Ali's Art Ch. 01byharding©
As the greyhound bus dropped off the freeway and began to wind through the outskirts of New York I stared through the window at snow piled high alongside the roads. It was December 7th, five months to the day after my eighteenth birthday, and I was going for interview at the School of Art. I was hoping my cousin, Alison, would be there to meet me at the bus station. I had her address written on a slip of paper in my jeans, but big cities were new to me, and I was apprehensive.
I was happy Ali had agreed to let me stay at her place, or I would be bunking down for two nights in some seedy cheap hotel room. If it has been left up to me, that would have been my destination.
Last week when I told Mom I had the interview, she suggested I ring Ali and ask if she could put me up on her floor. I had shrugged the suggestion off, mostly through embarrassment. Ali was two years older than me, and for just over six years she had lived in our house like my sister. Ali's Dad was my Mom's brother. He was a high pressure salesman and had moved to Chicago soon after he married and Ali had been born within a year.
When she was six her mother had gone sailing with a friend and neither they nor their dinghy had ever been found. Eventually, years later, she was declared dead. But before that Ali came to live with us. Her Dad said he couldn't work and raise her, so she came for a short while, and ended up staying six years.
Our house was small but it did have three bedrooms. My parent's room was just about big enough for a small double bed and a dresser. My room and Ali's held two singles and a small desk each.
In those days we did pretty much everything together, and most times when we were young I forgot she wasn't my sister. We played and fought and cried together, just like real siblings, and often we didn't like each other even though we knew we loved each other.
She was twelve when her Dad married for the second time, to a woman barely in her twenties, and suddenly Ali wasn't there anymore. I don't know if it was because of her being gone from our house, or just coincidence, but the summer after she left Mom got pregnant and the following winter my sister Sarah was born.
After Ali went back to her Dad I didn't know if I would ever see her again. My Mom and her brother never seemed close, but somehow things worked out and I managed to see Ali once a year. During August our family would up sticks and move to Chicago. My uncle was well off and lived in a large house on the shores of Lake Superior. Well away from the main house was a small cottage which they rented out. The first two weeks of August were always ours. Mom always came with us, usually Dad as well if he could get the time off.
Each summer when we arrived the same thing happened. I was always sure Ali had forgotten all about me, or grown out of wanting to know me, and I would sit in the window seat in the small cottage living room staring up the path that led down from the main house. Mom and Dad tried to ignore me, and Sarah, at the start, was too small to care.
My heart always turned over when I saw Ali walking down the path. Each year she grew, became more beautiful, and each year we were awkward and shy when we got together, and each year we ended up in tears when we had to part.
During her teenage years she would write me love letters she wanted to send so I could read them and comment before she dispatched them. For a couple of years these silly letters would arrive with a return envelope and it was my job to make comments and send them back. When Ali reached fifteen the letters stopped as suddenly as they had started.
Two and a bit years ago she had left her home in Chicago and gone to college in New York to study Art, which is what I now wanted to do. Soon after she started in New York, and just after my Dad died, letters began to arrive again telling me about her work and the people she was meeting. They were light chatty notes, but they had meant a lot to me.
Our trips to Chicago still went on, but Ali was rarely there now. Only once, eighteen months before, had she come home, and then only for two days. We took up together the same as we always did, but to me it felt different. She had moved away from home, had grown up, and I felt a barrier between us. I was still in high school, Ali in college, and a chasm had formed between our experiences.
I guess that had been part of my reluctance to call her, but Mom had picked up the phone and dialed Ali's number, knowing if she left it up to me nothing would happen. She spoke with her for at least ten minutes, laughing and giving an occasional shocked gasp at what went on when a young girl went to the big city, then she said, "Hang on, Alison, Tommy wants to ask you a favor," and passed the phone to me.
"Hi Ali," I said.
"Tom, it's so good to hear your voice. It's been too long!" My stomach gave a little flip at her voice and the way she sounded genuinely pleased to hear from me.
"Yeah," I said, then, "That's kind of what I wanted to ask. I'm coming over there next Friday for an interview at the U and I could do with somewhere to crash I don't suppose I could use your floor could I it's OK if it's not convenient I can always find-"
"Tom, that would be great!" she interrupted me. "I'd really love that. Art? Wow, following in my footsteps then?"
"Well, not as good as you, obviously, but it's what I want to do."
With the ice broken we chatted for a while longer and Ali promised to meet me from the bus and show me around town.
I put the phone down and Mom stared a question at me. Finally she said, "Well?"
I grinned, "She said she'd love to have me stay. She wants me to hang out all weekend. Would that be okay with you, Mom? I'll ask Dag for Thursday afternoon and Friday off and come back Sunday." I looked a question back at Mom.
She seemed to be thinking about it, but I knew she would say yes, and she did.
I hugged her and said, "Thanks Mom. I know it's going to be hard on you if I go away, but I want this so much."
She hugged me back and rested her head on my shoulder, "I know you do, Tommy. And we'll cope. I've managed before, after your father died, and I can manage this time. I don't want you staying here just for me. You need to follow your dreams."
I gave her one more squeeze back and then had to pull myself out of her arms. Mom always was a big hugger, and since she'd been on her own I think she had gotten worse. She went back to the stove and continued making our evening meal. I sat at the kitchen table and read the paper Dag had passed on to me after he'd finished with it.
Our house on Market Street, in the town of Denton, east of Baltimore, was small. But at least we owned it outright after Mom used the small insurance payment to close out the mortgage after Dad passed away. Although I should explain, he was not my real father.
Mom had gotten pregnant in High school and dropped out to get married at 16. She had only turned 17 three months when I was born. By the time she was twenty and I was just out of nappies my biological father left her and she brought me up alone for two years. The man I called Dad met and married her when she was twenty-three, and even though I was young I could feel the happiness that flowed out of her during those years warming the entire house.
Then a drunk driver ploughed through a red light and caved in the door of Dad's car. He was pronounced dead at the scene and so at age fifteen I stood in rain at his funeral, holding my little sister's hand (she was his true daughter) while our old life was buried with him.
The insurance pay out was small, and the man who hit him had connections and in some way managed to get out of any blame for what happened. Mom used most of the money to secure our home, and went back out to work.
I finished High School and we sat down and discussed my future. I loved painting and drawing and I wanted to follow my cousin Alison who had gone to the School of Art in New York and was now in her third year. We sat up late into the night, long after Sarah had been tucked in bed, and discussed whether I should go to College or not.
I could recall every moment of that night as I lay on our small couch in the living room and Mom lay against me, resting between my legs, her head back against my chest. We had sat like that for as long as I could remember - to begin with it had been me sitting between her legs and then, sometime over the last few years the roles had reversed and now she sat between mine. I had felt very mature, very much the man of the house, and closer to my Mom than I had ever done before.
Despite a hunger to take my studies further, I didn't want to leave Mom to cope on her own. For her part, Mom didn't want to hold me back, and we talked it one way and another until finally she wore me down. The only compromise I could manage was to put off College by a year. I had been pretty young when I graduated High School because my birthday fell at the start of August, and we both thought it would not put me at a disadvantage if I took a year out before going to college. I had been working weekends for a Landscaping firm owned by Dag Edlund, a good man Mom knew through her job in the office of a construction firm. He was always short of good workers and jumped at the chance when I asked if I could go full time for a year.
I had applied to various colleges, but the one I really wanted to go to was to New York, the same as my cousin. I had received an invitation to interview, hence the phone call, hence the arrangement to take the bus there.
And so finally there I was, five minutes out from the bus station, with butterflies in my stomach. They were mostly about my interview in the morning, but also a bit about meeting Alison again. She was my mother's brother's eldest daughter and growing up we were as close as siblings. Now she would be grown up, almost 22, and I felt very young and naive.
I'd had a slight crush on Ali since I was old enough to notice she was a girl, but thankfully she had never seemed to realize. As she grew and developed I would often find myself staring at her breasts, and had to force myself to look away. She must have known I was doing it, but she never said anything or gave any indication of what was going on. As I matured I made a conscious effort to stop, but at the same time Ali bloomed into full womanhood and became even more beautiful and I just had to look.
Ali was tall at five-nine, only a couple of inches shorter than me, and she was slim and long and lean. Those breasts though, they were what topped the package off. They were not huge, probably 34C, but absolutely magnificent with, and I imagined a lot of this, I admit, a perfect shape. It had been tough, growing up, not to stare.
Now I was about to meet her again. She was a grown woman and I was meant to be a young man. I was going to have to behave around her and try to act like I wanted her to see me.
The bus pulled in and I grabbed my old suitcase. It held a couple of changes of underwear and my suit, which Mom had insisted I should wear to the interview. I followed the queue down the bus and stepped out into icy air and looked around.
"Tom," I heard, and turned to see Ali waving at me. Her dark russet hair had grown since I had last seen her and fell down below her shoulders. She ran across and grabbed me in a big hug, pulled me tight against her and kissed my cheek. Wow, the breasts were still there, I thought as they pressed against me, obvious even through the thick coat she wore.
Ali put her hands on my shoulders and stepped back, looked at my face and then all the way down and back up. I had on my old leather jacket, blue jeans and sneakers.
"God Tom, when did you get to be such a hunk?"
I smiled and shrugged. "I'll let you know if I ever get there," I said.
Ali shook her head, "Oh no, definite hunk material. I'll have to hide you away." She put her arm through mine and pulled me away from the bus. "Come on, let's go, you must be worn out and frozen."
Alison's apartment was at the top of a four story brownstone and by the time we reached her door I was breathless, but she was not. She opened the door and ushered me in. "My palace," she said with a sweep of her arm.
The living room was pretty small, and smack in the middle was an enormous sofa.
"Your bed for the night, I'm afraid." Alison said.
"If I fall down the back you'll never find me again," I said.
A small kitchen area was tucked into one corner with a large window that looked out over darkness with a few scattered lights.
Pushed back against the far wall of the living room was a narrow desk holding an old Apple computer, the kind that had a built in monitor. In front of the desk was a tripod with a state of the art digital SLR screwed to it. I went and kneeled down to look at it.
"Can I?" I asked.
"Sure," Ali nodded. "You know cameras?"
"I know a bit, yeah, but this is gorgeous." I unclipped it from the tripod and turned it on. A professional flash was attached to the top and it whined as it charged up. The head was turned up to bounce light from the ceiling. I knew that was a simple way to avoid the harsh shadows a flash gun usually produced.
I turned and focused on Ali where she was making coffee in the kitchen and the auto focus sharpened on her face. I turned the camera to vertical and zoomed so that just her head and shoulder filled the frame. "Take your picture, miss?" I said.
Ali smiled and as she did I pressed the shutter.
She laughed, "I didn't think you meant that!"
I looked at the image on the rear display. Not bad, I thought, for an unfamiliar camera. I switched it off.
"Really nice," I said.
"An advantage of the course. It's from college, I get to borrow it for as long as I want. It's not really the same, but sometimes you can't sit for hours sketching. I take pictures and then use them later as templates." Alison waved to the dark window with her hand. "The park's out there," she said. "You'll be able to see it in the morning. It's the reason I picked this place. It's tiny but the views are awesome"
Opposite the kitchen area were two doors covering half the wall. Alison nodded to the far one, "My bedroom," she said, then the other, "Bathroom. There's a shower but no bath, and don't try to turn round with your arms out," she laughed.
"It's nice," I said.
Alison laughed, "Yeah, right. But it's cheap, and I don't need to share."
"Except with me."
She hugged me and laughed, "You're my favorite cousin, Tom," she said. "You don't count. Oh, that didn't come out right, did it?" and she laughed again.
I put my small bag down next to the sofa and flopped down, kicked off my sneakers and put my legs out, then wriggled down. She was right, I could stretch my full length along it easily. It must have been seven feet long, and over four feet deep, and was totally out of place in the small room.
Alison slapped my feet so she could sit and I pulled them back so she had a space at the far end.
"I thought you'd be tired tonight, so I'll make us some food here and you can get an early night. We want you rested and bright for your interview tomorrow. God, Tom, it would be so cool if you got in here, we could see each other all the time."
"I like the college," I said. "I looked at a few others, but this is my number one choice. Has it been good for you, Al?"
"It's been great. One of the best in the country, I think."
"But you finish this year," I said. "So we might not see each other anyway."
"I've been asked to do post-grad, and been offered some part time teaching, so I'll be staying around. You can't avoid me that easily. I'll be here to keep an eye on you, make sure you keep out of trouble."
"Pity," I said, and she slapped me on the leg and got up. "Food. Is spaghetti okay?"
"I'm too shattered to know the difference," I said, "But spaghetti's fine."
The spaghetti really was fine, but as I ate it began to wash over me just how exhausted I really was. I had done nothing at all for several hours, just sat in the bus, but I felt like I hadn't slept for a week. When the phone rang it startled me awake and I realized I had stopped eating, but I couldn't tell how long ago.
Ali got up and went across to the phone and brought it back to the small kitchen table. I could hear only her side of the conversation.
"Mags, Hi... yeah, he's here now..." Alison listened and then laughed, "Yeah, he is... No, not tonight, we're catching up... Yeah, he'll be here tomorrow... I don't know if that's a good idea, you know... no... maybe... okay, see you."
Ali put the phone down on the table and picked up her fork, swirled spaghetti around it.
"Friend?" I asked.
"You don't need to put people off because I'm here, Ali," I said.
"It's not a problem," she said. "Besides, I want to spend time with you. I haven't seen you for ages!"
"I don't want to get in the way."
"Were you going out tonight, tomorrow?" I asked.
"Nothing planned, but Maggie asked. It's okay though."
"I'm tired tonight," I said, "but I wouldn't mind joining you tomorrow, if you like."
Ali laughed. "I'm not sure it would be quite your kind of place, Tom, but thanks for the offer."
"Oh," I said, wondering what I had done. Ali probably didn't want to be seen hanging around with her younger cousin. Not cool. I didn't pick that vibe up from her voice, but there was something there in the background just the same. I lifted my fork and started eating again.
A couple of minutes passed, then Ali sighed and reached across and put her hand on top of mine.
"I've upset you now, Tom, I'm sorry, I didn't mean for that."
"S'okay," I said. "Fine."
She took in a deep breath and stared across at me. "It's not fine, Tom. I really like you, and I don't want you to think..." She hesitated, waiting a long moment, then said "You do know I'm gay, don't you?"
"Uhh... no," I said.
"I thought you did," she said.
I shook my head. "But it's okay, Ali, it's fine."
"And I'd love for you to come out with us tomorrow, but where we are going, it might not be quite your kind of place. You are straight, aren't you?"
"Tom, you're blushing!" Ali grinned.
"Well... it's just... we've never had this kind of talk before, have we? It's not what I'm used to."
Ali reached across and gave my hand another squeeze. "I love you Tom; just not in that way. But if I do decide to turn bi you'll be the first guy I call, okay?"
I couldn't say anything, and Ali burst out laughing, "If you get any redder, Tom, you're probably going to explode!"
Ali stood up and started to clear the dishes. "Come on, help me wash up and then we'll chill and catch up."
The moment broke, and after Ali had washed and I dried, we sat at opposite ends of the big sofa with our legs stretched out towards each other and kind of half tangled. It was the way we had sat as kids, when Ali was my big sister and we would stretch out and watch TV. It felt really comfortable, and comforting.
"Now," Ali said, "I want to see the work you've brought for tomorrow."
"Oh, I don't know, Al. It's not very good."
"You have brought a portfolio though?"
"Lemme see then, cuz."
I twisted round and found my battered suitcase, bent over the arm of the sofa, unzipped it and pulled out a small folder containing a sample of my work. I turned back and reluctantly handed it to Ali.
She untied it and spread the pages open, cocked her head to one side and started to leaf through my work. She spent a while looking at each piece, stopping on some and taking much longer before moving on. I sat without speaking, waiting.
Finally she closed the folder and tied it back up.
"Am I likely to be laughed off campus?" I asked.