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Chapter I: Dark Horse
“How do you like it?”
I jumped, nearly spilling my wine. A tan woman with large brown eyes laughed at my reaction.
“I apologize. Didn’t mean to creep up on you.”
She wasn’t American, but I couldn’t quite place her accent. I guessed French, but there was another exotic note to her voice. Her hair was dark black and silky, glossy beneath the gallery lights. Her smile was pleasant enough, but I thought she was amused by me. I didn’t like the idea of being the butt of a joke.
She raised her eyebrows and jutted her chin towards the painting behind me. I turned and took it in again.
The painting was crimson with black curvy lines that intersected every which way. A black circle penetrated a red circle on the right side of the painting. A warm pink surrounded the scene, and drops of paint dripped down, just touching the shapes below. Truly I wasn’t that into modern art but there was something about the painting that drew me in. The sign next to it provided its title: “Afterglow”. It had caught my attention the very moment I entered the gallery with my boring date.
Realizing I still hadn’t answered her, I spoke in an awkward rush. “It’s really pretty,” I said.
Her smile widened. “Really? Pretty?” Her brown eyes slanted back towards the painting. “That’s not the adjective I’d use.”
“Maybe erotic is better,” I decided, shocking myself. I hadn’t meant to speak that aloud.
The woman, however, was unsurprised at my answer. “Considering it’s called ‘Afterglow’ I think you’re on to something.”
She adjusted the green strap of her dress. Everything was so elegant and refined about her. There was a wistfulness settling deeply in my chest; she was the kind of woman I’d always wanted to be like. Beautiful clothes, perfect hair, with a classic sophistication that seemed effortless.
Instead I was the kind of woman who spilled wine on my white dress, whose hair had decided to free itself from the bun I’d wrapped it in, and I was quite sure I had lipstick on my teeth.
“I don’t know much about abstract art.” I licked my lips, hoping the pinot noir hadn’t made them purple. “I like this one, though. There’s something… edgy but comfortable about it. Unfamiliar, but soothing.”
She sipped at her champagne, her eyes never leaving mine. When she finished, she licked her lips, too. Something buzzed between us—a not-yet-known connection that made me want to reach out and touch her. Maybe it was just the alcohol. I certainly hoped that was all it was.
“I’m Olivia,” she said. Her hand reached out and took my own, hanging by my side. Her hand was warm and super soft. I felt silly knowing she could see my chipped nails that so desperately needed a manicure.
“Elizabeth. Nice to meet you.” I forced a smile and fiddled with my wine glass.
“Do you come to the gallery often?” Her accent was beautiful. Every word she said rolled off her tongue.
I snorted. “No. I’m on a date. I don’t think he knew what to do with me.”
She laughed, eyes twinkling. “So you’re not an artist?”
“No, not at all. I’m a lawyer. I can’t even draw a smiley face.”
Olivia lifted her glass to her lips. “Sometimes that’s all it takes.”
I glanced around the gallery. “I do wish I had the talent.”
“Well, then tell me, Elizabeth. If you could paint one thing in this room, what would it be?”
I giggled and then realized she was serious. Definitely an odd question, but the intensity in her eyes made it impossible to refuse. So I took stock of what was around us.
I saw people talking passionately about the art hanging from the walls. Too boring. I saw my date, Robert, engaged in a debate with someone I didn’t recognize. How dull. Then I saw all the abandoned wine and champagne glasses—some still half full—and ashtrays with mountains of lonely ashes and cigarette butts left behind. What excess. What a waste of decadence. It was depressing and beautiful, and for some bizarre reason I thought maybe this stranger would appreciate it.
“The ashtrays. The deserted glasses with lipstick smudges still on them.”
She glanced over her shoulder over to where my eyes were directed, and then looked back at me. Her beautiful face merged into an expression of confusion. “Why? What does it all symbolize to you?”
A clammy hand touched my elbow and I jumped yet again in front of Olivia.
“Liz, we have to run.”
I turned to Robert and sighed. “Sure.”
“It was wonderful meeting you, Elizabeth,” Olivia said. She waved to me and disappeared into the throng of pretentious fakes who reeked of smoke and irony.
Robert made a noise and I tore my stare away from where she vanished.
“What is it?”
“That’s the artist. Olivia Beringer.”
Holy shit. “I had no idea.”
“I only know because my buddy pointed her out before.” He gave me a smile that was supposed to be alluring. “She’s a dyke, you know.”
My eyes rolled and I didn’t bother hiding it. I’d accepted the date with canlı bahis Robert, a fellow lawyer at the District Attorney’s office, because I was bored, and because my best friend Jacqueline reminded me I hadn’t been out with someone in over a year. Now I was regretting my decision to pick this idiot something fierce.
“I don’t know anything about her, so no. I didn’t know that.”
“Funny she chatted you up.”
She wasn’t chatting me up but I didn’t feel like correcting him. Now I knew why she was so curious about my response to the painting.
I took a peek at the price tag and confirmed my suspicion; I couldn’t afford it.
“I need to get going,” I told him.
He nodded absently and guided me by the small of my back.
As we left, I could have sworn I felt someone’s eyes on me.
A few days later my doorbell rang. The FedEx man waved when I opened the door and drove off, leaving a huge package behind.
After I dragged it in and tore open the tape, I pulled out a painting wrapped in layers of plastic. It was Olivia’s painting, the one I admired so much. My dog, Toronto, sniffed it and looked up at me, wearing a matching expression of wonder.
When the shock died down a bit my eyes flicked to the card attached to it.
“Elizabeth, Got your address from a mutual friend. Hope you don’t mind. I’d love to discuss the painting more with you over dinner.—Olivia”
On the bottom of the card she gave me her cell phone number, written crisply against the stark white of her business card.
This was the strangest thing to ever happen to me. I thought back to what Robert said. She was a lesbian, he’d heard. He suggested she was coming on to me, and now that she gave me the painting for free with only a dinner offer, I was beginning to wonder if he was right.
I pulled out my laptop and googled Olivia Beringer. A few impressive links came up, detailing her two decades in the art world. I checked her birthdate and saw she was 38. No boyfriends were mentioned, but I didn’t see anything about girlfriends, either.
Then I stumbled upon an interview she did a few years ago about how she survived breast cancer. My beloved grandmother had suffered and died from the disease. I was stunned the vivacious and healthy woman from a few nights before had endured the same horror.
My eyes scanned the laptop’s screen in a furious rush; I had a strange desperation to know every detail about her.
The artist sits with a cigarette, arching an eyebrow when I cough meaningfully.
“Does it bother you?” she asks.
That seems to be the theme of her recent project. I point this out to her and she laughs, the smoke billowing out from her red lips.
“Yes, well, I found out I had breast cancer last year, you know. And I was bothered and I wanted everyone else to be, too. Not necessarily in a bad way. I wanted to disturb the air. Disturb people’s molecules. Get them going.”
“I wasn’t aware you had cancer. How are you doing?”
For the first time since we sat down, Olivia looks vulnerable. “In remission, thank God. It was a tough battle and it took a lot out of me but I’m still here. Still painting. Still smoking. You’ll be relieved to know I’m trying to quit.” She grins and puts out her cigarette. “If something bothers you, darling, you only need to tell me.”
And that sums up Olivia Beringer. Never eager to please, but equally never eager to hurt you.
I yanked the painting out of its box and looked around at my dingy, empty apartment wondering where the hell to put it. I had “Starry Night” over my bed but it didn’t really go with the decor, and considering this painting was about sex I figured it belonged in the bedroom.
Not that I would know anything about sex. It was coming up on a year I’d gone without, a frightening reality I didn’t like to think about.
Instead I decided to think about my budding relationship with the enigmatic artist who inexplicably sent me a painting worth thousands of dollars.
I nearly pressed “End” on my cellphone. I was terrified, and my boss (the District Attorney himself) was watching me through the window of my office. Personal calls were frowned upon, of course.
“Um, hi. Olivia?”
“Yes, this is Olivia. Who is this?”
“Hi. Um.” I cleared my throat and straightened my back. The words wouldn’t come.
This was absurd. We were going to dinner. That was it. It didn’t have any other undertone just because she was a lesbian and I was straight. I knew plenty of gay people and never read anything extra into what they did, just as it was vice versa.
So why did it feel like I was asking her out on a date?
“This is Elizabeth. From the art gallery. Well, the lawyer who was visiting the art gallery. You sent me ‘Afterglow’?”
“Yes,” she said with a smile in her voice. “I remember. Thank you for calling. I wasn’t sure you would.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
She was quiet on the other end for a few seconds. “Truth be told, you seem a little uptight.”
“Oh,” bahis siteleri I said. I couldn’t fault her for thinking that. “I see.”
“So, were you planning to join me for dinner?”
I thought, “Hang up, Liz. This feels more and more like a date.You really don’t need this. You’re confused about your existence enough as it is. Blurring the lines of your sexuality is not necessary right now,” on a continuous loop.
And yet another part of me was tempted by the worst sin ever: curiosity.
“Of course. I’d love to talk more about your work.” I cleared my throat. “Dinner is fine. And talking about your work, uh, sounds…fine. Yeah.”
She let out a breathy, silky laugh. “Free tonight?”
I took a deep breath. “I am.”
“Meet me at The Brink at 7. Know it?”
“I’ll ask for a table. See you there.”
She hung up, leaving me with the loud voices in mind going absolutely crazy.
I was the first one there, naturally. It was engrained in me at an early age to be prompt. Plus I wanted the advantage of being there before her.
I sat at the table she reserved and sipped my vodka and OJ. It did nothing to ease my anxiety. Why I was so nervous I didn’t know. I eventually concluded it was because I thought she was much smarter and prettier than me. She was the cool senior and I was the pimply freshman who couldn’t meet her eyes.
Eventually Olivia drifted into the restaurant like a dream. She wore a gauzy, cream-colored dress and her hair danced way below her shoulders, tickling the bottoms of her breasts. My eyes traveled down to her heels, which were pink and higher than anything I’d ever dare wear. Men broke their necks as they watched her cross the restaurant, but she kept her eyes on me.
She sank into the seat across from me and eyed my orange juice and vodka with amusement. “Needed the hard stuff tonight, darling?”
And just like that I was the awkward girl again.
“I like vodka,” I said. I prayed she didn’t see the way I self-consciously squirmed in my seat.
“How about we switch to wine?” She gestured to the waiter and ordered us the most expensive red on the menu.
Then those mesmerizing eyes settled back on me. “Aren’t you curious why I asked you to meet with me?”
The waiter promptly returned with our wine. I focused on the sound of it dripping into my glass rather than her stare.
The waiter disappeared and Olivia clinked my glass with her own. “For a lawyer, you’re not very talkative.”
That got me to smile. “I usually am. Most times people are telling me to shut up.”
“Really?” She watched me like I was the most fascinating specimen of human on the planet, which was just not so.
“I think I’m just in awe of your talent a bit. Like a fangirl.”
“A fangirl?” She smiled and tilted her head. “I don’t know the expression.”
“It’s like when a girl is a really big fan of something or someone. It’s dumb.”
She sipped her wine. The waiter came back and we ordered our dinners–steak for her, chicken for me. And then we were alone. Truly alone.
“Elizabeth,” she began. Her voice startled me. “I’m a very blunt person. As a lawyer, I’ll assume you typically are, too. I want to explain to you why I’ve invited you here tonight, though you will not ask. I suspect you’re afraid. Perhaps I should be afraid, too, and be wise. Get up and leave you.” Her smile was slow but it crept up her face until her eyes glowed. “I’m not a wise woman. You can tell by my paintings I have a lot of heartbreak. I enjoy it. It gives me material. It makes me strong. It makes me a woman, in fact. We all carry heartbreak, yes?”
Under her thrall, I nodded.
“I also have a habit of finding straight women irresistible. My last two lovers were straight. They were great lovers. I loved both of them equally and fiercely, but it ended. Know why?” Her smile turned a bit sad. “They were not in love with me. With the idea of ‘different’, the idea of ‘novelty’, the idea of ‘an artist’ who saw what was inside buried beneath their makeup and designer dresses, yes. Not me. You understand?”
“I think so.”
She took my hand and circled my palm with her finger. “I saw you looking at my painting with such longing. Such yearning. I paid attention to everyone’s face when they looked at that one. It was most important to me. And it seemed like you got it because you looked like you wanted it. Maybe I’m being a fool…but I’d still like to get to know you. What do you say?”
My hand in hers felt heavy. “I don’t know what to say. Is this a…date?” She shrugged in reply. I sucked in a breath because of her non-response, which was an answer in itself. Rather than freak out, I decided to keep talking. “I don’t really get why…why you… Why me?”
“I wanted to paint you. That was my first thought.” She looked down and noticed she was squeezing my hand. She pulled away and strangely I wanted to grab her hand back, but I didn’t. I reached for my wine, instead.
“Paint me how? I can’t imagine anyone painting me,” I bahis şirketleri laughed.
Olivia met my stare. “I could paint you. I’d love to, in fact. At my opening you looked trapped and uncomfortable. You looked like you desired to be miles away. I imagined you on the sand somewhere. In a desert looking beautiful. On a boat. Anywhere but there.”
I kept my eyes on the table. “I don’t really love the art scene.”
“Yes, there are lots of phony people around. One must be careful.” She thanked the waiter who put her steak before her. I moved back so that he could bring me my dinner, noticing for the first time how I was practically sprawled across the table.
I didn’t know what to do. She hadn’t answered definitively if this was a date or not, and I didn’t know how that made me feel. Should I run? Stay? Freak out? My mind was so busy trying to make sense of it all that I remained there, seated with uncertainty.
“Why did you want to paint cigarette ashes and wine glasses?”
I looked up from cutting my chicken. “What?”
“Remember I asked you what you would paint?”
Ah, yes. “Because they looked lonely. I hate seeing the remnants of things left behind. Ostracized. “
She took a bite of steak. “Are you sure you’re in the right field? You’re much more of an artist than you realize.”
I laughed. “I don’t think so. I’m fond of concrete ideas. Things I can touch and see.”
“Me too,” she said, running a finger around the rim of her wine glass. Her eyes reflected gold from the candle on the table.
My nervous energy transitioned to an entirely different energy I wasn’t at all familiar with.
“What’s your favorite movie?” I blurted. I wanted to inject a little normalcy into this encounter, something that everyone asked people.
Olivia’s eyebrows lifted. “What’s yours?”
“An Affair to Remember,” I answered without thinking.
She grinned and tossed her black hair back. “Ha! Of course it is! I knew you were a romantic!”
“I’m not, I swear!” I giggled, the wine and the dizzying quality of Olivia’s presence getting to me.
“It’s okay to be a romantic, Elizabeth.” She said my name like she was making love to it. “We all are in some ways. My favorite movie is Pulp Fiction. Not initially thought of to be romantic but there is romance there in ways people don’t often realize.”
“Where are you from?” I asked, wanting to pin down her accent.
She moved her head back and forth. “Everywhere. I was born in France. I spent half my childhood in Italy. Most of my young adulthood in Germany. Then I moved here to New York. I’ve been here for fifteen years.”
“Do you like it here?”
“Yes. There is a sad beauty here that I admire.”
“I have a confession to make,” I announced, putting down my silverware. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but it was something I felt like I had to do before the night was over. I was interested in getting to know her better, though to what purpose I didn’t know.
“Oh? I’m intrigued.”
“I read an article about how you had breast cancer. And I think you’re so brave.”
Olivia rolled her eyes. “People always tell me that. I’m not brave. If you only knew how much of a scaredy-cat I am…”
I shook my head. “You’re brave. Like my grandmother. She had it.”
She stopped shaking her head. “Oh?”
“She lost the fight. She was so sick towards the end. We were very, very close. She practically raised me.”
Enthralled with me for no reason at all, Olivia put down her knife and fork and stared at me. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“She lived a long life. I just wish she hadn’t had to suffer.”
Olivia took my hand. “Me too.”
We moved on to lighter topics until the restaurant closed. I grew more comfortable, hardly aware of the number of people around us dwindling until Olivia stood and draped her coat over her shoulders.
“It’s time to go, darling.”
I stood on shaky feet and followed her out into the late February night. It was snowing and the ice cold flakes brought me back to reality. It even undid the magic of her spell and the daze of the alcohol.
“Holy shit,” I shouted.
Olivia paused in her steps and took my arm, dragging me over to a closed storefront so we didn’t block the still-crowded streets.
“What is it?” she asked, her eyes scanning my face.
“I was just on a date.”
She laughed and her breath curled in the air around us. “Yes.”
It gave me a small comfort that she didn’t deny it, that I wasn’t going crazy. “I really was on a date. That was a date, right? A romantic date?”
Olivia tossed her hair back and laughed. “Yes!”
“With a woman.”
She patted her chest as if checking for breasts. “That is indeed so.”
My heart thudded and I began panting. “How the hell did this happen?”
Her smile faded. “Are you upset?”
She pulled my hand up to her lips and kissed a fingertip. “It’ll be okay, Elizabeth. I’m not forcing you to do anything.”
“I want to do things, though. Oh my God! What is this? What’s happening to me? We only spent a few hours together and I want you! This is absurd!”
A man passed by us and laughed. Olivia rolled her eyes and moved closer. “What kind of things do you want to happen?”
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