A/N: SM owns Twilight. This story is mine. I lived it, I keep it.
This is meant to be an accompaniment to Art School Confidential. If you haven't read ASC, go do so now. This chapter covers events from ASC 2-4, from Edward's point of view, and was posted after Chapter 13 of ASC. Now, for a little insight into the mind of Nudeward.
Art School Undercover
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that being naked in front of a room full of people was easier the third day of modeling than the first. I had brought a book and while I waited for the professor to tell me to begin, I tried to read. The words swam, and I squinted angrily at the page, willing sense to come from them. It wasn't working.
When Professor "please-dear-Edward-call-me-Carl" Berty arrived, I set down my book and dropped the robe to recline on the ratty chaise. I pretended that I was alone. Or at the doctor's office. Or in the locker room. Anywhere that I didn't have nearly a dozen men and an equal number of women watching me attentively. I made no eye contact, not even with the twittering Professor Berty who hovered as I settled into my pose. I already knew the lecherous little man was eyeing me, I just hoped he wouldn't touch me with his pen like he did on Tuesday. Nasty.
It was no use pretending. I was very much there, in a room randomly cluttered with easels and art students. I was naked. The fluttery little art professor could call it 'nude' all he wanted, as if it were a pretty color that my mother would suggest for a boudoir, but I was naked. Vulnerable. I saw a weird little stick figure with Mickey Mouse ears that someone painted impossibly high on the studio wall and used it to focus my gaze, high above the students curious faces.
I would never admit to Jasper and Emmett that modeling was harder than I imagined. I was surprised that a job that sounded so easy -- sit still for money -- could be so difficult in so many small ways.
The first difficulty was simply being naked in front of so many people, men and women. Young women. Young pretty women. Girls. I had a difficult time not letting my attention wander to the students and what they were thinking.
From the corner of my eye I could see several girls turn from glaring at me to swivel and glare at their canvases and then back at me. Were they looking at me in a clinical way or were they evaluating me? I worried they could see all my flaws. Did they think I was too pale, too thin, too scruffy, too flabby? Did they wonder what is up with his hair? It never would just behave. Were they checking out my penis? No, don't think about the penis. The mouse on the wall. Concentrate on the mouse.
Second was how my muscles ached at the end of a session, no matter how comfortable the pose seemed to be at first.
Third was how cold the studio was, even with a space heater near my feet, and the resulting shrinkage that occurred. I didn't want to look and be caught checking out my own penis, but my balls felt like they wanted to crawl into my body and I was sure that my dick was feeling shy too. I resisted the urge to look down and see if it truly was shrinking. This exacerbated the freaky concerns over what the girls thought about my penis, although in some ways that was a relief, since I didn't have to worry so much about the fourth difficulty.
Unintentional erections. I didn't even want to think of what these politely serious students would think if I got a hard-on during a pose. Two days ago I'd heard two girls in this class talking about my equipment in the vending room, one in a very sarcastic tone. I thought I heard Emmett's name and a barnyard animal thrown in there too, so I couldn't be entirely sure they had been talking about me. I could see both of the girls from that incident here in class today, a rat-faced blonde and a grunge-girl brunette. Though they were situated close to each other, they didn't seem to be friendly.
I thought I heard one of the two girls, the blonde, say "... a pretty face but I don't think your skills …" I wasn't sure if it was encouraging to be a "pretty face" or if I was offended to be so totally ... objectified.
Concentrate on the mouse.
Tomorrow I had a free day, and I was planning to go to the Santa Monica Pier, maybe ride the rides, people-watch. Jasper had already told Emmett and me about a party this weekend and Emmett insisted I had to go. Something about his ex-girlfriend, and wanting to introduce her to his new girlfriend. I didn't even need to know the ex-girlfriend or the new girlfriend to know that introduction was a bad idea.
I let my mind drift to this morning's pow-wow in the McCarty-Whitlock apartment.
"We've got a party to go to tomorrow night," Jasper told Emmett. They were rattling around in the kitchen, and although I was trying my best to ignore them and go back to sleep, I knew I should probably get up and get ready for my job this afternoon.
"Saturday is Valentine's Day, Jasper. I was planning to do something with Rosalie."
Emmett shuffled into the living room and I instinctively pulled my legs up and out of the way. After only a week of sleeping on Emmett's sofa, I had already learned the hard way that he would sit on me if I didn't move.
"Well, do something earlier and bring her to the party. It's Bella and Alice's Valentine's party."
"Bella's having a party?" Emmett asked.
"Well, not really. Alice is throwing the party, but since they're roommates, it's technically Bella's party too. She asked me to bring you and your new squeeze."
I finally gave up on sleep and got up, wearing the blanket, and shuffled sleepily into the kitchen. Holding the blanket with one hand, I took a mug from the hook and poured a cup of coffee. Emmett and Jasper continued talking as if I wasn't there, which at this hour was just fine with me.
"Yeah, I can do that, I guess," Emmett mused. "I haven't seen Bella for more than two seconds since the beginning of fall semester, when she was dating that dickwad, Mike."
"I hung out with her on Thanksgiving, when she invited me to Alice's for dinner." Jasper said and sighed dramatically, sitting on the far end of the sofa from Jasper. "That Alice sure can cook a mean turkey."
I took a sip of the black coffee and pulled a face. Emmett insisted on buying cheap coffee, and although I preferred to drink my coffee black, this stuff needed milk and sugar to cover up the awful. Almost four years in the Bay Area had spoiled me for coffee.
"She's cute and she can cook. Is that what you've been doing this past month? Helping her out with the' baking'?" I nearly snorted my coffee. Only Emmett could make a totally innocent statement sound like a sexual innuendo.
Jasper cleared his throat. "No, not at all. I'm just making an observation."
"Do you think she'll mind if we bring Edward?" Emmett asked and I looked blearily at my new room mates as they turned their attention to me.
Jasper shrugged. "I'm sure she wouldn't mind. Hey, Edward," Jasper called out, though I was no more than twenty feet away and had heard every part of the conversation. "How has the modeling been going?"
I took a deep breath and rolled my eyes. "Fine," I said, my voice cracking with sleep. I gulped coffee to hide my discomfort and grimaced at the taste all over again.
"Got any jobs today?" Emmett asked, grinning at me. I had a feeling he could see how uncomfortable this bet had made me. I should have known they were playing me when we sat down to that round of poker. Being a model probably wouldn't have bothered Emmett or even Jasper. My poker skills were excellent, but they had wiped me out so fast it was embarrassing.
"No, I'm free tomorrow. I thought I'd go to Santa Monica. You know, relax on the beach."
"Just don't forget to keep your clothes on," Emmett laughed, and Jasper joined in.
Fluttery Berty called a break. I realized the time had flown while I had been lost in contemplation. I threw on my robe and stretched, then sat back down and grabbed my book.
I was reading, just getting back into the rhythm of the story, when I realized that the classroom wasn't completely empty. The blonde girl, one of the two girls I had heard making comments about my penis and had commented about my face, was standing a few feet away. I didn't look at her directly, keeping my eyes on my book, but studied her from the corner of my eye. Superficially she reminded me of Tanya, with her straight blonde hair, and I felt a pang of guilt. I'd been doing pretty well at putting Tanya out of my mind while I was modeling. It certainly wouldn't do to think of her while I was trying to stay relaxed and unaroused.
"So, hi," Sour Blonde stammered, "um, you're doing an excellent job modeling for class." Her whiny voice was nothing like Tanya's.
"Thank you," I said curtly. I had a feeling I knew where this was going, and I had no interest in leading her on. Even if Tanya's presence was not hovering over me like a ghost, I certainly didn't want to chat with the painting students. It completely destroyed the imaginary wall between my naked body and my professional voyeurs. I didn't even want to make eye contact with her, so I kept my nose pointing into my book.
"So, what are you reading?" she asked. Fishing. Surely if she were really interested she could have looked at the cover while I was modeling.
"Oh, is it good?" she asked breathlily. Probably a girl who has never cracked open a book without pictures, I thought snobbishly.
"Yes." I tried to insinuate as much desire to return to my reading as I possibly could.
"You seem to like reading," she said. I decided to let the statement stand on its own. I had no desire to keep this conversation going.
"So, um, after class, would you like to join me for a coffee?" she asked.
"Why?" I returned. I realized Sour Blonde girl wasn't going to give up without a fight, and sighed inwardly.
"Why not? Maybe you can tell me about the book you're reading…" The combination of the whiny voice and the seductive purr she was trying to infuse into her tone was not a good mix. I wondered if that ever actually worked for her.
"I don't think so," I said with finality.
"I'll buy," she said in desperation, and I could tell that 'firm' was too subtle for this girl.
"Don't you think you see enough of me in class?" I asked, keeping my head down. "I'm pretty sure you're not interested in anything I have to say. You've already seen the whole package, so what's left?"
She was stunned into silence and I waited, trying to control my exasperation. After a few long moments she wheeled and stalked out and I let out a sigh of relief.
I used the quiet of the empty studio to regain my composure. I knew it was stupid of me to feel like I would be betraying Tanya if I were to encourage another woman's attention, Tanya had dumped me and I had heard through friends of friends that she had been dating another guy for the past few weeks. Emmett was trying to encourage me to date other girls, but whenever I saw another woman I found myself comparing them to Tanya. They never measured up. I didn't feel the need to be with anyone and certainly hadn't met anyone who made me want to be with them more than I had wanted to be with Tanya.
I closed my eyes and put Tanya from my mind. It was harder than it should be.
Students began filtering back in. I noticed Sour Blonde's little brunette cohort from Tuesday walk past me. In the wrong direction. I had been sure no one had been here for my little incident with Sour Girl. I wondered briefly if the two girls had been setting me up for some embarrassment, but I decided I was being paranoid and shrugged it off. I took my robe off and got back to modeling.
I was relieved when the pose was over and Berty called the students out to the hall to look at and discuss their paintings. I pulled my robe on and grabbed my book and fled through the scuffle to the dressing room where my clothes and bag were locked up. I changed quickly, pausing only to use the baby wipes Emmett had given me to wipe the makeup off my shoulder. I folded my robe and stuffed it and the sandals into my bag, but when I went to put my book on top of it a scrap of heavy paper fluttered out. I picked it up from the floor and looked at it in confusion. How did that get here? Scrawled on the paper, in some powdery writing was a phone number and a girl's name. Great.
I would never slip a girl my number again, I vowed, remembering doing similar things back in college when I was trying out the dating thing. One of them had even called.
I wondered who had done it. Sour Blonde had gone for the frontal attack, and this was more subtle. At least it was a girl. Yesterday a guy had propositioned me. He was a skinny little art guy who giggled like I was lying when I politely said I didn't play on his team.
I remembered the form that Berty had given me and quickly filled it out in the changing room. He had said the sooner I turned in my week's hours, the sooner I would get paid, and I had every intention of getting paid as quickly as possible for this insanity.
It took longer than expected to get dressed and get the paperwork done, and when I got back into the hall the students were heading off, their discussion over.
I walked with quick strides to Berty's office, trying to escape the glances I felt sure were being directed my way. I wanted to get out of here, get something to eat, have a drink. Anything that involved me being clothed and normal. I was thinking about what I was getting away from instead of where I was going, so when I turned into Berty's office I ran headlong into the brunette girl from class as she came bounding out and ran nose-first into me. I reacted instinctively and caught her by the arms. She was lighter than I would have thought from her cannonball manner of moving. Tiny and thin. Her big dark eyes stared up at me like I would eat her. It had been awhile since I'd felt a woman's body next to mine, since Tanya had thrown me out in December. I was startled by the way my nerves sang with the contact.
"Oh! I'm sorry!" she cried. I steadied her carefully before releasing her and she quickly knelt to pick up the form I'd dropped.
When I looked over the top of her head I was arrested by the sight of two paintings leaning against the desk in the cramped little office.
They were paintings of me. One was a full painting, and one was just of my hand. A study, I suppose. The paintings looked oddly unfinished, with some parts of the background just a wash of color, and paint dribbling like blood or rain to give a hint of background. The figure - me! How surreal! - was both detailed and hazy, as if seen in a dream. I could see the shadow around the cuticles of my hand, and it seemed real enough, as if the hand might reach out of the surface of the painting, but at the same time there was something not quite real about it. As if she had painted a ghost, or a memory. I was completely certain this fragile-seeming girl, who was blushing madly and waving my form at me, had made these paintings.
"Um, you dropped this -- well, I ran you down…" I dragged my gaze from her waif-like face down to her trembling hand.
"Thank you," I muttered, taking it gently, but I couldn't bring myself to move and break our staring contest. She just fidgeted, looking like she wanted to leave, but didn't.
She seemed perfectly normal. Wouldn't someone who made such magical paintings be somehow more unusual herself? Surely she shouldn't have tangled hair and a ragged t-shirt, or a mouth like a truck-driver. An artist who could paint like that should be more collected in the face of a man she just saw naked not ten minutes ago. She looked like she wanted the earth to swallow her up. She made a noise halfway between a moan and a chuckle and lifted her eyebrows in the direction of the door, clearly hinting that I was blocking her escape.
"Oh, pardon me," I said remembering my manners and stepping to the side. Before she could run off, Berty came in, taking the form from my numb fingers. He started talking to the girl, but I didn't hear any of it until he was shoving the form back at me saying I had done well. He asked me to model again. I gave him a quick assent and walked out, quickly heading to my Triumph.
The wall had been broken, and yet the image of those paintings stuck in my head and wouldn't let go.
Leaning on the rough wood of the pier and watching the surfers, I found myself regretting my decision to leave my laptop at Emmett's apartment. I had done it because I wasn't writing anything these days anyway. I just surfed the web and played Hex Empire and thought about the possibility of writing the great American novel. Sometimes I actually got something written, but it was all crap, pretentious-sounding even to myself, and I ended up deleting it. I sighed and watched the surfers.
Maybe I was thinking too much. If only I could just be in the moment, like those surfers, I could let the words flow out.
I used to love words, the beautiful catch and burn of a well-turned phrase or a sharp observation. Used to be I wrote the way some people breathed. Articles for the campus paper, short stories that went into student journals, but since Tanya and I had split up, my words had dried up or become dead and stupid.
I knew Tanya wasn't the real reason behind my writers block. After all, I had done some of my best writing when we were on one of our frequent "breaks," but this time something was off, something was different. So maybe it was Tanya. Perhaps it was the vertiginous freedom after graduation, or perhaps ... well, I had no more theories.
Perhaps the writing well had run dry and I should go to law school like I knew my father and Tanya hoped I would. Perhaps I would go into Cal's doc program and become a dry and stuffy has-been almost-was English professor in some hick college.
Or maybe I should just get on the road and stop dawdling here in the virtual reality world of Los Angeles, with the smog and cement and unending mass of people. I could just tell Jasper and Emmett to shove the bet and leave.
I wouldn't. I had my honor, and Emmett and Jasper knew it.
It was only three more weeks of laying my lazy ass on a couch for a bunch of people to stare at, and then I could be back out on the road, a little more money in the travel fund and a new story to tell. I could handle that.
I shoved off from the rail and walked back up the pier through the boardwalk rides. I passed a young couple, trying to walk and kiss at the same time. The girl's skirt was eye-poppingly short and her long legs were covered in gooseflesh from the chilly beach day. The guy pulled his face away from her with a laugh, keeping his arm tight around the girls waist. As he passed me, he and I exchanged a slight smile. His was a sheepish but with a dose of pride, while mine was purely condescending. I was glad to be on my own, glad to not be him, with a girl dragging on me. Maybe the chump liked it, but it smelled like slavery to me. So glad not to be you, I thought again.
After stalking up and down the pier a few times and ignoring the carnies trying to get me to play a game for a stuffed bear (and where would I put the bear? Bungee it to the back of the Triumph? That would be interesting!), I decided to ride the Ferris Wheel and be above the fray for awhile. See the world from a different perspective.
A squealing family got in the gondola beside mine, and as we were lifted up, I saw a pair of dark brown eyes peer through the glass at me. A little girl was grinning at me, and waving. I smiled at her and turned away, watching the shore and trying to block out the sounds of the family. I didn't dislike kids, I just didn't get them. They always seemed to be screaming or leaking something.
Tanya wanted to get married and have kids. She would make a good wife, I knew. I loved Tanya. She was smart, beautiful, kind, and she loved me more than I deserved. What was I waiting for? A better woman to come along? It seemed like I was putting off the inevitable for no good reason. "I don't feel like it" sounded like such a cowardly excuse in the face of love.
Deep down I knew I was the bad guy. I wanted to be the bad guy. Bad was better than being the wishy-washy whiny guy. So I had forced her into making an ultimatum that I could use as an excuse to cut and run. I could look like the cad. Cad at least was a role with some romance to it.
I didn't miss her. I certainly didn't miss that she had been trying to control my life, to mold me into the man she wanted me to be. I loved her, I told myself, because what else could it be but love? I admired her gentle strength, her sense of self, her beauty, her sure confidence in my abilities. And yet... I found I didn't miss her.
I gave myself a mental flogging. Get her out of your head! You're trying to get free of her, not mope about after the woman who gave you an ultimatum. She kicked you out, loser.
The Ferris wheel stopped with my gondola at the very top. The ocean breeze ruffled my hair and set the gondola swaying gently. I stared out across the Pacific, my arms spread across the top of the glass screen. The surfers were dots bobbing in the surf below, and a few boats cruised lazily out at sea. I looked up the coast towards Santa Barbara, home, Tanya.
I was happier being alone.
I got off the ride and asked a carnie where the closest book store was. He pointed me East, up to the Promenade. I walked the few blocks to the outdoor mall and found a large and well-stocked bookstore nestled between tragically hip clothing stores. After a bit of hunting, I found a book that interested me, a thin edition of Hemingway short stories.
I walked back to the beach and took off my boots, tucking my socks into them. I carried the boots and the book and a pen I'd "borrowed" from the bookstore down across the sand to the point where the dry and difficult sand became damp and heavy. Sitting with my boots beside me I began reading the Hemingway.
I'd finished "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," making notes in the margins as I went, dissecting the story, and was starting on "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" when a girl plopped down in the sand beside me.
"You know, the beach isn't the place for looking all emo and intellectual. You're better off in a coffee house in Silver Lake if that's what you're doing to pick up chicks."
I swiveled my head to look at her. She looked like a model, or a Baywatch babe, with big fake breasts, long blonde hair, and tan skin. She wasn't looking at me, but was staring off at the surfers.
"What if I'm just trying to find a spot to read?" I asked, trying to sound polite.
"And get sand in your boots?" she laughed. I shrugged. She turned and looked directly at me. "Buy me a cup of coffee, Mister Hemingway?" she asked, her grey eyes confident and full of shallow promises. I'd seen that look before. I could see her plan laid out as if it were a road map: coffee, her place, meaningless sex. Maybe not so meaningless. It didn't matter. It was just sex.
"Not today, beautiful," I said with a little smile, picking up my boots and stalking down the damp sand back to the pier. I didn't look back.
I was happier being alone.
Emmett pulled up in front of a little stucco bungalow with a palm tree in the front yard. It was the stereotypical southern California cottage. He walked around to help Rosalie out of the passenger seat and left me to climb out from the backseat on my own.
I bit back a curse. Professor Masen said that specific language shows complexity of thought and that profanity was a sign of laziness. I was trying not to be lazy, though my time in L.A. was making that difficult. Hanging around Emmett and Jasper had been like some high school boy's dream -- late nights of poker, xbox, beer, and endless discussions on critical theory. The theory wasn't part of the high school dream, but with Em and Jasper working hard on their senior thesis projects, it was just where their thoughts lay.
Their bets, always goofy and strange, had been getting more extreme with the tension of their senior year. My life modeling job was evidence of that.
I was slightly behind Rosalie and Emmett when the door was answered by a short brunette in a slinky blue dress. Emmett caught her up in his arms and I watched Rosalie shift her weight uncertainly. I felt bad for her. Rosalie was gorgeous, but Emmett is the biggest flirt, and here he was hugging this girl. Rosalie glanced at me and I shrugged. It's just Emmett's way, and if Rosalie wanted to have a relationship with Emmett she'd just have to live with it. Or chain Emmett to the bed.
The brunette girl was hitting Emmett and giggling hysterically. In a flash of sickening shock I realized that I recognized her. She was the one who had run right into me in Berty's office. The girl with the beautiful paintings. Paintings of me. She was a student in one of the classes in which I modeled. One of the girls talking male anatomy in the vending machine room. All I could think was This girl has seen me naked.
I should have known. This was probably Emmett and Jasper's idea of a joke. Dragging me to this party and driving me here so I couldn't get home on my own. There were probably lots of painting students here. Just another way for my friends to pile on yet more humiliation.
Emmett put the girl down and introduced her to Rosalie, who was so cold to the brunette I was surprised ice didn't fall from her lips. Then Emmett flashed me a grin and dragged Rosalie off leaving me alone with the brown-haired girl.
I bit my tongue, but in my head I cursed him graphically. She looked like she was about 15, she was so lean and tender looking. Even makeup didn't make her look grown-up, but like she was just playing dress-up. I wondered if the art school had a high school program. Surely if she was in college she had to be at least 18, right?
She was pretty. I looked down and saw she was wearing the unlikely combination of a slithery blue dress that ended mid-thigh, fishnets, and purple high-top sneakers.
Dazedly, I remembered the feel of her slim body colliding with mine when she ran into me on Thursday. Then seeing those amazing paintings.
She looked at me and bit her lip.
Yeah, she recognized me, I thought. Fuck.
As if screwing up her courage and coming to a decision, she abruptly stuck out her hand and stuttered out her name. Bella. I told her my name and grasped her hand in a handshake, but it felt as if she had been scuffing her feet on a carpet. A jolt passed through her fingertips, and she jerked and fell to the side as if I'd been the one to shock her. Quickly, I reached out to grab her and stop her from falling into the back of an armchair, but she jerked away and walked off.
I stood gaping after her. What a weird little girl. Maybe she was more uncomfortable than I was over the whole "seeing me naked" thing, but of the two of us, I should be the one who was embarrassed.
I wandered to the kitchen and found Jasper nursing a beer. I pulled one out of a bucket of ice and popped it open with the opener I found hanging from a hook on the wall.
"Is this your idea of a joke?" I asked, turning a resentful eye on him. He looked surprised at my angry tone.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"You and Emmett are trying to milk this model thing for all it's worth, aren't you? Bringing me to a party with all these art students? How many of them have seen me naked?"
Jasper looked perplexed for a moment before snorting with laughter. "Did you run into a life drawing student here?"
I just glared at him as he apologized. "Dude, I had no idea. I didn't even think about it. Who was it? One of the twink-boys?"
"The...what? No. It's some chick. You guys aren't trying to make an idiot of me?"
"No, Edward. It's a bunch of art students. No one here gives a fuck if they've seen you naked anyway. Get over yourself."
Jasper snorted again and I glanced into the dining room to see Bella looking away as if I had just missed her watching me. I felt like maybe I was getting paranoid, but she seemed to be avoiding me. I spent the next hour trying to casually move closer to her, but she seemed to have a magnetic repulsion, and wherever I went, she remained distant. I watched her, trying to figure her out.
Emmett was just as unhelpful as Jasper. He was only interested in talking about how hot Rosalie was and I was treated to another monologue about the wonders of her body. Rosalie was at the table of food, nibbling on some veggies and eyeing the skull cake speculatively.
"Em, I don't care how wonderfully perky and soft Rosalie's breasts feel. What is the deal with that Bella girl you were feeling up?" I demanded.
"Bella? I dated her last spring. We did a performance video for a class. Don't you remember?" he asked. So Bella was the ex-girlfriend he wanted to introduce to Rosalie. It looked like it had gone over as badly as I expected. I shook my head as much at Emmett's foolishness as to show I didn't recall.
"I was busy."
'Busy' was an understatement, and Emmett's bark of laughter told me he knew exactly what I was thinking. Last spring I had been taking eighteen units to get finished as quickly as possible, and they were all advanced classes.
"You two looked pretty friendly," I commented.
"Well, yes. Bella is still a good friend, but I don't see much of her. She's pretty wrapped up in her studies."
"That why you two didn't ... stay together?" I was momentarily distracted by the sight of Bella over Emmett's shoulder. She glanced at me and looked away quickly like she was embarrassed. Again I wondered why she seemed so self-conscious. Was it just me?
"Ah, no," Emmett said, and I could see from his shifty-eyed look that he didn't really want to discuss this. "It's a long story. So you like her? She's great."
"No, I don't like her," I said quickly, maybe too quickly. I drained my beer and wandered off to find another.
Emmett was being an idiot, I told myself. I was certainly not interested in some little art girl, no matter how sweet her dark eyes or how amazing her paintings.
I stepped into the kitchen and there she was, Bella, brown haired art girl and ex-girlfriend of my best buddy. I tried to think of something to say that wasn't rude.
Her eyes were huge and almost frightened. She looked like I might leap on her and devour her like a lion.
"Can I do you -- something? Do something for you?" she stammered and I smiled, trying to put her at ease. I held out my empty beer bottle.
"Do you recycle?" I asked politely.
She pointed a shaky finger and I put the bottle in the bin she indicated before taking a fresh bottle from the ice tub and popping the cap. I considered just leaving, heading outside to have a smoke and wait for Emmett to decide things were winding down.
Somehow, though, I didn't want to leave. I wanted to know what was up with this girl. I took a few swigs of beer to give myself a moment to contemplate what I would say. She was fussing with bags of snacks, moving them nervously. I wondered why she was so jumpy. Could I be making her nervous?
"You're a friend of Emmett's?" she asked finally, her voice timid but strangely husky. It was a voice that would give Lauren Bacall a run for her money, deep and strangely knowing for such a young girl.
"Where have you been? Because I've known Emmett for over a year and I've never seen you." She sounded accusing and I nearly laughed. I leaned against the counter, trying to look casual and unthreatening.
"Well, I've known Emmett since seventh grade, and I've never seen you either," I replied. Her brow creased and her eyes ran down my body, from my face to my feet and back up. I felt like I was back on the model podium.
I took a slug of beer to disguise my own nerves and she said, "You look really good with your clothes on."
It was not quite what I had expected her to say. The combination of beer, laughter, and swallowing is not a good one and beer shot up into my sinuses, and all over myself. I looked down at my shirt, covered in beer, and a quiet damn escaped me before I could rein it in. Then Bella was in front of me, patting my soaked chest with a dishtowel.
Reflexively, I lifted my arms to make it easier for her to dry me off. Part of me knew that the polite thing would be to take the towel, but the sight of her nearly pressed to me was too amusing for me to resist. The humor of my situation was overwhelming and it was all I could do not to laugh.
She suddenly stopped her frantic blotting to look up at me with panic in her dark eyes. I was still smiling like the moron that I am, and we locked there, me looking down at her and her looking back up at me as if I would bite her. She was really pretty, I thought stupidly.
She jerked away and fled the kitchen. I picked up the dishtowel from the counter where she had dropped it and resumed trying to dry myself off, shaking my head. Maybe I reminded her of someone. Maybe she was insane. For fuck's sake, she had seen me in my birthday suit, what did she have to be so worried about?
I grabbed my jacket from the pile in the dining room and headed out the door to the back yard.
I settled myself in a garden chair and hand-rolled a cigarette slowly. I lit it and puffed, contemplative. The crisp February air was refreshing after the close warmth in the house.
Why was I so bothered by this kid seeing me nude? So she was a girl who had painted my dick, so what? That's what I got paid for. It wasn't as if I was doing a porn movie and putting my parts out there for everyone on the internet. It was art, right? And she was an artist, she should be used to nudity by now.
Her painting certainly wasn't pornographic. It was beautiful. Even if it hadn't been my body in the painting, or my face, it still would have been a magical experience, to look at that painting with the delicately rendered details and bleeding background. I wondered what she really saw when she looked at me.
I was on my second cigarette when the door opened and Bella herself stepped out onto the back step. She closed the door behind her and shook out a brown cigarette and lit it, shivering so hard I was surprised she didn't drop her lighter.
She took a shuddering drag and seemed to relax a little, even as she wrapped her free arm around herself and shook again. She stared out into the backyard, thoughtful, and seemed more collected than she had earlier, somehow graceful in her stillness. She blew out a wreath of smoke and her teeth chattered.
"Chilly?" I asked, and watched as she jumped nearly a foot off the step, making an inarticulate noise of surprise.
She wheeled to face me and snapped "Crap! You scared me."
"Sorry, I just came out here to get some air." I gestured with my cigarette, the glowing cherry the only thing really visible in the dim backyard.
"I'm just escaping," she said in that Bacall voice as she sat on the step and shivered again. I watched in the near-dark as she lifted the cigarette to her lips and inhaled deeply. She seemed to be worn out, not quite the wide-eyed child I'd seen earlier. I wondered why she would be escaping her own party. Had she been avoiding someone? Me, maybe? She seemed to be avoiding me all evening.
I was considering what might be going through her head when she took another drag and looked at me. I thought she said something as her lips moved with her exhaled smoke, but I couldn't make out the words.
"Did you say something?" I asked, and she shook her head, her forehead wrinkling in confusion.
I heard the noise again. It was a voice. A woman's voice that sounded like it was on a very faint radio. Then I heard a deeper voice that sounded suspiciously familiar.
"What...?" I started to ask, and then listened. I heard the familiar voice, and then the woman's voice began a panting, rhythmic noise.
"Is that what I think it is?" I asked softly, mostly to myself. Instead of answering, Bella dropped her head between her knees and shivered. Was she laughing?
I wanted to get up but I was frozen in place. Besides, I couldn't go back in the house while Bella was sitting on the step just below the door, blocking my entry. The voices were getting louder and clearer, and my suspicions were confirmed as the woman's voice came through the slightly open window.
"Yes, Jazz! Yes, Jazz! Just! Like! THAT!" A dog began to howl, and Bella sat frozen. Surely she heard it, right? How could she not? Was I hallucinating my host having loud and enthusiastic sex just through that window?
I closed my eyes and wished I could close my ears as Jasper and his vocal partner reached their climax and fell silent.
Bella still hadn't said anything, but abruptly she stood up and put out her cigarette on the cement patio. She didn't look at me, but angrily muttered something that sounded like "Right, then, show's over." She stomped back into the kitchen, leaving me out on the patio, contemplating.
I guess she heard it after all.
I wondered if she was angry, and then wondered who she would be angry with. Her roommate? Jasper? Maybe she had a thing for Jasper? Maybe she had a thing for her roommate? I really had no clue what was going on in that girl's head.
I went back inside, looking for her. It wasn't anything conscious, but I felt a desire to talk to her. She was so ... different. But she was gone.
I hovered for awhile, watching as Jasper came back to the party, looking tousled and smug. He was followed by the hostess. Her lipstick was perfect but she had that ineffable aura of having been recently laid. I noticed that she didn't speak to Jasper then or for the rest of the evening.
It didn't matter. I could see the way they watched each other, and it was obvious. I was glad to see that Jasper wasn't pining after Tanya. I hoped he'd found someone who would love him in return: Tanya certainly wasn't been that person. Tanya claimed to love me, but I was sure that Tanya only really loved Tanya.
I flopped down on the sofa where Emmett and Rosalie were sharing a piece of cake with one fork. Emmett sharing his cake must be a sign of love. How sweet. I might die if I didn't get an insulin shot.
"Tell me about this performance video," I said.
From the moment Bella stepped out into the screen, tentative as a doe, I could see nothing but her. Not Emmett and his "donkey-dick," as he told me Bella had termed it, not the subsequent scenes of apple-cutting, with stage blood dripping from Emmett's hands. Nothing but Bella sank in. I leaned back and mentally replayed the few minutes when she had walked into the video, and walked into my life. Maybe 'collided with my life' would be more accurate.
It was hard to reconcile the fragile nude girl in the video with the sailor-mouthed art student. The face was the same, but I couldn't believe a girl who handled herself like a truck driver at a biker bar was the same as the ethereal creature in Emmett's video. Somehow the paintings made sense now.
"There you go, Ed. That's the Bella I told you about," Emmett said, removing the DVD from the machine and slipping it in its case. "What do you think of her now?"
"She's different in person," I said and stopped, unwilling to go further. Different was too weak of a description.
"Hey, don't let that rough shell fool you, Edward. Bella is a sweetheart," Emmett said. He'd dropped Rosalie at her house with a promise to came by later, after she'd gotten more 'comfortable.'
"Yeah? That's right, you dated her. You would know what she's like inside," I chided, but Emmett deflected the insinuation.
"Bella is a sensitive soul under all that bravado. She's fun and wild, but I don't think she ever really let me in, if you know what I mean."
I snorted, thinking angry thoughts about Emmett finding her fun and wild. He'd dated her, and they had made this video together with both of them naked. Surely they had been intimate. The thought of Emmett's large hands on that delicate creature made my stomach twist. I felt ... jealous. The feeling was unfamiliar and ridiculous. What right had I to be jealous of a girl I barely knew? Who I'd only officially met a few hours ago?
"I'm going for a ride," I muttered, and left. I rode the Triumph through the dark streets, nearly empty at this late hour. I found myself back in front of the little bungalow where I had been earlier. I only paused a moment before taking off. I trundled down the sleepy streets until I reached the Santa Monica Freeway and opened the Triumph up, heading west to the beach. I headed up Pacific Coast Highway until just before Pepperdine. I parked the bike and sat on the edge of the world, hearing, more than seeing, the tumbling surf in the darkness.
She was a puzzle I wanted to decipher. I wondered if when she looked at me she really saw that ethereally beautiful man she had painted, or if she saw everyone that way. I wanted to figure her out before I left L.A. She had become as fascinating as any part of my planned journey. My anticipated adventure.
Finally, the humid salty air coating me like a film, I shook myself off and headed back to Emmett's apartment. He was gone, and Jasper's room was empty as well. I went to the shelf where Emmett has stored the performance video and quickly found it. Feeling like the Mission Impossible theme should be playing, I quickly downloaded the DVD using my laptop's external drive. Within an hour I had cut out all the video except the scenes with Bella. It made less sense than it had before but I wasn't looking for logic.
Over the next few days I watched the video again and again, whenever I was alone. I memorized her pale skin, the shape of her slender waist, the round curve of her buttocks, the high breasts with dark nipples, the brown pubic hair. Her long legs and arms. The slender hand holding out the apple to Emmett.
I felt like a pervert. She had seen me naked, but she had done so publicly, as part of a class. It was sanctioned. I was watching a bootleg video of her furtively, hiding my obsession.
Days went by. I continued to model, for another professor and then for Berty's beginning drawing class. I didn't see Bella outside of the video. I kicked myself for not trying harder to talk to her at the party, even about something stupid. But like the wild doe she reminded me of, I was leery of the direct approach. She might be scared off and I feared rejection. She had run from me all evening, after all. I wasn't feeling brave enough to just get her number from Emmett, since it would only expose me to more of his raunchy humor. Even if I were to get a chance to speak to her again, what would I say?
Hi, I know you've seen me naked and I'm afraid that isn't much to recommend me, and you should know I've also seen you naked, so now that we're even how about I take you out?
Was Bella as mortified when the video was shown in front of all her classmates as I was when I first modeled? Everyone saw her nude body. Surely she could empathize with my situation. Perhaps she would be embarrassed that I had seen her nude. Probably best not to reveal that, if I saw her again.
I spun elaborate fantasies of how to ask Bella out. My imagination wasn't much above coffee dates, which seemed so banal for such a strange and wild creature as Bella. I had little experience asking girls out, having only dated a handful of girls, including Tanya.
Tanya, my conscience whispered. You love Tanya. Yes, I sighed. I will always love Tanya, but loving her didn't stop her from dumping me, and me letting her.
Thinking of Bella made modeling more complicated, as it was difficult enough to fight down erections before I saw the video. Thinking about the video and the feel of her running into me in Professor Berty's office made it that much harder. When I could, I chose poses that made the semi-hard-ons easier to hide. When that wasn't possible, I thought about Emmett, and that certainly helped keep the erections at bay.
Thursday night was a particularly harrowing class. The professor had asked for a series of five minute poses and two intricate thirty minute standing poses. It was demented naked yoga. Downward dick and Upward facing mortification.
I vowed, as I stood in the last pose, my legs wide spread and my man bits dangling free as I bent over the back of a chair, that I wouldn't work with this professor again. She seemed to get some sadistic glee out of my vulnerability. She probably had never been naked in front of a class. She'd never tolerated the mortification of being examined so casually. Maybe if she had, she would have been more sympathetic.
When the class was over I breathed a sigh of relief. I got my form signed without speaking to the professor and fled out into the brisk night air.
I had just stepped into the nearly empty parking lot when I heard a strident woman's voice echoing off the pavement and buildings.
"No, I'm fine, I'm just waiting to be kidnapped and pressed into white slavery at a Mexican carnival! Why don't you just put a neon light on me? 'Helpless woman waiting here! Come and get her!' Fuckity fuck fuck!"
It was Bella, cussing loudly into her phone and stomping a sneakered foot. She slammed her cell phone shut and seemed to be on the verge of either screaming or crying. It was some kind of sign, her cast as the damsel in distress, and me as the rescuing knight. I took a deep breath.
Patience, grasshopper, I told myself. Just be normal. I stepped forward.
"Bella? Do you need some help?"
Massive thanks to MrsDazzled and Irritable Grizzzly for input, reading, beta, and for doing all this on their Thanksgiving holidays. Thank you to all you readers for hanging in there and following along. And thanks to my husband for humoring me and giving me a tiny insight into the workings of the male mind.
I love hearing what you think, so please review.