A journal of narrative writing.
The Painter, She Smiles Like Sunbeams

“What class did you say this was for again?”

Ellis pulled the fork out of his mouth, swallowed the bits of cheese that remained on his tongue. “Modern Art.”

La Artista’s dark eyebrow went up. “The class is called Modern Art?”

“No, it’s… act-tually, it’s Issues in C-contemporary Art.”

“That’s a big difference.”

“Sorry.” He poked the salad again. The vinaigrette had sunk into the massive pile of cheese and grilled chicken that topped the dish, obscuring any trace of plant matter. He always ordered the same thing here. Sometimes he wanted to tip the plate up and drink from it.

La Artista lifted her water glass and took a large gulp without a straw. Her eyes were darker in person, less lively. In her pictures, those few he’d seen on her website—last updated in 2008—she was a graceful, pale woman with dark hair and lips and high cheekbones accentuated by studio lighting and digital enhancement. Across the table from him, the absence of makeup made her mouth colorless and her face no different than that of any other moderately kept middle-aged woman. The first time she smiled at him he’d seen what he believed to be the beginning of crow’s feet at her eyelids.

He sipped his tea in response, pushing his tongue under the straw. Men don’t sip, his mother used to say. They don’t sip and they sure as hell don’t use straws. His mother would probably die if she could see him now, secluded in the back booth of a restaurant with a woman twice his age. She’d never forgiven him for breaking up with Karen.

“So,” La Artista said, cracking the knuckles of her thin right hand, “what exactly is this assignment? I only read your email once.”

He licked his lips. “I’m s-supposed to choose an issue a-and write a presentation on…on it.”

La Artista didn’t seem impressed. “Is an interview required?”

“Not really. I…I th-thought it would h-help.” If his stutter got worse he’d shoot himself. He would have to. He’d never fired a gun before, had never even held one, but he knew he could get one easily enough. Surely if he stuck it under his chin the bullet would go straight through his brain.

She thought for a few minutes, during which time she gave her left wrist a vigorous scratching and lit another cigarette. “Do you smoke?” she asked, turning her head slightly to look at him from the side. She almost struck a dramatic profile.


“Can you do this?” She inhaled and closed her mouth, then pursed her lips and moved her jaw until the smoke came out in small, irregular circles. They rose above her head and disappeared under the faux Tiffany chandelier.

“I don’t think so.”

“Here. Try it.” She held the cigarette out to him between her fingers. Her red nail polish was badly chipped.

He held up his hand. “I-I lied. I stopped.”

“Oh?” She stuck the cigarette back into her lips. “How long?”

“About t-two months now.”

La Artista shrugged. “You haven’t stopped yet. You’re on hiatus. Sabbatical. By spring break you’ll be sucking them down. You do spring break, right? You going to the beach?”

He shook his head. “I don’t have the money.” He shoved another bit of chicken and lettuce into his mouth.

“I hear that. You paying for classes yourself?”

“Yeah. I mean, no. My m-mom sends me some money ev-every n-now and then. Not for cl-cl-classes, I mean. Just spending m-money. I’ve got loans for clas-ses, I work in the d-dining hall.” The vinegar lingered in his throat; he wondered if it would burn to kiss her.

La Artista went silent again. She hadn’t ordered anything to eat but an apple-and-walnut croissant, which now lay untouched at the center of the table. “I can’t eat without having a cigarette and a beer first,” she’d said.

He was staring at her. He realized he was staring but felt powerless to stop. She wasn’t beautiful here, he decided, not like she was in her pictures. Her voice was sharper than he’d imagined it would be, her eyes more judgmental. She didn’t talk as much as he’d hoped she would and when she did talk she didn’t say what he hoped to hear. He hadn’t yet made up his mind whether she was a terrible person or not, but when he first met her at the bar he’d feared it, and he still hadn’t decided if that initial impression was correct.

He’d never been able to have a proper sexual fantasy until he’d seen her. Even then he couldn’t imagine touching her. He wondered about the rest of it, though—what she must smell like, what she looked like under her clothes. With Karen such thoughts had felt forbidden. He lost his virginity to her without ever truly looking at her, touching her awkwardly and without passion. Her hands, too, had been clumsy; the cries she expelled into his ear had reminded him too much of the cries of women in labor on those medical shows his mother watched.

When searching for a way to contact La Artista, he’d had trouble typing her name into the search engine. Likewise he’d been unable to address her by name in his email. If it offended her she gave so sign of it. He doubted propriety was one of her greatest concerns.

La Artista lifted her glass again and swallowed a small ice cube. “Well?”

“I’m sorry?”

“What’s your issue?”

He forced down another wad of vinegar-soaked salad. On dates with Karen eating had helped his stutter. “For the p-presentation?”

“What else?” She coughed onto the back of her hand and picked up her croissant.

Driving to the restaurant he’d tried in vain to concoct a suitable answer for this inevitable question but was too distracted by the radio. It was that song again, the one that sounded like Queen but wasn’t. It bothered him. If he ever caught the band’s name he would buy their album and listen to it in his dark apartment with his eyes closed to decide whether or not he liked them.

“I was hoping you could help me with that,” he managed, stuffing his mouth once more.

“I’m not a political artist,” she reminded him. A bit of glaze from the croissant stuck to the corner of her mouth. He wanted to lick it off.

“I-I know. But you’re good. You’re…you’re my favorite.” Ellis smiled, hoping he looked boyish but not stupid.

La Artista did that thing with her eyebrow again. Now he realized why it seemed so familiar—she looked like Vivien Leigh when she did it, Vivien Leigh with straightened hair and black eyes, like when she did Anna Karenina. He had tried, unsuccessfully, to masturbate to a Vivien Leigh movie when he was thirteen.

“I’m your favorite artist?” The incredulity in her voice almost caused him to drop his fork. “Two thousand years of Western art and I’m your favorite?”

“Yes. No. Who’s yours?”

She thought for a while, chewing on her lower lip. The croissant glistened in her hand. “Sargent. He used black, you know. I always imagined he was good in bed. If not him, then maybe O’Keefe. The deer skulls.”

The vinegar was eating away at his stomach. “I lied.”

“I know.”

“Ab-about the presentation.”

“I know.” She leaned across the table and took his hand, gave it a brief squeeze.

He shuddered. “I mean, I do have a presentation. But not on you. I just…when I saw how close you lived…how close your studio is…I-I never thought you’d ag-gree to meet m-me anyway.”