Copyright 2017. The Ren Series. All rights reserved.
1. Head-on Collision
Fact: The absolute worst place to get a knot-tying, muscle-crunching leg cramp is at the top of a step ladder while wearing stilettos – yes, stilettos.
While my fingers dig into my burning and traitorous calf muscle, I watch the paintbrush I’d been holding slide down the front of my silk dress, leaving a crimson streak of embarrassment in its wake. Tumbling end over end, it lands in a sloppy kersplat on the floor. A woman in a too-expensive white dress, sitting in the booth opposite my velvet-roped stage, is oblivious to its decent and collateral damage. I breathe a sigh of relief through nostril flares of pain.
As I hobble down the metal rungs to the ground, the Malibu Barbie Twins eyeball my newly acquired stain and snicker behind their perfectly manicured hands. Normally I wouldn’t find waitresses intimidating, but that pair of would-be super models never misses the smallest of chances to remind me exactly how much I don’t belong inside “The Ren”. What they don’t get is this night club is just about the last place I’d go by choice.
Wandering over to the bar to stretch my legs, I grab a dap rag to scrub at my dress and a refill on my pseudo-cocktail. Don, the club’s manager and my boss, thinks if I carry around a drink that looks cocktail-esque, it’ll add to the illusion of my fitting in here--I just happened to bring a giant canvas and art supplies while going out clubbing. I mean, really, who doesn’t? A girl’s gotta have her accessories.
While drifting back to my temporary velvet-roped office through the thinner Tuesday night crowd, I swirl my coke with lime in its low-ball glass. As I pass a mob of people surrounding a corner booth, I see Alec Fraser sitting like a king in the center of it and the tips of my ears burn hot. Last night he’d complimented my work. I’d thanked him with a curt nod and climbed back up my ladder like it was nothing. In my defense, I didn’t expect a top-billed action-star to strike up a conversation with me, especially one that included a compliment. If I wasn’t so darn clueless, I would’ve recognized the man. Despite the movie marathons Max had subjected me to, I didn’t. But, that’s me. I try very hard to tune out the swarms of celebs and tabloid drama that hover in the air of this place and focus on my work. It’d be a different story if I could pop in my ear buds, but that’s frowned upon. I’m supposed to be approachable and friendly, and above all else, ‘encourage people to embrace my artistic eye.’ It doesn’t mean I don’t feign deafness from time to time.
The heavy beat of the music drifts over from the dance floor and dissolves into white noise in my head. I feel every minute of my twenty-eight years as the weight of exhaustion settles into my bones. Rolling my shoulders, I try to work out the knots in my neck and take a deep breath, still surprised I’m getting paid for this. I’ve worked as a professional artist for seven years now. Never in that time had it put me into this kind of spotlight and I wasn’t too comfortable with that side-effect now. Usually, I paint from the comfort of my in-home studio--sweats and ponytail included. Dressing up to paint on a stage in front of an audience, no matter how unaffected by my work they were, was new and entirely awkward.
I wasn’t the only artist on the payroll to “inspire” this crowd tonight. World class dancers, the imported European DJ, and a Pulitzer Prize winning poet sitting in a darkened corner of the bar rounded out the renaissance staff for the night. The Ren was notorious for its attempts at reviatlizing the concept of the wealthy surrounding themselves with visionaries.
With a sigh of resignation I gave up trying to scrub out the red paint splatter and set my drink down on the table inside my roped-off stage. Under the heat of canned lights meant to compliment the painting, I tug at the hem of my borrowed, now ruined, designer dress then pick up my brush and palette. Slowly, I climb my ladder, heading back into my little world. All the while the theme of the night is rolling around in my head like rocks in the dryer. How the hell did I get here?
Feeling that familiar throb in the balls of my feet, I glare down at the idiotic heels I’m wearing and mentally curse my boss to the fiery pits of hell. Don’s not all bad--thoughtless, sure, but not bad. Turns out part of our arrangement is blending in with the socialites and club hoppers, which would be a problem for me, no matter what I’m dressed in. The ladies have a certain poise in The Ren. I keep waiting for them to sniff me out for the fraud I am and throw me out on my butt.
If it wasn’t already obvious, the poise part of the “blending in” plan is dead in the water. It doesn’t matter that I have these designer shoes, this cut-like-I’ve-got-no-shame top, or the four-hundred dollar haircut and color I was forced into last week. I’m surprisingly glad for that last part anyway. My hair is long, almost to the middle of my back, even after the new cut. It’s still the dark mahogany color it’s always been, but now I have sophisticated layers running through it, and burgundy highlights.
It’s the third night of my temporary assignment, and I’m finally closing out the last hour of the day. Wiping down my palette, I drop my paint brushes into the jar. On screaming feet, I walk behind the bar, to the space set aside for me as my little home base. Carefully, I set my tool case into my cubby, ready to trudge back to my hotel and get some much needed rest.
Sore and worn out, my brain formulates a plan on how to work on the bottom of the painting so I won’t have to use that cursed ladder tomorrow morning. Hidden behind the bar, I dig out my purse and hear the crowd react to something outside of my view. It happens occasionally, when some really big name struts in through the elaborate front doors, leaving a wake of giddy fans. But, I don’t care who it is. The only thought in my brain is how much I want to call Max. It’s too late tonight, but hearing his voice would have the power to turn this miserable day around. I miss him so much my heart aches.
Rifling through the contents of my purse, I search for my car keys while walking around to the front of the bar. Not looking where I’m going, I plow my forehead smack into the chest of a tall, solid man. The collective intake of breath clues me into the fact that I’d just had one of my classic, balance-challenged moments with the absolute wrong person. Stepping back, I notice a blurred copy of my own red paint stain marring a hideously expensive suit jacket. Heat rises as my cheeks burn and my head is slow in rising to meet the eyes of my latest victim. I start to tremble as a tormenting familiarity sinks into my chest, inch by inch. Unwillingly, my eyes make their assent, but it isn’t until I see those stormy blue-green eyes that I stop breathing all together.
I couldn’t articulate anything even remotely coherent to say. As I shuffle back another step, my jaw drops, and that dryer of rocks in my head lands with a bang into the pit of my stomach. On an exhale, the only word I can manage falls from my lips in a whisper, “Bobby?”
It takes every ounce of strength I have to stay upright.