There I was in uniform
Looking at the art teacher
I was just a girl then;
Never have I loved since then
April. 2002. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York City, New York.
Laurent gazed up in wonder at the painting before him. Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883–84, John Singer Sargent, American, the curatorial statement read. The woman in the portrait stood dead center, a black gown enveloping her, hiding most of her body from view yet emphasizing the alabaster skin of her chest and neck. Her right hand was placed tantalizingly on a table next to her, while her left held a fan coyly against her body; she looked over her left shoulder out of the frame to the right, her profile in stark contrast with the rich brown background. Laurent wanted to reach out to touch the fabric of her dress, the painter’s brush strokes smoothed into shiny satin and jeweled straps. He tore his eyes away and looked down at his own body: drab black Catholic school uniform, the color faded from too many washings; thin frame that provided no shape for his skirt to follow; the same alabaster skin but lacking her confident glow; nails bitten to the quick and darkened from the constant use of India ink and charcoal. In the presence of the grand portraits around him, Laurent felt inconsequential, incorporeal, as if he were less real for not being captured in oils like a mosquito in amber, preserved for eternity. He stood motionless, as frozen as Madame X, as people and time passed around him.
When he had taken art history as an elective his freshman year of high school, Laurent hadn’t quite understood portrait painting, didn’t see the appeal, instead falling in love with the dynamic drama of the Baroque artists like Caravaggio and their theatrical scenes rendered in chiaroscuro. But standing in Gallery 771, Portraiture in the Grand Manner, 1880–1900, Laurent’s perspective changed. He finally moved on from Madame X, observing the other larger-than-life people depicted around him, extremely humbled and awestruck by their timeless affect and command. These people once lived and breathed, like him, yet someone decided to immortalize them, the ultimate act of love, of honor and fealty, whether the artist was conscious of that or not. What was it about them, Laurent wondered, that captivated the artist so. That man over there, had he and the artist been lovers? Rivals? And that woman across from him, had they been friends, or was she simply a wealthy patron?
“Hey, Laurence, there you are.” A full but gentle voice interrupted his reverie. Laurent spun around, startled for a moment before realizing who it was. “We were all supposed to meet up near the entrance 5 minutes ago.”
“Oh, sorry, Mr Akielos.” Laurent turned back to the painting he had been looking at, another Sargent. “I must have lost track of time.”
Mr Akielos approached Laurent, standing next to him in front of The Wyndham Sisters. He wasn’t that much older than Laurent, as he was in his final year of undergrad completing his student teaching requirement in Laurent’s senior year art class, for students doing independent study. As it is during class, Mr Akielos’ presence next to Laurent is overwhelming, lush and rich like the scene in the painting, the three women adorned in decadent off-white. Yet the sister in the back seemed unfinished, her gown a mess of brush strokes only hinting at anything real. Laurent could almost feel her dissolving away, likewise overwhelmed by how solid her sisters were in front of her on the sofa.
“I’m surprised to see you spending so much time in this gallery.” Mr Akielos’ voice cut through, keeping Laurent from fading like paint in turpentine. “I didn’t think you enjoyed portraits. You always seem to avoid them in your own work.”
“Mmm,” Laurent hummed in agreement. “It’s different seeing them up close, I think.” He saw Mr Akielos nod. “It’s like they’re really here. And with Sargent, seeing that line he dances between impressionism and realism, visible brush strokes alongside painstaking detail.” He turned towards Mr Akielos, hand gesturing vaguely to indicate the entire gallery. “I feel like I’m in his footsteps, almost, and I feel whatever he must have felt while painting these people.”
Mr Akielos smiled. “I love the way you describe it. Have you ever considered being an art historian or a critic? I think you’d have a knack for it.”
Laurent felt himself flush. Fuck, he didn’t need this right now. Mr Akielos was practically his teacher, and he never wanted to have that sort of power imbalance ever again; the thought alone made his stomach churn. “I hadn’t, no. I did like the class I took as an elective, but the descriptions felt so stiff and lifeless.” That earned him a slight chuckle.
“Nobody has ever said academic writing was what you would call stimulating. I’m surprised you decided to be an artist after that.”
“Mm.” Laurent picked at a hangnail.
“Before we head back to join the rest of the class, which one was your favorite? These must have struck a chord.”
Laurent hugged himself, turning to look around the gallery, carefully avoiding looking at Mr Akielos, until he finally had to make eye contact when answering. He immediately wished he hadn’t, however, as he got caught in Mr Akielos’ dark brown eyes, a brown so much more vibrant than any saturated primary color in the museum; that deep brown should cover canvases and statues like International Klein Blue, allowing people to get existentially lost, to empty the mind of everything that isn’t that color. Laurent felt warm, uncomfortable, ready to move on so as to not become another motionless body adorning the walls. But he couldn’t get away. Could never look away, not since Mr Akielos walked into his classroom back in August.
Laurent wanted to say all of this to him. His favorite piece of art? Why, couldn’t he see how plainly it was painted on Laurent’s face?
“Um, I like the John Singer Sargents, as I mentioned. In this gallery, I think it’s Madame X.” Laurent managed to glance back at the painting, resisting the undertow. “I thought it was interesting how he had to go back and edit the painting because the original with the fallen strap was too scandalous.”
Laurent says this, instead, because he could never tell Mr Akielos that Laurent's favorite work of art was him.
April. 2018. A Townhouse. New York City, New York.
It’s a rainy Saturday morning in New York City. Laurent comes awake slowly, fighting against sleep like walking through sand. He’s still on his side of the bed, not yet in the habit of sleeping in the middle. The sheets are clean, new, smelling of nothing but soft cotton and Laurent’s own blend of hygiene products. The curtains are closed, but Laurent can hear the steady drizzle pelting against the windows, the light peeking through a dull gray. He turns onto his back, his silk pajamas sighing against the linens in a way he hasn’t for years. He feels a sinus headache coming on. He wants to go back to sleep, but knows he won’t be able to. Staring up at the ceiling, here in the muted dark of the morning, Laurent feels how alone he is. He is trying to decide how he feels about that. Is he happy? Is he sad? Angry?
Then, Laurent decides that he doesn’t feel much of anything.
How long has it been now, since Torveld left to be with Erasmus. Well, if it’s April now, it happened right before Christmas, so that’s almost four months. You would think Laurent would be used to waking up like this, by now.
Laurent reaches over and turns on his bedside lamp, sitting up back against his pillows and bolsters. He didn’t used to sleep with so many pillows, but he grew so used to there being another body in his bed that he has trouble sleeping without them. Laurent’s hips and lower back crack and pop as his body shifts. When did he start feeling so old? In his 20s, he hadn't thought being in his 30s would be that big of a deal. But it feels so much...he’s not sure how it feels, but it’s different, unexpected. He wipes the sleep from his eyes, noticing the bags and wrinkles. He’s not even 40, he thinks.
He grabs his glasses from his nightstand, putting the delicate wire frames over his ears, resting on the bridge of his nose. When his eyes finally focus, Laurent takes a moment to stare at the painting on the wall across from him. It’s small, less than 10 inches on each side. He should probably put more up on the walls around it, he thinks, but decides he likes the minimalism. Against the dark gray of his walls, the painting looks like something out of a nightmare. The lower left corner is a rough green, the brush strokes jagged on the canvas as if cut from stone, reluctantly taking form. The rest of the painting is various tones of beige, brown, and white. A bulbous cliff takes up most of the space, the forced perspective causing it to look like a ship coming toward you. Tintagel Castle sits perched on the top, almost an afterthought, fading into the background, back into the realm of legend. In the lower right corner, a ship is tossed in the waves crashing against the cliffs. This piece of art is tumultuous, violent. Today, Laurent can’t decide which part of the painting he identifies with the most. Some days, he’s the boat doomed to be broken on the rocks, others the immortal stone of the cliffs, daring you to pass through, knowing you will fail.
Torveld always hated this painting.
Ever since Laurent purchased Tintagel Castle by Joseph Mallord William Turner at a private auction, Torveld did nothing but complain. It’s too small; it looks unfinished; it’s too much for our bedroom. Why this one, Torveld would always ask.
Because, Laurent would think, on his hands and knees staring forward at the painting as Torveld fucked him, he told me he liked Turner.
Laurent lets his eyes skate over the sublime scene, allowing his mind to wander through pristine galleries and chalky classrooms. Always returning to him.
His phone buzzes on the nightstand, muted against the wood, and keeps vibrating so that it skates right off the table onto the floor. Laurent mutters a curse as he gets out of bed and retrieves it, registering that it is only 7 in the morning, and that he has several texts from Torveld, and also his lawyer. There is also an email, he notices, but it’s Saturday morning, and emails can wait at least until after he has his tea. Laurent slips into his house shoes to protect his feet from the cold wood floor, and grabs his silk dressing gown off his chaise lounge, shrugging it on as he walks out of his bedroom.
Their—his, he corrects himself—his townhouse isn’t carpeted, and his footsteps seem to echo through the hallway as he makes his way to the kitchen. He has the passing thought, as he steams his milk, that he hasn’t brushed his teeth, or made his bed, but those are problems for later. Right now he’s too focused on making sure his tea is steeping at the correct temperature for the correct amount of time. This small ritual he does every morning, reverent as he pours the steamed milk into the hot tea, the simple perfection of his first cup of the day. He grabs the overnight oats he prepped from the fridge and sits down at his breakfast nook by the window.
For a moment he just sits there, not moving to take any bites or even sip his tea. It isn’t even that he is unused to eating breakfast alone. Far from it. Torveld always left earlier than him, needing to get downtown early to do whatever it was that CEOs did. Shout into phones, metaphorically wave his dick around. Fuck his secretary. Leave Laurent for that secretary.
Laurent shoves his oats away, scowling, the bowl making an ugly sound as it slides across the table. He honestly hadn’t been surprised when he walked in on them, the headboard of the bed Laurent and Torveld shared banging against the wall and shaking the only other painting in the room, Laurent’s prized Sargent portrait of his possible lover Albert de Belleroche. Laurent worried for half a second that the portrait might fall, that Belleroche would no longer gaze over the bed at the cliffs of Tintagel, but then the reality of what he was seeing sunk in. The life he had been building 5 years ended, just like that.
Torveld left that night. Laurent hadn’t even shouted at him. Their marriage ended long before that day. This just made them both aware of it.
Laurent gets up and puts the oats back into the fridge, then heads back to the nook, snuggling into the window seat with his tea and quilt. He doesn’t have the energy for one of his many books he keeps nearby, so he decides to scroll through his social media on his phone instead, and check those texts and emails when he has a little more focus. Nothing much interesting there, just more of the same: the world going to shit, art historians and other academics in his circle arguing over god knows what, his friends’ cute pet photos. Mindless scrolling, not really paying attention to what he’s looking at. Laurent gives up and opens his messaging app, skimming through the messages from Torveld and his lawyer. Torveld wants to drop the divorce papers off next week. Laurent’s lawyer wants him to know Torveld’s lawyer was in contact about the divorce papers, and that the papers should really be signed at an arranged meeting with both lawyers present.
Laurent runs his left thumb over the underside of his ring finger, absentmindedly, where his ring used to be.
He sighs and puts down his phone, looking out the window, holding the warm teacup in his hands. The temperature is such a stark contrast to how cold he feels, inside and out, literally and metaphorically. The tea runs hot down his throat, and he licks some froth off his lips. He has the sudden urge to cry, thinking he should feel something, but he hasn’t been able to do that except in extremely overwhelming circumstances for years, thanks to HRT. Laurent finishes his tea, cleans the few dishes he dirtied, then heads back to his bedroom to shower.
Laurent strips out of his pajamas with efficiency, not really paying much attention to what he’s doing, and throws them in the hamper as he enters their—dammit, his—his master bath. Turning the lights on, he sees his reflection in the many mirrors in the room. His hair looks like a crow’s nest, the golden locks like straw, sticking up and knotted; the bags under his eyes are purple and sunken, making him look like he hasn’t slept in years, even though he’s slept more these past few months than he has at any other time in his life; the smattering of hair on his chest and stomach peppered with the beginnings of gray strands; the double incision scars under his pectoral muscles faded to be barely noticeable years ago; he’ll never quite lose the faint swell of his hips, no matter how much his body fat redistributes; the bush of hair at his groin has grown longer, a forest out of some dark German fairy tale inhospitable to anyone seeking to enter; he stopped keeping that area manicured once Torveld left, not seeing the point, but now feeling like he’s let himself go, not even seeing his body as desirable. Laurent hugs himself as he walks over to the shower and turns it on. After the water has reached his desired temperature (boiling hot), he steps in, letting the water fall over him from above like rain.
He should probably wash himself as quickly as he can to conserve water, he thinks, but can’t quite force himself to care. The water sluices over his skin in a constant stream as steam builds up around him. This water is the only thing to touch his skin so intimately apart from his own hands and clothes since well before Torveld left, and even then, he hasn’t really had the desire to bring himself off that often anyway. Laurent half-heartedly tries to conjure up some fantasy, leaning back against the shower wall, as he moves his hand down his chest and stomach. Closing his eyes, he rubs his fingers over himself, but after a few minutes, he declares the act fruitless and stops. Laurent grabs some soap and scrubs away any trace on his hand before washing the rest of his body, moving from hair to chest to limbs to face, until he’s done and has no further excuse to stay in the shower.
After brushing his teeth, shaving, and drying his hair, Laurent puts on his terrycloth bathrobe and decides he’s not quite ready to go any further than that. Who else is there to care, anyway? He heads back to the kitchen to get a drink of water and grab his phone, knowing he shouldn’t put off looking at those emails any longer. He considers going into his office to check on his laptop, but it’s Saturday, and what’s the point? Laurent gets his phone and settles onto the couch in his living room. He tries a few times to unlock his phone with his fingerprint, but he’s still pruned from the shower; Laurent feels silly for how annoyed this makes him. He opens the mail app, and, seeing the sender of the unread email, stops breathing.
The sender is Damianos Akielos.
Dr. deVere, the email begins, I hope I am not disturbing your weekend, and thank you in advance for taking time out of your schedule for me. I write to you today, as an admirer of your work, to ask if you would be interested in receiving my senior art students at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and possibly giving them a short lecture on portrait painting. After all, you’re the expert, and we are fortunate to have you in the same city.
We are hoping to make the visit sometime in early May when they are reaching the home stretch of their final projects. Of course, we are flexible to fit in with your schedule. You can email me back at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I look forward to hearing back from you.
Damianos Akielos (he/him/his)
Fitzgerald High School
Laurent stares at the screen, looks up at nothing, processing, then reads the email again. And again. And again, not quite believing it. He rests his thumb on his phone over Damianos’ name, where the pressure highlights the letters in blue, a blue that isn’t even that vibrant, but it fills his entire field of vision with color, and, as he taps the reply button in the app and begins typing out his response, his heart—which was as dead as the bird in Sargent’s painting—fluttering in his chest, comes back to life with what feels like hope, hope that feels bright and thick like the yellow of Van Gogh’s sunflowers.