Fiction

Pier’s Picture

By: Raluca Sirbu

I looked for minutes at the picture that he once gave me. He was stretching a smile for the camera; the small six-year-old gave that gift to the person who took the picture.

            There was another small child in a stroller, a child without a scintillation, and another, older, trapped by the camera and the hand of a starched woman. She had a faraway look, like being a captive in this moment, not willing, not belonging. None of them looked like they had anything to offer, they looked like all the gifts they owned had turned their back to the world. One’s eye was immediately drawn to the little boy with a protective hand on the stroller, saying: “I’m here”.

            He was not cute, but immediately pulled one in. He had sensuous lips, a bit inappropriately sensuous for his age, intense, piercing eyes, with a rim of softness around them. He looked scrawny really, wearing Bermuda shorts and surprisingly big black shoes.

He, young then, was posing for the camera; he had an audience; he needed to please, amaze, and entertain. That sweet, broad, giving smile!

 I first saw Pier at a presentation of King Lear, a play in the park.

My friend Mona called me the day before sobbing: “I cannot stand it anymore; I want some resolution to this. Victor canceled our date again. Every day I wonder where I am with him, one day he is loving and wants me, then an entire week I do not talk to him, just a few text messages.” 

Mona and Victor have a rocky relationship. Victor is like a cat. He snuggles one day leaving her full of his fur and the next he disappears rubbing his sneakers on other momentary passions; I don’t think he cheats on Mona. I think she is the closest thing to love that Victor will ever experience. And he knows it. But he is a cat.

“Mona, stop and listen “ I said, when she took a breath. “What exactly happened? You know that Victor is crazy about you”.

“We had tickets to a play in the park and he just called me to say that he cannot make it. He said something about work and preparing for an unforeseen trip, but I don’t believe him! What work…”  She continued, but I tuned her out because I’ve heard this before. When I noticed a break in her words I asked: “Do you want me to go with you to the play? We’ll stop for drinks afterwards and you can tell me all about it”.

The “tell me all about it” did the trick! Mona stopped sobbing, and a smile came into her voice. It was a grateful smile. Mona is 12 years younger than me and the age difference is a wash but every so often the motherly instinct in me comes out and she takes it right in, like dry parched land after a soaking rain.

            I had 45 minutes before I had to meet Mona and rushed to get ready; grabbed a pair of light jeans and a peach color, a bit neon looking T-shirt. The jeans were a tad tight, but they would give. I squatted and held the stretch. Ah, better! Shall I put on a belt? Bold orange earrings; how about a necklace? No, too much! Two dabs of concealer, eyeliner, and always lipstick; jacket just in case; out!

            I was late as usual, but not dramatically; I saw Mona. A dash of reproach in her eye, but it gave way quickly.

“You look good,” I said.

“You do too,” said Mona, and she meant it.

We rushed to get our seats. They were in the 4th row. Close enough to smell the paint of the décor. I’ve seen the play many times. Like Swan Lake, I can see it again and again and be surprised every time as if I saw it new.

Three scenes into the play I was thinking: This is well done for a play in the park, a lighter version than I remember. Some productions are heavy, like an entire page typed in bold font. One cannot see the difference in the words, it is all heavy. This one seemed to have used a light typeset with a word or two in bold font on the page. It drew me in as it always does.

            And then with a startle I noticed that the “King” locked eyes with me and did not let go. At first, I thought it was an impression only, like those cut outs that look like they follow your eyes no matter where you are. Then when I realized that it was so, that “the King” was looking at me, I was slightly uncomfortable, blushing like a shy maiden and dropping my eyes.   From the corner of my eye, I saw Mona watching getting the entire scene and smiling, really amused. I felt silly and did not look back at her; then took a breath as if “I can do this” and looked onto the stage again.

            Here he was, sensual lips rounding the English verse; the piercing eyes with a glow of softness like a November full moon; long hands out of an El Greco painting, sensitive, dramatic hands. I finally could hold his eyes and soon the reality of the 4th row of the play in the park dissolved. It felt as if I was an old-time photographer getting under the black cloth and looking into the lens.  The world and time, right there in front of me, and the surroundings had no contour.

            He played for me, gave me his hours, gave me his gift and I took it all, did not leave a crumb on the scene. I felt his turmoil, shuttered at his vanity, heard myself sobbing when he was betrayed and inundated by grief when he died.

            I was so raw with emotions and still in my tunnel that I almost jumped out of my seat when the audience applauded. The cast came out, he at the end, and bowed deeply in front of me. The audience stood up applauding and so did I, holding the smile of the lady whose knight won the tournament under her color.

             I ignored Mona who was still grinning and heard her say: “Let’s go to the after-play party.”

           I didn’t know if I wanted to go. I was afraid to be disappointed, but Mona knew me and tapped into her: “Do it for me” channel. I followed her.        

            As I entered, I scanned the room to look for him and I noticed “the King” immediately surrounded by fans, talking, laughing, out of King Lear’s character into an approachable, oh so charming one. Mona pushed me to join his circle, but I really didn’t want to, so I picked some food, bought a glass of wine and went to talk with “Cordelia,” still aware of his presence in the room.

            After a while I had enough and was getting anxious so I built up some courage to go to the constantly replenishing group surrounding him; I grabbed a second glass of wine, since I noticed that he was talking the whole time, and got myself in front of him. I ran through a few phrases in my mind before landing on one. I stretched forth the glass and said: “I thought you might want a glass of wine after a splendid performance.” It might have been in an unnatural, rehearsed tone since my mouth was dry and I had a slight shake as I handed him the glass. With that he looked at me and I noticed a slight sigh of relief. Maybe it was just an impression. And then it started again. It was just the two of us. People noticed and faded away.

He was half a head taller than me and slightly hovered over, embracing me with his presence, including me in his universe. He told me his name, Pier, and I thought it was a strange name, a made-up name because somehow it did not fit him. We talked a lot, easy. He asked me what theatre authors I liked most. In a whimsy I said Eugene Ionesco. The surprise brought a unique smile to his face, one that revealed a slight dimple in his cheek, asymmetrical. I learned to love that smile, spontaneous, true.

 “I played the ‘Bald Singer’ part, many years ago, in a small-town theatre that hired a new cultural director. Somehow, he convinced everybody that this was the right thing to do, and they staged a low budget production; but it was hard to keep the audience which was looking more for an Agatha Christie type subject and started walking out after the first fifteen minutes. The end of the show had no more than ten people in the seats, most likely the former director’s relatives.” I laughed, imagining the scene.

  I talked about the days in college when we stayed in line all night for tickets to unique shows. Slivers of memories and their mark.

Suddenly I realized how late it was and brusquely said: “I have to go.”

He did not insist I stay, did not ask for my number and did not say: “Will I see you again?” but just reached for my hand, brought it to his lips and kissed it. I felt light, I felt great. With one embracing look, he said goodbye. I turned and left, without looking back, but I could see Pier looking after me in the black window on the left of the door. I did not see Mona anywhere, and I left alone. When I got to my car, I had five messages from Mona and one from my daughter. I called my daughter first and told her all about my evening and at the end she asked: “Did you give him your number”? I told her it did not fit; we, Pier and I created our own world and reality that could have been placed and lived anywhere, anytime. The phone number was something for now. “Mom, it makes no sense, do you still want to see him”?

“Hmm, yes, I do but we’ll let destiny arrange it,” I answered, unconvinced.

Mona wanted to know the same thing, and I gave her the same answers. She concluded: “You are such a looser”.

Destiny arranged nothing. It was me that manipulated it, like a puppeteer, disguising it as fate as I chased Pier through local productions and by “accident” ran into him.

At the first play I dared to go to, I stayed in the back out of sight. I wanted to see, to figure out if there was somebody else for him or if there was a bit of hope for me. I don’t remember what play it was, neither did it matter. There was a whole procession of thoughts, of anguish, and debates marching in formation in my mind. This time there was no after party, so I rushed out of the theatre and stamped myself on the wall of the building right in front of the actors’ exit. Not to be seen or acknowledged, I waited.

I saw him coming, and I held my breath to pretend even more that I was not there. He was alone, said goodbye over his shoulder to a faceless somebody. It was fall. It was one of those perfect October days that caught the gold and the ripeness of the summer and dripped it, controlled, into the night, blending perfectly the memory of the warm sun with the crisp, clean air of the soon to be winter.  

He wore jeans, a tweed jacket, and a scarf. The scarf, the note of elegance, looked like silk; I saw a shimmer when he stepped into a cone of light. His shoulders were slumped. Cold? In a rush? Thoughts too heavy? He had a purpose in his step. I followed. Without a second thought I followed him, taking in the color and look of the buildings, unseen.  I am glad that he did not take a cab or the subway, but just walked with a steady pace. Suddenly he stopped as if remembering something. I was too close to hide. Oh, what if he turns? He will see me! What can I say? Oh, this is bad, embarrassing… and he turned slowly.

I was so startled that I dropped my purse and its contents burst out like the seeds of a ripe pomegranate. I kneeled on the ground to pick up my belongings, looking only in front of me and really hoping he would not see me. As I inched to gather pieces that rolled away, I saw Pier’s face at my crawling level. With a gentle smile and kind eyes he said: “Let me help you.”

Not a question, no connecting lines between three months ago and now. He let me ease in a door that he politely kept open. I was grateful and a wave of warm affection towards this man drenched me. It got into all the pores of my being. My eyes must have said that. He took my hand and said: “Would you like to have dinner with me? I am famished!”

I acted like a 14- year- old on the first date and responded with a limp: “Yes”. On the way to the restaurant he talked about absurd and classical theatre. He picked up the conversation from where we left it a few months ago, as if we just took a breath between then and now. He was animated, passionate. I was more aware of his presence and slightly remote to the discussion. I did not understand its depth but offered some street-smart comments. As I made them, he suddenly stopped and said: “You are the only person I can talk to about everything.” How special that made me feel. I just squeezed his hand in response.

Pier took me to his favorite restaurant, a Persian restaurant. It had multiple divisions, alcoves that allowed for privacy. Lush flower arrangements, soothing water features, romantically low lights.  But I could have been as happy sitting on the curb next to the railroad depot, eating fried fish out of a newspaper.

I craved his presence, craved being in the field, in the aura that surrounded him.

We talked about the theatre again. I laughed from the bottom of my belly about a few stage mishaps. I laughed so hard that it was hard to breathe; some heads turned, but I did not care at all.  As I was catching my breath, he whispered: “I love to see you laugh.”

I did not want this moment to pass. I knew exactly what Faust felt when he exclaimed “moment stay.” But it did not… We got out of the restaurant and walked in silence. He held my hand. After a few steps he turned, looked at me and asked: “Are you in a rush?”
Am I in a rush? No! I can spend my days in your hand, living in your presence, but I buttoned up and hung a tie on my thoughts and politely answered: “No, not really”.

“Good! I have a place by the water, I want to show you.” We did not talk. I did not have words handy, just lived by my senses now, somehow primitively wanting to take it all in the touch, his smell, the look of him.

We got to the place, leaned on the railing watching the water. He, halfway behind me, stroked my back, talking about a movie. The water echoed the lights of the city and it murmured its presence. The air was clean, and I was next to Pier, feeling the warmth of his body. Without a thought, I turned and kissed him. I started, he continued. Those sensuous lips! I kept my eyes open to see, to absorb it all. And he could not stop. It felt like thirst. He finally pulled apart with the pain of a train that had the emergency brake pulled.

Soon we started walking, and we moved closer to each other, overlapping our bodies, almost tripping. Pier only said: “Let me take you to the subway.” I did not want to leave, but I was bordering on lack of pride. We kissed one more time by the gate, more restrained, and then he turned around and left. We did not say goodbye, or exchange phone numbers. Nothing! The curtain fell too quickly. This play did not have the right ending for me.

For days I was running on automatic pilot, like a person just diagnosed with a terminal illness, going through the motions as running a 35mm film in the background. Only flare-ups at work were stopping the film from running again and again. It obsessed me; I could not explain his behavior. He likes me, was happy to see me, we had a wonderful time! What happened? Is there somebody else? No, it can’t be! He was so sincere. Am I a substitute? Is it me he likes? Who is this man, what is his life? What is his past? Questions tormented me, a carousel of thoughts; I could distinguish the faces of the horses. They were grotesque, contorted; The cry was suspended in their muscles, remote looks, eyes that didn’t see out.

  I was consumed, and I needed to build a moat around me; I did not talk or return phone calls. I told closer friends that I had a hard patch at work and needed to deal with it. They’d seen this before and let me be until I could come out for air. Nobody doubted it, besides my 24-year-old daughter, my closest friend. How much the age difference shrunk!

We spoke in simple words: “Are you OK?” she asked.

“Not really, but I will bounce back.”

“Shall I come home,” she offered.

“No!” And that was it. We are safety nets for each other. 

Days and weeks passed. The bleeding wounds in my soul crusted. They did not let me move as before, but I was not bleeding anymore. With some care, I could even smile.
Still, I was looking into the crowds hoping to see him and held my breath many times when I saw pieces of him in others. After a while the scabs fell off and life got to taste almost the same.

The winter holidays were upon us and I have a joy I cannot contain around this time of the year. There are never enough lights and glitter. Such frenzy: baskets for neighbors with sweet breads, soaps and candles, pickles and cookies, carols in my verse. I put my scent on every item I create, every Christmas. House full of friends, kids crying, parents rushing to stop them from falling and pulling. Voices loud, lights warming, cheeks red from the whirl; laughter cascading, spilled wine, dripping candles, cards wishing… Oh I love it! I love the anticipation, the crescendo before Christmas Eve. Like a big symphony that uses all the instruments in a melodious act.
I don’t believe in emails for Christmas. I want to touch what I send and receive, a pretty gift of thought for everybody. The mailbox had surprises every day.

That Christmas Eve I picked up the mail and one card was from Pier. My hand went limp. I didn’t know if I should be happy or not. Curiosity made me open the card. In the envelope there was an official invitation for a gala celebrating contemporary theatre authors. The date was December 27th. No other words like “I’d love if you came” or “call me.” Nothing!

Where did he get my address? He never asked.

All right, what do I do? Make a fuss? Show that I am upset over what happened? Well, what had happened? Nothing really! Besides my expectations being crumpled.

Or grab the hand and enjoy our dance.

I called Mona and in syncopated phrases I explained the situation. She interrupted so many times it amazed me I conveyed the message. Her questions were around “Why would you go?”

Mine: “What will I wear”?

“Why?” almost screamed Mona.

I did not answer.

“Are you there?”

“Yes,” I breathed, burdened by the struggle to match my feelings to words. “Because with him I am everything that I am, at once. He matches the rhythm of my heart. It is like an elixir I discovered, and I want to have it forever”.

The next days had a garland of anticipation. I was gliding on the magic of the holidays, tumbling when life was rushing too much; time lost its identity, and I was watching the moments as through a speeding train. Objects were elongated, losing their shape, moments becoming traces of light and pure happiness sealed in the vault of memories.

On December 27th I tried to keep myself busy although every second was heavy. This day tested my patience as if preparing me to become a painter on rice grains.

Thoughts were rushing in my mind: How shall I act when I see him? Reproachful? Distant? No! Thrilled? Glad to see him? Well, maybe not! Would that show him I waited till he, the knight, came for me? What is the right face? I was rummaging through my closet of facial props with used and unused feelings and pulled out the “friendly, just collegial, half arm length distance” set. Yeah, that seemed just right, and it matched the outfit: elegant, not too feminine but avant-garde.

As I got into the banquet hall, I looked for my inner compass to guide me to the right room but in the next second I felt my arm touched and the dear voice: “So glad to see you.” My all composed face, half arm length, dropped like a drape at an unveiling, in a swift move, and instead of replying with a controlled “me too” I turn around and beamed an uncensored smile.

Pier held my elbow in the cradle of his hand, and we moved closer to each other, overlapping a bit, and walked, adjusting our step and our heartbeat. The whole evening had a warm and exciting glow enveloping and leading us in a continuous, flawless waltz. We stayed in each other’s field, orbiting, touching, always together. During the evening, Pier introduced me to many people. Were they his friends, just acquaintances? He never said. Just names, never a context. It did not matter to me then.
When the festivities ended, Pier turned to me and said: “Let’s take a walk.” The air was crisp, maybe thinner than usual, or maybe the swirl of my excitement got me gasping.  We talked about the night and the event, commented on the award recipients. He talked mostly about who deserved it, why. And without a bridge, Pier turned to face me and asked: “Can I offer you a glass of wine?” I just nodded. I wanted this man so badly; I was soft and easy to have; there was no thought beyond the desire. He took my hand and softly took me to his car. We drove in silence. It was quiet; the air between us was tense with desire held at bay. Its molecules were stretched like elastic bands, so taut that I could hear them vibrate with every breath of ours.

We stopped in front of a black iron gate that obediently slid away, drove a quick path between tall, perfectly kept thuya bushes paired with amber drops of light between them. They were dark, majestic guardians of the alley. They led us to an imposing front door that matched the design of the iron-gate. The house had a very modern architecture, almost cubist. As we entered the large open floor, I was expecting modern angular furnishings, steel and glass. Instead, it opened to a warm, soft, inviting room. Voluptuous brown plush drapes hung from lightly ornate silver rods adorning the many windows. There was a large light gray sofa, an oversized coffee table that seemed to be converted from a heavily ornate Thai door, tamed by the coldness of the glass top. Oversized chairs, spots of very colorful modern paintings that could, each one, kidnap your eye and mind.

I could live here! It was tasteful and inviting, personalized but without a signature. I could reconstruct his personality out of each and all the elements, but I did not find a single picture of him or his family.

Pier invited me to sit with a stretched hand and left to bring the wine. I chose a corner of the sofa. He disappeared for a few minutes and returned with an open bottle and glasses. The wine was rich, lingering on the glass with a trace of purple. He sat next to me and toasted: “To us.”

A questioning thought bat its wings–what is us?–but the thought flew with a wave of air on my face and all that remained was raw radiating passion. My lips got fuller, my palms got warmer and my body shivered with desire.

I am not sure who offered the first kiss, but that was the tear in the dam. My passion, his passion burst in the open, flooding every crevice of our being. Before long he firmly took my hand and walked me to his bedroom. There was a soft light in the room. Good, I wanted to see him, see us. I got undressed, not waiting for him. I wanted him now: to feel him, to touch him, get the shape of his body imprinted on me. To smell like him and have him all over me, in me, in my senses. With a scream from the depth of my being, I made my offer. The Gods received.

We were sweaty and spent. With a last tender kiss, I drifted away. I was complete now.

Morning came in smiling.

And a cloud: I was alone in bed. I hoped to find his naked warmth next to me, to shift closer to him and bring last night back. I was still hungry for him. Disappointment started knitting a veil.

But soon he entered the room with an astonishing bouquet of blushing roses. I felt a rush of love and fulfillment drowning me. Pier put the roses next to me on the floor and came in to make my wish come true and lose ourselves again in what seemed desire without a horizon.

When the evening kissed the ground, I got ready to leave.

Pier did not ask: ”Will I see you again?” but I did, and he answered just: “I am sure”. What did that mean? The feeling of fulfillment I had shattered like a plate dropped on the floor. I turned to him with questioning eyes and he smiled warmly and kissed me goodbye.

As time passed, the same scene kept replaying: us meeting, his happiness in a glistening eye, him enveloping me in his tenderness. His affection emanating, no, radiating from him. His tenderness was real, palpable; it filled me up; it got me high. And then, when we parted, there was just emptiness. Like an addict I was chasing the “high”, making compromises, getting lower, paying a higher and higher price. No matter the price, I did not want to give it up. When we were together it was as if we ran to the end of the flat world and slid off to a place new, ours, perfect in the moment, dear in the moment and lasting only a moment. There was no tomorrow, there was no bridge where Pier would take my hand and cross over.

            Our time together was like lily pads on the surface of a lake.

When I asked about his life, he offered morsels of disparate events. Some were happy stories of early childhood with grandparents and a house full of relatives and friends, about his interesting travels with the family fading in the background; hints of loss, of love and commitments that crumbled. Hints. Never details or naked feelings. As soon as the contour of his past became more revealing, he was stepping out of it and into the present. Simple change of scenery; a revolving stage with a new décor.

        One day I asked him if we could see some pictures. He brought a handful, most of them his stage pictures, pictures with friends from college, tours. “These are my brothers from college. Here are some photos taken during my year in England when we lived in a fabulous chateau, with many rooms and turrets, and many more doors than rooms; we staged everything: from Hitchcock-like improvisations to a Midnight Summer Night’s Dream”.

There was one picture, Pier the child when he was Peter maybe, stripped of the aura and fantasy of the make-believe world. It was a picture with a woman and two other children and Pier, or Peter, the future entertainer, giving it all to the camera.

 “This is my mom and my siblings,” he offered. This was the only picture about his family I’d seen. “My father took the picture”. He did not say more. I asked him if I could keep that picture. He gave it to me, as he gave anything, with all of him, as a tribute.

I felt through our time together like a cardboard cutout standing on the coast of the ocean. This relationship ate at me, tore at me piece by piece. The rain whipped me and faded my colors away until I could not recognize myself.  And still I could not give up. When I was away from him it was as if I was holding my breath, taking only small sips of air to just get by.

It was intoxicating: Pier recreated the stage for me and offered glamorous attention, love, the spotlight. It was all for the duration of the show, but he gave it all, he gave it to me. That was a lot!

            I wanted to be the show, to get closer, to share his world, to be it. What if I stepped on the stage with him, made his world mine? With that thought, I registered for amateur acting classes, his classes.

As he entered the class, the first session, he was tremendously surprised to see me there. The next moment I realized that he was happy about it. We got through introductions: who we were, why we were there? When my turn came, I muttered something about being shy and having a love of theatre.

Next we ran through one-minute improvisation drills. My colleagues came prepared; they were reciting classics, creating interesting scenes. Talented people! I had nothing memorized, nor did I have experience with any of this, so I mimed a first date of a shy girl. I got some laughs, but the best was Pier’s look saying: “Not bad, kid”.

And then just before class ended, Pier turned on the record player and out jumped a lively swing. He walked to me and we started dancing in the middle of a surprised group of strangers. My shoes were not right, so I threw them off and danced barefoot. We danced, I laughed, got out of breath. I was happy!

He decided to stage a contemporary play about some middle-class family, set somewhere in Ohio of the past steel mill era. I got a minor part: the remote immigrant friend of the main character, Jim, who was an outstanding person, helping, sacrificing, changing lives. In the play I was one person touched by Jim and I was to convey that during the eulogy that closed the play.

My classmates had talent, they could modulate their voices, and their faces took the shape of the characters. I did not. My voice could match some basic emotions like the seven colors of the light spectrum, but I sounded like me, I looked like me; I was no actor material. But this was the way I could break into Pier’s world. I was not waiting anymore for him to give; I wanted to be in control, to take.

The culmination of the workshop was the play, just one event, in front of a live audience, most likely only the family and friends of the actors. I asked only my daughter to come.

As we approached the show, the days became more frantic, the rehearsals more intense, actors edgier.

The day of the play! I was nervous and got into my box of reproachful thoughts: Why did I do this? I always push myself! For what? some regret, mostly anxiety.

Five minutes before the curtain rose, Pier walked backstage, calm, composed, all smiles, sprinkling generous encouragements; he talked with everybody, including me; he patted me on the back and said remotely: “You’ll be great” Nothing personal. He was changing the scene now with me in it. I became another prop.

The thought finally sunk in, in slow motion, like swimming through molasses: this man will never be mine. I realized, only now, that he played the part, the role in this relationship; it did not permeate into his reality. Something kept him at the edge of acting but not living.  Just now I understood that it will never change, and a hurt ran through my entire body. 

As the play developed, I said my lines, not worse than during the rehearsal. And then the end: I stepped to the lectern all dressed in black, about to start the eulogy for Jim, but I realized that this was another eulogy. I looked at Pier sitting in the first row and tears started running. My voice buckled, but I went through with my lines…. “More than anything, he warmed my soul. I basked in his presence. Now that he passed, Jim left behind emptiness, cold, and mourning. Even so I stand here in front of you all dressed in black, grieving his passing, I carry his message that the sun will rise tomorrow, that love, kindness, and generosity are here, within arm’s reach, that we own our lives and we make the future”.    As I raised my eyes and looked at the audience, I saw them leaning forward, catching every word with tenderness, and they were next to me, in my deep sorrow, and grieving with me for my loss. I finished and turned to leave. The audience erupted in applause.

 I kept walking as the curtain fell.

Categories: Fiction

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