Chapter One of The Shark Party by Janet Colson
Carla’s studio was on the same street as the bookstore, a pretty, tree-lined street near Waverly Place. A real artist would have killed for a quarter of the space in such a congenial location. Nathan held the lease and Carla created illusions in it, expensive ones for magazines. She was working on a fashion-week commission and it was still on the paper block: a model, side-on to the catwalk, bell-shaped skirt, red shoes picked out like berries. She drew a squiggle of a chandelier with the tip of her brush and left it to dry.
She had a book in mind for Nathan’s birthday. She put on her warm jacket, and on the way to the bookstore, stopped at Nico’s and ate a green salad with walnuts. By the time she came out, a threatening storm had turned the air grey, and she’d only made it half a block before a growl of thunder startled her into a dash for the storefront. Within seconds, rain was sheeting down, splattering off the sidewalk and over her boots. She sheltered under the canopy for a moment as the rain sluiced the street into gridlock, and then went inside. Her jeans were soaked and sticking to her thighs. She unbuttoned her jacket.
The bookstore had an old-paper smell and was quiet as a bowling green, a world away from the street where she’d just run. Heads bobbed and disappeared again between the bookshelves; muffled voices hummed as if through cotton wool. She found her way to the art section and scanned the shelf for the title she was looking for. Reubens to Rothko: A journey to abstraction by Henry Grist. She eased the volume off the shelf and read the blurb. An essential handbook for the connoisseur. It sounded like a cookbook, but the prints were impressive, each carefully annotated. She turned to the chapter on Dada and had just found the images she was looking for when a man squeezed past her in the narrow aisle and stopped. He looked her up and down and smiled. ‘I see you got caught in the rain.’
She blushed and, annoyed with herself, said, ‘It was quite a downpour.’ He wasn’t wearing a jacket, and his reddish-brown hair was quite dry. ‘You look like you missed it.’
‘Yeah. I’ve been here a while.’ His gaze was curious. She took in the friendship bracelet at his wrist, the frayed hems of his Levi’s. He was wearing heavy-duty boots. Wherever he came from, it wasn’t Manhattan.
‘Kurt Schwitters,’ he said, peering over her shoulder. ‘Now there’s a name to conjure with.’
She closed the book. ‘I’m doing some research.’
‘So you like art.’
‘I do. Yes.’ Something about his voice made her want to keep him talking. ‘Though I was thinking of it as a gift. You have quite a selection there.’
‘I like to stock up when I’m in town.’ His voice caught distinctively on the word stock, and she wondered if he was a Midwesterner, but it didn’t quite fit. She glanced at the titles he was holding.
‘You like sailing?’
‘Sure. When I get the chance.’ He stared for a moment into the middle distance. She was close enough to see the freckles on his skin and the way his hair curled over the collar of his shirt. He smiled at her again, and something flickered inside her like the wing of a bird.
‘Damn it,’ she said, looking at her watch.
‘Okay then,’ he said in his lilting voice and there was that flicker again.
‘I’m supposed to be somewhere,’ she said, but she didn’t move.
His stillness unnerved her. She felt a pull to look hard at his intense, yet strangely open face, but she’d already said she was leaving. He stood back to let her pass. At the end of the aisle, she looked back. His eyes were still on her. She looked away quickly.
Back at the studio, she took off her wet things. She opened the closet door and stood in front of the mirror in her sweater and underwear. Her thighs had a blue tinge from the dark denim, making her long legs appear morbid and weirdly detached from her torso. Her hair fell, dirty blonde, over her collarbones. She peered into the glass and wiped a smudge of mascara from under her lashes. Her face, blank of make-up, had a light in it. What just happened in there? He’d caught her eye, that’s all. It happens. But thinking about him sent a shimmy through her. She reached into the closet for a dry pair of jeans and caught her reflection – she could see how skinny she was. She leaned into the mirror and puffed out her cheeks. Is that how she would look if she were pregnant? She let out the air. Silly. There was time for all that. She began to pull on her jeans and stopped. She grabbed the leather cushion from the recliner and wiggled it under her sweater. Turning sideways, she thrust her bony hips forward and waddled – a full-blown mama – in front of the mirror.