Jane could not stop thinking about her daughter’s painting. In the center of the canvas sat a large dog, a good likeness of their Golden Retriever Buster, except this dog’s coat was powder blue. Beside him on an unmade bed knelt a young girl wearing a hunter green jumper and red high-top sneakers, her back to the viewer, her face buried in the dog’s neck as if in sadness or grief. The dog rested its muzzle on the girl’s shoulder and its eyes were closed. One of the dog’s forelegs wrapped around the girl’s back. Though covered with the same blue fur, the paw was flat like a hand and the toes were finger-shaped with flat nails like a human’s. It was uncanny. Behind the two figures, through an open window, a flock of blackbirds crossed a pale purple sky. Not only was the quality excellent—and Lisa was only twelve—but the painting emitted a haunting mood that settled over Jane.
“Oh, Lisa,” Jane said when she saw it.
“It’s my first real painting,” Lisa said.
“It’s fabulous, honey. I…I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Lisa’s eyes glistened.
“We’ll show Daddy when he gets home.”
“Such wonderful colors,” Jane said with a smile, and then she returned to the kitchen. What Jane wanted most was for Lisa to be happy, but would a happy girl have created this painting whose bright, vibrant colors could not disguise its aching sadness? Jane would have liked the painting better had it been done by someone else’s child.
* * *
They had lived in this house for just two months—Jane, Larry, and Lisa—having moved from Manhattan after a series of unlikely fortuities. It began one winter morning in their Upper West Side apartment when Jane read an article in the travel section of the Times about a small Kentucky town on the Ohio River, quaint, friendly, and charming, a perfect place to spend a day or two. On a whim, she searched the town online and saw a listing for a colonial white brick home set on a hill with a view of the river and the valley below. The house had quadruple the square footage of their apartment, historic charm, five acres of rolling lawn, and a mortgage payment one third of their current rent. She showed it to Larry, and they agreed it was their dream house. Both had grown up in the suburban Midwest, and Manhattan, for all of its vibrant energy, had never felt like a place to nest. It made Jane feel chronically stressed.
When they had a week off in April—it was Lisa’s spring break—they took a car trip through Pennsylvania and Ohio (Jane wanted to visit Amish country), ending in that small Kentucky town. After walking the downtown—its 19th century architecture as charming as the Times writer had claimed—they recognized in the window of a real estate office a photo of that same white brick colonial. They walked in, introduced themselves, and the agent drove them to the house, two miles from downtown.
Along the road, forsythia was blooming vibrant yellow. Robins and cardinals chirped in the trees. The house glistened in the sun, a white board fence surrounding the verdant lawn. They turned into a circular drive bordered by jonquils and tulips and stopped at the front door.
The real estate agent walked through the house opening windows. Spring air wafted through the high-ceilinged rooms. “Wow,” Lisa cried, skipping from room to room. “It’s uplifting.” Jane and Larry laughed, and at that moment, Jane’s mind was made up.
Back at their B&B, Jane dutifully ticked off downside concerns. The schools were probably mediocre. There were no good restaurants in the town. There was no culture.
“Honestly, though,” asked Larry, “when was the last time we went to the theater or to Lincoln Center?”
“But I like knowing those things are there,” Jane cried, “even if we never go.”
“They will still be there,” Larry answered, “but now we’ll have a good excuse for not going.”
That night after Lisa had gone to bed, Jane and Larry continued their conversation. As long as she had a computer, Jane could do her editing work anywhere, and the same was true for Larry’s work in financial analysis. He could rent a downtown office here for next to nothing. There would be fewer opportunities for Lisa, but Jane worried that the abrasive environment of New York had driven her to become solitary and withdrawn. Maybe a small town would draw Lisa out of her shell.
“Plus,” Larry said, “we could get her what she’s always wanted more than anything in the world.”
“A puppy!” Jane exclaimed.
Feeling buoyant that this impractical move made practical sense, they walked into the real estate office the next morning and said they wanted the house. Jane loved that she and Larry were so in sync on this.
* * *
They moved in June, and while they were still unpacking, they took Lisa to see a litter of Golden Retriever puppies. “Better now, before we put down the rugs,” Jane laughed.
Lisa sat before the litter box mesmerized. Suddenly she exclaimed, “This one,” and picked up a wiggling puppy.
That evening Jane asked how she knew that puppy was the one.
“His eyes,” Lisa answered, “the way they drank things in.”
Jane and Larry joined the country club. Jane played in a women’s tennis group and signed up for a class at the town’s sole yoga studio. Larry started golfing again. They were invited to a couple of cocktail parties. They were known as the rich New Yorkers. Jane agreed to serve on a committee working to restore the downtown movie theater, closed now for twenty years.
One day when Lisa and her mother were downtown, Buster on a leash, they stopped to look in a shop window. Framed oil paintings—portraits and landscapes—done by a local artist were on display, and a sign announced that she also gave art lessons.
Lisa tilted her head and said, “I’d like to do that.”
Jane was thrilled—she often worried that Lisa had not found a passion—so they entered the shop and signed up Lisa for lessons with Mrs. Travis.
“Everything is so easy here,” Jane told Larry that evening. “No lines, no waiting lists. Her first lesson is tomorrow morning.”
Lisa fell in love with painting. Jane and Larry drove her to Cincinnati so she could stock up at an art store. A downstairs room with large windows looking onto the back yard—the real estate agent had called it the maid’s quarters—became Lisa’s studio. One of Larry’s blue dress shirts ruined by a leaky pen became her painter’s smock. Once she began, Lisa looked so natural holding the brush, mixing colors on her palette, and sketching on the canvas that it seemed she were re-inhabiting an activity done in a past life. Her art teacher was astounded by Lisa’s natural talent. “I tell her something about shadowing or brush technique and right away she can do it,” Mrs. Travis said.
A couple of months into her art lessons, Lisa announced that she had finished Blue Dog, the painting of the girl and her dog that Jane found so unsettling. Larry had it framed, and he suggested they hang it in the living room.
Jane insisted on Lisa’s room. “Her accomplishment should hang in her room,” she said, looking at Lisa and smiling. Lisa carried the painting to her room, Buster trotting after her.
Lowering her voice, Jane said, “I hate it when you give me that look.”
“Why don’t you want it in the living room?” Larry asked.
“Because it seems like the work of a sad child and that bothers me. A lot.”
* * *
School started. Lisa was in seventh grade. Larry drove her to school in the morning, and in the afternoon she rode the school bus home. Buster learned the sound of the bus’s motor and every day he scampered down the driveway to meet her, his tail wagging his entire back end. Jane would have finished her editing work for the day and prepared a sliced apple or pear for Lisa. Lisa played with Buster in the yard and then painted until dinner.
Lisa became friends with Tommy, a shy, awkward boy in her grade who lived down the road. Sometimes he came over in the afternoon and they played croquet on the expansive lawn or threw a tennis ball for Buster. Tommy would chase awkwardly after Buster, his legs and arms akimbo, while Buster barked with delight. Sometimes Tommy sat in the studio and watched Lisa paint. He started walking over in the morning and riding to school with Lisa and her dad. Lisa said he got teased on the bus.
Lisa was invited to a birthday party held around the country club swimming pool. After Jane’s tennis game, she walked over to the pool. The boys were doing cannon balls off the diving board, trying to splash the squealing girls who lay on towels on the concrete. Tommy and Lisa sat together beyond splash range, watching. Lisa was the only girl wearing a one-piece bathing suit. Jane had expected it would be more conservative here, but the other girls were wearing two-piece suits, some of them skimpy bikinis. Tommy donned a large beach towel draped like a kaftan. Looking over the fence, Jane wanted to will Lisa to join the other girls. Yet nothing suggested that she felt excluded. She seemed self-contained and content to watch, as if she were living in her eyes. Jane worried that the other kids—and their mothers—would think Lisa a loner.
The next week Lisa was invited to a sleep-over. When Jane picked her up the next morning and asked if she had fun, Lisa replied, “Not really. Everyone was laughing and talking, so I couldn’t sleep. I missed Buster.”
When Jane voiced her concerns to Larry, he said, “You’ve been worrying about this since she was three. Maybe Lisa’s happy being an introvert. I read somewhere that on average introverts are happier than extroverts.”
Jane felt frustrated that Larry did not see this the way she did.
When Jane and Larry saw Lisa’s next painting, they recognized her language arts teacher, Mrs. Wallingford, from the school open house. Lisa was getting better at rendering faces. Mrs. Wallingford was standing in front of her schoolroom desk, holding an open book tilted forward. Its visible page was blank. The heel of one shoe rested on the toe of the other. Her mouth was upturned into a Cheshire cat smile. But between her chin and the top of her blouse was a second mouth, this one turned down in a pained grimace. The bizarre mouth appeared believably natural, as if Mrs. Wallingford really did have a second mouth in the middle of her neck.
When Lisa took Buster outside to play, Jane said to Larry, “Do you think her painting teacher is giving her these weird ideas?”
“Mrs. Travis? You’ve seen her stuff. Her creativity is that she can paint four seasons—the Ohio River in winter, spring, summer, or fall.”
“But still,” Jane said, frowning. “A woman with two mouths. Something that macabre shouldn’t be coming from a girl of twelve.”
Larry shrugged. “Think how Picasso’s parents must have felt. What cow has a hexagon face?”
Jane said, “I wish you’d take this more seriously.”
“I wish you’d relax,” Larry said. “Jesus. It’s like you’re trying to invent something to worry about.” Then he added, “Speaking of relaxing, you’re grinding your teeth in your sleep again. I heard you last night.”
“I thought so,” Jane said. “My jaw was sore today. I’ll have to start wearing my dental guard again.”
Larry put his arm around her shoulder. Jane folded her arms.
“Everything’s okay,” he said, giving her a gentle shake.
“Then why don’t I feel like everything’s okay?”
* * *
In December they spent a day in Cincinnati Christmas shopping. Lisa had asked for art supplies, so Larry went with her while Jane shopped at other stores. Lisa bought some special paper to give Tommy as a Christmas gift; he had taught himself to do origami. That night Larry told Jane how proud he felt listening to Lisa discuss with the store clerk types of brushes, qualities of various canvases, and the relative merits of oils versus acrylics.
Two nights before Christmas, Larry and Jane drove around the town with Lisa, Tommy, and Buster in the back seat, looking at Christmas decorations on people’s houses. Windows, porches, lawns, and even rooftops were decked out in lights and greenery. In the dim light of the dashboard, Larry and Jane exchanged bemused looks as Tommy took the lead and voiced his opinion of the decorations, which ones he found beautiful and which he thought tacky. When they drove past a giant inflated Santa, Tommy wailed, “Beach ball Santa. Please shoot me.” Lisa laughed. Jane noticed that Tommy’s voice, previously monotonal, had become melodious and animated. Maybe he was coming out of his shell.
Back home, Lisa and Tommy rolled out cookie dough Jane had made in advance, and they baked Christmas cookies while carols played on the stereo. Tommy had made some origami for their tree, and he and Lisa delicately placed them among the branches. The scene pleased Jane, but she wished some of the more popular kids in Lisa’s grade were there as well.
The next morning Jane said to Larry, “Do you think Tommy has a crush on Lisa?”
“I don’t think so. When they talk in the car in the morning, it’s never flirty. More like two old souls.”
“Do you think Tommy’s gay?” Jane asked.
“I think he’s just a dweeb,” Larry said.
“I just wish Lisa had more friends. The other mothers talk about how their daughters are so social—and in a constant state of high drama about it.”
“All the better that she has just one friend,” Larry laughed.
Jane ordered a couple of books about how to mother teen girls. She kept them in her desk and read them when Lisa was at school. The discussions of girls’ issues with boys, body image, friend groups, inappropriate clothing choices, and even drugs and alcohol left Jane even more worried—not because Lisa had those problems but because she had none of them. It was like Lisa lived on a different planet. Because other girls in Lisa’s class had social media accounts—a year before it was really allowed—Jane told her that she could have one, too. “I don’t really want one,” Lisa said, wrinkling her nose, “but thanks anyway.”
Unlike the self-absorbed girls her age, Lisa seemed focused on things outside herself—watchful of the world, committed to painting, and caring toward Buster and Tommy. Neither did Jane ever see in Lisa the dismissive eye-rolling that other mothers complained about. Lisa’s eyes were all too steady, as if she were taking in everything.
* * *
Jane stood in the kitchen making hot chocolate. It was early February and four inches of snow had fallen, cancelling school for the day. She watched Tommy, Lisa, and Buster playing in the back yard. Tommy and Lisa had built a snowman and were pulling leaves from a head of purple cabbage to give it a toupee. They used a broccoli floret for its nose, two tangerines for bright orange eyes, and an artistically carved apple peel for red lips. The sun had come out, and a golden light fell across the snow.
Tommy and Lisa removed their shoes and galoshes on the porch and padded into the kitchen, their faces flushed, laughing and chatting exuberantly about the snowman. They had named him Picasso. Jane dropped marshmallows into the mugs and poured in the hot chocolate.
Tommy was looking at Jane. “I love your hair,” he said.
“Why thank you, Tommy. That’s very nice of you to say.”
“Those are called beach waves, aren’t they?” Tommy asked.
“My hairdresser in New York called them tousled waves, but I think it’s the same thing.”
“Do you use a straightening wand?” he asked.
“If I grow my hair out, will you show me how to do it?” Tommy asked.
Jane smiled and reached out to muss his hair. “I think you’re putting me on, Tommy.” She pushed the mug of hot chocolate toward him.
“Here,” she said. “Enjoy.”
A month later Lisa told Jane that Tommy had changed his name. He wanted to be called Tomiko.
“He really likes Japanese things, doesn’t he?” Jane asked.
Lisa nodded. “He did his social studies report on Japan. He ordered a kimono and wore it when he gave the report. Some of the kids giggled, but his was the best report in the class. By far.”
“Tomiko,” Jane repeated. “Isn’t that a girl’s name?”
“Yes,” Lisa said.
Jane did not pursue it.
* * *
At the beginning of summer vacation, Lisa said she was painting Tomiko’s portrait by the creek. He was about to turn thirteen, and it would be his birthday portrait.
“He commissioned it,” Lisa said. “Then for my birthday he’s going to write me some haiku.”
Every morning Lisa and Tomiko carried her easel, paints, and brushes down to the creek, Buster following. The roses were blooming, and one day Lisa cut a peach rose and took it into her studio to sketch and then paint.
Hoping this one would be normal, Jane asked if the portrait was done.
“Not quite,” Lisa said. “I’m adding the rose to it.”
A few days later Lisa told Jane she had finished the portrait.
“Oh, wonderful,” said Jane. “Can I see it?”
“I gave it to him already,” Lisa said. “His birthday’s tomorrow.”
“That was nice of you. Did he like it?”
“He loved it,” Lisa said. “He loved it so much he cried.”
The next morning the doorbell rang. It was Tomiko’s mother, Florence, carrying the painting wrapped in a sheet. Jane invited her in.
“Have you seen the painting your daughter did of my son?” Florence asked.
“No, she said she gave it to him.”
“I know. He brought it home. And I’m shocked. I’ve never been so shocked in all my life. I don’t know what to say.”
Jane felt her face go prickly.
Florence removed the sheet and placed the canvas on the sofa, turning her head so she would not have to see it again.
Tomiko was seated on a white birch log at the edge of the creek, demurely smiling toward the viewer, his face rendered with a soft, feminine glow. It was an amazing likeness. A peach rose was tucked behind one ear. His light brown hair was shoulder length, styled in beach waves. He wore a mint green kimono open to the waist to expose ivory, barely pubescent breasts, soft with pinkish nipples. His hands, in delicate repose, lay in his lap. His knees touched and his legs were crossed at the ankles. His bare feet rested on green moss. It was Lisa’s most realistic painting to date, and also the most beautiful.
“Was Tomiko upset?” Jane asked.
“That’s the worst part,” Florence said, her voice cracking. “He loves it.”
Jane heated some carrot muffins she had made and poured coffee. She fumbled for platitudes about kids experimenting. She apologized repeatedly and promised to have a talk with Lisa. Florence ate two muffins and left, taking the sheet, but not the painting, with her.
When Jane carried the dishes into the kitchen, she saw Lisa sitting on the floor, her face resting on her fists. She had apparently been listening.
“She’s a moron,” Lisa said.
Jane racked her brain for relevant advice from the book she’d been reading: don’t judge, focus on the positive, don’t sweat the small stuff. She wasn’t sure which applied here. She said, “Your paintings are wonderful, honey. It’s just…can you see why Tomiko’s mother’s might be upset?”
“But it’s not my fault,” Lisa said, starting to cry. “It’s her fault. She’s stupid. She can’t even see Tomiko.”
Buster scrambled over to Lisa and anxiously licked her face.
“That’s why I paint,” Lisa sobbed. “So people can see things.”
Crying harder, Lisa wailed, “You didn’t even take up for me.”
Jane didn’t know what to say. Lisa put her arms around Buster and he rested his muzzle on her shoulder.
* * *
When Jane walked into the women’s locker room at the club one afternoon, conversation abruptly stopped. Jane felt her face color, and one of the women suddenly said with a forced laugh, “I hope I can hit a backhand today.”
After their doubles game, Jane’s partner Marge confided that she had heard a rumor that Lisa painted a nude self-portrait and gave it to a classmate. Then she added, “I told them I didn’t think it was true.”
“No, it’s not true,” Jane sighed. She smiled weakly at Marge, who was no doubt waiting to hear the whole story. Jane packed her tennis bag and walked to the car.
That afternoon Jane and Larry sat at the kitchen island sipping cocktails. It was their one-year anniversary of moving into the house. When Jane saw Lisa and Buster walk down the trail to the creek, she turned to Larry and said, “I wonder if we should take Lisa to a psychiatrist.”
“Why?” Larry asked.
“Last time it was the teacher with two mouths. And now this,” Jane said. “Not to mention the blue dog with the paw-hand. They’re just weird.”
“Maybe she’s imitating the masters. What’s his name? The bowler hat and the green apple?”
“Right, Magritte,” Larry said.
Jane said, “I think we should have her see someone. I find her paintings disturbing. Really disturbing.”
“Then maybe you should see someone,” Larry said.
Jane’s eyes welled up and Larry quickly said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it came out.”
“You’re not taking what I say seriously,” Jane said, her voice quavering.
“I am,” Larry said. “It’s just—remember in New York how you always worried that Lisa wasn’t…well, not really good at anything? Or interested in anything? You wanted her to find her passion. Well, now she has. She’s a prodigy, for God’s sake. We should break open the champagne.”
Larry reached for her hand and squeezed it. Hers remained limp.
“Her paintings make me feel like I don’t know her,” Jane said, pressing her knuckles into her mouth.
Sometimes Jane walked gingerly into Lisa’s studio, wanting to make a connection but not wanting to seem intrusive. The books warned against that.
Recently Lisa had been working on rendering texture. Beside her easel hung Larry’s herringbone sport coat. On her work table lay a pine cone, a slice of bread, a piece of wood from the garage, and a terrycloth towel. The canvas was a crowded collage of images of each of these, some of them done multiple ways. Jane was struck by how mature Lisa looked holding the brush. There was a sense of natural confidence and expertise to it, as if Lisa had been a master artist for decades.
On one of her visits to the studio, Jane asked Lisa, as casually as she could, where she got the ideas for her paintings.
“They just come to me,” Lisa said, using her brush to twirl together two colors on the palette. She tilted her head and looked at Jane. “They’re like dreams.”
* * *
One evening just before dinner, Lisa walked into the kitchen wearing Larry’s shirt-turned-artist’s-smock, now decorated with paint smudges of many colors. Jane was stirring a Bolognese sauce on the stove and Larry was washing lettuce for a salad.
Lisa took a carton of ice cream from the freezer. Buster cocked his head and watched her heap three scoops of vanilla into a bowl.
“Lisa, honey,” Jane said. “We’re going to have dinner soon.”
“This isn’t to eat,” Lisa said. “It’s for my work. I need to watch it melt.”
She carried the bowl to her studio.
Jane shook her head. “And Marge worries that her daughter wants to wear a mini skirt to the mall.”
“All the better that Lisa’s watching ice cream melt,” Larry said.
A few days later Lisa told Jane that Tomiko had been taken to Cincinnati to see a psychiatrist.
“How did it go?” Jane asked.
“Terrible. The psychiatrist said Tomiko has gender dysphoria. Tomiko says the term sounds like a disease—right after dysentery in the medical dictionary.”
“That’s just what it’s called, I think,” Jane said.
“One good thing, though. Her parents were thinking she shouldn’t be allowed to come over here. Because of the portrait. But the shrink nixed that. She said if Tomiko felt isolated she might commit suicide.”
“His parents told him that?” Jane asked.
“Her parents,” Lisa corrected. “Tomiko pretended to be napping on the way home and she heard them talking in the front seat.”
Lisa’s thirteenth birthday was approaching, and when Jane asked Lisa if she wanted to have a party, Lisa told her than she and Tomiko were planning a tea ceremony as a celebration of both their birthdays.
“Are you inviting other kids?” Jane asked hopefully.
Lisa shook her head. “They wouldn’t like a tea ceremony. They’d just make dumb jokes.”
That night in her sleep Jane ground her teeth and woke up the next morning with a sore jaw.
* * *
The books Jane was reading emphasized communication—asking questions and listening to the answers without judgment. One night at dinner Jane asked Lisa if she was working on a painting. Lisa nodded. Forming her warmest smile, Jane said in a bright, encouraging voice, “Tell us about it.”
Lisa said, “Well…you’ll never guess what’s the hardest color to paint.”
“Black,” Larry guessed.
“White,” Lisa said. “I thought skin tones were hard, but snow is even harder.”
A week later the painting was finished. Lisa brought it into the kitchen and propped it on the counter.
It was a painting of their back yard in winter. A late afternoon sun shone golden on the snow-covered lawn. A half-melted snowman was sinking sadly into the ground, surrounded by forgotten leaves of purple cabbage, a broccoli floret, two tangerines, and an apple peel in the shape of red lips. In the lower right corner of the canvas, melancholy shadows fell across the snow, cast by figures standing just out of view. The shapes suggested three figures staring at the ruins, two girls and a dog.