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Muse

a girl with a painted hand and face
Photo by Nicolette Attree on Pexels.com

           “The universe works in strange ways,” was something my mom always used to tell me when I called her at 4 am from my dorm room nestled in the Berkshire mountains. “It always gives you what you need when you least expect it.” I would curl in on myself and listen to her sing me to sleep before she hung up and it would be like being home again. I didn’t expect it to actually make any sense.

#

            Running down a street in Boston is never easy and always hectic as you get pushed around by your fellow pedestrians. It’s even harder when you’re carrying a laptop, a giant art portfolio, and a coffee. But here I was darting between businessmen, skirting my way through Back Bay trying to get to my studio for an important meeting. And there goes the coffee, I thought as the pink and orange Dunkin’s label rolled away from me and toward a gutter. I saw a car drive over it, splashing the caramel latte over the pants of a woman with way too much makeup on. I held in my giggle as I darted away. Not an entirely wasted $3.75 then.

            I got to my run-down brick building and closed the door to the sounds of angry Massholes leaning on their car horns. The sound became muffled on the other side of the metal, rusted door. Deep breath. I readjusted my things as I climbed the stairs to the second floor. My studio was a loft turned art room combined with an industrial-style studio apartment. “Studio” here has two meanings! I chuckled at my lame joke and opened the door to the brick-covered space. By “industrial” I do not mean cool modern design with exposed light bulbs above a stainless-steel kitchen and beautiful windows to match the rest of the steampunk-inspired décor. Nope. The lightbulbs were exposed alright—by wires that were also exposed and, as I’d been advised upon signing my lease, dangerous to touch. The “stainless steel appliances” were junkyard finds from the 1970s with nothing steel about them. And the windows… I was just lucky none of them had shattered yet. Chip and Johanna Gaines would have a field day with my lack of interior design skills… or apartment hunting skills. So, sue me! Boston is expensive.

            The rest of the apartment was covered in art supplies. Sketchbooks were open on the coffee table and couches, colored pencils were stacked in piles on the floor and every other available surface, and there were a few easels in the way of any path you potentially could walk in. I had managed to keep paint splotches out of my interior design thus far, but I wasn’t holding out hope I would get my security deposit back. As an artist by trade—or at least trying to be—my apartment reflected that.

            I looked at the clock on my microwave and saw I had about two minutes to spare. That is, unless she came ear- knock, knock, knock!

            Damn it!

            “Just a minute!” I called to the metal door as I threw my laptop bag and portfolio on the couch. Reaching down to the hem of my jeans I started tugging as I hopped towards the closet blowing hair out of my face. Throwing my discarded clothes to the bottom of the closet I threw on a dress as the knocking continued.

            “One second!” I yelled again, slamming the closet door shut on an overflowing mess. I pulled my hair back into a messy bun, or what I hoped resembled one, and hopped over to the kitchen counter to light a candle.

            I opened the door halfway through the third string of knocks and blew a stray piece of hair out of my face. “Hi!” I beamed trying to control my heavy breathing and look somewhat professional.

            The woman on the other side of the door was dressed vibrantly in a long flowing peasant skirt. She looked like a hippie with a spaghetti strap crop top and her wild curly hair framing her face. Tucking a lock of the mane behind her ear she held out a hand to me. “I was worried you weren’t home.”

            “I, ah. I called out.” I said as I shook her hand and took my left hand to scratch behind my neck. Shifting from one foot to the other I looked down at my own outfit. It was a traditional black office dress. For once being a professional artist felt like an oxymoron in front of the living, breathing rainbow that was in my hallway. “Ah, come in?” I opened the big metal door to her, and she stepped inside taking her flip flops off and setting them neatly by the door.

She had a binder in her hand as she looked around my rundown garage of an apartment and turned to me beaming. “It’s so nice here. Very artsy.” I think I must’ve blushed as she looked me over and I realized my own outfit didn’t fit the interior of my home at all.

“Sorry, I, ah, just came from a meeting with a gallery,” I lied.

“Did you want to put on something more comfortable?” she asked in the sweetest voice. “I personally prefer pajamas when I’m home.”

I stared at her kind of dumbfounded for a minute before I shook myself out of it. “It’s fine. I’ll change later. Do you want something to drink?”

She took her time curling her legs up underneath herself on my worn couch and placed her binder gingerly on her legs folding her hands on top of it. “If you have tea that would be great?” She said it as a question, and I noticed how wide her eyes were.

“Yeah. I do.” I cleared my throat pulling a few mugs out of the cabinet. “So, have you ever done nude modeling before?” What a stupid question, of course, she has-

“Nope!”

What?! I almost dropped the mug as I turned to face her with a hopefully calm face. I cleared my throat again.

“Do you want a cough drop?” she asked, beginning to dig into her purse.

“Ah, no,” my nerves were rattling. I hadn’t drawn a girl who had never modeled before since college. And as an undergrad, it was a lot less—one on one. “So, um, what to expect—” I trailed off, not being able to keep the conversation going while remembering what goes in tea. My mind went blank.

The odd thing about this girl—woman—was that she had come to me. I had people commission things before, but not normally nude things. Boudoir, yes. Full on nude—not usually. I usually had to seek those models out for my own portfolio and usually, it was people who did it for a living or who really enjoyed doing it. But for an unknown like me? Hard to find. People didn’t want to chance looking ugly naked, even on paper.

She was different. Her cropped, spaghetti strap tank top screamed the nineties, but that handkerchief skirt was 100% seventies. Nothing which fit the Fashion Nova, Kardashian style models wore in 2019 Boston.

I walked over carrying the two hot mugs carefully. If I was going to keep having meetings in my house, I should probably get a tray. I sat them down carefully on the rickety coffee table pushing some of the colored pencils aside. She was still sitting in the same position, her feet and legs completely concealed under a curtain of multicolored cotton.

“So, um, if you get uncomfor-“

“I know,” she cut me off. “If I’m uncomfortable we can stop. If I need a break let you know. You’re just studying the human form, and this doesn’t have to be sexual.”

I blinked. “I thought you’d never done this.”

“I haven’t.” she said and sipped her tea.

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I sipped my tea, too. And immediately recoiled from the hot liquid hitting my tongue. “Oh, God! I’m so sorry, I brewed it too hot! Did you burn yourself?” I asked concerned she was in the same pain I was in.

She just shook her head. “Would you like to see my portfolio?” she handed me the black binder in her hands. I opened it to “headshots” that looked like candid summer photos from her childhood on a disposable camera. Her long dirty blonde hair cascaded down her back in lively curls, and her face was covered in freckles. I looked up at her and noticed she was wearing makeup to cover them. I had the sudden urge to take a make-up wipe to her face.

I looked back down at the picture that demanded my attention. Her legs were crossed in cutoff shorts and there was a flower crown perched on the top of her head. I thought of all the accessories and props I normally added to portraits: pearl necklaces, diamond earrings, more “luxury” things. Not going to happen on her. She was a lot more fairylike then any of the more pristine luxurious models I had drawn before in backgrounds that looked like mansions.

“I wish I had the resources to take you to a field or something. But you have to get clearance to do a nude session at one of those.” I smiled up at her and she was still sipping her tea her eyes closed and thoughtful. “You know… it being public and all.” Great, now I’m babbling.

            A small, pensive smile graced her lips. “I’m sure you’ll make it work,” she beamed at me with complete utter confidence that I felt unworthy of. She suddenly stood up and sat down next to me. Her leg pressed warm against mine as she looked over my shoulder at the photos. “Come to the park with me.”

            “Right now?” I nearly dropped her binder as I looked at her and she was very close.

            She nodded and took my hand pulling me into my bedroom, the binder falling to the floor.

            “I don’t have a lot of time, or normally I wouldn’t be so overt.” I didn’t know what the hell she meant by that. But I didn’t have a lot of time to dwell on it as she pulled me into her whirlwind and took off. Next thing I knew I was in cutoffs and flipflops on my way down the stairs. The second we got outside she took my hand and pulled me towards a food truck. Her eyes were bright, and she was giggling. Five minutes later we had dinner in our hands—Fenway Franks and lemonade.

            She started singing her own version of “A Whole New World” from Aladdin and never let go of my hand, her fingers linked in mine warm and secure in a way that made me think of a childhood blanket. I took a deep breath and let her pull me through Boston back under the skyscrapers that I had seen in such a different light an hour before. Now they seemed vibrant and full of life like little cells of energy, and the souls of the people inside making them seem like more than just metal giants. There was life. Each tiny window a different story filled to the brim with emotion and memories like moving photographs.  This wasn’t the background; this was the painting.

            She pulled me down into a T station and onto a subway train. Along the way she put a dollar in each street performer’s bin/hat/guitar case she saw. They all beamed at her in gratitude.

            So, is this her deal? Manic pixie art patron? I thought to myself as the doors closed behind us on the subway car.

            Bing bong. Please stay clear of closing doors. Next stop: Quincy Market. An artificial voice said as the metal slid closed and sealed us in. We took seats her hand never leaving mine as the train took off. I had no idea what line we were on, no idea where she was taking me. In hindsight this could have been dangerous, running off with a girl I had known an hour. But it was like I was under some spell where I had no concept of danger and I had known her for years. Did I have an imaginary friend with her name? Did I have an aunt with her eyes? I couldn’t place why she was so familiar.

            We got off at the Quincy Market/Faneuil Hall stop and stepped out into the light of the street.

We headed back down to a T stop and came up ten minutes later in the middle of a downtown clubbing district. Emerging from the underground, she pulled me towards a building with flashing lights. Her skirt gathered and flowed between her ankles and her hair flew out behind her in a wild kind of way. It was getting dark and I looked around in wonder still seeing the world differently through her eyes.

            “I thought we were going to the park?”

            She looked up at the neon and grime on the side of the brick building. “This is a playground.” She whispered just loud enough for me to hear and pulled me to the front door where some college-aged boys did security. They let us in and inside was—a playground. Everyone was dressed in clothes that could be considered “retro” and the Backstreet Boys were playing from the DJ booth in a modern remix. This club was caught between the past and 2019 in some weird time glitch. She took my hand and pulled me through the crowd of neon, denim, and leather-clad dancers to the center where she grabbed my hands tossed them above my head, and laughed as she began to dance.

            The strobing lights and strange combination of music from the past and maybe the future blended together in some hypnotic sober trance. I don’t know how long we stayed there, the room swaying and lights flickering around us to illuminate the smile on her face.

           I don’t know what time we eventually left, but eventually, we found ourselves on Longfellow Bridge. We walked along it in silence, shoes hooked over our fingertips, walking barefoot on the concrete cooling in the night air after a warm summer day. It was late—or maybe very early—as the cars had thinned out hours ago. We stopped and leaned over the ledge to look down into the Charles River. The water so dark it looked like a black abys with the lights of the city creating specks of white on the surface.

           I looked up toward an equally black sky, the stars extinguished by light pollution. The skyline broke the void as I looked over at the skyscrapers, so small when you’re this far away. 

            I felt her fingers lace with mine and she kissed my knuckles. Breaking the strange silence, she said, “I want you to paint me bare—not nude. I want you to paint what you saw of me tonight—free. Can you do that?”

            “Yes,” I whispered and pulled her into me. She felt warm and solid, which surprised me. Our noses brushed under a crescent moon beneath the Boston skyline. In my head, people looked out of their glowing windows to see a real-life rom-com happening below. She kissed me and kissed me again.

            Somehow, we found our way back to my apartment and I saw her naked in the candlelight and the glow from the city through the window. My apartment seemed cinematic and electric instead of run-down. The pulse of my life force ran through the brick walls as I grabbed my canvas. I painted her. Each brush stroke gliding across the canvas with a touch I didn’t know I was capable of and knew I would never feel again. I was not worthy of it, but she was. I didn’t paint her in the pose she sat in, I painted her dancing each lock of curly hair taking the most care.

            She eventually got up and I didn’t say anything. She came around behind me and kissed my neck. “It’s perfect.” She ran some paint over my cheek and took my shirt off throwing it to the floor. I laid out on the floor and she painted me coving my skin with acrylic kisses before pulling me under the shower where we watched it go down the drain in rainbow ribbons.

            #

            I woke up to the sun shining through the window, naked in my bed the sheets wrapped around me. I reached out for her and found empty sheets. I searched the whole apartment for her—nothing.

            Her picture sat still on the canvas the sun shining behind it. And my hands were still stained from acrylics, but she was gone. I went over to the painting and took it gently off the easel and got another canvas. I painted endlessly for days to the point where my mom came to check on me because no one had heard from me. Surrounded by paintings, she looked at all of them.

            “So, you booked a gallery show?”

            “Yeah, I’m finally getting somewhere. They really like my work.” I took another bite of the casserole she had brought me.

            “Who’s this?” she asked pointing to the picture. The only reminder I had that my dream was real now that the paint had faded from my skin.

            “My muse, Lorelai.”

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