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The Artist's Rendition

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"An  artist's impression artist's interpretation , or an  artist's rendition  is the representation of an object or a scene created by an artist when no other accurate representation is available. It could be an image, a sound, a video or a model. Artist's impressions are often created to represent concepts and objects that cannot be seen by the naked eye; that are very big, very small, in the past, in the future, fictional, or otherwise abstract." General Definition 

 

Falling in love at 17 isn't the problem. 

 

I, Aster Flores, know that nobody would question her my decisions if she accepted Trig's proposal and misuse of Ecclesiastes. The daughter of the local church leader is almost always a young bride. Few people could see her turning down a match with a boy whose father has such status. Aster and her families were perpetual nomads going from congregations all over the country. The formula for fitting in a school is the same everywhere. Trig's attention does make her final year easier to deal with, especially when she doesn't understand the gaping chasm that is the future. 

 

The problem will be admitting to genuine feelings for Ellie Chu outside the confines of her head, confessions at the lake and that one kiss. Fortunately, if anybody saw Ellie's kiss, they didn't mention it two her in the following few days. The town is getting ready to farewell its latest rounds of college kids. I am still something of an unknown quantity at the church, and that's where most of my social circle comes from, Mom and Dad are doing serious damage control. 

 

All the Flores family knows is that I am not going to be the next Mrs Carson and the chaotic confessions in the ceremony.

 

I told Ellie to find something to believe in at Cornell, but the truth is I am the one who needs the life lesson, not at Ellie. Any other kid would wilt under the constant bullying and isolation. Instead, she builds a success cottage industry, writing essays from six-eight perspectives. 

 

The harder task is for me to find a way to believe in Aster Flores.  

 

***

 

Month One: Remains of The Day 

 

For the first month in art school, I barely have time to breathe much less think about Ellie. The four pieces for the entrance portfolio feels like child's play in comparison to the first semester and the introductory programmes. Like most skills, a natural talent for art only guarantees true success, let alone the achievement that her parents would recognise, in a small percentage. Most people need to work hard, learn new techniques and accept mortifying criticism without bursting into tears. The words only spur on my motivation, for they are critiquing me and my skills, not the decon's daughter or Trig's girlfriend. I still cry but then start working even harder. That is the slight problem with working mainly in secret, the lack of opportunities to change or develop. 

 

Of course, that always means I little opportunity to do any of that growth that I swore to Ellie would happen. Not that we are on any particular timetable, but I am aware that hiding behind sermons on Sunday is no longer an option for me. I still go to services on week evenings, but the spectacle of Trig's proposal ruins the weekend options for me. Still, I make an effort to offer an opinion in tutorials and attend a few social events. The church kid always knows how to adapt. 

 

 

Month Four: The Handmaid's Tale 

 

Our communications are slowly getting easier, but I still feel foolish for not realising after the second text or the first date with Paul. 

 

Ellie Chu's approach to texting (not to mention rampant insomnia) couldn't be more different from Paul Munsky. On a deeper level, though, her words are so uniquely 'Ellie' that she couldn't truly lie, even while accepting $50 per letter. In the first few days after Elle's roundabout confession, I almost throw away the small collection, but in the end, they sit at the bottom of my suitcase. Sometimes I read a few to cheer myself up after a long day of painting when my hands are aching from holding the brush for so long. 

 

By unspoken agreement, we stay away from difficult or personal topics, mainly anything to do with Squahamish and our families. We both need to move out from the very different shadows that our fathers cast. Fortunately, one thing Ellie and I  do not  lack is the ability to maintain a conversation. Our topics range from mythology to meteorites. Ellie is going to do 'something with English', but she wants to keep her options open. Now that her Ba is right behind her decision, there are many fields of study to explore. 

 

" I am glad you didn't marry Trig and got the chance to at least figure things out, unlike the women in this book. Surely your God wants more variety than and wants his/her children to be happy. 

 

There are so many sinful things in that one statement that I have to laugh to myself. Ellie is embracing her role as heathen but also that introduction to philosophy and critical thinking course. The first book in our unofficial book club is fitting to that scene. Ellie still doesn't understand emoji's properly, but she does have a limited selection that pops occasionally. Mainly the symbols for reading, writing and thinking. 

 

Month Six: Jane Austen Collection 

 

"I was more desperate than any form of ideal Asian immigrant." 

 

We have slowly graduated to having a video chat every few weeks, now that there is such a thing as phone plans for colleague students. At first, I was sick with nerves, but the conversation is a natural extension of all our others but with facial expressions. Ellie is sleeping better now that she doesn't have to battle with the phone and power companies, or worry about utilises at all. Her Ba is taking English courses designed for social necessities within an American context. Mrs Geselschap and a few of the other teachers were genuinely horrified when they realised how much he was struggling. 

 

 

Month Eight: Greek Mythology 

 

Art school is both impossibly hard and deeply liberating at the same time. 

 

In all honesty, I didn't think about the mechanics of art school much beyond getting in and being brave enough to challenge convention. If my life were a painting, it would be half-finished or an almost impressive outline. I enjoy all art forms and do not have a strong preference at this stage. My first few semesters are all about learning about my passion and connections. The best part of my day is doodle while I talk to Ellie in the evenings. 

 

Our conversations inspire my hands in all sorts of directions. She describes our hometown in such surprisingly sympathetic terms that I end up doing a full feature on the main street and the hills she pushed that old school bike. The lecturer is largely complimentary and gives me a few points for casting better shadows and capture trees. Ellie is my most enthusiastic review, even if her emojis are still largely incomprehensible. 

 

"You need to sleep more. The sarving artist look went out of fashion years ago."  Ellie texts at somewhere after midnight. 

 

"Says the person who stays up and night to have more room for her thoughts."  I shoot back with a smile. 

 

 

 

Month Ten: The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

 

Sometimes I wonder how people would frame me if I were ever famous enough to justify someone writing my life story. 

 

Ellie is reading and writing on biographies for a paper this term and naturally, our 'book club' picks up on those themes. I find  The Diving Bell  to be daunting and heartbreaking, but the book stirs up a whole thought exercise about the framing out my life to an outsider. To date, I have done nothing except fail at being a church girl. 

 

"You don't need to change that much, you know. I only said that to get a rise out of you. You are a wonderful because, whatever the label you want to put on it." Ellie reassures me over Facetime 

 

I am debating joining the school's LGBT group. Several of my favourite classmates are members and are generally encouraging me to make new friends. I may not be ready to 'come out.' in any meaningful way but accepting how important Ellie Chu is in my life. Right now, there is only one identity I am sure of, and that is somebody who could easily love Ellie for the rest of my days, the rest is just the fine-grain detail. Maybe we can build a masterpiece with bold strokes together. 

 

Month Twelve: Mrs Dalloway

 

I read everything Ellie recommends and constantly regret not being brave enough to be her friend years ago. 

 

A part of me wants to switch majors from art to English but I am sensible enough to know that it's Ellie rather than the topic that entrances me. If there were a class in learning all about Ellie Chu, I would be first in line, which sounds like a line of out of Paul's original letters. However, things can be true and cliche at the same time, kind of the definition of the term. I love listening to her opinions on everything from paper to save the giant panda. 

 

The sentimental part of me wants to celebrate our 'anniversary' or our new friendship and budding relationship. It's been close to a year since Ellie kissed me that first time. Is there a way for us to meet in person somewhere between our schools and at home. I feel a swell of nervousness at the prospect of asking Ellie but excitement too. 

 

"Will you meed me at the pond in person to celebrate my ability to change? You were always so doubting of me, Heathen" I hope she will catch the reference. 

 

I don't have to wait long Ellie is in the middle packing for a midsemester break. I am watching her with mild amusement as she tries to fit a ridiculous number of books. Her father owns an impressive library himself in multiple languages. At the same time, Ellie adores her new collection.

 

 

Interlude: Generic Love Story Reunion #3

 

I dress up for the meeting while still technically in disguise for acceptable attire around Squahamish. 

 

 

Ellie is the last person to give fashion advice, but she does like it when I wear brighter closers. I spent most of our time chatting in painting outfits and oversized hoodies. It's nice to have the exercise look nice for her. 

 

Ellie is coming at noon, but I arrive at 11 to give myself some breathing room in my favourite place before it becomes  our  place together. I'm not nervous, per se, but I do find it challenging to be in this town again. My family are thrilled to see me but are still worried about this new version of their daughter. Most of my friends are still away for the semester or can't be bothered to return for such a limited time. Rumour has it that Trig 'got a girl in trouble.' but the I tone out the gossip after desert. I hope that he and his future bride are doing well. 

 

"I knew you would beat me here, Diago. I would have come earlier but Ba and Paul are cooking up a storm. Paul's Mandirin is progressing at about the same pace as Ba's English so they make a decent pair." Ellie's familiar voice draws me from the jumble of thoughts.  

 

Ellie is rambling nervously, but I can't help but grin when she reaches my side. Her hair is in a fancy twist, and her jeans look brand new, and she went for the shirt I advised her to buy months ago. I cannot resist the urge to lean over and kiss her softly in welcome. The action is chaste, but I only have the bravery in this far away place. 

 

" Welcome Home. I have missed you."

 

My words have a double meaning. In a sense, we were home a day ago, The more salient reference to this space that means so much to us both as friends and potential lovers. Somehow I wish I was better with words rather than constantly reading about other peoples. There is something about Ellie being willing to take this risk of committing to our relationship in person that makes my heart swell. My father would scold me for this thought, but I feel closer to God when I place my trust in Ellie. 

 

Month Fourteen: The Well of Loneliness 

 

My parents are still living in denial about their eldest daughter, but that's ok because I am too. 

 

One of the biggest parts of self-discovery is realising the nuances of the people around you. The Flores will always be part of the traditional values demographics that politicians and television preachers are so busy fawning over. The reality is my dad could never have gotten so far in his career if he didn't fit such a mould. Sustainable living arrangements for Deacons and their families are harder to come by each decade. Even in a town like Squahamish and neighbour countries, there are whispers about 'conserving resources.' Amber and her friends were mean spirited, but they weren't wrong about our financial situation either. The Flores family needs to appear in the model family even if they do have a rebellious daughter who runs away to art school. 

 

That's the key though, every aspect of my new life as a neat little bow of 'Aster discovering' herself. If we were Amish or of the Mennonite faith, Dad would call it my Rumspringa Year before I decide to recommit to the church. Mom and Dad are happy to let me go and to hear about Ellie in every second or third conversation as long as it doesn't cross that magical/mythical barrier of saving the words out loud. I need to be stronger and braver for those big conversations, Mom and I have little ones around the edges of things. 

 

"You certainly are happier than I have ever seen you, Sweetheart. Ellie is a good influence." 

 

It's on the tip of my tongue to tell that Ellie means more than a good influence on me. If Ellie was Ellias Chu, everything would be different, but I know not to push this fragile peace too far. My parents will need to adjust to having Ellie and her dad in my life, just like they did with Trig. I miss being able to talk mum about everything in my life. However, I'm hoping we can grow to trust each other again. 

 

 

Month Sixteen: Fingersmith 

 

Getting Ellie's opinion on the book or author is the best part of finishing new work. 

 

I wasn't lying when I say that one of my biggest quirks is talking about books with anybody who will be willing to listen. It becomes a familiar sight throughout my teen years to watch people's eyes glaze over the second I mention an author. Trig and his friends didn't even bother to feign interest because they didn't need girlfriends for their conversational skills. Paul did his best to stay interested, but it wasn't natural for him. Strangely enough, we both developed feelings for an unrealistic expectation of the other. 

 

There are plenty of books that reference the power of honesty, identity and deception. Ellie develops something of a fondness for books that are from the perspective of the deceiver. Convention has it that these people for all their clever scheming are often deceiving themselves. I can draw the parallels, but I can't see Ellie Chu as anything but heartbreakingly honest to herself and her family. Her cottage industry in essay writing was even done mainly in the open. She would never wear those stupid pink and yellow scarf to symbolism belong. I want to be willing to be different openly with her, not simply in the abstract. 

 

"Do you think everyone is an unreliable narrator even when they are talking to themselves." I say after reading the duel perspective novel 

 

"I know that sometimes deceiving ourselves can be an ultimate way to get through the day. It's what Ba and I were doing for years. There is a whole new definition of ok when it is two against the world." 

 

I long to reach across the miles that separate us from giving her a hug when she brings up the dark members. Listening to her talk about them is the best alternative. 

 

 

Month Eighteen: Call Me By Your Name 

 

I am not a total hermit, and I do go on a few dates at school. 

 

Ellie and I are carefully not putting parameters around our penpal/friendship arrangement. I think both of us find too much comfort in the connection to risk tampering with it for the sake of clarity. Neither of us has the time or capacity to commit to a romance, not when we are competing for summer research slots and working within student budgets. The beauty of being away from your small town is that you don't need to connect to a single identity for the rest of time. People are willing to let you figure things out. My grandparents nearly fainted at the idea of a liberal arts college that are many fringe benefits. 

 

Date One : Ryan is a sculptor who loves literature almost as much as I do; we bond over preferring real books over electronic alternatives. Neither of us is seeking or looking for a relationship, but the coffee dates or nice and I may have a true friend. He critiques my art, and I do the same. Ellie uses some sort of hammer emoji for him.

 

 

Date Two:  Sophie and I don't strictly  'go out'  as we 'make out'. She is a Canadian transfer student and a church kid who is embracing being bicurious. We develop our confidence together. Rather unimaginatively, Ellie uses a moose when referring to Soph. 

 

 

Date Three:  Collin is the best Ellie and Paul would be if they were blended as a single human. He is studying to be a psychologist and join a great family practice back home. We bond over our love of a family and the horrors of working in the service industry. His older brother is gay, and their family is cool. Ellie uses the equivalent of a rockstar for him. 

 

Date Four:  Jessie is the person I could seriously consider being in a longer-term relationship with and using the dreaded term relationship. We have so many life events in common, and her father is a preacher in Utah. A gay daughter is far from the plan, but they are trying. We were almost getting something close to serious when she gets her dream job opportunity in France. There is no way I want her to delay her dream. 

 

Ellie stays up late into the night when I cry and talk about how much I will miss her. For somebody so talented with words she is even better in silence letting me say whatever is on my mind, no matter how stupid or self-indulgent. 

 

Month Twenty: I Can't Think Straight 

 

Fortunately, 2020 embraces more options for being queer than the Kinsey Scale and three identities on the tickboxes. 

 

From what I can gather from limited experience and late-night analysis with Ellie, it's fashionable now to say 'I don't believe in labels' or its the person that matters. The problem with that for me is that I happen to find comfort in identities, wither it be once I give myself or the ones Dad inhabits. 

 

I am not a lesbian nor can I confidently declare bisexuality. The truth of the matter is that attraction is a fickle thing form me and is either hit or miss. Trig was more of a case of a convenience than anything else. He flatters me, and we have fun together, but I never desired him or physical intimacy. There is a dizzying number of identities to inhabit. Who knew that your attraction could be contingent on connection and meaningful communication (demisexual). Of course, all these words are only safe for me to explore away from my family's shadow. 

 

Ellie isn't ready to make such explorations herself, but she dutifully reads the books my therapists reminds both fiction and non-fiction. The long and short of it is that whoever I end up with is going to be ok as Aster Flores. 

 

Month Twenty-Two: The Price of Salt 

 

There is something so liberating about reading books openly without fear of being judged or mocked for your choices. 

 

I decide that I want Ellie to be my official girlfriend somewhere around page 105 of  The Price of Salt.  There is nothing especially wonderful about those pages, but I feel the certainty of love my bones. Of course, it's largely a decision with no meaningful difference (which one must avoid according to Mrs G). Ellie and I have been 'dating' for close to a year now without bothering with the semantics. We were enjoying our time together without drawing away from the chaotic of our first few years at college. 

 

The tipping point is Ellie needing to go home because her Ba is having another bad turn and needs her support. His moods aren't nearly as dark as they were, but he is still struggling with living alone and mourning Ellie's mother. There isn't a question in Ellie's mind that she return. Naturally enough, Ellie's teachers adore her and are willing to extend her deadlines. 

 

I am booking my ticket before I am consciously away from the plan. It will be a nightmare with three canvas drying, but there is no doubt either. I rush the novel in a rucksack and ring my sister to see if she can pick me up. Paul is camping in Ellie's old room and taking over the cooking. 

 

"I'm coming with you. I'll be there first thing tomorrow morning. Let me know if I can pick anything up from the airport. 

 

 

 

Month Twenty Four: Short Stories by Ellie Cou 

 

Ellie tries to play down the publication of her first short stories. 

 

She spends most of her time qualifying the achievement even when she sends slim volumes to both Aster and Mr Chu. It's a small run with an indie publisher with no clout, and she is not helping with the title. Still, Aster swells with pride when she reads the short stories and vignettes. Over many letters and texts, Aster feels like she understands Ellie Chu, the writer, well. However, there is something different about seeing her words in print. The terms are artistic and powerful. They make Aster want to pick up the nearest paintbrush and capture the moments. 

 

My pride is nothing in comparison to Ellie's father, who has Paul over a week to help him learn from the English version. The language lessons are mainly an excuse at this point, but it makes both of them happy. Ellie lovingly writes out a Chinese translation for him, but her dad insists on reading them both. If anything is helping that man rebuilt his life after deep grief, it's seeing his daughter succeed in the world he tried so hard to reach for his family. Ellie is truly that light of his life now, in much the same way her mother was from the day they married. 

 

"You think I was the next debut another phenomenon. I will probably spend more money getting the manuscript rather than I will earn. Ba is so over the top." Ellie explains over Facetime. 

 

"Let him be proud of you and display the stories, they are wonderful and so are you." I insist on trying not to grin too much like an idiot. 

 

We can't make any grand declarations or promises. Ellie is in the running for an awesome job offer, and I would never hold her back. At the same time, we don't need to say the words either. There are plenty of things to work out still but not the big questions, like 'Can I change' or 'Does God Still love' me. I have faith that whatever Ellie and I end up doing, we will find a way to give this relationship a real shot at lasting. We could break up in a blaze of glory next week, but it won't be for lack of trying. My parents found each other they were our age so why shouldn't Ellie Chu and I have a shot at forever?"

 

Not a storybook ending or happily ever after but a novel worthy of further consideration and its own Emoji line. 

 

***

 

Loving Ellie Chu is still a problem, but it's worth any hardship. 

 

There are plenty of those to go around in the beginning. For one thing, we are both are finishing our degrees and planning our lives in the grown-up world. I am a talented artist who is getting solid reviews for her portfolios and work at the gallery. However, I am not the type of prodigy that everyone will clammer to receive. Ellie, on the other hand,  is  that brilliant and Mrs Geselschap will tell anybody in earshot. So that means my girlfriend is on every committee that is going and has firm ties to her school community. There is no hope of either of us moving closer geographically for at least a few more months. Sometimes that greatest brush strokes and the ones that stabilise the painting or keep the reference, that the average person will not notice. 

 

The separation is hard, but it makes the times together all the more worthwhile. 

 

Ellie and both make regular trips back to Squahamish, so naturally, we tie these visits together.  

 

There isn't much point in doing a major song and dance about 'coming out' as either bisexual as a couple. People aren't stupid; they are spending all their time together, shopping for Mr Chu or connecting with their few mutual friends. However, denial can run strong in small towns. There will be members of her father's congregation who will see them as either experimenting or particularly close friends. Aster will always be a church kid who wants to preserve her father's reputation amongst his flock. 

 

"We don't have to do this you, you know." 

 

Ellie makes the quiet offer as we walk about the driveway to the church housing. Dinner with Aster's family will be a tense affair, but she refuses to give hide away in shame for loving Ellie or any other woman for that matter. Learning to accept herself was too hard to give away easily for the sake of Squahamish's sensibilities. Her parents and sister are trying their hardest, and it's probably a good thing the visits from a colleague are infrequent at best. Aster makes sure to draw some 'socially acceptable' paintings to send home for the hallway and Christmas. 

 

"Yeah, we do. Both of us are our father's daughters. If we are are going to make a relationship, then it is going to involve our families. There needs to be an official coming out. If for no other reason for them to prove that we won't have multiple piercings or spiky hair." Ellie points out with an encouraging smile. 

 

We are both working their Sunday best, and Ellie's isn't wearing eight layers. The years away gives her a sense of confidence when it comes to clothing and individual style. I like that she doesn't wear contacts all the time, her glasses and still adorable and easier on her eyes after long days studying. Mr Chu has laden them down with dumplings (with Munsky Sausage, of course). I have my sister's favourite chocolates in the big city. 

 

I have left no room for ambiguity by wanting my family to meet Ellie (as my girlfriend). My dad is not sure how to place his favourite heathen, but they are standing at the door waiting for us, Ellie grasps my hand extra tightly. 

 

It is a small victory and nothing like the grand statement that I sometimes hope for, but for now, the action is enough.