Lily arrived at the restaurant fifteen minutes late, expecting Gloria to rake her over the coals for her tardiness. She didn’t expect the slightly sick look that her friends gave her as she approached the table.
“What is it?” she asked.
Gloria nodded toward a table for two at the back of the restaurant. “Sorry, we had no idea.”
Lily followed Gloria’s gaze. It was Ian, with some blonde. They didn’t look her way.
“They were here when we got here,” Gloria said. “We didn’t want to leave in case you showed up.”
“It’s fine,” Lily replied firmly. She pulled out the remaining chair, which faced the exit, and sat down. “Remember who dumped whom.”
Gloria and David were on opposite sides of the square table; David was suspiciously eyeing a plate in front of him, which held fried pouches of something smelling strongly of corn. Across from her, Hector Ojeda watched her carefully. She resisted the urge to snap at him and ask what he was looking at. He’d probably tell her.
It had been easy to underestimate Hector when they first met, because of his size and affable manner. (Not that she wasn’t quite capable of underestimating anyone, she thought, her mind’s eye casting a guilty look toward the table in the back.) But Hector had the unnerving tendency to see what was actually in front of him instead of what you wanted him to see. It was a gift for an aspiring psychologist; the talent probably led him to the field in the first place. Still, it bugged her. If he wasn’t such a decent guy, she’d probably hate him by now.
Seeing the last seat at the table filled, a waiter swerved by the table and took Lily’s order.
“Glad you decided to join us,” Gloria grinned, “The amount of time you spend down in the lab, people will think you’re sleeping with Harte.”
“What? I mean, no...”
“Of course no. God, could you imagine the Professor trying to seduce someone? It would take days.”
“He’s not that bad.”
Gloria sighed. “See, this is why we need to expand your horizons.”
“So it’s just us tonight?” Lily asked.
“I invited a couple of the guys from Finch’s lab, but they bailed out,” Hector said.
David nodded, prodding one of the pouches with a fork. “Had grant proposals due.”
“So, it’s just Harte’s minions,” Hector concluded. “Means we can talk shop. Big day tomorrow.”
Gloria groaned theatrically, but Lily jumped on the line Hector had tossed. “I think we found our last subject. Great scores, perfect fit.”
“Finally,” said David. “Was worried the professor was going to push back the start date again if we didn’t have a sufficient set.”
“What’s his background?” Hector asked.
“He’s a senior, but he’s about our age. Took some time off after high school or something. He’s in the visual arts program. I was going to recommend that he be assigned to you for sessions, actually.”
Hector stretched in his chair. “An artist with a laid-back attitude toward college? I can relate.”
“Is he cute?” asked Gloria. “If he’s cute, you should keep him for yourself.”
“Very professional,” David said with a twist of his lip.
“Oh, shut up,” Gloria told him without rancor.
Lily realized her thoughts were sliding toward the back of the restaurant again; she fixed her gaze on the table. “I appreciate the thought, but don’t push, all right?”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Gloria said.
“That’s right,” Lily responded.
* * *
I went to the studio that evening. Security had become used to my working late; they were familiar with my condition. The studio was the only place where I still felt normal -- different parts of my mind were engaged there, parts that worked fine, if not better, in my sleepless state. I could let my brain relax and my body get tired without going insane from idleness.
My latest effort was in acrylics. I was already tentatively calling it “East 54th,” although I tried to avoid thinking about the title; I’d always felt that it was bad luck to name a painting before it was done. The title had nothing to do with the subject matter, a geometric abstract, in general form a triangular red wedge intersecting planes of yellow and pale blue. I had been thinking about the last apartment I had lived in with my parents and my sister when I'd started the painting, and I had associated the address with the image from the beginning.
After a while, I realized my legs were tired. I liked to work standing. In fact, I was exhausted from head to toe, though my mind was still buzzing with white noise, memories of my meeting with the woman from the study, Lily, blended with a thousand other impressions and random ideas. It was a familiar sensation. The concept of “complete static” occupied my thoughts for a moment. I had picked up a charcoal stick to rough out the visions it brought to mind, when I saw what time it was.
The Studio Art students had long since customized the clock on the wall, transforming its bland institutional black-on-white face into a portrait of Salvador Dali, with the hands as his moustache. Right now, Sal looked extremely surprised.
One o’clock. Just enough time to make it over to Wormwood before last call. I packed up my supplies and returned them to my locker. Some students left their supplies out while they had a work in progress, and there were rarely any thefts, but I couldn’t afford to replace mine. Art supplies were expensive, ones worth using at any rate, and I was on an extremely limited budget as it was.
Which led me to ask myself why I was once again heading to a bar in the wee hours. But school was just school; Wormwood was about survival.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 2.2]