Pushing the Limits

By: Brooke Cumberland

“Knock, knock,” I hear from my doorway. I quickly look up and notice it’s Claire—again. She’s been coming to my office every day for two weeks as I’ve been rapidly trying to prepare for my classes that are resuming soon. Since I’m coming in halfway through the year at spring semester, I’ve been looking over students’ art portfolio’s to get ideas of their strong suits so I can coordinate my syllabus to their needs.

“Hi, Claire,” I draw out slowly, the annoyance in my tone going right over her head as she invites herself in. “What’s up?”

She settles in on the chair across from my desk. Her skin-tight pencil skirt nearly rips in two as she crosses her legs and arches her back, pushing her breasts firm against her thin blouse. She flips her blonde hair, exposing the flesh of her neck. I shudder, wondering what’s made this woman so insecure that she feels the need to throw herself at me.

“Well, I thought since you’ve been working nonstop and have hardly taken a break to even eat lunch most days, we could go out for drinks tonight.” Her tongue runs along her lower lip just before pulling it in between her teeth and biting it. “Celebrate your new job and the start of a fresh semester,” she continues with an encouraging smile.

“As much as I’d love that…” She doesn’t hear the condescending tone in my voice by the wide, girly smile that spreads across her face. “I’ll have to take a raincheck. I’m taking Natalia to a movie tonight before I get busy with work again.” It’s a lie, but she doesn’t even as much as flinch on another rejection. She’s only asked me out a dozen times, and I’ve found a way to get out of each of them.

How her brain isn’t connecting the dots to, I’m not interested is beyond me. If she were any other woman at a bar or we shared the same mutual friends, I’d have no issues letting her know it was never going to happen. However, to avoid pissing my colleagues off before class even begins, I have to play nice for now.

Truthfully, if it weren’t for a certain portfolio that’s captivated my attention, I’d be doing all this prep work from home. But there’s one specific student—Aspen Evans—that’s grabbed my attention more than the rest. She has high honorable mentions, has excelled in all of her classes, and already has some letters of recommendations for graduate school. She passed into the accelerated art program with flying colors.

Studying her pieces over the last couple of weeks, I feel like I’ve grown to know her already. I realize this sounds crazy, considering I have no idea who she is, but it’s obvious by her paintings that she’s a deeply emotional person. Her dark and dramatic pieces are consistent since her freshmen year. Some are bright and bold abstract paintings, some are watercolor portraits, and some are pastel drawings. Then there are some pencil-drawn and heavily shaded with sadness. She’s definitely drawing from some kind of inner turmoil, and I can’t help but be intrigued by the stories she’s telling.

A part of me connects with them, aches in familiarity. The feeling of losing Ryan only months ago feels like bile in my throat and chokes all the air out of me. My eyes burn with tears that I refuse to shed, considering the way things ended between us. It had been five years since I’d seen him, aside from his funeral, of course, but even though he died a hero, I fear I’ll never have any real closure.

Not because of what he did, but who I let come between us.



After spending the afternoon with Kendall and Zoe, I come home and go straight to my studio. Several hours of staring at the same blank canvas later, I brew myself a pot of coffee. The canvas just sits there on my easel, mocking me as I chastise myself.

I haven’t felt this blocked in months. Everything I start, I end up tossing out or getting so frustrated I throw it across the room. I hate everything I paint or draw, and considering school is starting in less than twelve hours, the pressure to get my shit together is even stronger.

Skinny Love has been playing on repeat, which is usually my go-to song. It helps me escape into a place where I can create the things I see in my mind. But after five unsuccessful attempts, I give up and sit in the middle of the floor—where I ultimately pass out.

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