So Long As Men Can Breathe . . .

 

A Daria fanfic by E. A. Smith

 

 

 

Timeline:  This takes place a little more than two years after my fic "The Tempest".

 

 

 

The black line snaked across the white canvas, twisting and turning, following the lead of the moistened bristles.  It looped back upon itself, spiraled, and ended on a point.  Soon, other lines of color followed, tracing out an abstract pattern, filling the white space, until the whole of the canvas was alive with color, bursting with energy and emotion.  The patterns looked as though they wished to leap from their two-dimensional world and envelop all of the world around them, transferring both the melancholy and the joy of their creator to all viewers.

 

"That's it for class today, everybody.  See you tomorrow."

 

Jane Lane cleaned her brush before placing it into the storage jar, satisfied with her work for the morning, and took off her paint-splattered apron.  The assignment had been to create a spontaneous abstract work in the space of a single three-hour class period, and looking over the result, she was satisfied with the way that it had turned out.  School had long since disabused her of the notion that creativity required special inspiration, and she was confident that she could now turn out a quality piece of art on demand, even within three hours if necessary.  This abstract wouldn't stand among her best work, to be sure, and all the training two years at BFAC could give her couldn't replace time to refine and mold, but, for the conditions under which it was born, Jane could feel proud of this particular work.  And fairly certain of a good grade, which Jane had never felt was absolutely necessary (at least, not as long as she passed) but certainly never felt bad either.

 

As she stood there in quiet contemplation, a shadow fell over the vibrant hues of the painting.  Jane looked over to see that it belonged to the instructor, Professor Patrick Simpson.  Just Patrick, really; Jane had never heard him referred to by anything but his first name.  It was even how he signed his own works, some of which Jane had seen hanging in a few local galleries.  Jane stood aside to allow him a better view.

 

"It's not quite Jackson Pollack," she said, "but then, you haven't seen my work on a truly grand scale."  She smiled at an old memory.

 

"Very nice, Ms. Lane" Patrick responded, turning from the canvas to face Jane directly.  "I certainly wouldn't mind seeing more of your work; in fact, I want to talk to you about something that could lead to exactly that.  Could you walk with me to my office?  You can come back and get your equipment later."

 

"Am I being kept after school to clean erasers?" Jane said as they started to walk.

 

"Nothing that unfortunate, I assure you," Patrick answered with a chuckle.  "In fact, something the very opposite of unfortunate, I think.  Are you familiar with the Patterson Gallery?"

 

"Are you kidding?" Jane said.  "That place is great!  I did everything but sleep there my first few months in Boston.  They had some of the most interesting pieces I've ever seen there.  We didn't have anything even close to that back home in Lawndale."

 

"I thought you might be a fan," he said as he opened the door to his office and motioned Jane to a chair.  The place was cluttered with art supplies, as well as a few works-in-progress, but the chair was empty at least.  And comfortable, too, Jane thought as she sat down.  Patrick leaned back in his seat across from her and a foot up on a third chair to his left.  "I'm a friend of the owner, Katherine Patterson, and every year she has a showing for up-and-coming artists, to introduce people she thinks are going somewhere to the community at large.  And every year she asks me to suggest my most promising students for the exhibit."  He paused, and Jane could feel her frame locking into place and her eyes widening in anticipation.  "This year, I want you to be one of the new artists on display."

 

Jane's heart leapt up, and she could feel her breathing quicken.  This was the moment that she had been working towards for two years; really, this was the moment she had been working towards her entire life.  Her inauguration into the wider world of art.  Stay cool, she thought.  Don't act like an idiot.  Show him that you're ready for this.

 

"I'll be sure to leave a note for my posthumous biographers.  You'll get the credit for realizing my genius before I died."  Well, maybe that's a little too cool.  But Patrick just laughed.

 

"I'm trying to make sure that I get that credit much sooner.  This is a tremendous opportunity for you, Ms. Lane.  Are you up for it?"

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

" . . . and there's going to be a big opening, too, like they have for established artists.  Wine, cheese, big artistic mucky-mucks from all around Boston . . . that sort of thing.  And I fully expect the two of you to be there."

 

Jane, Daria, and their mutual friend James McCarthy sat in their usual Tuesday lunch spot, a table in the corner of the BFAC Student Center cafeteria.  Conversation buzzed around them, but the excitement emanating from one particular member of the group drove all that away, leaving no distractions from her good news.

 

"That's great, Jane," Daria said, and the smile on her face made her sincerity obvious.  "You really do deserve this."

 

"Yes, I do, don't I?" Jane responded, and turned to James, who was in the process of chewing a mouthful of the fries he had ordered with his hamburger.  She didn't say anything, just cocked an eyebrow.

 

"Oh, I totally agree," he said, after swallowing.  "That's fantastic, Jane.  Congratulations."  His response was not underwhelming, but there was no doubt that the news delighted him less than it did Daria.  Still, he had only known her for two years, as opposed to Daria's more than five, so Jane was willing to let it slide.  "Is this going to be some hoity-toity affair?  Black tie, and all that?"

 

"God, I hope not," Daria said with a grimace.  "Jane gets irritable in heels."

 

"I do not," Jane replied, with an indignance that was only partly feigned.  "Just because I lightly tossed them away when I was done with them didn't mean that I was irritable."

 

"Jane, the heel lodged an inch inside our wall!"  James did his best to suppress a giggle at Daria's reminder.

 

"All that means is that we live in a cheap apartment."  Jane turned to James, who was still swallowing a chuckle.  "And as for you, didn't you say that you were going to fix that hole sometime?"

 

"I'll get to it," he said.  "Besides, you haven't exactly offered to make it worth my while."

 

"Maybe after my show, I can afford to."

 

"What makes you think that it's money I want?"

 

"Listen, virgin-boy, money is all you could handle from me."

 

James's cheeks gained a slight red glow.

 

"So," Daria said emphatically, as she wondered which of the two of them to douse first with her cup of ice water, "black turtleneck and beret, then?"

 

"And if you could grow one of those pencil-thin mustaches, that would be great," Jane said, switching gears with the ease of long practice.

 

"I guess I'll have to stop waxing, then."

 

James's forehead hit the table.

 

"I did not need to hear that," he said, his voice muffled by the plastic tabletop.

 

"You'll recover," Daria said, "unless you've suffered severe psychological shock, in which case I'll get my mother to pay for your shrink bills."  She turned to Jane.  "When is the big event?"

 

"This Sunday night.  Can you make it?"

 

"It should be fine.  I have an assignment due Monday, but I have real problems if a few hours Sunday night make a difference.  You have anything, James?"

 

"Nothing I can't procrastinate away," he said, raising his head from the table.  "I'll be there."

 

"Great!" Jane said.  "It wouldn't be the same without the two of you.  Finally, Jane Lane will be exposed to the entire world!"

 

"Are you going to be holding the show at the Toppers Gentleman's Club down the street, then?" Daria said with an upturned lip.

 

"Well, not that exposed.  Not me, at least.  I will be showing that one picture of Eduardo . . . "

 

"Jane, I am so glad I never thought of dating you," James said with an exaggerated sigh.  "I would have just ended up another nude painting in your collection."

 

"Yes, but that would have been a small enough payment for the education I would have given you."  Jane wiggled her eyebrows at him with a smirk.  James kept silent.  Daria rolled her eyes, wondering if James would ever realize that he would never beat Jane at the innuendo game.

 

"Are there any non-obscene paintings you're planning to show?" Daria asked.

 

"My Eduardo painting isn't obscene, just . . . celebratory."

 

"I don't think I want to know what you were celebrating."

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

The Patterson Gallery was not large, just a few medium-sized rooms inside a converted Edwardian house, but every one of those rooms was filled with paintings clamoring for attention.  The artwork filled every corner with color, contrasting from the otherwise nondescript interior.  It was obvious to Daria that the keepers of this place saw this building as a tool for the preservation of the artwork it contained but that otherwise stayed humbly anonymous.  She rather liked the effect; there were no distractions, no ooh-ing and ah-ing over the house itself to divert attention away from the talents of the artists whose work lay within.

 

The other times Daria had come here with Jane, the place had been nearly empty, and they had been able to enjoy the displayed pieces in contemplative quiet.  Not so tonight.  People milled everywhere, filling every nook and cranny of the building, murmuring to each other - some presumably about the artwork on display, others no doubt about completely unrelated matters, as they were there solely to be seen - and carrying glasses of wine and little paper plates of refreshments.  I can't really fault them on that last, Daria thought, looking down at her hands, which held an identical set of items.  There had been a time when being confined within a crowd of this size, constantly forcing strangers into her personal space, would have seriously unnerved her; she wasn't that sensitive anymore, though she was still far from at ease.

 

At least it wasn't only strangers being forced into her personal space.  Jane was at present trapped within the circle of well-wishers and art-lovers that had surrounded her shortly after they had arrived, but James was standing just a few feet away from her.  He might have been even less comfortable than her, however, since he was being forced to contemplate Jane's rendering of Eduardo, and his face had turned decidedly red.  Daria didn't know whether to be glad or disappointed that Jane was not around to see him.

 

Looking around, through the crowd, Daria could see most of the works that Jane had on display.  Seeing the fruit of several years' work collected here, it was obvious that Jane's pre-college fears had been baseless; she had not lost her own style, her unique voice.  Rather, her style had been refined and enriched.  She had incorporated influences from throughout history and around the world, and had absorbed them into herself, to produce works that spoke her own words with a vastly expanded vocabulary.  Her styles were more varied now - though she still specialized in the surreal and bizarre paintings of the kind that she had produced in high school (now executed with a good bit more elegance and skill), there were also figure studies (including that one infamous nude), abstracts, and even a few landscapes (though landscapes far from the peaceful scenes popular in cheap hotels the world over).  Seeing this, Daria felt a swell of pride in her friend, a delight in all that Jane had accomplished; she really did deserve this.  And the best thing of all was that Daria knew that Jane enjoyed every minute of her work; she embraced every assignment and project with relish, eager to bring another expression of her inner self into the world.  Daria only wished that she could remember what that felt like herself.

 

After a few minutes, the crowd began to move on to another section of the building, leaving Daria and James more or less free.  Daria could just feel herself mentally expand into the open space, relishing the freedom, as James turned from the painting and walked over to her.

 

"Y'know, normally I like realism in art, but that's a bit too realistic for me."

 

"Actually," Daria responded with a straight face, "I'm pretty sure that's more Jane's fantasy than reality."

 

"Is this the voice of experience speaking?" James asked with both eyebrows halfway up his forehead.

 

"Just a basic knowledge of human anatomy."  James continued to stare at her.  "And I accidentally ran into him one time walking down our hall after a shower.  I think he and Jane thought I wasn't home.  At least, that better be what they thought."

 

"Oh, I see," he said, and turned to stare at another painting, this one an array of geometric shapes and abstract swirls.  After a minute, he tilted his head to the side and narrowed his eyes, then gave a small sigh.  James had once confided to Daria that he did not "get" most of Jane's art and that he felt a bit guilty about that; he had never told Jane herself that, and Daria had never broken his confidence, but she wondered at times if Jane had an idea of it.  If she did, though, she never brought it up.

 

"And here I was thinking that you had stolen another one of my boyfriends," Jane's voice said from behind her.  Daria and James both turned to see her grinning widely.

 

Maybe a little too widely.  Daria wondered exactly how many glasses of wine she had drank.  She deserves to celebrate, though; I just hope she doesn't regret it too much tomorrow.

 

"Isn't this great?" Jane said.  "I've already met all sorts of artists, gallery owners, and critics from all over the area.  Some of them are pretty cool, too.  There was this one creepy guy who kept trying to get me more wine, but other than that, it's been great.  Actually, he was kinda cute; when this thing is over with, I might look around a bit to see if he's still here . . . "  She trailed off with a lopsided grin.

 

"Glad to see you're enjoying yourself," Daria replied with only a hint of sarcasm.  "Everyone seems to be enjoying your work.  I think you're a real hit, Jane."  Her mouth stretched in a genuine, completely un-ironic smile.

 

"Daria's right, Jane," James chimed in.  "It's a great start to your artistic career."

 

"And to my ultimate scheme of world domination," Jane replied.  "Soon, everyone here will be enslaved by the subliminal messages I've hidden in all my paintings, and will march forth to conquer the world on my command.  Don't worry; both of you will get high-ranking positions in the New Order."

 

"I'll be happy with Chief Executioner, thank you," Daria said.

 

"Spymaster Chief for me, thank you," James interjected.  "And to get a headstart on that, I think I'm going to check out some of the other artists here, if the two of you don't mind."

 

"Good.  I expect a full report on my competition."

 

"Yes, ma'am," James said as he walked away.

 

"I thought you didn't believe in artistic competition," Daria told Jane.

 

"Well, I suppose I have learned a few things in art school," Jane replied with a sly grin.  "And speaking of the cutthroat artistic world, I have someone to show you."  Jane guided Daria through the crowd into another room, which looked to be the new epicenter for the crowd.  She pointed out one man in particular - tall, slim, with a thoughtful expression on his face.  At present, he was standing in front of a large cubist-inflected work, writing in a small notepad.  "Do you remember me telling you about Daniel Dotson, one of my instructors at that art colony I spent the summer at?"

 

"The poseur who nailed more of his students than his paper plates?  Is that him?"

 

"Nope.  That's Franklin Cardonelli, an art critic for the Globe.  Daniel had a showing here in town about a year ago, and Cardonelli completely ripped him to shreds.  He's the only critic I've ever read who saw through that man's bullshit and called him on it."  The look in Jane's eyes was pure admiration.

 

"So, he's your new hero?" she asked.

 

"Not 'hero', exactly, but definitely a great guy.  And he's here to review my work; I can't think of anyone who is more likely to get it."  Jane was practically hopping in excitement.  "I have to go say 'hi' to him."

 

"Jane, are you sure this is a good idea?  You don't want to look like you're kissing up."

 

"I'll be calm.  I just want to meet him."  Without another word, she strode over to Cardonelli, with Daria doing her best to keep pace behind.

 

"Mr. Cardonelli, I'm Jane Lane," she said when she reached him, sticking out her hand with gusto.  Cardonelli took it, looking a bit surprised at this new presence at his side.

 

"Oh, yes, Ms. Lane.  One of our guests of honor.  It's a pleasure to meet you."  He shook her hand firmly, with a pleasant but non-committal look on his face.

 

"Really, it's my pleasure," Jane said.  "I had to shake the hand of the man who called Daniel Dotson a 'pretentious, vapid, laughable excuse for an artist'".

 

Cardonelli laughed heartily.

 

"Glad to meet a fan," he replied.  "That review certainly didn't win me many in the artist community."

 

"I had to spend a summer with that blowhard.  Knocking him from the sidelines was one of the few real bits of fun I had."  The two of them shared a laugh, and Daria coughed discreetly.  "Oh, I'm sorry.  Mr. Cardonelli, this is my best friend, Daria Morgendorffer."

 

"Good to meet you," he said, shaking her hand, "and please, call me Frank.  I haven't been over to your room yet, Ms. Lane, but I'm looking forward to seeing the work of a woman with such obviously good taste."

 

"We'll get out of your way, then, so you can get to it sooner," Jane said, and the two of them walked away.

 

"That went well," Jane said, her smile splitting her face.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

The next day, Jane showed up for lunch at Raft waving a copy of the Globe in the air.

 

"Finally get a response to your personal ad?" Daria quipped with a sly grin.

 

"You mean, 'Single white female seeks same for fun with power tools'?", James said, picking it up.

 

"My review is here!" Jane declared, ignoring the both of them.  "My review is here!"  She was sitting down at the table now, but she looked as though it would only take the slightest encouragement for her to be bobbing up and down on her ankles.  Her face was flushed, and her breathing slightly heavy.

 

She must have run halfway here, Daria thought.  It must have been a great review.  She didn't even pause to outdo James in their innuendo game.

 

"Are you famous now?" James asked.  "Will we need to win a contest or something to sit with you from now on?"

 

"I don't know," Jane replied, calming slightly.  "I haven't read it yet.  I wanted to wait until we were all together before the big unveiling."

 

"Let's have it, then," Daria said, curious and a little bit worried.  She hoped Jane wouldn't be too hurt if the review was not wholly positive.  She never usually worried about critics, but she was rather worked up by this one.  She was more alarmed when Jane handed her the paper.

 

"Here, you're the reader.  Make it a real event."

 

Feeling the weight of four eyes pressing down on her, Daria nervously opened the paper and found the arts section.  Then, Frank's review.  Her mouth went dry and her heart sank.

 

"Well, what does he say?"  Daria couldn't bear to meet Jane's widened eyes or answer her question.  "C'mon, Daria, you had to have read it by now."

 

"Jane," she said, her voice croaking a bit.  "I don't think you want to see this."

 

"I can handle it, Daria.  I've had some pretty harsh teachers.  Tell me what it says."

 

Daria tilted the paper towards her body slightly, in an unconscious attempt to protect it from Jane's grasp.  It was a useless gesture, since Jane snatched it from Daria's hand before she could blink.  Jane's eyes scanned the article, and with every line, she looked as though a heavier weight had been pressed down upon her shoulders.

 

"Jane Lane's work is immature and amateurish, the product of a deluded child pretending to be an artist . . . instead of confronting the viewer, it merely seeks to shock and alarm, exchanging true enlightenment for cheap emotion . . . Lane's willingness to experiment with different styles only adds to her work's lack of focus . . . she's going to have to work three times as hard to have even half a chance of getting my attention again . . . "  The paper dropped into her lap, having slid from fingers gone slack.

 

For a few moments, there was silence, all three of them struggling to absorb what they had just heard.  Then both Daria and James began speaking, simultaneously.

 

"Jane, I'm so sorry . . . " Daria started.

 

"That guy's just a know-it-all jerk . . . " James said over her.

 

"What does he know about your work?  He's not even an artist, just a critic."

 

"Those who can, do; those who can't, critique.  Right?"

 

"You don't need people like him.  He's just trying to make himself look better."

 

"I bet you get offers on every painting at that show.  He'll have to eat his words."

 

"Guys, really," Jane broke in, her voice rough and guttural, and the two of them slammed their mouths shut.  Her eyes were darting back and forth between the paper and the surrounding tables, never alighting on either of her two friends.  "I'm OK.  It's just one man's opinion.  Just one bastard's opinion."  She paused for a moment, staring down at her food and bending her plastic fork over her fingers until it was almost to the breaking point.  "I don't think I have much of an appetite today, and I've got some stuff to do anyway.  I'll see you later."  She stood up and walked away from the table, the paper falling unnoticed to the floor beneath her.  James stood up to follow her, but Daria pulled him back to his seat.

 

"I'm going to see if she's alright," he said in protest, shocked that Daria would stop him in his mission of mercy.

 

"Do you really not know the answer to that?" she said.  "Trust me, she wants to be alone right now.  Hopefully, she'll be feeling better tonight; you can come by then to check on her.  If she's still in the dumps, we'll both talk to her.  But not right now.  She's probably going running, since she doesn't have class for the rest of the day, and there's no way you could keep up.  Which is exactly how she wants it."

 

James nodded in understanding, or at least acceptance, and the two of them went back to their meal.  Neither of them really wanted to discuss the situation any more, but to talk of anything else seemed absurd, so the rest of lunch was passed in silence.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

Daria arrived back at the apartment around eight that night, after a long day of classes and a study session with some of her fellow Journalism students.  It was Jane's night to cook - an event Daria usually looked forward to, since years of living nearly alone had gifted Jane with cooking skills that Daria absolutely did not possess.  But the table was bare and the kitchen obviously unused.  It wasn't like Jane to forget or slack off about this, and Daria's worry, which she had pressed to the back of her mind for most of the day as she got her necessities accomplished, now hit her full force again.  I had really hoped she might be feeling better by now, just shaken it off and gone on.  If she hasn't, she must be really hurting.  The door to Jane's bedroom was closed, but the light was on and Daria could hear motion within.  I think she's probably been alone long enough.

 

"Jane?  Are you there?" Daria called as she knocked on the closed door.

 

"Yo, amiga, come on in."  The voice was muffled coming through the wood, but other than that, it sounded pretty normal.  Maybe Jane was doing alright after all.

 

Opening the door, Daria could see Jane at her easel, working intently on a new painting, her brush sliding rapidly over the canvas, the tip of her tongue peeking out from the corner of her mouth.

 

"Keep that door open," Jane said as Daria walked in.  "Even with the window, the fumes were starting to get to me in here."

 

"So, were you planning on eating tonight?" Daria asked, starting out lighthearted to try to feel out Jane's condition.  "Or are the paint fumes enough for you?"

 

"Dammit, today is Monday, isn't it?" Jane said, as her brush never stopped moving.  "Sorry, Daria, I forgot all about it.  I've been pretty busy all day, and I haven't even stopped to think about food, or anything else.  I'll make it up to you later, but tonight you'll have to do for yourself.  I've got too much I have to do."  Her eyes never left the canvas, drilling holes into the cloth and wood before them.  She's more intense about it than usual, Daria thought, but she is painting, and that has to be a good sign.  After lunch, I was afraid she wouldn't be interested in working at all for a while.  Jane, not paint?  How foolish can you be, Morgendorffer?

 

"So, what is this?  Another class assignment?"

 

"Not exactly.  Patrick was out of his office today, but I called Ms. Patterson after lunch, and she told me that any work I complete before my showing ends in a month, I can switch for one of the paintings already on display.  This is my introduction to the art world, and I want my best work out there."

 

"Jane," Daria said, her worry increasing, "just because Franklin Cardonelli said . . . "

 

"Daria, this isn't about him, not just him anyway," Jane said, interrupting her sharply.  "I know that's how the 'real world' is going to work.  Just because Frank's a bastard who stabs his friends and admirers in the back - " she punctuated her words by stabbing her brush down at her canvas, and as she continued to speak her strokes became stronger and more aggressive, her choice of colors harsher "- doesn't mean he's completely wrong.  Some of my work is a bit . . . underdeveloped.  But I'm going to show all of them what Jane Lane is capable of.  I'm going to give them artwork that will make them stand back in awe of what a human soul is capable of feeling.  I'm going to make that son of a bitch Cardonelli eat his words."  With this last statement, she slashed a broad red line across her painting, like the wound left by a heavy knife.

 

"Jane, are you sure you don't want to talk about this?"  Daria realized that she had actually stepped back a stride, startled.

 

"Daria, I'm fine, really," Jane replied, the angle of her eyes never changing.  "Yes, I'm a bit angry.  So what?  I think I have a right to be.  But I need to do this anyway, and I'm not going to be able to rest until I have work that will stand up to any criticism.  I know you're worried, but you don't need to be.  Just let me work."  This last was obviously a dismissal, from the conversation if not from the room.  But it still hurt.  Then Daria's stomach rumbled.  Well, cooking and eating will be a distraction from all this, anyway.  She walked out of Jane's room.  Jane waved a goodbye with her brush, but remained focused on the painting.  She had not looked at Daria once.

 

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

Daria quietly fumed as she ate her sandwich.  At lunch, she had been too much in shock to fully register the effect of Cardonelli's harsh words on her friend, but now that she had seen the results up close - the pain and anger in Jane's stance and words, hidden behind a very thin smokescreen of determined work - she was furious at the man.  It was one thing to not enjoy Jane's work, or even to think it lacking in talent, but that review had been cruel beyond any excuse of criticism, to the point of obviously intending to cause pain.  And he had been so friendly in person, so personable; Daria could hardly believe the review had been written by the same person.  Maybe he does this to everyone, sets them up and then lowers the boom, just to satisfy some selfish need to make himself feel important.  I wish I had read his reviews of the other artists, but I don't have the paper anymore.  She felt personally betrayed, and she knew if she felt it, than Jane must feel it double.  The bread and ham tasted like ashes in her mouth, and she chewed and swallowed only out of habit, her mind otherwise occupied.

 

A knock at the door interrupted her internal tirade, bringing her earlier instructions to James to the forefront of her memory.  That must be him.  Well, Jane certainly isn't feeling better, but good luck with talking to her.

 

James strode in when she opened the door, and wasted no time getting down to business.

 

"How is she?"

 

"Angry.  Bitter.  Frustrated.  And very busy."  Daria waved to the closed door leading to Jane's bedroom.  "She got permission to replace some of her paintings at the gallery with new works, and she's apparently been working on them all day.  I wouldn't try to talk to her, not unless you want your head bitten off."

 

James grimaced.

 

"I'll take your word for that, though your head still looks intact."

 

"Fortunately, I had a spare, though I feel like this one's going to explode.  I can't believe what that bastard said.  Well, maybe I can believe it, but it still infuriates me to see him dismiss Jane so casually.  She doesn't deserve that."

 

"Yeah, he was a real jerk for saying it that way, but did you ever think . . . "  James trailed off with a glance at Jane's door.

 

"Yes?" Daria prompted sharply.  She wasn't in the mood for verbal games or vacillation right now.

 

"I want to talk to you about this," James replied, "but I'd rather do it outside, in the hall."

 

"Okay," Daria said, puzzled and a bit annoyed.  Whatever he's going to say, he doesn't want Jane to hear it.

 

Once outside their apartment door, James hemmed and hawed for a few seconds, avoiding Daria's eyes and shifting his weight from foot to foot.  Daria was about to break in to this O'Neill-esque display when he finally spoke.

 

"Daria, you know that I've never 'gotten' Jane's art," he began, finally looking her in the eyes, though his voice still had the slightest hint of a tremor, "and I've always felt a bit guilty about it.  I've always assumed that I was the one at fault, that there was some flaw in my perception that kept me from understanding her work."  He took a deep breath, and plowed onward.  "But did it ever occur to you that this Frank guy might be right?  That, maybe, the reason I don't understand Jane's art is because she's just not very good?"

 

Daria couldn't believe her ears.  Here was this man, her good friend for almost three years (with a few interruptions), taking the side of a man who had hurt her other friend, who was his friend as well.  How could he just dismiss Jane like that?

 

"I can't believe you just said that," she said, incredulity making her voice rise.  "How can you say that?  Jane's your friend."

 

"Yes, and I think she's a really great person," he replied, "but that doesn't mean that I have to think she's a great artist.  They're not one and the same."

 

"It's not that simple," Daria said, hoping she could get James to understand the ramifications to Jane of what he had just said.  "You can't separate the two out like that.  Jane's art isn't just something she does; it's part of who she is.  Rejecting it is like rejecting her."

 

"I knew this would happen," James said, halfway to himself, his voice rough with frustration.  "It's so typical of you.  You can't take any criticism of Jane, even when you know it's not personal.  Don't you think that's pretty condescending of you, Daria, assuming that Jane can't handle knowing that a friend of hers doesn't think she's this great artiste?"  He waved his hand in the air for emphasis.

 

"I'm not saying that Jane can't handle it," Daria replied, her anger now shifting fully onto James.  "But I've seen how the harsh words of a man she admired hurt her.  I don't want you to hurt her too."

 

"Daria, I shouldn't have to be her fan to be her friend!"

 

"If you are her friend, you will respect her art because it is a part of her, if for no other reason.  And you won't jump to the conclusion that she's a bad artist based on the word of a single self-important jerk."  She stepped back, trying to get control of her raging, confused emotions.  She didn't want to be angry at James, no matter how wrong he was, but he wasn't giving her any reasons to calm down, either.  "Oh, you don't understand."  That was the only thing she could think of to calm herself down.  Unfortunately, she said it aloud.

 

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"  James finally lost his own cool.  "Do you think that, just because I'm not a creative person myself, that I can't understand your high-and-mighty world?  For that matter, when was the last time you were creative?  When was the last time you wrote anything that wasn't for some class assignment or another?  It's been over a year.  You haven't even written any more of those ridiculous Melody Powers stories, and it's not like those took some great reserve of creative talent!"

 

It took a few seconds for Daria to respond, so unexpected was this last salvo.

 

"You . . . you told me you liked those stories," was all she managed to get out around her own hurt and shock.

 

"I was being nice!"

 

"I don't need you to be 'nice' to me like that!"  Daria stamped over and opened the door, then turned towards James one last time.  "Screw you!"

 

The door slammed hard behind her.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

The sound of a power drill running across the hall pulled Daria out of a shallow and troubled sleep.  Groggy, she rolled over and strained to focus her eyes on the oversized illuminated numbers of the digital clock beside her bed.  It took a couple of moments before her softened brain processed the meaning of the clock's readout.  It's past four in the morning!  I can't believe Jane would get up this early.  Has she stayed up all night?  Her light was still on when I went to bed.  The drill started whirring at an even higher pitch, becoming even more effective at penetrating the doors between them.  Why is she even working on a sculpture?  I thought that gallery only took paintings.  Normally, she would get up and complain - normally, there would be no need, since Jane was good about not disturbing her sleep - but if this was what Jane needed to work through her anger, Daria decided that she would let it go.  This time.  There's only so much sleep I can lose.

 

Getting back to sleep was pretty much out of the question, but the bed was still comfortable and cozy, so Daria just lay there, eyes closed and body motionless, but still awake.  She couldn't remember her dreams, and she had a feeling that she should be glad of that, but her mind still felt unsettled.  James's words, the ones that had been the final straw in his earlier argument with her, echoed through her head.  When was the last time you were creative?  When was the last time you wrote anything that wasn't for some class assignment or another?  It's been over a year.  The horrible thing was, he was right.  About that, at least.  She hadn't produced a single original work in over a year, something that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable.  She just hadn't felt like writing.  At first, she had justified it to herself by saying that she was busy, that her assignments were taking up all her time and energy, and that she would get back to writing again when the workload let up.  But even then, she had known, deep down, that wasn't true; if she had enough time to watch Sick, Sad World marathons, she had enough time to write.  But she had deluded herself enough to not feel too bad about the loss.  And, eventually, even the need to fool herself had faded, and writing didn't even enter her head, except as a fleeting thought every now and then.  A flicker of an idea that she might feel like sitting down and creating again someday.  But that "someday" was always far in the future.  Because, in the present, she just didn't feel like it.

 

What she did feel was trapped.  Trapped by her chosen profession, by her Journalism major.  Every day, she worked to learn how to tell other people's stories, how to accurately convey other people's ideas.  Every day, she learned how to write, but never how to create.  And she hated it; she hated it fervently.  She had for some time, but she had refused to admit it to herself.  And as she had worked on those assignments, as writing became more of a chore for her instead of a pleasure, she had less and less of a desire to create her own work, to write for herself.  School had simply leached that desire away from her, so slowly and subtly that she had never noticed it going.  Now, all that was left was a hole where her love of writing, her creative heart, had once been.  And she could feel the rest of her being slowly sucked in to that void.

 

But I was creative once, she thought, almost desperately.  She forced herself out of bed and over to her desk, shuffling through one of the drawers until she found what she was looking for.  A plain, spiral-bound notebook, several years old, its age betrayed by frayed edges and bent corners.  Inside it were pages and pages of her old Melody Powers stories, the spy satires she had been writing since high school, that she had once been so proud of.  So proud of that she had showed them to James shortly after they had met.  He said that he enjoyed them, that they were a lot of fun, she thought bitterly.  She opened the first page, and began to read.

 

By the time she had finished, the sun was starting to cast its glow over the pre-dawn sky outside her window.  She didn't notice, though, as she had come to one unavoidable conclusion.  The stories were ridiculous.  She could detect improvements over time, of course, but even the installments she had written after coming to Raft were nothing but a mˇlange of sex-and-violence clichˇs.  Even as satire, they didn't work; they were too unsubtle, too obviously clever.  She would be ashamed to show these to anyone now.  But even then, I knew these weren't my best work.  They were just a diversion, something for fun.  I've done better than this.

 

She flipped through the pile of papers a bit further, until she came across something she had put a good deal more time and effort into - her story for Musings.  But she couldn't even bring herself to finish this one.  An intelligent flesh-eating virus?  What was I thinking?!  Who would possibly want to read this?  She snorted as she answered her own question.  Disaffected teenagers, that's who.  Exactly the same person who wrote it.  Even the style was off - too self-consciously literate, trying too hard to be "real literature".  Is this the best that I can do?  Was quitting so much of a loss after all?

 

She sat there, deep in thought, until the sun peeked into her window, signaling the start of her day.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

Daria sat at their usual Tuesday lunchtime spot, quiet and alone.  She had shown up more out of habit than anything.  After their argument, she wasn't sure if James was going to come or not, and as far as she knew, Jane had still not left her room.  Daria had been giving Jane a wide berth, as per her own request, but she was starting to doubt if that was the wisest course of action.  It wasn't like Jane to hole up for so long, and Daria was beginning to worry that this project of hers was moving beyond a simple desire to put her best foot forward (if in fact it had ever been so), and into something more disturbing.  The only question was, how long should she wait before she took some action about it?  And what should that action be, when Jane had already made it clear she wanted no interruptions?

 

So, for now, she had no one with which to share her meal, which was just as well, since she wasn't that hungry to begin with.  She had come from her morning class, and her stomach churned just thinking about it.  Normally, she didn't mind it, though neither did she love it, but after her reflections early that morning, she found herself actively hating it.  She could no longer deny to herself her extreme dissatisfaction with her chosen field, and she had sat through class resenting her presence there, resenting its very existence.  Which wasn't really the fault of the class itself.  Had she truly wanted to be a journalist, Daria was certain she would have found it fascinating.  But she wanted to be a writer, a creator of stories and not just a reporter of them, and as such she did not belong.  Her first year at Raft, she had been a Creative Writing major, and then . . .

 

But that wasn't even worth thinking about.  She had made her choice, and she'd had her reasons, and here near the end of her junior year, it was too late to turn back.  She would stick it out until she graduated, and then see what happened.  But if she did that, would she ever even consider writing again?

 

Suddenly, Daria could sense a presence standing next to her.  She looked up in mild surprise to see James, lunch tray in hand, and a shy smile on his face.

 

"Hey, Daria.  Do you mind if I join you?"

 

Her anger did not come rushing back at seeing him, as she had feared it would, and she waved him to the seat across from her, relieved to have the chance to talk this over.

 

"Thanks," he said.  "Sorry for being late, but . . . well, you know . . ."  He dropped his tray onto the table, and then completely ignored it.  "I think you were the one who initiated apologies after our last . . . disagreement, so I guess it's my turn," he continued as he settled into the seat.

 

"I'm glad you showed up," Daria said.  "I have some things I want to say to you, too."

 

"Okay, but me first."

 

"Far be it from me to rob you of the moral high ground," Daria replied with a small twitch of her lips.  "Go ahead and be the bigger man."

 

"Thanks, I think."  James paused, unsure of how to start.  "Well, I have a couple of things to discuss, actually.  Um . . . I suppose I should say something about Jane, first.  I still think that I can be friends with Jane without thinking that she's a good artist, and I know you disagree, but don't you think that should be Jane's call?"

 

"Absolutely."

 

"What?" James said, obviously not expecting such rapid agreement.

 

"James, I'm not unreasonable.  Well, not usually, anyway.  I was angry at Frank Cardonelli yesterday, and you just got in the middle of that.  I still stand by what I said, but not the way I said it.  I doubt that you can be a good friend to Jane without accepting her art, not because I think that Jane won't let you, but because Jane's art is so much a part of who she is that to disparage it is to disparage her.  I don't see how you can be friends with that much of a disconnect between you."  She sighed in resignation.  "But, I know you really like her.  And if anyone deserves the chance to prove me wrong in this, it's you."

 

"Thanks for the permission," he said, only partly sarcastically.  "That really means a lot to me.  But what really concerns me is this: can you and I be friends if I don't think Jane is a great artist?"

 

There was a pause as Daria seriously considered the question.  She knew this was important, that this issue - however simple it appeared on the surface - was going to be much trickier than it sounded.  How do I really feel about that?  How do I feel about someone who has a different, if not maybe lower, opinion of Jane than I?  Where do my loyalties lie here?  Where should they lie?

 

The moment stretched on, and James began to chew on the inside of his cheek, while Daria sat in contemplation.

 

"We can," she finally said.  "I know you mean no insult to her, no matter what your opinions about her art.  But if it ever does come down to a choice between you and her - "  James held up a hand to stop her.

 

"Please, Daria, don't," he said, his voice slightly strained.  "I know what you're going to say, and I understand it, but I really don't want to hear it out loud."

 

The two of them were quiet for a moment, by some tacit agreement.  Daria hoped she was wrong, that this wouldn't come back to haunt her later.  She'd been caught between two people before, two people who both meant something important to her, though in different ways, and she never wanted to go through that again.  Finally, James broke the silence.

 

"That's one thing out of the way, I suppose.  But it wasn't really an apology, so I think the floor is still mine.  Daria, I'm sorry I lost my temper with the whole 'you don't understand' thing.  I know you didn't mean it the way I took it.  Did you?"

 

Daria shook her head, curious as to where he was going with this.

 

"Yeah, of course not," James continued.  "You're not that much of a jerk."  He grinned.  "You would think that, after all this time with the two of you, I would have developed a thicker skin.  I suppose I'm just living up to this."  He grabbed a forelock of his red hair.  "But you hit me in a sensitive spot, even though you didn't mean to.  I've always loved art in all its forms - literature, music, painting, and all of that - but I've never been able to create anything.  I try and try, and nothing comes.  I hate that; I feel like there's some part of life that I'm missing, and I'm something less than a whole person because of it."

 

"James," Daria broke in, "being able to create is a great thing, I won't deny that, but it's not everything.  You have plenty of your own gifts; it's not like you're a football player or anything."  James chuckled, but the smile quickly lost out to a somber expression.

 

"I know that, and I value the things that I can do, but the joy of creation is only part of it.  I'm a Political Science major.  Tell me, how many political scientists can you name off the top of your head?  How many from a century ago?  Two?"

 

"Machiavelli.  Thomas More.  John Locke.  Thomas Hobbes."

 

"Yes, and what do they all have in common?  They all wrote books, books you're just as likely to read in an English class as a Poli Sci one."

 

"James, you love Political Science.  How many times have you shown up here, tripping over your own words in your eagerness to talk about some discussion you just had in class?  We've spent hours discussing the issues you've brought up.  We've gone all night before.  The only time I've ever fallen asleep in class was because you kept me up too late discussing Plato's ideas on democracy versus a benevolent dictatorship.  I'm not complaining.  I wouldn't have done it if I didn't enjoy it.  And you certainly did."  Daria couldn't help feeling a stab of envy at the memories of James's enthusiasm.

 

"More than you, probably.  I wouldn't trade our discussions for anything.  But there's something all my love of the subject can't give me.  Daria, art is what makes you immortal.  It's what makes you remembered.  'So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.'"

 

"Shakespeare's eighteenth sonnet?"

 

"Yeah, that's the one.  'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day', and so on.  You'd think a Shakespeare aficionado like myself could come up with a more obscure quote, but this one fits what I'm saying perfectly.  So long as his art endures, he endures."

 

"Actually, what he was saying was that the subject of his art would live forever," Daria pointed out.

 

"But surely that implies that the author survives as well," James replied.  "In fact, doesn't the creator gain more immortality than the subject?  We don't even know for certain who Shakespeare was writing about, but we know about him.  But a century from now, no one will care about what I do; no one's going to be quoting me."

 

Daria sighed inwardly, not certain of how to deal with this, and not sure she could help her friend when her own artistic world was in turmoil.  Either friend.  All she could think of was brutal honesty, which is what she was best at anyway.

 

"James, art doesn't ensure anything.  Yes, we know about Shakespeare, but how many of his contemporaries do we know about?  You could probably count on one hand the number of great Greek playwrights we know about today, and there were certainly more than that.  There are probably many more great artists we've forgotten than we know about.  There are other ways to be remembered, though."

 

"Yeah," James replied, though he hadn't yet given up, "but is there a better, more satisfying way?  How do you want to be remembered, Daria?"

 

"My grisly serial killings."

 

"Daria the Ripper.  It has a certain ring to it," James said with a grin.  "But, seriously, Daria, what do you want to be remembered for?  You have to have thought about it, especially since your father's death."

 

"Of course, I would like to be remembered for my work."  Whatever that may be.  "But that might not happen.  And since you brought up my dad, I don't remember him for his work.  I remember him for who he was, good and bad, for the effect he had on my life.  I remember him for loving me, even if he didn't always know how to express it in a normal, sane way.  I remember him for being there for me as best as he knew how.  And he didn't have to create a single piece of art to do it."

 

"That's surprisingly sentimental of you, Daria."

 

"I trust you won't spread it around."

 

"But you completely skirted the issue."

 

"Because I don't have any easy answers for you."  Daria suddenly felt very tired.  "I could say something like 'your friendships and relationships are your art'.  I could claim that your creations are the way you impact the lives of those around you.  I could even say that's just as valid a form of art as writing or music or painting or whatever.  But all that's total bullshit, and both of us know it.  You're right, you don't have much talent for creation, and nothing I say is going to change that.  So I can only see two options for you."

 

"And those are?"

 

"For one, you can work the rest of your life trying to create, and either get better or really frustrated."

 

"Trust me, Daria, it would be the latter.  That's the experience of twenty-one years talking.  What's the second?"

 

"Give it up."

 

"What?"

 

"Give it up.  Accept that you're not an artist of any sort and learn to live with it.  Get your self-worth and immortality from something else.  Find your satisfaction in your love for Political Science.  Be realistic."

 

For a few seconds, James just stared at her, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape.  Daria knew that he was trying to control his emotions and answer her calmly.  Finally, he managed to speak again.

 

"That's . . . very easy for you to say, Daria.  You succeed at everything you try to do.  I've never known you to fail at anything you set your mind to.  Not to dismiss your advice, but I don't think you have the experience at failure necessary to tell me to just give up."

 

"James, believe me, I have experienced failure, including failure in art.  Did I ever tell you about when I submitted a story to a local literary magazine?"

 

"I think you might have mentioned it before," he said after some thought, "but I don't remember you going into any details."

 

"To put it shortly, I sent the story in with pretty high hopes.  Jane didn't think it was my best work, but Tom was impressed, and I chose to believe him."

 

"I'll bet he was," James said with a tight face.  "It's been my experience that boyfriends don't usually say things that might get them on their girlfriend's bad side."  Daria knew that James didn't like to hear about Tom, for reasons both of them knew but neither ever mentioned, so instead of challenging his comment, she merely moved on to the next part of her recounting.

 

"The magazine rejected it, and I was pretty crushed for a while, but I got over it, with a little help from Dad.  I hadn't really thought much about it recently, not until last night.  I went back and read over it again, and it turns out that they were right to reject it.  It wasn't a mature work, not at all, though it was probably my best work at the time."

 

"I'm sorry to hear that, Daria."

 

"Well, it gets worse, at least from my perspective.  I read over my old Melody Powers stories as well, and you were right; they are ridiculous.  I look at them now, and I wonder how I could ever have been so proud of them."  Daria's eyes dropped to the tabletop before them, and her smile was self-depreciating.

 

"Yes, your early work was a bit immature," James said, concerned now for his friend instead of himself, "but you've improved considerably.  The last stories you wrote were absolutely phenomenal, compelling and exciting.  They would have been accepted by that magazine, I'm sure."

 

"Yes, I know.  I realized that last night as well, after reeling in shock for a while over those other discoveries.  I don't have any doubts about my abilities as a writer.  I know I'm good."

 

"But you stopped writing.  Why?"

 

Daria felt a headache forming behind her lenses.  She didn't feel much like talking about this yet, but something told her that she should, that she needed to get this out to someone, and her only other option was otherwise occupied.  Taking a breath, she launched into her thoughts.

 

"Do you remember why I switched my major from Creative Writing to Journalism?"

 

"You wanted to make a difference, you said."

 

"Yes, that's what I told you and Jane.  That's even what I started telling myself.  But it wasn't true, not wholly true, at least."  As she talked, flashback memories raced through her mind, and she felt as though she was almost reliving the pain and uncertainty.  "It started shortly after my dad died.  His death prompted me to do a lot of thinking, re-evaluating my life."

 

"Yeah, I remember," James said.  "If it hadn't, I wouldn't be here with you now."

 

"Yes, but that was only part of it."  Daria's voice was very carefully level.  "After the initial shock blew over and life started to return to some semblance of normality, I started to think about other matters.  For the first time in my life, I realized - really understood - that my parents weren't going to be there forever to catch me if I fell.  I had always thought of myself as independent, but that was because it was safe to be that way.  I knew I had a backup.  As much as my parents got on my nerves, they would never abandon me.  But when I began to seriously think about my parents no longer being in the picture, I realized that I couldn't think like a kid anymore.  It was time for me to grow up a little more.  And the first thing that entailed was thinking more practically about my future.  Even though I loved it, I did not see Creative Writing as a very practical field of study.  If I was going to pay my bills, I needed something a bit more dependable.  Hence, Journalism.  It was close enough to my first choice for me to enjoy it - or so I thought at the time anyway - but was something that could land me a job much more easily."  Her tone turned wry.  "Little did I know it would suck out of me the very thing I hoped to preserve by choosing it."

 

"Daria, I'm so sorry," James said quietly.

 

"So, you see, James, you're not the only person who's failed in their art."

 

"No, Daria!"  James's voice jumped from quiet empathy to firm determination in a moment.  "You can't just give up like that.  You can do something I've been attempting my whole life without success, and you love it as much as I would.  I can't let you just give it up.  Rage, rage against the dying of the light!  Daria, when was the last time you raged at anything other than me?"

 

"Cardonelli.  That professor who gave me a 'B' because he didn't like the subject of my paper.  That new traffic light right off-campus that always turns red at just the wrong time . . . "

 

"Okay, okay, fine, you get angry.  But that's not the same as passion, and you know it."

 

"All my real passion is gone, James.  School's drained it out of me.  I never really knew how to use it right anyway.  A few times, I actually used it to accomplish something, but most of the time, it just went into sarcasm.  Fun, but not a very useful emotion."  Even as she said it, Daria could feel that it was true.  Her body and soul felt drained and limp, on a much deeper level than last night or the current situation with Jane could account for.  The only passion she had left was the passion of habit, of behaving the way she always had because it was the way she always had.  Was this a chicken and egg conundrum: had she lost her passion because she had stopped writing, or had she stopped writing because she had lost her passion?

 

"You told me to give it up," James was saying.  "Fine, maybe I should.  But you shouldn't.  I know that spirit is inside of you somewhere; your loyalty to Jane proves that you still have some real passion left.  I'll take your advice if you'll take mine - I'll give up worrying about my lack of creativity, if you'll start using yours and writing again.  What do you say?"

 

He stuck out his hand impulsively, and Daria stared at it for a while.  Could it really be as simple as that?  Just start to write again, and everything will be OK?  Life is never that easy, I know.  But could it be a start?

 

"I'll . . . think about it," she responded.  And she would, she knew.  She didn't feel ready yet to commit herself, but she would not toss aside this simple lifeline without a second thought.  But she first had to know if there was anything left to grab hold of.

 

"I suppose I can accept that, for now."  He grinned in real amusement.  "I can't remember the last time a simple apology has turned this complex.  I think I've actually built up an appetite.  What about you?  You didn't get anything."

 

"I didn't feel like it at the time; I was too frustrated and worried.  I'm still pretty worried about Jane."

 

"Is she still working?" James asked, while picking around at his food, trying to find something that still appeared appetizing cold.  "I was going to ask how she was, before we got distracted.  Is she feeling better?"

 

"I don't know," Daria said, her concern for Jane coming to the fore, overriding her concern for herself.  "I've been giving her space, since she all but shoved me out of her room last night.  But I don't think she slept at all; she didn't eat supper last night, and as far as I know, didn't get breakfast this morning."

 

"That can't be good."

 

"Not unless she's planning on pursuing a career as a supermodel.  I think the time has come for a friendly intervention.  We'll kidnap her, and take her out for some real pizza, not this cafeteria crap."

 

"How about Pinocchio's?  I've been craving some good brick-oven pizza."

 

"Let's go."

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

Jane was not in her room, but she had left a legacy behind.  Artwork - paintings and sculptures - was scattered all around, littering the floor so that Daria and James could barely walk without causing damage.  Daria had known Jane to be messy, but never like this, and never with her art; that she treated with kid gloves.  And, most peculiarly of all, they were all unfinished.  Paintings half-sketched out, sculptures only partly assembled.  It looked as though she had started each piece, only to become frustrated and toss it aside to start anew, and then just repeated the same process.  It looked like an artistic junkyard.

 

"Oh, my . . . " was all James could say, looking around.

 

"This isn't good," Daria responded, knowing she was stating the obvious but not certain what else to say.

 

"What do you think we should do?" James asked.  "Should we wait for her?  Should we just leave her alone?"

 

"No, we can't just let her be anymore," Daria said, regretting that she had left her alone for so long as it was.  "No matter what she might have said she wanted, if she's treating her work like this, then she's not dealing with this on her own.  I have to talk to her, the sooner the better."

 

"Do you know how to find her?"

 

"I have an idea.  And if I'm wrong, I have a few others as well.  I've got to do something I usually avoid at all costs - move quickly."

 

"Great!  Let's go."  James was moving as fast as he could towards the exit - which, given the debris, was not all that fast - when Daria took hold of his arm to stop him.

 

"No, James," she said firmly.  "Not you.  This is something I need to talk about with her alone.  You'll just . . . get in the way."  James looked hurt for a moment, then slumped in resigned agreement, and nodded wordlessly.

 

"What you do, do quickly," he said with an ironic grin.  Daria grimaced.

 

"Let's hope this turns out slightly better than the last time somebody spoke those words."

 

Then she left, wasting no more time on banter.

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

Daria sat on a lakeside bench in Jamaica Park, watching Jane Lane run down the path, headed right for her.  Jane was wearing her headphones, and the bench was set a ways back from the path, partially hidden by trees, so Daria didn't think Jane had noticed her.  As she watched her friend, she noticed a difference; Jane's running was usually carefree, almost a celebration of her vitality, but she didn't look like that today.  Today, her pace and stance looked weighed down, as though she was running with a heavy pack upon her back.  Her face showed no joy in her activity, just grim determination.

 

Jane began to pass her by, and Daria stepped out from the bench, directly into her path.  As smoothly as if she had been expecting her, Jane swerved to miss her, with no further acknowledgement of her presence; but Daria reached out and took hold of her shoulder.  The shock sent a jolt through her body, but Jane stopped and removed her headphones, regarding Daria with a look halfway between annoyance and relief.

 

"So, how did you find me?" she asked, panting slightly.

 

"James and I saw your room.  I thought you might have wanted to get away."

 

"Damn, Morgendorffer, you know me too well.  You knew I wanted to get away, and yet you bug me anyway."

 

"What are friends for?"

 

After a moment, Jane smiled.

 

"Well," she said, "this 'being alone' thing wasn't really working out anyway, so I'm glad you showed up."

 

The two of them returned to the bench, sitting in silence for a little while as Jane regained her breath, and then a little while longer.  Daria wasn't certain how to begin, and didn't think that she needed to; now that Jane had accepted her company, Daria thought it likely that she would start the conversation on her own.  And she was right.

 

"I worked for an entire day, Daria," Jane began, her gaze downcast, her voice unusually subdued.  "Almost twenty-four hours straight, with no sleep or food, just art.  And the longer I worked, the more I realized that everything I was doing sucked.  I couldn't stand to finish a single piece.  They were all awful.  Amateurish, immature, vapid - everything Frank said about my work, it was all true.  I thought it was bad when I was putting together my portfolio for BFAC, but that didn't even hold a candle to this.  Is this what all my art is like?"  Jane turned her face towards Daria, and Daria didn't think she had ever seen it that frightened.  "Daria, maybe I am a fraud, a hack.  Maybe the only reason they thought I was so great in Lawndale was because I had no real competition, but once I got away from there and into the real art world, my work just couldn't stand up to any real critic.  Daria, I'm the Mystik Spiral of art!"  Her voice rose to a shout, and then dropped back down in despair.  "Maybe I should do what Trent did.  Realize that I'm just not going to cut it and pack it all in.  Give up on all of it."

 

"Jane, is that really what you want to do?"

 

There was a pause, then Jane shook her head.

 

"No.  Trent's not a very happy person anymore," she said, and there was grief in her tone.

 

"Then why worry about what this one guy said?

 

"I've read Frank's reviews.  He knows what he's talking about, and if he trashes my work, how much of a chance do I have to make it?"

 

"But BFAC let you in, based on your work.  Doesn't that mean anything?"

 

Jane laughed scornfully and stood up to pace in front of the bench.

 

"Daria, did you know that something like eighty percent of BFAC's students go on to become commercial artists?  Commercial artists!  That means sellouts who can't make it on their own inspiration, so they prostitute their skills to the highest bidder.  That's the kind of school that took me in, and that's where they expect me to end up.  I'll go home and paint houses the rest of my life before I do that."  She dropped back onto the bench as though her legs just fell out from under her.

 

"Jane, do you paint because art is something you do, or is art a part of who you are?"

 

"Of course it's a part of who I am," she replied, surprised by the question.  "It's always been the first thing I think about in the morning, and the last thing on my mind at night.  I create automatically, without even thinking about it.  And to lose it would be to rip a part of myself out and stomp it to a bloody pulp."

 

"Then do what makes you happy, and who cares what the rest of the world thinks."

 

"That's not good enough for me, Daria.  I'm not going to do this if I'm not good at it.  Otherwise, I'm no different from those Art in the Park people back home, the ones we used to laugh at.  There's enough bad art out there in the world that I'm not going to add to it."

 

"Whatever happened to art being subjective?"

 

"Art is not subjective, Daria.  Yes, there are different tastes, but there is also definitely such a thing as 'bad art'.  Velvet Elvises, dogs playing poker, crying clowns - these are all bad art.  And I know my work isn't like those, but that doesn't make it good."

 

"OK, I agree.  There is definitely bad art and good art.  But I can't point you to some checklist to see where yours falls.  All I can say is I know that I like your art, that Gary from Gary's Gallery liked your art, as did Ms. Defoe and a lot of your professors.  Don't our opinions mean anything to you over one critic?"  Daria tried not to sound hurt, but she had a feeling it leaked out anyway.

 

"Yes, your opinion means a lot to me," Jane said.  "The same way my opinion means a lot to you when you ask me to read your writings.  But I'm not a trained literary critic, and you probably wouldn't put my opinion above one of theirs.  You didn't even place mine above Tom's."

 

"You told me not to!"  I don't need this coming back to bite me right now.  "But, in the end, you were right and he was wrong, even though by any objective standard, he should have known better than you what a magazine like Musings was looking for.  Did it occur to you that, in this case, all of us who like your art might be right over one art critic who doesn't?  What about Patrick?  He's a real artist, a respected one, and he thought enough of your work to give you this showing.  And he's not the only respected artist at BFAC who's liked your work.  Your GPA there is higher than mine at Raft because so many of your instructors have loved your work.  Or do you think all of them just want to churn out commercial artists?"

 

"No, no, of course not."  Jane's voice was strained, as though she wasn't sure if she wanted to admit this or not.  "I'd never say that about Patrick, or some of my other instructors.  Though there are certainly quite a few who I'd have no problem saying that about."

 

"Then, if you're still worried about not being any good, learn from them.  You're only a little more than two years through a four-year program.  You went to college because you didn't know everything about art, because there were still things to learn.  So you still have almost two years to learn the difference between good and bad art, and how to make sure yours comes down on the good side.  After you're finished with that, if you still think your art is no good, then you can think about doing something else.  But it's stupid to stop now, before you're even at the point where you're supposed to be great."  Daria's lip curled up at the corner.  "There's still a lot of parties you haven't dragged me to yet.  You can't go back to Lawndale and leave me here alone."

 

"You wouldn't be completely alone.  You have James."

 

"He and I work a lot better when you're around.  Look at how our one semester without you turned out."

 

"You really do need me around, don't you, Morgendorffer?"  To Daria's great relief, Jane was grinning.  "Y'know, who cares if my work is immature?  I'm immature, and I still have two more years where I'm allowed to be!  By the time I get out of here, I'm going to create works that will force Franklin Cardonelli to eat that review.  I'll shove it down his throat if I have to."  She raised her fist to the sky, one of her old take-on-the-world gestures.  Daria realized she had really missed it.

 

"Don't be so hard on your old stuff, Jane," Daria told her.  "The paintings I saw in your room looked fine to me, what I saw of them.  For that matter, so did the stuff you did when you were applying to BFAC.  Have you ever thought that, maybe, you don't have the most objective opinion while you're putting pressure on yourself?"

 

"You might be right," Jane said with a shrug.  "I might have even put some of the works that I hated into my BFAC portfolio, but I don't remember for sure."

 

They sat there quietly for a few moments, enjoying the afternoon air and the sun reflecting off the lake.  Then, Daria remembered James, waiting back at the apartment.  It would be nice to sit here a while longer, but I shouldn't leave him hanging like that.  He's worried about her too.  She stood up.

 

"Going somewhere?" Jane asked.

 

"I'm going back home to tell James you're feeling better.  You can go back to your running, now."

 

"Nah, I think I'll come with you," Jane said, standing.  "I've been running enough, I think."

 

They started to walk back, under the cover of the newly-grown leaves emerging to signal the end of winter and the rebirth of the world.  The brown foliage of the year before crumbled under their feet, an ever-present reminder of the death that came before life.

 

"Jane," Daria said, after they had been walking for a few minutes, "if your art is a part of who you are, what do you think about people - not critics, just people - who don't like your art?"

 

"You mean, like James?"  The reply was calm, matter-of-fact, but Daria nearly tripped in surprise.  Only then did Jane laugh.

 

"You knew?"

 

"How could I not?  James is a horrible liar, and almost as bad of an actor.  And you aren't much better."  She thought for a moment.  "I don't mind if he doesn't like my art.  I know that he likes me."

 

"But your art is a part of you."

 

"It's not all of me.  Do you think I like everything about you, Morgendorffer?  And I'm sure you don't like everything about me.  But we're still friends.  It's the same thing with James and me.  But don't worry, I'll never tell him that he was right and you were wrong."

 

"I'm going to have to start checking the hallway for bugs."

 

"Or you could speak a little more quietly.  Our walls are cheap, remember?  James is safe.  Unlike old Frank, who will feel my creative wrath."  A pause.  "God, Daria, whatever happened to me, that one critic could get under my skin like that?"

 

"It's school, I think," Daria responded after some thought.  "It wears you down, drains you.  Until you worry about the opinion of art critics instead of real artists."  She paused, and had to take a deep, strengthening breath before she could go on.  "Until you report other people's stories instead of creating your own."

 

Jane looked at her, studied her pointedly.

 

"Yes, it does," Jane said pensively.  "So what do we do about it?"

 

Daria thought about it for a moment.

 

"We fight back.  With passion."

 

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

 

Late that night, after James had left and Jane had gone to bed to recover from her day-long sleepless marathon, Daria sat at her desk, flipping through a course catalog.  Jane's joy at deciding that she did not have to give up her art had stayed with her through the day, sitting in the back of her mind.  It was like she had been given back a precious possession she had thought was lost.  Which I suppose is exactly what happened.  And Daria envied her that joy, that passion.  She had told Jane they needed to fight against apathy with passion, but she still wasn't sure how to get hers back.  But she knew she had to, and that need took precedence over any merely practical matters.  So she was looking through her catalog from back in her freshman year, at the requirements for a Creative Writing degree.  There was enough overlap with Journalism that, if she switched now, she might get out after just one extra semester.  That wasn't so bad; she'd graduate at the same time as Jane.  But she couldn't afford to stay much longer than that.  If she switched, that would be it; changing her mind again would not be an option.  It would be a risk.  Would it be worth it?

 

But she would worry about that in the morning, as she checked into the precise details of what she would need to do and of what classes could transfer.  For right now, there was something else she needed to do.

 

She took the old notepad out of the desk drawer.  There were still some empty pages in the back.  She opened it to one of them, and taking her pen, began to write.  Began to create.

 

 

 

The End

 

 

 

 

Author's Notes: I'm very glad to have this fic completed. Its origins were way back in February of 2005 on the PPMB, when a thread in the "Deep Thoughts" forum was discussing the deepest fears of Daria characters. My suggestion was that one of Jane's was that she might find out she had no talent after all, that she was just a self-deluded hack; from there, the bare bones of this fic was born as I thought about just how Jane might deal with this issue, how she might react if someone whose opinion she respected told her this very thing. And for about eight months, the fic was stuck there -- I had the idea for the exhibit, Jane's bad review, and her subsequent frenzy of work and self-doubt; but I felt like I didn't have enough there for a full story, just the skeleton of one. It wasn't until October, when I realized that I could use this event to examine how Daria, Jane, and James all saw their art and creativity, the role it played in their lives, that the story really began to come together. It started as a very Jane-centric fic (and that was how I described it whenever someone started one of those "what are you working on?" threads), but I suppose the character of Daria is so fascinating to me that almost anything I work on is going to be drawn at least partially into her orbit. But I'm happy with the final result, especially since there were many months when I doubted that this fic would ever be finished.

 

 

Acknowledgments:  First of all, I would like to thank my beta-readers: The Angst Guy, Brother Grimace, Steven Galloway, mjane79, RLobinske, and Scissors MacGillicutty. Their suggestions improved this fic immensely.

 

In addition, I have to give a special acknowledgement here to my best friend, Aaron. The many hours we've spent in conversation about the nature of art and its role in life were a big part of the inspiration for this fic, and the talks we had about the fic while I was preparing to write helped me tremendously in focusing and refining my ideas.

 

A final thanks to the creators of Daria.  Without the fascinating characters they gave us, this story would not have been possible.

 

 

Legal Blather:  Daria and all associated characters are the property of MTV.  This story is my own.