Whoever it was, Irina could handle it. They can’t be worse than a double shift at the fish place, she told herself.
Irina rolled her shoulders back, easing the knots of five hours waiting tables at the pop-up raw food restaurant downtown. Where had Clare said the bathroom was—just down the hall?
Time to stop looking like a server and start looking like an “artist”.
Ten minutes was pushing it for that sort of transformation. For a start, despite Clare’s horror, she was stuck with wearing the same soft knit black dress she’d worn for her waitressing gig. Irina had only recently come back to the city after spending six months in the mountains where she grew up, working tables at the local diner and saving money for city rent. All her good clothes had been safely stored away, ready for her return to the city.
Or not so safely, as it turned out. Irina had opened her cupboards to discover moths had spent those six months happily gnawing their way through most of her work wardrobe. The only survivors were the black knit dress and a monstrosity that gave her the world’s most terrifying mono-boob.
Irina saved that particular dress for the fish place shifts. It wasn’t like the added aroma of deep-fried, artisanal sea bass could make the dress any worse than it already was.
In the bathroom, Irina slapped her bag down on the vanity and took stock. Off with her sensible, opaque black stockings, and on with sheer pantyhose, being careful not to catch them on her nails. Goodbye lovely soft-soled pumps, hello—ugh—glossy, toe-teetering heels. Irina spat on a square of toilet paper and rubbed a smudge off the toe of one shoe.
When did I last polish these? Too late now…
Irina carefully smudged eyeshadow around her eyes and brushed on another few layers of mascara. She frowned at herself in the bathroom’s small mirror as she touched up her lipstick.
“Well, that’ll have to do,” she muttered eventually. After six months where the closest thing to makeup she’d worn was sunscreen, and the last few weeks of hospo gigs where too much smoky-eye would get you sent home, the sight of her made-up face was strange.
Is it too much? Not enough? Do I need to do my eyebrows again, too?
She sighed. This is why I stick to painting landscapes, she told herself. Deciding not to risk refreshing her eyebrows and looking like something out of a horror movie, she shoved everything back in her handbag and hurried through to the gallery.
Irina gasped as she slipped through the door into the main gallery space. The back-of-house hadn’t been anything to write home about: cheaply painted walls and concrete floors, lighting dim so you couldn’t see the dust, every spare corner filled with crates and boxes of who-knows-what.
She had started to relax, assuming the gallery was some casual community space. After all, it didn’t even have a Google Maps presence. She was imagining the front room would be similar to the back and seeing her landscapes hanging on the wall beside some paintings of flowers and pet dogs.
She was wrong. So, so wrong.
Oh, wow. Irina’s eyebrows shot up as she took in the room. The decor was almost painfully fashionable, the distressed bare-concrete, exposed-rebar look where you could tell every speck of rust had been lovingly buffed into place.
But that wasn’t the most impressive thing about the space. Directly opposite the staff door, the exterior wall was one massive pane of glass, giving the impression that the room opened straight into the empty air outside the fifth story of the building.
It looked amazing, and Irina’s heart sank. Clare was right, she realized glumly. I’m going to stick out like a sore thumb here.
There were only two ways you could face a room like this: either go in looking as fashionably trashed as the decor, or 180 degrees in the opposite direction, crisp and smart as a diamond in the rough.
Irina’s outfit didn’t fit either category. Not smart enough to contrast, and not casual enough to fit in. Just shabby.
Shit. What is this place?
The exhibition opening had already, well, opened, and the first of the guests were beginning to mill around, investigating the drinks and canapes with as much enthusiasm as the artworks.
Irina’s breath caught in her throat. When Clare told her that she’d got Irina’s paintings a spot in a new gallery exhibition, Irina had assumed she meant a small local gallery. This place was small, but from the look of the guests, it was the small that meant “boutique and exclusive” rather than “can’t afford the rent on a bigger place.”
Irina took a deep breath. Too late to back out. She might not be as perfectly turned-out as some of the guests here—or as fashionably untidy as the others—but, too bad. She was here now.
After all, those were her paintings on the wall. And they looked... great. She had done more than wait tables back in the Adirondacks, after all. She had walked around the mountains and valleys, explored them—and painted them.
The burning summer tones and exuberant, harsh brush-strokes were a great fit for the surroundings, even if Irina herself wasn’t. And the contrast between the midsummer landscapes and the icy night outside…
Irina’s heart lifted as she took in the sight. Oh, Clare was an angel. Irina didn’t know how her friend had managed it—but if any of the guests here bought even one of her oil landscapes, well. Wow. That would be a dream come true.
Especially if that person was famous enough that everyone else wanted their own painting, too.
There were three of Irina’s paintings on display. She gazed at the central one, a huge mountain landscape. The canvas was huge, wider across than Irina’s arm-span, and almost as tall as she was. If the window across the far wall made you think you could step out into space, then this painting was like a portal into summer.
It had been a hell of a mission getting that one back to the city, even off the frame. Now, all that effort was worth it. Irina couldn’t help the swell of pride that filled her as she looked at it.
A familiar face caught her eye. Tay, whose wail of despair had called Clare away earlier, gave her a shy wave. Tay had been in her class the one year Irina had managed to spend at art school, so Irina was familiar with both his dramatic cries of doom and how embarrassed he inevitably was after them.
Now, he was lurking in front of his own work, a series of miniatures that gleamed with gold leaf. The contrast between Tay’s work and her own couldn’t have been more different, but somehow, they both worked in this space.