There Goes the Fear: A Triptych
You walk into the restaurant to meet your friend, the one you made when you were dating the man who broke your heart. You appraise its clean, streamlined design, and then you see the art on the walls. It is all by the man whose heart you broke. You know because hanging in your own dining room is a giant abstract painting from an early period of his, before the boat dock period, before that of volcanos. It is entitled Summer’s Gone. It’s three times as big as the paintings before you now.
You meet The Painter years before you fall in love with him. He is the roommate of another friend; he is the one who sleeps in the bigger closet on the floor so he can use the rest of the room to paint. He sits next to you on the couch at parties for two years, near the conversation but not in it. You rarely notice, yet your favorite photograph of yourself from those parties is one he takes: you stand smiling before him, holding part of your enormous red flamenco skirt above your head so that it forms a whole-body nimbus, your torso in a tight black top the center of this flower of you, your red hair the stamens.
He asks you to be part of a photography project. He asks you to wear the same red skirt. You walk up and down Golden Gardens beach while he takes the pictures, a black sweater replacing your party top. He lifts up a rock to show you the tiny crabs underneath. You talk about music, and he promises to make you a mix. By the end of it all, he will have made you fifteen of them, made you cards, a small book of sketches, taken a hundred photographs, each one showing you in love with this man whose brilliance suddenly crystallizes why you aren’t happy with the Quiet One, the bass player, your boyfriend. You love them both, but you can talk to him in a way that evades you with the other. You don’t want to cheat again, and so you tell them that you love them both, that you need time to figure out what you want. They agree to this plan, and you date both of them for several months. You all learn how to deal with falling in love with multiple people simultaneously, and the lesson you learn is this: you can’t. That is, you cannot deal with it.
You know, even as you do it, that it is not the best idea to fall in love while you are still with someone else. “Ideas” have little to do with actions at times, particularly actions taken because of love. You think love is like his automatic painting technique, in which you make a mark in response to another mark, then another, erasing perhaps the first mark, until a picture forms that resonates. You erase the first mark and break up with the first boyfriend, but then you erase the second and break up with The Painter, too.
Originally, he calls the painting Summer’s Over, but you kept calling it Summer’s Gone, and he decides that is sadder, which makes it better. What could be sadder than a summer that is gone forever? The first title is crossed out on the back of the canvas; the mark you left on his art so small on the giant frame, in comparison to the gashes left on your bigger hearts.
But you are in love for a long time. The Painter teaches you how to trust yourself again and shows you how to moor feeling in art. He has a lot of fear himself, social anxiety always on low simmer, making him sweat in grocery lines. But while your fear of making the wrong decision in love paralyzes you, his fear of not producing great works is bigger, nobler, driving him to stay up late into the night, painting, painting, creating, giving fear over to art.
The fifteen CDs help you access the emotional range you couldn’t reach with other boyfriends. The songs are funny and sad and jubilant and true. The Halo Benders’ “Don’t Touch My Bikini” follows The Cure’s “Pictures of You.” The New Pornographers’ “End of Medicine” and The Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” preface The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” which you hear for the first time on the surprise road trip to Crater Lake. You are driving and look at him with love in the photo from that same trip, which is on the back of the case of a later mix he makes you with that song.
Because each CD also has its own individual, handmade cover, each a celebration of you and him and love and art. Mix 7 has a photo taken from his parents’ porch: a daffodil windsock fluttering in a snow storm, the dock on the lake just visible in the background, artifice surviving in the face of nature, a strange beauty formed by unlikely partners. Mix 9 is a collage: the dominant image is his own bedroom with your cat on his bed, but the other images are of your own body, cut into pieces and rearranged. It strikes you now, as you look at it, not as creepy and objectifying but rather as spot-on, considering the painful divisions you felt within yourself at that time. Dismembered, you see how he tried to love every part of you, to honor the disorder of your many-chambered heart. A worse artist would have tried to make you whole, and you didn’t know then what that woman would look like, injured and confused. As if to reiterate this dislocation of your self, the mix’s front cover is a black and white photo of a hand touching a rose, holding it to a face. You don’t realize until just now, eleven years later, that it is your hand, your own face.
The song you will think of when you think of these harbors of song is “There Goes the Fear” by Doves. It is nearly seven minutes long and not a song as much as a collage itself, an expression of all this love will teach you: a dark joy and passion, a commitment to being better, to giving it all away—your love, vulnerability, your art—because without that giving, a richness for those to whom you give, if you withhold it all for fear you will be hurt, you will hold onto less and less. It starts, not slowly, but more gently than you’d expect, a song in which someone helps another locate herself by simply being with her, beyond fear. The lead singer’s voice is deep enough to inspire confidence, kind enough to pull you closer.
And then, as you do, the chorus comes, and it never stops. The chorus repeats with increasing speed and urgency, and the music swells, races like the cars going past in the first verse, a heart racing against the clock to find its own rhythm, to find a way to move past fear, even if it means moving past the other person, just as the singer in the bridge gives the other lover permission to leave. The song is ocean and shore and waves and boat; it is light sparkling on water, the cold depths, a sea alive with unknown creatures. It is encouragement, forgiveness, hope.
He leaves the painting at your house while you are in Rome, leaving him again, this time for a red-headed architect. After your break-up, until this trip, you and The Painter have been friends with blurry edges, a friendship built on the hope that you will come to your senses and choose him again. This is a hope on the part of you both. When you return from your summer away, glistening with the heat of Italian sun and poetry and new love, the summer is over, and The Painter is gone.
You can think of yourself as his muse, a mystical force that introduced him to the body, to the thrill of knowing that the heart can be understood and honored, to the pain of which that heart is capable. You think you have made him more complex. But you are also recreated. He took your passion, your chaos, and rechanneled it into those songs, those drawings, that small book, and each creation was a reassurance you were going to recover, you were going to be okay—not because each piece was about you but because each piece showed you something beyond all of your loss, beyond his heartache, something new.
At Crater Lake, you saw this in the land itself, how destruction precedes regeneration: the barren lava fields on which he arranged you like a green plant in your green sweater for a photo, the perfect and pure lake in the crater of a thing that blew its top when it couldn’t stand the pressure, the new cone of the volcano, tiny Wizard Island, emerging from the blue, blue waters.
Never get rid of anything he made you. Hang it all on your walls—not because you are holding onto the past, to regret, but because creation, inspiration, and beauty won out against paralysis, numbness, and fear. And because now you know that love exists not just so people can find each other, but so that people can make art, make something bigger than the mess we make when we find a love for which we are not ready. And it is art that makes us fearless—not the foolishness or the triumphs or the pain alone. It is art that shows us how beautiful it is to feel anything deeply, so much so that we will hang suffering, danger, fear on our walls, put it into our ears and close our eyes and feel protected, bigger, saved.
You stand facing the wall of him in the restaurant. One of the paintings is from his docks period; the other is from his volcano series. There is no abstract landscape, but you know that’s where it all began: the eye in search of its own best vision, before those things that would crowd him and crown him, and before this new series in which fear of geology becomes all soft colors and thick lines, his own order on those things that move him to create. “I knew him,” you tell the hostess before she seats you outside, away from the paintings, and you tell your new friend about this other time you lost and found your heart.
Dr. Bryn Gribben is an instructor of English at Seattle University, teaching courses in literature, creative non-fiction, and composition, thematically centered on the relationship between empathy and beauty. A Victorianist by training, Bryn was the assistant editor of fiction for The Laurel Review from 2006-2008 and left a tenure-track job in Missouri to be back in the city she loves. Her essay “There Goes the Fear” is part of a larger manuscript, entitled Amplified Heart: An Emotional Discography, a series of essays on intimacy and music. This essay was accepted the day after her 44th birthday.