I woke with a start but lay still, waiting for my quickened breathing to slow, the hairs on my arms to settle. Crisp new celadon-colored cotton sheets rough against naked legs. I fell asleep while reading. Draped over my shoulders a shawl clung like a needy boyfriend. The down-filled comforter wound around my torso, trapped me inside its cocoon. A hint of lavender linen spray, aroused by perspiration, lingered in the creases of my pillowcase. Except for Colin’s steady breathing beside me, the bedroom was silent.
In my dream, Dan and I were arguing as we walked down a long, narrow dimly lit hallway. Every inch of wall covered with pictures painted in the Dutch style, from a time when merchants demonstrated their accomplishments by having portraits painted. Simple dignified poses captured the Puritan mood. Daunting faces hung so near one another, they might have been standing shoulder to shoulder. Their eyes watched when I leaned close to Dan. His skin smelled of fresh cedar, single malt Scotch, and cigars.
“If there’s one thing a person should expect from someone who loves him, it is honesty.” In my dream, Dan repeated the words from a recent conversation.
“Interesting that you should mention the truth as it looks like I didn’t get much of it over Xmas,” Dan said last time we spoke. “Just before she flew back to the south of Spain, Melissa announced we were finished.”
It must have been lousy for Dan to learn that Melissa was leaving him for good. Even though they didn’t live together, even though they didn’t live in the same city half the time, a long-distance relationship at its best, they’d been partners for fifteen years.
“This was after a great holiday together,” he said. “But she lied to me right through the Christmas holidays. Every time she looked me in the eyes and whispered I love you.”
In my dream, I’d been trying to convince Dan we should become lovers. But the word husband stood in his way.
My husband set the parameters of our marriage long ago. A quick glance at the arsenal of drugs in his medicine chest revealed his fondness for pills. But Colin’s conviction that pills could cure just about anything stopped short of swallowing the little blue ones he called VIGARO. His personal pharmacy ensured his isolation. Colin never really liked sex, and now he was way past his expiry date in the bedroom. Not that our friends would be convinced about that. Knowing he’d never been faithful distorted their point of view. But Colin’s infidelity had little to do with sex. When Colin met Sharon for drinks or a nice dinner, she feigned interest in his stories about corporate takeovers. In return, he flattered her. Egos were stroked more often than sexual organs. Sharon’s mother must have told her the same thing mine taught me. A woman knew more about her own body than most men ever would. I tolerated their affair. And somewhere along the way, I learned to appreciate the particular ease associated with a loveless marriage to a rich and powerful man.
But this yearning for Dan introduced a new complication. It forced me to admit I was not free. My husband had abandoned me long ago. And, for the first time, I faced real loneliness.
According to Dan, news that his relationship with Melissa was over came without warning. Everything appeared to be going well. That was obvious when we met at Jen’s for a New Year’s Day lunch. I greeted Dan with a kiss. And later, my back against the country kitchen pine cabinet, inched over until I leaned against him. Using my index finger to outline the design encrypted around his chest pocket, I complimented him on his new shirt. His reaction was reserved. Other than saying it was a gift, he barely responded. Focusing on Melissa, Dan talked about the private party they’d had the night before. A passion-filled celebration shared by the two of them; clothing optional. They both looked happy. He stood tall and said he’d taken his Cialis like a good boy. He boasted she was pleased with his performance. Cialis, it sounded like a suggestion to See Alice. Lucky girl; I wished my name was Alice.
I’d danced with Dan at a party a couple of weeks before that. He took my arm and said, “If you don’t mind Amy, this time I’m going to lead.” He pulled me closer and said, “You’ve been dancing with the same partner far too long. It’s time you let someone do something about that.” He was just flirting. But it was the most romantic thing anyone had told me for a long time.
Before lunch was served on New Year’s Day, Melissa stood near the crackling fire in the living room filled with the smell of burning cherry wood. She wore a white silk blouse and a long purple and grey tartan skirt, the purple the color of amethyst, the grey the color of charcoal, the reflection of flames flickering across the shiny satin. Her skirt hiked in a jaunty fashion on one side showed off new leather boots bought on a recent trip to Paris. She talked about Ramon, the boy in the south of Spain who did chores for her. When asked, she insisted she did not have sex with Ramon. Said she had Dan for sex.
“But what do you do for sex when Dan is not around?” Jen could always be counted on to perk up a conversation. The perfect hostess, Jen was passing around a plate of stuffed potato skins. Ignoring the calorie-rich appetizers, long-married women dressed in outfits of crushed burgundy velvet and moss-colored wool drew closer to Melissa. Drawn like moths to a flame, they longed for something unknown in her answer.
“I masturbate,” Melissa held her right hand at an odd angle in front of her, as if to provide proof. “But not as much as I used to.”
“You should use a vibrator,” Jen said.
“I’m afraid I’d like it too much,” Melissa said. “If I got used to it, I’d expect the same pleasure from a man. And that would interfere with our sex.”
“You can use it when you’re having sex with a man,” Jen said.
“Yes.” My heart was pounding fast. “You look up with a smile on your face and say, ‘feel free to join in at any time.’”
The women laughed. But it was a vivid picture of ecstasy that made my face flush.
When Melissa and Dan stood next to each other, the sexual attraction was palpable. During last summer’s heat wave, it was impossible for a dozen industrial fans blowing full blast to cool the community hall where Jen’s art was being exhibited. Rather than glasses of wine, Melissa, Dan and I clutched plastic bottles of ice cold water. While we chatted, water droplets formed on the outsides of our bottles. They clung for an instant and then began to trickle down. Dan pressed his dripping bottle against his forehead and said, “Hot.” He rolled it against his cheek, neck and exposed chest, each time repeating the word, “Hot.” Melissa and I mimicked him. We giggled and hissed until our conversation took on the steamy intensity of a threesome. Hot. Hot. Hot.
News their relationship was over made me realize I’d always been attracted to him. We first met at a one of Jen’s dinner parties. When he sat beside me, he commented on the beauty of her elaborate table centre. My eyes grazed the decoration and then focused on him. He was handsome. His voice resonated with the deep muscular tones of someone who sang bass notes. He worked in the film industry, which I found exotic. His graying dark hair, neatly tied into a ponytail at the nape of his neck, added to his allure. If pressed, I would have confessed that the flinch in my chest had nothing to do with the number of candles entwined among the fresh arbors that ran down the centre of Jen’s antique harvest table. I tried to regulate my breathing. And hoped to appear less interested in seeking his attention than the woman sitting on his other side who announced she had solved the problem of unsightly panty lines, by not wearing underwear.
The wine flowed that evening. Some time after the fresh garlic soup and the New Zealand lamb served with asparagus from Mexico, a platter of nuts and figs and cheeses was passed around. Dan plucked a ripe fig from the plate. He kept it for a moment in his right palm as if weighing its potential. He held it between his long thick forefingers and thumbs, and then split the flesh wide open. He inhaled its perfume, caressed its soft rose and tan fruit, and paused before he scooped out the pulp with his tongue. He smiled, said it was delicious and suggested I try one. My mouth became as moist as an eager bride on her wedding night. Aware of the acute longing between my legs, I swallowed hard.
I’d always ignored those feelings. But too restless to get back to sleep now, I thought about the way Dan crept into my dream. Dream dictionaries say dreams with portraits forecast deception, warn that pleasure will be illusive. And no matter how attractive he found me, despite my interest in him, Dan wanted to be free of deception. Refusing to get involved with anyone who could not commit full-time, he turned me down.
To show their success, rich merchants commissioned portraits of their wives. Unremarkable women dressed in black, row upon row of resigned faces bordered by broad white ruffs. I studied these forlorn women enclosed in frames, each of them as untouchable as a still life. And I recognized them. They were portraits of me.