At a quarter past seven, Beth heard a knock. Score one for Mr. Coffee and his fashionable sense of time. She meant to do it back at him when she tip-toed to the door and stylishly delayed answering, but after a pause, she remembered he’d seen her shadow last night. This more than likely looked as though she was waiting there with her finger rammed up a nostril. New plan: open the door, which she did with a flourish of her arm and brilliant smile that only strained when she saw how tight and nervous his smile seemed. It was uncomfortably similar to the one he used when they’d first talked.
“Heeeey,” she welcomed, ramping down her giddiness. The arm she flourished tucked behind her head as if she’d been stretching all along. “You made it.” This earned a half-hearted nod. “Tough morning?”
“Why? Did you hear something?”
“No,” she said quickly, flicking her damp ponytail. “I was in the shower. Showering. Noisily, and for hours.”
Beth dubbed this her Plausible Deniability. She considered adding that fake dog to the story – for consistency’s sake, of course – but eeeeee. Creepy. She had an aunt who showered with her dog. It was an image no one should feel too keen on adopting.
He gave her a second nod, this time with an equally passive, “Oh. Good.”
Kind of an awkward silence there, buddy.
“So – um…” She guessed it was up to her to stir things. “Do you –”
Whoa. Alex was intense. She took it that that was his name, but he said it so seriously, as if he’d expected more of reaction than, ‘Cool. I’ll stop calling you Mr. Coffee’.
She wouldn’t, by the way. Mmm, Coffee.
“It’s nice to meet you, Alex. I’m Beth.” Soon to be known as tomorrow’s local kidnapping headline. “You look good!”
He did look good. Alex had a whole I’m Too Cool to Iron ensemble. Plain, faded jeans slung around his waist. His white-ish shirt went ever so slightly taut against his chest. A pale red, checked button-down layered over that, and it almost seemed like he’d taken a brush to tease his cocoa black hair into careless bedhead. Hot. This was ignoring the bluish-black and green bruises surrounding his jaw. Other than those, the eye-witnesses sketches were going to look amazing.
Yeah, she still wasn’t ‘sure’ about this. Carpe diem only brought her so far before hitting YOLO territory.
“Thanks. You, too.”
Ha! Liar. She was wearing almost exactly the same as yesterday: overalls and a teeny pair of black booty shorts for the ass she didn’t have, except she’d swapped her crappy top for a stretchy, long-sleeved one. On second thought, she shouldn’t have picked a hue of fabric that clashed as badly with her vampire skin as dark purple did. On third thought, that was every hue but orchid, and laundry day had dictated no dice there.
That floated between them fairly listlessly. Beth curled her hair around her hand and tugged it, trying to rattle out a plan for her next move. Should she let him in…?
“Is that a horse licking a dragon?”
“What?” She jerked her head over her shoulder, towards the garish display of yellow-trimmed wings and soaring hooves stacked up against her kitchen bar. The colours were hard to miss. They practically leered at her and him. “Ah! No. That’s Pink Beauty. The tongue is…” Beth was a professional artist. “The tongue is his horn. He’s a unicorn.” To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there lay her dying reputation. “It’s a commissioned series. I don’t… I mean – this isn’t really my thing, the whole fantasy element, but when a client says jump, am I right?”
He appeared to be thinking awfully hard about the three-legged, magical pony. It was like he didn’t trust her, or thought the joke was on him somehow.
“What do you usually paint?”
Alex asked as though he wasn’t sure he could handle the answer. To be fair, drip painting was a violent cascade of emotions. She could rein them in long enough to title their blazing moods, but otherwise, she fell as lost to them as any person before a wonder. Beth wasn’t the only person saying so, either. Her work didn’t stand for simple explanations; it elucidated through a subconscious interpretation. That’s what the critics wrote anyway, and so as long as they kept awarding her cash, she would let them pile on whatever smarmy narrative they wanted.
Under these casual settings, however…
“I’ll show you.” Her heart began to race. She barely knew this person, and already her palms had sweat from the pressure of living up to his standards. While she rushed inside and leafed through the throwaway series, she eased her mind towards him hating it. Her style didn’t always top a guy’s list. Beth tried not to blame anyone for their opinions, but when they couldn’t see the canvases come alive, there was a certain sadness she had to bury. “Here.”
Oh God, his thumbs went straight onto the paint when he grabbed the frame. From the record scratch that went off in her head, Beth winced. He, more focused on studying the piece, missed this look of pain and lifted her portrait higher in the far window’s daylight.
This was the one ‘real’ entry from RAR she would sell to Edison. Its blues flashed out to the sides, taunted by reds calling from the edges. Sprays of black shattered the contrast to ebb below a muted green. This was an experiment in primary tones, and as she recalled, it was from the last night her neighbours owned a TV before Screamy flipped and smashed the damn thing. Primed and Tuned, she’d named this. The dark streak across its middle was from their screen crashing to the floor.
He took his time to gather his thoughts. She didn’t wholly mind the wait. The way he had to hold the bulky shape made his biceps flex. At last, he did utter, albeit more to himself than her, and staying in low in his throat, “This looks angry.”
“Angry,” she squealed. “Exactly! It’s supposed to be. Here – see this?” Her fingers waved over a top corner. “This is its defining madness. It snapped out on when the scene hit its high notes. The natural serenity of the blue got completely destroyed when it started chewing away at the red, and the bottom layer was shredded by how harshly the droplets cut in. You’ll notice the light – tilt it this way –” There was a perfect angle she’d found that, if Edison hadn’t screwed her out of wall space, she would’ve pointed a small lamp to catch. “The shadows. Recognize anything?”
Was that a smile? Beneath his furrowed brow of mild concern, did she spy enjoyment?
“Uh…” He cleared his throat. “Scary face.”
“Right. Objectively! I hate calling my work objective, but the snarl that this black line ripped up left me a hellish glare from one damning eye. You become the subject of its rage.” She put her hands on his wrists, guiding him along the vision. “It’s powerful, isn’t it? Yet it’s so shy. The glare disappears the instant you turn your head the wrong way. It’s a thin glimpse into the fury it’s trying to hide from the world.”
His glance was more sidelong than she expected, but attentive.
“Your painting is passive-aggressive?”
“Unbearably,” she delighted. “My teeth hurt from clenching at it, but unless I twist to understand the deeper pain, I’ll miss the hidden beauty of its wrath.”
She could’ve stood and marvelled for hours. Beth took a raw pride in her art – in any art that forced her spirit to the surface. Had Jessica slipped even a single emotion into her dumb islands, Beth wouldn’t have complained so much about sharing a space.
Alex stared at her sidelong, having reservedly watched her while she talked. His stance softened a little, and as he lowered the frame, she noticed a light appreciation and intrigue.
“You’re really into this.”
As if until now, he hadn’t believed her.
“Well, yeah. Everybody is, deep down. It’s the same as music,” she told him. “Human nature can’t help forging connections, and with art, it’s to suites of work that can cross generations. We end up connecting to each other. At this very moment, you might feel the same as a stranger will in forty years, but your cousin could walk up tomorrow and have the total opposite experience. It blows my mind.” She quietly nudged the canvas closer. “So… what about you?” Beth leaned in, studying his eyes as they swept across the glossed fabric. “Are you feeling anything?”
Alex looked to be considering it. Then he said, “I think I liked the unicorn.”
“Oh my God.” He was grinning, in that cautiously warm way she’d started growing used to. When she whacked his shoulder, she did it with high spirits. “Come on, neighbour. Let’s get going.”
He didn’t at first. After she’d bent to grab half of the stack by their feet, she saw his head still turned towards Primed and Tuned. He held it firmly, his tentative smile clouding in concentration. Beth delayed bothering him until he came to whatever decision he’d been trying to make and fluttered to reality on his own.
“Sorry. Just…” Another grin. This one was more pensive than earlier. He twitched his arms as though he meant to hand the canvas back, but figured out what was happening and simply added it to his half to carry. “It’s good. I think I’d need a day to get it, but…”
“You’re new to the art world,” she assured him. “Don’t rush it! Let the meanings come to you. That’s the most satisfying way.”
“Yeah.” He apparently glazed over at those words, floating off again to wherever his mind went to think. When he returned this time, he maneuvered in front of her with two deliberate steps. “I’m Alex.”
He was exactly as intense about it as before. Beth blinked, sort of stuck on what to do. He hadn’t seen the napkin she’d left on her counter, which was good, since she’d scribbled a few things on it – height, build, other identifying features – that might be cause for offence. She got so caught up wondering what she’d left out, she nearly missed the offered hand waiting for her.
“Oh.” Then they truly were doing this twice. All right. She shuffled, freeing one of her own. “Hi. I’m still Beth.”
Her hand found his.
… Something happened. Stopped happening, rather.
“I’m not great at first impressions.” Alex smiled. Actually smiled. Sheepish, but real. “Or second. Or – uh – third.”
“No, your…” She swallowed. “Your second one was good. Impression, I mean. Last night. When you apologized. That was sweet of you.”
His eyes. Beth hadn’t realized how deeply they’d pierced her. They brimmed with such a wild energy… No wonder she’d been avoiding them. She never noticed she was avoiding them until now, when his gaze touched hers and she held it. The comfort of the gesture threw her off.
Alex pulled away. Bethany’s hand felt empty from it.
“I’ll try not to need a fourth.”
“Hmm? Oh.” Oh! “Um – sure, no, yeah, you’re fine,” she said. “All is forgotten. Water and bridges.”
She was talking too fast. This marked her other type of nervousness, the one that had her girlishly agree to get coffee with his cheekiness and cocky attitude. But he wasn’t acting like that today. If she had to label him, she would have picked meek. But nice. Beth could live with nice.
“So,” he said, hoisting the last of her wares onto his unignorably toned shoulder, regardless of how many shirts he wanted to wear, “where are we walking?”
“Well…” Weird. Was it a good weird though, to suddenly feel this at ease? “I figured we could drive. My car’s parked out on the street.” She should warn him now: “It’s a screaming, metal death trap, but it has tires and it usually stops before I hit a dog.”
“Great.” Really? He elaborated with, “My old car’s method for braking was exclusively trees. I’m used to tucking and rolling.”
Unlike yesterday, where every word from his mouth apparently won either high-pitched giggles or a snort she continued to smack herself over, Beth found her current crack of amusement relaxing onto her lips. She enjoyed it.
“Let’s just say I’ll drive,” she said. The paintings in her hands tut-tutted. Dammit – yes, Terry, she hadn’t forgotten about him. “I just have to send my buddy a text when we’re downstairs. He told me to be early, but since it is me, he probably hasn’t even bothered waking up yet.”
“You’re a night owl?”
“Ah…” She imagined her ideal day. Four AM, no work the next morning, not sober but texting everybody. “Sure.”
Alex seemed okay with this, in a way that vaguely suggested he was on her wavelength.
“Okay.” He adjusted the canvases. “I’m ready.”
Pink Beauty awaited its maiden voyage. Beth shooed Alex out and locked the room behind her. She got a feeling the counter-napkin of Cop Cliff Notes blew off from the breeze of door swinging shut.
She doubted she needed it.