Pushing Perfect

Issue 1 | Fall 2017 |


Distant knocks on a door disturb a dream in which she sketches a scene of a boy flying a kite by the seashore. Or is she herself flying the kite? She concentrates on the kite and the wind, shutting out the knocks. But they wake her anyway. Louder now. Someone beats against the motel door. How have they found her? They haven’t even had time to miss her. Emily ignores the knocking. She can’t be reached if she doesn’t let anyone in.



Emily had latched both pieces of hardware on the motel door, each click an added reassurance of peace, quiet, and do not disturb. Stuck up high near the corner of the back wall, an air conditioner hummed and rattled with an intensity that belied its weak output. The papered walls were several shades of brown and tan; a puke-green bedspread lay cockeyed across the double bed; the carpet was the color of bruised peas. The one attempt at beauty were the plastic peach and yellow roses stuck in a glass vase on the table by the front window. A wonder they weren’t wilted.

She stripped off her clothes on the way to the bathroom: a closet-sized room, smaller than the half-bath off the foyer back home. There was no tub, but the shower stall had a gray and brown Welcome mat spread before it. Her choice of a cold-water shower was indeed welcome. Emily dried herself with the sandpaper towel that didn’t leave a shred of excess skin. She felt lighter.

Emily slipped on an oversized, extra-long tee shirt that had once belonged to Russell. She pulled the bedspread onto the floor, and then lay down on the off-white sheets of the bed to wait for cooled air to drift down.



An unfamiliar male voice calls from beyond the door: “I know you’re there.”

Go away.

“Come on, your sister told me. Tina, open up.”

No.  Who? 

Barely conscious, Emily pushes herself off the bed. She stumbles across the room. Fighting a spike of lightheadedness, she snatches loose the latches and yanks open the door. “What?”

He stands there, mouth open, staring first at her face then along her body to her bare feet. She looks down. Okay, I’m half naked, but covered past my ass, at least. That this boy, for he isn’t much more than one—early twenties maybe—could harm her, finally occurs to her as she stares back at his bulk and his spiked, black hair and the snake tattoos that circle his arms. She pushes the door almost closed, peers through the crack, and repeats, “What?”

He stares at her face now and bites at his lower lip. “I’m sorry, really sorry, ma’am.”

Please not “ma’am” of all things.

“I’m looking for—a friend,” he says. “Someone told me she was here. Sorry to bother you.” His shoulders droop, and he seems to shrink as he turns away. He reminds Emily of Larry when he’s left behind by Dean and his friends.



Emily had walked the hard sands of New Smyrna Beach while waiting for her room to be ready. Beyond the car-packed, crowded center of activity, two teenage boys flew kites high toward a pale-blue, white-streaked sky amid a half-dozen sea gulls that seemed to play along. Emily sat on a low dune and dug her bare feet into the sand below the hot surface to where it was cool. The only sounds were the waves and the wind and the laughter of boys and gulls. She watched the colorful kites streak against the canvas of the sky.

The boys would love this. She could see it now: the oldest, Dean, giving orders, Larry ignoring him while trying to lift his feet off the ground and fly with the kite.

Emily stood and shook herself free of the clinging sand of the dune. She wandered further down the beach where another swatch of color caught her attention. Painted on a high expanse of sea wall fronting a weathered-wood beach house was a bold, lush mural of the Florida beach the way it would have been before the wall itself, before the beach house it protected, before the Spanish and the Greeks, maybe even before the native tribes: the many green shades of the palmetto and pine bush amid which bloomed splashes and blends of reds, yellows, blues of flowering plants and butterflies and feathers of sub-tropical birds; in one bottom corner strolled an armadillo, in another an alligator yawned. Emily had proposed a similar scene to Russell many years ago; one that she would paint on the story-and-a-half blank living room wall of their new home in an upscale subdivision southeast of Orlando. Russell’s what-will-the-neighbors-think expression had stopped her cold.



She shuts the motel door, latches it up again, and then leans against the wall taking deep breaths waiting for her unsteady heart to settle. What she gets in return is a hearty rumble from her empty stomach. The smell of grilled burgers from the restaurant across the parking lot lingers in the dank air of the room. Emily dresses quickly, not caring if her shorts match her blouse, and rakes her fingers through her dark, chin-length curls. Good enough. She grabs her purse and the room key from the table, almost toppling the fake flowers. By the time she’s on her way out the door, she’s forgotten about the young man.

But there he is: sitting on the step down to the parking lot, elbows on his knees, head in his hands—a ten-year-old in a man’s body. Or an old woman, maybe, waiting for the Senior Center van to pick her up.



They’d stood at the curb in front of the house, like every other Wednesday. And like every other Wednesday, her mother had complaints, excuses, and snide remarks.

“That bus bounces, you know, the seats rattle. Bad for my back. It’s your day off, so drive me.”

“Mom,” Emily said, trying not to snap. “There and back and picking you up later, it’s a waste of most of a morning.”

“Exaggeration doesn’t suit you, dear. Besides, you could join us for arts and crafts. You used to like to paint. We never do anything together anymore.”

“Mother, stop.”

“Better yet, I could stay here with you. The house is nice and quiet now.”

Not yet, but it will be. Emily almost said it aloud.

“What happened to that anyhow—your painting?”

What happened? She had to be kidding. Husband, children, job, and dare she mention—her? A speeding car turned the corner down the block. Emily placed her left hand on the small of her mother’s back, and eased her closer to the curb. The urge struck her like the touch of a live wire—like the impulse she often had to set off any nearby fire alarm. In this case, it was the compulsion to push her mother in front of that car. If the Senior Center van hadn’t turned that same corner a moment later and distracted her as the car sped by, Emily wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t have done just that.



She has to pass the young man slumped on the steps. Emily tries to ignore him. It should be easy, he doesn’t seem to even notice she is there. But it isn’t easy. A voice from another life tells her to stop, to ask if he is all right, if he needs anything. It’s the same voice that’s been nagging her most of the day, urging her to call home. Emily stops at the bottom of the steps. Maybe some company would help to shut it up.

“Hey—kid.” She turns to face him. “I’m going for a bite to eat. Want to join me?”

He looks up, blinks a moment. “Oh, it’s you. Said I was sorry.”

“Never mind that. Take a deep breath—grilled burger laced with the fishy-salt smell of the ocean—and tell me you’re not hungry.”

He shakes his head. “No, thanks. I couldn’t eat.”

“Then just come along. So I won’t have to sit alone. You know beach towns, all kinds of sketchy characters hanging around.”

“How do you know you didn’t just invite one to join you?”

Emily shrugs. Good question. “You have somewhere else to be?”

“No, ma’am. I guess not, but—”

“You coming, kid?” She isn’t about to give him a chance to make another excuse. “Better than sitting around like a sick puppy.”

“Shit—sorry. Sick puppy, huh. That bad?”

“Pretty much.”

“Well, wouldn’t want that.” He gets up and follows Emily across the parking lot. “Name’s Justin, by the way, not kid.”

She smiles. “And I’m Emily—not ma’am.”

They sit at the covered outdoor wooden counter facing the ocean where a steady sea breeze keeps the late summer heat at bay. Emily struggles not to comment when Justin orders the largest burger platter on the menu. But after a long stretch of awkward silence while they wait for their food, she cannot help but inquire, “Who’s Tina?”


“You called out her name when you knocked on the door.”

“Yeah, love of my life—or was, maybe.” Justin sneers. “Took off for the weekend with some asshole. Her sister told me they were here. Even had the room number.”

“Someone checked out early. That’s how I got the room.”

“Right.” Justin twists around on his stool. “So where’s that food.”

“It could be a good sign. She changed her mind, perhaps.”

“Or it could be they found out that I knew.”

“Well, if you want to dwell on the darkest possibilities.”

Justin glares at her. “I suppose you always look on the bright side of everything?”

It’s Emily’s turn to check for the waitress. “Ah, you got me there. Not so much really. Can’t seem to find any of that lately.”

“That why you’re here. On a holiday weekend—alone?”

“Without a reservation, even. Didn’t think about the Labor Day crowds. Want to get a couple beers while we wait? You old enough?”

“Yeah—lady—I’m old enough. You haven’t answered my question.”

Emily shoots him her drop-dead look. “It’s Emily. And why should I?”

“I answered yours about Tina.”

“Point taken. I’m here to paint. Just paint until I can’t hold a brush any longer.”

Emily is relieved when their food is finally placed in front of them, and she orders a couple beers. She watches with a slight smile while Justin is carded.

“So, a weekend of painting,” Justin says, “then what?”

Emily shrugs. “Haven’t thought that far ahead.” Though she had, of course, and probably unconsciously even before she left home. The $300 worth of art supplies in her trunk would last much longer than a weekend.



Emily had left the receipts in the middle of Russell’s desk in the den, on top of the other bills that had come that day and beneath her cell phone. She didn’t want to give him a way to call her. As an afterthought, she also left him a note saying that she was giving herself a retreat. That she was tired of waiting for the perfect time. That she was all right, just away for the weekend.

However, on the drive to the coast, other thoughts had taken over. Her one personal credit card and bit of savings wouldn’t last long. She’d need a job, but something simple, and flexible. Enough income to pay for rent, food, car expenses, art supplies. Or she could sell the car depending on where she ended up. But it was time she thought about most. Emily did the math in her head: one hundred and sixty-eight hours in a week, take off forty or so for work and fifty-six for sleep. That’s seventy-two left. Allow, say twelve, for miscellaneous—eating, errands and so on. That leaves sixty. Sixty hours a week of just plain time. Perfect.

Then there was the matter of where. New Smyrna would be fine, but beach towns were expensive. Some tiny, nowhere town inland, maybe, in Florida or even out of state. It would come to her. Or she could just drive until it felt right. And that sense of rightness was what mattered. Something she hadn’t had for quite a while.

Perhaps she would have found it after both boys started school. But money was tight, at least tighter than Russell was comfortable with, and he’d convinced her that she needed to find a job. An outside the home job, but he didn’t make that distinction.

In the four years she’d worked at Caroline’s Art and Craft Shop, Emily had moved from stock person to assistant manager, with a schedule that allowed her to work some evenings in order to take two weekdays off. But just last week Caroline asked her to work some of those days as well.

“We don’t have enough part-time help,” Caroline said. “Just until after Christmas. I’m sure you could use the extra money.”

Russell might say so. “I’ll think about it.” Emily lied. She did, however, take full advantage of her employee discount to buy all the brushes, paints, canvases and so forth that she could possibly need.



“So, you’re an artist.” Justin says between bites of French fries.

“Yes. Or was. Tried to be.”

“That’s decisive.”

“Not that simple.”

“Try me.”

What can she say? She gradually fell away from art or art fell away from her? “I’ve always painted, since kindergarten finger paints—nature, landscapes, mostly. Did all right, a few art-fair awards during college. But that was B. C.”

“Really?” Justin leans back in his chair with pretend horror. “You don’t look that old.”

Though I feel it—with an odd touch of giddy school girl thrown in at the moment. “I meant Before Children. Before Russell, even. My husband. Just a hobby really.”

“Your husband?”

“Funny. He’s more like—like a habit.”

“Yeah, maybe so is Tina. We’ve been dating since eighth grade, now this. I thought she really loved me.”

“Even love needs a break sometimes. Might be what Tina’s doing.”

“Right, just a break, with another guy?”

“Yes, well, complicated.”

“Why are you defending her?”

Emily finishes her fries before they get cold; then she takes a huge bite of her burger. She shrugs.

“Never mind.” Justin downs the last half of his beer. “Besides, she could have talked to me about it. Taking a break, I mean. I’d have understood.”

“Would you?”

“That what you’re doing—taking a break?”

She takes another bite of the plump, juicy burger. A few drops of pink hit the plate. Twelve-year-old Dean would be decidedly disappointed in her.



“Jeez, Mom, you have to eat better,” he’d said last spring after catching her raiding the leftover Easter candy. This rising of consciousness and concern started right after his class viewed a heath video on nutrition. Dean immediately decided that he was going to eat right, and be healthy forever. He would also convince everyone in sight to do the same. Fair enough. He was right. Couldn’t argue with his intentions. But a few months later his crusade took on a whole new dimension—Dean became a vegan. Something to do with a girl named Maddie and cruelty to animals.

Emily indulged him. She fixed him special vegan dishes—no meat, milk or eggs. Russell grumbled about the extra expense. But when Emily mentioned the time it took to shop and cook and look up recipes, all he had to say was, “Just a phase, Em. It’ll last only as long as this girlfriend lasts.”

Then not to be outdone, and always in direct opposition to his older brother, Larry declared that he would eat nothing but meat. “Don’t want any of that fake stuff,” he said one evening, pushing his plate away. “And none of this green stuff either. Just meat and lots of it.”

“Don’t be an idiot.” Dean pushed his brother’s plate back toward him. “You’ll die, bro.”

“Yeah, so? You die.” He started to get up.

Russell slammed his hand on the table. “Sit. And eat your dinner.”

Larry sat down, but he shook his head. “Beef,” he said, “that’s what I want. Nothing but beef, so rare the blood runs over the plate, drips onto the kitchen floor, and leaves a trail of red goop into the dining room.”

Dean threw his vegan roll at Larry’s head. “You’re gross and disgusting. Do you know how meat—”

“Enough.” Emily was on her feet, a table knife in her hand. “No more. Keep it up there will be blood all right, but not from any dead and butchered cow.”



“My sons, masters of the extreme.”

“What?” Justin pushes his empty plate away. “Should we order dessert?”

“Nothing, and no—not for me.” Emily is no longer hungry. She picks at her burger toppings, nibbling on the tomato and lettuce. “You in college or what?”

“Undergrad at UF, then law school.”

“A lawyer?”

“Don’t look the type, right?” Justin laughs. “You should have heard my dad: ‘Who’d hire a tattooed, punk attorney,’ he said, or actually more like yelled.”

“At least it shows you’re not afraid to be yourself. May I?”

Justin stretches out an arm so she can take a closer look.

“The work’s quite good. The colors are vivid. A painting on flesh.” She touches where the snake head curves into the inside of his elbow.

Then she snatches her hand back as if the snake might come alive and bite.

“Something wrong?”

“Had a vision of my son, Larry, seven or eight years from now.”


“Definitely a Larry sort of thing. Couldn’t stop him if I wanted to.”

“Headstrong like his mother? Maybe you could design them for him.”

“Sure. And I could open a tattoo parlor in the storage room above the garage.”

Justin laughed. “I’ve heard worse ideas.”

“Right, as if that could happen.” Justin was also wrong about her being headstrong.



First Russell had shot down her mural idea, and then her plans for the space above the garage. “It would make a perfect studio: a couple skylights, a window air conditioning unit, cabinets and a sink, maybe a half-bath.” Emily was as excited as she’d been when her second-grade teacher had hung one of her watercolors on the classroom wall for parents’ night.

Russell brushed her off with a flip of his hand. “You going to pay for that?”

“Have I told you that when I was little, Mom and I would retreat to the spare room she called her studio? I’d paint at my easel while she immersed herself in whatever artistic medium appealed to her at the time. Now that she’s coming to live with us, I’m sure she would like the studio space as well. Besides, she’ll be taking the spare bedroom that I now use for—”

“For what exactly? Haven’t seen you paint or even draw since—I don’t know when.”

Since I went to work—outside the home that is. “When has there been time? If I had the studio I could work at home, give art lessons again.”

“So just how much could you make with that? Not even enough for art supplies I’d wager. Besides, like you said, your mother’s coming and I’m sure she’ll need space to store stuff, too.”

“But Russell—”

“As for time. Once the kids are launched and we’re both comfortably retired there will be plenty of time for your hobby. Maybe I’ll even take up golf again.”



A hobby, a habit, just letting life take me where it will? No matter what Russell said, waiting isn’t an option. But what is? Maybe Mom would want to give lessons, too—knitting, collage, macramé. There were many others. Emily’s mother had been a dabbler, but she knows a great deal about half a dozen crafts. Perhaps there’s some hidden desire buried in among them, forgotten and far too long delayed.

“You look like you’re about to be sick,” Justin says.

“Something didn’t agree with me, I guess. But it’s fine. It’ll pass.” But she doesn’t believe it. Because it isn’t something she ate. It’s a thought that she can’t shake loose. It sticks like the crazy glue Larry had once accidentally applied to Dean’s hair. She’d have to cut out part of her brain to get rid of a thought like this. A thought pulling her back—like the sudden waking from a dream of standing on the edge of a cliff.

“In a couple hours, it will be sunset,” Emily says.

“Yeah.” Justin pulls out his wallet. He sets a couple bills down on the counter—more than enough to pay for his portion of the meal. “I should be getting back to Gainesville. In case Tina is waiting or something.”

Emily smiles and nods. “I hope it works out.”

She would take her sketch pad and colored pencils over to the inlet side of the island and sketch the skyline and the sunset to be worked into a painting later.

“Listen—Emily. I want to thank you for taking the time and all. Don’t know how long I’d have sat there feeling sorry for myself. Just thanks.”

“Feel any better?”

Justin shrugs. “I’ll get there.”

“Once the sun goes down it’ll be a great night for a drive. Florida summer nights, seventy-five degrees with a breeze and the car window rolled down—perfect.”

Or near enough.