Joshua unlocked the door at the top of the stairs, waiting for his date to catch up with him. After three years of living up five flights of stairs, he was used to it, but his companion clearly wasn’t. A moment later she joined him, out of breath. Is it really a date if she’s coming home with you three hours after you met? Joshua wondered.
“How... how do you manage this every day?” she asked, panting.
“I carry twenty pound cans of paint up and down it each day. For strength,” he said, straight-faced, making a feeble attempt at a bulging bicep.
She stared at him for a moment before realizing he was joking. “And you have to walk ten miles in the snow to get canvas, right? Uphill both ways?” she said breathlessly, still recovering from the quick trot up the stairs.
“That’s it. C’in,” he said, turning on the weak entryway lights and letting her go before him.
He sighed to himself. Why do I do this? Am I really so lonely that I’ve been reduced to picking up women at gallery openings? She stepped into the room, gingerly; he studied her face searching his memory as she passed him. Her name was... Kay? No, Kelly? No... Kylie! That’s right.
Kylie was staring around the room, her eyes huge. “It’s... amazing. It’s a real loft.” The studio was a one big room glued on top of a sewing factory, right in the middle of SOMA. Floor to ceiling glass panes made up the walls, except for one small corner that had a bathroom and small kitchen. The view was tremendous; Sutro Tower blinking to the west, downtown looming like glass mountains bright with lights, Potrero Hill to the south, and the Bay Bridge glistening to the east, the two decks afire with the red and white streams of traffic leaving and entering the City. She slowly walked to the middle, turning around, drinking it all in.
He smiled. “Yep. This is probably the last one like it in all of San Francisco. Every other loft space has been turned into overpriced yuppie condos, with people who can afford $400,000 for a two-bedroom apartment lounging around at Brainwash and wondering where all the artists went.”
She looked at him. “So, where did they all go?”
“They’re the ones behind the bar, slinging lattés at Brainwash. They live in Oakland or Emeryville.”
She shook her head, walking to the first row of his paintings. “How can you possibly afford this place?”
“Luck. The owner has no idea how much it’s worth. I signed a ten-year commercial lease for $1,200 a month.”
She started gently pulling the canvases back, one at a time. “Live alone?”
Joshua came up behind her. “Yeah. No one else could put up with me as a roommate. Eccentric artist, you know.”
She wasn’t listening, though; she was squatting down, examining a painting. “Uh, what, you print photographs directly onto the canvas? Oh, I see! You, like, put emulsion on the canvas and then...”
He sighed. “No. No photography. It’s painted. Oils. I only paint from life,” he said to her, examining her very short red hair.
She turned her head around. “You’re shitting me.”
“Nope. Here, look.” He picked up the canvas she was studying, a street scene in North Beach. He took it over to his easel, and flipped on the light. “Right... there. Brush strokes,” he said, pointing with the tip of a very fine brush.
Her eyes grew large. “Wow. That’s amazing. The colors, the whole thing seems to just glow. How do you do that?”
Joshua smiled. “Many, many layers of paint. Most of them nearly transparent. Gives the thing depth.”
Kylie stared off into the middle distance, her face thoughtful, green eyes contemplating something invisible. “But... well, isn’t realism kind of...”
He barked out a laugh. “Passé? Yeah, I suppose.” He sat down in his chair in front of the easel, placing the picture on it, turning the light on it. The bright light made the easel and painting seem like an oasis of light in the middle of the dim loft. “But I’m not trying for realism. It’s sort of like... well, hyper-realism? Magical realism, only in painting instead of in literature?”
She shook her head. “I don’t get it.”
Joshua said, “It’s like this. When you look at a landscape... not a painting, but a real one, and it’s very beautiful, and you tell your friends about it, what do you tell them? ‘The air was so clear, and the sky was so blue, and the trees, they were such a vivid green...’ Like that. Your memory intensifies the reality, and you remember something different from what it really looks like. You remember an ideal version of it. You remember, well, its essence, what it really is, what it really meant to you.”
He looked back at the painting. “That’s what I want to do. Capture the experience of the scene, not just the scene itself. The same idea as Impressionism, but the other extreme.”
Kylie nodded, and laughed, not mocking, just friendly. She wandered away, looking at the other paintings leaning haphazardly against the few bits of furniture in the room; a futon bed, a futon couch, a dresser, a few tables. She stopped at a stack leaning up against the drying rack, and started flipping through them, carefully. “Do you ever paint people?” she called over, not looking up.
Joshua blinked, confused. “Well, there are people in the one you’re looking at now, right?”
The redhead put the paintings back, and walked towards to him, slowly. Joshua studied her as she approached. Black turtleneck, black jeans, black tennis shoes. Black underwear, no doubt. In uniform, he thought. But she’s very cute, and that turtleneck is certainly filled out nicely...
Kylie’s voice brought him back. “No, not like that. There are people in the picture, but the picture isn’t of those people. Do you do portraits?”
“Uh, no. I mean, in school, and in other styles, sure, but I’ve never used this technique in a portrait,” Joshua replied, trying not to stare at her breasts.
“Would you?” she said, getting closer. “Would you paint me? Now?”
Joshua looked up, staring into her eyes. “Now?” The offer she was making was clear enough, even to someone of his limited social acumen. He took a deep breath, let it out, and tried to sound like he wasn’t all that interested. “Ah... yes, I’d love to paint you. I’d be honored.” So much for diffidence, Joshua Tostig, he scolded himself. Next time, just go for, “Oh, please, I beg you, anything if you’ll let me touch your boobs.” It will sound much cooler.
She smiled, shyly, and looked around the room. “Where should I change?” Not waiting for his answer, she started walking towards the bathroom.
“Uh, change?” Joshua asked, her train of thought a receding speck as he stood on the platform.
“Of course,” she said, stopping, looking over her shoulder, a wicked smile on her face. “I’m certainly not posing in this.” She walked into the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
Joshua shook his head, and found a blank canvas. He started getting the pencils for the first sketch ready, and turned the easel around, towards the couch. Great, he thought; I’m so horny that I’m willing to play the paint-me-and-I’ll-fuck-you game. Well, fine, there are a lot sicker things in the art world. And getting laid once every other month is a good solid minimum for a neurotic artist.
A few minutes later, he was so engrossed in mixing up a particularly good fleshtone base that he didn’t even hear her walk past him. “Uh, Joshua? Where do you want me?” she asked, softly.
Joshua looked up. Kylie was in front of the couch, nude, dropping her bag next to the futon sofa. Her figure was as lush as he thought it would be, very voluptuous and enticing; just watching her full breasts as she bent over was starting to get him hard. He tried to give his regard an aura of painterly detachment, although he knew he was just leering. Thick black pubic hair, he noticed; well, everyone dyes their hair in this town. The bright blue streak in your hair, Joshua thought to himself, isn’t the result of a radiation leak.
“Um. Let’s see.” He collected himself. Well, dear, he thought, I suppose that “I want you here, now, bend over, spread your legs and I’ll fuck your brains out while holding onto your big tits” isn’t the answer you’re looking for. OK, Joshua, time to play artist. What works for her?
He noticed a small black lacquer fan lying on a table near the bed. He grinned, stood up, and grabbed it. He tossed it to her with a smile. “Here. Let’s do an odalisque.”
She giggled, and flopped down on the couch, arranging herself on her side, facing him, a young love goddess with punk hair. She snapped open the fan, and hid her face below the eyes. “Like this?” she said, flirtatiously.
“Perfect. Hold it,” he commanded, starting to sketch in pencil on the canvas. There are advantages, he thought briefly, to doing nudes; you get to tell naked women what to do. There are worse things in life.
Well after midnight, he told Kylie that she should get up and stretch. She came around behind him, casually putting her hands on his shoulders. He was just finishing the sketch, and planning out the first layer of colors, the lightest base. He talked, almost to himself, about his plan for the picture, as she stood silently.
After a couple of minutes, not turning around, he said, “Uh, Kylie, do you want a robe? It gets chilly in here, up in the wind like it is.”
He could feel her shift slightly, lean in closer. “Why?” she asked, her voice soft and throaty. He could feel her warm breath up against him, and her lips grazed his ear as she spoke.
He turned around, meeting her eyes. “I’d just have to take it off,” she whispered, leaning down to kiss him. He closed his eyes, feeling her lips slowly open as he slid his tongue between them, sliding his arms around her, stroking her back, feeling her body press against him. The pencil fell forgotten to the floor. One of his hands slid around to her front, stroking and fondling a breast, feeling its weight, caressing the nipple.
He stood up, breaking off the kiss, and took her hand, leading her back to the couch. She sat down, and then reclined, slowly opening her legs invitingly. He smiled when she saw that, yes, she did have a piercing, just as he suspected: a small-gauge silver ring through her clit hood. She ran a hand down over her pussy as he watched, stroking it, watching him back as he pulled his clothes off. He sat down between her legs, and then slid, nearly off the couch, as he leaned over to taste her, run his lips over her wet cunt. He closed his eyes as he buried his tongue into her slit, her moans and writhes guiding him, teaching him about her...
After she had come once, then again, bucking her hips up, grabbing at his head as she cried out, he had lifted himself up, giving a soft bite and gentle pull at the ring, to gratifying effect. She smiled widely at him as he straightened, reaching down to her bag and tossing him a condom. Clever girl, he thought, ready for anything. He quickly pulled open the package, and slid it on his hard cock, watching her stare at his dick, writhing her hips impatiently.
“Ready?” he asked lightly, smiling, stroking himself, feasting on curve of her hips, her waist, her breasts. She slowly stroked her nipples, teasing him by pushing her tits together for him.
“Very,” she replied. She stretched, arching her back, opening her legs, raising her hands straight out over her head, grabbing the rail at the side of the couch. “Please, now,” she added, closing her eyes.
He bent over her, sliding in. “Oh, oooh, yess...” she sighed, her hips bucking up to meet him. As he started to fuck her, slowly, in and out, in and out, he looked down to meet her eyes, and was struck by how gorgeous she looked, a work of art herself. And then he thought only about how wonderful her cunt felt around his cock.
He woke late the next morning. He lay still for a few moments, remembering the night. He turned around, ready to say, “Thanks for bringing a whole box of condoms,” but the first word died on his lips. He was alone in bed.
He sat up, and looked around. Her bag and clothing were gone. He fell back with a flop, swore, and then rose out of bed, a bit stiffly. Well, if she had been winded by that walk up the stairs, she certainly had enough stamina later, he thought, looking around the apartment for a note, a letter, a card, anything. She had left her bra in the bathroom. Otherwise, nada. Joshua picked up the black lace bra, shaking his head, studying it for a moment. He gave in to his urge to examine the label. A 38DD memento? he wondered, puzzled. He stuffed it into his sock drawer.
He sat down at the kitchen table, staring mournfully at the coffee brewing. I didn’t even get her last name, he thought. Was I that wretched a lover? Did I say something? As he poured his first cup of the morning, he decided that, no, he was just a character in a fantasy of hers: pose in the nude, seduce the artist, disappear into the night. Leave behind some black lace to mark your passing. OK, fine. Thanks for the romp, Kylie, wherever you may be, he thought, lifting the cup.
After his shower, he examined the painting he had started of her. I can’t deal with this now, he thought with a grimace. Later, he concluded, putting the canvas back into the pile of unfinished work. Later.
Later arrived in a little under two months. The editor of “Coma in SOMA” wanted one of his paintings for a cover, and Joshua was rummaging through the stack, trying to find the old National Guard Armory thing he had started. He needed the exposure; hell, he needed the money, and although “Coma” mainly paid in “You’re Lucky A Publication As Cool As Us Wants You” currency (not negotiable at the local grocery store), they had offered to throw in a couple of real dollars, just to be nice. They wanted it May 6th, and it was already the afternoon of May 3rd, he never having been one to let work get in the way of procrastination.
As he pulled the stack apart, the unfinished canvas of Kylie skittered out of the pile, the corner slamming into his unprotected left foot. With a curse, he snatched it up, and examined it balefully. He took it back to the sofa, and rubbed his offended toe, the picture propped up next to him, a silent tableau of painter and sketched girl sitting on the couch together.
Joshua sighed. “I should finish this,” he said to the canvas, which did not reply. Not really knowing what else to do, and the search for the National Guard Armory having been largely forgotten, he carried the picture over to the easel, and started finishing the sketch. Memories of the night with Kylie ran through his mind. Odalisque, he thought. Slave girl. Slave to fashion? he thought, with a laugh. OK, I can do that. He reached up, and touched up the eyes; more hooded, more lustful, more... well, more submissive. He sat back, feeling strange, guilty, and more than a bit turned on. He rough-sketched tennis shoes and jeans, and added a recognizable logo to both... there, fashion. He shook his head, giggling, and leaned over for a brush.
It was the small hours of the next morning before he finished the picture. When it was done, he carried it over to the drying rack. I like what I did with her, he thought; she really does seem to glow.
The afternoon of August 3rd, Joshua was flipping through the contents of his PO box in the lobby of the Civic Center Post Office, tossing the junk mail into the trash. Bill, bill, flyer (toss), bill, gallery opening invite (toss)... C’mon, he thought, is one small check too much to ask? He was about to toss yet another invite to yet another gallery opening at Fassil Galleries when he stopped, noticing the address was typed, not just another Avery label.
He opened the letter, and nearly had to collect his jaw from the none-too-clean floor:
Fassil Galleries would like to invite you to submit three recent pieces to their annual, exclusive, closed selling show, “Fassil Judgments.” Please only submit work that is currently for sale. Fassil Galleries will act as your agent for all transactions in this show. For information, contact...
He blinked, and reread it. Fassil Galleries. Paul Fassil owned the high-end San Francisco art scene; when Wells-Fargo Bank wanted to drop some middling five-figure sum on art and not look stupid for doing it, he’s the one they called. This event was Fassil’s way to making everyone see that he had his Pulse On The New Artists of Today. Round up a bunch of the local Great and Good (not an opening, no, no riff-raff at this one), line up a bunch of Art, insert the tubes, suck out the money. They’d spend $5,000 for an old cover of Industrial Safety Today Magazine, if Fassil stuck it in a frame and told them it was from a promising young talent.
Joshua nearly skipped out of the lobby of the post office. This could be big, he thought. Very, very big...
By the time he got back to the studio, he was in a quandary. Three pieces? Three pieces? I have about two hundred here, which three? The rest of the afternoon was spent pawing through stacks of finished work, unfinished work, sketches, old drawing notebooks.
That evening, he was sitting dejectedly in the middle of the studio. This is going nowhere; six hours, and I have, what, 22 possibilities. Narrow it down, narrow it down. What will this crowd like? Screw that, what will Fassil like? He’ll tell them what they like, they have no idea when what their tastes are when they walk in. That’s Fassil’s job. Joshua surveyed the paintings, propped up against chairs in a ring around him like Zodiac symbols. He turned himself around on the floor, examining each one in turn.
OK, what do I know about Fassil? he thought. What’s he going to like? I know that he’s rich, he’s straight, he’s been married about twenty times, and he’s divorced now. Big scandal the last time, dumped the Mrs. for a top-heavy art groupie from Wisconsin, who promptly dumped him for the CEO of a software company, Harlan someone. Hmmm, Joshua thought, and stood up, walking over to the portrait of Kylie. I didn’t get a release from her, but there’s no way anyone could recognize her from this painting, he thought; the fan covers most of her face, and I painted her with lots of black hair on her head to match her pubes, covered by brand-name jeans in the picture. Fassil wouldn’t push a painting just because it’s cheesecake, he thought, staring at Kylie’s ample bosom. A gallery owner of his stature couldn’t be that shallow. Joshua laughed. “Yes, yes, he could be,” he said out loud with a grin, scribbling “Odalisque to Fashion” on the submission form.
When he checked his mail two months later, Joshua let out a shout that nearly made the post office clerks dive for cover. He had just ripped open a window envelope from Fassil Galleries, containing a check for nearly $12,000. This time, he did skip all the way out of the post office. An hour later, as he sat having a very nice, very expensive lunch at Aqua, the first time he had eaten out in a month, he read the receipts that came with the check, and was amazed to discover that the buyer of “Odalisque to Fashion” was no other than P. Fassil. I called that one, he smirked to himself. Admire its beauty, or jack off to it, in good health, thought Joshua, raising his glass of wine in a silent toast.
“You must be very excited,” said a matronly woman, all rhinestones and smiles and clothes that attempted to be retro, but instead were merely hideously unfashionable. Joshua nodded, wondering why in the world he had ever agreed to let Fassil do a show of his work.
He looked around the room, and sighed. Shows. A 80s meat market, a 90s power lunch, and a 30s Mafioso family gathering, all in one truly delightful package. And, since this time it was his shows (well, among others; he was one of five artists who had received this particular blessing from Fassil the Magnificent), he couldn’t even run and hide. He knew that it was great for his career, and since the check from “Fassil Judgments” arrived three months ago, the stream of painting sales had picked up nicely. He hadn’t had any trouble paying the rent. But still.
Joshua disengaged himself from La Matron, whose name he was pleased to note that he had forgotten, and wound his way towards the bar. He was starting to reconsider his lifelong aversion to getting drunk. Artists throughout the years haven’t drunk to unlock their creativity or to silence their inner demons, he thought; they drank so they could face the Art World without suddenly going nuts and firing off a clip of ammo into the crowd at one of these things.
Suddenly, as the crowd parted, he collided with a woman. It took him two blinks to realize that it was Kylie. He almost didn’t recognize her. She was no coffeehouse habitué now, with full warpaint makeup and heavy jewelry. She had grown her hair long; heavy black curls were hanging around her pale face. It took him two more blinks to realize that the man on whose arm she was dangling was Paul Fassil. What few graces he possessed immediately fused into a solid, useless lump; he would not have been surprised, later, to hear that smoke was pouring out his ears.
Fassil reached down from the heights (literally, the man was 6′ 8″ if an inch), and shook Joshua’s hand. Kylie was not a short woman, and Joshua was not a short man, but Fassil towered over both of them. “I’m glad to see you. I know these kinds of events aren’t really your thing,” he said, in a friendly bass rumble. Fassil’s craggy face, with its full head of white hair, looked down on Joshua like a clean-shaven Old Testament patriarch. “Have you met my friend? Kylie Ibermann? Kylie, this is Joshua Tostig. I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”
Given a moment to get back into gear, Joshua’s mind spun through all manner of witty retorts. He was debating between, “I still have the bra” and “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on,” when he looked down from Fassil and met Kylie’s eyes. For a split second, he thought she was just playing very cool; but he realized that, no, she didn’t recognize him at all. He stepped hard on the momentary feeling of pain that flitted through him at that. Then, he looked again, directly into her eyes, and realized that yes, she knew just who he was, because there was something there... a promise... a plea, maybe?
Kylie extended her hand, tossing a lock of glossy blue-black hair out of her face. “It’s a pleasure,” she said, with the interest reserved for a conversation with an ATM. What’s going on with her? Does Fassil realize that she’s the model for “Odalisque”? Is she asking me to keep it secret?
Joshua touched her hand, in the briefest of handshakes. Fassil, looked across the room, and resumed pushing through the crowd. “Ah, Kylie, there’s Raymond Dasser of The Gap. I need to talk with him, and you need to meet him. See you, Joshua,” Fassil said, pulling Kylie away. Joshua noted that she was wearing a bright red strapless dress, her cleavage obscenely emphasized, but he couldn’t bring himself to scope her out; his blood felt like it had congealed. He wasn’t aware that he had stopped breathing until she disappeared into the crowd, and he was able to continue to work his way to the bar, unsteadily.
By his fourth drink, Joshua had decided that whatever was going on with Kylie was not his problem. He had flirted with a couple of cute young things, impressed a few people who looked like they threw money around on art, and had Fassil whisper in his ear that two of his best customers were asking him how much Joshua Tostig’s paintings were going to appreciate over the next ten years. Fassil had then vanished again into the crowd... How does a man that tall disappear like that? Joshua wondered, as he tried to find the restroom.
He headed upstairs, and was maneuvering down the corridor towards the far end, where the consensus had it that the men’s room was located. As he passed one of the doors, he heard voices, and pulled up short when he heard Fassil’s distinctive rumble.
“Kylie, it’s not an option. Dasser is an important person, no matter what you think of his looks.”
Kylie’s voice was soft, strained, like she was having to force it out of her throat. “Paul, you can’t do this to me. I’m not...”
Fassil cut her off. “You are. You have a job with the gallery, just like I do. I need you to do your job, right now.”
Joshua put a hand out to balance himself. Stepping up very, very carefully, he could see Fassil and Kylie in profile, reflected in a large mirror in the office. Kylie was staring up at Fassil’s face, her eyes huge and scared; Fassil was looking down with an expression that mixed affection, amusement, and condescension in equal parts.
Kylie reached a hand out, touched the lapel of Fassil’s tux jacket. “Paul, please. Don’t.”
Fassil shook his head, amazed. “Kylie, enough of this nonsense. Now, I’m going to go over it one more time, and only once. You are going to go with me in this, do you understand?”
She seemed to collapse slightly, her eyes growing blank. No, thought Joshua, not blank. Resigned.
Fassil nodded, his smile broadening. “Good. You are going to go back downstairs, and flirt with Dasser. Heavily.”
Kylie took a deep breath and slowly nodded.
“He will, undoubtedly, try to pick you up within the first half-hour. You will agree to go home with him tonight. I will, of course, play the innocent in all this, and will not even be present when you two leave. You can tell him that I don’t mind such behavior on your part, which is hardly a lie.” Fassil smiled, not pleasantly.
Kylie took her hand away, put it over her heart, like she was pledging allegiance to the flag. “Go home with him.”
“Do whatever he wants. Make sure that he thinks you love it.”
Kylie closed her eyes, for just an instant. Joshua was sure he could see a shudder. “I’ll be sure. I... I’m very good at that. You know that, Paul.”
Paul smiled, nodding at her, a teacher whose pupil has finally learned a difficult lesson. “Good girl. You’ll do wonderfully, I’m certain.” He paused, taking a sip on his drink. “Since you’re not going to be home tonight, there’s something else I want you to do.”
Kylie took another deep breath; Joshua couldn’t help but notice the effect each of those had on her chest; he wondered how the dress stayed up.
“Here? Now?” she asked. No argument, no challenge, no surprise. Just a question.
Paul smiled. “Yes. Be neat, we both have to go back downstairs afterwards.”
Kylie nodded, and dropped to her knees smoothly. She unzipped Fassil’s pants, and slid her hands into the fly, carefully pulling out his cock. Joshua’s eyes widened, just a bit; he’s certainly... proportional. The phrase “like a horse” sprang to mind. There’s no way she’ll be able to...
But with eyes closed, full lips parted wide, Kylie leaned forward and started to suck. All of it.
Joshua stepped back, nearly falling. He shook his head, and quickly stepped down to the restroom. This, he thought, is definitely not my problem. And I’m glad for that. Shit, and why did that make me so horny?
His bladder relieved, he came back down the corridor. As he passed the office, he couldn’t help but peek in through the door, but all he saw was Fassil, standing, taking a sip from a drink, and the fall of Kylie’s hair as she knelt before him, her head moving in and out, in and out. Joshua couldn’t see her face, but his imagination supplied all the details. He hurried back downstairs.
Leaving was not as easy as he had hoped. He was accosted by other artists as he ran the gauntlet towards the door, their reactions running the full gamut from genuinely happy for him, through patronizing since he was Only Now Getting A Show, all the way to ready to kill him because He Had Gotten A Show Even Though He Was Just A Fucking No-Talent Realist Poseur. Those last were easy to spot, as they were especially hearty and sincere-sounding in their congratulations. Joshua had tried to find Fassil, just for courtesy’s sake, but he had once again done his vanishing act into the crowd.
He was nearly free of the crowd, right at the door, when Kylie breezed by, laughing and giggling, on the arm of a short, round man in a gray suit. Kylie saw Joshua, and stopped. She leaned over to her escort, saying, “Ray? Just a moment.” She walked towards Joshua, a purposeful, slow step. His blood froze again; what now? He glanced at her cleavage, and wondered insanely if she could have hidden a knife there.
Kylie stopped about three feet away, hands at her side, slowly clenching and unclenching, her posture ramrod straight. “Mr. Tostig?” she asked, her voice casual, almost a bit flirtatious.
Joshua swallowed. “Yes? Uh, Kylie?”
Kylie looked up at the ceiling, then down. “There’s something I need to talk to you...” The man holding the door called her name, and she turned on her 3″ heel, spun around as if by an invisible hand.
Joshua was frozen for a few seconds, watching her leave. He bolted for the door, into the busy city street. Kylie was nowhere to be seen.