November '05 -- guest edited by Claudia Smith
When Caroline was forty-five, it occurred to her that the tiniest decision, beautifully executed, could change the course of a life. She was flipping through a monograph album, studying O’Keeffe’s flower paintings, trying to decide if her irises or larkspur were more relevant.
"On for lunch?" Jake asked, lounging beside her desk. "There’s a new display at Christo’s."
"Oh," Caroline said. "The sculptor?"
"Yeah. You hear anything?"
Jake leaned over her desk blotter. Tousled her hair.
"Not at work," Caroline said, and he smiled.
The gallery where the new sculptor was exhibited was tucked into a tiny, dark corner off Damask Square, and Caroline and Jake wandered for twenty minutes before finding it, dodging stubble-faced men in stocking caps. The building itself was dilapidated, the brick soot-stained, chips falling off.
"Here goes nothing," Caroline said; they went inside.
The gallery was drafty, and she sank deeper inside her coat. A faint hiss of a radiator, of water pipes. Then, they were standing in front of Bentley Wells’ work.
"Jesus," Jake said, and breathed oncehard -- into his palms.
Caroline stared. Finally she walked to a padded, black-leather bench situated in the center of the display; Jake sat down beside her.
All the sculptures were minimalist. And all the sculptures had one subject: animals. But these were animals, Caroline reasoned, such as never had been glimpsed, all of them fashioned out of a gray-toned, flexible wire that had been cut and arrangedprobably -- with a blunt pair of shears: the edges were raw-looking, unformed, and some of the animals -- the orangutan and giraffe -- were silhouettes only. But there was a high, humming level of energy connecting the animals so palpably Caroline imagined they might start breathing simultaneously, leap off their pedestals, wander the New York City streets. She touched her left hand to her breast, studied the flat-backed hippo, the waterbuffalo posed to gore: then she started to cry.
"What?" Jake said, and grabbed her. Hugged her. "Don’t you like them?" He kept stroking her hair. It was so many days since she’d washed it.
"Genius," Caroline said, "pure genius." Glancing around, she consoled herself with the thought that Bentleyprobably -- had been born rich, had nothing to do but study his art, had earned his MFA without responsibilities, while Caroline had labored to rise to her position: a director at a well-known gallery in New York, knowledgeable but half-talented.
She expected that Jake would compliment her paintings because he wanted to sleep with her again. And really, this was o.k. She was like a Central Park pigeon, starving for stale breadcrumbs. He followed her up the battered steel stairs to her condo at The Vista. When Caroline unlocked the door, she saw her dirty nightgown on the carpet and a pair of underpants, stiff with menstrual blood. She hurried over, picked up the clothes, tucked them under her arm.
"The paintings are in the basement," Caroline said, "still," and descended the stairs; Jake ducked his head, trailing her.
She flicked on, by a long, dirty string, an overhead bulb, the basement’s yellow walls vivid but paint-pocked, the carpet stained where the sewer had flooded it. It was a hideous room, but Caroline loved it: its airiness allowed her to dream, and--since she was a little girl -- she’d longed for nothing more than to become a visual artist. But it was difficult, she thought, working as a gallery director: as if her gray matter blocked her emotions.
Her paintings were in the middle of the room.
Silent, Jake stepped close to one canvas. A painting of a half-moon against a cobalt-blue sky. Even now, Caroline remembered how that moon had made her feel: as if it weren’t ridiculous to dream.
Now, however, she saw only technical flaws. The too-thick outlines that surrounded the moon. The color of the sky, which struck her as artificial.
Jake studied the painting and a few others: a Chagall-like horse; a nude study of a male shadowy from behind.
"Let’s go to bed, shall we?" Jake said then, and--tears blurring her eyes -- Caroline nodded.
But she changed her mind. They’d both taken off her clothes when she decided they had to stop. It wasn’t a good time, of course, not when they were naked and pressed against each other, Jake using his right hand to wedge himself between her legs. She sat up against the headboard.
"What’s going on?"
"Just not in the mood."
Jake hesitated, looked at the rumpled sheets. "Was it...because I didn’t like your paintings? You know I think you’re talented."
"No, that’s not it. I just think I need to be alone. Maybe I’ll take the rest of the afternoon off?"
Jake looked at her, touched, one-fingered, her mouth. She was a woman of many moods, as he reminded her, and -- since she was approaching menopause -- the moods were becoming more extreme.
Menopause was an exhausting state, akin to madness and yet not as satisfying. More than anything else in her life, Caroline longed for a purpose that would float her out of bed. Menopause seemed to defeat that. Her stomach ached constantly and she felt so flat, so gray, it was as if she could spot the clean cold trajectory that shimmered mirage-like through the desert, leading her to her death.
Caroline parted the blinds. Another gray day. The skyscrapers hazed with a lowhanging fog.
She sat crosslegged before the picture window, coffee mug in hand, contemplating. She’d already decided not to work on the retrospective today. She didn’t want to see anyone. Blue-Funk Caroline.
Caroline set her mug on the carpet, rose, grabbed the phone book.
He wasn’t exactly famous, so she shouldn’t have been surprised he was in there. Still, it seemed too easy to be able to flip the white pages open to the "W"’s and find him listed: Bentley Wells, 8601 Equine Street, 25101. And his number. She couldn’t call him: what would she say? Couldn’t just show up.
Caroline thought, I’m worried about impressing somebody I’ve never even met.
She pulled piles of lingerie out of her drawers.
Now this is dressing for success, she thought; she snapped a hook on her garter, inserted a tampon.
A rainy day in New York. Caroline had donned only a light coat and the wind cut through the wool in gusts. Her black heel caught in a crack; she stumbled, hurrying. And suddenly she had an image of herself that was impossible to explain. She was nude, curled atop her robe on the floor. And, though she was shivering now from the rain, she could almost feel what she must experience if she were lying on the floor in that position, a sleepy smile on her face. She would feel warm, that was certain, safe as a baby in bunting. And at peace. As she peered through the rain, umbrellaless, soaked, trying to spot Bentley’s walk-up, the image completed itself, chilling her: she was lying on the floor of her condo, sucking a baby bottle.
Nuts, Caroline thought. But daydreams couldn’t hurt her, and now she’d found it: Bentley’s flat.
The paint was coming off so fast that Caroline actually saw a white patch fall. Gutters full of sludge and rain fronted the apartment; there were bars on every window.
Should she knock? She couldn’t make up her mind. This Bentley Wells was talented, but certainly he lacked the prestige of her position at Austen’s. And she -- Caroline -- was the director. The director! Organizing a retrospective for one of the most powerful female painters the United States had ever produced. How could she feel afraid?
She stood there with clenched thighs, her buttocks turning cold, the fast trickles of blood into the tampon energizing her.
Quickly, she ascended the steps.
More quickly, she knocked.
A fumbling. The crack of a falling chair--?
"Hello?" Caroline whispered.
The door eased open.
A shadow stretching behind him.
He lifted the chain off.
"Bentley?" Caroline asked. "Bentley Wells?"
Now that she was actually here, face to face, she was in a panic as to what to say. And he wasn’t helping her any. He stood there in a wine-splashed bathrobe, the tie coming undone, so she caught glimpses of his gleaming black chest hair, his paunch. He held a paintbrush in his left hand; long red drips fell, splattered the carpet.
"Ben," the man said. "Not that pompous gallery crap. Just ‘Ben.’"
Caroline managed a smile.
"Pleased to meet you. Caroline Johnson. May I come in?"
Her boldness made her shiver.
"Always," Ben said, and threw the door open wide.