I was eight. Some people say age seven is the pivotal year. For me, it was definitely eight.
Mama and I had rented a room in a large house in a once-aristocratic section of Raleigh on Hawthorne Avenue, after Grandmommy and Granddaddy moved the rest of the family out of state.
We were only a few blocks from the old house, and I’m sure Mama thought the new place would feel like home. But it didn’t.
I could not have articulated that I missed my whole big, rowdy family, and that I was lonely and bored. I knew only that people there were too polite to ever let their crazy show. And the house was too quiet.
Drawing became my escape. To console myself during those late summer and early fall days, I turned to my Crayolas and my stacks of coloring books and papers. I spent many hours outlining in dark black the figures in the coloring books and choosing the range of blues carefully for the clothing inside the contours of the black lines. And I created my own pictures, drawing first in pencil, and then outlining in black crayon before filling in the colors. The intense work on paper moved me from boredom to deep focus.
During those long afternoons between school and dinnertime, I taught myself to draw girls’ faces in profile. A slightly curved line for the forehead; a tiny dip and then a line out and under for the nose. The lips were a simple capital C, with little bubbles for upper and lower lips. Then another dip and a curve for the chin.
As I perfected these profiles, I began to practice drawing Virginia, a woman who rented a room across the hall from Mama and me. She was the most beautiful person I had ever seen in my whole life. She was so pretty, in fact, that I wanted to stare hard at her.
In the beginning, she didn’t seem to notice me, even though I was on my perch in the wicker chair on the front porch every single day when she came home from work. She would sort of nod, give me a half-smile, a “hi” and click by me in her high heels.
I was completely flustered in the presence of such beauty. I couldn’t manage much more than a weak “hi” accompanied by a close examination of shoes and the ground under my feet. But every afternoon I watched as she came into view walking from the bus stop on Hillsborough Street.
She had long dark brown hair, and the deepest darkest brown eyes I had ever seen. They glistened, as if they were almost ready to spill into tears. She always wore bright red lipstick, like Mama, and red nail polish. There were never any chips. Her plain skirts were matched with soft-looking light-colored blouses, and she often wore or carried a little sweater or other wrap. The shoes were always high heels, and I loved the sound they made clicking along the sidewalk and across the porch. I turned and watched as she walked into the house because I marveled at the way the seams of her stockings were always so straight on her calves. Mama always talked about how hard it was to keep the seams straight.
After many days of feeling tongue-tied and flustered by the sight of her, I decided I would give her a gift of my art, with a note. “You may have trouble talking to Virginia, but you can draw. And you can write!” I thought.
So during those long afternoon hours between school and dinnertime, I pulled out paper, pencils and Crayolas and went to work. I drew portrait after portrait of Virginia in profile. Deep-set dark brown eyes, long, black-brown hair, red lips, soft line for the neckline of her blouse. All outlined in black crayon.
I studied each of the portraits and chose the best one. On the bottom of the paper, I carefully printed: VIRGINIA, THIS IS YOU. YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. I LOVE YOU. FROM SUZANNE.
I hurried upstairs and slid my art work under her door, ran back downstairs to assume my perch in the wicker chair. I waited, longing for her to happily return to the porch to thank me for my gift.
Virginia did return to the porch, portrait in hand. “This is so sweet of you, Suzanne,” she said, reaching out to give me a hug. “You are a very talented girl, and I love it. Thank you so much.”
“Thank you,” I squeaked, still a little tongue-tied. “I mean, you’re welcome.”
In that moment, I wanted to spin around and break into a full-on Shirley Temple song and dance. I didn’t, but I felt really proud.
She likes it, I thought.
This drawing ritual continued for many days, and it transformed the silent and lonely into something extraordinary and beautiful. The you’re-so-sweets and the thank-yous expanded into a few minutes of conversation when she asked about my day before retreating to her room. Those extra minutes with her — mixed with my determination to make art for her — saved the day for me. Every day.
Then one evening after dinner, as I started upstairs to get ready for bed, Mama stayed in the living room, talking to the other ladies.
I heard my name.
“I think Suzanne has a crush on Virginia,” Mama said. There was a little lilt in Mama’s voice that I thought signaled something good.
I felt proud. I didn’t have any idea what a crush was, but I knew love, for sure. Then it happened. The ladies laughed. Hard. Cackled really.
That’s when the surge of pride and happiness spilled over into wave after wave of humiliation. The rest of the conversation, dulled by the pounding of my heart, fell away. I knew right then, without a doubt, that they were making fun of me.
And what if Virginia heard them?
I know now that the gaggle of ladies said no words like bad. Or wrong. Or church. Or God. Or anything like that. They simply laughed.
And that laughter — however innocent it might have been — was part of a perfect storm that knocked me off my pins. After that, I never drew another picture for Virginia. I never again watched for her on the front porch at the end of her workday.
In fact, that very day I packed away my papers and pencils and crayons. And I bundled my love for artmaking, along with my self-conscious love for Virginia, bandaged them together and buried them so deeply in my broken heart that I would not recover them for more than 30 years.
But recover them, I did.
Suzanne Scott Constantine is an interdisciplinary artist and writer living in Point Harbor, North Carolina, with her wife of 40 years. Her work includes performance poetry, installation, and mixed media. She still enjoys making those dark black outlines around her female figures.