Once, on a family trip to Tucson, I witnessed a blooming cereus cactus. The fragile snow-white flower bloomed just one night a year, stretching greedily for sun’s rays it would never feel. I can’t help but wonder now, did it know about its short-lived fate, or did it preen with clueless vanity under the haughty glow of moonlight?
The first time we met, I was nude and shivering on a gold tapestry covered settee. I spent most of the hour with my eyes squeezed shut against the blinding white lights overhead. No one ever protested; they weren’t interested in my eyes. The shadowy figures across the room existed in a hazy world I purposely distorted through the lash covered slits of my eyes. Wherever he sat in the room, I didn’t recognize him as anything other than yet another silhouette I purposely obscured into otherness. I preferred to think of the strangers that worked my image with paintbrushes as anonymous entities, something not quite human, shadowy forms not quite aware of my own humanity. It was less embarrassing that way.
As I lay there, I pretended I was rich; I was Onassis rich, soaking sun from a yacht deck somewhere in the Mediterranean. If they’d turned the heat up just a little, the fantasy might have been more believable. A cramp had screamed in earnest from some meaty place in the center of my back and I felt a small tickle that threatened to bloom into a full itch on the back of my scalp. I fought the distractions and remained immobile. Financially, I needed the gig to work out. Relief came only when the professor announced the session was complete for the day.
The eight students who had spent the previous hour studying me intimately were suddenly disinterested, as if they were oblivious to my existence. In an instant, I’d gone from observed to observer. I sat upright, draped myself in a large robe and watched them pack up their supplies. Small bits of casual conversation drifted to me as they made their way to the door. This was how these sessions always seemed to end. I was significant for 90 minutes, and then I was nothing again.
I was gathering my belongings, still shrouded in a large man’s robe, when he ran back into the room. We’d almost collided as I walked past the doorway toward the changing curtain, and he stopped abruptly. The thing I remember most about that moment was the way our eyes locked, and his expression changed to one of surprise. It was as if he’d never seen me before, never stared at my completely exposed body replicating it in some form on a canvas now stored in the back of the room. Then the moment passed, and I saw the recognition flicker.
“Oops, hello,” I said with as much faux cheer as I could muster.
He nodded seriously, and our eyes met again. I felt it, a tiny warning bell. I knew I could get lost in their dark depths. He broke the gaze first and stepped aside, motioning further into the classroom and explained, “I forgot my jacket.”
He had an accent, one I couldn’t really place. It was vaguely Russian perhaps, but with a deeper, warmer subtext that hinted at Hebrew and French influences. He was becoming more interesting by the moment. I chuckled nervously. “You don’t want to do that; it’s a cold one.”
That earned me a quizzical look. I’d later realize just how many common American colloquialisms Narek didn’t understand. His English was quite good, but commonly used expressions and turns of phrase sometimes escaped him. It was one trait that somehow stayed endearing, even when everything else became contemptible. This was before that though; this was when everything about him, from his black curly hair and his deep brown eyes to his paint-splattered t-shirt, drew me in. I wanted to touch the tiny delicate feathers of paint on his arm. Woah girl, I told myself, slow down.
“Sorry, what is your name again?” he asked.
“Nell. How about you?”
“Narek,” he replied simply. The brief silence that followed felt a bit awkward and stilted, it was a moment where the most natural thing in the world would have been to nod and step aside, but I couldn’t just let the moment pass, I needed to know more about him.
He glanced toward a jacket hanging on the back of a chair as if he were about to grab it and go, but I didn’t want him to walk away yet. I wanted to know more about him, and I was still brave and unbroken then. On impulse, I asked if he wanted to grab a cup of coffee at The Bean Shack. That he might actually say no hadn’t really crossed my mind.
He’d tilted his head and looked at me curiously as if I were a cake on display. He was judging me, trying to decide if I might be worth the calories.
Finally, he said, “I will like that.”
I smiled broadly and told him I would get dressed and be right back. At that, he averted his eyes as if he were suddenly aware of my state of undress beneath the robe and the fact he’d already seen it all. Somehow, that made him all the more endearing.
I went behind the curtain in the back of the room and slipped into my comfortable yoga pants and tshirt, then leaned over the sink to peer into the mirror. I’d blown out my long, golden-brown hair that morning, and it still shined with the healthy post-heat glow. As was the custom at the art school, I wore no make-up for the session, so I took a moment to run mascara through my lashes, and the slightest hint of bronzer over my cheeks. Assessing myself frankly, I wasn’t displeased. If I’d only been blessed with another four to five inches in height, I might have had a shot at modeling with an actual agency instead of at an art school. Narek was the personification of tall, dark, and handsome, but I would be a worthy companion, I mused.
Over coffee, we hit the basics. To my surprise, he was 22, only three years older than me. He seemed so much older than most of the college boys I usually met. His serious nature presented as maturity, and I bit back my normal playful banter in response. When I asked where he was from and he answered Armenia, I leaned in across the table to learn more.
“Okay, I will admit I know pretty much nothing about Armenia. It’s in the Middle East, right?”
Finally, he rewarded me with a grin. “You start with a hard question. Armenia is perhaps Caucasus. Maybe European. Maybe Asian. Some Armenians would say we are Middle Eastern, but most would say we are not. We are white, even if some of us are perhaps more brown. We are Christian, we were the very first nation to establish Christianity as our national religion, in fact. This is what they will say.”
He shrugged, as if what others said was not really important to him. I was intrigued.
“So, everyone has an opinion? It sounds a little like asking anyone you meet in Virginia if they are Southern. The guy from Arlington probably has a very different answer than someone from Lynchburg.”
He waved a hand slowly and said, “Maybe a little, but it is more complicated, I think.”
I was fascinated by his accent and by his mouth as he formed each word. I prodded him with more questions to keep him talking. He’d landed in Richmond, almost by default. He’d applied to art schools in several major cities, with the ultimate dream of studying in New York. None of the New York schools had come through with funding, so when the Richmond School of Art and Design offered him an impressive grant, he’d reluctantly accepted it. But Richmond seemed to suit him just fine. The city had enough of a unique vibe to keep him interested, he was enjoying the caliber of the school itself, and as he told me with another grin, Virginia women had quickly become his favorite.
I felt a quick thrill of pleasure at those words and winked at him before replying, “Too bad I’m a Michigan girl.”
Now he looked eager to hear my own story, so I smiled and explained, “I’m the all-American girl. Raised in northern Michigan, Dad’s in manufacturing, Mom’s a housewife, sister’s a brat. My family is Lutheran; they all drive American made cars. I hate the cold and wanted to be somewhere more exciting, so here I am. I’m studying English now over at VCU but will ultimately go to law school. That's the short and short of it.”
The truth was I sometimes felt almost embarrassed about my childhood and family. It was idyllic in a lot of ways. We lived in a world where conflict was recognized as character building, but my conflict had been limited to a somewhat rocky relationship with my younger sister and a few pouty breakups in high school. I’d been a voracious reader my whole life and the heroines in my books had such interesting lives compared to my own. Not very secretly, I’d yearned for more drama, more adventure. Finally, after 18 years in the same house, I’d set out to find it some 900 miles away from home. Now, I thought as I eyed the handsome man across from me, it seemed like things might finally become very interesting.
As we shared the stories of our own journeys to Richmond, he revealed that his had been launched with considerably less support than my own. As the youngest child of four and the only son, Narek had been doted on by both his parents and his grandmother, who lived in their household. Neither of his parents were thrilled he was pursuing an actual career in art, but they’d found some measure of acceptance because he was, after all, the baby of the family. That support had eroded considerably when he announced he wanted to study in America. They were devastated that he would go so far away, and only his promise of return after graduation gave them any solace.
It had only been a few hours since we’d first spoken, yet his mention of returning to the place he called home made me feel unreasonably unhappy.
I tried to keep my voice light and cool. “So that’s it? Finish your last year and a half here, then pack up and head back?”
His jaw clenched and he shifted uncomfortably. “No. I just haven't found the way to tell them yet that I plan to stay in America.” At my raised eyebrow, he continued, “There is much more than I can explain right now, but this is not an easy thing for them. I will wait until it is a right time.”
As I finished the last sip of my second large coffee, I felt a pang of regret and wished it had taken more time. As if reading my mind, Narek asked, “Would you like to have dinner?”
Our formality had dissipated over the caffeine and sugar, and dinner was a more relaxed affair. As our conversation bounced around a myriad of casual topics, we discovered the commonalities. By the time the check came, we’d discovered mutual enjoyment of strong coffee at odd hours, pistachio ice cream, David Bowie, and riding trains. With each new revelation, I felt my excitement grow. I exclaimed, “Oh my God, me too!” more than once.
Almost more important than our mutual enjoyment of certain life pleasures was our shared dislike of winter. My top priorities in life were to breeze through college and then law school, and to avoid winter at all costs, and not necessarily in that order. He laughed as I described the arctic hell that was Northern Michigan in January and agreed vehemently that if there was a hell, it was likely filled with snow, not fire. This led to a more serious conversation, where he confessed that while his family was very religious, he identified as Agnostic. This was something else we had in common, yet another confirmation that our mutual attraction made sense.
As he walked me back to my campus, I glanced up to see the silhouette of his handsome face in the subtle lighting along the sidewalk. I was suddenly very thankful I had a single dorm room. When we reached my building, we paused and he leaned in for the kiss I’d fully expected.
Afterward, as I stood only a few inches from him, I asked softly, “Do you want to come up?”
He grinned and said, “I love American girls.” and then followed me up the stairs.