She looks like the lady from the Klimt painting. No, not that painting. The one with the fan. Sooty bay curls caressing rose petal cheeks, imperious brows that rise and fall on the tides of conversation. Her eyes are so like rootbeer I wanna stick a straw in them and take a sip. And that mouth. It's at the upturned corners, where I know a million secrets linger, that I want to kiss.
She's the most beautiful girl I've ever seen, and I might even tell her so if her boyfriend would shove off for half a second.
We're in room 264 of the Classical Building, Miss March's classroom. She's hung the mother of “dad joke” signs on the door, “The Drawing Room”, and there are gummy bears on the peeling tin ceiling. No one knows when or why, but they've been slowly submitting to gravity for at least the four years I've been here. One of my portfolio paintings – a weird, surrealist gummy bear landscape – was inspired by them. And Rhode Island School of Design liked it enough to send me the “thick” envelope, so I guess thanks, gummy bears.
“I don't really get it,” Cami – her name is Cami – admits, tying her coils up into a messy bun. Her voice is like one of those ribbons gymnasts dance around with.
“That might be the problem,” Miss March says. “Try not to intellectualize it. It's about feeling – a liberation from form and structure. We're not trying to make today, we're trying to unmake.”
“That's stupid,” her boyfriend mutters to a subdued chorus of sniggers. Cami elbows him sharply in the ribs.
But honestly, he's not wrong. Like... why, Miss March? You're gonna dive right into Russian Suprematism? On day one of intro art? I'm sure when she got that MFA she probably hoped for more, well, “me's” in the classroom. And there are a few. But mostly what she got was a bunch of mouth-breathing gummy bear slingers looking to fill their humanities requirement with crappy doodles on 20lb 98 bright copy paper. I do feel for her – all that enthusiastic idealism wasted on the “Cami's boyfriends” of the world. But seriously. Why?
“Layla, what do you think?” Miss March asks.
“Ummmmm,” My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. I'm not sure why she's calling on me – I'm not even in the class. She's been letting me use the studio space during my free period for the last two years, but I did not consent to my input being required as tender. “Well, ummmm, for me, I guess, it's... artistic escapism.”
“Good. What else?”
Kasimir Malevich, the father of Suprematism, said he was “trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world”. Which is what I should maybe have said. But art has always been my preferred form of expression, so I shrug and let that blowhard Tate Mason take the floor. And boy does he. With what's left of the hour, the class watches Miss March fumble the projector and occasionally manage a few unfocused slides on the dingy off-white walls. And I watch Cami until the bell rings.
“What did you mean by that?”
Cami, long-limbed and lovely, stands over my table. I can see her goosebumpy kneecaps through the tears in her jeans.
“By what?” I ask. My tongue is glued to the roof of my mouth again.
“The escapism thing. What did you mean?”
“Oh. Well,” I look up at the gummy bears. “Like even abstract art is an abstraction of something, right?”
“The 'real' world doesn't exist in Suprematist art. Or at least it doesn't matter. The art kind of defines the reality instead of the other way around.”
Those sharp shoulders kiss her ears as she raises them, laughing and tilting her head. “I guess I still don't get it. See you tomorrow.”
“See you tomorrow.”
As the bell rings, Cami floats to the back of the room and slides into the seat next to me. The smell of gardenia wafts off her, engaging the stench of oil paints in an olfactory duel. Her dress skims over her hip points and puddles on the chipboard stool.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi.” And before my tongue can stick to that comfortable hollow in the roof of my mouth, “Where's your boyfriend?”
“Not my boyfriend,” she frowns. “And he dropped the class.”
The art I make today is in layered shades of California poppy and Indian Paintbrush. Like her dress. Translucent, intersecting trapezoids straining against the angled lines that spear them like art kebabs. All the weight of an impossible, imagined reality I want to shed but also don't want to shed. It's a non-objective feeling, for sure, but it's not an escape. I feel her rootbeer eyes wandering to my work.
“You're like, really into art, right?” she asks.
And you, I want to say. But all my “prettiest girl in the world”, all my yesterday's internal blustering, blows off like a withered storm.
“Can I see?” she asks, pulling my sketchboard across the table. My cheeks ignite.
“We match!” she holds my painting up alongside her dress. “I like it. Mine is crap.”
“Total crap,” I agree.
Her face riffs through an octave of emotions before holding at amusement, and eventually, raucous laughter. She has dimples.
“Cami,” Miss March drops her glasses and raises her brows.
“Sorry,” she says.
“Total crap,” I whisper again as she kicks me under the table.
“So is this your thing, then? The Suprematism?” she taps on my canvas, where a milky square drifts toward the bottom right corner of a field of gesso.
“Okay, then what?”
I think. It's easy to define my art for someone who has the right vocabulary. Neo-fauvistic surreal portraiture, I'd told my interviewer at Rhode Island School of Design. She'd nodded knowingly and jotted notes in the margin of my application. I chewed all the skin off my fingertips as she riffled through my portfolio, pausing at the gummy bear landscape.
“Ummm... lots of bright, non-representational colors. Figurative – so like, not abstract. Some weird surrealism – but not ugly surrealism. Like pretty surreal. Mostly portraits. People.”
“Yeah, I got like none of that,” she laughs. Her laugh is so easy. It's her ease, I think, that absolutely shatters me.
I want her to understand.
I need her to understand.
“I could show you,” I say. “Miss March leaves the drawing room open an extra hour after school on Thursdays. I keep a lot of my stuff in the classroom,” I nod in the direction of the cubbies, where my battered black vinyl portfolio lives.
“Cool,” she says, “Tomorrow then.”
The drawing room is cold. Miss March always cranks the windows open on Thursdays to air out the “pernicious fumes”, she calls them. I pull my hands up into my sleeves to keep them warm, but mostly to keep from gnawing all the skin around my fingernails clean off.
Cami steps through the door, and this time, it's that Klimt painting she recalls. The longing part of my mind coerces a fantasy – her, me, enrobed in flowers and gold. She softens into the quiet ardor of my embrace. Her head warm in my paint-smudged palm, her hair tangled in my fingers. Her effervescent rootbeer eyes are closed – mine are too. Not in ecstasy, but in the relief of a sustained longing – a lifetime of unspoken desires – come finally to fruition.
“Hey,” she drops her bag and lowers herself onto the chipboard stool. “Let's see what you got.”
She leafs through the canvases and panels. My guts clench so hard I feel like I'm being turned inside out.
“I like this one,” she says, pausing at 'Girl with Cornflower Eyes'. Our elbows and forearms touch. I imagine her leaning into it. No, she is leaning into it.
“It's my favorite,” I say. “'Girl with Cornflower Eyes'.”
“She looks really happy,” Cami says. The secret-speaking corners of her mouth are upturned.
She is really happy. I am really happy. I'd captured me mid-jump, chin high. A smile with all the teeth showing. A hurricane of marigold hair casts lavender shadows across my face and two frilled cornflowers bloom in my eye sockets. I painted it the day I got the thick envelope. “Yeah. I just wanted to capture – I was trying to –”
“I get it,” Cami whispers. Our hands meet. Linger.
“Maybe I could do one of you. 'Girl with Rootbeer Eyes'.”
She braids her fingers into mine. “I would really like that.”
I soften into her and close my eyes, not in ecstasy, but in relief. Finally. Finally.