Orange and white scales glimmer in the sunlight, peppered with flecks of black that shift with every gentle ripple of the water. David studies the fish intently from the marble bench, balancing a pad of newsprint in his lap, his right hand stained with a charcoal so delicate that each stroke feels like it may well be his last. The stick glides across the pure white paper—the beginning of the end—leaving a trail of dark flakes in its warpath and David has to keep himself from brushing them away.
He prefers working with graphite over charcoal. Charcoal is messy, unrefined, too experimental, and easy to fuck up with one sudden movement—it reminds him too much of himself. There’s also an inexplicable freedom in it, a fluidity behind every stroke, blossoming from some innate part of David that neglects the embrace of the cynicism plaguing his teenage years. It’s a freedom he so desperately wants but knows he can never have. The cognitive dissonance alone should be enough to turn him away, but it doesn’t.
David stares at the koi as it circles the pond, his dark brows furrowing partly due to concentration and mostly due to the intensity of the sunlight that beats against his face. (He makes a mental note to ask his father about having more trees planted in the garden. Maybe a cherry blossom or four. If nothing else, it would make the spacious backyard feel a little less lonely.) The suggestion of a fish swims beneath his hands, fins and a tail fluttering behind a body that curves towards itself.
It doesn't look right. No matter how many times he pokes at the paper with a kneaded eraser to undo a false stroke, the outline is incorrect. Black and beady eyes laugh at him from the page, taunting him, critiquing his proportions. David huffs, sweeps his vine over the outline once, twice, three times, adding pressure with each pass, refining edges to the best of his ability.
The charcoal snaps, an explosion of dust raining down on his hands and on the drawing.
“Fuck!” David yelps.
Maybe it can still be saved. He flips the pad over the grass, shaking it in a desperate attempt to lose the particles that have collected on top when a voice chirps behind him. “I’m gonna tell Dad that you said that, David.”
David twists around to observe his sister, twelve years old but blessed with enough confidence to span a thousand lifetimes. (He’d always been envious of that.) “God, how long have you been standing behind me?” he questions. Alexis’ gaze shifts to the sketch in his hands, extending a long finger to caress the paper. David slaps her hand away and snaps the pad close to his body, hiding it from the world. “Don’t touch it.”
“Why not?” Alexis asks as though he's speaking a foreign language.
“Because,” is the only answer David can come up with. Truthfully, he doesn’t want anyone to see his work, least of all his sister. It feels like an exposure, a long and uncomfortable glimpse into everything David Rose is and was.
But Alexis, the force of nature that she is, is unrelenting. “Can I see it?”
“You already saw it.”
She reaches out, gripping the binding of the newsprint in his arms, blue eyes flashing with a curiosity that’s too intense for both their sakes. “David,” she pleads.
The puppy dog routine almost works; David is close to relenting before he thinks the better of it. “Asking nicely isn’t going to change my mind,” he asserts.
Alexis tightens her grip on the pad, pulling it slightly towards her, insistent and certain. “David, come on!” She wiggles it free from his grasp and climbs atop the bench to claim the high ground. A smile beams across her fresh face as she evades David’s attempts to reclaim his possession, twisting and turning in place, smushing a hand against his cheek to force him away. The subtle heels of her white flats click against the marble, her floral sundress dancing with each step, and a bright, teasing laughter echoes in the garden. Despite them being at eye level, David has never felt so small.
“David, this is amazing!” his sister says, examining the sketch as closely as she can through her chaotic movement.
There’s a whisper of pride in the back of David’s mind, ultimately overshadowed by annoyance and anxiety. “Ple—Alexis, I’m serious.”
“Why don’t you want me to see these?”
Alexis flips through the pages of the pad, revealing more and more of David to the light of the sun. This isn’t the first time she’s invaded his privacy like this, snooping through his personal things in search of intriguing gossip, but this feels like an affront to his character. A charcoal sketch of a fish in a pond is too traditional, something that the avant-garde of David’s high school would’ve turned their noses at and claimed to be derivative. There’s no abstractism to it, no nuance for academics to discover and relentlessly pick apart. David’s “art” would never be in a gallery, and he knows it. He doesn’t want others to know it too.
In her distraction, David finds an opening that he desperately takes, snatching the pad from her with unnecessary force. Alexis loses her footing, reaches out for something to grab onto as she hurtles towards the ground. A deafening rip and the pad of paper splits, its two halves falling into grass as David tries and fails to catch his sister. She crashes with a thud and brief screech, her head barely missing contact with the concrete.
“Holy fuck, are you okay?” David extends an arm out to her, pulling her up to her feet. She dusts off her sundress, glares at him as she runs her hands through her hair and harrumphs. Then she looks down, her eyes glistening with genuine remorse at the sight of the newsprint paper scattered around them.
David looks too, at the countless hours of work laying at his feet. Pieces of paper flutter in the gentle summer breeze. The black and beady eyes of the mutilated koi are no longer laughing, instead staring soullessly into the distance.
“I’m so sorry,” Alexis sputters, bending down to collect the fragments before the wind can blow them away.
“It’s fine,” David insists.
But it isn’t.
Fighting back tears, he retreats to house, ignoring the concerns of both Alexis and the passing house staff in favor of slamming a bathroom door behind him. He throws himself against the counter, fingers gripping the edge of the marble to steady himself as he refuses to let the emotions consume him. (They do regardless.)
It’s just drawings. There’s no need to be so broken up over it, he has to tell himself more than once before he can lock it all away. David glances at in the mirror through his tears, black smears of charcoal riddling his cheeks and rendering him unrecognizable. (He decides then and there that really hates working with charcoal.) Turning on the faucet, he drenches a white terry cloth in the cold stream of water before furiously scrubbing it across his face.
this is the sebastien chapter so things get a little skeevy. fair warning.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
City lights stream through the blinds of the apartment, setting the furniture ablaze with a rainbow of neon pinks and blues. David is in the chair by the window, legs folded beneath him and blinking through a fog of drugs, booze, and sex that had become far too familiar to him.
What day is it? Tuesday? The months have started to blur together, worsened by a lack of sleep, but David knows that routine is partly to blame. He wakes up (or he’s already awake), readies for the day with a shower and an eighteen step skincare routine, and swims the neverending ocean of New Yorkers to the shores of his Soho gallery, a place where he knows himself (or he thinks he does anyway). He clashes with a critic or two or three, sign artists’ contracts until his hands are numb and he’s blue in the face, and then he dusts off his six hundred dollar jeans before calling it a night. His nights are all the same too, parties of nameless faces and faceless names that mean nothing and everything all at the same time. David meets someone, takes them home, or they take him home, and then he falls asleep in a bed of Egyptian sateen. He wakes up (or he’s already awake).
It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy this life. Things could be worse—he could be living in Chicago. Still, there has to be something more.
David hasn’t seen Alexis in over a year, the longest he’s gone without seeing her. No doubt she’s walking on a beach somewhere in her Jimmy Choos, arm-in-arm with a dark and mysterious Adriatic beauty she’s only known for three weeks. The light on his phone illuminates the room when he touches it, scrolling through his messages to find her name.
‘I hope everything’s going ok?’ he types into the box, but he can’t bring himself to press send.
Sebastien stirs in his sleep, naked and draped over the bed across from him like a Grecian sculpture. It’s the most vulnerable David has ever seen him, hand dangling from the mattress and face pressed into the sheets, neon colors playing on his alabaster skin.
David feels a compulsion he hasn’t felt in a while, the strike of a match reigniting a fire inside of him as he rises from his chair and makes his way down the hall to his office, in search of the sketchbook he had hidden somewhere deep in his bookshelves. He finds it, beautifully crafted leather engraved with a simple and elegant D.R. (A gift from a girlfriend he doesn’t have anymore.) He ambles to the master bedroom, sketchbook and an unopened graphite set in hand, and reoccupies the chair across from the still asleep Sebastien.
He works by the light of the window, flipping the sketchbook open to a new page and orienting it horizontally to match the image in front of him. The graphite set opens with a soft click. David plucks the 4H from its nest and drags it across the page in his lap.
Hours pass before David even realizes it. The breaking sun signals the start of a new day, and David can hear the sounds of traffic and construction in the distance. He sets aside the sketchbook and pencils, peeling himself from the chair to begin his routine once more.
When David returns from the bathroom with a fresh face and a not yet clear head, Sebastien is awake and half clothed, sitting on the bench at the foot of the bed with the sketchbook in his hands. “It would seem your taste transcends all sorts of boundaries, David,” he murmurs in that confident swagger that David hates that he doesn’t hate. Sebastien holds the book up to the light, thumbing through the pages with the precision of a neurosurgeon. “Be careful, or you’ll let it consume you,” he says finally.
What the fuck is he talking about? “That reminds me, have you seen Marquis around? He isn’t in the kitchen,” David asks, soft and unsure.
Sebastien ignores that. He always does. “I have to wonder why you’ve never tried to display your own talents in that gallery of yours,” he remarks. David could never. He knows that would be too much for anyone, too much for himself.
“He, um, said he was planning on making Quiche Lorraine for breakfast today, but I don’t know if—”
“I sent him home, David,” Sebastien speaks bluntly, shooting a grimace from the behind the page.
“You...sent him home...”
Every nerve of David’s wants to fight for the book, to exorcise Sebastien from his life and reclaim a modicum of self-respect. But Sebastien has a way of getting into your head. The instant he sees a use for you, he’ll flash that dazzling smile and shower you with backhanded compliments until you don’t even realize you’ve already given him every bit of yourself.
God, though that smile was ever dazzling. Like finding diamond after years of sifting through dirt.
“He wasn’t needed.” Sebastien says it like it means nothing to him, and it probably does.
I don’t need you either is how David would have responded had he even a molecule of courage. Instead, he crosses his arms and remains silent, resigned as the man before him continues his meticulous assault on the book. Sebastien eventually rises from his seat to present the sketchbook to David, flaunting his depiction of Sebastien’s sleeping form like it’s something to be revered, a graphite personification of perfection. “It’s exquisite work.”
David wonders if he’d hold such reverence for it if he understood the intention behind it. The sketch is humanizing, vulnerable, antithetical to everything Sebastien tries to be; it is the quiet reclamation of power and control that David had lost long ago.
“But I know you, David. And I know that you can do better than this.” He leans in to kiss David, deep and languid like it’s second nature, and that alone should be a sign that something’s not right. Sebastien doesn’t kiss. He only consumes.
They break apart and David knits his brows in confusion. “You’re asking me...to do it again?”
Sebastien returns to the book, ripping the page out by its seam and handing it to David, the paper wrinkling under his touch. “I want you to try.”
That’s when David finally learns that any semblance of control he thinks he has is only ever given to him. But because David never learned how to say no, he doesn’t. He snatches the page from Sebastien’s hand and crumples it, the sound of it deafening in his ears, and it takes everything in him not to shove the paper down Sebastien’s throat.
i know. i hated it too.
Alexis is stagnant, statuesque, a saronged vision in green and blue enveloped in the golden glow of the setting sun. She stares into the camera, into David’s soul, a smile on her face wider than he has ever seen it in person.
“Monaco! I’ll miss you! <3” the caption underneath her reads. Adoration and emojis flood the comment section, jealousy and vague attempts at controversy finding their way through the cracks. Alexis doesn’t care. She never has the time nor the mentality to care about the negativity—a trait that David has always envied.
(But then she was always better at faking it than he was. Even David believes her sometimes when she says she’s happy.)
He scrolls through the rest of her Instagram, an endless parade of all things Alexis. An indifferent yet gorgeous man here, a pristine white yacht there, pink platform heels on cobbled city streets, and high society parties of diamonds and champagne. The word “glamorous” barely breaches the surface of the definition for her lifestyle. David finds the perfect photo then, a black and white profile shot against a solid gray background, high contrast and ideal for his medium. He slides his phone into a stand and scoots his stool closer to the desk.
Of course he never likes to work from images on his phone; the pictures are never clear enough, and there’s a degree of separation between him and the subject that he never feels comfortable with. Yet Alexis is a million years away and here he is, hunched on a stool in the corner of a barren and pristine studio, the protective plastic sheet he’d draped over his desk wrinkling at the slightest touch.
Long hair flows, sleek and shiny and clipped at ear with a silver serpent, disappearing behind a simple sweater of black cashmere; her face is stern, gazing at something beyond the frame with the intensity of someone who knows exactly who they are. She looks elegant, she looks ethereal, she looks like Alexis.
David clicks the lamp on, swings it over the empty paper in front of him, and adjusts it until it’s the correct angle. He reaches into the drawer at his knee, pulling out a set of white latex gloves to stretch carefully over his fingers.
Eyes first (always eyes first), the rest of her materializing beneath him in long and deliberate strokes of a light pencil. It doesn’t take him long to draft the portrait, twenty minutes at the most. A shadow of Alexis lies at the end of it all, waiting for David to give her light.
It’s risky to work with ink, he knows that. There’s a finality to it, an appel du vide to his deeply rooted perfectionism; once a mistake is made, it’s there for eternity. He tries to teach himself to live with that anyway, dipping the nib into a vial of the deepest black his father’s money can buy, and carefully retracing his steps on the page. His eyes flick between the paper and the image on his phone, translating every dimple of Alexis’ skin into a stroke of his pen, applying pressure where appropriate as the ink rolls from the tip. He stops more often than he’d like, to dip the pen or fuss with the zoom on his screen, shifting the focus of the image onto an eyebrow or the curve of her cheekbones.
It’s not right, the perfectionist in his head screams, a repetition intimately familiar to him. You have to start it again. Do it better.
Shut up, David shouts back as he reluctantly perseveres, etching the folds of Alexis’ sweater with quick and sharp movements to give the illusion of depth.
Don’t tell me to shut up! You shut up.
Why don’t both of you shut up? a third voice interjects. It sounds vaguely like his own sister.
The three voices bicker with each other as they often do, overwhelming David with opinions he never asked for. He tries to drown them out, to hyperfocus on the pen in his hand but the voices only crescendo into a million screams.
Music. That’s what he needs if he’s going to get through this. That and alcohol, but David unfortunately lacked the foresight to stash a bottle of prosecco in his bag. So goes the plight of the suffering artist.
You sound like your mother.
David fights the urge to slam the pen on the table, choosing instead to lay it down gently beside his paper. He rips a glove from his hand with a sharp snap, shaking and rolling his wrist as he snatches his phone from its nook. Nothing in his music library speaks to him, a sea of song names and album art blurring together as he scrolls mindlessly. He presses shuffle. Fate chooses the first few notes of a Beyonce song he hasn’t listened to in years, and frankly isn’t too keen on hearing now. He skips to the next song. And to the next one. And to the next one. It’s a game he knows he’s playing with himself, something he does when he wants to forget that there’s a world in front of him.
Then “Vision of Love” starts blasting through the phone’s speaker, and it’s like the world never existed in the first place. The voices in his head start singing along to Mariah’s sweet words of an ideal love. David clicks back to his reference image and slides his phone back into its place. After rolling on a fresh latex glove, he starts to work. For the first time in a long while, David doesn’t think. There’s no question lurking behind every action, no do it this way or do it like that . It’s as if his mind is blank, and his hands are guided by someone beyond himself, a confident stranger who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “imperfect.” For the first time in a long while, David feels better than himself.
The feeling doesn’t last long though. Halfway through the shading on Alexis’ brow, the Kylie Minogue song he’s been mindlessly swaying his head to is interrupted by a generic ringtone. The screen flashes from his reference picture to display an unknown number—an international number, judging by the area code. And because David’s learned that he should never ignore an unknown international phone number for sororal reasons, he tears his glove off and puts the phone on speaker, fully expecting Alexis to be on the other end.
“Okay, what did you do this time?” God, he really hopes he’s talking to Alexis, and not some apathetic coroner.
A low quality, high pitched voice rings through the speaker. David lets out a breath he only now realizes he’s been holding. “David? David, where are you?”
“In my studio. Where are you?” He dreads the answer, can feel frown lines trenching his skin. Nowadays, his sister only called when she needed something from him.
“Oh, just um...hanging out with some friends...in a Thai prison.”
Alexis continues to speak as though it’s just a normal day for her, and it most definitely is. He always hated that about her—the way she could compose herself in the most dire situations. She was able to get away with a lot more as a kid than he was. “Apparently it’s illegal to insult Thai royalty but all I said was that he needed to fire his hairdresser.”
“Oh my God!”
Before David has any time to reflect on the never-ending nightmare that is his life, he jumps from his stool, bumping into the desk with enough force to tip over the jar of ink. He cries out in pain, rubbing his hip as a trail of deep black ink spills across Alexis’ incomplete face. The world moves too quickly, and David barely registers the abject horror he feels as the last few hours of his life are washed away by darkness. He scrambles for the paper, muttering a myriad of swear words while he snatches it up, letting the loose ink drip onto the plastic sheet.
“Okay, you’re freaking out right now!” Alexis’ voice rings through the room. David had almost forgotten his sister was present. He reaches for the phone with his free hand and squishes it between his ear and his shoulder.
“I’m fre—Yes, I am very much freaking out! About several things!” he screeches.
What if the pool of ink soaks through the plastic and ruins the beautiful African Blackwood desk he’d spent a millennia tracking down? What if David can’t help Alexis and she’s eternally condemned to a foreign prison? How long will it take him to find a supplier that even has this brand of ink in stock? What if Alexis gets shanked by some low life criminal before David can even book a flight?
Think rationally. If you don’t save her, your parents will.
Are you sure about that?
“Well stop it,” Alexis demands. He can almost hear the roll of her eyes.
"You stop it,” David hisses, dropping the drawing and the empty jar on the stool behind him. “Ugh, just…hang on. I have to take care of something,” he says before setting his phone with the pile. Alexis’ shrill objections echo around him, but he pays them no mind, instead bunching up the tarp into an undefined ball, trapping the puddle of ink inside. David breaks into a half-run for the sink at the end of the room, praying to a God he’s not entirely sure exists that the ink doesn’t drip on his freshly waxed tile. He unravels the tarp over the sink, blinking as black liquid splashes on stainless steel. The knob of the faucet squeaks when he twists it, water sputtering out and washing away his mistake. When the ink has disappeared down the drain, David twists the knob again. He inspects the stained plastic in his hands, ruling it as a casualty of war before stuffing it into the empty trashcan behind him, along with his rubber gloves.
“Okay, what’s going on with you?” Alexis asks when David returns to his phone, his breath uneven and his mind racing. He’s surprised she’s still on the line.
“Shouldn’t I be the one asking you that?”
“David,” she warns. “Can you do this for me?”
He clenches and unclenches his fist, the silver of his rings leaving soft imprints in his palm. “Help you break out of a Thai prison?”
“No! I meant like...Well. There has to be someone at the Consulate who’ll know what to do.”
David refuses to let himself consider it, shaking his head furiously. “Absolutely not. No. I’m not going there again. It’s too...Nope. You can get yourself out of this one. I have too much to do here.”
He knows it’s a lie. And he knows Alexis knows it’s a lie. There’s nothing here for him in this empty studio but a false sense of security and a lifetime of ideas he knows he will never realize.
His sister barely has time to let out an exasperated “Ug—” before David jabs the ‘end call’ button with every ounce of panicked induced rage he can muster. He clutches his phone close to his chest, tapping his rings against the case, unable to keep himself from believing he made the wrong decision.
The phone in his hand buzzes, signaling an incoming call, and he answers it without hesitation. “Do they not have a one call policy in Thailand?”
“David...I...need your help,” Alexis says, quiet, unsure, and completely sincere.
It had taken David years to learn how to navigate the plastic reality of his life; years to become comfortably lost in the parade of status symbols and maligned beauty. Shallow waters are easy to swim after all, and the risk of drowning is minimal. Yet every so often, he’d see sincerity rear its ugly head. He heard it in drug-assisted musings or the whispers of terrified people slowly losing themselves to the pressures of modern life. David heard the call of sincerity himself more than once, like the time he almost told Marceline that she looked beautiful in the Parisian moonlight, or when he wanted to congratulate Alexis on the development of her new reality show. But every time sincerity calls, he convinces himself to ignore it. Ignorance is a survival strategy; it keeps him safe from knowing and being known. (David had long ago come to the realization that nobody should ever know him.)
Yet no matter how hard David tries, he can never stop believing in the power of sincerity. In spite of himself, he’s still a romantic in the core of his cold, cold heart, and that has always been his primary flaw. Hearing the raw truth in Alexis’ voice, the hints of fear and uncertainty that leak through the speakers of his phone, brings out the part of him that needs to be needed.
The failed sketch sits on the stool, a silent observer. David is tentative, picking it up with one hand to inspect the damage. Splotches of black stain Alexis’ profile yet she still shines through, as radiant and as enduring as ever.
“Okay,” he finally says through shaky breaths. “What do you need from me?”
you should NEVER pour ink down a drain. doing so is an environmental hazard and may also result in damage to the sink. too bad david didn’t know that.
David is hunched over the table in the center of the motel room, clutching a black pencil decorated with cartoon Jack ‘O’ Lanterns and skulls. (It had been the only one the front desk clerk had given him after much needless debate.) He makes stroke after stroke across the page, a vague shape here and an incomplete thought there. It’s nothing definitive. It’s nothing real.
He wants and waits for the voice of inspiration to speak to him, but there’s only the thunderous sound of ripping paper and frustrated sighs.
There is a café back in New York that David pretends not to miss. It was a dump, nestled between a Greek restaurant and a liquor store, owned by a septuagenarian with a predilection for floral patterns and the most unappealing shade of yellow David had ever encountered. Some months ago in the dead of a lonely autumn night, he’d stumbled through the door, a little high and a little drunk, and not entirely sure how he got there. It was remarkably déclassé—garish wallpaper slathered with faded newspaper articles and decades old Polaroids of strangers. It hadn’t been a surprise that nobody was sitting in the peeling red vinyl of the booths, as the place lacked any sort of aesthetic beyond "old" and "water-damaged." A sober David would have turned his nose up at the sight of it all.
That night, however, he had been on the heels of a violent breakup with someone he had the misfortune of caring very much about, and the decadence of Soho did little to assuage his attempts at self-destruction. So he went beyond the boundaries of his world in search of...what? He doesn’t remember arriving at that café and he doesn’t remember leaving, but what he does remember is the smile on the ancient woman behind the counter as she sat him down, delivering a cup of green tea that had no right being as good as it was. David sipped the tea in silence, trying and failing to ignore the woman’s piercing stare.
“You’re lost,” she finally said, her New York accent thick and bewildering. “You got that look about ya.”
David blinked at her inquisitively. “It’s this terrible lighting—it does nothing for my complexion,” he decided to say.
“Old bulbs,” she responded, waving to the fixtures on the wall. “Can’t afford to replace ‘em all at once. But they last, that’s for sure. Fact, I think some of ‘em might be older than you.”
“Well...that’s not saying much,” David joked, and the woman offered a warm chuckle in return.
Her eyes darted to his neck, and an uneasiness swelled inside of him. His lack of composure left him feeling overexposed, like a half finished self-portrait painted in his own blood. “You got a bit of dirt on your collar,” she said, reaching out to rub the fabric between her fingers. David repressed his admonishment as he instinctively smacked her hand away.
Neither of them spoke after that. Maybe they ran out of things to say, or maybe they had both been afraid of saying too much. He’d held his breath waiting for the inevitable questions (Who are you? Why are you here? What’s with the skirt?), but only the gentle croons of Sinatra filled the silence between them.
He didn’t want to cry in front of a stranger, but in spite of himself, there had been tears welling in David’s eyes. The woman discreetly slapped a package of Kleenex on the counter and turned away to count the money in her register.
David only returned to that café once after that night. To this day, he has no idea why he listened to the voice that told him to go back, but when he stepped onto the linoleum, bag slung over his shoulders and clad head to toe in McQueen, that same woman was there behind the counter with that same knowing smile.
“Ah, a returnin’ customer!” she had exclaimed with wide open arms, her meek voice barely audible over the ring of the bell above the door.
“You remember me?” David asked, genuinely concerned. He wanted to flee. The woman had known him in a vulnerable state, had witnessed his ugliness and untethered emotion firsthand. That was more than he could say about anyone in his life, and the thought of a stranger wholeheartedly recognizing and accepting his truth had terrified him.
“Kid dressed all fancy and walkin’ all funny down the streets of Tremont at night? You’d have to be as crazy as that kid to forget someone like that.”
“I’m not a child,” he scoffed, his grip tightening on his bag as he fidgeted with the chain around his neck.
The woman peered at him through thick, round glasses. The judgmental gleam in her eyes reminded him vaguely of his own mother, yet there was also a tenderness in the way she observed him. Like she was waiting for the right moment to caress his cheek and tell him that everything was going to be okay. “Sure. And I betcha got those clothes from that thrift store down the street too.”
David glanced down at his button up before addressing her again. “So do you assault all your customers with needless commentary, or have I done something in particular to warrant a personal vendetta?” He had only been half joking, but it was enough to merit a smile from the woman as she offered him a green tea.
“With a plain bagel, please. Extra cream cheese,” David answered, looking around at the half-empty café. “And some disinfectant wipes while you’re at it—I don’t trust a single surface in this place.”
“Just deep cleaned that seat an hour ago,” she informed him. She gestured to a booth in the corner. “Shouldn’t be too offensive for the likes of ya.” The woman winked as he dropped his bag and carefully slid into the seat.
The sketch he finished that day had been one of his favorites, though he would never outwardly admit it. It was a two page spread depicting the life within that dingy café, overflowing with beautiful realism, a world far removed from his own. A man sat at the counter, laughing with his wife over a coffee, the youthful look in his eyes betraying the wrinkles on his skin; underneath the barred window, a teenage mother was feeding her infant son from a bottle as she sang a silent lullaby; the elderly woman—what was her name again? David never thought to ask—was forever lost in a conversation with a man David could only assume to be her grandson. They even had the same thick, round glasses and knowing smile.
After the drawing was complete, every impulse told him to give it to the woman as a reward for her benevolence. He didn’t, though. She knew too much of him already.
David never had a chance to change his mind before he lost everything. He had been too caught up in the mess at the mansion when the government came for his assets in New York. The gallery he’d carefully curated was ingloriously ripped from his hands, along with the keys to his studio and everything in it. He imagined the drawing as one of the many stashed into a box labeled D. ROSE STUDIO and hauled away to an undisclosed location where it would never again see the light of day. Or maybe some suited official had taken a quick glance at it and declared it useless before throwing it away. David can’t decide which is worse.
“Hello? You still there?” Stevie's voice catches him in his trance, and David blinks as she slides the box of detergent on the shelf below the window.
“Yes, what? What?” It’s hard not to sound annoyed when his voice has to contend with the abrasive hum of the washing machine. The thing is older than time itself, and David is immensely concerned that it might explode at the slightest touch. That doesn’t seem to matter to Stevie, who yanks the lid open to toss a forgotten pillowcase inside and slam it shut.
She turns to David, pointing to the counter where four plastic bins of water and soap eagerly await his presence. “Pick a side.”
“Wh—you want me to do this?”
“You’re the one who insisted all your clothes needed to be hand-washed,” Stevie reminds him, and it sounds more like a mockery than a statement-of-fact. She bends down to lift a laundry basket brimming with unfolded towels, dropping it on top of the dryer with a purposefully loud thunk .
“Because I would never trust this pile of scrap metal with a hand towel, let alone my knits,” he plainly states. David’s extensive collection of clothing is the wall that divides him from the sad and destitute of the town. Without it, he’d be nothing more than trailer park trash resigned to a life of Walmart brand flannel and camouflage cargo shorts. The worst part is that he doesn’t even look half bad in camouflage.
“Well, I’m not going to do all of this by myself.” Stevie digs into the laundry basket and plucks out a towel, folding it into a neat square and setting it aside.
“Why not? Aren’t you the maid?” Even after months, David’s still a little confused as to what exactly her role at the motel is, other than to weaponize sarcasm.
“I also run the front desk—which is what I should be doing now, instead of helping you do your laundry for what has to be the first time ever in your life.” Her voice is dripping with that poisonous wit he’s come to expect from her. He’s learning to like it, though, in the same way he’s learning to like most things about her.
“We both know your internet search history has seen more action than the front desk, so don’t lie to yourself when you say that there’s business to tend to,” he returns, using that same poisonous wit.
Stevie turns to him again, and David can hear the squeak of the gears in her head as she thinks of a comeback. “Pick a side,” she repeats. Not the best comeback, but it somehow feels scathing and relentless. Still, he’s known her long enough that he can detect hints of the softer side he normally only sees when she thinks no one is looking.
David resigns himself to his watery fate. “I’ll take those,” he says, yanking a pair of yellow latex gloves from the shelf to roll them over his arms. He’d insisted on buying them along with the most expensive detergent available at Brebner’s. Thank God he’d chosen to wear short sleeves today, or he’d be far more concerned with the potential of leaks. The quality of Brebner’s latex is highly questionable, but he prefers it over dunking his bare hands into whatever ungodly chemical is in the detergent. He knows he’s taking a risk trusting the soap with his livelihood, but the Amazon reviews say the brand is dependable and why would the Internet lie? (Except all the time, but David chooses not to think about that when the stakes are too high for doubt.)
He stares at the pile of clothes in the tall basket at his feet, then he stares at the bucket on the counter, slowly gathering the willpower to fully commit to a chore.
“Wow, I haven’t seen these before,” Stevie starts, stifling a laugh. David turns his head to find her holding up a pair of black briefs to the light. “Is this genuine leather?”
“Okay, can you not fondle my underwear like a deranged pervert? Thank you so much.” David snatches the underwear from her hands and shoves it to the bottom of his laundry pile far away from prying eyes.
“Why do you even have leather underwear? How is that practical?”
“It’s not about practicality, it’s about artistry ,” he insists.
“The artistry of underwear?”
“I don’t expect you to understand it.” David pulls an undershirt from his basket, a safe garment to practice on and get a feel for the movement. He gently pokes the shirt into the tub, feeling a small sense of accomplishment as it sinks into the water.
“If you had been wearing those with me, I would’ve kicked you out of the room.” The tone in her voice tells him that she means every word she says. The dryer beeps irritatingly, and Stevie swerves to shove a pile of sheets from the machine into the empty basket at her feet, evidently not bothering to fold them.
“Excuse me, I didn’t judge you for your sweat-stained sports bras.”
“You did, though,” she points out.
David shoots her an icy look before redirecting his attention to the soaked undershirt. He picks it up tenderly by the shoulders and lifts it from the bin. Water drips from the soapy fabric, splashing threateningly onto the counter and the floor. Staring at the limp shirt in his hands, David wonders not for the first time if he should have rewatched the video tutorial thrice before undergoing this daunting task. Clumps of soap cling to the cotton, taunting him, broadcasting his uselessness. With a newfound determination, David submerges the shirt into the soapless bucket and watches intently as the bubbles dissolve.
“You know you can wash more than one thing at a time, right?” With a complete disregard for his possessions and an absolute lack of nuance, Stevie suffocates an uncomfortable amount of black socks beneath the water of her own bucket.
“What are you doing ?” David manages to save a pair from eternal damnation, snatching the socks from Stevie’s hands and waving them furiously in her direction. “These socks were spun by hand from pure vicuña wool and they deserve to be treated with the utmost respect.”
“Um? Made from vicuña wool?” He sets the socks aside and gives her a disapproving look.
“Right,” is all she says as she turns to her bucket and dips her hands into the water. David pretends not to notice the hint of a smile on her face.
It’s not that David doesn’t understand how ridiculous he seems to other people. He knows. He’s always known. He’s seen it in rolling eyes and heard it in the whispers behind his back. It had taken him an eternity to make peace with that, to find a modicum of confidence in the way he moves, speaks, dresses. But David, ever the walking contradiction, wears these absurdities like a gleaming suit of armor. Underneath all the shine, there’s a lifetime of insecurity that he still hasn’t quite unraveled.
David turns to his bucket and pokes the shirt in the water, swirling it around until he’s satisfied with its cleanliness.
“Hard to believe you’ve never done laundry before,” Stevie remarks watching as David plucks the undershirt from the water and lift it high, as though he’s proudly displaying his handiwork to the world. (Of course, he’s not ashamed to admit he does indeed feel a tiny bit of pride.)
“I never had to?” David starts. He gently squeezes the length of the garment. Water surges from its folds, splashing into the bucket. “Whenever my clothes would get dirty, they would just...reappear in my closet a few days later, neatly pressed and coordinated by color, style, fit, and designer.”
“There’s a difference between style and fit?”
David scoffs as he neatly drapes the shirt over the edge of an empty basket. “I don’t even know where I would begin explaining that to someone who wears thrift store jeans.”
“They’re comfortable,” is the only rebuttal Stevie offers. “I’m just trying to wrap my head around what your closet must’ve looked like.”
“Mm. I have a very particular way of organizing things.” He eyes the mountain of clothes, calculates his next moves before attacking the Neil Barrett sweater capping the hamper. David inspects the garment closely. Wait, what the fuck? How do you wash neoprene?
“Really? That doesn’t sound like you,” Stevie huffs.
David deliberately ignores that, digging for the phone in the pocket of his joggers in order to google the instructions for neoprene care. “There was one time I found a Juun.J sweater next to a custom Armani blazer, and Marquis never heard the end of it.”
“Wow. Kinda sounds like you were a dick.”
David looks up from his phone, slightly stunned by her blunt words. “I um...I was,” he agrees reluctantly.
Marquis quit about a week after that, citing “irreconcilable differences” like he had been filing for divorce. The man did everything from cleaning, to cooking, to organizing David’s sock drawer, and complimenting his outfits to the point where David would blush. When he left, David pretended not to be devastated. He tried to convince himself that Marquis had been replaceable, but he could never find anybody that exuded the same magnetism and sophistication.
(And maybe David had hoped something would happen between them, yet nothing ever did. Marquis had been too professional for that level of depravity.)
Stevie cocks her head to the side like she’s considering something. “I mean, you still are, but—"
“Do you assault all your friends with these biting remarks, or is it just me?” It’s not the first time he’s referred to her as a friend, nor is it the first time he’s meant it, but it still surprises him all the same.
“It’s just you,” Stevie replies apathetically, but the subtle gleam in her eye is enough to know that she’s surprised too. David bites back a smile.
Neither of them speak for a while after that, afraid of further implicating any sort of affection. Instead, they lose themselves in the task at hand. Stevie reoccupies herself with the socks, David continues to scroll through an article about the qualities of neoprene. (Not helpful for the situation at hand, but informative nonetheless. He had no idea astronauts used it to protect them on spacewalks. Bless those fashionable astronauts.) The hum of the machines around them accompanies the sloshing of water and the soft scraping of nails against plastic.
David approaches the water with the phone in one hand and the sweater in the other. His eyes dart between the phone and the bucket, and he begins to contemplate everything that led him to this moment, standing in the laundry room of a rundown motel in the middle of nowhere, feeling bested by a fucking sweater.
He can feel Stevie’s eyes on him, observing his hesitancy to continue. “So you had people do this kind of stuff for you,” she reiterates. “What did you do with all that free time?”
David sets the sweater and his phone aside, turning to face her. “Hm, my time was never free. In between curating an exclusive art gallery and maintaining my social standing within the Soho elite, I don’t think I...ever truly had a moment. To myself.”
“Really? You didn’t have hobbies?” Stevie asks.
“Of course I had hobbies,” David says quickly, “I...”
Thinking back on it, did he have any hobbies in New York? Does he have any hobbies now ? David likes music but everybody likes music, and Stevie doesn’t strike him as someone who would be particularly interested in hearing his thoughts on Alicia Keys. There’s movies and there’s books, but she learned about those thanks to his inability to have a casual conversation without a voracious reference to anything that lived within the romance genre. He also likes to read random Wikipedia articles and spew the random facts he learns to whoever’s immediately in his field of vision, but he doesn’t imagine that will qualify either. Everything else he can think of—the fashion, the theatricality, even the sex—all of it had previously been a matter of self-preservation.
“I. Um. Drew.” David admits it carefully, eyes darting around the room like he’s waiting for lightning to strike him down.
“You drew?” She says it like she can’t believe it, and it takes everything within him not to look visibly affronted. Feeling affronted, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter, but David can't do anything to stop that.
“With a pencil, yes,” he informs her through his teeth. “And sometimes charcoal or ink, if I was feeling dangerous.”
She looks like she’s about to laugh, and David has to brace himself for it, but...she doesn’t. “What, did you draw like animals or—”
“I don’t—that is none of your business.” His voice is strained, the contortions of his face undoubtedly testing the limits of human capability.
Stevie’s eyes slightly widen, her eyebrows perking up in curiosity. “Whoa, okay. Didn’t realize I’d hit a nerve there.”
“No. No, I’m...I just don’t—”
“It’s not something you like people knowing about,” she guesses correctly.
“That—It was something I used to do...just for me.”
“But not anymore?”
“Not anymore,” David echoes.
He’s tried to revive that part of himself since moving to this godforsaken town. He’s tried so many times. It never works.
“So it must have been a different overgrown toddler in black and white stealing the paper from my printer then.” Before David can wind himself up for the rebuttal, Stevie thankfully changes the subject: “How many fucking socks do you have?”
“Enough to bury someone alive, it seems,” David answers as he watches Stevie dump an endless supply of socks into her bucket. “Maybe I do have a problem.”
“David Rose having problems? Unthinkable.”
"Here," a voice announces through the morning bustle of the café. A small black book lands on the table in front of him with a loud slap, and David looks up curiously from his plate of over-salted scrambled eggs.
“What is this?” he asks, knowing fully well what it is. David drops his fork and tentatively picks the sketchbook up in order inspect the cover.
Stevie shoves her bag into the booth opposite him, scrambling behind it. She folds her hands together on the table as though she’s presenting from a podium. Emotionless and well rehearsed, Stevie starts to speak: “Found it buried in upstairs storage while I was cleaning it out. I was gonna throw it out, but I...figured it’s better than you using up all my printer paper.”
The center of the cover is imprinted with the worn image of a bouquet of daisies, and what David can only hope is a water stain embellishes the bottom right corner. The book itself possesses an ancient texture, soft to the touch and pliable. “And it’s leather, so it fits in with your brand,” Stevie concludes with a teasing tone. She swipes a piece of toast from David's plate and begins to rip it into pieces, ignoring David's disapproving glare.
Against his better judgment, David sniffs the book and immediately recoils in regret. “Ew, it smells like the underside of a casino table!”
“Yeah, I’m sure if you Febreeze the shit out of it, that’ll go away. And the dollar store might have some fun stickers to cover up that weird stain on the front,” Stevie unhelpfully informs him through bites of toast. David really hopes it is just a water stain as opposed to something highly radioactive.
He briefly flips through the book. Every page inside is blank with the exception of the first, where an inscription is written across the top in a faded cursive. Amused and a little perplexed, David emphatically reads it to her, paying no mind to the sprawling sketch below the words. “‘To Ladybug, with fiery burning hot’—that’s a redundancy—‘love from your Great Big Daddy Dog.’” He looks up at Stevie, his eyes bright as he lets the words simmer in both of their minds. “I have a lot of questions? But first: who’s Ladybug?”
“I would guess my dear old Nana Budd. That’s all her stuff up there,” she says and David doesn’t doubt it. Nana Budd has always been the enigmatic force driving the daily machinations of the Schitt’s Creek Motel, even long after her timely demise.
“Wow,” David responds, seconds away from a horrific death by uncontrollable laughter. “So then I should assume this sketch of a very nude woman reclining delicately on a couch is your-that would be your grandmother as well?”
“What? Give me that.” Stevie reaches across the table in a frenzy, but David slaps her away and turns from her with a wide grin plastered on his face. Subject matter aside, it isn’t a bad sketch. Despite the decades the book must have spent in a dusty attic filled with all sorts of critters David chooses not to think about for the sake of his sanity, the graphite portrait inside remains in surprisingly good condition. Whoever the artist had been also must have had training, because the portrait offers a horrifically lifelike interpretation of every single part of this woman’s body.
“She was a striking woman,” David observes clinically. “This Great Big Daddy Dog had a...remarkable eye for detail.”
“Shut up.” Stevie successfully snatches the book from David’s hands and imparts her own judgment upon the sketch with wide eyes and an open mouth.
“Um, absolutely not. You gave me a porny sketch of your grandmother and if you think I am letting you forget that, you are incredibly delusional.” David finds this entire situation wildly amusing. Moments like this—Stevie experiencing palpable embarrassment and David, for once, having the last laugh—are a precious commodity.
“Clearly, this idea was a mistake,” Stevie decides, snapping the book shut. “I’ll take this back now.”
“No, I...” He adopts a serious tone, smile fading as he forces himself to admit that he genuinely appreciates the gift.
Because that’s what it is. A gift. From Stevie. To David. He’s received far nicer sketchbooks as gifts before, but the one in Stevie’s hands seems more personal and real than any of them. Maybe parts of that can be attributed to its antiquity or its previous ownership, but David suspects that it’s not the book itself so much as it is the person giving it to him. Stevie knows him. She sees through his never ending bullshit, and instead of running away screaming like almost everyone he's ever met, she confronts him head on like an ambivalent knight armored in hand-me-down denim.
“I want it,” he tells her openly, honestly, fearfully.
“Oh, really?” The twinkle in her eye betrays her gloating tone.
David waves dismissively, yanking the book from her hands and gently setting it down next to his plate of eggs. “After I tear out all the disgusting pages and perform an intense sanitation ritual, it’ll be good as new.”
“I’m sorry, what was that?”
He tears his eyes away from the book on the table and raises his brows quizzically. “Hm?”
“I thought I heard a noise.” Stevie looks around the café, eyes narrowing in feigned confusion before settling back on David. “It almost sounded like...genuine gratitude?”
“I think it’s time for you to book an appointment with an audiologist,” he argues, a tight smirk creeping across his face. He picks up his fork and digs into his plate of eggs, which have almost certainly grown cold by now.
When Stevie smiles, the fluorescent lighting hits her in an irresistible way that leaves David desperately wishing for a pencil. After months without practice, he knows the resulting sketch wouldn’t be much. Still, David has a sneaking suspicion that it would be entirely worth the effort.