A college campus "anti-romance" by Stephen Swartz
Just get home safely, thinks Eric as rain pummels his car. When he offers a ride to a rainsoaked girl, he discovers she’s the art student he met a month earlier at an exhibit. Tonight, however, everything changes.
Iris is a refugee from an abusive youth in otherwise idyllic Iceland, and further abused on the streets of Toronto—until she sees her art talent as a way to escape. Now with a scholarship, she drifts from depression to nightmare to Wiccan rituals to the next exhibit. There’s a lot she must forget to succeed in a life she refuses to take responsibility for.
Eric is still settling in at Fairmont College, starting a new life after being twice betrayed and left heartbroken. Divorced and hitting forty, he has a lot to prove—to his father, his academic colleagues, and mostly to himself. The last thing he needs is a distraction—and there’s nothing more distracting than Iris.
With the campus a battlefield of gender politics and Eric’s colleague charged with sexual harassment, these wounded souls find comfort together. In the light of day, however, Iris returns to her student life, ready to forget him, while Eric becomes obsessed. Just as Eric gives up, he finds Iris in his class the next semester with secrets to share.
Realizing they are trapped by fate, Eric persuades Iris they should become a couple. Yet as Eric tries to tame her, Iris pushes him to be more outrageous. The tug-of-war escalates until, on a spring break trip, their relationship explodes into a cruel mind game that could destroy both of them.
A BEAUTIFUL CHILL, a postmodern cross between Pygmalion and Lolita, deconstructs an impossible relationship and cruelly crushes campus love story memes as it charges to its stunning conclusion.
A Sample of A Beautiful Chill:
(Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 competition)
Every Thursday is the same. The boys stare all evening and can hardly get any work done, as though her entire purpose in life is to entertain them. Tonight, she glares back at them, just to let the boys know she is onto their game. The first boy, watching her intently, merely licks his lips. The second boy winks, not more than a twitch, as though he has a loose eyelash—or perhaps it is an invitation for a special favor after class. He stays after class sometimes as if waiting for her, follows her out of the building. The third boy simply gawks, unwavering, as though he has never seen a nude woman.
She holds the pose, imagining other times and places, the dabs of reality that have become brushed into memories, and she lands like a cat on snow: fresh, pure, white, brisk, cold and wet against her skin—
December already, and still no snow.
She dreams of snow, wants the icy fingers of arctic winds to grasp her, take her to a place where no one will bother with her, where she can be alone with all her thoughts, free to fight with them. They come upon her like bursting stars yet fall harmlessly into a turbid sea of doomed destiny, scarcely breaking the surface or releasing rings of emotion. She purses her lips. The Turbid Sea of Doomed Destiny could be her next painting: purple sky, brown water, red and yellow lightning bolts, a small boat adrift, a man crying for help—
Her eyes wander up to the windows high on the walls. They are painted over white—off-white: eggshell; cream, perhaps. She pretends drifts of snow cover them. A good blanket of snow can hide so much, she thinks. Já, like clothing. On the platform nothing is hidden. She holds her breath, counting heartbeats. Secrets, like scars, can be covered yet never erased. And every spring, when the snow melts, the scars remain—like wheel ruts cut into the soil, ruts that dry and harden during summer only to be covered again with the next season’s snow.
Time ticks slowly.
A shallow breath—
The Wheel Ruts of Summer—perhaps another painting she will do: two sienna lines cutting through the winter-gray grasses, a black storm on the horizon. She would stare down the storm—she with her pale, thin arms and legs, her body slender and white, without blemish. Já, like the pure snow covering the dirty road. There are no scars that are visible—
There was a day in school, back in Iceland where she was born, long before she and her widowed mother moved to Canada. Perhaps she was ten. She drew a picture of a mountain with snow on one slope, a forest on the other, and a fjord across the bottom. Her teacher praised it. At home, she proudly held up the picture for her mother. With only a glance, her mother dismissed it, suggesting she draw Jesus suffering on the Cross if she wanted to waste her time with colored pencils. And she never drew again—not until Toronto, when she would sit in the dressing room, waiting to go on stage and do her dance.
A pang of fear ripples through her, stomach knotting, and she shifts her gaze, hoping to see the clock on the wall but the instructor’s head blocks her view. When he turns, their eyes meet. He grins, almost as an afterthought: a snapshot of the instant they both realize she is nude and he is not. He lowers his eyes, and informs the students the session is finished.
“Thank you, Iris,” says the professor. “Another productive session.”
Some of the students thank her. A few clap their hands in appreciation. The instructor comments on their work.
Pulling on a gray, threadbare robe, she takes a stroll behind the easels, catching a look at what the students have done. She admires the shading on the underarm and inner thigh one girl has drawn, compliments her. Another student has concentrated on her head and shoulders, has correctly duplicated the five freckles sprinkled across her nose. Examining another sketch, she wonders if her ribs really do show so clearly. She praises the strong line of back and elegant curve of breasts another woman has drawn, offers suggestions, then takes the charcoal in her fingers to demonstrate the technique.
The three boys on the end give her pause. One of them has focused on her hips, depicting that area in great detail. The other two have no talent: a cartoonish scribble that could be from any porn magazine, the other one even less a work of art.
“This?” she says roughly. “This is the best you can do?”
“He’s no artist,” says the first boy with a chuckle. “He just likes to look.”
“You don’t belong here,” she says.
The professor looks over. “What’s going on?”
The boy is scared, then runs out of the studio. The second boy chases after him, an apology trailing. She frowns. None of them belong in this class. Perhaps she does not belong here, either.
In Iceland, on the first day of school or some such mythic time, a long time ago, at any rate, her teacher told her she didn’t belong. “No iris grows here, none at all,” said the woman at the large desk. “Your parents likely had no intention of you staying. We’ll see what good you can do until then. A pretty smile won’t get you very far, that’s for sure. Much less for that devil’s hair you’re wearing.” She went to her assigned seat and sat quietly, as expected, staring out the frosty windows at the snow gathering against the panes, already feeling the chill —
Students pack up their supplies as she gazes at the windows, sees the darkness outside, and feels tired. For a moment, she feels the weight of falling snow piling up around her, and tosses her orange hair off her shoulders. Something pushes deep inside her gut and she stops to measure the flickering of her heart. The chill is returning.
“You okay, Iris?” asks the professor, approaching.
She nods, then drops to the edge of the platform, sits there, breathing slowly.
“Should I call someone for you?”
“Nei, there is no one.” She wraps her arms around her bent knees.
“I’m sorry about those boys. I keep telling them to be professional. I’ll straighten it out, don’t worry.” He glances around the studio. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Just...memories,” she says, and lets out a big sigh.
“Art is a recasting of memory,” he says, smiling in a fatherly way as he turns to go.
Hearing him repeat her old Toronto mentor’s mantra, she stares at the professor. There are few memories she would choose to recast as art. Her mentor had encouraged her to try. Inventing new memories seems easier. She can paint abstract metaphors and fantasy landscapes, twisted mythology and self-portraits. Já, once in a while, she can be who she wants to be — then quickly decides that is not her, after all.
“Iris, can you lock up when you leave?”
She nods and waves him out, holding a smile only until he takes a final glance and exits, then she wipes away a tear.
It is late. Much too late. Perhaps this Art school idea is another dead end. Like the club in Toronto, where she was introduced as the Ice Princess. Or at the university there where Professor Hirsch introduced her to the world of Art. After her widowed and remarried mother kicked her out, she had few choices.
In room 205 of Linden Hall, Eric Schaeffer was sitting with his feet up on the desk, reading the new issue of Best American Poetry while his students took their exam. The room had settled into a profound silence, only the faint scratching of pen on paper, when suddenly they were all knocked out of their concentration by a horrendous thunderclap. They turned in unison to regard the deluge outside the windows.
“Pay no attention to the storm outside,” he intoned, affecting the voice of the Great Wizard of Oz. A few students chuckled. They were in Kansas, after all. He was pleasantly surprised how easily they returned to the exam without much more distraction.
He stayed in his office a while after class, waiting for the rain to subside, and as he sat back, he read a few of the essays the students had written. However, the rain did not let up, so eventually he decided to make a run for it. Of all the days to arrive late and find the faculty lot full! He was forced to park down by the baseball field, a five-minute sprint from Linden.
[of course, it does continue....]