After Aubrey’s death, Dion spent a week alone in his studio, surrounded by experimental works that would never leave the room. He covered canvases in turbulent colors that mixed into noxious browns and grays. He painted black hands on the floor and stood in their palms, leaving footprints in the paint. He shredded a canvas and dipped the tattered ribbons in wine. He drew the shape of an eye, empty, with eyelids the color and texture of asphalt.
Between projects, he stared at pictures of the accident. Some of them included Yezda, sitting on the side of the road with her head between her knees, blocking out everything. Mostly there were twisted pieces of metal, the car a broken and scattered sculpture.
On the seventh day, Yezda baited him out of his studio with a phone call. She needed something from the apartment, and he let her in. She collected her prayer rug from Aubrey’s office. “Thank you for letting me come for it.” She hugged the roll to her chest.
“It’s your rug. It should go where you go.”
She held it jealously in her arms, as if Dion might be lying, might try to snatch it from her. Aubrey’s desk occupied the far wall, stacked with magazines and files. He hadn’t set foot in the room since the accident.
“This is all,” Yezda said. “I should go.” There were still cuts on her face. Maybe that was her excuse for missing Aubrey’s funeral, but Dion didn’t buy it. She’d been the one driving the car, and she’d walked away from the wreck. Shouldn’t she have had the basic humanity to show up at the funeral? Dion looked for it in her eyes, but he thought they looked wrong. They appeared human enough, but there was no soul there. No mourning. The cuts should have made her seem more real, but to Dion they looked inauthentic.
He walked her out of the apartment, an uncomfortably warm pressure growing in his chest. The sensation was illusory, but it felt like the place was closing after Yezda, emptying out behind her. When Dion returned to his studio, he couldn’t work. Any time he couldn’t paint, his friends blamed Aubrey’s death. The artists with studios nearby exchanged the romantic fantasy that Dion had lost his inspiration. He supposed they thought it made a good story.
Yezda blamed Dion’s troubles on Aubrey’s death, too. That didn’t sit well with him, and yet Yezda haunted his studio. She was a manager of artists. Most of her clients were far more successful than Dion. But she had taken an interest in Aubrey and coached her on overseeing Dion’s career, something he could never handle on his own. With Aubrey dead, Yezda managed him pro bono.
She perched in a tall chair across from his easel. She came for the day, then another day, then a week, then a month. He no longer tried to guess why. Her prayer rug found a new home in the corner of his studio, where she would disappear behind paint-smudged shelves.
He listened to her prayers, and he heard them as an empty performance. So many streams of consonants like frothing water, whether a violent boil or a solemn simmer, always the same routine without variation or heart.
Yezda seldom spoke outside of prayer, especially not to Dion. Her greetings were a simple, “Hello,” or “The rain just won’t let up.” She avoided any mention of art, coming and going without rhythm. While she was in the studio, she would pretend to read articles and tap her clipboard with a pen. Dion would draw in graphite or charcoal and then throw the sketch away in disgust.
When Yezda was away, Dion imagined her elsewhere, occupying space in her own office or home. He pictured her standing in barren rooms. Left alone, he drew lines—just lines—in black, or he painted lines in red.
This went on for two months. He couldn’t paint or draw anything that pleased him. Yezda used older works to populate Dion’s first gallery showing since Aubrey’s death: vibrant full-body portraits in charcoal, pastels, graphite, and paint. Dion didn’t attend the opening, but Yezda brought fliers and photographs to the studio to show him. She perched on her tall chair with her back to a wall of portraits, her voice as flat as the canvases surrounding her. “Do you want to hear another?” She was reading reviews, leafing through local journals. “They’re all very positive.”
“Did anything sell?”
“There’s a lot of interest in that nude.”
Which meant nothing had sold. He frowned at a red line he’d painted down the center of a canvas, thickening it with each stroke, letting it bulge as though it might become a figure.
“This one says,” Yezda held up a magazine, “that you possess a remarkable gift for capturing the inimitable spark of life as expressed in the human body.”
“Only an art writer would say that.” Dion watched a bulbous drip of paint wander free from the line, tumbling away. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Yes, it does,” said Yezda.
He found himself wanting to draw Yezda’s face. He didn’t know why. He wanted to draw something alive, something animated, coherent, firm. Something whole that could not be divided, even if it was a hollow shell of a being. The drawing captured the emptiness of her gaze, and when he showed it to her, he felt a selfish rush of retribution, as though he were striking back at her for something she’d done. He said, “How is it? My manager’s opinion.”
Her pupils rose shallow and dull, but as she looked at the drawing the light caught in them and they shone black like obsidian mirrors. She straightened, her lips closed, her brow lifting. In her eyes, Dion saw something he’d never seen before, a depth that went on and on inside of her. This was something he could never have captured. He felt like he’d handed Yezda a blank page and called it a close-up of the sun. He lost his breath to a cold sweat, like a child afraid to show his parents what he’d drawn for fear they’d tear it down. The dark of Yezda’s eyes grew to consume the page, scrutinizing every line and flaw, looking past them to understand his failed retribution.
“It’s fine.” Yezda put her clipboard and purse under her arm. Her tall chair tilted and almost fell as she went for the door.
“No, it’s not.” Dion pulled the drawing back. “Just forget you ever saw it.”
“It’s fine. I’ll see you tomorrow.” The door clicked shut behind her.
Dion avoided his studio after that. He converted his apartment into a workspace, preserving only the things he couldn’t stand to change. Yezda caught on quickly enough, but she came to the apartment only rarely, for actual business. She never mentioned his absence from the studio. He was an artist, after all. Wasn’t he expected to be unreliable?
Before Aubrey died, Dion would sometimes find her and Yezda at home, sharing a sofa against the wall in the entryway. They’d sit across from each other, leaning on opposite armrests. His wife would page through an art magazine while Yezda drafted a letter that might later appear in those same magazines. One hooked the other with a knee or ankle, touching idly, distantly, the way that lovers touch. Now Dion eyed that sofa whenever he entered his apartment, heavy with their absence.
When Yezda did come to his apartment, she stepped quickly past the sofa as if the wind pushed her away from it. She would come to discuss a gallery, a marketing campaign, a ploy to revitalize Dion’s suddenly crumbling career. She’d appear at the door, detached and formal, and Dion welcomed her like a curator.
One day, almost a year after Aubrey’s death, Yezda came to the apartment and found sketches of torsos and legs strewn over tables and desks like fallen leaves. Dion had completely abandoned his studio by then, filling his dining room with canvases for paintings and letting his sketches gather in dunes. Yezda paced the dining room, ignoring him, until she finally sat at the table. She gathered the sketches and put them in an orderly stack, clearing space for a bundle of fliers she’d prepared. “This gallery opens in two months.”
Dion answered with an aloof hum. His art hadn’t recovered. He produced portraits, but they lacked something—wit, perhaps, some fugitive compulsion that he couldn’t name. Yezda used them, alongside his older work, to populate gallery shows that now disappointed critics and colleagues and did not sell. The romance of his absent muse was gone. The same artists who had rallied around him now accused him of going stale.
“Do you have enough work finished?” Yezda asked. She suddenly shook her head as if to escape a wasp. “It’s never finished, I know, but ready to be displayed?”
“Nobody wants this.” He lifted a drawing from a pile on the kitchen counter: a woman’s crossed legs in the posture of sitting, delicate ankles, bare feet, hips that terminated without a torso.
“What about the portraits? You have so many.” Yezda turned to a wall of framed art, drawings of Aubrey at every angle. She’d seen them hundreds of times. Dion had given her a few. Yet her breath caught at the sight of them, as if they were new, as if she’d never seen them before.
In the kitchen, he turned the kettle, grating it audibly against the hot burner. The sound drew Yezda’s eyes to him, her focused gaze threatening to burn a hole through him. He couldn’t meet them. “People want new work. I can’t keep drawing faces.”
He flicked the sketch away. It collided with the kettle and spun with a charred corner to the floor. “I’m supposed to capture something. I used to start with the face and the shoulders and work down, but these days I get half-done and I have to stop.” He started to sigh but forced himself to chuckle instead. “I swear I’m not one of those brooding artist types. I’m trying to work.”
When Yezda stood, Dion eyed the roll of her shoulders, the bend of her spine as she pushed out the chair with the backs of her knees. He could see the exact spot where she divided in half across her narrow waist—torso above and legs below, everything ready to split, visible intermittently in the flashing emergency lights of a truck whose driver would idle by the cab, staring down at her. No, that was from the accident, and that wasn’t Yezda. These images kept breaking in, things about Aubrey he fought so hard not to remember. He quickly reached for another memory, fighting to remember, instead, drawing Aubrey’s body with an uninterrupted sweeping, curving line down her back, hip, and leg. One motion. But he had seen her broken apart so simply, so quickly, that he wondered how she’d ever held together. How did anyone?
Yezda tapped a fingernail to the glass over one of the portraits. Sketchy charcoal lines captured the symmetry of Aubrey’s features. White space in her eyes imitated the gleam of life. In the glass, the reflection of Yezda’s strong features lay intimately against Aubrey’s round cheek.
The kettle screamed and Dion startled, pulling it from the burner, accidentally spilling hot water. He hit a stack of discarded sketches that toppled toward the stove. He set the kettle down and pushed the paper a few inches back. “I spent my whole life drawing people, but I never really understood a body until she died.”
Yezda’s eyes held no thought or pity. “I understand.” She moved to the kitchen. “Why don’t you have a look at the fliers I brought? They’ve got your work on the back.”
Her approach pushed him out of the kitchen. One more thing she could step in and take over. Like his studio, his art, his wife.
In the glass of the framed sketches, Dion saw the light of the fire that touched Yezda’s face. A stove heating a kettle, piles of drawings and some stray oil from the morning’s breakfast, a snapping whip of flame that was just a flash and then gone. It left a black mark on the ceiling. Yezda staggered back, immediately stammering, “I’m fine, I’m fine.” And then cringing as the pain set in. “I’m okay. I’m….”
Dion had to walk Yezda out of the house because she couldn’t see. He took her to the hospital, where they would bandage her face and cover her eyes.
The drugs they gave her left her drunk and thoughtless. When the doctors asked Dion who he was—husband or boyfriend—he said that he didn’t even know her that well. As he escorted Yezda to her room, he found himself hoping the drugs kept her from hearing or remembering that. He stood to the side as they bound her face and eyes behind bandages and gauze. She lay in a narrow bed and asked the doctors over and over again how bad her eyes were, whether she would be blind. She was disturbingly calm and patient with their cagey answers.
Dion left the room before an answer manifested, hoping she couldn’t sense him gone. In the waiting room there was coffee and the white noise of an infomercial. The window showed dusk turning to night. By some instinct, he’d grabbed his sketchbook when he hurried out of the apartment. He held it open and let it fall to a blank page. There was a pencil in the spine but he left it there. He recalled that first sketch of Yezda’s face. He imagined drawing her now, the shape of her head altered by bandages.
This was how he was standing when her brother arrived. It was the first time Dion realized that Yezda even had family.
He picked Dion out immediately, as if they’d met before, approaching him with swift purpose, introducing himself as Agir. He held a number of pamphlets and a few large manila envelopes. “Will she be here long? I brought her mail. Mostly for her work, I think? I guess it won’t do much good for her right now.”
“I don’t know how long she’ll be here.” Dion wondered whether he should sound guilty. The large envelopes were addressed to someone other than Yezda—relatives, maybe.
A thin man with a hiker’s backpack, Agir tightened the straps and turned to Dion like he was about to start up the side of a mountain. “Do you know what these are? You wouldn’t, would you? She wouldn’t say.” He was a fast talker, shaking his head and not giving Dion time to think about it. “Men back home have been writing to ask our parents about Yezda. Our grandparents set it up. It’s all a big scheme.”
Dion frowned. “A scheme?”
A quick nod and a clipped sigh. “Yezda’s an American citizen. The man who marries her gets to come here, too. If he’s rich.” He handed Dion the envelopes. “They’re all rich, at least, as rich as they need to be. Whoever she marries can set up a landing place for his family, and our family. Whoever’s trying to get out.”
“Kurdistan.” He studied Dion’s clueless face. “I guess it doesn’t mean much to you.”
“Northern Iraq, right? Iran?”
The man’s narrowed eyelids drew thin. “Kurdistan was there first.”
Dion held Agir’s gaze with indifference as he pulled his fingers across the creased openings of the envelopes, sealing them a bit more. “I guess I don’t get it.”
“Twelve years later, and people are still trying to get out. But some of us are trying to go back now, too. Now that the government’s caved in, some of us are hoping. I’m going back.” He tugged on his pack again, as if he might hike all the way to Kurdistan. “I’m going back soon. They’ll need me there.”
Dion hadn’t been watching the news. He’d heard about a war in Iraq called “Desert Storm,” but he hadn’t expected it to end that quickly. “Your family?”
The man shook his head. “The people. I’ve got a business degree. They’ll need people like me to set up the new state —a real one this time.”
Dion furrowed his brow at the gravity of Agir’s tone, but didn’t really understand it. So he just flapped the envelopes in his hands and asked with a dubious huff, “Are we supposed to tell her what’s in these? Does she go for this arranged marriage thing?”
“She doesn’t hate it as much as you’d think. She’s got to think about it. Got to. The family pushes. I’m leaving soon. When I’m gone, all she’ll have is our parents. And you, I suppose.”
Dion struggled to keep the confusion off his face. He wasn’t in a right place to look after anyone, especially Yezda of all people. “Have you looked in on her yet? You realize she might end up blind?”
“Yes, I do. That’s why….” Agir took a breath, and then started again. “I’m trying to tell you something. They’ll push. My parents, the whole family, they’ll push. And if she can’t work? Those envelopes represent men who can take care of her.”
Dion’s voice hardened. “That is how a businessman would put it.”
“Well, that’s who I am.” He frowned deeply and leaned in to get a closer look at Dion. “But listen, I don’t know what your deal is. We never see you. We try not to be suspicious. But you two have been going together for a long time now, and we wonder.”
“Going together?” Dion put the envelopes under his sketchbook, which he tucked beneath his arm. “Me and Yezda?”
“A couple years now. She says.”
Dion shook his head. “It was really more about Aubrey.”
The man’s lips curled. “Aubrey? Who is Aubrey?” The hospital doors were the white of paper. Beyond the doors, Yezda lay alone, somewhere in that maze of clean tile. She’d told her family about him but never about Aubrey. “I guess we could just say there was another woman involved. But there’s not anymore.”
“Another woman?” The man’s nostrils flared, his eyes narrowed. “What kind of man are you?”
The laugh that escaped Dion’s chest was small. He would remember it as small and accidental, but for the rest of his life, Yezda’s brother would think of Dion as a two-timer who laughed in his face. Agir yanked the envelopes from him, causing the sketchbook to fall. By the time Dion picked it up, Agir had vanished into the hospital’s labyrinth.
Dion found a chair. He opened his sketchbook and this time took the pencil in hand. He drew the planes of Yezda’s cheeks running to the precipice of her wide jaw. He imagined Aubrey’s lips roaming freely across them. He drew from memory. An hour later, Yezda’s brother reappeared in the waiting room, but walked through it without looking at Dion, exiting the hospital without a word.
In Yezda’s hospital room, Dion found her awake, sitting up, hands knotted limply in her lap. Her head lolled to one side. Bandages covered her eyes and forehead. Less severe burns ran down one cheek and glistened with medicinal gel. She turned her head in the direction of Dion’s footsteps.
“It’s me.” He kept his distance from the bed.
She hummed. Perhaps she was speaking. No, a hum. Then she spoke clearly. “Don’t say you’re sorry.”
He hadn’t considered it, but that made him feel guilty. “I’m sorry.”
“Dion,” she chided.
“My brother is mad at you.” She spoke with strange amusement, a kind of approval.
“I don’t think he and I were on the same wavelength.” Dion eyed the manila envelopes piled on the table next to her bed. They’d been opened—handwritten letters, pictures of men. “Is it normal for your brother to be pushing that kind of thing while you’re injured?”
“He’s dramatic.” She offered a small smile. It seemed to come easier now, her eyes covered, her voice loosened by the drugs. “The doctors want me to let my eyes rest for a week or two. My brother will be on a plane by then.”
“He thinks I’m cheating on you. With Aubrey.” She sputtered and sat up a bit straighter. “Sorry.” He took the chair next to the bed. “Why don’t they know about Aubrey?”
“I don’t think my parents know what a lesbian is. I wouldn’t have much luck convincing them I’d fallen for a client’s wife.”
“I wasn’t really a client, though. She could’ve just been a good friend.”
“Lying about something is more difficult than just not mentioning it.” Her lips pursed. She fidgeted with her hands—a gesture he’d never seen from her. “And Aubrey was a terrible influence…they never would have liked her.”
“But they know who I am.”
“Yes, you’re a man. With a successful career.”
“A career, anyway.”
“We spend a lot of time together. And I did tell one big lie. I told them you were a convert.”
“I don’t think I’d make a good Muslim. I’d never remember to pray.”
She shrugged one shoulder. “My parents didn’t bug me as much about marriage when they knew I was spending time at your apartment. But if they knew I was really there for Aubrey…”
Dion frowned at the photos of men strewn over the table. “My parents never liked Aubrey, you know. They’re traditional, too. Aubrey never was.”
“She ran from any tradition. I’ll never know how you convinced her to get married. She always said that being in love doesn’t mean you need to be married.”
Dion had known of the relationship between Yezda and Aubrey from the start. But he’d never thought of them being in love, not in some grand fairy-tale way. He barely thought of himself and Aubrey that way. Their own wedding had been so utilitarian. “Do you ever seriously think about getting married?”
“In general.” She turned her face away from his voice. “My grandparents started sending those envelopes when I was fourteen. I liked the idea back then. I imagined a big party at a park I remembered from when I was little. Dancing with the wind in the trees.” She gestured broadly to indicate dancers. “The long sleeves of my dress. Everyone wearing beautiful things. The gifts.” She lowered her hands. “I never thought much about a groom. I thought married was just something you became, like an adult.”
“Your brother thinks there’s going to be more pressure now.”
“Because I’m going to have to stay with my parents while I’m recovering,” she said, biting down on her teeth. “There won’t be any getting away.”
When the doctors released her the next evening, Dion drove her to her house to retrieve her cat—an elegant black shadow with enough fur on just her tail to carpet a house. He packed a few other necessities and hauled it to his car. Her family had surrendered her quickly once she said she was going to Dion’s. Not even Agir had protested.
Dion had no guest room and didn’t feel he could make a blind woman sleep on the couch. He carried her suitcase to his room. “I’m surprised your family doesn’t complain about me,” he told her.
Her head turned in the general direction of his voice. “My spending any time at all with a man is an improvement in their eyes.” She stood in the dining room, her prayer rug held to her chest, her cat pressing against her ankles.
“They might not even care what I do with women as long as I formally marry a man.”
“Aren’t there men you can pay for that kind of thing?” “I can’t pretend to be married. Where my family comes from, a marriage is a very specific contract between a man and his wives. I don’t want to fake that.” Her head tilted toward the window, maybe able to catch the warmth of the sunlight. “Is there still room on the patio if I want to pray out there?” The prayer rug was not large, but since he’d abandoned his studio, every inch of the floor was covered. Aubrey’s office was the only room with the space for it.
“The patio should work,” Dion said. “Do you need help finding it?”
“I think I remember. I want to try.” She moved her legs carefully to nudge the cat out of the way. “Make sure she doesn’t follow me outside, please.”
Dion picked up the cat. He put food in a bowl on the floor, but the cat was more interested in exploring the shadows behind the canvases that leaned against the walls.
Dion sat at the table, opening his sketchbook. He thought he would draw Yezda’s face again. He remembered well the creases at the corners of her eyes, the daring smirk she used to wear for Aubrey, the lines around her mouth. He drew them carefully, darkening his fingers with graphite as he shaded her cheeks. He switched to oil pastels and started another drawing, carefully choosing and blending the browns of her skin, the black of her hair and eyes. Then, for a third, he sketched her profile in charcoal, her forehead pressed to the floor in prayer, drawing her with her eyes closed. He’d never looked at her face while she prayed, but he’d heard the concentration in her voice. And he’d seen her kiss Aubrey, surrendering, seeking, as if it was a religious act. He understood Yezda’s supplication in the same way he understood her loss.
After some time, when Yezda hadn’t returned from prayer, Dion closed the sketchbook and went looking for her. He found her in Aubrey’s office, her rolled prayer rug still held to her chest. She’d never made it to the patio, walking a confused circle around the room with one hand on the wall. Her feet had stirred up a year’s worth of dust that drifted in the dusk light. She turned at the sound of Dion’s approach. “I don’t know where I am.”
“I’m sorry.” She ducked her head and took a tentative step toward him, only to doubt herself and freeze. Trapped in the center of the room, she reached out in search of a wall, but only stirred the dust in the air. She sneezed and covered her face.
“We might as well set you up in here,” he said.
“But it’s Aubrey’s.”
“We all worked here sometimes.” He put a hand on her shoulder to ground her. “There’s room for your rug. I can move the sofa in here so you’ve got some place to sleep.”
“But you’ve kept everything like this on purpose.”
“We’ve got no room for a ghost.” His laughter was unconvincing, even to himself. “She’s taking up more room now than when she was alive.”
Dion felt the familiar dry pressure building in his chest, pushing him away from her. She was the one who’d interfered with his marriage, who’d failed to control her fucking car, who’d driven him out of his studio. The dust rose around her like something she’d summoned. It made her sneeze, and then her shoulders lifted and she abruptly ducked her head toward him. Her forehead struck him in the chest, right in his sternum where the pressure was building.
The blow hurt and he cringed, but Yezda left her head there. He didn’t withdraw. Instead he found himself staring at the empty walls and smelling the dust.
She stepped back from him suddenly. “Help me find East.”
When he left the room, she was praying. The purple velvet of the rug was accented by white flowers with gold thread all pointing to a stylized portrayal of a mosque near its top, minarets directed East. Yezda knelt in the center and placed her forehead to the mosque, bandages to satin, the tip of her nose brushing white flowers.
There had been an evening, almost two years before, that Dion was cooking a special dinner. He had discovered his grandmother’s recipe book, the one his father had used to write a menu for a restaurant, and Dion wanted to recreate her marinara as proof to Aubrey that cooking ran in the family. Aubrey went out to buy wine and came back with a chianti. And Yezda.
Dion made a show of cooking, trying to talk through the recipe like his father used to do for guests, but he forgot to heat the water and lost his audience during the wait. Yezda retreated to the sofa in the next room, reading over an article Aubrey had written, but Aubrey impatiently turned to the wine, growing light-headed and drowsy on her empty stomach, complaining to Dion about the delay, and then disappearing herself.
At one point Dion stepped out of the kitchen to find Aubrey stretched over Yezda on the sofa, dozing. Yezda was helpless under her, the article draft resting on Aubrey’s back and Aubrey’s face buried in the crook of her neck. She blew Aubrey’s red hair out of her face and looked to Dion. “She’s your wife. Is there some trick to get her to move?”
He shrugged and said with a relaxed smirk, “You’ll just have to make yourself comfortable until dinner’s ready,” then went into the kitchen to stir the gnocchi.
When he emerged minutes later to put the dinner on the table, the pair was still stuck to one another on the sofa. Yezda had put her arms around Aubrey and closed her eyes. The women lay together, forehead to forehead, both half-conscious. The article Yezda had been reading lay on the floor next to her prayer rug and Aubrey’s empty wine glass. Dion set the glass and the article aside, but unrolled the satin prayer rug as a blanket over the women, the gold-lined minarets pointing toward their almost-touching noses.
The gesture made Yezda’s brow crease and eyes open. “I hope this doesn’t mean the food won’t be ready until morning.”
“You two are a picture,” Dion said. “Maybe I’ll paint it sometime.”
“She’s completely asleep.”
“Try kissing her,” he said, because he could tell she wanted to.
Yezda did. She pressed her forehead to Aubrey’s, nose to Aubrey’s cheek, lips to Aubrey’s lips. It was a practiced kiss but sincere, comfortable in its intimacy. It failed to wake Aubrey, though the sleeping woman’s lips twitched.
Dion spent the two weeks of Yezda’s blindness drawing her face: her wide brow, strong nose, heavy lips with that sly smirk that he noticed more often now that he wasn’t distracted by her eyes. He drew her with eyes open and eyes closed, smiling and frowning, and even with her expression empty, surrounded by dark shading. Yezda’s face filled his sketchbook the way Aubrey’s face covered the wall in the dining room.
When the last page of his sketchbook was full, he set up a canvas against the wall of the dining room and resorted once more to painting a red line. He could hear Yezda’s voice from the office down the hall; she had stubbornly insisted on working however she could, even if she couldn’t see, couldn’t write, couldn’t read. The phone became her only tool. He listened in, ears perking up as Yezda spoke with the loud, forced cheer she used for clients. She laughed and teased artists about their work, publishers about their magazines, and critics about their taste. She performed.
Dion painted a vertical red line. He set that aside, retrieved a new canvas, and painted a horizontal one. He discarded canvases as if they cost nothing, waiting for the lines to become something and neglecting them when they did not. He waited for the single motion to bend and become intimate, imagining the practiced lines of Aubrey’s body in repose. Dion let his hand remember that line. He pulled the red paint across the canvas, and it curved for her shoulder, her side, her hip, her leg, her bent knee. With a single line he implied Aubrey’s relaxed figure, not needing her face or eyes to know the vitality she brought to that one red line. On a whim, he let the line loop back and continue, finding another figure in the painting, another body beside Aubrey’s.
From the next room came Yezda’s voice. “Oh, I’ll be able to see,” she said. “I can already tell. But how will I look?” The caller did not understand her, but Dion did. He had drawn her face so many times, he understood her worry perfectly.
When they went to the hospital to have Yezda’s bandages removed, Dion brought his sketchbook the way another person might bring a friend. Yezda’s brother had sent his first letter from Iraq—Kurdistan—including a polaroid of him posing with their grandparents.
“Read it to me,” Yezda had said.
“It’s not in English,” he remarked, and described the photograph instead.
This time Dion told the nursing staff that he was a friend, but Yezda told the doctor they were family. In the face of the doctor’s confusion, Yezda perched on the exam table and explained, “I was going to marry his wife.”
The doctor laughed grudgingly before asking if she was ready to take the bandages off. He did not wait for an answer.
Dion pressed his hand against his sketchbook, feeling the pages and all his conjured images of Yezda’s face. Were her eyes still sharp in the corners beneath those bandages? Wide, large, so deep with wisdom that he had mistaken them for being empty?
It seemed to him that people and their lives were held together with wax seals: all too easy to melt and break apart.
Yezda breathed so deeply that her shoulders rose. The doctor removed the final bandage, put it aside, and offered her a mirror. She pushed it aside and looked straight at Dion. She said, “How is it? The artist’s opinion.”
He leaned on his sketchbook, pushing it down against his lap until the bones in his legs ached. He couldn’t have known then that ten years in the future he’d stand in bright, clean galleries and talk about the surrealist turn in his art. Critics would interview him about the moment when he began to draw limbs that did not connect, faces of strange bony shapes, eyes and teeth of immaculate beauty but that did not quite align. Dion would explain that the souls in his art were not in the shapes of the faces or bodies. Capturing life didn’t even require faces or eyes or bodies at all. The soul was when you stepped back and let your eyes lose focus—what you saw in the blur of your wandering attention, that was the soul.
Patches of differently colored skin knitted diagonally over the bridge of Yezda’s nose. One eyebrow sagged slightly. The scars reached far enough down one cheek to make a corner of her lips rigid, the other wavering as it struggled to imitate her casual smirk. He studied one of Yezda’s eyes. And then the other. One looked identical to before the burn, with its sharp corners and border of darkness. But the skin around the other was light and sandy, the sharp corners dulled. In both eyes shone the same depths, and Dion wandered far enough into them to see the wavering of fear he’d missed before. One of Yezda’s eyes narrowed. The other did not.
Dion gave her a smile, his lips turning up, his eyelids wrinkling, one not quite as much as the other.
He drove them to his apartment to retrieve her cat. They found the furry shadow stretched out on the floor of the office, lazing in the warmth of waning sunlight. Yezda crept up to her quietly, crouching down to pull her fingers through generous fur. The cat continued to doze, but lifted her tail happily. “I’m tired, too,” Yezda responded. Purring filled the room as she collected her things from Aubrey’s desk and from the sofa.
Dion carried a painted canvas into the office. “I think this might look good in here. What do you think?” He lifted it against the wall so that Yezda could see it in place. He let it rest on the back of the sofa. One painted red line, tracing the shape of a woman’s body at rest, and then doubling back to outline the silhouette of a second woman beside her. The shapes were mostly implied, limbs lost in empty space, faces forgone in favor of the general shape of heads close together.
Yezda examined the painting as if expecting it to move. She didn’t smile. Her eyes were shadowed alcoves in her face. The soft light and shadows made her features vague and unreadable. She spoke plainly. “I like it. It’s good enough for a gallery.”
“I didn’t paint it for a gallery.” Dion stood with his hands on his hips, watching her. “I think I want to keep some of my best work.”
Yezda flashed that hidden smirk of hers. “As your manager, I’ll say it’s fine work. It looks good in here. But you really should give the public your very best.”
“What about as anyone other than my manager?”
She sighed. “You can be such an artist sometimes.” She shook her head, smile gone. “As Aubrey’s wife, then. It’s missing something. But it’s always going to. It’s perfect enough right where it is.” She picked up her cat and set its slumbering form in a pet carrier. The cat roused itself too late, the zippers closing around it. All it could do was trill in sleepy protest as she lifted the carrier. She nodded to a satchel of clothes. “If you can get that for me, that’s everything. We can go.”
Dion lifted the bag from the floor. He pointed toward the prayer rug that lay unrolled in the corner. “You have more of those?”
She nodded. “Is it okay if I leave this one here?”
“As long as you want.” From the doorway, he looked back at her still standing in the middle of the room. They’d vacuumed thoroughly and the air was crisp and bright.
“Did you draw me in bandages?” she asked.
“I might have.” He had, of course, several times. “Why?”
“I want to remember my blindness,” she said. The red light of dusk picked out the scars around her eyes and on her cheek. “Don’t you?”
He wasn’t sure whether she was asking about her blindness or his own, but he agreed and carried her belongings to the car.
“Gallery of Limbs” by K. James D’Agostino and the artwork titled Fallen Leaves by Tannya Tang appeared in Issue 42 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
K. James D’Agostino is an author, poet, and essayist with an MFA from the University of Illinois. Recent work has been featured or is forthcoming from The Gravity of The Thing, Multiplicity Magazine, Abandon Journal, and The Briar Cliff Review. They have been nominated for the Best of the Net, Best American Sci-Fi, the Pushcart Prize, and the Shirley Jackson Award for horror.
Tannya Tang is a third year student at UC Berkeley. She has been drawing all her life. Busy with school, she doesn’t get to draw a lot nowadays, so she enjoys any opportunity to express ideas through art.