Excerpt (Chapter 2) from “The Sin of His Father” introducing the protagonist’s former girlfriend. Monica is an important, although secondary character. I would much appreciate any critique you may be willing to offer.
The scent of oil paint permeated the two-bedroom apartment that was a twenty-minute walk from the Art Institute of Chicago. Monica Bertolini didn’t notice—this was how home smelled to her.
While chaos reigned in her studio, the small living room was an illustration of perfect order and balance. In one corner, on a small desk, Monica had piled stacks of paper in neat towers. One held a list of ideas for non-fiction articles. Another, short fiction, which she needed to edit and submit. A file folder contained handwritten outlines and random scenes, in no particular order. Someday she hoped to merge these into the idea for a novel that floated around in her brain. She’d framed the borders of her darkened monitor with Post-It notes in brilliant pink—testimony of works in progress and things to do, but she hadn’t looked at them in days.
The north wall of the room boasted a library of books: fiction, non-fiction, writing how-to’s, art history and techniques, and general reference books. Monica had arranged them by category, in alphabetical order by author.
Through the bay window on the west wall of the room, Monica saw Lake Michigan. Today the water was still and silver-cold. The sky, too, was gray, even misty. Maybe she should paint this landscape that matched her mood in every detail.
In the adjoining room an unfinished canvas lay propped on an easel. Orange and cerulean blue paint danced in cacophonous colors and screamed at her in taunting ecstasy. One evening, in abjection, she had smeared a palette knife of black paint in a thick wavy line down the middle of the canvas. The result only heightened the drama. She abandoned her work for now: she couldn’t paint and wouldn’t write. Not since Matt had told her he couldn’t see her anymore.
When her father called from Maine the previous evening he’d inquired about her work. She tried so hard to mask her depression, but when he had been unable to pin her down, he’d questioned her directly. She’d never been able to lie to her parents, especially not now. It was a miserable thing to be so dependent on them and their money. They’d encouraged her and even paid for her education. A dual Masters of Fine Arts, in writing and painting, was no small accomplishment, no small investment. She knew that, and everyone had promised her, as she had promised herself, that she would be a success. But now, she just couldn’t force herself to pick up a brush or a pen.
Monica believed that Matt loved her, and knew that she loved him. Her vision and hope had been pinned on the knowledge that they would spend a lifetime together. Hadn’t he spoken of marriage and kids? Had she heard it wrong, when he dreamed aloud of moving to California? “I’ll get work in Hollywood,” he’d bragged. “They need plenty of private eyes there, stalking all those cheating husbands.” Not that he’d lacked for work in Chicago.
“You can do the art scene there,” Matt told her. She remembered his exact words and the hum of excitement in his voice.
So what had happened that caused him to call it off?
The Chicago Tribune lay folded in her lap. Half of the headline blurted out something about the presidential campaign. She couldn’t take much more of that—it was still almost a year away. She tossed the front section to the floor and began digging for the Horoscopes when the name Maxwell, in bold print caught her eye. Above it, in a smaller font, Monica read the name of Matt’s mother: Ellen Margaret.
The heaviness that had hung over Monica’s heart lifted, replaced by a sharp stabbing pain. How could they reduce Matt’s mother to a narrow column, only eight lines in length? Was that what a life came down to? Monica reached for the phone and hit the speed dial she still had set up for Matt, but ended the call before the first ring. Matt didn’t want her to be a part of his life anymore. She knew that for sure now—he hadn’t even told her about Ellen’s death and the woman was not only his mother, she was Monica’s friend, and he knew it.
It’d been barely a month ago that Monica had spent the afternoon with the frail lady. She’d pushed Ellen’s wheelchair around the spacious grounds of the nursing home then Monica had parked her beneath the branches of an ancient elm tree and fed her some ice cream that she’d toted in a cooler. Over the months that Monica had been dating Matt, the two women had become close. Recently, Ellen couldn’t endure longer outings and had a hard time remembering details of their visits for long after the event, but she had no confusion about Monica and how the girl felt about her son. Their common love for the enigma that was Matt cemented their own relationship.
A distant conversation played through Monica’s mind.
“You’ve got to understand him, Monica, me dear,” Ellen had said in a lingering brogue. “He’s never had a man to show him the ropes.” Back-lighting had glistened through the outline of Ellen’s disheveled hair, framing a weary face.
“What do you mean, Mrs. Maxwell?” Monica had asked. It seemed to her that Matt had learned his roles pretty well. He was thoughtful, anticipating her every need. He was romantic—flowers and little notes, sometimes written on paper towels or, once, the margins of the page of a phone book. And as far as lovers went, he didn’t seem to need much modeling in that regard. But then, Ellen wouldn’t know that, would she? Monica blushed at the thought.
“What do you mean?” Monica prodded again.
“I think he’s afraid.” Ellen blew the words out between wheezes. “He’s just afraid of love. I pray he doesn’t hurt you.”
As they’d made their way back to Ellen’s room, down the long, florescent-lit hallway, a song from long ago played in the background and carried the woman to another dimension. Monica had left the woman with her reflections and walked slowly toward her car.
A Mass of Resurrection will be held, she read, at ten o’clock on Wednesday…. Monica decided to go. Maybe Matt wouldn’t want her there, but damn it! Ellen was her friend.
Linked to the writing prompt I offer at “Into the Bardo.” Please stop on over and browse.