Something in the distance causes you to lose concentration, a tiny hubbub of sounds and lights. The texture dissolves into whiteness. The moist, cool fog is all around, blanketing you with germination, gently nurturing you as a seed is nourished to become a seedling. Devastated by the loss, by the unbearable emptiness within, you panic, hyperventilating, moving air through your body as through an abandoned building. It rattles horribly, but each time you inhale, your consciousness hooks onto the couple only to fade on the exhale. Brief flashes of lavender and of smoke pulse through your body, a two-part heartbeat. It’s dizzying to be breathing in textures, like trying to breathe underwater. You feel like vomiting. Be calm, you tell yourself, your body needs time to adjust; think only of breathing.
“You never told me what you were doing in my gallery.”
“It’s philosophical; I have to excoriate myself, to flail the skin off my arrogance by exposing it to harsh realities like that asshole and his art that everyone worships. Just call me a masochist who needs to know that what he’s doing is worthwhile. To be uncompromising is not enough to deserve the title of art.”
“Can you truly judge yourself objectively? Can you judge what other artists do objectively as well? Just because you don’t like their work doesn’t mean it’s no good. Jealousy could mimic such a response,” she blushes slightly, to have been so forward. “I’m sorry; that was a mean thing to say.”
“Don’t apologize; it insults me when you say you’re sorry. Your assessment would be enough for me,” he replies.
“I would love to see your work; I like it already without having seen even one example.”
“I don’t want anyone to like my work; I want to engender passion. And I don’t care whether it’s hatred or love as long as they are flung from the rigors of personal experience, grated and chopped and beaten into a new person.”
“That kind of thing is really hard to sell,” Maria replies, restraining a smile behind luscious lips.
“Oh, have you tried? I’d like to meet this lonely person.”
“The opportunity has never presented itself. I’m only basing that conclusion on what my aunt told me. It was her gallery originally, her one and only baby.”
“I want to take back what I said about free will.” Maria is sitting on an upholstered chair, a shabby wingchair with multiple tears in a dingy yellow fabric striped in blue. Her hair flows past her face, down her back. a gorgeous, coppery cataract. For the first time, you see the dress, but a suggestion, it drapes her body in a delicate, silky sheen of blues and greens. Her beauty takes your breath away, causing a momentary loss of control, and again the whiteness, always there, always germinating. A long, deep inhalation: you must fill yourself with them; you must hold your breath until the pain is too great to bear, until death stands at your shoulder.
“So you believe in it now?”
“I don’t know yet; not yet. The world didn’t believe in free will for a very long time.”
“If you want to know the truth, mostly the world still doesn’t. The rich don’t get richer, the powerful don’t become more powerful by allowing people to think they have self determination.”
“True, but maybe it’s no longer so endemic to every nook and cranny. We thought science would release us from the moving finger writes and having writ moves on . . .
“Nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line,” Ethan chuckles; Khayyam’s Rubaiyat is literally the only poetry I’ve read.”
“Nor all your tears wash out a word of it,” Maria completes the rhyme. “My aunt’s favorite. She used to make me memorize quatrains.”
“Obviously, it was the three bitches that brought us together after all,” he replies distractedly, his attention fixed on portraying Maria’s every gradation of emotion.
“Yes, I wonder what they have in store for us. They come to me sometimes, in my dreams; theirs is a hideous kind of beauty, and that isn’t all: They smell like skunks.”
“Do they spray their victims?” Ethan’s tone indicates that he thinks she’s kidding.
“I suppose ruining lives is similarly noisome to the spray of skunks, the way the aroma clings to everything it touches.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” he mumbles, “No one would go anywhere near them.”
“Most men are genetically incapable of detecting the odor of the Fates.”
Ethan looks up in response to the seriousness in Maria’s voice. “Are you afraid of these monsters?”
“Not on my own account. I worry that you might listen to them.”
“Me? Am I in your nightmares as well?”
“You are a nightmare, Ethan,” she laughs unexpectedly, pushing away a descending gloom.
In opening moments, fear of fog maintains your discipline: one breath, one day; until realization sets in that this method will never lead back to that exotic perfume because you are forever stuck in initial conditions: in the initial mixing of lavender and smoke. You tell yourself that it doesn’t matter; all you want is to see the finished portrait, and then you will be happy to return to that other life, the one that hides out on the far side of forgetfulness. This is a lie. No one wants to be a ghost. For you, the unnamed perfume and life are equivalent. Only by admitting the lie can you move on.
“Well, I’ve never found that tears did much anyway, so I’ve given up on them,” she allows a smile to enter the portrait. Absorbed in capturing the brief manifestation before it evaporates, Ethan does not respond. “In a sense, Newton’s laws support the idea that it is possible to predict the future, a kind of scientific determinism. With his equations, he is a modern day oracle. He can tell the future of a ball, for example, where it will end up if thrown with a particular trajectory at a specified initial velocity.”
“True, but Newton can never predict what a little boy might do to his equation, like intercept the ball and carry it off to his clubhouse, and Newton cannot predict what I am going to do.” You note a strange smile on his face as he stands and holds out his hand to her. “I have something to show you.” You don’t like the tone in his voice. They are moving away together, leaving you behind as they pass through a door you have never seen. Ethan closes the door, shutting you out. At first, you think you will perish without them, but they aren’t really gone; you can still taste and smell and feel lavender and smoke within you. The texture is beginning to become a part of you and you of it.