He slopped paint on the giant canvas as if he didn’t care where the color went. His denim overalls and gray T-shirt were spattered with various colors, not all of them represented in the current project. A bandana that may have been blue once upon a time held back the unruly locks of his unevenly shorn hair but did not protect them from flying paint. He stepped back barefoot into a puddle of chartreuse, never noticing the hazards dotting the drop cloth that covered the linoleum. I didn’t want to disturb him. I just couldn’t help the urge to see him.
I met Rob in college. I was studying theater, he was an artist brought in to help with set execution. I was intrigued by the stains of pigment on his hands he could never seem to wash off. He spoke animatedly, gesturing with those hands and his wildly expressive face. The dimples may have sealed my fate, though, because I had no choice but to melt every time he smiled. I was so terrified to approach him that I almost turned away when he complemented me on the scene I’d been rehearsing.
He was painting a scrim, a stage device I didn’t quite understand. He explained that the image painted on the mesh would not be visible unless the light shone directly on it. It looked like a mess of color until he angled a lamp to reveal the masterpiece he¹d been painting. An English garden bloomed out of nowhere and I stood blinded by it. I was so struck by the sight that when he spoke from so close behind me I jumped. He instinctively reached out his hand to steady me, and the contact burned. I can still feel it today.
One day I was helping out in the costume shop. We were hemming and decorating costumes and listening to music on the CD player, occasionally interrupting our work to dance around the workroom. We were carrying on so loudly that I never noticed Rob had come down the stairs to watch. As I boogied my way back to my sewing machine those molasses brown eyes were there to greet me. I turned a shade of pink only slightly darker than the color of the dress I was altering.
When I finally emerged from the depths of the costume closet he was waiting and asked if he could buy me coffee. Over steaming mochas he asked if I’d pose for him. He wanted to paint me. I wasn’t sure what to feel about that. I’d been hoping he’d ask me out, but this was more than I had anticipated.
"You don¹t have to answer right away. Take your time. I just want to paint you. There are no ulterior motives here, I want you to know."
Well, damn. I'd been hoping for at least one ulterior motive.
He tried to explain what he wanted to do and couldn’t string the words together. He had a sketchbook with him and he opened it, showing me what he meant. He'd been drawing me all this time. There were sketches from rehearsal, sketches of me dozing propped up in the front row of the house.
He’d even sketched me dancing in the costume shop. He took the book from me and roughly began to outline his idea for the painting.
"Why would you even need me? You've got enough sketches here to do the painting without me."
My question seemed to confuse him. "Of course I need you. These sketches don’t come close to enough."
I asked if this painting required me to take all my clothes off. He colored slightly.
"You don¹t have to take everything off." He managed to choke out. "We can discuss that later if you decide to pose for me."
"What if I want to hash it out before I agree to anything?" I tried to get him to make eye contact.
"Okay, mostly nude." he decided. He referred again to the preliminary sketch he’d made. "But you can have a sheet to cover up strategic areas.
This is what I wanted to do,. . ."
He had a vision of me lying on a couch, as if I¹d just awakened from a nap and I was enticing a lover to come join me, naked and tangled in white sheets on this red couch. It was quite a fanciful image to me, because I couldn’t see myself in such a position. I agreed to it anyway.
On the appointed day I arrived at the building where Rob lived. It looked old and dilapidated until I got to the landing where Rob¹s apartment was. He'd painted the door a bright turquoise and the wall had been plastered over and white washed. There was a small green gecko painted on the wall next to the doorframe. I knocked and the door swung open, unlocked. Wandering in I called his name. There was no answer except the sound of rock and roll from a room down a narrow hall. I followed the noise and found his studio, bright with sunlight from row of windows facing south.
The floor was a checkerboard of charcoal and white linoleum, and a massive easel stood to one side with a wide table adjacent. The easel faced the couch, overstuffed and covered in red velvet, and a length of white cotton sheet draped over one arm.
He was kneeling on the floor in front of an old dresser that held dozens of skinny drawers. He was sorting through tubes of paint and hadn’t heard me come in. He started when he saw me.
"I can’t hear anyone knocking on the door when I’m in here, even with the music off. " He explained. He dumped the assortment of paint on the table and handed me the sheet. "Take off everything but your panties. Is that okay?"
I nodded nervously and went to his bathroom to disrobe. He had an old claw footed tub that had been altered to include a modern showerhead, but no curtain. The sink was a plain stainless steel bowl bolted to the wall.
Several copper pipes stood out from the concrete wall with towels draped over them. The window had been removed and replaced with glass blocks. The only personal items I could see were a glass containing his toothbrush and toothpaste, and a bar of plain white soap sitting in a dish on the floor by the tub. No insights on the man behind the artist here.
I undressed and wrapped the sheet around myself, checking my appearance in the mirror that covered half the wall. He was busy drawing in charcoal on the canvas he’d set on the easel, making lines I couldn’t determine the purpose of. He gestured to the couch and asked me to sit and make myself comfortable. I sat waiting for some direction. Several minutes went by before I began to wonder what he was doing.
"If you just wanted me to sit here, I really could have left my clothes on for that." I said for want of a distraction.
He looked confused --as if I’d spoken in another language-- then gave himself a mental shake, walking around the table toward me.
"You can lie down on your stomach. I think it’s long enough that you don't have to curl up or prop your feet on the arm." He stepped back and surveyed my body stretched out on red velvet. "Put this hand under your chin, and let the other hang down to the floor." That was good. "And remember above all else: keep your eyes on me." Once I had my eyes on him he reached out and pulled on the sheet, exposing my back. He yanked on another section, revealing my legs so the only thing that was really covered was my underwear.
He went back to the easel, where I could barely see his eyes above the canvas. He lowered the panel and angled the easel to see me better. Picking up the charcoal, he continued sketching.
A long time went by like that, him sketching, me reclining. He regarded me with an intensity that would have frightened me if I hadn¹t known he was concentrating on the painting. I could see his jaw tense, and his brows drew together with the effort it took to commit the view to the canvas not the way his eyes saw it, but the way his mind did. I don¹t know how long I lay there watching his attention bob between me and the fledgling painting, but eventually I started to drift.
"Hey, don¹t fall asleep. Keep you eyes on me." He sounded annoyed.
I couldn’t remember when he¹d put down the charcoal and picked up a brush. I yawned under his unwavering regard, and he went back to painting.
"Let me get you fleshed out and then you can get up." His voice had softened. "I didn¹t mean to leave you there so long without a break. We'll order lunch and maybe get another session in before you leave."
"I have to be at the theater by four."
"I know. I tend to lose track of time when I'm painting."
"You lose track of time, you don't hear the door; the whole world stops when you paint, doesn’t it?" I smiled lopsidedly at him.
That got his undivided attention. "That’s exactly it. Perfect! Don’t lose that smile."
"Rob, I can’t hold this smile forever."
His brush moved furiously between the canvas and the palette. "Syd, as long as I can get you to smile like that for a little while every day, I think I can get it down eventually." He grinned and winked at me.
The routine went on for a week. I had an early morning class, then raced to Rob’s for four hours of painting and posing. I left his place to go back to my apartment, change clothes and eat before heading off to my afternoon workshop and the costume shop afterwards. There was a performance on the weekend, so I told him I could only pose in the morning on Saturday and Sunday. Sunday morning he dropped the bomb.
"I keep waking up at night thinking about you. I want to work on the painting, but you’re not here, and it frustrates me. I want you to move in for a while. Again, I have no ulterior motives. I just want you here so I can work."
I didn¹t know what to say. When I finally got my voice working again I asked him for time to think about it. He’d offered me time to think about the initial question of my posing, but was reluctant to give me time to think about moving in with him. It was an unusual request, and the only reason I considered it at all was because I wanted to know more of him than I was getting in the studio.
I got him out of the apartment to see the play on Sunday. When we began walking home we automatically started in the direction of his place. I explained that I didn¹t want The Painting to rule my life, that I had other commitments that had to be considered. He didn¹t create me for an artistic outlet, and he couldn’t treat me that way. He seemed disappointed but I desperately wanted him to understand how I felt.
We stood at the door to his building. "I suppose you don’t want to come up for a little while, do you?" He asked.
I swear I must have taken leave of my senses when I said, "I was hoping to spend the night, as a kind of experiment, then I'll decide." I nudged his jaw shut and grabbed his keys from his hand. "By the way, I’m not sleeping on that couch."
I slept in his bed that night, dressed in a borrowed T-shirt and sweatpants, curled up on the far side of the bed from him. I had to wake myself with the alarm on my watch because the only clock he had was in the kitchen. He didn't stir at all when I got up. It was my turn to ogle him in all his glory: hair tousled and mashed in places; bare, tanned chest glowing in the sunlight beaming in the window; face soft and almost childlike. It hurt to look too long. I wished I could have had a photograph of him like that.
I went off to class and he was up and ready to go when I got back. When I came back from my evening class he had an extra key for me.
I don’t know why he was so anxious to have me move in, even if it was temporary, but I wasn’t arguing either. He fascinated me: how he could work well into dusk without turning on a light; how he couldn’t remember to eat at regular intervals and rarely ever cooked anything; how he seemed a different person in the morning after his shower, the only time his hair didn’t stick up in all directions, and he smelled of soap and himself instead of oil paint, poppyseed oil, and turpenoid. I had no idea where he got the money to pay the bills until I saw a check from a fancy art gallery in town on his desk.
If he was listening to a particular CD on the stereo while he was working he would play it over and over, saying the music maintained his mood and changing the music in the middle of a painting session would interrupt his concentration too much, alter the mood of whatever he was painting.
There were things about him that drove me crazy. Some of those things
I was able to fix. I bought an alarm clock for the bedroom. He couldn’t quite get used to having to share the bathroom with me; we put up a drapery track and curtain in the bathroom to give someone (namely me) some privacy in the bath. I kept the refrigerator stocked and cooked as much as possible to get him out of the takeout habit despite the fact that he complained it took too much time away from painting. I insisted that he listen to some of my music for at least part of a session and he didn't complain too loudly.
But the biggest obstacle between us refused to budge: that was The Painting.
He wouldn’t let me see it at all. It consumed almost his every waking moment. Any meal we shared was shared in silence, his mind was in the studio with the painting. He woke me in the middle of the night because he was having difficulty painting. He simply sat next to me on the bed and started tracing his fingers over my face, memorizing each curve and dip. He was concentrating so hard I don’t think he realized I was awake until I reached up to brush a lock of sable hair off his forehead. He grabbed my hand and regarded me as if I’d attempted to kill him, then went back to the other room to his other woman. That was how I thought of it. He probably thought of me that way, too, the other woman who tried to keep him from his beloved muse.
I woke earlier than usual one morning to keep an appointment with my advisor before class. He was still asleep, so I figured I’d take a peek at The Painting. He kept it uncovered because the poppyseed oil he used in the paint medium took forever to dry. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I saw what he’d done. It was a masterpiece. It glowed with light and shadow. I could almost see the worn nap of the velvet sofa in his brushstrokes. However, there was something in the way he’d portrayed me that disturbed me.
He had created a woman that I hardly recognized. The look on her face was one of intimate familiarity; the man she invited to her side was an ardent lover and close confidante whose every thought she knew without question. It showed as well a familiarity of the artist with his subject that was far deeper than Rob and I had ever shared. He knew and cherished each hollow and swell of flesh that the rumpled white sheet revealed.
I showered and dressed in a fog of confusion over the man who still lay on his stomach in the bedroom with a pillow pulled over his head.
I didn’t go back to the apartment after class. I stopped at my place and sat in my coat with my bag slung over my shoulder contemplating the strange situation I was in. Rob had never laid a hand on me for any other reason than art, yet The Painting suggested that he had imagined more. He kept me at arm’s length in the real world, when in his mind I was more than just an inspiration for his work. I wanted to go to him and shake him, ask him what he thought he was doing, ask him why he’d painted me this way and held me at arm’s length the rest of the time. I looked around at the plants that were wilting and the bills that I’d piled on the table the last time I came for clean clothes. I had abandoned my safe rational routine and put myself into this scenario and I only had myself to blame. I had to deal with him, confront him. I needed to know what was really going on and where he thought we were going. I needed to know where The Painting ended and we began.
I came up the steps with a pizza and found the front door partially open. I pushed it open, afraid of what I’d find and he startled me. He had a bag of trash in one hand and was probably on his way to the dumpster. My presence surprised him at first, then his face shuttered and the anger showed through. He pushed past and hurtled down the steps. I left the pizza on the kitchen counter, removed my coat and ventured into the studio. The painting was gone, the table was cleared of all the paints and bottles and brushes and rags. I panicked to think what he might have done. Had he seen me looking at it? Had he destroyed it in a fit of anger and taken it down to the incinerator? The couch had been stripped of it’s opulent covering to reveal a cheap gray cotton sofa, drab and ordinary. Any evidence of work had been cleaned away.
I heard the front door slam and then he was standing there in the stark, cold light that streamed in from the overcast afternoon. I wasn’t sure what he was angry about, but the tense line of his body and the straining muscle in his jaw showed how much of it he had to swallow to control it.
"Where were you?" he asked, more quietly than I had expected. "You didn't come home after class. We had a session, or did you forget?"
"I had to stop at home to get mail and water my plants. I haven’t been there in a while and there are things I had to take care of."
"You could have told me that before you left, or left me a note. You're two hours late."
"What does it matter that I'm late? You've gotten rid of everything!
Did you destroy the painting, too? Was that what you took downstairs in the bag?"
"The painting is safe: I put it in storage. Why didn¹t you come home?"
"Why did you put everything away? Did you finish? If you weren't going to continue with it then why are you so mad that I was late?"
"Why weren't you here?!" his voice raised just enough to raise the hair on the back of my neck. In that moment I believed him capable of violence.
"I had a life before you met me." I felt just as incensed as he was now. "I didn’t walk out of your painting. I’m not some image on a canvas that you created. I existed long before I met you and I have to go on with my life. I do not live only in this room!"
I wasn¹t sure if he were really listening to me or not. "I don’t understand you, Rob. For a month now I’ve been lying on that couch and you’ve been painting me lying on that couch. But it wasn’t me in that painting. That’s another woman who looks like me. I want to know what made you do that. Why do you treat me like I’m not here, and then blow up when you can’t conjure me for your artistic muse? That picture implied there was something between you and I that never existed. I just want to understand. I want to know why?"
He'd guessed but hadn't truly known until I told him that I’d seen it.
Finding out how I felt about it was obviously a shock for him. I knew that
I¹d struck him hard, that he hurt.
"I thought I saw something in you, something I wanted to keep. I thought I could capture it if I had enough time."
"What was it?"
He never took his eyes off mine. "Something beyond picking up mail and watering the plants. I saw it when you were on the stage, when you danced in the costume shop, and a million other times when you had no idea I was watching. That disappeared when I spoke to you. You were someone else then and I wanted that other Sydney back, the one who existed in a million colors and sounds and not the ordinary ones that everyone else sees."
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. "After the first few days I got so frustrated that I couldn't find her in the sessions we'd done so far that I knew I had to have you here. Maybe during another moment of the day, another setting I’d find her. But she kept slipping away. I wanted to see you become her but didn’t know how to do it."
I wanted to beat him with my fists and scream. I wanted to kiss him until neither of us could think any longer. I couldn’t breathe properly and I thought I might pass out if I held myself in check any longer. I walked to the kitchen and retrieved my coat and bag. He’d stepped into the hall, staring as I reached for the front door.
"We’ll never know, will we? Where did she go?" And I left him. Several days later I ventured into the apartment to get my things back.
Nothing had changed. He had not brought the painting out of storage, nor had he started a new one. All his paints and other art supplies stayed locked in the cabinet. He wasn't home when I got there, and he did not come in while I packed. I took his key from my key ring and after I’d locked the deadbolt behind me I left it in an envelope in his mailbox. He’d finished his work in the set design department and disappeared, never to return.
It’s many years later and I’ve returned to the old college town to reopen an old theater with a new company. I wanted to involve the students in some way, give them a new forum for experimentation that I hadn’t gotten in my education. When it came time to find an apartment I contacted a broker who made a list for me of prospective addresses. I recognized an address in the same building where Rob had lived and had to see it.
The landlord took me up the stairs past Rob’s old apartment. The plastered wall is still there, stark white against the brown brick of the hallway. The paint on the door is dark red, like velvet, and the gecko is still on the wall next to the frame, though it’s partially hidden by the trailing vines of an ivy plant hanging from a bracket on the wall.
I saw the empty apartment upstairs from where I used to live with a crazy artist. The bare rooms looked sad, missing all the things that kept a home alive. This apartment had a dreary northern exposure, only reflections of the sunlight that blazed on the other side of the building. I asked the landlord if I could have a few moments to look around and he excused himself to tend another tenant’s clogged sink.
I crept silently down the stairs to the next landing and stood in front of his door, wondering what had ever happened to him. I also wondered what had happened to the woman in the painting. Was she here, could she come back from the grave I¹d consigned her to? She reached out and easily turned the unlocked doorknob.
She, rather, I, stared down the hall of the apartment. There were dishes in the sink, and a frying pan on the stove. The curtain was still up in the bath, but had been tied up against the wall. Music emanated from the room at the end of the corridor. Through a half open door I watched Rob as he worked, screaming guitars blaring from the stereo. I wondered what had happened to a wonderful artist that I¹d known once, who created a garden out of thin air.
He turned and looked toward the door that creaked when I leaned on it. I walked fully into the room and couldn¹t take my eyes off him. I remembered how he¹d been the first time we¹d met, and here he was again, the same man I¹d lost when I moved in with him.
"Your door was unlocked." I have no idea why I felt I had to point that out. Obviously he knew he¹d left his door unlocked.
"I can’t hear if someone knocks. Anyone who comes looking for me knows
I leave it open when I'm working."
"I happened to be in the neighborhood and thought I’d visit an old friend."
"Is that what I am?" he asked. There was something missing, something vital I’d noticed all those years ago.
"No, I guess you’re right. We’ve never really met before. I'm Sydney, and you once painted a picture of me." I smiled at him.
That blinding grin broke through and I knew what I’d missed. The light went on in his doe-brown eyes and those dimples did me in again. My heart raced and my pulse pounded.
"I thought I recognized that smile. I've missed you."
I threw myself at him regardless of the paint and he caught me.