THE BLOG

Paint and Love: How Decorating Helped Me Get Through a Breakup

02/08/2013 12:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2013
  • Diane R. Pagen A social worker and social policy professor in the New York area, Diane Pagen writes about poverty and the people affected by it--which is all of us.

I lug paint from my Brooklyn apartment to my mother's apartment in Queens. I take it on the subway and we, me and my paint, snake through Brooklyn, Manhattan, then Queens, and are expelled onto the sidewalk. Once inside my mother's place, I kneel in front of her bedroom wall, arranging the newspaper on the floor to lessen the mess. I pop the paint can open. My mother is not home. She has a huge armoire given to her by the last man she had a relationship with. The armoire was not a gift, but a leftover from when this man sold his house several years back. My mother has cursed the armoire: its ugliness, its impracticality, its huge size. So today, I have pushed it out of her room and into her hallway. I'm hoping when she sees the change she'll be brave enough to throw the armoire away. I begin painting the wall that was hidden behind it.

This is the same can of paint used last week to paint a wall in my apartment, a wall that had been covered with posters, photos, World War II pin-ups and political slogans that my ex, who left on August 21st, had tacked up there. On a December Friday night, I gave up any hope that he would come do this work himself, come have the tactile experience of breaking up; the unpowerful part where one must box up one's belongings and remove them as one has chosen to remove oneself. He skirted this work. So I stood on the kitchen counter and began pulling down each memory, working left to right. A pair of pliers helped to pull out the staples that he'd used to fasten all these images to the top of the wall. Some of the staples hung in, like a weed that digs in against the gardener's energetic, sweaty pulling. When every nail and staple was excised, I jumped down from the counter. Sitting in a chair, I admired my work. Then came the paint -- ballet white -- that left the wall clean.

My mother had married the man she knew before the man with the armoire, who hailed from Wisconsin. She was with him for ten years before he died of a brain aneurysm. Before that, there was my father; a marriage filled with some love and much fighting. Every attempt at love my mother made in her adult life died within these walls. I wonder as I paint what love meant for her, her own parents' sick example to guide her. I imagine her as a voracious lover, seeking to draw out of her loves in sex and blood what they would not, could not give in affection and comfort.

She wanted love. Instead, she got children.

If I were the head of a psychiatry unit, I'd let the patients paint the place every week. Pink, blue, orange, yellow. I recall telling my ex that I wanted to paint our apartment. He said, Why bother? He felt that since we hoped to move in 18 months, it was not worth the effort. 30 x 18 = 540 days of looking at dingy walls. Since he's left, I've painted one bookcase (ballet white), one spice rack and a hallway (periwinkle blue), and one desk (tropical red). After each session, I sit and stare at my creation, satisfied, sometimes popping open a beer or sitting with a cup of coffee. Damn, I'm Good, I think. I go around the apartment figuring out which bric-a-brac will look good near my paint job. This entertains me and soothes me like a salve soothes bug bites.

The man that had the aneurysm had it in the same room I am painting. I was home that night years back, and my mother sought me out. "He's on the toilet, but something's not right," she said. I went into the bathroom just off of her bedroom, and saw the man I had wished dead on the toilet, breathing a strange, mechanical breath. I poked him and called him. We called 911. I felt overwhelmed with desire for all those alive, booted men who filed through the front door. It took three of them to get him off the toilet and onto the bed. When they carried him out, brain dead, I went back to sleep, with no more agitation than if I'd gotten up to shut a window.

Now 67, my mother struggles to make sense of a life lived trying to please these men. When faced with a choice between her own survival and that man's, my mother was willing to stop breathing. She nearly did so as a child, when her own enraged, intoxicated father pushed her into the bathtub and held her naked underwater. I've always wondered if the reason my mother will not drink a full glass of water is because of that day. If you bring my mother a glass of water and observe, you will see she merely wets her lips; perhaps a drop of water will slide down her throat, seeking, against her will, to nourish her.

The wall is turning white now, but the purple seeps through. It will need two coats. I hate the life my mother has lived, spinning like a top, spinning for the men, the men who leave, the men who protect themselves before her, the men who make her choose between herself and them. Spinning for years, so fast that she cannot see the world going by, the places she should have visited, the classrooms she could have sat in, the people she should have met. This woman, this stupid woman -- no, smart. Very smart. Way too smart.

Just like me, I think.

Only somehow stronger. What a shock for me. I despised my mother's lack of education, her lack of self-confidence, her lack of money, her lack of health. Over time, I've alternately sought her out and pushed her away, disgusted at what I viewed as her procession of losses. Ten years she spent with the man with the armoire, caring for him as he aged, the waiting dance. 58, 60, 62, 64... danced between insults and thrown daggers to her heart. Before that, the dead-from-an-aneurism, Wisconsin-born alcoholic, perpetually depressed, drinking and coking while my mother worked at silly jobs instead of going to school, instead of making herself happy. Yet, when I showed up at her door because my love wanted to separate, she stayed home to let me in -- even though I had the key. I climbed into bed face down and began to scream. It occurs to me, as I am painting my mother's wall, that face down was how the man I loved was when he told me it was over. Face down on the couch, as I pleaded with him to sit up and talk to me. He enjoyed the powerful feeling it gave him to speak these words but he still spoke them face down. "You're going to have to let go, kiddo," he said. He grew bigger and I grew smaller. I had put my left hand on his shoulder.

My mom also put her hand on my shoulder. I was face down, yelling through my tears: "I want to go home!" I did not want to be in my childhood home, the place where I should have learned not to fall in love with people who cannot feel or trust. I imagined my love back home on the couch, only he was no longer face down, he was face up to the world, maybe face up with a woman, maybe preparing to enter her right soft opening right now. I heard the whoosh of the highway out the window, the same highway I'd stared across as a child.

My mother nursed me that day and subsequent days like a baby. Perhaps more and better than when she brought me home four decades ago. She kept checking on me all night while I cried, the way you check when your little one has a fever. I remember when I really did have a fever, Scarlet Fever, back when I was 6 or 7. I'd wake up and have the feeling that someone was facing my bed, someone with no form, someone that was preparing to touch my feet or engulf me.

The months of August and September, she heard me crying in the night; she heard me railing against my ex-love in the early mornings, enumerating all his transgressions, the transgressions that I had chosen to live with, an acquiescence I could not explain. My mother made me oatmeal some mornings. I angrily stuffed food down my throat between curses and sobs. My mother sat with me at the kitchen table as spontaneous tears welled up in my eyes and spilt into my breakfast, my dinner. My mother hated to cook, but these months she was moved to cook for me. Sometimes I caught her watching me. She looked terrified. "I love you," she said one day. She had not said it in years.

I picked up the small brush to paint the trim. How many people had my mother had on top of her who were now gone? Of all the men she'd wanted to swim with, she'd only been able to tread water.

There is a little-known beach in South Brooklyn at the end of Gerritsen Avenue. Before we broke up, we went and waded there in the waters of the bay. I have this memory: A black man with dreadlocks in the water, lounging as if on dry land, smoking a blunt large enough for us to see from the shore; a Spanish family to our left, the baby running up and down from the waterline, his tiny fanny naked; my ex-love and I making our way to the water. When I begin to reach the depth where it is too deep for me to stand, I cling to him. The water drips from his black beard, and I lick the salt from his shoulder. His olive skin shimmers. I let go, swim around him, and return to his slick arms. He asks me if I know how to float. "No," I say. He teaches me. The trick is to keep breathing.

One day, September 21, I went to our old apartment to get a few shirts and try to talk. My ex was in the kitchen, affable. I tried to talk, my words got tangled. But his didn't. "I'm already f*cking someone else," he said. As the words came from his mouth, I'm sure I saw him experience the pleasure of misused power. I left. I grew bigger. He began to grow smaller.

A few days after my ex said those words, my mother made me get up and take a bath. She watched while I turned on the water. I wondered if when she sees bathtubs, she thinks of her father's big Irish hands holding her under the water. I rose from the bed naked. I stood next to the tub naked, got in. She stayed with me despite a lifelong discomfort with nudity. Her daughter was sick with grief, her daughter was too thin. The mother who wouldn't drink a sip of water herself brought her baby water. The mother who hated nakedness soaped her baby's bare back.

Like my mother, I'd spun about like a top, feeling that I could not swim. I tried to grab hold of the sides of the pool that were moving away from me. But I know how to swim; I'd only refused to because I had wanted to swim through life with this man as I had those summer days at the end of Gerritsen Avenue. But my ex-love mistakes the love he craves for a slimy eel who wants to pull him down under the water. My love is a light, clean towel that would have warmed him when he emerged from the water to the cool air. Even while together he was kicking me away, making the water froth up until neither one of us could see.

August and September ran through, and in October, my ex and I agreed that he would move out of our apartment, and that I'd move back in. I'd live there alone, and he'd move his things out. Waves of elation moved through me. By November, my heart was only smarting with occasional spasms. My thoughts overrode my heartbreak: and I thought, you deserve better. Some suggested that I not go back to the apartment we'd shared. I did not listen. Our place had been my place, too. I am not an appendage of my men. The apartment had sheltered me in those first months of joy with him. It would now shelter me in my sadness and shelter me in my next joys, which would come. Like a bird momentarily too sick to help itself, I had laid myself at the foot of my mother's door and she had pulled me into the nest.

I'm on the subway, coming home from painting the wall. A mother sits down next to me; a small baby strapped to her chest. I cannot see the baby's face, but I can watch the mother's. This woman is not face down. She is neither in pain, nor is she relishing in dishing out pain. She need not bury her face, because she is on fire with a love and a pride in herself that are immeasurable. Some light of understanding ignites inside of me. "Hi, my sugar," she croons, leaning in to her child slightly with the sound of the "r." "Hello, my love."