Red Glitter Sold Here

Updated: Mar 11

“Stay six feet apart!” Linda shouts across the room. She reminds my two coworkers that they’re breaking the safety rules. “Count the tiles between you if you’re not sure if you’re six feet apart—each tile is a foot, guys.” I go back to staring at my screen, unsurprised. We have heard this repeated more than a dozen times since the pandemic started.

The mood around the office is bleak. Linda’s voice is a constant threat, even though we know she only has our best interests in mind. I sit in the blue room (named after its bright blue accent wall—yes, we’re very original around here) with three of my coworkers. Our desks face the wall so that our mouth droplets don’t reach each other, and lunch is spent talking over a distance.

Rachel sits in diagonal to me. Tomorrow is her birthday and throughout the week she’s been talking about how she knows it won’t be that great. My best bet is to rent a movie with my family and drink home-made cocktails for my 21st.

I can’t stand the thought of not doing anything about this. So, after work, I drag myself onto the streets of downtown Toronto, scouring the areas around Richmond and Bathurst for art supply stores. Most of the locations I check say that store hours vary due to COVID-19.

It’s a straight, fifteen-minute walk to Michaels and I’m the sole person walking in this direction. The uneasiness that rose from the first time seeing empty downtown streets flares up again. It was a ghost town a few weeks ago, and still is.

The sun holds vigil in the sky, but the wind is intense, burning my cheeks red until I consider walking backwards up the slope. I not-so-casually wonder if all the wind is blasting the coronavirus particles into my throat so that they can make a home in my lungs. What I do know is that I’m going to pay for all this constant walking with my anemia, but I’ve been paying anyways since January and this is just another day.

Michaels is closed for the day, so I head to DeSerres next. The paper taped to the door says it’s been shut down indefinitely. At the end, I make it back to where I started near Richmond and Bathurst, outside of a Dollarama. A cheaper canvas and paint will have to do in this post-apocalyptic world. Inside, it feels unsafe. The aisles feel crammed with people.

I eat a fast dinner before I lay out all my painting supplies on the dining room table. A headache has started, courtesy of my lack of ironless red blood cells, and I press the tips of my fingers hard into my eyebrows to relieve it. My heart is beating fast. This can go so, so wrong.

Rachel and I work with nanometer-scale fluorescent beads made of polymers. Our days are spent observing these beads under a special camera, for they hold the secrets to the entire world. One painting is a literal view of the beads on the camera, and the other is a cartoonish rendering of two beads hugging each other. Their long arms extend around the other and their eyes are closed.

My hand shakes like I’ve been handed a scalpel for brain surgery, and the beat banging in my head makes me sweat. I dip a paintbrush into glue, painstakingly going around each bead. I dump the red glitter over the canvas and shake it. The second painting, arguably more complex, gets a pencil outline first and then is carefully filled with paint.

In the gift bag goes the dried paintings and a package of Mini Eggs. I hand it to her the next morning, and watch her light up with surprise. Around lunch, Rachel and I spend 40 minutes of work time roaming our emptied-out building—we go to every floor—peeking into office door windows and rating the décor on our imaginary scales. She ends up following one of the businesses on Instagram. I rationalize all of this by saying that it’s her birthday, but God knows I would do this any day with her. Later that night, I get a text. She tells me the paintings are hanging on the wall.

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