Lake Effect, Volume 25: "The Trompe-L'oeilist Hits a Wall"

The Trompe-L’œilist Hits a Wall

By Michael Czyzniejewski


     He didn’t trust me. I accepted everything except for this, the accusation I was a liar. Something about me felt dishonest, he said, as if I’d been a fake. At first he’d bought it—that was the term he used, bought—but the closer we got, the more suspicious he grew. I told him I was genuine, the same person the entire time. He said he refused to play the fool and walked out the door.

     Heartbroken, I threw myself into my work. For months, I never left my apartment. In the living room, I configured a vast system of caves, stretching for miles in every direction, covering walls, furniture, even the windows. Around the bathroom, I painted a cloud base, floating myself away in unending azure sky. The kitchen, including the appliances and counters, became the top of a mountain, the desert below stretching as far as the eye could see. The hallways I transformed into interminable tunnels, my front door a bottomless pit. Every direction an eternity. I could be lost forever. That was my plan.

     Next, I beckoned monsters. The ceilings became black landscapes interwoven with nightmares. A dragon lunged at me as I prepared meals. Hairy beasts with long claws and red eyes patrolled the hallways. A giant bird, furious and on fire, swooped from above the mountaintop, poised to peck out my organs. Demons peeked from above the clouds, their horns prepared to pierce my soft flesh. Floors were on fire, steaming with fins and teeth and deep gullets, daring me to take a step.

     My bedroom was different. I covered the walls, floor, and ceiling with doors. Every other door was shut, the ones in between open just enough to see him as he abandoned me. Through some I could see his entire body, his back big and broad like a bed. In others, his heel as it trailed behind. I never painted his face, even though he’d looked back and said This is for the better as he left. I needed no reminder of that moment, that face.

     Then, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t paint. Clients awaited my call, commissions retaining their dimensions. A village wanted a pair of butterfly wings in their city square, a photo op on a brick wall. I told them people did not have wings, cannot fly. A rich couple wanted a vineyard in their living room, was willing to pay a fortune. I told them nobody would fall for it, that they should plant a real vineyard instead. A church described the gates of heaven opening behind their altar. I took that job, creating the pits of hell in its place—the unveiling was a scene to behold, to be sure.

     Months in, I lived bereft, never leaving my labyrinths. I ran short on food. Utilities began to fail. I could hear the landlord pound, attaching notices to my door, threats of forced entry and removal. Let them come, I told myself, picturing their faces when they’d see what I’d done.

     One day I opened one of the doors in my bedroom. The knob felt cold in my hand as I twisted and pulled. I walked inside, to blackness, and a short time later, came out in my living room, through one of the caves. I took another door and fell onto the mountain in my kitchen. The next portal led to the lava swamp on the bathroom floor. All of the doors led me someplace, but never the same place twice—I tried the first door again and landed in the clouds.

     At first, I avoided the doors with my former lover escaping inside. Languishing and alone for so long, I forced myself to follow his foot. There was nothing. I’d see his loafer disappear into the black, but when I pushed forward, I’d hit bricks, the real wall, coated in black latex. All doors leading to my lover were the same. I could go anywhere I wanted if I painted my way there, except for where he had gone. There I was not allowed.

     When the men came for me, I dove into one of the caves. I could hear men yell, ambling and ambushed, my monsters having their fill. I walked deep into the cave, passing exits to other areas of my home. I kept walking until there was no sound, no light, just complete blackness. I may have walked for hours, perhaps even days. As long as I kept walking, the cave never ceased.

     I stopped when I couldn’t walk anymore. I fell to the ground and lay my head down against the cool, hard surface. I fell asleep, for how long I couldn’t tell. I woke to a light breaking through my eyelids. I stood and walked toward it. I could see my own hands in front of my face, then a door. I opened it and went through. Inside sat my former lover, in an office, behind a desk. When he saw me, he put down his papers, took off his glasses. He told me it was good to see me. I reached over his desk and pinched his arm. He winced and rubbed the spot, asking why I’d done that. I told him I believed in him, that he was really there, that a little pinch was all it took.