a short story by Lauren Kindle
I was late for the party, damn it! My GPS failed me a few blocks from the address, and I got lost in a maze of small, quiet streets in a glitzy housing development in southern California. My hands shook at the wheel of my car, as I drove in circles around elegant mansions and empty, pristine lawns fringed by orange and pomegranate trees. Was I shaking from nerves? Or all the coffee I had drunk? I wasn’t sure, but I certainly was nervous about going to this party. I hardly knew anyone; I’d rather stay home and read a book. Maybe an art history book: my secret, nerdy passion...
My boss, Grace, had invited me that morning, and I knew it would be "social suicide" to refuse. Grace couldn’t be refused anyway, I was beginning to learn. She was absolutely ruthless. That’s what made her such a great editor. I had moved out here from Deluth two months ago, when I got this highly coveted job, a staff writer for a national fashion magazine, dispensing witty relationship advice. Pretty ironic, considering that I hadn’t had a relationship in years. Homesick, lonely, and eager to make some friends, I hoped that I would find some kindred spirits at this party. If only the damn GPS would work!
It was growing dark, and I saw a few fireflies dancing in the shadows of the orange trees. I was starving! I hadn’t eaten all day. I’d been too stressed about this party: having to talk to people, knowing I would have to act confident... Hopefully there would be food…Frustrated, I parked the car, and got out to ask for directions. A swarthy Italian gardener was bent over in the shadows, tending a lush bed of flowers.
“Excuse me, sir,” I called out, trying not to crush flowers as I walked across the lawn. They were blooming everywhere, exquisite, rare blossoms. I made my way near the gardener. “Do you know where I can find 64 Spring Lane?”
“Is a strange party, yes?” the gardener chuckled, standing up. His Italian accent was very thick. His dark eyes glittered beneath a balding head, and he looked at me in an intense way, that made me squirm with discomfort. He leaned casually on the shaft of his shovel, wiping his forehead carelessly with a hairy, sunburned arm.
“Well, it’s a party…” I said, weakly. He pointed slowly behind the mansion closest to him, where I could see a thick grove of orange trees had been planted, sort of a mini-orchard. I could hear, barely, music and laughter and the tinkling of wine glasses coming from that direction.
“The party, she is back in the trees,” he said, not taking his eyes off of me.
“Thank you,” I said politely, and I started to go where he pointed.
“Have a good a-time, Signorina,” he called after me.
I wandered into the orange grove and found myself in the midst of a thriving party. People were dancing to haunting, ethereal music, which swelled up from the foliage, as if tiny speakers had been installed in each of the thousands of flowers and leaves all around. A small naked child came up to me and gave me a glass of champagne, which I drained. I wondered what a child was doing at a party like this, but he was already gone.
I immediately realized I was overdressed. There were several gorgeous women wearing filmy, transparent, diaphanous gowns. My own dress was elegant, but all-too-opaque. Another woman wore a fantastic gown covered in real, living flowers. She wore a crown of flowers on her head, like some Spring Goddess. She looked familiar…
I recognized Grace, my boss, but she was busy dancing with two other women. I didn’t know anyone else and hung back, shyly. Grace noticed me, however, and called me over.
“Simona! You finally got here! Great. You have got to meet my friends,” she gushed, dragging me over to her group. I could tell she was drunk. “Girls, this is Simona. She’s the new writer at the magazine. So talented! You must read her stuff.”
I found myself in a circle of women, doing some kind of rhythmic dance, swaying our bodies, and lightly, playfully, touching our fingertips together. Grace passed around a vape, and I gratefully took a hit. I felt myself relax, and began to enjoy this strange dance, and the general atmosphere of the party: a pagan, Ancient Greece sort of vibe. Yeah…. I could get into it….
Grace and another woman, Gracie, soon got very involved with each other, and as their dancing became more intimate, they disappeared behind some trees, leaving me alone with the third woman.
“What’s your name?” I asked, feeling a little foolish and awkward, trying to mirror her dance. She was very graceful, constantly drawing my fingers up to hers, pulling them as if by a magnetic force. I couldn’t resist dancing, or looking into her eyes. She had braided her blonde hair and joined it in front of her neck, like a necklace made of hair. I couldn't stop staring: something about her face was familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite pin-point it.
“You don’t remember me?” she asked. “I work in reception. I’m Grace.”
“Oh…what?” I felt confused, light-headed. “But, my friend is Grace….”
“I know, isn’t it crazy?” she pressed her body up close to mine, and the music got louder. “We’re all Grace. All three of us. But I’m called Smitty, because, you know, my last name is Smith. And my girlfriend goes by Gracie. But don’t worry…” she lightly ran the tips of her fingers down the side of my body. “She and I have an open relationship.”
I recoiled with a gasp. I couldn’t believe she was hitting on me! I mumbled some excuse and stumbled into another part of the grove.
I heard people talking behind some bushes. It was the woman in the dress covered in real flowers. She was crying in a most unattractive way, with snot and tears running down her cheeks. I couldn’t see the man’s face, but he had a large, muscular build and a balding head. He caressed the woman’s breast with a large, hairy hand. I saw that his arm was splattered with spots of paint. An artist?
“Flora,” he said tenderly, "There's no need to cry. Your face is a mess, now, you silly fool.”
"Just go away, Sandro," she wailed. "What do you care? You won't ever paint me like this! I'm so tired of it! I can’t take the pressure. I’m not, I’m just not…I’m not beautiful now!!"
“I paint you the way I see you in my dreams," he murmured. "The way I want you to be. What I love about you is eternal. It will never change.”
They began to kiss so ferociously, that I became embarrassed and tiptoed away, deeper into the cluster of orange trees. I wanted to be alone, to clear my mind.
I thought I was alone, when I almost tripped over a handsome man who was sitting beneath a tree with a bottle of wine.
“Hi there,” he said, offering me a seat on some moss beside him. He was wearing a red toga and smiling impishly.
“Hi! Sorry I almost stepped on you,” I said, taking a seat and drinking the wine he offered. It was much sweeter than I would have liked.
“I’m Giuliano,” the man held out his hand. I shook it. “Have we met? You look familiar…”
“No," I said. "I just moved to L.A. from Minnesota two months ago. I’m Simona.”
I could feel myself blushing beneath his frank gaze. It was just as if he saw right through me, my pretentiousness, my silly story about my life. I didn't belong at this party, and I was sure he knew it! I drank more wine and my head spun pleasantly.
“Do you work for the magazine too?” I asked.
“No, I’m a stockbroker,” Giuliano said. “But I’m friends with the Graces. I’ve known them for a long time; they’re wonderful people, just wonderful. I always go to their parties. Want a brownie?” He produced a plate piled with delicious looking brownies.
“Thanks, I’m starved,” I said, and I ate about seven of them at once.
I lay down on the cool, soft carpet of moss, gazing up at the canopy of leaves above us, twinkling with fireflies. I noticed there were strange, beautiful clouds hanging between the leaves, building like a small storm, pulsating to the rhythm of the music. The leaves and the clouds vibrated, swelling and shrinking in turns, in a most enchanting way, so that I could hardly bear to be separated from them. I felt a great yearning to have the clouds come down to me, to envelope me in their dark, wet mistiness. I could smell the luscious, sexy smell of a storm brewing.
“Do you see those clouds?” I asked Giuliano. My voice sounded thick and low to my ears.
“Yes,” he said. “Those are storm clouds. But don’t worry, I’m keeping them away with my magic powers.” He stretched out his long legs in the soft grass, and I laughed to see little tiny wings fluttering on the sides of his sandals. He turned over on his side, facing me; he had a very large, unusual-looking staff in his hands.
“Wow!” I gasped. I wondered if there was something in the brownies I had eaten…
“Want to see my caduceus?” Giuliano asked, smiling with dimples. “It keeps the garden safe from threatening clouds.”
Giuliano showed me his staff. It was large, with intricate carvings of two snakes on it, twining, writhing together. They seemed so real, I swear I could hear them hiss.
“It’s magic!” I gasped, and reached my hand out towards it.
“It is magic,” he said. “Go ahead and touch it.”
At some point I must have fallen asleep, and when I awoke, the full moon was high overhead, and the party had taken a nasty, angry turn. Some people were quarreling. Smitty was standing near me, yelling at her girlfriend Gracie, calling out drunken, profane insults.
“Well, you know he’s just a friend,” Gracie kept saying in a slurred voice, but I could see she was looking at Giuliano with lust. Giuliano, on the other hand, was completely oblivious, just waving his caduceus around, enjoying the party.
My head hurt. I sat up, painfully. Nearby, another angry scene was developing. A man jumped out from behind a tree. He had blue skin? I rubbed my eyes. Blue-skin-guy grabbed a girl from behind, and pushed himself onto her roughly.
“Please stop!” the girl cried out. Who was she? She looked familiar too, trembling beneath her transparent gown. Everything about her seemed perfect, fragile, and tempting. I stood up indignantly, swayed, and fell over again.
The girl tried to get away from the blue man, struggling with all of her might, but he wouldn’t release her, and kept kissing her aggressively on her neck. It made me sick. I got up on my knees.
“Hey!” I cried out, to anyone who would listen. “That man is attacking that girl over there! We should stop him!”
Suddenly, Smitty was beside me, her smooth hands lightly resting on my shoulder.
“Relax,” she said. She put her arm around me gently, and pressed herself close. “It’s not what it looks like,” she said. “It’s just Zee and Chloe. They do this at every party. She likes it. He fecundates her with his breath.”
“Huh?” I looked at Smitty, then at the scene before me. What the hell was going on? It looked like Zee was trying to rape Chloe, and my stomach turned inside of me.
“I want to leave,” I said, standing up gracelessly, shaking off Smitty's hand. I took a lurching step backwards.
Just then, Chloe bent over suddenly and threw up. Zee, the blue man, grabbed her around the waist and held her hair back with unexpected tenderness. I imagined that her vomit was a stream of flowers. In fact it was: I could see it clearly. I could see the individual flowers pouring out of Chloe’s shapely lips.
And then I knew something was very, very wrong with this party. Why did all of these women look so familiar to me? Chloe, Flora, all three of the Graces… I had a very odd feeling. I opened my purse, took out my compact mirror, and gazed at my face.
And then I knew: we were all the same. It was the same face, the same body. All lovely, slender, feminine figures, with the same soft curves, perfectly formed hands and feet, white skin, and long-flowing hair. We all looked out at the world in the same way: passive, longing, and ready to be adored.
My face wasn’t my face at all, but just an ideal of what a woman’s face should be. Every imperfection was smoothed out, every freckle erased. My eyes were perfect and symmetrical, my lips… My face was a design, an illustration, a caricature…. I stood up. Enough was enough! My head hurt like crazy, and I wanted to go home. Everyone else was preoccupied with their internal dramas and sensual theatrics, so nobody noticed when I turned and ran.
I ran out of the orchard and across the front lawn, all silver in the bright moonlight. There was my car, nice and normal and reassuring, waiting for me. I hadn’t quite reached it when I heard a man’s voice call out:
It was the gardener, but as he stood there, tall in the moonlight, he looked like a Greek god. And then I recognized him from the party. Sandro, the painter.
“You like-a my crazy party?” he asked in his thick Italian accent. Was he mocking me?
I stopped, and went towards him. His eyes glittered beneath his balding head, and again I had a strong feeling of discomfort. The way he looked at me...
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Signorina, don’t you know?” he asked, smiling sensually. “I make-a all of this. All women, I make. All beautiful things! You must-a know me: Sandro Botticelli.”
Of course I knew him. Art history was my passion! I took another step towards him, and he embraced me with his muscular, hairy, paint-spattered arms. Still, I resisted.
“But why? Why do you make us all the same?” I felt indignant.
“Yes.” Botticelli wasn’t ashamed of it. He smiled smugly. “I’m an artist. I do what I want.” His accent had disappeared. I realized he had been faking it all along, for my benefit.
“But why?” I insisted, and I softened a little in his embrace, allowing him to hold me. Something about his certainty made me feel secure, even cared for.
“Your particular beauty fades,” he said. “Your particular qualities will wither and die. But the eternal remains. That is what I paint. The eternal idea. The Universal Beauty.”
I tried to pull away from him.
“I hate that!” I nearly shouted. “I don’t want a lecture on Neo-platonic love! I just want to be me… Simona. I’m not me…I’m not…,” I felt confused. Botticelli kissed my neck, my arms, and I felt my reserve melting. “I’m just…we’re just… who am I?”
Standing there with him, bathed in moonlight, I saw in his eyes a longing for something which I could never give him, and so he had created it for himself. He saw me, and all beautiful women, as a symbol of something eternal; he had made it up in his mind to do so, and no amount of protest could change it. Repelled as I was, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his vision, by all the work he had done to turn normal women into something Universal, something greater than themselves. In a way, it was a relief not to be my small, imperfect, mortal self, struggling with my insecurities, my bills and debts, my pathetic career dreams…
I completely submitted to his embrace, and to his vision of who I was.
“Who am I?” I gasped again, between kisses, realizing that I would never make it to my car, never escape from this weird party, nor did I desire to.
“You’re Venus,” Botticelli murmured in my ear. “The goddess of love.”
And I had to be satisfied with that.
Thanks for reading my short story! Comments are working again, so please leave one! Doing so will enter you in a raffle to win a free print of any painting on my website. Deadline is 9 pm, Tuesday, April 12th, 2016.