At the age of 13, Harriet Brown, a middle schooler with an intense, visceral love for drawing and a lack of talent for it, chances upon perfection for the first time, or so she likes to think. It happens right upon meeting, and it’s like entering the trajectory of a burning star, being sucked into its gravity field with no means of escape; becoming a tiny satellite reflecting the brightness and dancing endlessly around it, never touching, in a binary system where Harriet hopes to be doing her own part in moving the giant star along, even if by infinitely little. Because of that, Harriet grows up believing that when people say perfection does not exist, it just means they never met Darren Williams.
But she never speaks of this with anyone, let alone Darren himself. When middle school ends, it seems only natural that Darren talks excitedly to Harriet about their future in high school but kisses his childhood friend at the graduation ceremony instead, naively certain the two of them would stay together forever. But Harriet doesn’t follow him in his choices, and as she watches him move to another city and gradually fall out of touch, Harriet thinks that perhaps it’s for the best.
At the age of 16, Harriet Brown, a high schooler desperately striving to become better at what she loves, meets perfection for the second time again, and finds that it’s just as jarring, as centre-shifting as years before. It happens somewhere in the middle, and it’s like walking on safe, solid ground until an unannounced earthquake strikes and shakes her bones; craters rumble open under her feet and there’s nothing she can do but let herself fall deep into the dark and frightening cracks.
This time too she doesn’t say anything, because before she has time to deal with the truth, her knew best friend, new form of perfection, flies off to Paris to run after his future. Harriet might have protested; might have tried to convince him to stay, to twist the knife in his friend’s doubts. But some of the many things that make Kyle Jarret perfect are his heart and dreams, and his will to follow them; so at the airport, the last words Kyle tells her are ‘You’d better have become famous by our next meeting. I didn’t make you sign all those notes for nothing.’ They hug, and despite the frantic impulse to never let go, Harriet does, and once again doesn’t follow. Shee has his own dream to chase, after all.
In the end, what Harriet has left of Darren and Kyle is a huge stack of sketches and portraits, of sights snatched from the sidelines, of memories of Darren pushing her forward when he slacked behind in his ambitions, and Kyle strolling beside her and sharing his own with her. In her innate inability to express perfection in the language of words, Harriet tries to catch theirs on paper. But she’s never able to — their years together ending before she could ever manage to seize a glimpse of it, treasure it as something concrete and not as fleeting as time and distance make it seem.
At the age of 21, Harriet Brown, a college junior studying for a bachelor degree in Arts, knows perfection for the third time. She also starts to believe that maybe the normal, the average people weren’t meant to be for him, that she’s destined to orbit forever in the wake of greater men. Maybe one day she’ll even get used to it, she thinks, and already wonders where fate will lead this one away, or if she’ll be able to hold onto it this time. Because Harriet knows the importance of fighting for what is worth it, but has yet to figure out where the limit of that lies when it comes to people and not such immaterial things as dreams.
It’s like witnessing a portrait bloom into existence. First appear the strokes in pencil, light and sketchy on the blank canvas, tickling her curiosity, catching his eyes and gluing them to it with a wish to see what will come out of it. Then is the turn of paint, the quick and accurate brush strokes, auburn hues and the color of pale skin, lights and shadows shaping the contours. And when that is complete too, the time comes to take a step back, admire the painting from a distance, and realize how perfect it is in its entirety; how deep his heart is into it to be able to perceive it in any other way.
But before all this—before their meeting, and the friendship that followed— Adrian Simmone is just another student, one who happens to be the most renowned in every corner of the college they both attend. Business junior student, top of the class, college committee’s president, perfect grades, perfect conduct, perfect social status, perfect perfect wherever he turns there’s the word perfect hanging from people’s lips. Yet, to Harriet, he is just like the flat surface of a still lake, a blank canvas.
There’s always a quasi objective perfection in stillness; a blank canvas may be seen as perfect in its unmarred whiteness, but it’s not the kind that draws Harriet’s attention. From what few glimpses she has caught over time, Harriet neutrally gathers the collective impression that Adrian Simmone is clever; severe but respectful, a good leader in the college community, surely destined to greatness once he enters the world’s scene, regardless of the field he would choose to operate in. He is a monolithic figure in the landscape standing up in the distance, an unblemished stone. Harriet doesn’t doubt the presence of something more at the stone’s core, under the flat water—there always is. But Adrian Simmone is, in every term, not perfect in Harriet’s eyes nor her business to unravel and place her interest in. People who make themselves look like blank canvases don’t want to be seen otherwise, and one shouldn’t pry for the sake of prying. She’s always done the same, albeit in the opposite direction; she understands.
And so, despite crossing paths by chance again and again, she and Adrian Simmone remain strangers to each other for two years.
How it begins: through the book club she’s been attending for months and in need of extra money, Harriet obtains the part-time job as college librarian. She already knows the library by heart when she starts, having spent most of her time there when she’s not on the bleachers or the courtyard, sketching players and passersby.
That’s how she happens to be putting away some books when in the narrow space between two rows of shelves, she recognizes the unmistakable eyes of Adrian Simmone, in the company of one of Harriet’s art classmates. She doesn’t know why they’re together in the seventh corridor of the library, nor is she interested in finding out; but given the conversation they’re sharing with no air of secretiveness, Harriet reckons it’s nothing private that would require her to tactfully walk away from the scene.
The girl is wondering if Adrian is interested in posing as a model for figure painting classes, their old ones having recently withdrawn their availability or graduated.
“I’m afraid I have to decline,” Adrian says educatedly. He explains that he’s busy with many duties, that he has little time to offer. He makes no point about being self-conscious, and if his neutral and unreserved intonation is of any indication, Harriet believes he’s not simply omitting an uncomfortable truth.
The girl politely thanks him for his time, leaves him with a lilac flyer, the same kind that is attached in many copies to all the notice boards in the atrium, in case he changes his mind. As the girl walks away, Adrian stays, and continues to examine the row of books before him. Then he sighs, a heavy but reserved sigh that has Harriet’s gaze perk up to instinctively search for the source, its visual feedback, only to find a pair of eyes still downcast and unreadable.
Adrian travels down the seventh corridor and around the corner of the bookshelf, appears into Harriet’s view with a distant look and pale fingers running along the crests of the lined books, without taking notice of Harriet, as most do. Or so Harriet thinks, until Adrian suddenly jerks his head towards her and stares with a wide, baffled look.
Before normalcy can return on Adrian’s features, Harriet puts one last book into its rightful place and goes back to the counter.
In the following weeks, Harriet observes Adrian.
It all stems from an initial curiosity in assessing whether Adrian would indeed be an ideal model for figure painting, as her classmates put it. Not that the practice requires beauty or perfection, but ideal bodies are always appreciated when having to get acquainted with proportions, muscles, anatomy.
It slowly derails when Harriet, easy prey of her overbearing observational skills, involuntarily starts picking up on Adrian's habits more than she pays an artistic brand of attention to his body.
Adrian's favourite spot is the one by the large glass wall on the far end of the main nave, exactly opposite to Harriet's counter. She notices that soon, because Adrian is a regular of the late hours. He always comes in with his schoolbag full; when he sits, he pulls some books out, neatly stacks them into orderly piles to his left, and then lowers his head and doesn’t resurface until twenty minutes before closing hour. Other times he walks in only to wander about the shelves, pulling out books, delicately skimming through them and reading the first pages before deciding his next action.
On those days, he walks up to the counter and requests to borrow a book. Harriet is bound to notice all of this easily too because Adrian’s gaze never wavers when he approaches and hands her the day’s choice, doesn’t look around perplexed, doesn’t gasp when Harriet takes the book out of his hand and speaks up to wish him a good day. This troubles Harriet, because she has a tendency to exploit her lack of presence. Overlooked, she sometimes distracts herself from reality to pick up a good read, or linger on a drawing in her sketchbook a moment too long, and when Adrian reaches her, there’s a curious look in his eyes; not judging, but eloquent, silently communicating to Harriet that he knows she is not doing her job. Harriet doesn’t fancy those moments.
Another blatant detail that doesn’t escape Harriet's attention for long is that anyone hardly approaches Adrian's table. The library is relatively wide and the attendance is not too high, but it still feels like an invisible spell is cast around Adrian’s surroundings, a powerful one which keeps at bay even the most daring fans peregrinating to the library only to admire his bubble of loneliness as closely as the spell allows them to.
Never one to give up a good occasion, Harriet soon finds a way to exploit the newfound knowledge on Adrian.
Second year’s finals approach, and Harriet is relieved of her job for several weeks. Nevertheless, she still spends most of her free time in the library, whether she’s in the mood to study, read or draw. She too has her own favourite spots; sadly, they’re also the favourite spots of many other students, who notice her only when it’s too late, when they’re already murmuring among them about the day’s homework and confirming in their heads the wrong number of free space for all of their group.
It can be tiring on some days, and if breaching Adriam’s fixed range of solitude can save her from being an unwilling participant to an overcrowded table, then she has nothing preventing herself from stepping forth.
She sits down wordlessly, in the farthest seat from Adrian that can occupy at least six people. Just as wordlessly, Adrian raises his head, allowing his face only an instant of perplexity before examining her critically, evaluating what kind of library neighbor she might be. Harriet doesn’t miss the glance he darts to the opposite side of the hall, where the usual librarian sits at the counter. Apparently believing her not to be a nuisance, Adrian soon goes back to his book.
Afternoons pass slowly and quietly close to each other, and Harriet ends up catching new things about Adrian that she had failed to notice from a distance. Like the fact that around six in the afternoon, Adrian concedes himself the leisure of a game on the portable shogi board he pulls out of his school bag, as if it was normal occurrence to carry one around everyday; or that Adrian often doesn’t seem to be studying any kind of book that one would expect from a business student: books of art, of music, of politics are scattered in sequence around him, and Harriet has to wonder if Adrian is preparing himself to be a patron king in some faraway land across the ocean or if he’s simply that interested in nurturing such a polymathic knowledge.
“I’m sorry,” she says one day as she moves to the chair right across Adrian in order to turn her back to the glass wall and practice some architectural drawing of the library. Adrian sends her an inquiring look. “Do I disturb you if I sit here?”
“Do as you please,” Adrian answers flatly and returns his attention to the book at hand; but after that, Harriet could swear the chill she feels on his skin is instilled by Adrian’s gaze passing over her now and then, inspecting.
Obviously, Harriet steals a fair share of glances at him. She has reason to believe Adrian does the same, but never catches him in the act. Nonetheless, as the days go by, Harriet grows certain that, at some level, the awareness of each other has become steady and mutual.
Their first actual conversation is delivered by a rainy spring day that catches many unprepared. Back to her librarian duties, Harriet sits in her spot at the counter, and notices Adrian sleeping on his books.
He never did that before and for some reason, Harriet has the distinct feeling Adrian is not the kind of person who likes to sleep in public. But it’s late, and the library’s empty except for very few students, so Harriet lets him.
Around twenty minutes before closing hours, she rests a hand on Adrian’s shoulder and gently shakes him awake. Adrian doesn’t respond right away at the call of his name; he keeps sleeping, until suddenly his brows sink imperceptibly, twitching along with the corners of his eyes, his lips quivering and Harriet’s fingers twitch in unison as well, as they do whenever they itch for her cellphone to snap a picture of something she wants to draw. In a stretched instant, the expression is gone and Adrian blinks awake, swiftly pulls himself up.
“We’re closing, Mr Simmone.”
Adrian pulls at the sleeve of his uniform to read the hour on his watch. He stares at it for a strangely long second, the glance he throws at Harriet after that slightly suspicious.
But "Adrian is fine. I’m sorry for the inconvenience,” he simply says, as formal as ever, and frowns mildly at the world outside the window, a smudge of irritation flitting about.
“It’s alright,” Harriet says. “Would you like me to put away those books for you?”
“Yes, if you may.”
Harriet takes in how efficiently Adrian recovers from the drowsiness, in front of her, how promptly his body hides away any more trace of one hour long nap. Yet, as she gathers the books in his arms and turns, she manages to catch Adrian’s fingers, out of the corner of her vision, nimbly rubbing his eyes; the other hand’s inconspicuously slipping in the crook of his tie to check its fit.
A few minutes later Adrian strolls out of the library, while Harriet puts the books away and thinks of that fleeting expression she saw earlier, wonders if she’ll still remember it well enough once she’ll have picked up paper and pencil.
After closing the library’s door behind her, she meets Adrian again on his path to the exit. He’s with someone else now, though; another student Harriet vaguely recognizes from the college committee, with such unruly clothes and mien that by contrast, makes Adrian’s impeccability look even starker, almost untouchable by commoners’ hands. By the looks of it, it’s a one-sided argument, the student’s shouts obnoxiously loud as she heatedly demands an explanation, while Adrian seems utterly indifferent to it all. In fact, he makes to go away; but the guy's hand shoots out to grab his arm and yank it back. It’s not a violent gesture, and Adrian doesn’t appear fazed in the least by it; but Harriet was always quick to act and careless to step into these situations, and the guy jumps with a pleasing screech as she appears beside him with the request to stop.
“Thank you for your help, but I believe we are indeed done.” Adrian's words are polite, but his voice is icy, piercing like an arrow, and Harriet tenses with the need to face him, to keep Adrian in sight, like felines do when a threat confronts them in the open.
“I gave you a chance.” Authority seems to radiate off Adrian's whole being in crushing waves as he looks down on the guy. “And you didn’t take it. I honestly don’t know why they allowed you to participate in the committee when you’re obviously too busy chasing your so-called loves and fun endevours to do what you must do. You’re a hindrance to our teamwork and I have already found a better substitute. The only thing I ask of you, is to not saddle me further with your pointless regrets.”
And just like that, Adrian turns to Harriet instead, switching to an unsettling indifference for their surroundings. “Harriet, is it? Shall we go?”
Before she knows it, Harriet is already moving her feet forward, compelled by an invisible force binding her to Adrian’s order. She falls into step beside him like a cadet following a commander, sparing only one glance over her shoulder at the stricken guy left speechless in Adrian’s wake.
“Do you often jump like that in others’ arguments?” Adrian asks her, gaining her attention again. He’s smiling faintly, but not with his eyes. His tone doesn’t sound chiding, though; only curious, and vaguely amused.
“No,” Harriet says. “I just don’t like standing by on some occasions.”
“I see,” Adrian says with an appraising nod.
Harriet doesn’t know what Adrian sees, but what she sees is sketchy lines being drawn on a blank canvas, sharp eyes without mirth, cutting like cold steel folded in on itself, unapologetic and authoritative, a crimson not burning but freezing, and winding smoothly like blood in arteries. Is this the perfection the school knows, Harriet asks herself, and doubts it; and that’s exactly why she feels obliged to keep looking, to discover more.
They reach the entrance, and Harriet pulls her umbrella open. Adrian slows down at the top of the outer steps instead, staring aloof at the pouring rain.
“You don’t have your umbrella?” Harriet asks.
“No.” Adrian heaves a sigh, a wrinkle in his brow. “I never forget my umbrella,” he says, more to himself than Harriet, sounding like he’s chiding himself for doing something so unbelievably silly and irresponsible.
Harriet restrains the unfathomable urge to smile at the display. “I could walk you. Do you live in the dorms? I’m in D2.”
“A1.” Harriet’s eyes widen, despite the news not being shocking in itself. Adrian’s social status is renowned by everyone and A1 is the dormitory with private single rooms, usually inhabited by the wealthiest students. “It’s the farthest from yours. Don’t worry, go on without me.”
Harriet doesn’t. She falters a bit in her decision, long enough for Adrian to direct at her an inquisitive glance. “I insist, Adrian. It’s fine by me. I don’t really have anything else to do today.”
Adrian blinks, while Harriet wishes she could read his expressions better. “If that’s the case, then…”
The walk does take many minutes, and the rain drenches her legs to the bone; but Harriet enjoys it anyway, finds in Adrian a pleasant interlocutor. As expected, Adrian knows an inexplicable amount of things, has an opinion about everything and many of those point in the opposite direction from Harriet’s, when she has one to share herself. Nonetheless it’s nice, and a faint displeasure crawls in her once they finally reach the dormitory.
“Thank you,” Adrian says in front of the main door.
“You’re welcome.” Harriet rests the handle of her umbrella on the shoulder, eyes the dorm behind Adrian with admiration, thinking that it does fit the stereotypical image of a place for wealthy people. Engrossed with the architecture of the building witnessed from closer than she usually sees it from herbroom’s window, she lets a distracted, “See you tomorrow,” slip out.
Which is a bizarre thing to say in their case, because they do nothing but sit at the same library table, or exchange a few words when Adrian borrows another book; many times they don’t even acknowledge each other. Harriet scratches her cheek and looks away towards her own dormitory. But contrary to her predictions, Adrian shows her a smile that could be used by textbooks as the definition of symmetry, and replies, “Certainly. Have a good evening, Harriet.”
It continues like this: it blooms like a flower, with time and sunlight, and raindrops falling outside the windows of the library, over books and shogi boards and rough sketches drawn on strewn papers.
Afternoons in the library turn into afternoons walking back to the dorms, then mornings to the college, lunchtimes eating together on the roofs, matches of board games that Harriet casually says she knows how to play only to find Adrian opening a portable board of it the next day; even running together for Adrian's track team’s training—Harriet isn’t thrilled at first, but she supposes she could use some physical exercise; maybe also the extra time in Adrian’s company.
“Can I draw you,” she has the courage to blurt somewhere in the middle, and before Adrian can answer she adds, “You don’t have to pose or anything.”
As Adrian welcomes the request with no complaint, in Harriet's sketchbook flourish drawings of him, piles and piles, alternating with her class assignments, the sterile architectures of the library and other buildings soon forgotten.
“Can I see it,” Adrian usually asks, but Harriet denies him permission every time, adamant about not letting him see far less than perfect drawings. Adrian’s opinion is something Harriet comes to treasure, and doesn’t enjoy putting to a test so mindlessly.
“It’s private,” she explains, wary of Adrian's skeptical gaze. “And don’t look at me as I draw you, please.”
“Your stubbornness is close to fascinating,” Adrian answers, obviously not fascinated as he goes back to writing notes in his exercise book. “It was blatant since the start, but I reckoned there would be limits to it.”
“Tragic what friendship can unveil about people,” Harriet says before she can realize her own words. When she looks up, Adrian’s hand is slowing to a brief halt on the paper, and Harriet is pleased to spot an almost imperceptible smile bloom on his lips.
When Harriet works as librarian, she finds it awkward to spend hours in the same room yet so far from Adrian. Which is why when most of the people are out or in no apparent need of her, she travels down the nave and inconspicuously settles in her usual chair across Adrian. It’s not like they see her if he’s at the counter anyway; she can easily pretend she was always there in the first place. Sometimes, Adrian smirks at that.
In her continuous sketching of Adrian's features, Harriet discovers she particularly likes Adrian's tendency to pull up one foot on the chair when he plays shogi. It’s peculiar, and it fits Adrian’s image. She occasionally portrays him that way—until one day she finishes a sketch of it, passes a fingertip over a drawn cheekbone to smudge the lines into a shadier curve, and thinks that Adrian’s perfection maybe isn’t supposed to be caught on paper. Perhaps not by her.
Surprising herself with that line of thought, Harriet stops.
She recognizes it, because it has happened twice already, this fateful chancing upon perfection. She raises her head then, to look with a heavy chest at Adrian, working peaceful and clueless in front of her, and Harriet wonders how childish it would be to start crying now.
When Adrian notices her staring and asks, befuddled, “Is everything alright?” Harriet can’t answer, because things are arguably alright and because her voice is failing her, too knotted deep down her throat, clawing at it in a tenacious refusal to come out. So she just sighs resignedly, nods; and while Adrian isn’t fully persuaded by her silent confirmation, he doesn’t prod further.
Maybe it’s the destiny offering a timid apology for unfairly thrusting at her a succession of perfect individuals that are not supposed to exist, when after months Harriet finally, finally, manages to draw Adrian right. In a state of sheer stupor, she gazes down at her paper; then raises it and stretches her hands out, contemplating it from a distance.
Recognizing the gesture marking the completion of a work, Adrian perks up. “Can I see it?” It’s a rethorical question, one following a rehearsed script they both well know the end of.
But it’s time for a change, for a renewal, Harriet thinks as her eyes fall on Adriam, mesmerized. “Yes,” She says in a daze, and Adrian’s face comically switches from aloof to just as stunned as she feels inside.
He takes the sketchbook from her with hesitant fingers and discontinuous glances down at the open page, as if trying to grant Harriet a last occasion to change her mind. But Harriet doesn’t take it back and Adrian observes it attentively now, with heart-warming captivation. After long he only says, “Impressive,” and perhaps, since this is Adrian, that single word is indeed more than enough to convey all of his appreciation for it. “Can I see the others too?”
Harriet nods, because grasping perfection changes a lot of perspectives; right now, it seems only natural to show the process behind a success. A success, she keeps thinking, a success.
“You draw only people,” Adrian points out in the tense silence. Harriet is glad he doesn’t say ‘only me’.
“People are more interesting,” Pen rolling excitedly between fingers, Harriet lays her chin on the palm of her hand. “Simple observation can tell you a lot even about strangers. I think it’s endearing.”
Adrian keeps turning the pages of the sketchbook, one by one, his touch so delicate that it makes him look like an archeologist handling a fragile precious relic; but he still takes a moment to look up and say with the most beautiful smile Harriet ever remembers being granted, “That does sound a lot like you, yes.”
And it’s on occasions like these, when Adrian lets her see through and offers her a reason as to why meeting perfection is worth it, no matter the pain and the longing, that Harriet doesn’t dare look away.
Where it ends—as they know it: Harriet is looking over her sketched art nude when Adrian peeks curiously at the paper and asks about it. They make their way to the cafeteria talking about Harriet’s figure painting experience, and once they’re sat down at one of the empty tables, both their lunch on one common trail, Adrian tells him, “They asked me to be a model, once. For what I assume would have been one of your classes.”
“I know,” Harriet answers, probably too quickly.
Adrian's face has rarely looked so stunned in months of constant close proximity. “You know?”
Spooning some of the ice cream that is her only buy for the lunch, Harriet hums. “I heard the girl responsible for recruiting going over the list of people she wanted to ask. I also saw the two of you when she asked you about it in the library.” Catching the mouthful between her lips, she stares at the bottom of her cup, uneasy. She wonders if that made her sound like a stalker. “I’m the librarian,” she adds lamely.
“I see,” Adrian says, unnervingly enigmatic as usual; Harriet is tempted to ask what it is that he always sees so clearly with his omni-observant eyes.
“I remember mostly because the ones who agreed couldn’t hold still and didn’t have good muscles,” he further justifies himself. And it’s half true; the other half being that Harriet simply remembers everything about Adrian Simmone. “I couldn’t help but believe you would have been a far better model.”
But all that comes out of her mouth, instead of salvaging the situation, lends her the distinct impression that she’s only digging her grave deeper. Adrian looks at her even more weirdly. “You wish I had agreed?”
It doesn’t truly sound like a question, Harriet notices. She tries to sound logical. “Well, you have optimal body proportions and muscles. Your face is shockingly symmetrical. Also, you’re not an eyesore, which would have largely appeased many of my classmates’ hopes for that class.”
“An eyesore,” Adrian echoes pensively.
“You’re not,” Harriet repeats concisely. “I’m sure everyone would have agreed with me in saying that you look like a good model to study, anatomically.”
“How are you at it?” Adrian asks casually.
“Um, I.” Scratching her cheek in embarrassment, Harriet mumbles, “My professor says I could be better.”
“You need practice,” Adrian states, understanding.
Adrian stays silent for a long while. The food on the trail is consumed little by little, until only Adrian's bowl of fruit salad is left and that’s when he says, “If you asked me to pose for you for figure drawing practice, I’d say yes.”
Only a miracle prevents her cup of ice cream from being dropped on her knees, giving back strength to her fingers just in time to latch onto it again like a lifeline. “What.”
Adrian looks up from the plate to stare right into her eyes, dismally unperceptive of her inner discomposure, or just without care for it. “If you want me to pose for you for private practice, it’s fine by me,” he repeats.
Then, he raises a slice of apple to his mouth, sinks his teeth into it and Harriet feels like a deer caught in the headlights, one too many feet planted in the middle of the street instead of the dark safety of familiar woods, wondering how she was supposed to see this coming; if it would have sufficed to look down to the path she was following instead of admiring the foliage’s tricks of light—but she thinks, no, it wouldn’t have. That’s Adrian Simmone to the world.
After hours of shameful fiddling with the incepted idea in the safe, private corners of her mind, Harriet caves in to the growing desire of accepting Adrian’s offer. She honestly doesn’t know where she finds the courage and the voice to agree to it in later days.
Since Adrian, being a committee’s president well-trusted by the entire teacher body of the college, has easy access to the keys of the classrooms, it doesn’t prove a difficult task to sneak into the Fine Arts room and lock themselves in during the late afternoon hours. Adrian had proposed his dormitory room, but Harriet is in a too compromised state of mind to permit herself any alone time with Adrian naked in a bedroom, instead of the more formal environment of the art classroom, with its less intimate platform for models and the familiar forest of easels already set around it.
Unlike other classmates, Harriet has never felt shy when drawing nudes, nor about nakedness in general. It’s practice, and it’s needed, so there’s no point in losing concentration over a body simply shown for what it is. But a body is a body while Adrian Simmone is Adrian Simmone, and that of course underlies all the difference in the world.
Consequentially, Harriet pointedly turns around and busies herself with shifting her easel into a more central position as Adrian strips down in the corner. Her hands are sweating profusely as she shuffles about to mount a blank canvas on the easel. The pencil falls from her quivering fingers as she takes it out from the case, and when he picks it up, it risks to pathetically slipping again because then Adrian says from somewhere behind her. “Do I sit here?”
Carefully glancing over her shoulder, he’s on the verge of fainting from relief when she sees Adrian wearing a white robe.
“Yes,” she croaks out. “Please give me a moment and I’ll tell you how.”
Adrian sits down, legs crossed as he waits silently, and Harriet prolongs her actions to the point she’s close to not moving anymore, in the foolish hope of postponing the moment she will have to turn around and finally look at Adrian. But there are soon no more tasks to waste time on when all her tools have been arranged on the easel’s base and the only thing left is to sit on the stool and start drawing.
“Alright, you can…” she trails off, and whines inwardly when Adrian, unlike her, doesn’t bother wasting time. With the unfair elegance of a king, he discards his robe with a sinuous roll of his shoulders, lets it slip down his arms, flicks it off his legs, and leaves it to pool on the platform under him like a creased blanket, the last contemporary echo of Giorgione’s Venuses; probably Harriet’s heart skips a beat, perhaps two, and in her defense, her whole body and mind stop functioning only for few seconds. In her defense, the world is at fault for not upholding a law banning Adrian from serving as a model for figure painting.
Like a puppeteer arranging its creation in the desired display for the shop window, Harriet steers Adrian's limbs where she wants them, fingers barely brushing the bare skin. She grazes both knees, gently draws them apart, then slipping to one shin and propelling it upwards; Adrian meets her halfway in every gesture, moving as if he’s a body of inertia, guided by Harriet’s soft pushes and then following the shown trajectory on their own—and if Adrian notices her hands trembling a bit, he doesn’t say anything about it.
One knee up, arm bent on it, its hand cradling the back of the neck and cheek nestled against the forearm, Adrian keeps his gaze fixed onto Harriet, a bewildering lenience in his expression and a flicker of amusement in his eyes.
“Is there a reason as to why like this?” Adrian asks knowingly.
Harriet doesn’t falter. “It’s one that fits you.”
“And here I was expecting to pose as a Greek god,” Adrian jokes, and such rarity is enough to sedate Harriet’s heart a little.
“Is it really falling on me, the task of breaking to Adrian Simmone, that he’s no such thing.” Her fingers leave Adrian’s smooth skin as she takes one long step back.
“You wound me,” Adrian says blandly, the muscles in his forearm shifting as his hand massages his nape distractedly. Then, noticing Harriet’s evaluating stance, he falls into stillness. “Is this fine?”
Looking at him, Harriet sees all over again what she saw that day in the library, and she doesn’t get why she should ever want Adrian to emulate Greek gods when he surpasses them the way he is naturally.
“It’s perfect,” Harriet answers, honest. Adrian’s eyes stare back, strangely serious. “Now, please, look to the side.”
Long minutes pass in a tense calmness as Harriet works on a rough outline. After she finishes, Adrian calls, “Harriet,” sounding to Harriet’s ears almost curious—almost challenging, “Do you think I’m perfect?”
The ‘too’ goes unsaid, but Harriet hears it anyway, whether Adrian wanted her to or not. She hums, hesitant. “I think that is a question that might have a misleading answer.”
“What do you think of perfection, Adrian?”
Head lolling, Adrian looks vacuously to the side, but his voice doesn’t waver, sharp and cynical. “It’s a requirement. A standard thrust upon individuals by either birth, or people who feel the need to label what they cannot accomplish themselves as unreachable, to justify their own flaws. A measurement that they often expect to be proved wrong, only to be pleased by this. And when they aren’t pleased…” Adrian’s hand once again threads flimsily through the blonde hair at the base of his neck, and his foot lightly taps now and then on the platform, but Harriet doesn’t tell him to stop. “Their disappointment is unfounded. As if perfection had always existed for them to be enamoured with.” He looks back at him with half-lidded eyes. “What about you?”
Harriet stops drawing. In her mind, she imagines a still lake rippled by drops of water raised from a storm; breaches in a wall from where frail flowers spurt into the sunlight; stars burning so bright that nothing can approach them past millions of light years without catching fire themselves.
She thinks of Adrian, of how unnecessarily composed he looks even in his sleep, but then blurts out words without realizing how unfair they might sound outside of her head; of when she draws up his left knee when he plays shogi but only if Harriet’s the only one watching. Of how he overanalyzes and deconstructs happenings to the point Harriet has to beg him to just stop thinking for once; when he keeps so much to himself whereas Harriet just wishes she could know everything already, but also casually admits important details about his life with the same nonchalance he would comment on the weather with. How he always has a comment to spare for everything, and how he’s always right, in the end, making Harriet wait for the moment she can tell him you were wrong after all—making her fear it will never come.
Of how he walks on a fine line between kind and unmerciful, how he refuses to give trust to people who don’t offer theirs; of how his eyes sometimes are alight with ice and rarer times with warmth and secretive knowing smiles, as if he sees things others cannot see—and it’s true, it’s probably true. How he asks Harriet to follow him with his words but to oppose him with his eyes; how he brings out a fire in Harriet, a faith, a dedication she never imagined she could offer, before Adrian came into the picture.
“I’m not good with words,” she replies, scratching a cheek. “But… to me, perfection is a state of mind. It’s something that makes you feel the need to take a step back and just… admire it as a whole. And if you step closer, all the details and the imperfections you see, you can’t help but think those are good too, since it’s the way they slot together that made it possible for that whole to exist.”
Harriet relents. “I’m sorry, this was kind of cryptic…”
“Not so much,” Adrian says absently, as if immersed in another line of thought and forcing himself to speak through it. He smiles faintly. “It’s curious, though. I could never relate to it, but I’ve heard sentimental people describing love in a very similar way.”
The tip of her pencil draws a far too wide leg as her grip on it tightens reflexively. Harriet pointedly stares at her mistake. “Is that so? Please look away, Adrian, and stay still.”
Adrian does, but doesn’t lose the spark in his eyes.
On the second day, Harriet is giving a hand of faint watercolors when she looks up from the canvas and catches Adrian fixedly staring at her again.
“Please look away, Adrian,” Harriet chides again.
However, Adrian doesn’t comply. He asks, instead, “Why don’t you want your subjects to look at you?”
Harriet sighs resignedly. “I don’t like being stared at as I draw is one reason. The second being, I think it’s more natural when people look away, even when they’re posing. That way it’s easier for their thoughts to wander freely and reflect on their expressions.”
Adrian seems to ponder attentively over her words. “What if the person’s mind freely careens towards the creator, though? Shouldn’t you let their gaze wander in unison with their thoughts?”
“No,” Harriet replies with childish obstinacy and no further explanation, because the problem is not any gaze, but Adrian’s raw one directed at her. She doesn’t want to explore that gaze, ever, in fear of not finding what she hopes for.
“That’s too bad. Because I’m in the mood for staring at you right now.” Head tipped further against his forearm, Adrian curves his lips into a crescent smirk. “And I’m fairly positive you won’t die from it.”
The brush slants along the pencil lines in a vaguely aggressive gesture as Harriet bores holes of judgment into the canvas instead of Adrian. “You’re the worst. I was wrong when I said you should have accepted the offer. What’s the point of a model who doesn’t do what he’s told?”
“Is that such a bad thing?” Adrian says, teasing.
No, Harriet thinks with an inner grimace, not when it’s you. “Of course it is, Adrian.”
Adrian drops any retort, apparently more interested in staring unabashedly at Harriet. But even if Harriet tries to ignore to the best of her abilities, she can’t unsee Adrian’s eyes not being his usual cunning ones, scrutinizing the world as if it’s one big specimen to be appeased and set apart under his watch; just looking, their contours softer than usual, rarely so relaxed and unguarded. Harriet’s hands begin to sweat again.
“Harriet,” Adrian calls softly when they near the end of their session. At Harriet’s hum of acknowledgement, he asks, “Why did you accept my offer?”
“Why did you offer in the first place?” Harriet retaliates promptly. But Adrian stands his ground and his inquiring gaze, righteously pushing the first turn on her. With a soft sigh, Harriet yields. “I’ve never been good at finding inspiration where they tell me to. I was curious to see how well could I do in the same assignment but drawing something I actually enjoy drawing.”
Adrian nods, absorbed in his own speculations; then answers on his part, “I had trust that, unlike most people, you would use my time fruitfully.”
“I hope to not disappoint then.”
“You won’t,” Adrian states, voice as firm as when he gives orders and expects them to be accomplished at their best—as when he seldom believes someone to have the potential in them to do only that, the best.
Somehow, after that, Harriet collects some of her calm again.
At the end of the third day, Harriet finishes the drawing. Without her noticing, still preoccupied by the details from up close, the tiny smudges and the overlapping color lines, Adrian soundlessly stands up from the base and nears on bare feet, arms crossed over the robe now wrapped around him.
“Can I see it?” he asks, his face appearing right beside the canvas, and Harriet almost jumps on the spot, more agitated than she’s ever been in her life upon finishing a work. When she nods wordlessly, because no words bother finding her then, Adrian takes a few dignified steps forwards, reaches her side and turns.
His eyes widen taking in Harriet’s creation, but he doesn’t speak, only observes in absolute silence as Harriet tries to not concentrate too much on their shoulders bumping together. When Adrian finally says in a soft, genuine murmur, “It’s beautiful,” Harriet releases the breath she was holding, knees threatening to wobble with relief.
“I’m glad you like it.”
“I knew staying still for three afternoons straight would have paid off in the long run,” Adrian says, captivated, eyes darting about the painting. Harriet feels an indecorous pride of having been able to bring forth such an expression on Adrian’s face, a thrill similar to that of placing first place in the greatest of all competitions. “Would you let me have it?”
“No,” Harriet blurts out, jerking towards Adrian and, probably a tad too possessively, explains, “It’s mine. I drew it.”
Adrian's brows furrow faced with his inflexible resolution. “I can pay you.”
“You can pay me, if you can’t help it. I could use the money,” Harriet says. “Still keeping it.”
“Then we should do this again,” Adrian states with finality, arm brushing against Harriet's as he turns to her, incredibly close for being naked under that thin, white robe. “So that I can keep the second one.”
Harriet can’t pinpoint whether it’s the fatigue of the early evening or the exasperation of living on a taxing edge for three days straight finally taking a toll on her mind; which ever the cause, the ultimate result is her patience ceding, her wires snapping under the pressure, like a rubber band stretched too far. There are lines, in Harriet’s head, that mark wide limits between enjoyment and torture, between what she can endure and what she cannot. Right now, she can’t see any of those lines anymore on the horizon. “Please don’t play with me, Adrian.”
Adrian frowns then. “I’m not,” he says, looking genuinely perturbed by the accusation. “Why do you say that?”
“Because I feel like I’m the opponent on your personal shogi board, and your pieces are all closing in on me. And you keep… pushing, and waiting for me to make my own move at some point. Problem is,” Harriet attempts to gulp a bothersome knot in her throat down, but it doesn’t melt away. “That I can’t figure out if you’re doing this out of mere curiosity, or if there’s a purpose in your tactics.”
Adrian quietly bores holes into her for what feels like an eternity, the sun and stars finding the time to chase each other in the sky beyond the window over and over again by its end. But then, “I do have a purpose,” she says slowly, carefully weighing each one of his words before allowing them to hang in the air between them, heavy with significance. “Knowing that, what would your next move be?”
Harriet stills, appalled. But when the words catch up to hee, she tells herself she shouldn’t be surprised, because this is Adrian Simmone and his way of getting by: turning life into a long row of silent challenges, of mutual pushing and pulling, asking Harriet to simply show him she can keep the pace and stand her ground.
She leans in by impulse, without sorting thoughts through, without waiting for Adrian to meet her halfway like when she shapes him into a pose. It’s no experimental gesture, the touching of their lips, only Harriet indulging her wishes, allowing herself what she wants for the first time in her life, even if it’s a chance, just one chance. And it’s warm, as soft as she imagined it, and chaste, before Adrian is the one to catch up and push back, with a new fire Harriet couldn’t have predicted. She feels Adrian's hands cupping her face, trapping it closer and in place, between long fingers that claw at her cheeks demandingly; and Harriet doesn’t mind that. Adrian could drag her into his own cage of perfection and measurements and strategic pawns on a board and Harriet is afraid she wouldn’t mind right now, she would follow him anywhere, just to please her own need to take all of this, to taste it on his tongue, and touch it with his fingertips. His hands slip onto the robe, run up Adrian’s torso and sides before snaking to his back, tracing the bumps in his spine one by one, leaving faint trails of watercolors on the skin—and Adrian shudders on her lips, eyes closed as he leans his forehead against her and breathes her air.
For the third time in her life Harriet is absolutely certain that perfection does exist. But being assailed by it is another experience entirely, it reaches a scary, overwhelming intensity; it wraps around her like a cocoon and it blooms from within like a corrosive substance, it suffocates her as she still breathes and what it kills it brings back, tenfold, in a seamless circle that could go on forever, until Harriet will be consumed to the core, nothing left but skin and bones and a memory of the incomplete she once had been.
How it begins anew: Harriet sits up among the Prussian blue sheets of Adrian’s bed with bleary eyes and terrible bedhair. Right beside her, Adrian is still asleep, face partially sunk against the fluffy white pillow; morning sunrays reach the tips of his messy hair, bathing them in brighter shades of blonde, ghosting over the soft curves of his shoulder blades that twitch under pale skin as he slowly shuffles an arm under his head, lips parting for one deeper breath.
Harriet observes him as she regains awareness gradually, until she's awake enough to stumble off the bed. Finding her glasses amidst the pile of books and papers on the table, she staggers clunkily putting them on; then rummages through her schoolbag, and bounces back on the bed with crossed legs and sketchbook in hand.
Having snapped an accurately framed picture of Adrian's face for a later reference that she actually won’t need, she starts outlining his profile. The straight nose, the high cheekbones, she could probably sketch them all perfectly without looking, by now; but it’s a waste not to look when she is allowed to. As she adds some faint shading under the drawn eyes, the real ones blink open, languidly gazing up to her after a moment of blurry confusion. Harriet continues drawing.
“Don’t you ever get tired of drawing me?” Adrian asks after a while, only when he believes his voice won’t come out sounding too weak and sluggish.
Harriet shrugs, retracing the long line of Adrian’s jaw on the paper, shaping it sharper, firmer. “Hardly.”
Rolling on one shoulder to face her better, Adrian lolls his head down on the pillow, blanket sliding down his naked side. Harriet considers reaching out and touching him, but decides to finish drawing the falling locks of hair on Adrian’s forehead instead. “I would be flattered, but your drawing frequency seems to be bordering on obsessive, nowadays.”
“Why must you always complain about my habits,” Harriet says flatly. “Just be flattered.”
“Come here,” Adrian demands, and Harriet wonders if he does it deliberately or if it’s natural, that calm, compelling voice that one can’t simply deny—or if it’s just Harriet who has to put up a conscious fight to resist it every time. Regardless, this once she leaves sketchbook and pencil on the bedside table and then crawls, back under the blankets and over Adrian, and meets his waiting lips.
At the age of 21, Harriet, a college junior studying for a bachelor degree in arts, falls in love for the third time, and the last one.