- “He had the kind of beauty which defends
itself from any caress.”
- Virginia Woolf, The Waves
It was the fatigue that introduced them. On the night Linnea took him home, Paul arranged his drawing board in his customary spot near the back wall. He preferred to let the models stride in, pose, and choose his profiles for him. This time, Linnea set up beside him, just to his right. The model was a young woman, a lean girl that Paul thought he recognized from the local bookstore. He was not surprised when she stepped onto the dais—naked and slim—facing away from him, her long spine curving toward Linnea. Linnea, of course, said nothing. She merely began to sketch-even while the instructor completed his opening remarks— her small hand circling swiftly above the paper before it bore down.
Paul had managed to fling only a few light lines onto his page before Linnea slumped, badly. He had been taking his time with the form of the model’s buttocks because he wanted to be sure of what he saw there. When Linnea slumped, her round chin sagging onto the ribbed collar of her sweater, he took his time with that image also. He didn’t want to get involved. But when Linnea—her eyes trained on the drawing before her—reached for her cheek with a wavering, unguided hand, he leaned politely toward her.
“Are you all right?” he asked, looking past her at the red-haired woman at the next table, not wanting to be rude.
Linnea nodded rather firmly, her eyes closed, her hand still grasping for her face as if it were after something sinking in water. “I am fine, thank you. Just weak.” He noted that her voice was strung hard, without accent. “Are you all right?”
Paul was immediately embarrassed. Linnea was looking right at him, directly into his chest, her unsteadiness apparently cleared away by the force of her words. He noticed, in his discomfort, that though she was not a thin woman, her black sweater engulfed her in a way that made her appear breastless, almost mannish.
“I suppose,” he said.
“Good,” she answered. “You can help me carry my things. I need to get home.”
He was glad, at least, that she allowed him the one thing he took pride in—his efficiency. He placed her charcoal in its box, strapped her shadowy sketch into her firm portfolio, all while she sat on a stool cooly mesmerized by the model’s still, white flesh. When he had gathered Linnea’s belongings with his, they left the studio one after another, Paul opening the door to the hallway and nodding to the instructor while Linnea slipped out. He was relieved that the other students took little notice of their departure, the soft rasp of charcoal and expressive breathing remaining constant as he turned to leave. Life drawing for him, after all, was a brief hobby, something to do while he waited to leave the country. And Linnea, well, she was obviously talented enough to serve her own whims. Everyone in the class, including the instructor, had to know that. It was Paul’s only hope, as he shut the paint-spattered door behind them, that his fellow students didn’t also know that he had worked hard to manage this exit; that he, at all costs, had not wanted to leave the light of the studio as if he were just churning flotsam in the wake of this woman Linnea.
The bay breeze was fresh but cool, and Paul felt the skin of his legs crawl as he followed Linnea down the few brick steps that led to the street. Rain was a possibility. The stretches of horizon that he could see between the waterfront warehouses were mottled with the fringe of a cloud bank. After he helped Linnea, he told himself, he would have to hurry home before the car was bathed in a heavy, salt-bearing wind.
“I live on Spring Street, exactly fourteen hundred steps away,” she said as they reached the herringbone sidewalk. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” he said, surprised that there was no shiver in her voice. “Not if you will count.”
Silence. The shuffle of her flat, cotton slippers on the brick. Paul blushed under his pressed shirt collar. He had wanted to be funny, not biting, not the final word. But this woman had her ideas, and she was weak, perhaps actually ill. He nodded to himself, recognizing the duties of good manners and kindness, and began to follow her whispering steps into the night, hoping at each moment to catch up and move up beside her.
The neighborhood they climbed into was old, only barely rubbed by the distant sounds of the expressway. The houses were hillside remnants, the square-built homes of merchants who had sailed in and out of Portland a hundred years before. Paul’s mother had often driven him into that very part of town because, she said, one should develop a clear eye for design. He had always liked his tours. Even now, as they passed a grand clapboard façade, he thought he could smell fresh-cut flowers—the sort his mother adored—though he had to struggle for clarity. The vapors of paint and turpentine rose strongly from Linnea.
“It’s my parent’s house, this gray one,” she said, leading him onto a small varnished porch. “They stay up north now, though. Permanently.”
“Nice,” he said, examining a carefully restored portico. “Historic.”
“Yes.” She sounded mildly exasperated, irritable. “You’ll have to take my things in, you know. My studio’s upstairs.”
Once inside, Linnea gamely negotiated the narrow spiral staircase that led from the foyer to the open second floor. Paul could tell that it was a struggle because, even from behind, the deep round intake of her breath was audible. He also noticed what he hadn’t seen before—the drag and lean of a slight limp, a crookedness now quite visible in her step.
The studio was still dark when he reached the top of the staircase. Moving toward a black shape that he took to be a table, Paul shifted Linnea’s portfolio from under his arm and prepared to lay it down. From somewhere to his left he could hear the suck of breathing.
“No, not there,” she told him. “Here. With me.”
“Is it clear?” he asked. “The path, I mean. I don’t want to ruin anything.”
“Just follow my voice,” she said.
She turned on a lamp when he was perhaps two steps away, his free hand outstretched, his lips tight with concentration. For a long moment the vaguely lit studio wavered huge in Paul’s eyes: four rooms stripped of everything usual except their wallpaper; mantels and windowsill lined with brushes and erasers; doorless closets stacked with canvases. In one corner there was a green easy chair, a coffee-maker, an uneven stack of magazines, and Boston newspapers. A squat radio was on a nearby table. The back wall was covered with sketches of twirling, shifting bodies. Easel after easel, frame upon frame, the rooms gave themselves to the craft at hand.
Paul found himself trying not to stare.
“Yes, it’s damn large,” Linnea said, her fingers still on the lamp that he could now see was polished brass. “I’m spoiled. My parents, as I said, have moved.”
“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” he said, leaning her portfolio against the bannister, afraid to step away from the staircase until she did.
“I’d say so.”
She did not invite him to sit down, to relax, or even help her move some of her larger paintings. Instead, she seemed intent only on looking at him. Without attempting to be polite, she fixed her eyes on him and watched, her fingers kneading the hem of her sweater as she shifted her chin. Paul glanced back at her for the shortest space of time, feeling imposed upon, but the depth of her pupils was too much.
Eventually, he found himself staring patiently into the cup of his clasped hands, wondering why she was testing him.
“Shitty light in here, Paul. Would you hit the switches by the mantel over there? All of them.”
He took his time. He wanted to be careful. Then, with two movements of his thumb, the room they were standing in, the southeastern one, was fully lit, unshadowed. Paul immediately understood that he was in the naked objectivity of a gallery.
“I thought so,” Linnea said from behind him where she was still guarded by the lamp.
“What? What did I do?”
“Brown hair. Brown eyes. Fine buttocks. It’s been hard to tell up to now, but I was right. About 185 centimeters. A small Praxiteles Hermes.”
Paul smiled, wanting to be ironic. “I measure up?”
“You are a beautiful specimen,” she said, rubbing her eyes with hands that now looked plump enough to be nearly flaccid. “That much is clear. If I weren’t so tired, I might ask you to take your shirt off although I know, already, what your back has to look like. They must have tried to get you to model down there.”
Paul ran his fingers through his hair. “Yes,” he said, “They tried.”
“But you said no, didn’t you.” Linnea stepped toward him, her palms out flat, surveying the air before her. “You told them no because I know you, Paul,” she said, looking squarely at him, “and I know that you wouldn’t show your balls to anyone.”
It took a moment. Then Paul felt his stomach tighten beneath his ribs. “I’d better go,” he said carefully. “I hope you’re not ill.”
“Don’t be a jerk,” she said. “I’m not insulting you. I’m only telling the truth. The studio went after you because they have wonderful taste down there and they couldn’t resist. You didn’t go for it.” She stopped with her fingers in a grip which punched out at the level of his waist. “Because you’re so private. That much is easy to tell.”
“I had my reasons.”
“As you always do, I’m sure. Come here, then, and I’ll show you something. Get this friendship started. So that you’ll stop looking like some whore has asked you to drop your pants.”
Paul followed her into the next room, a tiny solarium that contained only one easel and a chair. The canvas on the easel was covered with a dark blue cloth. He stopped just inside the doorway, letting Linnea fill the room with her weight. As he arranged a series of deep breaths, one after another, he realized that he was sweating.
“Just so you’ll know that I’m not after your ass,” she said, lifting the cloth from the top of the easel, “let me show you what I’ve already got. It’s not perfect, but it is determined. And, thank God, it is not skittishly private.”
Paul expected nudity. What he saw instead was motion, concentration, vigor—all clothed in the garrish design of sport. A baseball player, a well-muscled man twisting his way through the batter’s box wearing a uniform that seemed as pure and personal as skin.
“Who is he?” Paul was caught off guard. A sports hero? An idol? He had imagined something a little more obscure. More artistic, maybe.
“An infielder, an outfielder. It can’t matter to you,” she said, looking unabashedly at her own work. “I am 35 years old, I am dying. This man is my purity. I could break it down for you, but I won’t.” She turned toward him and took him in by parts—his head and shoulders, his torso, his crotch. “I can’t show you what you can’t know,” she said.
“You are a very fine artist,” he said.
Linnea laughed. “I will trust your judgment, of course.”
Paul watched her walk to a bank of small windows that overlooked the edge of the bay. The badly-installed track lighting cut across her face and broke harshly over her hair which he could see was quite dull at the roots. Despite the fact that this woman was obviously baiting him, her face began to etch itself in his mind. Thin, straggling eyebrows. A complexion the uneven color and texture of winter sand. She was, he knew now, quite ugly. But as the narrowness of her shoulders trembled into the ill breadth of her hips, Paul felt his manners give way to interest, to what he might have initially and unkindly called pity. Faced with the wrenching grimace of a nameless ballplayer, what would it be like to touch this woman, he wondered. What would it feel like to feel Linnea?
* * *
He came to see her the next day, bringing flowers and two newspapers. “I wasn’t sure you’d be able to get out,” he said as she answered the door. “I don’t have your phone number.”
“You are too polite, Paul,” she said, taking the bouquet of freesia and laying it in a chair before she frowned at him. “I should have expected as much. There is some coffee ready upstairs.”
He followed her to the studio after he put the flowers in a vase he found in the kitchen. Linnea had left them behind. It was clear that she was intent on being gruff or at least blunt with him. The edge that had just shown itself the night before was now clean and unhidden. But he would endure it. She had, after all, issued a challenge of some sort. And God knows, he had few other distractions. How could it hurt, he asked himself. What could it bother?
In the unbroken daylight of the studio, Linnea looked close to wretched. Her straight, home-cut hair was drawn against its will into a thin and uneven ponytail. The brightly patterned housecoat that was snapped tight around her throat did nothing but accentuate the pallor of her face and the disconcerting weakness of her small chin. Looking at her crumpled in her easy chair, Paul realized that it was only the eyes, the stills-burning eyes, that held her face together.
“I’m not good today,” she said, rubbing her broad, blotched forehead. “I have nothing to say.”
“Boston won last night.” Paul cleared his throat with his hand over his mouth. He’d worked hard, scanning the morning papers, for that fact. “That’s really my only message. I was just wondering . . . .”
“The score was 4—2. Lee gave up six hits. Rice homered. Hobson, thank God, picked up an RBI. The team is now 5 games out with a current batting average of, let me think, .262.”
“For what? For bothering me? Forget it. You can always try to be nice to me,” she said, looking at him with two fists curled in her lap. “I just may not like it. As I said, I am dying.”
“I’m . . . .”
“Don’t you dare apologize for that either.” She was shouting now, her voice rising with a heave of her well-covered chest. Somewhere in his head, Paul heard the thud of her own hands against her body. “Just tell me what you want, you fucking beautiful thing. Do you want to be painted? Is that it?”
Paul turned and began to walk, his shoulders slightly hunched. She was exploding, her mouth twisting, her cheeks shaking with sobs. He had not meant to cause that or see it or even ever hear about it. He had just wanted to be nice, to do something that involved a little good spirit before he left to begin his fieldwork.
Did she have the right to ask him those things? He supposed so. From her perspective he must appear to be the worst. An opportunist, a vulture, a camera’s eye.
Behind him Linnea blew her nose, signaling to him, he thought, her intention to continue their what? . . .their conversation? Threading his way through the clutter of the studio, Paul decided he would wait for her in the solarium. In there, at least, everything but the light was sparse and controlled.
“Okay,” she said from the doorway, her voice softened by swallowed tears. “Why are you here? If you don’t want to have that fine butt painted?”
Paul watched the ferry to Nova Scotia glide through Casco Bay. Its motion, even as it edged past the abandoned oil docks, was remarkably predictable. “To be honest, I’m leaving the country in just over a month to finish school, graduate school. I can’t answer your question really. I’m at loose ends.”
He heard Linnea move behind him, smelled the deep, free smells of her body. It occurred to him that she might be arranging herself for him. “Sit down,” she said, somehow having the words warm the back of his neck. “In the chair. I’ve got some coffee for the two of us.”
It was Linnea who suggested that they take things one at a time. “I don’t see my old friends anymore, not even the artists. I’m very conscious of having driven them away.” She sat on the stained wooden floor of the solarium, a coffee cup balanced on her knee. “But you’re untested. We can try to work something out.”
“I’ll be leaving in five weeks or so. I don’t think I’m dangerous.” He wanted to stretch out in the chair, but its straight back only allowed for one posture—upright, face forward. “I will not be an imposition though. Only if you need something.”
“I need someone to watch me, that’s all. My work is changing very quickly. I’d like a measure for that.” She nodded toward the covered easel. “Where are you going, anyway?”
“Upper Volta. In Africa.”
She laughed, her small teeth spreading above her tongue. For a second, the shape of her face changed completely. “I should have known, I should have known,” she said.
“Because there’s no hint of it anywhere. Your person is discreet.”
“It’s true.” He smiled back. “I don’t own a single dashiki.”
“You know what I mean though, Paul,” she said, lowering her voice. “You are hiding. You try to tell almost nothing.”
So he told her that he was preparing to finish his Ph.D. That he would be a half day’s drive from Ouagadougou studying a small village of Bobo tribesmen for a year, maybe two. Afterwards, there would be the dissertation, long months in the library at Berkeley, the degree, a teaching job somewhere in the East. He told her he knew that his plans were thin, vastly general, but if he’d learned one thing from his professors, he said, it was this: you had to be patient. Even in the hot, dry sub-Saharan winds, you had to be patient.
“I’m packed and ready, I guess,” he concluded. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”
Linnea shook her head. “There is a lot you’re not admitting to Paul. I can see it. It’s all marked out there in your hands. And your jawline.” She pointed at him. “You’re older, better forged, than you make out to be. Come on. What about the friends, the parents, the bits and pieces of old lovers?”
He did not like her sudden animation. He had hoped that she, at least, would take only what her eye would give her. Shifting his weight in the chair, he watched her push her awkward hips against the door jamb so that she could face him, her eyes resting uneasily beneath the edge of her stringy bangs. “There isn’t much to tell, really,” he said. “My parents and my brother live an hour away. I’ve spent the last three years of my life in classrooms. Before that I traveled a little.”
Paul sighed somewhere deep in his throat. He was sinking; he could feel it. A brief passage from Tchaikovsky’s 6th slipped into his mind and echoed. Her passage, someone else’s march. God, even the most veiled references to his past were capable of pulling him back and down. He told himself that he should know that by now.
“No, no,” Linnea said. “I want you to try that again. Or better yet, let me try it.” Paul could see that her right hand was uncommonly alive as it stroked the worn grain of the floorboards before her. Her fingertips slid as if driven by static, “I am tired of wasting time,” she said. “I see things, things that you just barely feel.”
Paul put his hands in his pockets. She was pushing him again.
“I don’t care about Berkeley,” she said. “You’ve left a woman somewhere. You’ve perhaps had men or wanted men—you’re lovely enough for that—but recently it’s been this woman. She’s blond, probably in school, and very tall, taller than I am. But her face is not important. It’s what you carry with you in the dark that wants to kill you. This woman—she’s plaintive, she loves you, she has a softness to her skin that you want, above everything, to forget. You’ve scared yourself because you’ve noticed that her small, even breasts have nipples the color of your lips and you’re fascinated. Her shoulders are the width of your hips, her wet hair smells faintly like your mother’s, her voice has a tone that you’ve never been able to freeze or break apart. You’ve noticed all this. You hate it. It’s eating you alive.”
“You flatter yourself,” Paul said, forcing himself to look out to sea.
“I’m not finished yet,” Linnea said, both hands working the floor. “The foremost fact is that you’ve left her. Cleared out. Neat and tidy. Now you’re burying her—in sub-Saharan sand, I’d guess. And you know why?”
Paul felt his shell of polite interest shift a bit. Strangely, there was no note of pride in Linnea’s declaration. He thought back. No, she’d never done more than narrate. He wondered. Was she baiting him again?
“You do know,” she continued. “So do I. You did it because you were afraid you couldn’t feel anything. Not that right thing, anyway. You made love to her a hundred times maybe—probably to symphonies, sounds that you chose— but something, something you expected didn’t happen.”
Paul laughed over the small catch in his throat. “You tell quite a story.”
“I’m not wrong about this, Paul. You carry yourself like a ramrod, imperturbable or something. But it’s all a defense. Something’s broken.”
“Her name is Susan,” he said. “She is not blond.”
“She loves you though, doesn’t she?” Linnea was flickering behind her bangs again.
“I don’t mean to pry. I just don’t have time. And I have to, have to read the faces I’ve got.”
“Don’t worry,” Paul said, standing and looking out over the water again. “You only got it half right. It’s been worked out.”
“You don’t see her. Or anybody.”
Linnea’s voice, he thought, was very cold music. Her age, he supposed.
“I’m going to Africa.”
If he had had his way, everything would have ended there at noon in a sunlit pool of understanding. But it did not. Now Linnea could not let him go. He was sure he recognized the signs: a woman temporarily bound by silence, temporarily romanced by tenderness. He heard her push herself up the cream-colored wall with her feet. When she was standing, he realized he was afraid she would move toward him to offer more coffee, to trap him.
“I should be on my way,” he said.
The intake of her breath was audible, but it was not followed by admonishment or anger or the scurry of embarrassment. Instead, the piercing clarity of her words dove through him and left him hollow. “I only want to know,” she said, “what it’s like to be beautiful. Look at me, Paul. You’ll know why.”
He couldn’t gather himself soon enough to help her to the chair. She limped there by herself—broken, red, and furious at her weakness. There were tears in her narrowed eyes and a crippled fury in her shoulders which seemed to shiver into a control of its own. Paul couldn’t quite say that she was crying, but she was, it was obvious to him, in some sort of deep, unmet pain.
“Why else do you think I’m so foolish?” she asked. “Look at him, look at him,” she said throwing her voice at the covered canvas of the baseball player. “I’ve painted him over and over again. I’ve met him, talked to him, leaned on the edge of my ballpark seat when he’s on the field. And what is he? A ballplayer. A man. An exquisitely proportioned machine of bone and muscle.” Paul felt the arc of the painting’s hidden motion cut through cloth and air. Its finely rendered twist made its way into Linnea’s voice. “And for some god-damned reason I’m cursed with him. I want to know him, I want to know that lovely capturing urge before it’s over.” She stopped then, her hair loose from her ponytail, dangling about her face and neck like a worn fringe. Paul did not move. He found himself seeing, acquiring, overcome with the setting composition of a picture. One of Linnea’s hands fell into her lap like a claw. The other dropped flat, its flutter deadened. An open palm, an offering, a half prayer.
* * *
Over the course of the month before he left for Africa, Linnea explained her illness to Paul. She was careful in her divulgence, always speaking to him as if she were teaching him something, impressing him with cold, factual details that he ought to remember. When the sclerosis in her left hand worsened, she opened her books of Renaissance reproductions and showed him—as only she could—the changes in her flesh and structure.
“It’s here and here, now,” she would say, pressing the gloss of a daVinci and then his own waiting hand with a finger. “It will only get worse, but not steadily. Every day is different. And I know enough not to grieve over surprises.”
She was resolutely cheerful even though they both knew it was a game. She would return from her occasional visits to the clinic, smiling stiffly, her sketch pad covered with cross-hatched drawings of Paul’s face, Paul’s arms. On her worst days, when she could barely speak and her face hung like lifeless parchment, she would share their rare laughter by tapping her knuckles or a loosely-swung elbow on her thigh.
It was important, she said, for her to keep moving. She had things to accomplish.
But Paul did not have the same driven, finite ambitions. Even before Linnea told him in her most cutting manner that he was drifting, he knew it. The nights of anxious dreams that had ranged his mind in the spring—singing to him in pidgin French, pinning him in blinding, unbroken sunlight—gave way to tiny fragmented visions and sleeplessness. Except in early morning, when he was still in bed and the ocean was the only boundary he could imagine, it was difficult to conjure up Africa. He could hardly believe he was going. The only reality he felt sure of was an awkward consciousness of his body. What he carried from day to day were his tendons, his graceful bones, whatever Linnea seemed to have left with him the day before. And being faced with his own nakedness—-in the shower, beneath the looseness of his summer clothing—shocked him, froze him up. It took Linnea to help him stay in motion.
“I would like to finish one series before you leave,” she told him. It was one of her good days. She was wearing a sleeveless red blouse with a daisy dangling in a buttonhole. “More of the baseball stuff. I thought I could do it with your help.”
Paul looked at her swaying next to an easel, honest and childlike, her hair pushed back by a blue stretch band. “Baseball? Now?” Her preoccupations still surprised him.
She laughed. “Of course. Their motion is the hardest to follow, Paul. Hardest to reduce. Whatever those men do, they do fast. And alone.”
But why not dancers, he wanted to ask. Or just models? Still he didn’t question her; he couldn’t. He was afraid of what would happen if Linnea ever really thought her fragility was foolish.
“I don’t know if I can help,” he said. “I don’t have many skills like that.”
“Just hold a pallet for me.” Linnea stomped her foot, perhaps as a joke. “Hold things for me. You always expect so many demands.”
It was then that they began to touch each other, tenderly and without secret. Linnea kept it in the air, calling him handsome to his face, pretending to pinch at his skin in rushes of energy. But Paul knew it to be something different, something that he considered too daring and ragged for the both of them. Though he did nothing to change it. Their fingers locked and unlocked as he passed paint and brushes, and he took this home with him to his small, spartan bedroom where it began to curl into his sleep. Time is my arbiter, he thought when he was most anxious. Time will separate us and somehow, as it always does, remake the pain.
Paul then imagined a satisfactory separation into being. He composed what he considered to be a workable plan while he ate his breakfast of toast and poached egg during the habitual time he gave to himself before he visited Linnea. He would spend a few days with his parents; Susan would come into his life for a weekend, a last passage of native joy. Linnea would be his first and most private farewell, but he would have done with it. Dinner, a small well-chosen gift and perhaps, well, a brief engulfing physical contact that would swallow him until he actually left for Paris en route to Dakar and Ouagadougou. He would allow for that possibility and prepare, immediately, to move beyond it. As he drank his morning coffee, looking from his apartment toward the wharves, he was pleased with his own frank thoughts. He could think of being with Linnea—sleeping with her—and it didn’t paralyze him. He would, after all, see her in a few months. Nothing would be begun or finished with his departure. As she had told him, her disease was a slow, mysterious, inaccurate one. She could and would, she hoped, live for years.
But Linnea cut him off, beat him to the final mark. When he arrived one morning with a can of linseed oil, some milk and fresh fruit, she answered the door hurriedly, with a sheen of sweat above her lip. “I’m on the phone to Boston,” she said. “They want me there tomorrow to start on Hobson, lovely Hobson, and Rice.” She went into the kitchen, back to the phone. Vaguely, Paul realized that she was hardly dressed. Her thick, pale legs were bare; her dressing gown was open past her breasts. As she spoke, loudly and surely into the phone, Paul sat at the foot of the polished staircase, the bag of oil and groceries pressed close to his ribs.
“The front office has seen some of my work,” she said, coming back into the foyer with her robe pulled tight around her swollen figure. “They want some paintings, at least two. I can hardly turn them down.”
“They will be wonderful,” he said. “I’m sure.”
“The best I can do. Given the time.”
“Do you think you will get it this time, this energy or beauty that you want?” He set the groceries on the floor, hoping their rattle would half cover the wry thickness of his question.
Linnea stopped, her mouth an unconscious dent, before she walked past him toward her bedroom. “This reminds me of the time I left Claude,” she said. “In New York or Paris, I can’t remember. It was over before the door shut.”
“You’re leaving tomorrow?”
“For quite awhile, I’m afraid. I’m sorry,” she said, turning the corner to her room. Paul could barely hear her. “I didn’t plan it this way.”
But she had planned it. He knew that. Linnea was so desperate about her time—her dwindling time, she called it—that she had not dropped a single moment into the well of open possibility since he had met her. Boston and her ballplayer must have been in the works for weeks; the unsteadiness of her illness allowed for no less. Paul was momentarily furious. How dare she refuse to face him before he left the continent and the only risk he had taken since he had put Susan back from his body and his mind. She knew it was a risk, his being with her and squeezing himself under the lens of her peculiarly magnified world. She knew he trusted her. And she had turned away.
“Life is often like that,” he said, raising his voice so that it might follow her into the closet. “It turns swiftly. Susan and I lost each other that way.”
“Martín,” she shouted back. “Martín . . . I told you about him. . .he is the one I clung to. I was young. And he was so handsome.”
When she emerged some minutes later, Paul was pacing, circling the area near her old stereo. A Bach recording was on the turntable, but he had not yet placed the needle in its groove. He was wondering if he should go upstairs or just leave. After all, he and Linnea had never listened to music together.
“A good idea,” she said, pausing several feet away from him. “I’ll get some wine. We should probably celebrate.”
He watched her enter the kitchen. A woman who was, he realized, a sack of shuffled desires and disappointments. He did not miss the fact that she was dressed just as she had been the night he met her. Dark pants, the black misshapen sweater, her hair free and clean around her face. Linnea did not err. Though the female in her might seem buried in her determination, she did not make mistakes.
Then it would just be over. She could not blame him. He had come and gone from her life like a bout of bad weather. Or a sickness. Yes, that was it. Illness bred illness, and he had been like a functional fever. Linnea, working from her stubborn heart, had conquered him in order to cure herself.
He had been used. Pressing a button and taking in the swift ascension of Bach’s fugue, Paul allowed himself to think of Susan, to look somewhere in himself for the symptoms of time-killing desire. The scent of her light skin was like . . . was like . . . .
But again, Linnea could not let him go. At least he perceived her distant graciousness that way. “I think we should toast ourselves upstairs,” she said, moving quietly past him. “When the music is over, of course.”
He found her slouched in her green armchair, an uncorked bottle of chardonnay by her feet. He thought he could smell the wine: a new, heavy perfume. Linnea seemed distracted, the white moon of her chin resting on her knuckles. But she stood when Paul cleared the top of the staircase. “Cheers,” she said. “I think we should forgive each other.”
“For what?” he asked, impatiently surveying the studio. “Our lack of manners?”
“No, our wish to get out. Leave.” She dropped back into her chair, gracelessly. “You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t. I wanted to do this without . . . I wanted to do it right.”
“You want to do everything right.”
Paul looked over her worktables, her scattered sketches and pallets. It was all there—shape, blending, a variety of flesh tones. “I wanted to give you something,” he said.
“What?” she said, a fresh edge in her voice. “You never made love to me. You never even told me what it was like with Susan. I don’t see that you’ve given me anything that’s worth a fuck.”
“That’s all you wanted, then.” He spoke through his set teeth, anger moving to trembling in his knees.
“No, I think that’s all you wanted. An ugly woman, some adoration. A pitiful piece of leave-taking ass.” Linnea rocked herself with rage, though her chair was anchored and ungiving. The wine bottle rattled at her heels.
“You’re bitter,” he said.
“No, you are,” she shouted, hammering the air with a whole arm. “You god damn fucking are.”
Paul left her, the broken tattoo of her pounding feet following him down the stairs and through the bare foyer. She wasn’t helpless, he told himself. She never had been. A woman like that would eat him alive.
* * *
He only made it to Ouagadougou about once a month. The American attache and his wife were always encouraging him to visit, to give himself time to adjust to the broad, unbroken patterns of the village. But Paul was hard on himself; he insisted on making it all work, allowing himself time off only when he needed supplies—batteries, film, new cassettes. He wasn’t worried about burnout. Where could he go, where would he want to go if he failed?
At the end of the rainy season, he gave himself a brief vacation, a trip east to the sacred crocodile lake at Sabou. On his way back, he stopped in Ouagadougou for a complete French meal at the attaché’s expense and a mail check.
In his fan-cooled hotel room, Paul opened a bulky packet from his mother. Inside, he found a heavy cotton shirt, two English novels, and an envelope of newspaper clippings. His mother also included a lengthy letter spiced with dry, crisp wit and pertinent news from home. She answered his various questions and praised him for his frequent and detailed correspondence. It remains so fascinating, even on the page, she wrote. Your tales from Africa have you sounding so strong and well.
Paul read her letter twice before he folded it beneath the fly-leaf of one of the novels. He wondered if he would ever tell her how bad it was.
The envelope of clippings contained two surprises. The first was a brief letter from Susan saying that she might or might not fly into Dakar for a Christmas visit. The stationery was cool and very smooth in his hand. Reading her rounded handwriting, Paul felt his heart beat with the thud of the Belgian-made window fan. He needed her to visit. Weeks ago he had realized, rather crudely, what it meant to need a woman. The warm native malt, the exquisitely barren landscape, the bound and shifting sun were never enough. The scents and sighs of the Bobo women were only cruel flavoring. He was not quite in love with Susan, but he had told her that. She hadn’t seemed to mind. I’m trying, her letter said, to work something out.
The last surprise was a trio of postcards addressed to him in care of his parents. They all bore Portland postmarks. Their messages were brief. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Thank you. Paul flipped them over, spreading them out on the poorly-dyed bedspread. daVinci. Michelangelo. da Vinci.
Linnea. She had done it to him. Caught him in the middle. He tried to remember if he had thought of her since the flight from Paris to Dakar when he dreamed that he slept with her, dreamed that he made love to her as her skin moved like dough. In that turbulent sleep, she had pulled him into her as if his thrusts, his flesh, his desires were never-ending. She had read his face with her fingers while they moved together. No, no, he convinced himself that he had not thought of her. But she had gotten to him in any case. I’m sorry. She must be dying. Thank you.
He would call her. The cards were, according to their dates, more than three weeks old. But where would she be? The hospital? With her parents? Under the care of a 24-hour nurse who, Linnea used to say, would surely be cursedly color blind? Paul left the hotel with his wallet, following the vague directions of the drowsy concierge. The Intertel booth was only a few blocks away.
What would he say to her? Paul remembered the way she had named the sunlight as it changed through the arc of a day, moving from the broad sea gray of early morning to the hot, unforgiving shafts of noon. Notice the difference when you’re away, Paul, she had said. The dawn will be so different when you’re in Africa. The dusk will be so harsh.
He stopped on a broken street corner, already sweating. A young native boy tried desperately to sell him a newspaper, then some fruit. What would he say to her? A woman who couldn’t speak, who might be paralyzed or even—he looked at the sky—dead. Here I am, Linnea. Not so far away. Here I am. In a country where even the mighty Mossi emperor still rules cross-legged in the dust.