By the time he gets up the next morning she has the wall covered in prints. He hadn’t heard the printer humming half the night but it must have been. What had once been a wall of windows overlooking the early morning bank of fog is now a wall of white, roiling with color and glossy shades of gray. She’s squatting in one corner by the lower portion of the display still wearing the clothes she had worn the night before: black, form-fitting, and oddly masculine with their proper linear embellishments despite the slivers of exposed skin around her wrists and ankles. She had left her shoes in the hall when they had returned from dinner, but she’s put them back on, balancing easily in the leopard print heels as she studies her work. He can’t see her face from this angle, but from the slant of her shoulders and the tip of her head he can tell she’s intrigued by something.
He listens to the coffee machine gurgle on the counter behind him as he steps farther to one side to watch the nuanced shifts in her expression as she stares at the blank spot in the corner. The coffee pot hisses spitting and the sharp scent of her favorite blend finally rouses her from her work, the corner of her mouth twitching into a smile as she turns, leaning back on one hand to look up at him in surprise.
“I didn’t hear you in the shower.”
He hadn’t bothered with a shower. Normally he insisted on the morning ritual, but today he was feeling rather put off by the thought. The pleasant buzz from last night had given way to a dull ache behind his eyes and the mottled light in the bathroom grated unpleasantly on his nerves. Normally the lighting wasn’t half bad, but she had unscrewed the bulb in the bathroom again and taken it with her on her wanderings. He would find it in a couple of weeks tucked into the back of his sock drawer or in the closet nestled in a stack of towels. For now he could either shower in the dark or make due with the glow of her red-hued safelight, the water pouring from the shower head with a sickly pink tint.
“You didn’t hear me start the coffee either.”
Rising from her crouch, she smiles at this before her demeanor changes, fatigue settling more deeply into the lines around her eyes as she shifts her weight, wincing slightly at the stiffness in her knees. “I hope you don’t mind I went through a pot already.”
He smiles knowing what she really means is that she’s sorry he’d spent so much time the night before fumbling around his apartment half drunk, looking for the sheets and pillows that had been tossed onto the couch and never used. When he’d told her he didn’t mind her staying up to work, he’d expected to wake up alone. He hadn’t expected to find her still awake. Normally she would be sound asleep on the couch, the last of her energy having given out only moments before. Instead she’s here lingering uncertainly, the creative spark that had sustained her through the night suddenly fading.
“Did you want breakfast?”
She yawns then, almost comically, and reaches to tuck an errant strand of hair behind her ear.
“Dinner last night was amazing.” She says with a fondness reminiscent of a first date long past. “I don’t think I could eat another thing.”
“I was thinking Neil’s.” He tempts, but she’s either never had one of Neil’s omelets or she really isn’t hungry because his words slip right past her.
“That chocolate cake.” She grins with a faint groan and a sly smile. “The wine wasn’t bad either.”
He thinks of his dress shirt, soaking in the kitchen sink, and the splotches of wine he had spilled when he’d felt her foot slip up his leg.
“I preferred the white.” He deadpans and then nods to the wall of paper behind her. “Working on a new campaign?”
“What?” She turns as if she’s already forgotten. “Oh no, this was just-” she shrugs, letting him fill in the rest.
He’s beginning to see the progression now. The upper reaches on the left are chaotic, a spotty representation of the high from the night before, pages removed and refit into later sections leaving behind the feeling of intermittent blackouts and temporary lapses. Even half empty, the bottom right sits in sharp contrast, a neat grid filled with colorful block-printed letters and muted black and white photos. The middle is less accessible: some of the pages are wrinkled, scraps of newsprint peak through the holes between thematic sections, two stacks of books linger curiously neat on the floor before a scattered confetti of discarded prints.
“It’s-” She waves her hand this time, finally moving around him to investigate the now silent coffee pot.
She wasn’t normally like this about her work. The frenzied creativity was the same as it always was, but this time there was something more uncertain, more hesitant. Almost vulnerable, he thinks, turning to watch her strain, stretching up onto her toes to reach a mug on the top shelf in the cabinet beside the sink.
Her work was always beautiful, but this was haunting. Commercially obscure, he thinks of the words she had spat at him in a long ago conversation. Sex, power, happiness, no one wanted to sell despair. Private was what she had meant, he realizes. Darkness was something you held on to; you couldn’t articulate the gray fog: the private, personal swirling of emotion.
He watches her set the mug on the counter, stature shrinking as she slips back out of her heels. She fills the mug and then holds it with both hands. Still turned away from him, she blows across the rim. “I have to leave around three. Can you make sure I haven’t crashed somewhere before then. Jim gets a bit irritable when I make him wait.”
She turns around then and looks at him so sweetly he feels as if he should be trying harder to suppress the annoyance that rose every time Jim’s name came up. He had nothing against the guy. It wasn’t anything personal. He just didn’t like what he represented when it came to her. He’d promised not to get jealous, that was one of the ‘don’t make this complicated’ rules, and while he wasn’t, she seemed to think he was, so he tried not to sneer, or groan, or rashly proclaim anything regarding his thoughts on the man while she was around. This made it hard to sustain a conversation involving Jim, but he could manage for a while, for her sake, when he really needed to.
“I thought he picked up work in San Francisco.”
She looks surprised that he knows this. He doubts she’s forgotten she mentioned it since she was the one who had brought it up the night before, but she also knows he hadn’t gotten drunk enough to have forgotten.
“He flew up for,” she takes a long sip of coffee, evidently reconsidering. “He’s in town. I wanted to talk to him.”
He bites his tongue and tries to act like this isn’t killing him, the unspoken about going back hanging heavy in the air. He wanted so badly to say it, but he wasn’t allowed to, uncomplicated didn’t allow him a say in the decision making process. If she’d gotten bored answering to marketing execs and gallery owners, she certainly wasn’t going to answer to him.
“Things aren’t working out in San Francisco.”
He crosses the room and steps up beside her, rooting around in the fridge. It’s the most obvious delay tactic he could have come up with but it gives him a moment to cool his head as he piles breakfast ingredients on the counter: eggs and pre-chopped vegetables, a block of overpriced cheese. He grabs a bag of spinach from the freezer as she steps away looking at him oddly.
“Is it the window?” She asks as he plates the omelet, her squared shoulders suggesting she’s come to a conclusion she isn’t happy with. “Is it arrangement? I know I should have asked before I stuck tape over half the windows, but I needed the space and- What is it?”
He waves a fork at her as he takes a seat on one of the stools behind the counter. “I like having you here. I was hoping we would get to see each other for more than a minute.”
“You saw me yesterday.”
“For five minutes when you dropped off your stuff and dug your boxes out of my spare room. I had to be downtown for that press junket and your flight was late.” He rattles off the list like this hasn’t happened a hundred times over the years. A lazy afternoon spent over coffee turned into a shared sandwich in an airport food court. Dinner somewhere turned into hurried street food, trying not to ruin a new suit in the back of a cab.
“Last night.” She clarifies as he chews, watching as she paces uneasily down the length of his kitchen. “I thought we had a good time.”
“We did. I did. It was perfect.” But it wasn’t the same.
“What is it then?” She looks worried now, eyes pleading with him as she stops to press her palms into the counter directly in front of him.
“I wanted to be the sappy jerk that got to watch you sleep and cook you breakfast. I wanted to have a conversation about something that doesn’t involve other people.” I wanted to be a little bit selfish, he doesn’t say.
She blinks, whatever romantic inclination his words might have had lost in her surprise. “This isn’t about Jim?”
“You’re the one who brought him up.” He says, trying not to sound like he’s being patient with her. He isn’t anyway, he’s exasperated; Jim always makes him exasperated.
“You just seem so- You’re never so- Unless Jim-” she gives up trying to fit the words together and squeezes her eyes shut. “I shouldn’t have started on a second pot. I’m getting the shakes.”
“I’m disappointed and a little bit cranky because I skipped my shower.” He says honestly trying not to sound as reluctant as he feels. Being open like this always made his stomach twist, but it was part of the price of having her, as much as he could, kept to himself. His other relationships weren’t predicated on avoiding complicated. Something that lasted less than a week wasn’t likely to become complicated. He liked that. He liked it so much he should have let her go a hundred times, but he couldn’t.
“I missed you. That’s not complicated feelings that’s just me being your friend.”
She thinks about this for awhile, fingers tapping against counter.
“Can you be?” Her bottom lip trembles and her nails scratch against the granite. She isn’t looking at him anymore. She’s looking away, not beyond him, but to someplace else.
“You keep trying not to say something and that isn’t,” she sighs and presses her hands flat. “fair. It isn’t fair to you.”
Despite how wrecked she looks he can’t help but suppress a smile, because the confession she’s been dreading is about to come rushing out of his mouth and it isn’t what she expects.
“I care about you.” He holds up a hand to stop her before she can start. “Give me a second before you go hopping around all ‘I told you so.’ I’m not inhuman. I have feelings but they’re not undying never ending I can’t breathe without you feelings. That would be melodramatic. I care about you as a person. I don’t want anything to happen to you and I’m worried. Jim’s a nice guy but I hate when he blows into town. You’re excited for awhile but then it gets too tempting. You’re bored or you’re anxious and it doesn’t end well. I hate seeing you go through that.”
“I told you I worked through that.”
He waits. She’s looking at him now, but whatever she’s seeing doesn’t have anything to do with him.
“What do you care if I go back?”
Because you could die seems like a reasonably honest answer but he thinks it through anyway, if only because it gives him something to focus on other than the desperate longing she can’t quite hide. She doesn’t want to talk about this. Honesty in their relationship was one thing. It was hard, but it was necessary. It’s what made the time and distance work, the one thing that kept her from slapping him, kept him from blocking her calls. There was honesty there because there had to be, but elsewhere- Their personal lives were complicated, separate, full of landmines. He may have sat with her outside his shrink’s office while she cried after a session, but that didn’t give him the right to ask questions. He knew the facts that was it.
I’m not running away. He knows that what she wants to say. He had asked her once what it was she was running away from. It had been the only reason he could think of for her running to a war zone, but it wasn’t something he should have said. I’m not running from you had been her reply, wounded and quiet; she hadn’t taken his calls again after that. It wasn’t until she’d landed overseas that he’d heard from her. It’s a sunny 20*C. That was it, no sorry, no I forgive you, just the weather.
They had been separate after that in a way he hadn’t expected. They had continued trading sporadic emails, and they had managed a quick video chat once, but there had been a distance between them. He hadn’t known what was happening over there across ocean and desert, he still didn’t know, but that hadn’t made it any less real. It had been written across her face for so long, a void he couldn’t cross to reach her.
“It scares me.” The words slip out when he’s not thinking of them, when he’s not trying not to think of them. It’s a more selfish version of what he’s already said, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. He doesn’t want to go through that again, but he can’t let her go, leave her be. It wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t feel right. He had learned a long time ago that he would never be free of her. There was no point in trying.
“What do you have to lose?” She asks and he can’t answer. She’s angry; it doesn’t matter with who. He would lose her. It wasn’t the same for her. She may have lost so much, but she would never lose him. That was the unfortunately immutable fact of their lives, even if complicated meant it shouldn’t be.
Her photos had won award, they had propelled her into stardom in certain discriminating art circles, but eventually the light had faded, leaving her to contend with the shadows of her decimated life. Her journalistic drive was dead, her understanding of the world upended. She was alive but she wasn’t living. Art had helped, the ad work and the private portraiture, but he still kept her photos hidden, the few she had sent him before she’d shown up on a shoot in New York and left her bags in the green room almost two years ago.
“What?” She demands again and he reaches forward, carefully, to touch her, brushing his fingers over the back of her hand. He knows it’s a cliche, a celebrity with a shrink, but it helps to have someone to remind you that it isn’t always about you. It helps him. When she pulls away or, like now, grabs him roughly, snatching at him, it helps him remember that this isn’t about him.
Her grip tightens painfully around his wrist. She’s trembling again, more visibly this time. Her quivering fingers shivering against the warmth of his pulse point.
“This.” He covers her hand with his own, not tugging or pulling, not asking anything of her. He rests his hand over hers and waits for the darkness to leave her.
It relents first with a tremble in her bottom lip, more pronounced than before, and then with a spasm in her fingers, knuckles whitening before she pulls her hand from between his.
“I’m sorry.” She whispers, shifting back.
Reliant now on her contact with the counter to stay upright she can’t step back, but she distances herself from him as much as she can, her relief palpable when he stands from his seat and moves away. He keeps close, hovering at the entrance to the kitchen, but she’s so focused on where he had been she doesn’t seem to notice.
“Should I cancel? I wanted to talk. Maybe I should-” She mumbles to herself as tears slip down her face. “Is it really like that?”
She turns toward him, the look on her face overriding any desire on his part to give her space. He pulls her to him resisting the urge to hold her tight. He wants to draw her in, shelter her as she sags against him. He can’t. He won’t.
“Invite him to dinner.”
He hears her draw in a sharp breath, surprised perhaps by his sudden change of heart. “I can’t.”
“Why not? It doesn’t have to be any more pretentious than your designer lattes.” He feels the muscles in her face lift as she smiles.
“He may rub me the wrong way, but I don’t hate him. Jim is a good guy. Don’t not do this because of me. You went through a lot together and while ‘a lot’ is something that makes me uncomfortable that shouldn’t make him persona non grata. I could get used to having him around just-” he tightens his hold on her unconsciously. “don’t let that define you. You deserve a relationship separate from those experiences. If inviting him to dinner helps with that, then I’m OK with soiling my fine china with subpar takeout.”
She chuckles, the laugh brightening her features a bit as she pulls back. “I thought we weren’t doing complicated and here we are with a threesome.”
“Complicated feelings.” He clarifies carefully, not wanting to end the upswing she’s on. “Everything else about us is complicated.”
“All right then,” she nods more sure of herself if still hesitant, waiting for the approval she doesn’t need and he nods encouraged by the way her smile lingers as she gestures toward the bedroom. “I’m going to go, call Jim.”
He watches her disappear down the hall and then walks back over to the window now colored with light, patches of sky peaking through the gaps between the pages. He wants the explanations she can’t give him. He knows that so he’s tries to match what he sees with what he’s experiencing. Last night was evident, but the order from chaos feels backwards, the reverse of what he’s feeling now. Last night had been loud and chaotic but it had been familiar, this morning, this morning- He reaches up, stretching to touch the highest of the prints, a scarlet letter ‘A’ placed in the center of the window, a paper rose cut out and twined between its legs.
That was what the books were for he realizes, a makeshift step stool, her smudged handprints hidden behind subsequent pages. He tries deconstructing the rest of the wall in the same way, but there’s no other obvious starting point. She had started there. With a rose and its thorns, the contrasting symbolism, stinging sharp in his mind.
He knows she doesn’t pay much attention to the specific symbols in her work although he knows thematically, she’s careful to take heed of anything that might be marketable later. She acted on impulse and emotion, on cultural relevance. It was what made her work so salient, so popular, but she wouldn’t follow the older traditions, the literary baggage and the religious iconography.
He wonders if she knows of the contradiction, not between flower and thorn, but of the flower itself, loss and silence, hope and rebirth, or if it meant only what it seemed on the surface: something beautiful, thorny and sharp and painful at the center of it all. He wonders if that was why she had started there or if it had been something else, if it had meant something else.