On her twelfth night in Claiborne Val drank a full bottle of hot pink Moscato and passed out on the hardwood floor. She spent the next morning balancing an icepack on her forehead, body wrung dry and pinned to the clothesline. When she puked her teeth went slick with sugar.
“One year,” Tim said, rubbing the soft of her thigh. “That’s all I’m asking.”
Val nodded, fantasizing about a yearlong induced coma. She wasn’t made for Louisiana. Already she ached for her metropolitan life, Manhattan flat, studio space with framed canvases lining the walls. She won awards for her impressionist paintings of littered sidewalks and street vendors. Each piece sold for a couple hundred dollars, sometimes over a thousand. I’m looking for that flash of God in the gutter, she said during one of her gallery shows. Charming, but false. The reality was Val couldn’t paint anything other than still life, and impressionism was her go-to because it gave the illusion of motion when in reality it was just thousands of tiny dots.
Not that it mattered. Not in Claiborne. The first few days Val tried, setting up an easel in the kitchen while Tim was a work. She mixed colors, poised herself in front of the canvas and—nothing. Any time the brush made contact, colors bled and sighed onto the tarp. Everything she painted looked like a crying Jackson Pollock.
“There’s something up with the water here.”
Tim shrugged. “Use less.”
“You’re not getting it. My work has gone to shit.”
“It’ll come back,” he said, planting a kiss on her forehead the way a parent does when their daughter falls during a second grade dance recital.
In the winter of her junior year at NYU, Val dated a writer named Sid who was addicted to his own adrenaline. He was late to everything, rushing in at the last second with flushed cheeks and a laundry list of apologies. Tonight they were meeting at a bar on twelfth. She waited outside under a cone of streetlamp light, a Zig-Zag dangling from her lip.
Val had done everything right. Silk thigh highs on the milk white mile of her legs, tacked to a garter belt that cinched her taunt little waist. Pretty, too—a flat feline face with green oval eyes. She was pissed. Girls like her shouldn’t be kept waiting.
Tim must have felt the same way. She caught his gaze through the bar window. He was sitting in a tight corner booth, wearing a suit jacket and thin red tie. The second time they locked eyes he stood up and joined her outside.
“You know,” he said, leaning against the streetlamp. “Kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray.”
Val grinned. “What’s fucking one like?”
She quit smoking that night and Sid one week later. Soon she was living in Tim’s apartment, painting in the loft while he studied for the bar exam one room over. The workspace was wide and white, with hardwood floors and bay windows. At night Tim came in, his breath hot on her neck. She dropped everything, followed him onto the floor and pulled his clothes off with, or in spite of, the fresh paint on her hands. Forget the artists. They were too self-conscious, always working missionary style with their eyes trained on hers. Tim was wired for pleasure, for sex without the sentimentality. It could happen any moment in any room, any way she wanted. Val loved the idea of their romance—the lawyer and the artist, the realist and the romantic. It felt raw until the phone call, Tim’s wiry boss saying there was some pro bono work he should look into.
“This could make me a partner, Val. And it’ll only take a year.”
Claiborne, Louisiana. Why didn’t anyone warn her.
By the end of the first month Val had a routine. Wake up hung over. Suck ice chips. Fresh cup of coffee. Run a hot bath. Soak in the porcelain tub until Tim came home with pizza or Chinese takeout. They never did learn to cook in New York—Val used the oven for extra shoe space.
That night, eating spring rolls in front of the television, Tim reached over and touched Val’s arm.
“I think you should get out more.”
She snorted. Her breath was thick with soy sauce.
“What do you suggest?”
“Don’t be facetious,” Tim said. “I just want you to meet people. You seem bored.”
Seem? She was bored to the core. The only thing keeping busy was her liver.
“Take a walk tomorrow. There’s a coffee shop down the street,” he said.
That night she went to bed at a normal hour. She put her hand on Tim’s shoulder and gave him a gentle shake. Nothing. They had sex only three times since they landed in Claiborne. Maybe he was disgusted by the extra ten pounds on her waist. She was no longer thin as a pin, smooth as water running from the faucet.
Val lay on her back, squeezing her stomach. Moonlight cut through the curtains and pooled onto the carpet. She saw dust suspended, hung like gauze. Licked her lips and imagined a New York interior, slick, shining doorknobs, microwave ovens, Plexiglas buildings that went on for days.
A hangover free morning. Val pulled on a white tennis dress and a pair of boat shoes. Outside the air was balmy. She walked to the end of the road, breathing heavier than a twenty-three year old should. There was the coffee shop—Red Bean. Sounded like a bad porn title. She sighed and pulled open the door, a pad and pencils tucked under her arm.
At the counter she ordered coffee, black, and the cashier clicked away with plastic painted nails. She found a seat in the back and started sketching. In art school the first lesson was perfect circles, so she always started there. One, two, whoosh. It had to be instinct. Once you started thinking too hard, the only thing you could draw was ovals.
After ten minutes of this she set her gaze on a floral arrangement in the window. Plump yellow tulips dripping petals onto a lace doily. She drew an outline and started shading hundreds of tiny dots, ping into the heat of the paper. For a while she lost herself in the motion, then a teenager with big teeth, small ears and a backwards baseball cap swung open the café door and stunted her thoughts. Color came back, coffee shop sounds, whirring of an espresso machine, the cashier’s nails click-click-clicking.
Val sighed, rubbing her temple. She tried to slip back into her piece but the moment had gone. This is what she missed most about New York—it was all noise all the time, the faded soundtrack to her work. She packed up and walked outside, past a tight row of mom and pop drugstores. The delta dawn felt hot on her face and the streets were too clean for comfort. She fought the urge to litter.
“Hey,” a voice said behind her.
She stopped, checking over her shoulder. It was the kid from the coffee shop, his baseball cap tilted over his eyes.
“You’re not from here.”
“No,” Val said, stopping herself before adding, thank God.
The kid walked faster, joining her. He had those long, bicycle-riding strides. Leaned back when he walked, hips first, then chest. He’d probably never seen ice in his life. Would have slipped and busted his ass if he walked on it like that.
“Can I have your number?” he asked.
Val snorted. “How old are you?”
He looked offended. Crossed his arms over his chest, kicking a stone across the sidewalk as they moved ahead.
He shifted his eyes toward Val. “I saw what you were drawing. I like art too. You don’t have to be a bitch about it.”
He said bitch with a slung southern drawl—beytch. Val felt a wave of embarrassment. She was being cruel. It’s just that in New York no one stopped to talk. She couldn’t understand random politeness.
“I’m sorry,” she said, tearing a piece of paper from the sketchpad and scratching out her name and cell number. Maybe the kid wanted some art tips. She could do that. She could bring culture to Claiborne. It would be difficult but rewarding, like Anne Sullivan feeling Helen Keller tap out “water” for the first time. Val could be a miracle worker. She had that in her.
The kid shoved the paper in his back pocket, said his name was Greyson and left in a huff. She had a feeling she wouldn’t hear from him again, but the next morning her phone rang and he asked if he could stop by.
“It’s Monday,” Val said, staring at the calendar. “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?”
Greyson snorted. “Skipped.”
She tried starting with circles, but Greyson refused.
“I looked up your paintings online. Teach me how to do that.”
“This is the first step.”
“Then take me to the second,” he said, dropping his pencil and staring her in the face. Val bit her lip. She stood up and opened the cabinet, pulling out the coffee pot. When she asked Greyson if he wanted a cup he rolled his eyes, which she wasn’t sure how to interpret. She brewed an extra one.
Back at the table she placed the pad between the two of them and went back to circles.
“You flick your wrist, like—”
“Are you deaf?” Greyson said. “I don’t want to make circles. Teach me how to paint.”
She dropped her shoulders. Greyson stared with wide eyes and a half open mouth, the dog waiting for his bone. Couldn’t blame the kid—he had no idea how stale her work had gone. She’d have to show him.
They descended the crackled wood steps to the basement. In the center of the room Val pulled a string light, flooding the space with pall yellow hues. She gestured to ten different canvases propped up along the wall. Greyson nodded, cupping his chin in his fist.
“Now you’re a modernist?”
“Not by choice,” she said, cheeks flushing. Greyson took a step forward and kneeled down, getting a closer look. He scrutinized each piece individually. She wanted to cry. It was shit, all of it, and here she was making it public.
“You don’t like it?”
“The word is hate,” she said.
Greyson shook his head. He lifted Val’s attempt at painting a wicker chair, which ended up looking like a Rorschach test.
“I think this has serious potential,” he said, and walked back upstairs with the canvas in hand. Val took one last look around, shuddered, turned off the light and followed him.
He almost never went to school. At first it drove her crazy. One morning she threatened to call child services, but Greyson’s smooth little drawl convinced her to just Relax, sweethurt. Soon, though, his truancy became endearing. Val wished that when she was in high school she skipped half the week to paint.
They worked from nine to four on Mondays, Fridays and sometimes Thursdays if Greyson was feeling inspired. She bought an extra easel and they stood side by side, the sun flushing through the window and onto their backs. While Val layered shapes, textures and thick, blotted color, Greyson painted dreamscapes. He said his favorite artist was Magritte. Val could see it.
Greyson was the more talented of the two. They both could tell, though he made the point to ask for advice and tips every hour or so. But he had a raw gift, a natural sense of light and the way it falls. His painting had dimension because he understood shading. Any dimension in Val’s work came from layering.
Still, though. She was proud. She finished her new piece, “Southbound” one month after Greyson showed up on her doorstep. That afternoon, after signing the lower right corner, she went to the grocery store and bought crackers, cheese wheels, flatbread, hummus, stuffed peppers, custard cups and bottles of expensive French wine. Au revoir, Moscato. She arranged the appetizers on platters through the kitchen, slipped into a blood red cocktail dress and waited for Tim. When he reached the front door she opened it and gave a sweeping gesture toward the house.
“Welcome to the show.”
She took him into the kitchen, where “Southbound”sat on a chair against the wall, beaming. Tim circled it for a moment. He squinted. Then he grinned.
“It’s different, but I like it. It’s like you broke out of something. The style is really freeing.”
In her rush to set up Val forgot to bring Greyson’s easel downstairs. Tim studied his painting next, eyes wide and round. He asked if it was hers and Val said no, she was teaching art classes for a kid down the street.
“He’s good,” Tim said. “Is he paying you?”
“Yes,” Val lied.
The next day Greyson finished his piece. He didn’t say anything, just dropped his brush into the cup of cleaning water and took a step back. Val had just started a new painting but she felt the energy shift and moved next to him. They cocked their heads and stared.
It was an oil painting of a hollowed-out yellow hibiscus flower, beads of dew clinging to the petals. A coiled red snake swelled in its center, wrapped around what looked like a little girl’s wrist. She had a tight gold band on her finger, skin puffing around it.
“It’s sharp,” Val said.
“Really. You’ve got serious talent, Greyson.”
She turned to face him and saw that instead of surveying the painting he was staring back at her. They eyed each other for a moment before Val stepped forward, planting a hard kiss on his lips. At first he was limp, then he opened his mouth and pulled her lower lip into the space between. He found the tight part of her wrist and gripped it, leading her to the bedroom. Sheand Tim’s bedroom.
They collapsed onto the comforter, licking, sucking, closing the space between each other. There was an urgency in Greyson’s motions, that same fresh want Tim had when they started dating. Val soaked in it, closed her eyes, then she heard the sound of Tim’s car pulling into the driveway. She jumped.
“You hear that?”
He looked around. The baseball cap, already edging its way to the edge of his forehead, fell onto the bed.
“I thought I heard a car pulling in.”
Greyson stood up, walked to the window and cupped his hands over his eyes.
“Nothing,” he said, turning back and making his way to the bed. Val put her hand out.
“How old are you?”
“I told you. Eighteen.”
She raised an eyebrow. “How old are you really?”
He rolled his eyes. “You tell me, Val.”
“I think you’re sixteen.”
“So what if I am?”
“I just,” she placed two fingers on her temple, rubbing in small circles. “I need a minute.”
They waited in silence for a moment. The room swelled with the tick of the clock. Greyson tapped his foot on the floor.
“Do you want me to leave?”
Val couldn’t answer. She lowered her eyes, letting her hair fall in front of her face. Greyson snorted. He stepped across the room, snatching his hat off the bed and jamming it onto his head. Val heard his feet pad through the kitchen, the crack of a chair tipping. Then the front door slammed and the rest was silent.
She waited a minute before walking into the kitchen. Almost everything was the same, clean, pristine with paint at the edges. Except her chair was on the floor, “Southbound”gone, Greyson’s painting still there.
She saw him one last time the week before she left. He was standing outside of a Walmart, smoking Parliaments. They pretended not to notice each other. Val bought packing crates and made a beeline for the car, never checking over her shoulder.
Back in New York she set up her workspace. Woke up in the earliest parts of morning, when clouds glow red around their edges. Sometimes she shot a line across the canvas, but mostly she paced small circles and thought of Claiborne. The slanted light on the rotting kitchen tiles. The silence she never could appreciate before leaving Manhattan, where the air is a constant chorus of car horns and sirens and mouths that never stop moving.
When Tim made partner they went to dinner at a steakhouse on fifth. They ate thick, dripping meat and drank California red. At night they stumbled home and collapsed onto the mattress. Tim touched Val’s inner thigh and she leaned in to kiss him.
“Thank you, sweethurt,” he said in a fake Southern accent.
Val dropped her head into her hands and burst into tears.
“What?” he said. “What?”
“I miss Claiborne.”
He laughed. “Good one.”
Julie Bartoli is an English and journalism student at the University of Connecticut. She enjoys reading, writing, driving and drinking chai tea. Her work has appeared in Inwood Indiana, NEAT Magazine and The Long River Review.