I promised to post the first thirty pages of Twist. The Three Day Novel Contest begins tomorrow at midnight so I'm putting formatting aside until Tuesday. Right now I'm pumping myself for seventy-two hours of straight insanity. If you want to join up it's not too late. www.3daynovel.com/
“What?” my companion stares into my eyes. He adjusts the cufflinks of his blue-grey suit. His own eyes hold the look of confused innocence.
“What do you mean what?” I yell inside the airport. The man in the blue-grey suite lowers the palm of his hand. The universal sign language for ‘keep it down’.
“We’re ditching our luggage? I packed nice stuff. I packed for this trip carefully. And now you’re sending me out into Paris with no clothes?”
“All can be replaced Becca.” My companion is growing inpatient. He flew in from San Francisco with me on a fake passport. He had to lie about his fake identity when we exited the plane. In Paris his alias appears to be ‘wanted’.
“You want me to go shopping in a country where I don’t speak the language by myself while you make all the plans and control all the details.”
“Je parle parfaitment. I’ll take you shopping. Right now you need to calm down. We have to keep moving before security catches up with us. We have no choice but to leave the luggage. I’m glad I didn’t tell you while waiting in line through customs. You’re creating a scene.”
I look into his eyes. His eyes are like stain glass windows. So many different colors pick up the light that shines behind them. I try not to think about all the women he’s taken shopping in Paris.
The cab ride is surreal. I gaze out the car window sleepily. I’ve seen Paris in movies and snap shots. The city of love is breath taking. I feel I’ve entered into a Francois Truffaut film. Tired, I rub my eyes. It’s three in the morning in California. Here in Paris it’s almost noon. Nervous, I was unable to sleep on the plane.
“Hotel Esprit Saint Germaine, s’il vous plait,” my companion directs the cab driver.
The entire time I’ve known my companion he has been mysterious and less than forthcoming. I only get half-truths. And here I am, in a foreign country totally dependent on Mr. Duplicity. Every time my life seems to get easier a monkey wrench gets thrown in. At the moment my monkey wrench wears a Versace suit, Cartier watch, and a tan from sunning in the South of France.
I try to think back to when my life was simpler. Back to when I didn’t know a thing about international art and artifact smuggling. Back to when the farthest east I’d ever been from California was Texas.
We pass by a building I recognize from one of the books I had researched. My companion points at it, then winks at me knowingly. I begin to conjure images, ghostly memories of what I know to have taken place there. I and only a handful of others know what actually happened.
My mind wanders inside the gothic walls, engulfed in the events that had occurred centuries ago.
The Queen of France lies wasting on her deathbed. Paris is held by enemies of the crown. The King has gone rogue and defied all her council. There will be a take over. Her most trusted companion in the room is her alchemist’s apprentice. He stands next to the priest by her side. After the priest finishes a brief prayer he turns to wait in the hall. The Queen gestures for the young man to come to her wheezing and coughing side.
“It’s over there.” She points across the room at a large armoire. “You will know it when you see it. You have the instructions for it’s destruction?”
The young man nods. The alchemist had handed him a written ceremony before sending him to her. The alchemist could not come himself because the priest would have refused the queen her last rites.
Wheezing harder with her hand to her chest the queen strains and struggles to communicate. The young man leans closer to her highness.
“You must destroy it immediately. My enemies know of it and desperately desire it,” she sputters.
The young man nods. The queen, content her wishes will be followed, chokes out her last breath. The priest rejoins them and gives the Queen the last rights she so desperately desired.
Once this is finished the priest hurriedly exits as the young apprentice observes in horror as the queen is lifted off the bed with her sheets and tossed irreverently to the floor with a loud thump. The men in the room proceed to drag the queen’s remains down the corridor.
The take over has begun. Only the apprentice knows the purported divinatory and sovereign power the enchanted object bequeaths. After some rummaging he locates it. Thoughts of his family flood his brain. His wife is pregnant with their fourth child. His mentor may well be in line for execution. The enemy is now his employer. His future unsure, the young apprentice makes a decision to commit a crime countless of men have done before him, and countless will do after him. Break his oath for profit. The young apprentice has no idea of the implication this act will have for centuries to come.
Waking from my daydream I rub my eyes. Now fully present with being in the cab with my companion I feel exhausted. I allow myself to lay my head on his shoulder as the black cab drifts along the streets of Paris towards our hotel.
“I won’t think more on the subject until I get some rest.” I mumble.
“What was that?” asks my companion.
I simply shake my head and fall asleep against his shoulder.
Four months earlier…
I spin the dial on my combination lock as retro beats blare haunted promises of burning buildings from my headphones. I swing open my locker and sift through gummed-up half empty paint tubes and stacks of sketch paper. The paintbrush I want has been shoved towards the bottom.
The narrow halls provide little room for the three-part art installation two students drag down the slanted path. A young woman and two men hurry toward me with a giant pinwheel and two large canvases. I scoot out of the way and wait for them to walk by before I turn back to my open locker.
My supply locker at UCLA was more organized than the one I have now at the Institute. I regard the Still Life teacher’s assistant as she waters the ivy plant wrapped around the doorframe of her classroom. Her bright purple fishnets daisy-chain around her legs. I love the art scene in L.A., but San Francisco has a unique flavor I’ve definitely acquired a taste for.
When I married Steven and moved up to San Francisco I applied to art schools around the Bay Area and to my delight was accepted to my first choice, the San Francisco Art Institute! Locals and tourists in the know make the climb up Russian Hill to visit one of the city’s best-kept secrets.
The school’s rich history can be found literally written on its walls. In 1930 Diego Rivera painted murals on the Chestnut Street campus. Plaques and etchings cover its grounds in memorial to how after World War II the Art Institute had become the hub of Abstract Expressionism. The collective work of distinguished painters, photographers and cinematographers made the Art Institute what it is today. Tourists augment the student population to take advantage of the city views of the bridge and the bay along with the Diego Rivera Gallery.
I dig further in my locker then stop. I make out a voice over synthesized bells, harps, and organs from my headphones. I pull my head out of my locker and take a deep breath to get my itchy nerves to calm.
“Excuse me.” shouts a curvy raven-haired woman. Her barley there t-shirt shows off a generous number of tattoos. “Can you move?” It’s Lucy from my Still Life class. She raises a heavily penciled-in eyebrow. It almost touches her short cropped Betty Page bangs.
I recognize part of the art installation she carries. It’s from the courtyard. Now that I realize it is Lucy’s I don’t like it as much.
“That looks heavy. Need a hand?” I ask.
“No thanks. I wouldn’t want to interrupt your music.” Lucy says with a hint of disdain. She eyes my blonde hair and understated outfit, a white tank top and jeans.
I could tell she was thinking about me in my car. Trendy non-remarkable music plays in my car on the only thing that works, FM radio. My car stereo is the least of my problems. The City’s famous hills and pothole ridden streets is brutal on my bucket BMW and the clutch feels like it could drop at any moment. I’ve had the car since high school. Leave it to my parents to find me a car I can’t afford to fix.
My concerns are basic. How am I to afford rent in one of the most expensive cities in the country now that I no longer have alimony? My parents can’t keep up with their own money problems and our relationship is tenuous at best.
My thoughts drift from my car back to my locker where I continue to try and locate my brush. Lucy, the hipster with tattoos of wolves across her chest, doesn’t consider my taste highbrow enough for the Art Institute. Lucy is openly bedding a prolific artist and popular instructor at the Institute, our sculpture instructor James Shaft. It’s common knowledge and the man hasn’t been fired. Lucy is now impossibly cool and demands others to acknowledge it.
.Holier-than-thou attitudes and inflated egos find refuge at the San Francisco Art Institute. The small Russian Hill campus is full of tucked away areas housing secrets. The center walkways are open corridors. Most of the school is open allowing the panoramic views to be accompanied by fresh bay air.
The Art Institute embodies the city’s uniqueness. The nineteen-twenties building bursts with art installations, paintings and sculpture and makes it impossible not to feel inspired. Because of its amazing view of the city, the roof is where we hold ceremonial assemblies and hang out between classes.
My classroom is empty. There is a note on the door. We are all to meet at the art gallery near our 800 Chestnut Street campus.
“I knew you’d forget to go down to the gallery, so I waited for you here.” Josh says as he walks toward me down the hall. Josh is a handsome half-Asian half-Caucasian young man with a talent for disturbing the quiet around him.
Josh follows me around like an undisciplined puppy. As much as his sardonic sense of humor entertains me it infuriates others. If nothing else, keeping him out of trouble ensures that I’m never bored.
Josh is the popular San Francisco tagger “Up”. He spray-paints “Up” with an arrow next to pretty much everything. The bar named Stand has a hell of a time painting over his Up tag every week, as does the store Grow. But Josh is most famous for his tag at the worst intersection in the Mission. The four stop signs that consistently hold up nearly forty cars at any given time each read Stopped Up. They’ve been replaced so many times that the City finally got tired of it and let them be. The locals find it a clever reference to the City’s constipation as every year the affliction intensifies.
“Thursdays are spoken word night at Gilligan’s. I saw the line up and it’s a few SFAI students, two that we know. It should be horrible. You interested?”
Gilligan’s bookstore is a favorite hangout of mine that I introduced to Josh. It’s the first place Josh looks for me when he can’t find me. I want to go tonight but lately Josh and I spend almost too much time together. His draw to me as a friend can get possessive so I try to create healthy boundaries.
“I can’t. I have an early day tomorrow.”
“Really? It starts at eight. We can hang out just a couple hours for a change of scenery.”
I eye his face to make sure he doesn’t look too eager.
“Okay,” I say as I pull my hair around my shoulder to get it out of my face.
Josh nudges me in the other shoulder. After I catch him look down my backside I roll my eyes with a reproachful frown. Josh is quick to flash a fraternal smile. He has yet to learn the ancient ninja art of woman watching. We shouldn’t be able to catch you doing it.
Running late Josh and I hurry down Chestnut Street to make it to the art gallery before our lecture begins. Huffing and puffing under the weight of our backpacks Josh holds the door open as we hurry inside.
Our professor wears his usual corduroy blazer. A stitch from an unraveled string sticks out of one of the leather patches that cover his elbow. His white hair is disheveled in its usual boyish way. As he walks passed us, he is followed into the gallery by a pale thin woman.
The woman wears a black sixties mini-dress with a white blouse and wedged cowboy boots. Her hair is the color of black cherries. She follows our professor over to an Industrial Baroque art installation as the other students and I gaze with interest. The serious attractive woman stops by the exhibit as our professor clears his throat to speak. The woman eyes him expectantly. I feel a mixture of animosity and admiration ripple across the small, well-lit gallery room.
The installation we stand in front of consists of old clocks in various states of disrepair, black and white photographs of a family line, and a 20 x 25-foot canvass foundation of an acrylic painting that ties it all together. Captured in the painting are active nudes of various ethnicities connected by a rope. They are marching through a swampy marsh.
“Let me introduce Sophie-Anne Savoi. She is a graduate of the Art Institute. She has journeyed back to us from her artists in residency programs in Tokyo and Paris. She joins us now as a visiting professor and will be teaching this class for the rest of the semester. Today she will discuss with us her most recent mixed media installation pieces.”
I normally hate these gallery meetings. I, like the rest of my peers, would rather work on my projects that have pressing deadlines. This is different though. I like the piece. I am interested in what this woman has to say.
Sophie-Anne’s smile is noncommittal as she observes her audience. She is put together in a unique and edgy way. Her conservative white blouse and black dress are offset by her cowboy boots. She looks sophisticated. Her black hair shines in the spotlight. She uses good hair products. I wonder what kind of perfume she wears. As she turns towards the installation I notice a tattoo of a regal lion’s head nestled on her pale shoulder blade like a crest.
Sophie-Anne clears her throat. “This installation is best shown in a center stage room with light streaming down directly from the ceiling. As you can see here the ceiling is the only direction I’ve allowed the light to filter from, because the shadows cast tie in the piece. The shadows it casts and consequently the lighting are key components in breaking up the space.” Sophie-Anne gestures to the light strip wedged in the corner of the ceiling. The light streams down to the clock installation and casts a shadow of a human hand over the photographs. This in turn cast a shadow of a full reaching arm over the all encompassing painting.
“Brilliant.” states our Sculpture Instructor James Shaft from the back of the room. That explains why Lucy’s here.
“Does anyone have any questions?” Sophie-Anne asks.
“Please state your name then the question,” adds our instructor.
“Hi, Lucy White. Can you explain what we’re looking at?” Lucy has a red bandana tide neatly around her jet-black coiffed hair. Lucy attempts to make eye contact with James but he continues to stare at Sophie-Anne.
“My family line.”
“The photographs or the painting?” I try to be lighthearted but can tell some of the students interpreted it a jab as they snicker. This was not my intention. “Sorry, Rebecca Ashley.”
“The photographs,” says Sophie-Anne as she ignores the scoffing whispers.
The question and answer session continues. Sophie-Anne can’t be more than five or ten years older than me. I shake off the unpleasant twinge of jealousy that threatens to darken my image of this woman. I want to like her.
Two men I can’t quite make out walk in and stand at the back of the room. The taller one towers over the shorter one. Sophie-Anne wraps up the presentation and approaches them both.
Interested, I look on as the three of them walk side-by-side. I can now see the shorter man isn’t short at all. The tall black man has on a sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his head making his face difficult to make out. Over his sweatshirt he wears a leather jacket. The shorter Scandinavian-looking man places a proprietary hand on Sophie-Anne’s shoulder. He has his back to me. All I can make out is the back of his head full of wavy golden brown hair. The students disperse.
“Who are those two?” I hear our sculpture instructor, James Shaft, ask our media professor.
“Those are the only two people I ever see Sophie-Anne with since she’s been here. Both are foreign. I think they’re the only friends she has here in the City.”
Josh and I wonder around the gallery together when outside we hear the screeching of tires and a scream. My classmates and two instructors stand frozen for a brief moment. Instructor James is the first to break into a run towards the door. We all follow him out onto the sidewalk and see Sophie-Anne lying next to a row of smashed newspaper dispensers. Her arm lies over her face as if she tried to shield her head.
James runs up to her sweeping his left arm under her shoulders to prop her up into a sitting position. Sophie-Anne’s eyes are wide and stunned as she hurries to her feet. She looks around herself in disbelief.
“What happened?’ demands our professor as James continues to steady Sophie-Anne with his arm around her.
Sophie-Anne looks around at the scattered debris created by the smashed paper-stands.
“A car just ran up the sidewalk and kept going. I barely had time to jump out of the way.” She looks at us as she swallows. “Thank you James.” Sophie-Anne disentangles herself from his clutches.
Our professor has taken off his brown jacket and is on the phone.
“My friends got in a town car and after it drove away some maniac jumped the sidewalk driving like a bat at of hell!”
“I’m calling the police,” our media professor announces.
“You should wait here with us until the police come. The rest of you can go back to campus,” James nods towards us.
We all turn to leave except Lucy.
“I have to get going. I need to get back on campus. I have a meeting in an hour about a personal matter that can’t wait,” Sophie-Anne insists.
“I’ll escort you,” says James.
“I’ll stay here and handle the police. I need to get a report.” The media professor gestures to one of the gallery windows now cracked from a projectile piece of debris. “For insurance purposes. Ms. Savoi, you really should stay and get looked at. You’re in shock!”
“I’m not, really. Please, this meeting is very important.”
The professor nods his head but his face looks unsure.
I turn to look back at the gallery as Josh and I cross the street. The only student still in front is Lucy. She doesn’t move as she watches Sophie-Anne and James walk away together.
Back on campus Josh and I part ways. I feel very alone. I try giving Steven a call like I do every other day. And like Steven does every other day he ignores it.
The next day rays of sun shine poke through the clouds and into the front windows of my Multi-media Installation class. The weather uplift is brief. Gamma rays are soon engulfed by fog. Sophie-Anne has us take out our Japanese Surrealists textbooks. She authored both. We are studying three photographs of a large pop art installation.
I hate being stuck in a classroom behind a desk. As an artist you have two states of being. You’re either on a mission to develop and refine your work, or you’re doing something else. I always put seated classes under the something else category but Sophie-Anne’s class is different. She doesn’t regurgitate information. Sophie-Anne has been to these places and knows the artists. I admire my instructor’s teaching style. She treats us as equals and still manages to maintain control over the class.
“You can digest the book work now or later. If anyone can think of a period or place I left out feel free to let me know. I’m not above correction, people. All I ask is that when you approach me, know what you’re talking about. Make sure you do your research. Do not waste my time.”
Sophie-Anne stops talking and squints at the back of the classroom. Her eyes narrow and her hands clamp onto her hips as she takes a step forward. We all follow Sophie-Anne’s gaze to the back window. She’s looking at a doll. The doll swings gently from its curtain cord noose. It’s a dark-haired Barbie doll dressed in a white blouse, black mini-dress and cowboy boots.
“That’s from the collaborative piece Lucy and I just finished!” announces a furious redhead wearing loud red, yellow and orange plaid pants and a holey black tank top. She jumps up from her desk and snatches the doll off the curtain. “It’s from a multi-media piece we just displayed!” Her friend occupying the desk next to hers nods in agreement. “The hair is the same but they changed the clothes!”
Sophie-Anne approaches the girl. “Let me see it.” The girl in plaid, another one of Lucy’s hangers-on, hands Sophie-Anne the doll. Sophie-Anne looks the doll over, then hands it back to her student. She finishes up the class as if nothing happened.
Back at my locker I pack up to head home. I need to stop by Steven’s to grab my crystal dishware, given to us by my parents. They had been my grandmother’s. The big-hearted old woman loved the dishes. She didn’t have much. As a child they graced our dinner table every major holiday. They are engrained in my memories, my good ones. Steven can have everything else. I try to give him a call. He still won’t answer. I have no choice but to surprise him.
Lucy walks by as I close my locker. She glares at me as if the slammed door has offended her. I stare back. She struts down the hall and looks away.
‘Damn’, I think as I realize I forgot to grab the rigger brush I needed. My fingers go back to work on my lock combination. Some of the students don’t bother to lock up their supplies. Their lockers stand half open, pens and brushes sticking out. I don’t dare. If anyone decides to swipe my stuff I have no way of replacing it.
I look over and watch as Lucy spins towards the doorway she nearly walks by. “James! I’ve been looking for you all day.” She leans in too close for a teacher-student interaction. I think back to when I took James Shaft’s class. The one thing I am not good at is sculpture. Not that James was any help. He’s a terrible instructor.
“Look, you can’t keep coming into my office unannounced. People will start catching on.” As if everyone hadn’t caught on already. Men can be so unobservant. James shoots nervous glances down the corridor. I hide behind my reopened locker.
“You were supposed to come over last night. I had sent my roommates out.”
“It wasn’t a good time Lucy. I warned you of that previously.”
“I have too much work.”
I hear an audible sigh and Lucy’s foot stomps in a pout. “I wore all red. I had baked cherries and readied cold strawberries for…”
Listening to Lucy describe their red-themed date gives me nausea. I pull my head out of my locker again and shut the door. I try not to look over at the two whose heads both stick out the doorway to see who might be within earshot.
“Do you know her?” James asks.
“Yeah, that’s Becca. She was in your Degas and the Dance class with me.”
“I saw her mixed media piece in the foyer. She’s developing.”
“She’s in my Still Life class this semester.”
“Oh.” James then asks a question in a muffled whisper.
I hear Lucy laugh. “No, she likes it! Remember what you said about mimicry? You should read her artist statement.”
“I heard that.” Josh’s voice comes from behind me and I jump. “If everyone likes you you’re a talentless non-threat. She’s jealous.” Josh pauses. “Where are you going after this?”
“I’m picking the last of my things up from Steven’s.”
“Need help?” Josh asks hopeful. Josh has been my shoulder to cry on for so long he would like nothing more than a confrontation with Steven.
“Thanks Josh but I should go alone.”
He looks disappointed but manages a polite smile. “See you tomorrow.”
To get into my old building is tricky. I lurk by the front door as passersby eye me like a criminal. I stand close to the door and wait. After some patience a woman walking two miniature Australian Shepherds makes her way towards me. I grab the door as she exits. Her excited dogs must keep her distracted because there are no shouts of protest as I slide inside.
I feel the elevator takes too long and use the stairs. Once up at the apartment door I can hear music inside. After I knock I wait. I hear footsteps. A shadow falls over the peephole.
“Steven, it’s me. All I want is my grandmother’s crystal and I’ll be out.” Silence. “I know you’re at the door Steven.”
I hear the intake of a sharp breath on the other side of the door, then a pause. “Hold on Becca.” Steven sounds put out as his footsteps fade away. The music ceases and he returns to open the door. “Come in.”
He is dressed for work but his hair is disheveled. His white shirt is tightly tucked into his kakis. His bright red designer tie is very 1960’s. He follows me into the kitchen. I yank open the bottom cabinet. Way in the back are the crystal bowls. I pull them out carefully one by one avoiding my ex-husbands stare. Steven leans against the adjacent counter with his arms crossed in annoyance. I look around the place. What was once our cozy San Francisco apartment now feels cold, modern and empty. It’s nothing like our warm, sunny apartments in San Diego and L.A.
In Southern California the sun is always shining. Our San Diego and L.A. homes had been filled with bright colors. Fresh fruit and avocados filled Spanish-style clay bowls. Here the predominant color is grey and no fruit bedecks the kitchen counter. If it did it would be sure to rot. Steven only eats in or near his office. We both hear a door open from the bedroom and Steven hurries off. I pause what I’m doing. I can hear him arguing with someone.
“I told you to stay put. Wait! What the hell are you doing?”
Moments later Steven’s co-worker, wrapped only in a bath towel, storms into the kitchen. Her name is Summer. Summer and I look the same. Same height, body type, eye and hair color, we are even almost the same shade of tan. My ex-husband is so predictable it’s pitiful. Once, drunk and high at a party Steven admitted to having a crush on one of his cousins who looked just like me. Of course he denied it when I confronted him the following day. Meeting Steven’s cousin, my doppelganger, at our wedding was more than a little awkward.
“What is she doing here?” Summer demands. Her eyes are wild. She shakes angrily, nearly shaking free of her towel. I had liked that bath set. The monogramed S.A. -standing for Steven Ashley- now clings to the woman’s well-defined thigh. I would never think of the black and white monogramed towel set the same way again.
“I’m collecting my things.” I sneer at her. Never have I felt so much hatred towards a single person. I knew of Steven’s previous infidelities and we had worked through them. If Summer hadn’t come along Steven and I would still be living together instead of me being out on my ass.
Steven left me for Summer because with Summer Steven has complete control. He can keep an eye on her at the office and keep track of her whereabouts even as she goes to and from home. Steven’s insecurities dictate that he desire this. I know I should want to be free of Steven but my insecurities dictate I be attracted to him. You can’t chose who you fall in love with.
When Steven tried to get me to check in with him daily I refused. Summer works for Steven. I can tell by her jealous eyes that now she is stuck on him like a barnacle and I know my ex-husband. It’s only a matter of time until Steven grows tired of it. Summer’s eyes narrow with the silent accusation that I was checking up on her new boyfriend.
Steven appears frantic as he grabs her shoulders. “She’s just leaving Summer. Get back in the bedroom!” That’s when I notice dangling from her neck the pink sapphire pendant from Tiffany’s that Steven had given to me for our first anniversary. It went missing six months ago. When I confessed to losing it Stephen grew enraged and accused me of being careless and drunk. He had hinted at divorce for the first time.
Summer fingers the pendant triumphantly. I look back at Steven. His demeanor is guilty and rigid like a child getting caught with dirty magazines. I examine his face, really seeing him for the first time. I see a scared little boy with frightened eyes not knowing what to say, or even what he wants. I hate him but I still love him.
“Lost it when I was drunk? Need to take better care of my things?” I point at Summer’s necklace my eyes steady on Steven. “You shameless asshole!”
“You two were never good for each other.” Summer shot back at me in her lover’s defense. She follows my finger and realizes I am pointing at the necklace she’s playing with. “Steven, was this necklace hers?” Her fingers drop the jeweled pendant. Summer looks down at her chest as if it burns. It is my turn to smile.
“You were cheating on me with that Josh guy. Every time I visited you on campus that guy was always with you.” Steven counters.
“Steven, that’s ridiculous.”
“I see the way he looks at you. You’re going to tell me that guy never came on to you? That you never slept with him?”
“That’s exactly what I’m telling you.” This of course isn’t true. Josh has come on to me numerous times. The whole “telling a lie is never okay” philosophy seems juvenile to me. The truth can be so subjective! Not to mention dangerous. I subscribe to the good of all. It wouldn’t help Stephen and especially me to upset him by telling the truth about Josh. A tiny fib is easier on all parties present. Well, maybe not Summer, but fuck her. So to speak.
My face feels hot as my breath quickens. Before I speak I check my anger. I take a deep breath, glance at Steven then look Summer square in the eye.
“You’re a napkin to him, sweetie. Disposable. You’re not the only girl he’s cheated on me with.” Summer’s eyes dart from me to Steven in alarm proving I am right - they had been together before our relationship ended. I grab my bowls and leave. It is too bad California has a no fault divorce clause. California doesn’t count cheating as a fault unless there’s a pre-nuptial agreement. Steven hadn’t asked for one.
I broke my code by giving my love away. Now I was getting screwed and not in the pleasurable way. I had to take it. We hadn’t been married long enough for me to accumulate any kind of financial stability. Not that I would have asked for anything except continued support while I was in school. At least my tuition was paid through the end of the year.
I gesture around the luxurious cold grey apartment.
“Enjoy bitch!” I say before slamming the door behind me.
“What was that again?”
“Scotch and soda!” I yell for the third time over the din of the crowded bar I patronize once a week. Every bar stool is taken. I feel awkward as I stand between two overly made-up women. They turn their backs to me as each one chats up a man. The men’s faces hold hopeful smiles as they scratch at their hipster beards and attempt to feed the women more booze.
The bartender nods towards me as he walks over to the register. I put a twenty on the counter. I look around and see no sign of Josh. I know he is having dinner with his parents in the East Bay but he swore he’d go out with me after. He isn’t answering his phone. He must be underground on BART.
Tired from standing in front of an easel all day I search out a seat again. No luck. I scan the room for Josh but there is still no sign of him. Nearby a seat opens up. A golden haired man puts on his coat and kisses the woman next to him on the forehead. He pats her shoulder as he leaves. The woman is Sophie-Anne. I watch as she pulls her coat off the back of her chair and uses it cover the now vacant seat. Our eyes meet. Sophie-Anne registers who I am.
I smile. “Hi.”
“Have a seat.” She offers moving her coat.
We receive our drinks.
“You just came back to the States from Tokyo?” I ask. “I’ve always wanted to visit Japan.”
“It was a brief visit. In the 90’s I did a few semesters abroad at The Tokyo National University of Fine Arts.”
“Murakami’s ‘Super flat theory’, global pop culture encapsulated in those flat glossy prints. You must have seen them?”
Sophie-Anne nods and takes a long sip of her drink through two red cocktail straws. Patrons slowly filter out. The bar calms down.
“You’d have loved it. You’re quick to flush out complex concepts in abstract art,” says Sophie-Anne.
I accept her praise as Sophie-Anne examines her phone.
“I have to get going.” She finishes her drink and discards the empty glass. “I’ll see you in class Becca.” Sophie-Anne’s smile of almost perfectly straight white teeth is wide and genuine. I nod.
I have an innate ability to read people’s level of sincerity. I see it in their eyes. Some are able to mask it better than others. People with shielded eyes scare me. Shielded thoughts are most times nefarious. I hadn’t had the problem with Steven. Steven’s shifty eyes always give away his intentions. When he plans something devious I can see it coming a mile away. I try not to think about my ex-husband.
“See you later.” I say.
Where is Josh? It isn’t like him to be this late. I pull out my phone and check it. Zero phone calls. I go outside to bum a cigarette but no one is smoking. I try to call Steven. To my complete non-shock he doesn’t answer.
The quickly downed cocktails make me emotional. To think he could move on so fast and leave me, not even caring where I sleep at night makes me feel rejected and angry at the same time. I strangle a sob and stand on the sidewalk unable to prevent hot tears from rolling down my cheeks. I wipe them away in frustration. To my dismay Sophie-Anne walks around the corner and spots me.
“Are you okay?” she asks holding a lit cigarette in her left hand.
“Yes,” I struggle to pull myself together. “I thought you had to leave.”
Sophie-Anne nods. “Still waiting for my cab.”
“May I have one of those?”
“Sure.” She hands me one, then lights it for me.
My phone rings. I hope its Steven. It’s my landlord calling again. I ignore it because it probably has to do with my bounced rent check. The landlord is up late. Probably drinking like me. I see on my phone I have an emailed bank notice warning of potential overdraft. I also have three notice dings in a row from debt collectors. My phone is so smart I’m half convinced it’s an evil robot sent from the future to destroy me. I put my phone back in my purse and take another drag. I cough a little. These things don’t taste nearly as good as I remember.
Ah, the digital age! Being constantly plugged in is the best and worst thing about this era. The digital era is not helping me ask for help out of the growing financial hole I’d fallen into. Yet it is helping debt collectors harass me constantly. This makes me crazy.
“Are you sure you’re alright?”
“I’m going through a divorce.” I shrug to down play the severity in the sound of it.
Sophie-Anne’s eyes fill with compassion. “Impermanence is both wonderful and terrible.” Her arm shoots out towards the street as a cab races by. “Taxi!” The cab screeches to a halt.
“You seem like you could use a friend.” Sophie-Anne eyes me thoughtfully once again as the cab sits idling. “I’m off to a better bar. Why don’t you come?”
“Okay.” I’m surprised to be going out for drinks with my professor.
“Have you been to the new Speak Easy in Dogpatch?” I shake my head. Sophie-Anne leans forward and directs the driver where to go.
Dogpatch is borderland. A blend of commercial and residential it’s the only place in the city that has enough parking. The cab lolls through traffic. After twenty minutes of distracted conversation with Sophie-Anne as she answers her phone a few times I watch as residential apartment buildings are spaced out between warehouses.
In Dogpatch blue-collar businesses mesh with high-tech start-ups. The ever-changing face of the city has transformed old industrial buildings into glistening lofts making it a trendy place for artists to work and live. I hope the bar we head towards isn’t the same one Josh and I had been kicked out of. Josh was drunk and had incensed the local patrons when he spray painted ‘Let them live in lofts!’ in the bar’s entryway. Josh never went anywhere without a can of spray paint.
When we arrive a line of people wait in front of the brick building. It looks like it will take time to get inside. Sophie-Anne makes a gesture for me to stand by her. The heels of our boots click against the gravely street as we make our way to the front door. I can hear live music coming from inside.
A man in jeans and a black shirt checking I.D.s spots Sophie-Anne. He ushers us in despite the protests of the impatient people still waiting.
A stage across from the bar supports a three-part band consisting of drums, an acoustic guitar, and a synthesizer. The three create an interesting mix of folk and industrial sound.
I follow Sophie-Anne through the sitting area between the bar and the stage. She sits on a plushy red velvet couch. I join her. The space is smaller than I imagined from the outside.
A cocktail waitress in street clothes takes our drink order as I look around. The avant-garde attire and loud attention-seeking behavior of the small crowd makes me feel like I’m back on campus. Writers, hacks, designers and wannabes crowd around us in every direction. Most of the men wear glasses. The pale skin of their wiry arms is almost translucent as they push the black frames back up the bridges of their noses. The girls wear skinny jeans or shapeless boxy dresses. Small wafts of cigarette smoke sneak inside each time the front door opens.
I observe the immense vibrantly colored acrylic painting suspended from the wall behind Sophie-Anne. So large and rich in texture it must have taken the artist ages to paint. In various corners and suspended from the ceiling are other art installations. I make a mental note to take a closer look before we leave. I can see why Sophie-Anne likes this place.
“Why did you paint a swamp for the background of your clock piece?” I ask.
Sophie-Anne looks up with a pensive gaze in my direction but doesn’t look straight at me. “When my father died my mother moved us from California to New Orleans. She grew up in New Orleans and she thought it would be good to be around family. I’m an only child but in Louisiana I have many cousins. It was culture shock for me. The surrounding swamps and the diverse ethnicities was my first impression of the “other”, as a child. The antithesis of the predominantly Caucasian communities I had lived in before. That’s what the painting represents.”
Sophie-Anne takes a sip of her drink. “My mother was in mourning but I had plenty of family around. Of course they were a Louisiana family and California was an unfamiliar world. I might as well have been coming from Mars. My cousins toughened me up quick enough. What about you? Where did you grow up?”
“Southern California. I met my ex-husband Steven while I was going to UCLA. His job supported us so when he said we had to relocate I didn’t argue. I just hoped I could find someplace where I can continue to work on my degree. Here we are, or here I am anyway.” I have been trying not to think about how I got myself into this impossible situation but am surprised how easy it is to say out loud. Talking to Sophie-Anne provides a cathartic release. She is the first person I can really open up to. Josh is always ready to listen but the young man has his limitations.
Sophie-Anne’s shoulders stiffen as she spots someone across the room. I turn to see which person but can’t tell who she’s looking at.
“Excuse me Becca. I’ll be right back.”
“Sure. No problem.”
Sophie-Anne walks briskly over to the bar and disappears around the corner towards the bathrooms. The cocktail waitress returns with our drinks. Bored with no one to talk to I drink mine fast. I walk over to the bar to order another drink and wait for the bartender. The cocktail waitress pops up instead. She’s pulling double duty.
“One more of the same?” the blonde’s red lipstick is painted on in a sneer.
“Yes, and I prefer mine on the stiffer side.”
The waitress comes back with a vodka cranberry that is less red, more pink. I take a sip. She isn’t messing around.
Sophie-Anne’s voice comes from around the corner.
“You’re not understanding what I’m saying. We have no choice but to wait.”
“You have a week.” Says a deep masculine voice followed by the opening of a heavy door. The man must be using the back exit.
“Wait! You don’t understand!” Sophie-Anne’s plea is cut short by the door slamming.
“Fuck!” Sophie-Anne curses. I pick up my drink and make my way back to my seat so she won’t know I’ve been eavesdropping.
Sophie-Anne reclaims her seat back on the red velvet couch.
“Sorry, I thought I saw someone I knew. So, Becca, tell me more about yourself.”
“I come from a small family. My parents live in San Diego but we aren’t exactly close. They don’t approve of my continuing art school and practically blame me for my divorce. I haven’t spoken to them in months.” I’m shocked at my own bare honesty. I eye my drink debating on whether or not to set it down.
“Does your boyfriend have family close by?”
For a moment I’m confused then realize she means Josh.
I laugh. “Josh is just a friend. Yes, he has family in the East Bay.”
“Pardon me Becca. This is my work phone.” Sophie-Anne pulls out a Blackberry that dings again. I watch as she scrolls through her phone calls. “Unbelievable!”
“That sculptor James. He’s relentless. I’ve given him a laundry list of reasons why it’s unprofessional for us to date and he keeps sending me emails requesting to escort me to bizarre events. I’ve heard about him dating other staff, even students!”
Sophie-Anne continues to look at her phone as she shakes her head.
“James keeps asking me out. The more I tell this him no the worse it gets. He hits on me in front of faculty. It’s very inappropriate!”
James Shaft is not that smart or subtle. Lucy had to know about his public indiscretions. It was Lucy who hung that doll in Sophie-Anne’s classroom.
My thoughts are free of Steven for the rest of the night. As the night wears on Sophie-Anne tells me more about herself. She has traveled extensively, studied and searched out different art forms around the world. Her energy and passion are infectious. At the end of the night she offers me her couch to sleep on. I accept and feel exhilarated on the short walk with her to her building.