|After a long day’s work, sometime in late spring, I end up going to Wreck’s Bar for a few drinks. Since it’s a Friday night, the parking lot is nearly crammed to capacity. I nervously exit my car and walk inside. The bar is full of mostly middle-aged adults, with a spattering of twenty-somethings here and there who are too broke to go into The City for some real entertainment. It’s smoke filled, rowdy, and beer is continuously poured from taps and pitchers like water. I take a seat at the very end of the bar, close to the entrance, and as far away from the bright lights of the small elevated stage (reserved for cover bands and singer/songwriters) as I can get.
Before I can order my first drink, a tall young woman walks in and sits down on the stool next to mine. She’s got to be close to six feet tall, wearing pleather pants and a tight bustier top that disguises most of her bulges. Her face is round and babyish. Even in the dim barlight I can tell she has on too much makeup: Fake long eyelashes, eye shadow that rises above her large round eyes in rainbow shades, and some strange foundation that makes her naturally coppery complexion look ghostly. Still, her face is sweet overall, at least until she smiles at me. Then I can tell she’s not so sweet.
“Hey. You heard this band before?” She asks from underneath the mountainous blonde wig she has on, a la Beyonce.
“Yeah. They’re decent enough.” Epiphany, an 80s hair metal cover band always plays on Friday nights. Everyone knows that. I figure she must be from out of town.
“What do they sound like?
I shrug. “They just cover stuff. It’s nothing original.”
She chuckles slightly. “Sure. But they still got a sound. Do they sound like Led Zepplin? Living Color? Kool And The Gang?” I look at her sideways and realize there’s more to her than I originally thought. We get to talking about Rufus, Mother’s Finest, A Taste Of Honey, and other bands that were greatly underappreciated in their time. I’ve never been impressed by someone else’s musical knowledge, but she’s done it. I’ve been impressed. Even so, I find my attention slipping away from her as a short, curly haired blonde takes the stage and starts warming up on her blue acoustic guitar. My mouth drops open. Her band’s playing? Where the hell is Epiphany?
The woman next to me slams down her hi-ball glass on the bar, shattering my panic. “I said, my name’s Les. What do you go by?”
“Natrea.” I offer, embarrassed for tuning her out. Still, I can’t help but look back at Judy as her hands fly over the guitar strings as she bends over her guitar in concentration. The single yellow stage light focused on her makes her seem like she’s the only person left in the world. The classical piece she’s warming up with reminds me of something she used to play for the Prince of Orange before his assassination.
“They must be really good for a warmup to catch your attention like that. Guess I’m in for something good.” She orders a second glass of gin-straight-and I turn down her offer to buy me a beer. Suddenly, I don’t trust myself to drink around her. She orders me some onion rings instead. “You look like you’ve had one meal too few, Ma.” She says, with a teasing smile. By the time I get my onion rings, she’s already finished her gin, and she’s ordering another. I watch her for any sign of unsteadiness, but her smile just gets bigger.
“You might want to slow down there, Momma.” I say, teasing back.
She just laughs. “This lite shit? I ain’t even gotten started yet.” I smile crookedly out of the side of my face, minimizing my chuckle into a snort. Only time will tell if she’s bluffing, but given the fact the fact that she can drink gin without gagging, I have a feeling she’s telling the truth. While the two of us talk about classic rock vs. classic funk, the rest of Judy’s band shows up. The lead singer, a spiky haired thirty-year old with frosted tips and wearing black nail polish on his fingernails, looks like he’s drunk already, and he almost stumbles off the stage, righting himself at the last minute. When the band starts playing ‘Without You’, my ears scream from the pain of hearing the singer wail like a vomiting puppy. Les shakes her head after the first verse. “You had me going there, Ma. You said they were good!”
I look at Judy, still playing her best despite the anti-music that’s going on next to her. “They are. Toss the singer out and they’d be halfway decent. Well, with her, more than halfway.” I nod at Judy.
“You know her?”
I have to laugh at that. “Yes and no. Me and her go way back.”
Les leans closer to me, looking bat-shit crazy with that grin on her face. “Like back and forth way back?”
I laugh again. “What?”
Les flicks her eyes over to Judy, then back at me. “She’s looking at you.” I turn around to see Judy smiling at me as she plays. I stare back, and again, Les has to tap me to get my attention. “Y’all together?”
“What? Hell no!” I respond on instinct.
“I ain’t judging you if you’re that way. That’s your business. All I’m saying is…you went in on that girl! In a good way!” With a rumbling boom that sounds almost like laughter, she nudges me in the side. I just manage to keep my behind on the barstool by grabbing the edge of the bar. She’s not trying to be violent, she’s a big girl after all, but damn! After I adjust myself, not admitting to any injury, Les continues. “I got two girls in my band like that. As soon as a gig’s over, there they go. Out to a motel, going in each other’s pussy.” I don’t know which is more shocking, the fact that Les is in a band, or the fact that she knows two other women like me. “Denial ain’t healthy. You ever ask ‘em what they do to each other, and they’ll say, ‘Nothing’s going on Les. Oh my God, gross!’ and then off they go again. To the motel.” She raises her glass in front of her and looks at me over the top of the rim, shrinking her large eyes into a kind of glare that is all hers. "That ain’t healthy for them, and it ain’t for you neither.”
I think about what she said. What would I have to lose by at least getting to know Judy? After all, it seems like she’s bound to show up anywhere I am. Even when she doesn’t mean to. I know it’s careless to change my mind all of a sudden, but as long as we aren’t alone together, I think I’ll be okay. I look at Judy and let myself smile back at her. She glows then, and does an unexpected riff on her guitar. I bob my head to her melody, letting it reach inside me and pull out a little joy. After the end of her set, she puts her guitar down onstage and damn near runs to me.
“Hey. When’d you get here?” She’s already sweaty from the short hour she’s been playing, and even through the hazy, tobacco smoke of the bar, I can smell her tropical perfume: coconut, mint, and pineapple.
“A little while ago.” I reply, looking everywhere but at her. She blushes, and doesn’t say anything. I guess she’s just glad I’m here and not trying to curse her out again.
“How long you been with the band?” asks Les.
Judy stares at her, then gives me a hurt dying look before dropping her head a little. “About six months.”
Les laughs like a rumbling mountain. “I ain’t no competition, girl! Me and Natrea are just sitting here having a conversation.”
Judy blows out the breath she’s been holding. I roll my eyes at Les. Les just snorts at me, and winks at Judy. “What did you think about my skills?” Judy asks me shyly.
“You were good. For someone with your experience.” I tell her. I can’t give her too much credit considering she’s known how to play the guitar since she’s been sixteen.
Les looks at me kind of funny. “Well.” she says loudly before turning to Judy. “You were damn good.”
“Can I buy you guys a drink?”
I shake my head no, but Les nods. “Sure. Sit down. It ain’t too often I give a goddamn about new people. But y’all are cool as shit.”
We talk more about music, and I’m surprised by Judy’s musical knowledge. Her favorite bands are Santana, Living Color, Heart, and lots of others. All of us talk about our favorite riffs, our favorite melodies, and our favorite voices.
“Judy! What the hell are you doing? We have to start our last set!” says a tall, thin man with a goatee and long, dyed black hair. Apparently he’s a natural red-head because his eyebrows are as orangey as apricots. His eyes are sea foam green, and he’s got dark circles underneath them, like two brown hammocks. He looks too tired to be handsome. He might be otherwise.
“Why can’t you show me some respect and act like I have at least half a brain cell? Jesus!” She flails her arm in a shooing gesture before turning back to me. “Are you gonna…hang around until after my last set?” She asks me.
“It’s real late for me-” I mutter, trying to get my way out of it.
“You ain’t going nowhere. You gotta meet my people. They’re coming right now.” orders Les, as if that’s the end of it.
“I have work tomorrow.” I say specifically.
“Mm-hmm. At what time?” Her voice is heavy with disbelief.
“Two-thirty. But I sleep ‘til twelve.”
Les guffaws. “Girl!”
I mirror Les’s grin. “What? I was dead serious!”
Apricot Brows cuts into our conversation. “Damn it, Judy. I know Rex sounds like shit up there, but we’ve still got a gig to get through. The sooner, the better.”
Judy’s left eye starts to twitch in agitation. “I’ve still got three minutes.” He just shakes his head at her and walks away. Judy puffs up her cheeks, and deflates like a balloon. “So, are you staying or not? I really have to get back out there.”
Les snorts. “Are you gonna play harder if she does? I saw you staring her down while you were up there.”
Judy blushes, redder than I’ve ever seen her before. “Well…I like her.” After realizing what she blurted, she stomps her foot. “Opinion. I meant opinion. I meant that in a totally platonic, non-sexual way, and I think I need to go now. Okay. Thanks. Bye.” She then proceeds to back into a waitress, and ends up apologizing for the next minute and a half, while shooting embarrassed glances at me and Les.
Les just shakes her head and finishes her sixth glass of gin as Judy gets back onstage. “Damn. You that good, huh?” Now it’s my turn to do the shoving. I elbow her in the side. Hard. She doesn’t even wobble. I honestly don’t even know why I’m offended. I’m not sure if I’m good in bed or not. Sex isn’t something I’ve tried this time around. “Look at her.” I’m afraid to, but I do it anyway. Judy’s trembling so bad, her guitar is slipping through her fingers. “She’s pheeming for you bad. What? You cut her off?”
“Hey, Leslene.” says a bubbly blonde from behind her suddenly. She’s medium heighted and curvy, with long, bleached blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. She’s wearing a Philadelphia Eagles jersey, and tight jeans. A taller, spray tanned brunette in a silver and white glitter tank top is standing next to her, off to the side, observing me briefly before focusing on Les. I don’t know what that’s all about. Both of them look alright in their own way. The blonde’s got a warm, bright pretty look about her. The brunette looks like she’d be better off as a free-standing statue in a museum somewhere. I think of them as Hot & Cold immediately.
“Don’t make me call you by your government name, Correy-Ann Lisa Stimson!” Les says it so loud, even the busy bartender takes notice.
“Damn it, Les! Giving my name away like that!” Exclaims the blonde, squeezing her eyes closed.
“You started it. Best believe I’m a finish it. Quit playing around, Stimson, and meet this girl right here.” says Les, pointing at me.
I introduce myself, and we all decide to get a table so we can sit down and talk. We manage to grab one from two couples who are staggering towards the door to escape Rex’s horrible banshee shrieks during “Can’t Get No Satisfaction”. How Judy can manage to smile and play is beyond me. Again, I get distracted and stare at her until someone pokes me. It’s the brunette, Cox. She gives me a long, questioning look. I know where she’s going with that expression: Why are you staring that girl down like that? And why is she looking at you? I just shrug. I don’t want to talk about me and Judy, so I talk about music instead.
Stimson prefers the 60s sound: pure vocal harmony backed by any and every instrument you can think of. Les, being a singer as she tells me, admires all the interesting vocalists: Betty Davis, Serj Tankian, Jay Gordan, Sade Adu, and of course, Tina Turner. Cox doesn’t seem to care as long as the bass is deep and heavy. I don’t have a musical preference. It all depends on my mood. I’ve got everything on my computer from opera and jazz to punk and hard rock.
I have to admit, everyone at the table seems to know music pretty well. I don’t why I’m allowing myself to relax so much, and that bothers me. What is about these three that sets me at ease? I don’t even know them!
Towards the end of the night, Cox and Stimson get up to go. The bar is nearly empty, thanks to the lead singer of Cherry Blue. “Remember, practice is at four-thirty you two.” says Les, and then she gives both of them a very wide grin. “Y’all gonna be out of the motel by then?”
The both of them stare at her hard. “That is not funny, Les.” says Cox.
“I wasn’t trying to be.” Les says with a wink. I want to believe Les is joking. That’s she’s just giving her bandmates some shit as an inside joke.
It’s only then when Cox and Stimson leave, and I see them walking closer to each other outside the bar, that I understand why they put me at ease.
Les orders her seventh glass of gin. “This is my last one. Sop’ll be here soon.”
“Sop?” What the hell kind of a name is Sop, I wonder.
“As in Aesop. He’s late.” Her voice sounds flat.
A few minutes later, a tall, skinny man walks in and starts looking around. He’s as dark as UPS, and both his shaved head and gold rings gleam despite the blackness of the bar. Finally, his eyes settle on Les, and he makes his way over. Up close, I can tell he has a neatly trimmed short beard, and is wearing a Walter Payton throwback jersey. “Eh, The Simpsons left yet? I meant The Stimsons!” He laughs loudly, and leans down to kiss Les, but she turns her cheek away.
“You forget something?” She says, without looking at him.
The man frowns. “I know you’re not trying to get an attitude. Especially since you act like you can’t answer your phone.”
Les turns and looks at him with a fresh scowl. “If you had called me, I would have heard my phone ring, so you didn’t call me to tell me nothing.”
He raises his cellphone and dials a number. I can audibly hear that the voice mailbox of Les Curry is full. Les looks like she’s about to cry. “I’m sorry, baby.”
“Mm-hmm.” He lifts the corner of his mouth up in annoyance, and this time, she accepts his kiss.
“Natrea, this is my man, Aesop.” She says with a slight smile.
I nod at him. “Hey.”
“Hey, you. She didn’t bite you, did she? This one’s good for that.” Les swats him on the butt. He looks at her with hurt, sober expression. “You lucky I love you.”
“You lucky I let you love me.”
“Hmm. I guess that means I should leave you here then.”
“I guess you should, then.” Les folds her arms, unimpressed by his faux hurt feelings.
“How you gonna get home? You already look drunk up. You can’t stop smiling for more than half a damn second.”
Les chuckles warmly, closing her eyes. “Don’t worry about it.”
“You’re my woman, dammit. It’s my business to see you home.”
Les winks at him lazily. “Alright, then. I guess I’ll let you take me home.”
“That’s what I thought.” He gives her another kiss before sitting next to her.
I find myself smiling at their exchange. They remind me of my parents with their harsh teasing. Eventually, my focus drifts back to Judy, who’s ending the last song. The lead singer mumbles something about goodnight and whiskey, but I can’t make out the rest of it.
“Wait.” Judy mouths to me from the stage as she scrambles to get her guitar in it’s case and comes over to me. “Do…you mind if I walk you out?” she asks breathlessly.
“Not without my number.” Les interupts fluidly. She hands us two green business cards. Judy slips hers into the back of her jeans. I glance at mine. Embossed underneath bold white letters that say ‘Sugar Free!’ is Les’s information as lead singer of the band. “I’ll see y’all later.” Les goes back to loving her man in her own special way.
When me and Judy get outside to the curb by the parking lot, I turn to her and start to panic. Suddenly, being alone with her doesn’t seem very smart, especially since she still looks good despite the messy hair and the sweat that’s stained her tank top on her stomach and back. “Look. I don’t know what you think this is, but I didn’t come here to see you. Epiphany usually plays here.” I blurt. All of that’s true, but it doesn’t explain why I didn’t leave, or why I’m out here talking to her, instead of back there getting to know Les and Sop.
Judy studies me, thinking the same thing I am. Her face glows underneath the green and blue fluorescent “Wreck’s Bar’ sign. “Would you kick my butt if I told you how good you look tonight?”
I shake my head to say something negative, but I don’t. “I wouldn‘t do that.”
She smiles wide, and then looks down at her feet as a few drunk stragglers lurch out of the bar. They almost trip over the curb. “Thanks for that. I never thanked you for pulling me out of that bleed-through.” Judy says, nervously biting her lip.
I raise an eyebrow at that, unable to look away from her mouth. “You shouldn’t be thanking me. I was a rude bitch.” I pause, waiting for her to rub it in that I’m actually admitting I was wrong about something. But she doesn’t. She just stares back at me and waits for me to fill the empty, darkened night with words. “Why do you call it a bleed-through?”
She winces. “You’re gonna think I’m weird if I tell you.”
I tilt my head and smile slightly. “I don’t think it’s possible for you to be any weirder.”
She takes a deep breath before continuing. “Well, it’s like the vision bleeds into what I am now, like a wound bleeding through a gauze bandage.”
I wrinkle my forehead, and show my teeth in disgust. “That’s sick.”
“Sorry. Usually I can shake off a vision, but on rare occasions, a bleed-through happens.” I look away, feeling my eyes sting. I don’t get bleed-throughs. I feel bad for her. At least I can shove away what happens to me to the back of my mind all the time. I never thought it’d be possible to get stuck like that. “Oh, sweetie…” Judy says, rubbing my shoulder. “…it’s okay. I always snap out of it sooner or later. You don’t have to feel bad about it, or anything. Tell you what. Let’s change the subject. How long have you known Les?”
That makes me smile. “Not very long.”
“She makes me feel comfortable. I don’t feel that way around too many people. Know what I mean?”
I nod. “Yeah. I do.”
She wrinkles her forehead, and dangles her sandaled foot off the side of the curb before pulling it back onto solid ground. “But what’s up with her drinking?” She asks me quietly. “Is everything alright with her?”
“I don’t know her well enough to say one way or the other. And she seems happy enough, drunk or sober.” I shake my head. I’ve never been completely comfortable with judging someone. “I don’t like spreading rumors, let alone hearing them.”
Judy nods. “Fair enough. But she must have really been through something to drink like that, don’t you think? After all, I only ever drank like that after losing you.”
I lift my chin up at that, hearing the exaggeration for what it is. “She seems perfectly happy with Sop.”
“Maybe. Or maybe he eases her pain a little.”
“You really think there’s something wrong?”
The little blonde stares at me hard. “Don’t you?”
I make myself think about it for a moment, going over Les’s face in my head. There’s a little acid that flavors Les’s smile, like vinegar. And there seems to be a strain behind her large eyes that I don’t understand. “There might be.” I admit.
“Don’t ever ignore your gut. You’ve got a lot more experience to base your instincts on than most people.”
I roll my eyes. “So we both have ‘The Wisdom of The Ancients’ ?”
Judy snorts, and then laughs. “Solomon was wise about everyone except himself. I don’t think I want that kind of wisdom. I’ll settle for being experienced.”
“You’re definitely not wise if you’ve been chasing after me all this time, so I’d have to agree.”
Judy intimately trails her forefinger across the back of my neck, and leans close. “You haven’t been trying to get away from me all night, so maybe I know something you don’t know.”
I lift up the side of my mouth in a smirk. “What could you possibly know that I don’t?”
“Remember what you said the last time we had a conversation? You said I didn’t know you, right?”
“One of the many things that hasn’t changed is that you place a high priority on safety. All I have to do is convince you that you’re safe with me.”
My skin tightens at her words. I clench my hands closed into fists by my sides. “I’m not safe anywhere. Anything could happen.”
She touches my elbow slightly. “Natrea. You’re safe with me. I’m not like some of the other times before. I do genuinely care about you.” I turn to look at her, and her eyes contain a mixture of concern and…oh no. Oh no. Anything but that! I can deal with her wanting to screw my brains out, but I can’t deal with the way she’s looking at me now. I find myself scanning the nearly-empty parking lot for my little white Ford, which seems to glow with the electricity of the distant blue moon. I’d give anything right for my car to be within jumping distance right now. “Trea, please-”
The door to the bar behind us opens, and out walks Les and Aesop. “I thought y’all would be gone by now! What are y’all still doing out here?” Asks Les.
I take a sideways step to put some distance between me and Judy. Aesop pulls his girlfriend close, and leans his face towards her. “Les. Can’t you see ol’ girl was trying to get some?” he says with a hissed tone.
Les covers her mouth, but can’t keep her laughter hidden. “My bad. Y’all are more than welcome to come to our practice tomorrow.”
“I’ll be there.” Me and Judy say at the same time. We look at each other in confusion.
“Wait. I work tomorrow.” I admit.
Les waves away my concern. “Just be by after you get off. And after you get off work!”
I groan and roll my eyes. “Didn’t I tell you we aren’t together?”
“Whatever you want to call it. That’s on you. But when you two get done, come by.” Aesop puts his arm around Les’s waist and they glide down the parking lot to Aesop’s blacked-out Mazda.
“I’ve got to go.” I tell Judy before she can finish what she started. I start walking towards my car.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” She calls after me.
I wake up singing. I can’t understand what I’m saying, so I sit up and force myself to take a few deep breaths. I turn on the pink and white lamp on my night stand, and let a warm pink glow coat everything in my room. The lamp happens to be in the shape of Hello Kitty, a gift from my little sister when I turned thirteen. I don’t like Hello Kitty, or pink and white together in any capacity, but since Fee gave it to me, I tolerate it in my room. After my eyes adjust to sudden light, I settle on the oak and black Fisher speakers with the old Technics turntable resting on top of them both like a hut made of dominos, standing next to my walk-in closet. I saved the whole hi-fi set from being tossed out by my parents a few years ago. Did I go to sleep listening to Stone Sour? Red Hot Chili Peppers? The Smashing Pumpkins? Is that why I was singing in my sleep just now?
I sing the chorus out. “But I know that if we gave it, one more shot we may be saved yet, but I think that we’d be wasting time. Oh, time. Drowned in regret and sagging pride. Oh, time. Woah, time. Drowned in regret in sagging pride.” I shake my head. I’ve done it again. I’ve written my first song out of thin air yet again. For the first time I’m seriously starting to doubt my sanity. My life isn’t normal, but it’s my normal. I don’t like new things. And I don’t like unexplained new things. I write the lyrics in an old notebook I keep on my dresser for no particular reason, and decide to get a drink of water. I glance at the Hello Kitty lamp again. There’s another reason I keep it by my bed. It has a digital clock on it in the shape of a barrette saucily tilted on the cartoon cat’s head. According to the barrette, it’s just six o’clock now. I’ve only been asleep for three hours since I got back from Wreck’s Bar.
When I open my door, Fee’s standing right there in the hallway. I squint as the bright yellow hallway floods my senses. After a few careful blinks, I take a look at my little sister. She stands five foot three, with her curly hair rising up around her face like some kind of elaborate headdress. Her rectangular red-framed glasses are resting in her hair like a mini crown. She looks the same as she did a few months ago: the same wide impish nose like mine, and round cheeks with a little dimple on the side of her chin. In the hallway light, her skin gleams, like some dark lacquered wood. “That was you singing?” She asks me. Fee came home for the weekend because she needs to talk to me. I’m not sure what about.
“Yeah. Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.” I murmur, rubbing my eyes.
“I was up anyway. You sounded really good.” She smiles sideways like I do, except her snaggletooth makes her grin slightly cuter than mine.
I lift the side of my mouth slightly so our expressions match up. “And this is why you’re my favorite little sister. Your flattery is the best.”
Fee puts on her glasses and rolls her eyes. “Bitch please! I better be your only little sister. And you know I don’t do flattery. You are simply: The shit.”
“Officially. I figured that out ever since Mr. Wembley started getting on my ass about my voice. He said he heard you singing in homeroom one day, but he could never get you to join chorus. He said the kind of singing you did had to be genetic. I was like, ‘Excuse me? Do you not see all the damn awards and other off the chain shit I’ve been getting for my art? Let me do me, please.’ Well, I didn’t say that. That would have been rude. I thought it though.” She giggles, making her snaggletooth look like a friendly tusk. Strangely enough, her giggles sound like the ones our Dad has; shaky belly laughter. “But seriously. You should audition for American Idol this year. Fantasia winning last year was fucked up.”
I look to the side. “No. I don’t want the spotlight. Lights attract a lot of shadows too.”
“You crazy as hell. If I could sing half as good as you, I’d have gone triple platinum by now.”
I chuckle. Sometimes my sister can be so cute it hurts. “Talent doesn’t equal success. Music is a business. You’ve got to have more than a voice. You’ve got to look like a model and screw the producer to get ahead. I don’t have the stomach for plastic surgery or a side job as a fluffer.”
Fee wrinkles her nose, making her glasses tilt to the left. “Why would you need plastic surgery? You’re really pretty.”
I do my funny little sideways smile again. “Thanks, Fee.”
“I came home, because I need to show you something. And I really need your advice.” Fee leads me across the hall towards her bedroom, lit by her eclectic mix of yellow and white stage lights and desk lights that she has hanging on the walls. As usual, her room contains: modified rolling bookcases filled with jars of paint, easels, and canvas; At least a hundred paintings that’s she’s done over the years, carefully wrapped up in silicone paper and separated by thin sheets of cardboard lining the floor of the room like books; And a few easels here and there, uncharacteristically empty. Fee begged Dad to take her dresser and armoire out of here(so she could have more room for her paintings)ages ago. The only piece of normal furniture in the entire room is her bed(randomly shoved up against a wall)with no headboard. I step carefully into Fee’s room, not knowing if I’ll disturb a half-dried blob of paint. Ma got wise to this years ago, and had Dad rip out the carpet in here and replace it with cherry laminate wood. Thankfully, the only paint on the floor is dry, because Fee hasn’t painted here in months. Fee pulls out a canvas-wrapped picture frame from underneath her bed. It’s a 16 x 20. “Could you set up an easel for me while I tell you what’s up?”
“Which easel?” I ask, surveying the twenty-something easels in her room, which, without paintings to display, look like Eiffel Tower skeletons.
“The only one important enough to keep folded up.” She grins widely. “My favorite one.” I look around and see a dark red velveteen pouch about three feet high leaning against a wall. After uncinching the bag, I start assembling the ebony easel I made for Fee. I knew she really liked the look of dark wood against her more colorful portraits, so I decided to make her one myself as a high school graduation present. I finally found an old solid ebony dresser that I broke apart and made into the easel, using nothing more than a few hand saws, chisels, and a hammer. “How did you make it any way? I would have caught you making it if you had used Dad’s power tools.”
I gave her my usual half-smile. “Just some old school skills I picked up.” Which is all I can tell her.
“That’s weird. Considering you never took any shop classes in high school.” She shakes her head at me. I go back to assembling the easel, straightening out the four legs, and adjusting the height so that we’ll be able to view the painting at eye level. When I turn to look at Fee, she’s running her hands over the edges of the canvas-covered painting, biting her lip in frustration. I’m guessing she didn’t paint her usual happy person this time.
“On with it.” I say, brushing off an odd crawling sensation over the skin on my forearms. “What’s this all about?”
Fee steps forward and sets the painting on the easel. “ I painted JoJo last week. I think it’s my best work yet.” Her voice sounds wavery and unsure of itself. “But I’ll need a second opinion on that.”
I shudder, even though the room isn‘t cold. I guess her crush has become a distraction after all. “The best painting you ever did was ‘The Monster’. It was also the worst thing you ever painted.”
She looks at me and takes a deep breath. “The reason why ‘The Monster’ was so real is because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I focused so much on painting as much as I could see of him, I didn’t realize who he was. After that, I tried not to dig so deep when I painted someone. I chose safe, average people who were uncommonly happy. I thought that would make up for everything I found out with the first portrait. How some people really are deep inside. So since then, I’ve just been painting the surface. No one really wants to be an open book.” Fee runs her hand over the bottom of the covered painting. “But I just couldn’t help myself with JoJo. I figured once I was done painting her portrait, I would know how she felt about me.” She walks over to one of the desk lamps attached to the wall, and replaces one of the standard one hundred and ten volt light bulbs with a yellow one. After turning on that one, and another one with a regular light in it, she twists the two lamps until their lights join to make one single, off-white spotlight onto the still hidden portrait.
“What do you mean? Couldn’t you just tell that by looking at her?”
Fee sighs and turns her head, making the bright lights shine on her glasses, so I can‘t see her eyes. “A lot of emotions look like love, but aren’t. There’s compassion, sympathy, empathy…” She shakes her head, and the lights clash against her glasses and onto some forgotten red pigments on a bookshelf across the room. Fee rests an arm across the top of the canvas, twirling a piece of loose twine between her thumb and forefinger. “ I just wanted to understand what I saw in her eyes when she looked at me.”
“What did you find out?” Fee rips the canvas off of the painting in one fluid motion. Within a thick gilt frame is the bust of a woman against a background of swirling midnight and powder blue. JoJo is facing forward as if to suggest the darkness is all behind her. Her warm, gingerbread complexion coats her skin from her forehead to her to her pleated red top. Her face is pleasantly oval, with round cheeks and chin. Over a rather wide nose is a set of lacquer-like dark brown eyes. Her mahogany hair is highlighted with palladium, beginning with a widow’s peak and ending in a magnificent braid on the top of her head.
After staring at the portrait for more than five seconds, my eyes travel back to JoJo’s shiny-looking brown eyes. I am slammed by the painful regret I find there. I hold my breath as I force my vision away to her mouth, barely upturned at the corners, and I see that she is laughing, at first at me, and then with me. My gaze dances back and forth between the pain in her eyes, and the amusement in her mouth, until the joy wins, and her face seems to relax, easing into an emotion I am much too familiar with.
Fee touches my side, and I inhale instinctively. “Sorry. If I’d known she was gonna have that effect on you, I would have warned you.”
I take a seat on Fee’s bed, and take a deep breath. “She’s very beautiful. And interesting. I think she’s beautiful because she’s interesting, not the other way around.” My brain is momentarily stunned as I try to come up with someone, anyone who is more beautiful than JoJo. Finally, from the fog emerges Judy’s name and likeness. And not because she’s white. It’s because Judy is Her.
“What else do you think about JoJo?” I find it funny that Fee is referring to this somewhat older woman by a nickname. With her regal bearing, she looks like she would prefer to be called Josephine.
I look at the portrait again to make sure. Yes, there is no question in my mind. “Is this how she looks at you all the time?”
“Yes. Especially lately. Before she was kind of standoffish. Polite, but distant. Tell me what you see.” Fee urges me.
I sigh, wishing I wasn’t so experienced at knowing people like I do. “There is something she regrets doing. Something or someone that hurt her before. You make her laugh, and feel at peace with herself.”
“You know there’s more.” Fee tells me in a quiet, hopeful way.
“Well, I didn’t want to say this before, but she likes you. She sees a little of herself in you. Like a niece.” I study Fee’s reaction to my lie. She scrunches up her forehead, and then looks at the painting for a long time. I am lying to Fee because Josephine reminds me of myself; walled off and closed to everyone. I don’t want Fee running after someone who will never admit the attraction is mutual. I’m afraid if Fee keeps on going in this direction, my bright little sun will become a dim little moon. A shadowy reflection of her former self. This is a lesson in heartbreak that my sister doesn’t need now. Not as a freshman in college. I’m angry with myself for encouraging Fee in the first place, but I didn’t know what kind of woman she was falling for. Maybe I can undo some of the damage that I’ve caused.
Fee looks at the painting until her natural, deep giggles take over. It’s a good thing Ma and Dad are gone. Otherwise, they would have woken up for sure. “Damn, Trea. You lied like a boss just now. Straight faced. No chaser.” The way she’s calling me out makes me feel even worse for doing it, especially since she’s not even angry at me. “I know what you’re thinking. You think I’m not grown enough to love somebody. You forget I have a lot of experience with loving difficult people.” I frown. Now she’s starting to sound like Judy. “Maybe not a lot of experience,” adds Fee, misunderstanding my expression. “But some. Think about Ma and Dad.”
Our parents have a strange relationship. A strange mixture of uneven education levels and giant chunks of time spent apart. When both of them do find a way of being home together, no more than five times a month, my mother puts him to work on home improvement projects. Their usual bi-monthly argument consists of her telling him, to his face, “Doesn’t an award-winning head nurse deserve a man who is at least financially on her level?” To which he always replies, arms folded, and jaw clenched “Well, what do you expect from a truck driver who only has a trade school education?” My father is the only person my mother can’t intimidate into total submission, which she respects. And for his part, my mother is the only woman that my father allows to keep him regulated to a stationary southern suburban life, at least when he’s home.
“They love each other.” Fee continues with a grin, her teeth glinting like pearls from the light in the room. “You can look at them and tell.” I have to agree with that. When my mother and father are in the same room together, she is less focused on trying to be Superwoman, and he could care less about the thousands of interesting people he’s met on the road. They can be themselves with each other, and while ‘I love you’ aren’t words I’ve ever heard them say, neither is ‘divorce’, or ‘you’re cheating’.
“That doesn’t mean that things will work out between you and Josephine. I mean, have you even talked to her, outside of ordering your coffee?”
Fee winces. “Yes. I usually end up looking like a dumbass. Sometimes I trip over my feet and turn my New Balances into Old Unstables. Other times, I talk too fast, and one time I made the really bad mistake of telling her she looked good…for her age.”
I shake my head. “Do you take a ride on the short bus to and from Starbucks? And who wears New Balances anyway?”
Fee puts her hand in my face. “I’m gonna ignore you throwing shade for right now, but anyway…”
“I was not throwing shade! I promise. But how are you going to get past her laughing her behind off at you?”
With that, Fee bites her lip and looks at the portrait again. For some reason, she seems to be glowing. Like she‘s got some weird halo around her whole body. I start to rub my eyes. I really need to get my ass back to sleep. I will not add preventable hallucinations to my list of problems. Thankfully, the rest of the room is starting to lighten up, so I realize I’m not hallucinating. It’s just a few rays from the morning sun coming through the blinds. “Maybe things should stay the way they are. I mean, I don’t think she’d be able to stand me painting for twenty hours a day when I have a subject, not to mention I can’t even take her complimenting me without freezing up.”
I massage my temples, feeling irritated from the ever-brightening sunlight, and the lack of a point with this conversation. “Great! So why did you even ask my opinion and disturb my sleep for this?”
At that, Fee’s shoulders slump down. “I just thought you’d be happy somebody loved me.”
I fold my arms sternly. “This kind of love is dead end, Fee.”
“Oh really, you’d be happier if I just tried to forget her by moving on to some random chick? How is that any better?!” A few spontaneous tears pop out from her left eye and spill down over her cheek. She hurriedly scrubs them away with the back of her hand before turning away from me and facing the sunrays spilling into her room. “Can I ask you something, Trea?”
I study her silhouette for awhile, wondering why she can’t look me in the eye. “Go ahead.”
“Do you love me?”
“Stop acting a fool, Fee-”
“Answer me!” Her anger surprises me.
“Of course. You know that.”
“How would I know that? You never want to hug me. You cringe if I kiss you on the cheek. You back away if I get closer than six inches to you. How I would I know if you love me or not?” I don’t say anything. What can I say? Sure I’ve made her a few things, been a good big sister to her, been there when Ma and Dad have been physically M.I.A. But so what? My advice and guidance has been meaningless to Fee. She’s needed everything I can’t give her. Everything I can’t give anyone. Finally Fee calms down, and looks at me. She puts her glasses in her hair and wipes away more tears, before giving me a soft sad chuckle. “My experience with loving difficult people isn’t limited to Ma and Dad, you know. I know you love me, even though you won’t hug me by choice and say it. I may be only eighteen, and I act my age. I may not always know what I’m doing or what’s gonna happen once I finish doing what I’m doing. But I do know what love is. And I’m not going to settle for flings, or distractions. Even if all I get from her is the grande vanilla espresso I have to pay for, I think that’s enough, knowing she loves me.”
“You drink espressos? That is bougie as hell…” I snicker.
“Maybe. But at least I get extra whipped cream on top. Even if I’m too tired not to be stunned by her, she always remembers my order.” Fee’s grin is back, but that’s not too surprising. She’s doing that weird glowing thing again, but this time it’s the glow reserved for married or pregnant women. I seriously need to go back to sleep.
“Whatever. You win…whatever.” I say with a loud yawn.
“Alright. Sorry I woke you up.”
I turn towards my room, but thinking better of it, I look back towards Fee. She’s looking at the portrait again. Yes, the feeling is definitely mutual between them, but only time will tell if that’s a good thing or bad thing.