Oxnard Stories — Madonna
Of course he wanted to be there, she was there.
She was taller than him. He was five foot ten, she was six feet. She was built thick — not soft, muscular. She had strong, round thighs that lead up to a broad, firm behind. Her wide shoulders spread her shirt to a tight seam. He noticed, of course, that this tightened the front of her shirts over her otherwise modest chest. Curls fell to just past her shoulders, and their deep onyx shine was blissfully consistent.
He noticed all of this, every inch of her. Her stubby, inelegant fingers, the left eye set too low, the ears that peeked out past the curls at the tops. Her idiosyncrasies were the source of even more lust. The incisors that were set back so far they appeared to be hiding. The wide birthmark settled on her right eyelid, the 10 inch scar running along her right knee. All reminders of her perfect imperfection.
She had a broad voice, deep and wide. She would sing along to the radio, no range, but holding a note to harmonize with the pop music. It wasn’t the music he liked, but he wanted to hear her sing it.
And so he was there. This movie, with all these people. He had managed, at least, to sit next to her. It took angling, but he stepped quickly in the aisle, burst through the group, and ended up floating up the stairs a step behind her, her scent stronger than the popcorn he was carrying. He settled in next to her, and wanted to lean in, but he knew he should wait for his moment.
The movie was a superhero blockbuster, one that he wasn’t that excited about. The theater was packed for opening weekend, but there he was, sitting right where he wanted to be, next to her.
They had a few of the same classes, both in their second year at Ventura College. She was a starter on the basketball team, but she was also in advanced classes in both history and math. Most importantly to him, they shared an art class, and there she made these amazing drawings. She didn’t have his facility with anatomy or his pencil control for light and shade, but she made drawings that he got lost in.
It was as though, by looking at one of her drawings, he could see the way she saw the world.
The first one that caught him was a drawing of a model in class. They got a live model once every other week, and this model was usually the same young man who was long and lithe and lay down on one elbow, holding his poses twice as long as most. He had drawn a nice portrait, especially considering he got stuck with an odd angle, but when she put hers on the wall, he couldn’t stop studying it.
She had managed to convey the detached expression perfectly. The anatomy was good, only minimally stretched out or oddly foreshortened here and there. The shading was serviceable, a bit smudgy and lacking confidence. But he was entranced by a couple decisions in the drawing, and couldn’t stop looking at it.
She had not finished drawing his outstretched arm, it just disappeared mid-bicep, then reappeared at the wrist. But the hand was complete, and completed in such an odd, and totally assured way. The spiral of grey at the center of the loose fist was a jumble of short, straight lines, getting darker and darker as they fell into the center. They didn’t seem to represent the digits and flesh and muscles, but they perfectly completed the image of the hand. You knew exactly what you were looking at, the precise amount of relaxed tension in the thumb, the exact angle of each hidden finger. The lines appeared dashed off, each pencil mark starting deep grey then fading to a shadow, and he looked and looked and didn’t see any evidence of erasure.
The other arm was fully defined and the end was hidden under the longish hair. He noticed that there appeared to be no underdrawing. The hand sat carefully next to and behind the ear, then the hair lay on top of it. But there was no hint that this was a drawing that was constructed, as he would have had to construct it. Somehow it had landed on the paper fully formed from studied observation to subtle marks that somehow perfectly described something that only she could see. He stared for a long time, without realizing that the class had emptied.
In the movie theater, he relished her laughter; he enjoyed the jolts the action evoked; he would sneak a peek when the hero got a kiss on the cheek from the leading lady. He was enraptured by how she looked in the flickering light, and lost in his thoughts about how she was. Not who, but how.
When most of the group headed to the diner after the movie, he didn’t manage to sit next to her, so he took the spot just opposite.
About half an hour later, they were talking about the movie, then other movies, when he mentioned the indie comedy that the superhero had been in a year earlier. He explained how much he liked it and she nodded and said yes.
They said yes at just the same moment, and right then he happened to look her in the eyes. Their eyes locked for a few seconds, but to him it felt like time stopped. He felt the heat rise in his ears, and sure that it must be visible to all, moved his eyes down to his plate.
He once saw her on the campus, talking to two friends. He was fifty yards away, but he noticed her in the split second that his eyes scanned the green. Without being aware, his steps slowed and he stared. From this distance he could hear nothing, and the nothingness absorbed all the other sounds in the area. Silence overtook all the other conversations, all the noise of the buildings, it all disappeared.
It was fifteen seconds before the trance broke, caused by a misstep, his right foot stumbling into the grass. The stumble that brought all the noise of the world back to his ears. He headed for a wall under an awning, and set down his backpack and leaned. He turned to where she was, and the conversation broke. She headed off in the opposite direction.
The group was slowly shrinking in the diner. People were excusing themselves, heading out into the night, until finally he was the only guy left. She and two other girls were still there, the conversation floating comfortably from music to classes, from weather to a video shared online.
When she was talking, especially when she focused on someone else, he barely tried to hide his stare. If she made eye contact he would either smile gently, or avert his eyes to his drink. He liked to imagine that he was carefully taking in all her thoughts.
One of her friends stood and grabbed her by the hand to join her. The other friend stood as well and she slowly rose to join them. He slowly stood and as they turned away, just as slowly sat back down. After they had exited the restaurant, and passed before the large window, he looked blankly at his drink in front of him for several minutes before standing again and heading out.
Four days later, he saw her in art.
He said hello, and asked how her weekend was. She explained that she had visited an exhibit at the MOMA, a touring Magritte retrospective. “Have you seen it?”
“No, I’d really like to before it leaves, though,” he said.
“This coming Saturday is the last day, you should go. I might go again.”
“Would you like to go with me, then?”
As they headed slowly west and south on PCH, he tried to keep the conversation light, but was desperate to know more about her. He allowed himself one personal question every five minutes by the dashboard clock, but after half an hour, they were comfortably covering topics quickly.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“Yeah, a sister who’s a Senior at Buena, and a brother in 6th grade. You?”
“Yeah, an older brother and a younger sister. Are you guys close?”
“Yeah, she got in a bad car accident right after she got her license and her left foot was destroyed. Crushed. She was in a wheelchair for more than six months while she went through physical therapy and got a prosthetic.”
“Oh my god.”
“I drove her everywhere for the first few months until she could drive. Before that, she and I would have stupid fights about every little thing. Since then, we don’t fight much.”
“Y’know, the fighting really started when my parents divorced, I guess because they had stopped fighting. We picked up the slack. But driving her to school and doctors’ appointments, the little things became less important. I realized that we had so much in common, good and bad. Then I realized that I was probably starting many of those fights. She was more of a peacekeeper, but wouldn’t take any shit from me either.”
“What does your dad do?”
“Everything. One failed business after another. Serial entrepreneur. His dreams are big, but his plans can’t keep up. That’s why I turned down the scholarship.”
“Yeah, I had a full ride to Loyola-Marymount.
“I couldn’t leave my sister and mom. With my sister’s accident and my mom trying to pay for everything, I decided to stay at home and help. I do accounting and some basic website work for three different local attorneys. The schedule is flexible enough that I manage to put in 50 hours a week. It helps a lot.
“I’ll be at V.C. for at least another year, and then maybe I can still get some kind of scholarship.”
At the museum, they chatted easily, visiting each piece in the Magritte show, discussing their favorites. Then they spent some time with the permanent collection. He bought her lunch over a polite protest and they continued to walk through the museum, talking and sharing perspectives on the art.
Their leisurely walk kept them close and he noticed every single time she touched him. He never reached out, but he did everything he could to put himself in position. If they were traveling clockwise through a room, he would stand on her right. He would keep to her left if they headed the other way. If they went to sit in front of a large work, he would sit first hoping she would slide next to him. One time as they stood in front of a Picasso, the hairs on his arm brushed against hers and goosebumps traveled over his whole body.
In one room, she froze at a painting that he was ready to walk on by. He returned the four paces to stand next to her. It wasn’t giant, a two foot tall Munch lithograph of an ethereal, armless woman, suspended above a sketchy blue/black background. There was an odd border that began with a fetal, skeletal figure with spermlike trails leading clockwise around the perimeter. The title card read Madonna.
He knew that she was studying, relating, absorbing, the art, so he kept his mouth shut. They stood silently side-by-side for several minutes. He only snuck one glance at her, and realized her face was at the same time mournful and blank.
He again thought he could imagine her thoughts. He assumed she related to the woman, her pain and loss, her challenge and fearlessness, her beauty and depth.
After many minutes she smiled slightly and turned to him. He turned and looked at her and her smile spread.
She looked in his eyes and reached out her right hand and took his left. He took an involuntary step forward until their noses were less than a foot apart. She leaned in and down slightly, and touched her lips to his with her eyes open. He had to close his to absorb every sensation he could for the brief seconds the kiss lasted, chaste and dry, but with her face warm and his ears burning. She leaned back and he opened his eyes, smiling blissfully. Hers were open and still focused on his.
“Shall we go?”