by K. James D’Agostino
Aubrey stood in the corner to which the gallery had relegated Dion’s paintings, frowning at the bright red sculptures of women falling down. The sculptures were like a sandbar blocking ships from a bay; art-seekers walking through the gallery stopped at the sight of them and turned away in disgust before they even noticed Dion’s paintings. Aubrey massaged her temples and paced. She was glad Dion hadn’t come. The paintings she’d chosen for him were two portraits in memoriam of Dr. Waterly, Dion’s old mentor, and they were being corrupted by the presence of the falling woman sculptures. Some art was just so bad that it infected everything around it.
Possessed by a sudden need to escape, Aubrey fled to the other side of the gallery. Pastel landscapes and elegant glass-blown wind chimes filled the air with a stodginess that at least respected itself. One artist had hidden words in their landscapes, the last words of Othello or Caesar or other such figures. The pink and orange wind chimes cast broken droplets of red over Aubrey. Nearby was a statue of a giant bird made of mirrors, and she caught sight of her reflection on the inside of one oversized wing. She mistook the drops of red light from the wind chimes for blood on her skin and flinched, blanching, running a hand over her face and neck in a panicked search for wounds. The panic lasted only an instant, and she shivered at the cool feeling of its release, like needles in her fingertips. She let out an unsettled titter, glancing around to see how many people had noticed the embarrassing moment. But no one was looking at her. There were dozens of people around, artists, critics, collectors and partners, and not a single eye registered Aubrey among them.
She hugged herself and felt the air move through her like she wasn’t there. Aubrey knew that she didn’t belong. This was a gallery for the nationally renowned, for artists, agents, and journalists with authority. Dion’s art wasn’t exactly famous. Aubrey didn’t manage it well, and what few critiques or articles she’d managed to sell were published locally in forgotten corners of pamphlets or rags destined to be thrown out without being read. She’d volunteered to write copy for this gallery’s pamphlets and programs and to draft features on the most prominent artists. Then she’d bargained away authorship credit to the organizer in exchange for the space for two of Dion’s paintings. All for a spot in the corner behind the falling women, where no one would even look.
On her way back to Dion’s paintings, the sculptor responsible for the falling women stepped toward her. “Take a deep breath.”
Aubrey stopped short and leaned away from him. “What?”
The man was broad-shouldered and thin-armed, his eyes bearing the static arrogance of someone who once sold a sculpture for ten thousand dollars and believed it only his fair due to continue doing so. “The woman by your paintings right now. I recognize her. She’s well-reputed and merciless.” Anyone with sculptures like his would have an antagonistic relationship with every decent critic they met.
The woman standing in front of Dion’s paintings wore a stylish red vest and a long purple dress, her dark hair pulled back. At the sight of her, Aubrey gasped. “It’s not Yezda Siyabend! Is it?”
The sculptor nodded. “It is her: the Persian witch.”
“Augh.” Aubrey swayed away from the man as though a stench had erupted from his body. Aubrey walked straight toward Yezda, feeling a strange new pressure in her chest that grew stronger as she approached.
Yezda Siyabend was a mythological creature, one of the international cabal – surely they must be an organized cabal – who actually made money off the production and sale of contemporary art. Yezda had written about painters, sculptors, performance artists, and modern experimentalists of all kinds. Yezda had organized galleries, showings, and sales events in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East, featuring artists whose careers she managed on an individual basis. And now this woman stood in front of Dion’s portraits, eying it with the kind of studious detachment that Aubrey had never been able to achieve.
Aubrey put herself beside Yezda and watched her out of the corner of her eye. Yezda was as composed as any carved statue; almost like the Lakshmi figures in the nearby temple. Yezda’s brow arced wonderfully high, black and bold over dark eyes. Aubrey stared especially at Yezda’s lips, enamored by their shape, eager to see them open and bend, to hear her breathe, to see evidence that this greater being actually lived and dwelled among them.
For some time, longer than a year now, Aubrey had been a fan of Yezda the way other women were fans of movie stars. Whereas celebrities seduced the masses with wry smirks and the confident teasing of scripted Hollywood irreverence, Yezda unknowingly seduced Aubrey with the written word. With masterful ease, Yezda’s critiques dismantled artists in the first sentence only to praise their very imperfections in the second. Her command of fine artistic scholarship stimulated Aubrey’s latent academia at the same time that photos of the woman, printed alongside her articles, renewed Aubrey’s sense of artistic beauty. To Aubrey, it was as though Yezda were some inspirational sculpture, hand-crafted by the lotus-bearing matron of all muses, sent to tell artists when their use of perspective did not suit their subject or that they’d never really mastered the painting of light.
When Yezda glanced over at Aubrey, her brow lifted with the grace of a being accustomed to others staring at her. Aubrey, the mere mortal, flushed and pulled her gaze up to Yezda’s eyes. Aubrey wanted to pretend she’d been seeking eye contact. But she couldn’t think of anything to say. Surely she must’ve planned something on her way over? No, all of her instincts for professional networking and the well-worn scripts of ‘hello’s and first respects had gone utterly silent. Instead, she felt she should bow her head and whisper words of reverence.
Aubrey found herself transfixed, staring into the black of Yezda’s eyes with the paralysis of one awakening in the middle of the wilderness with no clue when they’d left their bed. She didn’t know how she’d come here, or where she was, and she couldn’t make out the horizon from where she stood. All she could see was the night going on forever in Yezda’s eyes. Her mind began to form a prayer on its own: O, Goddess of Warm Night…
“Aubrey de Ponza?” Yezda’s voice was charming and professional, if a bit bemused by the woman staring at her.
Aubrey held her breath at the sight of Yezda’s mouth moving. “Uhm?”
“Aubrey de Ponza. These paintings are by Dion de Ponza. I think you’re his wife-slash-manager? Unless I’m making some mistake?”
“Oh. No. yes.” Aubrey shook her head, then nodded. “Yes, that’s me. You know me?”
“I’ve read some of your responses to my critiques, I think.” She extended a hand. “Yezda Juyan Siyabend.”
Aubrey had forgotten the few letters she’d sent to a journal that regularly printed Yezda’s critiques. Aubrey had so belabored her praises and queries, anxious that she’d sound simple and wondering if her humor would come off as inappropriately familiar. But, then, why would it? She’d asked herself questions like that while Dion called from the kitchen that it was almost seven and dinner would be ready soon and was she still working? But writing letters to that journal didn’t feel like work. She didn’t imagine they’d be read by even the journal’s staff, much less actually reach Yezda.
“I know you.” Aubrey forced herself to blink, realizing her face was numb and suddenly seeming to have sensation only in each individual freckle on her nose and cheeks. She cleared her throat and ran a hand over her ear, imagining her red hair had escaped its braid even though it hadn’t. “I mean, I know your work. It’s always beautiful.”
“My writing?” Yezda’s hand hung unacknowledged between them.
Aubrey’s answer came slowly, too caught up in the confused quirk of Yezda’s lips. “Yes. I’ve read a lot of your work.”
“It’s not often at a gallery full of art that it’s the critic being told their work is pretty.” Yezda’s smirk changed with every word. She must have had a thousand different ways she could smile.
“Yes. Well. I’m sorry. I mean.” Aubrey struggled to see clear of the night in Yezda’s eyes, but the only other thing she saw was Yezda’s lips. Aubrey noticed Yezda’s extended hand just as it began to fall, and she caught it in both hands like a dropped glass. Aubrey stared at Yezda’s brown hand in her white hands. “I mean I’m not sorry. For the compliment. As much as for the occasion.” Yezda’s hand was thin, her fingers long.
Yezda let her hand rest in Aubrey’s, but her fingers curled away from the touch. “Are you alight?”
“Yes.” Aubrey answered quickly and looked around her, seeing nothing but the dark of Yezda’s eyes in every direction. “I was just so moved by the statues.”
“The statues? Those statues?”
“Yes. They’re very…” Aubrey choked on the attempt to compliment the falling women, but all she remembered of them were eyes like bumps enfolded and oversized hands groping dumbly. “They’re unexpected!”
Yezda snickered. “That’s a good word for them, if you need one. It’s clever.” She took Aubrey’s hands in both of her own, an instant that made Aubrey shiver. But all Yezda did was pry their hands apart and put their right hands together again, palm to palm, and shook hands with her properly. “It is good to meet you in person, Mrs. De Ponza.”
Aubrey nodded, feeling a somber frown on her lips. “It is good to meet you, Miss Siyabend.”
Yezda took her hand away, joining them in front of her and turning back to Dion’s paintings. “I’ve never seen your husband’s work before.”
“Oh, right.” Aubrey looked in that direction as well, staring off into the night that Yezda had wrapped around her. “What do you think?”
Yezda was quiet. Aubrey looked sideways to watch the woman’s lips thin, her gaze sharpen, her gorgeous hands knot tightly together. Aubrey imagined critique bubbling inside the woman, rising as steam about to be released. But Yezda just shrugged and said, “They’re portraits.”
Aubrey looked between Yezda and the shadows where the paintings would be. “I mean, yes, they are. Dion’s been doing more and more portraits these past few years. People like them. But what do you think?”
“That is what I think. These paintings are doing what portraits do. People like portraits, and these are very nice portraits. I’m sure people will like them just fine.”
“But do you like them?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t really come here to like things. I’m looking for art that’s too horrible to ignore, or art that…” Yezda let out a sigh. “Or things that change why I’m here in the first place. I guess that doesn’t make sense.”
“No. I kind of get it, I think.” Aubrey had read enough of Yezda’s writing on art to know that her taste leaned toward things she would describe as exquisite or sublime. She didn’t much care for reinvention or postmodernity, things designed to surprise or to reject expectations. Yezda’s favor was reserved for artists who, through the simple combination of their skill and sense of beauty, created pieces that evoked the essential, comfortable and familiar awe that people normally reserved for sunrise or moonlit lovers. Art that simply did as it was meant to do, staying inside the canvas, capturing its subject fully but not exceeding that goal, was simply something to look at. Not to feel.
“But I’m just one critic,” Yezda said. “You’re the manager. What do you think of it?”
Still wrapped up in Yezda’s night, Aubrey couldn’t see the paintings. She closed her eyes to remember, instead, Waterly’s features as Dion had rendered them: wrinkled skin like old paper, sparse hair, eyes always narrow. In one painting, Waterly was posed for a graduation ceremony, in a robe of SMAU’s yellow and silver. They were ugly colors that made Waterly look like he’d been left out in the sun to go bad, but they were real. In the other, Waterly sat comfortably in a red cardigan that hugged his shoulders and hung like a bag around the stalk of his torso. In that painting, Waterly’s hands were calm and still in his lap, because the painting couldn’t move like Waterly’s aged hands never stopped doing.
“Mrs. De Ponza?”
“Just Aubrey, please. Calling me missus anything makes me feel old.”
Yezda sounded amused. “I’m sorry. You do look like you’re falling asleep quite peacefully.”
“I’m thinking about the paintings.” But she really wasn’t, was she? Aubrey remembered the paintings, the way that wet paint smelled, and how Dion had pinned photos of Waterly to the wall behind his easel while working on the portraits. But the paintings themselves? The actual art? The soul of it?
Aubrey opened her eyes. Yezda’s night had released her. Aubrey saw the gallery around her again, the people, the damned falling women. She heard all the chatter of the art world: critics and sellers networking, artists humbling themselves to mystified collectors. Yezda had begun talking again, about paintings elsewhere in the gallery, maybe about how there was really nothing special even around here. Maybe Yezda suspected what she’d just done to Aubrey. But even having left Yezda’s night, the light didn’t fully return. To Aubrey, the gallery was cavernous and dim. In the shadow, the portraits looked so gray and simple.
Aubrey had no thoughts on them. They were rendered artless to her. Why had she chosen them for the gallery? Just because they were important to Dion. Because Waterly had a kind face. Those reasons gave the portraits meaning to Aubrey, but they didn’t make them art.
Before she walked away, Yezda placed her card in Aubrey’s hand and said, “I really did like reading your letters. You can fax me, if you want. Or call.” At temples, the priests would give blessed food called prasad to the worshippers. The lower and more desperate that parishioner, the more dire the need to ingest the prasad. Aubrey ran a finger over the raised lettering on the front of the card, feeling Yezda’s name.
* * *
“Don’t you think it’s kind of fake?” Aubrey said.
“What?” Dion was a short, round-shouldered man, and he looked up from a canvas that made him look even smaller. His arms were dotted with colored paint, fingers black and brown from the mix of it all. His studio was all canvases leaning or hung on the walls, piles of sketchbooks, reference photos pinned up, the smell of paint and pastels and charcoal, and a floor dappled with every color.
“The portrait.” Aubrey touched the corner of it, that painting of Waterly in his red cardigan, sitting calmly. She looked over to Dion. “Don’t you think?”
Behind his dark beard, Dion frowned. “That’s one of my best portraits. Or, I thought it was.”
“It is. But, Dion, look at his hands, and his arms. Look how still he’s sitting. He looks like he’s falling asleep. I don’t think I ever saw him sit like that.”
“Well, he couldn’t sit still. He…” Dion’s expression turned crooked.
Aubrey nodded. “Yeah, I remember.” Waterly had been sick in the last years of his life, when Aubrey had known him. The old man’s hands always shivered, his arms moving from side to side, like his limbs were narrow trees in a windstorm. His fingers were twigs constantly on the verge of falling off. He would become uncomfortable in chairs moments after sitting down. Waterly was constantly standing and walking until he was too exhausted to do anything but rest, no matter how uncomfortable he was.
Dion shook his head. “There’s no way to paint a person except for still.”
“Are you sure?”
Stretching and securing a new canvas, Dion tried something new. He painted one of Waterly’s hands, just his hand, in soft tan. Then he painted over it in a lighter color, giving it age, though this second layer of the hand did not align with the first. He added dark spots on the knuckles of the top layer. He finally painted the hand a third time, this time firmly, with rigid lines. The resulting hand was firm and thin, but seemed to blur into a specter of itself that shifted to one side and then the other.
The hand was not in motion, but it was unsettling to look at. All of the shapes were there; they just weren’t stable. It looked like it had been painted by accident by an artist who couldn’t control their own hand. After gazing at it for a few minutes, Dion added a stable wrist and forearm, as well as sharply rendered hair on the back of the hand and the knuckles. The solid confidence of these other shapes emphasized the chaos of the hand.
“God.” Dion rubbed at his eyes, smudging paint on his eyelids and brow. “It’s sure an effect, isn’t it?”
Aubrey stood behind him, frowning over his shoulder. “Does it get the point across?”
“Can you imagine having hands like that? I could never…” Dion took a deep breath and looked at the brush in his hand. He sat it down among his paints and joined his hands together, cracking his knuckles. “I don’t like it. I really don’t like it.”
“You don’t think it’s any good?”
“It’s good. It’s fine. I could feel the paint going where it needed to. It feels like it’s good work. Damn it, though.” Dion shook his head and turned to pace away from the painting. “I did those portraits to remember Waterly. I didn’t want to remember how much his hands hurt.”
It did hurt to look at. It hurt to remember. Aubrey found herself looking away from it, and instead glanced to another portrait on the wall of Dion’s studio. Aubrey looked at an old portrait Dion kept up for sentimental reasons, a painting from the first gallery they’d done together. It was a portrait of her father’s boyfriend, a doctor named Martin, laying in his death-bed. But in the portrait Martin was strong-looking and smiling. Three years ago, Aubrey had asked Dion to paint Martin that way. She hadn’t wanted to remember Martin in his weakness. After years of being worn down by the world’s prejudice, of pouring himself into love for others, after watching his friends succumb to disease and being on the precipice of succumbing himself, the sight of Martin had been so painful.
Back then, Aubrey had thrown out all her photographs, abandoned her camera, and eventually she’d met Dion and asked him to paint Martin as beautiful and strong. She did remember him as beautiful. Martin was strong. And partly because of Dion’s painting, she found she could separate that from everything that had turned so ugly.
“I get it,” Aubrey watched Dion’s shadow as he paced around his studio. “But maybe that’s why it turned out fake.”
* * *
Aubrey suspected that it was in the nature of husbands to feel like they needed to stand taller than their wives. Aubrey had never pushed that on Dion, but she could see that his father — she knew Matteo de Ponza well, rigid and waddling with the need to be as tall as possible — had nailed a plank to Dion’s spine. Or so it looked, sometimes, with the way that Dion stood, with the way that he worked so feverishly some days, with the way he compared the sales of his art with the money that Aubrey’s occasional articles brought in. She knew that Dion didn’t count the value of paintings that Aubrey helped him sell. It was so important to him to make more money than she did, as though Matteo could step in at any moment to take an audit of Dion’s income and call him to account for his masculine failings.
Aubrey loved how Yezda obliterated that by walking with no particular height and no great loftiness, yet with an aura of middle-class security. Yezda wrote more than Aubrey did, sold more of her writing for more money, managed artists who painted more often than Dion and for greater income. All of the things that every young artist didn’t care about, that became so, so important when they reached the age of 25 and realized they’d be 30 one day, were all of the things that Yezda had in great abundance. And Yezda was so much younger than they were.
Aubrey was 28. She’d been rebellious in college, but now that she was older and wanted a stable home to start a family in, she found herself under pressures that she’d never expected to cope with. She wasn’t sure it was even possible to cope with them. She’d been told that if she didn’t have children by 30, she might never have children. Her own father would never put that pressure on her, content that she’d married a man who didn’t raise his voice or his hand. Dion’s mother, Perla, however, wrote him weekly. He hid the letters in a drawer in his studio, away from home, and Aubrey respected that privacy, but she could imagine easily enough what was on Perla’s mind. When would Dion get a real job? Why did Aubrey have to work? When would he make enough money that Aubrey felt like she could have a child? At some point, Perla had lost faith in her son’s art, and it didn’t seem like it would ever return. To Perla, Dion’s fiscal failings were to blame for Aubrey’s career and the absence of grandchildren.
Dion thought too often about money. Aubrey could tell. She sat at a desk in his studio — they’d painted the desk blue, and then white, and then chipped gouges in the surface with a knife so that the wood grain was earth surrounded by blue ocean and white cloudcover — and wrote about art. Or she read articles, so often written by Yezda or about artists whom Yezda managed. And Dion stood at his easel, painting, or sometimes he would draw in graphite. They would spend days like this.
Lately, a few times a day, Dion would pause and stare at the picture. Arms dark with graphite or colored with paint, fists closing around charcoal sticks, brushes, or fragile pastel that compressed into oil between his fingers, he would stare in silence. And Aubrey knew he was thinking about money. Could this painting sell? Did this art have value? Was this portrait appealing enough to draw the artistic eye of a wealthy man? Was this nude sensuous enough? Did this sinew appeal?
Aubrey watched him stare, and she looked down at her writing. She waited until he began to work again, because when he was staring, that was all she could think about.
She stared sometimes, too. When she stared, though, she wasn’t thinking about money. She was thinking about sex. For the first time in years, she began thinking about sex, and not the way she’d thought about it in those bars in San Francisco when she’d read her lesbian poetry and drunkenly sought love in the mouths of other drunk women. This was no simple lust or anything she’d call romance. She wanted to take hold of Dion and create something with him besides art and debt. And sometimes, more and more as time passed, she wanted something that Yezda had. Aubrey’s skin desired Yezda’s lips and hands, but there was something stronger than that. Aubrey wanted Yezda’s comfort. Not her money so much as her confidence. She wanted Yezda’s walk, her easy smile, the security of knowing that no single event, no single artist or critic, could determine her career.
Aubrey slept next to Dion in a leaky waterbed with towels all around the inside of the bedframe. She had a dream in which she and Yezda made love, and then Yezda became pregnant with an Italian child. The child, when born, immediately acquired Matteo’s restaurant through right of noble heritage. The infant had an intuitive sense of Italian cooking and made the restaurant successful, and they all became rich by the talent of Dion and Yezda’s child. Aubrey watched the restaurant fill with customers. As it ran out of room, the walls expanded on their own and more tables appeared out of the floor. The customers who filled the seats were artists and critics whose pictures Aubrey had seen in magazines next to Yezda’s articles, and they ate with their wallets on the table. Dion’s paintings covered the walls. Yezda sat with Matteo and Perla at the bar, and they spoke to her with loving fondness.
Slowly, Aubrey became aware that she was watching this happen from outside of the restaurant. It was cold outside. She looked down and found she didn’t have a stomach or hips. Her body terminated beneath her shoulders, except for legs that lay detached. The road was wet beneath her, and the headlights of a truck reflected brightly in her eyes. She heard its engine rumbling as though it were inside of her.
Aubrey awakened into the cold air of the bedroom. The ceiling fan was on, another fan wedged in the window blowing humid air over her. It was always cold inside when it was hot outside. The covers were thin. The waterbed sloshed back and forth as she sat up. The white light of headlights came through the window and she winced as a car turned on the street outside. Aubrey bundled her legs up in front of her and lay her face on her knees. Her shoulders shook and she had trouble breathing around that shaking.
Dion rose next to her, putting his arm on her shoulder, saying her name.
She’d honestly forgotten what crying felt like. It was a strange and unwanted sensation. “Maybe you should find an actual manager for your art.”
He rubbed her back. “You’re an actual manager.”
“I’m just pretending to be someone who’s good at this. I don’t even like art anymore.”
“What brought this on?”
She lifted her gaze to stare forward. In the blurriness of her tears and the darkness of the night, she saw shapes in the shadows: people moving, seeming to stare at the walls like there was art there to be appraised. Aubrey said, “Does it bother you that you’ve never fallen in love with anyone?”
Her husband’s hand stilled on her back. He looked into the shadows with her, like he could see what she saw. “I didn’t think we believed in love.”
Aubrey thought she saw Yezda in the shadows, eying some invisible painting on the wall with that smirk of hers. Aubrey recalled the sound of Yezda repeatedly calling her Mrs. De Ponza, pointing out she was Dion’s wife, as though Aubrey had signed a pledge to never love again. Or at all. “I don’t believe in art, either.”
“Not since college.” Dion still had the smell of the studio about him, an aura of oil pastels and graphite that never washed off. In the night, his brown eyes caught all the moonlight and seemed to glow almost silver, a peppering of gray showing bright in his short beard.
Aubrey frowned toward him. She ran the backs of her fingers underneath his chin, feeling the stubble on his neck. He was rough where a woman was smooth, his jaw square where a woman’s was round. But the touch affected her in a way that echoed how it used to, similar to a sensation she hadn’t felt in years, in the softness of her stomach. But it was different now, changing even as she concentrated on it. She leaned toward Dion, putting her body against his, her cheek to his cheek, basking in the sensation and the bewilderment it brought. She felt his hand run down her back. She took his other hand and put it around her.
Sunrise found her on the apartment’s back patio, having changed out the towels around the leaky waterbed and hanging the wet ones on a line. She stood with her hands on her hips, staring at the first light on the horizon with eyes wide. She saw the red wash over the sky and felt the sunlight on her skin, but she was lost in her mind. Aubrey listened to the part of herself that believed in nothing, the part of her that had been ground to dust by a mother who had smiled at Martin’s death and done her part in convincing Aubrey to abandon her love of photography. Behind all of that coldness was the secret place where she knew that her father and Martin had been beautiful together, where she still ached with mourning for the community of proud men and women that had raised her, the place that Dion could sometimes lift to the surface when he held her like she was someone worth holding. Aubrey let the sun shine on that part of herself. It whispered to her about art, and, she realized, about Yezda, and about forgotten lust. After all these years, it whispered to her about that childish want to let herself fall.
She went inside and found Dion at the table near the kitchen. He was exhausted, having lost much of his sleep to the very thing that so invigorated Aubrey. He supported himself with coffee for his brain, a warm crostata for his senses, and elbows on the table for his head to rest on.
Aubrey brought the pot of coffee over and filled his cup. “Dion, if I asked you to paint something a bit different, would you do it?”
He shrugged and looked up at her, muttering. “You’re the manager. What’s your idea?”
Pouring herself a cup, Aubrey sat across from him. “I have a critic I want to bait. I know her tastes pretty well.”
“Hm.” He lay his head sideways in one hand and closed his eyes. He was quiet, his fork limp on his plate. Aubrey almost thought he’d fallen asleep like that until he said, “I thought baiting critics was how you got in trouble with them.”
Aubrey shrugged. “That’s what I’m trying to do. I want to get in trouble with this one.”
Dion’s static features shifted into a smile. “Who’s the critic?”
“Have you heard of Yezda Siyabend?”
“She’s a literal goddess.”
Chuckling, Dion strained to lift his head so that he could put his coffee mug against his lips. “Did I ever mention how strange it is that you ended up being more religious than me?”
“More than four thousand people died from AIDS last year. All that suffering has to come from somewhere. All the energy has to go somewhere.” To Aubrey, this was simple observation, something to keep track of like a bank account deficit; it was a deficit owed to the world on the 1988 report of lost souls. It slipped from her mind and her mouth without distracting her. “Listen, I think Yezda’s going to be important to us. She’s a majorly respected critic, and she was looking at your portraits last week. They just didn’t grab her enough.”
“Because they were fake.” Dion drank his coffee and made a face at its bitterness. He’d managed to burn it.
“Maybe. I don’t know. She likes art that knows what it is and doesn’t go too crazy. You know how people go crazy these days. You know. Irony?”
“God, I remember irony.” Dion chuckled. “Ars ironiae mortua est.”
“Right. But the art still needs to be special. It needs to be outstanding. It needs to be real.”
“I get it. You want me to do the real art thing.” He flexed his fingers against his mug. “Like with the hand.”
Aubrey nodded. “Only this time I want you to do it with a landscape.”
“What?” He leaned forward over the table. “Aubrey, I haven’t painted any landscapes since high school. You know that.”
“All the better to paint it like nobody else paints it. And to put truth into it.” She took one of Dion’s hands in her own. “I’ve never heard of Yezda noticing an artist who does just portraits. I don’t think she likes portraits, but something about your art caught her eye anyway. You just need to suss it out by painting something different.”
“I don’t know if I want to change up my style that much just for one critic.”
“It’s not just one critic. It’s Yezda.”
“And what about her?”
“I like her!” Aubrey bit her lip crookedly. She shrugged her freckled shoulders and looked down at the table. “I mean, she’s one of the best critics there is. She noticed us. And I want to talk to her again, but I want to impress her, too. So she doesn’t think we’re old or something.”
“God, you’re not old.” Dion stood from the table, taking his coffee with him and pacing. “Is that a problem now? Does she think you’re old?”
Aubrey looked at her hand in the middle of the table. She could still feel Dion’s warm palm against hers, but she just as easily recalled Yezda’s thin fingers. “No. That’s not a problem. There’s just that gallery again next month that I think I can get two of your paintings in again, and if I write her saying I’ll be there she might come. I don’t know if she will. I hope she’d want to.”
“What was her name?” Dion stood near the window in the kitchen, so that when Aubrey looked at him she was looking toward the horizon as well.
“Yezda,” Aubrey breathed, and then remembered to add, “Siyabend.”
“I’ll paint the landscape. I’ll try. And I’ll do a second painting for the other gallery spot, too. So they’ll both be new. And they’ll both be real, like you want. Just let me pick what both paintings are and take them to the gallery.”
Aubrey looked back at her empty hand. “You don’t want me to manage this one?”
“It’s not about that. Not at all. I just want to impress you, too.” Dion looked into his coffee mug. “I’m not old either, you know.”
Sighing, Aubrey stood from the table and walked over to him. She put her arms around his neck, careful not to spill his coffee. “You’ll be the youngest artist at the gallery, if it helps.” Dion nodded so somberly that Aubrey had to add, “I’m still a lot younger than you are, though, and Yezda’s younger than both of us.” Dion laughed at that, and it made it easier for Aubrey to laugh at it too.
* * *
On the day she hoped she would be seeing Yezda again, Aubrey drove alone to the gallery. She had invited Yezda with a hand-written fax. The response had been swift, four words in Yezda’s elegant handwriting: “I’ll see you there.” That the personal touch had been reciprocated, even so simply, had left Aubrey’s fingers shivering for days. Now, so near to the promised time, her fingers were once again numb and weak. The fear of Yezda had so thoroughly replaced the fear of God in Aubrey’s heart that on the way to the gallery she stopped for a half an hour at the Hindu temple.
She walked barefoot around the holy place, pausing in front of statues dressed in colorful silk to say brief prayers. In front of the statue of Lakshmi, Aubrey bowed lower and prayed longer. It was a small porcelain figure of the essential female aspect, four-armed with two upper hands holding lotuses and two lower hands in mudra. The priests of the temple sang a prayer and carried a lamp to the parishioners. Aubrey reached out to the lamp, running her fingers over the heat of the flame and bringing it to her forehead. She did this three times, and then a priest marked her forehead with ash, leaving a soft gray mark between her eyebrows. She ate a prasad of blessed fruit.
In the parking lot afterward, Aubrey looked at her fingers. They shook more than they had before. She twisted her wedding ring, a simple gold band without diamonds. But the shiver in her fingers made it catch and lose the light repeatedly, so it flickered like a polished gem.
Aubrey drove on to the gallery. It was the same gallery she’d met Yezda at previously, and Aubrey had made the same agreement to write features and let someone else claim the credit. Aubrey wasn’t sure if it made her feel better or worse that the person taking credit was such a horrible writer that they edited her features into an unreadable mess. But it had secured permission for Dion to drive his two paintings to the gallery and set them up in that same corner. Aubrey hadn’t seen the paintings yet. She had no clue about them, really. It left her feeling disoriented and out of control, but also a bit excited by the secrecy. Dion hadn’t surprised her with anything unexpected in his art for a long time, too focused on trying to paint what would sell, and she was eager to see what he came up with.
The first thing Aubrey saw upon entering the gallery was Yezda. Just past the entrance, by landscapes too similar to all the others in the gallery, with a new display of glass wind chimes casting gold light over her like motes of luminous sand, Yezda stood patiently. She had her back to the art, hands together and watching the gallery’s glass door. In the manner of a trap waiting to spring, Yezda caught Aubrey’s eyes with her own, smiled, and stepped forward. Yezda’s progress was like that of the sun, changing the light and color all around her. She wore a vibrant dress of sweeping green-blue folds, vast purple sleeves, red and orange patterns on her vest and a soft silk headscarf pinned back with a headband. She was earth, sea, dawn and day all at once. Aubrey felt her chest expand and heat rush to her ears and cheeks, pulling at the front of her white jacket with the discomfort of a supplicant who’d wandered into the temple’s sacrosanct halls, where only priests were permitted.
Yezda stopped in front of Aubrey, lifting a hand to point at Aubrey’s forehead. “You have faith.”
Eyes focusing on the tip of Yezda’s finger, Aubrey stammered. “Hi. Uhm. I stopped at a temple on the way.”
Her smile open and her voice playful, Yezda guessed, “The Hare Krishna? It’s been very popular with artists.”
“Not for me. There’s a Sri Lakshmi temple near Mountain View.” Aubrey looked past Yezda’s fingertip to her eyes. “You were waiting for me?”
“Well, I was invited for you specifically, wasn’t I?” Yezda reached into her vest, withdrawing and unfolding a copy of the hand-written fax that Aubrey had sent to invite her. Seeing it now, Aubrey was shocked at the penmanship, like she had been struggling with her own fingers when she’d written it. And the wording! It was the shortest and least professional thing Aubrey had ever written: The gallery where we met in Los Angeles will be having another showing in a month. If you can make it, I’d like to meet you again. -Aubrey de Ponza.
“God.” Aubrey put a hand to her cheek, wondering if her blush was showing through the make-up she’d used to soften her freckles. “I didn’t even mention the art, did I?”
Yezda laughed, a small and wonderful sound. “It’s an art gallery. The art is implied.”
“Why did you ever come for such a silly letter?”
Putting the letter away, Yezda joined her hands in front of her and shrugged. “I did tell you to fax me, Aubrey.”
No missus anything. Just her first name. Aubrey was shocked by a surge of unspecific hope, a physical sensation that left her throat too tight to speak and her mind empty of words while she held Yezda’s gaze. Free of the distraction of thought, Aubrey studied Yezda’s features, her smile, the folds of her eyes, the black hair that burst forward from under her headscarf and then curved swiftly back behind her small ears.
Eyes narrowing slyly, Yezda said, “You do tend to stare, don’t you?”
Aubrey straightened, her mind suddenly filled with too many thoughts and words. “I didn’t think that… I wasn’t trying to. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry. It’s a gallery. We came here to stare, didn’t we? But if we only stare at each other, we’ll make everyone else uncomfortable.” Yezda lifted a finger to gesture to Aubrey’s forgotten surroundings: the paintings, the chatter, and the milling professionals whom she would normally be trying to impress. “Perhaps we should begin with Dion’s paintings? I suspect he has new paintings here?”
Aubrey nodded, suddenly afraid to find out what Dion had painted. But that hesitation, at least, she managed to conceal. This was when confidence was most important, when she had her chance to show Yezda something that would hopefully capture her, pull her in, and keep her close. Walking through the gallery with Yezda next to her, ignoring every artist and masterpiece she passed, Aubrey replayed that thought in her mind. Keep her close. She was counting on Dion’s art to keep Yezda close.
Years ago, during all those nights Aubrey had spent seeking lovers in San Francisco bars, the love she’d felt and talked about had been something interchangeable with other loves. She would be “in love” with one woman for a month or so, then “in love” with another. That had changed with Dion, with whom her love had become a marriage and continued undiminished. But there had been no falling, and even with him, there was no need to construct some mechanism to keep him close. They had just decided to stay close to one another, and it worked. Aubrey had never felt that need to grab and hold a person, to keep them near for any reason. Except for once, in a hospital room, with the light going out in Martin’s eyes and no way to stop it.
The red sculptures of falling women had returned, their sculptor too stubborn to surrender before he sold any. Aubrey gave them an unhappy look, but didn’t notice any expression of recognition on Yezda’s face. Beyond them, Dion stood in front of his paintings, dressed as nicely she’d ever seen him dressed: a sport jacket over a buttoned shirt and jeans. He paced anxiously, not a common expression for Dion. He looked up as he saw Aubrey approaching, the vibrantly dressed woman she’d called a goddess alongside her. Aubrey lifted a hand to wave and ticked her head toward Yezda with a smirk and a raised brow that tried to say, “Can you believe this woman?”
Dion followed her gaze for a moment, just a moment. Then he looked at the paintings, looked to a side, and kept pacing.
Aubrey looked past Dion to the paintings he’d done. There was a landscape, red sunset over gold sand, but it was the painting of Martin that stopped Aubrey in her tracks. At first Aubrey mistook it for the one from Dion’s studio, it was so similar: the same subject, the same colors, in the same position. But in this painting, Martin was melting. Or he’d already melted. Martin, whom Aubrey remembered as so beautiful, who should’ve been immortal, was yellow and broad. His gray smock flat, the colors of his body ran down the sides of the bed, tan and pink and red. His hair was gone. His eyes were open and staring directly upward. A thin hand rested on the side of the bed. It could’ve been Aubrey’s or her fathers’ hand.
She didn’t know if she remembered touching the bed. She didn’t know if she remembered touching Martin or saying anything to him. But Aubrey did remember the darkness of the hospital room, the light a dim brown color, the sky outside overcast. Aubrey did remember taking her camera – she still had her dream of being a photographer back then – and trying to capture the moment on her film. There hadn’t been enough light, and she’d almost been grateful. The camera only remembered the shadows.
But here was Martin, in this new painting, melting away.
Yezda had moved on. She stood near Dion’s paintings now, staring up at the red landscape, the sunset over golden sand. No, there was no sun in that painting. The sky was red and lightless, absent of cloud and stars. It was a swath of stark, depthless color that nonetheless cast shadows beneath the plants and stones that dotted the sands. There was a black silhouette of a figure in the center of the sands, standing tall, leaning to one side. The figure’s head was absent, replaced with a plume of smoke that blew away into nothing.
For once, looking at Yezda didn’t make Aubrey feel anything. No, she might’ve felt some modicum of fear that Yezda would find the paintings not only unimpressive, but terrible. But the fear was dull, like the sensation of breathing, or like the sudden, slight sensation of the ash on her forehead. The fear neither sharpened nor dulled when Yezda looked at her, dark eyes gleaming wetly.
Yezda walked away, giving her back to Aubrey, Dion, and the paintings. Aubrey watched her and felt only the continuation of her dull fear. When Yezda was gone, Aubrey approached the paintings and looked up at them. She read the titles on their labels. The painting of the melting man was named Martin and the red landscape was named Mahabad.
Dion came back and stood next to Aubrey, his weight shifting a bit from one side to the other. He looked in the direction Yezda had gone. “I guess it got her attention.”
Aubrey spun on him and drove her knuckles into his ribs, right beneath one shoulder. She was not a weak woman. The force of her punch made Dion stumble back two steps and bend over to one side, grabbing at his shoulder with one hand. The sound of the impact and Dion’s groan drew plenty of attention that Aubrey would later regret, but for now she just stood there in her white jacket-and-skirt combo and high heels, with a spot of ash on her forehead, looking like she was about to beat her husband to death in front of everyone.
“Blessed Mary,” Dion cursed, standing straight and rolling his shoulder. “Too real, or what?”
Turning away from Dion, Aubrey put her hands over her face and grit her teeth to keep her shoulders from shaking. The fury washed out of her in a rush that pulled tears to her eyes. “No.” Her voice was a quiet hiss. “No, no. It’s what I wanted, isn’t it? You could’ve told me before I got here.”
“I guess I messed that one up. Wasn’t expecting the punch.”
“If you’d made me ruin my makeup I’d have hit you with the car.” She drew her hands down, crossing them tight under her shoulders, and glared at the painting of the red landscape. “What’s that?”
“Mahabad,” Dion said. “It’s in Iran.”
Aubrey turned her glare on him and shook her head.
“One of your magazines had an About-the-Author for her.” Dion tilted his head as he recited dryly: “Yezda Siyabend was born in Mahabad, Iran, and moved to the United States in 1979.” Taking a breath to sigh, Dion rolled a hand in gesture as he went on. “I went to the library and looked it up. A lot happened in 1979.”
Lips quirking, Aubrey shrugged one shoulder. “The Stonewall Riots happened in 1979.”
“A lot happened in Iran, I mean.” He pointed to the red landscape. “In Mahabad.”
“Things a family would leave a country to get away from. Things a person wouldn’t want to remember.” Dion looked to a side, in the direction that Yezda had disappeared. “I was already in college back then, but she would’ve been, what, twelve? Maybe she didn’t see anything bad. Maybe her parents protected her from it. But what if they didn’t?”
Aubrey looked at the painting, the figure with smoke for a head. It was a haunting image to her, and she hadn’t even heard of Mahabad before. What did it matter if Yezda had seen anything or not? Here it was, for her to see, right in Dion’s painting. Aubrey shook her head against it, seeking instead the portrait of Martin, melting, and a hand on the bed next to him. It was worse than what had happened. But the wrongness of it forced Aubrey to remember. Martin had died wearing a blue sweater. He’d been smiling. There’d been sweat on his forehead. His eyes had been focused on Aubrey’s father, and he’d said, “You go ahead and have a good time without me, okay?” and to Aubrey he’d said, “Don’t you ever put down that camera. It’s yours.”
But she had put it down. Her mother had told her to give up on photography as a condition for paying for her schooling. Aubrey had left her camera hanging from a spike on a sculpture outside the campus library on the day she changed her major to Art History. The camera had been mistaken for part of the sculpture. It had remained there for five years, until after she’d graduated. Then it had disappeared.
“Things like that,” Aubrey dropped her gaze, looking at Dion’s shoes. “Parents can’t protect kids from things like that. You can’t know how you made her feel just now.”
“Sorry. I really don’t. I can paint it. But I can’t feel it. She brings the feeling to the painting, not the other way around.” Dion scuffed a shoe. “But you did say you wanted to get in trouble with her.”
“I’ll see you at home.” She stepped away from the paintings and turned, taking her first steps without looking up.
“Hey.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “Are you sure you’re okay? I didn’t know how much this would-”
“I’m fine.” Aubrey took hold of his hand, plucking it off her shoulder and pressing the backs of his fingers to her cheek. She did, however, turn a glare toward him. “I’m sad, and I’m mad, and we’re going to have a talk later. But I’m fine.”
Dion bit his cheek and swallowed. He nodded.
Aubrey went off on her own, looking for Yezda. She walked in the direction that Yezda had gone, away from Dion’s paintings, past impressionist pieces and structural art made from reclaimed industrial machinery. Not things that would interest Yezda. There were portrait artists like Dion, which wouldn’t interest Yezda either. Art that normally would’ve pulled on Aubrey’s love of experimentation or rebellion, or even on her academic appreciation for classic styles, had no appeal to her now. None of it lived up to what she knew Yezda would like, and she didn’t see the bright colors of Yezda’s dress near any of it. So she kept walking, doing a complete circuit around the gallery.
As she neared Dion’s paintings again, she spotted Yezda among the falling woman sculptures. The sculptor had set up dozens of the bright red figures, far more than he’d had in the previous gallery, as though falling women were all he made. Among the red, Yezda’s green-blue dress stood out brilliantly, like a thriving oasis surrounded by wasteland. Looking past her, Aubrey saw that Dion’s paintings were gone, as was Dion. He’d likely taken them down after she’d reacted so poorly to them. Aubrey found herself hoping he just took them back to the studio instead of tossing them in a dumpster somewhere.
Aubrey walked between the falling women, careful not to touch them. They were so precariously crafted that the brush of a fingertip could cause one of the sculptures to topple and shatter. She put herself next to Yezda and looked sideways at the woman. She saw Yezda’s eyes directed toward where the paintings had been. Chest tight and lips thin, Aubrey said, “He didn’t tell me what he’d painted. I didn’t know.”
Yezda’s shoulders lifted. She dropped her gaze to where her fingers were knotted at her waist. “I thought there wasn’t a single person in this entire country who knew the name of Mahabad.” She laughed, not a happy laugh, and looked sideways at Aubrey. “It was clever of him, the way he painted the central figure without a face. You could imagine anyone. An uncle, or an absent cousin, for example? Or faces that I remember – a great many faces that I’d forgotten until now – that I never did see again. Never sure if they left, or if they stayed, or if they lived.”
Aubrey stepped around Yezda, to stand in front of her, between her and the empty wall where the paintings had been. “Has anyone ever asked you how you feel about it? About Mahabad?”
Yezda shook her head. “No.”
“Not even your parents?”
“No. I would pretend not to remember, if they did ask. To ease their hearts.” Yezda’s gaze took hold of Aubrey’s. “What about you? What about Martin?”
Aubrey couldn’t look away from Yezda’s eyes. “My father’s boyfriend. He’s been dead a long time. We don’t talk about it. I barely even remembered it right, until today.”
“I’m sorry,” Yezda said seriously, then she frowned and narrowed her eyes. “Dion didn’t give you any warning at all?”
“No, he did not.” Aubrey pursed her lips. “I think he took me too literally when I told him that I wanted to get into trouble.”
“Get into trouble?” Yezda’s lips twitched at the corners. “With the gallery?”
“No, no. I wanted to get into trouble with you.”
“Oh, I see!” She put on a tentative smile. “But I forgive you both, so you’ll have to keep trying.”
“Alright, then.” Aubrey inclined her head. She realized suddenly how close she was standing to Yezda, pressed in at all sides by the red sculptures. Yezda’s expansive dress almost touched her ankles. If Aubrey swung her hands forward, they would brush Yezda’s hands. A younger version of herself wouldn’t have hesitated, but at this moment, she’d never been so afraid to touch another person. “I want to ask you about Mahabad. If you want to talk about it.”
Yezda reached out and touched Aubrey’s hand. Just once, with one finger. “I’d like to talk about it.”
What Yezda told her about was a Kurdish uprising around Mahabad, where her family lived, and about an uncle who might’ve been closely affiliated with the rebels. She talked about Iranian soldiers marching on their own country, about the specter of war sweeping through the streets of cities, about people being taken from homes and executed. Then Aubrey talked about Martin, the doctor who’d been in love with her father, and about all the homosexual men she’d grown up around. She told Yezda how AIDS had taken them all, and how her mother had celebrated it and tormented her father. Hands joining after a time, they told these stories surrounded by bright red sculptures of women off-balance, toppling at all sides and in every desperate pose, some trying to stop their fall and others casting themselves happily down.
K. James D’Agostino writes and edits literary speculative fiction. With a BA from the University of Houston, he now writes toward his MFA at the University of Illinois. His debut novella, Absolute Tenacity, was published in 2014, followed by Atargatis in 2015. He was lead editor for two anthologies of speculative fiction for the Houston Writers Guild, taught workshops for the Writespace studio, and is currently an editorial assistant with the Ninth Letter journal of literature and art.