It was late, two a.m. when Hank finished a long session with a canvas. The painting had gone well. For months, his creativity had been missing in action, and then, the morning before, it was back, a high tide rushing over the wall of his resistance and drowning it. He stepped out into the Greenwich Village night shimmering with the lights of Manhattan in the distance. Tired, exhausted, yes, but also intoxicated with the exhilaration of the work. It was pointless for him to try for bed. It would be hours before he could sleep.
The excitement from the session was in his footsteps. He didn’t exactly stroll but walked briskly over one cobblestone street after another until he reached Albert’s, a cozy little bar only a few blocks from his studio. It had become a favorite haunt of his since he moved into the Village.
He went down the stairs and through the cellar door and into the tavern. A few regulars still hung around, some listening to the piano, some lightly filling the room with their conversations of broken dreams and false hopes. A thin haze of cigarette smoke from an earlier crowd lingered in the air. Pushing through the fog and making his way to the bar, he gave a nod to the only waitress working the room. She was the owner of the establishment and her name was Alice. She smiled a glad-to-see-you-back.
Above the bar hung one of his paintings, an oil dark brown, blue and green of a ferry heading in from Staten Island under a light purple sky, the first one he sold after he settled in the Village. The bartender said, “I’ll make a fresh pot of coffee.” Rudy, a middle-aged man with a bit of a paunch, lived with Alice, had been with her for over ten years.
Rudy started the coffee and continued to dry the freshly washed glasses, facing Hank as he readied them for the next night’s patrons. “You been away for a couple of months.” It was more of a question than a statement. “Duchess was getting worried.” Duchess was his nickname for Alice.
“Haven’t been able to get it up for months,” Hank said. “That is, until yesterday.”
“Well, I’m here to tell you that you look like your old Hank self.”
“I go into the studio yesterday morning and boom, I’m back. Fifteen hours later, and you know what? I can’t figure where the time went. I haven’t been this psyched and ready for trouble for quite some time.”
“When I get going, I go sometimes for days before a break. It’s like it’s raining and I don’t want the rain to stop. ‘Bring it on,’ I say. ‘Cause I know that if I quit I may never get that hard-on back. The muse, she don’t let you screw around. You’re either hers or you’re not. And, if you’re not, she won’t give you the time of day.”
Rudy sat a mug of hot coffee down in front of Hank, then left the artist to his thoughts. He knew his regulars. Some liked to sit and throw their troubles out and see where they landed. Others, and Hank belonged to this clan, liked to sit alone with their drinks and take things in.
Hank faced the woman at the piano finishing her set, doing a last song for the night. He had not seen her in the bar before. He enjoyed her playing enough to drop his thoughts about the session and concentrate on the music. It was Cole Porter coming from the piano. He wasn’t sure which Cole Porter but he was sure that it was one of his compositions. He had taken to the composer the way some men take to the sea.
Just the sound of one of his songs and he was off to his days in Paris. He and Cosette strolling along the banks of the Seine, families walking their dogs, mothers pushing strollers, boys chasing frisbees, kites rising above the landscape that was the City of Lights. The leaves falling on a perfect day. A man could drown in a memory like that.
Hank shook the memories away. It was time to let go of Paris. And Cosette. Three years was way too long to grieve for the loss of a marriage.
The woman at the piano looked through the dissipating smoke and over his way and smiled. He smiled back. Playing the last notes of the song, she said her goodnights to her audience.
The black cocktail dress eased her way across the room and next to him. “Scotch,” she said. Rudy nodded at her request. She leaned over and whispered into Hank’s ear, “Do you think people go to heaven? I mean, if they commit suicide?”
“When I do myself in,” he mumbled, then a little clearer, “I’ll send a message in a bottle back to you.”
“Think that will be any time soon?”
“Certainly hope not. But you never can tell,” he said, pulling a little away from her.
The pianist gave Hank that kind of look that people have when they come to a fork in the road and haven’t a clue which road to take other than flipping for it or using an eeny-meeny-miny-moe to make a choice.
The two went quiet, sitting at the bar next to each other, each settling into his thoughts, each losing themselves in their own subterranean world, each sipping his drink, each sitting on the brink of something about to happen, each waiting.
She took her lipstick out of a small, black purse and moistened her lips, touching them lightly with color. He watched, fascinated at the obscene thing she did with her mouth. Then she finished her scotch.
She leaned over toward his ear again and whispered another thing, a tinge of Brooklyn in her voice. “Want to do it?”
The soft, husky voice offering the invitation sent a thrill surging through his body. He wasn’t tired anymore, and Cosette was no longer anywhere to be found in his thoughts. If he wanted to move on, this was his chance. And it might be his last one, the grip of his Parisian life continuing to hold him with its vise.
“Is that an offer I can’t refuse?” he said, his face almost touching her face, his breath joining the rhythm of her breath.
“Why don’t you follow me and find out?”
She gestured to Rudy, and he passed her coat over to her. She started for the door, then turned to Hank and gave him her best Mae West, “You coming, big boy?”
He pulled himself off his stool and joined her, still hesitant but moving quickly to a decision.
Wrapping her arms around his, she kissed him, pushing her lips into his as if it was her last kiss. It was a Circe of a kiss that would make a man forget all his former loves and long for the bliss of it when it was a kiss no more. It was a deep kiss.
Her lips released his and her arms dropped to her side. He took several breaths to catch his breath.
“Hank,” he said, unable to come up with anything else to say. Her kiss had sucked all the other words from his vocabulary. He wasn’t even sure who this Hank was anymore.
“Hank?” she said, pulling her coat over her slender body.
“It short for Henri. I don’t like Henri but my mother did.”
Her face now had a question on it.
“She wanted an artist for a son. She chose Henri. Matisse’s first name.”
“Matisse, huh? Maybe you can paint my portrait. All in red and yellow. I like those colors.”
The two of them made it to the tavern door. Hank wasn’t sure how he got there but there he was.
“”You’ll be my first Henri,” she said.
He went to pull the door open and someone in the bar heard her say, “I have a good feeling about this. An old black magic kind of feeling.” Then she hummed the first bars of “Where or When.” The door closed behind them.
She looked up at the New York City night sky. Hank’s eyes followed her eyes.
“It’s going to be a bewitching, bothering and bewildering night.”
“What makes you say that?” He took her hand.
“’Cause the moon is full and it’s our time to fly,” she said, then she laughed. It was a laugh that said something is coming. She reached down and took his hand and felt his glove.
“You’re not trying to be Michael Jackson, are you?”
“No,” he answered, still struggling for words.
“Even so, maybe we can do some moon walking ourselves tonight.”
They began their walk back to the apartment above his studio. Hank had known love but he had never known sex. Least not the wild, uncontrollable sex they had that night. And the next night. And the night after that.
He was twenty-five; she was thirty. Within a week, she was his model. Within two weeks, they were living together. Within a month, they were married. Then the minute after they said their I-dos, he knew they had made a mistake. She knew it too. But neither of them were cowards. There was no going back. For better or worse, they had crossed their Rubicon.