“You motherfucker,” the art student says, grabbing the book by its two covers and flexing them.
Her hands are strong with anger, and the spine begins to wrinkle and crack.
Inside, the first leaf comes loose and falls to the pavement.
“Amazing,” the others say. “Gorgeous.” “You’re such an amazing artist.” “I want one.”
The sketchpad goes round the table slowly, as nobody wants to let it go. Finally it gets to her, and she flips it open.
It’s good. It’s really, really good. The lines are sharp and clean, there’s not a dot out of place. It’s so detailed she wonders how he did it. Was it the pens? The smooth vellum? What is his trick? She’s been drawing since she could hold a crayon. She’s the one who picked up watercolors on her first try in third grade and painted a kitten so well the teacher hung it up in the front of the classroom. She’s the one who that boy in junior year paid to do his art homework. It was only a quarter, and she didn’t do it again. She is the artist. She is the one who draws! Not this emaciated Keanu Reeves knockoff with his big fancy pad and his matched Rapidographs, no!
She finally has her own set of Rapidographs. Maybe now it will come. Maybe the lines will cooperate. A lot of trees fall in her quest to get better. To get better than him.
She visits him, looks at his rough drafts.
Oh double-fuck with fuck sauce! They’re like Mozart, barely a pencil line or smear of pink eraser dandruff.
Seriously, who even does that? A loose pencil sketch, then a final inking? What is he, a goddamn wizard?
She goes back to the beginning, studying line and shadow, making a small mountain of crumpled rejects. The light table in class becomes her new best friend as she draws and retraces and erases and retraces, splicing together the best of the rejects to make finished compositions, and seethes.
I’ll be better than you, she vows. Just you watch.
The book comes out at long last, a self-published brick of black outlines of angels and spirits from around the world. It’s beautiful and infuriating, and she buys three copies.
He stops drawing angels, starts drawing dragons and samurai warriors and – oddly – vegetables. He shows her one of his works in progress, a rotund samurai with traditional armor and sword raised high over his head.
She keeps drawing, tiny lines nested inside tiny lines, with pens so fine-tipped they can only be used for a few hours before their tips blow out and become useless.
She finds out she is actually pretty good at scratchboard and watercolor, and wins a t-shirt contest. She discovers Art Nouveau and Edward Gorey, and then her teacher assigns her a project about Japan.
The art book is a doorstop, the kind of coffee table book that could be a coffee table all by itself, and she lugs it home.
Just for fun, she looks through the feudal section, and a familiar face leaps out at her.
The book is now in quarters, in eighths, in confetti. The recycle bin is full, but she jams the pieces in anyway.
The samurai in the book was laughing at her, as was the angel on the bridge and everyone else in the coloring book.
Laughing at her because all those years she’d been trying to live up to the skills of a god damn tracer.
But she’s a better artist for it, so it was all worth it, right?