeared gnarly and eyes bloodshot; perhaps he too had painted all night. Somehow a conversation about brush strokes led to the subject of Hannah’s dad’s suicide when she was 12. “I don’t like to dwell on it,” Hannah said, her face turning sallow. She leaned towards Stephan, practically brushing her cheek against his shoulder, and he raised a hand to lightly skim her chin. Why hadn’t she told me about her father during one of our dialogues over al dente spaghetti? Perhaps she expected Stephan to take pity on her. I was angry, and excused myself.
As I scurried down a part of Mott Street not overrun by Chinese restaurants, past the high red brick wall of old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I wondered what I expected. I had become tightly wound, exhilarated, bedraggled.
I took the subway uptown to see my neighbor /shrink Theodora on the 33rd floor of the residential tower where we both lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was incredibly convenient to see your therapist at home, but awkward to bump into her in the elevator where we played cordial building buddies. I climbed the five flights from my apartment to her couch in my stocking feet and told her I was no longer interested in studying psychology and comparative literature. I didn’t mention to Theodora how the tossing of the I-Ching coins, the broken and solid lines transforming into their opposites, and my friend Hannah’s painting of the frogs made me feel I belonged. Graduate seminars just didn’t cut it. I simply said “I’ve become interested in artistry and artifice.” She requested elaboration. The way I internalized it, something incredible unfolded and exchanged in Hannah’s presence. In the confines of her working and living space, with her neighbor’s threatening surveillance and my restless admiration, we called out potential. Relished the unnamed. We thrived.
A few days later when I showed up at Hannah’s, four boards worth of frogs had been completed. She told me they were her vision of the remnants from the second plague that was put over Egypt by God, as described in Exodus, when the Jews were Pharaoh’s slaves, and he had hardened his heart to their plight so God punished his nation. Her painting was a Midrash, a commentary that meditated on the meaning of such a punishment and its lingering effect. I washed her brushes and poured tea when we heard the clunky sound of the elevator lifting in its shaft and couldn’t be sure if it was Stephan leaving. Sometimes I put my ear to his door to check for sound. What was he painting? Why hadn’t he invited us to take a peek? Was he even an artist? Maybe just an overlord.
“He knows I am living in, and is deciding how long until he evicts me,” Hannah said pensively, the finished boards against the wall, fragments of legs and eyes upon us, emblems of destruction and freedom. “He has a hard shell surrounding his mind,” she said.
“Like a walnut,” I suggested.
Soon, we consulted the I-Ching oracle, alternating our rolls—back and forth the coins went as we crouched on our knees. From her tapered fingers they fell to the floor, and then I picked them up with my stubbier digits, seeking her eyes. After a total of six turns, we came up with number 41. Sun/decrease which meant “a time to shed a dependency.” That worked— was it coming here, being a student, or seeking therapy that was my dependency? Hannah saw the message as a signal to clear out, to figure her next move. She told me she had acquired the wood panels in Vermont, where she had a family friend, and she thought she might want to paint in an old barn, abandon the chiseled boundaries of city dwelling. But I couldn’t imagine us anywhere other than this cramped, inspiring studio next to an elevator shaft with the threat of her neighbor and my hovering kinship.
“Let’s throw again,” I said, sweeping the coins into my hand, and asserting a command that she had to heed. But she didn’t make eye contact or take her turn as the whistle trilled from the kettle. She stood up to take care of it. A tear welled up in my eye that I struggled to hold, the salty substance of foreboding evocation. I couldn’t move. The coins fell from my hand and rolled across the studio, indeterminately.
© Cheryl J. Fish, 2013
Cheryl J. Fish has published fiction, poetry and non-fiction in journals and anthologies, including New American Writing, The Village Voice, Terrain.org, and the forthcoming Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry. She is the author of two books on travel literature and was recently a finalist in L Magazine's search for pocket fiction for an excerpt from her novel manuscript, OFF THE YOGA MAT. She has been a Fulbright professor in Finland and teaches writing at BMCC/CUNY. cheryljfish.com
Hovering was read by Michaela Morton on 6th November 2013