A walk by the sea (21-30)

21.

-A few years ago, I was a popular person -Joshua said slowly, stroking the cat’s smiling face. He was looking at the animal as if hypnotised by it; Mary knew he needed to focus on something completely irrelevant to be able to speak about his past. -I was famous. I may still be, but I don’t care any more. The truth is, I never really cared…

There was a deep sigh coming from his lips. She watched his face, that beautiful, sad face. She could watch him freely: he was somewhere very far in that moment.

-I was a singer who sold out in minutes. I was rich. I didn’t care. All I cared about was my family, my friends, and my fans. I did my best to give as much as I possibly could.

Mary could not have been aware of the details of his career but she knew with strong certainty that he would do that. Try to give, try to make others happy.

-It is true that when you give your very best, even that may not be enough for some… it wasn’t enough for many people, but I kept trying. I even sacrificed some of my personal relationships to be able to work harder. I knew it was not fair to them… to the women who loved me. But it would have been more unfair if they had had to wait for me at home while I was on my… my odyssey… non-stop.

She was unable to move from the pose his words had frozen her into: her fingers were knotted together, her breath was hardly circulating through her lungs, and she had to be really attentive to catch his quiet confession over the deafening drumbeat of her own heart.

-Despite everything, I was happy. I knew the time would come when I would find the girl of my dreams, marry, settle, have a family of my own. I knew I needed time to first do what I had to… in my work. I had to sing, I wanted to sing. Collaborate with people, help good causes, and… write my own music… write things out of my system.

Marshmallow decided that resting on her paws in Joshua’s lap was not comfortable enough, so she turned on her back, showing him her fluffy belly; his fingers started stroking it without any hesitation. His eyes were fixed on the cat’s small, supple body, but Mary knew he did not see anything.

-After a while, some of my fans grew unhappy… unsatisfied. They brought me gifts, I took them, thanked them, I stayed after each show to meet them, I let them on the stage with me. It wasn’t enough. There were some incidents…

Mary’s heart stopped. Did someone try to harm him? It would not have been unheard of… The thought of Joshua harmed, hurt, lying injured somewhere… it almost shattered her. Seeing him asleep was almost too much. She started shaking, and she was unable to stop. She prayed he would keep staring at his hands.

-There was a young woman who… I recognized her from previous concerts. She always sat in the front row, she was nice. Her name was Susan. I… I did not go out with fans, as a rule, but I broke the rule for her. I liked her, she seemed to be… everything I had been looking for.

He stopped talking, and his hand rested on the cat’s neck also. Mary waited for him to go on, a thousand possibilities and questions racing in her head. For a while only the distant waves were heard crashing on the beach. The light was growing dim, grey and invisible, covering the world like a mist.

-One night I was so terribly busy I forgot to call her like I promised. I called her the next morning and I apologized… she accepted it. I was happy, I thought… it was so easy to make her smile. She had the loveliest smile…

He took a deep breath, and with him, Mary inhaled too. She felt his rhythm, she heard his breathing, she could almost hear his heartbeat. She felt so close to him it was intoxicating.

-Two days after that she came to my show again. It was the best show I had ever had… they wanted many encores and I gave them all I could… I felt I could fly. My voice was… coming out so easily. It was heaven! I really felt like… like I was the king of the world.

He laughed bitterly. Mary swallowed, hanging her head. If she could have, she would have made him feel like a king… or anything he had ever wanted to be. She knew the feelings inside her were unreasonable and absurd, but because she had never loved anyone as strongly- well, she had never really loved before- she had little inkling that love is always unreasonable and absurd.

-I guess I deserved it… I did deserve it. I should have… I should have been the one to be… punished. Not her. She… -his voice trailed off, his every word uncertain, hanging on thin air, like feathers undecided whether to fall or soar high. -She waited for me after the show, with the others. No one knew how it could have happened but… she had a… a gun.

Mary lifted her eyes to see a very pale Joshua, his eyes dark and serious, his hands immobile around the sleeping cat. She wanted to open her mouth and tell him to stop, it was enough- she wanted to spare herself of hearing it, and spare him of going through it again.

-She never wanted to harm me. Not physically. She knew exactly how… much damage she was doing when she shot herself.

Mary was shaking so hard she had to grip the edge of her chair to stay seated. She heard the shot, she saw the body, she saw the young man’s face when he witnessed it happen under his own eyes. She saw Joshua’s face now… and it was so pained, so helpless. He lived through it again… he saw the young woman die, he knew it was his fault, he blamed himself, he could not reverse time.

-The chaos, the articles… the scandal. I had to deal with those, and push my own pain aside -he said in a voice that sounded like a ghost’s. -I cleared myself… publicly. Inside, I knew I was to blame. I had to live with it… day and night. I tried to go on with my life, my career… I just couldn’t. I stopped… performing, I stopped… singing… I ran.

Mary wiped her tears in silence. Her hand was shaking so hard she was unable to hold onto anything any longer. She stood up somehow and stepped closer to him. He never noticed, he was so deep in his own pain.

-My mom… there was a recent article… someone wrote about it. She read it… recalled it all… and…

She was only one step away, and she bridged the gap, sitting down. Not caring what he would think of her. Even if it was to be the only time for her to hold him, she would. Because in that terrible, lonely moment he needed her more than anyone had ever needed her before.

Like a willow tree in the soft summer wind, her arms encircled his bare shoulders and his back, and she pulled him gently to herself. He did not resist her: he was the wind that for once in a lifetime, refused to run and chase the world. He stopped and exhaled into her arms, and with that long sigh, his sorrow started to leave his body. With every breath a little more escaped, with every tear she knew he was feeling lighter. She held him with a gentleness and love she did not know she possessed; her palm rubbed the bare skin on his back, feeling the young muscles contract and relax under the emotional pressure. Her ears only heard his broken sobs, her heart was only full of the love she felt for him, a love that embellished her very existence. Nothing she had previously done, said, or achieved seemed to have the slightest significance: holding him was the purpose of her life, the moment to which her every step had led her to.

When his arms moved to embrace her in a desperate, clinging way she closed her eyes to stop the world from exploding. Her own arms lost their strength, and the feeling of his powerful grip made her tremble like a weak little fledgling, fallen from its nest. Her brain told her it was not possible, it was not happening. And yet, he held her strongly, he buried his face in her shoulder, he wept and squeezed her and she knew that nothing, nothing could ever happen to her, ever, that would shadow the beauty and perfection of their embrace. She had stopped thinking, she had stopped remembering, she had stopped trying to compose a painting out of her emotions- she only felt them with her every cell, living in them, breathing them in, letting them go, inhaling new ones. He did not let go of her, and she regained her strength, and held him tight, and when time refused to stop for her sake, she cast her fears away and kissed the side of his head, just above his ear- a slow, tender, loving kiss buried in his curls. She gave her whole love in that kiss, and the touch of his hair on her lips was more than she could understand or accept.

Behind her closed eyelids it was dark and safe, and nothing else mattered. She held him tight, rocking him slowly, stroking his back, his hair, his soul.

She was complete.

22.

Time, that treacherous, ongoing warrior marched on, leaving a breathless Mary behind; in her arms, an emotionally exhausted Joshua lay on the verge of forgetful sleep. She stroked his hair, holding the blanket around his shoulders to keep him warm, but he still couldn’t stop shaking. Short but painful coughing fits broke the silence of his body, and each time, she could hardly stop herself from falling apart: he lay nestled against her, his head on her shoulder, then slipping to her breast, then to her lap. She tried to sit so that he would be comfortable, but he didn’t seem to mind anything; his eyes were closed, his hands resting on her thighs in the relaxed, carefree way of a child who is sleeping the sleep of the innocent and pure. He had lifted his legs from the floor and was now laying on his side with his head in her lap, his legs curled up, and she was so happy that the lump in her throat just kept growing.

After a while, when his fitful coughs subsided, he fell asleep. She never stopped stroking his hair, wishing that with every gesture of her old hand she could wipe away another sad moment, and another, and another, leaving him washed of his sorrow and ready for a new life. She would never ask for anything ever again: she had been given the most beautiful gift, his trust, his weakness, his pain. Once and again, she recalled his words and the face that would forever be etched in her memories: the dark eyes and the haggard look in them, the uncertainty, the still lingering questions in him that would probably walk with him until his dying day. She knew he would never stop doubting himself, that he would forever blame himself for… for what? Loving with a love that many people would never understand. No wonder he had left it all behind… She looked at his profile, the long lashes, the full lips that were parted in his sleep, the innocent cheeks, in awe at his beauty.

Thinking back at how they met, and how little time they had spent together, and yet, how closely connected she felt they were, she wondered if she had wasted her whole life before meeting him. Having him in her life suddenly made everything, every little detail… important. The broth on the stove that had filled his bowels and stomach, the furry cat, not so long ago in his lap, which now purred to herself with eyes left ajar in suspicion, the smouldering fire that had kept his frail body warm in the night, the sea of waves that filled his ears with the sound of eternity falling and rising, rising and falling. The belt of her dress that she knew he had seen, and looked at; the silk against her legs that slid to the rhythm of his breathing while he was watching her with surprise. The blanket he had touched, and that she would never wash again, to keep his scent locked even long after he…

The strident ringing of her phone cut her thought in half. She gently held his sleeping form, while trying to pull herself out from under his sweet weight without waking him up. He was so fast asleep that he never noticed anything, and she ran to pick up the phone.

-Sara. Hi -she whispered, walking into the kitchen and closing the door behind her. -How are things? -she asked in a more daring voice.

-Things are good… I was just wondering where you were -she heard her friend’s words that stretched out in time and space, as always when Sara was asking something in a way that she knew it would be answered.

-I am at home, naturally -Mary said, slightly nervous, yet wishing to scream. Yell. Cry. Laugh. Sing.

-Are you alone? -Sara asked slowly, mischievously.

-No -Mary replied, while her heart was jumping out of her throat.

After a brief silence there was an explosion of sound in her ear.

-I knew it! -Sara exclaimed on the other end. -I so knew it! From the first moment you two talked. I knew it.

Mary laughed the very brief and nervous laugh of someone who’s not sure of anything in the world.

-I… it’s… I don’t know -was all she said, biting her lip, peeking out and into the living-room to see if he was still asleep. He was. Not even a hundred cannons could have woken him up.

-Well, what is there to know? -Sara asked, exasperated. -You adore that guy! Your eyes whenever he appeared were like… like stars in the night.

-Yes, I… I love him -Mary said, feeling strangely relieved. She had said it out loud, to someone other than herself. -But it makes no sense.

-Nothing in this creepy world makes any sense -Sara retorted in a patronizing tone. -Just dump your stupid artsy agonies and enjoy being with him.

Mary listened to her friend, a woman of hardly thirty, give her love advice. It was embarrassing, but it was also painful. Sara had no clue of what Mary felt for him… she would never understand. All everyone would ever see was that she, an old wrinkled hag, had stolen a beautiful young man from the arms of the world. Spending time with him… as if it was something natural, something cut out from a larger piece, a slice of joy in her old, bitter days.

-Thank you, er… I have to hang up now. I need to go to the drugstore. He’s ill, and the doctor prescribed some medicine for him.

-Oh, crap -Sara cursed, obviously annoyed. -So much for the nice plans.

-I have no plans -Mary replied curtly, swallowing her anger. -He came late at night, and he can only go home tomorrow. He really is ill, you know. He has pneumonia.

-Well then… cure him, darling -Sara giggled, and Mary felt so upset she almost slammed the phone against the wall. -I need to go, hub’s home. Let me know how things work out, okay? Talk to you later. Bye!

-Sure. Bye -Mary said, tightening her lips.

She felt the tension rise in her, spoiling the beauty of the moments that had been her life’s culminating point. All she could think of now was Sara’s benign, smiling face, her perhaps honest eyes that said, my dear, you’re old but not dead… and he’s healthy… and young… and you deserve a treat. She knew Sara by heart, she knew her thoughts, she knew she would think that way. And she was her best friend. What would anyone else think?

She washed some dishes and boiled herself a strong coffee. Sipping it, she saw the world through lens as dark as the hot fluid trickling down her throat. What was she thinking? Getting all happy about Joshua asleep on her couch… He had nowhere else to go. He was tired, he needed support, he needed a shoulder. It was a natural course of events. For him, she was a consoling hand, a sympathetic glance. She would never be anything else.

Slowly walking back to the sacred place where he lay, she let herself gently fall into her rocking chair. The beauty of his boyish curls and feminine lashes and seducing lips mesmerised her every particle; she leaned forward to just look at him and drink in what she saw.

After a while, she lost focus, not feeling him so close to herself any more. Hanging her head, she stood up and stepped to her canvas, to the painting she had not touched ever since he had disappeared that morning.

Looking at the pose of the figure in the painting, her heart sank: it depicted with scary lucidity and precision who he really was. In the light of his terrible confession, the figure sitting in the painting was someone hiding from grief and remorse, someone who questioned everything, someone turning his back on life, while the glorious sunset was brilliant against the skies in the distance. It pained her to see the painting that reflected his real existence so clearly; she eyed it with disgust and an anger she could not justify to herself. She was a painter, it was her job to see people. In this case, though, she would have done anything in her power to be able to change her vision.

She raised her brush, dabbing at the air without touching the canvas; squinting, trying to see what she could do to make it more truthful or… different.

It was no use. A painting true to life, once sketched, would cling to the canvas and not let herself be altered. She placed the brush back on the paint stand, leaving her work untouched. The mere thought of Joshua in pain made her soul burst into tears.

She sat back on the couch, careful not to wake him up. She pulled the blanket up his shoulders to cover his neck too, tucking in the edges and corners. His breathing was regular and peaceful, the breathing of someone who had just relieved himself of a burden carried on his back for a very long time. She gingerly touched his hair, only the tips of those curls with the tips of her fingers, feeling ticklish, craving to stroke his head properly.

Staring ahead, she knew she should probably busy herself with something… anything but sitting there mutely, waiting for him to wake up and raise his beautiful eyes to her again. She was feeling ridiculous and impossible, but nothing felt as right as being next to him, watching his sleep, listening to his breath travel through his parted lips- so she sat there through the afternoon, never leaving his side, until evening descended, announced by the darkening of the horizon and the clashing of the waves that grew louder in the silence of the approaching night.

23.

It was dark when he woke up, feeling weak and thirsty. His head was spinning when he pushed himself up into a sitting position; he tried to swallow but his throat was completely dry. Noticing a glass of water on the coffee table, he drank greedily until he finished the whole glass. His hands were slightly shaking when he replaced the empty object, and the overall weakness made him fall back onto the couch. He felt cold without the blanket on his shoulders, so he pulled it tight around his chest, shivering.

Mary was curled up on the other end, her knees pulled up with her arms around them, her head fallen to the side and propped on the back of the couch. She was sleeping, and the sight of her being by his side had a wonderfully calming effect on his troubled soul. He turned to the side too, pulling one leg up, leaning against the couch sideways to be able to look at her comfortably.

He was touched by her concern and endlessly grateful that she gave him shelter from the rain of his emotions. Ever since they first met he had had a strange feeling about her: she was always there, silently shadowing him, not like a fan or a relative or even a friend… but a little bit of everything. She had exposed herself to him from the first day he saw her, alone on her beloved beach, where she thought no one could see her. Then, when he found her out, she gladly opened up to him, but he knew she was hiding her real feelings from him, and he felt a perverse curiosity despite his suspicions. He wasn’t sure any more because it had been a terribly difficult night, but he could have sworn she reacted angrily when he insinuated that she behaved like his mother. If that was the case, then her feelings for him were not maternal. He would have been shocked years ago, but not any more, not after he had gone through so much… loss and pain and acceptatnce of the fact that human feelings could be so easily misunderstood. No one had mislead him as horibly as Susie had… he thought she loved him. What if Mary was misleading him… and herself?

Her hair was partly covering her cheek as her head was tilted sideways. Her peaceful face looked beautiful and ethereal in the half moonlight shining through the windows. Her slender figure seemed fragile and lonely with her knees pulled up, and one of her bare feet was covering the other protectively against the cold. He leaned forward and tucked her feet in under the end of his blanket.

The night was cool and silent and he could hear her breathing as well as his own, the latter more broken and torn than hers, like that of someone who had been running for a long time. He struggled to keep his urge to cough under control but his lungs protested, and he buried his face in the soft blanket to muffle the painful sounds. His chest hurt, his throat was irritated with every breath he took, and he kept swallowing, holding his breath back as long as he could to prolongue the silent spells. The coughing brought tears to his eyes and his body was shaking under the exertion; eventually, he was able to rest, leaning sideways, gripping the edges of his blanket with trembling hands. He had not woken her up and he was grateful for it.

He had nothing better to do than think, and think he did. About how they met, about the strange fact that he was sleeping in her house, practically in the same bed with her, and that he did not mind in the least. He felt safe next to her, and he knew she understood his worries, and that his feelings were mirrored by her. She really cared for him, he was certain of it. He knew close to nothing about her past but she seemed lonely, even betrayed by her life. He remembered her arms around him and he felt a sudden pang of emotions: gratitude, a craving to be consoled and loved, and-

But that was unacceptable. She would find that completely tasteless and intolerable. He found himself frown in the dark, reversing his thoughts, checking if his mind was playing tricks on him. Apparently not, because when focusing on the thin figure curled up in front of him he distinctly felt the same thing. However much he tried to shape it into something… acceptable, for him, for her, and for everyone else, there was no way he could deny it. He wanted to be in her arms again, for reasons he was scared to admit.

Marshmallow sensed with the extraordinary animal instinct in her that he was awake, and she jumped gracefully between the two motionless human forms curled up in the dark. She looked at him with eyes asparkle with reflected moonlight, then stepped closer to him and gently pushed her head against his hand to exert a little petting from him. He obliged, and her purring shattered the silence of the night. She threw herself down into the warm, sheltered nest of blanket between the feet of him and her that almost touched. The thought made him shiver, and he edged a little closer, to the delight of Marsh who leaned against his calves and purred with her head held high. He couldn’t care less about the cat; he kept looking at the woman, asleep and innocent despite her age. The more he thought about her closeness, the closer he wanted to be to her. His heart was drumming strangely in his chest, drowning out the hoarse, broken breaths his lungs occasionally emitted.

Mary moved in her sleep, obviously uncomfortable, obviously staying there only for his sake, he could think of no other reason than to be close to him. He swallowed another urge to cough, his hand clenched in a fist, his eyes big and round in the dark, ready to face her in case she woke up. She didn’t, but she let her legs down to the floor, still turned towards him slightly. Her hands rested on her thighs, and the cat instantly wanted to occupy the inviting place Mary’s lap provided, but he stopped the animal and gently threw her to the floor. Marsh landed on her feet and grunted indignantly, sleepily marching off to pout.

He had his reasons to turn the animal away. He could not explain it and he was not going to start analysing the thoughts that a mind of a physically and probably mentally ill person produced. It was too late and he was growing cold and uncomfortable, so he slowly turned on the couch sideways, propped himself on his arm and then, slowly, carefully, eased his torso back on the couch. With his free hand he gently lifted one of hers, and when his head finally rested in her lap, he pulled her hand to rest on his shoulder. He stiffened to see if she had woken up, but she was still fast asleep, and his muscles relaxed. He closed his eyes and nestled against her, pulling the blanket high around his shoulder, covering her hand and her legs also.

Nothing seemed to bother him any longer as he breathed contentedly against the fabric of her jeans, feeling her hand warm his shoulder, wondering what she would feel when she would finally wake up to find him asleep so close to her. He pictured the perplexed look on her face and maybe the happiness she would feel; he smiled to himself as sleep overcame his alertness and he drifted off.

Only the two-eyed furball was witness to Mary’s eyes opening slowly in the dark. She had been awake since his hand touched hers, but she was too shocked to show any signs of being so. She stared at the sleeping form, feeling his weight against her thighs and stomach with one of her hands under his hair, the other on his shoulder. She swallowed her bliss, hardly able to keep her tears silent; her lungs were bursting with emotions, her fingers itched to slowly move and possess him in any way she could think of, any way possible. She stroked his hair without moving, she cried out for his love without sound, she loved his unconscious form without letting him know. Her tears seemed to fall to the rhythm of her heartbeat and she let them fall, not caring to wipe them off. Her hands had much better things to do, a much better place to be. She felt her muscles tense now and again, not believing that he was pressed so tight against her. Her mind shut off, her thoughts stopped then restarted their racing, her heart beat frantically. Yet, she had to stay immobile. She would rest like that forever, or until he decided to move away from her.

Moon and stars and sky covered the night, lingering on until dawn broke into a sleepy sunrise, and as the silvery blue shades gave way to pinkish orange ones Mary finally allowed her wretched body to sink into the layers of sleep.

24.

Morning came, clean and open-hearted like a newborn baby. The sunset faded into a blinding morning, golden yellow, perfect. Mary listened to all the sounds of the day being born as soothing background to her racing thoughts.

She had been sitting so immobile to ease his restful sleep that she did not feel her legs any more. Her hand lay on his shoulder patiently and protectively, but from time to time she felt compelled to touch his hair just to feel that unearthly silkiness with her fingers.

Marshmallow stretched in the corner of the room and yawned lazily; before Mary could do anything, she walked to the couch and jumped onto Joshua’s feet, but because she could not see exactly how his legs rested under the cover, she wobbled ungraciously and fell to the side, thudding softly between the back of the sofa and his sleeping form. She quickly recovered and bounced off back to the floor, but by that time, Joshua was awake. Mary watched his eyes open and his head turn slightly in her lap. She was unable to stroke his hair with him aware of it, so she pulled her fingers out of the warmth of his curls and rested them on his shoulder.

He sighed deep and stretched a little, still in her lap, like a satisfied and rested suckling, and her heart was threatening to burst. Should she pretend to be asleep and let him rearrange his thoughts and… his dignity? Perhaps he would be ashamed to let her know he had needed someone’s proximity so badly.

It was too late to do anything: he turned to his back and grabbing her free hand, he pulled it tight against himself. His eyes were wide open and large, dark, breathtaking. She stared into them, flushed, happy, confused, uncertain. She did not remember a time when she had been more scared to even think, let alone budge or utter a single word aloud.

And then he smiled the smile of someone perfectly content, and her soul lit up. She smiled back at him, knowing that nothing could ever go wrong in her life again. It was impossible for her to put her bliss into words, so she said the usual, the accepted and understood, the uncomplicated, the words without consequence.

-Good morning.

-Good morning to you too -he replied, his voice happy and relaxed.

-Did you sleep well? -she asked, keeping to the formal side.

-It was the best night I had for a very long time. Thank you -he said earnestly, squeezing her hand lightly when he saw her eyes glisten.

She couldn’t talk with the lump in her throat. The only way she could show her gratitude was by timidly stroking his curls. Her fingers lightly brushed the smooth skin of his forehead, unintentionally- and to her shock, his eyes closed, and he tilted his head a little as if to follow the gesture of her hand like a cat asking for more strokes. She was hardly alive while carressing his hair and forehead with a hand that trembled pathetically. His own hands were lifted to his chest, one resting on the other, almost like clasped in prayer. She lost her focus, lost her reasoning and her fears too; pulling out her hand that had laid under the weight of his head the whole night, she continued carressing him, her salvation. She didn’t shy away from touching his closed eyelids or his lips; what was the use of shame and fear on the brink of a sunset, a sunset more glorious than any of the golden, sparkling, sunlit moments in a day? No one else would ever know how gently her finger passed across his eyebrow, how soft the skin on his lips felt, how hot his breath. How happy he looked, his closed eyelids fluttering… she slowly cupped his face with her hands, holding it with love and tenderness, her heart overflowing with emotions.

His eyes opened. They were serious, searching hers. It was too much. She felt she would crush both of them with the feelings that filled her every cell and flooded him from her every pore, unable to be contained by her old body. She was helpless in the face of the inevitable, but she feared it also, and the only way to keep her heart going was to hold his head between her hands.

An arm reached upwards, his. A palm slid behind her neck, his touch sending shivers down her spine. He felt a gentle pull- he was- he was pulling her towards himself.

Frightened, she took his hand and freed herself, somehow. She could not- she could not. Ever. He would be sorry. She would be ashamed. Could never look herself in the mirror again. Her eyes were blurry from the overwhelming emotions of her shattered soul, but she did see questions in his eyes, doubt, confusion, and hurt. She averted his gaze and kissed his hand impulsively, trying to beg for his forgiveness with that lonely gesture, then moved away from him. Standing on legs that did not feel anything, stumbling away from him, anywhere.

In the kitchen, she took a cup from the skink, opened the tap, closed it, banged some cutlery against a plate, opened and closed the door of a cupboard. Anything to drown out the frenzy of the storm inside her. She was unable to think- what must he think of her- what had she done? To save herself, she pushed him away- now she could never look into his eyes again.

She heard noises from the living-room. A subdued cough which grew louder and more painful. She propped herself to keep from collapsing. She wanted to rush back to him, envelop him with her love, ask for his forgiveness and understanding, ask him- so many questions. Give him all the answers she had never given anyone else before. Give him all of herself, never asking for anything from him. But how could she? She felt ridiculous and pitifully old, withered, sad. So sad.

She stayed with the turmoil in her soul, fumbling with objects that felt angular and hurtful under her skin. How soft and warm he had felt… so full of life, promises. How perfect he had been, looking up into her eyes, so serious and wondering. After a while, his cough died out. Then, she heard him get up and slowly start to walk. He listened with her breath held back until he reached the door of the kitchen. She looked at him, but he was staring at his feet, leaning against the wall, slightly shaking. He was wearing the pyjamas she had given him.

-Are you alright? -she asked, concern covering her other, inexplicable emotions.

-I guess -was the nervous reply. -I need to go to the washroom but my legs act like they’d be made of sponge.

She stepped to him without a word and let him lean onto her. She walked with him to the bathroom, and closed the door after stepping out.

Back in the kitchen, her eyes looked at objects blindly, not seeing anything but his face, his eyes. She had been such a fool… did she think he was ever going to repeat his act of pity? Swallowing her anger and frustration, she overboilt her coffee and had to boil another. Nothing mattered, nothing tasted the same, nothing worked. She wished he had never returned. She wished she could have been less scared, less socially correct. She was still chained by what others would have thought. She detested her weakness.

She heard the toilet flush, and then the door open.

-I… I need some help -he said quietly.

She jumped to him, looking at him askance. I’ll do anything, everything, she wanted to say, but instead, she only waited.

-I’d like to shave and take a bath -he continued. -I can probably sit in the tub, with that I need no help -he chuckled. -But I don’t think I can stand too much. Could you… could you help me shave?

She nodded without a word, and he sat down on the edge of the tub. She opened the tap for the tub to fill while she took care of his stubble. With the shaving kit that used to be handled by that ghost of her past, she first smoothed some shaving foam on his chin and around his lips, then up his cheek, close to his ears. All the while, she felt his eyes on her. It was killing her, it was making her hand shake like a leaf in the wind. She could not possibly shave him like that.

-Sorry. I… I can’t -she said, letting her hand down.

-Do you have a small mirror? -he asked after a short pause. When she shook her head, he sighed. -Then help me stand and I’ll do it.

She nodded submissively, wishing she could die on the spot, helpless old creature that she was. Useless to him and everyone else. She helped him up and stood next to him, holding his arm, but he seemed to be uncomfortable with that.

She made up her mind then. He needed her, and she would not care what he would think, what anyone would think. Not as long as he needed her support and love. Stepping behind him, she encircled her arms around his waist. She stood tightly pressed to him, leaning her head on his back, holding him as strongly as her old arms allowed her.

The water was running, splashing in the tub, mixing with the scented oils she had added. She felt the muscles in his back move as he lifted his right arm to shave some of the foam off, then rinse the razor in water. His left hand was on the edge of the sink, and after a while, it found her hands that were clasped tight on his stomach. She felt his palm on her hand- her breathing accelerated- his grip on her hand tightened. She just couldn’t take it any longer, but luckily, his soft voice broke the silence.

-I’m finished.

She let go of him quickly, allowing him to step back to the tub and ease himself on its edge.

-Are you so weak? -she asked with concern. -Of course, you haven’t eaten too much… I’ll prepare some food for you, some chicken and vegetables.

-That will be wonderful, thank you -he said with a vague smile. -But before you go, could you…

His voice trailed off, not sure how to ask, his eyes looking aside; she noticed his arms were shaking, of exertion or something else, she was not sure, and in that moment of shame that seemed to engulf them both, she loved him more than ever.

Without a word, she unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it off slowly, then helped him get rid of his pants too. He was naked before her but somehow the fact didn’t bother her, or him. It seemed natural, it seemed meant to be. He was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. She held him by the waist while he lifted one leg inside the tub, then the other. She helped him slowly ease himself into the warmth of the water, and when he leaned with his back against the white tub, she disconnected herself from him. She had to. Straightening up, she cast him a look that she hoped he would understand. His own eyes were full of things she was not ready to face, and she turned her back on him wordlessly, softly closing the door.

25.

She left just like that. His first thought was, maybe she didn’t care, after all… maybe she was just being a merciful samaritan. Thinking more about it, he realized he must have looked like the victim of a hundred crimes back there on the beach, that day they met. Always gloomy… always, since… there was no more playful, jesting Josh left. There was only Joshua, the runaway superstar whose undercover identity would not be safe for long now. It had been a capital mistake for him to sing in public. He was not ready yet. He was not ready.

He leaned his head back on the cold rim of the tub, soaking deeper in the hotness of the water. He was such a mess… such a mess. No wonder she wanted to take care of him… like a friend… like a mother. He recalled her sympathetic eyes when she undressed him to help him get into the water. It should have felt wonderful to be looked after like that… but all the memory of her eyes made him do was clench his fist on the hard edge of the bathtub. He did not need sympathy. He was not a dog.

Closing his eyes, he tried to calm down and collect his thoughts. He knew he should be grateful for having a friend like Mary, who would probably do anything for him. She was just as lonely as he was and she liked his company, accepting his reticence. She was there when he needed to rid his soul of its most horrid secrets, she listened and accepted all that he said, whatever her views may have been on the subject. He wanted to know what she thought of his confession, but for now, he would have been happy to see behind the veil of her sympathy and find out whether there was anything else there… anything he should expect, or… perhaps fear?

He nearly laughed at his own stupidity. It looked like his illness was taking its toll on his mind, too. Shifting in the tub to stretch his legs a bit more, his lungs gave in to the urge and as the jerks of his body made small waves in the water, he tried to catch his breath after the coughing subsided. He relaxed into the softness of the bath and closed his eyes again.

In the silence that sounded shrill in his ears, the touch of her arms around his waist shot through his body. It pained him, the uncertainty of her touch: was it a mere helping gesture, was it something impulsive, was it something brave…? What did she think of when she hugged him like that? Did she have any idea that the recollection of that humble touch would cause his loins to stir hungrily? And why did she push him away when he wanted to get closer? Was she scandalized by his move? A million questions raced inside his brain, and he lay there helpless, unable to relax. He had offered her a chance to… to really touch him- why did she not take it?

You are such a romantic fool, Groban, he thought bitterly. You always had to pick the girl who was the least suitable for you and also, the least prone to reciprocate your feelings. Just what was he thinking? Trying to push an old lady into a relationship that would end up being the scandal of the decade, and all that because he had no fucking clue as to what she was after. She was probably after a nice, safe friendship, a normal frienship. Dinners, wine, chats. Walks. Company. Maybe she would even want to make him her heir, unless her son changed for the better and started loving his mother finally. Did he even know what a wonderful person his mother was? He recalled his own sweet mom, who had taken his sorrow to heart so much she almost died of it. A tear trickled down his cheek from under the downcast lashes. How much pain he had caused her… and his father… and everyone around him. Sweeney was the first to go… he couldn’t take the pain of his master. Would there be any more victims of his hateful life? The sadness rose in his chest and he coughed painfully while tears of physical and emotional exertion rolled into the water with the beads of sweat gathered on his brow and on his cheek.

Exhausted, he lay back, breathing heavily, trying to chase the dark thoughts from his head. He needed to focus on the present and to try and make the best of what was in his hands. Freedom. The choice to go any way he wanted. The chance to stay where he was, or go back, or go forward. Pretty soon, the choice would have to be made… but he had to know how much support he would get, either way he chose.

~~~

Mary was smoking a cigarette. The first one in twelve years, taken from the pack she had hid behind the crystal glasses and ugly terracotta-shade plates, the ugliest wedding gift she had ever seen, given to the young couple by his aunt. Who else. Horrible taste had run in his family, never to be altered by time, and she had to marry into that very family where a painting, any painting to be frank, was looked upon as something created by a deranged mind. For them, she was probably a deranged, twisted mind, a lunatic. And later, an intolerant, and hence, intolerable bitch. Why not help him when he needs you, they had suggested. Go to therapy with him. He turns to men because you probably never gave him enough pleasure. Mary sucked in the smoke greedily, her face in a pained grimace as she recalled the faces of his family members upon her shock. Apparently, everyone else had known but her.

She heard soft splashy noises from the bathroom, and she pictured Joshua lying there alone, naked, tired. She felt remorse- she should go back and help him. Leaving him like that… She smoked with trembling fingers, not caring about the smell that imbued her clothes with the shrieking uncertainty and fear of all smokers. Her hands needed something to do, her lungs needed to be filled with something poignant and striking if she wanted to stay focused. Mere flashes of his beautiful body sent her into endless fits of shaking at her kitchen table.

He must think I’m an idiot, she thought. A complete fool. Soft enough to stay at his side the whole night, rest his head in my lap, help him undress, but not enough to let him… do what? What did he want? She lifted the cigarette butt to her lips: there was nothing left to smoke. She threw it into the dustbin after soaking it with water. What did he want? Tease me? See how much I can take? Test me? What?

She was positively bewildered. Was he using her, her generosity, her acceptance of him? Was he making fun of her? Passing the time with the joke? Was it a bet? Was he taking pity on her? What? What?!

Burying her face in her hands, she sat by the table, forgetting about the vegetables and the chicken breast that lay on a plastic tray, forlorn by the silence of the knife. All the questions, to which she would never get any answers. He would recover in a day or two, go home, and they would keep meeting like before. Like never to be best friends, but not really passing acquaintances any more. After all, he had slept in her house… twice now. She had painted him. She had fed him. Held him. Seen him naked and vulnerable, not only physically so. Oh, his thin, supple waist, and how his back moved under her cheek… she breathed slowly, remembering. To hold him again… was it the last time? Had she passed the only chance when she pushed him away? Despite having done the right thing, conventionally speaking, her heart drummed in her ears like that of someone who misses out on the chance of a lifetime and regret fills their whole being, more and more every day, until finally the sea of sadness bursts their soul open and they disappear in the waves of nothingness.

She would have to go back, see how he was doing… she wanted to go back more than she wanted to live. Her only wish was to touch him again, hold him, his hand, or his curls, stroke his hair, his lips, smile and be smiled at- but all of it seemed so ridiculous suddenly.

Standing up, she slowly walked to the door. Listening to his sounds. A quiet cough, growing stronger, more pained. She squeezed her lips tight, keeping herself from bursting in and picking him up in her arms. Then, silence. Water against the tub. Against his skin. As he moved, the waves. Drops rolling down his neck. The lips, shapely, wet, juicy as those of Bacchus. The hair of Cupid. The arms of Hermes. The chest of Poseidon. All the gods and mythical figures combined to give her one body of perfection she would feed off until her dying day. And she had seen him, bare, lonely, weeping.

Her fingers on the handle, she listened with her breath held back. He was so silent in there… was he asleep? Perhaps she should let him rest more… and cook that lunch he probably needed more than her stupid old-age sweetnesses. She took a step back, walking back to the kitchen. Taking the frying-pan out, she threw the onions and garlic in, setting her eyes on a new, easier target than trying to solve her mind’s boggle: preparing a light meal for a sick person.

~~~

He knew it would be decided then. If she returned, he had a chance. If she cared enough, she would return. If only to see him, or wash his back. But she would knock on the door any moment now.

When his water started to get cold, he pulled the plug out, shivering slightly before he got to his feet with difficulty and put the bathrobe on. A very old-looking robe, the colour of olives. Probably her ex’s flotsam and jetsam, like the shaving kit. And her memories that he knew nothing about. Why was he still fooling himself?

26.

It was all good until she heard the bathroom door open. The remnants of her cigarette seemed the most exciting thing to look at while he walked past her slowly, looking at her or not, she would never know. Using the knife she had been planning to sharpen on the fresh vegetables was the only distraction she could get from the horrible fact that she had probably ruined her last chance to love him. His presence was all around her, in her nostrils and at the back of her head in the shape of rather tangible memories: his skin was alive, burning her hand, his hair, pure silk, floating in front of her eyes, his smile, the look he gave her before she left the bathroom. Everything that had happened only led to things never to happen, which simple truth she should have been aware of, at her age. If she wasn’t brave enough to face him, or the consequences, she should have kept her hands to herself, she should never have given him anything more than friendly words and advice. The pathetic self of someone she used to be stood at the stove, stirring chicken, adding sauce, steaming vegetables. Making food for someone who had been untouchable for her from day one.

Lunch was quiet and uneventful. She asked him about how he felt, urged him to eat more in order to recover faster, and he accepted her timid approaches with equally timid smiles. It was painful to watch him act silent and seemingly hurt and the only thing she could do to silence her clamouring conscience was to stay put and keep to herself while doing her best to help him get better. She fed him lunch and gave him wine, after which he told her he was extremely tired and wanted to rest. He lay down in the bathrobe, covering himself with the blanket before she had the chance to do it for him. Hanging her head, she took the empty dishes out, taking every gesture, every unspoken word, every half-look of his as a well deserved blow.

After washing up she took a glance at him, already asleep again. The mere sight of his resting form made her weak and helpless; why couldn’t he stay with her like that, just sleep in her house and take food from her? She would not ask much, only to see him. But that was only the frightened fluttering of a wounded animal: she would have to move on. Face it. Face him when he would turn around to go back to his world. For now, only a few houses away. But later… leaving all of it, and her, behind.

The day was mute and grey, not taking, but not offering either. She walked indifferently on the path leading to the sea, listening to the rumble of the waves. Her only consolation when everything else had collapsed in her life: the sea. She would help her again. She was the only one who could help her. Filling her lungs with the damp, salty scent and the shrill complaints of the seagulls, she walked towards the sea, feeling the pebbles and the sand give in to the weight of her body.

Standing in the blinding daylight that refused to take on any colour, Mary watched the faded grey-blue water stretch in front of her. There was a scary peacefullness pervading the air; everthing was calm but her soul wasn’t. She felt as if on the brink of death, having pushed away her own life, the only life she wanted to have: him. No matter how many times she twirled the thoughts in her head, they did not cease to give her pain.

Where had all the colours gone? She squinted her eyes to discern the breathtaking hues and shades that usually filled her with inspiration and appreciation. There was nothing to revel in on the day she had cut off her withered vines from his young ones. The thought of him turning away from her literally stole her energy and willpower. Her shoes were muddy and shabby-looking, resting on the large pebbles amidst which lonely wildflowers grew in a random order. She put her head on her knees, gazing to the side, following the sun behind the thick, bland yellow veil which was the sky that day. Even the sea sounded boring and bored, with no purpose, or any reason to blow wave-kisses upon the rocks. Time, uninterested, hung suspended between what was and what would be; Mary gazed upon the vertical sea-line and at the clouds that looked like they would start dropping off the sky in slow-motion.

With one blink of her old eye, she transcended the moment, shaking it off. She would not dwell on how he said goodbye and how he shook her hand at parting, with a look on his face that showed regret and confusion, pride and pain. The pebbles were just as grey, the day was just as milky yellow and the sea was pale blue, one long vertical line in front of her tilted eyes. Like yesterday, like today… days would be all the same from now.

She craved a storm… or scorching sunshine… anything but the drab, dull monotonousness of all things washed into one eternal, grey mist. It was all the same behind her closed eyelids as when she looked, and she feared it would all be the same, until she was strong enough to take it.

~~~

Night grew dark on a weak and indifferent Joshua, sitting by his window with a glass of wine. The silence of the landscape annoyed him, the restfulness of the scenery made him restless. His lungs contracted from the thought-shreds he couldn’t sweep to the back of his head, pictures he wanted to forget; he wanted the world to reflect his inner turmoil but the night was soft and soothing despite his anger.

The coldness of her touch echoed in his brain in the shape of dubious blinkings of her eyes. Of course, it was not real goodbye: he would visit her shortly, he promised. He had always been a man of his word… but he wasn’t sure he would keep this one promise. He knew he was being childish: she had never alluded to anything more than friendship. Her tender gestures were the mere manifestations of a kind old lady’s natural affection for a lost soul like he was, he saw that now. Perhaps he had put her in an unpleasant position when he expressed the wish to take their relationship, if it existed at all, one step further. As all of these raced through him repeatedly, he felt his reluctance to go back and try to act as if nothing had happened grow, until he was almost certain he never wanted to see her again.

Then again, what if something had happened? She was so old… and he was so young. What good would have come out of it? He wondered if he was really wishing she had accepted his approaches… Every aspect of a possibly tighter relationship with Mary posed dozens of questions he could not give answers to. What would his family think… his fans, if and when he decided to return to them… What future lay ahead for two people like they were…

He found himself shifting in his seat uncomfortably at the thought of the two of them together. Even for a day. He felt ridicule and disgust tricle down his back in the form of perspiration drops; he finished his wine and placed the empty glass on the floor. The slow move made him realize he was cold: he should light the fire. He turned back to face the night, sitting there motionless, picturing things he knew were impossible in the world he was living in. Perhaps in another dimension, where the soul was given infatigable covers of flesh for everyone. Perhaps there they could have met, made friends, made lovers.

Passing a hand over his face, he sighed a sigh of misery and doubt. Going back meant keeping a painful distance, staying away meant bearing the loneliness. How was he supposed to take the loneliness, after baring his soul to her, after her kindness and sympathy which felt so wonderful, so placating for the anger that he had repressed for years? Now, with the prospect of not seeing her again, he felt that anger rise from the depths of his guts. Anger at the pain he had had to go through, anger at Susie having mislead him so horribly, anger at himself being unable to deal with it when the time was right to end the chapter and move on with his life, anger at wallowing in misery still, causing pain to the only people who had ever loved him for who he was.

He longed to be outside, to be on his feet instead of sitting like a pile of useless dirt, turning thoughts and feelings in his head, trying to figure out what would be best for him. He was so engrossed in the gloominess of his state that it never occured to him, not for a single moment, what would be best for Mary.

A pale moon-slice was visible under a corner of misty cloud. There was no wind, there was no sound, except that of the waves, distant, laughing, neutral. Joshua stared at the moon, swallowing the hated urge to cough, holding his breath back, ordering the lungs to behave- until eventually he gave in and the angry, spitting sound of his illness tore the silence in two. He coughed for a long time, feeling the strength in his abdomen muscles diminish, almost enjoying the growing pain in his chest.

Later, the silence returned like an ebbing flow of ocean water. He sat with his shaking hands on his thighs, wiping his mouth of the spittle that had erupted from his throat. His glass was empty and he needed something to drink, but his legs refused to move. If Mary had been there, she would have brough him something to drink and she would have hugged him with that mysterious love of hers. Despite the confusion reigning inside him, he regretted not being in her house. Maybe time would be the key to his questions, maybe in a few days their paths would cross again.

For the first time in weeks, a force stronger than himself pushed him to the brink of desire, and he stepped into the dark abyss with his eyes closed. It was brief, it was painful, but it was release, the only kind of release he was granted, and he took it gratefully. His exhausted lungs heaved with the torn waves of cold night air, his hand felt moist and the thought of what he just did strangely repulsed him.

He felt alone.

27.

The update is here. Almost. MAN, I’m such an evil woman!!! You are not going to like this chapter… but it’s one of the, I guess, two that will have to be struggled through BEFORE.
Edit: Here. Damn this was fast. I guess I had to rush through it… I could have added more painful details but this was just about as much as I could take.

Chapter 27

-Hi Mary, how is life treating ya? -old David asked affectionately, weighing the apples and then the sweet potatoes.

-Not bad -she replied with a vague smile. Keeping up appearances was crucial: they kept her alive. -Any news on the sourkraut…?

-Will only get here tomorrow -he said apologetically. -I’m really sorry.

-Don’t worry, Dave. Thanks for checking, and see you tomorrow, then!

Her morning chores seemed to be the only things that provided her with a routine she could rely on. Shopping, visiting Sara, walking in town, popping in the hardware store to finally obtain that hammer and nails. There was nothing else to do but try to spend as much time among people as she could. She was feeling pulled down, deep into the bogs of loneliness with such a frightening force that she tried to avoid being at home, where dark thoughts and pain were lurking around every corner and in the shadow of object.

Not even her walks on the seaside helped. At every step on the beach, with the long stalks of grass and ferns and shrubs around her feet and the salty breeze in her hair she remembered Joshua and how he was in her arms and how she pushed him away. Since then, he had not visited her. How long ago that was, she was not sure any more… and she didn’t care either. One moment without him around already felt like an eternity.

She felt more and more like a recluse, despite walking to town every single morning. She chit-chatted away with people she hardly knew, thus proving to them and to herself that she was alive, she was acknowledged, she was part of a community, she had a right to be there. She helped Sara with her charity shop almost every day: it provided important hours away from her lonely home. She even called Joseph almost daily, exasperating her son, who thought she felt her imminent death and wanted to make up for the lost time.

-Hi, Sara-love -she said to her young friend who greeted her with a mischievous smile.

-Indeed… oh, the things we did last night! He was absolutely unstoppable. I wish I could tell you but my mouth is sore too -she finished with a giggle.

Mary forced herself to smile, but her inside was collapsing. Such was her fate. She would have to listen to people’s happy doings, and would have to bear it with patience. It wasn’t really painful considering the torture she had to go through every moment, between the memories of him so close to her and a future that did not have him in it. Nothing was as horrible as the prospect of her life stretching ahead as an empty canvas, white, pure, bleak.

-You look pale, is everything alright? -Sara remembered to ask, real concern in her voice.

-Yes -Mary nodded, swallowing her pain. -Just a silly headache. I’ll go lie down as soon as I’m finished with my shopping.

-Okay… will you be coming later on? We got ten new… oh, hello Joshua!

Mary grabbed her bags, they were her only refuge. She heard him come closer, he was behind her, she could sense it. She could smell him, feel him, his every bit.

-Good morning, ladies -he said very calmly. She could hear he was smiling. Oh, she longed to see his smile, but she felt unable to turn and face him.

-Uhm, what’s new? -Sara asked, flashing her wide smile at him, as if paying attention to him exclusively. She could fool ninety-nine percent of her audience, but not Mary: she knew that Sara was asking him, waiting for a reply, and all this time, she was listening with those radar-ears and eyes of hers to what she was doing. -Ever since you sang here, Jonathan from the CD store has been trying to keep up with the orders for your music. He is one happy man right now -she nodded with a warm smile.

-Glad to oblige -he laughed, somewhat nervously. Mary could tell he wasn’t too happy with his new fame in the small town. -Any other event I should get ready for…? -he asked, almost ironically.

-Not really -Sara replied, then frowned and quickly added, -but hey, make sure to make an appearance at ten on Saturday, on the pier. We have an afternoon dedicated to visual arts and music and dancing, as part of the North-Devon festival. It’s the last day and it should be a lot of fun.

-And why only so late? -he sounded very curious.

-Oh, because the musical part starts then, and you don’t look like a person who’s fascinated by literary readings or visual arts exhibitions. I may be mistaken, though… -she added slyly, leaning towards Mary ever so slightly.

-I like arts in general -he responded. His voice was deep and sombre, and Mary almost collapsed. -Speaking of which…

She could have sworn he was looking at her and her heart stopped- but before she could find out whatever he wanted to say, loud chattering and muffled screams reached her ears.

-Oh my god, Josh! Hi, handsome!

She hardly recovered from anyone calling her beloved angel “Josh”, when her stomach turned at how the shrill voice addressed him. Everything was in that one word, everything that a young girl could freely bestow on a gorgeous young man such as him. Trust, want, readiness, desire. She had to see who the voice belonged to and she slowly turned.

It was a beauty of around twenty, or a bit more, tall, thin, blonde, with a large mouth, huge eyes, long legs, thin waist: perfection personified. She wasn’t even ordinary: her smile was genuine and her gestures were subtle. She had every right to call him that.

-I missed you last night -she stepped closer to him, gently putting a hand on his arm. -You could have called to cancel… the food got all cold, and you know what else…

Joshua faced the blonde with a look that was apologetic and embarrassed, and Mary felt like a fly on the wall, looking on, spying on something she was not supposed to see. She was not invisible, though: she expected to be hit by a fly-swatter any moment.

-Don’t worry, hon -she crooned, looking into his eyes. -The previous nights fully made up for it. Can I expect you anytime soon, though…?

-I’m not sure. I’ll call -he said curtly. -I have to go, Diane. Bye Sara -he turned halfway, throwing the words with a really embarrassed flush on his cheek. -Mary -he added, lifting his eyes to look into hers for the fraction of a second before he was gone.

Her shopping, and her sinking heart were pulling her down, down, where she could have disappeared, died, perished with no trace. Diane? Previous nights? The words were registering, and also, the relationship they mutually acknowledged. He had gone to her place, not once, not twice, god knows, how many times. Oh. She mentally closed her eyes, not in the position to actually do so, wishing she could die for real. Sara was looking at her, Diane, the goddess was staring at her, then she left, luckily, but her face would forever be etched in Mary’s mind, and now, it was fused together with Joshua’s, the two of them one in the kind of unity she, an old miserable woman, could never have with him.

-Shit -Sara hissed when Diane had disappeared. -I’ll kill that bitch. She doesn’t deserve him. Do you know she hunts for the handsomest and richest guys in the neighbourhood? He’s only another trophee for her.

-Would it be better if she was a nice, decent girl? -Mary uttered. Her voice was quivering, and she had no idea what she was saying, or why she had opened her mouth at all.

-Oh, Mary -Sara whispered with real sympathy behind her sad face.

-Don’t -Mary snapped. -Don’t you dare pity me!

-I… I’m just…

She never listened to poor Sara’s desperate apology. She stormed out of the shop, furious, hurt, dejected. She was an old nobody, who was to be pitied because a younger, more beautiful, more attractive woman had taken her Joshua. Someone who was not stupid, someone who probably reacted the right way to his approaches. She obviously never even thought about pushing him away, like some imbecile, insane, creepy perverts did. She walked down the street with resolution and hatred. She had deserved it, once again. Who was she to expect… what? Faithfulness? Chastity, from him? He was young, he had his needs, and oh- she could have been the one to- to satisfy him and-

Oh. Angry tears streamed down her face, and she swallowed them, again and again, but they kept coming, and she couldn’t see where she was going, but she didn’t really care. The pavement and the bystanders and everything else was a blur, in front of which two young, perfect, sweaty bodies made love, shattering the earth with the ecstacy that was born from their union. She saw her surrender herself totally, she saw him possess her, she heard their moans, she lived through it all, over and over, until she thought she couldn’t feel anything any more.

Passing the church, the chimes of the bell were telling her it was noon. The silence around the small building made her even angrier. Where was He when she was in trouble? Why did He not send Joshua back to her? Why did He let her act like an idiot? She hated the memory of her perfectly pure afternoon with God and His peace; she had nothing to do with Him, the one who had let her down so badly.

The previously white and clean canvas of her life was now black, pitch black, with spots of dirty grey and murky brown and bloody crimson. Pain, loneliness, anger, hatred- she hated Diane for being young and beautiful, she hated Sara for pitying her, she hated herself for being hateful and old and useless, but most of all, for not giving him what he had asked for. How could she have turned him away like that?! How?! And Joshua- why did he not come back to her? Why did he go to look for satisfaction somewhere else? She thought of his dark eyes and the happy smile he used to give her when nothing had happened between them yet; of his perfect body, so vulnerable, in her hands, in her arms, forever in her soul. She wanted to hate him, so badly.

But even in her darkest moments she could not hate him. The love that had been the sunlight and the sea and the flowers and the dark skies and the moonlight for her in the past few weeks was not to be destroyed by her ugly hatred. Despite her struggles to turn herself against him, she couldn’t. She could not expect anything of him. He had been there, and she let him go. Everything else- it was her fault.

For the first time in decades, she sat in a pile of misery by her couch, not feeling worthy of touching the place his body had occupied, and she wept bitterly, shaking in the loneliness of her house. Death would have been a release, but she had no strength left in her to do anything but sit and weep, with a questioning cat sitting at her feet.

28.

He turned to his side to watch the sleeping Diane in his bed. Her rich blonde hair covered most of her shoulder and fell softly to the front of her lips. The gentle curves of her waist and hips were followed dutifully by the covers, and looking at her he felt his desire mount once more. He pulled closer carefully, then slid on top and inside of her with one move. She was barely awake but she was smiling contently, encircling his hips with her legs.

Sitting on the side of the bed, he stared outside into the dark morning. She had gone back to sleep, hardly acknowledging his presence. Yes, she gave him satisfaction, yes, she was ready to be anything he wanted her to be, but she was only a puppet, a pretty, made-up, empty-headed puppet. She was so unlike his type that he felt ashamed at who he had become.

Walking into his kitchen in his boxers he made strong coffee and sipped it slowly, leaning on the windowsill. The small garden in front of his kitchen was deep green and lush, like a miniature emerald heart. He watched the leaves of the cherry tree tremble in the light wind for a little while, then looked at the sky which started to put on its dawn coat of pink and orange. He strained his ears but he could not hear the waves; their familiar rumble was stifled by his walls and the distance between the sea and his house. He hung his head, remembering how perfectly clear the waves sounded in Mary’s living-room.

He missed her, so much that it was beginning to physically hurt. The quiet gentleness of her whole being, the acceptance of his dark secrets, the presence that had always made him feel at home somehow. He had not seen her since… since that accursed day at the Oxfam shop. Why on earth had he decided to go in there, he would never know, but it had turned out to be one of the worst decisions of his life.

Finishing his coffee he went into his bathroom to brush his teeth, then shave carefully. He liked to have his face smooth now: it made him feel young and optimistic. He combed his hair, enjoying the playful stance of his curls, forever defying any comb or gel. He looked at himself in the mirror, watching his eyes blink and the wrinkles around his mouth deepen when he smiled automatically. He had become quite good looking over the years; his boyish innocence had mostly disappeared, only to be lured out in moments of perfect happiness, and those moments were not in abundance. But instead of the Josh-like, goofy easy-goingness, he had charisma and a ripe gentleness that his mom had always loved so much. It is true, she had seen it in him already back in his high school years; it must have been the reason why so many older women were attracted to him already back then. He recalled the millions of faces he had watched transform in his presence, taking on all the human emotions he had ever thought possible. They had shown him just how much people can admire, and love, and desire something which would never be theirs; he had pitied them sometimes, and now, at a safe distance from his past, his stomach tightened at the thought of the emotional turmoil his presence must have caused in his fans. He never really took any of it seriously, not beyond a certain level. Only once, and then it had cost someone’s life, and almost his own.

He prepared his clothes, choosing a dove-grey shirt and a deep cerulean blue suit, knowing he would look very good in those. Lifting his eyes to look into the awakening sky he would have given anything to know what she was doing and thinking in that moment. He longed to hurry the hours, he longed to have her where he could face her and make her be honest with him, finally. Whatever it was he was feeling for her was messing up his thoughts and his whole life, despite all the reasons he could list against his feelings. Nothing else seemed to matter but the fact that whenever he thought of her he felt happy.

~~~

The paintings she had exhibited had been sold in a relatively short time, with much appraisal going round for the daring brush stroke technique and the unconventional colour usage that he knew she had always found natural for her style. People discussed her art, nodding like connoisseurs, gesturing wildly, smiling, showing the upper-class upbringing, all the bourgeois characteristics he had hated since age ten. He listened to the dull chattering on the pier, while walking past her paintings slowly, drinking each of them in.

They were mostly vivid depictions of the sea in all her stages: calm, furious, gentle, demanding. He remembered the first time he laid eyes on one of them, the day they met on the beach. She was lying in the sun, her arm across her eyes, her grey hair slightly dishevelled around her skull. Her eyes looked at him blindly but inquisitively. He had spotted her before, standing on the beach all alone, and she had probably noticed him walk around too. They had been watching each other in secret. He smiled now, watching the painting, loving her dark colours of the sea.

Walking on, he noticed a frantically gesturing Sara. She was talking on the phone, then snapped it shut angrily.

-Good evening Sara -he smiled pleasantly, glad that the circumstances of their meeting was a merrier one than last time.

-Same to you, Joshua -she sighed. -Can you believe it? She went home.

The fact that Sara only said “she” was very telling, and the intimacy of it was not lost on him. Sara assumed he would know who she meant, and he did.

-Who? -he asked for the sake of pretences.

-Mary -she said angrily. -People are buying her paintings and she went home. Speaking of which -she added, gently pulling him by the arm a few steps further-, you may want to secure this one for yourself -giving him a very knowing look before she was gone.

He stared after her, then turned to look at the painting.

The world had stopped moving around him when he saw himself sitting in the armchair in Mary’s living-room, the corners of a happily crackling fireplace on his left, the window with a sunset behind him, a furry cat on the right arm of the piece of furniture. It was the painting she had been doing of him, the painting that took many hours of sitting by her fire, listening to the artist in her breathe and sigh and rustle the sleeve of her shirt on the canvas, watching her secretively. But something was different.

Instead of hanging his head like he clearly remembered, his paint-captured self was half raised on his feet, and he was turning towards the sunset, looking out. His profile was lit up by the warmth of the sun, his eyes were staring directly into the new light of day.

Joshua felt his heart torn to pieces as he watched himself, either turning away from the sun, or into the light. Was he leaving it all behind, burying himself into the darkness as he had done six years before, or was he ready to get on his feet and face the light that was there to envelop him if he chose to greet it? He felt the drumming heartbeat burst his veins, he heard his head throb, his chest heaved from the sincerity of the painting. She had captured him in the moment which seemed to have defined his whole existence for years.

He checked the price of the picture, but before he could search for his wallet, someone approached with an exasperated Sara behind him.

-Yes, that’s the one -the almost bald, gentle-eyed man said. -I had paid for it an hour ago, lady.

-But uhm… that painting is… -Sara tried to speak, obviously at a loss, begging Joshua with her eyes to do something.

-I’m willing to pay twenty times as much for this painting if you sell it to me -Joshua said calmly.

The man’s mouth stayed open. He looked at the painting once more, then at Joshua, apparently unable to say anything. Then, realizing that he was getting ten thousand pounds for a silly picture that he never really liked anyway but thought fit for his wife’s boudoir, he shrugged and nodded with a happy smile. After Joshua gave him two hundred pounds and a note with his address on it, promising to send a check the first thing in the morning on Monday, the man left in a very jovial mood.

-Wow -Sara whispered, looking into his eyes. -That was… wow!

He smiled, biting his lower lip.

-Yes, you had to do it -she added, squeezing his hand lovingly. -She would never have wanted to sell it if…

He glanced at her, but she only smiled back at him with a sadness in her eyes that spoke more than all her merry chattering could have.

29.

She was staring at her sketchbook, stroking the outlines of him, the black lines on white paper. A two-dimensional Joshua, forever hers, at least. However much it hurt, remembering, while with every moment gone, the memories grew more and more beautiful. Perhaps she had had her share of perfection when she heard him sing, when she saw him lonely and vulnerable, when she held him and loved him as much as she could. Perhaps she could not have loved him more than in that moment of tender embrace, perhaps it was God’s way of ending things when they had reached the peak of their perfection.

She was so immersed in her deaf sorrow that his presence behind her was unnoticed until Marshmallow walked up to him with a loud purr. She turned her head, seeing him stand next to the rocking chair.

The person hiding behind her wrinkled skin did not exist any more. She had been dead since that day in the shop, and she did not understand why he was there. Was he expecting dinner…?

-I brought back our painting -he said slowly, propping the picture against the couch so that Mary could see it.

She gazed at it through unseeing eyes.

-It’s no one’s painting -she said, standing up with difficulty.

-Why did you change it? -he asked, ignoring her remark.

-Because you’re leaving soon -she replied, walking towards her kitchen.

Her voice was so hollow, so lifeless that he got scared.

-Where would I leave? -he asked impatiently.

-Back to your old life, where you belong -she said in an indifferent voice. Then, looking at him, she stopped in the hallway. -Please go.

He swallowed, feeling the coldness of her indifference.

-We have to talk -he said resolutely.

-We don’t -she replied slowly, opening her entrance door. -Go back to Diane.

-She doesn’t mean anything to me- he hissed, the tension suddenly rising in his stomach.

-You obviously meant more to her, then -Mary retorted bitterly. -Your whole life is full of women ready to give you anything.

He stopped short, his heart drumming ferociously. Her allusion hurt him terribly, because it came from the one person he thought he could always trust, but he was not moving.

She sensed his surprise and she took advantage of the situation by walking outside into the mellow evening. She breathed in the warm air, feeling strangely calm, almost… almost free. By forcefully severing him off of herself perhaps she could start living again. Not a happy life, but life nonetheless.

Her resolution lasted until she let the air out of her lungs. Then, she felt loneliness crush her and mutilate her whole existence.

She could not live without him.

She staggered under the weight of her emptiness, but before she could have tripped, she felt him hold her up.

His arms were relentless and so was his breath, laboured and painfully hot on her face. In the soft pallor of dusk his eyes sparkled down on her like fireflies. She could not get away as he was simply squeezing her to himself, searching her eyes. After the horrible days she had had she was closer to being dead than alive and her thoughts had dropped to the bottom of her consciousness like heavy stones. Her arms were tight in his chest where his sudden embrace had trapped them- she had nowhere left to go.

-I have to know -his voice said. It was harsh and raucous, and it was quivering. -Do you want me to stop?

Was he really asking her that? Did he not see through her? She felt like a leaf, blown to pieces, blown into the whirlwind of the fall to disappear unless he caught her between his gentle fingers. She wanted to be torn, snapped, broken, crunched under his toe. She knew she would die if he let her go, and it was possible that her heart would stop beating if he didn’t. His eyes towered above her, endless and moist, pressing her to choose.

Slowly, like the lazy light of an incomplete sunrise creeping across the horizon, her whole being was pulled into the frightening realization: she was to utter a word which would change her universe. If she said yes, he would leave, abandon her, let her fall to pieces; if she said no…

A life of perfect bliss appeared before her blinded eyes; love, belonging, trust, peace, heaven- and then, guilt for having stolen something that wasn’t hers in the greater scheme of things, shame for showing herself as someone who she never thought she could be, and finally, fear of losing him, every day, the numbing fear.

She was unable to choose. Her eyes closed in resignation, putting her life in his hands.

Her feet hardly touched the ground, her head was spinning, her lungs were crushed by his arms, her hands were trapped on his chest. She felt his breath on her mouth, so close, almost touching her with his lips, but only almost. She didn’t dare breathe, or move- it was excrutiating- what if he was making fun of her- what if someone was watching and he was just- what if she was dreaming-

Not being able to hold her breath any more, she opened her eyes.

He was still there, his eyes piercing hers, and the moment he saw her look at him, his mouth searched and found hers.

She froze under his touch, feeling like a thief, a criminal, a joke. He could not possibly be kissing her, an old, unsavoury living ghost. He would realize what he was doing-

-the next moment-

-the next one-

-he would come to his senses, he would.

Now.

But his arms kept holding her tighter than she had ever been held, and his lips tasted sweeter than anything she had ever tasted. She had forgotten what it felt like to be kissed- the soft pressure of lips on hers- the moist warmth of a mouth on hers- the heated breath that filled her lungs.

When her mind finally refused to analyse his motives, her body was allowed the complete use of its senses. She felt his arms on her back, rubbing her gently, his curls tickle her forehead and eyelids, his breath fill her, warm her, entice her, his lips move on hers, his tongue slide between her timidly parted lips-

She lost control over herself and freeing her arms from the tight embrace of their bodies glued together, she squeezed him with as much force as she could muster, still scared that he might change his mind- but he was past changing anything. His kiss grew hotter and the desire in the shape of deep sighs escaping her throat mingled with his demanding moans. She felt his hands hold her head gently and his fingers massage her skull. He stepped even closer to her, so close that he almost pushed her off her feet, but when she lost her balance, he held her tight to keep her from falling-

And she was finally able to let go. Of her fears, of her doubts, of her questions, of her felf-deprecation, her old self. There was no need to cling to him as he was still there and apparently he was not planning to move anywhere; her arms loosened their grip and she kissed him back with the gentle, feminine passion that was stirring inside her. His kiss became slower too, his quickly kindled desire appeased by her tenderness and love.

They broke apart to look into each other, ask and receive, give and take, without words, or gestures. They got lost in each other’s eyes, holding each other, alone yet together, laughing at the storm that was gathering on the dark horizon.

30.

The silence was everywhere, the silence that only allowed the waves and their breaths to tear at its velvet surface. They were standing glued together, arms around each other, waiting, wondering, focusing and drifting away. Like waves, their breathing fell into rhythm, slowly breaking away from their fragile bodies. Their hearts drummed the beat to the melody of sea and soul as the night slowly ascended on them.

Glances, shifting, stolen, questioning. Hands holding, fingers timidly groping for the other’s hand, eyes looking, fixed, blind, confused. Legs taking them inside, lips awaiting the other’s lips.

She tore herself away from him as they got inside. Hands shaking, she stumbled to the kitchen to boil some tea. Brushing her hair back, accidentally touching her own lips with her fingers. Her hand lingered on the lips that he kissed so passionately- how was it possible? She had been waiting for it, but- it was not possible. She was dreaming. She certainly was.

Two arms slowly circled around her waist from behind. His body pressed against hers, with no demands, only promises, and his breath stroked her ear. She glanced down to see his hands holding her, his fingers slowly moving, stroking her through her blouse. His breath was warming her neck, his cheek was rubbing against her hair. When he slowly kissed the tip of her ear she trembled involuntarily.

Gathering her strength, she turned around to face him.

-This is not… I can’t. I can’t -she whispered, praying he would refute her arguments, whatever they would be.

-You can -he said simply, stepping closer. His arms went around her back and he pulled her close to kiss her again- she felt like a movie star who was part of a grandiose love scene- his gestures were slow and more passionate than she could ever have imagined. He kissed her without any restraint or doubt: his lips engulfed hers, his tongue took possession of hers, enticing it to join the dance of desire. She had forgotten- no- she had never experienced anything like it.

When he finally allowed her to breathe, she was weak and trembling. Holding onto his arm, she searched his eyes, trying to see how- how much of it he had felt. It was not possible he did not feel the earth shift under them.

His breath was uneven and his hand was gently fumbling with her hair. His eyes were open, dark, tender, his look- she could see right through him- she saw the one who was bare-souled, empty-handed, clinging to her just as strongly as she was clinging to him.

Nothing seemed as satisfying as holding him in her arms, feeling his chest tight against hers, hips connecting in an unheard of way, hair intertwined, breaths in synch, souls one.

She smelled him, drank him in, felt him with her fingers; warmth, youth, love under her palms. How? Why? Who was she to deserve it- to deserve him? She closed her eyes, hardly breathing, hearing the waves in the distance, the angels and insects meet and part in the night in her garden. The moon was hiding behind dark clouds- she would not have been surprised if the doomsday had come upon the world. She felt positively surreal in his arms.

After a while, despite the low rumble of the first thunders reaching her silence, she felt calm and at peace. Strangely, wonderfully at peace. But fears and questions had to be uttered nonetheless, it was the way of life, the way of uncertain love- and clumsy words rolled down her tongue.

-No one has touched me… for a long time -she whispered into the darkness of his curls. -You have no idea what you’ve given me… Joshua -she added, saying his name with reverence. She trembled saying it, her tongue and lips and mind and throat and ears and everything that the uttering of his name involved in total, perfect unison.

-You have given me much more, Mary -he replied, placing a soft kiss on her neck, inhaling her scent. The same, earthy, scented, natural smell. Leaves. Soil. Sunlight. Sea, the eternal sea.

-No… do you understand? -she tore herself away slowly, painfully. Every moment not spent in his arms felt like torture. -I’m close to sixty, I’ve lived alone for decades… no one… has touched… me, the person hiding behind this… -her voice trailed off, and she pinched the soft skin on her arm. It gave way easily, flaccid and old as it was. -This mask -she finished, averting his gaze. -Old age equals being forgotten, swept aside. You become redundant.

She pushed him aside gently, looking at him for a moment before stepping to the teapot. Taking tealeaves and honey out of the cupboard, she started preparing tea, though why, she had no idea. Then, when the hot steam of the water reached the pores on her wrist, she remembered where she was, who she was with. She turned to face him once more. Yes, he was there, tall and slim and with a mischievous stubble, and with endlessly tender eyes. God, she longed to be his forever! She buried her face in his shoulder, squeezing him with the leftover strength of a fading human.

-I’m sorry, I don’t know what I’m saying -she rambled, stroking his back, his hair, melting into him. -I’m just a silly old woman who stopped being herself when you stepped into her life -she whispered, enjoying the feel of his arms all over her.

He understood her fears, he heard her unspoken words as well as the timidly uttered ones. Closing his arms around her, he kissed her again and again, slowly luring her out of her hiding place, making her lips kiss him back more daringly each time. Her lips awoke under his touch like a rose that in the scorching heat of summer starts withering, but with the falling of late dusk dewdrops, gains its life back gradually, its petals filling up with life. He could feel her love soar from the depths of the wonderful being he was only beginning to discover. Her tenderness felt heavenly and safe.

-I made tea… how’s your throat? Does your chest hurt? -she asked out of breath, when she tore away from him for a moment.

-It hurts when I’m not doing this -came the slow reply accompanied by a groan, and his lips sealed hers again.

She almost giggled- what a surprise- he couldn’t get enough of her either. Her hand travelled down his back, hardly touching his suit, not really daring- but he seemed to expect her hands- his bottom tensed under her palm and her heart stopped. He felt round and soft, yet full of muscle- perfect, immortal. His slow sigh filled her lungs, and he pressed her against the edge of the table.

Swallowing, apart from him, shaking she stood, grabbing something, anything. Her hand reached out to stroke his beautiful face but she couldn’t look him in the eye.

-I need… some time -she moaned. -Please don’t hate me -she begged the floor, the pattern of brown and terracotta squares under her feet.

-Hate you? -he asked incredulously, stepping close to her to envelop her in a tender hug. -What are you saying? Hate the hand that feeds me? The heart that loves me? The body that craves me?

He held her face in his hands, looking at her with those eyes that she knew would be the last thing she would see in her life.

-If you need time, you got it -he said, kissing her forehead. -I’m sorry if I seem to rush things, but… I want to be inside you.

He said the last words almost inaudibly, like a sacred confession only meant for her ears. She blushed and buried her face in his curls. Good heavens. How she was still alive was a mystery to her; he seemed to be all the enchanted princes and knights and heroes every little girl weaves fantasies about. His touch, his words, his whole presence was apparently no mirage, but reality. In the flesh, with hips gently rubbing against her, hands discovering every part of her, lips that breathed onto her and kissed her mouth ever so often, greedily, softly, in every way possible.

-I’m yours until you want me -she said the words that almost killed her. Tears streamed down her face suddenly, out of nowhere. His embrace softened, his hands held her even more gently, and she was floating, she was flying, she was in a place she had never imagined possible.

-Can I stay? -he asked, his voice betraying real fear for the first time that evening.

She wept, holding him, unable to reply. Words failed her like everything else: time stopped, dancing back and forth, tearing her out of reality and into a pictured promise-land, except that she was there in his arms, and whatever she imagined could not have been as sweet.

The storm was fully raging when moonlight found them asleep side by side in her bed. After an eternity of emptiness, the forlorn bedroom seemed full of purpose and life as the two breathing humans exhaled their flawed, yet perfect love for each other in their sleep.

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