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Listening to Whispers

Category: Mature
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I stepped away from the painting and arched my back to relieve the ache. The large canvas required me to stand, but the years and a legacy of arthritis from my father made it difficult. I always managed to become swept up in the brush strokes and the blending of subtle hues, and it wasn’t until I stopped that I knew I‘d been on my feet too long. The coffee was cold, and I poured it back into the pot to re-heat.

This painting was special, but in their own way, I guess each of my works was special. She taught me that, and it was largely due to her influence that I was asked to do this work. The commission read that I was to deliver one painting, thirty-six inches by sixty inches minimum unframed dimensions, and the medium and subject were to be of my own choosing. The contract was signed by the director of the University of Alabama Art Museum, Dr. Karen Reason, and was to be part of a permanent display of work by southern artists. The year allotted for completion and submission of the work had almost run out, but I would make the delivery date by a couple of days unless the weather stayed damp. In that case, they could take the painting and store it while the oils dried, or wait. I didn’t think it would matter much, really. Karen was a personal friend of mine from college, and she’d smooth out the bureaucratic wrinkles.

The ten artists selected were all about like me; we were all in our fifties, had grown up in the South, and were recognized as major talents in the art world. I’d never considered myself to be a major talent, and certainly my income didn’t indicate that such was the case, but it was satisfying to be included in this select group. Barbara had jokingly said that they probably just wanted to obtain the work before I died. It’s a well known fact that artists eat hot dogs and their heirs eat steak, and the museum would save a considerable sum by purchasing the painting directly from me. Barbara had also received the same commission, and I pointed out that it would be tit for tat, since one of us would be the sole heir of the other. She just laughed and said her tit was worth at least two tats any day. I had to agree; Barbara’s body has fueled my fantasies since that day at Debra’s, and thirty-six years later, she’s still one of the few things that can make me lay down my brushes.

I sipped the coffee and studied the woman sitting nude on the stairway. The contrast of the straight lines of the stair and the soft, rounded curves of her body would capture one’s eye, I thought, but something wasn’t right. No, the silver streaks in her hair were fine, and the various shadows on her body were projected correctly. I couldn’t find a technical reason for my unease, but it was there; she didn’t seem to be alive, and that fact ruined the painting. I wished Debra were here; she would have known. If I had learned one thing from her, it was how to critique artwork, and she taught me to be especially tough on my own.

In September of 1964, I started my senior year of high school in the small community of Gallatin, Tennessee. I had waited since first grade for this year, because at the end of the school term, I would be free to start the life I wanted rather than that held in esteem by the parents, teachers, and other students of the town. My difficulty was that I didn’t fit into the proper suit of sports, hunting, and fishing that clothed every other boy. I had always been small for my age, and even as a new senior, I weighed only about a hundred pounds. Even if I had been interested, my size eliminated football as anything other than a suicide sport. I wasn’t tall enough for basketball, was too slow for track, and could never bring myself to kill anything. I was also a year older than all of the students in my class; a bout with scarlet fever had cost me the penalty of repeating third grade. Of course, the repetition of a grade had branded me as stupid. I had discovered girls, but since I didn’t drip testosterone from every pore, the word had been passed that I must be gay, and so even at the ripe old age of nineteen, I had not had even a single date. After a couple of years of fights and the resultant black eyes and punishment of an hour’s detention for each incident, I just withdrew from nearly everything and everyone at school. I had one passion in my short life; I loved to draw and paint, and I lived for the day that I could pursue art as my vocation.

I think I was a real disappointment to Dad, even though he tried not to show it. Mom kept pushing me to stretch my skills, but she didn’t have to fit into the masculine myth that deems anyone not at least watching all that stuff to be either gay or mentally deficient. The only person who seemed to understand was Miss Renaldi.

Barbara Renaldi, the school art teacher, was about twenty-two when I took my first art class, and when she saw that I could draw, she also pushed me. I lived for her class; for one hour each day, in that small room saturated with the smell of paint, turpentine, and pastel fixer, I could be the person I so desperately needed to be. Barbara was also a fringe benefit of the class; she was shorter than I, and almost as slender, but her body was more matured than the girls in my class, and she seemed to be confident in her sexuality. While the high school girls never wore anything that revealed more than the occasional outline of a bra strap through a sweater, Barbara wore v-neck blouses that had a way of gapping open invitingly when she bent to look at my current project, and I knew she preferred satin and lace bras over the cotton ones my mother wore. Her dresses were shorter, and the blend of her nylon clad legs and high heels with my active imagination forced me to hide more than a few erections with my sketch pad. I was sure she knew her effect on me, but she appeared to be only acting as a normal teacher. I knew that her position would allow her to do nothing else, but in my shower fantasies, she offered her body to my hands, and we made passionate love.

The second week of school, Miss Renaldi called Mom for a parent-teacher conference. I waited outside while they talked, and then Mom drove us home.

“Miss Renaldi says you have lots of talent, but that she’s taught you everything she can. She says you could probably get a scholarship for college if you can put together a portfolio of really good work, but you need help that she can’t give you. She recommended a woman just outside of Nashville who sometimes takes private students, and has arranged an appointment for you on Saturday. Miss Renaldi says she’s a little odd, but there would be no better teacher for you. I told her we couldn’t pay much, but she said you should at least go talk to this woman. Her name is Debra Hastings, and according to Miss Renaldi, she has some paintings hanging in the Capital.”

On Saturday morning at nine o’clock, I drove through the overhanging white oaks that shaded the mile long lane. The house must have been one of the last remaining ante-bellum mansions that were built by the tobacco and cotton barons of the old South, but it had fallen into the disrepair commonly seen in these stately old homes. The brickwork seemed solid, but the porch flooring under my feet creaked at accepting my weight. I knocked on the huge, oak door and waited.

My first thought was that saying Debra Hastings was a little odd was equivalent to saying Hell is a little warm. The woman who opened the door was tall, slender to the point of almost being skinny, and the oversized bib overalls and man’s shirt did nothing to reveal any curves to her body. She had silver-streaked black hair that reached to her waist, but the ends were kind of ragged looking. Even my mother used makeup every day, if only for a short trip to town, but Debra’s face was freshly scrubbed and without any artificial enhancement of the tone or texture. Her lips were a pale shade of pink, and there were little wrinkles at the corners. Through my eyes, she seemed really old, but I now know she was in her late forties. The small pink mouth pursed shut and the thin brows wrinkled, and I got the feeling she really wasn’t expecting me. She seemed to stare at me forever before she cleared her throat and spoke.

“Yes, may I help you?”

“I’m Mark West. Miss Renaldi said she made an appointment for me and – “

“Oh, yes, Barbara did call. I just didn’t realize it was already nine. Come on in.”

The inside of the house smelled like the art room at school, and none of the rooms we passed seemed to be used. Debra shuffled ahead of me in doeskin moccasins that made little scuffing noises against the bare wood floor. She apparently didn’t take the time to get her heels inside the backs, because they were mashed down against the sole, and they flopped against the bottoms of her bare feet with each step. We ended up in the kitchen and she asked if I wanted a cup of tea. She placed two cups that steamed peppermint aromas on the table and beckoned me to sit down.

“So you’re the boy Barbara asked me to talk with. Let’s see if she knows what she’s talking about.” She picked up a pad and pencil from her side of the table, passed it to me, and pointed to her left. “Draw that window over there. The one with the cracked pane.”

This seemed like a strange request to be coming from a famous artist, but I drew the window as she asked. I took a little extra time to get the morning shadows at the right angle, even put in the chipped paint at the lock, and, of course, didn’t forget the jagged crack. Debra quietly watched and drank her tea. I finished the drawing and turned the pad to her orientation. She pursed her lips and her brow wrinkled as she studied the picture on the pad, and then smiled when she looked across the table at me.

“Well, that’s a nice picture of the window, but I asked you to draw the window, not a picture of it.”

“What do you mean. That’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

“To most people, yes, but to an artist, a drawing or painting must have life, dimension and texture. Your picture is flat. It’s no good.”

For my whole life, the only thing at which I had been better than anyone else was my drawing, and now this woman was telling me I wasn’t really an artist. Her statement angered me, and I got up to leave.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“I’m leaving.”

“My, my, aren’t we the sensitive one? If I’m going to help you, you’ll have to grow a thicker skin than that. If you’re good, I’ll tell you, but if you’re not, you’re going to hear that too, and why. I imagine you’ll hear lots of whys and not many goods before we’re through.”

“But you said I wasn’t any good. You’re still going to help me?”

“I didn’t say you weren’t good. I said your picture was flat. We can fix flat, but I couldn’t help you if you couldn’t at least draw a pretty nice picture. I told you it was pretty nice, remember? Now, look at the window, and tell me what you see.”

“It’s just a window. It has a frame and some glass, and I can see through it.”

“Exactly. What do you see?”

“Well, I see the barn out back, and a tree. There’s a grasshopper sitting on the frame…, and some parts look wavy.”

“And those things are the depth and texture that will make the drawing come to life. If you’re to be an artist, you have to learn to look through what’s at the surface and capture what’s inside the things you draw. This lesson was easy, but the rest will be harder. Still think you want to do this?”

I sat back down. “Mom told me I should ask how much this is going to cost.”

“Hmmm, that is the question, isn’t it? Well…, I only take one student at a time, and we’ll spend a lot of time together, so I suppose I should charge a lot. Since the only students I spend time with are really talented, I usually don’t charge anything. I don’t need the money, and it’s my way of giving a few people the start I got when I was young. Now, don’t think this is going to be easy since it’s free, ‘cause it won’t be.”

Debra laid out my schedule on the second page of the pad. It looked like I would just about have time to eat and sleep somewhere between school and her house.

On Monday afternoon, I drove to the old house directly from school. Debra was sitting on the porch swing. The long cotton dress was wrinkled and covered her body all the way down to the same doeskin moccasins. I walked to the porch and sat in the chair beside the swing.

“Catch.” I almost dropped the golfball sized, polished black marble that she tossed in my general direction.

“There’s the pad and pencil on the table. Draw the marble.”

I determined not to make the same mistake as Saturday, and carefully examined the small globe before doing anything. Try as I might, I could not discern any significant feature that Debra would be looking for in my final drawing. I thought about the window, and tried looking through the surface, but nobody could look through black glass.

“You’re not drawing. Is something wrong?”

“All I’m going to end up with is a black circle and a shadow, and you’re going to tell me it’s bad again.”

“Sit the marble on the table and look at it for a while. Find the dimension and texture we talked about. You’ll have to put everything else out of your mind to see what’s there.”

I placed the marble on the rough wooden top of the table. What the Hell did she expect me to see? I looked at it from the side. I looked at it from the top. I walked all around the table looking at the obsidian orb. My total focus centered on the sphere on the table. I made a second circuit. I grew frustrated. Dammit, it was just a black marb….

It really wasn’t black. The polished surface reflected a myriad of colors and shapes depending on the angle of view and the incident angle of the sun that peeked through the cottonwood trees. Here were the reflected white lines of the porch siding and if I moved, a blob of green appeared. From one aspect, a tiny Debra could be seen looking back from the flawless surface, and I decided to use that perspective for my drawing.

It was difficult to stay in the uncomfortable crouching position and, at the same time, control the strokes of the pencil over the pad. The drawing took almost an hour, and my left thigh developed an intense cramp before I put the final shading strokes to the surface. I was proud of my ability in shading a drawing to represent shadow and light areas. It was hard to do in pencil, because you couldn’t paint in white to represent reflected light. You had to leave the reflections as the virgin surface of the paper, and shade everything else. It was kind of like drawing in reverse. I limped to a standing position and gave Debra the pad.

“Hmm, nice selection for your viewpoint, and the shading is done very well. The highlights that define the shape bring out the depth in the drawing. You finally figured out what I wanted you to find and your picture of me is very lifelike. Only trouble is, that picture stinks.”

“Whadda you mean, it stinks. It looks just like you, you said so yourself.”

“Go back to your viewpoint and look again.”

Debra was right. As I would come to know well over the years, Debra was always right. The woman in my drawing looked just like her. The only trouble was, the image on the marble was grossly distorted by the curvature of the surface, while my drawing was as flat as the photograph it appeared to be. I had not yet learned to take her criticism very well, and argued with her.

“I saw that, but I didn’t want to make you all funny looking. I wanted to show you as you really are.”

Debra laughed at me. “You’ve known me for two days, and you think you know how I really am. You must be really perceptive, because I still don’t know how I really am, and I’ve been studying myself for longer than you’ve been alive.”

“I meant I wanted to show you like I see you, not all weird like the reflection. Artists can do that. Miss Renaldi said it’s called artistic license.”

“Barbara is right, but you misunderstood what she meant. Mark, art of any kind is the representation of one person’s vision in a format that lets other people understand what the artist saw, heard, or experienced in some way. Artistic license is what happens when the artist changes some aspect of reality to help people understand this vision; it isn’t an excuse to cover technical mistakes. When you drew me as I appeared to you sitting on the swing, instead of drawing the distorted me on the surface of the marble, you changed reality, but you didn’t do anything to help me understand what you saw. See, what you really saw was the warped image, not the one you drew. If you can’t make me see the warped image, the drawing is wrong. Now, I want you to make the same drawing, but leave the reality as it is.”

I started the drawing over, and Debra sat patiently until she saw me adding a few finishing touches. I thought reality sucked, because the bloated face and body that stared back from my drawing didn’t look at all like her; in fact, I thought it made her ugly, and I told her so.

“Well, maybe you really see me as ugly, ever think of that?”

“No, I don’t think you’re ugly, but the reflection on the marble is, and I don’t like it.”

“Where does it say you’re always going to like everything you see? Just because you don’t like the vision doesn’t mean you can change it. Things are what they are, and an artist’s job is to record his visions for others. If I look ugly, then I look ugly. Don’t make me better just because your vision doesn’t fit your idea of how I should look. That’s no different than telling a lie. Now, you just stay there so I have the same perspective, and let’s see what you have.”

She knelt behind me and looked over my shoulder. I felt her hair fall against my neck, and when she braced herself with a hand on my shoulder and leaned forward, it became difficult to pay attention to her comments. Her words puffed in warm breaths against my right ear, and I felt every sense intensify until I thought I would explode from the tension. As she talked, she reached over my shoulder to point out areas of the drawing, and I was sure her chest brushed against my back at least once. I heard what she said, and made the corrections she wanted, but my mind and body were concentrating on the nearness of the woman. Other than an occasional brush in the hallway during classroom changes, the only woman who had ever been this close to me was my mother. The sensations which tingled my body were those of youthful lust; that lust was going to make it impossible to stand up.

The feelings were confusing, really. She was old enough to be my mother, and although I hadn’t actually made any advances to the girls in my class, I was smart enough to know that I was supposed to like girls my own age. Barbara was a special case, and anyway, she wasn’t old. No guys in my class ever said anything nice about older women; if they said anything at all, the statement was usually quite the opposite. Raucous laughter would break out anytime Jerry told about listening in on his dad’s poker nights. The group of men played cards, drank beer, and talked every Saturday night, and as the alcohol loosened them up, the subject of conversation would always come around to women and sex. Jerry would always keep the rest of the guys updated on the conversation when we changed for PE.

“I heard ‘em say that old wimmin got teeth in their pussies, and if you ain’t careful, they’ll chew on your dick. Goddamn, I ain’t fuckin’ no old wuman, not never.”

“Yeah, old Mrs. Crosley’s got big knockers, but Dad’s poker buddies say they prolly hang down to’er belly button when she’s naked. Shit, couldja imagine that. Them big tits’d prolly suffocatecha if she ever got ‘em in your face. And everybody knows that old wimmin got big holes. Harry told Dad his wife’s so big it’s like fuckin’ a cow. Now, Sherry Jean’s stacked purty good and you oughta see that ass in some shorts. I’d fuck that young lil pussy to hell and back, anytime.”

I’d chalked most of this up to Jerry’s need to joke about almost anything, but still, the information came from older men, and I wondered how much was true and how much was Jerry’s imagination.

For the next month, I went to Debra’s place every afternoon, right after school, and I spent at least six hours there every Saturday. I drew everything from spoons and thimbles to the shiny globe in her garden and the broken barn door. After I made each drawing, she would critique my work, and the comments would usually end with the words, “that’s wrong”, “that’s not right”, or “what were you thinking about?”. If I had screwed up really bad, the comment was always “that stinks”. The rejection of my efforts would have been hard to take had she not then shown me what she meant and why. She also seemed to be a touching person, because she often punctuated her points with a touch on my arm, or by picking up my hand and moving it to feel some surface irregularity I hadn’t seen. On a few occasions, she stood behind me again, and the same intense tension snapped my senses to attention. On those occasions, I fear I was not very attentive to much of anything except the growth of my cock, but she didn’t seem to notice.

The first Saturday in October, as had become her custom, Debra met me on he porch.

“I think you’re ready to graduate to something a little more challenging. Let’s try some pastels and see how you handle that oak tree out back.”

Pastels are indeed a challenging medium. They allow the subtle blending of colors with a fingertip, and the pictures tend to be soft in tone and texture. I had worked with them a little, and found that they allowed almost no error. It was nearly impossible to cover a dark shade with a lighter one without everything looking like dark grey mud.

Debra led me around the house, and down the lane toward the barn. The old oak was enormous, and it’s massive trunk had once supported a mane of brilliant green, lobed leaves. Now, the trunk was rotted with age, and the massive knarled limbs held only patches of foliage bronzed by the sharp chill of the Tennessee fall nights. The tree seemed in it’s final throes, and the scent of it’s death was palpable on the light fall breeze. A large blanket was spread over the freshly mowed grass, and on it were a pad and the box of pastels. I plopped down on one side, and was taking my first appraisal of the tree’s potential when a movement in my peripheral vision made me turn.

Debra had pulled her long dress completely to her waist in order to sit without ripping it, and I saw that she wore no underwear. Her rounded, naked hips pushed back in profile as she kneeled before sitting down. I had never seen a woman’s hips before, at least not in a naked state, and the sight left me agape. Debra turned to hand me the pastels and saw my startled expression.

“Mark, what’s the matter?” She paused for a moment, and then placed her open palm on her chest. “You’ve never seen a naked woman before, have you? And I just flashed my big butt right in your face. I’m sorry, Mark, but, with no one around most of the time, it seems silly to wear anything but this dress.”

I shook my head, still unable to speak. Debra chuckled.

“Here I am, old enough to be your mother and then some, and I’ve got you speechless. You really know how to make a girl feel good about herself. Now, close your mouth and draw that oak tree.”

I composed myself as much as possible, and started to draw. As I got more into capturing the painful elegance of the twisted, bare branches against the deep blue of the autumn sky, I was pulled into the drawing, and time seemed to stop as I lightly brushed and blended the colors of trunk and golden leaves with the grey-green moss that coated much of the exposed bark.

I was aware of Debra shifting position to look over my shoulder, and jumped when she placed her hand along my thigh to support herself. I could feel the soft kiss of her breath when she exhaled, and hoped the pounding of my heart was not as audible as it sounded in my ears.

“That’s very nice, Mark, but the colors are too solid. Look harder at the variations of browns and blacks of the trunk. These variations give you the depth and texture you’re looking for. Just use the edge of the crayon to accent and give you the feel of the different layers.”

The technique did give nice results and the trunk of the old oak came to life under my fingers.

“Now, look at the clusters of leaves. They’re maybe a little too defined. They look stiff. Blend the edges a little, and use the white and yellow to put in some tiny highlights. With practice, you can make them almost seem to move.”

I finished, and held it up for her to see. Debra leaned into my back, and this time there was no mistaking the fact that her breast was pressed against me. I could feel the soft mound as it flattened into my ribs. Debra didn’t seem to notice; she just kept talking and pointing out good places and errors. I tried my best to listen, but the pressure on my back made it difficult, and I was glad when she leaned back.

“All in all, not bad for your first time. You have a good eye for hue, and you’ll learn more as you do more. To me, the colors and textures are whispers waiting to be heard above the noise that most people see, and you have to listen carefully with your eyes. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s the way I think of it, and if you let the whispers speak to you, your work will come to life.”

“I think I know what you mean. It’s like when you said I had to look past the surface and see what is inside.” I stammered as I blurted out what I had been thinking about since she sat down. “An’…and, it’s not big.”

“Not big? What’s not big?”

“Your…er, bottom.”

“That’s just pure bullshit, Mark. I’m a lot bigger than any of the young girls, can’t you see that?”

It was the first time I’d heard her cuss, but somehow, it fit the Debra I was learning to like. She wasn’t very polished, as were most of the older women I knew, but the difference was really refreshing. The thing with her dress, and now the word “bullshit” made me feel really at ease with this woman. She just didn’t really care what anybody else thought. She lived for her talent, and for a while at least, for the task of teaching me the things she knew.

“I don’t like the girls in my class. They’re too silly, not grown-up like you. And some of them have bigger bottoms than you do. I think now it’s you that doesn’t look.”

Debra chuckled. “Well, thank you for the compliment, anyway, but I’m way too old for you. And, I guess you’re right. Young girls don’t do anything for me either, and I don’t look at them. Anyway, I’m glad you’re starting to know what I mean.”

The rest of the week, Debra took away all the pastels except for the eight simple colors found in every child’s box of crayons, and we concentrated on blending colors. Her skill was amazing, and as she revealed the techniques by correcting my mistakes, I realized that this woman, although called “odd” by most people, was one of those special people who chose to share the gift with which they have been blessed, rather than use it for personal power or gain. I was growing to like Debra a lot.

The next Saturday, Debra wasn’t on the porch when I drove up the lane. I found a note on the door that said to go up to the third floor to the studio. I had always wanted to see where Debra did her own work, and quickly climbed the stairs at the end of the hall. I arrived on the third floor landing and saw another note on a small table.

Mark, here is paper and the box of pastels. Walk down the hall to the open door, and sit in the chair at the window. When you look out toward the barn, you’ll see two figures on the grass. Make your drawing from what you see. I’ll be up to see how you’re doing in an hour. Debra

I wasn’t prepared for what I saw through the window. On the green expanse between the house and the barn, a blanket has been spread, and on the blanket were two nude women. There was no mistaking Debra’s long black hair, but the other woman truly was a shock. The tiny body could only have belonged to Barbara. Although both women were lying on their stomachs and the distance was too great to really see facial features, the bobbed, brown hair was the same style as Barbara’s, and there were no other women in town as small as the petite art teacher.

The two women lay side by side, and Debra had her arm over Barbara’s back. I started to sketch the outlines of the picture, but stopped when Debra moved her hand to Barbara’s little butt cheek. In a few moments, the hand was on Barbara’s neck, and then slid over her back to her thigh. It was obvious that Barbara was getting a back rub, and the back rub was making it difficult to draw. Not only were these the first real, live women I had seen nude, but I had never seen one woman touch another as they were. Everything on that blanket was soft and gentle and although Barbara’s small rounded bottom was smaller than Debra’s, they both had the full curves of maturity. After a few minutes, Debra’s arm returned to it’s original position, and after a few more, I had calmed down enough to get back to the pastels and paper.

The picture sort of took shape without my knowing how. I matched the pale, translucent color of Debra’s skin and the slightly darker tone of Barbara’s; the outlines of their bodies were distinct, but a little soft compared to how I usually drew. Their curves were softly shaded to hint at roundness without really showing it. The hair of each was the right color, and the highlights made by the sun shone up at me from the paper. The blanket was an out-of-focus blaze of white against the grey-green autumn grass, and the rest of the paper was the original white velour. When I stood back to look at the work, the overall impression was of soft colors blended into the blanket. It was a little surreal, I thought, but when I thought about changing any of it, my mind just said no. I studied for the things that would make Debra say it stunk, but I couldn’t find anything we had talked about before. I looked out the window to check on my perspective again, but the blanket and women were gone.

“Let’s see what you have.”

I turned at her voice, and could say nothing. Debra stood before me clad only in the moccasins and a man’s white shirt. Her legs were long and slender, and flowed from the long shirt tail. The shirt was unbuttoned to the middle of her chest, and sweep of her long hair across her shoulder instantly drew my eyes to the open expanse of skin in the v-shaped gap.

“If you can stop trying to see my boobs for a second, could we look at your picture?”

“God, I’m sorry, Debra. It’s just that…well -”

“I know, you’ve never seen two naked women before. You’ll have to get over this before college. You’re going to spend a lot of time drawing nudes.”

“That’s not what I was going to say.”

“Oh, well then, what is it.”

“You’re really sexy in that shirt.”

Her raucous laugh made me blush. “Me, sexy? Mark, I’m anything but sexy. The other woman was sexy, but I’m just forty-seven.”

“You mean Barbara, don’t you? The other woman, I mean.”

Her face instantly changed from the laughing smile to taught lips and a wrinkled brow. “Shit, you weren’t supposed to recognize her. She’ll kill me if anybody ever finds out. Mark, Barbara did me a huge favor by posing for you. If the school board gets wind of this, she’ll lose her position, and I’ll lose a good friend. Please don’t ever tell anybody about this.”

I had never seen the soft side of Debra before, but I liked it too. She wasn’t worried about herself, as usual, but the thought of having injured someone else worried her. I promised not to tell.

Debra liked my picture; for once since she had been teaching me, she actually liked something the first time.

“This is what we’ve been talking about, Mark. The lines are very subtle and sensuous, and the way the figures stand out above everything else tells me you were captured by the two women. The soft shadows to indicate the curve of their bodies gives them depth but keeps the overall soft texture to the whole. This is pretty good…, no, by God, it’s really good.”

“I guess I saw the whispers in you and Barbara.”

I saw both Barbara and Debra in a different light after that day in October. Barbara became the girl of my dreams, and it was a little hard to face her on the next school day. I didn’t think she suspected anything, and other than the staring I did when she wasn’t looking, our relationship was relatively normal. Debra became more than an odd person who taught art to an over-aged high school senior. She became a sensitive woman, and I began to see more in her than just someone who helped me with my art. She became someone I thought about at night, and someone I needed to see every day. Sunday’s were hell, because I couldn’t be with her.

We had been working on oils for a couple of weeks, and I expected more fruit and pottery on my Saturday visit after Thanksgiving. Debra didn’t meet me on the porch because of the cold weather, but she quickly answered my knock, and we climbed the stairs to her studio. The studio was really warm for some reason, and I was about to comment when Debra pulled the dress over her head. She walked to the padded posing stage under the skylight and sat down with her legs crossed.

“Today, you’re going to paint me. We have all day, but that won’t be long enough for anything very big, so start small. I’m going to have to move once in a while, but I’ll get back to this position as well as I can. OK, stop staring like you’ve never seen me before, and get to work.”

Well, dammit, I hadn’t seen her before, at least not like this. She had always covered her body with shapeless clothes, except for the time she posed with Barbara, and then all I could see was her back. The Debra I saw nude was a beautiful woman with small but proud breasts and wonderfully sensuous thighs and hips. She was slender, but not skinny, as I had thought she might be, and I was getting really aroused by the nest of black curls that hid the area between her thighs. I could make out the fuzzy outline of soft, pouting lips that stuck out through the curls, and when she lowered her knees to get comfortable, the lips opened slightly to reveal the erotic, pink shaded inner surface of her sex. I had an erection that I couldn’t do anything about, and Debra saw it.

“I’m sorry, Mark, but you really do have to get used to naked women, and naked men too. Figure drawing is an important part of art, and you’re going to study a lot of it before you graduate. Maybe this will help.”

She frowned and stuck her tongue out at me. “Bladladladladladl.” The babbling sound caused by her tongue as it flipped in and out of her mouth cracked me up, and also caused the tent in my jeans to fall a little. I had to laugh, but not so hard that I missed the wonderful jiggle her breasts made when she burst out in giggles.

I painted for four hours before stepping back to look at the canvas from a distance. Debra had hardly moved except to stretch out about every fifteen minutes. The effect when she raised her arms over her head was devastating to my concentration. Fantasies were rampaging through my brain. I kept picturing those arms falling on my shoulders and pulling me into the little brown nipples that alternately lay flat and then rose to strain against the lighter, puckered circles on which they sat. I pictured myself holding her, kissing her, and then making love to this woman that everybody thought was so different. After an hour, I finally got somewhat accustomed to her body, and by the time I finished, I could look at her carefully without getting more than half hard.

“Can I look, or do you still have more to do?”

“I’m about as done as I can get. I’m a little stumped by something. I can’t get you to look right, somehow. The body is there, but the life isn’t. You can probably tell me what’s wrong.”

Debra didn’t bother to dress; she walked over to stand beside me, and I became acutely aware of her. I could smell the scent of her skin. It wasn’t body odor, at least not like I had before a shower. It was a clean scent, and different than the cloud of lavender or lilac that enveloped my mother. Even today, I can’t describe a woman’s natural scent; I can only enjoy it, and the impact of Debra’s on my mind was impressive. I again achieved that state I had experienced when drawing the oak. Every sense was tingling with anticipation, of what I didn’t know, but I felt as if I was going to leap from my skin if something didn’t happen.

“The problem is in my eyes, Mark. Eyes are the most important part of a painting, because so much emotion is played out in them. Here, look at mine now; can you see what I’m talking about?”

I turned to face her, and stared into the almost-black depths. The play of light over the tiny patterns surrounding the pupil was entrancing. The eyes drew me in, drew me closer to her, and it wasn’t any task at all to just keep going until I kissed her.

Debra didn’t push me back, but she didn’t return the kiss either. I backed up, and said “I’m sorry”.

“Sorry for what, because you kissed me? Didn’t you want to kiss me?”

“Yes, I did.”

“So, why do you think it was wrong and you need to apologize?”

“I don’t think you liked it.”

“Oh, I liked it all right, but don’t you think this is a little silly? After all, I’m at least as old as your mother. Would you kiss her like that?”

“No, but I don’t feel the same way about her.”

“And how would that be?”

“I really like you. I want to hold you. I want to…well, you’re so pretty and I want to make love with you.”

She gave me a strange look, and then laughed a nervous sounding laugh. “I like you too, Mark, but I just think we’ve been together a lot over the last few months, and we’ve gotten very comfortable with each other.” She looked down at her body, and then back into my eyes. “Besides, I don’t know why you would want me over a girl your own age. I’m wrinkled and starting to sag in places.”

“Debra, that first day, you told me I had to look past the surface to see what was inside. I’ve been doing that with you since the day you and Barbara posed for me. I think you’re beautiful on the outside and beautiful on the inside, and that’s why I feel the way I do.”

She put her arms around my neck and pulled me to her chest. “Mark, you mustn’t feel this way about me. It’s…it’s not right.”

She didn’t sound very convincing, and she also didn’t pull away when I put my arms around her waist and pulled her closer. I raised my head and kissed her again, and this time, Debra kissed me back. It was a special kiss because it was my first, and as we stood there, Debra made it an exquisite experience. I guess it was some instinct that made me start gently rubbing her back and then drop one hand to cup her hip. God, the feeling of her skin under my hands was wonderful. I didn’t want to ever let her go, but she put her hands on my shoulders and pushed me away. We stood and stared at each other for what seemed like hours. Her eyes seemed to be searching mine for something, although she gave no clue as to what, and asked no questions for me to answer. Finally she said “Dammit, I don’t care what they think”, and led me to the posing platform.

Debra silently undressed me, and then pulled me down beside her on the platform. Mom had told me the basics of sex, but most of my knowledge of technique had been learned in the locker room at school. I clumsily started to maul her breast, and this lasted for about five seconds.

“Ouch, that’s not a tennis ball you’re squeezing. It’s a woman, and women like to be treated gently. Here, let me show you.”

Debra took her hand and gently caressed her breast with her open palm. She cupped the small mound and squeezed very gently, and then rubbed her index finger around the nipple. The little brown nub quickly extended and became wrinkled at the tip. She whispered, “like this, and very gently”.

I duplicated her example and Debra smiled and closed her eyes. When I stroked around her nipple, she sighed and touched my chest. My body shivered as her fingertips traced a line down my breastbone, across my belly and swirled the hair above my manhood. I jerked, and my erect member brushed the back of her hand. I felt smooth fingertips close around me and lightly stroke.

Her touch was unbelievable compared to the vigorous jacking off I did in the shower, and the familiar tension began to build at an astonishing pace. She slipped her thumb and finger up to just behind the head and pulled firmly. She relaxed the pressure and then tugged at me again, and I couldn’t stop myself. With an embarrassing grunt, I shot all over her hands. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to work. I had screwed this up badly, and started to apologize. Debra cut me off with a whisper after the “I”, of “I’m sorry”.

“Shhhh, Mark, I know you couldn’t help it. Kiss me and keep doing what you’re doing. Everything is going to work out fine. You’ll see.”

Debra kissed with an intensity that forced her into every feeling I had. Her lips caressed, nibbled and brushed against mine and sent tingles rushing to all points of my body. When she touched my upper lip with her tongue and then found the tip of my own, sparks exploded in my mind. I learned by trying that she loved the same feelings and I rejoiced when the first little moan flowed from her throat to resonate in mine.

I felt her small hand guiding mine from her breast down over her smooth belly, and I jumped when I touched the raven-black curls.

The whisper came from deep down in her throat. “Don’t be afraid. I like this. Just touch gently. I’ll show you what to do.”

Her thighs opened, and her fingers pressed mind down to the satin-soft texture of her outer lips. They were slightly open, and the edges were moist. I was fascinated by the slippery surface just inside, and stroked slowly up and down to enjoy the feeling.

“Yes, Mark, that’s good. You can push inside a little now.”

My fingertip slipped deeper and deeper until I felt the rippled surface of the lips that guarded her passage. Everything was wonderfully slick and wet, and the convolutions of her petals rolled and slid beneath my fingertips. I felt an opening and slipped the finger through. The slippery passage seemed to grasp at my finger as I tried slipping it in and out. The little purr I heard told me I was pleasing her. Debra’s hand pulled at the back of my neck, and I found my lips poised over a firm nipple. She pulled a little more, and I slipped the little bump between my lips. Debra gasped as I tentatively touched the tip with my tongue, and since she seemed to like it, I began softly tickling it and the wrinkled and bumpy area that surrounded it.

My finger brushed a firm little nub that had pushed from between the silky surfaces I had been caressing, and Debra’s hips rocked up against me. Her hand pulled mine up to come into full contact with the little nub, and her voice was almost a cry.

“Yes, right there…more…, oh god, yes.”

I felt her hand slipping to my member again, and although the feelings were the same, Debra’s motions weren’t so strong as before. The feather touch of her fingertips made my erection grow harder, and when I began to instinctively push against her, she stopped. As soon as I calmed down, she began again. Her own body was reacting to my mouth and fingertips by pushing back at me, and she began to breath rapidly. After Debra arched her back to meet my fingertips, I heard the breathless whisper again.

“Mark, get on top of me. I need to feel you inside me.”

Debra spread her thighs wide and as I knelt between them, her hands reached for my shaft, and gently pulled it toward her. She rotated her hips up, and brushed the head through the glistening curls and puffy lips, and the sight of the soft inner petals pushing out of her sex was so erotic I thought I would never hold on. Debra found her own opening, and pulled gently. I watched as my manhood disappeared into her secret passage and groaned as the warm wet softness encircled me. The feeling was even more gentle than her hands. and when Debra cupped my butt and pulled me deep inside her, I couldn’t suppress the cry of emotion that erupted from my throat. I knew I was supposed to push in and pull out, and started the motion my mother had explained.

“Slowly, Mark, slowly at first. You’ll know when to speed up. Kiss me again.”

When we kissed, it was as if Debra inhaled my very soul. There was nothing of me left, and nothing of her. We were one body enjoying the pleasures of passion each contributed to the union, and waves of sensation swept us both into a realm where we knew only the crush of skin against skin and the soft internal caresses of an intimacy as old as time itself. Debra thrust herself against my advance and I felt a firm surface deep inside her belly. The velvet stroke of this surface across the head of my shaft was such an exquisite feeling, and I tried to reach the same depth with every stroke.

Debra was quickening her arching thrusts, and pulled at my hips to help me find the pace. I found her rhythm, and one hand left it’s cupping grip to slip between us. I realized that Debra was stroking herself to enhance her pleasure, but I didn’t understand why until her face fell away from my lips. I looked at her, and saw her mouth drawn into a wide circle, as if she were speaking. No sound came from her pink lips except the ragged rasping of her breathing. Her eyes were staring sightlessly to the side, and with each breath, she thrust her hips up to meet me. Suddenly, I felt my shaft gripped in a firm, slippery embrace, and realized that Debra was intentionally challenging my will to hold back.

The end came so quickly for her that it drove me off the edge as well. I felt her fingers flutter between us, her passage gripped me, and she cried out. She thrust hard and then her hips quivered with staccato rocking motions. The intense sensations of the rapid thrusts, the grip on my shaft, and Debra’s mewing cries brought me to the peak of arousal. I felt the surge of fluid coursing through my shaft, and at the first spurt, Debra cried out.

“Oh God, Mark, now, now.”

Debra heaved herself off the platform as I buried myself deep in her clasping canal, and I felt another surge leaving my manhood. Over and over, she cried out and arched us both in the air. She finally made a quiet, moaning sound, and relaxed.

I was sated beyond any prior experience, and when she embraced me and hugged me tight, I nestled against her soft belly and breasts. We kissed, and then just held each other. I stroked her soft flanks and shoulders and she caressed my back and hips. I was afraid to look or move for fear that she would just disappear, and I would find myself lying on my bed with a mess on the sheets that would be difficult to explain to my mother. When I finally raised my head and opened my eyes, I was looking into her gleaming eyes and beautiful smile.

“This was your first time at this, too, wasn’t it? Was it what you expected?”

“Yes, it was, and no. I never expected it could feel like this. It’s hard to explain. I felt so close to you.”

Debra giggled. “Well, we couldn’t get much closer.”

“That’s not what I mean. I felt like we were almost …dammit, I don’t know how to say it.”

“I know what you’re trying to tell me. I felt the same way. I always have, although it’s been a long time for me. If you can bear to get off me, I’d like to show you something.”

She led me to the room across the hall. Paintings hung from every wall, and Debra walked to a small one with no frame.

“Sometimes, I have trouble putting my feelings into words, too, so I let them out by painting. Look at this and tell me what you think.”

I had studied the old masters in art class, and owned a few prints of their work, but I never knew what the term “master” really meant until that instant. The painting was a blaze of colors with no apparent pattern, but as I studied the brush work I knew what it was. The center of the work was bold brush strokes of brilliant red, yellow and a blinding white that almost seemed to scald my eyes. It was a veritable explosion of color that appeared to vibrate as I stared. The surrounding part of the canvas was painted with some technique that made the surface stand out as if it were velvet, and the soft swirls and subtle hues were easily recognizable as the passion they represented.

“I painted this years ago, but only a few people have ever seen it. I never even gave it a title, but it was my feelings after my first time. I keep it here with me because it has special meanings for me. It’s the end of one time in my life, and the beginning of another, and I don’t want to forget either. Mark, you should know that I just felt this way again, and I didn’t think that would be possible for a woman my age.”

“Debra, I think I love you.”

She just smiled. “Yes, I know you do, and I love you Mark, but it’s not the love either of us have been waiting for. It’s the love that very close friends have, and you’ll always be a very close friend. The love you will find someday will be more than you have ever dreamed. I found it once, and then lost it, but the experience left a wonderful feeling that stays inside me even today. Yours will happen too, and probably sooner than you think.”

I took her in my arms and kissed her. I began caressing the swell of her hips, and felt her nipples rise against my chest before she gently pushed me away.

“No Mark. Maybe this will happen again, but not today. I want you to remember this as the first time, because your first time should be special, and doing it again would spoil your memory of what we had together. Besides, your mother will know you’ve been up to something. You need to shower before you go home.”

I drove home smiling at the knowledge that Jerry’s stories were all wrong, and also at the knowledge that I would never tell him so.

I really did love her, although now I know she was right, just as she was always right. We spent my Christmas vacation putting together a portfolio of the paintings and drawings I had done. I really wanted to attend UT, and told her so.

“Well, your work is good enough to get you the scholarship, but the other work submitted will be good also, so you might want to apply at some other schools as well.”

“Oh, I already have, but I’m still hoping for UT.”

I got the letter in March and went for the interview. Dr. Morton, the Dean of Fine Arts, looked at my portfolio for a hour before saying anything.

“From the looks of this work, I’d say you know Debra Hastings. Am I right.”

I said he was, and that she had helped me a lot during the last year.

“Well, this work is good enough to qualify you for one of our scholarships, but so are many others. We’ll let you know our decision in about a month.”

I had interviews with three other schools, and got the same answer from each. Debra said not to worry, that they always took a long time to decide, but by the end of April, I had almost given up. The second letter arrived and was from Dr. Morton himself. It said I had been awarded a four-year scholarship and would I please make arrangements to begin classes that fall. I was overjoyed, and so was Barbara when I told her.

“I knew you could do it. That’s why I sent you to see Debra Hastings.”

I went to college that September and Debra moved to Paris to teach. She wrote often to ask how I was doing, and reading and responding to her letters became a quiet interlude in the hectic days of classes and the job I held to earn some spending money. Often I would ask her a question about a new technique I had learned in class, and she would give her comments. Usually they were favorable, but I did have one professor she called a “glorified sign painter”. Apparently she knew him from someplace, and didn’t think much of his talent or of the things he taught. I did what I had to do to pass his class, but soon forgot most of it. It was between semesters of this year that my advisor showed me the letter of recommendation Debra had written to Dr. Morton.

In my junior year, I literally ran into Barbara as I was rushing to a class. I helped her to her feet before recognizing her, and then stood there like a dummy until she said “Hi Mark”.

She had quit her job at my old high school, and had come to UT to work on her Master’s. In view of all she had done for me, and also because I had just been paid for the past week’s work, I asked her to dinner that night. The dinner was great, but I found Barbara to be better. I fell into the habit of calling her most nights, and usually we spent the weekends doing something together. She was a little worried about our age difference, but after two months of forced isolation from each other, “just to see if we still feel the same way”, we were again spending all our spare time together. We got married that summer, and my senior year was the best of the four because I had Barbara with me all the time. It was not until then that I learned Barbara had been one of Debra’s special students, and was also when I told her I knew she had posed for me. After a few minutes of silent blushing, Barbara asked what else I knew about her relationship with Debra. I said I didn’t know anything else, and then nodded knowingly as she told me of a sexual experience that mirrored my own. When I told her we had that side of Debra in common, she laughed and said “Well, she told me she was ambidextrous”. We should have both been jealous, but somehow, we both loved Debra so much that any bad feelings were out of the question.

Barbara was teaching again, this time as UT faculty, and was also selling some work on the side. We heard from Debra once in a while, and in one letter, she talked about a man she had met. We figured she had found love once again. I received a package shortly after my graduation with a letter congratulating me. In the package was the small painting Debra had shown me that day in her studio. The note attached said, “Mark, I don’t need this anymore. I have painted another one, and I think you’ll understand what that means. Please keep this to remember our time together. Congratulations on both your graduation and for finding Barbara. I hope she’s the one you were waiting for, and somehow I think she is. All my love, Debra”

We stayed at UT, and I eventually earned my doctorate, but I didn’t enjoy teaching regular classes. I left that to Barbara, because she enjoyed it, and I painted full time. It took years before my work was recognized, and I owe a lot to Barbara for paying all the bills during that time. Now, I sell a few works each year, and although we’re not rich, we get by nicely.

We didn’t hear from Debra again after the Christmas card five years ago, at least not in her own hand. The letters of commission included a note from Karen telling us that Debra had learned of the project, and had demanded that both Barbara and I be included. Karen didn’t say why the university acted upon the demand, and I suppose that’s just another thing about Debra we’ll never know.

The coffee had again grown cold as I sat reminiscing, and I poured it down the drain. I looked back at the painting I had done from a memory that was as fresh today as it was the day I lived it, and I knew how to fix the problem. It was my old problem of eyes. I didn’t have to think of where to dot the paint to bring those beautiful dark eyes to life. I had lived with them for months, and had seen them in my mind for thirty odd years. I stepped back and saw with satisfaction that Debra stared at me from the stair. It was probably not the real Debra; I don’t think anybody knew who she really was, but it was the Debra I knew. I was so involved in the painting that I jumped when Barbara spoke.

“Do you think she’s still alive?”

“I don’t know. She’d be what now, eighty-three or four? It’s possible, I suppose.”

“Don’t you think it’s strange that everybody in the art world seems to know her, but they don’t know anything about her? I mean, every museum director, every art professor has a Debra story to tell, but none of them know who she really is. They just have this incredible respect and admiration for her.”

“We know who she is. She’s a beautiful woman who shared a great talent with a few lucky people. I think she wanted to stay hidden from the public. She liked doing her own thing, and if she had been well known, she would have had to conform. It was enough that people liked her art, because that’s what she lived for.”

“I wish we could see her again, before….”

As Barbara sniffed and then sobbed, I took her in my arms and stroked her hair.

“I know, but she wouldn’t want that. She wants us to remember her as we knew her. She told me once that I had to look past the surface and find what was beneath, and we need to keep doing that. The surface is birth, life, and death. What’s underneath is what remains afterwards. In her case it’s the paintings that hang in every museum worth the name…, and in us. She’ll never be gone, at least for us. She’s just off somewhere, painting something new, and listening to the whispers that tell her how.”

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