Gareth closes his sketchbook, John picks up his cane and Paula and Michael push in the chairs. Grace notices that David, the man who usually sits to her left at the Painters´ Club, is just standing in the doorway. Seems as if he’s waiting for her. She smiles, fighting nervousness. He smiles back.
Referring to the sketch she has just packed up, he notes, “I like her hair. It’s unruly. That suggestion of movement in the twist of her palm, it’s just right. What color is it?”
The question surprises Grace. Ursula is just a sketch in charcoal. Just the outline of the side of a face, looking up from a letter, brushing back her bangs, watching the principal subject in the scene, a man who is leaving the room.
“We’re working in charcoal,” she answers.
“Doesn’t matter. You should know.”
His smile is real, so she blinks and ponders what he has said.
“You’ll tell me next week?” he asks, adjusting his portfolio on his shoulder.
“I guess,” she says, and sits there a full minute before mustering the courage to poke back at him. “And you. That’s very a la Georges Seurat, your painting. Well, its theme.”
“Except it’s funny.”
Grace has been watching its progress. It is an idyllic Sunday afternoon by the river, with sunbathers and boaters. One couple stands out. An attractive woman on the shore whose smile is clearly affectionate, and whose gaze is fixed on the man in the rowboat, struggling with a fishing pole. He is looking at her, endangering his craft by that attention, and seems unaware he is ready to capsize at any moment. A young girl further down the beach tugs at her father’s sleeve and points to the impending accident.
“You could do another study of the two in the foreground.”
He raises his eyebrows in a question.
“There’s a story there. Him showing off. Doesn’t he know he doesn’t have to? Just look at her face.”
David gives an embarrassed laugh of assent.
“He’s endearing, trying so hard to impress her. You could easily do a counter-piece. Something more about him and his bumbling? Or something more about her, and why he loves her. Though I get the feeling he might not know that either, unless it’s just that she loves him.”
David stops and stares at Grace a minute. She has seen the ring on his finger and is sure the pair is he and his wife. Maybe it is a bit too personal, discussing the subjects instead of more technical aspects like light and shadow. Which is why she hasn’t made the suggestion in front of the whole group. But she’s opened her mouth now.
“I haven’t got a clue,” he admits.
Relief floods down her shoulders. She hasn’t stuck her foot in too far. “That’s how it’s supposed to work,” she grins.
The next week before class Gareth corners Grace and she misses the opportunity to make small talk with David. Gareth mocks the group of older women who sit in the front of the room, near the instructor, who always paint flowers and trees. A waste of talent. When it’s done, what is it? A flower. A tree. Nothing more, so he says.
Van Gogh did a lot for sunflowers, Grace objects. But there is some truth in his critique. Like there is some truth in why Yann, the man behind the Ursula picture, takes photographs only of trees. They don’t object. And the ladies would say they don’t flinch or flex at the wrong time. And Grace knows they are never so elusive as a human subject.
She can’t see into Yann’s heart, and knows she has to give up trying. Thinking about Gareth’s comment and David’s request, she starts a new painting, changing placement of the figures, moving Ursula more to the center. And strives with the background, not for the essence of seven foot thistles in the park where Yann rides, but for thistle as its purple heads, the size of baseballs, bend in the same breeze that musses with Ursula’s hair.
That hair for which she has chosen, for David, a pre-Raphaelite red.
“You’ve moved her out of the corner,” David comments during the break.
“She’s still unhappy…lonely?”
“Left.” One word. So her voice will not shake.
“What does she do about it?”
There it is again, that odd assumption that she, Ursula, a painted figure, has a life outside the art studio. But then, Grace tells herself, David’s new painting is just what she ordered. He is tentatively calling it The Newlyweds, and Grace tells him it is funnier than SNL’s Bass-o-Matic. The wife, across the counter, busy chopping vegetables, stifles a horrified laugh while the helpful husband, opening the lid of a whirring concoction, ready to insert a wooden spoon, is about to ruin the blender.
What does she do about it? It’s Sunday. Grace leans over the lacquered wooden bridge in the Japanese garden ten blocks from her house and watches the water. Her mouth is dry with the taste of strong coffee. The running sound of the stream below is soothing. It is David’s idea, sort of, to bring Ursula here. Ursula’s an actress. He suggested casting her in different roles. This would be Ophelia.
Another weekend Grace puts on a tape of crickets and pulsating desert music and pictures Ursula as a shimmering mirage, the heat off the land making it uncertain she is there. The trick of distance makes her children in the foreground and her lover on the horizon, distinct, while she, the central figure, is ephemeral.
In another piece, Ursula, pen and ink, sits at the piano. With extreme contrast of style, three pictures of photographs of trees lie on the floor beside her.
“She’s barely more than an outline and yet she’s got real substance,” David remarks. “But can she really sing? She looks unsure.”
This time Grace just laughs at him, but something flickers in his eyes and she quickly recants, “You think she should be belting it out? You make me work so hard.”
David raises his eyebrows. She can see him smile as he turns back to his canvas where a man with a large power tool out of control is starting to emerge.
Over the course of a year Grace now has a portfolio – one picture short of a length of wall at the studio. A length of wall that this evening the instructor says is hers if she can fill it by next month.
The announcement comes as a surprise. She hasn’t even asked to be part of the exhibit. She sits by her easel and feels herself turn hot red.
“You deserve it,” Michael says, from the front of the room, where he fiddles with lighting over the chair in which their model will sit for the first half of their session.
Indeed she has learned a lot by coming here. It sometimes saddens her that she let so many years go by since last she had any formal training. She wishes she was David’s age again. But in the back of her mind there is a soft but insistent whisper – it isn’t just new-learned technique that got her this offer. There is something electric in this picture series she has done.
She spends the second part of the class touching up petals in the water around Ursula’s hair, and wondering what the last painting should be.
“Congratulations,” says David when they started to clean up.
She feels herself blush again.
Long ago Grace realized that when she is in front of the easel often enough, details begin painting themselves. But now the details are in a dialog. Ursula, her charcoal portrait, has become Ursula a series. Ursula has a life. Hair color. A job, a living room, a nervous tremor, a history of her own. She is no longer just the foil for another subject, as in the first painting. She no longer only mourns the loss of a love. Ursula has blossomed. Blossomed because she has a relationship with David. Grace is the go between. She doesn’t mind. She is empowered by David’s attention to her paintings. She works now anticipating his audience. She thinks to herself: It might even be better than being in love.
“You remember The Velveteen Rabbit?” she asks as she wipes off her paint brushes.
“Can’t say as I do,” David replies. He has been quiet this evening, engrossed in his own work, adding shadow, changing the light from mid to late afternoon. Still, she has noticed his occasional glances in her, no, not really, in Ursula’s direction.
“A boy’s stuffed rabbit gets loved so much it turns real.”
She sees his quizzical expression. He does not make the connection she does, but she cannot bring herself to be more explicit.
The last of her series has started to take shape. The scene is in a studio and Ursula’s mysterious man is far in the background, his back to the viewer, taking down his bike. Ursula, sitting for a portrait, is watching him, again, as usual, but her expression is one of study. Her brow is creased. And while she looks at him, her body is turned toward another figure. She is flushed.
Grace knows this is where the energy comes from; still, what she is doing feels dangerous. She has played for days with Ursula’s skin tone. She is doing it again tonight.
“Leave it,” says David. “It’s good.”
She looks up at him.
“What you’ve got to do is finish this other subject.” He points with the back of his brush to the white space of a body, the painter of the model, only an arm in.
Grace nods in acknowledgement. “I’m putting it off.”
“I can tell.”
Does he know who it is? Fear of David’s reaction is immobilizing Grace. She drops a paint tube. Bending down to retrieve it, she lets her fluster hide behind hair.
When she sits up she brushes back her bangs with the same twist of her palm David noticed in Ursula months ago.
“She’s changed,” David comments. It sounds to Grace as though he is talking as much to himself as to her.
“She has,” she agrees. “For the better, I hope.”
There seems little else to say. Yet, as always, David’s attention feels like an entire conversation, with unspoken understanding as potent subtext.
“I bet you’ll sell the lot of them,” he grins at her and turns back to his canvas.
“Sell?!” It hasn’t occurred to her that’s what her allotment of wall space could mean.
David laughs at her reaction. “You´re such a debutante, Grace.”
Collecting herself, she retorts, “I resent that, Mr. Marcy, but I will accept I hadn’t realized I’d be relinquishing my dilettante status until just this moment.”
“Tell you what,” he grins, a light in his eye. “Price one cheap enough for a starving amateur and you can come see it whenever you want.”
Grace gulps. “David. Which one do you want?”
“I want you to finish that guy in the painting in front of you.” His look says ‘trump.’
She feels a sigh of relief escape through her nostrils. Alright, so he knows who it is. It is OK to stop mixing paint for the sleeve color endlessly and put in his features. She’d been procrastinating far too long – enough that she’ll have to rush now what is always the hardest, to capture an expression.
Although here it is for the taking beside her, the contagious grin that is yet just a bit hesitant, stopping short, mid-cheek. Careful with where they are: souls talking without the acknowledgement of words.