Red

by Anastasia Jill

Her lips are rose petals holding a cigarette. The ash falls into her lap; it’s hard to trust they won’t burn her. As she laments this, I remind her, “You shouldn’t be smoking anyways, Katherine.”

“You’re here to play artist,” she reminds me. “Not doctor.” Her eyes are cajoling beads, following the motions of my hand. She wants me to draw her, and a drawing she will get because I will not let my captivation interfere with the work at hand.

She sits against a winter garden that simmers in the Winter Park heat. Her hair is fake red and her lips, a ruby daydream. Her shirt – pale lapis and peppered with flowers – is tight against a bosom, thick, full, and white, like a brand new book. Her teeth are not so white, and a sprig of the peach she ate for lunch is stuck between her front molars. Glasses, round and black, slip down her pronounced nose. She does not push them up.

She takes off her jacket and discards it to the concrete. It is orange and yellow, with a big button that reads “I’m not a lesbian but I hate men.” It’s not a choice, to be a lesbian, or to hate men, and I know that. But it also isn’t a choice to like her, and I do, very much. The details of her womanhood captivate me so, not just as an artist, but as a lover.

“Lee,” she says, plucking each syllable from her mouth. “You’re staring.”

I shake my head and pretend to appear professional. “I need to. I’m drawing you. I need to know what you look like.”

“I agree you need to look, but not like that.”

She reaches over, swipes an imaginary line of drool from my chin. Pretending isn’t her strong suit, neither is joking; her cheeks are flush with a secret warmth.

A beat moves over us, and a swift “brrr” escapes her lips as she picks up the discarded coat and tosses her cigarette. “It’s not supposed to get this cold in Florida.” The wind takes her hair in its fingers, working the ends into a curl. I capture that on the page, which, for the most part, is empty since I’ve been watching her too closely.

I remind myself what this is: she wanted a portrait from a professional artist. I hardly qualify as ‘professional,’ but I’m the closest thing she’s got. She never specified what she wanted the portrait for, and I didn’t ask. It’s not like I knew her intimately, but we were acquaintances, briefly. She’s a philosophy student at the same college I attend, but she frequents the art department as a photography minor. When she mentioned she needed an author portrait, someone else gave her my name.

I need to thank that person. I’ve been taken by her for a while now, and everyone knows it.

The sun sticks its ultraviolet tongue from behind a cloud, licking the cold away until we’re saturated with heat. I take off my own denim coat and roll up my sleeves. “Damn sun’s in my eyes.” I say. “You mind moving a little to the right?”

Watching her pose is nothing else if not empowering. Her thighs are firm on the bench, and she’s got me captivated, bent over, ready to take what is coming. I repeat to myself: I will not stare at her; I will not stare at this woman; I will not be a useless lesbian. For God’s sake, I am here to do a job.

She doesn’t make it easy. Luckily, my doughy arm knows how to work a pencil under times of frustration or stress. Her cigarette, long forgotten, still simmers on the ground. The smoke catches my nose, sinks its claws under, and I sneeze.

“Bless you,” she says.

“It’s fine.”

I sneeze again.

This time, she reaches in her pocket and gives me a tissue. It’s the cheap kind with My Little Ponies on them, from the dollar store, no doubt. I wipe and say sorry.

She holds my gaze the way I wish she would my hand. “Lee, it’s a sneeze. Stop apologizing.”

Reaching in her other pocket, she produces a tube of red lipstick. Smearing it on herself, she smacks and puckers her lips. A thin cerise line appears on her teeth, next to the piece of peach. The color germinates inside her mouth until it’s spread to her tongue.

I don’t tell her. It feels intimate, forbidden somehow, to know this secret about her, even if it’s just lipstick on her teeth.

Getting back to work, I draw her as she sits still, capturing everything about her and her surroundings; the flowers behind her and on her shirt, the lipstick on her teeth, the cigarette, the concrete under her shoes. It’s not until the final details – the moles on her neck and the red ring around the cigarette nub – I realize that she is now staring at me. At my hands, specifically, at the art they’ve produced.

“Wow,” she says, “That’s really nice.”

My eyes sink into her like teeth do a fruit and I wish I could sit here all day, recreating her image and likeness onto the page. But our session is done. The portrait is finished. She has no reason to hang around a girl she barely knows.

“I have to take this with me to color,” I say. “I’ll have it finished by the end of the week.”

Her hand raises and a fingernail finds my face, carving a faint lotus rouge line across my cheek. I may just imagine she’s touching me in that manner. The color of her nails makes something arise in me; something adventurous, something romantic. “I don’t have anywhere to be.” My voice waxes a deep nervousness. “If you’re not busy, maybe we could…”

She says yes before I can get the question out. She points to her jacket. “The button is old.” Then she whispers, “You’re very cute, Lee.”

I’m so rattled I reveal, “You have lipstick smeared on your teeth.”

She puts the finger to her front teeth and wipes it away. “That happens a lot,” she says.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her.

“Stop apologizing.” She smiles and gives me a wink. “It’s not your fault. It just happened. And I’m fine with that.”

My face now matches her everything, as the blush transfers from her to me.

Reaching to the ground, she plucks her cigarette from the dirt and puts it in her pocket. The lipstick around the base is now on her hand. She reaches for my hand, the lipstick painting a new portrait on me; one of blooming. She holds me close to her as we walk out of the garden.


Anastasia Jill is a queer writer living in the South. Her work has been featured with Poets.org, Lunch Ticket, FIVE:2:ONE, apt, Anomaly Literary Journal, Gertrude Press, Minola Review, Thirty West Publishing House, Hypertext Magazine, and more.

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