After so many years – twelve to be exact – I can finally say that the steps I am now taking are headed to my father. It is for my father. My feet are pointed towards him, towards where he most probably is standing, champagne glass in his hands, the other hand gesturing wildly around the space he inhabits, the space he calls his and proudly so, his mouth in a constant state of open laughter, the kind where you know the people around you won’t judge you for because they are in your space. After all, it is a privilege to even be standing where they are standing.
I soon realise that this picture of him I’ve projected in my mind – boisterous, proud, confident, perhaps even bordering on arrogant – is one which I’ve always seen when I was younger. That man was who I saw as I peeked around corners in the bright exhibition rooms during opening nights, me in my little gowns and lacy socks trapped within sparkly flats, feeling as if I was part of the showcase, that if anyone looked closely they would have found the white label hovering by me titled ‘Little Girl At Her Famous Painter Father’s Art Show’.
The face in my mind is that of the middle-aged man I hovered around since I was little. His eyes are clear, sun freckles dotting his nose and forehead with little threads of wrinkles here and there, the crow’s feet of his eyes beginning to make their impressions, his smile still stretching ear to ear to reveal perfect teeth, or what I used to call the artist’s porcelain teeth as a joke to him. My mind goes blank when I force myself to picture what he looks like now, at this current moment. It is difficult to say. He never posts photos of himself online, not even an artist’s portrait. I guess it is the whole artistic decision with “letting the art speak for itself”. Of course, some still manage to post unconsented photos of his face that they manage to take a quick sneaky snap of during his art shows and talks. But none of them look like him. It is almost like those photos of him lack the essence of what truly makes him, him. It is almost like he can never be photographed. Maybe that’s what it is, that’s what he has realised from the family portraits my mother used to have us all take when I was young. Maybe he’s afraid of seeing himself anywhere, afraid to find something that isn’t there the first time he looks at himself in the mirror.
But what do I know, I haven’t seen him for so long. I have no idea what he looks like now that age has caught up to him, and maybe that particular something he is so afraid of has caught up to him, too.
The place I am now walking towards was his favourite place to hold his art shows. I’m not sure if it still stands as his favourite, but I assume so. What seems to be a simple brick square building sitting across the pier hugging the shoreline reveals to be a bright and lively exhibition space on the inside. With walls cutting across here and there, it becomes a maze-like space for art lovers to explore and discover the nooks and crannies of. I never really liked it, it was too chaotic and dizzying of a space for my father’s artworks – his calming landscapes, his waterfalls, skies, and woods – to be placed in. I never understood why he liked it here. I never cared enough to understand.
Three nights ago during one of my late night pre-bed social media spirals waiting for my sleep meds to kick in, my hand clenching my phone in the dark and my thumb swiping up and up and up, photos and words appearing and disappearing and appearing again all jumbled up, my thumb freezing in front of a post with my father’s name on it prefixed before the words ‘Final Exhibition’. My heart rattled in my chest, my mind lagging behind as my heart pushed my thumb to fill in the RSVP. I didn’t know what I was looking for, what I wanted to feel the moment I made the decision that night with my brain already foggy. I wondered if it was gratification I was hoping to feel. The relief that after all these years I still had it in me to make the effort to see him, talk to him. Maybe gratefulness that the universe plopped the opportunity down right onto my lap, that it would be stupid to just ignore it. Grateful that I didn’t have to do any hard work on my part, of crawling through all the mud and dust caking the communication channels just so I can reconcile back with him, just as any good daughter is expected to do.
I never even thought I would follow through with it, but here I am. I am seeing it through, I want to see it through is what I convince myself.
I approach the entrance, pulling my coat tighter around my body. I push open the glass doors and the artificial air-conditioned breeze hits me in the face, along with the clean linen and pine scent that permeates the walls and my own memories. This is the scent of my childhood; this is also the space of my childhood. The countless art shows done here and the countless times I’ve been here for opening nights. The perfect picture of the good daughter supporting her father.
Two women clad in formal attire greet me right as I enter, one offering to take my coat and the other holding out her clipboard for my name. I give the women my coat and my name, trying my best to sound like I’ve done this a million times before. Upon hearing my last name, their ears perk up and I restrain every fibre of my being from apologising. For what, I don’t know. Maybe I feel sorry for breaking their little sphere of normalcy, my presence as someone who supposedly does not belong on this side of the entrance puncturing the façade. I feel sorry for them – these two innocent women who’re only tasked with what they were tasked – finding out this way about my relationship with my father, or what’s left of it. I feel sorry that they feel sorry for me. I never want them or anyone to feel sorry for me.
Once they’ve taken down my name, the server behind them appears as if on command and holds out a tray full of glasses of champagne towards me. I shake my head politely, remembering my meds, before turning to head into the maze. I hear whispers behind me as I walk away, no doubt the two women talking about me, and I don’t blame them.
People are beginning to crowd the space bit by bit. This opening night will inevitably be my father’s biggest one yet. It is his final one after all, and apart from the giddiness of being the last ones to experience his shows, curiosity is also heavy in the air. There is no further explanation to this being his final exhibition. From what I know of my father up to now, I know very well that it is deliberately his choice to not explain anything. It is as if he expects everyone to already know why this would be his final exhibition, that no questions would be asked tonight. Once the exhibition ends, all his artworks would be swept away almost magically from this place, and everyone is to go home and completely forget about him, recalling only the blurry remnants of his paintings the next morning.
I try to get a good look at the faces of those who swarm the spaces in front of my father’s paintings. Who are they? Do they know my father? Do they know him not only as the famous painter but also every other facet of him – a son, a father, a divorcee, a complex person? Do they know me, his estranged daughter? I have no idea who any one of them are. Just faces of people who are supporters of my father, or whom my father personally knows. Now that I’m here, inhabiting the same space my father is most probably in, I notice how weird it feels, how similar I am to a piece of limb that has been cut off. The people my father personally knows now are no longer those I also recognise, and they will never be. I am a dismembered limb that no longer receives the same blood supply from that I was once attached to.
I stop focusing on the people around me, instead redirecting them to my father – or rather the extensions of my father, his art. All of them are in sleek frames, their essence holding them up on the walls, needing no additional lighting focused onto them because of the colours. My father’s colours hold their own luminosity. The small white cards beside each of the paintings give their titles and brief descriptions for each. All the paintings are placed far apart from each other, the empty white intervals giving space for you to finally exhale after seconds of holding them in under the gaze of each painting.
I recognise most of the paintings around me. They’re older, painted when I was young. I remember most of them from the attic room of our old home, sitting quietly up there gathering dust. They are quite generic-looking paintings of nature. His technique at the time he painted this was less complex. The colours were slightly muddled, the trees lacked detail, the only explanation for it being that he was drawing younger trees. But I could tell he enjoyed painting these all the same. It was his lifeline at the time, a way of piecing back together what was slowly crumbling away from him in his life then, a way of crying when tears were not permitted in the house.
Seeing his older artworks here, they seem to gain a new life of their own. Back in our old attic, the true soul in these paintings were lost in the gloom and dust, abandoned and forgotten. I’m surprised these paintings even made it here today considering how much pain and vulnerability they contain even in their simplicity. I’m surprised he even consented to putting these up tonight.
“They’re just beautiful, aren’t they?” a voice chirped up behind me.
I turn to look at the owner of the voice to make sure she wasn’t speaking to me. A middle-aged lady, her forehead smooth, the Botox keeping her wrinkles well below the taut surface of the skin where it will never see the light of day, the pearls adorning her neckline screaming old money. Is this the type my father is known to attract to his very last art show? Is this what my father’s art has surmounted to? Have these people staked their claim on his art, the art which he began during his years as a poor university student limping day by day through his meagre allowance? Perhaps this is the fate every artist has to succumb to, that no matter how you start off, the person you were once will eventually be stripped away, made clean and new so you and your work will be palatable for the elite, so that you will fit into their homes on their pristine white walls.
It takes every ounce of me not to scream at the lady, to tell her how wrong she is and how she could not even begin to understand what these paintings truly mean, that no matter which painting she ends up with at the end of this exhibition in exchange for a tiny portion of her wealth, she will never be able to bring home the very soul contained in the painting, that the colours will dull and the canvas mottled once she hangs it in her dining hall.
I smile vaguely at her direction and walk off, leaving her to deal with her own saccharine sentiment.
I wade deeper into the belly of the place, passing by without much of a glance at the several paintings that do not stick to my mind as well as some other of my father’s. The light gradually gets dimmer the deeper you go, the paintings further apart, the blank walls a darker shade of grey.
The almost-enclosed space I now enter has a sensation of trapped air. Like time has stopped and everything is static. Even the several people in the space here with me are frozen in place in front of the paintings. Time has stopped here. The air contains the past, the present, and the future.
I look up at the first painting I find myself standing in front of. I have never seen this one, nor any of those in this space. These were likely painted during the years I’d drifted away from him. They seem alive, as if trying to jump out of the frames they are in to reprimand me, to tell me these are masterpieces my father has managed to create even during his loneliest times, to shame me for not being there to watch the completion of them.
Most of the paintings feel self-aware, almost. I could feel my father in all of them, not necessarily in the painting but rather behind them. These are what he once saw, his memories. These worlds he has painted are from his eyes. How do I know that? Well, it’s simply because I once saw these worlds, too. They are paintings of the landscape surrounding our old home. The little brook fenced by birch and juniper bushes behind our house, the violet sunset over the salmon tiled-roof, the grass clearing in our front yard slick with dew in the morning. It feels real, the colours are vivid, every inch of the land as accurate as I still remember them. In one of the paintings, a wide landscape of the house from afar under the afternoon sun, there is a little girl with her back turned away, one stockinged leg pushing her body off the ground and the other mid-air, her brown hair a cascade of tangled streams down her back. It is a scene of her frolicking in her own little garden, unaware of her father looking at her and capturing the moment as it is. I am looking at myself. I hesitate to identify that girl in the painting, but all signs point to it being me, there’s no doubt about it. I mean, who else could it have been?
Someone calls my name softly. It’s another lady I can’t identify. She walks up to me, smiling as if to comfort me, and she calls my name again like a question. I nod a little and smile back. It is obvious that I would be recognized sooner or later. Everybody knows my father has a daughter, and unfortunately, I do post the occasional picture of myself on the Internet. I am not completely alike my father after all. I have nothing to hide from, no artistic intentions to stand behind.
“That is you, isn’t it?” she says. “How do you feel, dear? I’m sure you feel proud of your father for having you in his painting. He’s done well to represent you, his one true love in his life.”
I could tell the sentiment is starting to get on to her, her voice cracks towards the end, her tears threatening to spill. “Hm, I guess so. I’m not sure about the pride, though. I mean, she really is just a generic little girl. Could be anyone if you think about it.”
“But dear, that really is you! Your father is a deliberate artist, I’m sure you know well. Speaking of, will he be out here tonight? I’d really like to catch up with him, the last I’ve seen him was ages ago and it would be great to see him again,” she pats my arm as she mentions my father.
I put on my best mask of a smile and slink away from her touch, leaving as I say under my breath, just audible enough for her to hear, “I don’t know, you tell me.”
A particular something wraps its hands around my throat as I leave the space. Time flows back as normal; my throat constricts from the sudden rush of the present again.
The present flows all around me, nudging me deeper into the confines of the hall. My feet follow. It finally ticks in my head, thanks to the lady, that my father ought to be in here somewhere. He must be at the end, greeting and shaking the hands of those who manage to make it there. My heart beats twice its normal pace as I think of him standing at the other end, his eyes finally settling onto me and I to him, the sigh escaping his lips once he recognises me. I don’t think I’ve ever prepared myself for this, even after all these years. The very thought of my father has crossed my mind countless times throughout the years, but never the thought of this moment, the gap between the estrangement and the reconciliation. The forgotten and the remembered. The emptiness and the sudden filling of it.
We come upon a makeshift hallway, the walls tightening, the lights dim, the path clearly cut for us. The hallway is empty. It is a hollow path. Only our voices echo and bounce over the walls beside us. Forward and onwards we go, until the hallway ends and we are practically thrown into a wide, high-ceilinged space.
At the other end of the room, the painting sprawls itself all over the wall. It’s like nothing I’ve seen my father done, I refuse to even believe it is his. He might have commissioned it from another painter among his ranks, collaborated with even. A featured painting, a kind act of subtly handing the crown over to another painter to take on his legacy, so to speak.
It is nothing of my father’s work. I know, because he would never paint something like this and of this sheer size. But I also know that nobody could have done this either, that it was completely and entirely from my father’s eyes.
Because it is a painting of his favourite woods, the one a stone’s throw over from our old home, where he would sit on the little stone ledge by the clearing right outside of the treeline with his little sketchbook at any moment he could find. But it is also upside down. As in, he’s painted it the other way around.
It isn’t painted the right way up and flipped around once it was finished either, and I know this not only because of his tiny signature at the bottom right corner of the painting, but also what I see when I immediately take out my phone, snap a photo of it, and turn my phone the other way around so the painting is flipped right side up. The painting, once flipped upside down, is wrong. There’s no other way to describe it but just plain wrong. Everything looks awkward, the tree branches seem to be tangled up in different parts of the trees, the leaves are shaped irregularly, even the colours lose themselves in the cacophony of shapes. I can’t make sense of it, because looking back up at the painting in front of me, I see nothing wrong with it. In fact, there is a certain quality to it that I never noticed in any of his other paintings.
Alas, this upside-down painting has still shattered this little glass bubble in me that once held my father – or the memories of him. This work of his has brought chaos to not only my feelings and thoughts of him but also to the rest who are in the room with me, witnessing this completely innocent and harmonious painting violating their minds. Worlds are being shaken up; their nights are probably ruined by this hurricane of a painting. I hear the gasps from the mouths of every single one entering the space. All they wanted to end the night with was the ultimate emotional pièce de résistance, something they can talk about to their friends, their colleagues, their sons and daughters. But how do you talk about this painting, how could you possibly describe it?
Already I feel eyes settle onto me, and the whispers surround me. A woman and her partner are shuffling slowly towards me, their eyes imploring mine, begging for an answer to the questions which I already know before they even tumble out of their mouths.
“Your father – this is, it’s just… how–”
“Do you know where he is, it’s just–”
“Honey, how did he even come up with this, did you know what–”
“The colours are just, incredible. I need to talk to him about this masterpi–”
“I’m sorry about you and your father–”
Something inside of me flinches, my first instinct kicking in to look around the space for my father. I need to lock eyes with him and for him to instantly come over to save me from the strangers just like when I was young. He isn’t anywhere to be found, but I could somehow still feel him somewhere. Maybe he is behind the walls, and there is a little hole through which he is watching us, watching me. Seeing how I react to this, watching me shrink back to my child self in my adult body. Maybe this is the final performance, the entirety of my being, shaken into pieces, all for him.
As more of them begin to notice who I am and make their way to me standing in the middle of the room, my soul, as if I left it at the entrance by the two women before walking in, pulls me back there. My heels turn and I leave the whispers and the painting behind me. I walk back to where I started, back to where I left my soul for a little while to make room for the soul of my father in the paintings, where I’d let them inhabit my body.
I reach the entrance doors; I am myself again. Grabbing my coat back from the woman, I push open the doors and go outside. I take in every salt and moisture from the air into my lungs, grateful to be back outside. My feet take me towards the pier, my fingers fidgeting with the button holes on my coat.
Someone is standing there already, as if awaiting me. He’s facing out to the sea, back facing me, but I still recognise that height, the haircut, and the loafers he’s wearing, the very same type he’s been wearing ever since I can even remember.
I am afraid that if like that final painting, him turning around to face me will reveal something I don’t recognise in his face. I am afraid for him too, if the same happens to him upon seeing my face.
I stop just a few feet away from him. All the voices in my mind settle down, like dust floating down to the floor once you leave the room. I look to the sea, at where my father is looking now. I am looking through him, memorising the colours, the sound, the ebb and flow of the water, the horizon.
For the first time in a long time, we are in sync. We are looking at this tiny piece of the world together at the same time. It would be rude to stop it all, but I have to. I have to know what will happen when two planets who were far apart from each other for so long meet again on their paths of orbit.
I need to know.
I step towards dad.
Written by: Natasha