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When business at the bookstore was slow Bella found herself studying a print that hung on the wall near the cash register. A few steps of a staircase filled the entire frame, but the sunlight captured and amplified the wood’s imperfections in a way that fascinated her. Her boss and store owner, Lucy, informed her that the photographer, John Himmermeyer, was a “dear friend” and would be showing his work at Jamaica Plain Open Studios. Bella knew what she had to do to increase her chances of Lucy promoting her to the manager position that had recently opened.
On Sunday, her day off, Bella boarded the inbound Orange Line train. She was still living with her parents in her childhood home in suburban Melrose, three years after college graduation. As the train burrowed through downtown Boston, she realized that she would arrive at her destination too soon if she wanted to intersect with Lucy, who said she’d be at Himmermeyer’s studio around 2:00. Pulling up the website on her phone, she noticed a location nearby where she could kill time with other exhibits in this neighborhood-wide event.
The houses along the way were painted bright colors, shades of blue, green, yellow, purple, with trim often defying the expected white. Some had multiple doors and mailboxes. A few brick buildings dotted the mix. Although Bella was still getting to know the Jamaica Plain neighborhood, also known as JP, inside one of these houses had to be her apartment. Her co-worker Sammie rented a studio near here, rare in this part of the city. Sammie was her main competition for the manager position.
Maybe if Bella got the promotion she could score some Victorian nook on the hill. A Room of Her Own, as Virginia Woolf would say. Then her writer’s block would unblock, yielding the right of way to Bella so she could proceed down her chosen path. She hadn’t always fantasized about outdoing Sammie, but over time the girl’s rejection of her attempts at friendship weighed down on her. Bella did have a couple of other friends from the store. One was a guy her parents insisted she should pursue as a boyfriend. Although he was attractive, surprisingly cool for a law student, and seemed interested in her, Bella didn’t feel any urgency to claim him.
Browsing the Open Studios website, Bella noticed that what Himmermeyer was doing was apparently a trend, with a glut of imitators finding the most colorful objects and zooming in at odd angles. Descending into the church basement containing other artists’ work, she could spot the exhibits of two of these wannabes already. She breezed past them as well as past a display of beaded necklaces hanging from a stretched-out patch of burlap.
Bella stopped at a collection of abstract blobs and streaks that looked at first like a multimedia car wreck. She thought they were prints of the artist’s paintings. But a small sign read, “Tal Blanco, Photographer,” and there was something real about the images that she couldn’t pinpoint. In a loose flannel shirt, spiky bleached hair and lack of makeup, the producer of these works appeared as androgynous as her name and looked to be about thirty. A slim elderly man trying too hard to be hip in a leather jacket and Adidas sneakers pointed to some streaks on her Carhartt trousers. “Did you come straight from the studio?”
“Nah, just painting my bathroom.” Picking her teeth with a fingernail, Tal swung a work boot forward and landed two feet away from him. “See any poppy seeds?”
He shook his head and slunk away to the next booth.
Bella approached a box of prints, hoping to make sense of these esoteric pieces, but also monitoring Tal’s presence in the space. Although intrigued by the artist’s casual attitude, she didn’t want to be invited to check her teeth either.
The prints were mostly smaller versions of what appeared framed on the walls. Small talk started up behind her, between a stranger and a familiar voice that sounded like a coffee grinder underwater, the effect of too many Gauloises cigarettes smuggled back from European vacations. Bella peeked over her shoulder and recognized the wavy salt-and-pepper hair and thick red-rimmed glasses. Lucy. Bella leaned farther in toward the box, the shaggy layers of the hair she was trying to grow out serving as a blind. She could barely hear Lucy over the acoustics, with conversations all around the room storming her ears at similar volumes.
Trying to think of something to say to her employer when she did reveal herself, Bella flipped through the prints. She came upon one that looked as if Tal had scratched a negative of a beaming sun, lines radiating from a dark center, into a ball of chocolate dough. It summoned up a feeling of deja-vu. Then Bella remembered last week when the bookstore’s former manager, Shanelle, and her wife brought their newborn into the store. Although she was only 23, Bella regarded the child as another unachieved milestone. She couldn’t look at the couple. So happy! So…fulfilled! So instead she focused on Shanelle’s belly button revealed by her midriff-baring top, intrigued by the stretch marks etched around it. Even with her post-pregnancy pudginess, Shanelle celebrated her body. Although she couldn’t see herself baring her own belly, this struck Bella as liberating. Then it occurred to her that she was staring at a lesbian’s belly for too long, and that maybe someone would notice. Bella scurried down the nearest aisle to cool off, and started facing the shelves.
“Oh hi! Almost didn’t recognize you!”
Bella’s boss had been working her way across the exhibit space. Startled, Bella straightened herself up. “Hi Lucy. I’m going to John Himmermeyer’s later but I thought I’d look around here first.”
“Great! I was just there!” Lucy then lowered her voice and nodded toward Tal Blanco. “I’ve heard she’s one to watch, so I was curious.”
“Oh, really,” said Bella. Despite missing Lucy at Himmermeyer’s, maybe this was good timing.
Lucy surveyed the room. “I miss the old days when Open Studios meant most artists actually living in their own studios in old buildings,” she said. “You know, a hot plate on top of a mini-fridge, a sleeping loft hiding behind a sheet.”
“Yeah,” Bella responded reflexively.
They heard a voice behind them. “You wanna see that, go to Lynn.”
Both Lucy and Bella swung their heads toward Tal, who looked up at the ceiling. If this were a cartoon, she would have whistled like a bird. Lucy shook her head and reached for one of Tal’s business cards, with an address of that working-class city north of Melrose. “So I’ve heard,” Lucy said.
“Yeah, who can afford JP?” Bella blurted out, then remembered that Lucy had just purchased a condo on Green Street. She hoped she hadn’t offended her. Sometimes the closer the utterance was connected to her real-life experience, the harder it was to control it from coming out of her mouth. It was people like Lucy driving up the prices and rents, so only the John Himmermeyers could live and work here, pricing out the Bellas who needed a promotion and full-time hours just to afford a roommate situation.
Though Tal appeared to have shifted her attention toward checking her phone, a grin rippled across her face. For that moment, this distracted Bella from what was entering her frame.
Sammie. She smiled in Bella’s direction.
“Hi!” Bella said. At the store Bella found herself always monitoring Sammie’s presence and interactions, so having her appear so suddenly had a startling effect. Sammie was wearing a minidress with a geometric pattern, the kind Bella would try on at a vintage shop and not be able to zipper.
Sammie nodded and stepped around Bella to Lucy, apparently the intended recipient of the smile.
Lucy pulled out her phone. “Look at this.” The two huddled around the screen.
“Did you get it?” Sammie asked.
“John gave me an excellent deal.”
“Can I see it?” Bella asked.
Neither Lucy nor Sammie looked at Bella directly as they passed the phone to her. It was indeed a Himmermeyer, a close-up of an old Orange Line train car. Something that would have made sense for Lucy to show Bella when she mentioned her plans to visit his studio.
Sammie grabbed the phone back from Bella and held it out at arm’s length. “Such intricate detail.” She cocked her head to the side. “It’s like witnessing the corrosion process!”
“Yes!” Lucy said. “That’s what I was thinking!”
“Oh, neat!” Bella said. Perfect Sammie, coming up with a clever description of Himmermeyer’s art. She had gotten accepted into the creative writing MFA program at Emerson College that rejected Bella. Couldn’t that victory be enough?
“I gotta head out,” Sammie said, before Bella could determine if it was worth the risk of rejection to ask Sammie if she wanted to look at other exhibits with her.
“See you Tuesday!” Lucy said as Sammie waved to her.
“Bye,” Bella said to the back of the dress as Sammie headed toward the stairs.
Lucy stepped over to examine Tal’s work on one of the walls of the partition. Since this was an artist to watch, Bella decided to stay and browse the box of prints for a while longer. She had been studying a bumpy red pattern fading to smooth pink for quite some time before it dawned on her: this was a section of a woman’s breast. She had cracked the code at this exhibit, and found herself intimate with Tal’s landscapes of flesh and pores. Like exploring a nude beach with a magnifying glass. Bella shook her hair forward to conceal her blushing.
Lucy pointed a platinum fingernail at a framed piece on the display wall. Bella quickly interpreted it and her heart beat faster.
“I’m thinking of that one.”
Bella stepped back a foot. “Oh?”
Lucy swung her head in Tal’s direction and raised her voice. Lucy blew imaginary cigarette smoke. “It does remind me of something.”
“I see.” Bella tried to approach it with the same ignorance. But first she had to take off her pea coat. Had she known it would be so warm, she would have left the house in a jean jacket or a flannel shirt like Tal’s.
Lucy took a step back. “I can see a slight Georgia O’Keefe influence, though obviously more abstract.”
“Like…desert flowers?” Bella did not know how those words came out. It was the first figurative language she had uttered in months.
“Yes!” Lucy kept looking over at Tal. Bella wondered if Lucy was trying to get her to acknowledge her artistic eye. The way Tal reacted by shaking her head at her own outstretched hand and filing her nails with an emery board, it wasn’t going to give Lucy that satisfaction.
Lucy redirected her attention toward the large print, running a hand through her hair and lifting her glasses off her nose, and took a step back. “It might go well over near the children’s section,” she said.
“Oh.” Bella nodded her hair forward.
“Or,” Lucy said, “It could go in my bedroom.”
Bella’s shoulders eased. “Yeah, maybe better,” she quickly responded.
“Hmm, why do you say that?”
“Uh, I don’t know.” Bella’s cheeks flamed again. Did her boss really not know what it was? Still, it was art, which gave Bella the permission to continue admiring its beauty in Lucy’s presence. She looked over at Tal. “Yes, it’s like Himmermeyer. Framing everyday…stuff in a different way.”
From the other end of the partition Tal winked at her. A tingling sensation shot up Bella’s spine. Equal parts pleasant and disconcerting, though with a suspicion that she, too, was being made fun of.
“A little stuck up,” Lucy said, intentionally loud enough for Tal to hear, “But she does know what she’s doing.”
“Yes,” Bella agreed, but now all she could think about was the photo on the wall of the bookstore’s children’s section, and how Lucy would react when parents complained, and how Sammie and the other staff would process things if they discovered that Bella did not prevent this purchase, that she was just as clueless or even spineless. Certainly not manager material.
“Hey,” Lucy called over to Tal, and jerked her head toward the piece. Tal nodded, but as she strolled over she raised her eyebrows and rested her left hand over her nose, jammed a curled right index finger under it, and twisted it to simulate deep nose-picking. So juvenile, but Bella had to bite down on her tongue to suppress giggles.
Once Lucy’s eyes shifted from the print back to the photographer, Tal dropped her arms, and pulled out of her pocket some red dot stickers to mark the piece as sold.
Bella stepped back and out of the way of the business transaction. “I better go if I want to see Himmermeyer’s stuff.” She winced at her own vocabulary. Stuff? Again? Oh well, it got the point across.
Lucy smiled as she pulled a checkbook from her black leather shoulder bag. “See you in the store next…”
“Tuesday,” said Bella.
Tal swung her body ninety degrees to let Bella past, a door opening, but also leaned in and said, loud enough for Lucy to hear, “Good eye.”
The words buzzing in her ears, Bella pushed her hair out of her face. “I’ll be back,” she told the artist, to her own surprise.
Tal cocked her head to the side and rubbed her hands together. “Well okay!”
Bella walked about twenty feet before realizing that she was headed in the wrong direction. Something about being here, around this art, felt like home in a way other places hadn’t, from Melrose to her last college apartment, with the lumpy futon that she shared with her last boyfriend, Ross, before he moved back to LA for work. That was two years ago, or was it three?
She paused at a table of scarves and hats made of alpaca wool, and pulled out her phone for a time check. Wait until Lucy left so she wouldn’t have to risk more conversation about the photo, visit Himmermeyer’s studio. Find a few others, ideally with free cups of wine. Anything to build up her courage for when she returned to Tal’s exhibit at 5:45, right before the end of Open Studios. She pictured the two of them discussing Tal’s work, maybe having a laugh over Lucy’s ignorance.
Glancing over at the exhibit, she could see the two women in animated conversation. Tal gesticulating with her hands like a comedian on mute, Lucy’s platinum fingernails catching a ray of sunlight through the church basement window, creating a glare.
“All our alpaca are vegetarian and free-range.”
“What?” Bella jerked her head toward the voice, which belonged to a woman around her mother’s age, sitting and knitting on a stool nearby.
“Let me know if you have any questions.” As if she had come to a conclusion about Bella’s consumer potential, she kept her eyes on her needles.
“Uh, thanks.” Bella resumed her watch, in time to catch a third woman in Tal’s space. Bleached bob, perky little nose, and, like Sammie, wearing a dress that Bella would not be lucky enough to score at a thrift shop. This woman came up behind Tal and belted her arms around her waist.
As she watched Tal make introductions, Bella broke out into a sweat and the bile breached the back of her throat, like a hangover. She clutched the knitwear table that was keeping her upright, taking deep breaths. The rising mountain in front of her was no isolated peak she could hike around, it was a range she would have to scale alone.
Girlfriend still pressed against her back, Tal was writing out a receipt for Lucy’s purchase, just like with any transaction on an ordinary day.
It wasn’t ordinary for Bella, so it couldn’t be just another day for the art snobs and the artists who kissed up to them. She strode back to the exhibit.
All three looked at Bella as if she were a stranger invading their space.
“That’s a vagina,” Bella blurted out, loud enough to turn the heads of several people visiting the neighboring exhibits.
Lucy’s gaze boomeranged off the purchase. “I know, Bella. Thanks.” Frozen by Lucy’s cold stare, Bella focused on a mole on her cheek and held a close-lipped smile. Tal looked at Lucy and shrugged. They both shifted their bodies to face each other, as if to block Bella out of the picture.
Lucy folded the receipt and stuffed in into her purse. Tal’s girlfriend steered Tal toward the other end of her display. Bella remained rooted in the middle of the room, pretending to stare down at the hardwood, but noticing that while Lucy checked messages on her phone, her eyes shifted back and forth between the screen and the photo. Bella suspected that Lucy was unaware of the subject of her investment, but in any case, what was done was done. The manager decision was likely already made, so it was really her current job on the table. At least she could leave knowing she saved children’s eyes from the photo.
Bella dragged her feet down the center aisle, until she found herself at another photography exhibit. The shtick here was liquids: shallow lakes, coffee, the head of a beer, all up close, bubbles magnified. Bella closed her eyes and saw time being flushed down a toilet. Time better spent back at home with her notebook and her laptop. She moved quickly to the exit so she wouldn’t have to wait any longer.