I wrote this story in January of this year for a science fiction writing class at my local community college. It marked the end of a long period of writer’s block. It’s fun looking back to see how much my writing has changed this past year.
Story and Photograph By Denise Ruttan
The din of the crowd reached a fever pitch. The gallery was packed tonight, shining faces of people eager to see the results of the prestigious annual Blackthorn competition. Is this why they called it the glitterati? Tobias Myers flattered himself that they were here to witness the crowning glory of his lifetime achievement. Paintings locked in gilded frames crowded the walls, showcasing the works of a variety of artists. But he barely noticed them. The wine and beer flowed, the ensuing clamor sounding like competing trumpets.
His girlfriend, Miranda Torres, had left him, mingling with the patrons to network as he had requested. She was his muse. People needed to see her, to see for themselves the inspiration that had driven him to obsession these last few months. The obsession to create was the most divine form of madness, he mused. He held a flute of champagne in his hand and stood alone. He stared at the bubbles forming in the clear glass.
Tobias wore a light blue plaid suit, finely cut, a little too obnoxiously stylish, but he blended well with this crowd and their pretentious, but unspoken, codes of etiquette. His nut-brown hair clustered with unruly curls. He had trimmed and waxed his beard just so this afternoon, focusing for more than an hour on his grooming in the smudged mirror in his loft apartment. His beard, typically, was a wild mass of chaos, just like the rest of him. Miranda had to kick him out so she had time for her makeup, knocking on the door and laughing at him in good fun.
In his private corner, his blue eyes sparkled with excitement and anticipation. He was like a water balloon held aloft, waiting to burst. His chest pounding, he felt like the only person in the room. The crowd melted away and the sounds of the voices faded. All he heard now was the din of the drumming in his ears.
A man approached him, a gentleman in his 70s with silver hair. He wore all black, a three-piece suit. Patent leather shoes. He held a can of Budweiser, an incongruity of contrasts with his especially formal appearance. He smiled as he approached. His eyes gleamed with an unusual golden tint.
“You must be Tobias,” the man said warmly. “I saw your painting. You’re causing quite the stir.”
Despite himself, Tobias felt giddy with the praise, however vague. This was the first time anyone had talked to him all night – in fact, had sought him out. He wasn’t good with social situations; hence, his nerves now, and his standing off to the side, preparing himself for the onslaught of socialization to come. Miranda was the true extrovert of the pair, and why he relied on her tonight.
“Thank you,” Tobias said, smiling in return. Taking compliments well was also not a skill he possessed. “What do you appreciate about my work?”
The man sighed, as if he was thinking about hopeless romance. His eyes changed, as if he were no longer in the room with Tobias, but standing in a field of memory. “It’s just breathtaking,” he said. “The lady you painted must be very special to you. Who is she? Is she real, or a figment of your imagination, perhaps?”
“Oh, she’s very much real,” said Tobias. He was miffed at the comment about his imagination. He already felt insecure around Miranda, because she was out of his league. She was the most beautiful woman alive, in his modest opinion, and he was just a second-rate, plain-looking, scatterbrained artist. He was nervous about his appearance, his weight, his manners, about everything that interfaced with the world outside his head. He often wondered what she saw in him. This overwhelming sense of self doubt uncomfortably knotted in his stomach now, as he reflected on the comment.
The man raised his can of beer and cleared his throat, startling Tobias from the dark swirl of his thoughts. “How did you meet?”
The man’s earnest demeanor prompted Tobias to open up. He was stunned to find his stiffness melting away. It wasn’t the champagne.
“We met at a party,” Tobias said. “She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. Who knows why she talked to me that night. But she did, and the rest is history. My angel. My hope.”
His mind wandered back to that night, despite himself. He was in an introspective mood, it seemed. At the party, their mutual friends stood around in groups and talked, various shades of volume in the room depending on their levels of intoxication. They drank boxed wine in red plastic cups, like some college frat party, or smoked fat joints. He ignored her, because that’s what you are supposed to do around women who are too beautiful for mere mortals. Perhaps she was used to stupid men trying to talk to her all the time, and reticence felt like flattery.
Whatever the reason she approached him, he earned a rare opportunity to talk with her. He made her laugh. Her laugh lit up the room and melted the ice covering his heart. She just had one rule with guys, she told him. One important rule. No cheating. If he ever cheated on her, they were done. This rule was a dealbreaker, a point of no return. She was through having her heart broken. To this day, he still wondered who could ever cheat on her.
“And the painting?”
“I’ve been painting for so many years. Trying to get noticed, to get ahead, to leave a legacy with my art. The professional art world seemed too far out of reach, and I decided it would always be a hobby. I was fine with that. But after a few months of painting her, and she became my muse. The rest of the world noticed, apparently, finally.”
“Muses are fickle creatures.” The sunset light that poured through the windows pierced his golden eyes. The glare caused each man to squint. “Daughters of Zeus and the goddess of memory. They come down to earth to select men to plant ideas in their heads, then steal their ideas for their own. Charming story, isn’t it?”
“Quite.” In truth, Tobias didn’t know what to make of the comment.
“Well. It is a magnificent painting. I sincerely hope Melpomene does not steal your story.” He tipped his beer can and disappeared into the crowd.
Immediately, the knot of nerves returned to Tobias’s stomach. It was as if the ghost of confidence had whispered gentle music through him, then vanished.
Later, Tobias investigated the name.
The Muse of Tragedy.
At home, alone, in bed together, Miranda touched his face. He saw the concern in her eyes. It moved him that she was so perceptive to his emotions when he often stuffed them into a dark place inside himself.
“You’re sad tonight,” Miranda whispered. “You should be thrilled. The show was a resounding success. The reward for all those years of hard work. They loved you.”
“I know,” Tobias said. “I did well. All because of you.”
“So why aren’t you happy?”
His eyes clouded, but he forced a smile. “I am happy,” he said. “You make me happy.”
She trailed her hand along his chin, and kissed him. Her lips tasted like honey and summer, like longing.
Tobias Myers would win that prize and gained international acclaim for his painting of Miranda. Life changed forever. He was no longer the shy, quiet nerd hunkering in his small loft apartment with his canvases. His painting, a gorgeous, soulful portrait of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, garnered a place in the Museum of Modern Art.
He became the guest of honor at parties and galleries. For a brief, intense period of activity, he became a celebrity. Miranda always accompanied him, smiling graciously. But she was more than arm candy. She wooed the crowds for him.
But it was not to be a forever story, despite all the best intentions of his heart.
It was another party. A small party with friends. In the future, he would run through this scene over and over in his mind, like a movie, or a broken record, trying desperately to understand his decisions.
But in those days he was arrogant. He floated on a cloud, convinced of his own superiority. The success of his single painting had consumed him. The galleries clamored for more. He was under contract with one. He kept trying to paint, but instead he kept getting invited to these parties, and he kept attending them. Miranda, often, didn’t go. She got sick of the social scene, and often begged him to stay home.
One of these nights, when he was alone, and riding on a heady wave of insatiable ego, he stood by himself again, and watched the crowd. He drank beer and glared at people in the crowd snorting cocaine and dancing to loud pop music. None of it interested him.
Until he saw her.
A lithe, petite thing, a wisp of a girl. Her hair was dark, her skin pearl-white, her demeanor reticent, like him. She was not a bombshell, like his paramour. She was average looking. But her eyes were big, deep and honest, and they stared at him from across the room, drawing him in.
“What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?” Too cheesy. But she laughed, and it sounded like a chorus of angels in his head.
“You’re that painter,” she said, breathless with admiration, like a student in front of a beloved teacher. “I love your work. Miranda. It shows such a sensitivity toward the female form that I don’t often see in male painters. Every detail, so lovingly crafted. Who is she? Is she real?”
“Oh, very much…” Later, he wouldn’t understand his hesitation. His decision to lie. He would hate himself for it. “No, she’s not. She’s just someone I wished was real.”
Something shattered inside him and he moved as if in slow motion. But the choice felt right at the time. Then, he could only look at her pale, luminescent skin, her shining face in the dim light. The crowd distant, the music fading away. She stepped on her toes and kissed him. Softly at first, then with greater passion. He returned the kiss. Their fingers entwined in their hair. They stumbled backwards, scrambling for purchase. Quick, the bathroom. The light was thin and artificial. The shower curtain boxy and beige, cheap plastic.
Clothes went next. He palmed her breast. A need flooded him, scalding hot. The sadness that had clung to him ever since that night at the gallery seemed to vanish. He had walked around these last few months in a daze, his confidence a false mask, and the sadness there, always, a regret, perhaps, an emotion he couldn’t explain. This wasn’t quite right. None of it. He didn’t deserve this kind of success.
But not now, in this moment, with his mouth pressed on this girl’s face. He didn’t even know her name. She was like a shadow, stealing the sadness from his core with her fingers on his skin.
The door opened, suddenly. The noise from the party wafted into the room. The onslaught was so sudden, that it dropped them cold. In a state of half-undress, they froze. The moment of furious passion was broken.
In the doorway stood Miranda, wearing a tight black dress, her eyes black with fury.
Since that fateful night, Miranda moved her things out of his apartment. He tried reasoning with her. He followed her. He called her and emailed and sent her a furious string of text messages begging her to reconsider. He felt desperation claw at his throat. It was a stupid, drunken mistake. He didn’t mean it. A lapse in judgment. He would never really cheat on a woman like her. She was his muse. Why couldn’t they work it out?
“You knew the rules,” she said, once. Then slammed the door in his face.
A beautiful woman like her would not stay single for long, he knew. She moved back to her hometown in a suburb of Minneapolis, to live with her mother until she figured out her life again, reinvented herself.
He spent lonely days drinking cheap wine and watching bad sitcoms, often deep into the night. One of these nights, he threw his glass across the room of his loft apartment, and it shattered. He suddenly had an epiphany.
He needed it as if he were lost in a desert and starved for water.
As if in a daze, he bought a bus ticket. His funds were now dwindling. He had quit his day job when his painting did so well. Sponsorships and appearances covered his living. Now only his inheritance was left.
Over the long miles of the bus trip, he felt an insatiable hunger, like the days when he painted Miranda, when she lay glistening on his wooden floor, wrapped in a chemise, watching his brush strokes with her intense, somber eyes. He read, and slept, and played on his phone. He had sent her an email telling her that he was coming, but she didn’t respond.
When the bus stopped at a station in the quiet Midwestern town, he would buy chocolate-covered peanuts from the vending machine and use the dingy restroom and hop back on. All the while, he would run over his speech in his head. He needed to say something heartfelt, something memorable, something that would win her back. What did those romantic movies always say? You needed a grand gesture, after you chased after your love interest through an airport or the snarl of a traffic jam. You would get her back. After the fight, she would change her mind and take you back. That’s the way these movies always worked.
But not this movie.
Tobias followed her for a time, saw where she went to work, the times she went home. Days went by. He stopped in a local park on the way to her work, to gather his thoughts, and his confidence. He sat on a park bench, his head in his hands. He forgot how to think.
He felt a cold breeze float over him, fluttering on his skin like the breath of ghosts. He looked up. There she was. Standing there, like a specter in the dawn light. Beautiful. Eerie. But her eyes were full of rage.
“Miranda,” he breathed.
“Stay away from me,” she said, her voice like the flint of a pistol. “If you come near me again, I’ll take out a restraining order against you.”
“Miranda,” he said, heaviness entering his throat, all his pretty words leaving him. “We could have worked through it. I want to change. Look at the art we created together. Didn’t that mean anything to you?”
“You knew the rules.” She turned away from him. “I’m not real.”
He moved from his New York City loft to an upstate family cabin that had been on the market for years. His cousin, sympathetic to his situation, let him stay there indefinitely. He wanted to be alone. He shunned the party circuit. He reneged on his contracts. He flaked on his sponsorships. The bill collectors came, and his cousin settled his debts. Finally he was alone, here in this cabin, overlooking a remote lake. No parties. No social pressures. No financial demands.
He could create.
He felt, for the first time in years, wildly imaginative. He could see, in his mind’s eye, the perfect painting. The follow-up to Miranda. The perfect vehicle for his pain. He felt a deep need to express his tragedy through his work. He brought his paints with him, the acrylics, the brushes. He already kept blank canvases here.
That first night, he started to paint. He felt wild and uncontrolled, as if a demon possessed him. He ignored the TV and the computer and the phone and just painted. Fast, furious strokes. Hours passed. He felt as if he were in a trance, totally numb. But it was also intoxicating. Who needed love when one had art?
Late into the night, he stopped. He breathed hard, sweat caking his skin even though the air was frosty inside the cabin. He wiped sweat from his brow, and stepped back to view his finished work.
First, he was mystified. Then, he was shocked. Then he took a step back and fell, stumbling over himself. He righted himself just in time, like a cat. He snuck another look at the painting.
It was the same.
The exact same painting of Miranda that had catapulted him to fame.
He had painted her again.
He screamed. No one could hear him. Not even his own heart.
In the months to come, again and again, he painted her. Over and over and over again. He was driven by a madness unlike anything he had ever known. He barely slept. He wolfed down Ramen and beer for his midday meal, toast and coffee for breakfast. He ignored phone calls, letters, the outside world. He stayed by himself and painted her. Over and over and over again.
Soon, he had a hundred paintings. He placed them in the spare room, wrapped them in paper. He didn’t want to see them.
Something froze in him, and he couldn’t paint any more. The sadness crept back into his bones. The inexplicable sadness. This time it was intertwined with something new. Anger. He had not felt that particular twisted emotion before, not like this. Black, oozing, righteous, wicked anger.
In the months to come, he did everything he could to drown out the image of Miranda.
Melpomene, as it turned out.
Tobias was a regular at the bar, until they kicked him out. His cousin wouldn’t settle debts like that. Tobias became familiar with this upstate town’s seedy side. He mingled in the dark corners and poker tables.
He came back home, every so often, and tried his hand with the brush, again. Every time, a vision of her would emerge. The same painting. Tormenting him. Judging him for his mistake. Laughing at his foolishness.
One night, in the darkness after Tobias stumbled home late from a cocaine run, he fell asleep on the couch with a Budweiser crumpled in his hand. His breath smelled like tobacco and longing.
Miranda came to him in the dream. It was a memory from their relationship, from a time when they were happy. They went to the movies, then out to dinner. Over a meal of shrimp scampi and grilled vegetables, she told him stories of her childhood. She told him how her beauty had cursed her all her life. She touched his hand with hers. “But you’re different. You’re real.” Her breath tasted like garlic. They smiled into each other’s teeth.
Half asleep, he emerged from the dream and was seized by a sudden desire to paint. He collected some canvas and some brushes. The cobwebs still lay thick in his brain and he wasn’t quite conscious yet. In a daze, he began painting. It was quick work, dirty work. He felt a profound sense of nothing at all as he painted, a vast disassociation from his physical body.
When he stopped, he startled himself awake.
He had painted something different. Something not Miranda.
It was terrible, but it was not her.
He started laughing, maniacal laughter that soared into the wilderness beyond the walls of this cabin.
After that, he could paint again. But it was all terrible.
A sense of vast, blind resignation started to take hold of him until it choked out every thought he ever had.
It was summer when Miranda Torres heard the news. She hadn’t thought about him in years. She had moved on with her life, as one does. But after their breakup, it was hard for awhile. She still loved him. She missed him. Sometimes she thought she wanted him back. The act of being someone’s muse was an intoxicating thing.
But she moved on. She found another boyfriend, a photographer. They would go hiking together to remote locations in the woods or to a lake or somewhere far away from civilization and he would shoot her naked, his camera lovingly capturing every detail of her figure. They were married sooner than she ever imagined possible. A quiet wedding with their families. Her dress was a family heirloom. In the pictures, she looked happy.
But then the news came.
Tobias Myers was dead.
Suicide, they said.
She forgot everything. She forgot her new husband. Her mother. Her father had left some time ago, so long ago she hardly remembered him. She forgot her ties to this quiet suburb of Minneapolis. She was granted a leave of absence from her job as a nurse.
She headed to Tobias’s last known address. She had looked up his cousin, the one with money, who had always supported him, for reasons unknown to her. A patron of the arts, perhaps. His cousin gave her the address. She told him she still had some of her belongings up there in that cabin. She lied.
She was numb throughout the flight. She didn’t like to think about how their relationship ended, the pain of a promise broken. She preferred to remember the good times, the laughter, his deep emotion, his care for her, his kindness. The years had softened her anger.
Once arrived, she rented a car and drove it from the airport to the cabin. The long miles of highways and increasingly rural towns. The cabin was so rural and so far north it was practically in Canada. It was hot here, the thick of summer. A high-pitched drone from locusts in the trees swarmed in her ears. It was much like the place she ended up, in that it was as far removed from Manhattan as possible.
She took the key his cousin had given her, and unlocked the house.
Inside, it smelled old and moldy. She opened windows blindly, desperate to let fresh air in. She wondered if they had found him here, when they discovered what he had done.
Then she looked around, and her eyes widened, fear and shock mingling with awe.
Pictures of herself that she recognized from her social media feeds crowded the walls. There was trash everywhere. She wondered why his cousin hadn’t cleaned it up. In one room that he had locked, she found dozens of paintings of herself. But it was the same painting as the famous one, the work he repeated to the exact detail over and over again.
In another room she found more artwork. The pieces that in life he had considered not good enough. She knew he would have thought that. She knew his heart better than anyone, including him. Even now.
And she stopped still. She lifted her hand to her mouth and her breath caught. As she stared at these paintings, tears streamed down her face.
Maybe, just this once, she could do this, for him. She gathered up the paintings, packed them up, locked up the house. She headed to New York City.
There, they would sell. She donated the funds to his cousin, who donated them to a suicide prevention foundation.
Then, after death, Tobias Myers became famous, once more.