Walk by the sea (64-65)

64.

The silent hug her old friend gave her told Sara there was something wrong. She tried to search Mary’s eyes, but noticed a gentleman standing not very far away, discreet yet attentive. He must be Andrew, she concluded, and let her friend go for a moment to extend her hand to him.

-I’m Sara. Thanks for picking me up –she said cheerily to break some of the iciness of the mood.

-Andrew. The pleasure is mine –he smiled his pleasant smile, and from the firm but gentle grip of his hand Sara understood why Mary felt so safe with him.

-I’m sorry I couldn’t be here sooner, but the first flight of the day was cancelled –Sara moaned. –We only have a few hours before the exhibition… how are you? –she turned to Mary who looked very fragile.

-Falling apart –she smiled wearily. –I know I should be rejoicing at my own success, but the prospects of seeing my work exhibited and evaluated by dozens of strangers puts me rather ill at ease.

-You never gave a damn about anyone else’s opinion –Sara frowned as they started walking toward the parking lot.

-That is what you always thought, when sadly, it has always been the exact opposite –Mary laughed, her arm around her friend’s waist. For a flicker of a moment she knew it had always been the fear of what others might think that rendered her miserable in her marriage, in her period of a jilted wife, and even in the brief but wonderful relationship she had with Joshua. Always, always moulded by the reflections of others on herself and her life. Perhaps she might have been happier, had she accepted it as fact… but she had entertained notions of maintaining her independence for too long, even though those notions were transitory.–The thought of anyone telling me that what I do is worthless… but, the day had to arrive.

-I gave up trying to persuade her how mistaken she is–Andrew interjected with a short laugh. –She will just have to see for herself. Some of the most influential gallery owners will be joining us later, and I already heard that there had been several commission calls for her paintings.

-He has worked so hard to set this up that I only wish the exhibition would be a success for his sake –Mary laughed and allowed Andrew to squeeze her free hand affectionately.

-I’m pretty sure you’ll knock them all off their feet, love –Sara said, rubbing Mary’s back.

Later on, after arriving to Joseph’s place and making the introductions at home, everyone sat around the coffee table in the spacious living-room, sipping coffee and nibbling at ginger cookies Eileen was good enough to bake earlier on that day. Sara chattered freely, sensing that for some reason, everyone was somewhat tense. She had not got around to talking to Mary ever since that phonecall, but she knew there was something very wrong. Andrew was by her side non-stop, watching her every gesture, while Joseph, on the other hand, seemed aloof and almost distanced from everyone. Eileen had circles under her eyes, but acted graciously and served tea, asked Sara about her job, about life in England, and even remembered to ask about Marshmallow.

-Is there anything I can do? –Mary fretted, looking at Andrew who merely smiled.

-Nope. Everything’s taken care of, you only need to show up at six –he replied, such tenderness in his eyes that Sara had a moment of doubt: what if Andrew was the one to give Mary what she wanted?

-I feel I’m going crazy… –Mary said, clasping her hands, folding them on her knee.

Joseph emerged from his cup of tea and looked like wanting to say something, but retreated behind the rim of his cup instead. Sara watched, and wondered, and she, too, felt she was going crazy, not knowing what was going on.

-Take a walk with me –she stood up suddenly, taking Mary’s hand. –I haven’t seen the beach yet. We still have time, no? –she asked Andrew who nodded.

-Of course. I’ll make a few phonecalls, make sure everything’s in perfect order, and I’ll come pick you guys up at… half past five, okay?

-You’re an angel –Sara beamed her generous smile and literally dragged a seemingly undecided Mary out of the house.

They didn’t talk until they left the buildings behind. Salty air was filling their lungs, an early evening breeze was ruffling their hair. Mary felt slightly calmer, now that someone from her old life was keeping her company.

-I don’t know about you, but I was freezing back in there –Sara spoke. –The atmosphere was quite chilly, what happened?

She gazed at Mary sideways, whose face was strewn with tears and she looked like a leaf in the wind ready to be crushed.

-Okay. Now, you will tell me everything –she faced Mary, grabbing her shoulders.

Mary shook her head, but Sara did not let go, and stood rooted, facing her old friend, until the dams of sorrow broke and Mary was forced to let the river of her soul flow into the ocean.

-My son hates me… Joshua hates me… it’s only a short time before Andrew will hate me, too –she sobbed.

Sara’s instincts told her to start arguing, but she thought it wiser to just hug her friend and wait for the sorrow to pass.

-We all forgive –she whispered into Mary’s ear. –I’m sure you have had your share of forgiving others, too… Don’t worry, even if everyone hates you, I don’t… and what’s more important, look at where you are right now. You’re becoming a successful artist… and how many women of your age can boast having had a lover like Joshua, hm?

Her last remark was meant to be humorous; Mary did almost smile, but then her smile disappeared and only tears remained.

-I need to sit down –she whispered, lowering herself with the help of Sara onto the pebbles and sand. –Joshua… I cannot even start to imagine what he must think of me –she wrung her hands, staring at the face of the ocean. –We met last night…

-You what?

-Apparently he lives in Los Angeles –Mary went on unperturbed. –He told me… he thought I was dead.

-How very nice of him –Sara snorted.

-My reaction exactly–Mary laughed and wiped her eyes. –He didn’t think it was funny, though. He thought I had committed suicide.

-I wonder why all men think they are worth committing suicide for –Sara was getting more and more indignant. –Like they would be so irreplaceable.

-But he is –Mary smiled, looking sadly at her friend whose countenance turned from angry to dejected. –Can’t you see? I… I guess you can’t. No one can… I thought I could forget him… but I can’t forget what he did to me, ever…

-You should try to talk to him –Sara suggested.

-I can’t… He looked so… shattered –Mary said, apparently in her own world, her eyes reflecting the tired waves of an afternoon misty ocean. –If it was me who did that to him… I wish I had never laid eyes on him at all.

Sara hugged the hunched, frail shoulders of a woman who looked ten years older than when she had left home. For a brief time, she repulsed herself by thinking how miraculous it was that a man like Joshua could have fallen in love with someone like Mary. Despite being her friend, Sara saw how old Mary was, how broken and lonely, even self-pitying to a certain extent.

-Fiddlesticks –she spoke firmly. –You sound like you’d be regretting your love for him… do you regret it?

-How can I? –Mary whispered. –I was the happiest when I was with him… those few weeks.

-So then, forget all about being sorry you ever saw him –Sara retorted. –You cannot erase things from your past… neither can you ignore the bad things, nor the good things, luckily…

-I wish there was a way to just… go back and…

-And what? You would do the same things, the same way –Sara said softly.

Mary nodded and allowed her lips to stretch into a vague smile.

-You’re right… I wouldn’t give any of it away… from the moment I saw him… what a sight he was… his beard unkempt, his eyes hollow, his voice cold…

-What did you think of him when you first saw him? –Sara asked quietly, hugging her knees as they sat side by side on the beach.

-I was thinking… maybe he was tired of his life… I pictured his state of mind… I thought I knew him… I was already painting him in my mind before he disappeared from my sight that day –Mary concluded, bitterness in her voice.

-He inspired you.

-He did… and I thought he was mine to use for free… whichever way I wanted. I had no right… I threw him something he took for a lifebelt… when it was only my selfish ego… we both allowed ourselves to get carried away… who were we fooling… –Mary whispered, her tears starting to flow again.

-Don’t –Sara moaned and leaned her head on the older woman’s shoulder. –Don’t degrade what you had together, please… he loved you… he was heartbroken when you sent him away. And you loved him, too. You still love him.

-I thought he was mine to use when he wasn’t –Mary stubbornly repeated. –Can’t you see? I thought I had the right to fall in love with him, after I had claimed him for my canvases… oh, accursed day when I first lay hands on a paintbrush!

-Now what? You blame yourself for being an artist? Mary!!! –Sara shook her friend, who showed no resistance. –Listen to me! Your wonderful art is going to be marvelled at in just an hour’s time. You can’t start solving this… existential problem of yours, whatever you may have gotten in your head… not now, Mary! You were born with an eye that sees things no one else can… how could you regret that? You transfer beauty into shapes and colours even we, blind-folded mortals can grasp. Anything and anyone that inspires you is yours, you hear me? Yours, to use, abuse, throw away, chew and spit out. If that is the price to make us see.

-You sound just like Andrew –Mary swallowed some tears and laughed weakly.

-I knew we would get along –Sara grinned and rubbed Mary’s back with reassurance. –Listen… whatever you did to Joshua, was to help him back on his feet, alright? You said yourself: he was a mess when you met him.

-You haven’t seen him now! –Mary exclaimed, rubbing her knees mechanically. –I… I just don’t know… I misused his trust… I should never have spoken to him in the first place. He would have inspired me anyway… I should have stayed away from him.

-Yes, that would be wise –Sara nodded and frowned at the ocean. –Stay away from people, or somebody may get hurt.

-You’re laughing at my misery –Mary said; shockingly, she did not sound as unhappy as she felt.

-I’m trying to make you laugh, silly! Andrew will be arriving soon, and if he finds a total wreck with red eyes, he’ll despair.

-He never despairs… I honestly don’t know what I would have done without him –Mary wiped her face and looked ahead at the waves.

-He’s a good man…

-Yes, and I used his trust also… you know what? I am tired of talking. Let’s walk… closer to the water… please.

In silence, the two women walked arm in arm on the fringe of waves, following the sunset with their faces like pale sunflowers. Mary wished whole-heartedly the exhibition would not happen that day… she felt tired and weak, spent and unreasonable. She didn’t feel up to meeting people, doing small talk, commenting on the comments of others and showing a good face to either positive or negative feedback. In the end, what was it to her if anyone liked what she painted? Anything she put on canvas was just a reflection of her inner self, of her emotions; they were important for her, but for others…? Why did she care? Did she care, anyway…?

The sun was just above the surface of the ocean when they heard Andrew’s car pull up a little further from the beach.

-It’s time, ladies of the sea –he called theatrically, waving at the two thin figures that turned toward him and started walking slowly into his direction.

-Whatever happens… you can make it through it… we can make it through it –Sara squeezed Mary’s hand.

The latter nodded unnoticeably, feeling all the butterflies in the world gather in her stomach to hold an endless ball. There was too much to think of, too many wrongs to make right, one of them sitting right next to her in the driver’s seat. As she watched Andrew’s benevolent, pudgy profile, Mary knew it was time to tell him the truth and then, face the ripples her own cruelty had stirred up in yet another human being.

65.

A reassuring grip of a warm hand was everything that connected Mary to the living when they walked past a few people smoking outside the gallery, then past the reception, then through the larger crowds inside the gallery, all the way to a clear spot. A table, a few glasses of water, a microphone. Suddenly, she felt weak. A terrible feeling of angst and doubt seized her, just as Andrew’s soft, but firm hand situated her gently facing the expectant crowd. Was she to give a speech? Impossible, she knew.

-Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the first in a hopefully long line of exhibitions centered around the works of a very special friend of mine -Andrew spoke into the microphone, then cast a sideways smile at Mary, who tried to smile back. -She has come all the way from England to visit her family, and lucky bastard as I was (and have always been), my path crossed hers, and here we are… to the delight of everyone gathered, I introduce you to the unusual world of a modern genius…

Se heard her own name in the same sentence with the words that up till then, only great masters of art held in her mind: Van Gogh, Manet, Goya. She heard clapping, and saw bright-eyed, expectant faces turn toward her, but her throat refused to emit any sounds. She was only able to nod and whisper thank you, then hid behind Andrew’s reassuringly large figure.

-It’s alright, no need to say anything, love -he murmured into her ear, and squeezed her hand. -That’s why I’m here, I said what needed to be said, now it’s all up to your paintings.

-I love the way you described her art -Sara said, walking behind them. -Maybe now she will finally believe.

-This must be a prank… a set-up -Mary found her voice, and rinsed it with a glass of something sparkling. Champagne. -Genius? What? You overdid it, Andrew.

-I always say only what’s necessary, you should know me by now -he chided her firmly. -And can I just say that five of your paintings have been sold already?

-At least I’ll have money to fly home -Mary said, walking as if in a daze among the rather large crowds of people. Groups of four or five were gathering around each frame; there was animated discussion, the buzz of human voices soaring high above people and paintings.

-You will probably have more money than that -Sara laughed, checking the price marked on one of the paintings. -Two thousand dollars?!

-That is one of the pricey ones -Andrew nodded. -We kept the figures around the level of accepted modern art prices. You know, not too costly, to keep the average art-fan interested, yet pricey enough to make a real connoisseur’s ears prick up.

Incredible, Mary wanted to say, but found herself mutely following Andrew as he walked resolutely, introducing her to groups or individuals of whom she only caught their appreciative glances. They all seemed to be touched by her, her work; the art that had first been her refuge, then, her alibi, then, her curse, was igniting sparks in the eyes of strangers. She was forced to forget for a brief time the pain she had inflicted on herself; that she neglected her family, that she abused the trust of men who loved her…

-I am so honoured to meet you in person -a young woman of about twenty-five gushed through perfect teeth and immaculate make-up. -I adore your paintings. The moment we heard Andrew was setting up an exhibition with works of a yet unknown artist, we knew he would serve us a treat, and he did.

-Why… thank you so much -Mary nodded, uncertain as to whether she was expected to say more. -The honour is mine.

-Can I ask you something? -the girl stepped closer, intimately piercing Mary’s eyes with hers, infinite, blue, sky-like.

-Of… of course -Mary nodded again, feeling a little ill at ease.

-Who was your model for that series? -and a finger pointed at the few paintings she created from memory, after Joshua had left. The sketch, the beloved sketch of him lying oblivious to the night flames and her watching gaze, a few portraits that focused on his face, and finally, the painting. The most painful canvas she had yet to paint.

-Excuse us for a minute, will you? -Sara interrupted her reverie, and literally dragged her away from the inquisitive eyes.

Just then, Mary noticed Jo and Eileen enter the gallery. To her left, a group was heatedly analysing a sea-scape of hers, which at that time had been nothing more than a biased rendition of the angry sea, scattered with rainclouds and seagulls. Through the mouths of so-called experts, it became a metaphor of human struggle, a myth of eternal peace and what not. On her right, there was Andrew, holding a glass, laughing at some comment of Sara’s.

-Thanks for saving me -Mary told her, and Sara only smiled, squeezing the offered hand.

-Hey mum -Jo appeared, dressed casually. Somehow, seeing his jeans and jacket warmed Mary’s heart: she would have felt horrible had he chosen his elegant suit. He felt closer to her in clothes she knew he liked, and as he munched on a crab-sandwich, she felt her throat tighten, thinking of the poignancy of the moment: this was her world, her life, and her son saw fit to come and see for himself. She felt exposed, yet happy to be so.

-Mary, this is incredible -Eileen whispered excitedly. -I mean, we all knew you were this good but… I’m just so happy for you.

-Lately, I have been bestowed with more than one undeserved blessing- was Mary’s weak reply. She didn’t dare look at Jo, whose glance she felt on herself, or at Andrew, who still loved her, but for how long? Would he love her after she told him?

-Now would be the time for all of you to argue with her -Sara sighed and rolled her eyes, at which there was a chuckle from Jo. -Mary, I give up for today. My intent is to enjoy this party as much as I can, but believe you me, starting Monday, I will restart my serious treatment on your lost self-esteem.

She walked away with her glass, and Jo and Eileen followed, before Mary could ask her son if he liked her work. She then realized she was alone wth Andrew, if in the middle of hundreds of people could be called alone. It was time, the perfect time to tell him… with only a weekend left before her flight home, she could procrastinate no longer.

-Can I talk to you for a second? -she turned to face him and he instantly shut the rest of the world off, attentive of only her eyes, her presence. His genuine affection for her was so obvious that she was left feeling uncertain; then again, she saw no future for herself in Los Angeles, and she knew that for him, it was the only place to be.

-Let’s go to the balcony upstairs -he motioned, and took her hand on his arm, leading her up on the stairs leading to an atmospheric floor with a few scattered tables and candle light over beige table-cloth. Stepping out on the large balcony, they both breathed in the fresh evening air. From downstairs, laughter and murmuring rose into their ears, it was so peacefully distant, though. She strained her ears to catch a sigh of the ocean from afar, but the distance was impassable.

-I also wanted to talk to you -he broke the silence.

She turned her head halfway, expectant, slightly sad.

-I know you like I know myself -he went on, looking at her briefly before he returned his attention to the millions of lights before them that elevated the darkness of the approaching night. -I’m fully aware of what you want to tell me, but I wish with all my heart you would reconsider.

Her shock was stifled by the sadness that grew within her, despite herself. She swallowed it all, wishing he were someone less understanding… less patient.

-You have been so good to me I could never thank you -she slowly said. -If you hadn’t been with me that night, I…

He turned to her and grabbed her by her arms, stroking them slowly, his face reassuring and emotional. For the first time, she forgot his round face, his pudgy hands, his balding skull, and only saw the love in his eyes, a love that warmed her and kept her sane so many times during her agony.

-I know… I knew you needed me, and I knew that a woman like you could not care for me otherwise… only if she was forced by circumstances -he spoke, then cleared his throat.

Her eyes grew moist and with her heart breaking, not for the first, or last time, she understood that he, too, had decided their fate, long ago. He knew she was using him… all along. She embraced him with all her might, feeling his chest tighten with an unreleased breath; then, upon releasing it, he also released her pain and gratitude, small tears of shame that burnt her tired skin. He rubbed her back, and placed a kiss on her hair. It was a kiss of goodbye, and thank you, and I love you, but I don’t want to make you unhappy. She felt like electrocuted, the emotions that rushed through her familiar and making her dizzy. She remembered the kiss, but back then, it was she who gave it to someone, and like now, it should have meant goodbye for both of them. Why had they been so obstinate?

-I’m so sorry… -were the only words she was able to utter through the broken maze of memories and regrets. The only words that sounded, felt, and were true.

-Don’t be… we met when we had to… and received as much from each other as we had to -he replied, smiling. She heard his smile, and felt his arms around her. -I only wish I was thirty years younger, and had dark hair myself -he added, and stroking her hair one last time, he gently pushed her away.

She shook her head without a word, searching his eyes, searching for traces of hurt, and misunderstanding, but all she saw there was clarity, and certainty. He of all people understood her feelings for the only ghost of her past she would have been happy to bring back.

-I hope you noticed that I marked those for ten thousand each -he grinned boyishly, blinking a few times as if to chase away a few tears.

She smiled back at him, unashamed of her tears, closing her eyes for a moment to imagine a life with Andrew. A life of mutual understanding and affection, of mature emotions and a mute anticipation of old age, no passion, but real, genuine, unhurting kindness. She knew he could never hurt her… and the meekness with which he accepted her decision made him love more than ever, but…

-Hey -he lifted her face with a finger and looked at her with a loving smile. -Stop dreaming and let’s go downstairs. I want to hear more of the awed opinions. Listening to people’s reactions is simply priceless!

-You’re as enthusiastic about this exhibition as if they were your paintings -she smiled and wiped her eyes, allowing him to take her by the hand.

They walked down in silence, she aware of the fact that her mascara must have been messed up by her tears, and of the staring faces; nevertheless, her heart was light, full of gratitude for his magnanimous nature. She longed to talk to Sara, but she was nowhere to be seen. She scanned the crowd, but the only thing that caught her undivided attention was a mass of dark, messy curls under which a pair of funereal eyes was marvelling at his own sketched counterpart.

Before she had the time to grab onto Andrew’s arm, his gaze travelled upward, settling on her face, askance and reproachful.

(tbc)

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