Words and art by Pardis Alia.
Trigger warning: The following essay features explicit, potentially distressing language.
The first time I held a paintbrush, I shoved it into my mouth. As soon as I felt its coarse hairs scrape the back of my throat, I threw up. My belly emptied out a confection of chunky, bile-soaked rice, chicken nuggets, and what I hope were cherry tomatoes. All the while, the mahogany paintbrush handle stayed clasped firmly in my hand. It took only a fraction of a second for my mother to notice me, as she was passing by my room, whistling the theme song to All in the Family. I’ll never forget how her hair was piled on top of her head and how peaceful she looked with a laundry basket rocking on her hip. Her smile quickly evaporated from her lips, and she dropped the basket to then launch herself towards me. The vomit was everywhere; dribbling down my chin and smeared across my chest, with the worst of it piled in my lap. “Are you okay? You’re sick, mama? Why didn’t you call for me?” she said, frantically unbuttoning my shirt and peeling me out of my clothes. “You’ll shower. That help,” she said, as she nodded in agreement to herself and tugged at my hoodie to help lift it over my head. I unbuttoned my jeans and wiggled them off my hips and let them lay at my feet in a soggy mess, along with my socks.
The first time my mother admitted to worrying about me was that day. It frightened her how I could sit so peacefully, sick and in the mess of myself, and not say a word. Would I find my voice if I’d been seriously hurt? If someone else hurt me? How could I survive in a world that was less than accident-proof without a voice? I could see those fears rise up again in her eyes years later when I came home and tried to lock myself in the bathroom so she wouldn’t notice the bruises on my shins from when kids would kick me.
When threats of rape and murder become commonplace over a cup of coffee, it becomes harder to protest lesser cruelties.
The first time I realized I was in love, I threw up. I fell in love with the wrong person. A wrong person. Someone who was so broken inside that their edges cut into me. The relationship was as unusual as my reaction to the loving. My function in our union alternated between a nurturing counselor and a punching bag. When threats of rape and murder become commonplace over a cup of coffee, it becomes harder to protest lesser cruelties. Even still, I couldn’t force myself to become immune to the insults, the constant jabs, and his eyes that only fixated on me when I tried to walk away. Suddenly I was back to that floor, sitting in the mess of myself. Swallowing my own tongue. People took notice. I didn’t speak and I didn’t need to. My body spoke for me. My thinning hair and my red eyes–my body betrayed me in keeping the secret of our relationship’s toxicity. I was covered in sour energy, sick in the stomach and walking around Toronto with invisible vomit caked all over me.
I filled canvases with my grief. Emptied sketch pads with my sadness… I was in love and I was in pain and I was silent.
The first time I held a paintbrush again, I struggled to put it down. It was during one of our many breakups, the in-between times of our chaos. Friends joked about the roller-coaster ride of our relationship, but I was queasy from its whiplash. Still, I didn’t say anything but instead laughed along. I picked up a paintbrush and cried what I couldn’t in their presence. I filled canvases with my grief. Emptied sketch pads with my sadness. It was made worse by the fact that I was still in love. I was in love and I was in pain and I was silent. My art spoke for me until my words were ready to flee.
Within a month, I told my mother about my heartbreak. I sat my friends down and confessed the reality of my year. And I returned to the canvas, to the pen, and the paper. A few months later, they had transformed for me. They weren’t tools for my grief. They weren’t tools to overcome my love. They were the love. I felt for them the same way you do a new lover; with excitement, with opportunity. Without realizing, I took the love that once was so powerfully vomit-inducing and made it into my muse. The art I created wasn’t attached to the man or the cruelty. It was powerful because it spoke. And what it always spoke was love, painted and reflected back at me.