Breathing Space

by Alexandra Y. Caluen

Paul Xiao is recovering from losing his husband to a five-year battle with cancer. When he returns to an old hobby - fine art miniatures - he meets painter Kevin Park. They both live in Los Angeles; it seems natural to meet for lunch, or coffee. Kevin makes his living as a yoga instructor. It seems natural for Paul to ask for help with his practice. They both know it’s a pretext.

Excerpt:

The first painter he went to no longer had the piece he’d made note of, so he took a business card and told the artist he would keep an eye on the website.  Hoping the other paintings he liked were still available, he went straight to the last artist on his list.

“Hello again,” said the artist when Paul got there.  “I was hoping you’d come by.”  Paul raised his eyebrows in a question.  The artist stood up, and offered a hand to shake.  “Kevin Park.  You didn’t ask me to hold anything, but I did anyway.”

“Why?” They were still making eye contact. Part of Paul’s mind was saying ‘look away’ but he couldn’t seem to.

“I wanted you to have it.”  Kevin opened a velveteen box on his table and lifted out not one, but two paintings. “Or them, I guess.”

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“Why?” Paul said again, deeply confused. This had never happened before. These artists put a lot of time, training, and talent into their work; the prices rarely came close to ‘fair’ in view of the countless hours involved. Generally, they were a few dollars more than a gift. He had never asked anyone to hold a piece, much less expected them to do so without being asked, because he knew every sale was important.

“I don’t know.”  Kevin shrugged, smiling a little. “Sometimes I get these ideas. It’s okay if you decide you don’t want them.”

Paul didn’t know what to say. His gaze went to the two little paintings on the table. One was a copy of Fragonard’s ‘The Swing.’  There was no doubt he wanted that for the current project. The other was Whistler’s ‘Crepuscule in Opal, Trouville.’ Both were in beautiful gilt frames. The Whistler had been third on his list, after the piece the other artist had already sold. It wouldn’t work in the same room with the Fragonard, but … he pulled a box out of his pocket, the box containing the Bugatti sculpture. He opened it, removed the bronze from its cotton padding, and set it on the table by the Whistler. “Perfect,” he said. “I’ll build the next room around them.”

He looked up; Kevin was still smiling, his expression warm. He was a little taller than Paul, and looked much younger. He had excellent posture (which made Paul conscious of his own tendency to slump), tanned skin, and a shaved head. He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. Paul rubbed his thumb across his own, remembering with a sort of shock that the anniversary was very soon. He hadn’t thought of it for months, and wasn’t sure why he thought of it now. Then he realized that warm expression was interest, and his eyebrows went up all over again.  Really? He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and tested to see if he was upset, if anything felt wrong. It didn’t. He consulted his inner sense of ‘what would Bob think;’ it answered with ‘live your life,’ one of the last things Bob had said to him.  He packed away the bronze again, saying, “Yes, I’d like them both, please.”

Kevin nodded, and started the process of packing the artwork, writing up the sale, running Paul’s credit card.  “I live in Los Angeles,” he said.  “Do you ever get down that way?”

“I live there too,” said Paul. He looked up from signing the receipt, making eye contact again. “A friend came with me, his husband was away and he thought a wine-country weekend was in order. We’re staying at the Wine & Roses in Lodi. Would you like to join us for dinner?”  He would never have thought he could be so bold. And he’d forgotten about his wedding ring again.

Kevin hadn’t.  He glanced at it after taking the receipt and his pen.  “Are you married?” he asked quietly.

“No,” Paul said. “My husband died in December. We were together for twenty-two years. We waited so long to get married, I never thought of taking off the ring.”

Kevin’s expression changed, still warm, but full of sympathy. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right. Thank you for these.” He took the bag with the paintings and started to turn away.

“What time?” Paul turned back. Kevin added, “For dinner.” His smile was mostly in his eyes now.

After a moment, Paul said, “Eight o’clock?” Kevin nodded. “I … we’ll see you there.” After a slight hesitation he walked away, wondering at himself. He couldn’t remember if he’d smiled. He felt a bit panicked now that they weren’t face to face, so close together. It had been a very long time since he’d dated, and he hadn’t even considered it since January. But this wasn’t exactly a date.  It was dinner with friends. Anyway, he still couldn’t feel that anything was wrong.  Live your life.

When he got to his car, Paul sat for a minute and wrote a text to Patrick: Someone is joining us for dinner at eight, hope that’s all right.  An artist I met at the show.

He didn’t get a reply until he was back at the hotel, and that made him laugh:  I apologize in advance for any and all gaffes SO MUCH WINE OMG.  Back there by six but already need a napzzzz

 

Kevin hadn’t meant to signal his interest. He’d noticed the wedding ring the first time Paul Xiao came around the exhibit hall. The only reason he’d set aside the paintings was, he told himself, because no one else had looked at those two pieces with such appreciation. These shows were a place to mingle with other artists, and occasionally to sell a piece. He rarely made a profit on a show. That wasn’t the point. The shows also weren’t a place to pick up men. He’d never even attempted to.  So the question, whether Paul ever came to L.A., had escaped him. And then the answer had included a dinner invitation. Kevin honestly believed that Paul had been as surprised by it as he had been himself.

But then the ring had been explained, and Kevin hadn’t been able to resist. He wanted to see Paul again. Even if only for dinner.

COLLAPSE

About the Author

A long time ago and three thousand miles away, I wrote my first novel - a historical romance - during graduate school. Twenty years later I finally dusted it off and published it. Since then I have written and published eleven more novels and twenty-nine novellas. My day job is in a law office, I've been married for eighteen years, and I'm inspired by authors like KJ Charles, Laurie R. King, Dick Francis, and Jennifer Crusie.


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