Bernadette met Sylvia at a networking cocktail party for soon-to-be graduates of the art school, when she was 21.
Bern had looked the same, except her hair was twice as long and half as kempt. She had picked out the most ridiculous suit she could find, black with a corset-cinched waist and immense shoulder pads even though it was 1997. That night she had thought to make herself stand out even more with a robin’s egg blue cravat, which had given the whole outfit an aura of possessed rodeo clown. But Bern had pulled her frizzy cloud of hair into a tight knot that allowed view of her face, and that was all she believed people needed to see. A face to put with a body of work.
Having never been to a mixer such as this, and having never been given instruction on etiquette at this kind of event, Bernadette planted herself squarely by the snack table for the bulk of the night. She had brought a monocle but was unsure whether it was appropriate to put on in the middle of the event. It was an accessory that worked best if the wearer arrived with it, not if they deftly snuck it on after they’d met everyone there. People already had a first impression of her, and if she had thrown that at them they could think her pretentious.
Before she was Sylvia she was just a girl with very pretty hair in a silver dress. She smiled at Bernadette first.
“Figured I would come by and get some nourishment.” She said, slipping vegetables into a napkin. “Someone told me there would be dinner, but obviously they were lying.”
“If it’s any consolation they have probably starved to death by now.”
The girl in silver laughed. “That is quite a get up you have there, Miss! It’s certainly an eye catcher.”
“Thank you. Can I ask you a question?”
“Is a monocle missing from this outfit?”
She guffawed until she realized it was a serious question. “Oh, I don’t think so. A monocle might turn it into a Halloween costume. It’s quite perfect the way it is now.”
“Thank you! It’s really nice to hear an honest opinion.”
“I love your accent! Are you English?”
“Oh, ha, yes. I am.”
“It’s lovely. Are you an illustrator or a sculptor or what?”
“Ah, I was hoping you would say that! That’s my favorite to sponsor!”
The S word was not lost on Bernadette. “Yeah, and it’s clay-mation, so people are always asking if I want to do something like Wallace and Gromit.”
“Oh God that’s terrible. I hope you tell them to screw themselves and that you’re not about to sell out just yet.”
“Well I usually say it more politely. But yes the general message is the same.”
“That’s very good to hear. So what’s your name Miss Claymator?”
The quiet thrill that connection was being made, even if it led to nothing in the long run. It was all new to her.
The silver girl smiled. “That is so English.”
“Is it? Thanks I suppose. And you?”
“Sylvia Smith.” She extended a hand. “I’m one of the crazy people here who tries to get new art recognized.”
“Well you won’t hear anyone here complain about that.”
“I know. It’s a great ego boost to go to one of these. But yes Miss Bernadette, give me your phone number and we can have dinner sometime this week. And not of the sneaking-veggies-into-napkins variety.”
Bern blinked. “Are you- are you really going to call me?”
“Well yeah! Is that so unheard of? I want to see some of your work.” She pulled out an address book and wrote Bernadette’s name. “Two T’s?”
“Good. I was right then. I didn’t know if you Brits had a special secret way of spelling it.”
“Well it’s a sort of French name isn’t it?”
“I know I know. What is your phone number Bernadette?”
Sylvia wrote with nimble little movements, and her head bobbed with her hand’s rhythm.
“How does Friday work for you? I know it’s date night, I’m sorry, but it looks like my calendar is sort of jam packed except for that night.”
“Friday is fine. I don’t have anything planned for that yet.”
“Oh okay! Perfect! It’s a date then!”
“Heh.. Okay, yeah. Great!”
“I’ll give you a call about it later. I’ve got a PA area code, so don’t screen your caller ID when you see a strange local number.”
“Oh. Okay. Of course not.”
“Lovely meeting you. Have a great night!”
Whatever intoxication the free wine had caused was stopped dead while she watched Sylvia walk away. Most of the next week was spent in her studio, which was also her dorm. She needed to study for the finals in practical artistic theory and every other class she had fallen asleep through all during the semester. For a quarter of each day she focused on books. For the rest she sculpted figures. They were not all blonde females but many were. None got her nose right, but with no photos to base the design off of, the work was difficult.
Having her in a silver dress would be too obvious, so Bernadette attempted a rendition of what her potential sponsor would likely wear on a day where she could put on anything. What transpired was a tiny blonde woman in a pair of blue jeans and a red plaid button down, with a unfitting nose.
On Thursday she left her apartment and it felt like the first sunny day the state had seen all year. Staying inside much longer was the fast track to cabin fever insanity. She should have brought her books, on closer inspection it would have been more productive, but she needed to relax, even with dozens of lectures left to review and countless unread chapters. But outside she felt completely pointless, sitting limp on a bench, staring at a tree, accomplishing nothing. Even the overzealous sunbathers several feet away were at least actively changing themselves. She was only converting oxygen into carbon dioxide.
And so she stared at the tree and visualized it into something else, twisted and darker, burning its image in her head for sculpting later. The branches extended and blackened and the trunk grew speckled veins. The tiny dots grew closer together as the branches stretched and stretched and soon it seemed like a great molding hand with gnarled fingers growing to the sky. The sap oozed from all of it, like black blood in tiny rivulets, while the speckles expanded into giant canker sores and the tips of the tree branches grew long needlepoint nails.
Bernadette hated this image but she held it in her mind for as long as she could; maintained a nightmare in her mind’s eye until it was etched there. Then she stood and went back to the studio and constructed a ¼” scale of the horrible dripping tree, and it was vile activity but somehow it was healthy. Turn your horrors into something real and see that there is nothing to them.
The phone rang a local Pennsylvania number.
“Hello?” Her voice sounded like a croak from somewhere else in the room.
“Hi! It’s Sylvia Smith how are you!”
She knew she was speaking but the words were detached from conscious thought. Thankfully they were good ones. “Hi Sylvia good to hear from you! I’m doing well how are you?”
“Oh good good, just wanted to see if you were still up for grabbing a little bite tomorrow night?”
“I.. of course I am.” She ran her thumb down the blonde puppet’s nose. I’ve been looking forward to it all week.”
“Me too! Can you bring me some of your work? Sketches? Photos of figures? I’d really love to see them.”
“Certainly can. As long as I don’t have to pick where we eat.”
“Oh you leave that up to me. There are some good, sort of fancy haunts around here, believe it or not. I’ll take care of that. But can I just get your address so I know where to pick you up?”
The nose seemed even more off than before.
The restaurant had dark cherry oak walls and Sylvia wore a red dress to match. Bernadette had decided to wear one as well, though significantly plainer. Sylvia waved with such force that she looked like a doll about to snap itself in half. She stood with open arms and pulled Bernadette into a bear hug.
“It’s so good to see you, miss!” Sylvia said. “How have you been?”
“Fine. Just studying a lot. And you?”
“Disgustingly busy! Work events like crazy this week. I need to sleep this weekend.”
“That would be perfect. I can’t even rest for two minutes without feeling like I need to do something else.”
“That’s just how it is right before you graduate though. You go and go and things are a blur and it seems like it will never end. And then it’s all just, over. And you know what to do with yourself.”
“I’m not looking forward to it.”
“I didn’t either. And it was definitely tough at first. But you realize eventually that now you have all this time and you can spend it doing what you want. Besides the hours when you’re at work I guess.”
That word was sour to hear. “I’m hoping those hours will be spent doing something I like. Like working for an animation crew or something crazy like a Tim Burton movie.”
Sylvia smiled, sweet and sad. “Uhm huhm. Well. You certainly have all the necessary tools to do that.”
“You don’t think I can?”
“I didn’t say that at all. I’m sure you can. It just, I wouldn’t hope for it right away.”
“You invited me to a dinner to discuss sponsoring me, and then you don’t even think I can get a job relevant to my studies?”
“Oh my. Sponsor you? We are in stage one of that. The pre-stage. The stage before we even talk about my potentially spending money on your work. I haven’t even seen a single piece from you. Or even part of a piece! I just wanted to get to know you first and get a gauge on your personality. Which, I will say, up until now has been very sweet.”
“And if you want the truth, no, I don’t think you could get a job doing that. Not just out of art school. Maybe intern for them, unpaid, if anything. But no, with just an art degree, you are not anything distinguishable. That’s why you need people like me. Or a job in an office.”
“Okay, I’m sorry I snapped. But if I work in a cube and make clay shapes as a hobby I will be dead.”
“Well that’s why I’m here dear. To steer you away from that. Care to show your sketches? You do storyboard, right?”
“I do.” Bernadette rooted through a leather messenger bag. She wanted to ask more about her new potential benefactress, like if she knew anyone friendly enough to sponsor Bernadette’s friends. But even without etiquette classes she could tell that this was a tacky move. The folder she had placed the storyboards in was badly bent from the bus ride over. “..There you are.”
Sylvia frowned thoughtfully. “Oh… how interesting.”
“I came upon the idea yesterday, so the storyline may seem disjointed. I haven’t had the time yet to smooth it out. Maybe that will come after I graduate.”
“It will.” Sylvia turned a page. “Trust me. So the action all centers around this tree?”
“Yes. It’s going to be a very short film, I’m thinking. Without a protagonist that can talk it can’t really go that far.”
“Can you fill me in on the plot? I think I have an idea of it but I want to hear it in your words.”
“Of course.” Bernadette turned all the pages until the first storyboard. A perfect tree with green leaves. “This is, clearly, the first shot.”
“A lovely tree, right? A perfect almost summer day with blue sky and birds chirping and all that shi… stuff.”
“Shistuff. Got it.”
“Okay so one of the birds hops over-” She turned the page. Small sparrow in front of the tree. “And thinks oh my, what a perfect place to build my nest. So he begins his jaunt up to the top. Hopping, flapping wings, et cetera, until he finds the perfect branch, and-”
“You said he’s trying to build a nest. Do male birds do that?”
“…Whether they do or not it doesn’t make much of a difference to the plot.”
“Well sure it does. It gives your protagonist a motivation.”
“Okay scratch that then, his motivation is ‘wow, what a nice looking tree. I bet it’s got some great bird-friendly berries to eat.’”
“More plausible. But only slightly.”
“Okay.” She turned the page. A little cloud passing. “But just as he lands on the branch,” another page turn, this time the tree beginning to stretch and blacken, “the tree starts to change. Starts to get sick. Become evil, or maybe just get infected with something evil. And thus begins the transformation.”
Bernadette continued to flip pages but she did not care to look at them, instead watched Sylvia’s face. The dark of the walls and her dress made her look paler than healthy, but somehow lovelier.
“Oh my.” She said. “Where did you get that idea?”
“Just thought it up. I went outside and that’s what I came up with.”
“I really.. It’s good Miss Bernadette. Can I call you something friendlier? Like Bern or something like it?”
“Sure. You can call me anything you like.”
“It will be Bern then. I like the sound of it.”
The waiter arrived with an all-too elegant bottle of pinot noir. Sylvia scrunched her shoulders. “I hope you don’t mind that I ordered our drinks before you arrived. Do you like red wine?”
“I will drink anything short of lighter fluid.”
She laughed. The garcon put forth his best non-disgusted smile. “Have you ladies decided on an entrée yet?”
“Oh dearie,” Sylvia said, “We haven’t even looked at the menu yet.”
They finished the first bottle of pinot by the time the salmon and prime rib arrived. Bern was not close to drunk, but already felt like she was in a different person’s body. Sylvia was, not surprisingly, a giggly drunk, who demanded she be called Sylvie, but after a few bites of the rib her silliness subsided. With another drink of wine Bern wondered how bold she was allowed to be.
“You never did tell me whether you wanted to become my sponsor.”
Sylvie raised an eyebrow. “Well I’ll let you answer that. Do you think I should sponsor you?”
“Hah! And why is that?”
“Because you know that I’m good and on some level my stuff has connected with you.”
“Your stuff was just a few drawings of a tree and a bird. How was I going to connect with that?”
“But you did. You had sadness on your face. You said it was wonderful. You.. you squinted at it.”
“I just said it was good. And what was I going to do, look you in the eye and tell you it sucked?”
“No. No because.. because you didn’t think it did.”
“You’re very sure of yourself Bern. I’m sure that will come across as very appealing to whoever decides to be your patron.”
The drinks’ haze newly lost, Bern’s stomach dropped. “Alright. I’m sorry. They really should teach a course on knowing when not to speak. Even if it was the only one on their whole roster that had a real world use, it should be a general education requirement.”
“Yes it should.”
“I’m sorry to assume. But what would we possibly have been doing here if you didn’t want to talk about being my sponsor?”
“Okay. You just decided not to?”
“But you said my work sucked.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Well what- oh I see. You’re trying to be coy so the art girl will freak out and embarrass herself.”
“Not at all..” She touched Bern’s hand. “I just wanted to see how much more you would talk.”
“I.. I had something else I was going to say, I’m sure, but I’m a little distracted at the moment.”
“Very sorry to hear that..” she brushed her lips against Bern’s and her train of thought began to resemble white noise on television.
“Oh my gosh. Sylvia, are you sure-”
“It’s Sylvie, Miss Bern. And you should get more of that lip gloss. It is very nice.”
“Of course not. I’m a grown woman and you just happen to be lovely..”
Sylvie bent in for another kiss and it was warm and wet. The restaurant was too quiet and sparsely populated for anyone to see. Bern’s pulse reached a hummingbird rate. The sliver of a tongue slipped past her lips. In a few minutes this would go completely out of control.
“Sylvie, I really think you’re drunk, I’m sorry, we don’t have to do this just because you have been-”
She groaned. “I haven’t just been drinking. I am attracted to you. And I will be your sponsor, benefactress, patroness, organ donor, whatever, because you are actually talented. Now please just shut up and come here.”
Even without etiquette classes, Bernadette knew never to leave a woman waiting.
Upon closer inspection it really had been a shallow inebriate kiss. Not that this had any effect on whether or not it was enjoyable. When she did not hear from Sylvia for days she became certain that this was the reason. Drunken school girl experimentation. Bern had been the recipient of this quite a few times, but then again she was an actual school girl. Sylvia, significantly older, should presumably have known better.
Bern went about business as usual. There was no other alternative. Her friends were as swamped in work as she, only available for brief lunches in between. She put the little blonde doll in the same closet that housed the twisted tree figure, and immersed herself in the binge of work.
One mid afternoon one day while Bern was poring over a textbook, the phone rang.
“How have you been?”
“Alright. Utterly swamped.”
“Aren’t those two very different things?”
“You’d be surprised how similar they are.”
“Not really. My schedule’s been pretty hectic as well. But it’s always been like that.”
Bern remembered having no idea what she did for a living. “That’s too bad.”
“No, not really. But your studies are going well?”
“I mean, they’re going. Am sort of at the midway point. I’ve only got a few finals left but they’re big ones.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
“Yeah… uh… did you want something? I mean uh do you need anything?”
“Well I did have one thing I wanted to address. Are you busy right now?”
Bern looked at the textbook. “No.”
“Well uh-” Sylvia laughed abruptly, too shrill, “I just wanted to talk about what happened the last time we saw each other.”
She could hear Sylvie’s smile over the phone. “Yes. Of course. Nothing happened. And I wanted to apologize to you, and tell you something that I should have said long before I did anything.”
She had convinced herself not to care about this but still her stomach tightened. “Tell me.”
“Well, I really want to be your sponsor. Truly.”
“And….and also, I’m married.”
Bernadette nearly dropped the phone. “Okay. What?”
Sylvia laughed, weakly. “I’m married. And I should have told you sooner. But I became, um, preoccupied, so to speak.”
“You should have told me immediately before or after you tried to kiss me.” Her voice rang angrily through her ears but Bern was still too stunned to feel anything just yet.
“I know. You’re right. I should have. But I was drunk and you were very persuasive.”
“It’s not like I told you to stick your tongue in my mouth.” Bern would have remembered. She had done that before. “Actually, believe it or not, you were the one who told me to shut up and be kissed.”
“Be kissed. You act like you were passive in this.”
“So do you. We were both enormous predators and we should own up to it.”
“Bernie it was just a couple little kisses.”
“Why are you calling then? I was very ready to dismiss it all as a drunk whim.”
Sylvia chuckled softly. “I’m sure you were. But you see, my husband and I are basically open. We don’t date other people, but we do allow each other a flirt or a kiss if the feeling is right. I know that sounds really bizarre.”
“Wha- No shit it does. Who behaves like that in suburban Pennsylvania?”
“And what about you? Who behaves like a lesbian in suburban Pennsylvania?”
“Well what else is there to do, really. Anyway this is all very cute but it’s not going to make me forget that what you just told me isn’t completely strange and some would even say fucked up.”
“You have every right to feel it’s fucked up. And I wanted to tell you that even though my relationship with my husband is like this, it does not mean I am going to force it on you. If anything I’m afraid that you’re too young to handle it.”
“Well yes Bernie. You’re very young and you’re at a place right now where you’re barely thinking about what’s good for you. After I had graduated I gave myself a good two years to just freak the hell out. And it was great. But I don’t think we would be a good experience for you while you’re freaking out.”
“I won’t freak out. And you’re not that much older than me.”
“Do you even know how old I am?”
Her laugh was long and far away. “No sweetie. I’m not 30.”
“Well how old are you?”
“Oh please. So you’re a whole ten years older. It’s really not an issue.”
“You’re not making this easy sweetie. I’m saying that I’m going to put the brakes on this as far as anything physical goes. But I do really like the work I’ve seen from you. I hope you will still consider working with me in a professional sense.”
“You’re serious. You’re not just saying this to spare my fragile young feelings.”
“I am very serious about this. I would love to be a sponsor for you, and if you don’t mind I’d like to meet up at some point and discuss some of the technical matters surrounding it.”
“Can I maybe drop by your apartment later on in the week?”
“Sure. But it’s a dorm, not an apartment.”
“A dorm?” Sneer in her voice.
“Well, a nice dorm. One for the senior kids. It’s good since I don’t really have funds for an actual place.”
“And you keep your work there?”
“Yes. It’s my studio. It’s nicer than a college dorm room too, I promise. I’m very neat except for the clays.”
But that’s all, do you understand miss? Strictly professional.”
“Okay. Do you mind if I come by on Wednesday?”
They hung up and soon it was Wednesday. Sylvia came into the room, made a comment about the interior in an attempt to spare Bern’s feelings, and nodded with great enthusiasm at the figures and storyboards that Bernadette showed her.
But then she suggested watching one of her short films and Sylvia said yes, and before the movie had even started Bernadette had pushed her against the bedroom wall and spread her legs and pushed up the satiny folds of her blouse, and Sylvia did not say no. Bernadette pulled her hair and smeared her lipstick and made tiny bite marks on her neck and moved her from wall to desk to bed. Even in the moment, Bernadette tried to remember how this softness felt, because she knew she may never feel it again.
The next morning she carved at the blonde doll with a tiny knife and the nose still looked hideous. It probably always would.