A Road Less TraveledbyGirlintheMoon©
Chapter 1: If I Knew Nothing About You
"How do you like it?"
I jumped and nearly spilled my wine. A tan woman with intense light brown eyes laughed and stepped closer to me.
"I apologize. Didn't mean to creep up on you."
She wasn't American but I couldn't quiet place her accent. I guessed French, but there was still another exotic note to her voice I couldn't place. Her hair was dark black and silky, glossy beneath the gallery lights. And her smile was not just a smile- it was a promise.
She raised her eyebrows and jutted her chin towards the painting and I managed to take my eyes from her.
The painting was crimson and black curvy lines that intersected every which way. A black circle penetrated a red circle in right side of the painting. Then a warm pink surrounded the scene, drops of paint dripping down that just touched 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". Ever since my boring date and I arrived at the opening, my attention was fixed solely on it.
Until she scared the crap out of me.
Realizing I still hadn't answered her, I hurled forth with an answer. "It's really pretty," I said. How lame.
Her smile widened. "Really? Pretty?" The brown eyes slanted to the right to take in the artwork once more. "That's not the adjective I'd use."
"Maybe erotic is better," I decided, shocking myself. I didn't know where that came from.
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 about her, so refined. There was a wistfulness settling inside of me; she was the kind of woman I'd always wanted to be like. Beautiful clothes, perfect hair, classy.
Instead I'd already spilled wine on my white dress, my dull brunette hair was falling out of the bun I'd wrapped it in, and I was pretty sure I had lipstick on my teeth.
"I don't know much about abstract art." I licked my lips, hoping the pinot noir I was drinking hadn't made them purple. "I like this one, though. There's something... edgy but comfortable about it. New but soothing."
She sipped at her champagne, her eyes never leaving mine. When she had taken a nice amount, she licked at her lips, too. Something was buzzing between us; I couldn't be sure what the hell it was. Maybe it was just the alcohol.
"I'm Olivia," she said. Her hand reached out and took my own. I hadn't even extended it. Her hand was soft and warm, a nice surprise from the cold, rough hands I was accustomed to shaking lately.
"Elizabeth. Nice to meet you." I forced a smile. There was something discomforting in the encounter that set me off balance.
"Do you come to the gallery often?" Her accent was beautiful. Every word she said rolled off her tongue like music.
A small laugh rose from my throat. "No. I'm on a date. I don't think he knew what to do with me."
Her laugh was far more ladylike than my own. And there seemed to be an edge to it, as if she was in on something I hadn't figured out yet.
"Tell me, Elizabeth. If you could paint one thing in this room, what would it be?"
I thought it was a strange question but there was something hypnotic about those eyes on me and oddly I didn't want them to look away.
Glancing around the gallery, 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 else from our firm. 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. It was depressing and beautiful all at once and for some unknown, bizarre reason I thought this stranger might appreciate it.
"The ashtrays. The deserted glasses with lipstick smudges still on them."
Her beautiful face merged into an expression of confusion. Perhaps I'd guessed wrong about her.
"Why? What does it all symbolize to you?"
A clammy hand touched my elbow and I jumped for the second time in front of Olivia.
"Liz, we have to run."
I turned to Robert and sighed. "Sure."
"It was nice meeting you, Elizabeth," Olivia said. She waved to me and disappeared in 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 I guess was supposed to be alluring. "She's a lesbo, you know."
My eyes rolled and I didn't bother hiding it. I'd accepted the date with Robert, a fellow lawyer, because I was bored and because my best friend Jacqueline reminded me I hadn't been out with someone in over a year. Still, 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 was chatting 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 that I couldn't afford it.
"I need to get going," I told him.
He nodded absently, as uninterested in me as I was in him.
As we left, I could have sworn I sensed eyes on me but everywhere I looked I only saw strangers.
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 saw it was a painting wrapped in layers of plastic. It was Olivia's painting, the one I admired so much.
When the awe died down a bit my eyes caught a 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 was her cell phone number, written crisply against the stark white of her business card.
Dizziness descended and I had to stand against the wall. What the fuck was going on? I thought back to what Robert said. She was a lesbian, he thought. He suggested she were chatting me up 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 ran over to 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- ten years older than me. 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 eyeballs scanned the laptop's screen in a furious rush; I was strangely desperate 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 I met her in that smokey cafe, 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 closed the laptop and glanced back at the present Olivia sent.
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 the 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 building a relationship with the enigmatic artist who sent me a painting worth thousands.
I nearly pressed "End" on my cellphone. I was so terrified and my boss was watching me through the glass 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. This was absurd. We were going to dinner. That was it. It didn't have anything else associated 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. "This is Elizabeth. From the art gallery. You sent me 'Afterglow'?"
"Yes," she said. I could hear her smiling. "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."
Amazingly her accent managed to take the sting out of those words. I hated being called uptight. It was a huge trigger for me. But, for whatever reason, I didn't hang up. I typed with a bit more violence on my keyboard, but other than that I wasn't upset. Much.
"Oh, I see." Crap! Why couldn't I talk to her normally? Why did I sound like a moron?
"So, were you planning on joining me for dinner?"
Hang up, Liz. This feels like a date.
And yet another part of me didn't want to disconnect. It wanted dinner with Olivia and it wanted to know all about her.
"Of course. I'd love to talk more about your work."
She laughed and it was breathy and silky. Strange what a laugh can evoke in you.
I took a deep, calming breath. "I am."
"Meet me at The Brink at 7. Know it?"
"I'll ask for a table. See you there," she whispered before being the first one to click off.
I was the first one there, naturally.
I sat at the table she'd reserved and drank my screwdriver. Hopefully the vodka wouldn't do anything crazy to me but I needed something to loosen me up. Desperately.
Why I was so nervous I didn't know, or I wouldn't let myself think about. I just was. I eventually concluded it was because I thought she was smarter than me, prettier, more brilliant. I felt like a gawky teen in her presence instead of the confident and accomplished woman I often told myself I was. It wasn't exactly a nice sensation, but already it appeared I was addicted to it.
At 7:25 she drifted into the restaurant like a dream. Her dress was gauzy and cream-colored. Her hair danced way below her shoulders, tickling the bottoms of her breasts. Her heels were pink and higher than anything I ever dared wear. Men broke their necks to follow her, but she kept her eyes on me.
Olivia sunk 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 that awkward girl again who probably shouldn't have been drinking in the first place.
"I like vodka," I said self-consciously.
"How about we switch to wine?" She gestured to the waiter and ordered us the most expensive red on the menu. When she waved her hand through the air, her scent trickled over. She smelled delicious and I unconsciously leaned forward.
Then those mesmerizing golden brown eyes settled back on me. "Are you curious why I asked you to dine with me?"
The waiter promptly returned with our wine. The sound of it dripping into my glass was soothing and I focused on that rather than her stare. I didn't want to answer yet. I didn't want to break the spell that somehow surrounded us from the moment she floated over to me.
Then 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 wanted to tell her that but it sounded ridiculous so I kept it to myself.
"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, leaving it in her mouth for a few moments to savor the taste. She moved it delicately over her tongue and then swallowed slowly. The fragile muscles in her throat moved beneath the satiny olive skin. 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 and I nearly spilled wine all over my navy dress. "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, then, 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?"
I was in a trance. I merely 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 the makeup and designer dresses, yes. Not me. You understand?"
"I think so."
She took my hand. Her hand was warm and soft. Mine was cold and coarse from flipping through paperwork all day. "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. I know you think you're into men. Maybe you really are. Maybe I'm still being an old fool. I'd still like to get to know you. What do you say?"
My hand in hers felt so heavy. "I don't know what to say. Is this a... date?" She shrugged in reply. "I don't really get why you... Why me?"
"I wanted to paint you. That was my first thought." She looked down and realized she was squeezing my hand. She pulled away and strangely I wanted to grab her hand back. I didn't. I reached out for my wine, instead.
"Paint me how? I can't imagine anyone painting me." I released a nervous laugh.
Olivia met my stare. "I could paint you. I'd love to, in fact. At the 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."
It was unsettling she saw so much about me. "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 if this was a date or not, and I wasn't positive how that made me feel. Did I run? Did I stay? Two parts of my self warred with each other, leaving me sitting there with nothing to do but wait.
"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."
She took a bite of steak. Her white teeth sunk into the meat, tearing off a nice portion from the fork. Once she swallowed, she commented on what I said. "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 glinted gold from the candle on the table.
Something changed between us. My nervous energy transitioned to an entirely different energy I wasn't at all familiar with. I wasn't sure if it was pleasurable or not and I didn't want to spend too much time thinking about it.
"What's your favorite movie?" I blurted.
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, feeling the wine and the dizzying quality of Olivia's presence.
"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, desperate 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. Truthfully I was bringing this up to take my mind off Olivia all but declaring this a date.
"Oh? I'm intrigued."
"I read about how you had breast cancer. 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. My grandmother had it."
She stopped 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 for the second time that night and I was already used to it. "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 put on her coat.
"It's time to go, darling."
I stood with reluctance and followed her out into the late February night. It was snowing and the icy 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 that we didn't block the still-crowded streets.
"What is it?" she asked, her eyes scanning my face. No one ever watched me so closely. It warmed me and freaked me out all at once.
"I was just on a date."
She laughed and her breath curled in the air around us. "Yes."
"With a woman."
"That is indeed so."
My heart thudded in a desperate attempt to keep me warm and keep me from having a heart attack. "How the hell did this happen?"