Dennis is the only person on the planet I ever met who used the word "vixen." Still is the only one. And what a great word it is, as it might imply I'm attractive, or it might be saying that I'm a pain-in-the-ass, sneaky harpy. I like that it can be good or bad, which is about the only kind of compliment I can accept. He also called me "clever," not "smart." Clever being a better choice because a clever person can at least find their way around obstacles without being smart enough to know the way straight across.
He also called me "flaky," which hurt but was dead-on, as I met him in my early twenties when I never knew what I wanted to be or do. Most of the time I told him I wanted to be an artist like he was, but we both knew I'd never have his dedication, and other times I'd tell him I wanted to be a nurse or join the Peace Corp or go jump off a bridge. Being a dozen years older and very focused himself, he found my confusion really amusing, but he did always help to steer me back towards drawing since he didn't care much for my other choices.
I was also a flake because I would model for his drawings once every couple weeks, sometimes much less, and I would cancel every other time out of shyness. No matter how well I got to know him, or how much more comfortable I got with posing, sometimes I just looked in the mirror before I left and wondered what the hell I was thinking---I'd panic and call to cancel.
The modeling involved two or three hours posed on a bunch of antique fabrics or sitting in a chair, a warm spotlight or two shining down, and barely being able to see him moving about with the camera clicking in the darkness. We'd talk the whole time about girls and boys we liked, artists, what the hell I was ever going to do with my life, the wonders of goo-goo clusters... It was weird and easy and fun, and he always overpaid me because he knew I was struggling, and I felt proud each time we finished up and looked at the new drawing of me he might have started. You would think these feelings would carry over till next time, but no, I was just as likely to chicken out.
I knew I would try to keep showing up, though, because I wanted to be a part of what he was creating---his collection of "children," as he called the drawings. I still walked back and forth in front of the glass trying to comprehend that some of these drawings depicted me. I never grew up looking at myself---didn't admire a single feature, and yet this person had put my image down permanently inside a frame to be looked at by strangers. Weird, weird beyond words. At a showing of his work I could actually overhear folks talking about the model, saying I was unattractive or too young or too flat-chested, which strangely didn't hurt me at all. Other people said nice things about my appearance, and those words bounced right off me as well. It was fun to have myself out there for comments without being hit directly. I had a second self on paper.
Outside of the modeling our relationship was mostly on the phone and in postcards, oddly. He only lived a few miles away, but we were both homebodies. He drew the whole day, and I worked and drew the whole day---sometimes with the distraction of a boyfriend thrown in. In the course of about ten years we went to one movie together, only ate a couple dinners out, and any time I visited him I just sat by his drawing table and talked, sketched or looked through his books. I was likely to find gifts from him on my doorstep, which spurred me to do the same. We were strangely distant close friends, which is the only way I can think to put it, yet there were times that we confided more in each other than we did other people. Like his father's death, which hurt him too much to put into words, so I did all the talking. Or like a particular birthday that I felt really awful and alone---he knew just what to say, and later he left a bright, happy birthday cake in the front seat of my car.
The next birthday I had, April 19th, 1993, the Waco compound burned with children inside. I had been watching it on the news and was really upset. Dennis called, "Happy birthday, vixen," to which I said, "I don't feel like a vixen today. And I think this day will always mark when a tragedy happened." And he said, "I know it's terrible, but it's still your day, and I'll still call every year to say you are a vixen."
While I still wandered around aimlessly, in and out of school and switching from one stupid job to another, I watched his career go. His first big art show in New York, which I attended (was also my first big trip anywhere!), and selling his first high-priced pieces. I saw his switchover from pencil drawings to delicate metalpoints. The drawings became larger and more detailed, more amazing. I saw him begin to run every day and slim down, learn to talk to girls more, and saw him get more confident and still be humble. He grew and grew while I floundered.
I did eventually make up my mind to learn animation, which involved moving to the next state for school. Dennis and I kept in touch by postcards and letters, and while I could never get him to make the three-hour drive, I did make it home to see him now and then. He had moved into a lovely little house by then and had what he called the most beautiful girlfriend. Somehow I never met her over the years they were together, but I told him it made me feel really happy to know he wasn't alone.
My birthday again, April 19th, 1995, I was at my part-time job as a receptionist when the folks there pulled the tv out of the conference room and set it up in the front where I was sitting. They were all talking about an explosion in my home state of Oklahoma. I'd had a bad feeling all morning, and sure enough, the tv showed OKC's federal building completely gutted on one side, like the open mouth of a screaming monster. Horrible. Not only was it shocking to have been in front of that building before, which makes the smoking aftermath sink in more, I knew that Dennis would pass by it on his morning runs.
I thought about him all morning, but I got my call in the afternoon, "Happy birthday, vixen." I was so glad to hear from him---he had not run that route this particular morning. "Nope, I escaped a bomb," he said, "Nothing can stop me. And it's still YOUR day."
As I finished up school I visited him on a trip back to OK and showed him some animation that I'd been doing. He actually got teary-eyed. Oh, certainly not because the animation was good, 'cause it wasn't really, rather I believe this was because his flake of a buddy was finally doing something specific with her life and not talking about jumping off of bridges. His watery eyes was so much more than a friend saying, hey, that's really cool. To me it was as important as a pat on the back from a quiet father who only pats backs once in a life-time.
After school was finished I thought I would have to move further away to pursue an animation job, but turned out I found work locally. I stuck around and even got married, which lasted a few years. It was when my marriage wasn't working out that I lost touch with Dennis briefly. I was so sad and felt like a failure, didn't feel like talking to anyone. I missed a couple of his calls and didn't return them for the first time. As I moved into my own place and changed phone numbers, he no longer knew how to reach me, but within a couple weeks I planned to get in touch with him.
My birthday, April 19th, 2001 happened during those couple weeks that Dennis and I didn't talk. Separated, I met with my husband at our old apartment. It was the most empty I've felt without experiencing someone's death, and it seemed like a weight on me that went beyond the separation, something much worse that I hadn't been told yet. We sat at our little table with a homemade cake, getting along fine but knowing we weren't gonna move forward together. There was a package on the table that contained many accessories and food and vitamins for Sea Monkeys---it had arrived for me weeks late, and the Sea Monkeys had already mysterious and almost instantly died. The package seemed like such an insult and typical of my sometimes bizarre bad luck.
There was no birthday call from Dennis that day, and not just because he didn't have my new number. He had died on my birthday. Back from a run, he collapsed in his yard with a fatal heart attack. This would be revealed to me a couple weeks later when I finally called his house. I was walking through a store while I was getting this news on the phone, and I had to sit on a lower shelf in an aisle so that I could concentrate on these words that couldn't possibly be true. I had toothpaste in my hand to buy, which I dropped on the floor because it no longer made sense either. I couldn't feel my butt on the metal shelf or hear any of the people walking by. Nothing made any sense.
I'd missed his funeral, everything, as no one knew how to reach me, and I couldn't comprehend that Dennis had been buried while I was still walking around imagining him sitting at his desk drawing. It was something beyond him being gone, but more like part of a mean prank. Someone has hidden one of my favorite things and will never tell me where they have put it. He just seems to be missing....So I suppose I have a terrible closure issue. Then again he's freshly in my head, and as I get older I feel like I understand him better---I think of things he said or did back then, and then I laugh or feel sad for him as I get them in a new light. In a way we move along together, but we just don't talk anymore.
April 19th is always gonna be the day those tragedies occurred, including the exit of one of my favorite people. These things have long overshadowed the fact that it's my birthday, especially since I never cared much about my birthday anyways. But I've got to start acknowledging the great people in my life who still try to make it special for me, like my husband and best friend, and my family who just sent me an edible bouquet! And for the memory of Dennis I'll try to keep in mind that he was always trying to tell me that no matter what happens every April 19th, it's still my day. Ok.
Miss you, Dennis, you silly man. The vixen is almost 40 today.
Dennis James Martin Drawings