Another story snippet … comments appreciated! If you’re reading and enjoying the fiction posts, please let me know if there’s a particular story you’d like to read more of.
She pushed the hair from her face with the back of her hand, oblivious to the smudge of dirt she swiped across her forehead. Slowly, carefully, patiently, she brushed the surface of the painting. Cleaning the art was not really part of her job as the director of museum education, but it was something she tried to do as often as she could. It reminded her of her roots from when she first started work at the museum as an intern in the cleaning and restoration department and she enjoyed it. The cleaning was an almost meditative process. She brushed and dabbed at a painting for hours – sometimes days—and in the end, it looked fresher and brighter. Her efforts became a piece of the art itself somehow, and she left a tiny bit of herself in each piece she worked on. She was never as happy with her own original paintings as she was with ones she had restored. Her own work always fell short of her expectations, so much so that she rarely painted anymore, preferring instead to devote herself to her work at the museum.
This painting was a mess. So many layers of filth and grime obscured the work that they really had no idea what it was. Part of an estate donation which contained some rare and beautiful pieces of Renaissance art, its condition had pushed it to the end of the restoration list. She suspected it was a simple piece from an unknown sixteenth-century Italian painter and had taken it on as a sort of hobby piece. She brushed again over a particularly stubborn spot about a third of the way down the painting, revealing a pair of intense eyes gazing back at her from beneath it. They seemed to look right at her, right into her, as though they could see to her very soul. She stared, completely absorbed.
“Hey Cara, are you going to stay here all night? It’s Friday, girl, a pretty young thing like you should be goin’ out to get your groove on.” The night security guard was making his rounds in the basement.
“Frank, what are you doing here?” She glanced at the clock. “Wow, how did it get that late already? I haven’t been down here that long.”
“Cara, sweetie, when you get those brushes in your hand you lose all track of time. Go on home now, get gussied up and go find you a new boyfriend.”
“Ugh. That’s the last thing I need, but I will go home, maybe settle in with a nice glass of wine and a good book.” Her last boyfriend was still too fresh in her mind for her to consider another trip down that road. Alan had been absolutely perfect in every way – in the beginning. He came from a good family, went to the right schools, and knew all the right people. But what had attracted her was that instead of going into law or medicine, as so many of his counterparts had, Alan had chosen art. He was the museum’s resident art historian. They shared a love of all things artistic, particularly the Italian Renaissance masters. It was he who had first introduced her to Piazarrona, a lesser-known but extremely valuable Italian artist who had quickly become her favorite. And it was also he who had introduced her to the museum director, Dr. Armstrong, who had offered her a job, right after graduation.
Unfortunately, it was also Alan who took the credit for all of her successes, despite the fact that it had been her own hard work that had impressed Armstrong and earned her promotions. Alan patted himself on the back for having discovered and ‘mentored’ her. Cara didn’t know how necking and heavy petting counted as mentoring, but whatever made him happy was ok with her – for a while, anyway. After a few months, he became more and more controlling of her. He had to know where she was, who she was with, and what she was doing at all times. He didn’t like her seeing her own friends anymore. They weren’t “suitable companions.” She was only allowed to socialize with his friends, who all seemed very superficial and plastic. Before long he was telling her what to wear, how to style her hair. At first, as an eager young grad student, she’d been glad for the advice and the guidance. Even after graduation, when she’d first started work at the museum, he seemed to have her best interest at heart and she was appreciative. But eventually – finally – she’d begun to see his advice for what it was, control and she’d begun to resent it. Their breakup had been rough. He had simply refused to acknowledge that she was ending it.
“I’m sorry, that’s unacceptable.” Were his exact words when she’d told him it was over.
She had had to change her locks to stop him from showing up, unannounced in her apartment. She’d had to change her route to and from work, to stop him from following her.
One night she had stayed late working on a painting, much as she had tonight, and he had stayed to wait for her. He caught her in the lobby and grabbed her arm.
She wrenched her arm away. “Alan, this has to stop. We are over. You have to stop following me and telling people we’re still together.”
“We are together, Cara. We are together until I say otherwise and I’m not through with you yet.” He grabbed her again and pulled her against him.
That was when Frank had come barreling into the room.
“Mr. Finch, you need to take your hands off of her. I heard her tell you to leave her alone. You need to listen now, or I’m going to have to make you.”
Alan sneered at him. “Really? You’re going to make me?”
“Yes sir, I am. I don’t want to, but I will.” He pulled out his nightstick.
“Easy there, don’t do anything stupid. This is none of your business. You are here to guard the art, not the employees. I’d hate to have to get you fired over this.”
“Mr. Finch, I’d gladly lose my job to protect Cara. She’s one of the nicest folks here and I heard her tell you plainly to leave her alone. Now let her go and go on home.”
“She doesn’t really mean it, do you, Cara? We’re just having a lovers’ tiff. This is nothing for you to be concerned about.”
“No Alan, this is not a lovers’ tiff. We are over. I have been telling you for weeks now. It’s over, time to let go and move on.”
“See now, Mr. Finch, Cara wants you to let go. Don’t make her tell you again.” He took a step closer.
Alan released her and turned to storm out. “Your supervisor will be hearing about this.”
After that night, Alan’s attempts to control her had become more passive aggressive than aggressive. He had attempted to undermine her at work on more than one occasion but had failed. He had tried to make her jealous by dating the director’s new secretary but failed. And these days, he was cloyingly sweet with her, pretending to like and respect her while she could feel the anger and malice still hanging in the air between them. She didn’t need any more of that, thank you. There wouldn’t be another boyfriend in her future for a while.
She cleaned up her workspace and gathered her things, switching her attention from her unpleasant memories of Alan back to the painting she’d been working on. Now if she could find a guy with eyes like those maybe she would consider dating again. She flipped the light switch in the workroom and headed out for the night.
Since the incident with Alan, she had taken to leaving through the back service entrance, as it made it harder for him to keep track of her. She waved goodbye to the guard stationed by the door and exited into the cool night air. Springtime in New York was famous for a reason. It was her favorite time of year. Everything seemed to be coming alive after the cold dark winter. It reminded her of her work, the way she cleaned the dulling of dust and time and brought back the brightness and splendor of the original work – just the way the spring did for the city.
She made her way home, past the bustling restaurants and just opening clubs. She hadn’t been to a club since before she met Alan. He said they weren’t “appropriate” for people of their intelligence level. Oh, but she had loved to dance before they’d met. It had been so long now, though that she wouldn’t know what to do in a club anymore. Maybe she should call some old girlfriends from the pre-Alan days and see if they’d like to go out tomorrow. Or maybe next week. Although, they had the benefit gala coming up and she had to get the new exhibit ready. So maybe in a month or so, when things calmed down at work, she’d give them a call.
Finally home, she dropped her bag on the table by the door. She opened the fridge to get the ingredients to make a salad and remembered that she had been planning to go the market on the way home tonight. Finding even her last frozen dinner gone, she settled for a pb&j sandwich on the heel of a loaf of bread and a nice glass of wine. At least she wasn’t out of wine. It didn’t pair terribly well with the peanut butter, but it was better than nothing.
She plopped down on her couch, with her glass of wine and picked up the romance novel she was currently savoring. Mere sentences into the latest chapter, her mind began to wander. Piercing eyes blazed into her soul. The man behind them was a mystery, but the eyes held her captive. She drifted into a fitful sleep, haunted through the night by the eyes that would not leave her mind.
Back at the museum the next morning, she was bogged down in paperwork most of the morning. Still, her mind kept wandering to the painting downstairs and the eyes hidden behind it. Finally, it was time for lunch, and though she usually worked through, she decided, instead to visit the restoration studio in the basement.
“Oh Cara, I’m so glad you came down. Look what I found!” Susan, her closest friend at the museum, had started when Cara did and still worked in the restoration department. She grabbed the painting she was working on, the same one Cara had been brushing the night before, and held the bottom corner up under the light.
“Piazarrona. Piazarrona? Tell me I’m not hallucinating!” Cara was almost giddy with excitement.
“You’re not hallucinating. It’s a Piazarrona. Or at least the painting behind the painting is.”
“Really? We have to uncover it.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.”
They both grabbed brushes and set to work. Hours later, they were still hard at work; Cara’s other responsibilities long forgotten in her now justified eagerness to uncover the man behind the eyes. Knowing that the painting was a Piazarrona simply increased her joy in her work. Susan worked from the bottom, Cara from the top, slowly uncovering the mystery man, inch by painstaking inch.
He was magnificent. The painting was an informal portrait of a man, though the term hardly did him justice. He seemed more somehow than a mere mortal. He stood, as though he’d just been looking out the window, and turned slightly to face the painter. His hair was long and fell in soft waves around his finely sculpted jaw. His white shirt was loose and undone in the front, exposing a chest that could have been sculpted by Michelangelo himself. Even with the beauty of his physical form, she was still drawn by his eyes. She somehow felt as though the slight smirk he wore was from sharing some private joke, with only her.
“Oh my, you are lovely, aren’t you? And I bet you know it too.”
“Well, gee, thanks, Cara.”
She laughed. “Well, you do look lovely today, Suse, but I was talking to the painting. Take a look at this.”
“Ooh, he is a pretty one.” Susan agreed. “But you know he had to be gay if he was looking at the painter like that.”
“The pretty ones always are.” She sighed and set the painting on an easel in the corner while she started on the next crate.
“You know, this new discovery is going to bring in the bucks when we put it on display for the fundraising gala this weekend.”
“Not if we don’t get it finished.” She bent back over the work and returned to brushing.
Susan got back to work too. “So have you written your speech, yet?”
“Sort of. I know basically what I want to say, I’ll probably just wing it.”
“Geez, Cara, you’re the only person I know who could ‘just wing it’ speaking to a room of 200 people and asking them for money.”
“What I say isn’t important … it’s all about the art.”
“Right. So, speaking of art, what are you wearing?”
“Oh… hell! I knew I was forgetting something! I never bought a dress….” Fashion was one art form that Cara simply could not appreciate. Her wardrobe consisted of utilitarian pieces that were designed for comfort and convenience, not self-expression. “I’ll have to pull something out of the back of the closet. I think I still have that black dress I wore at the last…”
“Cara, you can NOT wear that black monstrosity again! You’ve worn it to every benefit we’ve had for the last three years.”
“Oh, I have not…” she paused to think a moment. “Have I really? Has it been three years since I bought a new dress?”
Susan simply nodded.
“Well, it’s only because I’m always so busy right before the event. It’s about showing off the art – not me. Nobody cares what I wear anyway.”
“Cara, you represent the museum, the art museum. Fashion is art too, you know. Maybe you should try to wear something just a little bit fashionable?”
“Well, it’s too late now … I have to finish with him… er… it, this piece, I mean…”
Susan laughed. “Yeah, I’d like to finish with him too. But seriously Cara, go. I can do this. I have Ryan and Dennis here. We can handle it. Uncovering this work has to generate more paperwork for you. Go take care of that and then go out tonight and get a dress.”
“I’d really rather…”
“Do it yourself, I know. You prefer to do everything yourself. This time, just this time, trust me to handle it and go.”
“Suse, you know it’s not that I don’t trust you…” There was no one she trusted more.
“So prove it. Here.” She pulled a business card from her pocket. “Go see Bridget. I told her you’d be coming in this afternoon so don’t be late. She’s going to help you.”
“You told her? You …” Cara sighed in defeat. “Fine. You know me too well. I’ll finish up some paperwork and go get a dress.” She took the card, and headed back to her office to do just that.