gabriel jones extended his brand-new, bright-orange converse tennis shoes to balance the folding chair on its hind legs. he admired the vast banquet hall of his dream college; wrought-iron chandeliers, decorative carpet with patterns of burgundy swirls, hints of greece in the molding and details, and twenty-foot ionic columns supporting the mezzanine rim.
gabe observed the other prospective students and couldn’t contain a silly grin.
they were just like him.
one guy sat in a cubical of his own paintings, eyes narrowed on his work, flickering over flaws and woulda-shoulda-couldas in constant scrutinization. another boy sat with his parents, coffee in hand, leg bouncing to the rhythm of his subconscious. a girl--cute--sketched on the paper tablecloth with a pencil stub she found on the floor.
gabe felt at home with these like-minded equals; all searching the depths of mid-america for salvation from the confines of institutions that labeled them as outcasts. at the school of the art institute of chicago, they would finally be free of the high-school masquerade.
every few minutes, a woman appeared at the top of the staircase to address the horde of hopeful artists with a name and number. today--only today--their work would be critiqued by one of the school’s professors who would decide if the blossoming young artist belonged with the creative elite as a member of the student body.
no application. no personal essay. no waiting required.
the boy with the bouncing leg was summoned next. gabe watched as he hugged his parents in their seats, grasped a nylon portfolio and ascended the opulent staircase to his personal day of judgement.
gabe’s own portfolio represented the culmination of three years huddled in the high-school art room, not unlike dr. frankenstein in demeanor, brilliance, and reputation. his final presentation contained fifteen photo-realistic renderings: a pencil drawing of the neighbor’s golden retriever catching a frisbee, a pastel sunset over lake michigan, a pen-and-ink portrait of his crush from sophomore year. each piece was executed with an exquisite level of detail and anyone who eyed gabe’s work would find themselves leaning forward to assure they weren’t looking at photographs.
“gabriel jones? number four-three-one?”
he dropped the chair to all fours and stood. his parents were off perusing the furniture stores on michigan avenue so there wasn’t anyone to hug. gabe snatched his portfolio and refrained from bounding up the stairs as appraising eyes needled the back of his neck.
the woman shook his hand and walked him around the mezzanine, between rows of tables covered in paintings, sculptures, photographs and more. a professor sat at one end of each table; a kid at the other.
gabe’s faculty critic was younger than he anticipated--african-american, sweater-vest, glasses pressing dents into his nose and cheekbones--”welcome to the art institute” were the only words he spoke while actually looking gabe in the eyes.
“thanks,” he said and took a seat.
the man opened gabe’s portfolio with casual ineptitude as if he was thumbing insurance forms instead of a boy’s lifeblood. “tell me about yourself,” he said.
this was it! “well, i’m eighteen years old and dying to finish my senior year of high school. i live about three hours north, in grand harbor, michigan. before i could even talk, my parents found me doodling.”
the man seemed to be fully engaged with the portfolio. “go on,” he said without looking up.
“well, the art institute is my dream school. it’s the only college i applied to because, honestly, nothing else compares. i’m currently enrolled in a summer photography class--”
“tell me something real.”
“tell me something real,” the professor repeated.
gabe’s brain became liquid and seeped from his forehead pores. his ribs trapped a dozen seagulls in his chest and their beating feathers tickled his heart.
breathe through your nose, gabe, he told himself. you’ve got this.
“your technical proficiency is the best i’ve seen today.”
“thank you,” gabe said.
“but i don’t see anything new in your work.”
“where do you stand politically, gabriel?”