But then, after a moment, the light left her eyes and she sagged back into the chair. "But nobody ever seems to see it that way. They look at me like I'm crazy. Not just the publishers and the editors, but even other artists. 'Comics ain't art, kid... just cheap, disposable entertainment.' That's the refrain I always hear. Well, I'm tired of banging my head against the wall. Enough already."
Ava leaned forward, elbows propped on her legs with her hands clasped. "Like I've said before, magazines are dying out and the ones that are left are all turning to photography for the ads and story illustrations. Illustrated books are pretty much a thing of the past too, except..." and here, she pointed her index finger to underscore, "children's books. Believe it or not, that seems to be the one venue left where an illustrator can get away with some kind of personal expression."
Ava returned to her taboret, reaching into the top drawer again. Out came another stapled stack of white typewriter paper. She dropped the papers onto the drawing board where I was sitting. "That," Ava said, "is a completed script. I've finished three paintings and I've got preliminary drawings for the rest. That should be enough to shop around. Now, here's where the 'ifs' come in."
Ava extended her fingers as if she could shape the air into ideas made tangible. "IF I can break into the children's books market... and IF you can meet regular deadlines on comic book scripts of your own... how would you feel about getting a studio together?"
"What's wrong with this place?" I asked.
"Sweetie, don't you want a room of your own... a place to put your stuff? In fact," Ava looked down at the studio floor, "there's no reason you couldn't get a place of your own, if that's what you'd prefer. I know several editors who'll be happy to keep you as busy as you can stand. You shouldn't have any problem meeting the rent"
"It's just that... well, I was kinda hoping..." she looked up at me as if she'd made up her mind to come to the point without further evasion, "I've loved having you here with me, Stephanie. I've come to care about you more than I can probably say. With both of us earning regular income, I hoped we could get a bigger place. A bedroom for each of us and a third room for a studio."
"But, I just realized how selfish I was being. For all I know, you might be aching for privacy... a place to yourself. And I'd certainly understand, if that's the case."
Ava looked at me expectantly, and then realizing that's what she was doing, she quickly said, "I don't expect you to decide now. I mean, I know I've given you a lot to think about..."
I jumped up from my chair, feeling as if electricity were running through my veins. "Ava... there's really nothing to think about. Wow! If I haven't made it evident - being here, learning from you, just having your company every day - has meant the world to me! Why on Earth would I want that to end?" I pulled her up from her chair and wrapped my arms around her. "Thank you... thank you... for thinking of all this. For thinking of me."
Ava squeezed me tightly and said, simply, "My pleasure."
I stepped back from her embrace, my hands still on her arms. "Oh my God!" I exclaimed. "This is gonna be great! I can't wait to read this script of yours! Let me see it!"
Personally and professionally, the next several months were among the most exciting of my life. They were also exhausting. Believe it or not, comics are probably the most demanding aspect of commercial art I have ever attempted, and I say this now, after a fifty-year career in the field. With illustration, whether it's a book cover, an advertisement, an album cover or a magazine article, you can focus all of your energy, talent and skill on a single image. With comic books, you have to do that five to eight times a page for anywhere from 8 pages to thirty pages. And most importantly, you have to make it flow visually. The story is all in the script, but HOW the story is told is up to the artist. There are so many things to consider - panel transitions, page layouts, panel compositions, anatomy, drapery, costuming, expression, posture, gesture, lighting, perspective, architecture - and when you're just starting out, you struggle with all of those things. Drawing and redrawing. Your eraser is your best friend.
Well, no. That's not right. Clearly, Ava was my best friend. As Mr. Dylan had predicted, I couldn't have asked for a better teacher. But, it also turned out I couldn't have asked for a better companion. She guided me, cajoled me and cheered me on. All this, while she toiled daily (and nightly) on her own project. Ava had hired an agent to shop her book around and in short order she had penned a contract with a major publisher.
I was proud that she often asked for my advice and criticism as she worked. Despite the difference in our ages and experience, it was obvious that she was not merely patronizing me, but genuinely interested in my counsel. That respect was more precious to me than gold. More than once, when she set down a piece for me to critique, she'd say, "Remember, right now, I don't need a friend; I don't need an admirer. I need a critical eye, an editor." I was able to be of help because even the best artists can get too close to their work and stop seeing it objectively. A fresh eye can find the mistakes and weak spots or simply suggest ways to strengthen a piece.
During those heady days, Ava and I spent nearly all of our waking hours together. We also continued spending most of our rare free time together, neither seeming to tire of the other's company. Ava's wit, intelligence and kindness drew me to her more each day. The only unhappiness I felt during that time was self-inflicted. It was also an unhappiness that I kept strictly to myself.
It was during that time that I began to have thoughts and feelings that disturbed me. As I've mentioned, I was fascinated with Ava's physical beauty from the first. The more time we spent with each other, the more that fascination laced and tangled with the deepening affection I felt for her. On the rare occasions we were apart, I found myself almost aching for her return. Whenever we were in especially close proximity, I felt my pulse quicken and was aware of a pull - an almost irresistible desire to be closer still.
Do I even need to tell you how 'interesting' my dream life became during that period? My sleeping reveries became more disquieting as their intensity increased.
I did everything I could to hide these things from Ava. Not only did I not want her to know, I was ashamed to know it myself. I wondered what was wrong with me.
You see, the context, then, was entirely different. At that time, homosexuality was considered an aberration, a perversion. People were openly fired from their jobs if they were found out or even suspected. Hell, they performed lobotomies on some, so as to 'cure' their disease! The atmosphere was so outrageous it must sound as if I'm making it up, but sadly, you have only to do your research and you'll see everything I've said is true... and more.
While I was aware of those sentiments, it doesn't mean I blindly accepted them. Shame didn't come to me without a fight. Ava was smart, kind, generous and breathtakingly beautiful. I reminded myself of those qualities while I wrestled with my feelings. Why shouldn't I want her? Why is it wrong? And most importantly... what would Ava think?
In the months since I'd first come to her, Ava had worked diligently to overcome my natural reticence. She made me realize that I was bright enough to make valuable contributions in many situations. As she put it, "It would be selfish to keep your insight and intelligence to yourself. So Share, dammit!" And little by little, I did just that.
There were some slight physical manifestations of my increasing confidence. I began hugging Ava at the least provocation. I also tended to touch her more often, placing my hand on her arm or back as we spoke. If it made her uncomfortable, she gave no sign.. In fact, she grew more demonstrative herself.
Yes, Ava had brought me out of my shell. In 1956, I don't think the phrase 'unintended consequences' had been coined yet, but that doesn't mean the concept didn't exist. An idea began to form in my mind. An idea centered on Christmas. An idea that required great courage.
As December approached, Ava and I were both doing well professionally. The final pages of her book had been turned in, approved and it was put on the publishing schedule for early spring. I was getting all the work I could handle from several different editors and enjoying working in a number of genres. I could see my skills progressing at a rapid pace.
In the months leading up to Christmas, I had been making the rounds of New York's used book stores, slowly filling in the holes in Ava's magazine collection. She was crazy for the illustrators who appeared in "Colliers", "Woman's Home Companion" and "Ladies' Home Journal" during the teens, twenties and thirties. I had been stashing them at my parents' house so that she wouldn't find them before Christmas.
"I suppose you'll be spending Christmas with your folks?" Ava asked as we decorated the small tree in our living room. I finished the strand of tinsel I'd been hanging and peered around the branches of the tree so I could read her expression. "No", I answered, "I was hoping to share it with you."
Ava placed a homemade ornament on a branch and looked back at me. "I'd like that too, but I don't want my Pop to spend the holiday by himself." Ava's mom had passed away several years before.
I guess I didn't hide my disappointment well enough, because Ava quickly continued, "I won't be there late, though. Would you mind if we gave each other our gifts in the evening? I promise the day after, I'm all yours. And to make up for missing Christmas dinner with you, I'll cook whatever menu your majesty requests. We'll have our own holiday then. Okay?"
I smiled and nodded happily at the compromise.
I spent Christmas day with my parents in Queens. It was good to see them and I had a lovely time, but I must admit, my thoughts did wander in search of Ava far too often. I was also having serious misgivings about an 'idea' I'd been obsessing about for the last several months.
Before I left for Ava's, I wrapped her present. I'd been buying the magazines here and there, one or two at a time over the course of several months and stupidly failed to anticipate just how heavy the box would be. The magazines from the early part of the century were thick, tall and wide. Cumulatively, they were more than I could handle on the subway, so Daddy gave me a ride back to Ava's. A dusting of snow covered the city and a light flurry was still falling.
It was almost seven o'clock when I turned the key to the apartment. It was ridiculous how giddy I felt. As I opened the door, I wondered if Ava could hear how loudly my heart was beating.
She must've heard the key in the lock because she was waiting for me when the door swung wide. She stood by the sofa with her hands behind her back. Her amber eyes looked unwaveringly at me and her lips curved into a room-lighting smile.
Stepping towards me, Ava brought one of her hands from behind her to brush snowflakes from my hair. Her nearness warmed through me, bringing with it that familiar ache. The ache, the yearning, the wanting that had haunted my waking and sleeping alike.
When Ava's other hand appeared it held a gift-wrapped package. It was flat, rectangular and about 8 1/2" by 11". She held it out to me with a "Merry Christmas" while she did the impossible and upped the wattage of her smile.
I handed her my gift as she buckled her knees and groaned to exaggerate the effect of its weight. We both sat down on the sofa and I waited while Ava unwrapped her gift. I wanted to see her reaction.
It was worth waiting for.
Her face shone with such genuine pleasure upon seeing the contents of the box, that she looked like a little girl at her first Christmas. "Thank you! Oh, thank you!" she gushed. She started flipping through the magazines, obviously torn between her haste to see the pictures and her desire not to rip the pages. "Oh my God! Look at this Gruger!" she'd exclaim, holding the magazine open in my direction. Seconds later she'd burble again, thrusting another visual treasure at me.
Much to my delight, she went on for several minutes like this before she realized I hadn't opened my gift. "C'mon! You got to see me completely lose my cool, now I wanna see if mine hits the spot too."
I looked down and realized that the wrapping paper on her gift was homemade. There was a drawing of the uppermost branches of a Christmas tree on top of which stood a stylized but recognizable caricature of me with wings sprouting from my back and a halo over my head. Underneath the image, Ava had written in a lovely cursive style, "For my angel".
You may laugh, but I actually got choked up at that. And Ava did laugh at the care I took to undo her wrapping. There was no way I was gonna do harm to that precious image.
When I got the paper undone, I found myself looking at a homemade comic book done in a more cartoonish mode than I was used to seeing from Ava. "The Adventures Of Stephanie" was calligraphed elaborately at the top of the cover. Underneath was an image of me, asleep in bed.
I gave Ava a look of exaggerated suspicion before she cajoled me, "C'mon! C'mon! Read it!"
The first interior page began with a panel showing the exterior of our apartment building. The next panel showed the two of us at our drawing boards with exaggerated sweat drops flying from our brows. An angry, anthropomorphized sun shook its fist at us just outside the window. The caption read, "Our heroines toil mightily despite the inhospitable climate." The following shot was from the same angle, only now the leering sun had its arms raised in victory while Ava and I had devolved into animated puddles at the base of our tables. The heading this time said, "Can it be that the dastardly villain has won!?" Next up was "Only for now. Our girls retreat to fight another day."
The next several panels show the two human puddles making their way to their respective beds. Following this were wordless shots of the two of us back in our normal forms and fast asleep. "Apparently, the weather gods are not done with our champions yet." In this scene, I'm still sleeping, but outside my window you can see surly storm clouds approaching in the distance. Subsequently, the reader sees a closeup of the lead thunderhead, face twisted in rage and a lightning bolt in its raised hand.
The bolt is hurled and the scene cuts to inside my room again. The flash of light outside illuminates me upright in my bed. I have the covers pulled up so most of my face is hidden which emphasizes the way Ava has drawn my eyes bulging and my hair standing on end. Another blast shows the room shaking and me leaping out of bed with a wonderfully exaggerated terror. A giant, cartoonish "Boom!" is superimposed on the image.
The next shot is a closeup of me, absolute panic written on my features. It's wonderful how she managed to capture my likeness while caricaturing it so outrageously. I smiled up at Ava, "I never realized you were so cruel."
"Three months ago, I wouldn't have done this. But, I figure I've toughened you up enough to take it. Besides, I'm not exaggerating that much."
"Fine. Fine. Take a girl's most embarrassing moment and capture it for posterity. Thank you very much, dear heart."
I continued with the story. Now Ava had me in the doorway of her bedroom, frenzied eyes still protruding, panic sweat flying and tears streaming down my face. Following that, from the same angle, Ava rose up in her bed with a confused look on her face. Her word balloon said, "What in the world?" I was still in her doorway, but now I had taken the exaggerated pose of the stereotypical cartoon diver, hands together, knees bent, getting ready to make my somersault.
The next panel was elongated across the full width of the page. Ava had drawn multiple figures of me, first leaping from the doorway, tucking into a tight ball, spinning, and then landing on her bed. In mid-air, a word balloon emanated from my spinning figure with the screaming letters, "SAVE ME, AVA!" Ava had drawn herself as a single figure, still in bed, watching my antics with astonishment.
The rest of the comic was along the same lines, portraying Ava as the cool, calm heroine rescuing the fear-addled Stephanie from the terrors of the storm. At one particularly outrageous lampoon, I looked up at Ava and paraphrased a famous line from the McCarthy hearings, "Have you no sense of decency, madame?"
Ava simply returned an impish smile and stuck her tongue out at me.
However silly the comic was, it was also obviously the result of a great deal of work. The drawings were energetic, but carefully and lovingly drawn. This was no slapdash effort. It suddenly occurred to me how busy Ava had been with her book and helping me with my work. "Ava, when did you have time to do this?"
Ava smiled, "Oh, whenever I could. Sometimes, I'd stay up a little later than you, just so I could get some of it done. Little by little it added up. This past week or so, I got in a bit of a panic 'cause I didn't think I was gonna get the damn thing finished in time. But... there it is."
After a moment's hesitation, she asked shyly, "Do you like it?"
"No... I ADORE it. Oh, Ava, this is the most exquisite gift anyone's ever given me. Thank you."
I rose from the sofa, taking Ava's hands in mine to pull her up with me. Wrapping my arms around her, I held her close and whispered, "Thank you," again.
With an extra squeeze, Ava replied, "You're welcome, sweetheart. I just wanted to make you smile." Pulling back from my embrace slightly so she could look at my face, she added, "Looks like it worked."
It was mildly annoying having my bulky winter coat on to interfere with our clinch. I suddenly remembered, "Um, Ava? I... I uh, have something else for you." I tried to master the quaver in my voice. I had a curious, lightheaded feeling, as though my emotions had taken flight and had, as yet, found no proper place to land.
Reaching into my coat pocket, my fingers found the sprig, pulled it out and raised it above our heads. Ava looked up at the green leaves and white berries with a rapid succession of expressions; first puzzlement, then recognition, then surprise.
With that last look still widening her eyes, she returned her gaze to me. I leaned in and captured her lips with mine. Months of apprehension and yearning filled me in an almost unendurable rush.
For the briefest instant, so brief, in fact, that it may have been my imagination, it seemed that Ava returned my kiss.
Then, she stepped away from me, confusion writ large on her features. Her eyes were unfocused, or rather focused, perhaps, on some inner struggle. For a moment, Ava stood there, as if considering the implications of what I'd done.
She still had not looked me in the eye again, when she turned and quickly strode out of the living room, past the dining room and kitchen through the corridor and back to her own room. With the briefest glance back at me, Ava closed the door behind her.
What had I done?
Had I just ruined everything?
The stupid, useless longing to undo the last few moments was overwhelming.
I hurried back to Ava's room only to find her door was locked.
I pressed my ear to the door. No answer. No sound at all.
I slid down and crumpled into a heap at the foot of her door.
I began to cry.
To cry without restraint.
Great, convulsive sobs.
The door opened and Ava stood above me. My vision was blurred so I couldn't read her expression.