Pell remembered seeing Arc’s eye—it was the first thing she’d noticed.
Tourmaline and onyx. Silver and gold. A masterpiece watch set in a crystal sphere, the iris a mandala of glowing gold. Her blinks were a camera shutter’s, as imagined by the archetypal Victorian engineer but built by surgical perfection not found anywhere in Pell’s knowledge. The woman’s left eye was jeweled and precise, clicking softly as the woman looked around the gallery, as if the engineers who’d removed her original wet, gray-lensed ball had orchestrated a kind of music to go with their marvelous creation: a background tempo of perfect watch movements to accompany whatever she saw through their marvelous and finely crafted sight. Click, click, click.
An eye like that should have been in a museum, not mounted in a socket of simple human skin and bone, Pell had thought. It should have been in some other gallery, some better gallery, allowed only to look out at, to see other magnificent creations of skilled hands. Jare’s splashes of reds and blues, his shallow paintings were an insult to the real artistry of the woman’s eye.
That’s what Pell thought, at first, seeing Arc – but only seeing Arc’s perfect, mechanical eye.
Pell didn’t like to remember first seeing her that way – through the technology in her face. But it felt, to her, like it had its own kind of ironic perfection to deny it. So Pell lived with the biting truth that she didn’t, at first, see Arc – for her eye.
But later, right after she got momentarily lost in the beauty of Arc’s implant, the woman looked at Pell with her real eye, the gray, penetrating right one – and Pell forgot about the tourmaline, onyx, silver and gold machine.
She had finally seen Arc, herself – the woman, and not the simple, mechanical part. Next to her, the eye was cheap junk: a collection of metal, old rocks, and wires.
The woman was aware of her discrepancy. She wandered the tiny gallery with a very large plastic tumbler of vin very ordinare, stopping only once in a while to look at one of Jare’s paintings.
Holding her wine tight enough to gently fracture the cheap plastic with cloudy stress lines, Pell watched her, stared at the tall – all legs and angles, broad and strong – woman with the artificial eye. She tried not to watch her too closely or too intently, sure that if she let slip her fascination she’d scare her off – or worse, bring on an indifferent examination of Pell. Through a sad ballet of a slightly curved lip and a stare that was nothing more than a glance of the eyes, the woman would see Pell but wouldn’t – and that would be an icy needle in Pell’s heart.
Pell had already taken too many risks that night. She already felt like she’d stepped off the edge and had yet to hit the hard reality of the ground. Traps and tigers, beasts and pitfalls for the unwary loomed all around Pell. She moved through her days with a careful caution, delicately testing the ice in front of her, wary of almost-invisible, murky lines of fault. She knew they were there, she’d felt the sudden falling of knowing she’d stepped too far, moved too quickly, over something that had proven, by intent or accident, not to be there. Pell didn’t push on the surface, didn’t put all her weight, or herself, on anything.
But then everything changed. She’d seen Arc and her eye.
The plastic cup chimed once, then collapsed in on itself. Turning first into a squashed oval, the glass cracked, splintered, then folded, the white seams of stress turning into sharp fissures of breakage. The red, freed of its cheap plastic prison, tumbled, cascaded out and down onto her.
Pell had worn something she knew wouldn’t fit with the rest of the crowd. The official color of San Francisco, she knew, would fill the place with charcoal and soot, midnight and ebony. White, she’d decided, would pull some of their eyes to her, make her stand out – absence of color being alone in a room full of people dressed in all colors, combined.
"Looks good on you."
The shock of the wine on her white blouse tumbled through Pell as an avalanche of warmth flowed to her face. The decision to wear white that night had come from a different part of herself, a part that had surprised her. Now she was furiously chastising that tiny voice, that fashion terrorist who had chosen the blouse over other, blacker ones.
And so Pell responded, “Not as good as you would” to the tall, leggy, broad shouldered girl with the artificial eye. Which was beautiful, but not as beautiful as the rest of her.
Pell’s reason for being at the gallery was Jare. Although she could never wrap her perceptions around the gaunt boy’s paintings, she still came when he asked. Jare, Pell, Fallon, Rasp and Jest. They weren’t close – but then foxhole buddies aren’t always. They weren’t in combat, but they could be. All it would take would be one computer talking to another – no stable job history, thus conscription.
All it took were two computers, passing pieces of information back and forth. Till that happened, they hid and watched the possibility of a real foxhole death in a hot, sweaty part of Central America fly by.
Foxhole buddies. It was Jare’s term – some fleck of trivia that’d hung around him. They didn’t have an official name for their tiny society of slowly (and in some cases not too slowly) starving artists, but Pell was sure that Jare would smile at his trivial term being immortalized among a band of too-mortal kids.
That was Jare. While the rest of them tried to focus on pulling their paintings (Pell, Jare, and Rasp), music (Jest), and sculpture (Fallon) as high as they could, there was something else about Jare – something, like his paintings, that refused to be understood. His techniques were simple enough, broad strokes of brilliant color on soot-black canvas, but his reasons were more convoluted.
Or maybe, Pell had thought earlier that evening (before turning a white blouse red and seeing the woman with the artificial eye for the first time) both man and his work were simple: broad, bold statements designed to do nothing but catch attention. He was like his paintings, a grab for any kind of attention – an explanation too simple to be easily seen.
In the tiny bathroom, Pell tried to get the wine out of her blouse. Contradictory old wives’ tails: first she tried cold, then hot water. The sink ran pink and so, soon, did her blouse.
The woman with the eye stood outside the door, a surprisingly subtle smile on her large mouth. Every once and a while she’d say something, as if throwing a bantering line to the shy girl inside to keep her from drowning in embarrassment.
"Who’s he foolin? I can do better crap than this with a brush up my ass.”
"You should see this chick’s dress. Looks like her momma’s – and momma didn’t know how to dress, either.”
"Too many earrings, faggot. What year do you think this is?
"Hey, girl. Get out here with that shirt. It’s better looking than this fucking stuff on the walls."
Cold water on her hands, wine spiraling down the sink. Distantly, Pell was aware that her nipples were hard and tight – and not from the chill water. Down deep and inside, she was wet. It was a basic kind of primal moisture, one that comes even in the burning heat of humiliation. Finally, the blouse was less red than before. Planning to run to where she’d dropped her old leather coat to hide the stigmata of her clumsiness, her excitement in two hard brown points, she opened the door.
The tall woman smiled down at her, hot and strong. In one quick sweep of her eyes, Pell drank her tall length, strong shoulders, columnar legs. She was trapped, held fast between the hot eyes she knew must have been staring at her, pinning her straight to her embarrassment, and the presence of the woman.
Her eye, the eye, clicked a quick chime of precision – as if expanding its limits to encompass the totality of Pell. Pell did not mind her intense examination. It added, with a rush of feelings, to the quaking in her belly, the weakness in her knees.