We open with a shot of our main character, a humble young man, something between busker and beggar. He sits, reposes, on the last step of the stairs leading up to his one-room apartment. Light drops from a single hallway bulb; it glances off his forehead, a thinking man’s forehead. Or so he hopes.
He is young. He is hopeful. He would be smoking a cigarette if it were allowed. But his landlady does not support such bohemian past-times, at least not on her property.
He could be anywhere in the world, but he is in Wisconsin. He could do anything, but he is a painter.
Or he will be a painter. Once he sells a painting. But Van Gogh didn’t sell a single painting during his lifetime, and capitalism is a terrible measuring stick to determine the worthiness of art.
So, he is a painter, and he lives in Wisconsin, and his name is Esau.
This is his year of internal optimism.
What is internal optimism?
Definitions are required—nay, necessary—for a purposeful life. So here: internal optimism is that hope that keeps a creature, seemingly random, seemingly alone, moving forward and ticking. It sends bears to hibernate in the winter and arctic terns on their great global sojourns.
Think of function matching form in design. When all planets align and there is unity of the disparate. Unity of the desperate. This is what we mean.
In February, the sun shines waxy, drained of life, asleep in its cold bed waiting with the world for the return of spring.
Esau paints the sun every day for a month. Twenty-eight suns parading one after the other. Some bright, painted with brilliant primaries. Some shuttered, pastels and sheepskin, dashed across the horizon of his canvas.
“What do they mean?” His partner asks. This is Kevin. Kevin is a project manager. He travels the country from hospital to hospital helping the staff acclimate to new software. When he is around, he and Esau are together constantly. When he isn’t around, Esau is alone.
“They don’t really mean anything,” Esau says. “It’s more for the practice of it.”
“But shouldn’t art have some sort of purpose?” Kevin asks. “Shouldn’t it say something, even in practice?”
“Some would argue that art is the opposite of purposeful, that it exists only for itself.”
“That sounds selfish,” Kevin says. “If we wrote code like that, we’d be out of business in half a second.”
“It’s not always about money,” Esau says.
“Idealist,” Kevin says.
“Well,” Esau says, “someone has to be.”
Esau attends a show opening downtown. The streets are gray with slush. His shoes are soaking by the time he reaches the gallery. He cannot feel his toes. He enters the gallery and takes the glass of champagne that is offered to him.
The artist is a friend of Esau’s. Her name is Elaine. She often helps critique his work. He returns the favor. This is her first show. He is familiar with many of the pieces. Kevin even modeled for some of them. The three of them sitting in Elaine’s studio, smoking weed or cigarettes and drinking until early in the morning. Kevin once made Elaine laugh so hard that she snorted beer out her nose.
Esau sees Kevin’s eyes staring out at him from the canvas.
Esau tried to paint Kevin only once, at the beginning of their relationship, everything still fresh. Kevin wore only a pair of plaid boxers. Esau blushed when the brush traced the length of Kevin’s legs. The painting had turned out clumsy. The figure, though the right proportion and balance, lacked any sort of life. It sat dead on the canvas. Esau had destroyed it, afraid of what it might mean.
Elaine’s show is far-flung, crossing landscapes and figures, collapsing all of time and space into a single point. By the end of the opening, she has already sold three paintings. It is a great success. She asks Esau to go out for a drink with her afterwards.
They walk to a dimly lit bar around the corner. The walls are purple velvet, a mirror stretches luxuriously behind the bar.
Elaine laughs loudly at everything. She is alive and radiant. Esau revels in her joy. He knows that soon such joy will be his as well. It is only a matter of time and perseverance. He knows soon they will be drinking to his success.
He texts Kevin while Elaine is in the bathroom. Kevin is in Georgia.
“E’s show went great,” Esau writes. “I love you.”
Kevin sends a row of hearts in return.
In April it snows again, one final and definitive time, light drifts of white against an eggshell sky. Esau keeps the heat off to save on his energy bill. He wears three layers of sweaters and a coat. He can see his breath while he paints. He will have his first show at the end of the year. A gallery owner has at last taken interest in his work.
Esau tries not to think about it. The pressure makes him nervous, it cramps his hands. He feels as though he might begin pulling apart. Kevin tries to remind him to eat and to drink water and to sleep, but Kevin is around even less frequently these days. He has just been promoted at work. He is now on the road over half the year.
When he is back, Esau touches him carefully, afraid that if handled too much, Kevin might shatter into many pieces.
“Do you have a show title yet?” Elaine asks.
“Not yet,” Esau says.
“It will present itself,” Elaine says.
“It will,” Esau says.
It is spring without warning. The birds have returned in full-throated force. They hurry to welcome the morning, to make up for lost time.
Esau’s parents have contacted him again. They have heard that Esau’s Uncle Richard is funding him. They are angry at Esau. They are even angrier at Uncle Richard. They do not support Esau as an artist. They also do not support him as a gay man, but it is passé to say such a thing, so they stick to not supporting him as an artist.
They email him with questions. Wondering when he will come back home. Sending him links with “real jobs”. Asking whether he is eating enough. Esau does not respond to the emails. He reads them out loud to Kevin. They laugh at them together.
Esau holds in the tears he does not have the strength to cry. He is exhausted. Everything is in his artwork, and still no unifying theme has arrived.
But it is the year of internal optimism. And the answer is just around the corner.
Esau is not sleeping. It started slowly, so slowly he doesn’t remember when, but now sleep has escaped him like a dog out the door and into the dewy grass. And Esau does not believe he will be able to recapture it. As sleep becomes rarer, waking becomes more dreamlike.
Kevin appears and disappears like the supporting character in a poorly written play. He is there one moment, and then, without explanation, he is gone. Farther and farther. To Amsterdam and Dubai now. To California and Kentucky. The texts from Kevin appear sporadically at odd hours.
“Are you sleeping yet?” Kevin asks.
“No,” Esau says, “but I had a dream.”
The doctor prescribes melatonin.
Esau spends his restless nights painting. He paints the moon twenty-eight times.
“What does it mean?” He asks himself.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” he tells himself.
In June, Esau realizes that days are not connected, that each new morning is a random roll of the die, an independent occurrence. The semblance of coherence is coincidental.
Summer hits hard. Sun hammering earth lying flat on its back. Esau sees that the universe was created for his purposes and the year of internal optimism has reached its zenith.
He does not sleep for days at a time. He does not need sleep. He is filled with the glowing dust of the universe and it is coming out of him in his paintings. Only his hand cannot move fast enough to capture all the images on the canvas. So he draws on napkins and kleenexes and the wall and his own body and it is not enough. He cannot move as fast as he would like although he is moving fast, faster than light and he is light enough to float to the ceiling of his one-bedroom apartment.
It doesn’t matter if no one buys his artwork because he can always make more of it. He doesn’t need paint or the canvas because the real art is what is occurring in his brain in each powerful, painful second that leaps rapidly to the next. Because seconds are not connected either, and each new moment is a random roll of the die, an independent occurrence. The semblance of coherence is coincidental.
Kevin comes home.
He sees Esau. Or rather he sees what Esau has become.
What has Esau become?
See again, our hero, he no longer sits, no longer reposes. There is no stillness in this warped frame. There is no fat either. Esau has lost fifteen pounds. The hair on his arms has become downy.
Esau tells Kevin to quit his job.
“I can support us both,” Esau says, “don’t even think about it. Or I’ll join your job too and we can travel the world together. I’m calling my parents. And they’ll travel with us. In fact, everyone, everyone will be traveling with us. The whole world just one giant nomadic herd stumbling from desert to mountain and back.
And I won’t need to paint anymore because the whole of it is in my brain and just by telling you it will transfer to you as well and that’s how I’ll make money.
Like the other day I went to that gay bar we like and I was dancing and a man came up and was dancing with me and I described everything I had seen that day but through my movements. And we started making out, but it was really sweet and passionate and you were there too so it was all okay because our love is big enough to contain everyone and to contain the whole world and time doesn’t really pass because it is a bowl and we are all connected in it by suns and moons and it is happening now and
Elaine visits Esau in the facility. He is moved there after a brief stay in the hospital. Esau cannot remember why he was in the hospital. Only that it involved a car and the rain and the incessant lightning in his brain.
Esau is happy to see Elaine, but he doesn’t understand why she looks so sad. Esau is happy. Happier than he has ever been. He fills notebook after notebook with sketches. He has never created anything so beautiful. He has never been so alive.
It is the year of internal optimism and everyone must come along with it.
“Kevin wanted to visit,” Elaine says, “but he had another trip.”
“That’s all right,” Esau says, “I’d text him only they won’t let me have a phone in here. So you just tell him for me.”
“Sure,” Elaine says, “what do you want me to tell him.”
“Tell him.” Esau thinks. “Tell him I’m sorry.”
There are medications. And medications for the medications. And when Esau begins to sleep, he sleeps with a vengeance.
He goes to sleep at five o’clock then four o’clock. He naps at noon.
There are no dreams, at least none that he tells his therapist. If there are dreams they are brief, only flickers. They are pieces of a previous whole. Sometimes Esau thinks if he could hold onto them long enough he could put it back together. But they fade away and then he is tired.
The gallery has not been in contact for a time. Elaine tells him that they may consider putting on the show when he has recovered.
That’s the way they talk: recovery, episode, summer. Never breakdown. Never disaster. Never shame.
Esau rents the second bedroom from Elaine. He has taken up a part-time job at an antiques store. He sits in the back and types up descriptions of the items to put on eBay. There is a shop dog named Roger. Esau pets the dog.
Kevin visits him, but they are only visits. Esau cannot imagine having feelings for anyone ever again. He cannot remember the time when he did have feelings. There is only the unraveling. Gray yarn draped over everything.
One day, Esau picks up his paintbrush. He sets the tip of the brush into a rich, deep blue. He draws the brush across a blank canvas leaving a single bold stroke.
It is the hardest thing he has ever done.
Esau takes a walk down by the lake. Actually there are two lakes; the city rests on an isthmus. Esau has gained weight. He feels buried deep within himself. When he looks in the mirror he does not recognize his face.
The lake is partially frozen, a thin layer of ice creeping out in fingers from the shore. In the middle of the lake the last few geese huddle in clumps. Esau walks and watches his breath. He breathes and he walks.
A few bikers pass him on the path. They are brightly-colored, flashes of light. Trees stand with bare arms against the falling sky. Esau walks past a couple sitting on a bench, their arms wrapped around each other. One body, two souls.
The sun is falling, the light is falling, and the year is coming to an end.
Esau knows that something has happened here. If only he could put his finger on it. But it is all happening in another room. It is being told to him from a far-off distance. Kevin is texting him.
“Have you taken your medication today?”
Esau turns the corner and sees two swans. He stops. They are right there in front of him, large and white, with necks curved like miracles. Esau knows that he will paint them. That this is how he will heal. By finding miracles and holding them tight.
It is the year of internal optimism. And there are swans.
We close on an image of our hero, a young man, possessed of demons and vagabonds, an entertainer and a slave. Here he sleeps in the winter of the year, under blankets made by a distant family. The lights are out and the shadows are drawn only by moonlight.
He is still hopeful, when he can feel anything. He is still thoughtful, if he can manage it.
He will be a painter. He will live in Wisconsin. His name will still be Esau.
It is the year of internal optimism, the gears clicking and converging, bringing the engine to life. If things have burned it has been combustion. If things have died it is to make way for new life. It is clear that in the end is the beginning and the beginning is the end.
A canvas sits blank on Esau’s easel, but it will not always be so.
Laura A. Freymiller is an Oakland-based writer originally from the heart of the Midwest. Her short stories have been published in The Manuscript, Entropy Magazine, Defiant Scribe, Z Publishing House’s Minnesota Emerging Writer collection, and have received honorable mention in GlimmerTrain competitions. She lives with her perfect cat, Scout.