Romero Meets Picasso

Romero Meets Picasso

Romero passed a quiet Thanksgiving in his studio. After the tumult of the past couple of days, he looked forward to his solitude. And now, the day after, he was back to work. He set a new canvas on the easel and began. A painting of the old man he’d met the day before Thanksgiving. He didn’t ask the old man to sit for him, so he painted from memory. It wasn’t his style but it would have to do. It was good to get out of his style once in a while, whatever his style was.

The face was distorted but it was how he remembered the old man when he told the story of the resistance fighter he met in France after the war. It is rare that we get to meet a World War II veteran, Romero thought. And to meet one who remembered the destruction was even rarer. No, the old man was a good subject even if he didn’t sit for the painting.

When Romero had asked Mila to sit for him, he fell in love with her. And then she disappeared. Love is risky. But even in heartache, love is worthy. His heart was scarred by Mila’s leaving, but Romero was still here and painting again. He put his hand to his heart, he was still alive.

The painting was black and white. Some color would be added. But only after the painting had taken shape. And not much color. This was a study in subject. The old man had seen destruction of an unimaginable magnitude. The scars on his weary face had come in a hard-fought battle with life.

Romero stepped away to the window and looked down at the bare trees that lined the street below, and then across the tops of the trees and buildings toward the park where he’d met the old man. Everyone has a story, Romero thought, but not everyone’s story is worthy. Some stories are predictable. Some, however, hold romance. He needed to capture this romance in his painting of the old man.

He worked feverishly through the morning and into the early afternoon. The painting was good and he stepped to the window to stretch the tightness in his back. The day was bright but the sun was slipping behind the buildings. From his studio window, he couldn’t see the mountains to the west. He wanted to look at the mountains before the sun slipped out of sight, so he put his brushes away and slipped out of his apron, grabbed his coat from the back of the chair and hurried down the narrow staircase to the door that led out into the street, and walked past Mila’s empty shop toward the park where he knew he had a good view of the mountains. Maybe the old man would be there. He didn’t think so. But there was always hope.

The day was bright but bitterly cold and his breath came in heavy bursts as he walked along the empty sidewalk. Whenever he left his studio, he expected something magical to happen. Most days, nothing happened. But there were days of magic. And as long as he had those days of magic, rare as they were, Romero was satisfied. He couldn’t stay locked up inside his studio all the time.

His step and heart rate quickened as he approached the park. Something was about to happen, he was sure of it. Only a few times in his life can he remember feeling such a sense of excitement. Once was just a month ago when he looked out his studio window and saw The Curiosity Shop for the first time. He knew something meaningful would follow. Mila rushed into his life inside a tornado, and even though she rushed out as suddenly as she’d rushed in, he had no regrets.

Another time was several years ago in the student union when he saw Sheryl sitting there. He had seen her before, had even met her, but then she was gone, until now, when his feelings crashed over him. He was frozen with fear and anxiety. But he couldn’t let this opportunity pass him by, he needed to act. He stepped boldly up to her table and she glanced up, looking over the rims of her glasses, and smiled. It was a blissful smile that led them into a whirlwind romance that ended in destruction. In his excited state, he picked up his pace. He didn’t expect to be swept off his feet as he had been by both Sheryl and Mila. But something was there, he could feel it tugging at him.

Even before Romero reached the park, he saw the small crowd gathered around a man standing at an easel. The man was short and square, wearing a beret. Romero quickened his pace, curious to find out who this man was. He knew all the artists in town but didn’t recognize this man.

Romero edged closer to get a look at the painting. It was extraordinary. Never before had he seen such color and style. The man in the beret worked without regard for the people crowded around him. He was lost in his own world of brushes and oils. An unlit cigarette dangled from his lips and with one hand the artist slipped a lighter from his pants pocket, flicked open the top, and lit it, exhaling two streams of smoke from his nostrils. He held the cigarette easily between his lips as he worked his magic. Romero thought about magicians, mimes, clowns. This artist was an acrobat, defying gravity. Ah, what wouldn’t Romero give to feel so wild and free? Why was Romero screwed to the ground, while this magnificent man in the beret with the dangling cigarette soared in the sky?

As Romero watched this man perform his magic, he became more and more dejected by his own limits. This. This is what art is. This escape from the world. This wild precision. This exquisite use of paint. And color.

In awe, Romero stood there hoping to talk to the artist. But this man talked with his brushes, not his lips. The gnarled branches of the trees on the canvas stretched out in horror to the pale sky. Such emotion Romero had never felt before from a painting. But Romero waited, transfixed.

The artist threw his cigarette away and stepped away from his painting. He folded up his brushes and paints inside the case and set the painting on the brown grass. Romero stepped closer. As the artist folded up his easel, something curious happened. The flying acrobat in the beret turned to Romero and asked, “Do you like the painting?”

At first, Romero was speechless. He looked around.

“Yes, yes, I do, very much.”

“I thought you might. You watched so intently.”

“I am quite amazed, to be honest.”

“Amazed? That is a powerful word.”

“I don’t know how else to describe what I felt as I watched you paint.”

“Are you a painter?” the man in the beret asked Romero.

“I paint, but I have to ask myself now if I am a painter.”

“Every painter has his own style, yes?”

“But not every painter has the gift of magic.”

“Magic, another powerful word. Perhaps you should be a writer.” The man laughed and drew a cigarette from a pack he’d taken from the inside pocket of his vest. He offered the pack to Romero who shook his head. The artist slipped the lighter out of his pants pocket and flicked the top open, lit the cigarette, and exhaled two streams of smoke from his nostrils. This square man in the beret relished things, ate things up. Greedily. With no regrets. And why not? Life should be eaten greedily. What else is there? To wait for the decay of death?

“Let’s you and me take a walk, get some coffee, take our conversation to another level,” the strong, square man in the beret said.

“I’d like that,” Romero said.

Romero bent over, slid the painting into a canvas bag holding the paintings and canvases, and picked up the folded easel. The painter picked up his long wool coat off the grass, brushed it off, slipped it on, and bent over for his case of paints and brushes. They left the park and walked up the street toward the coffee house where Romero went every morning. Romero glanced often at this man in the beret, his free hand flying about in wild expression. Romero led him past Mila’s shop on the corner, across the street from his studio, but pointed out neither one. He wouldn’t take this man up to his studio.

Inside the coffee house, they found a table next to the row of windows that allowed in the late afternoon sunlight. Before sitting down, Romero asked the man if he wanted coffee. The painter took off his long wool coat and said coffee would be delightful. He sat down and Romero asked his name.

“Picasso,” the man in the beret said.

“Picasso?” Romero hesitated.

The man smiled. “Yes, I know it seems a little far-fetched, but it is my name.”

Romero thought a minute before he asked. It was a question this man had probably been asked a million times before, but still, he asked, “Are you related?”

“Why, of course. As everyone is related to everyone else. We’re just filaments of energy, each of us made of the same stardust. Genetically, probably not. But Picasso runs in my blood.”

“I’m sorry I asked because it is such an obvious question.”

“Not at all. Nothing is obvious. Or translucent. Everything is irony.”

“I think you’re right.”

“Right or wrong, it all comes to the same thing. It is the mistake of man that he sees things in shades of right or wrong, light or dark, up or down, when in fact, we’re all in this vast mixing bowl. Tumbled about, head over heels. How does one know what’s up or down?”

“And this is where your painting comes from?”

“My painting comes from here,” Picasso said touching his heart. “But also from here,” pointing to his head. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t ask.”

Romero stared down at Picasso through the sunlight that spilled across the small table, an unlit cigarette dangling from his tight lips, and then walked to the counter and ordered two coffees. While he waited, looking back at the small table in the sunlight, he tried to sort through the thoughts flying through his mind.

He looked back at the girl who handed him the coffee across the counter, paid, thanked her, walked back with the coffee to the table where Picasso sat looking out the wide windows, sat down, and looked across at Picasso. Wanting to hear more, he waited. Was there a secret to learn? He needed to discover how to escape his own shortcomings as a painter, how to throw off those notions that paralyzed him. How to become honest. Yes, that was it. He needed to learn how to be honest.

But Picasso continued to look out the window, a cigarette in his lips, taking it out to sip his coffee, and then putting it back. Romero guessed that Picasso would have liked to light it, so he suggested they go outside. “I am indifferent,” Picasso said. “The sunlight through the window feels good. I am fine here.”

“How long have you painted?” Romero asked.

“Painted? Hmm, I guess my whole life. Even when I wasn’t painting, I painted. It isn’t something someone learns. It is. Or it isn’t.”

Romero studied the man.

“When you are an artist, there is something inside of you that you can’t escape. It speaks to you all the time. Everything you look at is art. Everything you think about. Everything you do. When I make love to a woman, I am a painter. First and always. I can’t make excuses for what I am.”

“But you still have to produce art.”

“That is where you are wrong, my friend,” Picasso said. “The act of painting is secondary. It is of no consequence. No, art is a way of looking. Feeling. It isn’t about transforming. Because it can’t be done. It simply is.”

“But your painting is amazing.”

“I do it only to amuse myself. It makes me happy. But so does smoking. And coffee. And sex. Yes, sex is good.”

Romero laughed. “Yes, sex is good.”

“Is it art?”

“Good question. I guess by your definition it is.”

“No, by all definitions it is. Artists are the only ones who make a distinction between art and life. They think they hold some key to the universe. They are fakers. Frauds. All of them. Myself included. But let me tell you a little secret, art is whatever you say it is. Paint something, anything, throw some paint on canvas, sign your name, and it becomes a masterpiece. But only if it is true. It can’t be fake. It has to come from your loins like your sex does. It has to be inhaled deeply into your lungs before you exhale it onto the canvas. You have to give of yourself every last drop of what is in your heart. But in order to do this, you first have to learn life. How to live. Sex, laughter, love. Food. Cigarettes. Wine.”

“But what about your audience? Aren’t you speaking to someone? I mean through your painting?”

“I don’t give a fuck about my audience. They mean nothing to me. They need to find their own lives.” Picasso laughed. He removed the unlit cigarette from his lips, took a sip of coffee, and replaced it.

“Let’s step outside. The smoke will clear my head.”

They picked up their cups and found a table on the side of the building in the sunlight. Even in late November, the sun was warm. Picasso slipped the lighter from his pants pocket and flicked it open and lit his cigarette. “Are you sure you won’t join me?”

“No thank you, I never picked it up.”

“Too bad. Pleasures, my friend. We need to seek pleasure in every instance. It is sinful not to.”

“You are right, but smoking is bad for your health.”

“Health? What do we know about health? What the fucking doctors tell us? Researchers? What do they know about art? Life? They are money sucking fools, deaf to what shouts to us. No, I see life only in its rawest form.”

“Yes, but we owe it to ourselves to take care of our health.”

“Owe it to ourselves? What does that mean, friend.”

“In order to live as long as possible.”

“Live? If you follow someone else’s directions, you are not living. You are following. No, that isn’t life. Or art.”

“It has always been my problem in my art. I worry too much about what others think.”

“My friend, never worry about what others think. They are fools. Worry only about what others feel. Slap them. Fuck them. Love them. Drink wine with them. But never, ever engage in conversation with them thinking they understand anything. It is a waste of your time.”

“One can’t live in a cocoon. Conversation can be meaningful.”

“Oh, I love to talk, as you can tell. I just don’t take it seriously. Just as I don’t take art seriously. But I enjoy the fuck out of it. It can be better than sex when done without thought. Well, maybe not better. Sex is always done without thought when it is done right.”

“You make distinctions in sex, but not in art?”

“I make no distinctions in anything. I know how to fuck. And when it is done right, it is done without thought.”

“But how can we compare sex to art?”

“Why not?”

“Sure, why not?”

“In order for us to be able to talk about art, we have to put it in the same box with everything else. It is the compilation of experiences.”

“But it is the expression of those experiences.”

“No, that’s where you’re wrong, my friend, it isn’t expression at all. It is life in its truest form. It is sex on canvas. It is an orgasm of paint and movement. Everything is art and art is everything.”

Romero took a sip from his coffee and leaned his head back letting the sun warm his face. Picasso inhaled deeply, blew the smoke from his nostrils, and in one loud gulp finished his coffee. He looked over at Romero. “You are tired, my friend,” he said.

Romero opened his eyes and looked back at Picasso. “Yes, I am.”

“It is all right. It is good. Life is a grind. Art is a grind. When we see it as work. When we try to live for something outside of who we are. When we try to find purpose in life, it becomes a grind.”

“But shouldn’t we try to find a deeper meaning, a truer self? A worthwhile reason to live?”

“Worthwhile? Do you suppose anyone else gives a fuck about you? Really? Do you think that anyone else has a clue of who you are or your meaning? That is pure foolishness, my friend.”

“But what you are saying is that nothing in life has any meaning, that everyone should be concerned only with themselves and their own pleasures.”

“Something like that, I suppose. But not quite. We can care, and care deeply for others, but we have to keep in mind that everyone looks out at a different world than we do. Everyone has his own unique perspective. When I try to see the world as you do, then I am trying to fool my eyes. And this just isn’t possible and causes suffering.”

“To me, sorrow comes from how I see the world, and my inability to connect to anyone else.”

“This is your problem, my friend. There is no connection. Have you ever heard of multiple universes?”

“Yeah, I guess so. But I’m not that familiar with them.”

“That’s precisely my point. The theory of multiple universes is supposed to account for everything. Space, time, matter, energy. Everything physicists have been concerned with from the beginning of time. Everything they need to explain. The problem is how do you come up with proofs for the theory of everything? No experiment can rule out a theory if the theory provides for all possible outcomes. It comes back to this, we just don’t know what the hell is going on. And everything is possible and impossible at the same time.”

“Doesn’t leave much room for hope, does it?”

“Yes and no, depending on which way you look at it.”

“I guess everything comes down to how you look at it.”

“But I have to go back to the mixing bowl and how we’re all jumbled up, just one big fucking mess,” Picasso said.

And Romero and Picasso talked through the faint light of afternoon into the night and then left the coffee house and walked along the main street back to the hotel where Picasso was staying. He was leaving the next day by bus to a bigger city where he’d take the train to the West Coast. He was a vagabond. Romero helped carry Picasso’s easel and case of brushes and paints and the canvas bag that held his canvases up to his room on the third floor of the downtown hotel.

The overhead light cast a yellow glow and sadness on the tiny room. Romero set the easel and canvas bag on the floor out of the way. He told Picasso goodbye. There wasn’t anything more to say. It is the case between artists. They are excited in the beginning, but always return to where they are most comfortable. They don’t see the world in the same light as other people. But they can’t share their view with other artists either. And this is the truth they face every day. It isn’t an easy truth. No, none of it is easy.

Picasso told him that it was easy, though, just pretend you love everything. You have to be right sometimes.

Romero walked slowly back to the Firehouse Art Gallery and climbed the narrow staircase to his studio. Even in the clutter of canvases and paints and brushes and old photographs and paper cups of cold coffee, Romero found comfort. He walked to the window and looked down at the faint circle of light from the streetlight on the corner and then to the empty shop across the street. He thought about walking over to the Hemingway Tavern for a beer, but he stood at the window for a while longer. The moonlight reflected in the lonely windows of the empty shop across the street. The world is a small speck in the universe but a big place to get lost in.




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