Leah Mueller

Disturbing the Universe

One summer, I painted
the Desiderata on the walls
of a deserted Civil War mansion.
My best friend was visiting
from California. We swam in the pool
and played tennis at the edge of town.
At night I stole furtive glimpses
of her long body, dark hair
piled on top of her head
and carefully secured with bobby pins.
She slept in a folding cot
at the edge of my mattress,
rolling and tossing in the Illinois heat.
We talked feverishly about our virginity–
how we might lose it, and to whom.
She was convinced I’d surrender mine first.

We nabbed containers of powdered paints
from my mother’s kitchen cupboard,
carried warm water in jugs for blocks,
laughing at our cleverness.
The building’s crumbling walls
were defaced with coy obscenities:
“Meet me here at 10 PM.
Wear cut-offs and nothing else.
Blow me.” Carefully, I painted
red and green and brilliant blue
over scrawled pictures of erect penises,
copied words from the sacred text
about disenchanted love, perennial as grass,
and decorated the gaping edges of holes
with flowering vines and sunrises.

My best friend’s artwork
was always more fluid than mine,
her hands steady while she dabbed
a tiny paintbrush on dirty plaster.
As vivid color stretched across the walls,
more girls paraded to the mansion,
carrying brushes, markers and glitter.
Each of us either copied a line
from the text or devised our own quotes.
I branched out to TS Eliot verses,
since I had painstakingly memorized
“The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”
several weeks beforehand.
The aged building overflowed with words.

A reporter from the small-town paper
photographed our artwork,
somehow capturing its brightness,
even in black and white.
She took pictures of my friend and me
standing in front of our paintings,
both of us looking solemn and deep.
She asked why we were determined
to decorate a decaying house
that had stood abandoned for years.
We wanted to transform ugliness
into beauty, bring dignity back
to the majestic structure.
She nodded at us sagely,
though she didn’t really understand,
and wrote a nice puff piece
that ran two weeks later.
By then, my friend had returned to California.

Two days after the story broke,
I eagerly climbed the broken stairs
to the mansion’s second floor,
but our paintings had been destroyed.
Someone had smashed holes
in the flowers and sunrises,
and written obscenities next to the quotes.
It took great determination
to destroy the work
we had spent so many days creating.
That person needed to bring
a combination of rocks and hammers
to the top of a collapsing staircase
and attack a wall repeatedly.

The colors made him furious.
My friend sighed when I told her,
and said, “Well, that’s just how
people are, I guess.” It was easy
for her to be philosophical, since
she was two thousand miles away
and couldn’t see the destruction.
She was always more lucky than I.

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