Forty miles southeast of Philadelphia, Michael owned a large Dutch Colonial house on twenty acres with a pool and private beach access, which he’d bought cheap as an investment when its last occupants, a three-wife, fifteen-child family, were raided in a government crackdown on polygamy. He lived in New York, so it sat empty most of the time.
One summer an artist whose paintings he had collected, Juan, called and asked to stay in it. He’d lost his studio space and had a deadline coming up. Michael looked at the oil painting by Juan on his library wall, of a man pruning roses while lava spilled out of a volcano in the background.
“Someone’s already there till the end of next month. Let me think, because she’s got to focus and I told her she’d have privacy. But you’re married now, right? If you and your husband slept in the guest apartment on the third floor and left her alone, it’s got a separate entrance and that could work.”
* * *
Juan and Kyle showed up the next afternoon in a 1979 MG coupe convertible with bucket seats and a sun-bleached Naugahyde interior. Juan’s thick black bangs usually fell in a curtain over his eyes, but the drive had blown them into a mess of layered chevrons. He lit a cigarette and felt a tightness in his smoothly shaved chest. The final mile of the trip—on a private dirt road checkered with potholes, past a dried-up pond and grove of bony poplars—had covered him in a thin layer of dust, and he looked like a bronze statue coming to life.
Slumped low in the passenger seat, feet propped against the cracked dashboard, Kyle held a wedge of turkey ham and removed his aviator sunglasses. He turned down the radio’s throbbing dance music.
“We’re supposed to mow the lawn?” He panned left to right. “It’s not a lawn. It’s a field.”
“And clear the roof gutters of leaves and debris.” Juan pulled the loose emergency brake until he felt a faint click. “They get clogged in the rain and erode the tiles.”
“Jesus.” Kyle massaged the back of his neck, squinting at the roof. “If one of us has to climb a ladder up there, I don’t know if you know I get vertigo. It’s why I never use escalators. What are the girl’s jobs?”
“Does she cook?”
“But we can’t talk to her.”
The two men got out and stretched, Juan olive-skinned, long and lean, with the high cheekbones and dark, deep-set eyes of a silent film star, Kyle shorter, fair and sandy-haired, like a mature schoolboy with full, sensuous lips. They were both thirty-six years old. A bald eagle circled overhead, looking for slow rodents in the tall grass.
Kyle slid the turkey ham into a Ziplock. “The third floor windows don’t have curtains. Light’s going to flood our room in the morning.”
“We’ll get on a country rhythm,” Juan said. “Go to bed at sunset and wake up at dawn.” He’d thought bald eagles were extinct. Had the future predicted by the popcorn epics of his childhood, in which scientists could use DNA samples to bring species back, arrived?
“I could write a note to the girl and see if she cooks.”
Juan dropped his cigarette and crossed the driveway to a set of metal stairs zigzagging up to the third floor guest entrance. He paused on the lanai to catch his breath. Inside, he passed through a low-ceiling parlor and lower-ceiling kitchen to a bedroom with jungle print wallpaper and a four-poster brass bed, Indian rug, mahogany dresser, roll-top desk, and hourglass vanity, the kind of Victorian time capsule that excited and terrified small children.
The problem with the future wasn’t just how it changed you, how it replaced what worked with what didn’t, but that it kept becoming the present, like magic in reverse. He started to unpack.
Kyle walked in. “You’re taking the top drawer?”
Juan scooped up his row of shirts and moved them to the bottom of the dresser.
“I’ll bet this place has lead paint,” said Kyle. “An old building where no one lives year-round, there’s probably asbestos behind the walls. And black mold.”
“If you want to complain all month about a free beach house, don’t.”
“It’s not free when we have chores.”
Juan had brought too few cigarettes in order to force himself to smoke less. The rug featured a daisy chain of elephants in bright red pashminas, trunks and tails tied together. He tried to count them but lost his starting place.
“My friend got scratched by a bat in a house like this last year and had to get rabies shots in her stomach,” Kyle said. “I mean the needle was three inches long. Bats can slip through any opening, no matter how small, by liquefying their bones.”
“That’s not true.”
“I think it might be.”
“And doctors don’t give you rabies shots in the stomach anymore. They do it in the shoulder.”
Juan lay back on the bed and ignored his rapid heartbeat. In one version of the future he would find love and get out of debt and stop lying to others to get what he wanted. In another, he would die alone, forgotten, broke and hungover in Kensington, the heroin capital of the Delaware Valley.
“I should take a shower,” he said.
“Want me to join you?”
Juan looked out the window. The bald eagle swooped down from the sky at a kite string angle, then rose up with a wild hare pumping its long legs and short arms.
“No,” he said.
* * *
Juan didn’t make any progress on his painting during the first few days. It was for a fall show called “Then Everything Changed” at the Ortlieb Gallery, one of the few Philadelphia spaces of which non-Philadelphians had heard. Mornings he sat in the detached four-car garage with a roll of crepe paper and a box of colored pencils, sketching ideas he later rejected as too easy or too hard. After a heavy lunch of turkey ham and farmer’s cheese, he’d move to the bedroom and continue making no progress until evening, when Kyle would show up and put on loose silk pajamas and play Majorcan club music and bop around the room talking about the hot Midwestern transplants who got wasted mid-week at Woody’s, his neighborhood bar. Eventually Kyle would unbutton his top and scissor his legs back and forth on the bed while Juan sat at his computer reading about the Black Plague, Chernobyl, and the Chicago fire of 1871, and the Dust Bowl, Great Influenza, and Hurricane Katrina, always one or two internet searches away from the perfect subject.
* * *
Kyle saw Haley first, at the beach, piling stones into the belly of her t-shirt, which sagged below her waist so that her bare legs appeared to grow out of thin air.
“Good rocks around here?” he asked, rubbing coconut sunscreen onto his round, freckled shoulders. She was cute in the tomboyish way that semi-straight guys liked— brown bobbed hair, coltish body, cleft chin and bambi eyes.
Kyle tucked the tube of cream into the sideband of his peach swim thong, Tan lines, whether from bronzing spray or real, weren’t sexy.
“I don’t know what your jobs are, but we’re going to hire someone to do yard work before we leave. You could split the cost with us.”
She didn’t answer, just squatted down and splashed small handfuls of water onto her arms and face, as if having to conserve it, like someone at a desert oasis.
Kyle described this encounter later in the garage, while Juan did bench presses. The girl was either retarded, Kyle said, or on heavy drugs, in which case she should share instead of hoarding the fun. The garage had stuffed animals, a ten-gallon deep-fryer, softball equipment, a crank-operated ice cream maker, and a ready-to-assemble outdoor gazebo still in its packing crate, everything needed to run a small county fair. It was ninety degrees with the doors up and windows open.
“You’re not supposed to talk to her,” Juan said.
Kyle looked at the mirrored back of an aluminum BabyKakes sign propped against a pristine push-mower, and pulled his socks up to his knees.
“There’s a ton of algae in the water,” he said. “Looks like a big brain floating offshore. No way I’m swimming in it.”
“Did you hear me? Leave the girl alone!”
Raising his hands palms out, Kyle made an Easy, tiger face, and moved around to the foot of the weightlifting bench, blocking the overhead light.
“You’re tense these days, you know that? In general you’ve become a very tense person.”
“Michael asked us not to bother her, so we need to respect that.”
“I know what you need. To relieve your tension.”
With the last of his strength, Juan pushed the barbell up and into its cradle. His arms fell limp to the floor.
“Do you know what it is?” Kyle asked.
The ceiling rafters seemed to expand and contract as nausea and muscle exhaustion and heat fatigue and anxiety hit Juan in waves, like he’d eaten a burrito in the middle of an uphill run on acid.
“I said do you know what it is?”
“What what is?”
“What you need to relieve your tension.”
“I need to finish my painting.”
Kyle shook his head. “Sex. You need sex. And you need it with me.”
With his stomach in turmoil, Juan lay still and thought about the Haitian earthquake.
“We talked about the situation before we got here.”
“The situation is ridiculous.”
“You’re getting a vacation out of it.”
“I could be at Woody’s right now with a bunch of ripped young Vikings instead of playing your beard—for what, exactly? I have needs and you have needs. There’s no one here but the girl, and it’d be good if she saw us together, anyway.”
A hundred and fifty-nine thousand dead. A quarter million houses destroyed. Thirty thousand commercial and public buildings damaged. People all over the world hadn’t known Haiti could be so poor, and aid and volunteers had flowed in, and global consciousness had been raised. But had the earthquake changed anything? Had poverty there or elsewhere ended? Had the line between the First World and Third World blurred? Following the Holocaust everyone had said never again, but then came the Khmer Rouge, and then Rwanda, and soon—
“Is it you think I’m ugly?” Kyle asked.
“No, of course not.”
Before running into him at the Reading Terminal Market a month earlier, Juan hadn’t seen Kyle since high school. Neither had aged much, but it took a few minutes for them to recognize each other in the small group watching a blender demonstration. Kyle launched into his romantic problems (“It all boils down to men in this city wanting commitment,”) and professional limbo (“Restaurant managers will fire you now for doing the tiniest bump of coke on the job, no trial, no jury,”) and housing issues (“I’ve been staying with friends, but futons are bad for my back,”). Juan nodded and got an idea.
“Do you think I’m attractive?” Kyle pushed his blond hair into a cologne ad pompadour and dropped his chin to look at Juan with a supplicating, expectant expression.
“Sure, but I’m not attracted to you.”
“You think I’m attractive but aren’t attracted to me? That doesn’t make any sense. It’s like saying you love pizza but don’t want to eat it.”
“There are a lot of attractive people in the world I’m not attracted to.”
“Don’t be semantical.” Kyle widened his stance until his legs touched Juan’s. “Sex is a passageway for creative energy. It’s why your painting’s not going well. Block off sex and nothing can get through, in or out.”
He got down on his knees and placed his hands on Juan’s legs and rotated his thumbs in quarter-sized circles at mid-thigh, moving slowly upward.
“You need to relax.”
Juan exhaled loudly and sat up and excused himself to the guest apartment to read about Castle Bravo, the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the United States. It had landed on Bikini Atoll in 1954, appeared to military observers like a second sun, irradiated hundreds of Marshall Islanders, and spread fallout across the planet. Yet it, too, hadn’t changed anything. People watched Castle Bravo as if it were an Olympic event. Nobody responded like Robert Oppenheimer had to the first atomic bomb test, the Trinity explosion in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, by quoting the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Juan smoked a cigarette that tasted like fresh cedar, took two antacid tablets, and closed his computer. Besides crickets and the muffled metronome of a grandfather clock from the floor below, the room was silent. In college he’d seen Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus for the first time, and spent months studying its calm depiction of a man leading his horse and cart along a hilly seaside road while Icarus, having flown too close to the sun, fell into the water behind him. Juan updated its theme and color palette for his final portfolio, a series of paintings that represented people absorbed in minor tasks while large-scale tragedy happened nearby. Beginning at his senior show, he sold everything he’d done to collectors and galleries, and was praised by many critics (“profound juxtapositions of the mundane and the terrible”), and dismissed by a few (“like CGI mockups for bad disaster movies”). Commissions for similar works poured in, and he was content and busy and enjoyed a growing reputation. When he turned thirty, however, his enjoyment faded and he began to worry that he was repeating himself. Friends assured him that artists really only had one subject, and that consistency wasn’t the hobgoblin of little minds, but rather the sign of great ones, and he half-believed them until one afternoon in January he had a panic attack in his studio and fell and knocked out a front tooth and decided he could never again portray someone engrossed in an ordinary task against a backdrop of catastrophe.
He didn’t know what to paint instead and months passed without him touching his brushes. His bank account dwindled, and in April he had unexpected legal expenses, so by June, when the Ortlieb Gallery promised him $50,000 for a painting in his old style, he felt like an aging, bankrupt middleweight offered a big payday to fight the new world champion, unable to say no.
Kyle still wasn’t back at two a.m. Juan sent him a text message, rested his head on his arms, and closed his eyes.
* * *
A knock on the door late the next morning got Juan up. Haley introduced herself (“like the comet, but spelled with only one ell,”) and asked if she could borrow his car to go to the supermarket because it took forever to get to town by bus. She wore purple flip-flops, striped baby blue board shorts, a beaded onyx necklace, and an oversized t-shirt that hung off her left shoulder.
Juan apologized for Kyle bothering her the day before and handed her his key.
She thanked him, bounced down a few steps, and then looked back up, a hand shading her dark eyes.
“You have auto insurance, right?”
Her clanging footsteps sent vibrations through the metal staircase when she reached the second floor landing.
“Wait!” He stepped to the railing. “It’s just basic liability, the minimum legal amount.”
“Are you a good driver?”
She seemed to think about it. “Yeah.”
“Have you ever been in an accident?”
“Yes, but one of them wasn’t really my fault. This guy was going so slow through a yellow light that anyone coming through the intersection would’ve hit him.” She turned around reluctantly. “I’ll understand if you don’t want me using your car.”
Juan’s canvases were rolled up in tubes in the garage, not stretched out, not primed and not prepped. Had Kyle slept in there, on the fleece pelt Juan used for napping?
He closed the door behind him. “I’ll take you. I need to get some things, too.”
* * *
The nearest town was empty between Labor Day and Memorial Day, but in the summer it swarmed with people buying handheld American flags, sand buckets, insect repellant, candy bracelets, beach permits, infused waters, bloating remedies, condoms, cartoon maps of Delaware, sunglasses, discounted blankets that said Back that thang up, spray bottles, flippers, beach balls, plastic sandals, plastic water guns, and gum.
As they drove along Main Street, Haley told Juan that she would be a senior at the state university once she finished three incompletes from last semester, one in organic chemistry, another in biological chemistry, and the third in music appreciation. Her legs were the same olive shade as his, and the v-neck of her shirt reached the middle of her breastbone. She’d chosen chemistry as a major because her aunt worked for a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey and could get her a job. She crossed her legs and Juan tried to count the number of minivans ahead of them. It was impossible. The more she learned about drug research, the less appealing it seemed. It involved so many computational equations, so much careful measuring, and so many blind trials leading only to patentable tweaks on about-to-go generic drugs. She dreaded it. Dance music pulsed quietly out of the car stereo. What she really wanted was to make jewelry, but if she quit school now she’d have to start paying back her student loans right away.
“Can’t Michael give you money?” Juan asked, and was about to suggest that she adjust her shirt when the minivan in front of them, with orange-trimmed Florida plates, stopped to let a pedestrian cross the street. He slammed on the brakes.
“I suppose,” Haley said, twirling a strand of hair around her finger and staring at a question traced in dirt on the back of the minivan: ask me how I’m changing the environment. “But that would be weird.”
“No, it wouldn’t. I’m sure he expects it.”
The minivan didn’t go forward after the pedestrian reached the sidewalk.
“Why do you say that?” Haley asked.
“Because,” said Juan.
From the driver side of the minivan a man about Juan’s age, broad-chested and red-faced, wearing a Dolphins visor and a knee brace, got out and examined his back bumper.
“You just hit me?” he asked angrily. “My kids felt something.”
“They said there was a jolt.”
“Not from my car.”
Haley drew her left foot up and tucked it under her right leg, and looked at Juan. “Why does Michael expect me to ask for money?”
“Your front end’s all scratched up,” said the minivan driver.
“That’s regular street wear,” Juan said. “I live in Philadelphia.”
The man pulled the visor down and glanced at Haley.
“Philly, huh. You got a jail at the Eagles stadium for when fans attack other teams’ supporters, I heard. What’s the deal with that? Why you guys so violent?”
Haley said, “We didn’t hit you and you’re blocking traffic, so you should get going.”
“Yeah, okay.” The man didn’t look angry anymore, just concerned, like a highway patrolman issuing a warning instead of a ticket. “Football isn’t ballet, but still it’s got rules. There’s kids watch the games. Just relax, is what I’m saying.”
He climbed back into his vehicle and drove away.
At the supermarket Haley got a stack of frozen lasagnas and breakfast burritos. Goosebumps flared up and down her arms. Juan filled a basket with turkey ham and farmer’s cheese and she asked why he and Kyle didn’t wear wedding rings. He said rings were just symbols. She gave him a quizzical look and said she thought the whole point of getting married was symbolism. He said there were a lot of points to marriage and asked why she’d taken so many incompletes. She said it was complicated and grabbed a magazine from the checkout line rack featuring an actress whose autoimmune disorder had made her reconsider alcohol, animal testing and foreign men. “It’s a wake-up call,” said the cover.
On the drive back Haley said Juan and Kyle should join her for dinner. He said they were busy and felt light-headed and almost pulled over twice before they reached the house.
* * *
Kyle’s things were gone. Juan stared at the empty top dresser drawer in the bedroom, then sat with his sketchpad for several motionless hours, and then started writing an email to the Ortlieb Gallery saying he wouldn’t have a painting for its show. He’d tried to find an event that had changed everything, but what looked like historical endpoints always turned out to be pauses before a cycle started over again. Proof was everywhere. God had flooded the earth in order to wipe out evil forever, for example, but no sooner did the ground dry out than Sodom and Gomorrah sprang up. Juan smoked the butt of yesterday’s cigarette—more cedar—and outside a full moon bathed the field in alabaster light. As with concepts like evil, so with concrete phenomena. After the rise and fall of the Roman Empire came the rise and fall of the Ottomans and the Dutch and the British and the Soviets and the Americans. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Juan wished he could give the Ortlieb Gallery something, but—
A burst of laughter downstairs. He quit typing, heard a male voice, and went down to find Haley in the front room with her legs draped over the lap of a young man in a ribbed wife beater and camouflage shorts whose short brown hair lay so flat on his head it looked like a pencil drawing.
“Can I talk to you?” Juan said to Haley.
The young man said, “You one of the gay dudes upstairs?”
“It’ll just take a minute.”
“You should spin records down here, bro. There’s a Technics SL-1210M5G turntable over there. I DJ up the Shore on Tuesdays, but I don’t have my vinyl with me, so if you got any high-NRG disco, bring it.”
Haley followed Juan out to the porch and leaned against the doorjamb and clasped her hands in a choirgirl pose. She was wearing a purple miniskirt and a sparkling black halter-top that looked like a band of night sky.
“If we’re being too loud, I’ll tell Ethan to shut up.”
“I thought you were supposed to be studying.”
“I needed a break.”
“You got a break today when we went to town.” Juan detected an unpleasant urgency in his voice, and he stood up straighter. “It’s just that Michael probably doesn’t want you bringing guys here.”
“And he probably doesn’t want you lying to him about being married.” She stood up straighter, too, as if they were playing Simon Says. “You got divorced a few months ago. I read it online.”
Juan looked behind him, as if Michael or his ex or the Ortlieb Gallery manager who’d advertised the show using Juan’s name might be standing there, irate and expectant. “I can explain that.”
“The only way I could work here was to let Michael think I was still married.” He realized what a lame explanation this was, like telling a judge he’d robbed someone for the very good reason that he wanted money. “It won’t matter anymore because I’m leaving in the morning.”
She tilted her head and they heard rattling and looked over to see Ethan straining to open the window from inside the house. It flew up after a loud crack and the thud of something hitting the floor.
“Cheap lock,” he muttered, stepping through the frame. “I just found three copies of The Sound of Music behind that hula girl lamp—I’m like, holy shit, three—and some diet Red Bulls and root beer schnapps. And there’s a bat in the hallway.”
“A bat?” Haley said.
“In the hallway. It’s huge.”
Juan went to the garage for the pool cleaning net he’d seen beside a gallon of chlorine and box of water toys. It took him a few minutes to drive the bat into the kitchen, where it circled the room inches below the ceiling. He swung and missed several times before Haley, watching it carefully, her head bobbing up and down as if she were about to jump into a game of double Dutch, took the net and in one swoop slammed the animal to the ground. Juan found a paper bag to transport it outside, but when she lifted the net it thrashed around and escaped down the hallway and out the front door.
Ethan’s eyes had been closed the whole time. “Who wants a shot of schnapps?” he said.
“I’m tired,” said Haley. “Ethan, you should go home.”
* * *
At two a.m. Haley pounded on Juan’s door and showed him two marks on her left arm. Full of adrenaline, she hadn’t felt the bat scratch her when it happened. He drove her to the hospital, which no longer administered rabies shots and directed them to a nearby non-emergency outpatient clinic. The night receptionist ordered the virus and immunoglobulin serums from a storage facility in Wilmington, and told them to sit in the waiting room.
Haley asked Juan why he was leaving in the morning. He told her about the Ortlieb Gallery’s show and his failed hunt for the right subject. She asked if he had to interpret “Then Everything Changed” on such a large scale. Instead of a nation’s turning point, what if he painted the moment an individual’s life changed? Someone falling in love, say, or getting in a bad accident or finding God or walking in on their cheating partner. For the person in question, a boyfriend’s betrayal could be as calamitous as an asteroid hitting the planet. Juan said that wouldn’t work.
“Why not?” she asked. The scratches on her arm were wide, as if made by human fingernails, and he didn’t have an answer.
* * *
Later that day Haley gripped Juan’s steering wheel with a look of shock and incomprehension on her face, modeling a woman who’d just gotten in a car crash and lost her leg, while Juan sat on a stool in front of his easel sketching and erasing and resketching and painting. During breaks they talked about Haley’s jewelry (she favored using simple silver chains and amethysts and carnelian agates) and towns they both knew (she’d grown up in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and he in neighboring Doylestown) and her generation’s practicality (everyone’s parents had followed their bliss and wound up non-blissful) and his ex (who’d divorced him for, among other reasons, throwing away his career) and Michael’s business (financial consulting? Angel investing?) and smoking (there were worse vices, they agreed, lighting up).
At the end of the session she asked to see what he’d done so far, but he never showed anyone a work in progress, and she said that root beer schnapps was foul but it would do the trick, and he said he wanted to finish the painting before they drank together. She didn’t understand restraint. It got easier over time, he said. She doubted that very much. He said she was smart to be skeptical.
* * *
The next morning Juan heard a scraping sound from the roof. Outside Kyle stood at the top of an extension ladder, scooping out clumps of
soil and leaves, and dropping them to the ground.
“What are you doing?” Juan shouted.
Kyle looked down. “Clearing the gutters!”
Juan grabbed the base of the ladder. “You shouldn’t do that without a spotter! It’s dangerous!”
Kyle climbed down a few minutes later in tight hiking shorts with the legs rolled up, a broad-brimmed gardening hat, and a button-up denim shirt. He was sweating heavily. Yes, it was immature to have left without writing Juan a note or responding to his (thoughtful, well-written, and appreciated) text messages, but Kyle had been upset. Although “upset” didn’t capture the disappointment and hurt he’d felt, not because of Juan’s cruelty or Kyle’s wounded vanity—one could not live long without learning to make excuses for unresponsive men—but because he’d discovered something painful during their brief but powerful time together.
Kyle had learned that he was, contrary to his vision of himself as a witty, charming bon vivant, in fact lazy and bratty. He understood why Juan had rejected him. Had their roles been reversed—that is, had Kyle been the generous, industrious one in the relationship—he too would have refused the advances of his man-child friend who’d whined constantly about the negligible shortcomings of this beautiful beach house. There came a time in every man’s life when he had to admit that he was not perfect—nor anywhere close—and that if he wanted to continue ignoring his flaws he would lose out on the increasingly rare opportunities for romantic happiness that came his way. Kyle would soon be thirty-seven years old. He needed to take responsibility for what had gone wrong in the past, and resolve to be a better, kinder, more accepting person. The future, he said, could be whatever he wanted it to be. A place of infinite possibility. He didn’t care if this sounded hokey. He, Kyle, was saying that he could and would be different. Not that he expected Juan to process all of this at once and take him right to bed. That might happen in fairy tales, but this was the real world and Kyle had to prove himself. He knew that. Was clearing the gutters a good start? Yes. Was it by itself enough? No. He would mow the lawn next, and then they’d talk about other actions that would speak louder than words.
He set off briskly for the garage.
“Wait a second,” said Juan, starting after him. “Let’s have coffee and talk upstairs.”
Kyle hit the button to open the garage doors, found the push-mower and was rolling it out when he stopped abruptly.
“What’s this?” he said.
Juan said, “My new painting.”
“What’s it have to do with ‘Then Everything Changed’?”
“A woman has just lost her leg in a car crash. The subject doesn’t have to be a major earth-shattering event, but can be on a smaller scale.”
“It’s the girl.”
“Haley’s modeling for it, yeah.”
“It’s just her face. Where’s the car crash?”
“I was going to do the whole scene, but then I thought that that would be sensationalistic, and that the subtler thing would be to do a close-up of her just after the accident, as she’s comprehending what happened.”
“She doesn’t look traumatized.”
“The brain shuts down pain receptors when it’s in shock. This woman has lost her leg but can’t feel it yet.”
Kyle licked his lips. His chest rose and fell visibly.
“So what looks like a normal portrait of the girl is really a horrible moment when everything’s changed for her?”
“That’s subtle, all right.” Kyle turned from the painting to Juan and his voice was steady and his eyes clear, “And here I thought becoming a better person would impress you. How funny. You’re chasing after a friend’s girlfriend who launched your career by buying your first paintings, and who’s loaning you his house. Doesn’t get any worse than that.”
Juan heard footsteps behind him.
“Am I interrupting something?” Haley asked.
* * *
At the opening of the Ortlieb Gallery’s fall show, Juan talked to people about his painting, “Haley.” It didn’t seem to fit the show’s theme or belong to any current art movement, or to any recent or coming school, and so, said these people, its already having sold was surprising. Although its subject, a young woman who looked at once bored and excited, was like all the other bored, excited young women whose faces were used to create and promote and frustrate desire, and was, if one thought about it from one angle but not from another, subversive.
After an hour, Juan looked at his watch and got his coat from the check stand and pulled out a cigarette and was about to leave for the airport, when he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned and saw a man in his early sixties with curly white hair and gold-framed glasses.
“Are you going somewhere?”
“The airport. I have a 10 o’clock flight to Italy.”
Juan nodded and his mouth was dry. He put his hand in his pocket and fingered the smooth agates that had been placed there earlier.
“Like I said on the phone, I’m sorry. It was an accident.”
A couple entered the gallery and squeezed between them, the man in a black velvet coat and the woman in a daisy print sundress.
“You remember when we met, at your senior show in college?” Michael asked. “I hadn’t gone there to buy anything, and then I wound up taking home two of your paintings. I’d thought that that was an accident, too.”
He adjusted his belt, an old leather double-buckle that Juan remembered him buying at an outdoor market in Florence.
“She said you didn’t love her,” Juan said.
Michael shook his head. “No, I couldn’t manage it.”
Fifteen years earlier Juan and Michael had sat at a cafe in the Italian Alps drinking wine by a lake, and Juan had talked for a long time about their future together, and the cities they would live in—New York, Rome, Madrid—until finally Michael put a hand to his mouth and said, “This is a beautiful lake. Let’s not neglect it.”
The couple that had just come in was now leaving, and stepped between Juan and Michael again.
“Do you have time for a drink?” Juan asked.
“No,” said Michael, “and neither do you. Send me a postcard. Or paint a new portrait of Haley. The one I have could use a companion.”
Michael clasped Juan’s hand, and then Juan walked outside and closed the door behind him and in the distance heard gunfire, unless it was fireworks, and he fingered the agates in his pocket as he hailed a cab and wondered if Haley, at the airport just then, would decide they were all the same.