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Phillip Y. Kim
At first, I had no idea where I was. The room was pitch black. No seams of light crept in through any window or doorframe to orient me. But I sensed that I was not lying in a bed. It felt more like a futon mat laid across a hard surface, probably the floor. My chest was bare, while my lower half was covered only with a blanket. Its prickle against my legs told me it was made of wool. The cushion under my head was high and with a rough, embroidered texture, like that of an Indian throw pillow. It had a faint smell of sweat – someone else’s, but not unpleasant. The scent was mildly tart, as gentle as sweat could smell. As soon as I sat up, I wished I hadn’t. My head began to spin, and an army of fire ants seemed to charge across my skull. I raised my hands and held them against my temples. The pressure that I applied didn’t help much, but I didn’t know what else I could do to comfort myself. I heard a door open. Looking up, I saw a panel of cobalt light sweep across the room. It illuminated the silhouette of a stocky woman entering. When she saw that I was awake, she stopped and softly said my name. Then I remembered who she was. As she sat down next to me and hooked her arm through mine, I leaned against her and tried to ignore that I was not where I was supposed to be. **********
A blowing mist enveloped the Golden Gate Bridge. Streaks of it whipped around the rust-red towers and suspension cables like a white phantom. It then diffused into an unspecific gray as it blew against the faint headland slopes, providing the hills with relief from the dry midday heat. Watching the fog sweep across the landscape brought a familiar memory to mind. Ethan. He and I used to love looking at fog. Every time he saw it, he giggled with the kind of mischief that only four-year-old boys seem to possess. “Daddy, did God fart again?” he would shriek. Of course, there is probably no other word as funny to a boy his age as ‘fart’. So it was a cheap laugh. Nevertheless, it’s one of those simple, private father-son things that I remember the most. A half hour earlier, I had laced up my new running shoes and wound my way through the Presidio to view the ocean from this cliff. I had thought that it would do me good to feel my heart beating. Keeping fit had never been my thing. Misaligned knees from adolescence had led to a bad back, which was probably worsened from the burden of carrying around my rice-sack of a belly for close to fifty years. But I had recently vowed to do something about my fitness before the choice was no longer mine to make. This was a fine place – it was rugged and wild, and with a grove of towering eucalyptus trees to keep me company. A cold wind cut through them like a new blade. It should have all felt invigorating. However, the intrusion of Ethan’s memory began to make me feel numb. Though years had passed since the accident that took him away, and though I never expected the hurt to ever fully heal, it still left a tender bruise. Sometimes, the pain came at me like an unexpected bend in the road, without a cautionary signpost providing warning. Try as I might, I wasn’t able to blink away the image of his laughing face forming in the mist. The curls of his hair only became clearer. Moisture formed on ruddy cheeks. His voice whistled around me. So I turned away from the scene of ocean, bridge and fog. I jogged back towards the paved road, my feet stumbling forward on the uneven surface of packed dirt and clumpy grass. I thought about heading back the way I had come, towards Pacific Heights. But that’s not where I wanted to go. I wasn’t much in the mood to chit-chat with my host at his Tudor-style manor. There
would be plenty of time for business talk between us two venture capitalists on the early-evening drive up to Napa Valley. It would be the usual stuff about deals and new technologies, with more of the same talk to follow later that night with the other guests attending my birthday party at Auberge du Soleil. The cult-California wines would no doubt be superb, and tomorrow’s sunrise bungee jump from a hot air balloon over the vineyards was an inspired idea from the Google boys. But all that could wait for a short while longer. I wanted to be somewhere else first. More like, I needed to be. Some place where no one would be bending over backwards for a rich guy turning fifty. So I headed downhill, towards the anonymity of the Marina. The bar had a name plate in need of repainting - Fever & Quake. Something about its faded-glory character caught my eye, so I peered in through the halfopened door. It was dark and bohemian, with dented hub caps from old cars hung on the back wall. They were placed around two coiled tubes of neon – one pink and the other green – interlocked as if they were two snakes mating. Hung from the ceiling was a cello. Someone had carved it open and placed a Gibson Les Paul guitar inside the body. It looked like something YoYo Ma would play if channeling Led Zeppelin. This bar had no doubt once been inflated with cigarette smoke, back when indulgences such as puffing indoors were permitted, back when the city was full of beatniks and girls wearing flowered garlands. My knees were aching. My back complained. To hell with my wellintentioned jog, I decided. Then I stepped inside. I placed myself at the far end of the bar, facing back towards the window. The bartender, a tall, gaunt fellow with a goatee and a languid air about him, placed a cocktail napkin in front of me. I asked for a pint of Anchor Steam, then reached into my nylon track-suit jacket pocket and pulled out my money clip. I showed him a $100 bill. That and a charge card were all that I had brought with me. He looked down at the money. “You got anything smaller?” I shook my head. “Do you take Am Ex?” I showed him the sliver of black plastic hugged by the metal clip.
He slowly shook his head as he studied me – a middle-aged Chinese man with a thinned hairline and a prominent paunch. The puzzled look on his face said You’re not from this neighborhood, are you? “Sorry, no,” he replied, frowning. “Can you wait for change? Let me settle a few other bills first.” “Sure, no problem,” I replied, anxious to have him bring me my beer. She arrived at the same time as my pint, floating onto the stool next to mine. I first noticed her hair – the color of hay at sunset. Where I live in Hong Kong, hair that color was rare, even in the districts where the foreign models hung out. It slipped down like a sheer, incandescent curtain over the left side of her head. Then I noticed the paperback that she placed on the bar in front of her. Beloved, by Toni Morrison. It had been my ex-wife’s favorite book. Just as she was settled, she swung her head around to face me. Her hair lifted away from her face like it was hit by a breeze. My breath escaped me at the sight of her. She had olive eyes, like a Persian’s. Her lips were the color of dragon fruit, and softly pressing together against a toothpick that she was chewing. There were two small hoop earrings in her slender left ear, a stud in her right. She had a coolness about her, as if she were from a land of fair, immaculate people living solitary lives amidst frozen, empty forests. Some place like Finland. “Oh, I’m sorry, are you saving this seat for someone?” she asked, with a mildly sheepish look which only intensified her beauty. “No,” I answered. “Be my guest.” “Thanks.” She gave me a quiet smile, looked me over quickly, and then turned her attention towards her book. I took a few sips of my beer, but found it oddly insipid. I presumed that it wasn’t the fault of the Lenin-looking bartender, or the beer itself. While I nursed the drink, I stole a few glances at her, once catching her lashes flickering as she read. I finally could not stand the silence any longer. “Can I buy you a drink? Something to lighten a heavy story?” “Pardon me?” she asked. She cleared her throat while looking back towards me.
“A drink,” I repeated, toggling an extended thumb and forefinger in front of my lips. “That book’s not exactly light reading. I just thought a glass of champagne or something would help it go down easier.” She gave me a stiff smile as she drew back slightly. “Oh, well, that’s a nice… gesture.” Her voice was medium-pitched, but with an edge. “Although I’m not sure I’m in need of one.” “Good for you, then. I think that I’d probably want a drink if I was reading about someone being haunted by the ghost of her dead child.” “You’ve read it?” “No. But I was once close to someone who said it was life transforming.” She stared at me silently, willing me to further elaborate, her ethereal eyes bearing down into me. “My ex-wife,” I said, without thinking whether I should. “Ah,” she replied, nodding slowly. “Well, she had great taste in authors.” And in men too! I wanted to add, but lacked the confidence at that very moment. Instead, I simply nodded back. I tried to keep my gaze fixed on her face, rather than let it wander down towards her denim jacket and low cut plain white T-shirt, under which an alluring cleavage was irrepressibly advertising itself. Seemingly having declared to herself that I was non-threatening, she relaxed. “Well, thanks anyway for the drink offer,” she said warmly. “And yes, it is a heartbreaking book. Besides, I’m waiting for someone who should be here any minute now.” “Someone who would mind terribly if you shared a quick drink with a perfect stranger?” She sighed and shrugged her shoulders. “Well, if you’d like, you can ask her directly.” Her eyes turned away to look behind me. “Here she is.” I turned around. The woman was of an altogether different sort. ‘Jock’ would have been an accurate shorthand description. She had efficiently shortcropped red-brown hair and a wide-shouldered square torso under a faded blue hoodie. Her wide forehead was balanced by a jutting chin and bulging cheekbones. Though of only average height, she had a big stance, made more purposeful by her khaki cargo-pants.
But she seemed much more than just the sturdy type who wasn’t out to impress anyone with her looks. She had clear and commanding eyes, framed by navy-blue horn-rimmed glasses. She seemed to see everything, no matter how fleeting or deep. It was as if the newly bought rolls of drafting paper tucked under arm could have been a map of the world, with each square inch committed to memory. Her sense of calmness was comforting, just as her selfconfidence was intimidating. “Hi, Sugar-sweets!” the blonde woman called out. No nickname could have been less fitting. Sugar-sweet Jock brushed past me, bent forward and kissed Blonde Siren on the cheek. “Hi, Elisa. Sorry I’m so late.” Her voice was surprisingly high and gentle. After returning the cheek-kiss, Elisa glanced back at me. Following Elisa’s eyes, Sugar-sweet Jock turned her head to face me for the first time. “Who is this, a friend?” “Just someone kind enough to offer me a drink,” Elisa answered softly. “Actually,” I responded, feeling a bit disoriented, “I was just telling Elisa how much I admired her choice of reading material.” Sugar-sweet Jock turned to face me and let out a warm chuckle. “Oh is that all? Well, that would be a first! Most men don’t get that far in terms of first impressions with her. How sweet.” She continued to examine me, mentally peeling away layers of superficial courtesies. My eyes darted between the two women, trying to make sense of the pairing. “Anyway, I…” “My name is Marie,” she announced, thrusting forth her hand. “My partner’s name is Elisa.” Reflexively, I reached out and shook it. Her short-trimmed nails were ink-stained. “Hi, I’m James. I go by Jamie.” “Chinese?” “Yes, I’m visiting from Hong Kong.” “Originally from there?” “No, Taiwan. My surname is Tse.”
“Ah!” Marie exclaimed. “Renshi ni wo hen gaoxing, Tse xian sheng. Huan ying Mei Guo.” Her Mandarin accent was almost perfect. “That’s very impressive,” I responded, beaming at her. “Your tones are wonderful, especially for a Westerner.” Marie shrugged. “A hidden talent. That and a year living in Taipei.” She then turned towards Elisa. “Should we take up Jamie on his offer of a drink?” Elisa tucked a few strands of feathery hair behind her exquisite doublepierced ear. “Sure, I’m easy.” An inviting smile lit up the room, splashing brightness into it. I turned towards the bartender. “Do you have sparkling wine?” When he turned towards us, he had a mischievous look in his eye that suggested that he knew more than he probably should. “Yup.” “Anything above the usual? Any vintage French?” He smirked. “You’re mistaking this place for a joint where people would care.” I glanced over at the two women. They had been looking at each other, exchanging wordless messaging. Marie now looked at me and shrugged indifference. “Fine then, whatever you have chilled,” I instructed the bartender. It felt more like an interrogation than conversation. Mainly, it was Marie, hurling questions as if they were fist-sized stones. I did not bother dodging most of them; somehow, I liked being verbally bombarded by this strongheaded woman. What did I know about Toni Morrison’s books? (Frankly, only what I was told.) What was I doing in athletic wear holding a beer in my hand? (Being spontaneous.) Do I know a lot of people in San Francisco? (Several. I went to school near here. Many years back.) How old was I now? (Fifty-ish. Almost.) Wow, is that an Am Ex Black card? (Yes.) You must be terribly wealthy? (Oh well, maybe a little.) Ex-wife? (Yes.) How long ago? (Three years. She left, but that’s not my fault.) Are there kids involved? (Don’t go there.) Did I know a lot of same sex couples? (No. But that’s also not my fault.) She was a painter; did I like modern art? (Yes. And I’d love to see yours some day.) Even if they are mainly just paintings of Elisa? (Especially so.)
I mainly looked at Marie, but glanced over at Elisa at discreetly timed intervals – less frequently than I wanted to, of course. Elisa sipped her champagne as she alternated between looking at me, towards Marie, down at her dog-eared book and across the room. A sense of detachment was scrawled across her face, as if this type of encounter – her partner grilling a doomed would-be suitor – happened every day. I wondered what she thought about me, about all men, why she had chosen (had it been a choice?) to be with a woman. Did she like sex with men at all? “Do you think that good looking lesbians are only found in male porno movies?” Marie asked, out of the blue, as if she had been reading my mind. “Of… of course not,” I stammered, a clichéd answer starting to form on my lips. Elisa came to my rescue by nudging Marie gently with her elbow. “Hey Sugar-sweets. That’s not fair. Don’t badger Jamie. Besides, we should get back to Jake. It’s almost three o’clock.” Marie looked at her watch – a thick stainless steel body with a denim strap. “Oh my, right.” Then she looked back at me. “Jake’s our four year old son.” “Son?” I asked. Marie nodded. “Sperm donor. Elisa’s egg. My womb.” “How modern,” I said, involuntarily. Elisa reached inside a small leather satchel and produced a photograph laminated in plastic, fringed by a border of cartoon hearts and curly-Qs. The picture of the boy struck me like a flung dagger. It was a spitting image of Ethan. The hazel brown locks of hair. The Eurasian eyes, pinched between cultures. Tight little bushy tuffs for eyebrows. A mischievous curl to his lips. Even the hint of freckles on his cheek. A sight risen from the grave. My hand trembled slightly as I held the picture. I blinked a few times to confirm it was real. “Was his father Asian?” I managed to ask, half-absently. Elisa nodded. “That was our one request of the sperm bank. We wanted a gene pool totally different from ours. He’s a good result, isn’t he?”
I nodded back, swallowing a tight knot of longing that had risen in my throat. “Thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just,” I mumbled. “What’s that?” Elisa asked. “It’s from the Gospel of Luke,” I explained, my voice quivering. “Oh, you’re religious?” Marie asked, seeming to probe my mood shift. “Used to be, not anymore,” I answered, sighing deeply. I continued to stare at the boy’s face. “I had a son just like him. Once.” “Oh,” Marie said, taken aback, with a tenderness that belied her appearance. “I’m sorry,” I heard Elisa say, my eyes still transfixed by the one sight more arresting than her. “After he died, I must have memorized every passage in the Bible on death and resurrection. Which is practically half of the New Testament. I promised God everything I had – my soul, every penny to my name – to have my boy back again.” I looked up from the photograph. To my surprise, I saw that both Marie and Elisa had tears in their eyes. I suddenly felt that she and Elisa knew what had happened in my life four years ago, about the shattering event that had been the ruin of everything. It was as if I had been long time friends with these two women. And that they had been the same to Ethan. Elisa reached over and put a hand on my wrist. “Do you want to meet Jake?” she asked. She did not need to ask twice. ********** We walked into a large loft space that had been converted into an artist’s studio. “You live here?” I asked, looking around at the bare cinder block walls, corroded I-beam support pillars, and clutter of work tables, easels, stretched canvases and half-finished plaster sculptures and molds. Two metal-grated windows let in insufficient amounts of natural light. Three round Japanese9|Page
paper lantern shades hung from a high ceiling and a floor-standing halogen lamp that looked like four inverted icicles. “There’s a living quarter partitioned in the back,” Marie answered, while struggling to pull off her hoodie. “We have a sitting area, a kitchen, three bedrooms, and a bathroom.” “Jakester, we’re home!” Elisa called out in a ringing voice, full of life. She glided ahead of us past a cluster of paint cans. “Mama!” I heard a young voice respond from the back of the room. I held my breath as I waited to catch sight of him. He emerged from behind a wall that extended halfway across the back of the loft. His gait was shorter and faster than I remember Ethan’s, and he was skinnier. As Jake ran up and into Elisa’s extended arms, I couldn’t help but notice other differences between him and Ethan. Jake carried his head more towards his left side. His ears were bigger and thicker. His nose was more bulbous. Of course. They were not the same boy. But still, it was close enough. I stiffened with envy as mother and son hugged. Elisa kissed him on the cheek, then swept him up off of his feet. He straddled her hip with knobbykneed legs as she stood back up and walked towards us. Marie stepped forward and kissed him on the un-kissed cheek. “Hi, Mommy,” Jake responded, with a smile. “Jake, this is Mr. Jamie,” Elisa said, extending an arm in my direction. “He wanted to meet you.” Jake turned to look at me. A quizzical expression crossed his face. “Are you my daddy?” I gulped down a ball of emotion. “No, Jake, I’m not.” My voice sounded like someone else’s; it was too weak to be mine. “But maybe I’m kind of like him. You certainly look a lot like my little boy.” Marie looked at me, and then at her son. “Jake, why don’t you introduce yourself properly to Mr. Jamie? Go shake his hand.” Elisa knelt down and tried to stand Jake upright. Instead of complying, he gripped his Mama more tightly with his legs and buried his head against her shoulder, facing away from me.
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“Come on, Jake,” Elisa coaxed. “That’s not polite. You should greet our guests like a young gentleman.” He continued to keep his face pinned against her neck. Elisa looked up at me and frowned. “He’s shy. Especially around new men.” “It doesn’t happen often enough, I guess,” Marie added. I shook my head and smiled. “That’s alright. I’m just really glad to have met him.” Elisa walked him towards the back of the room and handed him to a middle-aged Asian woman – his nanny, no doubt - who had emerged from behind the partition. Only after I lost sight of him did I feel the muscles in my legs unlock. My shoulders relaxed, and I wiggled the fingers of both hands. Marie reached out and squeezed my forearm. “You look like you could use a drink or something.” I nodded slowly. “I hope you have something stronger than beer.” I sat deeply into the cracked-leather couch. It faced a large canvas covered by an old bed sheet, mounted on an easel. The relaxing influence of the tequila began to seep into me. In a low, aimless voice, I told Elisa and Marie about Ethan. Who he was when he was alive, and how a minibus driven by a reckless driver had swerved to avoid missing a left turn, jumped the curb, and pinned Jake against the marble-tiled exterior wall of a luxury retail store. I recalled the image of his half-opened but lifeless eyes juxtaposed against a billboard advertising a $50,000 watch. “After that, I stopped wearing watches,” I explained. “My wife left me, just because. For three years, I pleaded to God for help. When I got no response, I figured He reserved resurrection for only His own son, not mine. Then, instead of answering me, He answered the bus driver, who wrote to say that he had found peace through Jesus. That put an end to my church-going days.” As I finished my story, the mental picture of Ethan (and Jake) loosened its grip on me, ever so slightly. Marie sat quietly looking down at her feet as Elisa leaned towards me to offer me another shot of drink.
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After a long silence, I tried to break the somber mood. “What’s that chemical smell?” I casually asked. “Oh sorry,” Marie answered, sighing deeply and bracing herself back up. “It’s turpentine. I’m working on a few oil paintings now. It’s probably giving you a ripping headache.” “No, it’s fine,” I lied. “I was just curious.” I looked up at the covered canvas. “Is that one of them?” Marie rose up from her metal folding chair and stepped towards the canvas. “As a matter of fact…” “Don’t, Marie,” Elisa abruptly interrupted. “It’s insensitive and embarrassing.” Marie’s jaw dropped as she looked over at her partner. “Well, since when are we the self-effacing type?” “Not this time. Jamie is probably…” “He told us he likes art, Honey Buns.” Marie paused, waiting for a reply. When she did not get one, she looked at me. “Well, aren’t you the special guest! Elisa is normally not this reserved.” “No, Sugar-sweets,” Elisa pressed. “I just think that we’ve already hit Jamie with a lot. With Jake, I mean. Besides, after hearing about Ethan, I’m not much in the mood myself.” “Actually, Elisa, I’d love to see it,” I spoke up, trying to sound as cheerful as I could. “You guys have got my curiosity up.” Elisa rolled her eyes and shrugged. “OK, I warned you… But you’d better drink up first.” I tossed back the fresh shot of tequila, my fourth. My tolerance for alcohol was not what it used to be, and my head began to swim. Marie pinched a corner of the bed sheet covering the painting, lifted it up, and yanked it away. Elisa was right about the drink. I needed it. The picture was expertly painted, but it was difficult to look at, even with a nude Elisa in the center of the canvas. She was reclined across a crucifixshaped bed set on a raised platform, lit from overhead. Surrounding her were four men of different size and character, all also nude. One – an athletic young man with a tight physique – stood over her, pointing a javelin down at her
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head. Another man, elderly and wheelchair-bound, sat at her feet, leering at her, tongue exposed. The two other men, one dark-skinned, the other a dwarf, stood at attention behind her, both grinning. Between them, they held a large platter displaying a roasted suckling pig. A serving fork protruded from its hind leg. Elisa was painted wearing only a wedding veil, and with a paisleypatterned sheet bunched up around her mid-section. Her body was exaggeratedly Rubenesque rather than sleek. Her hands and feet were bound and tied together with a long rope, like a sacrificial lamb. She held a wine goblet in one hand, and a wedge of ripe cheese in the other. A trickle of blood ran down her neck onto her shoulders. Tucked up in her arms, nestled up against a plump breast, was a baby boy who very much resembled Jake. His eyes were closed and his body was limp, Piety-like. He looked more lifeless than asleep. Despite everything, Elisa was smiling. “My working title is The Last Seduction,” Marie announced. Then, seeing my astonishment, she lowered her voice. “It’s not done yet.” I rubbed my eyes to clear my vision as I took in the painting. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Elisa hunch her shoulders together in nervous discomfort. I tried to restrain myself from showing too much reaction. I called on all the years of accumulated experience sitting poker-faced while negotiating tough deals. But still, I wasn’t sure I was entirely successful. Maybe it was the tequila now sloshing around my head. Or the jetlag. Or seeing the likeness of my son in a lesbian couple’s child. Or all of the above. “What do you think?” Marie asked, sounding tentative. “It’s very, uh, strong,” I muttered, forcing myself to nod. “It looks religious.” My comment made Marie throw her head back and laugh. “Religious! Right! But not spiritual!” “No, not really,” I mumbled in agreement. I started to ask her what the painting meant, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to hear her talk about it. It already packed enough of a punch. There was no question of liking it - I knew that I did not. In fact, I felt the urge to offer to buy it from her then and there,
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just so that I could throw it into the back of a storage closet some place. But why did I feel such loathing towards it? “What do you feel is missing?” I asked, maybe simply to make conversation. Marie looked at her canvas. She gesticulated with one hand. “Well, the four men are meant to represent one man. Someone generic. But I’m not getting the full representative feeling that I’m trying to evoke.” Representative feeling? Which one? Taunting? “Where did you find these men?” I asked. “How did you get them to model for you? Are they friends?” “No,” Marie answered. “Just random people.” “Random people who happened to hit on Elisa?” I asked, already knowing the answer to my question. “The way that I did today?” Marie and Elisa looked at each other, both surprised. Elisa turned to face me. She was blushing, her cheeks swelling like they had been slapped. “You know, we never realized that, but you’re right. Isn’t that funny?” Hilarious. I looked again at the image of her in the painting. The veil of purity draped on her head. The implied fecundity of her shape. The presence of the unconscious, vacant boy. That smile. She was laughing at me. No, she was mocking me. Because she was full, and I was empty. And because she held in her bound arms and through her nudity all the things that were missing from my life. I stood up quickly, then steadied myself as I was hit with a dizzy spell. “I think that I’d better get going,” I announced forcefully. “How much do you want for the painting?” Marie stepped backwards in shock. Elisa’s mouth opened but no words came out. “What do you mean, Jamie?” Marie asked. “What’s wrong?” “I’m buying the painting,” I clarified, trying to calm my breathing. “How much for it?” Marie approached me warily. “It’s not for sale, Jamie. It’s not even finished. I’m sorry if…”
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“Sorry? Like hell you are!” I interrupted. Surprised at my own indignation, I tried to get a grip on myself. “I need to leave. Just give me a price. I’ll have it picked up later.” “Gosh, Jamie,” Marie continued, looking wounded. “Of course, if you want the painting, it’s yours. You don’t have to pay for it.” “Absolutely it’s mine,” I mumbled. However, I suddenly felt disarmed by her gentle expressions of pain. Elisa rose to stand next to me. She touched my arm. It was the first physical contact between us. “We’re sorry, Jamie. And very confused.” I turned away from the two women, towards the front door. But I did not walk in that direction. My feet felt glued to the floor. My body felt like lead. But more than that, I felt tied down. It was as if that rope binding Elisa in that damn painting had flung itself out and lassoed me. And then it dawned on me that running from this place and all it contained would only make me feel worse than I did. These women would continue to haunt me, as if I had abandoned an unfinished grave. And by letting them do so, I would never find peace, and neither would my memory of Ethan. Therefore, nothing seemed as vital as where I was now, and who I was with. I knew that I needed to stay and confront whatever they were offering. I turned back around and faced Marie. “That’s my painting. And I want to sit for it.” They were words that I could not have imagined saying, not even a second earlier. The ensuing hours passed like thickening soup. I remember getting naked and sitting cross-legged on a shaggy rug. Marie angled two spotlights towards me, and then dimmed the other lights in the room. I recall apologizing for displaying my large, protruding gut, but also felt relief that it overlapped and hid my penis. Elisa brought over a child’s blanket wrapped around a stuffed animal – a raccoon, I think. Marie asked me to cradle it. I did, trying not to imagine it was a baby Ethan. Elisa then brought over a plastic tub of cookies. “Better take just one. They’re baked with pot.” It had been twenty-five years since I had gotten high. I washed the cookie down with a few more slugs of tequila.
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There was a soothing jazz CD playing. It kept me at ease, particularly as the full force of the booze and dope began to roll over me. I began to notice the little things. How Elisa had big feet and Marie’s were small. How half-used tubes of paint were piled inside an old Dole banana crate. How highly polished the floor was. Why did an art studio need buffed floor boards? I must have made some insistent comment about being the only naked person in the room, because both Marie and Elisa discarded their clothes and tossed them onto mine in a growing pile on the leather sofa. I don’t remember too much argument or cajoling, so I guess it happened naturally. I saw much more of Marie, since she was painting directly in front of me. She was firm and womanly, both front and back, without stretch marks or other signs of aging. Elisa floated in and out of view. As I had imagined, she was the picture of delicacy – a mannequin come to life. Unlike Marie, who was evidently proud of an amply hairy bush, Elisa was Brazilian-waxed. Her grooming accentuated the curve of her hips and torso. She would walk over to kiss Marie and study the painting, then head into the darkness to tend to Jake. When she returned, she would invariably be carrying something to eat or drink. Water, rice crackers, blocks of dark chocolate with dried cranberries. At one point, she sat down next to me. Her slender shoulder rubbed against mine. She then took my chin in her fine fingers and turned my head to face her. With her free hand, she reached up and pressed two fingers between my lips. “Chew,” she instructed quietly. What I tasted was soft, earthy and nutty. “Mushroom,” she explained. “You’ll enjoy it.” My recollection of what followed are no more than scattered images and feelings, as if the film in my mental camera had gotten twisted as it rolled past my senses. Perhaps I went in and out of consciousness. Perhaps some of it was an imagining. But what I do recall could have been any red-blooded male’s fantasy. I recall laying my head in Elisa’s lap while she stroked my hair. I recall being coaxed to my feet and led into the darkness. I recall the smells of new women – not one, but two – at close range. I didn’t know whose was whose, but they were both pleasing. There was a tangle of limbs. And I recall ejaculating. A woman moaned when I did so. Then everything faded to black.
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********** With the room now bathed in pre-dawn blue, Marie reached up and rubbed the back of my neck. “You okay?” she asked in her self-assured voice. “I don’t know. Am I? Was I?” “Yes, you were fine. Although you seemed awfully loose at times. I was afraid that we might lose you down that rabbit hole.” “Rabbit hole?” “The one inside here,” she explained, tapping the top of my head. I waved her off. Too abstract. “Where’s Elisa?” “Sleeping in our bedroom.” I took Marie’s hand and held it tightly in mine. I pulled her in to lean against me. “Sorry to ask this. But did I wear a condom?” “No, Jamie.” “Oh. Apologies. That was probably irresponsible of me.” “Don’t worry,” she chuckled, nudging her shoulder against my chest. We sat together quietly. I enjoyed the slab of her warmth against me, a comfort heightened by the dimness of light and sound. I wanted to tell her how thankful I was, how peaceful I felt. But I couldn’t find the right words to say. And judging by her calmness, there was no need for them. “I should get going,” I said instead, matter-of-factly. “You’re kind to let me overstay my welcome.” I kissed her on the cheek, rose up and walked towards the door. I struggled to recall where I had dumped my clothes. “Jamie?” “Yes, Marie?” “Elisa was ovulating.” I stopped momentarily to think about what she had just told me. Somehow, I had already guessed it, without even knowing I had. “So my timing here is perfect.” “I guess. But I want you to know that this wasn’t planned.” “Really?”
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“Okay, not entirely then. We don’t make a hobby of laying honey traps for men. But we just really connected with you.” It didn’t matter whether I believed her or if I just happened to fit the bill. I simply enjoyed the feeling of not being bothered by it all. On the contrary. Then I smiled. Though faced away from her, I sensed that she was smiling back. “Goodbye,” I said. “See you around.” “Goodbye,” she responded. “Zai jian.” As the front door closed behind me, I paused before descending to the sidewalk. I thought about where I was supposed to have been last night. How many irate people would I have to answer to for my sudden absence? Why did I not feel like a shit for standing all of them up? Which direction did I need to walk, now and beyond? I didn’t care what the answers were. Rather, I just felt a relentless urge to move forward, to get my knees and joints moving. I zipped up the front of my nylon jacket and tucked my hands into its sleeves. Then, I stepped into the sheltering cover of the early morning fog. I felt surrounded by Ethan and his laughter. And maybe a hint of God.
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