Updated: Jun 10, 2022
A good summer tea is alive with life’s sweet, robust flavors! Everyone has their own recipes. There are the traditionalists who love a sun-brewed syrupy-sweet southern iced tea. Then some like to experiment with the seductive fruits and berries ripened by the warmth of the summer sun. Their flavors are tangy, mellow, and refreshing. The brewer has to be careful not to overpower the delicate flavors of the tea while giving a completely new experience to the drinker. I want to share a short story crafted with this sweet, tangy, yet simply refreshing balance in mind.
Canvas Skies & Muslin Trees
By Monica Montgomery
"As I pulled up to No. 2 Beechwood Avenue, I was surprised. I assumed that an artist with her pedigree would be working out of one of those urban lofts with exposed brick walls, barn doors, and factory windows. This was a regular, ordinary, sea glass blue, cottage-styled house in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Orange, New Jersey.
Kids were out riding their bikes, and neighbors were mowing their lawns. Honestly, I would’ve been more comfortable if the photoshoot had been in an over-the-top studio or any place that wasn’t so… domestic.
Since being bitten by the acting bug, I hadn’t done much modeling. When I heard Aubree was living locally, I knew I had to see her. Aubree was someone from my past, but lately, she had been haunting my dreams. The unique project she was working on required a male model, and I knew that was my way in.
So many years had passed since we’d met, yet I was often caught off guard by the intensity of my memories of us. Aubree wasn’t just a memory. This wasn’t your typical boy meets girl scenario. We shared something deeper than casual contact. Aubree and I experienced a level of intimacy I had yet to find in any other relationship. I had been obsessed with thoughts of her for over a year. Where was she? What was she doing? Was she a wife, a mother? Had she found someone who made her feel as free and safe as she had me? I couldn’t have explained why I was still so consumed by Aubree, but I had to see her again.
I wasn’t surprised that she’d become a world-renowned artist. From the moment we met, Aubree struck me as fearless. She received a commission to do a significant piece for the Whitney Museum in New York City. I hoped to use this opportunity to reconnect.
There were very few pictures of Aubree on social media, so I didn’t know what to expect when I saw her. I did, however, brace myself for the disappointment of meeting a husband and two or three kids. Ten years was a long time, and anything was possible.
It’s incredible how one brief encounter, one solitary moment in time, can leave such a deep and lasting impression. I was sure Aubree had changed over the years, and so had I, but there was something inside that compelled me to find her.
I rang the doorbell, and immediately, a voice came over the intercom saying, “I’ll buzz you in.” The door buzzed, and I let myself in.
The inside of the house reminded me of my grandmother’s. A long hall leading from the front door to a sunken living room and two steps up to the dining area, all visible from the kitchen. The house definitely had a retro vibe to it.
“Hello?” I called out, starting to feel a little uneasy.
“Hi!” she said, hurrying from a door beyond the kitchen. “I’m sorry, I was still setting up.” When I saw her, I froze. I didn’t know what to say or why I was so nervous. For a brief moment, I imagined her throwing her arms around me. I’d hold her close, burying my face in her neck and inhaling deeply, breathing her in. Unfortunately, that only happens in the movies.
“Hi Micah, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said, extending her hand. “I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but I was surprised when your agent called saying you were interested in taking part in this project. I figured this would be a job for someone trying to break into modeling or maybe an art student looking for extra cash. Not someone like you." Then Aubree leaned in playfully with a raised brow and said, "You do realize it pays slightly below scale, right?”
She hadn’t lost her beautiful deep southern accent. It gave a little bounce to every word she spoke.
I smiled, thinking about how hard my agent worked trying to talk me out of it.
“The pleasure’s all mine. I started my career as a model….” I said, giving my comment room to breathe, then settle. I watched for a reaction, but there was nothing. “I’m nobody special,” I continued. “This kind of work keeps me grounded,” I finally said, keeping a tight two-fisted grip on the strap of my gym bag as I tried to calm my nerves. Aubree smiled and nodded with no glint of recognition in her beautiful brown eyes.
A haze of confusion fell over me. It was her, I knew it was her, but she didn’t appear to remember me. Had I changed that much?
“I wouldn't call a three-time People’s Choice award winner, Golden Globe recipient, and a two-time Oscar nominee nobody,” she said with an accusatory squint.
“Thank you, but Aubree Cose’ is no slouch in the world of art and photography. Your work is impressive. I mean... you are an amazing artist! I am so honored to take part.” My over-the-top excitement made her pause, but nothing more.
“Thank you. That’s high praise coming from you, sir,” Aubree said, smiling. She looked into my eyes, and I had to look away. I didn’t want her to see me. Not the way I knew she could, at least not yet.
“I made tea. I’m a tea drinker, but I have coffee, juice, or water if you’d prefer.”
“Tea is fine. I like tea. Um, especially Jasmine tea,” I said clumsily.
Aubree looked up with a curious smile. “Jasmine is my favorite too. Come on into the kitchen so we can have our tea and talk a bit."
Aubree turned and led the way into the open kitchen with sleek stainless-steel appliances and marble countertops. The house had a professional decorator’s finish but no personal touches that I could see.
There were no family photos, no awards or certificates. Just carefully chosen paintings hung meticulously against robins’ egg blue walls. The furniture looked like something from the set of a television show. It was all perfectly staged.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked, taking a seat at the island in the center of the large kitchen.
“I’ve only been here about four months,” she said as she poured the scalding hot water from the stovetop kettle into the ceramic teapot containing the wire mesh of loose tea leaves. The aroma of the brewing tea was like stepping into a time machine.
It was time to rip off the band-aid. I needed to know. “How does your family like it here?” I asked, bracing my stomach for a gut punch.
“I don't have a family, well, not here anyway," she said as she set the teacups out.
Aubree had a family. I tried to contain my disappointment as I watched her pour the tea.
"It must be hard being away from them so long. I'm not married, but I can imagine," I said, working to mask my heartbreak. Aubree smiled, not taking her focus off of the task at hand.
"Oh, I'm not married. My mother and sister are the only family I have." Hearing that, I felt my whole body relax, and despite myself, I smiled.
"Excuse me, Mr. Jameson," Aubree said in the way that only southern girls can. "Does my being an old maid amuse you?" she asked as she spooned honey into my teacup.
"No, no, not at all!" The instant tension in my chest snapped me forward.
"But I am an old maid then. Is that what you meant?" she quipped, finally looking up at me with cool eyes and a tilt of her head.
"No, of course not! You look great for your age. I mean, you don't look your age. Wait," I said, throwing up my hands. "I seemed to have put my foot in my mouth somewhere in here, so why don't I just stop talking," I said, embarrassed.
Aubree's beautiful face relaxed into a smile. It was a coy, simple yet intriguing smile. One that made me think she knew something I didn't.
"Breathe, Micah. I was just teasing. Here drink your tea. It will help you relax," Aubree said, handing me the steaming cup of jasmine tea. She said it just the way I remembered.
"Have you ever been painted before?" she asked as she sipped her tea.
"No, I've never sat for a portrait, especially one like this. But I've never been shy, so this should be fun." I wanted to punch myself. I couldn't believe I'd said that. She gave me a quizzical look, then blushed behind that beautiful smile.
"I guess it could be fun…. for one of us at least." And suddenly, I was the one blushing. After an uncomfortable moment of silence, she stood and put her hand on mine.
"Let's get started, shall we?"
Her touch was warm and soothing. I couldn't have imagined it, but how was she so casual? How was she so nonchalant? Was I making a big deal out of nothing? I guess I was because, truthfully, I didn't know her. Yet I had recalled her face a million times. The warmth of her hand, the light in her eyes, her comforting smile, the softness of her lips, and the soft sweet scent that lingered in the room long after she had left it. These were all memories I had cherished and worshiped like holy relics.
Aubree had changed very little over the years. We were about the same age, but it looked as if time had stood still for her, and yet she seemed so much wiser than me. What’s that saying? Women mature faster than men? I felt dwarfed by her glow. Her skin, brown like mine, full lips, and big brown eyes with long luxurious lashes that made her appear regal. Aubree wore her hair in braids pulled to the back bundled in a love knot that hung gently at the nape of her neck. I envied the loose locs as they lay cradled by her shoulder blades.
I followed Aubree into the room she used as a studio. It was a large open area staged with lights, digital cameras, and other equipment. On one side of the room, there was a long desk with multiple video displays, most likely for instant access to the digital images. There was an area sectioned off on the opposite side with two solid wooden dressing room partitions. The room was comfortably warm, which I assumed was for my benefit.
"I hope the humble accommodations meet with your approval," she said, with a sweeping gesture punctuating the sparseness of the space. "It's no Hollywood dressing trailer, but it should give you a little privacy."
I chuckled a because once the project was finished, everyone would see my privacy.
"This is perfect," I said, sitting my bag on the chair in front of the dressing mirror. A black silk robe, slippers, and modesty patch sat on the small dressing table. Aubree had thought of everything.
"The bathroom is right through here, and towels are on the shelf. If you need anything else, just let me know."
"No, this is perfect." I smiled, but I'm sure my nervousness showed.
"Okay then. Come out when you're ready, Micah," she said, giving my arm a soft pat.
I felt a tidal wave of regret rising in me. How do you tell someone you met briefly ten years ago you fell in love with them at first sight? That you'd spent the last year looking for her in the eyes and smile of every woman you met, and the reason you agreed to be a nude canvas was just so that you could see her again? I decided I couldn't tell her. Aubree would think I was out of my mind. Worse yet, she would see me as a naked pervert. After all the time I'd spent dreaming of what I would say if ever we met again, I'd spend the next four days saying none of it.
Aubree and I were never formally introduced. She was an apprentice with a well-known photographer in Rome at the time, and I was in the middle of my first feature photoshoot in Europe. She was young, hard-working, and eager to please. Aubree knew what the photographer wanted before he asked. She was attentive that way. She wasn't just reading your mind; she could see inside your soul.
An African-American woman was a rare sighting in that arena, so Aubree stood out. I'm sure she thought the same thing about me. Sad to say, brown people, are still an irregularity in the European world of high fashion. I didn't know where Aubree was from in the states, but she had an easy southern flow about her.
Aubree was usually in the background unless she could sense a need, but I noticed her. She was a light in a dark place. A place that was slowly closing in on me. I was drawn to her because something about her implied she'd never felt trapped, bound, or isolated. Aubree was born free.
Before putting the robe on, I stood and took a long look at myself in the full-length mirror. I had to tilt the mirror upward to compensate for my height. My shoulders and upper torso showed years of dedication to health and fitness. My legs and thighs were sculpted and built for speed, although my refurbished knee said otherwise. My head was clean-shaven, and my body was waxed to create the perfect illusion. I was a pristine canvas for others to apply their vision, and it had been this way for a long time, maybe too long..."
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