His hands were the first thing I noticed about him.
He was sketching, brushing feather-light pencil lines effortlessly across the page. One of his hands commandeered the pencil while the other scratched nimbly at the nape of his neck. They were beautiful. Whatever was on the paper in front of him was beautiful, too.
I stood for a while, just observing, until it occurred to me that what I was doing was a little bit creepy. So I edged in front of him, clearing my throat. “Do you mind if I sit down?”
He looked up at me, startled that someone had the audacity to disturb him at work. But his eyes met mine and softened a little around the corners, a wordless gesture that gave me the confidence to slide into the seat across from him. I half expected him to tell me to get lost, that he was concentrating and needed to be alone, but he just went right back to his drawing like I’d never interrupted him at all.
Anna Karenina was calling me; I had almost sixty pages to read before AP Lit. Yet I was going cross-eyed reading about Levin’s domesticity, and my gaze kept shifting unwittingly toward this quiet boy and his expressive hands.
After a few minutes of staring at my book with utter futility, I surrendered to my curiosity. “What are you drawing?” I asked, quietly enough that he could ignore it if he wanted to.
He didn’t, though. He didn’t look up, but he answered me, pausing between strokes and biting his lower lip. “I’m not sure.”
“Well, it’s nice,” I said, letting the conversation fade to silence before speaking up again. “I’m Sophie.”
He cracked a knuckle. “Adam.”
When the bell rang, he finally looked at me. The corners of his mouth twitched into a smile I hadn’t expected as he extended his hand across the table. The heel of it was shiny with graphite, the pads of his fingers dented from holding the pencil, but his grip felt like a promise. “Very nice to meet you, Sophie.”
The next time I sat down across from him, I didn’t bother asking for permission. He was eating an apple, tongue darting out every once in a while to catch the juice that threatened to escape from his mouth.
“Hi, Sophie,” he said with a genuine grin.
“Hi,” I replied, blushing when his eyes lingered on mine for a little too long.
We didn’t talk much. He drew, I read – Anna Karenina, Great Expectations, A Clockwork Orange. His drawings were strange and smudged and haphazard, but they were all equally lovely. He made the kind of art you’d put in a museum in hopes that someone would be smart enough to understand it.
I jokingly asked him to draw me one day. He laughed and said he didn’t really know how to do people.
“You never had to do portraits or anything?” I asked, wincing as I recalled my pathetic attempt at a self-portrait back in the fifth grade.
“I didn’t say I’d never done it.” He brushed his forehead absent-mindedly. “I just don’t really know how.”
“What do you mean?”
“People are tricky,” he said. “The thing about people is, you can get them wrong. This,” he gestured toward the paper in front of him, “nobody is going to tell me this is wrong. With people, it’s different.”
I agreed with him, kind of. The self-portrait I made in fifth grade was definitely wrong. But I didn’t believe someone like him could draw anyone less than perfectly. Maybe he was just seeing them the way nobody else could.
“I wish I could draw,” I confessed one day as I watched his hands at work.
He laughed. “You can. Anyone can draw. It’s one of the first things babies learn how to do.”
“Yeah, but I wish I could draw like you. You know…” I trailed off. “Well.”
I was waiting for him to say something encouraging, because he was that kind of person, but instead he reached into his sketchpad and pulled out a folded up, slightly torn square of paper. He hesitated, rubbing it between his fingers for a couple of seconds, before handing it over to me.
He stopped me before I could open it. “No,” he said simply as I tried to unfold a corner. “Not right now.” So I slipped it in my pocket and didn’t say a word.
When the bell rang, he disappeared before I had a chance to say anything else.
The next day, I kissed him.
I didn’t plan it; I didn’t even consider it ahead of time, I just sat across from him like I always did and opened The Picture of Dorian Gray. It took me seven agonizing minutes to realize what he was doing.
“Is that…what are you drawing?” I asked incredulously as his pencil strokes became rounded, fluid, detailed.
“I’m trying something new,” he said.
“I can see that.” I rolled my eyes. “I mean, that. That’s a person.”
“Yup,” he replied without taking his eyes off the page.
“I thought you didn’t do people.”
He shrugged. “Figured it was worth another shot.”
The person – the girl – took shape in front of my eyes. Angular chin, slightly downturned mouth. Eyes a little too far apart. Feathery eyelashes and bold eyebrows. A slight dusting of freckles on the tip of her nose.
“Me,” I breathed. “You’re drawing me.”
It was both fascinating and terrifying to watch his capable fingers trace my likeness across a piece of paper. No one would mistake it for a photograph, but he was capturing something that was decidedly me, and I knew I had been right the first time I asked him about drawing people. He saw things the way that nobody else ever could.
When he finished, he held it up for me with a sheepish grin, and I smiled back while something warm and heavy spread through my entire body.
“Did I get it sorta right this time?” he asked, nervously raking a hand through his hair.
“Sorta,” I said breathlessly in the seconds before my mouth was on his.
He kissed like he drew: carefully, skillfully, and a little selfishly. It didn’t take me very long to figure out that he loved that way, too.
The first time we said it, we were sitting under the tree I used to climb as a kid. I told him about the time I fell off the fourth branch and broke my arm, and he drew me a little cartoon – a tiny upside-down freckled girl, her mouth curled into a surprised “oh!”, dangling from the fourth branch of a towering tree. I laughed until my stomach hurt and kissed him until my lips tingled, relishing the feeling of his wonderful hands as they roamed across my back and shoulders and face.
“I love you, you know,” I whispered to him when we were catching our breath.
“I love everything about you,” he whispered back, running a finger along my jawbone. We laid there under the tree, our limbs tangled together, until the sunset started to spill across the sky and we remembered the rest of the world.
“I never looked at that note you gave me,” I told him one day while he was cooking dinner.
“What note?” he asked, scraping a diced green pepper into the saucepan on the stove.
“That folded up piece of paper. The one you handed me, and acted really cryptic about, and never mentioned again.”
He smiled knowingly. “I wondered why you never said anything about that,” he said before starting to hum his favorite ABBA song.
Neither of us mentioned it again.
I found him again at our five-year high school reunion. He was sitting on a barstool, his heel tapping on the leg, sketching on a napkin. He hadn’t changed at all.
“Do you mind if I sit down?” I asked, gesturing toward the seat next to him.
“Sophie,” he said, letting his eyes crinkle a little as he half-smiled. “Hi.”
“Hey,” I said back. The silence enveloped us like a blanket, warm and familiar and comforting. Being around him always felt private, even when there were a million other people in the room.
“You know,” he started after a few minutes, “I didn’t…I just, I mean -“
“I know.” I rubbed my thumb across my bottom lip. “You don’t have to say anything.” To tell the truth, I didn’t really want him to. It was easier this way, without words. Words can never really mean everything they’re supposed to.
“I’m glad you’re still drawing,” I finally said, squeezing his shoulder as I stood up to walk away. “You really are amazing.”
I could have let him talk. There were plenty of stories I could have told him, about the rambunctious high school English classes I was now teaching or the incredible man whose ring I was wearing, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Our relationship wasn’t about words and sentences and conversations. It was about feelings and instincts running wild, smudging the lines in a picture nobody could figure out anyway. We were art, and art was messy, and the artist never got a happy ending.
That night, as I unfolded the fraying piece of paper I kept on the nightstand by my bed, I was glad I hadn’t let him say anything. I ran my fingers over the fading pencil marks, the ones that knew me before I knew him, and I saw all the pieces of him he didn’t want me to see. “Art is the lie,” Picasso once said, “that enables us to realize the truth.”
His drawings had always said more than he ever could.