Portrait — Emma Eisler

It is their last day in the third city of their post-college trip to Europe, and Bri is flirting with their tour guide again.

They are walking through a museum filled with nude paintings of bulbous-thighed, blue-veined women. Riley is fascinated by their rolling flesh, the way the bodies can’t seem to help occupying great expanses of space. She walks a few steps behind Bri, stewing over how little she seems to be paying attention, preparing the speech she will give to her later about the dual ugliness and beauty of the nudes, how they simultaneously illustrate an antiquated and radical depiction of the female form, how Bri would’ve seen this too, if only she’d been paying attention to something other than the lean figure of their guide, Tomás.

Riley sighs. Even the back of Bri’s head is lovely, dark hair draped over olive shoulders. The first time Riley saw her naked was early freshman year. They had just stumbled back to the dorm after a party, stoned and a little tipsy. Bri’s forehead was damp, her eyes glassy and red-rimmed. Riley kept waiting for her to break off and head to her own room, but Bri followed until they were outside Riley’s door.

“Umm… are you gonna go to your room, or?” Riley had asked.

Bri started giggling. They’d met only a few days earlier, but the alcohol and the loneliness of starting college gave their early acquaintanceship the illusion of intimacy. “My roommate is really mean. Can I stay with you?”

It was the kind of thing a child might say, Riley thought, waking from a nightmare and begging to crawl in bed with an older sibling. In truth, she was charmed: of all the people Bri could’ve gone to bed with, she’d chosen her.

She watched as Bri pulled off her skirt and top, blushed handing her an oversized t-shirt. They crawled under the blanket, Riley lying as still as she could on the undersized twin mattress, feeling Bri’s breath warm her neck.


Bri turns to Riley and gestures to a painting. “I like that one. It’s horrible and gorgeous.”

Riley smiles. “Grotesque.”

Tomás shakes his head. “Here I was worried you’d only want to look at benign landscapes.”

Bri gently punches his arm. “You underestimate us. Maybe American girls generally.”

Riley thinks, it’s impressive in a way how Bri does it, gives the impression of desire without any desperation. They’ve slept with similar numbers of people, even similarly attractive ones, but Riley knows the numbers mean nothing when she has to work a hundred times harder to make people want her, has to contour her cheeks and paint on her lips to prove that she really is up for anything.  

“You know, nearly all of the models were prostitutes,” Tomás says. “The artist himself was nearly broke, would pick up women from the street able to offer them nothing but his own art.”

“Oh?” says Riley. Strangers mill around them in the gallery, a mixture of tourists and locals. Riley examines the couples. A pair of teenagers kiss, their hands tangled in each other’s hair. An elegantly dressed older woman and a much younger man smile at one another as if sharing a secret. She knows all relationships are transactions of some sort, all romance, in one form or another, an exchange.

They leave the gallery into the blue of evening, lampposts illuminating cobblestones. Tomás says, “Well, I guess this is where I leave you. I’d be happy to recommend a restaurant, if you’d like.”

Riley is about to agree when Bri jumps in. “What? No, it’s our last night! You have to have dinner with us.”

Riley rolls her eyes. She can see already the night stretching in front of them, how Tomás will place a hand on Bri’s thigh, and how she will glance at him with heavy-lidded eyes. How later, they’ll return to the hostel, an unspoken agreement that Tomás will come with them. Then Bri will drag Riley to the bathroom, flushed and giggling, will ask if she wouldn’t mind waiting outside the room a while. Then finally the door will click shut behind them, and Riley will haunt the common room, playing beer pong with other tourists, eventually letting one of them take her to bed, then crawling back later to the room she shares with Bri so they can lie together and describe their exploits. But no matter the night ahead, tomorrow, at least, she and Bri will be on the train, Tomás rendered only an anecdote.

They meander to a restaurant Tomás knows, one with a patio overlooking the hazy green of the river that traverses the city. Each of the tables bears a single candle, and Riley is forced to acknowledge the beauty of the other patrons where the flickering light illuminates their faces and gestures. Unlike Bri, Riley’s family are not so distant immigrants from this region of Europe, and there is a comfort and also a frustration that comes with being surrounded by so many people whose features resemble her own.

Bri sits in the chair between Riley and Tomás, leans her head on Riley’s shoulder so the ends of her hair dip below the neckline of Riley’s dress. “Our last night,” she says.

“Until the next city,” Riley replies.

Bri adjusts the strap of her dress, and Riley turns away when she notices Tomás is also looking.

Bri’s body is nice, well-toned under a layer of fat, but not unusually so. Her teeth are crooked and often slightly yellow; her nose long and slim, with a stud that, caught from the wrong angle, could resemble a pimple. It’s her eyes, Riley hypothesizes, that draw people in, impossibly bright and framed by long and delicate lashes that give her whole expression a feeling of softness. She seems, in looking, entirely enraptured by whatever mixed up thoughts you are trying to convey, willing, over and over again, to give you the benefit of the doubt, to love you in all your messiness, your ugly acts.

A waitress comes by to fill their cups with wine.

They clink glasses. Bri says, “To one last night, the three of us.”

Tomás takes a sip, then glances at Riley. “So, Riley, you studied what at university?”

“Environmental studies,” she replies.

“So, you’re going to save us all from climate change?”

She shrugs.

“I’m only joking. And did you like it?”

She nods. “I’m definitely glad to be done with school, though.” She hasn’t decided if this is fully true. Definitely, she’s glad to be done with the cycle of school: endless tests and work, days spent grinding in the library, then bailing on work to smoke or drink, or sink into weeks of depression amidst dirty sheets and piles of laundry. She doesn’t know why she chose Environmental Studies except that she liked the people—people like Bri, the stubbornly optimistic. People, often, without backup plans, who couldn’t just graduate and fall into work at their father’s company like she half believes she’ll do if enough time passes and she still hasn’t figured out what happens next.

“Riley and I are both going to save the world,” Bri says.

Tomás chuckles. “And will you remember me when you’re famous?”

Bri blows him a kiss. “Of course.”

It’s weird to be shown around by someone who’s essentially the same age as us, Riley decides. Next time she and Bri travel together, she’ll have to make sure she specifies to the tour agencies to give them someone older—and not a sexy older, either. Someone who will be gone by dinner, rushing home to a partner and kids.

Tomás lights a cigarette, holds out the box to each of them in turn. Riley feels her body relax. A boat passes by on the river below, tourists waving from the deck. She glances at the other tables, making eye contact with an attractive man with a slightly overgrown beard. She won’t have to go home alone, she’s sure. She’ll find someone, either here or back at the hostel. It won’t be easy like it is for Bri; she’ll have to make some kind of effort, a lean or smirk. But then in the morning, she and Bri will be on the train sharing earbuds, watching the countryside pass. It’s what she likes best about sex with men—how uncomplicated it is, how easy to enter and then depart. She finds herself able to settle for almost any man, to trick her body into whatever twist or bend of intimacy the moment requires, looking at herself as if from above, like one of the museum’s grotesque nudes. Women make her nervous. That, or they remind her of Bri.

Their food arrives, made strange and exotic in the shadows cast by the candlelight. Bri’s knee occasionally bumps hers, an accidental move on its path to Tomás’s. The conversation flows easily enough, Riley jumping in often so Bri can’t accuse her later of sullenness. The couples at the surrounding tables look so lovely, Riley notices again, or a matching kind of unattractive made lovely in its own right, misshapen noses or acne-scarred cheeks, lumpy bodies and inexpertly applied makeup.

They split the check, then begin wandering back towards the hostel, crossing a bridge interspersed with buskers playing songs that mingle with one another, airy as bells. Bri takes Riley’s hand and spins her while Tomás follows behind laughing. Their dancing, Riley thinks, is much the same as their flirtations: where Bri is easy and lithe, Riley is heavy and weighed down, attractive still, but lacking that quality of effortlessness that is, inevitably, what’s most desirable.  

They stop at a crowded bar in the same neighborhood as the hostel, toast again to their final night. Tomás wraps an arm around each of them. “What will I do without my beautiful American girls?”

Bri leans against him. “I think somehow you’ll get by.” Other bodies press against theirs, shimmering with sweat. It’s awful and wonderful, Riley thinks, the giddiness of wondering who you’ll go home with, all the endless opportunities to kiss the wrong person.

Before they leave, Tomás steps away to go the bathroom. They watch him weave through the crowd, statuesque body and delicate curls.

Bri says, “He wants to have a threesome with us.”

Riley coughs. “Um, what?”

“So…?”

“Are you serious?”

Bri pushes a strand of hair behind Riley’s ear. “Of course I am. You think I’d spend our last night here without you?”

“So, you convinced him?”

“I wouldn’t say it took much convincing.”

Riley tries to picture it: Bri’s hair haloing over her breasts as Tomás kisses her neck. “I feel like I’ll just end up watching.”

Bri shakes her head. “You won’t.” She leans in, whispers, “I want you there.”

Tomás returns from the bathroom, and they step out of the bar back onto the street. Riley’s throat feels dry, her knees shaky. Bri walks between them, turning occasionally to give Riley a little grin. “Isn’t Riley so pretty?” she asks Tomás.

“Beautiful,” he replies.

Riley pictures again the ballooning nudes of the museum, the body in all its tortured acts of love—of exchange. She will do it; she has decided. Maybe had decided already, when she didn’t leave with anyone from the restaurant, and again with no one from the bar.

They stop to smoke a last cigarette on the hostel stoop, Tomás chatting for a while with tourists from another European country. The air feels cool and sensual against her skin. Occasional stars glimpse through the lights of the city. She imagines, in the distance, the river’s lapping current. All around her is conversation and laughter, but she is elsewhere already, tangled in unfamiliar sheets.

They climb the stairs to their room, past people drinking or eating late dinners, saying hi to a few loose acquaintances gained over their few days in the city. Riley spots a man she’d been eyeing a day or so earlier, debates sneaking away.

The room feels oppressively quiet. Bri opens a drawer to pull out a joint she rolled earlier, then offers it to Riley. Tomás opens the window and the three of them squeeze together to lean out. Below, the streets are still alive with revelers, people smoking or chatting on stoops, meandering home from or on their way to bars. To Riley, everything looks smudged and dark, like a painting or a photograph taken with too little light. Even Bri and Tomás seem impressionistic and vague, save for the warmth of their skin.

It isn’t that she’s never been with a woman. She has. It isn’t even that she’s never been with Bri. They haven’t… not really, save a few brief kisses, moments of deniable touch. She knows what is on offer: one night in a room none of them will ever see again; Bri and Tomás in all their angelic beauty. But she isn’t sure yet what she is giving in return—clumsy touch and imperfect body; what if, in giving this, she accidentally hands over more?

Bri stamps out the end of the joint and turns to Riley. She raises an eyebrow, barely suppressing a laugh. Riley smiles as if to say, “Go ahead, then.” Bri’s laughter falls away and she nods ever so slightly, looking only at Riley. This look, Riley is sure, will be the moment of greatest intimacy between them—the one part of the night that is theirs alone.

Tomás brushes back a loose strand of Bri’s hair, and Bri leans towards Riley. And then they are kissing, and there is Bri’s hand traveling down her back, and then Tomás’s mouth on her neck, the beginning of a bruise. They move gradually in the direction of the bed, Bri tugging off her dress, looking at each of them in turn as if it to say, “Now what?”

Riley thinks of their younger selves standing in her freshman dorm room. Bri with her bare skin and the challenge in her eyes, waiting for Riley to hand her a shirt. But what if she hadn’t given Bri that shirt? What if, instead, she’d let her hands trace the curvature of her friend’s body, a painter over canvas? Would it have been just one night, or would that moment have an afterlife? Would Bri float from Riley’s life like so many other college friends and hook ups? Maybe they would’ve dated, would’ve lounged on the grass of the quad in early spring, and kissed without needing alcohol or a man for justification. But with the possibility of a relationship comes equally the possibility of its dissolution. Maybe she and Bri would’ve never gone to Europe, wouldn’t be climbing aboard the train together when sunlight streaks again through the curtains. And really, Riley wonders, is it possible to love someone you know so well—to be loved by someone who’s seen you so completely?

Tomás presses Riley down onto the mattress, and there are the muscles of his shoulders and the contrasting softness of Bri’s hands, and out the window, lilting music and conversation that will thin out but remain until sunup. Riley hears herself moan as if from a distance, looks at the collage of their limbs from the above vantage she knows so well—the scar on Tomás’s knee; the unevenness of Bri’s breasts, all the imperfection that hurts unbearably for the empathy it calls forth.

They move in shapes of slants of light, curling into and then pulling back from one another. Riley tries to lose track of where she ends and they begin, to bleed over into whatever it is that makes Bri herself, the ease with which she flirts and dances and lives in her own skin. But it never quite happens, or she never quite succumbs to it, feeling always the uncertain edge of her own form, arms and legs, stomach and breasts, big enough to cover the whole canvas, leaving—in the end—little room for anyone else. She wants to be happy it is happening, that whatever she has felt about or wondered at in Bri can finally be probed or seen, but mostly she just feels far off, like it is all happening, but is, perhaps more than anything, too late.  

After, they fall asleep side by side, Tomás snoring softly, Bri nestled in the middle, her head resting on Riley’s chest. In the morning, Riley imagines, Tomás will slip from the bed, winking at her over Bri’s sleeping form. Possibly he will mouth something to her, remind her again not to forget him. For a second, they will both look down at the innocence of Bri’s sleeping face and share something close to intimacy. But just as soon the moment will end, and they will again be strangers passing through a borrowed night in a rented room.  

It’s strange, Riley thinks, how you can occupy the body of another so completely yet remain so apart. For a moment—in a dorm or hostel bed—your lives are as one, but then, just as soon after, you disappear back to separate rooms or countries. Once Tomás leaves, she decides, she will lie as still as possible so as not to wake Bri. Then, even knowing the continent outside is beckoning, she’ll close her eyes and try to forget all of that, to be as she was the first night they shared a bed, young and unknowing, full of the rush of new longing. Nothing yet has been decided, she’ll tell herself, nothing given away and nothing lost.

Bri turns over in her sleep, shifting towards Tomás. Tomorrow, Riley thinks. Tomorrow, we’ll be on the train, sharing headphones and watching the world pass. Her eyes begin to close, the picture growing hazy as if it were already a memory, the dissolving end of a dream.