Painting was not easy. The technical skill was relatively simple. Nina had been rendering elevations of potential buildings since she began working. She could display a leaf on the canvas. She could show you its veins and the way it curved.
That was not what Aspen did. Aspen made art. His paintings made feelings happen, deep in Nina’s gut. They showed movement and light and the way the air tasted, fresh by the reservoir, darker by the road.
She kept coming back, looking at his art, trying to imitate it, failing and trying again. Frustration filled her. She crumpled up drawings and tossed them away, only to recover them to feel the sensation over again. Sometimes, she felt anger rising up inside her, and if nobody else was in their little corner of the park, she would shout, letting it out in a way that felt too loud, too bright.
Aspen seemed to understand. “I started studying painting because our substations were ugly,” he told her, one day when she had flopped on the ground in frustration and helplessness. “Nobody could understand it, but people were coming to the parks less and less. People need fresh air. People need to spend time around other people, and time alone.” He’d gestured at the building, which had been painted to blend into the landscape, the foliage and the detailing technically perfect. “So I sat out here, making sure that it was working, that people were visiting without being repulsed. The more I sat here, the more I wanted to paint things. The more things I painted, the more I wanted to make them interesting. The more I tried… well. One night, I realized I’d been dreaming.”
Dreaming. She’d heard of it — whispers, from people with names instead of numbers, from people who did not approve of people with names. Dreaming made your brain tell you lies. It made your mornings uncertain, these stories that did not exist fluttering through your mind. It made you unreliable. “I do not dream,” she informed Aspen.
His brush moved over his canvas. After a few minutes — he was painting leaves again, autumn leaves although it was still springtime outside — he smiled at her. “You will. And when you do, then you will bring color to your paintings.”
He patted Nina’s knee. It was the first time she could remember anyone touching her casually. “In the meantime, the anger is a good start.”
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