In more than fifteen years of dating I’d only truly been in love once, and had had my heart broken only that one time. And the woman with whom I had been madly in love, and who eventually, and rather quickly, broke my heart, had in all likelihood never even considered herself in a serious relationship with me.
She had been an artist, a painter, and a very good one. I met her when I was twenty-six. I was working at the time as an editor for a textbook publisher, and she was doing design work to pay the bills. One night after the company Christmas party she had taken me to her studio to show me the paintings she was working on for what would turn out to be her first big group show. I really didn’t know a damn thing about art, but I was –and am—definitely one of those ‘I know what I like’ people, and I was crazy about her paintings.
She used large canvases and muted colors –oils and acrylics, I think—to create these strange, spare figurative paintings that were almost dreamlike. Or rather all of them featured fragmented and oddly washed out scenes that suggested disturbing moments from folk or fairy tales that had been distorted by a nightmare. There was one I clearly remember of a barefoot little girl in a bright red Sunday dress. She was balancing a basket on her head that was full of eggs, and was walking along a narrow, winding street in a dark and towering city that was crowded in around her –the whole city seemed to be leaning, falling in on the little girl—on all sides. All the paint on the canvas was variations of blacks, grays, and browns with the exception of the carefully detailed little girl and her basket of eggs. The girl was tiny and entirely dwarfed by her surroundings, and the moldering gothic city she was walking through was otherwise entirely devoid of life and light.
This woman made a name for herself pretty quickly, and I was fascinated by her and almost instantly smitten. She had, though, been damaged in some way that she would address in only the vaguest of terms in conversation, but that clearly manifested itself in her work.
“I think you can get a pretty good idea of who I am and what I’ve been through from looking at my paintings,” she once told me when I had been pressing her for more personal information. “Work is the only refuge from disenchantment. Once you’re a so-called grown-up the real world has pretty much been ruined by religion, porn, and fairy tales. Not necessarily in that order.”
She also once said to me, by way of explaining her maddening tendency to keep me at arm’s length, “I only have so much seriousness –or energy, if you prefer; they're pretty much the same thing in my book—to expend.”
I had some general idea what that statement meant, but her reserve made my own seem like extreme extroversion in comparison. There was an additional contradiction that I couldn’t get my head around and that drove me to angry distraction; this woman’s career required her to make regular public appearances and presentations. She was in some demand in the art world as a speaker and a panelist, and the personality she brought to these appearances was so dramatically different from her private, day-to-day personality that it was confounding. I attended a fair number of her talks, and she was always funny, charming, and utterly engaging. Audiences loved her, even though she basically said the same things every time I saw her speak in public. She had a stock line that she would always find a way to work into every talk or interview; “I am a dark person,” she would say. “I have always been drawn to darkness, and I work best in darkness; it’s as natural to me as breathing, but my task as an artist is to keep pushing through that darkness until I at least glimpse a lantern in a distant window. Light is what I am always working toward. Art that offers nothing but darkness is unfaithful to the beauty and sweetness and music of this world, and it is corrosive. The best natural artists, it seems to me, are fireflies and cicadas. They make their beauty and then they go away.” I heard her say some version of those words at least a dozen times, and on each occasion I would get more queasy and more convinced that she was nothing but an elaborately constructed persona.
All the same, for a brief and agonizing time, I was infatuated with this woman. Because she left the textbook publishing job shortly after we met, and quickly became a busy and wildly successful artist, I had only limited access to her. She didn’t like to talk on the phone, and had a disciplined approach to her work and her schedule that I admired even as it drove me to distraction. I wrote her effusive letters and even emails (for a stretch during the time we were, at least in my mind, tentatively dating, she had a residency in Boston), and, in lieu of actual communication, I spent hours making her mix tapes, the receipt of which she resolutely refused to acknowledge.
When I confronted her with this frustrating fact once she said, “I can’t listen to music when I’m working.”
“What about when you’re not working?” I asked.
“I am always working,” she said.
“You must drive,” I said. “Couldn’t you listen to them in your car?”
This was on one of the very rare occasions when I actually managed to get her to return a phone call, and I remember she sighed dramatically and said, “Even when I’m in the car I’m working. I am thinking about working, about what I am working on or what I have to say when I arrive at wherever I’m going. Whenever I am not working I am always going somewhere. This is just the way my life is.”
“And that’s the life you want?” I asked.
“It’s the life I have,” she said.
“But does it make you happy?” I said.
She actually laughed at this question, and said, “Someday you’ll have to tell me what that’s supposed to mean.”
Not that I would have been up to that task, then or now, but I never got the chance, and probably wasn't the person to give her a decent answer or definition. She became increasingly inaccessible, and spent a good deal of time traveling. After four or five months, her hectic schedule, circle of professional acquaintances, and almost frightening discipline (which I honestly found astonishing) made even a sustained friendship impossible, let alone anything remotely resembling the relationship I thought I wanted.
Eventually I had to settle for the occasional terse email from wherever she happened to be, emails that were seldom more than two or three lines of severe emotional shorthand, entirely devoid of capital letters or punctuation.
Even these messages became less and less frequent, and after expending ridiculous amounts of time and energy typing out long and rambling replies –I was unable to think of them as anything but letters—in an attempt at drawing her out, I ran out of steam and let the thing go.
I kept every one of those emails, though. I guess the truth is that I desperately did want a relationship with this woman. I was fascinated by her, by the vulnerability I sensed in her and the way she always managed to keep me at arm’s length, and I wanted to know her better, wanted to learn to understand what it was about her that allowed her to create such astonishing paintings.
I never did make any inroads on that question, of course, and I don’t suppose anybody else has or ever will, beyond what they can infer from looking at her art or listening to her public pronouncements. I used to dream of those paintings, though. I still occasionally dream of them.
And I still occasionally dream of that woman and our fascinating, frustrating conversations. It continues to dismay me that what I felt for her might have been love, and to recognize how deeply I was crushed by her rejection.
I was having lunch with my father shortly after things finally fell apart and he was asking me about my love life in his usual evasive, backdoor way. I stumbled through an abbreviated description of my brief relationship with this woman and then sort of shrugged.
“Who knows?” I said. “Maybe lightning will strike twice.”
“It’s never a good thing to get struck by lightning,” my father said. “I can’t imagine anyone would want it to happen twice.”
Watching Jeri make effortless small talk with the characters at their corner table it occurred to me that she was exactly the sort of woman I could fall for, or at least the sort of woman I’d been attracted to in the past. She was attractive, assertive, tough, and self-contained. She was the sort of interesting woman I would fall for and then frustrate with my need for solitude and my long silences. Still, I did experience a jolt of curiosity and fascination, and perhaps mistakenly believed that there was some reciprocal spark there as well.
Nothing would come of this, I knew, but it was nonetheless nice to make a comfortable connection in that little town and in the midst of my strange and baffling assignment.
When Jeri came back over to settle my bill she invited me to stop by her grandmother’s home when she got off work. “I’m sure my grandmother would have some pictures to show you,” she said. “She always been a freak about taking pictures, and they used to use some of her photos in the local newspaper. I know she’d be happy to have a visitor, and her husband –her third husband, Roy; she’s hell on men—is a first rate character. We don’t get a lot of visitors around here.”
I told her that I’d love to meet her grandmother, and was particularly excited about the prospect of seeing her pictures. We agreed that Jeri would swing by my motel to pick me up when she got off work, and I left her a ridiculously generous tip and walked across the eerily quiet downtown to the Riverview.
There was such a thick fog rolling in off the river that I actually got lost and ended up wandering around unfamiliar neighborhoods trying to find my motel. When I did finally succeed in locating it, there wasn’t another car in the parking lot, and the sign out front, as well as the office, was completely dark.
I ended up stretched out on the bed and flipping through television channels while I waited for Jeri to fetch me. There wasn’t anything on TV but gloomy news and shitty programs I’d never heard of. I hadn’t owned a television in more than five years, and had never watched much TV growing up, yet every time I found myself in a motel room or visiting my mother in Arizona I’d invariably find myself drawn to the set like a zombie.
The experience always made me feel like I was living in a foreign country. I’d fallen asleep with the TV on every night I was in Bryton.