May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
April 2, 2006
Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
—Song of Myself, l.15, Walt Whitman
The Montague Gallery was filled with people milling about with glasses of red wine. Frederick stood before a large canvas filled with rich reds, browns and midnight blues, portraying what could be the rolling hills of a landscape or the close corners of a body. Staring long enough, one might smell the ocean mist among dusty hills or the perfume of a lover. It inspired him to take up his brush again. It had been two years since he had painted, two years since leaving school. He still carried a small sketch pad and pencils with him occasionally, and even made a few drawings from time to time, mostly landscapes. He never began a painting using his studies. But he had visions of filling canvases with images like the one before him.
It was the first Tuesday in October. Every first Tuesday, all the galleries in Pioneer Square were free. Outside, where Occidental Avenue is a tree-filled courtyard, the air was crisp and cool, pungent, gently blowing in off Elliot Bay. People wandered about, looking at different make-shift displays of hopeful artists. The work was simply laid out on the ground: iron-works of fish, caricatures of celebrities, original paintings on small canvases.
Frederick came here every month to be surrounded by artists and their work. It made him feel satisfied, as if he had something on display, knowing he was a kindred spirit. But it also made him feel restless and frustrated. He might be an artist at heart, but he had no new paintings to glance at, no process to think back on which created the painting, no one with whom to share the bustling scene. A twinge of depression captured him like a fisherman’s purse seine net cast over the sky. He remembered his friend, whom he abandoned, Ali.
Two years ago, when he had asked her to model for him, he was near the end of his first year of art school. Deep into his art, he discovered the style he wanted. It dawned on him that it lacked any human element. Up till then, he had been doing still lifes with tables and lamps and boxes, studying shadows and dimensions, the dramatic effects of chiaroscuro, and landscapes which had an organic quality, but were so wide, spacious. These works were nice renderings, but inanimate objects can only show so much life. He wanted to capture the warmth and posture of a living creature, the expression of life. Ali was more alive to him than anyone. They had been friends for a long time. Yet, this would be a new encounter in their friendship. It was mysterious to Frederick.
In high school, Ali had been a popular girl, like many of her friends. She didn’t care for their gossip, she didn’t own a fashionable wardrobe, but she felt like one of them. Sometimes a friend would come over to study, but they would end up talking about boys. Ali didn’t mind, but would laugh to herself, thinking it was silly and immature. One girl, Angie, left a Seventeen magazine behind one afternoon, and Ali looked through it. Her mother got her a subscription for her birthday the summer before her senior year. She read the first couple issues. By the time the school year started, she was cutting them up for personal art projects, collages of lip glosses and celebrities at movie premiers, making ransom-letter-like statements, “GivE Him the Truth aBout BRAssierres: WOES fOr BetterSkin!” and putting them on the fridge. She lost interest quickly. Her mom would find the following issues in the garbage, still in the plastic.
On weekends, during her senior year, she would go downtown to all-ages music shows. The energy at the shows was something she had never experienced before. It gave her a sense of freedom. She recognized many faces and often greeted them with a simple hello. With these people, in these places, she was alone in the crowd, wrapped in their warmth with the music hovering above and around her. She felt tucked away and cozy. She was a worshiper in a meetinghouse to revere youth.
She brought Frederick out with her one night to Graceland to see a group called Death Cab For Cutie, one of Ali’s favorite bands. He was nervous at first, unsure of the other revelers in the crowd. Their colored hair and clothes spoke aggressively — plaids and stripes, shorts in fall, T-shirts with other band names like Pretty Girls Make Graves, Built To Spill, and My Bloody Valentine. Even Ali, who was never very flashy, wore a coat she got from a vintage shop downtown with big tufts of fur around the collar and the cuffs. She also wore lots of eye make-up, black eye liner and glittering dark blue eye shadow. She only wore these things when she was going to a show. Frederick felt as if he were meeting her for the first time. She was intimidating, but alluring.
The stage was lit, but empty; the rest of the room was dark. As they sat in a raised booth above the main floor waiting for the first band, Ali grabbed his hand and moved her head so he had to look at her, “Are you alright?”
Frederick was nervous being there, trying to see in the half-light. “What? Oh, yeah, yeah. Sorry, I—”
“Do you want to stay?”
“Yeah, this is—interesting,” he said with a smile.
She smiled back, clearly giddy about being here, squirming in her seat. He couldn’t stop staring at her eyes.
They had met in the sixth grade when Ali started going to Frederick’s school after she and her mother moved up from California. Her father had left them six months prior. Her mother floundered for a time, but suddenly got new strength, new inspiration and moved north with the first encouraging word from a long-time friend in the area. As she got older, Ali was hesitant of men, but she never felt this with Frederick. He was trust-worthy, loyal and, at times, needed someone to look out for him.
They moved into a house a few blocks from Frederick’s. At that time, they began going to each other’s house after school, first when Frederick’s mother encouraged him to invite her over. She would have things planned for Ali and Frederick when they were there. Frederick never questioned it. Usually it was cheese and crackers then a board game or the swing set outside if it was nice, but there was always something planned. Once, they were in his basement, playing Sorry! and Ali asked him if he even liked the game. He said, yeah, but realized he never questioned it. After five minutes, Ali said she hated it and didn’t want to play anymore. With any other person, he would have convinced them to finish the one game they had started. But with Ali it was completely different: she was so decisive. They put it away and Frederick rarely opened the game again.
At Ali’s house they had freedom. Often, they would end up in her bedroom, just talking or making up games. When they got older, they would be in the basement watching TV, doing homework and talking. He was always more talkative when they were at her house; Ali enjoyed him more when they were there.
In high school, their friends believed they were dating. Any denial was returned with questioning glances. Their classmates never allowed them to be “just friends.” Frederick was too shy to display a confident sexuality. He felt the other guys at school were rediculous, always bragging about girls they’d slept with, or did this and that. Frederick didn’t believe in having sex as a status symbol, but he still felt an outsider because he didn’t believe this.
Day after day, he burned. To him, there was no respectable way to express his desires, to find release. No one at school was more interesting to him than Ali, but it was uncomfortable thinking about her that way. She was like a sister.
Nothing changed between them after high school; their friendship was strengthened. Their interactions were no longer distracted by the petty disputes and rumors of others. They liked to meet at the International Fountain in the center of town to talk. It was a large dome with hundreds of openings where the water could shoot out. It sat in a fashioned crater where children could creep up to the ball and try to touch it without getting wet.
One day at the fountain, when the buds on the trees were just poking through the tips of the branches, ready to burst, he announced, “Ali, I’ve discovered something in my art.”
“Really?” She was always excited to hear about his art.
“It needs something, and I know what it is, but I don’t know how to say it.”
“Say it? What do you mean?”
“It needs life, movement, um, curves—a human element. But, I’ve never done figure drawing.”
“Where do you do that?” she probed.
“Well, actually, I was wondering if you would—.”
The water from the fountain erupted from all sides, and the few children, there on a half-warm day, screamed with delight.
“I want to draw you, Ali. Would you model for me?”
She was taken off guard, not expecting something so bold from him. But she was excited. She sensed his hesitancy. “You mean, nude?”
“Well, yeah.” He smiled and looked down, uncomfortable. “I’ve been studying O’Keefe and Singer Sargent. Their work is so voluptuous—bright, fluid. Sometimes it looks like the work moves on the canvas. It gives me the shivers.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that, Frederick.”
He laughed, “I know, I know, I just—Ali, I don’t want you to think this is for some other reason. I know it can only help my art.”
“What other reason would there be?” she asked, knowing what he was thinking, but asked anyway, curious what he would say.
“I don’t want you to think I just want to see you nude. We’ve been friends for a long time. I felt I could ask you—wanted to ask you—as a friend.”
“I know, Frederick.”
They sat on the concrete edge of the fountain bowl. There was still a cold chill to the air. Frederick looked to the sun. It was low in the sky and broken by the crooked lines of the tree branches. It was the clearest day he could remember. Everything was so crisp. He wondered if it was the sunlight, or if his eyes just saw clearer on this day, no sleep or dust in his eyes, the membrane of his irises welded to the air in front of them, as if the latter was simply a continuation of the former. His eyes became, for a moment, two spherical windows roaming the wild universe of all there was to see, picturing, contemplating what there was still to witness.
With his question behind him, he became bold. “Ali, have you ever had sex?”
He looked over at her to catch her first reaction. She had been watching a couple walking close to one another, trying to enjoy the sun, but looking cold.
Her eyes opened wide for a second and she was brought from a daydream back to her place beside Frederick. She didn’t speak right away, but smiled.
“Yeah,” she said plainly and looked over at Frederick.
His heart jumped. For some reason, he knew she had. He looked at her for more.
“Once, with Johnny Riddel in the summer before senior year.”
“Marcie had a party one weekend when her parents were gone to the coast. I didn’t want to go; she begged me to come, so, I went. I had fun—”
“Sounds like it.”
“I mean besides that. OK, so that was alright—”
“I’d always had a crush on him and he was sweet, but he had too much to drink. It didn’t last very long. We laid there together for awhile, ‘til he fell asleep. I felt kinda stupid afterward. I had wasted my first time.”
“What ever possessed you? That doesn’t seem like you?”
“I was curious, I suppose. Maybe I got caught up in the moment, maybe I had too much to drink.” A moment of silence allowed an awkwardness settle. “But if you’re thinking I let my guard down, I didn’t. I did it because I wanted to.”
They were quiet for a moment.
Frederick felt jealous of her, of her experience. She had done what he hadn’t, and she had done it so naturally, automatically. He wasn’t sure what to say next.
Ali said the obvious, “What about you, Freddie? Ever let yourself go?”
“Weren’t you ever curious?”
“Of course—still am. But I could never bring myself to do it. I would feel awkward even trying. I don’t think it would be like some movies I’ve seen—I don’t think I would want it to be. It’s something I can’t wrap my mind around, I don’t know…”
“What do you mean?”
“You have to be macho to get a girl, confident—suave, smooth. I’m too shy when it comes to that. I can talk to girls, I’m comfortable around them, but I wouldn’t even know how to direct the conversation to, to that.”
“You could always ask them to model for you.”
“C’mon Ali,” said Frederick, silently glad that she seemed to be OK with his request. “There’s so much at stake: is this the right person? What if it’s totally disappointing? I went through high school without having sex and now that I’m in the wide world, on my own, I feel so ignorant, inexperienced. I feel juvenile in the eyes of people I haven’t even me yet: guys who have all these stories and women who are intimidating ‘cause they’re so beautiful.” He paused and let these words hang in the air between them. He felt juvenile in front of Ali. But he felt a warmth from her, an understanding.
“Most of those guys are just bragging,” she offered.
“Besides,” he started again, “I can’t get past the condemnation I would feel if I did. I know it’s silly, but I guess I believe it’s not right till marriage. That’s been so ingrained in me.”
“So you’re just gonna be miserable till then?” asked Ali.
“I’d feel too ashamed.”
°°° °°° °°°
Ali arrived at Frederick’s studio at eight o’clock one morning the week after he asked her to model for him. His parents rented it for him instead of his own apartment. There were big windows with an eastern exposure so it would be flooded with sunlight in the morning. He wanted morning light. They greeted each other, but didn’t get into a conversation. Frederick had his pencils and sketch pads ready. The air, the room was so still. Ali went behind a screen Frederick had set up for her.
She came out wearing a colorful silk robe her grandmother had brought her from China. It was her favorite robe, which she would wear to lounge around in on weekend mornings. Frederick had seen her wear it a few times before. He wondered what her grandmother would think about her wearing it on this morning.
She held a weak smile. Underneath it was fear and determination, like a child who has decided to go find what is making the bump in the night. She walked slowly towards the window and Frederick, turned her back, loosed the robe, and let it fall to her feet in a soft pile. Without facing him, she sat on a large red velvet cushion, leaning on her hand with her legs curled up to her left. He hadn’t spoken a word, but watched how the light fell on her right shoulder, her sandy hair. Half of her back was in shadow, the other in the light, and tan: it looked like a coastline. Her behind was a half-moon, cushion-like and white, with a dimple at her hip. Her right arm, which she leaned on, was small but strong showing a definition of muscle.
“Ali, could you extend your left leg as much as is comfortable, please?” He, too, was filled with fear, but also awe at the beauty Ali had displayed in entering and sitting for him.
Her leg slowly crept out from her side until it was almost straight. She was not a tall girl, but without any clothing, her legs looked so long. Her thigh and calf were strong, rolling, like the low hills he had seen once driving through the Central Valley in California. The sole of her foot was curled and wrinkled. Her toes were tiny dots at the end of her body.
He felt the heat of her body fill the room. A sweet smell came to him from her, like orange blossoms. It wasn’t perfume; he guessed it was just her. He sensed something in him start to waver, but he pushed the panic out. He closed his eyes momentarily, and, upon opening them again, he saw her in a new way: it wasn’t Ali anymore but simply her form, the lines of her body and the shadows they created, positive and negative space. The light through the windows, from the overcast day outside, was soft, yet hard and defining. Everything was cast in a misty light. He drew and drew, and re-drew for two hours: some rough, fast sketches, some drawn more carefully, catching certain shapes and connections, some close detail, others all-encompassing. Occasionally she would turn her head towards him, eyes downcast, never fully around to meet his, for which he was glad. If their eyes had met, the connection might have been too overpowering. This moment alone was powerful enough. He was content, almost elated: this is exactly what he wanted to be doing. He was glad he had risked asking Ali, for he wanted no one else to model for him. He felt such a devotion to her. She would be the foundation for the rest of his art.
Then, she spoke: “Frederick, I’m cold.” And it was over.
They awkwardly discussed this first meeting, wanting to say so much, but declaring little as they stood in the room after the encounter. She looked drained, he felt obligated—Obligated to her for her exhaustion, obligated to say something comforting, something meaningful. He feared this might be the one and only time she would model for him.
“I’m glad you’re here with me now, Frederick,” Ali said finally. Frederick was delighted to hear this, but still mute. She embraced him; he received her, surprised. “I was so scared when I walked out from behind the screen today. But towards the end, it felt natural and I forgot you were in the room at times. I heard the scratch of your pencil and it seemed only the sound—of thought, of a breeze through the window, but also of you, the thought of you, your spirit––this sounds crazy.” She hugged tighter, he pulled her away, looking at her face.
“No, no,” said Frederick. “I want to know what you’re feeling.”
“Well, I feel energized; that was exciting. The air was filled with us, like the spirit I was talking about. It was filled with the joining of you and I through your art. This is a marriage of sorts, Frederick.” She looked up at him, smiling.
“Huh?” Frederick responded, caught off guard.
“You asked me what I was feeling! It’s an agreement, unspoken I guess, by us sitting in this room. It is the act that counts, we’re building something, something to put our actions and everything inside, like a house. We’re building a shelter for the agreement, for us, for everything resulting from our meeting like this; for your art.”
Frederick was taken a back by this sudden insight. “Um,” was all he could offer.
She pressed on, “I only ask that you approach this in a ceremonial manner, Frederick. This is sacred, even if it feels wrong or strange, profane, even. Everything is sacred.”
They parted that day at ease and excited about what they were doing, but as Frederick thought about what Ali had said, he became anxious. It was all different now. He knew they were doing much more than advancing his art. It was like walking out in the ocean when the bottom suddenly drops off. When they started, he thought he could picture their destination clearly, or at least markers along the road. But now, having departed, he was in darkness.
Still, he had a sense of what she was saying, he could see what she was describing, but could not feel it. They continued meeting; he was too excited about what it was doing for his art to stop. From the sketches he had, he discovered new ideas that had not been apparent before. He always remembered her words though, could hear the sound of his pencils even before he began to draw her, and could hear her petition each time he drew.
He thought about the house she referred to, the thing they were building and pictured a miniature chapel he saw once on the side of the road, out in the middle of nowhere, only as big as a confessional. He had wondered if anyone ever stopped to visit, just poke their head in, to pray, to worship, or perhaps to sleep. He pictured Ali and himself in that little place, he with pencils and her nude in repose before him. There was a square window above the door and a sunbeam fell through it. The light was small and behind her head, reflecting off the back wall in the shape of a square cross from the panes. This sole luminescence lit the small space. Ali was silhouetted against it and lit by it at the same time. Her body looked smooth, like fine sand. Her skin was the color of sunlight and it warmed the small room, the delicate space between them. He reached out to touch her; she was soft and she smiled. His hand felt rough against her skin. The light behind her moved across the back wall, lit her head and her shoulder and trickled down her arm. He withdrew his hand. The light now crawled across the floor and shone at his feet then climbed up his own body till it reached his face to blind him.
The door handle spun, his vision was gone. He was back in the studio, preparing to draw Ali once again. She went behind the screen and came out wearing the same delicate, colorful China robe. Being more comfortable, she didn’t turn her back when she opened the robe and let it fall. When she asked how he wanted her to sit, he tried to shake off flashes of the vision he had, the room going dark with a bright light behind Ali, emanating from her, and warm. He approached her with his heart racing. He took her by the shoulders and led her backwards to the window so the light was behind her. Her shoulders felt soft, his own hands felt rough. He locked eyes with her, didn’t look down to see the rest of her. “Sit however is comfortable,” he said, smiling. She sat leaning on her left hand with her legs curled up to her right, her eyes following Frederick.
He began to draw. The pencil on paper gave off the familiar, comforting scratch. He was soon lost in the shapes and shades which showed themselves to his intense eyes.
Whenever they would begin, Ali would watch Frederick with interest. She watched his movements, the pencil on the page. She watched his eyes, quickly recognizing the glaze that would shade them, signaling to her that he was in another place. They were wide, focused, as if they were about to burst into flame. He would sit in a chair with the sketch pad on his lap and he was nearly wild, using his whole body to create a drawing. He used a table for large sketches and would walk around and around it, like a pool table, getting into position for the best shot.
Ali gradually felt less and less self-conscious about being nude in front of her best friend with each meeting. At first, it was nearly the whole time that the robe was not around her. But as she watched Frederick work, sensed the energy in the air, the connection between them building the house, as she had named it, and seeing his eyes become intense, her sense of security grew. It was his eyes more than anything. She could always tell when he was looking at her with an artist’s eye, and when he was Frederick, the friend she adored.
Often times she would close her eyes and let her mind wander. Sometimes she would remember things from the shows she had seen downtown, something she continued after high school. On one occasion, when Frederick asked her to lie on her back, giving her a pillow, she fell asleep. Frederick had enjoyed the sight of her, breathing deeply and soundlessly as she rested. She embodied, then, all that he adored about her: fiercely loyal, independent, and above all, peaceful.
On this morning, with her back to the window, the diffuse light silhouetting and lighting Ali’s body, she felt confident, not waiting to watch his eyes tumble into focus. She was bold, and did something that she had never done before, except to end a meeting: she spoke.
“Frederick, am I beautiful?”
He looked up, surprised by the noise more than anything. He had to focus his eyes to see her clearly. “Of course, Ali,” he said and went right back to drawing.
“I don’t just mean my face, but my body, my skin, my shape—am I art-worthy?”
Frederick continued drawing, hoping this wouldn’t take long. “Physically, intellectually, spiritually, all beautiful. You’re perfect Ali.”
“Well, I don’t know about that…. Do you think I could do this professionally, would I have a shot, Freddie?”
He wanted to tell her this wasn’t the right time, that he didn’t want to get into conversation while she was naked because he could only stare at her and it felt wrong. He only wanted to look at her to draw her, for that was safe, that was sacred. But he couldn’t imagine this coming up again and he didn’t want to neglect her question, insult her self-confidence. “No—I mean, of course you have a chance. I just don’t think it would be a good thing to do. I don’t know much about it, of course, but I can’t imagine it’s anything glamorous. Besides, what would everyone think? Your mom would love that, huh?”
“She doesn’t even know about this, Frederick. I know it wouldn’t be what I’d expect. I probably wouldn’t even do it, I know I won’t. I was just curious, that’s all. I wonder what your parents would say if they knew we were doing this?”
“Let’s not find out, all right?” said Frederick, who was now doodling on the page, trying to keep his momentum.
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ll bet they’d be really shocked at first, but when they saw all your drawings and we explained that nothing was going on between us, I’ll bet they’d understand.”
Frederick dropped his pad and pencil aside and said, “Yeah, she’d love telling her friends at church, ‘Have you heard what Frederick’s doing? His best friend lies naked while he draws her!’ Just wonderful, Ali.”
“But it’s me, Frederick.”
“That would only make it worse.”
Frederick felt precarious conversing with Ali while she was naked and he was not drawing. But neither of them did anything to change this.
“If you really want to be a great artist, there’s got to be some controversy, right?”
He looked at her and smiled. He reached down and began fidgeting with his pencils, shifted in his chair. He thought about her first question, wanting to answer it differently, wishing she would have asked it at another moment. But he couldn’t think of a time when that question would have been appropriate, with her as vulnerable as she was now, with her having something at stake. He wanted to answer it differently.
“I had this strange thought today before you walked in,” he began. “Did you ever see that miniature chapel out on highway 2, all by itself in a field by the road?”
“I think I have,” she answered, sure that she hadn’t, but wanting to hear the story.
“Well, I was thinking about what you had said about our meeting as a marriage, an agreement, and building a housing for us and my art. I wasn’t sure what to think about all that at first, it was a little abstract—”
“You’re the artist,” she interjected.
“It was surprising and confusing. I didn’t know how to react. I felt blind to what we’re doing here; you seem to understand it better than I do. But then I had this vision. I pictured us in this little chapel, as if it were the housing for us, what our agreement looks like inside. I was there with my pencils and paper, and you were there, nude, like we’re sitting here.”
Ali drew her legs up to her chest, crossing her feet at the ankles. She was not cold and made no movement to pick up her robe.
“There was bright sunlight coming in from the window in the tiny steeple and it hit the back wall behind you. It was blinding at first, but then it gave your body a warm glow, and lit your face. The warmth between us was so welcoming, you looked so—” Frederick was suddenly filled with panic, his heart raced. He stood and turned away from Ali, put his hands in his pockets. He looked at the door, wanting to leave. This felt like a breach of the ceremony, a break in the agreement. His heart ached with desire, but also a desire to control his passion. He was filled with dismay.
“I looked so what, Frederick?” Ali, asked. Frederick stopped and turned back to her. He stepped towards her.
“So soft,” he said as he knelt down next to her. He reached out his hand. She didn’t shy away, but turned her head so it faced his. He touched her shoulder. “My hands felt rough against your skin.” His hand rolled down her back. “And you…” They were close now, he was sitting against her and their faces nearly touched. “You smiled.” His heart raced, he was in the little room now, all was subdued, but Ali: she remained hot to his senses. Words fell from his lips onto hers. “I wasn’t sure if you would receive me then, and now I—”
“Why are you shaking?” she asked as her legs fell over onto his, and his other hand reached up for her hair. Their lips met, voices vibrating, trying to continue explanations, warnings, relief. Frederick leaned back, unable to hold himself up and Ali followed. He saw themselves bathed in light in the little chapel, but it was different now. It was a harsh light, grainy and fluttering through leaves, as if they were cast in the light of a crackling super-8 film. They were so close, they moved awkwardly, jerking. Frederick wanted to stop, feeling like a limp puppet, unable to move himself. But his yearning led him forward. She was tender to his touch, her breasts on his chest pillowy and supple. Her lips to his were silky, as if they were nothing and everything. The light flashed wildly as a wind stirred. His hand ranged up and down her back, grasping, clutching, trying to hold all of her. The space they were in was claustrophobic, like a coffin; now it was wide and tall like an abandoned barn in a field. Frederick heard the sound of sighs and whimpers. He felt afraid: was he with her? He felt her close, as she was so hot, and this made him content. He could sense the light getting brighter and brighter, invading, and the sound of the wind blowing, like traffic intruding on them in the chapel. It was a space at once intimate and grandiose, as if he were a little child in the arms of his mother. The sensation of being held reminded him he was embraced by Ali, sweltering. He was so passionate for her right now, he wanted to be so close to her, with her, inside her. And he was. The light was bright, the sound larger and closer, the wind chilling. A shiver ran through her and her skin was swept with goosebumps like ripples on water. Light searing now, a howling, Frederick crying. Wail, light, loud, dark, yawp, large, close—
“—OK,” she said. “Frederick, its OK,” said Ali. Her voice was so soothing, but he was still in a state of panic. He couldn’t open his eyes to look at her. He was too confused about what had just happened. He breathed heavily, on the verge of tears. He forced his eyes open, and saw Ali above him, with tears in her eyes but smiling. His head was in her lap, she wore the colorful China robe. The air was stuffy and smelled earthy, pungent and sweet. It was dark outside. A lamp was on in one corner of the room.
Ali smiled at Frederick, sniffled, and said, “You fell asleep. At least, I couldn’t rouse you.”
Frederick sat up, looked at Ali, looked around the room, and then back at Ali, trying to find himself in an unfamiliar sea.
“You were moaning; I was scared. Were you dreaming?” She saw that he was unsettled. “Frederick, are you OK?”
He held out a hand and shook his head. He needed time. He needed to feel where he was, let everything in this moment sink into him, like water into sand. He stood up, looked around the room again. He walked over to the window, opened it full and put his head out. The rushing autumn cold fell in like water through an open gate. He heard the quiet neighborhood, the sound of the city in the distance. He had been here every day for the last year, yet everything seemed different, lost. He came back in and shut the window. He walked over to his drawings. A page on his notebook showed a curved figure in a rough sketch. Her body was rich with shadow. He recognized the body and could feel its contours, which he had recently held tightly. Other loose-leaf sheets were scattered over this end of the room. Some were crumpled, some were smudged, construing the drawing into a cloud. They had ranged all over the room, lost in their lust. Instinctively, Frederick looked down at his shirt and saw black marks, and gray swaths—it was filthy.
“You grabbed them while we made love.”
“No!” Frederick shouted at her. A flash of light went off in his mind, the wind rushed in his ear. He staggered for a moment, holding a hand to his head. Then, it passed. The light in the corner lit the room softly, but it made Frederick uncomfortable, as if he were on a stage having forgotten to memorize his lines. He walked over and switched it off.
The whole time Ali was watching Frederick wander the room, she thought back over the time she had spent modeling for him. She knew this was the place they were destined for, where they would be together. It could only be expected, from what they were doing. She didn’t expect Frederick to give in. She thought he would be more hesitant, especially after what he had confessed at the fountain. He had been so tender as she got used to being nude in front of him, someone she’d known forever, someone she’d grown up with. He was like a brother. She had tried to picture the future, wondering if she would wander life with friends, but without love. But all that disappeared like a dried up creek bed. A miniature chapel, like the one Frederick described, was erected before her. Her’s started small, but as the afternoon progressed, while they held each other, rooms were added, chambers to hold their expanding existence together. And despite Frederick’s present panic, she was elated at what the future held.
After switching off the light he stood by himself in the dark and caught his breath, calmed himself. Ali walked slowly to his side. Frederick embraced her with love and sorrow in his heart. They held each other for a moment. Then he pulled away from her and said, “Ali, I don’t think we should see each other any more. I’m sorry I broke our agreement, defiled our ceremony. I sinned against you and my art. ” He turned and walked to the door, pausing for a long moment as he looked back at Ali who was distraught. Then, he opened the door, walked through it, and was gone. Ali, alone and conspicuous in the quiet room, clutched her Chinese robe to her body.
°°° °°° °°°
Downtown was alive, even in the rain. Buses shushed down the street, marble and metal reflected the gray like a dirty mirror and steam from the bus tunnel danced in the intersections. Beck, Flaming Lips, Tonight SOLD OUT, the lighted kiosk at Benaroya Hall, announced. He remembered going to see Joan Didion there last fall. He told her, “Thank you for all the places you have created for me to go,” for he could see the landscape, feel the California heat she wrote about. Walking south, towards Pioneer Square and another free Tuesday, he suddenly felt like he was wandering aimlessly and all desire to see the new exhibits left him. But he didn’t turn around.
He thought about his work, he saw the paintings, he remembered the actions of painting them. He could feel the brushes in his hand and watched as the paint went on the canvas, shaping, shading, revealing the picture layer by layer. Then he had the sensation of looking up from his sketch pad to look at his model, to look at Ali. Ali, his friend, his companion, his sound-board, his mirror, his lamp. His shame had been so great. He felt he had taken advantage of her, even though it was only a natural response to the situation and to the person. He wanted to be back in that moment, he wanted to tell her the struggle inside him, how he wanted her, how badly he wished she would want him, instead of simply acting on his desire. His shame was a lump in his throat, a pick-pocket around every corner, a cloud to blot out the sun.
It was early afternoon, but the day was dark from the clouds and rain. Not many people were here yet; some of the galleries weren’t even open. He wandered the Square. A few dark-eyed hobos sat on benches, some walked in circles. A man and woman in suits and trench coats walked side by side, hunched over in the chilly November weather holding coffees. He watched them go across the time-stained cobblestones. There was an eerie silence and a wind whipped now and then.
“Hey!” one of the homeless men shouted. Frederick turned and saw two men among sleeping bags, duffels and dirty boxes facing one another in a deep arched doorway with the large wooden door closed and padlocked. One of them lay on the ground, his head was hidden. The other one stood over him, his green army issue blanket flanking him like a cape, and started mumbling something. An occasional shout echoed out of the doorway as the standing man paced back and forth turning now and again to say something to his companion through his unkempt beard.
Frederick watched them momentarily. He was loose in orbit in the square, committed to nothing in particular. He started wandering closer to the men. He wondered who these men were, what they had been, where they had been, who were their friends, who were their lovers? The standing man gave one final shout, spun around, his cape billowing out around him, and plopped down in a heap next to the other man.
Frederick kept walking, now towards the alley. He looked down it’s long corridor and was surprised to see a sign board hanging out from the wall. He had never seen it before. It was late afternoon now and more and more doors were opened among the many galleries, people started filling the Square. He weaved among the crowds as if sleepwalking.
The alley had high walls from the buildings and the gray light from the clouds filled it evenly. Suddenly a cloud burst opened up and it began to rain. He ran to the door and read the sign which said, New Space Gallery. He turned the knob and went in.
It was similar to most of the other galleries, thin carpet and large white walls with track lighting aimed at the walls and the many paintings which hung there. There were a few people inside looking at the paintings and he heard voices talking somewhere in the back. He looked to his right and began to study the paintings like he had on so many Tuesdays before. These paintings were new, vibrant, vital. There was a simple landscape with a barn in the distance and hills surrounding it. Another showed a landscape at night. It was a coast line which took the eye along the left edge of the canvas into the distance where one realized that the moon above glistened off distant islands. Here was one with thick paint, as if it had been trowelled on. It was abstract and had a bright spot in the upper left corner, then slowly faded to the other side in dark greens and browns, the paint becoming thicker and thicker.
Frederick turned to look at the paintings behind him and suddenly he saw it. It was a nude figure lying on her right side, one leg stretched out to her left. A sparse light came from her right side and lit the top of her head and cast the rest of her short, but long, body into shadow. Her head was slightly turned to her left, as if she were looking over her shoulder at the viewer. He rushed over to the painting.
The placard read, Untitled Nude, oil on canvas, artist unknown, Cornish College of the Arts. He looked around for someone to talk to about it. How had the college gotten a hold of one of his paintings and how had it ended up here? He asked the person next to him, “Do you know who’s in charge here?”
“I think they’re in the back. It’s the opening night here.”
“Thank you,” said Frederick and hurried off in the direction of the voices.
At the end of the main room, he turned to his right where the room extended but was dark with no paintings on the exposed brick wall. There was a light coming from the right through an open doorway. Someone laughed.
He came through the door and there were five or six people back there holding plastic cups filled with what looked like champagne. Immediately, they all turned and looked at Frederick. “Can I help you?” a young woman asked. She had brown curly hair and wore gray slacks and a black turtle-neck sweater. She seemed elegant.
“Yes. I have a question about one of the paintings in the gallery and I was wondering if you’d come look at it with me?”
“Certainly,” she said and set down her glass.
“I’ve never seen your gallery before,” said Frederick as they walked out to the main hall.
“Yes, this is opening night for us. We show only new artists, mostly those from the surrounding schools, seniors about to graduate. It gets them down into the art district here, gives them exposure to the other dealers.”
They approached his painting. “What can you tell me about this?”
“Oh, yes, this painting is quite interesting. Well, all the paintings are from surrounding schools, like I said. But we took two from Cornish: one from a known student and artist, and this one because it was so compelling. It was found by one of the professors in a storage area where the students keep their paintings. There was no name on it and the teachers there weren’t sure exactly who it was painted by because many of the students have their own studios where they do most of their work and only occasionally bring it to class or the community studio on campus.”
“They had no idea at all?” Frederick interjected, surprised.
“Well, they had guesses, but without clear proof, they didn’t want to credit to the wrong person. But it was such a find; the technique is so tender, the light is so delicate, and the figure looks so inviting.”
“Yes, she does attract your attention,” said Frederick, smiling to himself.
“You have an interest in the painting then?” she asked with an air of business.
“Well, you could say that. Could I come back and talk with you tomorrow about it? I have an engagement this evening.”
“Certainly. How about noon, we could do lunch?” she offered.
“Tomorrow then, noon. Thank you very much. I think I’ll look at it for a little bit, then head out,” said Frederick.
“Take your time. Oh, and I’m Susan French,” she said, extending a hand.
“Frederick Hirsch. Pleased to meet you.” They shook hands and she returned to the back of the gallery.
Frederick stood and looked at the painting. He took a deep breath and rolled his neck. The painting was so right, as if it had been waiting for him. It transcended this moment, gave a voice to his unspoken feelings. It was bound to him, an extension of his soul. He was gripped by illumination: he had created this.
He was instantly taken back to the afternoon when he had his vision, when he was with Ali, the girl whom he had known for so long and, as he realized now, the girl whom he had loved for just as long. His shame diminished. He recognized it now, remembered it as part of the whole memory, when it was fresh and stinging. It was present this afternoon, but different— ashen-gray, an annoying tickle in his throat, a hair ball he couldn’t cough up. The beauty of the painting, not the skill, not the composition, not the statement it made, but the beauty of the figure rendered before him was stunning. He knew this person, he loved this person. His shame disappeared.
The bell above the door jingled happily as he opened it to leave.
Scott is a writer living in Seattle. When he makes time, he writes stories, plays, poetry, music and love letters. This is his first published credit.