Madeline wore stockings, which Julia thought would’ve looked sexier if her shoes had a higher heel, or any heel at all, really. She must have walked into all rooms, including this one—Julia’s studio apartment—like a patient, silently clutching a purse at her hip, a thin-lipped smile, aware of her future exposure. Her lipstick looked fresh and red, a still-life apple glazed on a windowsill, and Julia thought, of all the women she’d asked to model for her, Madeline was the prettiest. Outside, a motorcycle changed gears and sped up, revving, and Madeline shook a little.
Julia walked to the wall of windows at the back of her studio, the small panes dusted in each corner, and pushed up on her toes to look down to the street where there was no one, except for Bobby, the super, who was slinging black trash bags into a dirt- green dumpster. Julia didn’t mind keeping the lights on at night, since here, so close to the water, there were no adjacent apartments, no window-sitters to look in; she imagined herself the keeper of her own glow, and if the space was light that meant she could be dark, her own shadow, the opposite of herself, or an outline to be filled in later.
“Make yourself comfortable,” Julia said.
Julia was pouring paint from funneled buckets into clear plastic cups; three shades of green were already lined up on the floor, which was messily covered with hundreds of newspaper sheets. Yesterday’s news—if that’s what it was—no—Yesterday’s words were almost, she thought, all but useless. Scraps won’t gleam, Julia thought, their necessity alights only in the futility of waiting to be stomped on; each thin sheet of paper relied on a foot print, a drop of sweat, a crooked tear.
“Lucien was right,” Madeline said. Julia laughed, spilled glossy blue over the edge of the cup, almost knocking the whole thing over: If it had all been spilt, what then? It would surely soak the papers and she’d call it “The Great Paint Lake,” let it dry and paste it to a canvas. She said, “What did he tell you?”
Madeline hovered near the sink, the drying brushes laid out on the counter, their bristles flat and stuck together like petals, a full bouquet in the foreground (and what she couldn’t see, the muted mauve background of a tiled strip of wall). She let her fingers graze a small porcelain cardinal with a drop of black paint for an eye.
“He said this was your beach house,” she said, shaking the Café Bustelo can that was filled with tiny clamshells and beach glass. Madeline walked past the fist-sized conch shell mounted on the wall.
“That’s a funny thing to say,” Julia said. “I think it’s great,” Madeline said.
It had been years since Julia had been able to see the old towers from her great paned windows, since she stopped noticing the acidic twinge in her nose; really, since the ash moved in, surrounded her; the windows had been propped as open as she could get them and that helped. In a month the lobster market down the street would open full time and then, Julia thought, it’d smell like the sea, the guts of it, at least.
The kitchen extended onto an exposed and bare brick wall; at the foot of the wall were the paint cans Julia had stacked and left dripping; Madeline walked to where there was an antique wooden box, the lid of which had expanded during the summer and no longer fit snugly into the base. “What’s this?” Madeline asked.
Julia took her time filling another cup a darker blue, richer water, colder and deeper than the last, and turned toward Madeline. To Julia it was a simple relic, a possession of her grandfather’s she’d taken when they cleaned out his house on the west side of Kingfisher Cove after he died (a swollen dead heart drowned a hundred yards out in the bay) from too much hooch and not enough—it couldn’t have been money or sun—love.
Madeline walked to it, bent at her knees and peered into the box. She began pulling bottles out; three half-full bottles of vodka, gin, one bottle of dark rum, one bottle of silver rum, a dusty bottle of almost empty sambuca and a taller, lean bottle. “What’s this?” Madeline asked. Madeline held the bottle in both hands, studying it, thumbing the green label, tracing the foreign words on the body.
“That,” Julia said, “is cachaça.” She felt the words on her tongue and pushed them into the back of her teeth. “It’s from Brazil; they use it to make caipirinhas.” The lightness of the words shook Julia, and she felt like maybe she had been on a boat once, and a sickness—not from the sea—flushed the heat from her skin, and there was a rocking inside that sent her reeling, casting her own swollen heart out into the waves.
“Would you make me one of those?” Madeline asked.
Julia walked to the refrigerator with the bottle and opened the door; the fridge was mostly bare except for the vegetable drawer, which was packed full with limes. She picked out four of them, squeezing gently as if she were about to toss them in the air. She picked out a small paring knife from a drawer and quartered the limes on the countertop, the juices getting her fingers wet, the smooth rock surface slimy, like sea moss on a jetty. She dropped an equal amount of lime wedges into each glass. On the counter, the sugar was kept in a handmade bowl with a weightless silver-colored spoon; she dropped spoonfuls onto the limes and the sugar dissolved into the pulp of it until the limes were covered slopes. She found a brush, a thick one with a rounded wooden handle, and began smashing the fruit, turning the glass in her free hand; it took more effort, than Julia remembered, to crush the fruit: the thick rind battled back, shrouded its fleshy core, which Julia so wanted to pulverize, to get to the biting; to bite back.
Madeline stood at the edge of the counter, leaned her body with one hand on the corner; the muscles in Julia’s hands pulsed; veins were lacquered with juice and spotted with paint. She topped the glasses with ice and the cachaça, stirred with the brush handle and tasted one; letting some pulp roll around her cheeks, she chewed it a bit and handed the glass to Madeline. Madeline took a brave sip, as big as the ice would allow.
Julia walked back to her paint cans and cups and newspapers spread in the middle of the studio, filled one last cup with a goldfinch’s yellow, and placed the canvas she had stretched earlier that week onto her worn, wooden easel; it was no more a square than a rectangle and its long sides rose up from the base.
She remembered walking home, before the summer started, across the highway overpass, and she had seen men where there were none before; two emerged on the top of each corner of a billboard—the one that had (for months? weeks?) been advertising for a new movie coming out, or a radio station, or something about god (she couldn’t remember). In her imagination the revealing process seemed different; decades ago there would have been men in overalls and twenty-foot paint rollers up on that ledge, but now, these men dropped a massive blanket of words and pictures, unfurling as it fell, its bottom corners caught by the two men at the bottom and they all pulled it taught around the edges.
“How do you want me?” Madeline asked.
“We’ll do it like we did last time, at Lucien’s.” Julia picked up a sheet of newspaper and a brush, quickly dipping it in the darkest blue cup, and she cocked her elbow out, swiping a nearly perfect circle over the words. “Those sketches came out great,” she said. Julia walked toward the wall of windows between the foot of her bed and her grandfather’s heaving chest; she placed the circle down.
Julia turned and noticed Madeline had taken her clothes off and Julia was thankful; each item had been stripped and thrown neatly on the floor. “You want me to stand here?” Madeline said. “And do what?”
“Just stand there. Keep your arms at your side,” Julia said. “And try not to smile.” Julia was afraid that if she saw Madeline smiling she’d get distracted, start imagining her not on the canvas, but on her bed, the breeze from the open windows blowing her long hair in their faces which would make the kissing messy and mercurial.
Madeline walked easily into the circle and her feet stuck to the paper; she had put her new drink on the windowsill. Julia used her long, speckled fingers to arrange Madeline’s hair around her neck and collarbones; the scent of sunscreen and shampoo lifted off Madeline’s skin. Julia thought of the dead wood of the boardwalk, the salted French fries in paper cups, a cool sweet vanilla and orange swirled frozen yogurt on a stale wafer cone. She’d like to lick Madeline’s neck like that treat: quick and with her whole mouth.
With the cups lined up below her, Julia picked a brush from an empty paint can, and began dipping and spreading a base of glaucous blue over the primed canvas. A yielding rain began to drip onto the edges of the windows, which made the light inside diffuse, and the windows themselves became tiny looking glasses, a different scene reflected in each. In one area, Julia could see only the veneer of a hand, which could have been hers, but was likely to be a few stray tendrils or branches from a tree on the sidewalk below. Another suggested geometry, with lines and planes intersecting, divided the room into quadrants of black and white. What had become of the room then? Julia thought: I must go on.
After an hour the outline of Madeline’s shape—a full bottom and oblique breasts—appeared, and Julia’s wrist ached. Madeline’s body, it seemed, had turned into clay; a trail of sweat pooled and coated her left shoulder, glossy and pink. Madeline would melt right through the newspaper, soak the wood below, and slip through the cracks; she could be lost, disappear, by morning. If anyone found out, especially Madeline’s family (if she had one; she must) Julia would be held accountable, so she closed the window nearest to Madeline, wiped her shoulder with a rag, and returned to the canvas. Julia wondered, walking back; when a frog loses its tadpole tail, is it thankful to be rid of the thing? Madeline stiffened herself back up and cracked her knuckles into her palm before dropping her fists back at her side.
After two hours, Madeline’s legs began shifting back and forth, the skin around the knees pulled taut, and Julia had most of Madeline’s body on the canvas. Julia had most of Madeline’s body memorized: the two inch scar on the outside of her left thigh, the tattoo of a feather along her ribcage just under her larger left breast, and the shape of her eyebrows shading her eyes. Madeline appeared to know what was happening to her body without having to think about it. If Julia asked her what she thought about the soul, she probably would say, Well, and then she’d be a bulb, a blast. She would be all of the colors Julia had in the cups or none at all.
Julia left the long brushes leaning out of the plastic cups and walked toward Madeline who, beginning to dry out, to harden, still stood in the middle of the circle. Julia pulled the warm glass off the windowsill and handed it to Madeline, who refused only by blinking. Seeing her, Julia knew she could no longer move, the tightness around her knees spread quickly that last hour; a cast of plaster had formed around the meatiest bits of her. She, Madeline, stayed there, as if obeying orders, and Julia didn’t mind; it would be better for the painting if she remained unchanged since knowing her more, seeing more of her—between her legs, inside her mouth—would change everything; the work itself would be less of her own, and Julia, an unwilling collaborator, left her like that.
What had she been thinking this whole time? Julia thought that maybe Madeline had been singing herself silent songs, trying to push the blood through her veins, or maybe remembering a lover. She wondered what Madeline’s lovers would’ve been like; she imagined them in fragments: the bow of a hip and backbone, silken outstretched arms to fingertips, the flexed muscles of a leg. No matter how hard she tried, Julia couldn’t forget her own lovers; there were songs that reminded her, and smells, too. So close to the sea those smells and songs faded in fog underneath the bridges, rose up off the streets and disappeared into subway tunnels.
After three hours, Madeline hadn’t spoken, was almost completely immobile, and Julia was nearly done; she needed only to let the paint dry, to see what the salt air would do to the canvas left out overnight. If Julia left Madeline standing there, forgot to tell her to get dressed and go home, who knows how long she would have remained; Julia could invite her friends, Lucien even, to see; You’ve just got to come see my new piece, she’d say. And wouldn’t that be a great trick, because there Madeline would be, naked and unsmiling; it didn’t matter now what she did with Madeline on the canvas: there she was, right there. No one would be interested in Julia’s paint-filled sea-shacked apartment on Conover Street with the dripping cups and cans, which felt so much to Julia like her insides spilling over. They’d just come to see Madeline. Madeline, they’d say, is beautiful.
“You can relax now,” Julia said. “I think I’m done.” “Come here,” Madeline said.
Madeline still hadn’t moved. Julia walked to her. Madeline held out her hand to Julia. Julia took her hand. Madeline pulled Julia’s middle finger over the wetness between her legs.
“Put that on your painting. It’s more of me than you’ll ever see.”
Julia walked back to her painting and smeared her finger over the blue at the bottom of the canvas, just in one corner, like some white caps on waves; she thought of ropes and masts, shoals and reefs along the coastline, and how she’d like to be out there on some dock, the water yards below her swinging feet.
Jen Werner lives in Brooklyn. She’s published work in Gigantic Sequins, Atticus Review, and H.O.W. Journal. Jen is also the founder and producer of Writerly States.
“The Great Paint Lake” was originally published in issue 10 of H.O.W. Journal.