Mathematician and Muse

by RJ Astruc

Illustrated by Linda Laaksonen

mathematician and muse Linda LaaksonenJocelyn Cooper strikes a pose.

Well, tries to, at least. It’s difficult to look dramatic and romantic when you’re sitting in a rickety old rowboat, tarted up in BBC Regency gear, the sun spilling sweat down the back of your poufy pirate shirt. Jocelyn digs deep to find his inner Heathcliff, fixes his face into a look that’s part brooding-over-a-lost-love and part come-fuck-me-on-the-moors, and does his best to ignore the insistent scritch-scritch of the label on his BBC longjohns.

Opposite Jocelyn, perched on the rowboat’s prow, Hugh Bacon sucks on the end of his paintbrush and makes those squishy, screwed-up faces he always does when he’s thinking.

“I just don’t like the light,” he says eventually.

“It’s the fucking sun,” says Jocelyn.

“Yes, well.”

The rowboat glides on across the flat blue water of Blackhall’s Long Lake. The campus buildings (old English stone, complete with the occasional gargoyle) loom in the distance like misshapen teeth. Jocelyn looks at them and sighs, missing home. Hugh sighs too and then does that dumb artist thing where he pokes the paintbrush at his canvas and then tilts his head to one side and looks at the mark he’s made and then frowns and tilts his head the other way like he’s fucking Michelangelo sizing up the Sistine Chapel.

Hugh Bacon is an artist in the way all rich useless college boys are artists. He has notions of painting—oils, mainly, sloppy wannabe Impressionist shit—but his output is meager and his talent lacking. Jocelyn Cooper is sort-of-but-not-really his current model. Jocelyn is starkly, strikingly beautiful. His skin is like ink. He is from the US of A, which is inconvenient because being from the US of A is totally uncool right now. People talk down to Americans here in the UK. They act like Jocelyn—slow-talking, Ahm-Frum-Tehxass Jocelyn—is mentally deficient. Jocelyn resents that: he’s at Blackhall College to complete his Honours in Mathematics.

“Does that actually help?” Jocelyn asks.

“Does what help?”

Jocelyn does the head-tilt, twitchily. Hugh makes a sad noise. Jocelyn sighs and throws his hands in the air and goes back to pose-striking.

“Sorry this is taking so long,” says Hugh. “I’m looking for… for a certain something.”

“Is that something me? Because I’m right here, under all this poncy ruffled shit.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Hugh squints. “I’m thinking more about influence. Style. Like… Monet? Or was that Manet? I always get them confused. Which one was the Impressionist?”

Jocelyn groans. It’s too bright for this shit, he’s thinking. He’s thinking: This is not what I signed up for.

***

How did this happen?

The planning—such as it is—happens yesterday. At eleven fifteen in the evening Jocelyn bumps into Hugh online (how lame) on some shitty college chatroom; Hugh mentions he’s looking for a model and Josie is drunk and sort of horny and looking for any excuse to strip. Half an hour later poor nervy Hugh—who is too fucking British to function, seriously—opens his dorm-room door to find this fucked-up mathematician waiting outside, wearing nothing but a lopsided toga and a withered-looking laurel wreath.

Their eyes meet.

It’s one of those magic moments.

In that second right there Hugh finds his muse and Jocelyn finds—well, Jocelyn isn’t exactly sure what he finds in Hugh, but he figures there must be something worthwhile about the plump little git because five seconds later they’re dry-humping on Hugh’s bed.

It doesn’t last for long because Jocelyn is pretty wasted and falls asleep before Hugh has time to take his shirt off, never mind his pants. Hugh cuddles him all night (it’s so shameful) and in the morning he goes out early and brings back breakfast, soggy chips and mushrooms and beans and toast in a gravy of brown oil, and presents it to Jocelyn like a villager delivering a sacrifice to his god.

“I’m kinda out of your league,” says Jocelyn matter-of-factly. As a mathematician he has devised his own complex date-grading system (add three points for visible abs, lose six points for bad hair, and so on) and Hugh comes up severely lacking in most departments. “You’re a nice guy. But.”

Hugh says, “You’re amazing. I want to draw you.”

“Eh?”

The artist’s pale eyes are simply sparkling at him. Admiringly. “I want to draw you. Isn’t that why you’re here? To be my model?”

The word model rings a small, dull bell somewhere inside Jocelyn’s booze-fogged brain. He thinks: Oh yeah. He pushes another grease-soaked slice of toast into his mouth and stands up, hand on his hip. He tries posing, using Hugh’s dorm window to check his reflection. Jocelyn likes the idea of being part of art. Not because he’s into art or anything like that, but because it strikes him as hilariously incongruous. He’s the kind of guy who gets a kick out of those holiday-snap photo booths where you can put your head on the body of a strongman, an astronaut, an angel.

I am Jocelyn Cooper, he thinks. Mathematician and artist’s model. At your service.

He says, “Where do you want me?”

***

Which was a mistake, in retrospect.

Because now Jocelyn is stuck on a shitty rowboat on the Long Lake, dressed up in costume crap Hugh’s pinched from his drama club mates. Yes, in retrospect (it’s always so easy to see your mistakes after they happen, isn’t it?), he was probably too quick to accept Hugh’s request. Playing at being Mr. Darcy isn’t his cup of tea at all. Art, he thinks, is uncool. Worse, art is fucking imprecise, imprecise and infernally subjective, in the exact way that math (clinical, calculated, and very cool) isn’t.

Also: it’s too hot. Too damn hot.

Hugh says, dreamily, “This is for a project, see. I’ve got to do something historical. So this is going to be, you know, a statement. I’d be, um, contrasting the new-old—an American in Renaissance clothing—with the old-new—the backdrop of Blackhall, the gargoyles, the stone, the ancient architecture…”

Renaissance? More like Regency. But maybe they don’t teach the difference in wanky art classes. And why does Jocelyn-the-American know more about European history than Hugh-the-Briton-with-an-ancestry-that-he-could-probably-trace-back-to-King-fucking-Arthur? Jocelyn tunes out Hugh’s droning and peers over his shoulder. He’s suddenly curious to see if anyone is watching this sad spectacle: a mathematician in ruffles and an art student rambling on about the depth of his own bloody art. (Really, could there be anything more pathetic?)

The Long Lake is on the outskirts of Blackhall’s grounds, but there’s always students around—especially now it’s summer, and the gardens are ripe and fresh with new life. A couple are walking along the banks, and further up a hill there’s a group of girls from an environmental club painting signs. No one’s really looking at them, though. Blackhall College—and probably every other college—has a different standard for weirdness than the rest of the world. Jocelyn’s seen students walk blithely past six guys wrestling a live pig into the cafeteria. Just this morning, jogging through the courtyard to the studio, he saw a girl with a witches’ hat on her head reading through a biology textbook.

So hot, he thinks distractedly, his gaze drifting from the shoreline to the water, blue and laddered with sunlight. So hot and so bored

“Of course I’m not sure what I’m trying to say,” Hugh is saying now, staring unhappily at his canvas. Doubting his own project before it’s even begun. “I had this idea, see, and I knew you were right, but now that we’re here on the lake I think maybe I got it wrong, and that you were right but for something else, although perhaps that’s just the lighting… Wait, what are you doing?”

He blinks stupidly at his subject. Jocelyn is unfastening the buckles of his trousers. His shoes and socks lie at the bottom of the boat already, and are soon joined by his jacket, his dinner vest, his scarf, his wig, his shirt, his undershirt, his undervest, his garters, and his suspenders. Jocelyn estimates he has about four more layers of ridiculous costume-clothing to take off, give or take, and wishes—not for the first time—that he’d pocketed his penknife before leaving for Hugh’s dorm room.

“Oh,” says Hugh.

Jocelyn accidentally rips through the hem of his frilled longjohns and then makes it worse when he bends over to see where the hole is. Hugh titters behind his hand. Jocelyn tears off the remains of the longjohns and stands there naked save for his underwear (leopard print, tight), his bare feet balanced on the boat’s curved inner sides. With the afternoon sun glaring fiercely above him and tubby little Hugh simpering below, Jocelyn feels somehow savage.

Nobly so. Isn’t that some fucking poetry somewhere?

“Not my cup of tea, luv,” Jocelyn says, in a passable English accent. “Made a mistake.”

“But I’m—”

Jocelyn stretches, yawns. White spots flash briefly in front of his eyes. “You’re a nice guy, Bacon,” he says, “but this isn’t what I do. We should probably have stuck with… whatever happened last night.”

Hugh blushes. “Nothing happened last night.” The skin around his mouth has gone slick and moist with sweat. Jocelyn wipes it dry with his thumb.

“See you later, alligator,” he says.

And steps overboard.

The splash-back gets Hugh right in the face. In the face and in the canvas too, turning his carefully applied acrylics into a rainbow smudge. Not that it matters much. Hugh hasn’t been painting so much as he’s been admiring Jocelyn. The few shapes that have made it from his brush to the canvas are vague and undefined. Fauvian, perhaps.

Wiping his face, Hugh watches Jocelyn strike for shore, the mathematician’s long, dark arms painting sharp angles and shadows on the water.

***

Hugh’s problem:  After that abortive attempt at artistry, he can’t get Jocelyn Cooper out of his mind.

Admittedly Jocelyn is the best looking guy he’s met since, well, ever. But regardless of that, Jocelyn—the look of the man, if not precisely his personality—has inspired Hugh in a way his tutors have never managed to.

Hugh isn’t very good at college, truth be told. In fact he’s about as good at college as he is at art. But his parents (both successful bankers) donate obscene amounts of money to the college development fund every year. Hugh feels an obligation to his parents to finish his Fine Arts degree; and he supposes his teachers feel some kind of obligation to his parents too, because they let him scrape through his courses and tolerate his lateness, his laziness, and his glaring absence of any real talent.

So it’s with some surprise that Hugh finds himself in the undergraduate studio at half nine in the morning, mixing paints to see if he can recreate the exact shade of Jocelyn’s skin from memory.

(He can’t.)

Then he sits in front of a fresh canvas, licks his fingers, and dips them in charcoal dust. When they’re covered, he runs them across the canvas. Remembering Jocelyn’s body.

Remembering where he’d like to put his dirty fingers on Jocelyn’s body.

The result is blurred, but Hugh’s memory is hazy anyway. And a blurred outline is, for the moment, enough.

Later that day his memory is unexpectedly refreshed when he spots Jocelyn and a group of Jocelyn’s friends in the college’s main courtyard. Jocelyn is reading a book. The friends are eating lunch. The friends look cool in the way genuinely cool people look cool. Hugh can tell—it’s like nerd intuition—that these lounging, unshaven assholes really don’t give a flying fuck what other people think of them. Really. One of them is wearing a worn baseball cap with the cap part missing. Another, the only girl in the party, has crude pictures of cocks drawn in biro along the entire length of her left arm.

They’re all fucking attractive, too. Not necessarily model-attractive (the way Jocelyn is), but definitely sexy.

These are the kind of people that other kinds of people—the Hugh Bacons of the world—crush hopelessly on for years. For the duration of college life, most likely. Maybe even after.

(Will Hugh be waxing romantic about Jocelyn Cooper in his seventies? Back in the old days, there was this guy I met in college…)

“Hey, Josie,” says one of the friends, a long-bodied guy with a delicate, sharp face. “That bloke seems to know you.”

Jocelyn looks up. He’s got on sunglasses, big bug-eyed ones that were fashionable a few years ago. The lenses are mirrored, so Hugh can’t meet Jocelyn’s eyes–all he can do is stare back stupidly at the reflection of his own face.

“Hey,” says Jocelyn. Behind those reveal-nothing shades, Jocelyn is struggling to pair Hugh’s face with a place and a purpose. He’s drunk too often, is the problem. Too drunk and too easily bored. Jocelyn meets a heck of a lot of people. Some through friends, some through parties, others through the internet… Oh yeah. He remembers who Hugh is, finally: “Art-friend.”

“Hey,” says Hugh. “What are you reading?”

“Nothing,” says Jocelyn.

Which is a lie. He’s reading Euclid. Jocelyn is always reading Euclid (his friends call it his ‘bible’). Something about Euclid’s simple phrasing in Elements has always sent him into a near-trance. It’s like a meditation. A point is a point which has no part. A line is a breadthless length. If there is poetry in maths it’s in these elegant definitions. But the idea of meditating, even if it is on something as cerebral as Euclid, embarrasses Jocelyn. Meditating is hippie new age art shit. Something that’s probably right up Hugh Bacon’s alley.

Jocelyn tucks Euclid’s Elements of Geometry under his leg and watches Hugh struggle for something else to say.

“Do you, uh, still want to model?” Hugh asks finally. “I mean not on the lake, that was wrong, that was… it didn’t work, but I had that idea of contrasting eras and I figured you could—”

“Not really interested,” says Jocelyn.

“Oh.” Hugh squints. It’s still sunny and hot, and the grass of the college grounds has started to crisp up and go yellow at the ends. Broken grass tips flick through the air in the breeze like dandelion fluff. Jocelyn, sprawling back, is suddenly surrounded by a rush of glowing gold motes.

It strikes Hugh that what appealed to him about Jocelyn—the Jocelyn who turned up drunk and horny on his dorm room doorstep—was that Jocelyn was completely, unashamedly real. Of course that stupid Renaissance stuff didn’t work. If he’s ever going to paint Jocelyn, it’s got to be real. It’s got to be honest. It’s got to be a painting of a messed-up American mathematician who just happens to be incredibly, amazingly handsome. It’s got to be the truth.

“Give me another chance,” Hugh says. “Please.”

“Uh,” says Jocelyn.

“Aw, c’mon Josie,” says one of the friends, the girl. She nudges Jocelyn. “He seems sweet enough.”

Jocelyn shrugs. “Fine, whatever, sure. Email me, okay?”

He pulls out his book again and raises it over his face, blotting out his companions and the world at large. The girl flicks Hugh a cheesy thumbs up, using her cock-covered arm.

“Thanks,” says Hugh, to Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. “I’ll see you ‘round.”

***

So, later that night, Hugh hunts down Jocelyn in a chatroom. The same chatroom. Jocelyn says he’s bored (as usual) and that there’s nothing interesting on youtube. You see one cat falling off a chair, you’ve seen them all, he types, and Hugh types back: Come over. I’ve got beer and paint and I know what I’m doing now.

What kind of beer, Jocelyn wants to know.

Fuck you, you’re a fucking mathematics student, Hugh types. You don’t care what kind of beer it is.

Right, Jocelyn agrees. Be there in five.

And he is. Because Hugh’s directness is appealing. Come over. No fucking around this time, and that’s important to Jocelyn. After all Jocelyn has a mathematical mind, a passion for order and decisions. A line is a breadthless length, and if it happens to run straight from A to B, so much the better.

Jocelyn knocks on Hugh’s door.

Presently, Hugh opens it.

“Hi,” says Hugh.

He’s wearing a smock and is carrying a bushel of brushes. He turns slightly to one side so Jocelyn can see, behind him, an easel set up and waiting. A fresh canvas. A new beginning. A six-pack of beer sitting on the bed. It seems that wishy-washy Hugh actually does know what he’s doing now. Also: Hugh’s got the air-conditioning on. Jocelyn is impressed. He steps inside. Hugh closes the door.

“You know art isn’t my thing,” says Jocelyn.

“Geometry isn’t mine,” says Hugh. “I figure, um, opposites attract.”

Jocelyn laughs, cracking open a beer. “Is that what you think this is? I’m here to model.”

“I’m here to paint.”

“Convenient.” Jocelyn, still drinking from the beer can, begins to take off his t-shirt. Switching the can from hand to hand when he pulls each arm free. “So what do you want me to do?”

“Whatever you want.”

Jocelyn gulps beer to buy himself time. He’s not sure what he wants. To be an artist’s model? Probably not. (It’s never made it onto his list of top career aspirations, has it?) If he’s honest, and he always is, he’s here because outside of his classes, college is dull. It’s all parties and booze and other things as meaningless as, well, fucking art. It all means nothing when compared to the simple, honest purity of Euclid.

“I want to do something that’s real,” says Jocelyn.

“Funny you should suggest that…”

Hugh grins. He has a stupid grin and Jocelyn wishes he didn’t dimple when he did it, because it makes him look cute instead of annoying. And it’s in this moment of weakness that Jocelyn leans over and presses his mouth to Hugh’s and just breathes there, his tongue against Hugh’s teeth. Why, he’s unsure. It’s not as if he fancies the artist as much as the artist fancies him, and yet… and yet his hands are in Hugh’s hair and now they’re both on the bed, pushing aside the beer cans. Tangling. Hugh’s shoes scrape the floor and Jocelyn licks his neck and it gets a bit dirty and grindy until Hugh, taking a deep breath and showing great personal restraint, fastens his hands over Jocelyn’s hips and pries the mathematician off him. And then pushes Jocelyn back onto the bed.

“What?” says Jocelyn. Disheveled. Confused.

“Very real,” says Hugh. Triumphant. “Now, please, hold that pose.

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