IRIS (c) Ajesh Sharma

< An edition of this story first appeared in Unbound EMagazine. >

Andrew Quinn had spent 8 years writing. Burned out from playing corporate games, Andrew had turned off, tuned out, and then dropped out. He was 48 years old with a receding forehead, an aquiline nose and curls greying at the edges. This gave him the air of a Roman senator and not just any senator, but a careworn and grave senator. One could truly have said of him that melancholy had marked him for her own.

His writing matched his looks. Andrew wrote dark novels that told of despair and hopelessness. His writing, as one critic put it, “gives the blues a whole new dimension. Angst, despair and morbidity jostle their way through Mr Quinn’s words on their way into the darkest moments a human being could ever conceive.”

Andrew stared at the screen shining brightly into his eyes for another four or five minutes, then gave up. He forced himself away from the computer and poured himself some orange juice and took it over to the couch. His hand reached for the remote and he slouched there without turning the TV on. Finally, he put it away and swung his legs over the side and lay there, staring at the ceiling. The flat white of the ceiling stared back at him, matching his mood. When he turned his head to the right he could see the riotous painting on the wall. Mad little chips of a million colors when looked at close up, they came alive from where he lay.

Sitting up, he held up his glass of orange juice. He closed one eye and peered at it through the faint blue tinge of the glass. Then he switched eyes. The scene moved as the bits of paint distorted, the hay rick heaved and moved as the flaming reds and oranges of the leaves on the trees set them afire. The young couple leaning against the rick seemed to move. Their bodies pulsated and writhed as the light filtered through the glass. Andrew opened both eyes and put the glass down. The painting waited. He blinked rapidly at it. Once again, the scene came alive. He stopped. He put his hand up at his nose, palm out and looked at it. A shadow fell upon the scene.

Andrew gave up, drained his orange juice and walked over to the painting and crouched a little to look at the bold but neat signature at the bottom; four letters, two syllables, representing a time when she had painted his life with those fine and delicate little strokes.

“Iris”

Andrew stood there, unable to take his eyes off the riot of colored chips, unwilling to remove from his head the image of the girl who had been the rainbow to his blues for six weeks. A quotation from Virgil popped into Andrew’s head.

Spreading her wings, the goddess, Iris, took off from earth, describing a rainbow arc under the clouds as she flew.

“Damn Virgil and damn all poetry! I need coffee.”

He swung around, picked up his keys and drove down to the coffee shop at the corner of Main St and Elm Avenue. It wasn’t trendy. It did, however, have very quiet music which didn’t drown out conversation or thought. The comfortable easy chairs were matched with the tables so a casually placed coffee mug could be reached with ease. The coffee was very good, too, dark and creamy. It reminded Andrew of his travels through Europe. The patrons were either older people, seeking quiet conversation and thoughtful coffee moments, or loners, like Andrew, who sat alone with their work.

“Well, hello! We haven’t seen you in a while.”

The pretty barista smiled at him.

“What can I get you today?”

“A tall coffee with an espresso shot, please.”

He leaned on the counter until she placed his mug in front of him. He paid for it, picked it up and turned around to view the chairs.

In the chair he used for his daily perusal of life outside, sat a pale young man in checked shirt, brown khakis and suede loafers worn with no socks. He had a big flabby leather bag on the floor next to him with his laptop on it. Next to him sat a pretty girl with reddish gold hair that Andrew had never met before. She wore a white t-shirt with a violent gash of color on the front and a pair of white pedal pushers ending in smooth ankles leading to white sandals.

Andrew stood there, momentarily transfixed.

The girl turned her face to him and said “You’re judging which chair to use. You can sit here, next to me, if you like.”

Andrew Quinn put his mug down and stretched out in the chair with his head back. The girl next to him turned back to the man in the checked shirt.

“So there I was with my camera clicking away. I must have squeezed off at least a dozen shots with different settings in the next few minutes before the rainbow disappeared. I got some great shots for my portfolio.”

“Oh, are you a professional photographer?”

“Yes, landscapes mostly. I love rainbows! When I see a rainbow it almost feels like I’m alive just for that moment.”

“Yes, rainbows are nice”, said the young man.

The girl continued as if she hadn’t heard him.

“There must be some cosmic connection I feel, for my parents named me Itzel, which is Mayan for rainbow. That’s why I feel so… alive, so full of this indescribable feeling of joy, whenever I see a rainbow.”

Andrew’s head snapped back and he struggled to sit up straight in the overstuffed chair.

“Nice. I’m just a techie stuck in a cubicle. I wouldn’t know what to do with rainbows. I understand how cameras work, but that’s all. I sit around producing software code and that’s pretty much all I do.”

“Ah, but you haven’t seen my photos, Mike! You will love them. Wouldn’t you like to see them?”

“Uh. Yeah. I don’t know. I’m sure they are very good.”

“You should get away from that techie stuff and live a little. Hey, listen, why not come around and see my pictures? You’re not doing anything for the next hour or so, are you? My studio is just around the corner. Come on, it’s a bit of time which won’t come again. It’s like the rainbow. It won’t last forever. Come on, Mike!”

“Gee, I don’t know.”

She turned to Andrew.

“You tell him! You know he should, right?”

Andrew sipped his coffee and looked at her, face bright, a little flushed, it seemed. Itzel, the Rainbow. Iris. Andrew’s head swirled with memories of the time when Iris had come into his life.

**************

She’d arrived at the end of a particularly stormy moment in his life. He had been sitting facing the door of the coffee shop, just after breakfast, when she had first walked in.

She was dressed in shades of white, a flared skirt in a colorful floral print, a white blouse with a colorful scarf around the neck. Brown leather sandals and bare legs, which he noticed with interest. Auburn hair cut in steps, curled loosely around a face that sported wide eyes, a nose that was neither short nor long, and a smile that blazed.

She picked up her coffee and looked around. Andrew, compelled by some unknown force, picked up his bag from the chair next to him. She smiled as she walked over, put her coffee mug down on the table, and floated into the chair.

“I could have sat in one of the other chairs, you know,” she smiled, showing even teeth with two extended canines.

“Sorry, I just didn’t want to seem boorish, by blocking off two chairs. You deserve the choice. Everyone deserves a choice.”

“Everyone? What about those suffering from depression who want to commit suicide? Should we let everyone choose everything?”

Andrew picked up his coffee and took a sip. She waited until he had carefully put the mug down.

“OK, so now you’ve bought time to think, what’s your response to my question?” she asked.

She held her mug with both hands and sipped, not taking her eyes off Andrew’s face.

“I think, everyone should be allowed to. Why should society care if someone wants to end their burden on them? It’s not like society takes care of people. We see homeless people, despairing people, neglected people, sick and old people in pain. Society does nothing about it. Why, then, should it get a say in any decision these people make?”

She put her mug down and leaned forward holding her hand out to him.

“I’m Iris.”

“Andrew.”

“I expected you to fumble your way through a measured response on the duty of every person to society.”

“Yes, you did. Did I pass?”

“You did. Do you come here often?”

“Pretty much most days. I come here to think, away from the confines of the house.”

“Let me guess. You’re a writer. Everyone in a coffee shop is a writer.”

“As a matter of fact…”

She broke in, “Oh dear, Andrew. Andrew Quinn. Wait.”

She pulled a book out her bag and showed him the back cover. Andrew Quinn stared back at Andrew Quinn.

“Yes, yes! I confess!  I did write that. I admit it, freely. Put it away, please.”

“Sign it,” she asked as she held out a pen.

Andrew flicked open the book and wrote with his neat handwriting.

“To Iris, may the choice be with you always. Andrew.”

He handed it back to her and she grinned at what he had written.

“My first celebrity!” she said as she put the book away.

She looked at him and smiled a smile that seemed to cut through Andrew.

“No, I won’t ask you about the book. I read an interview where you said you hated being asked to explain the books, and you expected people to make of them what they will.”

“Well, that’s great then. I really don’t like people asking what I meant when a character said this, that or the other. It’s a book, read it and make your own judgements. We judge paintings of artists long gone. We don’t get to ask them to explain themselves, do we? Why should writers be treated any differently from painters?”

“Interesting! I don’t mind explaining my paintings to all and sundry. I mean, poor dears, they do want to like them desperately, and they buy them so they can tell their friends what it means. Which is whatever I make up to suit them.”

“I find that being dishonest.”

“I think it’s being kind. What’s the harm in bringing some joy to someone’s life?”

“I don’t see the point of all this looking for joy. The world is quite grey, shades of blue and black mostly. The other colors are just illusions.”

“Oh, no! You writers are so busy living in metaphoric garrets that you don’t see the world at large for what it is. Look at this coffee shop. It’s all browns, and whites. It’s dark, quiet, even the baristas are dressed in sombre colors. Maybe that’s why you come here? It appeals to your need to suffer? Or is it that pretty thing behind the counter?”

“She is pretty and she doesn’t seem to have any tattoos or pieces of metal jewelry attached to her anywhere. And no, I have not checked out what lies beneath. I come here, because the music is very soft, the coffee is very good, and I can see the world go by outside that wide glass wall that separates me from it.”

Iris laughed, her head thrown back, a full laugh.

“And that’s your idea. Observe but be separated from it. Me, I couldn’t do that. I need to be in it. I need to engulf it, have it engulf me. I can’t stand away, aloof and disdainful.”

“I don’t have disdain. I just don’t see why I have to be engulfed by it.”

They sat in silence, each appraising the other.

“So you’re an artist. A painter. How is the market for art? I must confess, I know nothing about paintings. I know even less about dancing.”

“Would you like to see my paintings? Or would that be an imposition?”

He hesitated.

“Oh, come on! Don’t say no! Be impulsive! Just give in to your feelings and come with me. It’s just around the corner. I’ll buy you lunch later to make up for it.”

And so Andrew Quinn climbed into the rainbow and stayed there for six weeks.

For six weeks he watched her paint, carelessly and quickly laying down tiny slivers of color, turning the white canvas into a stormy, passionate riot of color. He watched her cook, slapping simple but delicious meals together without effort, using strange combinations of meats, fruits and vegetables mixed with assorted spices he had never tasted before. He watched her watching him, laughing at him and his serious expression. He watched her sleep next to him, arms and legs carelessly extended over him. He watched the ceiling as he lay on his back, half her body spread over him, a quotation from Ovid, running through his head.

“Iris entered, and the bright sudden radiance of her robe lit up the hallowed place” 

He had known rainbows as fleeting images, little more than illusions of bent light. Iris was real, and for six weeks Andrew basked in the radiance. Their time together was, for Andrew, a chaotic and confused jumble of events. His routine of waking, going down to the coffee shop, a quick lunch, an afternoon nap, followed by a few more hours of work before dinner was completely demolished.

She didn’t have any friends, it seemed. They never met anyone else, no other couples. There were no double dates. She was fully with him. She never asked about his work, never once asked how his writing was coming along. They spent a lot of time talking, drinking coffee, and making and eating food. They oscillated between his house and her apartment.

It was a Sunday, when he woke up to find her watching him, her face six inches from his.

“Good morning,” she said, “It’s time.”

“Time for what?”

“Time to get going. I have to paint you your piece.”

He pushed her away and padded away to the bathroom. When he came back she was dressed and sitting on the side of the bed.

“What’s happened to you?” he asked.

“Nothing. Let’s go make some coffee first.”

He cocked his head at the “first.”

She was silent as they prepared breakfast, working in unison in the little kitchen.

“Come into the studio.”

He sat in the big wicker chair and watched her paint.

“What exactly are you painting?”

“Something for you to keep forever. A special piece just for you.”

“Why?”

“It’s something I have to do. You were a sourpuss when we met, a gloomy one at that. You’re still too gloomy, though I have seen occasional bursts of what you can be. I want you to have something to remember us by.”

“Is this what this is about? Am I your behavioral science project?”

“Shush. I’m working.”

He watched in silence. She worked away with not a glance at him. He looked down at his mug and said “I need more coffee.”

She didn’t respond. He walked away into the kitchen, busied himself with coffee and looked out of the window. He sat down at the kitchen table and pulled the paper open and scanned the pages.

“Come and see.”

She was standing there. Her face flushed and tired. She followed him into the studio.

He stared at the painting, a million or more colors flashing and glinting and moving and pulsing before him.

“What does it represent?”

“Us. You mostly.”

“Good lord! Me? Why me?”

“Why not?”

“OK! Whatever. What are you going to call it?” he asked.

“Metamorphoses.”

The next morning, Andrew left early to visit his publisher. He arrived at the coffee shop just after 11 o’clock. Iris, dressed in a silk blouse that screamed color at the world, at odds with the red jeans and blue and red sneakers with violet laces, was already seated when he came in. He waved over at her.

“I need some coffee desperately,” he said, “Want a refill?”

“No. I’m OK. Thanks.”

He narrowed his eyes at her and went over to order a coffee. He took his mug over to the little table next to her chair and sat down with a whoosh in the chair next to it.

“I hate editors. Did I tell you that? I hate editors and I hate editing. It’s when I start wondering if writing is worth the effort.”

She didn’t say anything.

“I haven’t seen that blouse before. It’s, uh, how do I say it? Bright, you know. You’re very bright, ultra-bright.”

“Yes. I like it. I wear it once in a while. It makes me feel better. I keep it for days I’m sad and yet happy.”

“Both?”

“Yes. It is possible, you know. A death, for example, should be a celebration of a life as well as a moment of sadness.”

“True. So who died?”

“Not who. What.”

“What?”

“Yes. I’m afraid, I have some bad news. I have to go away, it’s time.”

“Go away? Where? When? How long will you be away?”

“Today. I leave for the airport in half an hour or so. Will you come see me off?”

“Wait! I don’t get it. What’s going on?”

“Nothing. I have to get away. I have to keep moving.”

“Where are you going?”

“I… it’s not important. Will you come see me off?”

Andrew leaned forward to look at her.

“If you want me to, I will. Are you sure you want me to?”

“Yes, please. I would like that very much.”

The ride to the airport was constrained. Andrew, after a few early attempts at conversation and questions, gave up, and they drove in silence the rest of the way. As he approached the terminal she spoke again.

“Short term parking, please, Andrew. I want you to see me to the gate.”

They walked through the tunnel from the parking lot into the terminal. Andrew had already tried asking about her lack of luggage. She carried no checked in bag not even a carry-on, only her purse.

At security, she turned and looked straight into his eyes. She put her arms around his neck and kissed him.

“Goodbye, Andrew. I loved you. Take good care of that painting. I want you to look at it once in a while and remember the days you spent with me.”

She turned and walked through the gate and left him standing there. He found his car and drove out of the parking lot and got off the first exit and drove down to the coffee shop that stood under the flight path. He took his coffee outside watching the runway. Out in the distance a big jetliner with colorful butterflies painted all over it turned from the taxiway and onto the runway. As he watched, it gathered speed towards him grow bigger. The wings flexed as the weight came off the nose wheel and then the awkward beast turned into a graceful and colorful butterfly. It hummed over his head and headed up and out. He watched it turn into a speck.

**************

Andrew Quinn carefully put his coffee down. Itzel leaned forward, her eyes wide, her lips slightly open as if in anticipation. Fire seemed to dance in her eyes. Andrew leaned forward and tapped the young man’s knee. The software programmer shifted uneasily in his seat.

“You know what I think? I think you should most definitely go. I’ll tell you why. It’s an experience like no other, like seeing a rainbow and you know, you have to enjoy the rainbow while it lasts, because the rainbow doesn’t stay forever. You have to enjoy her while you can.”

“See? I told you so!”, said Itzel, “Come on, let’s go.”

Andrew slumped back in his chair and watched the two of them as they made their way out to the door. At the threshold, she turned, one hand on the doorknob. His unwavering gaze held hers. She smiled, waved and stepped out of his life again.

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