When Danae was sixteen, she made a pact with Derek.
“We will NEVER,” said Derek, “be like them.”
“No bloody way!” agreed Danae fervently. She was at the peak of her Anglophile phase.
“Don’t they look hot?” Derek asked, and he wasn’t talking about how keenly attractive they were. They wheeled around to sit outward on the wooden bench, the picnic table nudging their backs uncomfortably. They watched their fathers clumsily playing kickball with the younger kids. Both men wore full coats of shiny armor, suits which, as far as Derek and Danae knew, they never removed. They clanked and stumbled, and the children ran between them, laughing.
The two men were good-humored, though. They bore the weight of their armor with tolerant affability.
“Metal-pated,” muttered Danae, contemptuously. Her father reached up to lift his visor and shout something at the kids, who grinned good-naturedly and then ignored him.
“They’re embarrassing, is what they are,” said Derek.
“You should be ashamed,” said a voice behind them, and Derek and Danae both jumped. It was Danae’s mother, bringing a Tupperware container of cupcakes, sleekly frosted in chocolate fudge, to the table. Danae looked longingly at them, then rearranged her expression to one of repentance.
“Sorry, Mom,” she said.
Her mother folded her arms and stared at the girl for a moment.
“You know,” she said, “he wears that armor for YOU.”
Danae ducked her head. But as soon as her mother turned to head back to the kitchen, she snaked out a hand and grabbed two cupcakes. She slid one to Derek, and they unpeeled them in silence, then both took big bites.
“Hidebound,” muttered Danae, swallowing, watching her mother make her awkward way back to the kitchen. The older woman’s body was completely encased in thick, glossy leather. She wore shorts and a tank top over the hide, but honestly, she was so well-covered she had no need, really, to wear any clothes at all.
Danae was going to paint. She was gifted; everyone said so. Her teachers all exhorted her to go on; her art teacher had already finagled two scholarships. In a year and a half, she’d be going to the university center; she would honor her art and she would live a life of truth and integrity.
Derek was going to write. He would be a journalist, the kind who traveled the world and told its most important stories–even when those stories were found in humble huts in out-of-the-way places. He’d bring the truth home to people, maybe help ordinary people get a little more free.
They were young and passionate and determined never to wear the armor, never to grow the hide. Derek’s older brother Phillip, who was not even twenty-one, already had a full breastplate. He had a girlfriend and a job at the factory; his life was all but set.
“Man, how can you stand it?” Derek had asked him.
“It’s heavy,” Phillip said, “but it’s actually kind of cool. And I love Sandy. We’re gonna be happy, bro.”
Derek had shuddered, shaking his head, walking away.
Now he looked at Danae, and his eyes were warm and hopeful.
“WE are going to London,” he said.
“London,” she sighed, and she ignored the warmth of Derek’s look. She knew how Derek felt, but her feelings for him only extended to deep friendship. Still, they were the kind of lifelong friends who could escape together. She imagined a garret, the smell of oil paints, Derek running in with a magazine, brandishing his first printed article. She’d sell her paintings on the sidewalk until her gift was fully discovered.
Their lives would be so real.
Danae went away to college where, as predicted, she was a star. She kept up with her general education subjects, passing with B’s and C’s, but she spent every free moment in the studio. She drew and she painted, she sculpted, she threw pots, and she took photos. She sewed fabric collages. She explored art in as many facets as she could discover, but she confirmed her first yearning had been true: she was a painter.
At night, she sometimes walked the quad, unable to be contained, dreaming of travel, of England, of a rich and funky life in London, until one day a professor said the word, “Paris” to her. Said it and nodded sagely.
“Paris,” he said. “You must go.”
He was an odd, half-plated person, this professor; his art was straight-edged, clangorous, and disturbing. Rumor had it he supported a moody, demanding wife and a disabled child, and he made his art in the nooks and crannies, bearing down on his responsibilities. Some days he wore more armor than others; occasionally he was almost free.
Danae respected him; she was intrigued by his artwork, which jangled and provoked her.
“Paris,” she said. She wrote that to Derek. She began to study French.
She painted her way through a blazing two years, and when she woke up enough to go home, she couldn’t wait to see Derek. He’d graduated from the community college with a degree in marketing.
“Not English?” she asked him on the phone, unsettled.
He’d sighed, a whispery sound that curled out of her mobile. “You can’t get a job with an English degree,” he said.
They planned to meet at Donovan’s; Derek said he looked forward to introducing her to the girl, Nan, he’d begun dating the year before. Danae felt happy for him, and a little sad for Nan, who’d be so lonely when Derek left for their trip across the pond.
But when Danae ran into Donovan’s to meet them, she was shocked. Nan, who was sweet and friendly, whose fly-away blonde hair floated away from her high cheekbones, looked about six months pregnant. She wore a full set of leather leggings, and she rested a hand proudly on her belly. And Danae could feel, when Derek reached over to give her a beery hug, the growing metal breastplate beneath his shirt.
So she traveled to France alone, studying there for the last half of her junior year and all of her senior. And it was exactly like she’d imagined: the freedom, the hours that reeled and blended, night to day, day to night, infused with painting. There were long bouts of making art, and there were crazy, tension-releasing parties. She made friends; she dated men. She learned the language, well and true. But mostly, she painted. Her technique grew; her confidence surged. She sold her paintings on the sidewalk.
One patron called her work “ferocious,” and Danae laughed triumphantly.
One month before she was due to come home from Paris, she met Dan: American, older, (Dan was 28), and a widower. A man of mystery and chiseled good looks, he was a father to two beautiful little girls. He had metal, yes, but it was sleek and lithe, and she liked the way it felt against her bare skin.
He loved her painting. He loved to walk. They took long walks in the rain, in Paris, and they talked of great and splendid things, and she knew, Danae did, that she had met her soul mate. In May, she flew home with Dan, home to where those beautiful girls waited at Dan’s parents’. And she fell in love with them, too.
She decided to add a year of school and get a teaching degree, just in case her art didn’t support her.
She visited her old professor, the one who’d urged her to go to France, and she spilled out her story.
“A teacher?” he said, and he looked at her with all the expression ironed away from his face. It was a full-metal day for him; Danae thought he seemed tired and discouraged.
“A teacher,” she agreed proudly. “I think I can inspire kids to open wide to imagination.”
When she woke up the next day, she discovered the leather, would around her right ankle like a spat. She ran into the bathroom to see if it would wash off, but it didn’t.
Well, she thought. Just this little bit won’t be so bad.
And then she plunged, and the years passed. She found there was a term limit on soulmates; the day came when she couldn’t bear for Dan to touch her.
“But it HURTS,” said Danae; Dan, affronted, huffed. And he picked up two bags and said he’d be back for the rest.
At the door, he turned and issued his parting shot. “It doesn’t hurt Michelle!” he yelled. “Michelle LIKES it! I guess her leather’s just a little thicker than yours!”
And then he was gone, off to his girlfriend, who had a very tidy little home and a burnished suit of leather, and who treated Dan, Danae was sure, with solicitude and adoration.
And here she was, leather-suited and alone.
Dan’s daughters had dismissed her as soon as they hit the teenaged years. Oh, they still came around to wheedle money from their father–and a large part of that came from Danae’s teaching paycheck–but they were totally uninterested in any kind of family relationship.
But by then, Danae and Dan’s own daughter, Kelsie, was in school and showing herself to be a proficient little artist. The first time a teacher commented on Kelsie’s talent, talked about the need to nurture it, Danae was stunned by the force of the jealousy that hit her. I’m the artist! she wanted to cry. I’m the one who needs nurturing!
And then, suddenly, she wondered what HER parents had given up to make life possible for her.
That night her leather had itched unbearably. And Dan, again, was late getting home.
Danae padded through the house–the leather had formed on the bottom of her feet the day she gritted her teeth and said, Well SURE; she’d be happy to take Dan’s mother grocery shopping every week. The supercilious old lady had loved Dan’s first wife. She looked down her nose at Danae, pointing imperiously in the supermarket and expecting Danae to jump and fetch. Danae did–she always did what needed to be done–but her leather began, more and more, to make her itch unbearably.
A little bit more leather had spread on her chest the day the old lady died and Danae didn’t even pretend to grieve.
Now she explored the empty house, where not a soul required her presence, and she savored the moments of quiet. Retirement could be quiet, she realized, and solitary without Dan’s clangor. And maybe—retirement could also be filled with potential.
Kelsie’s art hung on every wall. She was skilled at drawing and painting, but collage was what drew her, and she produced murky, tantalizing works. Images floated almost to the surface of her pieces, like words in a Magic Eight Ball, just beyond clarity. You had to reach, you had to stretch, to get Kelsie’s work. It was neither comfortable nor easy.
And Danae urged Kelsie not to be comfortable or easy, either. There are places, she told her daughter, where people live, free of the leather, unencumbered by the armor—where they live free lives of truth and beauty.
Do I believe that? she asked herself. She took a book to her favorite chair, but she spent the afternoon staring out the window and pondering.
Her painting things were in the clean, dry basement, stored in big Rubbermaid bins. She pulled them out, and she sorted through. Many of the paints were hard and dry, but a surprising number had survived the whirlwind years, waiting to be used.
She dumped the unusable. She looked up her favorite supplier online, gladdened to see they were thriving. She placed a hefty order.
In the interim, she set up a workspace in the basement. And one afternoon, she took her remaining paints and a small canvas to the cemetery where her parents were interred. She sat for a long time, connecting, apologizing, realizing. Then she started a small painting. She took it home and stayed up all that night to finish it.
It was spare and upsetting. You could see anguished faces in the clouds behind the polished granite stone.
She liked it.
She called it ‘Sacrifice.’
Kelsie called, concerned about her parents’ split, but careful not to take sides, not to alienate either parent. Danae reassured her. I’m fine, she said. In fact, I’m painting.
Dan called and Danae let the calls go to voice mail, then she deleted them, unheard. Dan could manage his own guilt without her intervention.
She gave up her volunteer work. She stopped attending her ladies’ group.
Some nights she went to the all-night supermarket and shopped for anything that caught her fancy. She might nuke herself a Stouffer’s TV dinner. She might get caught in the riotous color of the produce section and spend the night peeling, paring, and chopping beautiful vegetables—inhaling their reds and golds and creamy whites and glossy greens as she gloried in their fresh and pungent smells. She made soups and stews and ate big bowls whenever she was hungry.
She looked up her old professor on line, and she found that he had died. The unhappy wife, the unfortunate son, still survived.
She named her first finished work for him: she called it, “Caught.” She thought it was good, but she didn’t wait to find out. She put it aside. She went on to the next.
One night she realized, suddenly, she needed to re-trace her steps. At 4 AM, she got online and booked a flight to Paris. One way. No plans: she would figure out where to stay and what to do when she got there.
Later, when it was full daylight, she called Kelsie and told her she’d be leaving the following week, and she could feel her daughter struggling, figuring out how to respond.
Finally, Kelsie opted for joy. I’m clearing my decks, Mama, she said. I’m going to come and join you.
Danae’s heart leapt. She realized, putting the phone down, that she was exhausted. It was 9 AM, but she’d been painting all night, painting right up to the point of calling her daughter. She put the phone on vibrate and she crawled into her tangled bedsheets.
When she awoke, Danae found that she’d shed a single leather spat. It lay limply on her sheets, a sign of things to come.