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never have i turned

Chapter Text

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 damianos.akielos@fitzgeraldhigh.org, and I look forward to hearing back from you.

Sincerely,

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.

Chapter Text

He was not that much older than I was
He had taken our class to the Metropolitan Museum
He asked us what our favorite work of art was,
But never could I tell him it was him
Oh, I wish I could tell him,
Oh, I wish I could have told him

 

August. 2001. Sisters of Mercy High School. New York City, New York.

It was the second week of his senior year of high school when Mr Akielos walked into Laurent’s classroom. The art teacher, Mrs Martins, was sitting at her desk, already leaving the class to their independent work. Laurent was hunched over his sketchbook, messily working out some ideas for his upcoming projects throughout the year. The figures on the page were abstract, almost monstrous, as the pencil brought them, semi-formed, to life: Frankenstein’s creations, rough beasts slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. His art had taken a turn away from the almost-Renaissance figures adorning the works of previous years; the perfect, classically ideal bodies no longer interested him. Laurent got lost in concentration, mesmerized by the scratch of the pencil on paper.

Then, Laurent heard someone come in the room and whisper an apology to Mrs Martins.

“Sorry I’m late,” the man said. “Traffic was a nightmare. There must have been a wreck this morning.”

“Ah, Mr Akielos, I presume? I was worried I hadn’t given you the correct details.”

The man, Mr Akielos, chuckled. “No, nothing like that. Just bad luck, is all.”

“Well, now that you’re here, let’s introduce you to the class. Everyone,” Mrs Martins said in a projected voice, “I’d like you to meet Mr Akielos, who will be joining us for the entirety of the year as your student teacher.” Laurent put down his pencil and turned to the front of the room. “Mr Akielos, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself?”

The man was, quite frankly, huge in every sense of that word: tall, muscular, and with the larger than life presence of a king. Laurent could not help but notice how attractive he was, and thought, this man has no business being a high school teacher because every student is going to develop an unhealthy infatuation with him. Mr Akielos had the look of someone who only got into college because of his connections, and who probably spent most of his time fucking through every sorority girl who had the unfortunate luck to cross his path. Laurent decided he already didn’t like him.

“Good morning everyone. I’m Mr Akielos, as your teacher said, and I’m looking forward to spending this school year with you. Right now, I’m a senior at Columbia, studying education and art in order to be a high school art teacher someday. Um, let’s see. My medium of choice is watercolors. Uh,” he said, turning to Mrs Martins, “is there anything else you want to know?”

“That should be good for now, Mr Akielos. The class is starting the first project for their senior portfolios, so why don’t we let them get back to work, and I’ll get you caught up.”

Mr Akielos smiled. “Great. I can’t wait to see what everyone’s working on.”

Laurent returned to his sketches, irked that his flow was interrupted. Is it really that difficult to leave a little earlier? This is New York, after all. But he quickly got back into the zone, fleshing out the figures he liked and brainstorming compositions. As he worked, he heard Mrs Martins lead Mr Akielos around the room asking each student about their pieces and what they had planned for the year. Recently, Laurent had started getting uncomfortable talking about his art, and so when Mrs Martins brought Mr Akielos to his seat, Laurent felt himself bristle.

“And this is Laurence deVere,” Mrs Martins said quietly. “Last year, she won a spot in a local gallery show with one of her charcoal drawings. She mostly works in that, or dip pen and ink. I see a lot of Baroque influence in her shading and composition.”

“Oh, that’s awesome,” replied Mr Akielos. “What are you working on now?”

Something you have thoroughly disrupted, Laurent thought. “Um, I’m thinking of doing a Medieval triptych of pen and ink, but with more Baroque style, as Mrs Martins mentioned. I’m still working out the subject, but I’m leaning towards something along the “monstrous body” theme, to sort of riff on exquisite corpse triptychs.” Laurent tapped his pencil on the paper, idly, looking back down at his drawings. “I haven’t really settled on something yet, though.”

Mr Akielos blinked, eyebrows raised, and said, “Wow, that’s gonna be incredible when it’s done.” Laurent looked back at him, and was met with genuine, kind smile, a dimple on his left cheek. Mr Akielos’ eyes were warm, like molten chocolate or smoky quartz, or something else cliched and trite. He wanted to slap himself for letting his thoughts start to wander in an entirely unacceptable direction.

“Thanks,” Laurent murmured under his breath, eager to get back to drawing. The lead of his pencil broke when it met the paper.

 

A few months later, after the dust settled and life was starting to get back to normal, Laurent finally had his bristol paper taped, a light outline sketched on the three separate pieces. He knew that most of his background would be solid black, like a Caravaggio painting, so he had his brushes out and a larger jar of ink. Laurent should probably do the black background later, after he had his figures filled in, but at least this way he wouldn’t accidentally paint over something. Besides, it was therapeutic, in a way, painting broad black stripes across the white surface. Each dip of his brush was an almost meditative act, his mind totally focused on a field of white and black.

“I know you described it that way, but it’s so stark when you finally see it.”

Laurent stopped, lifting his brush off the page so it didn’t get too saturated. He closed his eyes and took a breath, steeling himself, before responding. “I’m always amazed at how violent it feels, that first brushstroke or line.” He looked up at Mr Akielos. “It always takes a few minutes for me to get used to it.”

“I know exactly what you mean. It’s how I feel when I start going in and adding the darker colors in my watercolor paintings. I’m really inspired by Turner, so there’s always a lot of that sudden contrast.”

“Turner, like the landscapes and storms and all that?”

“That’s the one. There’s just something about the sublime, ya know?”

Considering that a storm brewed in Laurent’s heart every time he came to class recently, he knew exactly what Mr Akielos meant.

 

Laurent stood in front of the full-length mirror in his room. Today was his 18th birthday. He wondered if he was supposed to feel any different, but he didn’t have a solid grasp on himself lately anyway.

Grabbing his long blonde hair in one hand, he pulled it back, and Laurent stared at the person looking back at him, wondering what he would look like if his hair were actually short. He had started having thoughts that he didn’t quite know how to handle. Laurent took his free hand and, cupping a breast, pushed it to the side, flattening it as best he could. He imagined himself split in three, a literal exquisite corpse, each part sculpted by a different person.

Laurent moved both hands down to his sides. He took the towel he used after his shower and draped it over the mirror before he finished getting ready for school.

 

Finally, it was the end of the semester. Laurent had finished his triptych: a body on the left panel reaching towards an almost empty third panel on the right, the arm in segments. He was lying on his bed at home alone. There was a cheap poster print of the Burning Ship Turner painting on his ceiling. Laurent looked up at it, letting his gaze rest, his eyes unfocused.

He had been wrestling with his own feelings since August: was it wrong to have this crush? It’s not like he wanted Mr Akielos to reciprocate. People got crushes on their teachers all the time, right? Laurent didn’t think it had anything to do with what had happened when he was younger. What he felt now didn’t feel black and tangled. No, this felt like light among the darkness, like the other Turner paintings Laurent had looked up where there was something tumultuous, something disastrous, but then there would be the moon reflected in the water, drawing the eye to the one bright spot. His future felt so uncertain, but Laurent held on to the light in his heart as tight as he could.

 

May. 2018. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York City, New York.

Here he is again, standing in front of Madame X like he had all those years ago. Now that Laurent worked here, he stopped by this wing all the time, especially when he was feeling overwhelmed or needed to work through something. He had been visiting it a lot during the divorce. He remembers what it was like, standing here in a school uniform instead of one of his suits, confused and scared and alone. Laurent wonders what that girl he used to be would think of his life now. Would she be happy, knowing she would end up like this? Sure, he’s divorced. And he hasn’t touched any of his art supplies in years.

But right now, Damianos Akielos is walking up to him, a repeat of that field trip way back when. Laurent thinks she would be happy about that.

Laurent had given his lecture on portraiture, hoping he inspired a student or two to fall in love with the genre as he had. Now, the students were roaming the museum, most staying in the various portrait galleries, but some had started making their way elsewhere. Laurent is happy to take his time in this gallery, the gallery he could find with his eyes closed in the dark.

“Hey, thanks again for taking time out of your day to host us and give that lecture,” Damianos says next to him. “Reading your book is mind blowing enough. It’s something else to see you talk in person.”

Laurent laughs a little at that. “Well, I don’t know about mind blowing, but thank you.” He turns to Damianos. “It was a pleasure, and I’d be more than happy to do this for any future classes.”

Damianos smiles. “That would be awesome, thank you.” He turns to the painting, his arms crossed over his chest, and returns to Laurent hesitantly, saying, “so I have the weirdest question.”

“Yeah?” Laurent asks, admittedly a little nervous, but excitedly curious. “What is it?”

“Back when I was student teaching, there was this girl in my class, and I’m wondering if maybe you two are related somehow?” Laurent looks down and smiles at this, already shaking his head in preparation for the explanation he’s about to give. The gallery lights feel bright, but are diffused enough to not cast much of a shadow below him. “Her name was—”

“Laurence deVere?”

Damianos looks at Laurent quizzically. “Yes! How did you know? Well, I’m guessing it’s not a common last name, is it? And you look so similar. Is she a cousin, or sibling?”

“Actually, she was me.”

“Huh? She was—oh. Oh!”

“Yeah, ‘oh.’”

“I—oh my god, wow.” Damianos smiles, and it’s so wide it splits his face. “You’re my favorite art historian. I can’t believe you were a student of mine. Damn, I should put that on my resume. ‘Damianos Akielos. High School Art Teacher Who Once Taught World Renowned Art Historian Doctor Laurent deVere.’” He spans his hand in front of himself as he says that, making Laurent laugh.

“What can I say. You were a good teacher.” Laurent feels a little bit of the pressure lift off his chest. Students and visitors continue to stroll the room around them, yet he feels like he and Damianos are in a small world of their own, and nobody's the wiser. “It was that trip we did when you brought us here that made me decide.” Laurent shrugs. “You told me you thought I had a knack for it, so I took your advice.”

“I think I need a moment. We were literally standing right here.” Damianos points down, punctuating the words.

“I was just thinking about that. It’s a little uncanny, don’t you think?”

Damianos chuckles. “You could say that.” They both go back to looking at the painting for a moment. It’s so nice, Laurent thinks, sharing this with him as adults, as equals. Yes, that flutter in his chest hasn’t gone away, but he’s relieved and unsurprised that Damianos is just as much of a ray of sunshine as he was 17 years ago. He’s someone Laurent wants to get to know, regardless of the outcome. And also unsurprisingly, he’s as breathtakingly handsome as ever. Damianos is softer now, not so much looking like a Greek god anymore, his dark curly hair is graying just at the temples, and when he smiles, lines crinkle around his eyes. He looks like a man who has lived a happy life, full of joy and pleasure.

Eventually, Damianos breaks the silence. “Wow. Wow! I just can’t get over it,” he says. “What a small world, huh? How have you been? What have you been up to these past, lemme see...”

“17 years,” Laurent says with a beleaguered sigh. He was 17 when he met Damianos. Has it been that long?

“17? Oh god, don’t tell me that.” Damianos drags a hand down his face. “I swore I wouldn’t start calling myself old until I was 50. Oh god that’s only 10 years away.”

“There aren’t even any memento mori paintings in this gallery.”

They both laugh, and it comes so effortlessly. Laurent can’t remember the last time something made him feel like this. He manages to talk through the laughter to answer Damianos.

“It seems you’re already familiar with my work. That’s...most of what I’ve done since then. College, grad school, PhD. You know, the usual.”

“I wouldn’t say that’s the usual. And I think you’re leaving out best-selling author, award-winning scholar, the expert of your subject.”

“Please,” Laurent scoffs, “it’s not as big of a deal when your chosen area of study is as niche as mine. Not a lot of competition.”

Damianos shrugs, a grin plastered on his face. “If you say so. I think it’s impressive though.” Laurent feels himself blush, but doesn’t try to fight it at all. “What about outside of all that?” Damianos continues, “Is there a...uh...Misses—Mister?—deVere? Any kids?”

Laurent looks away for a second, laughing a little that Damianos thought there might be a ‘Misses.’ It was probably the thing that confused people the most about his transition. “Uh, Mister.” He quickly glances up at Damianos, then away again. “And there was. Not a Mr deVere, but I did have a husband. Torveld Patras. We just got divorced.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that. I, uh,” Damianos stammers, looking a little awkward and uncomfortable, obviously trying to think of the right thing to say. “I’m actually going through the same thing right now. So I feel you.” He offers Laurent a half-hearted shrug, and Laurent knows that yes, Damianos does understand how he feels. He already feels so comfortable with him, so open.

Laurent, not wanting to linger, continues. “Luckily, to answer your other question, there are no children involved. And saying he has a lot of money is an understatement, so I got most of our material possessions.”

Damianos chuckles. “At least it sounds like it’s going smoothly,” he says, sounding envious. “Mine, not so much. There is a kid involved, but Leo is 13 now so I’m hoping it won’t be that traumatic for him. And Jokaste and I both agreed on joint custody, so no messy custody battle there. But that’s where the easy part ends.”

“That’s rough. I’m really sorry.” Laurent runs a hand through his hair, amazed a little by course of his life, how he and Damianos have walked such different paths that inevitably ended up converging at the same point. “Who knew one day I’d be discussing our respective divorces with my former teacher?” Damianos turns to him, raising an eyebrow. “I know I’m well into my 30s, but they really don’t tell you this part about being an adult. When you’re that age where people are getting divorced, including yourself.”

“I know, right?” Damianos looks up at the painting and is quiet for a moment, lost in thought. When he continues, his voice is soft. “Life is strange, isn’t it.”

Laurent is struck by the tenderness and nostalgia, and has to look up at the painting, too, to share this moment with Damianos. “It really is.” They’re both quiet, and Laurent relishes in the contentment of everything happening. He can hear visitors walking through the gallery and whispering with each other, can hear snippets of conversations about the paintings. It all feels like something out of a book or movie, standing here like this. Laurent thinks how nice it would be to be able to do this all the time with Damianos, but he knows how impossible that is. Damianos had been married to a woman, and Laurent cannot let himself hope that Damianos is also attracted to men. As he realizes this, that Damianos is, despite being inches away from him, still so far away and out of reach, Laurent is desperate to change the subject. “Well what about you?” he says, abruptly, “besides being a teacher.”

Damianos sighs, and answers Laurent with a small smile. “Got married, had a kid, all that picket fence nonsense.” Laurent snickers, and can sense that despite what he’s currently going through, Damianos is happy with his life. Laurent can imagine Damianos outside playing with a child, the sun bronzing their ruddy cheeks, a scene so blissfully simple and domestic; his heart aches at the thought. “I’m still painting, though. Been in a couple local galleries, but nothing huge.” Damianos shrugs. “I like teaching, so painting is more of a fun hobby these days.”

“Are you still doing your watercolors?” Laurent asks, turning in towards Damianos and shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

“Yeah, I’m surprised you remember,” Damianos answers, likewise turning to Laurent. They’re so impossibly close, yet Laurent doesn’t feel overwhelmed or nervous at all. “I actually did a small show with paintings I did of Turner pieces that I recreated while visiting them.” Damianos cups the back of his neck, as if shy. Laurent doubts that Damianos has been shy in his entire life.

It also makes Laurent happier than he expected to hear that Damianos is still so fond of Turner.

“I’m sorry I didn’t hear about it. I would have loved to come.”

Damianos waves him off with a smirk. “It was a really small show. Basically just my friends showed up. And by friends, I just mean my buddy Nik. It’s no wonder it didn’t cross your radar.”

“I miss more stuff than you would think,” Laurent admits as he crosses his arms across his chest. “Art historians don’t have to get out there as much as art critics. I go to auctions here and there, and of course I try to follow portrait artists,” Laurent gestures to the painting as he says this, “but I’m normally so busy with my own research and curator duties that I don’t have time to follow the scene.”

“I guess I had this view of you going to galleries and being really mean and pretentious.”

“Am I that intimidating? Don’t worry,” Laurent says, amused, “I tend to only be mean and pretentious when I’m buying pieces or negotiating exhibits and all that. I sort of have this reputation as an ice queen, which I love except for the, you know, queen part. People didn’t really take me seriously at first, and me doing anything was seen as bitchy, so I just had to roll with it. But I can get any painting I need for this museum because I’m not afraid of that, so it works out.”

“You? Mean?” Damianos has his eyebrows scrunched up in disbelief. “You had some hard edges back when you were my student, but I refuse to believe that you’re mean.”

“I would demonstrate, but I don’t want to reduce you to tears for reasons that aren’t from viewing the art.”

“Damn, okay.” He smiles at Laurent, impressed, but then looks startled as he glances down at his watch. “Oh, shit. It’s a few minutes past when I told the students we were gonna leave.”

“Didn’t this happen last time?”

“The deja vu is really hitting hard today, huh.” They turn away from the painting and start to walk out of the gallery. “Hey,” Damianos interrupts their exit, stepping in front of Laurent, “lemme buy you a coffee sometime, to say thanks. And also I would be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in talking your ear off about your work.”

Laurent’s stomach flutters. Damianos sounds so genuinely interested, and impossibly friendly. “Sure, I’d like that. It’s nice to catch up.”

“Great!” Damianos responds with a smile. Laurent likes his smiles. “I have your email, but could we swap numbers? Probably easier for conversation and scheduling.”

“Right, of course. Let me just get the new contact started.” He creates it in his phone before swapping with Damianos.

“There ya go!” Damianos says as he finishes and gives Laurent his phone back. “Oh, and please, call me Damen. The only people calling me Damianos right now are lawyers.” He chuckles.

“Now, you shouldn’t have told me that. Just one more way I can prove how mean I am.”

“You wouldn’t.”

Laurent allows his smile to grow wide, and if what he’s about to say sounds flirtatious, he doesn’t care. “Try me.”

Damen lets out a short, breathy laugh, and Laurent sees his gaze shift down a little before shooting right back up to his eyes as he swallows. “I think I’m starting to believe you about making me cry.” Laurent is lost in his eyes for a moment that feels like an eternity. He had forgotten just how dangerous looking at Damen was. “I really gotta get going, though. It was, um, it was nice having you talk to our class today, Dr. deVere.”

“If you want me to call you Damen, then I insist you call me Laurent. Can’t have you calling me ‘doctor’ when we’re getting coffee.”

“Heh, right. Thanks again, Laurent. I’ll be in touch.”

“I’m looking forward to it, Damen.”

Laurent watches Damen leave with the students, then heads back to his office through the various galleries. He’s sitting at his desk, checking his email and schedule, but he’s not focusing on anything except the way Damen sounded when he said his name, and how much Laurent liked saying Damen’s. He says it quietly to himself, through a grin so silly he can’t help but laugh at himself. The name falls off Laurent’s tongue as if it were a word always meant to do so. He starts to drift off, Damen repeating in his mind like a mantra, all the different ways and contexts to say it reverberating in his skull like a holy chorus, full of laughter and moans, sighs and sobs, a cacophony of shouts and whispers the sweetest harmony he’s ever heard. Damen, so grandiose and, yes, sublime, filling him with so much awe, and even terror just beneath the surface. But Laurent isn’t scared, the storm raging inside him turned beautiful through an artist’s touch.

And it isn’t long before Laurent’s phone vibrates on his desk.

 

hi! This is Damen :-) We just got back, and I have the rest of the day off. What are you doing this weekend?

Having coffee with you, I assume?

Awesome!

How does Saturday afternoon sound

I could suggest a place but im sure you probably know somewhere way better

I’m not picky

Which is reflected in my terrible taste in coffee

I think I know the perfect spot

I’ll send the map location on here

Meet at 4?

Yup sounds good

And maybe happy hour after

Lord knows we probably both need it

Divorces are incredibly fun

Oh such a joy

I need to get back to work

Not all of us have the rest of the day off

These exhibits won’t plan themselves

Oops

Sorry about that

I’ll talk to you later

 

Later, that night

Do you miss him

No

I don’t think I do

It was all a sham I think

I don’t think either of us really loved each other

I miss her

Despite everything she did

I probably shouldnt have brought this up

Probably not

But who else are we supposed to talk to about this

Lawyers?

If I never talk to a lawyer again it’ll be too soon

Yeah

Goodnight Damen

Night Laurent

 

Laurent puts his phone back on his bedside table and returns to his book, but decides he’s done reading for the night. As he lays his head down on his pillow—finally in the middle of the bed—Laurent thinks about how he hasn’t exchanged goodnights with someone in months; he can’t remember the last time he did it with Torveld. He can’t remember feeling like this, practically ever. Giddy, like he imagines you’re supposed to feel as a teenager. He’s still not allowing himself to think beyond friendship, at least not in any serious way, but even this burgeoning friendship with Damen makes him happier than the best parts of his marriage ever did.

Damen makes Laurent happy.

It’s this thought that is the last that Laurent thinks as he falls asleep, exploding in his brain like fireworks of crimson and cobalt pigment, the words wrapping around him and holding him like a lover.