“FUNNY HOW IT was your idea I start posing in the first place,” Jacky said, shaking her head to the words, one corner of her mouth upturned. The young couple stood facing each other in their cramped kitchen, both their bodies at attention.
It was true. Nearly four months ago, when her post-graduation job search had stretched itself out to the end of her savings, Paul was the one who told her about the shortage of models in the intro classes and suggested she get in touch with the department secretary. Jacky had been posing for classes since, but this was the first time she’d be working with a professional artist, one-on-one.
A shaft of light came through the screen door from the alley behind their building and illuminated her forehead, turning her into some kind of angel, which just made all this worse. “It means four times the money,” she said. “I thought we were trying to save up.”
“Yeah,” Paul said, nodding at the floor. “It’s just…”
“It’s just a job, Paul,” she said, her head still glowing.
“I don’t like the idea of you posing privately,” he said, imagining her without her clothes—the flowered blouse she was wearing now unbuttoned and gone, her old jeans pulled down to her ankles, off, away. Her naked body still transfixed him, after three years—her breasts he loved to palm, her smooth thighs always inviting. “This situation is just different,” he said, a knot slowly tightening at the top of his stomach. “How do you know this guy’s not insane? Or a killer? Or a pornographer?” he asked, his tone rising.
“He’s friends with Steven,” she said. Steven had been Paul’s drawing teacher in his first semester of the graduate program and now Paul considered him a friend. “He came in after class. Seemed harmless enough, some old Arab guy. Mustafa…something. I can't remember his name.”
“You can't remember his name? Arab?” Paul raised his voice. “He might be a terrorist, or, better yet, maybe he’ll make you a prisoner in his harem. Likely both.” He was being dramatic, he realized, as the word “harem” echoed in his ears.
Jacky’s face—with features that looked finely drawn, though her paleness told that she wore no makeup at all—suddenly flushed with anger. Through gritted teeth, she said, “We're meeting for coffee at Crossroads tomorrow. Around two. Their busiest time. There will be plenty of people around to protect me.”
She was already leaving the room when he responded, “Have fun.”
As Paul remembered how he'd enjoyed the idea at first, of her naked in front of a roomful of people, he saw that behind where Jacky had been standing the pasta was about to boil over onto the stove. He didn’t reach for it but only watched the slow explosion of the white bubbles from the pot.
WATCHING JACKY AS she sipped on a purple-colored smoothie, Mustafa asked, “Do you have any questions?” The faint pink of the girl's lipstick stained her straw. He looked down at his age-cracked hands, his palms cupping the tiny white cup with the dregs of his espresso.
“Where are you from again?” she asked.
“Egypt,” he said, “but I haven’t been there since I left. I was twenty.”
“Wow,” she said, “and I thought New York was far.”
“New York?” Mustafa chuckled.
“Paul—that's my boyfriend—Paul and I went there last New Year's to visit some friends who moved there from here. It's kind of our dream to live there…” she trailed off.
Mustafa squinted his eyes at the memory of the months and years he spent walking the blocks of Manhattan, on the look out for all the things that still felt just out of his grasp—inspiration, connection, calm. “I lived there for a long time,” he said, “but you couldn't pay me to move back.”
She looked up at him, suddenly attentive.
“It eats you up,” he said, “the pace, the people everywhere.”
They were sitting at one of the tables by the bathrooms, on the periphery of the Crossroads mid-afternoon buzz.
“I think I might kind of like that,” she said. “Richmond's the biggest city I've ever lived in”—he noticed a faint scar between her eyebrows, perfectly centered—“but it's just boring after a while.”
Mustafa felt a rare pang of longing for the Cairo of his youth, its arteries forever clogged with dust and people and cars, its patchwork of neighborhoods he'd learned to navigate by rote. There was an efficiency even in the chaos, an undeniable life force that could never exist in this new country.
At the tables around them sat students in study groups, women with small children and their neon-colored toys, people closer to his age, occupied with laptops or books. Mustafa had lived in New York for a while upon first coming to the States, then Chicago, then San Francisco. But he’d gotten sick of all of them, those pompous American cities with their veneer of doing-things and going-places.
“My grandmother—God rest her soul—used to say that only boring people feel bored,” Mustafa said, happy with the thought of the long dead old woman. “That was after I told her I was bored in Cairo, which is very likely the craziest city in the world,” he went on. Jacky played awkwardly with her plastic cup. “Richmond suits me well enough,” he said. “It is a city with humility.”
Jacky hummed her agreement then made a brief sucking sound with her straw at the end of her drink. “Sorry,” she said, with an embarrassed smile. “Um, do you have any questions for me?”
He hated to ask it, but it was of utmost importance, especially for the pose he had in mind. “One basic thing: your pubic hair—do you shave or wax?”
Jacky seemed to start but then regained herself. “I shave the sides, but can do whatever you need…”
“That's perfect,” he said, carefully and went on, “As I mentioned at the school, my work is of a decidedly erotic nature. Are you okay with this?”
Jacky hesitated. “I…I am.”
“I often sell to New York and, sometimes, Europe. The painting we'll work on together will likely stay in Richmond, though. My agent says he's buying it for his own collection…which is…quite a compliment.”
Jacky nodded. How could he explain that his agent, Leon, who'd risen to the top by hiding his ethnic origins, had finally had his cultural guilt as a son of immigrants kick in? Leon was planning on collecting the largest group of paintings by Arabs in the country, eager to sell the whole lot of them to the highest bidder, and Mustafa had made the cut. It was good news. A prospect that would breathe some life into his career, and hopefully his creativity as well.
“We’ll take it slow,” he said. “You’ll tell me if you’re uncomfortable?”
“Yes,” she said, only now looking up at him. He glanced at the way her dress sloped from her shoulders to her breasts.
“Let me show you some work,” he said, reaching into his leather attaché case and sliding a folder across the table. She bowed her head and went through its contents slowly, pausing over the last print the longest. It was the first he'd painted in this recent series, a theme that he'd been stuck with for years. The painting showed a woman, naked, kneeling, and was done in photo-realistic style. Her freckled, pale back took up most of the frame, each knob of spine detailed in shadow, her hands gathered with a piece of rope and posed underneath the crack of her buttocks. The woman’s head was turned over her shoulder, her eye on the viewer, her dainty face in profile, strands of her blond hair escaping from the bandanna tied around her head and over her mouth. Beads of sweat coming off of her brow, her body pleaded for release.
He detected a slight tremor off of Jacky, then she took a deep breath. “I especially like this,” she said, pointing to the woman’s feet, their outfacing soles covered in intricate flower designs.
“That’s henna,” he said. “You know it?”
She shook her head slowly.
“In my part of the world, women use it to adorn themselves during weddings,” he said.
“So you’re making some statement about marriage?” she asked, her eyes wide, their brown flecked with gold.
“Something like that,” he said. “Patriarchy as bondage…” He hesitated, hating the words he'd heard and then himself repeated again and again. “We’ll have our first sitting in a few days—how's Wednesday, at 11?”
“Sounds good,” she said, pulling a small phone out of her bag. “Are we done? It's almost time for my next class.”
“Yes,” he said. She got up, and he remembered there was one more thing: “Your boyfriend, er, Paul?”
She nodded. And now he noticed how the fabric stretched across her hips.
“How does he feel about all this?” he asked. It was a question he’d learned to bring up before work began.
He noticed a slight hesitation in her as she briefly looked up and away. She breathed in deep. “He’s an artist, too, a sculptor in the grad program,” she said. “He gets it.”
When she said good-bye, he didn’t extend his hand. On her way out, two young students turned to look at Jacky in such a way that made Mustafa wonder if they'd drawn her. Their view was impeded finally by the door closing behind her, a gust of outside air.
MID-AFTERNOON, PAUL HAD an hour to kill and decided to take a walk towards Crossroads Café.
It was the first pleasant day in months, and the feeling of being outside without a heavy coat almost made him forget this trouble with Jacky. But then he remembered, and he remembered even farther back, to last year and to Faye.
Paul had been drawn to Faye because she was ten years his senior and, with her short-cropped sandy hair and fair freckled skin, was a seeming opposite to Jacky, who had been clearly enjoying life without him, spending her penultimate semester in France. They had agreed it was a good thing—the time apart—that they could use a break from each other and that they both wanted to work things out when she returned. But still, Paul couldn't help but feel hurt when Jacky called less often than promised and acted rather vague about all the fun she was having when she did.
Paul caught Faye’s eyes a few times during the first class he drew her, as she was switching poses, or once in-pose even, as she stood looking his direction with her hands on her hips, one foot up on a small stool in front of her. It should have just been another shade of flesh among so many others, but Paul remembers fixating on faint lines that depicted the pink traces of her sex.
It was too late to tell Jacky about Faye. That would just be disastrous, especially since she’d asked him pointblank if he had any lovers when they were apart. “I won’t be angry. I just want to know,” she had said in her first few days back home. He remembered how happy he was, as they lay naked together—happy that he still felt he loved her, that she was here with him. His “no” had sounded shaky to him, compared to her clear-eyed response to the same question. Still, he reasoned with himself, there was no need to tell Jacky about Faye—to do so might even be a selfish act, and it would just make things harder between them. Besides, Paul's knowing Faye had not changed him at all—not changed the fact that he wanted and needed to be with Jacky.
Just as Paul was nearing the edge of campus, he ran into Steven finishing a taco on a bench in the sun behind the library. Steven looked up, his circular glasses shining back a reflection of the young trees that sprouted up around them.
“I was just about to have a cigarette,” Steven said, with a smile and a wave. “Join me?”
The offer was a welcome one. Paul’s quitting wasn’t going so well. He sat down, relief tingling through him with the first drag. He had trouble concentrating on Steven’s small-talk questions, until Steven asked about his current work. Paul confessed he hadn't yet come up with his idea for the year’s final show.
“Ideas are everywhere,” Steven said.
“I guess,” Paul said. Ordinarily, he might have started brainstorming with Steven as a sounding board, but he couldn’t banish the question floating around in his mind, and, finally, he blurted it: “What’s up with this artist you hooked my girlfriend up with?”
“Oh, Mustafa?” Steven said. A long ash fell in his lap where he brushed it away. “I helped him get set up in his studio when he first moved here a few years ago.”
“Why haven’t I heard of this guy?” Paul asked, sucking hard on his cigarette.
“Doesn’t really mix with the Richmond scene. His work gets big money in New York. Stuff you probably haven’t seen…only in a few rich people’s houses around here. A lot of it goes to anonymous buyers who take it overseas, impress their Old World friends with New World fury.”
“What do you mean?” Paul asked.
“Well, it’s pretty disturbing. People pretend they don’t want to see it, but they just gravitate towards it. Can’t help themselves,” Steven said.
“What do you mean?” Paul forced the words slowly, attempting calm.
“Erotic stuff with a political twist is an easy way to say it, but they are more than just a statement. His paintings are really something.” Steven looked up at an imaginary nude hanging on the air in front of them.
“Why did you choose Jacky?” Paul asked.
“I didn’t. Mustafa did. He saw a drawing one of my students did of her and asked about her…” Steven looked at Paul. “Are you okay? You look upset.”
“I’m fine,” Paul said, clenching his jaw.
“Jacky is excellent at what she does.” Steven paused. “And Mustafa’s particular about his models. Always looking for something specific I don’t understand.”
Paul suddenly felt nauseated. “Gotta go,” he said.
“Get some rest,” Steven called after him. “You look like hell.”
A block away Paul checked his phone. Jacky hadn’t called. Why would she? The time flashed across the tiny screen, and he realized it was too late now to make it to Crossroads and be back in time for his last class. He took the long road around the other side of the library so he wouldn’t pass Steven again.
WHEN MUSTAFA FIRST had seen a drawing of the girl done by one of Steven’s students, the hesitant lines that depicted her form managed to set off an odd shock inside him, something he knew was true, though he had no idea what it meant.
And when Jacky emerged from behind the silk Chinese screen and dropped her robe, Mustafa was frozen by her small but pendulous breasts, with their dark nipples, the swatch of short hair over her mons, and the truth hit him full force. She could have been Dina’s body double.
“Everything okay?” she asked, covering herself again.
“Yes, I’m just…” he hesitated, “I’m just fine. I’m looking at you. Trying to think about how this is going to work.” He jutted his chin towards a bin of paints resting on the floor nearby and an eight-foot primed canvas leaning against the wall.
Mustafa always had such a hard time remembering Dina’s body. For so many decades now, she had only been a blurred form of flesh, hazy in his mind.
“Sit,” he said, mustering calm. He cleared space on one of the couches near a window, then went back to his sketch pad. The woman before him took off the robe again and sat.
Mustafa forced himself to look away from her a moment, at the drop cloth laid on the plush oriental carpet, the giltwood chairs splattered in paint, the couch with its arms sawed off. He thought of the large flat in Cairo where he grew up. The room directly to the right of the front door had been the salon, a formal sitting room saved expressly for guests reminded him of this one. It even had the same marble-topped table at its center. Leon had insisted he could do whatever he wanted with this house and its contents—all of it belonging to his recently dead mother and he'd said he couldn't bear, just yet, to sell, and he'd always deplored the “old-world” way it was decorated. So Mustafa had haphazardly set up his studio in here. This was his rebellion, not taking care with the furniture (which, Leon assured, was all “imitation stuff” anyway), doing his work in a room meant for guests and propriety.
He looked up at Jacky again. She was his work for now. But, also, there was no way of forgetting it—naked, like this, she was identical to Dina.
Mustafa had tried so many times to draw his first and only love from memory, but he could barely move his hand. She refused to come to him. And now, as he rapidly began to do his study drawings of Jacky’s body, pushing pencil over paper, turning page after page, drawing her again and again, at this angle and that, he was rediscovering Dina—her soft olive stomach, the perfect clavicles that pointed towards her navel, the way the sun coming through the curtains highlighted her dark, wavy hair that fell past her delicate shoulders.
“Is this okay?” she asked, cocking her head forward.
“Yes.” As his hands worked over the thin paper, he was taken back to a stolen day; it was a day full of light, the last he and Dina shared, the only time they had managed to be completely alone, away from the eyes of their families, their teachers, the doormen that lined the streets of Zamalek, the island neighborhood in the middle of the Nile where they both lived. Somehow they had each lied their way to a freedom and took the train two hours south to Minya, where, as they walked through the provincial town, it felt as if they were floating. They bought pumpkin seeds and a roasted yam from a street vendor. Then at the river promenade, with a handful of bills and a brief demonstration of the sailing skills he’d learned in his private school, Mustafa convinced a felucca man to give up his boat for a few hours.
Mustafa wished for Jacky to wrap her cold arms around him. She shifted in her seat. She was getting acquainted with his gaze. After all, her only other experience consisted of being drawn by amateurs.
As Jacky shifted from seated to standing, Mustafa began to add color to Jacky’s likenesses, he thought of rowing Dina through the gray-green of the water and the blue of the sky. He’d set the pole down when they bumped up against the far side of a tiny island of tall dried grass in the middle of a wide part of a river. On a blanket, Dina lay in the bottom of the boat, and, slowly, he’d caressed, revealed her. He should have taken her virginity then.
After an hour or so of drawing, he suggested a break, and tea: “Mint, with lots of sugar, like we do in Egypt?”
“Sounds good.” The robe back around her, she looked like another girl.
THE FIRST WEEK Jacky posed for Mustafa was Paul’s roughest week of grad school so far. He was halfway through and completely uninspired by one big painting project and still needed to get working on a sculpture for the semester show. At the same time, he was responsible for a dozen students in the class he assisted, and he had about eighty pages to go through for his proofreading job—a new textbook by his department chair. He tried to imagine himself like a bull: head down and barrel through, but he was constantly distracted by thoughts of Jacky. It was perfectly feasible, even probable, he decided, that she was the lover to this mysterious Egyptian artist. During the long days while he was at school, she went to Mustafa's, and most nights she managed to pick up shifts at a new bar a mutual friend had opened on Grace Street.
A few times, they caught each other in the apartment during the day, coming or going. Like that, in their home awash with slanted sunlight, he managed to forget. For a fleeting moment, he was conscious of only her. He would reach out and she would come to him. She’d kiss and coo, and, inevitably, she’d say, “Well, time to get going.”
“I’ve got to go, too,” he’d reply, and he’d make his way out the door again. Inevitably, the thoughts came back. Thoughts of Jacky naked for someone else, thoughts of what that man might do to her body, thoughts of Faye. He couldn't help it but suddenly, as some sort of protest or internal revenge, Paul had been conjuring Faye's sharp shoulders, her large nipples, the slight sag of her hips below her soft, narrow waist. Each time, Paul had to force himself to snap out of it, remember what he was doing, or who he was meeting, or what he was supposed to be reading or grading.
And each night, when finally Jacky and Paul were together and the world felt as if it was no longer spinning, after he pulled his lanky frame towards hers in the center of the bed, he couldn’t bring himself to wrap his limbs around her.
Mornings, though he was still tired, he woke up an hour before his alarm to toss and turn, sleepless in the semi-dark. Finally, he would give in, turn towards her shadowy form, watch Jacky sleep.
When they were awake and ready to go, when he asked how the job with the artist was going, each day, Jacky said, “Fine, thanks,” with a brief smile.
On Friday, at last, he said, “What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means it’s great. He’s a real artist. His house is nice and he’s nice to me. He doesn’t say much, but…” she hesitated.
“But what?” Paul said. He was conscious now of a swath of tense pain stretching from the back of his head down his neck. Jacky was quiet for a while, intent on the counter, the knife she held to cut an orange into wedges. The smell in the room seemed falsely fresh.
Paul put his hand on her back and she tensed up. He stepped away and couldn’t help but think then of his own art—both his painting and his sculpture painfully stalled, his career a dead end before it truly began.
Jacky’s answer came slow. “Mustafa is a real gentleman, and I enjoy what I do. You’d think it gets boring—all the sitting—and well I guess it sort of does, but, also, I like to be in the room with him working,” she said. “He has this calm energy that keeps him going.” She smiled. “Maybe you should meet him.”
“Yeah,” Paul grumbled.
“Hey, what are you doing in a few hours?” she asked, her face bright. “I’ve got to be there at one today.”
“I was going to go to the library,” he said, gesturing to his backpack, limp on the floor.
“Take a break,” she said. “Come drop me off at his house. I’m going to finally get to see the painting. You haven’t been on your bike in forever. It’ll be a nice ride in this weather.”
“Sure,” Paul said. His stomach flipped inside him.
As Jacky got up on her toes and kissed his cheek, Paul stared ahead, at the high window with smudged glass that looked out at a wall a few feet in front of it.
ON FRIDAY MORNING, during his daily examination of his work, Mustafa found himself delighted by his decision to paint Jacky’s skin entirely in golden hues. It looked as though she were lit from within. The angle of her upturned face was perfect, and a slash of brown paint captured her eye and her glare.
Her flattened breasts each pointed towards a side, the perfect glint of oil reflecting off each small nipple. Her belly, taut and thin against her, showed the outline of her bottom ribs. He had chosen a posture whereby her limbs were outstretched, her hands grasping the couch's frame at a wide stretch, her feet as far apart as they could be. The way she was splayed made her seem as if she might split in two, a feeling punctuated by the pinkness of her labia extending from her dark pubic hair. Up until now she had simply grasped the antique couch's wooden frame as she laid against some pillows, but today he needed to find the thing that was pulling Jacky apart.
No henna anywhere, he had the urge to do something new. But what? A rack of some sort? A beast? It all seemed ridiculous, too much like a torture scene. He needed to go past that.
He took a seat on the tattered couch Jacky had been posing on, aware for the first time of how uncomfortable it was. The girl had never complained. He went to another—a large, leather affair—and collapsed in some pillows. There were no ideas coming, only the thought that the posture he'd chosen for Jacky felt like sacrilege to the pure memory of Dina.
As Mustafa dozed, a tearful Dina came to him. A week after Minya, his father had announced the news. He’d gotten his son a visa to study engineering at the University of Syracuse. There was no question he would go. It was an opportunity like no one in his family had ever had.
Out of desperation, Mustafa had revealed his secret affair. “She’s Christian,” his father had explained. “It will never do. What will your children be?”
When he told Dina, she wrung her hands again and again before she told him she was already promised to someone else anyway. It had all been so dramatic then—children, marriage, fate. Mustafa only wanted to be with her, and, with a plane ticket and the promise of an American education, that simple desire had been torn away.
Mustafa stayed in Upstate New York for a painful four months and then stopped taking his father’s calls and his checks. He followed a Lebanese friend to New York City and worked as a cab driver there and then later in San Francisco, where he put himself through art school. He never went back home.
The sun pierced his eyelids through the blinds. The real Dina was likely ten kilograms heavier and taking care of her grandchildren by now, likely sitting not less than a kilometer away from where she’d grown up, minding her house, receiving guests.
This woman in this new picture was a modern, suffering version of Dina. After all, his preoccupation with submission had to do with at once illustrating his culture and rejecting it through its own abomination. At least that’s what his artist’s statement said.
Finally, he got up. Mustafa was impatient for Jacky to arrive. He wandered around the silent house, pausing at the doorway of each room he didn't use. The fancy linens and gaudy furniture had never made him feel so much a stranger. He went out the front door, to feel the chill of the coming winter season on his skin.
THAT AFTERNOON, PAUL didn’t ride side by side with Jacky as was their custom when biking together. Instead, he followed behind, wary of which of these fancy old restored mansions they would be stopping at, as they glided from the shabby area just past the Leigh Street Viaduct into the nicer part of Church Hill.
He had come here the one time he'd gone out to dinner with Faye, confident that this far from school, no one they knew would see them.
And here he was, months later, blindly following Jacky’s back as she pedaled, until she turned to him, yelled out, “Up here,” turning away again to gesture to a palatial brick building up ahead, with a man out front. They locked their bikes to a stop sign on the corner, and Jacky waved towards the man and called, “Mustafa.”
As they approached and Jacky greeted him, Paul noticed Mustafa was shorter than Jacky, and his hair was thinning, these observations a relief to his stomach, his head.
When Paul shook Mustafa’s hand, the older man looked him sharply in the eyes. “This is a surprise,” he said, his grip tight.
“I hope it’s not a problem I’ve come,” Paul said. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
Mustafa paused. “My father taught me to welcome the unexpected,” he said, somewhat dourly, it seemed, before breaking into a small smile.
“I tried to call. No answer,” Jacky said.
“It’s good to meet you,” Mustafa said to Paul.
As they walked in the door, the older man lightly tapped the younger on the arm, steering him towards the right and into what must have been the studio. The light streaked in through tall, partially-shuttered windows. The rich red tones of the plush carpet glowed up onto the ancient furniture—marble, giltwood, leather, velvet—and the mess of art-making over it all.
He envied them, how it would feel to sit for hours together in this space, making a painting; it must have been the one hidden under a tarp spread over a large canvas, its giant easel inches from a wall papered in flower patterns.
“This is where the magic happens,” Mustafa said, with a glance at Jacky. “Can I get you some mint tea?” he asked.
Together, Jacky said, “Sure,” and Paul said, “No.” Then, Paul took a deep breath and said, “Oh, okay.”
Mustafa disappeared into the kitchen. Jacky turned to Paul and he went towards her, put his hand up to her cheek, meant to kiss her but didn’t. “I’ll just stay a few minutes,” he said.
She nodded. “The room is crazy, right?” she whispered. “The house belongs to this patron he has, some guy who lives on Monument. He doesn’t care about the furniture, says Mustafa can do whatever he wants with it.”
When Mustafa came back with a tray, he sat in a leather armchair facing Paul and Jacky. Filling an uncomfortable silence, he asked, “So, how long have you two known each other?”
“It depends when you start counting,” Jacky said.
“Three years?” Paul ventured.
“No, more, silly,” Jacky said. “We met at that opening, remember?”
“Opening?” Paul asked.
“Your freshman show,” she said. “You made that amazing mirrored sphere thing—a single blue light making the room glow blue?”
“That’s right,” he said.
She turned to Mustafa. “He built it all from mirrors he got from this car junkyard.” And she went on, about where he’d made it and how long it had taken.
Paul’s eyes wandered again to the covered canvas. When Jacky was mid-sentence, describing the moment she saw him in the gallery, alone in a corner, he gestured towards it and blurted, “Can we see what you’ve got under there?”
“I was just about to show you that,” Mustafa said. “Go ahead. Uncover it.”
Paul looked at Jacky, who nodded. He got up, and, like a magician, yanked away the cloth.
The paint felt like it was inside his nostrils.
“Wow,” he heard Jacky say from behind him.
Seeing Jacky like that—somehow closer than he’d ever been, golden and suffering—it seemed he had truly lost her. A surge of rage ran through him quickly and was gone.
Mustafa stared as Jacky went to the boy, and wrapped herself around him. She said his name again and again. “Paul, Paul!” She put her hands against both his cheeks and held them there. His face held no expression. “Paul…”
Mustafa got up. Paul craned his head down into the crook of Jacky’s neck and held it there. She rubbed her hand back and forth against his short, dark hair.
Mustafa stepped back, stunned at the tenderness that radiated off of them. He wanted to put his own face there.
It had felt like forever until he finally got the nerve up to touch Dina. He’d met her months before, on the street near his house. Her younger sister had fallen and skinned her knee as they passed him. Dina was taking her to her first day of school. Her family just moved to the neighborhood, she had told him, with a smile that broke something inside him.
They’d pass each other often, and he’d always come up with something small to say, even if it was just about the weather. He managed one day to catch her alone, when her sister’s school had a special holiday. He convinced her to walk with him and led her down the alleyways of the nearby market, his heart beating fast. When they were walking far enough away from everything they knew, among the stalls selling cow intestines, bright polyester underwear, and used comic books, mid-stride, he took her hand. He didn’t look down or slow his step. Her skin was warm. She squeezed his palm, and he felt a jolt of desire through him. He felt she was his.
Through the dream, Mustafa heard Jacky’s whisper: “It’s okay.”
“Don’t leave me,” came Paul’s hoarse reply. “I'm sorry.”
“Why are you sorry? I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere,” she murmured so lightly Mustafa could barely make it out.
Paul looked up at the painting again.
“Do you like it?” she said.
There was no way for Mustafa to be a part of this.
“You're beautiful,” Paul said.
“Paul?” Mustafa ventured from his distance. They turned towards him.
“I usually don't allow it, but I'd like you to stay as we finish,” the artist said.
Paul couldn't talk yet, only grunted, nodded. He took a seat on a leather couch with a view both of the painting and the place Jacky said she would be posing.
When Paul blinked, she disappeared behind a screen at the end of the room, returned in a robe, dropped the robe and sat, stretched herself across another couch. He got up to help her with the pillows. He couldn't even look at her, with Mustafa watching them. He looked at pieces of her: white arm, her soft thigh, the tendons under the front of her neck.
Back at his seat, he concentrated on his reflection in a brass-framed mirror on a close wall. The skin under his eyes looked darker than he remembered. His hair was ridiculous. He stared through himself, and he thought about Faye, with clothes on, walking busily down a street in L.A. during the lunch hour at an administrative job she had taken for the insurance.
Then suddenly the sound of brush against a canvas was whispering, then loud. The painting stunned him still, the golden beauty in it so real. But she was made of paint and not Jacky. Even the girl on the couch was not Jacky, her eyes on some distant thing. Her body was all form.
Paul's eyes traced her and Jacky sat like that, shifting every now and then, as Mustafa scratched the surface in front of him with line and color.
MUSTAFA TURNED WITH a small nod to Jacky and Paul. She in her robe and he in a t-shirt and jeans, the young couple stood behind him, as he laid the final strokes.
He could hear Leon now: “Where's the henna? The kuffiah? How am I supposed to sell this as Arab?”
Mustafa rather liked it. “Woman' s body as living entity…as other life,” he muttered to himself as he detailed the woman’s bush, her vaginal lips peeking out. He signed his name in Arabic script in a bottom corner, and after he laid the final stroke—a last dab of black to her belly button—Mustafa put his brushes down.
He closed his eyes to conjure Dina. No matter how hard he tried, she just wasn’t there. The only thing was behind him, the sound of Jacky and Paul sighing as they looked into the window he had made.
Photo by S. Lohiser