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by Bongo Bear
May 15, 1999
Product disclaimer: One of the characters in this short story may vaguely resemble a certain personage from a certain TV show about a beautiful dark warrior depending on whether you’re familiar with Xena: Warrior Princess or not. Since the resemblance is not coincidental, this story must be an UBER. Other than that niggling detail, this story and characters are all mine. Please send any comment to email@example.com.
The man precisely tilted her face toward the light. Then he adjusted the lamp so the shadows falling from her brow and nose were sharp and dark. A bright glint reflected from her shadowed eye.
"Perfect," he said. Standing back, he snapped several pictures in rapid succession, each shot framed at a slightly different angle. He would choose the best one later.
Then he approached her and said tentatively, "It's time to disrobe. Please?" He held out his hand as she tugged apart the sash at her waist and pulled the bathrobe off her shoulders. He tossed aside the robe, then stepped back to look at her. Cocking his head right, then left, he composed her body into curves and shapes. He stepped forward and gently guided her arms and legs into position. More snaps of the shutter followed.
"When will you be ready to start?" she asked as she pulled a white t-shirt over her head.
"Once I have the film developed, we can go over the prints. I can scan the ones we want into the computer and incorporate it into the base image. Then the real work begins." He smiled at the technical challenge she presented to him. It was the rare occasion he had the opportunity to show off his craft.
"What if I don't like the prints or the final image?"
"Then I'll have to photograph you again. It'll take time to get the lighting just right."
He looked carefully at her. Her face belied the underlying tension and impatience. "What's your hurry? We have all the time in the world."
"I don't." She quickly dressed and turned for the door.
"I'll call when the prints are ready," he said to her retreating back. He loved eager customers like her.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
Jean sat at the kitchen table and idly popped bonbons while she went over the guest list one more time. She checked the calendar. The next fitting was scheduled for the middle of the following month. Then she regarded the piece of rich chocolate between her fingers and decided not to pop it into her mouth. An expanding waistline would only further irritate the dressmaker, she reasoned, and enough headaches pounded in her temples as it was. Why just that morning, her mother nearly fell out of her chair when she announced that her dress was going to be a very off-white.
"Mom, I'm nearly thirty. Surely, you don't believe I'm still a ..." she said.
Her mother effectively cut her off with a wave of her hand. "Now, Jeanie, I don't want to hear about it. All that matters is that you're finally getting married. He's a good man, from good stock. He'll make you a good wife."
She probably meant to say that he'll make a good husband, but Jean let the Freudian slip pass without comment. Good stock? If Geoffrey were a thoroughbred, she supposed that would be an advantage. Ride 'em cowgirl, she smirked to herself. Oh who was she kidding? There are two kinds of men: the kind you marry because he can handle a stock portfolio blindfolded and the kind you can fuck silly because he’ll wear a blindfold. Geoff was very good with numbers.
"What's so funny?" her mother asked when she noticed Jean's unexpected smile.
"A amusing thought, Mother. That's all." She finished her coffee. Weeks of planning every tedious detail drained all the fight from her.
At least her mother didn't know that she had moved into Geoff's apartment, which was on the floor right below hers. Jean kept her own place for those occasions when her parents were just in the neighborhood. The rooms also offered refuge for the few times she and Geoff fought. They had this arrangement for nearly six months when they finally decided to tie the knot. Hundreds of dollars would become available each month if she didn't renew the lease on her own apartment.
Jean yawned and stretched until she felt the dormant muscles pop in her back. She looked outside the window. The warm afternoon sun pouring into the kitchen made her feel sleepy. She didn't want to stay cooped up all day. The light beckoned her to go out and soak up its rays.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
She drove a meandering path through town and browsed the storefronts until large art display caught her eye. She parked the car and walked up to the entry way to the Callaway Gallery. The gallery window reflected her bouncing image as she approached the glass. Until she moved into the shadow of the store’s awning, her reflection completely superimposed the painting on the other side of the glass. She moved closer until she could clearly see a life-sized figure work prominently featured among several smaller pieces. Her eyes traced the curve of each line defining a tall woman's smooth back and incredibly long legs. A single bright eye, set above a sharply planed cheek and a distinguished chin, peaked over a bare right shoulder. The midnight black mane melted into the darkness that shrouded the rest of her body and face.
She entered the gallery and saw the walls festooned with the same woman's image, each one a different aspect of her personality. Scenes of her laughing heartily hung next to ones of her smirking with some secret mirth. Others depicted her pensively staring off into the distance, sometimes angry, confused or simply blank. That week the gallery featured the work of a single artist and this intriguing woman was his current theme. But the nude in the window struck Jean as much more than a beautiful work of art. Of all the ones to choose from, she had to have that one.
After the delivery truck dropped off the carefully boxed and wrapped art work in the lobby, she asked her neighbor, Mr. Rogers to help her hang it. They hung and centered the painting on the wall opposite her bed. He thought it was odd that a woman would want such a picture hanging in her bedroom, but he chalked it up to her many idiosyncrasies. Among them was that she was hardly ever home except for the weekends. He knew she frequently traveled on business. He had no idea she usually slept with Geoff during the week. He watched her apartment when she was away. She took care of his cat when he traveled out of town for a weekend each month. It was an equitable exchange.
That evening she decided to sleep in her own apartment even though it was in the middle of the week. She needed to pay some bills and do some cleaning. She called and told Geoff of the change in plans.
"Mind if I come over there?" he said. "A change of scenery couldn't hurt, you know." He was accustomed to having her by his side. Cool, lonely sheets did not appeal to him at all.
"Oh, okay. Come on over. I can go over the most recent plans with you. Do you think we need flower arrangements for all the pews or just the ones for the immediate family members? "
"Um, I'd rather not get into that tonight. Besides, I'm sure you can handle the arrangements just fine without much input from me," he said. "You know what you want."
Jean exhaled an exasperated sigh. I could pick dandelions and tape them to the pews, she thought to herself. Perhaps the old adage that the wedding night was for the man and the wedding day was for the woman would hold true for them as well.
She paid her bills while she waited for Geoff to arrive. Then they had a quiet dinner and retired early. As they prepared for bed, Geoff couldn't help but comment on the large painting hanging in the bedroom.
"Who is she?" he asked.
"I don't know. I found this in a gallery downtown. When I saw it I decided I wanted it."
"Do you plan to leave it there?" He pointed to the place on the wall. "I mean, it really doesn't fit in." He shuddered slightly as he looked at it. Something about the pale eye made his stomach grow cold.
She shrugged. "Maybe I'll put it somewhere else. But for now it stays. I'm tired." She stretched enough to get the kinks out of her back before she took off her clothes and climbed into bed. She laid next to her fiance’ and silently counted the ceiling tiles.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
She dreamt she was awake, caught in the twilight between reality and fantasy. Jean tried to move her arms, but they would not obey. Her heart began to race. The paralysis was in her legs, too. She opened her mouth to scream, but only issued a soundless breath. That was when the whispering began. Slow and low, nearly imperceptible, the murmuring grew louder and louder until one voice rose from among the many.
Framed by silence, a clear voice said, "This place is the realm between your world and mine. You can only see what I choose to reveal of myself. That is why my image is incomplete. From my side, I can only see what you wish me to see."
Jean now stood in front of the painting. She looked back to see Geoff soundly asleep. Turning back to the origin of the voice, she leaned in closer as if she could find some clue in the pale blue eye. "What do you see?" she asked. The eye blinked.
"I see you: a young woman sitting in the corner of a dim barren room. Your knees are drawn up tightly. You lay your head in your arms, so I can't see your face very well. Most of your body is hidden behind the folds of your arms and legs. That is what you reveal to me."
"Sorry I seem aloof to you," Jean said shyly. "We've just met."
"In time that will change." The woman's face subtly shifted. She smiled.
Jean saw her opportunity. "So there is more?" she asked tentatively.
"Of course. Come to me. Here." The woman turned toward Jean and let the light play across her body. It took Jean several moments before she realized that the woman was extending her hand. Reaching out slowly, she grasped the hand and let herself be pulled into the frame as if it were an open window.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
Geoff first felt a warm softness press against his back. He let the warmth envelop him, but did not fully awaken until moist lips found his ear. Unable to resist Jean's midnight advances, he rolled over and returned the embrace.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
The alarm beeped at her every ten minutes. At the third beep, she finally reached out and turned it off instead of hitting the snooze bar again. Geoff snorted a little, but did not make a move out of the bed. She rolled out and felt for her house slippers in the dark. Finding them, she shuffled into the bathroom for her morning shower.
Geoff met her in the kitchen. She was scrambling some eggs when he wrapped his arms around her waist and whispered into her ear, "What got into you last night, hmm?" He nuzzled the back of her neck.
"Did I kick you again? Sorry, I've been drinking a lot of coffee lately. The caffeine makes me a restless sleeper."
Turning her around in his arms, he looked into her face. Knitting his brow, he said, "Don't you remember?"
"I do." His eyebrows wiggled suggestively. "You haven't that passionate in weeks. I thought the stress of planning the wedding was getting to you. But after last night..." He grinned mischievously before he kissing her soundly. He had not shaved yet and his heavy beard scraped against her cheeks.
Oh, he means that we made love last night, she thought. She honestly couldn't remember much of what happened. All she could recall was caressing a smooth face in her hands. Strange how her dreams confused her memory.
"I forgot to mention something to you. I have to leave on a business trip tomorrow. I'll probably have to work late tonight, so don't wait for me. Okay?" he said.
"I wish you had said something about this earlier," she admonished. "We really need to sit down and talk."
"That can wait until I get back. That should be next week at the latest."
"When next week?"
"I don't know yet. I'll call," he said over his shoulder as he headed out of the kitchen and back into the bedroom. "I've got to get ready for work. Don't worry about fixing me any breakfast."
Jean looked down at the half scrambled eggs in the mixing bowl. Four eggs were two more than she could eat. She gave Geoff’s share to the Mr. Roger’s cat.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
"How do I know that you're real?" Jean asked. Each night, she found herself standing in front of the painting and staring into the partially hidden face of a woman she could hardly keep out of her mind when she was awake. When she slept, she was completely open and vulnerable. This woman's very image enthralled her. The sultry voice seduced her. Her ghostly presence both comforted and frightened her.
"I am as real as you need me to be. As real as you are to me."
In a period of only a few nights, Jean discovered multiple layers of her own personality. One layer that she wore in the real world: a woman absorbed by her career and about to upset it with a conveniently perfect marriage. She shed that layer like a claustrophobic sweater in the summer. With the hesitancy of an amateur stripper, she slowly revealed her soul to a being she only half believed in.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
Carol barely caught up with Jean on the elevator going up. "I hear you're baching it this weekend. Do you want to come over and watch some raunchy videos with us? I can mix up some frozen margaritas," she proffered with a wicked grin.
Jean smiled back, but shook her head. "No, I don't think so. I've got more planning to do before Geoff gets back."
Her best friend clasped a hand on her elbow. "You sure about that? Once you get married, ladies' nights out won't come as often."
"In that case, I'll appreciate them even more," Jean countered brightly. "Sorry, but I really can't spare this weekend. Unless you want to help me pick out a china pattern?"
"Eeek, you're asking the wrong person. You know I always eat take out."
"That's why you're still single, Carol. Learn to cook."
"Very funny. Well, I get off here. If you change your mind, you know the number. Later."
"Later." Jean leaned against the back of the elevator. Recently, she hadn't wanted to spend much time with anybody. Even though Geoff went on longer and longer business trips, she didn't feel the need to fill up the space around her with people, even Carol. She was content to read a little in the evenings and go to bed early.
Her dreams have been so vivid during the past few weeks. She welcomed sleep as never before, but only when she slept in her own bedroom. She almost resented the nights when she slept over at Geoff's; her dreams were so mundane there. He had grown used to her staying at his apartment. He expected it. When she started sleeping at her own place more and more, he made a point of enticing her to stay over. She relented to make him happy. Occasionally, he would sleep in her bed, but it was uncomfortable, being only a double. He was not a good fit in her bed.
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
"Your composite photos are ready. When can you come over to inspect them?" he asked.
Jean looked at the clock. His studio closed in less than two hours.
"Would today be a problem?"
"You won’t have time to pose for any changes, but sure, come on over."
~~~ ~ ~~~~~~ ~ ~~~
When Geoff finally returned from the latest business trip from hell, he fully expected to be greeted by a screaming banshee. The deal took a full week longer to close than he expected. He left messages on Jean's answering machine explaining that he would be late, but she never returned his calls. So he decided she was giving him the silent treatment. He called once he took off his coat in his apartment. Again there was no answer. He walked upstairs and knocked on her door. Not expecting her to answer the door any more than the phone, he let himself in with his key.
The answering machine flashed the half dozen or so phone calls he left over last week. She either hadn't bothered to listen to them or she didn't erase them if she did. He sat on the couch and turned the television on. He might as well make himself comfortable until Jean returned from whatever errand she was running.
As he leaned back to clasp his hands behind his head, he saw an opened crate leaning against a wall in the living room. He hadn't noticed it before, but then he wasn't looking for it. He stared at it, wondering if his curiosity would get the better of him. Curiosity won. He pulled open the wrapping layer by layer until he could see the protected object within, another painting. A life-sized rendition of two women standing toe to toe, one dark and one light, filled the canvas. It appeared to be a companion piece to the one he last saw hanging in Jean's bedroom. He couldn't make out their faces very well as the figures faced each other squarely. All that was visible to him were their profiles. Jean's taste in art left a lot to be desired in his opinion.
He sat back down and waited for Jean to return home.
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