A walk by the sea (51-55)

51.

He saw her sitting at her desk when he stepped out of the elevator. In her white top and a sophisticated bun on top of her head, her long-nailed fingers holding a receiver, her lips parted in talking. She was a sight to behold and he stood for a few moments, until she finished the call, and watched her, a step further from the elevator to keep it from opening and closing automatically. A tress of her hair fell lazily from the tight bun and floated next to her ear. Her nose seemed pointy and so did her chin. Those full lips moving quickly, from a smile into a professional pucker, back into a smile and an understanding squeeze. She could be anyone, really, only using her lips.

As she hung up, she noticed him standing outside the elevator and her face lit up.

-Hi -she said, positively beaming at him.

-Hi -he stepped closer, feeling a little uncomfortable, not knowing when she had left in the night, and under what circumstances. Not knowing what… the end of their encounter would be.

-Sorry I had to leave you like that -she bit her lower, painted lip. The lipstick left a striking red mark on her tooth, but her lips covered the sight right away. Almost like covering up a mistake. As if she knew. -Did you get my note?

-I did -he smiled. She was just as vulnerable, and he liked her more and more. -Don’t worry about it. Is he in?

-Who…? Oh, yes, he is. Actually, he arrived just a few minutes before you. I was making a call for him. He wanted a meeting rescheduled.

He nodded and looked at the thick mahogany door. Sound proof, water proof, soul proof.

-I guess I should go in, then -he mused, lost in the intricate pattern of the wooden frame. Then, the stone floor.

-It will be fine, Josh -Angela breathed and lay a languid hand on top of his on the counter. -You can only win in this situation, trust me.

-If I win, we go for a walk in your lunch break -Joshua turned to her, feeling unexpectedly merry.

-And if you win, I’ll give you some extra treats later -she crooned and pursed her lips, then smacked them softly. His groin reacted instantly and his lips gave into a smirk.

-You’re an extra treat in yourself -he thought to say, and was content with the blush on her cheek and the sparkle in her eyes.

She giggled and propped her chin on her clasped hands.

-Go in, tiger, before you make me lose it completely -she said. -I still have work to do, you know.

The effect he had on her seemed to get stronger with every moment he spent looking into her hazel eyes. He left her with a grin on his face and entered the office of Mr Ferguson with the certainty that he was in the gain, and that he would stay there for a long time.

~~~

It was late in the afternoon. Past signing a contract, past lunchtime and their brief walk that was aimed at a local café, then made them literally fall into the lavatory on the ground floor. Her insatiable lips, then thighs seemed to suck the energy out of his loins, but he didn’t mind. She was fulfilling his own desires, and he refused to think further.

She did ask him about his family in between two hungry kisses. About his work, she knew plenty. He didn’t mind. He was tired of telling people about what he was doing for a living. Yes, he was a singer. Yes, he used to be terribly famous. Yes, he was on the tracks that led him back into the land of fame. She seemed to know all of that, what more, she helped him take the necessary steps. He was grateful for her initiative powers in all aspects of his life that without no decisions to make, seemed simple and easy enough: he had work to do, and he had someone to be with. How simple was that?

On their way out, she straightening her mini, he straightening his shirt inside his trousers, he wanted to make small talk. Parents? Siblings? Favourite cheese brand? She burst out laughing, and so did he. Don’t sweat it, Josh, she told him. There’s not much to know about me. All there is to know, you will find out. And she winked and left him hanging.

Agreeing to meet at seven when she finished work, Joshua took a taxi and asked to be driven to the beach. Without the sea, he felt lost. Lost in a pair of eyes that were not so uncorrupted anymore, and a gentle smile that at times turned positively beastly. Lustful, possessive, yet reassuring. A sense of being dominated lingered in his clothes that she had touched, and he drifted in and out of fear and satisfaction. Wasn’t it good, after all? He had nothing to do. Only sit back and let life take its course.

Like the waves. Loud, roaring above pebbly sand and an occasional shallow cliff he passed during his walk. They had no plans, they only followed each other blindly, as nature had set their course. He listened to their instinctive existence crash into that of the sand, of the rocks, parts of them in the shape of droplets falling on the feathers of seagulls that took them gladly away, further, then back, and further again. Joshua wanted a life as simple as that of the waves. To lash out at rock and sand but leave everything untouched, really. A seemingly profound impact, when all it was was white froth and blue splashes against cliffs that were not to be altered in the least. Yes, he could be happy with that. Or, even better: he could be the rock, or the sand. Let everyone else wash over him. He would duck the potent waters, let them cover him completely in transparency, but his own, well-hidden self would always be there. And shine through at times.

Happy with the metaphors his relaxed brain could conjure with such ease, he ambled along the wet sands, staring into the waves that started out as angry, but ended up as shallow when they almost reached his shoes. He felt unreachable and strong. He would work on his album and perform as many times as the money he was paid told him to.

He stared awhile into the misty winter afternoon, losing himself in the loud roaring of waves on sand and rocks. He was alone on the beach, and he liked it: he felt alone, distant, almost aloof. He thought of Angela’s hands and lips, so eager to please him, and a sense of superiority passed over him, almost like a seagull that never stopped flying: sometimes it flew further, but then it returned with renewed powers to claim his body. He had been on the verge of falling into the depths of despair, and now he felt invincible; he had the best deal in his pockets, he had a gorgeous young thing who was there and ready to satisfy his every whim, and a bright future nothing could spoil.

Not even a sudden downpour of cold drizzle that soaked him before he could reach the doorway of the first building in sight. He stood there after shaking his hair a little, like his dog used to, grinning at the memory of the happy furball licking his hands. Sweeney, the most perfect dog anyone could have imagined. Remembering his dog had been very painful for many years, but now, standing in the rain, yet sheltered from it, he thought of his pet and smiled, despite the afternoon that was turning gloomy on the outside. He felt so glorious on the inside that he loved every moment of the rainy winter day.

When he opened his eyes to smile into the void, the smile froze on his lips.

He leaned against the cold door, squinting his frantic heartbeat into a frightened, mute whisper: Mary?

He lost track of reality for a fraction of a moment, and when he focused again, the apparition was gone.

The rain was falling at an angle now, dropping heavy on his jacket and trousers and leather shoes. He blinked fast, feeling the light drops gather on his cheeks and trickle down slowly. He didn’t mind the rain: he had always loved the rain. But the fact that the rain had brought and then washed away the ghost of someone he was not ready to face yet, made the incessantly falling drizzle almost hateful.

It had been Mary. Or, her ghost haunting him ruthlessly. Or the projection of a mind close to a breakdown, despite the happiness he thought he was enveloped in. Was he losing his sanity?

Waiting for the rain to stop, he also waited for her to return and reconcile his madness with his sense of liberation. If she returned, he would know for certain that he was not insane. If she returned, reality would fall into place, and his endeavours would fall into place, or-

That is, if she was real. But she was dead. In which case, her return would prove beyond doubt that he was in serious need of a psychiatrist’s help.

He blinked repeatedly, trying to wash out the cold rain from his blurry eyes. It was not happening. He must have only imagined her there, a cruel fancy of a soul almost at peace. He could not start hallucinating now, one step away from well-earned fame, from the release of a new album, from a life without complications and remorse.

Coaxing his spirit into believing, he turned the collar of his jacket up and started running lightly towards the buildings that hid a taxi station. The rain did not stop falling and by the time he reached the first taxi, he was soaking wet, but the warmth of the vehicle permeated his limbs right away, and his defying heart told him to think about Angela and their later meeting.

She would make him forget whatever crazed visions his brain was making up.

52.

-Sara! -Mary exclaimed when she heard her friend’s happy voice on the other end. -Please tell me Marsh is okay…

-She is, relax, old girl -Sara giggled. -I was just calling to ask how you’ve been. Almost three weeks and not a single call from you…? I accuse you of abandoning your old friends for the sake of… for the sake of what, exactly?

-I’m not really sure -Mary laughed, settling comfortably in the sofa in the living-room.

It was early afternoon, Elaine was working on some files in her study, the baby was mercifully asleep, and Joseph was at work. It was probably the best time to have a little chat with her friend: if Sara had not called, Mary would have dialled her friend’s number.

-But seriously. How are things?

Mary heard that Sara was sipping her coffee, possibly the third one that day, and kicking some newspapers off her feet. She could picture the young woman lying on her sofa, flames merrily crackling in the fireplace, Marshmallow lazily purring in her lap. The traitor, Mary mused and grinned at the image.

-Things are pretty good -Mary said slowly, not certain at all that she could say it out loud. -I… I’m going to have an exhibition of my own, Sara! -she added, biting her lip in excitement.

-You WHAT? -there was a short pause, while Sara probably placed her coffee down, possibly spilling half of it on the carpet that was luckily (or thoughtfully) dark brown, and hiding countless similar spots already. -I knew it! I so knew it! Oh my God, Mary, that is wonderful news! I’m so excited for you I think I need a change of underwear.

-I think it’s the coffee you spilled -Mary laughed, wishing she could hug her loyal friend.

-You may be right… wow, Mary! An exhibition! How? I mean, of course, I have always known your paintings are awesome and deserve more recognition, but… can you share some details, please?

-An art dealer wanted to see my work and he was overwhelmed and talked with a local gallery owner and the exhibition opens in a week or so.

-Amazing! -was all Sara could say. -Congratulations, Mary… you deserved it. And so much more.

-Thank you, dear -Mary smiled, feeling a lump grow in her throat.

-A week… damn, I wish I could fly there. Let me see if I can find someone for the shop… I’d dearly love to be present at the grand opening.

-I would love to have you here! How soon can you know for certain?

-God knows… Petra is always available but as luck would have it, she broke her arm two days ago… slipped on the pavement. But Jean could be easy to mobilise… I’ll call her as soon as we hang up.

Mary smiled and thought she heard her other friend, the cat purr extra loud in the background.

-Even Marsh is excited -Sara giggled. -She’s a doll. I used to hate cats but this one is a character!

-Cats are, yes -Mary said. -I miss her a great deal… well, after New Year’s I think I won’t be staying so much longer… Jo and Elaine want to have me until February but… I miss my old house… the sea… I miss England -she finished with a sigh.

Sara asked, but not right away.

-How are you coping… otherwise, Mary?

The words were so carefully chosen and uttered that Mary could only smile. The chatterbox Sara, the blunt, the rash Sara was a changed person.

-Actually… actually I’m doing quite well -she replied, almost ashamed to feel… happy?

-Whaaaaat? What’s going on, Mary? I can sense a conspiracy I am no part of, and if I’m left out of some underground plot, you know I turn grumpy… what is it?

-The art dealer I told you about…

-Oh my god. He’s fallen in love with you! -Sara exclaimed, or rather, squealed, not leaving Mary time to reply properly.

-Can’t I have any secrets before you?! -Mary wailed, laughing in her heart.

-Okay, this time, I think it is my underwear -Sara blurted out. -Oh, how is he? Tell tell tell!

-He’s… his name is Andrew… he’s very well situated… he’s intelligent and wise and humorous and patient.

-Is he human? -Sara asked.

-I found no trace of chip implants on his neck or wrist, so… yes, he seems to be from this planet -Mary laughed.

-I love America! -Sara sighed happily. -I knew it! You know, once things start happening, they never stop. First Joshua, then your paintings, and now this other man… who seems to be… perfect for you? What next, my friend?

Mary swallowed her first reaction at hearing the name she had been trying to forget for a while now. Closing her eyes involuntarily, she felt a wave of warmth pass over her as tender memories instantly emerged from the recent past.

-Good things seem to happen, yes -she said slowly, her exhilaration over her exhibition and the thought of Andrew in her arms the night before reluctantly dissipating as the pure beauty of Joshua started to take over in her soul. His gentle eyes were piercing hers and his tender hands were clasped into hers and he was owning her once again, their unlikely feelings for each other all the more cherished and precious.

-Is everything alright? -she heard, and forced herself back to reality.

-Sorry, I was lost there for a moment… it’s simply too much to take in -she said, making herself sound merry and relaxed. She succeeded.

-He must be a wonderful person, Andrew… I wish you could tell me more about him -Sara smiled in another country.

-You can meet him when you get here -Mary replied, more at ease now. -He is wonderful… he makes me so confident and happy about myself… he’s my age, too -she went on, wondering why the hastily added words sounded empty and treacherous.

-I’m very happy for you -Sara said slowly. -It’s all for the best, you know?

There was a brief silence only disrupted by the cosy purring of a furry animal, and the relaxed space, void of of exchanged thoughts that were not necessarily needed between two friends who knew how to read in each other’s thoughts. Mary thought she understood what Sara meant, but she was not sure she wanted to acquiesce. If she did, she would stand bravely in a delicate place where the past was shrouded by oblivion, and the present was the only time and space left for her.

-Do you think I had to meet Joshua first, to find my way back into love with his help? -Mary asked, almost shaking. She could hardly speak the words, they hurt so much.

-I think that yes, it had to happen that way -Sara replied. -And I know, because I know you and you can’t hide your real feelings from me, that it still hurts you… but believe me, it will all pass… and the stable, good love that Andrew can give will make it easier to… if not forget Joshua, then find a way to be happy about the memories you had with him… In time, you will be able to put them into perspective and safely say, I have come a long way and I have loved in differently each time, but it is here, and now, that I am truly happy.

It sounded magically beautiful, like words spoken by an old, wise person, and not her chatty, sometimes silly young friend. Then again, what are appearances? Things to be remembered and cherished can come from anyone, and anywhere. A tiny, insignificant-looking weed can remedy an illness that countless expensive drugs have failed to heal.

-You make it sound as if we never had any future together… -Mary said, slowly choosing the words to express a hurt in her heart that was painfully growing.

-I… I don’t know about that -Sara replied, equally at a loss. -I didn’t want to imply that you were not…

-Meant for each other? -Mary laughed, while her soul was weeping. -I know. Don’t try to paint it nicer than it is, Sara. I have always known… It had always been there, in my face, in my heart, the moment I saw him. How could I have imagined that we could last? Where did I take the… courage from, and the impertinence to… to claim him? He was as far from me as the sun from the earth…

-No, Mary, don’t -Sara begged. -Why are you robbing yourself of the beauty you had received from him? This way of thinking will deprive you of what he was for you… Besides, you can always see the sun from the earth, no matter what. Even through the clouds. You know that the sun is there.

-Oh, you hopeless optimist -Mary giggled, giving Sara a virtual hug.

-I was born one and I will die one -Sara replied confidently. -And before you start slipping back into your dark spot, guess what, my stubborn friend: he saw you, too, and he loved you for who you are. Remember? It was no act of pity… he fell for you, like Andrew is falling for you now. You radiate wisdom and beauty and the fact that you look at a tree and see something completely different from what I see, will always be a source of wonder. For me, and for everyone who stumbles across you. Simply put, you are a treasure in my life, and I’m sure many have agreed, and will agree with me in the years to come.

-Another confession?! I can’t take too much more -Mary laughed, blushing.

-What did he exactly say? -Sara asked, her old, zealously curious self surfacing once more.

-Oh, stuff fit for a romance novel -Mary shrugged and giggled. -That I was a treasure, that I was special… I have never heard as many nice things about myself all my life -she finished with a laugh.

-I already love this guy -Sara giggled. -He sure knows how to rub you in the right places, huh?

Mary blushed, then realized what Sara meant, and what she, old but brave hag that she was, should not have thought into the question.

-I can see you’re blushing! -Sara laughed. -Wow. Give my warmest regards to Andrew! I’ll make sure to squeeze him to death when I meet him.

-I will, you silly nut -Mary kept giggling. -And now, I think I’ll take my daily walk on the beach… how’s the sea back home?

-Oh, the same -Sara said. -Dark, gloomy. Grumpy that you’re not visiting her every day. I try to go see her but she misses you more.

-You talk of the sea as if it was a person -Mary laughed, ridiculously happy.

-You taught me how, and I think you were right. The sea is a living, breathing person, if not human, then divine, or out of this world, or all of these combined -Sara said. -In any case, the weather has been shitty, like really shitty, ever since you left. No sunshine, just a cold drizzle every day that starts and stops at odd times, and the cold makes the roads slippery from the frozen rain, and I may break a leg or two before I could see your lovely work exhibited in a posh yankee gallery.

-You will not break anything -Mary replied authoritatively. -I need you here so please, get a few days off, and bring your beloved, and… oh, what will happen to Marsh then?!

-Don’t worry. I have people who will be more than happy to take care of this unique feline.

They hung up sending each other love, and Mary relaxed into the sofa with a hundred thoughts in her head. Things were happening so fast… before she knew it, everything occurring today would be something dragged to the present from a year’s distance…

She needed to walk, get some fresh air, ponder and argue with herself. Even though it was still early, she felt she could not take another minute locked in the flat, while the ocean was out there, endless and free.

53.

She should have felt useless and selfish, walking by herself, without a single worry on her mind. Instead, for the first time in months, she was happy to have arrived at a point in her life where decisions were her own, and consequences, however difficult they were to take, did not feel like punishment for some sin she had committed. She thought she felt free and master of herself.

The beach stretched on both sides of her endlessly, giving to docks and summer cottages, as well as villas, and further on, apartment blocks on her right, with shallow shrubs and tiny-looking cliffs on her left, sprinkled on the gentle slope the destination of which she had yet to discover. In her close proximity, only sand and flotsam was to be seen, but if she lifted her eyes, she could see the matte waves that reflected none of the low-hanging, pale sun. It was winter.

Pulling her scarf around her neck and tightening it into a knot, she stood in one place with her hands pulled up in her sleeves. She wore a jacket only, as the mild winter could not hurt her, but despite the gentle coolness of the day, she felt cold. As if the slow wind was blowing through her, reaching her heart and holding it in an icy embrace.

Where was the feeling of certainty that had accompanied her most of the time? As she stared into the blind sun hidden behind a thick veil of misty cloud, she thought of things to cheer her up. Her exhibition was a mere few steps away: it should be a success, Andrew had told her. She believed him, as she believed most of the things he told her. He had miraculous effects on her, neutralizing her worries, her doubts, her fears. Andrew. He was there, at arm’s reach, available whenever she called him, for a friendly chat, or a serious talk, or if the artst in her felt failure loom behind the bright day. He was there, too, for things she had not hoped to experience again… Her heart leapt and she bit her lip when she remembered his slightly athletic, if thick-set body exposed to her eyes for the first time. He had been self-conscious, almost vain in wishing to prove to himself as much as her how capable he still was to feel, and to give delight. Is this causing you pain? I can stop… No, please, don’t…

The wind blew stronger, pushing her hair back, making her blinking fast to keep her eyes safe from the icy air. Andrew’s touch had stayed with her for long hours after they fell asleep; in fact, it was with her now, lingering on her faithfully. The sun was less and less visible, and the horizon grew dark grey with the promise of rain hanging heavy above the world. Mary watched the sun disappear gradually, feeling a restlessness get hold of her: she used to love the gloominess, the dark moods of the sea back home, but now, she longed to see the sun, bathe in the light, feel visible and shiny. The dreariness outside her infiltrated her soul and she felt small before the ocean, not special at all, just… puny and clinging to anything that radiated warmth: a pebble, perfectly round at the toe of her feet, the colour of warm mustard ochre, a piece of a branch, torn off from a distant tree and carried to the beach, a tiny bud, impatient herald of spring absurdly holding onto the rotting branch, a bird that flew overhead smoothly, wings stretched and black, seemingly floating on air without the slightest effort.

She missed painting… the thought of her previous work being exhibited, at the mercy or benevolence of strangers’ eyes should have uplifted her, but now, watching everyday existence with eyes that only saw beauty even in the slightest, most insignificant detail, she realized she missed the process of creation. The sudden jolt one feels at any unexpected moment, when the vision is implanted in one’s unsuspecting brain; the painful knowledge that nothing can be as grandiose as the vision in one’s mind, and the certainty that the wish to share that vision will forever be stronger, despite the discrepancy between thought and realization; and finally, the slow struggle to haul the idea received by grace from the dream-world of fantasy onto the real world of two-dimensional paint and canvas. The process of painting, that long, floating feeling birds must feel at all times: seeing the contours and shapes and hues born onto the virgin white of her new canvas. The end result was rarely satisfactory; but the act of creation, the feeling that for a brief time, when she thought her paints were close to what her inner eye had seen, for that short, unreal moment she almost felt like…

Not daring to go on with her thought, she turned and decided to walk home. It was dark, it was getting really cold, and she was lonelier than ever. In spite of her bright prospects, in spite of the knowledge that Andrew loved her and would do anything to see her happy. Being loved so fast, so suddenly seemed unreal to her, but he made sure to tell her again and again how important she was for him. His gentle love did not make her unconditionally happy, though: to be loved, and to be unable to reciprocate that love…

Angry with herself for spoiling her beautiful walk, she ambled a little, oblivious to direction or time. The wind howled in her ears, and all her downcast eyes saw was sand and pebbles, pebbles and sand, and the frothy tips of furious waves, blown by the wind, touched by the first drops of a cold drizzle.

It was time to go home. Not to her son’s house, but home, to where her heart was craving to return. The exhibition, opening only a week before Christmas, would be the last thing she’d stay for in the States: nothing was holding her back. Perhaps Andrew… but her surprising and somewhat unnatural attachment to him would probably turn to dust the moment her heart started palpitating at the thought of her little home, and her sea.

Small droplets of rain fell on her hand as she stooped to lift the round, yellowish pebble and feel its cold, soft sides between her fingers. She stood up and looked away into the distance, drinking the sight of a dark ocean meeting curtains of heavy rain that would shortly arrive to her beach. Palm trees were bending and undulating under the wind that seemed to be harsh further away, and she decided it was really time to get back.

Only a few steps she took when some power beyond her made her turn back to look at the ocean once again. She did, wondering why, since she felt no real kinship with the vast waters.

A lonely figure stood by the waves, his feet almost covered in the water that got dangerously close by now. It was a man, and despite the thick drizzle that made her vision blurry and uncertain, her heart almost leapt out of her chest.

His curls were heavy with the rain, and he had his hands in his jacket. He was looking at the waves himself, motionless and alone. Mary did not dare breathe, or budge, lest it should be a prank of her stupid mind, or worse. Why now? Her life was on the move, she had plans, she was… she was different, she tried to lose those sad memories and build up a life that would be her own, and her own only.

It was him, without a doubt: she saw, or imagined his profile when he turned slightly, as if pondering, or waiting for something to happen. She almost lost her balance when her feet moved despite herself and took her a few steps closer to her fantasy: but he did not move, he was real. He was there. She could see his chin, and his nose, and the slightly stooping shoulders that rounded his back agains the drizzle.

But what good would it be? Causing herself immeasurable pain, when all she wanted was to forget her sorrow… and forget him.

Rain mixed with her unfelt tears as she turned away forcefully and started walking back to her son’s house. She did not dare look back: she was not ready to see him gone, and was even less ready to see him again in the flesh. She could not, would not-

She stumbled on a smaller rock, but didn’t care. She wanted to be out of the downpour of her emotions, safe in the arms of oblivion and warmth.

She did not notice the lonely figure run towards the shelter of the nearest building, and the fact that he saw her before she disappeared between the first houses on her way back.

54.

He asked to be driven around the city for a while, telling the driver to go whichever way he preferred, as long as he could pull up outside the Capitol building before seven. He could have waited inside the building, and keep Angela company perhaps, or he could have gone for a drink… but being taken to corners of his native city he had forgotten seemed to be the best decision.

Sinking back into the comfortable leather seat, he looked outside the window as the car drove around smoothly. Raindrops gathered on the window and as he watched them restlessly, they got together in twos or threes and trickled down the smooth surface, losing themselves in the larger scheme of things: rain falling off the metal doors, into the already forming puddles on the dark concrete, waiting to evaporate into the mist and become clouds, to drop from the skies once again. To be present in such a cycle, always to return, never to perish really, but merely change in shape and state; dwelling in the heavens and watching the world from a bird’s view, then dropping onto the earth to experience life, like all things close to mortality: being trampled on, destroyed, swallowed, violated, used for survival, then thrown away, and by the mercy of fate, being reborn to continue on the eternal cycle.

He tried to master his thoughts and force himself to think lucidly. Did he see her? Was it a pathetic trick of his mind? Was he on the edge? Was there a way back? Would he ever forget her? Did he want to forget her? Did he not call her back from his memories that should have been buried? What use thinking about her, and why? Why, when he was finally finding his own pace, getting on with his life and career, even accepting the approaches of an incredibly attractive woman? It all clicked together: he had the best record deal he had ever made in his life, he had it in his pocket, he could feel the crisp paper with his finger if he wanted to. Signed, sealed, his. He would have no financial worries in the decades to come, if he could only stay on the safe path and lead a disciplined life. Recalling his drunken hours earlier, he wondered why he felt no shame or regret. Deep inside his heart, his conscience was telling him he should have. But it was his life, after all, his and only his: he did not have anyone to account to, anyone to really care for, except his parents and brother. Not even subconsciously did he consider Angela anything more than a passing acquaintance, and despite the vague recollections of her eager lips and surprisingly gentle eyes, he felt no remorse. It had been her choice, too.

Red lights were temporarily hindering their smooth attack against concrete and rain. Joshua lay his head back and closed his eyes, enjoying the soft rocking of his body as he was passing time in a stranger’s car. How easy it was to walk through life, if one had the means to pay for it. Here he was, not moving his little finger, and he was given the luxury of not having to do anything, while time, the gracious traveller, was taking him ever so slowly by the hand and pushing him closer to where he wanted to be, in soft Angela’s arms and warmth. He had no other desire than to lose himself inside her and forget the world outside, forget that he used to be different, forget that he used to be so happy, and that he knew with a certainty that at times was threatening to crush his skull that the bliss he once knew had been meant to be short-lived. When he shakingly extended his ghost-hands to reach the ghost-body of Mary, it was very clear that had he stayed, had she not chased him out of her life, their love would have faded like a flower. In moments of a clear-sightedness that seemed to pertain to someone else but him he saw the two of them, first together, then growing apart, then growing tired of each other, especially with her rapidly declining health. Old age, the merciless avenger of a lost Paradise would knock on their door, no matter what. They would have a meagre few years before inevitable changes would rob them of their freedom of choice and will. So why bother, why keep thinking of her, why drag her back into his thoughts by force?

The choice was his to make, the decision to let it all go. Then, perhaps, in time, he could really forget. But his remorse that at unexpected moments blinded his cold reasoning, and the painful craving for something beautiful and intangible that nevertheless used to be his, numbed his will and inside a warm taxi, with the cold rain pouring outside, he felt incapable of letting go. Agony and panic rose in his chest, and when he tried to subdue them by reminding himself that she was dead, that what he had seen on the beach earlier that day was but a sick fancy of a sick mind and that whatever he thought, whatever he wanted to punish himself with, whatever fantasies he might have had, none of them could become reality, because she was dead- he felt not calmer as he expected to feel, but sinking into a loneliness that he knew would never relinquish him.

Rain wept outside the taxi window, changing his mood completely, pushing him into despair and mistrust towards anything that lay ahead of him. How stupid of him to imagine for just a second that a signed contract, lots of money and a superficial relationship with a woman who probably only wanted his name would make it all right, and make it all go away! One !$%*%% up show and his career would be over and done with… for good, this time. Lawsuits and demands and legal issues could eat up his fortune, which never was too large to begin with. As for Angela… and the hundreds of Angelas who changed their hairstyle, colour, breast size and intensity of smile and orgasm every moment he thought of her, of them, she was only a drug. A fast painkiller. One that alleviates symptoms, but hardly ever uproots the real cause of the pain. One that allows a quiet, peaceful hour in sweet oblivion, but after its effect wears out, it is helpless in the face of the enemy, the pain that is the result of missed opportunities, bad choices, and hatred.

It rained outside, and it rained inside, in his heart, as well as from his eyes. Silent drops of pain merging with the skin of his numb hand and the rough surface of his shirt quickly soaking up his sense of tragic loss. To have someone holding him as lovingly as she had held him… but the impossibility of his wish only pushed him deeper into where he felt surrounded by a strange and calm silence, one that crawled into his being and left him empty and cold.

-Sir, it’s quarter to seven and we’re at the Capitol building as you requested.

He lifted his tired gaze and dropped a few notes into the lap of the driver, getting out slowly to be greeted with a shocking downpour of water. He did not remember such heavy rains in Los Angeles, ever, and as he stood there, stunned and scared by a subconscious knowledge that the world around him was changing according to his state of mind, he felt the rain reach deep into his jacket and wash his skin, prick at his warmth, freezing him. It was for the best. A few more minutes and he might come to his senses.

When he walked into the building, Angela was just coming his way.

-Oh my God, Josh, is it raining so hard? I thought you would have called a cab, smartie pants. Are you gonna start rebuilding your career with a cold? C’mon, let’s go home.

She led him to another taxi and he felt being pushed inside. He was grateful. He wanted to be safe and warm, and asleep. Alone, or with anyone who cared to watch over him. If Angela, then her: she was gentle enough and her eyes radiated anxiety, which moved him to hold her hand with his wet one.

Once inside his flat she instantly undressed him, and he let her. She brought towels and rubbed him dry, then pushed him under the warm covers of his bed and tucked him in like a worrying mother.

-I’ll stay here, too, don’t worry. Gonna brush my teeth and hop in right next to you, darling.

Her voice was soothing and low. What if she cared, after all? Who was he to decide she had no merits? She certainly had. They were pressing against his shoulder softly through the covers and he felt a faint desire to make love, but his exhaustion got the better of him and before he realized it, he was asleep.

Angels, like friends, come in all shapes and sizes; they may be welcome, or we may feel they are redundant. But whatever we think of them, they will always be present to help us cope with whatever we need to understand. Joshua’s heart knew who he wanted to be with, but his instincts of survival told him to hold onto even the thinnest straw he was offered before drowning. Angela was a nobody he would probably forget before the year was over, but he had no power over his own fate, and the fact that she lay in his bed, peacefully snoring and dreaming of the next day to be spent in his company, was stronger proof that she was an angel than the burning bush was for the existence of God.

He knew none of that, and slept long and deep, waking up fitfully to sounds he thought he heard and faces he thought he saw bending over him. He turned to his other side and got closer to the other sleeping form in his bed, feeling endlessly thankful he was not alone. It was her presence that stopped him from grabbing another bottle to fill his emptiness with the reasoning of insanity.

55.

-Do you need me in the kitchen, Eileen dear? -she asked her daughter-in-law after they finished dinner together. Andy was fast asleep in her crib and Mary thought it appropriate to leave the “youngsters” alone for a while. She noticed how Joseph had grown haggard over the past few weeks and she wondered if there was something he wasn’t telling her. It would not have been surprising: they had never had that mother and son relationship complacent psychiatrists talk about. Him telling her his secrets was an event not yet experienced, and she suspected it would never happen, either. Not that she minded, really… Living in her own shell was a comfort, despite paining her sometimes.

In order to be open to influence and inspiration, a life of an almost recluse was advisable. She knew it, but no other person was aware of it really, not even Sara. Each time her friend had tried to coax her into going out and mixing with the local people, each time there was anyone Sara wanted to introduce to her, Mary was torn between her feelings of friendship for the young woman and the impatience that artists generally feel when something threatens to hinder their creative self-realization. A drink in a pub, an afternoon spent with people, however pleasant the company might have been she merely saw as obstacles she needed to overcome. For her, drinking wine was not only a matter of her tongue and palate experiencing a rush of taste: it was not a solitary occurrance that while everyone else chatted on, exchanging thoughts on the most petty affairs she had ever heard of, she turned her glass under her hands, feeling the smooth surface with her fingers, reminiscing on the taste of wine she had just swallowed. And her mind was living a thousand stories… From one single glass of wine several narratives were born in a matter of moments: families torn apart, lovers searching for each other and for true love, lonely characters struggling for respect and affirmation. She saw the stories in colours and shapes, figures ambling by under the peachy sunset, scattered dots on a field of wheat, the wind blowing into the yellow sea… From there, one last step had to be taken: putting all that into paint, and securing it on canvas. She heard nothing of what the others talked about, she only lived her own silent life. A very solitary life amidst the circle of so-called friends she was thrown into.

Her life as an artist did not have space for anything else that required feelings. The cruel fact was that for her, her own son was less important than her art. That had always been the case, and that was the case still: she knew it as she dried the plates and handed them over to Elaine. She did feel compassion and interest for the young man who was hunched over the coffee table trying to sort out some figures for his work, but she knew the feelings she was having were not motherly.

-No, I think we’ll go to bed soon. Jo is tired and frankly, Andy was a devil today -Eileen sighed. -I’m past my best date, I just wish she’d let me sleep tonight…

Mary opened her mouth to give some advice, any kind of advice to her exhausted daughter-in-law, but she realized she had none to give. She did not remember raising Joseph, she did not remember loving motherhood… the whole of that period had slipped by her unnoticed.

-I’ll retire too -she replied instead. -It’s been a long day…

-How is the exhibition coming along? Are the paintings here yet?

-No, the last ones are delivered tomorrow, I think. Sara is such a dear to organize the shipping in my absence.

-There may be hardly any left when the gallery opens… -Eileen winked despite her tired state.

Mary smiled at her gratefully.

-It is wonderful to feel appreciated… even if by only one man.

-Andrew Burrows is very influential in his trade, and I would not be susprised if the gallery turned out to be too small for your work in the end.

-He really is a good man -Mary agreed, pouring herself a glass of water.

-And I noticed he has a soft spot for you, too -Eileen smirked.

Mary blushed. Just how much did Eileen know? She had thought no one was awake that night…

Eileen noticed the older woman’s embarrassment and she gave her a spontaneous hug.

-Mary… you have no idea how happy we are for you. You deserve all the happiness… I only wish you could have been happier all your life.

-Oh -was all Mary could say, her heart beating wildly in Eileen’s embrace. She felt moved and shocked to receive such a display of affection from the young woman who had not exactly been cold to her, but who had never showed any real understanding towards her yet. She had always thought Eileen was despising her profession… and now, the embrace and kind words she unexpectedly received mingled with her bad conscience for having been a mother whose vices grew in number each time she recalled Jo as a toddler, then as a teenager. He could never really count on her. She saw it clearly now… would he ever forgive her for that?

-He’s an amazing character, and he adores the ground you tread on -Eileen giggled, letting go of Mary. -I have never seen a man as infatuated as he is. Not even Jo-jo was this gone when we met.

Mary laughed and covered her face, feeling like an old fool.

-Is he now? -she asked, deeply blushing.

-Don’t tell me you don’t know! -Eileen laughed, throwing her head back.

-I… I do know… -Mary smiled, holding onto her glass. -It took me by surprise really… I wasn’t expecting such an old had like myself to be… wooed.

-Ah… wooed… courtship… in the good old-fashioned way. Flowers and dates, slow-paced ones, too… Walks hand in hand… Polite kisses on the cheek. -Eileen sighed quietly. -Today all you get is rushed dinners to end up in bed as soon as possible. Everyone is so impatient! Me and Jo-jo, we still had lovely times together… but I would hate to be a teenager growing up now. God knows what the trend will be when they get to love… though, let’s face it, love is a trend no one is too young to indulge in any more.

-I think you’re too strict with the younger generations, my dear. Yes, the world is going faster than we can comprehend, but traditions will always stay. I am very hopeful in this regard.

-I’d love to share your hopes -Eileen said with a sad smile. -Were you always this positive? We hardly spent any time together… a few summers, maybe, but back then I was too much in love with Jo to really care about anyone else.

-Yes, you were like two pigeons together -Mary giggled. -Oh, it was a sight to behold, you two holding hands, walking on the seaside.

-Can I ask you something?

-Please.

There was a brief silence and Mary felt a slight discomfort, not really knowing why.

-Do you love Jo?

-Hon, please make me a cup of coffee… I think I need to stay up longer than planned… my boss is on a lookout for fresh blood these days.

Eileen nodded and turned to boil some water, giving Mary a few moments to ponder the question that should not have been unexpected, considering her own unsettling thoughts on the subject.

Did she love Jo? Did she love anyone, for that matter? Or was everything and everyone around her a vast cosmos of inspiration she could draw from… How many times had she looked at people, even close friends, as if they had only been parts of her next work of art… something she felt compelled to translate into the language of paint. And Joshua… him too. She had used him abominably, like she had used every face, every flower, every sight she had ever seen.

Unable to reply due to the overwhelming urge to weep out of self-hatred and bitterness, Mary looked over to her son, Joseph, someone with average looks and glasses, a high forehead and a kind smile, someone who might never have inspired her… but who was her son. Her flesh.

-Mom, are you okay? You look so pale -Joseph interjected, glancing up from his files.

-Mary! -Eileen dropped whatever she was holding and grabbed Mary’s arms. -Sit down. What’s wrong? Do you feel alright?

-I’m fine, really -she replied in a haste, ashamed that her children were so worried over what seemed to be a shameless attack of bad conscience. She could not tell them that. She could not tell anyone what she felt… and that she could never mend her past mistakes.

Eileen was sitting on her knees holding Mary’s hand, looking at her silently while Joseph brought water and a pill. Mary took whatever she was given and tried to pull her hand away, too ashamed to accept any more love when all her life she had been frugal with it. The young woman did not let go of her hand but kept stroking it without a word, until Mary thought her heart would burst.

-Please, I’m fine, dear -she whispered, gently disengaging her hand and wiping a tear off. -Too much stress and excitement over that silly exhibition, I guess. My old heart is not used to such grand events, you know…

-Don’t be absurd, mom -Jo smiled and kissed her forehead. -It will be a blast and we all know it. Speaking of which… I’d like to ask for a painting, if I can, just one, before the onslaught of those eager buyers starts.

Mary giggled and squeezed her son’s hand, not looking him in the eye. She could not. She did not deserve his affection, or Eileen’s, who kept looking at her with love and understanding. It was too much and Mary felt she was losing her ground.

-I am so grateful to have you two -she eventually said, hardly able to utter the words. It was all she could offer as reply to Eileen’s question, and the latter knew, because she gently squeezed the old hand and hugged her mother-in-law tenderly before returning to the kitchen counter.

Mary sat by the window, quietly thinking of her life, of whatever she had to hold up as achievement. Of her joys. When did she stop loving? When did her capacity to love diminish and die? Was it when Jeff abused her feelings and left her? Was it earlier? And art… how could she have accepted it as a substitute for real feelings? A lifetime of lies and superficial beauty… all wasted. Her son… her grand-daughter… her friends she may have had but never noticed, because her egotistical artist’s vision had blocked anything else but inspiration from registering…

She thought of Joshua, but memories were too cruel and she was too weak to analyse her past emotiones. She was hardly able to recall his profile on that rainy afternoon on the beach… how coud she be ready to face the alternative that she may have never loved him at all?

She longed to be held and comforted by Andrew… he understood her so well. She did not need to lie about her real self in front of him, as he was patient with the artist in her. She would call him when they had gone to bed.

(to be continued)

2 Comments

  1. boobear
    Posted January 15, 2008 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    🙁

  2. Posted January 16, 2008 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Hi boobear! Thanks for reading this story! I hope you will have a smile on your face… well, at some point later. *wink* The last few chapters were what they were, terribly depressing…

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