"Still, Life"

Karen Kawawada

Karen Kawawada (she/her) is a recovering journalist whose journalism and creative non-fiction have appeared in the Globe and Mail, Waterloo Region Record, and Hamilton Spectator, among others. Years ago, her fiction appeared in the now-defunct Fireweed and Ripe Magazine. Moving temporarily to New Zealand with her family in early 2020 and thus unintentionally escaping a pandemic (for the most part) has afforded her the opportunity to turn her attention back to fiction.

“‘Still, Life’ was inspired by three artworks: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Cow’s Skull on Red, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, and a still life I completed myself in high school in Edmonton, Alberta, in the 1990s, which is when and where the story is set. O’Keefe’s work, the story’s greatest inspiration, famously explores femininity and sexuality through organic shapes, but her cow’s skull paintings, more than her florals, marry harshness and darkness with sensuality. For a bisexual teenager like Hayoon in my story, this view of female sexuality is the one that has greatest resonance. ‘Still, Life’ is dedicated to the memories of Sheri Monson and Maia Reinking.”

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Cecelia Lamont was the best artist in Grade 10, probably the best artist in the school. She was pretty, smart and rich. Even her name sounded like a Hollywood starlet’s. And yet she was my friend, at least sort of, in Art 10. We didn’t have any other classes together because I was in Advanced Placement while she was in the regular stream. In a lot of ways, though, she was the one who was more advanced. She drank coffee. She was good with makeup. And she wasn’t a virgin, something she revealed during one of our classes, though at the time she refused to give me more details. We never hung out outside class. But during Block 6, we were each other’s confidantes.

In Mr. Darrow’s class, the desks were arranged in an inward-facing rectangle. One Monday, I walked in to find the middle of the room set up as a giant still life. There were open umbrellas, glass bottles, a metal watering can. Dried flowers, apples, a real cow’s skull. A handbell, a wooden artist’s manikin, wineglasses. I quickly found a seat near the cow skull. Cecelia, as usual, sat next to me. Mr. Darrow pitched his voice to carry over the chair-scraping and chatter.

“If you haven’t already, find a corner of the room you want to work in. You’ll keep that place for the full week or until you’re finished your still lifes, which you’ll start in pencil and later colour with oil pastels. The objects here are for all the classes, so don’t touch anything.”

We all got large, thick pieces of paper and started drawing. As Mr. Darrow had taught, I used basic shapes to block in the positions and proportions of the objects I wanted to include. The skull, slightly rotated from my perspective, was at the lower left of my drawing so it would be an off-centre focal point, which Mr. Darrow said was one of the principles of good composition. Cecelia, though, put the skull straight on, big and almost smack in the middle of the paper. With just a few lines, she already had the shape down.

“Wow, that looks great. Where are you going to put the other stuff, though?”

Cecelia shrugged. “I dunno if I’m going to put in any other stuff at all. I might do it like a Georgia O’Keeffe, with just the skull on a contrasting background.”

I didn’t know who Georgia O’Keeffe was. Cecelia was dyslexic so she didn’t like to read but she knew all kinds of stuff I didn’t. She watched documentaries for fun and had a crazy good memory.

“But the assignment is to do a still life.”

“It’ll be a still life. I’m drawing something still that used to be alive, aren’t I?”

I shrugged and sketched an oval for the top of the watering can beside the skull. It turned out too narrow so I erased it and tried again. Better. Looking at the negative space, another trick Mr. Darrow had taught, I drew in the shape of the handle. Cecelia added more details to her skull.

“What did you get up to this weekend?”

Cecelia grinned. “Oh, I had an interesting couple of days. My mom was away for work.”

Cecelia’s divorced parents both had job titles that started with “chief,” so they worked a lot. She spent alternating semesters with them without changing her bus ride to school because they lived mere blocks apart in Riverbend, Edmonton’s ritziest neighbourhood. Lots of Riverbend kids went to our school but so did plenty of people from neighbourhoods full of run-down apartment blocks and boxy little bungalows like my family’s.

“Did you have a party or something?”

I wasn’t sure who she would have invited, since Cecelia fit and didn’t fit into a number of cliques. She could have been a prep like the other white girls from Riverbend, but she didn’t wear enough Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger. Despite her talent, she wasn’t an artsie, since she didn’t dress in gypsy skirts or smoke weed. She wore a lot of black but didn’t do black lipstick like a goth. I thought she was gorgeous, with her long orangey-brown hair and womanly curves, but she wasn’t skinny or catty enough to be one of the popular girls. She held herself apart, whether by inclination or shyness. As for me, I wasn’t white enough to be in any of the popular groups, Chinese enough to be a Honger or keener enough to be a brainiac. Though I wasn’t one of the hardcore losers, by the social calculus of high school, I had no right to expect someone like Cecelia to invite me to a party.

“Nah. Parties aren’t my thing.”

“How was it interesting, then?”

Cecelia looked around. Mr. Darrow always put on CDs while we worked. It was because of him that I knew what acid jazz was. He said music was good for flow. It was also great for muffling conversation. Even so, Cecelia leaned in close and lowered her voice.

“I got fucked in ways I’ve never gotten fucked before.”

Something fluttered inside me like a moth in the dark. “Cool,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “Who’s the lucky guy?”

“Not telling you.”

“Someone at school?”

“No. Older.”

“How much older?”

Cecelia waggled her eyebrows. “Let’s just say experienced.”

Just then, Mr. Darrow came by and leaned over me, trying to see the still life from my perspective. From the gape of his collar, I smelled Ivory soap and sweat. The note of the sweat wasn’t unpleasant.

“Good work, Hayoon. You’ve got the shapes and proportions, which is half the battle. The only thing that’s not quite right is the mason jar lid. It looks a bit tilted. May I?”

I nodded and he took the pencil from my hands, lightly sketching a flatter oval over mine.

“Thanks.” Was it my imagination, or was the pencil still warm from his hand?

Mr. Darrow nodded and turned to Cecelia’s work. I thought he was going to say something about the lack of other items in her composition but he didn’t, just nodded and walked on.

The next art class on Wednesday, I refined my outlines and erased the light guidelines I’d sketched in. Cecelia started colouring her cow skull with oil pastels even though she hadn’t drawn in any other items or a background.

“So, how’s your older lover?” I whispered. Just using the word “lover” gave me a little thrill, though it was a complicated thrill mixed with something darker. Was I jealous of Cecelia for having a sophisticated older boyfriend or of the boyfriend for seeing the full expanse of Cecelia’s creamy skin?

“Good,” she whispered back over the music Mr. Darrow had put on. “I’m so in love. I’ve never met anyone like him. He calls me his titian-haired beauty.”

“What does that mean?”

“Titian was an Italian Renaissance painter. He painted a lot of women with hair like mine. He – the guy I’m seeing – went to Italy a couple of years ago and fell in love with this Titian painting, Venus of Urbino. He says when we met, he thought for a second I was her come to life.”

“How’d you meet him?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“What do your parents think?”

“Are you kidding? They’d kill me if they found out.”

“What do you tell them when you go out with him?”

Cecelia just shrugged. I had my outlines down now so it was time to start with the oil pastels. As Mr. Darrow had taught, I first coloured lightly with the basic colours of my objects. Red for the umbrella. White for the skull. Grey for the watering can.

“Have you ever been with anyone else?” I asked after a while.

“No. I made out once with a guy from my Grade 9 class but he was just a boy. Lucien’s the one who made me a woman.”

“Ooh, we have a name! And a cool one. French?”

Cecelia slammed her hand over mine, making me smudge my watering can.

“Listen, you have to forget you ever heard that name, okay? Do not mention it to anyone. There would be major trouble if you let it slip. And I will never, ever speak to you again.”

I raised my eyebrows at the intensity in her voice. “Okay! I never heard any names.”

“Good.”

Cecelia was quiet the rest of the class, concentrating on her skull. I started a second layer of colour, forcing my eyes to see what my brain normally wouldn’t. There was blue in the umbrella, black in the skull, multicoloured reflections in the mason jar. Before I knew it, the buzzer heralded not only the end of the class but the school day. I looked around at my classmates’ work. Almost everyone was further along than I was, their pastels starting to look painterly rather than crayon-like.

“Can I stay for a bit?” I asked Mr. Darrow. He nodded. He’d said before that we could anytime. The Grade 12s each had studios of their own in an adjoining room, partitioned with whiteboards and fabric-covered dividers, and a lot of them hung out there after school. Today, though, the Art 30 room was quiet and I was the only student staying in the main art room. Once everyone else had left, Mr. Darrow came up to see what I’d done. I was hyper-conscious of his blue-jeaned butt leaning on the edge of the desk, the tiny fair hairs on the back of his hand.

“Coming along nicely.”

“Um, thanks.”

“Do you mind if I work on my own project?”

“Of course not.”

As I coloured, Mr. Darrow brought an easel and a large canvas out of the storeroom. He positioned himself behind me and a bit to the right. I went over to see what he was working on. It was a prairie landscape, which he’d taken a picture of and clipped to a corner of the canvas, but he was adding details that weren’t in the photo. To the right, an already-painted cow stared out of the canvas. To the left, he’d drawn in the cow skull from more of an angle than in my picture. Now he was using pungent oils to paint it. I watched silently for a few minutes, admiring the confident way he applied colour, the way he was making the skull appear luminous under a moody sky.

“That’s fantastic.”

“Thank you.”

“I should’ve known you’d be an artist yourself.”

Mr. Darrow nodded. “I do exhibit occasionally in some of the 124th Street galleries but painting alone wouldn’t earn me a living. That’s why I did an education degree after my BFA. Now I can do two things I love.”

“You love teaching too?”

“Absolutely. I find my students so inspiring. Your energy, your talent, your youth.”

“You’re not so old yourself.” It was sort of true. He was good-looking and his longish blond-brown hair made me think of a surfer or skater. But he had crinkles at the sides of his eyes and his veins stood out blue in his hands.

“Thank you for saying that. But you guys have an exuberance I’ve lost. The possibilities in front of you are endless.”

“Maybe for someone as talented as Cecelia.”

His eyes met mine. They were green, brown and gold all mixed together. If I could paint them, it would be my masterpiece.

“You have a real gift too. Don’t sell yourself short.”

“My parents want me to be a doctor.”

“The stereotypical Asian immigrant dream, eh? I’m not telling you to ignore your parents, but listen to your heart too. You have an eye for art and I can tell you love it.”

Unexpectedly, feeling welled up in me.

“Are you all right?”

“I…” I stifled a sob. Where was this coming from? A minute ago I’d been calm. Well, as calm as possible when I was alone with Mr. Darrow. “I don’t want to be a doctor.”

As I looked down, I felt rather than heard the step closer. Then hands were on my shoulders. Patting at first, then kneading. Tension left my muscles as it built in my stomach. The moth trapped there fluttered. Something like a sigh escaped my mouth. I couldn’t tell if it was a noise of joy or of anxiety. Abruptly, Mr. Darrow stopped massaging and gave me a tiny push away.

“Um. Hayoon. You should go. I wouldn’t worry too much about being a little slower than some. The time you’ve put in to make sure you have all the proportions right is paying off. And you still have Friday to finish the piece.”

I’d barely done any work after school but I understood I was dismissed. My hands shook a little as I put away my art things and went home.

On Friday, Cecelia was already in class when I arrived. For whatever reason, she didn’t meet my eyes or respond to my greeting. Mr. Darrow raised his voice for an announcement.

“I know today was supposed to be the last day to work on your still lifes but many of you need more time. Most of my Art 20s and 30s do too. So I’ll keep everything up for another week. You’ll work on your pieces again Monday, though there will be an alternative assignment if you’ve finished. Wednesday, we’ll move on, but if you need to, you can come in at lunch or after class.”

Mr. Darrow turned on his music. I looked over at Cecelia’s skull. It was starting to look three-dimensional but it was still the only object on the paper. It had the same haunted look as Cecelia’s face.

“Is something wrong?” I asked her quietly.

“Yeah. Maybe.”

“What?”

“Two things. One, my mom nearly caught me with… well, you know. I think she suspects.”

“Two?” I prompted after Cecelia had been silent for a while.

She put down her oil pastel. Her blue eyes were shining with unshed tears. “I’m late.”

“Late?” At first I didn’t get it. Then I did. “Oh. Shit. Are you sure?”

“I’m sure I’m late. Beyond that, I’m not sure of anything.”

“Have you taken a test?”

“No. I’m scared.”

I put my hand on top of hers. It was cool to the touch. She flipped it around to squeeze mine. The moth fluttered.

“There’s something I haven’t told you,” whispered Cecelia.

“What’s that?”

“The reason it would be so bad if my mom found out who I’ve been seeing.”

“Who is it?”

“Her boyfriend.”

My mouth opened. Nothing came out.

“He’s younger than her. She’s a bit of a cougar.”

“How old is he?”

“Thirty-seven. She’s forty-seven.”

“Jesus. He’s old enough to be your dad.”

“My dad’s fifty. Fat and bald. Lucien could be a model. And he says I’m beautiful, way more beautiful than my mother. He’s staying with her to be close to me.”

I stared at Cecelia. She really was beautiful. And young. As young as me.

“Isn’t that… kind of… creepy?” I ventured.

Anger flared on her face. “We’re in love,” she hissed. “Age is just a number.”

I shook my head slowly, not to say no but in an attempt to make sense of what I’d heard.

“What would you do if the test came back positive?” I whispered.

A tear spilled out of one eye. She wiped it away impatiently. “I don’t know.” She wiped again, sniffed and turned back to her skull. As though she was angry with it, she pressed hard with her black pastel. The shadows grew more dramatic, like in harsh desert light. For the rest of the class she didn’t speak. When the bell rang, I started to pack up. I’d made decent progress today so with one more period to work on my still life, I’d be okay.

“Cecelia? Do you want to hang out? Maybe go, say, to a drugstore? I could help you.”

She glared at me. “No. I’m going to stay a bit, work on my piece.”

I didn’t want her to be mad at me. “Listen, if you ever want to talk…” I scribbled down my parents’ number on a bit of scrap paper. “You can call me anytime.”

Cecelia continued to look angry but she took the number and tucked it in her pocket. I held out my arms to offer a hug but she’d turned back to her pastels and I wasn’t sure she’d seen the gesture.

Cecelia didn’t come to art on Monday. Tuesday, we didn’t have any classes together but I went down the hallway where she had her locker several times over the course of the day. Not so much as a glimpse of titian hair. Wednesday, an announcement came over the intercom right after the first bell rang. First period was cancelled. Instead, the whole school was to go to the gym for an assembly.

I had a sick feeling in my stomach as I followed the crush of teenagers down the hall. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew. This had something to do with Cecelia.

Once everyone was sitting, the principal took the mic. I don’t remember the words she said. I remember I cried. Quietly but a lot. There was something about counsellors being available to anyone who needed support but my brain didn’t note the details. The assembly ended before first period normally did. Students gathered in hallways, talking quietly. I didn’t talk to anyone. I ran to the art room, which was empty. Closing the door, I turned on the light and walked to the cubbies where the Art 10s stored their work. I didn’t go to mine, though. I went to Cecelia’s.

There it was. I’d known, the way I’d known what the assembly was going to be about, that Cecelia would have finished her still life. But I would never have guessed how.

No mason jars, wineglasses or tablecloths. The skull stood mysteriously upright on reddish, drought-cracked earth, white horns going straight out like the handles of a jackhammer. Its red-grey shadow fell on the ground under blazing blue sky. But there was something off about it. In fact, it wasn’t a shadow at all. It was a diagram of a uterus like the one in our health textbook. Cross-sectioned, ovaries and fallopian tubes going straight out like the handles of a jackhammer. Vagina meeting jawbone. Nothing in the uterus. Unless there was, still too tiny to see.

Mr. Darrow found me slumping forward onto Cecelia’s usual desk. He took me in his arms and I started crying again. This time, nothing fluttered in my belly and neither of us jumped apart when the second-period students began coming in. He told them to wait as he walked me to the counsellor’s office. I gave him one more quick hug when we arrived. Somehow, it didn’t feel awkward.

I didn’t end up going to any classes that day. But Mr. Darrow let me take our Wednesday class to finish my still life even though the others were starting something new. When I was done, I looked at my work. Though technically pretty good, it was a bit weird. Who would put a cow’s skull beside a watering can, a mason jar and an umbrella? It looked like something a fifteen-year-old might have done based on a still life set up by her teacher.

And I was glad.

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