Nick Estep, a sculptor and oil painter with a fondness for cow skulls and futurescapes, stood six-foot-four in his bare, filthy feet. He smelled like wood and sweat, and he always had stubble. His nose was an isosceles triangle and his intense green eyes were the star of the show. He was handsome, distinguished. Super fucking hot.
He was also 21 years old, six years older than Indy. But even though she’d had a secret crush on him for years, this summer seemed different somehow. Or maybe it was just Indy who was different. Older. Possibly better-looking. Definitely more mature.
She fought the urge to run right up to him and start chatting about the art shows she’d visited during the school year. She could tell him about the Jenny Holzer show she’d seen at MoMA, and casually drop into the conversation that she’d taken his advice and seen the Gilbert & George exhibit after all. But there would be time for that later. Maybe in the art studio, when they were more…alone.
As soon as Indigo stepped onto the paint-splattered floor of the art studio, the aroma of paint thinner and clay dust brought her back to summers past. The nostalgia from just standing there raised the hairs on her arms and gave her goose bumps.
Nick’s shaggy head peeked around the giant easel that bisected the space. He looked intense, distracted—like he was caught working on the piece of a lifetime. And he probably was. But he didn’t look annoyed at the interruption.
“Hi,” Indigo said shyly. Her voice echoed in the vastness of the empty room.
Nick’s eyes took in all five-feet-two of Indigo, strapped to a backpack, holding an armful of pads and two huge tote bags bursting with supplies. “Jeez,” he said. “You’re going to end up a hunchback if you carry all this stuff around. Don’t you know this is too heavy for a little girl like you?”
Indy’s cheeks flamed up at the phrase little girl. “I’m good, thanks,” she said. She looked around at the familiar space—there were the slanted drafting tables, the corner with the pencil sharpener and the cutting board, the wall of massive aluminum sinks. Off the main space was the sculpture studio, with welding equipment and ceramic supplies. The whole place felt homey and cold at the same time—like you could get work done here for hours on end, but you wouldn’t want to take a nap in any of the chairs.
She decided to set up an easel perpendicular to Nick’s and work on what would soon be a painted version of one of the still lifes from her sketchbook—a bowl of rotted fruit on her kitchen table from home. She adjusted the legs of the easel to match her height and put a prestretched canvas on the bottom clamp. As she taped her reference photos to the top of the easel, she peeked over at Nick, who had stopped working on his painting to stand back and look at it. She went around to join him and examined his piece, too.
It was a five-by-ten-foot landscape of a post-apocalyptic desert scene. Miles of soot and sand were littered with cow skulls and machine-gun shells under a green, ominous sky.
“That’s looking pretty cool,” Indy said, cringing as she heard the words escape her mouth. “Pretty cool”? Ugh.
“Yeah, I dunno,” Nick said. “I’m a little concerned about the composition.”
“Do you think it needs one more big thing, like, off to the side?” Indy said, thinking that’s what she would have done to the painting. Not that this was anything even close to a piece she had ever produced.
“Maybe. I could also just need a break from it.”
Indigo was thrilled at having just had an artist-to-artist conversation with the guy she’d spent half her life fantasizing about. She tried to play it cool, like she was totally used to giving grown men she idolized casual advice about their work. She returned to her canvas and started sketching just to look busy—like she was just doing her own thing, not anxiously waiting for Nick to respond. Or for him to ask her what she thought of his other paintings. Or to come over to her and spin her around with his big hands, holding her shoulders and bringing her close, then touching his lips to her neck before finally kissing her. She just stood there and sketched her still life as Nick stepped away from his canvas and washed his hands in the sink.
He walked over to the crappy boombox in the corner of the studio. Indy heard the sounds of a cassette being ejected from the contraption, then Nick popping in another tape. She had never even seen a cassette tape until she came to Silver Springs her first year and listened to a tinny recording of the Violent Femmes while she learned to throw pots on the wheel. And though Lillian kept trying to install iPod docks in all of the studios, the art students refused. There was just something superior about this antique technology. Besides, it was hilarious.
Nick hit play, and Indy recognized the first track of R.E.M.’s album Automatic for the People from its opening guitar riff. As music filled the studio, she felt herself becoming engrossed in what she was doing. She drew and drew, until her piece started to resemble something she was excited about. It always amazed her how things took shape. Most of the time it happened in a totally unexpected way. Or just with time.
She went over to her scuffed metal locker and removed her paints, a palette knife, and a rubber-banded cluster of her favorite brushes. She started setting up for the next step of the process, taking pleasure in keeping everything neat and organized while she did. She squeezed the new tubes of paint, delighting in how it felt to dent the plumpness of the aluminum tubes with her thumb. Dots of color went onto her waxed-paper palette pad. She dumped her brushes next to the pad on the counter surface and went to the sinks to fill an old coffee can with Turpenoid. There she paused to notice Nick, who’d painted over the sky of his landscape in bold strokes of crimson red, negating all of the progress he’d made on that part of the painting. At first she was sad to see what he’d done, but then she shrugged it off as an artist’s choice. They were peers now, and she knew as well as Nick that when you were making art, the only important person to please was yourself.
As she mixed her colors, side one of the tape ran out, causing the button to pop up on its own. She wordlessly turned the cassette over, hit play, and the sounds of side two kept Indy and Nick company. This is it, she thought. This is what I am meant to do.