“Hurry up. You don’t want to be late to your own opening.” Stephanie walked into the living room, fastening a gold locket around her neck. She looked over at Damon who was slouched on the sofa playing a game on his cell phone. His red and black paisley shirt was unbuttoned and his ribbed white undershirt clung to him.
“Give me a minute,” he said. A crashing sound came from his phone. “Geez.” He looked up at her. “I lost.”
“Good. We have to go.” She picked up her keys from the end table. “Why aren’t you anxious?”
Damon stood up. “I don’t have to be. I’ve done this a million times before.” He started buttoning up his shirt.
Stephanie put her hand on his hip and kissed him. “Well, this is my first opening, and I want to be on time. I watched this whole project come together. I’m so invested I might as well the artist.” She walked over to the door. “Let’s go.”
The gallery was packed. People of all ages lingered in front of Damon’s paintings with wine glasses cradled in their fingers and words of praise dripping from their lips. The canvases towered over them. His new paintings were too big to fit into his small garage studio. He’d spent months laying down layers of color, arranging fractured shapes, and forcing life into the paint in a rented warehouse. Every freckle and wrinkle was an expression of a life lived, a pain endured. Damon’s hurt was larger-than-life, and he was trying to paint it away. He was moving on. Stephanie was helping them do that. This show was helping him do that. He’d washed his heart break away with paint, and now he was showing it to everyone.
Damon couldn’t believe that at one time in his life he’d thought he had it all figured out. He thought he could weave a future from his dreams, but he was wrong. Dreams are intangible and abstract. They’re impossible to hold, and no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t make someone else do what he wanted.
“The show is brilliant. I love the scale of it,” a short brunette in a pillbox hat said to him.
“Thank you,” Damon said. That was all he said. At any other time, he’d be a master at working the crowd, but this show was too raw. Looking at the paintings all together brought back the memories of Lisa and the anger he felt then surged through him again like a current. So many people pulled at him trying to get his attention. It was his exhibition, so he needed to be available, but his feelings were rough and unpleasant.
Didn’t his work stand on its own? Why did they need a piece of him too? Especially when there was nothing else to give. Stephanie bounced around the room with a smile on her face. You would’ve thought that she was the artist. That was fine with Damon. She could deal with that stuff tonight. He threaded his way through the crowd with his head down, hoping no one will recognize him. He passed the neon clad DJ playing rhythmic electronica and headed out the back door into the alley. The sticky hot air gave no relief to the anxiety rising in his chest.
He sat on a wooden crate near the dumpster and looked at his shoes, the polished leather, the way the laces weaved in and out. He tried not to think about anything because that was easier. He was only outside for a few minutes when Stephanie appeared at the door. Tendrils of chestnut brown hair hung around her ears from her up-do.
“What are you doing out here?” She played with her necklace with her right hand and held the door open with her left. “Everyone’s looking for you.”
“I just need to get some air,” Damon said. He looked over at her, her pale face, her bright red lipstick.
“It’s so muggy out here. I don’t see how this counts as getting air. I’m already sweating, and I’ve only been out here for a second.”
She did have a point the August heat was relentless. “I know. I’m sweating too.”
She waved her hand for him to come inside. “Come inside before you ruin your shirt.”
Damon stood up and stretched. He stood up tall towering over Stephanie even in heels. “You’re right this is my show.”
“Good,” Stephanie said. “If I stay out here any longer, I’ll melt.”
He caught the door as she stepped away from it to go it back inside. He took a deep breath and plunged into the crowd. He only needed a little bit of time to warm up. Before he knew it, he was back to being himself. He must’ve spoken to every person in the place, giving insight about the paintings. His enthusiasm was infectious. Women swooned, and men wanted to be like him. All the while he only wanted to be somewhere else with someone else.
Stephanie slid out of her high heels and propped one foot up on her knee. “Those heels were killing me.”
Damon was tired too. He talked to so many people and tried to remember too many names to count. His brain was a tornado of thoughts. “It went well, right?”
She groaned as she started to rub the sole of her foot. “I think it went amazing. Did you sell anything?”
Damon nodded. “Six pieces.”
Stephanie laughed. “And you’re asking me if it went well? In one night you can make more than what I make in a month. Maybe I should become an artist.”
“It’s not as easy as it looks. I took a long time to get here.”
“Not that long,” Stephanie said. “You’re not even thirty yet.” She swung her feet around on the sofa and laid down. “I’m beat.” She closed her eyes. “I wish I could paint or draw or something. You’re so lucky. Accounting is boring. You have a show and people stand around telling you about how amazing your work is. No one ever does that for me. I should see how an accounting show goes over.” She let out a burst of laughter. “I can hang a bunch of spreadsheets on the walls.” She popped her head up from the sofa and looked at Damon. “Do you think people will be as impressed with my accounting skills as they were with your paintings?”
Damon smiled. “You are good.”
“Don’t I know it. I think everybody in town will come to my show.” She put her head back down on the sofa and closed her eyes. “I should go to bed,” she said, but she laid on the couch, unmoving.
Stephanie had saved Damon when Lisa broke his heart. She refused to let him wallow in self-pity. Every day she showed up at his door after work with a surprise: Lebanese takeout, a silly trinket she found in a shop that reminded her of him, a funny video she’d seen on Facebook. Slowly he realized that he’d taken her for granted all this time. No she wasn’t Lisa, and he hadn’t seen her in a dream, but she cared. After Lisa had thrown him away, that was all he needed.
Stephanie sat up on the couch. “I drank too much wine.” She put her head in her hands. “I really am going to bed this time.” She stood up and started to the bedroom. “Are you coming?”
“Later,” Damon said. “I need to wind down first.”
Stephanie nodded. “Okay. Don’t stay up too late.”
“I don’t have any place to be tomorrow.”
“I know, but I sleep better when you’re next to me.”
“I’ll be there soon.”
Stephanie walked down the hallway on wobbly legs and disappeared into the bedroom.
The dreams of Lisa had come back, corrupting his sleep. Whenever he drifted off her face would appear in his mind. In his dreams she was ethereal, but when he woke he felt the cold embrace of heartache again. How could he get over the woman that always haunted his sleep? Damon avoided sleep. He sat up late into the night watching videos online and playing computer games, his mind turning to mush as the hours crept by. Eventually, he’d slump over from exhaustion on the sofa too tired to make his way to bed. Most nights were like that now.
“You didn’t come to bed again last night?” Stephanie stated the obvious as she sat across from him sipping her morning coffee.
Damon shrugged and took a swig from his cup. “I got caught up in something.”
“Were you working?” She put her mug down on the kitchen table.
“Yeah. I was just sketching a few ideas.” When Damon was in the zone, he often worked through the night, but last night he didn’t. He sat on the couch lamenting about what his life wasn’t. His behavior was getting old, even to him, but he couldn’t seem to pull himself out of this funk. Stephanie didn’t have to know all of that though.
“Can I see what you did?”
“It’s not quite ready for prime time yet.” Damon took another sip of his coffee.
“That’s never stopped you from showing me your work before.”
“This one’s special. It needs time to marinade.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I’m intrigued.”
“You should be.”
“When can I see it?” Stephanie was always so excited about his work that it renewed the enthusiasm he had lost. No matter how rough a painting or sketch was, her eyes lit up with amazement when she saw it. She was supportive and attentive and should have been exactly what he wanted, but there was an emptiness in their relationship. Damon wondered if she noticed it too. He’d never asked because that wasn’t a question you ask ever, but he thought it every day, every hour, every second. He wished for something more. He shouldn’t have started this in the first place, but it was too late now. The longer he waited to end it, the later it got. He couldn’t walk away with clean hands now. He would be the guilty one. He would be the heart breaker this time.
“Soon,” he said.
Her hair smelled like orange blossoms. Her skin was smoother than the finest silk. She snuggled against him, breathing heavily. Her eyes moved back and forth beneath the lids. Occasionally, her fingers twitched.
Damon lay on his back looking at the ceiling. Another day had come and gone, leaving him with a hole in his heart. The neighbor’s dog barked. Wild and staccato, its voice broke through the darkness. Damon wondered if there was an intruder outside but didn’t care enough to check.
Stephanie groaned quietly disturbed by the sound and rolled over to the other side of the mattress. He exhaled, pushing the tension out through his body and got out of bed. He needed to work. He pulled on a pair of basketball shorts, slipped his feet into some flip-flops and tiptoed out of the bedroom. He closed the door as quietly as he could.
The studio was stuffy. A heavy dampness hung in the air. This space had been neglected for so long while he worked on his other project. He turned on the air conditioner, and it coughed out a burst of hot air before quickly cooling.
It wasn’t hard to start. Tonight he needed color, bursts of yellow and a scattering of red.
He didn’t want to paint her again, but she was all he could see. His mind was foggy with desire. “When will it stop,” he wondered to himself as the brush traced the line her jaw. Obsession was unbecoming, and he was not obsessed. He was processed by a spirit that needed to be seen. He could see her even if she did not realize.
He finished painting with the sunrise and stood over a portrait of Lisa even more exquisite than the one on the wall of the Liberty Bistro. Looking at that face again should have brought a resurgence of anger, but instead, it pricked his heart. He would have to keep this a secret from Stephanie. He would keep it a secret from everyone.
“You’re up early,” Stephanie said. Her freshly blow-dried hair framed her face. Her emerald green blouse was unbuttoned at the top exposing a hint of her lace camisole. Damon stood at the stove cooking eggs, over easy just the way she liked them. Slices of bread popped up from the toaster. Damon put two eggs on a plate along with two pieces of toast and set the plate down on the table in front of her.
“What did I do to deserve this?” She smiled with delight.
“I just thought it would be nice.” Damon fixed himself a plate and sat down at the table across from her.
“I thought we were celebrating something I’d forgotten.” Stephanie buttered toast.
“Nah, I just wanted to do something nice for you before you went to work this morning.”
Stephanie beamed. “Thank you. I’ve been wondering what’s been going on with you lately. We’ve been acting funny.”
“I had so much on my mind with getting ready for the exhibition and all. Things will start getting back to normal now.”
“Good,” Stephanie said. “But we’ve never had normal.”
Damon smiled. He knew he could make it work with her. He wasn’t going to let Lisa or the idea of her ruin his life any longer.