The Van Gogh Diary
by Evelyn Hampton
Each time the bus took a bump, the hand of the woman next to me tapped the radio on her lap. Her hand was prosthetic and the radio was plastic. Somewhere there was a war that came to us through prosthetic voices. The road we were on was newly torn.
I was on my way to work. I worked then for the government designing interfaces that were easy to use in low-light conditions such as black outs. That morning I'd found a box of books in the alley by my apartment, and in that box was the Van Gogh diary. I called it the Van Gogh Diary because the cover was a painting by Van Gogh, the one of his room, or what he wanted his room to be.
There were things I wanted the diary to be, and things I hoped it would not be. I held the diary on my lap and I kept it there because it would not feel like mine until I had read it, so I didn't want to put it in my bag. My bag was an old Army bag with a name, not mine, sewn into the fabric. While I thought about the name, faces of people flashed by. Then the dark spaces between buildings where bodies were curled inside bags.
Janel was already at her desk. It was unusual for Janel to get to the office before me. When I saw her at her desk, I felt disappointed. It wasn't that I was disappointed to see her, but that I couldn't see over her broad shoulders to what she was doing on her screen.
I sat down at my desk with my back to Janel. Janel had a twin sister who was in prison, and Janel took care of her sister's kids. Sometimes she brought the kids to the office and they played quiet games on the floor. Other times they didn't play at all. They shouted at Janel, and then crawled to opposite corners of the office and cried and kicked the wall. Janel was afraid the head of our division would tell her to stop bringing her sister's kids to our office. Then what will I do, Janel said. I never asked Janel what her sister had or had not done to get into prison. When Janel spoke about her sister, it was like I was hearing a pre-recorded message, and Janel was far away. What I really wanted to know was who Janel was when she wasn't thinking about her sister.
"I met someone," Janel said. "We've been talking."
I went over to Janel and stood behind her. She showed me his picture on the site where she had met him. Someone took that picture of him while he was working. He worked with his hands. I liked the idea of showing a stranger who you are by showing them yourself working. There was something in his hands, but his hands were cut off by the picture, so I couldn't know exactly what he was doing.
"He says he's good with kids," I said, reading over Janel's shoulder.
"He's going to visit me and the kids next week," she said. "I'll let you know."
I went back to my desk and looked at my hands. I hadn't held a person for six months. What do six months mean to a person who hasn't held anyone? It meant my body would soon be covered by a bright red rash, or bees. I kept looking at my hands, and when I didn't feel lonely anymore, I saw outlying land, the way it looks deserted early in the morning, before cars. It was grassy and it was who I was before I'd met my boyfriend. The grass was tall and concealed my hands.
"What's his name," I asked Janel again. We were walking down a long hallway. Our voices echoed. The hallway was wide enough for us to walk side-by-side except each time we passed a concrete column, when one of us would have to step behind the other. I noticed that she stepped behind me more often than I stepped behind her, and I became self-conscious. I was thinking of whether it was my turn or hers to step behind when she said his name the first time.
"Gerald," she repeated. She sounded tired. It was after lunch and we were on our way to a meeting with everyone from our division. The meeting was in a high-ceilinged conference room where people had trouble staying awake because there were no windows, the room was dark, and bodies made the room too warm. The chairs were uncomfortable and bolted to the floor.
The head of the division held a button in his hand. He talked about workload and error and squeezed the button to rotate a geometric object on a large screen. The object was a many-faced prism that described something about our division. The prism rotated in a background field of gray. All of our errors were costing us the war, the head of the division said. Some heads nodded. Other heads were bowed forward, sleeping.
Janel sat in front of me. I could keep her head and the rotating prism in my vision at the same time. I watched the prism on the screen. Some of the gray background was trapped inside me. I had never been in prison, so I wondered what it was like for Janel's sister. I also wondered if Janel felt like she was in prison, too—whether she felt like she was anywhere other than where she was.
After a while, the object disappeared and people began leaving. Janel stayed in her chair. I got up from my chair and sat beside her. We watched how people left the room. Some people stepped aside to let others pass through the door. Sometimes the ones who stepped aside looked back into the room at Janel and me before passing through the door. When the room was empty except for Janel and me, the head of the division came back into the room.
"This isn't going to do me any good." He chuckled and held up his one hand. There was a black dot on the palm. It was the button for rotating the prism. He put it on a table and left the room.
"I wonder how he lost his arm," I said.
"I don't know," Janel said. "Maybe in a war, at a job."
I thought again of Gerald's hands. I hadn't been able to see what they were holding in the picture.
"Is Gerald in the war?" I asked Janel.
"Yes," she said. "When he visits, he'll be on temporary leave."
I wanted to ask Janel if she thought we were winning the war, but I didn't. It would be like asking what she thought Gerald had been holding.
That night I read about a woman's hands in the Van Gogh diary. When the woman danced on a pole, her hands would become blistered, and when she masturbated, her hands would cramp. Her handwriting was different on different days, sometimes it slanted and sometimes it didn't, and I thought it might depend on whether her hand was cramping that day, or whether she'd danced on the pole. When she wrote that she hated Florida, her handwriting slanted. But her girlfriend lived in Florida, so she was saving her tips for a ticket to Florida. Regarding her girlfriend, she misspelled weird and February.
Around certain words, she drew geometric objects and connected them by lines to other geometric objects that contained other words. The words connected in a strange pattern. She wrote that drawing the objects gave her hands something to do when she felt like smoking or masturbating. After the words stopped, the pages went on for a long time.
During Gerald's visit, Janel didn't come to the office for a week. I sat in her chair, which I didn't adjust, so my legs dangled. I've read somewhere that in most relationships, one person is physically stronger than the other. I felt like a child.
"Gerald and I are taking SCUBA lessons," Janel had told me the night before when I called her. I was holding the phone away from my ear because her voice was so loud. It was like being with Gerald had made her voice stronger, had made her whole self larger.
"Are you with him now?"
"We're driving toward the ocean. Gerald is driving. The kids are asleep in the back."
I thought about Gerald's hands on the wheel, his hands that could do anything because I hadn't seen them in the picture. They were hands that could kill and they were hands that could drive a woman to the ocean.
When the head of the division came into the office, he looked at me sitting in Janel's chair at her desk. All at once, I knew something I hadn't known before.
"Have you seen Janel?" he asked. He leaned against the door frame, his hand in his pocket. A thin, wavering line connected that hand to the many-faced prism rotating in the gray field.
"Not today," I said. When I spoke, I was the words weird and February inside a thin, wavering shape.
When I pictured Janel, she occupied the space below a wave.
I decided to walk rather than ride the bus home. I walked through a large empty lot and stood in the tall grass. There was broken glass under my shoes. I pictured my boyfriend standing in tall grass, bees crawling on his body. After we had argued, a bright red rash appeared all over his body. He slept with me, but I could not touch his body. He curled away from me toward the wall. I decided not to call him my boyfriend anymore. He was someone new to me. A person standing in tall grass whose body was covered in bees. When the rash went away, he was packing and then he was going away to keep bees.
The ends of some grasses were heavy with seeds and bowed. The head of the division said that each error cost us something priceless. When the wind shook the seeds, something many-faced in me began to rotate slowly. It didn't matter if I spun faster or slower. It had its own speed.