He wished she wouldn’t block the light. If she had to stand before a window, why did it have to be the one he was trying to paint by? He explained — again — that this was the only window that faced north.
It was also the only one that gave the sea. She had to gaze at the waves. They filled her with joy.
He wasn’t interested in her joy. He needed to unravel the truth of color and shape. What else really mattered? He was on to something big now, he could feel it. He’d felt it before, and never quite captured it, never made it truly his. That’s why they were here, on this little turn of land, in a creaky house lent them by a very dear friend, so he could finally pin down what had eluded him for over ten years.
Poor Barth! All that frustration, all that perceived failure. The dear friend, Andy, was the one who kept his spirits afloat. Andy lived just down the road, in another creaky house. That he owned two homes in this remote corner of Maine’s impossible coast was his ex-wife’s doing. When their marriage frayed, she said they should live apart, but near one another. Hence the two homes. He’d picked them both up for a song, one easy to sing on his income. Andy was an investment broker before the housing bubble burst. He got out the year before.
“I took the money and ran like hell,” he liked to say. He was sixty-two, twenty years older than Barth. They’d met at the Y down in Portland, where Barth was teaching a painting class in an angry attempt to supplement their income. Andy sought to fill his leisure time with elegant pursuits.
Nina, aside from standing at the window and blocking Barth’s light, worked part-time in an antiques store in the tiny town of Malberne, where people from Boston came for long weekends to get that particularly rustic Yankee charm only Maine could offer. The owner of the store, Dorothy Blankenship, was eighty-four years old, widowed, cheerful, and foul-mouthed. Nina was forty-five, which wasn’t significant in any way except that she was older than Barth, something which annoyed him in a way he could never articulate. Nina didn’t swear, of which Dorothy disapproved.
Nina loved her job. She bought beautiful pieces for pennies on the dollar because Dorothy was only in business to keep herself amused. Her husband had left her a little something, which Nina learned one day was a large sum. Dorothy had an office in a corner of the shop, and when she was seeing the dentist one morning, Nina tidied the papers on the charming drop front secretary in case someone came in and wanted a closer look. On top was a quarterly report from an investment company in New York stating that the combined value of Dorothy’s mutual funds were just over four million dollars. Nina didn’t know what the husband had done for a living. She’d assumed he’d been a fisherman, because that line of work went so well with the rocky landscape and abysmal weather.
In the four months they’d lived in the house, she’d brought in a brass fire screen, a four-poster bed that groaned every time one of them turned over — never mind the racket when they actually made love, which wasn’t often — a round table with an elegant inlay of circles and squares in a dark cherry tone, and a stunning ceramic pitcher on which a seascape had been hand-painted in blue. Barth called her a magpie, and said she was cluttering up the place. Another thing he insisted on besides sole ownership of the window was a Spartan environment, free of distractions.
“Don’t you see that I need to concentrate?” he asked.
She’d gotten good at humoring him. Maybe it was self-defense, given what she’d had to forgo. She’d been a guidance counselor at a high school in Portland. Young faces, bright eyes, all that energy and angst lit her up. She loved them all — each and every one. Was she compensating for having no children of her own? Maybe, but her lazy uterus had ultimately done her a favor, since Barth would have been a terrible father. The only thing he could nurture was his own sense of failure.
But that wasn’t fair. There’d been years when he tried to comfort her when she failed to conceive. He said two were a family, a good family at that. He’d grown up with three brothers and two sisters, a house full of noise and misery, hatred and resentment, never able to have his own space. That’s why he became an artist — the lure of escape.
The escape became a trap. His ambition sucked all the pleasure from his work. He wanted recognition, praise, acclaim. Nina said he should look within himself for these things. Once he found them, the world would, too.
Her words angered him. She didn’t understand. She wasn’t an artist.
“True. But I know what it is to want something,” she said.
She took care of everything. Groceries, cooking, cleaning, laundry, paying the bills, reminding him to take his vitamins, rubbing the knots out of his neck, taking his detailed list of paint supplies all the way down to Portland, a two-hour round trip, and waiting while the flaky teenage boy behind the counter found everything on it. She stopped at the bakery and bought him one of his favorite eclairs, although he’d declared that sugar was evil. As she expected, he ate it with delight.
Nina didn’t have a cell phone. Barth said they caused brain cancer. The house had no telephone, either. Once a week she called her mother from Dorothy’s store. Nina’s mother lived in California. She wanted Nina to move there, too.
“That leech is bleeding you dry,” her mother said.
Nina said she was happy with him.
“You’re just putting a good face on things.”
“Well, isn’t that what people do?”
Nina’s mother had endured Nina’s father for decades until one day she said she’d had enough of long cold winters and followed the sun all the way west. She invited him to come, if he wanted to, but things were going to be strictly on her terms. He thought it over. He decided to stay in Maryland, where Nina had grown up. He’d gotten involved with a woman at the gym he went to. He thought he could make things work with her.
“Until your definition of ‘best’ changes,” her mother said. In the background a gull screeched. Nina saw it rise and fall over the surf. She longed suddenly for hollow bones.
“Everything’s fine. I just called to check in,” Nina said.
“Let me know when you’re ready to check out. I’ll even buy your ticket. You can be here tomorrow.”
Then her mother had to go because she was meeting a neighbor for lunch, and then later she was going to the symphony with a man whose cousin played first violin.
“There’s a joke in there somewhere,” Nina said.
“Oh, you. Take care of yourself. And tell what’s-his-name to lighten up.”
Dorothy returned from a second numbing trip to the dentist. The crown she’d had installed didn’t fit properly. The dentist was a fucking idiot, in her opinion. A major douche-bag, in fact.
Nina digested her slurred commentary. She despised Novocain, herself. She avoided the dentist by keeping her teeth and gums in excellent condition. She’d recently bought an electric toothbrush that emitted a high-pitched whine Barth couldn’t tolerate, so she brushed over the kitchen sink, at the opposite end of the house from their bedroom.
Dorothy looked hard at Nina. She asked what was wrong.
Nina just shook her head, and dusted everything in sight.
That night the air was delightfully warm. The sand was smooth. And the surf! So mesmerizing to watch it rise and fall. The full moon bathed everything in the most delicious silver light.
In the morning, she checked her shoes. No sand. The calendar over the stove in the kitchen said the moon was in her first quarter.
Nina brought Barth his coffee. He sat at his easel.
“Finally,” he said.
“It only brews so fast.”
“No. That.” He pointed to the canvas. The painted scene was the one Nina had walked in the night before, the rocky shore replaced.
“You changed it,” she said.
“Just now. The rocks were wrong.”
They’d drawn him, in the beginning. He loved them because they were unforgiving. She was there, too, her back to him, facing the sea. She knew herself from the green sweater she always wore, and the long braid of red hair down her back.
“You don’t like people in your pictures,” she said.
“You’re not people.”
“I mean you’re a part of me.”
“Just not a person.”
“Why do you have to be like this, right when I’m having a breakthrough?”
She kissed the top of his wild hair and left.
That night she lifted her arms to the full moon. She wasn’t puzzled. She understood. She had learned to slide from one world to another, and that her presence in this other world was moving Barth forward. She was moved forward, too, because she could watch the waves for hours, learning their language, trusting their voice. And they trusted her, too, though she never spoke a word.
At the store, Dorothy watched her over the top of bifocals. Nina flitted about with her feather duster. She caught Dorothy’s gaze and stopped.
“What?” she asked.
“You made up.”
“What do you mean?”
“You and that…man you live with.”
“We didn’t fight.”
“Of course not.”
“Darling, forgive me, but you’re full of shit.”
Nina patted Dorothy on the shoulder. She was grateful for her spirited concern. She’d thought before that Barth might enjoy her company, if he’d ever consent to seeing anyone but Andy.
That evening Barth was elated. Everything was coming together.
“A woman watching the sea. What could be more evocative than that?” he asked.
“A man and a woman watching the sea.”
Her comment didn’t darken his mood. He’d been over to Andy’s for a drink or two before Nina returned. Andy was excited by the turn of events. He thought there might be a collector he could talk to when the painting was done.
“And when will that be?” Nina asked.
“Any day now. I can feel it.”
His reputation was made. Return hung in a Chelsea gallery only a couple of weeks before it caught the eye of a wealthy Frenchman. He understood it, he said. The woman, looking back over her shoulder with the smallest smile, if it were even a smile, more like an attitude, much like the Mona Lisa, no?
Barth agreed, though in that moment he couldn’t recall the Mona Lisa. He could see only Nina. He decided at the last minute that she should glance behind her, so the viewer could see the hunger in her eyes. The hunger, though, was all in his. He accepted her departure now. At first he hated her for abandoning him at a crucial moment. Then he despaired. He thought all the time about where she could have gone. She’d kept her plans to herself. Neither her mother nor Dorothy had had the slightest clue. They accused him of driving her away, or possibly even doing her in. The police had been all around the place. She’d taken nothing with her. No wallet, no clothes, not even her electric toothbrush. Did he have any idea where she might be? He had none. When they left, he stood at the window, willing the rocks to become sand, and for that sand to yield footprints.