The red-brown leaf ceased its struggle to hang on; surrendered instead to the pull of gravity, to the flow of the wind. It floated aimlessly, helplessly, above the taxicabs and sidewalks, caught in a dance of impromptu rhythm and improvised steps until at last, it landed.
The pencil paused mid-stroke, its movement interrupted by the unexpected intruder in its path. Clarke Griffin brushed the leaf away with her left hand before sitting back to examine her progress. She took in the perfectly straight lines forming an exact black-and-white replica of the park around her: the bench she currently occupied, the naked trees, the piles of leaves decaying nearby, the people strolling along. She glanced up from the sketchpad to compare the nearly seamless recreation with its live, three-dimensional counterpart, and she sighed.
How could she possibly fill a blank page with everything she saw? How could she capture the laughter, the sounds, the sadness and desperation with a mere stroke of the pencil? Could she? Was it possible?
The questions hovered above the ever-present ghosts of self-doubt. The need to start over pushed forward; the need to create and recreate until there was nothing left to question. The sheet ripped easily from its spiral binding, became nothing but a crumpled ball of disillusionment, and disappeared into an eternity of discarded attempts.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said, in a tone that betrayed his lack of sincerity. His lips brushed against hers in a hasty greeting, and he sat beside her, one hand deep in the pockets of his long black coat, the other holding a lit cigarette.
Light blue eyes lingered on the empty-white nothingness of the page. “Is it five already?” she asked, though she was well aware that it was almost six. “Guess I lost track of time.” She looked up then, into her boyfriend’s dark brown eyes and searched for something to cling to. “Class run late?”
“The professor wanted to talk about my last paper,” he said as the smoke broke free from his lips and escaped into the air around them. From his pocket he withdrew the folded pages of his mid-term. “Check it out.”
The large “A” lay emblazoned at the top of the cover page, written in bright, permanent red ink. She smiled, trying to feel proud, but feeling a detached sense of resentment instead. “Is this the one you barely worked on?”
“Genius comes easily to some people,” and he laughed, flicking the cigarette butt into the air. His longish-brown hair fell into his eyes, and out of reflex, Clarke reached over to smooth it back. He smiled at her, kissed the palm of her hand as it grazed past his cheek. “I’m sorry I’ve been so busy lately.”
Clarke looked at him for a long moment, taking in the beautiful eyes that had once held the power to disarm her. Where had that gone, she wondered. What was left in its place? “It’s really okay, Finn,” she said, knowing that one of these days she would have to tell him the truth.
He leaned over to kiss her and she smiled against his lips, tasting the bitter-sweetness of familiarity. She wished she could take a snapshot of that moment and frame it against the darker shadows of her thoughts. She wanted to whisper, “I love you,” out of habit, if nothing else. But she stifled the impulse and pulled away.
“So, what were you working on?” he asked, sitting back. His gaze landed on the notebook on her lap.
Clarke glanced down and shrugged, feeling angry with herself for having nothing to show him. How she wished she could make something wonderful appear in the empty surface of the page, just so he could see that he was not the only one with a validated future. Instead, she felt naked, her failure exposed in the implied absence of motivation. “I… I had something, but I threw it away.”
His laugh sounded mocking. “What’s the point of that?”
Clarke glanced away, her gaze shifting from the blank page towards the Washington Arch. He was right. What was the point? “Maybe there isn’t one,” she said after a moment, looking at him. “Maybe I’m just trying too hard.”
“Maybe you should just rethink this whole artist thing,” he replied thoughtfully. “I mean, your Mom is spending so much money to send you to NYU, just so you can, what, study art?” He placed another cigarette between his lips. “It’s not too late to change your mind.”
She watched him struggle with the lighter, momentarily distracted by the click, click, click of every failed attempt.
Clarke drew in a breath. “I have to go. I have a project for class I need to work on.” The lie filled her with a strange sense of pleasure. Finn glanced up, paused in his futile attempt to start a flame. The unlit cigarette dangled from his mouth, and he withdrew it a second later. “I thought we were getting something to eat?”
“Well, you were late. I don’t have time now.”
“That’s real nice, Clarke. You could have told me you had something to do tonight. I would’ve made other plans.”
She rose, rolling her eyes as she did so. “Well, I’m telling you now.”
He stared at her, as if debating whether it was worth it to start a fight, as if debating whether or not he cared enough to bother. At last, he looked down and shook his head. “Whatever. Can I come over later?”
The question hung in the air between them like a truce, and Clarke decided it was best to accept it. “Sure.”
“Cool. Is Raven going to be there?”
“She’s working late.”
Finn smiled. “Then I’ll be there early.” He kissed her again. “See you tonight.”
Clarke stared after him, suddenly lost in what felt like desperation. She looked down at the sketchpad in her hand, resisted the urge to toss it into the wind, to forget for just one moment that her life boiled down to nothing more than empty pages waiting to be filled. Is that how Finn saw her, as a waste of time and money? What was the point, he’d asked her. What was the point of trying to capture the trivialities of life, to freeze the natural movements of the world in blocks of lines and shadows?
The leaves at her feet rustled to life, and Clarke watched them struggle senselessly against the pull of the wind. She brushed the scattered strands of blonde hair from her face, and held the notebook to her chest.
There was no point, she finally decided, moments later, as she started to walk away. No point at all; just the simple, unquestionable fact that this was what she wanted to do.
The magazine fell on the small circular table, its sound drowned by the constant noise of conversation.
Clarke stared at the cover, its bright pink surface shining awkwardly in the dull, yellow lighting of the coffeehouse. When she looked up, brown eyes were watching her expectantly. “I’m sorry, I left my mindreading powers in my other jeans,” Clarke said finally.
Raven Reyes settled into the empty seat across from Clarke with a loud, dramatic sigh, and stared at her best friend with mock impatience. “Page thirty-two.”
Raven rolled her eyes. “If you would be so kind, please, as to turn to page thirty-two, please, I would be much appreciative.”
“You could’ve thrown a ‘thank you’ in there for good measure,” Clarke replied with a smile.
“Politeness is overrated.” Raven nodded solemnly. “It goes against my higher purpose.”
“Which is…?” Clarke flipped open the magazine and began searching for page thirty-two, a task that proved difficult in the face of numberless pages.
“To be brutally honest in every and all situations,” Raven answered simply. “I’ve made it my personal goal to abolish b.s.”
Clarke smirked and paused in her search. She looked up at her roommate with an arched brow. “Since when?”
“It’s my New Year’s resolution,” Raven declared.
“So, I’m getting a head start. Did you find the page yet?”
Clarke returned to the mission at hand. When she finally found page thirty-two, she stared at the black-and white ad with confusion. “Lip augmentation surgery?”
Raven puckered her lips so they stuck out as far as they would go. “It’s all the rage,” she said a second later. “I’ve decided that’s why I haven’t landed any good roles in anything; my lips are too thin. I’m thinking a cross between Liv Tyler and Angelina Jolie.”
“Wow.” Clarke sat back against the chair. “Every time I think you couldn’t get crazier… you speak.”
“So you’re saying…?”
Clarke leaned forward. “I’m saying you’d look like a freak.”
Raven frowned thoughtfully. “Well, then, there’s always the circus. Step right up! See the Over-Lipped Lady!”
Clarke let out a long laugh. “I’m almost tempted to encourage you on that endeavor.”
“You’re a true friend,” Raven said, grabbing the magazine and turning it over so she could look through it.
After a second, of flipping idly through the pages, she shrugged. “Maybe it’s my hair. Maybe I should go for something spunkier.” She pulled several strands of dark brown hair away from her face and let them slip through her fingers. “Hm,” she said thoughtfully, and continued to look through the magazine.
Clarke watched her friend with amusement, relieved to be in the presence of such pleasant distraction.
“It’s just not fair that some people get to pull off any look,” Raven said suddenly. “It’s like Lexa Woods. The girl can try thirty different hair styles and still look drop-dead gorgeous.” She held up the magazine for emphasis.
Clarke glanced briefly at the plethora of pictures featuring the actress in question. She shrugged after a moment. “I guess some people get to compensate for their lack of talent by being beautiful.”
“Ooh, harsh. I hope you’re not that mean to me when I’m on the silver screen.”
Clarke stared at her best friend seriously. “You’ve got actual talent.”
“Well, I’m certainly glad you think so.” Raven smiled. “Although, she was really good in Silence Speaks.”
“I haven’t seen that. I just know she sucks on that show …”
“Guardian?” Raven supplied. “I don’t think she’s bad in it. I think the show’s just cheesy. You can’t really do much with a script like that.”
Clarke shrugged, not having much of an argument for that, nor particularly caring. She glanced around the coffeehouse, momentarily fascinated by the murmur of conversations. All around her life went on in a giant mixture of words she couldn’t quite distill. Sometimes she wished she could step outside of herself just long enough to experience something other than her own life.
“So, what’s wrong?”
Clarke turned back to catch Raven staring at her. “What makes you think anything’s wrong?”
“Because I know you. You’ve got that distant gleam in your eye. The one that screams, ‘I hate my life and everything it stands for because I’m an artist and I’m deep like that.’”
Clarke couldn’t help but laugh. “Shouldn’t you be working?”
“I’ve got about five minutes left to listen attentively to your every problem before I return to the land of coffee-making. So, let’s hear them, in reverse alphabetical order. Although, I think I can already guess that they all start with the letter F.”
Clarke looked away from Raven’s inquiring gaze. It was too much, she thought, to sort through every individual strand of bothersome emotion. There were no specific problems, none that she could point to with any amount of conviction and say, ‘There, that’s what’s bothering me.’ There was nothing, really, nothing but a broken jigsaw puzzle, with all the adjoining pieces scattered randomly across her mind, overturned and undecipherable. She stared at Raven through the silence, and shrugged. “I’m really not sure.”
“Ah, well, maybe I can help.” Raven shifted in her seat, wobbling the table as she placed her elbows on the wooden surface. “Let’s see, your boyfriend’s a self-absorbed dolt, who seriously, seriously, needs to look up words like ‘personality’ and ‘humor’ in the dictionary before ever attempting to have a conversation with another human being. His laugh, on the bizarre occasion when he manages to at least amuse himself enough to elicit the hyena-like sound, is deeply irritating. You’ve been dating him for, what, like two years and I still haven’t figured out what you see in him. He’s cute, sure, in an Aston Kutcher meets Seth MacFarlane sort of way, but I mean, look at you, Clarke, you’re fucking gorgeous. And I’m sorry to say this, but your sex life is about as exciting as—”
“Okay, I beg you to stop,” Clarke interrupted, holding her hands up in the air. “But thank you for your enlightening summary of everything that’s wrong with my boyfriend.”
Raven frowned. “That was hardly everything. Then there are your parents…”
Clarke rolled her eyes and glanced at her watch. “I should go. Finn’s coming over, and I think your five minutes are almost up.”
“Okay, fine, but we’re not through with this yet. Remember, I know where you live.”
Clarke began gathering her belongings. “That’s very comforting, thank you. ”
“So, about the lip thing…”
Clarke swung the backpack over her shoulder and smiled. “You are nuts.” She leaned down to kiss Raven’s cheek. “Be careful getting home. I’ll see you later.”
“Don’t forget to use protection!” Raven called after her.
Ignoring the suddenly attentive glances of the people around her, Clarke headed quickly for the door.