There was rapture on Judy’s face when she painted. Gentle worry lines smoothed into an open expression of impatient joy; she wanted it to last forever and she wanted it to be over, over, right now. Her paintbrush flicked across the canvas, white blending into yellows and blues, a transformation happening in front of her eyes. It was the steadiest her hands had been in months. She peered at the half-finished picture and a little girl peered back, each wearing the same expression of wide-eyed intensity. Mirror-images; mother and daughter, almost. Judy hadn’t figured out a way to pull her from the painting yet.
“These crystals are starting to look awful voodoo-y,” Jen said, her voice rippling through Judy’s concentration. Tilting her head over her shoulder, there were too many seconds wasted in stolen appreciation. Jen’s back was to her. A wine glass was held in one hand, the other toying with a crystal (was that one for sleep or fertility?), her hip cocked to the side in that familiar way. Familiar to Judy, but most of Jen’s body had been kept as a still image in her mind.
Her shirt was sagging off her shoulder, or perhaps it was meant to look like that, all pleasantly dishevelled. Her bra strap was so black against her tan skin, demanding all attention. Judy was flustered. She was more than flustered, she was heated at the sight, the smooth skin and the black bra line, the promises it held.
“They help,” Judy replied. It was a worn conversation, but they both liked the taste of the words in their mouth.
“Which one of these is going to summon a plague of frogs to my house?”
“I wouldn’t put those where I’m staying! They’re in your bedroom.”
Jen laughed in that summer air way she did. It was like a flower had bloomed in her throat and petals were drifting out, each one merry and red. Her head tipped over her shoulder, the sharp profile of her jaw and nose, the plush pink of her lips. Judy was five steps past heated and she could feel the judging eyes of her painting-child. It was a sort of birth, the painting, an immaculate conception that didn’t require Steve. Just her own hands, and her own mind, and nothing could take it away from her.
“What are you up to?” Jen walked over to her, glass pressed against her lips. No, not walked; she swayed, carried on a breeze like a leaf that was destined to fall into Judy’s greedy, outstretched hands. No, she walked with purpose – it was no mistake, it wasn’t destiny. It was something more powerful.
She ran through the excuses she’d give Steve when he looked at her work. It was nothing. It was a hobby. It was a silly way to pass the time.
“Painting. It keeps me calm. And it’s fun to teach at work.” Jen’s hand was on her back. It wasn’t a brush, it wasn’t featherlight; it said I’m here. It was a touch without shame and with purpose. Judy leaned into her, resting her head against Jen’s chest.
“Do you only draw kids?”
“No.” A pause, Jen taking a long drink from her glass as she waited for Judy to speak. No one had ever waited for Judy to speak. “Yes. But it’s not weird. They’re not real kids.”
There were five, drawn over and over again. Mary, Lucy, Annabelle, Laura, Beth – she didn’t like any of the names. They were Steve’s names, after cousins and grandmas and aunts. Putting her brush down, she fiddled with the painting until it unlatched itself from the easel, dropping it to the floor. “It’s not weird.”
“I wasn’t going to say it was weird.”
“I can paint other things.”
“I mean it.”
It wasn’t an argument, but it had the framework of one. It had all the right words, and all the right tones, but Jen let the world know when she was arguing. They blinked at each other, Jen’s hand combing through Judy’s hair, waiting for that smile to grace her lips. Oh, there it was. Not quite immaculate conception when someone else has a hand in it. “What else do you like to paint?”
“Oh, things,” Judy murmured, standing up to put the painting aside. She’d like it better when it was dry. No one could ruin it, then. There would be no smudges. “People. Grown people.”
“Grown people like me?”
“You are a grown person.” Hesitation snake-bit her serpent tongue. “I could paint you.”
The laughter that poured from Jen’s lips was not soft, there were no delicate lilting notes – it was a squawk, the sound of a trapped bird, and Judy was sure she could listen to it, and nothing else, for years without getting bored. “I’m not much to paint.”
“You can’t mean that.” Rush of words from Judy’s fountain mouth; Jen had turned the tap and Judy had no protection against her own words. She spoke without thought, which would be a talent if it wasn’t such a burden. “I want to paint you. Let me paint you.” Both of them were staring each other down – it took Judy an embarrassing amount of time to even notice it was happening. There was always shades of admiration in her glance, a glance that was not given to Jen sparingly. Abstract amount of times were wasted simply watching Jen, or actively trying not to watch her, or thinking about her when she was gone which just made her miss the times she was allowed to stare. Not that she was ever allowed – allowed wasn’t the right word. Her thoughts were all wrong. Jen blinked, turning her head to the side.
“You don’t have my skin colour. Unless you plan to paint me as green?”
“It’s called mixing, Jen. I’ll make it.”
Stress and humour mixed together on Jen’s features – she was taking tips from the painter, of course. Posing had never been something she was interested in (maybe once upon a time, whena she still dreamed of dancing, of living on the stage and breathing the music, and then – then she got married). The wine had numbed her tongue to the roof of her mouth, though. She barely had the power to say no. Who knew that constant day-drinking had consequences?
Hands found Jen’s shoulders, guiding her away from the easel to the centre of the room. Light fell better there than anywhere else, rivulets of gold tanning Jen’s already honeyed skin. There was something distinctly unfair about Jen being allowed to look the way she did; looks like hers were reserved for movie stars and angels, not for newly single mothers who smoked and drank and occasionally did weed. There was probably some secret good-looking crystals she was using – Judy would get to the bottom of it later. Sometimes, it was enough to appreciate.
A chair was brought up and Jen was guided into it. “Are you really going to paint me?”
“Do you have somewhere to be?”
“The kids will need to be picked up at four, actually.”
“How do I sit?” They weren’t arguing anymore. Or, maybe, an argument had been won. Fingers smoothed across Jen’s hair, the slight tremble of them masked as Judy heaved a sigh. It was pushed over her shoulders and then rearranged in front of them, her body twisted to the side slightly. “I feel like an idiot.”
“No, no, this is perfect,” Judy assured.
“I feel like I should take my shirt off. Isn’t that what models do?” Another squawk of laughter tripped in Jen’s throat; it was a fumbling noise, like it had dropped something and was quickly searching for it. It was a heavy noise, world-weary, burned in its own happiness.
“You could.” They were staring each other down again; no, Jen was staring. Judy was admiring. Worse than admiring, even; Judy was fantasying. There was so much skin hidden beneath that shirt, beneath those jeans (she saw little scraps of the skin when Jen wore a skirt, but it just made her hungrier).
“I’m not taking off my fucking shirt, Judy.” A dip buried itself beneath them. Judy huffed out a little laugh, a sprinkler on a summer lawn, to dull the sharp edge of the awkward silence.
“I know. I was just kidding. Sorry.” Another laugh was forced from Judy. Jen was staring and Judy kept her eyes on her feet as she moved back to her easel. Lines. There was lines, boundaries, big red crosses marked over things – Judy could only chip so far with her finger, she could only work away so much paint. Friends had blockades (how many secrets was Judy keeping tongue-tied?). Judy had never had many friends. Or, she had, once upon a time, but there was a new house and a Steve and no time at all for anyone else, not even herself. She was swallowed whole and choking herself.
“Don’t do that.”
“Do what?” Judy picked up her sketching pencil. Parts of it had worn away with use (like the sunspots on Jen’s arms, the man-made freckles, each one a little jagged and a lot beautiful). She gripped it so hard that she thought it would break apart, but ol’ trusty wouldn’t give up so easy.
“That wounded puppy look.”
“This is just my face.”
“I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
“It’s okay.” Judy wasn’t looking at Jen, which made the whole sketching thing a lot harder. She tried to work from memory, but everything about Jen was dull in her mind. She could never recreate the faint flush that spread over her cheeks like the fine sweep of a ballet dancer’s body, the delicate lift and rise of it as it settled. What hope had she of forming in her mind something which her eyes could barely take in? Jen was so, so much – too much to be captured on a canvas.
“You don’t always have to say that.”
“Say what?” Mixing colours, she tried to create the blushing pink of Jen’s lips. Was it tinged with red or white? Both, at once, a thousand different colours, a sunset made to kiss with. And to smoke.
“That – ‘it’s okay’ thing. Not everything has to be okay.”
“Well, this is okay.” Head popped over the easel, showing a broad smile flowering over Judy’s lips. It started off as insincere, to trick Jen into believing her so the conversation could move on and they didn’t have to argue anymore, but looking at Jen made it soften. It had only been seconds and she’d missed the other’s face. Red, that was the tinge of her lips, but only in the midday. After she had bit them and drank a lot.
“I don’t even remember what we’re arguing about.”
“We aren’t arguing. Am I raising my voice? No. Then we’re not arguing.” Judy wasn’t about to mention that Jen’s voice was drifting a little louder with every word. There were certain battles that didn’t need to be fought. Judy ducked her head again, sketching out the curve of Jen’s mouth – it was a little distorted when she spoke, the spark of anger ruminating in the harsh twist of her lips. Her eyes were half-lidded, a barely-there peek of her irises shining through.
When Judy raised her head to capture more glances, Jen’s shirt was off.
“Uh,” Judy said, with all the emotional literacy she could summon. There’s a bra still in place. It isn’t as if Judy could even see anything that was too abnormal; girls saw each other naked all the time. Well, she had seen other girls shirtless in the locker rooms at school, which was probably the last time she had enough friends to make any generalisations.
Jen was reaching behind herself to unbutton her bra. They were staring at each other – this time, the both of them were wide-eyed and hesitant, daring each other to say something, or do something. Jen let her bra slide away, before folding her arms over her chest with an embarrassed laugh. “Oh, God,” Jen said. “What am I doing?”
“It’s okay,” Judy said. Jen stared at her. “I mean it. Really, the – light, it looks. You look amazing.” Words were rushed together in her effort to get them out, like they were painful in her mouth, like they were the reason her heart was constricting in her chest. She shouldn’t look.
She was looking. She had to look – for painting and, so selfishly, for herself. They were white marks where her bra straps had been, showing off skin that was untouched by the sun, that was unlooked upon by anyone but – no, Judy wasn’t going to think about the last person who had seen that patch of unexplored skin. It was milky white, fanning out into a tan. Judy marked it out on her picture, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to recreate it. There were so many things about Jen that were one of a kind.
Her eyes drifted down, down. Jen’s shoulders were smaller than Judy would have thought. All of her body seemed a little more vulnerable without her shirt, like she’d scrubbed away a layer of herself for the big reveal. There wasn’t much to her chest, a canvas of skin littered with scars, but it still sparked the familiar heat in Judy. It was a soft buzzing around her fingertips and toes, a creeping promise, the hills of skin making her light-headed.
She couldn’t look, not really. It was more about stealing glances, here and there, ducking behind her canvas when she could to save herself.
“You’re beautiful,” Judy said. “You’re really, just, truly, beautiful.”
“Yeah, well. You, too, and all that.”
Judy peeked over the top of her easel, a broad smile framing her face. Jen returned it.