On Friday afternoon I was working at my station, wishing it were still Wednesday so I didn’t have to go out. I sighed, blowing at the strand of hair that dangled in my face. I had agreed to go with Pepper and Reece to hear a new band. Suzanne was joining us, too. Georgia had some lame event with Harris. Some future “Douches of America” banquet.
“That’s really good,” Gretchen said, stopping by my station to comment. “Not your usual . . .”
I blew at a magenta-dyed streak that dangled in my face. I had pulled the short strands back with a kerchief, but it always kept escaping.
“Good is not my usual?” I joked. “You wound me.”
“No.” Gretchen shook her head, staring intently at the canvas. “It’s personal somehow.”
Her words forced me to stand back and consider my work in a way I never did while I was laboring over it. When I’d returned to the studio on Sunday, I had a stern talk with myself, deciding that just because I was painting a scene from Shaw’s house didn’t mean anything. I was an artist. I seized inspiration when it arrived. I didn’t need to examine the source.
The door had taken on a richness. There was a lushness in the browns that made it leap to life. The glass was like crystal, winking with light. I marveled that I had somehow achieved that effect. It took me hours playing with a lot of blues and yellows. The snow visible through the glass bled out beyond the door like this amorphous cloud of pristine white. And there, in that fog of snow, was a face. Almost ghostly. The features vague and indistinct. Except for the deeply set eyes. They seemed to stare back at you, intense and probing.
When had I done that?
“No,” the single word escaped me on a breathy exhale. My shoulders slumped.
“What? Something wrong?”
Oh. Hell. No. I was not painting him. I wasn’t doing that. I wasn’t some lovesick stupid girl pining after a hot boy. I didn’t pine. Pushing up off my stool, I grabbed the offending piece by the edges, determined to add it to the stack of canvases that we recycle.
I was almost to the dozen or so canvases leaning on the far side of the room, Gretchen trailing after me, when Professor Martinelli’s voice stopped me in my tracks. “Emerson, what do you think you’re doing?”
Still clutching the canvas that was almost as tall as me, I peeped around the side. “Excuse me?”
Professor Martinelli swept into the studio, her many bracelets jangling. I never understood that. Those things would distract me while I painted, but she was never without at least a dozen bracelets on each arm.
“I was going to recycle this and start on something new . . . I have a fresh idea,” I babbled, “something that has really been nagging at me—”
She pointed an imperious finger at me. “You will put that canvas back at your station and finish it.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but she cut me off. “This is the first piece that you’ve done that has shown any true inspiration. I’ll not have you toss it aside.”
I didn’t know whether to be flattered or annoyed. I’d been a student here for two years and she had never reacted to anything I’d created like this before. Grumbling under my breath, I carted the canvas back to my station and pretended to work for another half hour, feeling Professor Martinelli’s gaze on me. I didn’t want to storm out right out after she told me to put the canvas back. She might very correctly think I was annoyed. When enough time had passed, I washed my brushes and cleaned up at my station.
Dusk had fallen. Night came on fast in the winter. I walked along the sidewalk, mindful of the ice patches. Once inside my building, I chose the staircase over the elevator. My steps rang out over the concrete. I kept hearing Professor Martinelli’s voice in my ears. And then I saw those eyes. Shaw’s eyes. It’s like I was possessed . . . and someone else, the “possessed” me, had painted those eyes.
At my door, I fumbled with my keys, but it was suddenly yanked open. I looked up, expecting Georgia, but it wasn’t her. It wasn’t Pepper.
It was my mom.
THERE WASN’T MUCH DIFFERENCE in her appearance now at age forty-eight versus how she looked when I was nine. Except her face looked kind of waxy. She’d had some work since I last saw her. And her hair was longer. She wore it in a sleek braid down her back with several shorter layers escaping to frame her face. I squinted. I’d never seen her hair this long and I suspected it was due to extensions.
She never seemed to change outwardly. Or, for that matter, inwardly. When I was little she used to do the whole PTA-room-mom-thing. But once she and Dad divorced, she stopped pretending. She stopped trying to be the best mom on the block. She moved to Boston and began her quest for husband number two.
And she found him in my stepfather.
She looked me up and down, her nose wrinkling. “What’s all over you? You’re a mess.”
“Paint,” I replied. No greeting. No hug. This was normal.
“You always did have a unique sense of . . . style.” Typical passive aggression. When she wasn’t being outright aggressive.
I stepped past her into my suite. “How’d you get in here?”
“Your RA. I told her I was your mother and she let me in.”
I’d have to talk to Heather about that.
“What are you doing here?” I dropped my bag on the floor and sank down on my bed.
“You’re not returning my calls.”
Wow. She must be desperate to come here. “I already told you. I’m not going.”
“Emerson, would you stop being so selfish for one moment? You’re family. How’s it going to look if my own daughter doesn’t attend her stepbrother’s wedding? You already missed the showers. I want you at the rehearsal dinner and wedding.”
Her lips compressed and she crossed her arms. The action pulled her shirt dress tightly across her upper body and I marveled at how thin she was. Thinner than the last time I’d seen her. She must be down to four saltines a day.
“You know the embarrassment this will cause me. You just want to hurt me.”
Shaking my head, I stared at her. She really thought this was about her. About me wanting to hurt her and not what might or might not be comfortable for me. “It hasn’t once crossed your mind that this isn’t about you?”
She stared at me, blinking in something akin to bewilderment. “What do you mean?”