Betsy’s landlord was installing new windows, which was startling, because it seemed that heretofore his strategy had been to let the house shudder into full decline while apologetically instituting annual rent increases. A sale, perhaps, was pending. He’d mentioned sending out painters next month, which she took as further evidence of doom. Painting, she knew, meant true intent to divest.

Betsy looked over at her own painting, “Coronation of the Artist.” It was a take on Lorenzo Monaco’s 1414 “Coronation of the Virgin,” with Monaco’s cloud of adoring saints substituted in Betsy’s version by well-known artists (Toni Morrison! Rembrandt!). Betsy had spared no expense, investing in authentic Quattrocento materials – pure-grade vermillion and lapis lazuli suspended in egg tempera, gold leaf gilding, fine walnut surface. The resulting painting had that eerie, elemental-colors Renaissance vitality that suggested matters of the celestial realm. Her point, she’d explained to family and friends, was to elevate the role of the artist, to subvert the expectation that art serves humanity or, really, any practical purpose. It is a thing for itself, just as God invests in the glory of God. Her circle did not wholly embrace this high-minded conceit. They praised her work the way one might a really earnest tattoo. And the market was….distracted. Distracted by balloon dogs and dollar-store impressionism. Distracted by commissioned cat portraits. “Coronation of the Artist” was posed on top of a stack of unsold panels in the corner of her studio apartment, itself sitting on a basement full of more of the same, itself built on a poorly sealed municipal waste site upon which it was forbidden to install playgrounds. She felt a quickening, not as with pregnancy but more as with a premonition of death. There she was, single, in her thirties, underemployed, getting slo-mo kicked out of an apartment that was heretofore technically a slum.

Maybe she should have done that law internship back in the aughts. Or married Phil Lanscombe, who now had three children and a thriving practice of some kind of specialized medical something.

The window installation guys were talking on the sidewalk in front of her house. One had been working since the morning, respectably disheveled and a bit dumpy. The other, having just exited some soundlessly operating vehicle, was dressed in high-end hipster clothes with his back to the door and with a nice and high rump. Betsy opened the door to retrieve her mail, nodding at the worker and giving a second glance at the rump. Rifling through the mail, she saw a letter from her landlord, that ape-like scrawl, surely making official what she had darkly feared. “Dear Betsy, it is with regret I inform you….”

“Good news?” She looked up to see rump man turned toward her. She realized she could not look him fully in the face, his face was so perfectly symmetrical, so festooned with teeth. Cutting away, her eyes landed instead on the sumptuous arch of his bicep through his well-fitting tee. Flustered, she looked down only to see another bulge, self-satisfied, amiable in his tight jeans. Now thoroughly unmoored, she found herself blurting, “I poured my savings into my art, and now I’m broke. Possibly on the brink of no housing.” She felt devastated by the mere utterance of this sad life haiku, and so was astonished to see the man’s face, already luminous, light up. “What kind of art?”

Turns out this guy, Rotho, was a part-time employee of his family’s multinational windows company by day and an artist by other hours in the day. He mostly did sketches, he explained, although there were acrylic paintings, “pretty amateur,” he admitted. He played the guitar in a rock band, the Hareballs (he showed her an icon on his phone, a bunny with giant hairy balls). He made a special kind of fermented pudding. He was also a surfer, aspiring big wave surfer, tonguing the big wave surfing destination “Nazaré” in his mouth as voluptuously as a nipple. As they chatted, Betsy found she could progressively look him full in the face, becoming as bold as Moses on the mountain, although she still needed a slight squint. He mentioned where he lived; Betsy recognized it as a tony neighborhood, the kind full of steepled Victorian homes and trees the size of blue whales. By the end of the conversation, he was inviting her there, just like that. A bromide floated to Betsy’s mind, in the way that bromides can occasionally pertain: “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” “Sure,” she said, tucking the envelope from her landlord into her back pocket.

They began hanging out. The mode of engagement with Rotho was always hanging out, always at his house. And why would he ever leave? The place was giant, fit for the Von Trapps, and full of hard-bodied men coming in and out in the midst of impassioned speech: “depends on which Van Halen” or “oeuvre.” Some looked exactly like Rotho from the back, interchangeable Lego-type men with different snap-on hats, different printed tees, just having achieved their mid-thirties-level handsome, on a rise in appeal that wouldn’t plateau until maybe 40, maybe 50, might even sweeten into 60’s in the undead style of certain wizened Hollywood studs. Coming over after her gig grocery shopping for the middle class, Betsy would sometimes catch the tail end of a jam session, the Lego men rocking noisefully on high-end guitars before breaking to go rock-climbing.

Betsy and Rotho were in his kitchen, preparing another vat of fermented pudding. Rotho’s housekeeper had just sterilized the equipment for them and prepped the ingredients – her labor costs alone guaranteeing that the cost for the pudding wouldn’t break even. But it didn’t matter, none of it mattered. Betsy shook her head. “Your life, it’s charmed,” she exclaimed, in a state of wonder, repulsed, magnetized.

“Tell that to my lawyer,” Rotho retorted, then refused to elaborate. Lawyer! Betsy felt blooming within her a grotesque curiosity, like one of those giant flowers that smells like corpses and pollinates via flies. She found herself hoping he’d run over the neighbor’s dog, had been caught stealing heirlooms from corpses.

But no, true calamity wasn’t really possible with a person like Rotho. He lived in a different realm, with charmingly irrelevant stakes. Crises for him were accidentally booking a massage over a surfing trip, or an ex-girlfriend who didn’t return his lemon zest microplane. She measured out a cup of sprouted chia, musing. If you could be close enough to such person, could they transfer a part of their life’s ease, just from sheer diffusion across the permeable membrane of mutual infatuation? And yet it seemed that the “mutual” was always a few interactions away, as Rotho was clearly interested in her but also spacious; as with any god a thousand years was a day to him, and a human lifetime was the blink of an eye. At this point, Betsy had ten days to move out of her apartment. She mentioned this casually.

“Your apartment situation sucks,” Rotho said soulfully, turning down the heat on a lukewarm cauldron of bananas. “I’d invite you to stay, but you know I only have girlfriends move in.”

“Of course,” Betsy smiled, seething. Why wasn’t she a girlfriend yet? She’d scanned their relationship for any fault or infelicity and couldn’t find one; indeed, she had meticulously curated it to be thus. Sure, the lovemaking was an, er, unecstatic aspect of their liaison, but the burden of that knowledge fell to Betsy, not Rotho. In a way, the fact that he could get away with such flubby hands and uncoordinated mouthwork was itself merely a sign of his status – why would he bother to try harder, and what’s more, who would tell him to? For his part, he expressed emphatic satisfaction with what happened in the bedroom – Betsy made sure of it. So, what was the issue?

Arguably, according to the same logic, Betsy didn’t have to try this hard either. But Betsy had come to her attractiveness late. She’d been homely in high school and had, by dint of effort, bloomed in time for college. At college, she acted as if she’d always belonged to the social caste of the hotties, but it had always felt like that – acting. Putting on a show. For it’s true, there’s a certain ungainliness of coming to attractiveness late, similar to the awkwardness of the nouveau riche. You don’t truly own it, you’re aware of how fleeting and mercurial the fates can be, and that awareness makes you an imposter. Ownership, true ownership, is in not knowing what you own, of being so entitled that the thing and yourself are intertwined such that it’s not a thing apart from you, but rather it’s an immutable constituent of self. It’s moving your arm without marveling that it obeys. It’s smiling without aiming the sparkle your eyetooth throws. For Betsy, her ease was conscious and thereby contingent. What was keeping her from reverting to her former state but a few tens of pounds, intentional efforts at eye contact, a studied comfort in conversation that in truth made her drenched in the pits? A lot of minute, continuous adjustments got her here, standing and laughing with her hands in her pockets just-so at Rotho’s kitchen island. All of these adjustments: reversible. Glancing at the window above the kitchen sink, she saw her former self reflected in a slightly doubled image, the homely hovering behind the beauty, an image both prehistory and harbinger, memento mori in palimpsest.

A door knock, and Rotho jogged to open it. Behind the door, a man. A lawyer, in fact. Rotho glanced over at Betsy, “Hey Bets, you should probably head home,” but then he immediately forgot about her. Feeling deviant, she stayed. Lurking at the threshold of the parlor with a goblet of fresh-made goo, she learned that the Hareballs were in an IP dispute for lyrics of a song, “C’Mon Over,” in which they lifted verbatim and at length from another band. The disputed lick: “Be it as you will, I see you at the till, chunking up that change, chunk that booty babe, we be mangy dogs, dogs dogs dogs dogs dogs, mangy mangy dogs dogs.” Betsy licked her pudding spoon, rapt. Rotho was adamant to specify “alleged” in describing the other band’s claims against the Hareballs, a specification which struck Betsy as egregious: these were lyrics no one, literally no one, could spontaneously and semi-contemporaneously come across, the way Descartes and de Fermat independently alighted upon analytical geometry, or Darwin and that other guy simultaneously theorized natural selection. And yet, the Hareballs earnestly espoused it, that these were free-floating lyrics, percolating in the collective unconscious, and harvested at a negligible temporal remove by two separate bands.

Seated at Rotho’s long, antique cherry table, the lawyer encouraged them to cede the song and wash their hands. The lawyer was sent by an otherworldly conglomerate (likely Rotho’s parents, but who knew, it wasn’t spoken), and of course this conglomerate would have practical magic – no fairy godmother types here, this conglomerate would be kitted out with a lawyer. He’d just appeared on the doorstep like Mary Poppins, shaking out his umbrella on the porch and taking off his shoes before stepping inside. And this lawyer, who was not of Rotho’s Lego set, who had a saggy chin and a tiny paunch that perched at his waist, sat through Rotho’s story of the muse’s artistic commons with a look of poorly disguised horror and shook his head and even at one point called Rotho “kid,” a term that Rotho accepted, bowing his head, as if being crowned. The lawyer, surveying Rotho for a time in silence, suggested that he consider what he truly valued in life, and that he reallocate time spent fighting this inane battle to enjoying his life’s already prodigious and outsized good fortune. “I wish I could come home to this,” the lawyer said, gesturing at the manse packed with friends and the detritus of art, and somehow in that moment both his and Rotho’s eyes landed on Betsy. Betsy saw Rotho’s eyes widen, as if a veil had been lifted, as if he saw her for the prodigious and outsized good fortune in his life that she’d been hustling to be. Pinned by their gazes, she choked a bit on her spoon. Then the lawyer read again the lyrics aloud, “chunk that booty babe,” “mangy mangy dogs,” in his mallet-like monotone, and it was as if he’d cracked open the bell jar of the house, and a vast, impersonal cosmos flooded in, snapping back Betsy’s neck.

Betsy fell to talking with the lawyer as he laced up his shoes in the foyer. “Kid” comment aside, he wasn’t old — probably her age. Whatever he was saying as he tied up his second shoe, somehow all she could hear were adulting words rising in a cloud around her; although he technically said none of them, was actually just talking about the weather and his commute, she was overcome by “cosigning, joint filing, childsafe, bilingual preschool” on loop. She smiled warmly at him, and he looked at her with surprise, pausing at the door and trying to interpret her beguiling expression. She asked him if he ever bought art, and he said sure. When she showed him her paintings on her phone, he looked panicked and asked her to text a link to her website. Then, he fled to his car.

That night when Betsy left the house, she called her parents. Within the week, they showed up with her sister to help her move out. No one said anything as they loaded stacks of gilded panels and transferred them from one basement to another. Still, something in her shifted. Although she couldn’t bear to grind paints or lift a brush, she found herself visiting the museum on days when she wasn’t pushing a grocery cart for minimum wage. She got in touch with her old friends, who asked her what kind of name is Rotho and sang “mangy mangy dogs” wickedly. One day she even texted the lawyer to hang out, promising she wasn’t selling anything. Miraculously, he agreed, and drove her to get his favorite kebabs.

Dave was stockier than she remembered. Driving, he apologized for the debris in his car; he swiped at his hair with a practiced periodicity aligned with the gradual sliding of a thin shock of hair from his bald spot; he glanced over at her and steered the conversation in a few careening directions that ended in lurid confessions about previous relationships, semi-graphic medical anomalies, family-of-origin over-disclosures. Betsy put her feet on the dash and scooched down in her seat. Here was the honest effort at living. This was no perfectly cross-hatched Renaissance panel, teeming with luminaries. This was an eighties puff paint sweatshirt, a poor man’s Pollock. She unclenched somewhere deep behind her navel and felt years of pent-up homeliness – snorting laughter, cowlicks, cellulite, faux pas, unmatching purse and belt – spill out and spread around her seat, in a kind of ecstatic surge.

After dinner, Betsy invited Dave to her place. As they entered the foyer, her parents said hello from their concavity in the living room couch, watching some nth spin-off of Star Trek. Dave stopped in his tracks, staring at them, as if he’d been hailed by an alien vessel. “My parents,” Betsy said breezily, pulling him to continue up the stairs. In her room, Betsy watched Dave try not to comment on the teddy bears, the frills around the windows, the tiny desk covered in stickers. He was so intent on acting cool that when Betsy asked him to pose for her, he said a casual, “Oh sure.” Betsy situated him against the window, surrounded by frills, the moon above his head. “Should I smile?” Dave said, giving her an example, his tiny teeth pointing in subtly different directions. Betsy’s heart cracked at the generosity of it. In the window, she saw her own crooked smile in return. Something in her quaking, she grabbed her cheap tubes and began to paint.


Rebecca Behizadeh has a Master in Divinity from Harvard Divinity School and lives in East Arlington, MA.