A WORK OF ART
Johnny lounged on his sofa, absorbed in the Knicks game on television. Finishing off a glass of homemade lemonade, he placed it on the coffee table. As if summoned telepathically, his wife entered the room and refilled it.
"You're welcome, honey."
Johnny leaned forward to grab a handful of sunflower seeds shelled by his wife. This gave Lucinda the opportunity to fluff the pillow behind his back.
"I hope this game doesn't go into overtime like the one last night," she said. "I want you to get out of this rut you've been in and start working on a new painting."
"Why even bother if you'll be the only one seeing it?"
"Your big break will come, Johnny. You just have to remain positive. You're extremely talented. Someday everybody will learn what I already know."
"I'm tired of trying to stay positive."
"Relax and enjoy the game, honey. I can be positive enough for both of us." Lucinda placed a kiss on his forehead, then headed back to the kitchen.
Johnny smiled. Lucinda was a good woman. She supplemented his strengths, balanced his weaknesses, catered to his needs. As for her needs, they were rather simple in nature. She was made happy by the act of loving and taking care of Johnny.
He felt no doubt when he looked into his wife's doe eyes that he was indeed fortunate to have her by his side. The bane of his existence was that he was not in love with her.
There had been isolated moments when he thought he perhaps did feel for his wife as he desperately wanted to. He had been somewhat moved when she walked towards him down the aisle, her face covered by a wedding veil. When he first saw their daughter laying asleep on Lucinda's breast, Johnny's heart had swelled. But this was mostly gratitude, which in time transformed into a degree of resentment. Once he became a father, his fate was permanently sealed. He could no longer entertain realistic thoughts of leaving. His place had been cemented, and it was by Lucinda's side.
They had been set up four years earlier on a blind double date. According to Shelly, the girlfriend of his best friend, they were to make an ideal match. Johnny's dance card was considerably deal less than filled, so he agreed to give the canned arrangement a shot.
It was disappointment at first sight. Lucinda was not difficult to look at, just not easy enough on the eyes to warrant enthusiasm. Her body was not of the exotic variety he preferred, merely utilitarian. Lucinda was no heartbreaker, and Johnny hungered for the sort of woman who put his heart at risk from the get go. But these were no reasons to let his evening be spoiled. He was with dear friends and did not mind making a new one. So he decided to make the best of things. With the pressure to win over his date removed, he relaxed and was quite charming.
The charm was reciprocal. Each topic of conversation revealed yet another shared interest. Lucinda laughed at every one of his jokes, even the more obscure ones that usually produced blank stares. And she told wonderfully humorous anecdotes of her own. Best of all, she was completely fascinated by the subject he loved to speak of most. Himself. Or to be specific, his artistic pursuits. Johnny drained multiple glasses of wine and reveled in the fine company. He barely noticed when James and Shelly cleverly managed to leave them to themselves. He was not aware of any desire to kiss Lucinda until he found himself doing precisely that. It felt nice. Too nice for goodnight.
Good morning awoken to in Lucinda's bed brought reality crashing along with it. This should not have happened, but hindsight would do him no good. He would have to tread carefully. Johnny did not want to come off as a jerk.
They had brunch together, and the time passed as pleasantly as had the night before. Lucinda did not dismiss his aspirations as adolescent fantasizing or a harmless hobby to be condescendingly indulged. Under her admiring gaze, it seemed almost reasonable to believe that his dreams would one day be realized. The least he could do was bring her home for a look at his paintings.
The hole he dug gradually deepened into a canyon. Lucinda expertly stroked his ego, made him feel like a king, and he didn't want the feeling to end. So he encouraged it to continue. Against his judgement that a relationship between them would be doomed, he began seeing her regularly. Until a suitable replacement came along. When several months passed without this happening, his strategy was adjusted. He would break up with her as soon as possible. Despite Lucinda's many wonderful qualities, regardless of their great compatibility, one fact remained that could not be denied or further ignored. Johnny felt he could do better.
If this branded him as shallow, so be it. He had given desire ample time to grow, but it was only familiarity that multiplied.
"If you leave her, you'll regret it," said Gary. "But you'll regret it more if you stay."
"You think you're such a great catch?" exclaimed Norma. "Women like that don't fall for clowns like you every day. Losing her would be the biggest mistake you ever made, and you've made some whoppers."
"If you're not completely happy, you owe it to yourself to end it," advised Lance. "And even more, you owe it to her."
"You'll always feel like you could have done better," Maxine said. "And you'll come to take it out on her. Spare her that. Spare yourself from becoming somebody you won't like. Stop being such a wimp."
"You've never compromised in your art," said his brother Dedric. "So why compromise in your life?"
"You either love her or you don't," Collette stated. "Decide which it is and then act on the answer. Everything outside of that is a load of bull."
"Subtly suggest cosmetic surgery," cracked Randy.
"Stay with Lucinda, but cheat like wild on the side until it's out of your system," suggested Carlos, always a strong proponent of both having and eating one's cake.
Kevin's commentary on the business led Johnny no closer to resolution.
"When the lights go out, I'm sure she's as much of a goddess as any other woman. Of course, that doesn't help you out much once the sun rises."
Everyone was in agreement on only one detail.
"Should I be honest about the way I feel?"
"Uh uh." "No way." "Hell no!" "Are you nuts?" "I wouldn't advise that."
At least that much was clear. He would have to be less than forthcoming about why he felt their relationship had run its course. He would do it in a way that left Lucinda with dignity. He'd cast all blame upon himself. It had nothing to do with her, everything to do with his own immaturity and unwillingness to commit. What choice would she have but to accept his resolution?
Johnny worked up his nerve over a candle lit dinner cooked and staged by Lucinda that he intended to be their last meal together as a couple. He needed to free both of them up for the people they were destined to be happy with. The bombshell finally landed, but it was Lucinda who launched it.
By all accounts they had a lovely wedding. Every picture taken of the groom showed him with a broad smile. He knew it was crucial to hold it in place, lest his true feelings be broadcast.
Things might have worked out okay had the Mortons not moved next door. He may have grown accustomed to the life he ended up with, come to appreciate the immense upside to it. Lucinda earned a considerably higher salary than him, so she paid a substantial share of the bills. Yet she also handled most household duties, including taking care of a daughter whom Johnny cherished with all his being. She encouraged his artistic pursuits, not only with kind words of support, but also by allowing him time to work undisturbed. There was nothing he could think to ask for that she did not provide. As the years passed and vanity lowered accordingly in his list of priorities, he would certainly come to be grateful for the choices he had sort of made, that he had accepted without putting up too much of a fight.
The Mortons were amiable people, fine neighbors. They were also the parents of a sexy, nubile vixen. The moment Johnny spied their 17 year old daughter in the saran wrapped shorts and belly baring tee shirt she wore, he knew he was in trouble.
His thoughts were occupied by innumerable fantasies of an outrageously sexual nature throughout the weeks to follow. He imagined himself and Monique getting together in every conceivable scenario, locale and position. Not even an energetic two year old who found new trouble to get into by the minute could distract him from obsessive contemplation. But his desires were harmless so long as they remained unrealized. He could lust for Monique to his heart's content. Danger would only be present if she felt likewise. And what were the odds of that?
Much better than expected, as it turned out. Monique was a girl who knew what she wanted, and she was aware that most things wouldn't be very difficult for her to acquire. In defiance of logic, her sights seemed to be set on Johnny.
"How old are you?" she inquired one day as he mowed his lawn. He briefly considered subtracting a few years from his age before replying honestly that he was 35.
"I hope the man I marry looks as good as you when he's 35," she said, pleasantly making the number sound considerably less than 100.
Johnny kept his expression nonchalant and his budding erection discreet, wiping the sweat from his brow in response to the compliment.
"You must work out," said Monique.
"From time to time. When I can."
"Well it certainly shows."
She was leaning against the gate that separated their backyards, bronzed cleavage temptingly showcased, her hair in childish pigtails but her body demonstrating that she was all woman. Johnny forced his eyes away from her delectably rounded hips and exquisite midsection, for her belly's cavernous button was lulling him into a trance. This just led him to stare at her full and glossy lips which were working over a piece of gum.
"I hear you're an artist. Are you any good?"
"A few people think so, but no major galleries yet. I'll have to stick with my day job a while longer."
"I'd like to see your paintings."
"Sure. Some day soon we'll have you and your parents over for dinner."
"I'd like to see them now, Johnny."
Lucinda and Joy were not home and weren't due back for a couple of hours. As if sensing the tension of the moment, a lawnmower that was roaring in the near distance came to a sudden stop and all was relative silence.
Johnny remained physically faithful to his wife that afternoon, despite the overwhelming temptation to obey the commands of his hormones. Whatever risk was involved with the situation, he was willing to roll the die and take his chances. But he did not intend to make the first move, no matter how welcomed it seemed. He would leave that up to Monique, whom he sensed to be quite capable of taking control. Something in her gaze left the impression that she acted with far more purpose than the average teenager experiencing a case of puppy love.
Hopefully a single taste of the succulent feast of flavors before him would satisfy his appetite. He was the head of a family. This was not to be jeopardized. Some fun might be had as a one shot deal, if he determined that she would be able to refrain from becoming emotionally involved. He would then return to his domesticated state, and she would head into the arms of some college boy with fortunate timing. No one would be the wiser, and Johnny's list of cherished accomplishments would have one more sweet item added.
"Honey, what's the matter?"
"Nothing", said Johnny in response to his wife's query later that night. "I'm just real tired. Maybe I'll surprise you in the morning."
"That would be nice. We haven't made love right after waking up in a while. Remember when ... Johnny, are you asleep already?"
"Sweet dreams, my dear."
Johnny simply could not will himself to be aroused by Lucinda. Not while consumed with burning knowledge that Monique was his for the asking. Whenever he looked at his wife, he thought of how little he had settled for. Not only regarding his marriage, but in practically every aspect of his life. When given a choice between struggling to attain what he truly wanted or accepting what was less desired but freely offered, he had taken the easy route on each occasion. He was not supposed to be a suburban, middle class, sales rep who dabbled in painting as a weekend hobby while doted on by the plain Jane wife who bore his children. He was an ARTIST, perhaps a brilliant one if he could only dedicate sufficient time and energy to his craft. But in order to do that he would have to be hungry. Not in his stomach, but in his gut. A cushy existence was the death of desire. Every day of the mundane life he was living sapped his spirit a little bit more. He needed to feel passion, for only then could he freely express it on canvas. The woman who shared his bed should serve not only as a mate, but also as muse. Her presence should trigger the release of his talent, so the space he took up in the world would be justified. He needed a cause of greater merit than comfort.
Johnny resumed the regimen of pull-ups and sit-ups that had been abandoned in his mid-twenties. He wanted his physique to show the results during his excessive gardening on the weekends to follow. Once he was out in the yard, Monique never failed to leave her house and head over to the gate that divided them. They would speak about everything under the sun. She told him about her plans to be either a doctor, lawyer, or actress someday. He told her about the paintings and artists he most cherished, the symphonies that moved him most deeply, the novelists whose gift of prose left him in awe at the majesty of God's creation. She took it all in like a teacher's pet student, looking at him with hunger for knowledge and thirst for what he was growing increasingly anxious to supply. Little by little, without conscious intent, Johnny was molding his perfect woman. Monique was becoming more than a mere erotic fantasy. She was no longer just a diversion from all that was ordinary and plain in his life, or a reminder that beauty should be perpetually aspired to, never taken for granted. A woman he could envision a future with was being formed. Her mind was clay to his skillful fingers. Only her body remained unexplored.
He vigilantly waited for a sign of encouragement to progress to the next logical step. One was recognized on the day she asked to watch him as he painted. No woman other than Lucinda had ever examined him at work. He was conscious of Monique's tantalizingly close presence with every feverish brushstroke. He ached to reach out and pull her into his arms. But somehow he refrained, fearing that she was not quite ready. Johnny was certain that she would let him know beyond doubt when the time was right. He needed only to be patient.
The frequency of lovemaking with his wife significantly dropped. He saw it as a necessary evil, endured only when she forcefully ignored his excuses. Each day he grew more convinced that he should, could, and would leave the life he possessed for the one he craved. As devastated as Lucinda would be, as undeserving of such treatment as she was, his decision was immune to the persuasion of tears and hysterics, beyond the scope of moral consideration. People's feelings were hurt by the hour, their lives turned upside down with a minimum of notice. They generally got over it. Lucinda would as well. Johnny had no choice in this matter. The urges prompting him could not be denied much longer. Resistance to forbidden fruit had always been mankind's most futile goal.
"I want to pose for you, Johnny."
"Okay", was his brief, helpless, automatic reply.
Four posing sessions would be necessary per his method. Johnny intended to give birth to a masterpiece that would invoke the envy of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. Monique's beauty would extract genius from his soul. When the painting was completed, she would be overwhelmed by the immense desire it exuded. She would turn to him, speechless. He would lay her down, love her slowly, appreciate every inch of her splendor. Then they would start making plans. The summer was soon coming to an end. Monique would be starting college in a matter of precious days. For Johnny's dreams to be realized, he needed to awaken and take action.
"I brought over a couple of bathing suits," Monique said. "You can choose one for me to wear. Unless you'd rather paint me nude."
"Sure. I don't mind if you dont."
"No, no, I don't mind. Are you sure you'd be comfortable with ... Do you think that would be such a good ..."
Johnny's difficulty completing sentences was replaced by inability to speak altogether as Monique removed her blouse.
"I cant believe I'm going to be the subject of a real work of art. This is so exciting."
She removed her bra. "Now I know how Mona Lisa must have felt."
She removed her shorts. "I know you'll make me look beautiful."
Her sandals were kicked off, and then finally, with no indication of self-consciousness, Monique removed her panties.
"How shall I pose?"
Johnny grabbed hold of the nearest inanimate object to steady himself. When he remembered that breathing was a necessity, he took a gulp of air into his lungs and slowly let it back out. A ringing sound was faintly heard. At first he thought it was in his head, that the sight of Monique's nakedness had affected him much like sitting close to the speakers at a rock concert. Too much of a good thing could overload one's senses, although it stood to reason that this should happen to his sight rather than his hearing. The ringing was not constant, but came at evenly spaced intervals. He finally realized that it was the phone upstairs, which could easily be ignored and would eventually be cut off by the answering machine.
Monique sat down, crossed her legs, and looked straight ahead with an expression of erotic serenity. Although everybody was born nude, not every body was designed to naturally remain in such a state of grace. On Monique, clothing was an obstruction of divine sculpting.
"How's this?" she asked.
"Perfect." It was the most honest answer Johnny had ever given to a question.
He lifted a brush and stared at his hand, surprised by how steady he managed to hold it. Summoning the spirits of Cezanne, Picasso and Monet, he began to weave magic.
Never before had he worked with such intensity, yet remarkable ease. He would have continued all throughout the day, the night, and into the following morning had this been feasible. But Lucinda and Joy would be returning at four oclock, as they did every Saturday afternoon. Lucinda dropped Joy off at her sister's apartment on the way to aerobics class, and picked her up on the way back home. Melanie loved to babysit her precocious niece, and an empty house gave Johnny the peace he required to concentrate on a painting. Usually he would stare at a blank canvas for about ten minutes and then abandon the task due to insufficient motivation and head back upstairs to his couch and television. He had brought an alarm clock down to the basement that was set for 3:30, to make certain Monique was gone before his wife and daughter came back.
Johnny was consumed by the vision posed before him and the reflection he was unleashing. The rest of the room, and then the house, and then the neighborhood, and then the reality of his existence faded to black. He felt himself transported from his American suburban basement at the beginning of a new millennium to a studio in Paris a century earlier, giving birth to a new movement in art, living a life that legends are made from.
The illusion was roughly shattered when Lucinda walked into the basement. Johnny turned to look at the alarm clock, expecting to find that it had been incorrectly set and he had lost track of the time. Instead he saw that it was ten minutes before three oclock, matching the time on his watch. Lucinda was home early. Had he answered the phone or checked the message she left, he would have known that her aerobics class had been cancelled and she was returning earlier than usual. But contemplation of what would and could have been was of little use. So was the manufacturing of excuses. Not even Harry Houdini could escape this predicament.
Johnny concluded it was probably for the best that things were out in the open sooner rather than later. Cowardice is not an option when one is cornered. He would tell Lucinda how he felt, that their marriage was over, that he had found another. But first he would allow Lucinda to say her piece.
"Don't worry, Johnny. You can paint the girl. You can screw her even. You can daydream about being in love with her if you must. Fantasies are important, I understand that. Especially for an artist. But so is reality. You will not be leaving me, Johnny. Your wife and daughter need you, and you need us. We're having roast beef for dinner."
Lucinda went upstairs. By the time Johnny could shake off his astonishment and look towards Monique, she had finished getting dressed.
"Your wife certainly knows you well."
"You behaved pretty much like she said you would. I thought you'd be groping me within the first week. And I can't honestly say I would have minded. But Lucy said you'd be a pussy cat and that's just what you were."
"Is that right?" asked Johnny in a daze as the reality of the arrangement slowly penetrated his comprehension.
"I can't wait until the painting is finished. My boyfriend is going to love it. Should I show up the same time tomorrow?"
"Are you kidding me?"
"I'll see you tomorrow, Johnny."
She walked out and went home, or to her boyfriend, or to wherever it was that youth and beauty ventured. Johnny looked at the form taking shape on canvas. He suspected his hands had been manipulated by a higher power. It did not seem possible that he was responsible for such a budding masterpiece. Here was the greatness that Lucinda had believed him capable of from the start, and continued believing long after he had accepted mediocrity as his destiny.
Monique had awakened long dormant urges. She reminded him of what his life had once been about, of the future he had eagerly anticipated. She had unleashed the abilities he had never before been able to transfer from his subconscious to his fingertips. Monique was the muse he had always known would come along.
Courtesy of Lucinda's handiwork.
Johnny went upstairs slowly, moving as if he had aged forty years in a single afternoon. He clicked on the TV, lifted his daughter as he ran towards him with hands upheld, took his favorite post on the sofa and sat Joy down on his lap. The sound of meal preparation in the kitchen caused him to go up a couple notches with the television remote from his volume level of prefernece. A drink would hit the spot, but he didn't rise to get one. Johnny wasn't certain if his mood was for beer or a glass of wine. He didn't concern himself over this quandary. Without needing to be asked, Lucinda would provide exactly the right thing.