this is the first chapter of something which, for the longest time, I thought was really good. Then for a long time I thought it was complete crap. Now i don't know what i think.
A moveable trap
Always the other, I thought as we broke into Rafter’s black box of a studio. On the fire-escape, fifth floor, shabby part of town. Moonlight our only witness. His girl looked beautiful in it. Desert skin pressed against a filthy red brick wall, still moist from the rain, moist but not clean. Her back was up against it; tight jeans and a navy cotton shirt, certainly well stained by now. Rafter Sousa never allowed either of us near this hole. His artistic refuge, his muse asylum, his place to be important.
“Screwdriver,” I said.
“You’re good at this,” Maria whispered. “Break into apartments often?”
“Once a week into my own,” I admitted. “I always forget the key.”
Rundown, inimitable buildings all around; some covered in scaffolding, but there were no signs of renovation. Metallic power-lines engraved onto a dark sky. The noise of young boys laughing in the street, nothing to do with us; kicked cans, subway in the distance. Calm, beautiful night in another man’s part of town.
Maria looked exhilarated, youthful, innocent for a moment. I held her by the belt-noose in her jeans. Brushed the ink black hair from her eyes. Our mouths met with the frenzy of amateur criminals. Her lips were cold in the summer night; her back was dank. I took her again, by the waist this time, beneath the soft cotton cloth. I couldn’t tell which of us flinched first. Her, because she was kissing me outside Rafter’s studio. Or me, because I thought for an instant I saw him inside, waiting.
“This is wrong,” Maria said. “Right now it’s very wrong.”
This is how a penny on a golf-course feels, I thought.
“We should get inside before someone notices,” she said.
I got back to turning screws. Same repeating motions. Tried to ignore the memories of her skin. Couldn’t get ways to touch her out of my head.
Rafter Sousa was eccentric in subtle ways. He was an artist after things he couldn’t name. A miner of half-lit theories cut from the night. His faults seductive, themselves almost art.
Maria was a publicist; clever, audacious, always on the verge of tears or beauty. She would speak among strangers, give you a nickname and make it stick. Soft Moroccan skin with an American education.
I was a filler of empty spaces. Somewhere between her legs and his artistic expressions.
It was inevitable, this affair. Forever a step behind Rafter Sousa. I agreed with his aesthetic judgments, but only on the following day. If he’d found ways to love her it was only a matter of time before I would.
I could’ve been happy, under different circumstances. Penny in love, fucking some poor bastard’s girlfriend. But I respected Rafter too much, and feared him – the way boys feel about pirates and divorced men. A sense of rebellion tinged with indifference that seemed always distant and impractical. He smoked cigarettes but I would die of cancer.
The final screw slipped from her fingers and dropped like a pinball through the cracks. The money shot; the one that makes all the noise. Sudden screech of a window from above, like fingernails across the moon. A shadow peered down at us.
“That you, Sousa?”
I froze. Maria nudged my side, solicited me to be him.
“Yeah, it’s me,” I imitated. “Forgot my key.”
“At least it’s a nice night,” the shadow said.
“Night, Sousa. Try not to wake the whole fucking neighbourhood.”
I unhinged the window and we snuck inside. Couldn’t help but look back through the broken frame. We’d infiltrated Rafter’s most private space. Inside, dark and abandoned.
We still hadn’t called the police. It’d been three weeks, no word, not a trace. Rafter had disappeared before, often for days at a time. He’d wander back from some random town or mountain – unkempt, re-inspired, eager to draw, drink and make love.
“Artists have to vanish from the world to cherish it,” he once said.
But this felt different, ominous. It was the first time he’d disappeared since the beginning of my affair with Maria. I wasn’t sure if he knew just how far I had followed him.
Strange forms of disclosure haunted my dreams. I imagined Rafter confronting me in alleyways. I imagined Maria whispering, “it’s over.” Guilt and desire were a slip of the tongue for weeks. Maria and I spent anxious nights together, entangled. Our love-making had been reckless and imperfect. Addicted to the taste of weakness and remorse on each other’s lips.
We’d made love in their apartment, but tonight, in his studio, she was pushing me away.
“I should hate this place,” Maria said. “But it’s him. It’s cluttered and beautiful like him.”
Beautiful, in some heartbreaking way. Intense, self-indulgent, self-destructive. Altogether too dark, too fucking desperate. Abstract obsessions in art. Flesh coming a little too close to the candle-light. The drip and slow drying patterns of red wax. Beautiful maybe, but not essential. Not like shelter and security. Not like love.
“It’s not worth what it cost,” I said.
Her eyes had a way of turning, quick and decisive, like a moveable trap. She glanced sharply through built-up layers of the past. With Maria I could never tell the difference between reproach and invitation.
The funny part was that Rafter Sousa was never very good. He was brilliant, maybe, but never very good. He garnered an audience. His strange comics sold well enough to do it for a living. That should’ve been enough for someone who could barely draw. He wasn’t good enough to support a home and a separate studio. Maria was furious that he just went ahead and signed the lease. Unpaid bills and missed vacations.
“Art comes from brooding,” I remember him telling her in front of me. “I can’t brood properly with you around. I need a place to myself, something empty, no distractions.”
“You can’t buy brooding!” Maria said. “Besides, we have bills, love. We have a relationship, I think. You can’t keep ignoring these things and hiding behind art.”
Sound arguments, I thought. And yet he kept winning. She put up with wandering nights and neurotic behaviour. She put up with a studio they couldn’t afford and that she couldn’t touch because Rafter was convinced that he needed a dark, secluded place to accomplish his ideas. The artist in him would’ve withered without it, and in the end it was the artist she loved. She argued scathingly, convincingly, knowing full well it was only to concede.
I relished and resented that they felt able to bicker so openly in front of me. Manifestations of their difference broke like sudden thunder and I’d find myself caught in the fascinations of their storm. They were a couple that infuriated each other to the point of nudity and forgiveness. I’d stand there, awkward and intrusive, silently sipping tea while pondering things I’d say in his place.
Eventually Maria became his duty and the tiny studio became his home. At first she was convinced that he was cheating on her, using the studio as some excuse and cheap motel. But after enough weeks it didn’t matter. She’d lost him to something else, maybe another woman, probably just art. That’s when I kissed her. The day she realized she’d become someone’s obligation. She looked wretched with all that running mascara. I could taste it when I kissed her, and I remember it was perfect.
We glanced around the studio. Bookshelves, pencil-shavings, empty power-bar wrappers. A warm mini-fridge with Chinese take-out boxes and bottles of wine. The apartment reeked of him. The stench of soy-sauce and marijuana clinging to the carpet. Hints of masochism on the sheets. Sharp knives and an odd number of chopsticks in the drawer. There was a faint sense of hope in the scattering of things. A well lit table in the corner;the only light-bulb in the room. Everything else was darkness. Even the fridge remained black when you opened it.
On the glowing table was a manuscript for Rafter’s new graphic novel. Neither of us had seen it yet. His great project, his fixation of the last few months.
“His fucking mistress,” Maria said.
It looked clean, finished. Over three hundred pages of intricately crafted panels. Except, no words. No scribbled dialogue, no titles, nothing that remotely resembled language.
The graphic novels were Rafter’s creations – his ideas, his pictures, his story. In early drafts he’d include basic dialogue, just so I knew what he was after. But for the most part he left the writing to me, like he trusted me, or like it didn’t matter. It was always my name in small print below his.
You could see it in Rafter’s eyes and in the trembling of his lips. Wild but vague. Leaning there on the precipice of his unformed thoughts, that one perfect thing. I imagined a forgotten word on the tip of Rafter’s tongue. For weeks he didn’t dare kiss her for fear of swallowing and pushing it further away.
But that’s not right; I knew it wasn’t a word. Language is unredeemable, he said. Rafter was after something else. Remnants of our sunken ship.
“I’ll get it out,” he kept repeating, “I’ll tell it to jump, I’ll shove the fucker if I have to.”
I was drawn by his obsession, desperate to play a part. But Rafter had created his masterpeice without me. Death of a comic book writer. I continued to flip through the burnt sienna pages:
Confrontation of styles and figures in alleyways.
Conversations without words.
Moments of oil-based abstraction.
Furious bodies raging against claustrophobic quarters.
Human limbs trapped in paranoid pencil strokes.
The art was decent, but nothing that others couldn’t do better.
Maria and I sat down together at the table. We finally rested on page 88, centrepiece in this museum of misplaced shadows. I poured two glasses of wine.
“To the webs we weave,” I suggested.
She responded with a look of reproach or invitation. Tonight she’ll bite her lip in the room he denied us. Our glasses touched timidly. Exaggerated faltering in everything we did. The wine was strong. Warm, like the night.