I remember the curious evening when I had met Vladimir Valencia. The flowers were growing in the wrong directions, the rain was falling upwards, and the sky was a terrible orange, as though we were put in an earth-sized oven. The scene beyond my window was exceptional; the town was a bright beacon in the distance and the forest was being blown so strongly that, in the dark, it looked like an angry, rolling sea. The world was endlessly spread out before me, curving shyly into the horizon, very, very excited.
But then I looked down, and the spell was broken. My wooden basket was tumbling about my garden, knocking into a bunch of tomato plants. Cursing, I ran downstairs and popped out of the house with great artlessness. The plants had caught my basket for me, and a bunch of beat-up tomatoes had fallen into it soundly. The wind was clawing at my hair and roaring in my ears like a giant brute. If I was a boy I’d be dancing by its strings by now. But as a young man of twenty-five, I did hold my ground rather spectacularly. If only there was someone to witness the way I withstood a storm; it might occur to them to strike up a romance.
Once the basket was secured and the produce was fed to my pup Cindy, I managed a few gulps of water before deciding that, no matter how curious, this evening just wasn’t for me. There was a luncheon scheduled tomorrow at Ava Lane’s house; for what occasion, I wasn’t in the least informed. You see, my good friend (and accomplice, if I must admit, since he is everyone’s good friend) is the one who’s popular and witty, not I. Hallmark always got invited to all the parties, and via obligation, he made sure to have me come along (when I became more well-known, everybody found that I declined any direct invitations, and the only way to have me was through Hallmark). I was no one’s favorite. I was simply that writer, the famous one who lived in seclusion for artistic purposes and didn’t possess enough mind to uphold social customs. It was a surprise that no one in our small town hated me for it. I was only ever an object to inspire a spirit of inquiry. Old people saw a youthful, handsome man who was a little more mysterious than the other one, and the rest saw a potential genius.
It was unfortunate that my genius wasn’t conceived to be fulfilled. The last book I had published, Eating Up The Dawn and Mistress, practically brought me the majority of my current wealth. It inspired something in everyone who read it and became a best-seller throughout the country. But success never satisfied the people, even if it earned me my fortune. “Every night I sit at my fireplace and wonder when I’ll get to sit there again, but with your next novel in hand,” Hallmark had said to me longingly. What a romantic that man was. “You’re a literary genius,” Yousef, my editor, had exclaimed, “There are no novels which surpass yours in this era!” Even the harshest critics were spoiling me.
If this is the best, I always wanted to cry out, then what will one even consider better? As any renowned author, my biggest fear was that my most recent work would always be impassable and that it will become all I’ll ever be known for. The rest of my books, the rest of my children (“Sometimes you can sound so dramatic, Advay”), will be forgotten, or worse, ill-received in comparison. The luncheon was going to be absolutely mind-draining because I would be asked about my next book, and I would have to admit that I cannot write anymore, despite the months of trying. Then I would be called out for stopping once I made it big, and will be thought of as a greedy, lethargic fool who doesn’t know what to make of themselves. A dunce who is undeserving of the gift they’ve been given. “It’s not a gift,” I always protested, “It’s a product of years of hard work.”
Yes, it was true I could no longer write. I had tried everything: I’d sat for hours in the garden, staring at the bright green clovers; lounged in the library, reading piles of books seeking inspiration; even had tea with Hallmark, and sat among his terrible canopy of dreamcatchers and wind chimes. I’d tried writing on papyrus (too flimsy), in case paper had become too commonplace to be satisfactory. I’d switched my ink pens with reed pens (too fragile), then back again. I even sat at a desk to write, and no writer ever sits at their desk; you’ll always find one in odd positions, bent over and twisted in agony, all centered around the manuscript.
Yousef told me that my ‘well of talent’ was currently exhausted and that I was supposed to relax and breathe in the world while it was (mysteriously) replenished. Hallmark just told me I’m a moron and that I can write, I just don’t want to. Maybe he was right. After Eating Up The Dawn and Mistress even I was convinced I’ll never write something as good again. When it was freshly released, people used to ask me, “So, Advay, what is your new book about?” It was always a question I struggled the most with. What were the seven hundred pages about? Could anything less than those seven hundred pages describe it? Of course, Yousef had prepared an answer for me, and now, just half a year later, most readers could describe my book better than me.
The luncheon was tomorrow at noon, and that left me precisely one night to: come up with acceptable reasons as to why I hadn’t started another book; debate on whether I should simply lie about it; and cry in the bedroom about my writer’s block. Perhaps it was plenty of time, and I was very lucky. Worst case: the moment I got excessively emotional, a jolly Hallmark would be upon my door and the sun would be burning in my eyes. I should just go to bed, I reasoned with myself, that way I wouldn’t have to be awake to deal with any nonsense.
It was about ten in the night when a stranger came knocking at my door. At first, I couldn’t hear them over the sky’s tantrum, but my pup smelled them in the air. She had the responsibility of tugging me out of sleep, and so that’s what she did, albeit excitedly. “Someone you know?” I muttered, blinking at her wagging tail and sparkling eyes. We were out of bed and going down the stairs when the stranger decided to admit themselves violently. The door was flung open and they crashed in, bringing a hell of water and mud. Just like that, any semblance of peace was disrupted. I cursed, scurrying to shut it in case more unwanted things piled in, “Who the hell are you?”
“Mother nature wants to tear me apart,” the man replied, as if it was an adequate clarification, as if he was the only one being attacked. He stood up, somehow even taller than me, broad in his soaked coat. He pushed his hood down to reveal a strong, confident face caught in a slightly boyish look. His nose was shaped to near perfection and was gently flattened along its length, brows were so dense and uniform that they seemed drawn on, and he maintained a high head poise, genuine intelligence in his dark eyes. My eyes finally rested on the strong column of his throat, and I felt like I was done searching.
We were supposed to be having a conversation, and I was supposed to be demanding further explanation. But we just stood there and stared at each other. I came to realize that, even though he’d said so little, he was already the subject of my every thought. Is that how people felt about me when I walked into a room as one of the best novelists of our days? Did I finally wear their curious gaze, full of a kind of wanting I was not yet familiar with? But those gazes felt proper, and mine didn’t.
He cleared his throat, “My apologies for intruding and,” he looked back at my door which was shaking briefly, “for damaging your door.” He didn’t look very apologetic if one went by the upturn of his mouth. It was late (it wasn’t but I had retired for the night) and my head was still miraculously filled with sleep, as opposed to all the rubbish I was trying to escape in the first place. Naturally, I wanted him gone, no matter how fine looking he was.
“Is there a car coming to get you?” I asked, trying to pat my hair down into something more acceptable.
“Well, you’re awfully blunt,” he began, and I already knew his mischief before it wrung me up, “So you’re that award-winning writer, Advay Steiner. Age of Unflowers, Until The Man Cries, now Eating Up The Dawn and Mistress.”
“I am aware,” I muttered, “Do you have a place in town that you can go to?”
“Are you always this unwelcoming? Or are you nicer to people who pay to see you?”
“People don’t pay to see me at parties, but I wish they did.” The man threw his head back and began to laugh heartily, shoulders shaking. It was a contagious thing, and I chuckled a bit as well, even though I was very much aware that water from his dirty clothes was dripping onto my floor, and that I’d have to clean it later on.
“You’re a bitter old man, aren’t you?”
“I’m in my golden youth,” I touched my jaw as if to emphasize. Of course, I said that sulking, very unconvincing.
“It’s odd to come across a man who recognizes his youth and beauty but does nothing with that youth and beauty. I’ve been hanging about you for quite some time. Since you published that collection of short stories Homes and Other Sadness, yes. You don’t flaunt yourself to impress the public, neither are you charming. You don’t deliberately dumb yourself in front of people with power--” Why was he talking so much?
“I’m almost always the most intelligent person in the room. Why would I do that?”
He smiled at me, “Most arrogant, too.”
I shrugged, and my response came out in a rehearsed manner, for I reasoned like this at least once every time I was out being spoken to, “There is a difference between being arrogant and acknowledging capabilities. There is no pride in my voice when I say I am intelligent. It’s matter-of-fact. What else can I do but accept it? Now,” I sighed, “I appreciate that you like my work enough to pay attention to me. I really do. But it’s late, and I’m very tired.”
“You always look tired. Won’t you ask me to come in, and offer clean clothes?”
“Not until you answer the questions I’d asked.”
“Yes, I live in town. I was out for a stroll when the storm hit. No, there is no one coming to retrieve me at this hour.”
“I can phone someone if you’d like,” I was walking towards my telephone when he stopped me, “No one will come. The storm is getting worse.” I looked outside my window, and I could be mistaken, but a huge furry object was thrown across my vision. Probably a tree. I sighed again, trying not to look too annoyed with him. If I was left to my own devices, I’d have scowled at him. “Come in, don’t sit, I’ll get you clothes.” I knew he was grinning as I made my way upstairs. I left Cindy to keep him company, by which I meant to keep a watch on him. In my experience, beautiful men were more often cunning than they were gay, which was a very unfortunate deal for me.
When I came back down with a handful of clothes --a ruffled white shirt, wide trousers, socks and new underwear which I was mildly embarrassed about giving off to a stranger-- he was already halfway through stripping right in the middle of my hall, “Do you have no decency!” I scowled then (because he was very attractive and honey-skinned) and tossed him the clothes. He grinned at me again, “Where shall I change?”
“Here, now that you’ve begun. I’ll get you some warm water,” I mumbled. The last time I was vaguely hospitable was five years ago when my mother came all the way from India to congratulate me on my debut as a writer. “You’ve managed to write a whole book,” she told him, “So you’re capable enough to serve your guests--” pardon me, what was the correlation? “--Come on, get up, I want some lemon water.”
The water had just begun to boil when that man knocked at my kitchen’s doorway. I nodded and he stepped in, looking around, “So it’s true. You live a minimal lifestyle.”
“You didn’t have to look in my kitchen to know that.”
“Yes but,” he leaned in, “Look at that. Two knives, two spoons, two forks. One saucepan, one pot--”
“What is your business, listing everything I have?”
“Why, since you have no cupboard doors either! With your wealth, one would think you would have at least proper furnishing.”
“It is not a question of wealth, but will.”
He sat on the counter beside me, joining me in staring at the stove’s fire to avoid eye contact (or perhaps I was the only one avoiding it, and he was just looking at the things I was looking at), “What about your wants, though? What would someone like you want?”
I frowned as I transferred the warm water into a cup, “I want peace. Quiet. Sleep.”
“Don’t you want my name?”
I looked at him then, and what I really wanted was to be left alone to brood, “What’s your name?”
“Vladimir Valencia, at your service.”
I gaped at him, “The painter?”
His paintings were the best I’d ever seen: not only were their color schemes most agreeable, but he had created a whole new style of acrylic painting. They were dreamy, and at the same time they were prison-like; the idea of darkness, not it’s physicality, hidden in the bright, bold marks. The kind of paintings that you would genuinely stare at for at least an hour, following each stroke until it terminated only to pick up another. Like that, your eyes would force your mind to weave and simultaneously unravel the magnificent piece of art, which felt less like a piece and more like a being with a life of its own.
He laughed at the revelation in me, and I finally understood how he had earned his smirk and keen eyes. For a moment I was caught off guard; I wanted to ask him for his autograph and tell him how big of an admirer I was, that I was going to buy one of his paintings, hopefully Gladiator on Ice. But I saw the way he waited for me to bubble up and fawn over him, eyes hooded and lip quirked, so as any other respectable person I reeled in my awe, and what I really was was just a coward. Vladimir Valencia said he followed me, and I had never noticed. It came to my mind that sometimes being indifferent to the world really did have its own repercussions.
“Yes, the painter,” he said unnecessarily, just to nudge the stalled conversation into movement, like waking a big fat dog sleeping on the porch.
“Why didn’t you say so before?” I spluttered, handing him the cup. He leisurely warmed his palms as he jibed, “So that you could treat me nicely? Only because I’m famous? That’s very unkind, is it not?”
At his uninformed accusation, I began to scowl again, “I don’t treat anyone nicely when I’m sleep deprived. It only so happens that I love your work and I regard it very highly. In quality and composition.” He smiled again, and suddenly the knowledge that he was Vladimir Valencia elevated his attractiveness to the point where I wanted to actively pursue him. What an absolute disaster.
“‘In quality and composition’,” he repeated grandly, “I like that phrase, and composition concerns me the most. Tell me, do you compose your novels too?”
“It’s a story. Of course a story requires to be composed,” I muttered. Valencia was a superior artist, and devilishly handsome, but was he a complete moron? Or did he really think so lowly of writers, so as to suggest that plotting a novel is a choice-- You’re overreacting, I told myself, stop getting offended at small things. This is Vladimir Valencia.
“I’ve known authors who simply do not plot their manuscripts. For instance, my cousin says deciding what takes place in her novel beforehand is a way to limit her and her character’s freedom. ‘If you plan whatever of their life takes place in the book, you’re taking that freedom away from them. You’re playing god, and we all know we deserve better. We deserve a godless world where there is no such thing as destiny. Where our actions aren’t predetermined, but determining. So why would I waste that chance if I could give it to someone? Why should I be asked not to experiment with the godless world?’ She hated every time someone asked her to plot her novel. She would write as it came to her.”
“I’m assured she never finished it,” I said, fixing a cup of tea for Valencia and myself. I would have asked him if he prefered coffee, but I didn’t have the energy to make two drinks, since I wanted tea myself. There was a moment of silence until his smile dissolved into a momentous look, “How did you know she didn’t? Did I make it sound like I don’t respect her ability?”
I sighed, “God, whether they exist or not, isn’t the only one who needs to plan. People will drift around like dead fish in a sea if they don’t decide what they want to do, and when. Naturally, she didn’t finish her book.”
He nodded at me, and I was suddenly aware of how he was hanging off my every word, and it made me red in the face. I wasn’t telling him anything he wouldn’t understand himself, but he was still listening intently as if I did have something knowledgeable to offer, “She is a classic novice: she has made up characters which she likes, has plot points she wants to show the world, but she doesn’t know how to connect them. Her desire for a godless world is a diversion, some fancy talk. She just doesn’t know what to do with her story. That’s really all it is. Even if she is attempting the write-with-the-flow method, which isn’t null and void and has actually produced great works in history, it demands a lot more from a writer than plotting a novel does. It’s like comparing a bird to a businessman.”
“A businessman considers a bird free, whereas the bird has no advanced direction in life… does freedom and unambition mean the same then?”
“Yes, exactly,” I smiled a little, surprised that he contributed instead of allowing my thoughts to flourish as a monologue. It’s happened too often; all I get is hurried nods or drifting eyes, “As someone who plots my novel tediously, I could view her method as ‘unbound.’ But what it actually is is unambitious. It has nowhere to go. No purpose aside from the basics. Unless you’re actually capable of succeeding with something like that, and one seldom is.”
He was thinking, and I stared pointedly at the untouched cup of tea in his hands, to which he simply said, “I’m allergic,” and once again I wanted to kick him out because he should have told me before I had to waste all that milk. Instead, I poured his cup into a bowl and put it on the floor, and my darling Cindy came running like the energetic puppy she was.
I considered putting up a ‘if you insist on being my guest, don’t make me do extra work’ sign near the doorway, which people would consider a joke and laugh at, only to look at my face and realize that I was serious. I frowned, because I was suddenly thinking about people in my home, and I don’t even think about people. They were tolerable at best, annoying at the worst, and this man (regardless of how I adored his work) was the most inconvenient mix of both.
“Do you only talk when asked a question?”
I could feel the beginnings of another scowl twisting my mouth open. It was pitiable how irritable I was when stressed, “You’re wearing a backpack and there’s paint on your fingers. You didn’t come here for a stroll, you’ve been here for a while. Long enough to see the storm brewing, and return to town. Yet you stayed out for all the hours the storm collected itself, and stuck yourself near my house. Now, I’m not going to ask again: why are you really here?”
I suppose I should have felt bad for lashing out at my favourite painter. But in my career, and even as a young boy, I knew plenty of people who only showed up to use others. They’d mimic a friend: they’d spend time with you, talk with you, maybe even make you happy to be in their company. The worst kind of people are parasites in a human body. Sooner or later it would have become clear that they just wanted something from you without having to call it a favor, and without being asked to return.
He looked so surprised, and also so trapped, that I had to save him the poor attempts he would start making to deny the nature of his visit, “Experiences in life amount to suspicion. Start talking.”
“I-- you’re my favorite writer and I just-- wanted to see you.” By the way he was behaving, all wide eyed and the sudden loss of his charismatic demeanor, I was expecting something more brutal-- he was running from prosecution, he wanted to steal my unpublished works and sell them to the highest bidder, he was looking for shelter since he’d gone bankrupt (famous painters went bankrupt all the time, mostly because they were destined to make millions only years after they’d died), or that he’d simply gone mad (famous painters go mad all the time, mostly because they’re always a little mad to begin with).
I softened a little, but still decided not to yield, “Why in the middle of a storm?”
“The storm was merely a coincidence--”
“Quite a big coincidence, was it not?”
Valencia smiled, “I was painting your house from the distance. Just for practice, but I always did want to meet you. You and I, we-- don’t have common social circles. It’s not all that easy to catch you around town.”
“Ah, that is probably since I avoid it. But,” I said the moment he began relaxing into my kitchen counter again, “Why are you being so...”
“If you’re going to call me chatty like everyone else I know--” I was thinking of a stronger word though. At first I thought he was solely behaving like this to impress me (people tend to do so for attention), or, at least, leave an impression, but that was clearly a personality trait. I could say it was irksome in a way that made it endearing, and then I wanted to hit myself for such cursed thinking.
“What is the… rather sophisticated term for ‘chatty’? Voluble?”
“I’m the author, so I should know, yes I know. Writers aren’t vocabulary wizards.”
“I’m sure you too have preconceived notions about painters which aren’t true either.”
“Is this some sort of a competition--”
“Forgive me,” Hallmark interjected from his position in the hallway. I hadn’t noticed his presence, and judging from Valencia’s face, neither had he. We both just stared at him, my mouth open with the last of my sentence dangling out of it silently, “I’ve been here awhile, and the bickering is turning awfully marital in nature.”
I blushed, damning myself for entrusting him with spare keys, “What about entering without knocking? We aren’t married either.”
“Maddening, isn’t it? Regardless, I knocked, but the storm roared,” he said playfully, “Now, Vladimir, what in the world are you doing here?”
As I looked upon my dear friend, I realized that he had already conducted personal business with Valencia, but had failed to introduce me to him even though he knew how much I loved his paintings. I could have either been bitter about it, or taken the opportunity to get to know Valencia myself --he was standing in front of me and I had been arguing with him like a child-- but naturally I chose the former.
“Don’t get grumpier than that cat your father used to own. I met Vladimir just two days ago.”
Vladimir shook his hand dutifully, “That too under such odd circumstances.”
“Nevermind that. Despite your infatuation, I hadn’t thought you’d actually show up at Advay’s house so soon. But it’s great, really, saves you all the trouble of having to draw him out.”
“Infatuation?” I demanded.
“Vladimir here shares your… preferences.”
“You told him--”
“I saw him sidling up to some man in the tavern. Naturally we struck up a conversation that settled on you.” Naturally.
I narrowed my eyes at Valencia, and suddenly I was able to read his expressions better. The half-smiles, the gentle jibes, the drooping eyes. The way he spread himself over my counter. He was being sultry. Last year, I wondered if he was homosexual because of that one painting he put out. Enraged Entangle was an expressionism of two humanoid figures lying together. The lack of long hair and breasts in either of them led me to believe it was a depiction of gay men, but the unstructured, artistic nature of the painting kept it from being confirmingly obvious.
“Your painting,” I blurted, being too flustered to address anything but that, “I didn’t know you were so open with your sexuality.”
He pushed his hair out of his eyes and leaned towards me, holding onto the counter. The angle made the veins in his arms pop, and it came to my attention that his knuckles looked exceptionally broad, the lamp illuminating their crevices, “I’m not. A heterosexual wouldn’t even be able to tell what I painted was so ‘outrageous.’ How else do you think I got away with it?”
Hallmark was smirking at me. I shoved him, “Leave.”
“I’m not gay by any means, but I do not mind watching--”
“Shut up and go,” I muttered, pushing him back into my hallway. He was laughing and stumbling all over himself, probably a little drunk. Not drunk enough to be unable to converse civilly with Valencia, but drunk enough to be an annoying little shit. I turned back to Valencia and excused myself for a moment. He laughed and waved me off, making a shot at my puppy instead.
Once we were on my porch, I crossed my arms at Hallmark, “What the fuck.”
“Why would you--”
“It’s been a while since your arsehole of a boyfriend left,” he tsked at the protest on my face, “Talk to Vladimir, make dinner arrangements. I’ve found you a suitable man. You’re already fond of him, judging by all the banter.”
“You know, any sensible person would understand that bantering is not a sign of--”
“You’re not a sensible person. If you didn’t like him you’d keep your responses to singular words and grunts. Don’t be an absolute dolt.”
“I-- Fine.” I muttered, slamming the door behind me. He was right. If I didn’t like Valencia I wouldn’t have bothered saying anything to him, yet I went on about… my intelligence, his cousin and… my cheeks were ragingly warm. Hallmark knocked on the door, probably to get another rise out of me, but I ignored him. I just stood there, listening to Valencia coo at my dog. He wasn’t here for work, or any formalities, neither was he here by accident. He was here for me.
Wrestling with my nerves rendered me stronger, and I finally walked into the kitchen to face him. He was staring out of the window as any other person would when left alone in a room, but what was strange about him was the expression of calm admittance he wore, which contrasted with the way he was gripping the counter, knuckles white. It was like walking in on a rabid dog lying in the corner: you know it’s deadly but it’s also still and silent; you don’t know if you’re safe or not. It was at that moment that a singular fear descended upon me, as slowly as a cloud drifting across the sky, just as light. Nevertheless the descent had begun, and later would engulf me coldly.
But, standing there in my home with that man who’d come to sleep with me, I didn’t even take a step back. If the higher powers might have known who he was going to become, they didn’t show it. Or maybe they did, in the form of the very storm he was staring out at, and what an irony that would truly become. I opened my mouth but the words would not come, even when his hands fell to his sides, red, as if the color had been beaten back into them. Where his hands were calm then, his face was tense. If I had taken the time to actually look at him, I would’ve seen the way he looked at his reflection. Maybe I would’ve been able to hear the gutted flesh, the horror in a gasp, the silence of a heart that beat. But back then, the only thing I heard was the moaning of my loneliness, and for the first time --and worst time-- I had acknowledged it.
By turning around and breaking into a smile, he snapped me out of whatever muck I was momentarily trapped in. I smiled back shyly, remembering why he was here. If I was younger I would have felt offended that he came to be physical with me, not get to know me, but then my life became indefinitely shorter than anyone else’s. The cancer metastasized a while back, and the doctor grievously told me that I had two years left. I still remember the day she knocked on my door with a knowledge so heavy that she almost left it in the doorway. I was in bed that day, one of my more sickly days, and as I sent Cindy down to retrieve her, from the window I watched her face twist into tears, just before she exhaled and set her eyes.
When she came in and sat down beside me, hand on mine, and told me that I had around three years left, that there was no medicine or technology that could save me, the only thing I could think about was the sound of the fan above me, the way my whole room was frozen except the untucked corner of my bedsheet, fluttering in its wind. “One of the hardest moments of my career isn’t even telling patients that they’re dying and there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s being there for them after breaking them. My hand has never felt so heavy, so out of place. The hundreds of words I learned for this job are suddenly of no use,” she’d said later on.
“You’re here for...” I trailed off when he stepped towards me, smirking lightly, “But then why would you bother painting my house?”
He laughed, running a hand through his brown curls. They sprung up from beneath his fingers, bouncing into place. His voice was heavy at the same time it was gentle. It echoed in my ears even as his laughter softened, and he never stopped looking at me from beneath his lashes. However, when he opened his mouth to run off on it, all the energy building in me from the first time he smiled burst into a thousand suns. I stepped forward and grabbed his neck, bringing his lips down to mine and kissing with a fervor I hadn’t realized I could still feel.
He immediately grabbed me and our bodies snapped together. Suddenly I could feel the parts of him I hadn’t imagined would be remarkable to touch: the firm planes of his chest, the pressure of his arms surrounding me, fingertips pushing into my sides. But everything I felt quickly centered down into two things: his lips moving on mine, and my closed eyes.
He gripped me so strongly, not even letting me arch my back, that l felt like he wasn’t just holding me, he was holding onto me, as though a gale would uproot him and fling him miles away if he let go. At some point one of his hands closed around my wrist, pinning it against the wall to keep me in place, but when he was confident I’d stay there, some of his fingers fell away. It was peculiar, something I’d never forget, but two of his fingers remained pressed into my wrist. He was feeling my pulse as he kissed me, and back then I just assumed he wanted to please himself with the knowledge that my heart was racing.
“Upstairs,” I gasped, “My bedroom’s upstairs.”
“Who said we need a bed?” He replied, flipping me around and holding me against the wall. I didn’t even realize it had happened until the cold from the wall seeped into my palms and cheek. I gasped as his hands roamed my body, still over my clothes, and his lips went to making my neck their home.
I didn’t understand what kind of frenzy, nearly demonic energy possessed this man. As his lips met mine again, making my neck turn back enough to reduce the strength of my tongue on his, it occurred to me that we’d just met and he’d seen nothing of my body, yet he was going at me like I was the only person in this world. I tried to touch him back, to feel what he felt when he touched me so feverishly, but I was trapped between the wall and him. I had no complaints of the matter, whatsoever, so I closed my eyes and moaned.
There is that moment before rousing that everything is red, liquid light illuminating the back of the eyes. After that come the sounds: dancing birds in the distance, maybe a little wind, and then the silence of a morning that placates. A heavy weight across my stomach brought me back to my room, anchoring, and I opened my eyes. Valencia was half strewn over me, legs entangled and his curls tickling my neck. I watched him, searching for something special in his features which romance novels never failed to describe. When I couldn’t find it, I looked for moles or beauty spots, and I couldn’t find them either. Maybe it was because I was not in love with him, or maybe it was because he was actually plain, unmarred.
I hardly knew him, but I hadn’t expected him to begin chatting as soon as he woke up and stretched. I laughed a little, giving him a meaningful shove. He rolled off me and settled into my side, head in his hands, looking at me the way he did yesterday too. As though he saw something in me which was undiscovered prior to him, and he was quite aware of how important it would be to me. It was an odd feeling, and I was filled with a brief, dramatic dread that he’d choose to keep that knowledge to himself forever, stripping me of what I deserved for no reason at all.
He smiled, “You’ve never written about sex.”
“I-- It’s implied.”
“Implied but not written about. Come to think of it, none of your characters are lonely, none of them are homosexual--”
“John Jacob was--”
“He was practically the man in my painting. So brilliantly hidden in plain sight. I cannot say I know you, but now that I’m sitting in your bed with you, looking into your pretty eyes, it occurs to me that you’ve never written about yourself.”
I frowned, taking a moment to contemplate as to what would give him such an impression, “I have. Bits and pieces of me are littered everywhere. It’s impossible to write without leaving parts of yourself behind to be devoured by the pages.”
He nodded, not in agreement but urgingly, “See, that’s the word I was looking for. Littered. You drizzle yourself like syrup on a pancake. But you’re so much more than that. One part of you can become a character’s whole personality.”
I laughed, afraid that if he spent a day or two longer with me, he’d find out who I really was, and his magical fascination with me would weather into boredom. When I was alone with myself, I was not a writer. I was not intelligent. I wasn’t interesting. I struggled to get out of bed some days, subject to my puppy’s poor whines; she deserved a better friend than me. Hallmark would stop by ever so often to check up on me-- if I’d eaten, if I’d taken a bath. I stared helplessly outside my window, knowing that if my health hadn’t been so bad I would have travelled this endless earth, breathed everything in my way, slurping and licking at every beauty, every happiness, every soul I saw. My desire to do so was aroused for the same reason I couldn’t do it-- my withering body, my nearing death. I didn’t even feel like a person to myself anymore, all I felt like was a deadline, something waiting to end rather than something happening.
I have never written about cancer, I thought then, or living with the knowledge of when you’re going to die, “I’m flattered you think of me as multidimensional, but you really don’t know me.” The words tumbled out and floated in the space between us like hollow rocks, for it was not a question of him knowing me, it was a question of him acknowledging me, something I hadn’t been able to do.
He sat back on his hands, still staring at me, “I don’t think you know yourself either.”
“Does one ever truly know themselves? People define themselves by their pain, their suffering, by things they aren’t good at. You yourself pointed out who I am-- lonely--”
He squeezed my hand, shaking his head, “That’s not what I--”
“All this conversation about knowing me, but when do I get to know you?” It was meant to be flirtatious, an advance towards his person, and a diversion from potential tension, but watching a frown set into his face, a distance eat up his eyes… I once again grew momentarily afraid of him.
“I am… not a good person,” he started, slowly, like he was saying that for the first time, “but I am a driven artist. My work defines me. It is not that I am possessed with the need to be the best, but I need to do my passion justice. I will stop at nothing to express the most accurate version of my thoughts, and that is, somehow, the most dangerous thing.”
“Not stopping,” I mused with a nod.
He sighed, “No. Aptly exhibiting my thoughts.”
“Is there something wrong with the way you think?”
He nodded, looking back up at me. He looked so vulnerable, shirtless in my bed, curled into my side, wide-eyed and soul-baring. It made me uncomfortable, “There is.”
“I can understand why that might scare you. But I believe it is not uncommon; people, under certain hardships, might desire to... do hurtful things? That doesn’t necessarily make them bad people, it just makes them tortured people.”
He didn’t say anything for a while, and I could tell he needed some space to decide how he was to continue speaking, “You’re very kind, even very simple to look upon the world that way. Maybe you are correct, too. But I… I stop at nothing. It starts off with committing adultery for power… then it spirals from there.”
“You cheated.” It was foolish of me to let my own predicament turn me blind to what this man was actually implying, and when I think back to that moment I remember the way he glanced at me, surprised and a little disbelieved that I had focused on the wrong-- or, let’s say, the lesser evil-- of said implications.
He blinked at me, “I did.”
I sighed, “I am aware that such conversations are to remain unspoken, but I must say that I genuinely felt like we could be something. Not now, of course, but I was to ask you to dinner, and…” Valencia nodded. Maybe he thought I was a freak for talking about commitment on the first day we met, but in every moment we spent together there was a clarity: he was good for me, and we were inclined towards each other. We knew we could have more if we wanted, “But now I know that you’ve cheated on your previous lover. The reason doesn’t matter. You did what you did. I know you’ll do it again.”
“‘Once a cheater, always a cheater…’” Valencia said softly, “You really believe that’s true for everyone?”
“It is.” Valencia wasn’t expecting a definitive answer, he wanted an explanation, but I had learned, through years of pain, that I owed him none. After my last boyfriend cheated on me, I used to spend months wondering if there was something wrong with me-- I knew I was unspirited, monotonous, hardly spoke, but did that warrant disloyalty? Did I really deserve for my trust and self-esteem to be shattered as opposed to being broken up with? Did I deserve to feel like I’m nothing but a body he fucked? I tormented myself to the point where I’d attend social events just to watch him dilly-dally with someone else. While I sat at the table for hours, food going cold, candle melting the way time felt to me when I knew something was wrong. That stranger-- he was bigger than me, more muscular than me, laughed more than me, had more friends than me, was more charming than me… it ate me up on the inside, and only when it spit me out did I realize how much the whole ordeal had messed with my head. Never again.
“Get out,” I said gently. I would have accentuated my command with throwing the covers aside and holding the door open for him to stumble out of. But my side had begun to hurt again, and a familiar sickness was starting to wash over me. If I stood then, I’d have collapsed. So I stayed in my place as my eyes turned to stone.
“Get out, Vladimir.”
The whole time he got dressed, I knew I was letting go of something latently beautiful in order to uphold my values, and instead of being cruel it was liberating.
As I watched him leave my house from the very window I’d watched countless other people come and go, I felt nothing. I didn’t know that five days before my death, Vladimir would release his latest painting, and it would be the apex of his passion, a passion so polluted that it became pure unto itself. My mind has weakened over the past two years, so I do not recall what he painted even though I saw a photograph of it yesterday, courtesy of Hallmark who was, indeed, still by my side, but when I think of it, all I can see are the blood stains, the blobs of dried clots. The artificial shine. Grotesque. Transcendence of humanity to achieve the perfect depiction of what haunted his mind in the name of artistry. To think that, so long ago, he was going to involuntarily confess to me his first time murdering a man. It spirals from there, he’d said. It spirals it spirals it spirals.
Back then, when I watched him disappear down the road, small where he was once big, I smiled into that vast distance separating us, for I finally knew what my next (and last) novel would be about. To me, a storm had passed, and life went on, perfectly oblivious as it always was.
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