When the doorbell rang, Ana didn’t rush to open the door. It was usually people soliciting money for various causes she didn’t support. This time, however, the solicitor must have been really desperate, since they rang the doorbell several times in a row. With an annoyed sigh, Ana lay down her brush and went upstairs to check who it was.
“Michael?” she asked with surprise. How does he know where I live? she wondered. She tried to recall if she had invited him to her house, or perhaps alluded to an invitation. But she couldn’t recall any such exchange between them.
“Am I disturbing you?” he asked with a coy smile.
“No, actually, I was just finishing a new painting.”
“May I see it?” he spotted an easy overture.
Ana hesitated. It crossed her mind that she didn’t know Michael all that well. How much interaction had they had so far? A brief meeting in church, a short exchange at her gallery and a few seconds of conversation at the Renaissance festival, she recalled. Even her close friends called in advance before showing up at her door. “How did you get my address?” she asked him.
“The gallery owner gave it to me. I stopped by there first.” That was smooth, Michael thought, always quick to praise his own glib evasions.
Ana recognized this as a lie, since Tracy never gave out her address to strangers. Ordinarily, this deception would have triggered immediate alarms. Yet, strangely, for reasons she couldn’t quite fathom, she found herself charmed, even flattered, by the young man’s deception, which had an almost charming, naïve transparency.
“Well? Can I check out your painting?” Michael asked her.
“Yes, but I have one more question for you. What if my husband would have answered the door instead of me? What would you have said to him?” She asked this question as if by reflex, from an automatic sense of duty, not because the answer mattered all that much to her. Although she realized, of course, that the answer should have mattered, should have mattered very much, in fact. Yet, she was aware, even disconcerted, that it meant very little to her at the moment.
“I’d have asked him if you were home.”
“And if he asked you why you’re here?”
“Geeze,” he said, good-naturedly. “I wasn’t prepared for this interrogation, although I probably should have been.”
Boy, she’s even sassier than I had her pegged, he thought. “I suppose I’d have told him the truth. That I already purchased one of your paintings and dropped by to see more of your artwork.”
In her caution-suppressed state, Ana found this an adequate enough response, for the time being. But she wasn’t nearly as impressed with it as Michael was. After all, he could have seen the painting when it was finished, at her gallery, as he had done before.
I’m good, really good, Michael thought. There seems to be no curve ball I can’t handle. “So? Can I see it?” he pressed. “Or do you prefer to continue your interrogation?”
Thinking that he didn’t lack a sense of humor, Ana relented. “Sure. But it’s not done yet. I still have to add a few more touches here and there,” she hastened to add, not one to share unfinished work with others. She led her guest to the basement, part of which doubled as her studio. A few easels, several containers of paint and dozens of large sheets of charcoal sketches were strewn all over the floor, turning the area into a veritable obstacle course. “Pardon the mess,” she apologized, noticing that Michael was watching his footing.
“I don’t mind. It looks more authentic like this,” he graciously replied. The part of his brain in charge of seduction, which also happened to be the most developed, went into calculation mode. The messiness of the studio presented him with a great opportunity to find a spot close to Ana and ascertain if she might be receptive to his favorite kind of aesthetic exploration.
“Well, this is it,” she pointed to the painting in question.
Michael contemplated the work in silence.
“I’ve never painted in this style before. I don’t know what’s come over me lately,” she said, almost apologetically.
Michael took a seat in the middle of a sofa, deliberately not leaving her much space. “This painting’s much more cheerful than any of the others I’ve seen by you. It’s a refreshing change,” he replied, taking note of Ana’s slight hesitation before she took a seat next to him. Her knees pressed closely together; her body language expressed nervousness. Better inch towards her slowly. Timing is key, Michael reminded himself.
“Yeah, but this one’s lighter in mood and less expressive,” Ana implicitly defended her earlier work, in the spirit of a mother who wishes to be fair to all of her children.
“Not necessarily. Happy emotions can be just as important and worthwhile as sad ones.” Michael shifted his position, practically eliminating the space between them.
Ana felt somewhat uncomfortable with his proximity, like when people invaded her personal space on a crowded bus. “I’m not so sure about that,” she countered, although, as usual, she was quite confident she was right. “That’s like saying that comedy is as serious and dramatic as tragedy. Which simply isn’t true. Most of the time, comedy’s just for entertainment.”
“And why is that such a bad thing again?” Michael asked her with a bemused smile. The flirtatiousness in his tone bought him the opportunity to gently stroke Ana’s knee, as if verbal intimacy necessarily went along with physical contact.
“Because it’s all about having fun,” Ana replied, distracted by his touch. She looked down at his hand with some curiosity, struck by his boldness yet hesitant to react. It’s just my knee, for goodness’ sake, she rationalized. I’m an artist not a prude, she emboldened herself. Yet she remained somewhat ill at ease with Michael’s forwardness. Perhaps he was one of those people who believed the stereotype that artists had loose morals. She wanted to make sure that he wouldn’t place her in that category. “One shouldn’t create art just for fun,” she said to him, trying to hint that the same logic applied to romantic encounters. “I think that art should be important, engaging and emotional.”
“Can’t you do both at once?” Michael asked. “I mean, have your cake and eat it too?”
“You mean combine the light and the serious?” she reformulated his statement.
“If you wish,” he conceded. “Or, put differently, have fun while also being serious?” As he said this, his hand moved higher up her leg.
“What’s this?” she said, now removing his hand, recovering her composure. “Is it my art or my legs that interest you, Michael?” She noted the playfulness in her tone. Why do I find it so difficult to resist him? she wondered.
“Can’t I be interested in both?” he asked with a smile. “Are the two mutually exclusive?” She didn’t smile in response. “I’m sorry, Ana. I must have lost my head a little bit.”
Ana watched him. She noted an almost chastened expression on his face, which endeared him to her even more. “You made me lose my train of thought. What were we talking about?” She paused for a moment. “Ah yes, I recall. I was saying that in good art and literature the emotion and meaning are more important than the entertainment value.”
“I wish you would have informed Shakespeare, Dickens and Balzac about that requirement. Had they known, those poor sops might have achieved something in their lives,” Michael taunted her.
“Now that you mention it,” she replied in the same bantering manner, “I had a discussion about it with Flaubert and Picasso and saved them from failure just in the nick of time.”
Michael’s face lit up when he noticed that Ana’s demeanor remained flirtatious. “Oh, I see. Then you must perform telekinesis with souls as well. You’re a woman of many talents.” He leaned forward and brushed her left cheek with the tip of his index finger, “A little paint got on your face,” he whispered.
The heat of his breath made her ears tingle, while a pleasant torpor spread all over her body. It would look really bad if Rob came in now from work, it occurred to her. “My husband might come home any minute,” she said by way of warning.
Instead of withdrawing, Michael became even more excited by the prospect of rivalry and risk. “We can hear him come in.” He shifted towards her and placed his hand behind her head to draw her gently towards him.
Alarmed by his aggressive behavior, Ana removed his hand and promptly stood up. “Please stop. We can’t do this.”
Michael realized that he had to make a bold conciliatory gesture, otherwise his plans were shot. “Going back to the subject of immortal art, I came by to see if I might purchase another one of your paintings. In fact, just to prove my earlier point, it’s the cheerful one I want.”
Ana felt reassured by his retreat, which inspired her trust. “You don’t have to buy it. I’ll give it to you for free,” she offered.
“No, I want to buy it,” Michael insisted.
“Because giving one’s art as a gift, unless you’re making a donation to some important museum, tends to lessen its value. And I find nothing cheap about your art,” Michael replied, looking at Ana so reverently that she felt he was telling her that he found nothing cheap about her.
“You’re definitely right about that!” she confirmed both hypotheses. “Okay, have it your way. You owe me another three thousand bucks.” He had managed to put her at ease again, but she wasn’t willing to take any more chances. “Would you like to sit out on the deck? It’s nice and sunny outside and so dark and gloomy in here.”
“I thought you preferred darkness and gloom,” Michael remarked.
“Only in my paintings. I try to avoid it whenever possible in real life,” Ana replied with a smile. “How about a cup of tea? Or coffee?” she attempted to play the role of the conventional hostess, which, Michael thought, didn’t quite suit her.
“No thanks. I’m alright.”
When they stepped out, Michael identified one of the few things he liked about Ana’s modest, cookie-cutter house. The back yard was surrounded by a little forest, behind which he could see, hidden among the shrubbery and foliage, a delicate little stream. He appreciated this sliver of nature in the midst of architectural conformity. “I like your yard,” he commented, taking a seat on a wicker chair.
“Me too,” Ana concurred. “It’s actually wetlands. We’re not allowed to change it in any way. Not even put a swing in the back yard for the kids. But I prefer it like this.” She sat across from him, at a safe distance. “Do you have children?”
“Are you married?” She recalled that at the Renaissance fair he had introduced Karen by name, without specifying the nature of their relationship.
Michael hesitated before answering her question. For a brief moment, he considered concealing from her the fact that he was sort of engaged to Karen. But, he thought, not telling Ana the truth could backfire. I might appear more threatening to her as a single man. “Not yet. But I’m engaged. To Karen, the woman you met the other day at the Renaissance Festival.”
“Congratulations,” Ana attempted to sound sincere. From his behavior, she had assumed that Michael was single. Do I want him to be single? she wondered, without carrying the idea to its logical conclusion.
“We may want to have kids some day,” Michael said in response to her earlier question. “But for now, we prefer to live more selfishly. You know, without taking on too many extra responsibilities.”
“It’s a good idea to take a few years to enjoy each other’s company.”
“Did you and your husband do that?”
“No, we had kids pretty young. Michelle was born a year after we got married, which happened while we were still both in college.”
“You decided to have kids young so that you’d have more energy for them, right?”
“Maybe. I’m not sure we thought about it at the time.”
“Do you regret it now?”
Ana didn’t know how to reply to such a personal question. She barely knew this man, yet he expected her to bare her soul to him. “There’s nothing to regret,” she said tensely.
He sensed a note of finality in her tone, like she was putting up her guard against him. Take it nice and slow; don’t push your luck, he advised himself. Shortly thereafter, Michael took his leave, not wishing to overstay his welcome.
“Thanks so much for dropping by. It was a pleasure talking to you,” Ana adopted a formal manner at the front door, as if the invisible neighbors could be potential witnesses to the young man’s unexpected visit. As she closed the door behind him, she didn’t know if her heart was pounding from excitement or trepidation.
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