She took a look around. The night was getting late, but the quirky little South Asian food restaurant they were in either didn’t know or didn’t care, judging by how bustling it still was. She could see why; even if the miris maalu she’d tried had spent most of its time assaulting her tongue like a hard-nosed mugger with a spiked bat, it had tasted good while doing it.
And then she took a look at the others.
There is a moment in every gathering of friends, whether they be new or old, meeting weekly or after years, when the invisible signal goes out. And on cue, those friends will immediately whip out their smartphones and take a long ‘peek’ at them, briefly disregarding the presence of the other friends in the vicinity. An uncomfortable silence occasionally develops, which only the unfortunate souls without a smartphone bear witness to. Scientists are yet to determine what factors influence this phenomenon – whenever they get close, they whip out their own phones and promptly forget about the research.
Maybe it was the distraction of her burning mouth, but Amari had missed out on the initial broadcast of the signal. She was about to take a look at her own phone when Ji-hoon spoke up.
“Whoa, guys, check out this video! This guy is doing some insane shit with chocolate!”
Amari inched closer along with the others as Ji-hoon placed his phone in the middle of the cluttered table. One the screen, she could just make out a video of a man making what looked like extremely posh furniture – but wait, he was making it with chocolate bars instead of wood, and using chocolate syrup to bind the pieces together!
She leaned back with a sigh. While she definitely admired the man’s skills, she found these kind of food sculpting videos a little depressing. She couldn’t tell which outcome was more tragic: either those chocolate masterpieces would eventually be eaten, or all that delicious-looking chocolate would be left alone in awe.
“Didn’t you used to do art stuff too, Amari?” asked Andrew, his eyes still glued to the chocolate maestro.
“Nothing like the guy in the video though!” said Amari half-heartedly, “but yeah, I used to sketch and paint a bit.”
“Oh yeah, I remember those pictures you put up on Facebook!” said Kwang with a grin, “They were really pretty! It’s too bad you stopped though!”
“Thanks!” said Amari, “But, well, you know how it is. Work happened. Life happened. The usual.”
“Ahhh, life,” drawled Andrew, as though he were going to launch into a deep philosophical discourse on the topic, before sitting back in his own seat with a sigh. The topic silently cursed him for leaving it hanging.
The next evening, it took Amari at least fifteen minutes before she could find what she was looking for. It wasn’t that her room was untidy. Well, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 was spotless and 10 meant that one footstep required at least five items to be relocated, Amari considered her room to be a 3. Others thought it was a 5, 6 tops.
But when she put something away, she put it away deep, and tended to forget where exactly said thing had been put away. In this case, it had been behind a row of thick books in her closet.
She blew the dust off of it and then gazed at it. Not lovingly, but something milder.
Her old artist’s sketchbook looked a little worn, but mostly it just looked disappointed in her. The once shining cover had been dulled by abandonment issues, and the edges curled a bit here and there. The pages nearly had that odd fragile feel to them that pages from older books tend to have.
It had been a while since she’d done this. What to start with? Hmm… ah, of course! It was the perfect thing to start with!
She immediately began to google reference images, the pencil trembling with anticipation in her hand.
The last crumpled ball of paper bounced off the rim, hovered in the air for a painful moment, before landing with a huff on the ground near the bin.
Amari walked away from the sketchbook, picked up the ball of paper and dropped it into the bin, and collapsed on her bed in a frustrated heap. What was she doing! What was she even trying to do! She used to be so much better at this; her drawings actually earned the name ‘art’. Now, she couldn’t even get the details of a bird’s claw down right!
She groaned into her pillow for some time, more out of a need to vent than feelings of physical discomfort. When that was done, she grudgingly returned to her desk, a blank page on her sketchbook awaiting her expectantly beside her pencil.
But as she sat down, she remembered that the next episode of The Expanse was going to air soon! She looked at her laptop screen, then at the sketchbook, then back at the laptop screen. Well, her sketching attempts weren’t going anywhere – maybe she just needed a break. Take her mind away from it for a while. She could always come back to it later. Right?
Some weeks later, Amari was watching a TED talk. In it, a cheerful lady named Simone Giertz was talking about how she made ‘useless’ things as a hobby, and how it was anything but useless to do so. The useless things in question included a helmet with a toothbrush attached to it in the most ridiculous way possible, and a shirt made of eyeballs.
“Kwang, you watch the weirdest things,” muttered Amari to herself. She didn’t stop watching the video though.
And then Simone began to talk about performance anxiety, and moving past the idea of avoiding failure. At this point, Amari wouldn’t have stopped watching even if her bedroom door spontaneously caught fire.
The talk ended, and a strange feeling began to consume Amari. It was as though Guilt was trying on something else’s clothes, and compensating for the bad fit by just putting on more layers. She looked at the spot where she had stashed the sketchbook this time around.
She’d been approaching it all wrong, and that thought was what struck her the hardest. Her motivation a few weeks ago had been to draw a picture as beautiful as what she’d been capable of back when she was a more prolific artist. But with that attitude, the critic on her shoulder took over the production, and nothing would approach that critic’s inflated standards.
No, before she could enjoy the products of her efforts, she needed to enjoy the process first.
She dug around for the pencil in her desk drawer, then pulled out the sketchbook and opened it to the page she’d stopped at. The faint grooves from when she’d drawn on the previous pages were an unnecessary reminder of what she’d been trying to sketch the last time.
Amari began to sketch. And this time...
...the bird’s claw was just as faulty as it had been before. But she didn’t care.
Time slowed down so it could peek over her shoulder at the sketch she was bringing to life. Her pencil danced across the page, and old feelings began to course through the fingers that were holding it.
Oh, how she’d missed this! The sensation that the world around her could go stuff its head in a washing machine for all she cared. The intensity of the scratches as the pencil added detail after detail. The magic of a wing, and then a plume, emerging from all that lead. The ecstasy, no, the euphoria of it all.
Amari only became aware of her breathing again when the picture was done. Sighing with relief and stretching muscles that had somehow gone numb in the span of a few minutes, she took a look at the drawing.
It was supposed to be a phoenix, rising from the ashes of negligence. It wouldn’t be mistaken for anything else, she thought. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being indistinguishable from the real thing and 1 being a smear left by an excited flock of pigeons on a statue, this was a – no, it didn’t matter. She had finally drawn the damn thing, and more importantly, she was starting to feel it.
And it felt good.