Chiaroscuro of the Heart

Submitted into Contest #242 in response to: Write about two characters who meet and/or fall in love in a museum.... view prompt

1 comment

Romance Fiction Funny

ALEX

Bold strokes of vibrant color popped forth from a flat black background. The colors swirled, crossed, and cut back, all without blending. Each stroke was individual, its own being, yet part of the whole, only complete when combined with the rest. The painting was beautiful. Masterful, even. 


But what does it mean? What was their motivation? Alex thought to himself as he stared at the painting. The placard under the spotlighted painting stated the piece was titled Influx. He stepped away from the piece, even more confused.


He had hoped that he might find the spark of inspiration he desperately needed by visiting his favorite art museum. Yet the more paintings, sculptures, and exhibits he came across, the less inspired and even more confused he felt. He wished he could just put pen or paint to canvas and create a masterpiece, but that didn’t quite work. At least, not on the occasions where he tried. He had talent, and his work wasn’t necessarily bad, but it was far from anything that lined the halls of even his small city’s museum. 


Stifling the sigh of frustration he felt clawing at his chest, Alex continued his perusal. 



ALARA

Bold. Simple. Complex. Each piece was beautiful in its own right, but it wasn’t what she was looking for. Alara took pride in her career as an art critic, and had even written articles for some of the most notorious journals and magazines in the world. Having made a name for herself, she finally had the freedom to travel and find the perfect piece to critique. 


There were different breeds of art critics. Some preferred to review pieces that they believed were an insult to the fine arts, while others provided their opinions of nearly every painting, sculpture, or platform they came across. Alara, however, preferred to critique the pieces she found genuinely wonderful and deserving of being brought into the light. Such a desire is what led her to this small city’s local museum, where she hoped to find a hidden gem among the local artists. 


As she came across a particularly large piece, she stopped. The canvas was tall and narrow, nearly spanning from the floor to the high ceiling. Her attention was initially drawn to the mix of black and grey haze covering most of the space. As she looked closer, she could make out colors behind the dark layer, as though she was trying to peer through a dark cloud at the vibrancy it hid within its depths. 


“Well, this is depressing.” A quiet voice said from beside her. She jumped, so focused on the painting that she hadn’t noticed the man approaching. He seemed just as startled and immediately lowered his gaze, one of his hands rubbing at the back of his neck.


“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that out loud. Sorry for startling you.” The man shuffled a few steps to the side to give her space. 


He was tall and thin, with a messy mop of brown hair that looked like he might have attempted to tame it, only for it to resume its wild nature. A few locks were slightly stiff with what Alara guessed was styling gel. He wore a thin pair of glasses that sat low on his nose. The glasses themselves were unassuming, but what held her attention were his eyes. They were a deep brown, like liquid mahogany, displaying a wealth of emotion. A light smattering of freckles accentuated his high cheekbones. 


She realized she was caught staring when he peered at her curiously. She snapped her gaze back to the painting, feeling her cheeks warm. They stood quietly for a while longer, each lost in their thoughts as they gazed at the same piece.


“It is depressing, though.” His voice was quiet again, and Alara wondered briefly if he was talking to himself or her. Would it be rude to respond to a question not directed at her? But if he had asked her, wouldn’t it be ruder not to respond? She felt his gaze land on her before saying, “What do you think?” 


She mentally thanked him for saving her from her internal struggle. Focusing again on the piece before her, she studied it again, humming quietly so that he knew she had heard him and was pondering her response. 


“I don’t believe ‘depressing’ is the term I would use.”


“Oh…” He seemed disappointed or perhaps embarrassed, and Alara felt the sudden urge to apologize. The notion stumped her. She was a critic. She was used to people, especially artists, disagreeing with her opinions. Never before had she felt the need to apologize for them.


“Although,” she added. “I can understand how you might see depression within the black haze.” His face brightened, and he stood straighter and dropped his hand, which had started rubbing at the back of his neck again. It must be a nervous habit, she thought. She found it endearing.


She could appreciate individuals who wore their emotions on a sleeve rather than keep them hidden under a placating surface, as she usually did. It made it easier to talk to them without wondering what they were thinking. 



ALEX

I must look like an idiot. Alex gave himself a mental slap on the back of the head. First, he had startled the poor woman by muttering, a habit he spent ten years trying to break before giving up. Then, he attempted to initiate a conversation, knowing full well how awkward and uncomfortable he could be. When possible, he avoided interactions with people for this very reason. He felt he never knew what to say, and awkward silences made him fidget. He’d even scratched sores into the back of his neck during incredibly stressful events he had been required to attend. 


He was relieved when she mentioned that she understood how the piece might seem depressing, but he was more curious about her impression. He wasn’t particularly interested in the painting and wasn’t sure why he cared what her opinion was, but maybe it would lend some insight as to what he was missing. 


“What,” his voice cracked, and he quickly coughed to hide it. “What do you see, then?” 


“Inner turmoil.” Her answer was immediate and unexpected, causing him to glance at her. “The black haze is a distraction, an entity that unwillingly pulls the viewer’s focus from the emotions hidden within its depths. At the same time, those emotions are fighting to the surface, demanding to be acknowledged through the haze of self-doubt and turmoil…” Her voice slowly faded, leaving the last word hanging in the air between them. 


Alex stared, transfixed. He hadn’t been prepared for the depth of feeling she put into her words. He had only glanced briefly at her when he apologized for startling her, but now he actually looked at the woman standing next to him. She was a head and a half shorter than him, but her long black curls pulled into a high ponytail gave the impression that she was taller than she was. She wore no make-up, at least none that Alex could tell, but was beautiful with clear skin, bright green intelligent eyes, and full features proportionate to height, something he could appreciate as an artist who usually struggled with proportions. She was almost a work of art herself, simple and unassuming yet stunning with natural beauty. 


 So intense was her focus on the painting that Alex felt a pang of jealousy. He shoved the emotion far, far down before he even had the chance to dwell on what that could have possibly meant. She cleared her throat and continued, pulling his attention from his own inner turmoil.


“That is just my interpretation. I could be entirely incorrect.” She looked for a moment to be surprised by her own words before visibly shaking the thought from her head. Alex leaned forward to look at the piece’s placard. 


“No,” he said. “I think you hit the nail on the head. The title is Chiaroscuro of the Heart.” He couldn’t help but be impressed. He gazed at the piece with new eyes, clearly sensing the emotion in the background, fighting to break through the overwhelming insecurity. He was nearly overwhelmed with the sense of understanding as though he were looking at his very own emotions. As enlightening as the experience was, it also made him uncomfortable, as though his soul lay bare. He felt exposed in a way he never had before, overcome with the urge to move away. 



ALARA

Alara glanced at the man beside her, worried her interpretation might have disappointed him again. Instead, he looked terrified! His thick brows were bunched together in a deep frown, his eyes fixed upon the painting as if it had personally offended him. She was unsure if his reaction was due to her words or something else. She glanced around them, thinking of something to say to distract the man that wouldn’t upset him further. 


Her first inclination was to invite him to walk with her. The request was already forming on her tongue before she swallowed it down in momentary panic. 


What am I thinking!? I can’t just invite a stranger to walk with me as if we were on some date! Her thoughts caused her to blush, something she unfortunately had no control over. Maybe I should just walk away. That wouldn’t be rude, would it? Sure, we talked, but it’s not like I came here with him. I don’t even know his name, so it wouldn’t be weird if I walked away.


“By the way, my name is Alex.” Alara nearly jumped at his words, soft as they were. She panicked, afraid that she might have said that last part out loud. “You don’t have to tell me yours if you don’t want to. I wasn’t trying to make you uncomfortable or anything. I just thought… you know… manners and all…” He looked away from her, his hand again rubbing the back of his neck. 


Cute. “No, I don’t mind. I’m sorry. I was just lost in my head, I guess. My name is Alara.” She nearly sighed with relief when his gaze returned to hers, dropping his hand to grip the satchel strap across his chest.


“Would you like to accompany me-”


“Would you be interested in joining me-” 


They blurted simultaneously, then paused, sharing a look of shock and mild embarrassment. Alara couldn’t help it and let a giggle escape, relieved. It seemed they both had the same idea. 


“Yes, Alex, I would love to join you.” 



ALEX

His hands were sweating. Did she see him wipe them on his jeans? Could she tell he was nervous? Did he remember to put on deodorant this morning? He had made an effort to style his hair and clearly remembered that battle, but he couldn’t remember if he had put on deodorant! 


What is wrong with me? His hand ached to rub at the back of his neck, so he gripped the strap of his bag instead. 


They walked the isles of the museum, occasionally asking for each other's interpretation of various pieces. Alex was so nervous that he couldn’t remember any of his responses. He only hoped that he hadn’t said anything embarrassing. She giggled at a few of the things he said, and the sound made something in his chest melt. Her laugh was short and controlled, as though she was holding back from expressing the true extent of her emotions. He wondered what she would sound like if she just let herself go. 


 Her gait was elegant and professional, so much so that he felt as if he were bumbling along her. While she was controlled grace, he was an unrestrained wreck. He had been convinced that she would turn down his offer to walk together and couldn’t understand why she would agree, much less make the same suggestion herself! 


Maybe she thinks I’m funny. Not in a ‘ha-ha’ way, but in a ‘look at that weirdo’ way. He immediately dismissed the thought. He may not have known her for longer than an hour or so, but he could tell she wasn’t that kind of person.


“What is it that you do, Alex? I’m assuming something to do with art?” 


He could have fallen to his knees and thanked her for pulling him from his spiraling thoughts, but he managed to restrain himself. “You could say that. I’m actually an artist myself. I’m not very good… at least not good enough to have anything displayed here. But maybe one day…”


She nodded but didn’t look surprised. “I thought as much. You look like an artist. Oh, I mean that in a good way!” He must not have masked his worried confusion as much as he’d hoped. “It’s just,” she struggled to find the right words. “I’m an art critic, so I meet a lot of artists. And you struck me as one.” 


Alex’s eyebrows rose with genuine admiration. “Wow, an art critic? No wonder you’re so good at interpretation. That actually makes a lot of sense.” A blush worked its way across her cheeks, and it took all of his willpower not to stare. “Is that why you’re here?” 


“Yes. I love finding masterpieces in small areas like this, giving credit where it is due and most likely to be overlooked.”


“That’s admirable. I always thought critics were supposed to be… well, mean.” He winced, realizing too late that he might have offended her. 


Instead, she laughed. She actually laughed. The sound drew the attention of a few patrons, but Alex ignored them, enraptured. He determined then and there that he needed to hear her laugh again. For the first time in the hours they had walked together, he felt he finally saw the woman behind her professional facade.



ALARA

She could feel her mask slipping, which she had spent years developing to hide her emotions. She learned the hard way that, as a critic, her emotions could be used to attack her credibility, whether that came from rival critics or disgruntled artists who disagreed with her critique.


As she walked alongside Alex, she didn’t feel the need to wear her mask. He was perhaps the most genuine, if not goofy, man she had ever met. To both her horror and excitement, she could feel her own goofy side trying to surface. In a moment of silent contemplation, as they observed an oddly shaped statue of interlocking figures, Alara realized how much she could relate to the painting from earlier. Chiaroscuro of the Heart.


As the museum announced they would be closing soon, they made their way toward the exit in silence. Neither of them seemed to be in any particular hurry. Once they stood on the sidewalk outside the museum, the sun just beginning to dip below the artificial horizon of buildings, Alex suddenly reached forward and seized her hands. She jumped, startled by both his movement and the level of determination in his eyes. 


“I’m sorry!” He dropped her hands, then gently reached forward and grabbed them again. She bit back a smile. So goofy. 


“Alara…” He didn’t continue. She could almost see his thoughts as they warred across his features. 


“Alex?” 


He took a deep breath, nodded to himself, and then exclaimed, “I like you.” 


Alara stared, speechless. The sudden confession was so unexpected that she didn’t know what to do. She liked him too but wasn’t quite sure that was something they were supposed to admit on their first date. Wait, this wasn’t a date! At least not at first… Did this turn into a date?


“I know we just met,” Alex continued. “But I’d like to see you again. But I understand if you’re busy… or don’t want to… I just…” The intensity that just seconds before had surprised her quickly faded into apprehension.


“I would like that.” She said, determined to chase away the dark haze threatening to smother his awkward, emotional, quirky self that she was quickly coming to admire. 


He smiled, shoulders relaxing as he softened his grip on her hands so that his thumbs rubbed over the back of hers. 


And maybe, just maybe, he could help her break through her own dark haze. 

March 19, 2024 22:45

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1 comment

Shobana Gomes
00:38 Mar 28, 2024

First, I love the title. The story is well-written and the emotions are descriptive and apparent. I think the same as Alex about critics, they are mean:) Just something about the word causes depression I think, especially when evaluating an art piece. I smiled at the end when the couple showed they liked each other. Well done. A heart-warming story.

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