He painted with the door open. Evenings, when I returned home from work, I would pass his apartment and hear the sound of the brush on the canvas, that scruffing, whooshing sound. The faint scent of the paints and the oils tickled my nose. At first, I would shuffle past, too tired and preoccupied to care. Then one evening I allowed myself a peek, thinking of what I might say to excuse my trespass should he catch me, and found him in the throes of an artistic spell. He wouldn’t have known I was there even if I’d walked right into the room and sneezed. God knows I was tempted. To walk in, not to sneeze, but something held me back and I contented myself with watching silently.
The canvas he was working was huge, filling nearly half the room. How on earth did he even get it in here? How would he get it out?
The flickering aura of what must have been one hundred candles threw light and shadow across the walls in a flamenco like frenzy and on top of it all was the sound of the stiff bristled brush hitting the gessoed surface of the canvas. There was a softly lilting piece of violin music weaving in and around the sounds of the brush and the shuffle of his bare feet on the floor, the thick old canvas cloth under foot to protect the the old wood flooring bunching and flipping as he danced from one stroke to the next. All of this was enough to mesmerize me, but the aspect that truly kept me spellbound was his face. His age was difficult to guess, 30’s, older? Tall and lithe, long legged, shirtless and shoeless, his shoulder muscles bunched and moved under his skin as his arms flew, working in the paint, swishing or pushing the brush, stabbing at the canvas, then caressing it gently, masterful in his manipulation of the paint and where he wanted it to go. He was slender, the way someone who spends hours forgetting to eat for days at a time is slender, painting until he was spent, tumbling to sleep then starting again the next night. The candles lent a golden glow to his pale skin so that he looked like a slight, gilt dervish. His face was at once beautiful and brutal; it was the face of someone under the spell of his gift. A man driven to nightly give birth to himself on canvas, helpless to ignore the desire to do something that set him far apart from the rest of the world, someone who didn’t belong in my world in any case.
Long dark hair spilling onto his bare shoulders and down the length of his back in rippling waves, shining like onyx in the candlelight, or pushed back from a face rapt with focus. Dark brows rose in a straight line over deep dark eyes, bistre, shining and a little mad, fringed with long sooty lashes that threw shadows onto his cheeks in the shifting liquid-like flicker of the candles. A streak of cream paint that looked like ceremonial war paint across the planes of his face, his mouth, slightly parted, the quirk of a smile here, then the twist of a question, micro-expressions, as he would pause, step back and consider his next stroke. His hands were lovely. If his mind was merely a hostage to his gift, his hands were the master and I watched fascinated as they held the brush lightly, flipping it easily, reaching out to smudge here or there, or even place his palm flat on the surface and dash it back and forth, pulling the paint out from a line and feathering it into smoke or a jarring flurry of color. Smiling then falling back into his trance.
I found the joy of watching him so alluring that I now stopped every night after work on my way to my own apartment and allowed myself to fall into the trance with him, finding myself swaying in tandem with his movements, his dance becoming familiar with nightly viewing. The rhythm and whoosh, flurry of motion and stillness, washing away every disappointment or dull echo from my own day, lulling me into a meditation of wonder and burgeoning desire. The smells of paint, of smoke and wax underlying all of it, weaving a spell in my senses. We were Echo and Narcissus, me worshipping him from the behind the wood, he spellbound and unaware of my yearnings. I found I wanted very much to see the painting evolve, what would it be, how did he know what it would be? Did he simply start painting every night and let it flow as it would, or was there a master plan? I found I needed to know what it would become. Night after night I stood, the voyeur to his vision, silent and still, an audience of one.
Slowly, something began to emerge; I could see limbs, motion, the suggestion of bodies entwined. Curiouser and curiouser said Alice.
I was asked to work out of town for a week, and while I was thrilled at the chance to prove my mettle to the hospital, I found myself dismayed at the interruption of my evening ritual. But medicine is a competitive field and opportunity is opportunity, so I packed my bags and boarded my flight. Returning home I found myself growing breathless with the thrill of seeing the painter, my body rigid in the cab, leaning forward as though to speed the driver faster, faster, the urge to reunite with my secret obsession nearly overwhelming me. Pay the driver, grapple with my bags and up the steps to the landing to find the doorway to another life, strains of Vivaldi and that golden glow wreathing everything in a fairytale splendor, taking me to somewhere magical, somewhere not mundane, not my life, but his. Quietly I crept to his door, my bags abandoned on the landing, breath coming in quick deficient bursts, I pulled my coat tight around me in apprehension, pressed against the doorway and lifted my eyes to the painting. I let out a long gasp as I found myself looking on a painted tableau of my own face, head thrown back, eyes slitted in pleasure under the press of his lips against my neck, his hair on the canvas spilling across our bodies, glowing riotously in the candlelight, our arms and legs entwined, my gown a sumptuous golden froth crusted with pearls and blazing rubies, flowers strewn all around us where we lay, their profusion so great I could almost smell them from the hallway. The tension in the painting was palpable, the electricity of attraction of the couple on the canvas sending waves of sizzle to anyone viewing it. The shock of seeing my secret captured in oil in such a fashion nearly made my knees buckle and I stumbled back several steps until my back hit the wall, my hands to my burning cheeks. Helpless to look away, I stood, heart beating like a hammer in my chest, and then, out of the shadows he stepped. Looking for all the world like a vision from my subconscious, a wry, mischievous intelligence glowing in his eyes, and a beckoning satyr’s smile on his lips.