Two o’clock at night is a pillow pressed against my face, smothering me, hot and dark and full of terror. The world is asleep in its grave at two o’clock, and I’m still awake, unable to sleep, aware of every sound, aware of every second as it flashes out of existence like a burnt-out bulb. Two o’clock is 3600 endless moments of darkness, 3600 ghosts passing through my body, 3600 miseries contemplated and added one to another on the compost heap of my brain. Two o’clock is 3600 ticks of the clock. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick….
The knowledge of what will save me occurs as I stare at the microwave. 3:01. There is no hope in returning to bed. I’d lie there, wide-awake, a thousand unanswerable questions passing before me every minute, whole recitations of my own personal book of Job—but no storm, no revelation of God, only my husband’s gentle breathing as he sleeps. He’ll wake to a new world. How sick and aged and feeble is mine!
It is four o’clock before I gather the will to stand, nearly five before I’ve decorated my shell in a vain attempt at normalcy. I don’t know why it takes so long. I don’t remember any of it, only the conviction that my actions are futile, that the coming morning means nothing but a setting sun, that there is no end and no hope and no God.The sun begins its slow spread of color as I pull out of the garage. From black to gray, like a photograph being developed. That much I observe. I drive without conscious thought, braking, turning, taking curves, obeying the rules of the road. The car directs my path; I sit at the wheel, granting it permission by my touch.
Sunrise. Like blood. I shudder. I don’t know why I make the association. I imagine dead bodies, bloodied corpses. Bird flu, swine flu, a biological attack, an apocalypse. Cities dead. Children dead.
I pull over, unable to drive. No God, but still I pray. I have to pray.
Eventually, I begin again. Eventually, I arrive in town. The streets are becoming busy, and I’m anxious, tired, frustrated, claustrophobic. I pull off the main road, park, stare, trying to escape.
I see so often with my mind’s eye, it’s a revelation to see truly. Something about the building catches my attention, something about the lines, about the landscape. It’s orderly, solid, peaceful. I’m afraid to look away. Whatever I see in it might disappear if I look away.
I make up my mind. I made it up sometime between two and three o’clock, but it only now reaches the surface. It only now has control over my will.
I keep everything in the trunk, in the back seat, a few brushes in the glove compartment. I gather everything quickly, frantically, all my lethargy gone in an instant.
No easel. Too bulky. Doesn’t matter. I make do. A bench I drag to the right spot. A trash can. Quickly, colors on the palette, brushes laid out. First, I sketch. The pencil isn’t sharp, but it works. Minimal outline. I’m too impatient. The sun is up. I want to make color dance on the white. I want to capture what I see, what I saw, even if no one else sees it. I need to see it.
Finally, the brush and the color. Bold, solid, earthy colors.
I believe in God when I paint. I feel the thickness of the paint, the friction beneath my brush, the order emerging from nothing, from chaos, feel the light as if it were an emotion, a touch, a kiss. I am in communion with the one who created it, and I can believe.
Again, time passes without my knowledge. I am the vision before me, the copy of creation beneath my hands. I am the colors mixing, spreading, forming, combining. This is two o’clock beneath the sun, two o’clock bathed in beauty, two o’clock in heaven.
I feel him at my shoulder. He’s not the first to peer at my work in interest, but I sense the difference.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“You should have woken me.” My husband isn’t reproving me; he just wants to help. That is why I can’t answer him. He doesn’t understand. He can’t, because the sun always shines in his world. I need that from him.
“Will you be finished soon?” he asks. Someone must have seen me and told him where I was. Unless he drove around, searching. He’s done that, too.
“It’s really good.”
I know he means it. Our walls are full of desperate art.
“I’ll stay with you till you finish, if you don’t mind.” He touches me gently on the shoulder. A touch like light.
I paint more slowly now, trying to stretch out the moments, trying to soak in the color and the light and his presence. I’m changed. And when I’m changed, I begin to believe that two o’clock beneath the sun can last forever.