Jul 25

Paint-soaked dreams

Many people ride on trains. They have become so popular that we wrapped metal ropes around the earth to let them roam across it. Generations have made their living building these ropes; binding our planet so we can get from one place to another without breaking a sweat. Some trains send exhaust spiraling into the air, a dancing smoke signal siren who calls you back to Old England, and times before we worried a little more with every mile we chugged, or drove, or sailed. Some trains hum to the music of electromagnets pushing you forward, into a future of white metal and sleek cities. Some trains tunnel through dark, graffitied, underground hallways, sifting hundreds of people around a city through a claustrophobic tube. Many people ride on trains.

When you’re sitting on a train, there are three things to look at. One: your phone, where you can scroll through never-ending columns of people’s random thoughts, or swipe colored tiles back and forth in a pixelated puzzle game. Two: the scenery. This could be dark, blurred walls, long sets of identical, grassy fields, or, if you’re lucky, icy mountains and rainbow fishing towns. Three: the people. A train is the best place to see all types of people, from screaming babies to old ladies with bags of knitting and poofy white hair, business people in sharp suits and city hipsters in baggy T-shirts. Also in the mix are teens who have eyes only for the bubbles dot-dot-dotting on their phone screens, musicians with mysteriously-shaped instrument cases, and a girl who sits by herself with a paint can. Look around at all these people, each one a meticulous work of flesh and bone and stardust, and think about how many words it would take to tell each of their stories; how many books to publish them all. How many questions could you ask before your throat cracked dry, and still you wouldn’t know each passenger’s story. I can tell you only one of these stories, besides my own. I can tell you about the girl with the paint can. I can tell you where she came from, and what she had for breakfast, and why she’s hogging a double seat with herself and her paint. I can also tell you that if you asked nicely, she would move the paint can and let you take that half.

This girl lives in the city; she was born from the sidewalk cracks and subway tunnels, and grew with the skyscrapers and scaffolding. She loves counting dogs from the bus windows, and watching rooftop sunrises stroke the skyline with pink and gold. The colors give her a craving, a need to crawl into the clouds and blanket herself in deep magenta, to run barefoot through the streets trailing paintbrushes splattered with the brightest orange. So one day she took the subway to a hardware store, and found the paint section. She wandered back and forth, choosing her favorite paint chips: deep magenta, bright orange, light violet, and sparkling gold. When she couldn’t hold any more, she stepped up to the counter, arms full of color. The woman behind it looked at her in surprise, but she took the chips, squeezed some paint, and stirred in a little magic, and, ten minutes later, the girl walked out the door with a bucket full of sunrise. 

Back at her apartment, the girl carefully lifted the metal cover off of the can. Inside were such warm, beautiful colors, that she had dipped her finger in, and swirled it around. She was tempted to stick her whole arm in, but resisted the impulse. Smearing a bit of it on her cheek, the girl felt a warm glow spread through her body, starting with a tingling in her face, and spreading all the way down to her toes. The girl smiled, feeling like she could walk on air. She wanted to share this feeling with others. So that night, when the street was dark and quiet, and you could count the number of lighted windows on your fingers, she slipped out into the dark, carrying the bucket and an old, bristly paint brush. With only the stars and street lamps to see by, she set to work. 

The next morning, the girl sat on her roof, watching the sun rise. As the sky began to glow with all of the colors she knew by heart, the houses in the street glowed, too. During the night the girl had painted them with all of her favorite colors; ombré shades of pink, orange, and yellow, mixed with light violets and blues, and just a touch of gold. As morning grew brighter, people started to emerge onto their porches and front steps, spilling out into the street to drink in the surprise. Smiles spread like warm butter, seeping into the cracks in the sidewalk and sprouting shoots that stretched up toward the sky. People laughed, and pointed out their favorite colors, and trailed fingers along bricks and stone and wood to make sure it was real.

When the girl saw this, the same tingly feeling the paint had given her filled her body, soaking her heart in happiness. She could finally share what she loved with the world, and it made them happy, too. The girl thought that everyone deserved to feel this way, so she started visiting other streets, and painting them with color at night. Every morning new families and children and old couples and adults opened their doors to a world of color, and magic, and sparkle. Slowly, the girl started to paint during the day, too, and people would see her, and smile and wave, and sometimes a few would come help her paint for a while. Finally, with a closet full of paint stains and streets full of smiles, the girl had painted the whole city. The people all loved their houses, and the city had become a loving, happy place. But the girl remembered the first day she had painted, when she had decided that everyone deserved this magic. So she took the subway back to the hardware store, and bought a new bucket of paint, and a train ticket. 

The next morning, the girl left the city with a bucket, a brush, and a dream. She will keep painting love, and freedom, and color into the world, until we’re all stained and caked with it. And maybe you will, too.