(Scroll down for the first installment.)
Katherine E. Rabenau
She rose quickly and moved toward the next gallery, hoping to defy the premonition, to outdistance her foreboding. She could feel him watching her, knew that he knew, like herself, an inevitability. But she raced on anyway, praying that it was imagination, annoyed at her terror.
"You are ridiculous," she mumbled. "You don't even believe in your own nonsense, yet you behave like a two-year-old in the dark. Just slow down and act your age." And she did, but her senses now were edged, and she saw nothing but a vague shadow hovering behind her.
Still, she was surprised when the hand touched her shoulder and a voice said, "Miss? I believe you dropped this."
She turned to face him, and stared in disbelief, for he held her notebook out to her. "How. . . Thank you," and taking it, she turned to escape.
"You are an artist?"
She pretended not to hear and kept moving, but he was not to be so easily daunted. "You're an artist, aren't you?"
"No, a poet."
"I could see it," he replied. "It shines from you."
She looked at him again and trembled as she felt the first silken strands of the web tighten around her. He was still talking, but she could not bring her mind to focus on what he was saying. She wanted very much to run away, but her feet would not move and she remained in place, nodding like a puppet and smiling woodenly as he rambled on. He didn't seem to notice -- either that or he didn't care. She could not escape and he knew it.
But gradually some of his conversation began to seep through. Slowly, she began to listen.
"No, I have never been able to choose one school of painting which I preferred over the others -- or even one artist, for that matter. That Memling you were looking at is one of my favorites, though. Something very commanding about the man. Rather stern at first glance, but in no way cruel. Really a rather gentle, sensitive man, I suspect. Always sort of wish I could meet him."
She nodded. "It's odd. I always feel that I must have know him somehow. That painting makes me believe in reincarnation -- the possibility of it anyway."
"I could tell it was special to you. In fact, I think that's why I started talking to you. What's your name, by the way? Mine's Michael Quinley - the Third. Pretty classy, eh?"
"Well, come on, Diana, let's go home."
An animal fear rose in her; the image of a wild doe frozen in a beam of light flicked across her mind and was gone. "Yes, I really should be on my way. . ."
He took her hand and held it tightly. "Not what I had in mind. I want you to have dinner with me. And you can't say no, because fate has crossed our paths, and I have no intention of letting go of your hand. Come along."
And she did.
They were both silent on the walk to his apartment. He continued to hold her hand, though she had ceased almost immediately to resist, driven by curiosity, by something, to follow, to see this adventure through to whatever consequences might lie in wait.
The apartment was neither Spartan nor plush, but large, filled with books and pictures and non-descript furnishings; marked most especially by large windows at one end which looked out across the river, and on this afternoon, framed a fragile quarter moon. A light breeze drifted in.
"It's a nice place. And you have a view!" She moved toward the window, glad to have something to do. "It's really glorious. I think I'd become so entranced by the view, that I'd never move from the window. But I suppose you get used to it after a while."
"True, but I wouldn't give it up. You get hardened to it after a time, but then every so often you wake up to it again and it's like seeing it for the first time. Know what I mean?" He stood looking out for a long moment, absorbed in some thought beyond them both. Then he turned suddenly and asked, "What would you like for dinner? I could make us some eggs, or a hamburger -- or we could go out and buy some steak. In fact that's what we should do. Steak and wine and candles. What do you say?"
"Sounds pretty good to me."
"OK, then, let's go."
By the time they had finished choosing wine and steaks and planning, she was starting to feel relaxed, starting to look forward to the rest of the adventure.
During dinner, they drank wine, talked about art and life and people, and themselves. Drank more wine and talked on and on. Michael, she discovered, was a painter. They talked about painting and writing, and shared their frustrations and fears about what they did; about whether it was real, whether it would mean anything to anyone but themselves, whether they were pretending to be what fate had not intended they should be, whether they had delusions of grandeur, genius, or something in between. By the time dinner was over they were friends, and she had discovered that he was rather handsome -- at least attractive. The aura of malevolence had almost faded to non-existence.
"Can I see your paintings? I'm always curious to see how. . ."
He got up restlessly. "Not yet. I don't want you to see them yet. Let's wait a while until we know each other better."
"OK." But she was hurt that he didn't trust her. She hadn't shanghaied him to her apartment, after all. He'd started the whole thing. And now. . .
"Look, don't be mad. It's just. . . well, I want you to like me as myself .. . It's like the paintings are separate from me. . . They're me, but only a part of me - or not that quite - they're an identity within me which is both part of me and more than me. I can't explain it quite." He was talking rapidly, pacing up and down in small circles, hands moving, jerking as he talked. "I'm not even certain of what I mean. Just - well, sometimes I use them to make friends - to try and make myself more interesting. Like a four year old trying to get attention by standing on his head, only I yell, 'Look at me! Look! Look! I'm a painter.' And women are supposed to swoon and fall into my arms; men to respect me. . ."
"You, too?" She was relaxed again, laughing.
"You understand, then? You're not angry?"
"Never was. Just felt rejected. I was so afraid of you this afternoon - or of myself - or something. And then I was feeling so happy and relaxed that I didn't expect you to say no. I felt all vulnerable again. But I do understand. I think you're right, too."
He reached out and took her hand and a tremor of anticipation ran through her. "I'm glad you refused to let go of my hand this afternoon. It's been nice." And she laughed nervously, wanting very much for him to kiss her, fearing it as well, thinking she should go home now, before anything happened, but not wanting to.
Then his lips were on hers and she felt herself responding. And the terror swept over her again, stronger than ever, as she felt herself wanting to trust him, wanting to assuage her loneliness in his arms, wanting to be held and kissed and desired, wanting the fantasy she had been raised on. Your prince gallops up, gazes lovingly at you. There is a brief ordeal of some sort, and then he takes you in his arms, kisses you, and you are forever happy, as though that kiss were a magic spell of sorts and wove an invisible armor that nothing could penetrate.
But life was no fairly tale. And as he kissed her again, she felt desire, anger, fear, and hope sweep over her in alternating waves. Her private demons came screaming out of their cages, each one trying to push her in a different direction, so that she clung ever more fiercely to the oblivion of his embrace, wanting him to save her, knowing that he could not -- that he was as apt to be a casualty in the battle as she.
Then she tried to pull herself away. "I ought to go. It's late."
"Go? You can't go now. It's too late." You can stay here. You'll be safe, I promise, if you wish. Really."
She moved away from him to the window. The moon was sharply etched against the night, accompanied by stars. It looked so idyllic. She leaned wearily against the frame.
He started to move toward her, but stopped, and they were both silent for a time, neither one knowing quite what to do, how to bridge the gap which loomed between them. He sat staring at the floor, his hands clasped, and she looked out at the stars, as if they could provide a solution.
"It's such a pretty night," she said at last. He continued to sit, silent. She moved across the room and sat beside him. "Please, Michael, be patient with me. I'm scared."
"Stay, Diana, please, just to be near each other. I'll take you home if you decide to go, but I wish you'd trust me. . . I really want you to stay."
And again she felt the inevitability of her response, as she had from the beginning. She would stay. It had been a foregone conclusion. Resistance had been no more than the last struggle of a moth against the flame. Yet she was glad, too. It was what she wanted, to be here with him -- with anyone. To not be lonely for a change. To lie quiet in someone's arms, warm and protected against tomorrow. Safe for a moment - from what, she wasn't certain. She nodded. "I'll stay," and stood looking at the floor, feeling foolish and defeated to be staying after all.
He too, uncertain, maybe, how to deal with her now, stood a moment, then reached out gingerly to touch her hair, so lightly she could scarcely feel it, but sensed the gentleness, the loneliness that maybe matched her own. She stood, tensed against herself, still unsure of what to do, while with the same tentative touch, he caressed her cheek, nose, eyes, until she leaned her head onto his shoulder, her eyes and body aching with unshed tears.
They sat close in the night quiet for some time, bodies touching lightly, absorbing each other mutely, resting in nearness. Then, finally, they slept, nestled against each other in a deep and innocent sleep.
End of Part 2: Return tomorrow for the final (yes, God is merciful) installment.
End of Part 2: Return tomorrow for the final (yes, God is merciful) installment.