On a night like tonight, when the sky William captures on canvas is unobstructed by clouds, sounds are magnified. The air is filled with the riotous, untuned concert of cicadas, frogs and a restless bird that screeches as though her nest was robbed. Above it all I hear William's heavy breathing and the little murmurs and moans as he makes love to yet another woman.
I am curled up in my bed down the hall. A long time ago I stopped fighting the longing. I lie on my side as though pinned down by a giant hand and branded like a sheep. I wait for the scorching to subside. My thighs hunger for William's lips, my breasts ache for the touch of his hardness. The loss of what was never mine fills my mouth. Neither years nor attempted distance have ever dulled its bitterness.
The glass door leading to the deck is angled to ricochet the echoes of the ocean waves as they crash on the shore. William's body is a battering ram, thrusting and releasing until I am breathless. Twenty-seven years ago, when we built this house from the earnings of William's art, I designed and decorated the place for us. Just for us. I installed padding on the headboard of William's bed. Several years later, I removed it. Now I can listen to the bed whacking the wall to the beat of William's pounding.
My face is pressed against the pillow. My body writhes while he bestows love on another woman. The transient nature of this love is of no comfort to me. William is intent on this woman's pleasure; his eyes and fingers and lips discover her with awe rare for a man who has known so many. She can own him in a way I cannot; she can take from him what can never be mine. She is the recipient of his laughter, the witness to an expression of rapture I can only imagine. She is there when he soars into heights no one but I can divine.
William's collectors pretend they can conjure the expanse of his spirit by acquiring and displaying his art of many skies. But he alone owns his passion, and I alone have been able to glimpse it in his paintings these past fifty years. Only I, who, but for a stroke of nature would have possessed his talent, can comprehend what was denied me.
His fervor roars to a crescendo, and a flash-fire catapults down the corridor to zap me. I shudder. A second later, something else, gentler, floats over the deck which straddles the girth of the house. Seeking me out, it billows the curtains and slides into my room, where it envelops me, so I too, belong with William. My William. Mine.
The silence that follows, white as the halo in one of William's painting, is ripe. Memories of the past hour stalk the hidden alleys of my imagination. William, too, I am certain, basks in the sights, sounds, tastes and smells that linger in the charged air. There is no vacuum stretching away as I wish it would so that this woman would have nothing to ride on. The men I knew saw copulation as chance scraping of each other's side, rarely leaving so much as paint chips for souvenirs. William, whose perceptions are like no one else's, involves all his senses. He stores the impressions for later, when he can lift them up to the light to examine them.
I am certain that the woman does not notice that the smile of gratitude on his face conceals his lingering wonder. For now, the experience grows inside him the way water silently gathers in a cloud. It will reawaken on canvas, perhaps as soon as tomorrow, when, instead of seeking the perfect daylight, William will paint tonight's inky universe, alive with its sounds and smells.
A purr of satisfaction ripples from her throat, and I curl further into myself. I touch my cheeks, the dampness of my tears. I slide my fingers into my mouth and suck on their saltiness. In the afterglow down the hall, two hearts are resuming their natural beat. Two entwined bodies are lying still, yet moving apart imperceptibly. William's penis shrinks away, vulnerable as a baby chick that has fallen out of his nest. Her back relaxes from the bucking and arching and recedes into the depth of the mattress.
And with that separation, William is coming back to me, a wretched fifty-eight year old woman, hopelessly in love with her brother.
The morning brings back the smell of turpentine, of dry pines, of baking sand. I pretend to be sorting the mail when William ambles in from his swim in the ocean, bringing along a tang of salt water on clean skin. I am in charge of paying the bills, of managing our life, of supervising his career. As he enters, I keep my gaze on an invitation to a gala benefit in Cannes, where we spend two months every fall. There's a special quality to the light in the Mediterranean, William says, which he must capture.
I sense, more than see, William examining the sky through the large picture window facing south. For him, I designed a house in which the walls are all windows.
William paints the sky. Everything that happens under it appears in his paintings as an accidental event in either human development or in nature. A forgotten shoe on the beach, a tree changing colors with the seasons, a hut during a storm, from the sky's point of view, are irrelevant to its eternity. The sky asks no questions, the sky does not care.
"It's deep," William mumbles.
I know. I checked, of course. To the south, thousands of layers of chiffon are edged by a translucent ribbon over the ocean. When William paints this sky, layer upon layer of the same azure diluted with white, he will capture its depth which in the hands of a lesser painter would come out a flat blue, like in a child's tableau.
Today, though, I expect him to paint one of his "morning-after" pieces, a different sky from the one we see together.
He steps toward the window overlooking the bay. On that side, the roof of the world is like frosted glass. A few milky clouds with pearl-gray underbellies hang motionless.
I still don't speak. I want to delay and savor the moment when I look up and see his naked, wet torso. My eyes will travel to the freshly-shaven skin on the neck rising up to the trimmed beard. Then to the knowing green eyes over cheekbones that are an exaggerated version of mine. The hair topping William's head, once red like mine, has been bleached by sun and the years into a faded hue of its former flame.
"I've made you papaya juice," I say, and motion with my head toward the kitchen counter. William will have his breakfast later, on the beach, from the picnic basket I have prepared.
"She'll be down soon," he says.
I gasp as though punched. It's been a long time since he allowed a woman to stay over. Last night, that fact had lulled me to sleep. I had let down my guard. All that time William was with her, whispering, touching, laughing. Making love again, more slowly, more deliberately.
"I'm off to the mansion," I say. "Architectural Digest is doing a before- and-after story." I get up and make a show of jiggling my legs as though to jump-start the circulation. In truth, I must conceal the shaking that has seized me. Something is terribly wrong if he remembers he has a guest upstairs. Not again. Don't let him fall in love again.
When I stand up, I suck in my tummy. Not that there is much to suck in, or that William would notice. The man whose eyes register every detail failed to notice three years ago when I had a face-lift and a few tucks. Even now, when his gaze travels over me he doesn't seem to see me, although I look good in the white slacks and the striped sailor shirt. For the photo shoot, it has a certain moneyed vacation look. A youthful look.
When William was ten and I was thirteen, he walked into my bedroom while I was getting dressed for the opening of his first show. The child prodigy had been discovered, and I, who had been good at painting, stopped.
"Let me see your breasts," he had said.
"How will I ever paint naked women if my own sister won't let me see her?"
It would be years before William would become a man, and many more before I would recognize my love for him for what it was. Yet, even then, the insult pierced my nascent sexuality. He was only interested in my body as a study for his work.
I slapped his face. "You jerk."
He never asked again. Plenty of others had volunteered.
"Got to go," I now say, and stack the mail on the counter. I reach for my bag on the chair. It is bursting with rolled-up floor plans, color samples and fabric swatches. "Remember we have dinner tonight with that art critic--"
My words are cut short when William puts his arms around me and draws me toward him. The shock makes me stop breathing, but then I realize this is my chance to breathe in a lungful of his scent. His arms tighten more. My face is buried in the towel thrown over his shoulder. Something is terribly wrong. We stand immobile, our hearts beating together until I am no longer certain which is mine and which is his. Is he okay? Has he been diagnosed with a terminal disease? I dare not ask. Hard as I wish not to break the moment, I shift my weight away from him.
"Thanks for being you," he says, and I feel the tectonic rumble under my feet.
I collapse into the chair and drop my face into my hands. "Oh, God." Then I remember that she will be coming down any minute, and stifle my groan.
"Please don't." He strokes my head. "Nothing will change."
"There will be three of us again. I don't want a new roommate."
"She and I will go to Cannes for the fall," he says. "Anyway, you said you must finish this mansion."
The giant blister that is my love for him pops open the whole of me. Its foul taste climbs up my throat. I get up again. "We'll catch up later," I say.
How late is "later?" We have the rest of our lives. But until it is truly "later," when William's affair has fizzled away, I must live in the hell of my love.
He wants to say more, but I don't want to hear. Not now. Not ever. I fly through the door. Don't do this to me. Don't do this to us. We've tried it so many times. Even marriages. Five between us. Nothing worked for either of us.
But life is not important to William. Life is only what happens under the ever-changing sky. And the sky asks no questions.
Even though we don't speak of it--of her--for a few days, it hangs over me, like his painting of rain clouds trapped in cheesecloth.
From the deck, I watch William on the beach, his straw hat pulled low to protect the nape of his neck. His broad shoulders slouch, but his right hand is steady over the canvas. Another day, on the bay side, under copper skies of the setting sun, golden crumbs and pink streaks fill up his canvas. I am still waiting for the storm of passion to erupt. Its delay is more ominous.
The nights she stays over, I spare myself no pain. I have to know William's fire is out by the time morning comes.
His skies are flat.
Later, I tell myself. Later. It will be him and me again.
William is leaving for Cannes. With her. I order his stock of azure, cobalt, lapis, indigo and Prussian blue. I order lots of whites and several shades of ocher. He has not used the warmer, darker hues all summer.
One night, they don't make it to the bedroom. I hear her angry tones in his studio on the third floor, too far for me to distinguish the words, but not far enough to miss the repeated mention of me. In her voice, my name sounds like something bitter she wishes to spit. "Don't ask me to choose," he says. Moments later, the front door slams, and for the first time in months, the iron bands around my lungs snap.
The absence of pain is like sinking into a bed of white clouds. Nothing can ever hurt me so deeply again. "Later" is finally here.
When I wake up from my cocoon of sleep, darkness still shrouds my world. The air smells of pine, salt and ashes. I step out to the deck.
From the studio above me, a yellow light casts huge rectangles onto the cattails and reeds. The soft wind ripples through them in foreplay. Cicadas trill, frogs burp, and the belted kingfisher that screeched her protest all summer, now punctuates the air with her disharmony. Or, it only now occurs to me, could this be the mating call of a jilted lover?
William's shadow fills one of the window frames, stops, then moves toward the outside stairs. I hear him taking them two at a time. I turn to see a spring in his step I have not realized has been missing for a while.
He stops. In the semi-darkness, the expression on his face is different from any I have ever seen; it is the one I watched in my fantasies.
Our eyes are locked, intent, as I walk over. When his fingers touch my neck, they are dry, calloused, yet hot. They tremble with a new knowledge. No, with an old knowledge neither of us will ever again deny. And the sky would never judge.
His hand moves to my cheek, and its touch is so feathery, I might have mistaken it for one of his brushes.
I let my nightgown fall away from my shoulders. The silk gathers at my ankles, sensuous and cool. "It's only you and me," I whisper. "It's time you made love to me."
His lips are at the crook of my neck. "I have. So many times," he whispers back. "There has never been anyone else."
Talia Carner is a novelist with three yet-to-be-published novels. Her theme is motherhood threatened by big government. Her personal essays have been published in The New York Times, Happy Times News, as well as in parenting and career women's publications. She is a regular contributor to Chocolate for Women's anthology published by Simon & Schuster, and has twice won in the Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Before writing full-time, Carner founded Business Women Marketing Corporation, a marketing consulting firm whose clients were Fortune 500 companies, and was the Publisher of Savvy Woman magazine. She lives in New York.
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