The Hopeless Artist

I was the kid whose parents ignored me if my grades dipped too low. I was the kid who walked an hour to school every day, every year since I was seven. I was the teacher’s pet, the half-way decent soccer player, the son who asked permission to have dessert. I was the child who came second to my dad’s cancer research and my mom’s architecture projects. I thought when we moved to New York it would be different, I thought I would dazzle this gray and towering city, but it turned out its streets were teeming with people like me, people trying to matter.

Predictably, my dad wanted me to be a doctor, a scientist, and my mom wanted me to be an engineer. They asked me, once, in a muted conversation across a table piled with turkey sandwiches and potato salad, what the field of my future goals was.

“I don’t know,” I said. In my dad’s language, “I don’t know” meant biological research. To my mom, “I don’t know” meant software and computers, design.

Back before anyone began to expect anything of me, I used to go to the park every Sunday before dawn. I liked the swings and the playgrounds and the imagination treadmills and the monkey bars, but there was something in the sunrise that touched me in a way I didn’t understand. Maybe it was the colors, the grandiosity, the sweeping mottled clouds, maybe it was a combination of the three, but something would shift inside my heart, the way tectonic plates shift slowly, gradually, to create earthquakes. I tried drawing these sunrises with my Crayola crayons on a few sheets of printer paper taped together, but eventually my dad stopped getting up at five in the morning on his Sundays to go to the park, and I lost my favorite landscape. There ended my artistry career.

For years, at least until high school, I primed myself to follow my parents’ footsteps. We lived in Wyoming, in a lovely spacious house whose advantages, like a front lawn and a backyard, were offset by the long commute to the grocery store. I entered prestigious science and math programs over the summer, ones my parents could barely afford. I studied college textbooks in my free time. I played soccer on the neighborhood team—I wasn’t the best player, but I was the only one who could recite a table of hormones and their unique effects on the body, which was enough for me. By ten I could identify a cyst by its size, a building by its columns. I loved gothic cathedrals the most, for all their baroque over-the-top decorations—I loved their fine-boned arches and soaring buttresses, their stained glass panes, drenched in a spectrum of colors. The stained glass reminded me of refracted rainbows, the arches of hawk wings.

Halfway through the eighth grade, just before the middle school state soccer championships, my dad took a research position at Columbia University and my mom signed a contract to design one of New York City’s great skyscrapers. My dad was looking at prevention possibilities for cancer (carcinoma specifically), trying to find and kill the susceptible cells before they went out of control. And if my mom’s design was stable enough, her building would be the tallest freestanding structure in the world.

Funny how I remembered the things that weren’t on any tests.

My parents were on their way to imprinting their names permanently on history’s pages, but I hated change. What kid wants to move to a different city, a different state? And except for the fact that New York and Wyoming were both part of the US, they might as well have been different countries, a million miles apart. They weren’t even remotely comparable.

We moved, despite my protests. And though I tried not to be, I was impressed by the city’s heights. The first time I rode the subway to school, I swung from the poles excitedly and stared out the windows like a little kid. The first time I saw the Freedom Tower up close, I had to throw my head back to glimpse its fullness but even then I couldn’t see the top. My new middle school for the next two months didn’t welcome me, but it didn’t spit me back out either, which I appreciated. New kids at my old school in Wyoming were teased, bullied, and shunned, but I melted into the Brooklyn crowd the way butter melts into toasted bread.

By the time I was in high school, I was a true born-and-bred New Yorker. I had the accent, the way of eating pizza, the aggression, the stamina, with one key difference—I thought I was better, superior. I was sure I was more intelligent than 90% of the students in the city. I looked down on them with contempt—they only knew the city and nothing else. I was far more worldly, more sophisticated, than they could ever be. My parents were geniuses, for God’s sake—I was the cream of the American crop, the child prodigy.

Needless to say, I thought far too much of myself as I entered my freshman year. My first month I talked to no one, choosing to focus on my classes. I drifted through geometry, biology, history with the ease and grace of an experienced dancer. I joined the soccer team and found out that half-way decent in Wyoming landed me among the best in the city. Through no fault of my own, I gathered a few friends who enjoyed listening to my stories, the trustworthy innocent kind of white boys who could probably charm the president into giving up the White House. They were the ones who convinced my parents to let me attend the winter concert, offering as argument that most teachers had enough mercy not to give homework that night, that I never got out of the house, that kids who didn’t get a break from studying almost inevitably threw themselves off some roof.

Suicide was a banned topic back home. I’d never really considered it as an option, and the family acquaintances who killed themselves simply disappeared into obscurity. My parents never mentioned their names, and neither did I. The thought of losing a son with such potential struck my parents as particularly wasteful and so they allowed me out, giving me a strict curfew of 10 P.M.

I only had a few sips of beer that night, but the events are still woozy and blurred. After the chorus performed, their voices akin to those of angels, the orchestra came on stage. I enjoyed the plodding bass line and the trombones, the high reed of the flutes, but suddenly all of the instruments fell away except for one violin, the solo of the night. I didn’t know how proper that was, to give one student a solo in a school wide concert, but no one minded. No one at all. I looked around and all the kids, all the adults, the gods of this ordinary earth, were enraptured by the movement of one teenage girl’s fingers.

I don’t quite remember her, but I remember her dress—blue and trimmed with lace, a tad old-fashioned. I remember the way the melody sounded—like the down on the tips of angels’ wings. I remember her fingers, the ones that knew the violin’s strings better than I knew the periodic table. When the song ended and the rest of the orchestra returned with their imperfections, I turned to the burly man seated next to me. “Who was that girl?” I whispered fervently.

He handed me a program. I flipped through it until I found her—Melanie Zheng.

I tried to find her after the show, but in my high school there were countless numbers of skinny girls touting violins. It took me a good hour and a few awkward false alarms until I found her packing her violin case.

“You were incredible,” I said.

She looked at me with eyes that were bottomless. “Thanks,” she said, clearly wondering who I was. She turned to one of her friends and entered another conversation, leaving me standing there with her music still lodged in my ears.

“Do you take the train home?” I said loudly, drawing her unwilling attention back to me.

She scrutinized me with more force, without blinking, and I couldn’t help but notice the slender twin strokes of black eyeliner that matched her eyes so well in color. Her lipstick was pale, her blush barely noticeable, her sapphire earrings glimmering in the backstage light, and I thought she was beautiful. I had the startling urge to draw her, to capture with one sweeping motion the minute details of her pinned-up hair and vivid demeanor and look—her dimples.

“Yeah, I do. I live in Queens, though.”

“I love Queens,” I said with a straight face. “I’m going there too. Wanna come with me? I have a lot of questions about music. And everything.”

“Who are you?” She shook her head. “Never mind. My friends are taking the train with me. You can tag along, if you’d like.”

My parents were expecting me at home in Brooklyn by ten, but at ten o’clock I was on the train traveling deeper and deeper into Queens. Melanie started off by ignoring me and enclosing herself in a circle of her chatty friends, but it didn’t work out the way she wanted it to. I pushed aside Linda and Christy and Nicole—though I would end up befriending them in a few months—and continuously pestered Melanie about her violin. I asked about its make, its age, its favorite tune, and somehow we switched art forms and I was listening to Melanie give an impassioned speech about her writing. She wanted to be a writer some day, a journalist or an author or both, and though she played at Carnegie Hall and she could get a scholarship in music and her writing was subpar, she enjoyed words more than she did notes.

Let me tell you about that girl—she could write. She could write the tears from your eyes and the cries from your heart. She could write your nightmares and your dreams into life; she could turn reality inside out and upside down and make you live in it. She had a way with words and I wondered how any one person could be allowed to have so much talent.

I didn’t know that then. I just nodded when she spoke and laughed when she paused. By the time I left that night it was already a habit, to adjust to her, like she had replaced my circadian rhythms with a pace of her own. She gave me her phone number and just like that she was in my life, on my list with a hundred other contacts. My mom did some yelling when I got home late, her voice reaching the I-thought-you-were-dead pitch, but I spent the rest of the night texting Melanie and in the morning a hurried hour of sleep had wiped my parents’ admonishments from my mind. I was determined to take her out somewhere nice, before I could let any of my feelings slip and ruin things.

I was so attuned to her that when she didn’t show up to school one day, her absence carved a hollow in my heart’s flesh. I filled it with wondering, and spent all of English class staring at the board rather than sneaking glances around the room. I tried to copy Melanie’s style; after a few months she had consented to show me some of her stories, but none of her poetry, not yet anyway. Her prose was decorated and almost—but not quite—over the top, saved by the earthiness and raw quality of the topics she discussed.

She wasn’t there the next day, either.

On Friday, she came in, and I grinned at the sight of her. Her clothes were normally out of fashion, but on Friday she was dressed even sloppier than she usually was, and she struck me as a comical figure. She was bent over her paper, writing something in cramped letters.

I sat down next to her and was about to tap her when she looked up. A shadow stretched across her face.

She smiled. It was one of those half-hearted smiles that, with enough time, tended to decompose into tears.

“Why weren’t you here?” I asked. I glanced at her paper and tried to read the words, but her hand covered the majority of her writing.

“Oh, a mishap with my violin.” She lowered her gaze to the table. “It snapped in half.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said after a pause, hoping there was enough feeling in my voice. “What happened?”

“I dropped it on the floor.”

I imagined the violin slipping from Melanie’s firm grip. Unlikely.

“You sure everything’s okay?”

“Yeah.” She smiled again. “Everything’s fine.”

A week or two passed without incident. Then, three events occurred in three consecutive days:

Day 1: Just before they started building, a supervisor discovered a flaw in my mom’s design. If it were built, the new building would tilt, an extra 0.87 degrees to the left every year, just like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. My mom was promptly fired.

Day 2: My dad’s lab rats all died from a mysterious plague. He suspected the researchers next door had been careless, because they were working with a highly mobile and fast-evolving virus.

Day 3: Melanie vanished.

My parents’ lives had crumbled—my mom had no job, my dad was about to be fired—all his hopes of discovery died with the rats, and my parents were no longer considered among the greats. The night that ended Day 2 was one of the worst. I fell asleep with the screaming argument of my parents echoing in my ears, their attacks against each other vicious in the most private, personal, intimate manner, their self-control crumbling with their careers. For once they didn’t care about my future, and I didn’t know if I should be relieved or horrified.

Day 3, no Melanie. I couldn’t deal with waiting for her to come back to school, so I called her cell phone—no answer. My parents were preoccupied, so I decided they wouldn’t notice if I were gone for a few hours, no matter how afraid they were for my safety.

Melanie lived in a pleasant brick house, far into Queens and in the suburbs. I had never been inside her house but I’d seen the outside, and the outside suited Melanie—the brick was choked by ivy, wisteria, honeysuckle: nature’s frieze.

A woman answered the door. She looked like Melanie, and yet there was something off about her. She wore a thin ragged sweater that swallowed up her tiny, bony arms and wrists. Her hair was wispy and graying, but her eyes spoke of a thirst for youth and a hunger for happiness. She frowned at me, confusion raising lines on her forehead. “What do you want?”

“Hi, is Melanie here?”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “No, not at the moment. She’s down at the—”

“Who is it?” screamed a voice from within the house. “What do they want?”

“He—he wants to know where she is,” the woman said in a soft, hesitant tone.

“Why does everyone care so much? God…I’ll be right up there in a second.”

“She’s down at the pond,” the woman continued quietly. “She goes camping there every once in a while. When she needs to get away from schoolwork, you know how it is.”

“Yeah, I understand. Thank you.” I was about to turn, but suddenly a heavyset man practically threw himself into the doorway, his florid face red from exertion.

“Who are you and what the hell did you do with Melanie?”

“I d-didn’t do anything with her,” I stuttered. “I thought…I thought she was camping.”

“No, she’s not camping,” he shouted, disgust in his voice. He turned on the woman. “Stop telling people that, or I swear to God—” He turned back to me. “She disappeared, and we have no idea where the hell she is. But I think you have an idea.”

“Why would I know anything?”

“She always talks about you,” the woman interjected.

“The boy with the artist’s eyes,” the man said with a sneer.


“She showed us a picture,” said the woman.

I remembered that. It was a couple days after we first met, when she insisted on taking a picture together because she liked taking pictures. I put on my biggest smile for her camera because that’s how I wanted her to see me, all the time: happy.

“I didn’t know she was gone. I didn’t know she had any plans to leave. I’m sorry.”

The man scrutinized me, decided I wasn’t worth the interrogation, and stomped back inside to his den. The woman lingered.

“If you come in contact with her, please tell her to come home,” she murmured. “Tell her I need her.” I looked at the woman and saw a shadow cross her face.

Soon the police closed down the area to search for her, the runaway. Soon the entire school had heard about Melanie Zheng, the prodigious violinist girl who wanted more attention from her parents, who ran away because of family problems or a lack of recognition or some selfish reason that damned her in the eyes of the masses. “She’ll be back,” they said.

She never returned.

Maybe it’s not that surprising, the way this story is told. Because Melanie never had a reason to come back to a city where the skyscrapers block sunrises and the rats die and the eternal hustle for time, money, and meaning, crushes dreams.

I went back to her house a little while after the police gave up on her. I loitered outside for about two hours before I gathered the courage to ring the bell. The same woman answered, only the circles under her eyes were bigger, and the sweater she wore was even more thin and ragged. “What do you want?” she asked, weary. She avoided my eyes.

“I’m not sure,” I said. I turned and began to walk away.


I stopped.

“Come with me.”

The inside of the house was soft with lamplight. Somehow I couldn’t imagine the man in this setting, no matter how hard I tried. “Where’s your husband?”

“Oh, he’s at the bar. He won’t come back until late tonight. Don’t worry.”

For a fleeting moment I wanted to fix the sadness in her voice, but then she handed me a sheaf of papers with a strained smile. At the top of the pile was a post-it with my name written on it. “Melanie wanted you to read these.”

In a whisper that I could barely hear, the woman added, “I read them, even though I don’t know if I’m supposed to. But they are beautiful. I didn’t know she wrote poetry.”

That night, after my parents fell asleep, after I had read some of Melanie’s poems so many times that the words swam before my eyes, I snuck out of the house and took the train to Coney Island. I sat on the beach and watched the waves overlap and the moonlight shimmer on the sand. I wondered where the water went, what it saw, after it got pulled back into the ocean’s depths.

I spent hours on that beach sitting cross-legged, staring at the horizon. I waited for the stars to recede and eventually, after many eternities, they did. I saw rays of sunlight peek out from the distant waves. There were so many things to say but I kept silent—I didn’t want to scare off the sun or the feeling rising within me.

I pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil from my bag and began to draw.