Father sticks a price tag next to a canvas, ponders the breast which takes up more than half the painting. “The nudes will sell first; they always do,” he says. Kacenka’s lopsided smile glitters in the background. “I love painting them, love all my models, but I wish that someone other than the critics liked my abstracts.” I look around the gallery, walls billowing with female flesh, interspersed with occasional squares of black lines on red and blue blotches. I much prefer his nudes. Father rubs his hands together, adjusts his bow tie, grins as we clink glasses. “Let’s let the hordes in. Let’s make a killing,” he says.
His studio has been my playground ever since I began to crawl. I have my own corner to paint in, a couch for naps, surrounded by his experimental ceramic pieces. Father and I banter with the models. Kacenka is one he’s been painting for the nineteen years I’ve been alive, and the press has taken to calling Father the Slovak Wyeth. At the end of a lot of the painting sessions, he sends me to the corner pub, a pitcher in hand. I know all there is to be known about the way of artists. I’ll follow in his footsteps. Six paintings sell and the triumphant party moves from bar to bar till the wee hours. At five in the morning I crawl into bed, head spinning from many glasses of Slovak myjavske wine.
Art school is rigorous. The administration tolerates artistic experimentation with acrylic, sheet metal, glass but they insist on regular attendance. I’ve only had three hours of sleep but at nine I am in class, bolstered by three espressos. I expect the morning to be no more than a struggle for survival but this is the day Anastasia bursts into my life, a late-admitted new student at the Art Academy.
I immediately break up with Zuzka. “We’re so good together,” she cries. “What’s the matter with you anyway?” but I’m not interested in talking about it. For three days I contrive to be close enough to see and hear everything around Anastasia. Somehow she manages to be always separate, even surrounded by a gaggle. I develop a tic in the corner of my eye, cannot hear when spoken to. The girlfriends I’ve had are just girls but Anastasia is a different species: tall, lanky, high cheek-boned with eyes that squint when she laughs. Her brown hair is cut in a pageboy, her skin is olive and her fingers long, like a pianist’s. She glows with self-assurance. Every one of my friends asks her out; each leaves with tail between his legs. Dasa and Hanka invite her to a Friday girls’ night out and Anastasia says she has too much catching up to do.
My nights fill with visions of paintings of Anastasia. She floats through the air, in a wedding dress, next to a spire, with a horse-head. She reclines on a couch, bulbous with folds of flesh. Her face smiles enigmatically. She kneels in a manger, haloed. Even if the image on the canvas has no resemblance to her, it’s her. I wake sweaty, wrung out, certain I have to paint her for twenty, thirty, fifty years.
My voice is hoarse when I first speak to her. It’s not about a movie or a walk by the Danube or a slice of torte. “I’ll paint you,” I say. “I’ll paint a hundred pictures of you. You’re my girl.”
“Of course,” she says, biting an apple.
My friend Jozo curses when Anastasia and I walk into the ceramics studio hand in hand; Palo’s fist scrunches. The girls, a squealy, inferior lot, make curdled remarks.
For two weeks we walk the streets of Bratislava: by the Danube, under Michael’s Gate, around the castle. The familiar is new, filtered through her, as I rediscover my senses. Before I can start painting her, I am driven to smell, touch, taste through her. “We have time,” she says. “So much time.” Her fingers snake and twirl through her hair and when I kiss her, I notice a slight wandering in her left eye.
When I bring her home, Father nods, in a contemplative Slavic way. “I’d like to paint you one day,” he says. “You have lovely bone structure.” I watch her spread butter on a hard roll as heat rushes through me and I think bone structure.
I’m whistling a Chopin mazurka as I rush home after Maestro Kubin cancels my piano lesson. The sparrows chitter in an April shower. I brush wet hair off my forehead, steps light on the cobblestones, excited that after dropping off my sheet music at home, I’ll surprise Anastasia earlier than expected. As I enter, I hear voices in Father’s studio. I walk in. Her eyes half-open and Father turns to look at me. Neither says a word. Her blouse is bunched next to the couch; a shoe is across the room. Sweat glistens on a cheek, on a breast she does not bother to cover. The easel I’ve been working on has fallen over.
My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth and I have no voice. I stare at her head on his grey-curled chest, at a spot of paint on his hand. I might vomit. I reach for something to steady me; my hand lands on his ceramic faun, our favorite of all father’s pieces. I can’t make out his words as it slips out of my hand and shatters. I grip the doorframe so my knees don’t buckle, and then slide the door shut.
Andrew Stancek is a writer and translator based in southwest Ontario.