He is on foot, barefooted in fact and striding through the cool, dark night at amazing speed. You remember the jacket still lying on the seat of your car. Was that a good place to leave the car, next to a fog bank; what if someone overtaken by disorientation crashes into it? How will I ever find my car again? But none of that matters, so far away and unimportant. You must concentrate; he is leaving you behind. Houses flash by; blocks flash by; whole neighborhoods flash by. Mere seconds seem to have elapsed when a mansion sprawling across an immense lawn approaches, but Ethan turns before reaching the walkway that would carry him to the front door, turns and disappears. He is getting away, moving through a bristling darkness with a catlike stealth, leaving no sound for you to follow, but the cigarette spools a tiny thread that guides you to the back of the mansion where a single light illuminates the artist sitting before a canvas supported by an easel, looking as if he’s hypnotized.
You assume a position at his left shoulder. “Maria,” you murmur. “He knew her all along, but how?” Undisturbed by questions he cannot hear, Ethan continues to study the woman lying upon a bed, long, coppery hair all around her. A shadowy figure hunches over her, watching, and he’s watching, and you’re watching the sleeper deranged by horrifying wraiths hanging from the tester, clinging to bedposts, perching along the footboard like great, black vultures of death. Her contorted body expresses a fear so palpable that it seems to come right off the canvas. You don’t know how long this watching goes on, but at some length, Ethan exits through a door at the back of the studio where it connects with the house.
In the afternoon of the following day, you are still observing Ethan—he’s perfecting the painting—when Maria knocks at the door. Light is pouring in through a bank of windows across the back of the studio, low in the sky: She is a silhouette of herself. Ethan quickly covers the painting, puts it away and motions for her to enter. There’s a change of air pressure as soon as the door is opened. She stands just inside the threshold. Not immediately but after a few moments, Brownian motion spreads her scent around the room along with a tinge of something else. “Cloudy inside,” you remind yourself that weather could be your area of expertise, although the past is fading. So pleased to see Maria, Ethan doesn’t seem to notice the change in atmosphere. He’s too busy shaking his head and lecturing: “Don’t you know anything about dressing? Someone with your skin type; black deadens your complexion instead of bringing out the subtle skin tones. If I were painting your face, I would have to use 62 gradations of color. Nope, you should never wear black.”
“What does it matter?” she replies morosely. You notice signs of nightmares under her eyes. “Why do you get to dress like a perfect slob while I have to wear something special?” Her voice is soft, gentle, weary.
“I’m no work of art. It won’t make any difference what I wear.”
“I’m not a work of art either. I’m a person with feelings and an inner life just like anyone else. No, definitely not a work of art.”
“You’re nothing like anyone else, Maria, and your clothing makes you look . . . well, it makes you look unhappy. Are you unhappy?”
“I try not to think about it,” she replies.
“Why don’t you let me buy you a dress. We can call it an experiment in emotional health,” he grins. “If you don’t want to be seen walking around with a perfect slob, I’ll get my Brooks Brothers out of the closet.”
“You don’t have to change your clothes on my account. I appreciate their honesty. I came as promised, but I never agreed to this.”
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you to always read the fine print when dealing with the devil?”
“She’s dead; she took off her armor, and they murdered her.”
Several moments of silence follow during which Ethan’s eyes never stray from her sorrow. “You can trust me, Maria,” he replies soberly, “I would never harm you.”
“Not knowingly, not on purpose I’m sure, but you will; it’s inevitable. Maybe I should leave; I’m beginning to wonder what I get out of the bargain anyway.”
“You get to spend lots of time with me. Isn’t that the real reason you came?”
“I always try to keep my promises even when they’re basically extorted from me.”
“The problem is, Maria, I can’t paint you, the real you, in a suit of armor. Maybe if you happened to be Joan of Arc. You really don’t have to hide from me.”
“I guess I’m not the first to be lured into your den. What do your other models do?”
“They always seem eager to take their clothes off,” he replies looking very pleased with himself.
“It sounds a lot like you’re presenting me with two options, Ethan.” Ah, you say to yourself, she’s taking charge of his name now. “Take my clothes off or allow you to choose my wardrobe. Isn’t that binary thinking?”
“Using my philosophy against me; that isn’t very nice,” he replies with a teacher’s pride in his student. “I surrender; round 1 to Maria. Why don’t you take a seat over there while I get everything set up. Anything to drink while you wait? It would have to be whiskey or water or coffee.”
“Hmm, quite a lot to choose from. Which do you recommend,” Maria asks glancing slowly around the room.
“The coffee is old; the whiskey is bold; the water is cold.”
“On second thought, I think I’ll go for the dress,” she announces, warming the environment with a dazzling smile.
“Wow, where did that come from?” You’re wondering the same thing. “I must be more convincing than I thought. The shop I have in mind is a pretty good walk. Do you mind or should we go in your car?”
“On foot. I hardly ever get to simply take a walk,” she replies lightheartedly.
As they stroll, moving ever closer together, an intimacy is developing that makes you feel like an invader of their privacy, but curiosity will not allow you to forget them, to get back in your car and drive away from the only two people in the universe. You do not care that you are now a voyeur stuck drafting off their reality.