A single word interrupted the silence of the room and pulled me out of my contemplative mood. The man behind me had spoken from a distance that in most societies would be regarded as personal space, yet he seemed to disregard this common knowledge as he repeated himself.
“Baobab. The tree of life.”
I didn’t want to show him that I had been startled, though I wondered how long he had been standing behind me; standing closer than any stranger would dare. He had entered the alcove quietly and had caught me with my guard down. Still, this was a private studio and if I was not mistaken, the voice belonged to the artist. What was he doing there? Was he admiring his work? Or was he…? Instinctively I knew the answer and admitting it even subconsciously, caused me to blush.
The man took a step even closer, but I didn’t turn around. I couldn’t turn around as I had become unusually flustered, and my cheeks burned from blushing. It didn’t help that his breath had stretched the expanse between us and after having encircled my neck, was now snaking its way down my spine.
“Your work is amazing.” I had wanted to say something more; something philosophical; something that showed that I too was an artist, but words failed me, and I heard myself redundantly adding, “Simply amazing.”
“I’m glad you like it.” His voice was smooth, like dark water gliding over mossy rocks.
Maybe it was his accent, but to me his words seemed personal, beyond that of a customary acknowledgement. Or, maybe I was imagining things. In an attempt to compose myself, I inhaled sharply before spinning around to meet the artist, but as soon as I stood up, my legs buckled under me, while sharp pains of pins and needles coursed through my legs.
It was obvious I had been sitting there much longer than I realised. I tried to steady myself by holding on to the stool, but with a loud clatter, the ungainly piece of furniture toppled to the floor, almost taking me with it. The man caught me before I could fall and effortlessly propped me up against the table. Squatting on the floor in front of me, he dusted the scuff marks off the chair, though he made no attempt to set it back in position.
I was completely embarrassed. I had been clumsy, and I had ruined the exhibit. ” Oh my god. I’m s-s, so sorry.” Even my words betrayed me.
“Oh, this is not the end of the world. Are you okay?”
“I am fine. I just am, so… Oh my god, I’m such a klutz.”
From low on the floor, I heard a little laugh that tinkled like falling rain, “Don’t worry,” he said, trying to set me at ease, “I like the way it looks.” Again, his words seemed to convey a different meaning, and as I looked down, I got a glimpse of him taking in every hair follicle on my bare legs.
“You have some astounding pieces here,” I said, moving back a few paces. “I am in awe of your talent.”
I watched him as he pulled himself up and then parted his lips into a winsome smile. Immediately, he thrust his hand towards me, as if he had somehow forgotten his good manners, and had now been chastised.
He offered the single word with the confidence that certain celebrities possess, knowing that they have trademarked an otherwise ordinary name; nevertheless, I took his hand and to eliminate any misrepresentation, I gave him my complete name.
“I’m Susan. Susan Burke.”
His smile at first had been playful, but now it settled, contemplatively, in the corners of his eyes. He had not let go of my hand, so I gently eased it away and picked at my cuticles. I was a little surprised at myself as I was generally not impressed by celebrities or the hoi polloi , but there was something about this man that unnerved me.
It was an understatement to say he was handsome as my friend Patrice had warned me; no, Richard was nothing less than magnificent.
Standing in my heels, we were almost of even height, but unlike me he was barefoot, and his toes splayed out freely on the glossy pine floor. For this day in late summer, his white linen shirt and pants were appropriate, even as they billowed around his athletic frame. But it was his face that captivated me.
Richard was black; but not just any black, his skin tone was like charcoal. I had never met anyone with skin so dark, and I was instantly mesmerised. There were no variations around the neck and jawline, and I admired how flawless and smooth it appeared. For a split second, I imagined running my own chocolate brown hands over his coffee rich cheeks, before slipping a finger between those perfectly pink lips. Thankfully, I kept my hands and my thoughts to myself as I realised he was still talking.
“Excuse me? What did you say?”
“No, I was asking you about your heritage. Your look is interesting. If I did portraits, I’d ask you to sit for me.”
I tried not to let his words flatter me, but unlike him I couldn’t easily conceal a blush under my skin tone. “Ah, right. If only,” I mustered.
“Eh, are you challenging me? Do you think I cannot?”
“Well, are you asking me? Do you think I will say no? I faced him squarely, using my sassiest stance though I was a bit thrown by the obvious flirtation.
“I am rusty,” he said dryly, ” I will need long hours of studied observation to get it perfect….As your beauty deserves.”
“Oh, you.” I playfully waved him away. I was flattered, but he was a man, a very handsome celebrity at that, and I would be foolish to think he was serious.
“It is not as boring as it sounds,” he continued, raising his eyes to meet mine, ” I can always start over a dinner.”
“Do you always hit on your customers?” I wasn’t annoyed, but his remark had seemed a bit presumptuous, and I was unsure how to interpret his attention.
“Are you buying?” he asked. Seeing the look on my face he answered his own question, “Then you’re not a customer.”
“Then what am I?”
Without answering, he turned around and motioned for me to follow him, down a dimly lit corridor.
“Come,” he said, “I think you will like these pieces.”
_to be continued
Susan M. Wolfe, 2015