BY GERI LALACH
Copyright is held by the author.
RAIN HAS begun to beat against the window as I wait for my lover to return. The house is small. Isolated. Surrounded by water to the north and the east. Although it is only early afternoon the dark sky promises a thunderstorm.
When we first came upon the house he wasn’t sure if it would suit. But I loved the old gas stove and the narrow shelves of vintage teacups that lined the wall near the window. It only had the one bedroom but I told him that really we only needed the one.
My favourite part of the house though is the sea that hurls itself up against the rock our home sits on. On days like today the spray almost reaches the kitchen window as I take a cup, the rose-patterned one with the gold leaf overlay, and fill it with the tea blended in the village five miles down the road.
It is from there that my lover will come.
Finn, our Irish wolfhound is sprawled on the floor beside my chair, angling his long body to face the door. I take a sip of the tea and draw my knees close to my chest as I sit and watch the sea, wondering if I dare to take out my easel. I’ve done it before in the rain, under the lean-to that at least manages to keep the canvas dry. The wood frame of the easel is starting to warp but I can’t give it up, I’ve used it for years and it has given me some of my best paintings.
He was there at my first showing in London. I was nervous and had taken the glass of champagne even though I really can’t stand bubbles or fizz in anything I drink, including water. But my mouth was dry from nerves and I needed something.
The gallery was full of people and I’m not sure if they were there because of the promise of free champagne or because it’d been bloody cold outside. I’d wanted to wait till the spring, but my friend, the gallery owner had pushed for February, saying everyone needed a little pick me up from the dull grey winter that had descended over the city and not shown any signs of leaving.
I wasn’t sure why she thought my paintings of rocks would provide that respite but, there you go, the place had been full. I was introduced to so many people; I wish I was the kind of person to remember names but I’m not. What I remember is the angle of a cheekbone, the line of a jaw, the shape of a mouth. I recognize a person more from the slant and pull of their bones than I do by their name or the colour of their eyes. I know that sounds bizarre but there you have it.
His back was to me and I had no idea what he looked like save that he had threads of grey mixed in with his dark blond hair. He was standing before the smallest painting, the first one I ever did of the Island coastline. I was about to turn away when I saw his wrist lift and pull away from his sleeve as he moved his hand, like he was about to touch the painting. There were discrete signs on the walls asking the patrons to refrain from touching the paintings but I wanted to see what he would do.
I took a step closer unable to stop staring, fixated by the movement of bone and tendon under his slightly tanned shin as he pressed the tips of his fingers against the rocky shore of my painting. His fingers were long and elegant and I imagined them poised over piano keys, holding a quill as he wrote a symphony, or splayed open against the small of a woman’s back.
The breath hitched in my throat surprising me as I imagined his hand on me. Without realizing I moved to stand closer but his attention didn’t sway from my painting. His fingernails were clean and square, the digitus me’dius slightly longer than the rest as he traced the rocky shoreline.
I paint with oil, the thick texture giving me the play I need to form the edge and slope of each individual rock, the sensation that they curve and jut from the shoreline, the sea just a suggestion in the far distance.
The rest of his fingers have joined the middle one against the canvas and my nipples tighten. I’m wearing a dress that Sheila said I had to buy when she confirmed the date. “You can’t wear jeans and a T-shirt to your opening,” she’d admonished me.
My breasts are small, my puckered nipples press against the soft fabric, and I don’t bother to raise the champagne glass in an attempt to hide them when he turns to see me standing there.
“You’re the artist then,” he asks, but there is no inflection in his voice suggesting a question, but rather like he’s making a claim.
I like the way his voice comes from his ribcage. It’s deep and scrapes across my skin and I feel a slight quiver in my abdomen. I lift my eyes away from his hands and chest to stare into his face. I don’t see the scar at first, I’m preoccupied with how the occipital bones frame his dark blue eyes, how the bone and cartilage of his nose run straight and true, how his jawbone is angular rather that square. It’s only when I examine the slope of his cheekbone that I see the scar. It’s old, a white line that has hitched up the skin along his left cheek to pull on the angle of his mouth. He looks to me a warrior, a Viking sailing in a massive ornate ship as he scans the shoreline.
I’m no longer paying attention to the people around me and I ignore Sheila’s eye as she angles her head toward the large mural and the short bald man studying it. I know what she wants. The mural will bring her, and I, a much bigger pay cheque than the small one the Viking has been looking at. I don’t see that the small painting already has a small red sticker affixed to the card beside it.
“Erik.” He holds out his hand and I place mine there, in his.
“Quinn,” I say back, watching as he studies my hand.
I cancelled the manicure appointment Sheila had made for me earlier in the day. My hands are roughened from scrambling over rock for the best angle to take my shot. People have asked why I didn’t choose photography instead.
Depending on who was asking I would give different answers but the truth of it is I can’t bear to be in the dark, in small closed spaces, even to develop my own pictures. When I paint it’s almost like I become part of that vast primal landscape. I couldn’t do anything else now.
He is tracing his index finger along the curve of my thumb. Small abrasions have left their mark, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell the lines on my hand from the cuts and scrapes left by the rocks from different shorelines. His finger catches on a rough patch of skin at the base of a small knuckle. It stopped bleeding yesterday and I didn’t bother with a plaster this morning. He circles it gently with the tip of his finger before briefly pressing the abraded skin to his lips.
“I didn’t realize painting was such a perilous vocation.”
I’ve always been drawn to a man who smiles with his eyes. He’s teasing me and in his voice I hear how the words are shaped in his mouth first, privately, and with consideration, before being released. And as I stare up at him I feel such a strong urge to paint this man’s face. I’ve never done portraiture and except for the nude studies we all participated in at university, I’ve never felt this compulsion to paint the human form.
Before I think to wait, I blurt out, “I must paint you.”
“Must you,” he says, and I’m not sure if that’s a question, or an agreement to my outburst.
He’s holding my hand with both of his now, a smile edging his lips, the scar giving it a slanted upward pull. I want to put my own finger there, along that pale white line, tracing it from the top of his cheekbone down to rest against his upper lip. I tell myself I need to do it so when I paint him my brush will know the way. I’ve never been one for deception, especially the selfish kind, so I say to both of us at the same time, “But I must love you first.”
His eyes darken and a flush stains his cheeks as he gives my hand a gentle pull bringing me closer. I’m tall, six feet barefoot, likely two inches taller in the shoes Sheila made me buy to go with this dress. My mouth is scant inches from his jaw and I feel a fierce urge to bite down on his chin. I want to feel the faint indentation there against my tongue.
My dress is dark grey almost purple, like the sea at night. I chose it for the colour and for the way the fabric flows like water over my skin. It covers me from collarbone to toe in front, but the back falls open to my tailbone, exposing my neck, shoulder blades, and the curve of lower back. His hand settles against the skin at the base of my spine.
He angles his head to murmur something but I can’t make out the words. All I want at that moment is his mouth on my skin.
My eyes are all but closed when I hear my name in a frantic whisper. It takes me a moment to recognize Sheila’s voice.
“Quinn . . . Quinn?”
I look up at Erik first. He steps back but doesn’t remove his hand from my back as I turn to look at Sheila.
She’s staring at me with a puzzled look on her face and I can tell by the expression in her eyes that she’s going to grill me later. Out of the corner of my eye I see the top of a balding head atop thick shoulders. The man that was staring at the mural earlier is now staring at me. I see his eyes drop to my puckered nipples and then come back to my face.
I’m about to raise my arms to cross my chest when I see him smile and nod to me then Erik, a glow of understanding and appreciation in his eyes.
“Quinn, this is Vincenzo Validetti, from Emilia-Romagna in Italy. He is interested in one of your murals for his restaurant.”
I hold out my hand which is soon engulfed in Signor Validetti’s own, a thick calloused hand with a wide gold band peeking out from the flesh of his ring finger.
“Signorina Quinn, my English not so good.” He smiles as he says this and I imagine a robust woman with dark hair and snapping brown eyes ordering him around the kitchen and their bed back in Italy.
“I buy the painting, si?” I nod, not sure if he’s asking my permission to buy the mural or telling me he already has.
“I make the invite to you for to come to my restaurante. Your painting in my restaurante to be . . .” He pauses as if looking for the right word then clumps the pudgy fingers of his left hand together against his pursed lips making an audible kissing sound, releasing his fingers in the air.
I laugh, charmed.
He nods to Erik beside me. “You come too.”
I am already attuned to Eric’s breathing, the warm press of his chest against my shoulder as he reaches to shake Signor Validetti’s proffered hand.
My nostrils flare slightly as I take in his scent and I know now I would recognize this man anywhere.
“It would be a pleasure to escort my lady to your restaurant and beautiful country.” This he says in perfect Italian as Signor Validetti pumps his hand.
Sheila’s eyes almost bulge out of her head, but her smile stays fixed on her face as she grabs a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and takes a large mouthful.
Erik and I don’t wait for the close of the show but slip through the side door that leads to a small private garden at the back of the gallery. I don’t think to bring my cloak and a soft cold rain has begun to fall.
He starts to shrug out of his jacket but I shake my head, instead, bringing him closer to me, where I’m pressed against the brick gallery wall. The canopy overhead is more decorative than functional and we’re both getting wet. My dress is probably getting ruined but I don’t care.
We don’t kiss, not at first. Our mouths instead are restless, open, grazing at skin exposed beneath the dripping canopy. The stubble on his cheek, though slight, abrades my skin as he moves down my throat to nip with his teeth the edge of my collarbone through the thin fabric of my dress. He pauses there, waiting for me to claim him in return.
The rain is cold but not unwelcome on my flushed face. I press against him. My teeth scrape at the underside of his jaw as my hands pull impatiently at his shirt. His hands are on my hips, tugging at my dress. The rain splatters against my bare legs as I welcome him. It’s only then we choose to kiss.
I turn away from the window and look down at my hands, lined now, freckled with spots, my fingers not so agile anymore. My tea has turned cold and I place the cup on the table. Finn lifts his head from the floor and his tail begins to thump. I hear the sound of tires on the road leading up to the house. I smile at Finn.
My lover is home.
Finn gallops to the door and barks knowing Erik sometimes recognizes the sound.
I greet Michael, the young man who has been such a great help to us these last years, especially for Erik.
I look to my lover and when his eyes smile back at me, I feel a fullness that almost topples me to the floor. And for just a moment I almost don’t know whether to be grateful for the awareness in his eyes, or angry that too often it’s absent.
Michael gives me the thumbs up as he backs out of the driveway.
Erik is still angular, but only more so now. The cane he needs to help him to his favourite chair by the fireplace is sturdy enough that on his good days I know he doesn’t want my help. Finn sits close enough to Erik to place his head on Erik’s lap while I add more logs to the fire.
My camera sits on the mantel but instead I pull out my easel and open the toolbox that stores my paints and brushes.
I’m picking up my brush to mix the indigo into the white when he asks me what I’m doing.
“I must paint you,” I say.
“Must you,” he murmurs.
“Yes,” I say to the man I have loved and loved. “I must.”