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Underneath Your Clothes

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I'm pulling out my art supplies -- and a few snacks, because you always want a twizzler when you're creating new art -- before she interrupts me, her hands on her hips.

"Claude, are you sure you want to do this?" That's my best friend, Stacey MCGill. Well, best friend and kind of girlfriend. That part's new, kind of the chapter 2 of our relationship.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We met in junior high, Stace and me. She dropped her notebook in the hallway, I accidently stepped on it, and we both noticed one another's outfits and fell in love, though neither of us had us figured out then.

It was the eighties, you know? And we were in Connecticut -- Stacey's from NYC, but she moved out to Stoneybrook when she was just eleven. Neither of us were really part of the community back then, and Stoneybrooke was a little behind the times. Most of the town was frosty to Jesse - that's our friend, she's at Juliard now - and her family for being black. I can't imagine how they would have reacted if they'd found out Stace and me were, you know, gay.

"Claude!" I've taken too long to answer, and Stacey's gotten impatient. I look at her. Stacey's wavey blond hair is up in a messy bun, and I resist the urge to pull my fingers through it. She's got a natural look today: pink gloss (her staple, she has more than twenty kinds in her make-up drawer) and the lightest brown eye shadow. I bought her that one -- it's got just the lightest hint of glitter in it. For Stace, this is a real light face. I like it. She's so beautiful, she doesn't need a lot of paint.

I can't resist her; with a soft sigh, I give in. I walk the few steps between us and press a kiss to her forehead. "Don't worry so much, Stace. Now come on," I say. Let's get on with it."

I set up my easel, and Stacey folds her arms, her lower lip pouting just slightly.

I pause from pulling out my art supplies -- that's what I do, I'm an art major at Rhode Island School of Design. Stace goes to Brown; luckily, that's close enough that we can still live together. We've been roomies since Freshman year, though it's only been this year that we've actually shared a room. And a bed. "Stace. You promised."

She blushes; her cheeks turn bright pink, even pinker than when she wears that peachy blush that I like. "I know. It's just..."

"It's just clothes." I shrug. "You don't have to do it, if you don't want to. I wouldn't force you."

I've known forever that no one could force Stacey to do anything. I shrug off my own sweater as I set up my easel -- I can look up a female model on the internet easily enough. My piece won't have any soul, but one thing I've learned as an art major is that most art doesn't.

Stace stands there for a second,arms still crossed over the bright pink sweater she's got on. Her brow is still knit, and I smile to set her at ease.

"It's okay, Stace, really, I'll just look at one of the model sites on the -- "

"I'm afraid you'll look too close, that you won't like what you see," she whispers. Her hand ghosts her abdomen -- and I know she's thinking of the scar that runs down her belly. I remember it all too well -- pancreas replacement, freshman year.

It was then, I think, that I knew. We'd been best friends forever, but when I'd held her hand in the ward, with her skin pale and sickly, and thought about the very real possibility she might not make it to sophomore year -- I knew. She was not just my best friend or my partner in babysitting, but my soul mate.

"Stace." I abandon my easel, stand and brush the crumbs from dinner -- cheetos -- off my hands. Stacey hates it when I get orange dust on her. I grab her chin, press my lips to her soft pink mouth. A bit of her gloss comes off on my lips, and I grin, thinking of how we match. "You're beautiful," I murmur, pressing my hands tight to her waist. "And the art will show you're beautiful."

She stands for a long moment, her hand just barely caressing my waist. I smile as she hits the bells I tied to my belt -- part of the first wave of Kishi Originals, back when I was still trying to impress her with making accessories -- and then she kisses me, long and deep.

"Okay," she says. "Okay."

I take my place back at the easel, popping another Twizzler in my mouth as I watch Stacey take off the over-sized pink pull-over. She loves to hide her body, and the beauty of it - blond hair like cornsilk spreading out in waves across her shoulder-blades - makes me bite down on my licorice. As I put down my candy and pick up my brush, I take care to sketch it carefully, taking a moment to highlight each golden strand as it shines down her back, undulating gently like the sea as she bends down and pulls off her leggings. She's wearing the ones covered in little pink and glittery hearts today, a well-meaning gift from Mary Anne. I've never seen her wear it outside the house, but it suits her well even if it is a bit twee.

Her legs are long and lean, and I sketch her carefully as she bends, capturing the curve of her waist as she shimmies out of her underwear.

My throat catches as I look at her, bare and beautiful, a goddess standing in our living room.

She stands awkwardly, her hands pressed over her scar on her belly. "How do you want me to stand...?"

"Just like that," I say.

She nods, and that's the end of our conversation. I need to concentrate, to capture her. I dab a bit of cornflour blue on my brush, paint it over her wide, expressive eyes. It's a pale substitute for the real thing - I doubt I could find a shade of blue that could capture the true depth of her eyes, the way they crinkle when she laughs, but it's close. I paint them soft, dabbing at it with white at the corners before moving on.

I paint her completely, with love; I paint the soft dips of her breasts, the gentle sway of them as she moves. I paint, lightly, the soft scar on her belly, a reminder that she is here, and whole, and mine. I run my brush down the valley of her belly, the line clearing only before her mound, her soft lips rendered in a rich velvet stroke. I draw the soft peach-fuzz of her pubic hair before devoting myself to the sweet knobbiness of her knees.

I find myself unable to even eat one Whopper, one Twizzler, not even a Cheeto as I sketch out the soft swell of her hips. I spend minutes trying to capture the exact shade of princess pink on her fingers. Stacey stands, uncomplaining, as I capture the arch of her toes, the nimbleness of her fingers.

I don't work on a background; that can come later, as I paint around my muse like a woman possessed. I thicken her arms, gently lather sunlight onto her body as I shade. It's important to me that she be in the sun, that she be in the light -- for Stacey is like light, to me. Only then do I draw in a background, drawing beautiful flowers, greenery: I surround her with life, then a distance the skyscrapers that remind her of home.

I paint until my arms grow numb, trying to capture the sweetness of her smile, the gentleness of her hands. I've never been the poet among our club -- that was always Mal -- but I know good works of art when I see one, and Stacey -- she is my masterpiece.

I finish as the light begins to ebb, breathing deeply in contentment even as my arms ache and my back hurts. "It's done," I tell her, beckoning her to come see.

She hesitates -- but only for a moment -- before standing behind me, and I feel my heart beat faster as she leans down, her breasts pressing against my back as she clings to me. "Claude," she whispers. "This is so beautiful."

"I just draw you as you are," I whisper, and I smile as I'm rewarded with a kiss.