Michael was working on the last corner of a forty-eight by forty-eight foot backdrop with the tiniest brush he owned, a 9/128" red sable that he normally reserved for painting ceramics. Behind him, one lingering pair of feet shuffled and skittered across the floor. And try as he might to stop himself, he could not help but glance over his shoulder in between strokes. He could not help but stare at the girl to whom the feet belonged.
Through the accident of her DNA, Jenna Worthing was possessed of the same idyllic body the Greeks had sculpted two thousand years before. Statuesque, all hips, she was more woman than any girl he had ever known. She spun slowly in her tight black leotard, her arms reaching upward, those full, womanly hips thrust outward, and her head back, her auburn hair falling downward in a matted mess, away from her sweat-soaked brow, from that soft, girl-like face of hers, that face that was, as always, devoid of any of the embellishments-the rouge, the eyeliner, the lip gloss-that might have more fully given her the façade of a grown woman. Wisps of hair clung to each of her apple cheeks, and a heavy, wet lock of it was strewn across those petite lips of hers which curved upwards at the corners in the devilish little grin that seemed her most cherished facial expression. When she lifted a leg, he could see that her foot was dirty, blackened from dancing atop the rubber floor for most of this cold winter's day. He turned away from her once he realized that he'd been staring at the cracks between her toes, and he wondered what he'd been looking for. Some splotch of pure, innocent pink? Who knew? Michael tapped at the bulge in his right jeans pocket, where he kept his wallet, and thought of the picture of Robin that was still there. And then he painted some more.
Jenna sat down beside him when she was done, legs stretched out in front of her, arms stretched backward to support herself as she stretched. She smelled deliciously awful, her scent a funky potpourri of perspiration and peppermint patties, burnt rubber and Bolognese sauce.
"Nobody," she said, panting in between gulps from her liter of spring water, "is ever going to notice this."
"I will," he said.
"I admire your dedication," she said, laying her head on his shoulder, her labored breath hot against his neck, her hair clinging to his cheek.
"Me too," he said. "I mean, I admire your dedication. Not mine."
"Thanks," she said. "I wish that it would start paying off. Y'know?"
"You're too harsh on yourself."
She patted him on the shoulder as she stood to go. "Aren't we all?"
Michael watched her walk away. Her leotard was riding up in the back, her firm bottom glistening with sweat. He imagined Robin in the same situation, running around looking for a sweater to wrap around her waist, or walking backwards toward the door, trying not to stumble over her own feet.
Jenna paused at the stage's side door and looked back at him. "You want to walk back to the house together?"
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah."
The bitter December wind whipped at them as they trudged across campus through the freshly fallen snow.
Originally founded when Thomas Jefferson was in office, Kimball College sat atop a wooded hill high above the city of Haverhill. Down in the city, along the banks of the Merrimack River, there had once been a thriving shoe industry. Now, like much of the city, the factories sat boarded-up and crumbling. But up here on the hill, behind the brick and iron fence that surrounded the whole of the campus, there remained a happy, hippy community of bohemians and n'er-do-wells. In the midst of a quiet residential neighborhood, the campus's sprawling lawns served as something of a public park, where children rode their bikes and families walked their dogs and where, from September to May, the student body was like the circus come to town-a rainbow of cultures, of hair colors, and of sexual deviancies in this place that had been, for almost a century, nothing more than a coven for rich men's daughters.
The front of the campus presented to bustling South Main Street, and to the rest of the world beyond it, the façade of academia, a trio of harmonious buildings built in the classical style, all Doric columns and red brick, each of them flanking the "sacred sod" of the front lawn, which tradition said you were only allowed to set foot on upon your commencement.
But the rest of the campus, beginning with the modern-looking library, all windows and gray concrete, stood in stark contrast. It was the many faces of Kimball that Michael loved, however. There was so much history here and yet so much of the here and now.
They had crossed half of the campus before his mind wandered back to the girl at his side. Jenna was so bundled up that only a sliver of her face was visible, just between where her purple wool hat ended and her thick green scarf began. Her enormous winter coat added so much bulk to her frame that she more resembled a middle linebacker than a prima ballerina.
He smirked behind his own scarf. She would have beaten him silly had he made that comparison out loud. She was not, she told people early and often, when discussions of her dancing came up, a ballerina. She danced modern, and though she'd never say it out loud, her eyes would always add, "And please don't make that mistake again."
She didn't have the body of a ballerina, she was quick to point out. Her shoulders were too broad, her bust too big, her hips far too wide. Her legs were long enough, sure, but her neck was too short. And her technique-well, that was a whole other story. Her turnout had always been poor, her flexibility was mediocre at best, she couldn't do Pointe at all, and she had the worst feet in the entire company. Once, when they'd been sitting around the living room floor of their townhouse, she'd caught Michael flexing his foot and simply marveled at his form, his arches, the way his first three toes were almost all the same length. "I'd kill for your feet," she'd said.
But he'd always taken her criticisms of her body the same way others seemed to take his criticisms of his paintings-they were both too close to their art to have any kind of perspective on it. Her body, in his humble opinion, was quite alright. She was what Grampy would have called a "substantial" woman, not nearly as substantial as Grammy, but certainly a "healthy young lady," a compliment Grampy could never have paid to Robin.
As they passed over the footbridge, Michael cast a sideways glance over the railing, down at the icy pond. He remembered the first time he'd brought Robin up here, to show her around, to maybe convince her to come to school up here instead of down in Boston, at Berklee. She'd be the star of the program up here, he'd tried to convince her, instead of just another face in the crowd. She'd smiled, in that way that she always did, like his mother did whenever his father said something stupid, a sort of "Yes, dear" smirk that was meant to end the conversation. But he, like Albert, was never good at picking up on that particular brand of smile, at least not until reflecting on it later, and he'd asked her, as they'd walked over this same bridge, "Berklee doesn't have a pond in the middle of campus now, does it?" And she'd nodded along, saying, "No, I guess not." But Berklee was where she went anyway.
He hadn't said anything after that, but he'd wanted to. And what he would've said, what he said to her in his head, planning the conversation that he would have with her if the opportunity ever presented itself again, was, 'Look around you! Listen! Breathe! There's no clutter here, no buildings all hunched together. There's no exhaust filling your lungs, just fresh air. There's no honking, no swearing at the guy in front of you because he's not moving fast enough-if you want to move fast, there's plenty of room to go around. I'm peaceful here. I can hear myself think. I know who I am here. How can you love me and not love this place?'
"Has she fessed up yet?" Jenna asked him, her voice muffled by her scarf.
They passed underneath the glow of the floodlights that hung alongside Tupelo West as Michael searched for an answer to her question.
"I suppose she wouldn't, would she?" Jenna added.
"Maybe the Runt didn't see what he thinks he saw. He and my cousin don't exactly have a happy marriage."
"I don't think he'd've even bothered to call you if he wasn't sure."
The patch of his scarf right in front of his mouth was wet with saliva, and it chafed against his lips as he said, "I suppose."
The cluster of townhouses loomed in front of them now, huddled around their snowy common lawn like so many vagrants around a flaming garbage can-unapologetically too close for comfort. Their house, the last one on the right, was dark. Their housemates must've been saving their energy for tomorrow's opening night party, for that was the way the rest of them, as non-artists, found a way to share in the whole event.
Michael scowled behind his scarf, recalling Robin's laughter upon first sight of these delightfully derelict buildings, at how they stuck out, even back here on the weirder, non-traditional side of campus. Yes, they were too angular, too seventies in their design. And yes, they were gradually sinking into the mucky New England soil. But they were charming, nevertheless, and oh, how he'd hated Robin that night. He'd taken her right back to the car, driven her home, and promised himself he would never bring her back. But the memories haunted him still, enveloped him in their irksome embrace.
In fact, they so enveloped him that he didn't notice the snowball careening towards his head that evening until it was too late. It hit the side of his head with a splat, the wet and cold seeping right through his hat and into his ear. Jenna was running down the path in front of him, laughing hysterically. He reached down into a towering bank and hurled a clump of snow at her, taking no time to ball it up, but she was out of range, already at their doorstep with her key in hand.
"What do you think I should do?" he asked her as they sat at the dining room table, sipping from mugs of steaming hot chocolate, their coats and scarves and hats draped over the other chairs.
"I've told you," she said, picking at the dried paint that covered his hands and forearms, piling up the flakes on the table in a neat stack. "You should dump her so that you and I can finally, you know, get it over with."
Michael winced as she plucked a huge chunk from his wrist, a clump of hair coming along with it.
"Sorry," she said, frowning for a moment before going back to work.
"What about your boyfriend?" he asked her.
She sighed, rubbing the edge of her thumbnail along a particularly stubborn piece of paint.
Michael ran his free hand along the top of his head, trying to smooth out the hair he could feel sprouting outward in a dozen different directions. He chuckled. "I love how you put it-we need to 'get it over with.'"
She kicked him lightly underneath the table. "I'm not the only one who thinks so."
He grabbed hold of her foot before she could steal it back. When he began to knead at her naked arch with his thumb, she let go of the hand she'd been holding and leaned back in her chair, unclenching.
She moaned, "Mmm. That is sooooo nice…"
Michael shook his head and groaned, "Damn."
"You think too much," she said, flexing her foot in his hand as he stopped rubbing.
"You know what," he said. "I do. I do think too much. But never about the important things. At least not until lately. Now I can't stop thinking about all the stupid stuff she's put me through."
"Like her going and cheating on you," said Jenna, pulling her foot back from him, now that he wasn't doing anything with it.
"Like her going and cheating on me," said Michael, nodding.
Jenna leaned over the table and smiled at him. "Listen, could you maybe drop her for tonight?" And then, pausing for a moment, she added, "Or maybe for the rest of your life?"
He picked up his hot chocolate and sipped from it, a little bit bothered by the fact that his sipping had begun to sound like his father slurping.
"She was high school and now it's college. I went through the same thing." She held her mug up to her lips and tilted her head back, then set it down on the table, a frown on her face. She'd begun to rub a foot up under the cuff of his jeans, along his calf. "We've wasted too much of our time here," she said, picking up her mug again and tipping it upside down. "Everyone in this house came to college with a significant other, but they all came to their senses a long time ago. Now it's time for us to see the lights."
"You mean, 'the light,' singular, right?"
"Whatever," she said, reaching across the table for his mug, then sipping from it.
Michael laughed. "I just can't believe that a girl like you, a girl so talented, so beauti-"
"Oh, stop it," she said, handing him back his mug, her foot disappearing from his leg. "You're taking me out of the mood."
"You're the only girl I know who gets turned off by compliments about her appearance."
"It's not that," she said. "It's that I get annoyed when you don't give yourself enough credit. You do it with me. You do it with your art." She paused, seeming to consider whether she should really say what she wanted to say next, and then said, "You do it with everything."
"Point taken," he said. "And I guess... baseball teams do carry a personal masseuse, so, even though I wouldn't be on a team in your league, so to speak, I could conceivably become an employee of the league."
She chuckled at him. "You need to learn when to shut up."
Jenna stood and gathered up her things. "I'm going upstairs," she said. "Kate is gone for the night. So…" She paused and smiled. "Good night."
"G'night," he said, waving a little wave.
Michael watched her ascend the stairs until she'd rounded the corner to her room, then looked down the flight of stairs that led to his own bedroom. He tapped at his wallet again, and then pulled it out. He leafed through the photos he kept inside, past Matt, past Ashley, past Vern and the baby, past the miniature copy of the poem 'Footprints' that his mother had bought for him after Grampy's funeral. The last picture was of Michael and Robin, from senior year, up on stage at the talent show, singing into the same microphone. He remembered how perfect they'd sounded, how in tune they'd been as they sang, in harmony, "You can go your own way." He ran his fingers along the edges of her face, then closed his wallet and put it away.
Jenna took her time in answering his knock, opening the door slowly. She was wearing a longish t-shirt that fell down to her hips. "Are you sure?" she asked him. "Because I don't want to force you."
"I'm sure," he said.
She opened the door wider, took him by the hand, and pulled him in.
Originally published in Commonthought 2012 and now available, in slightly altered form, in the novel Missing Mr. Wingfield