A certain artist was having a retrospective of his work at the city museum. The show was being underwritten by some local companies, and it would travel to other cities. This is considered a big art deal in my neck of the woods. I was assigned to write about the event and the artist, which is a job I do frequently for our slick city magazine -- the kind that covers issues, personalities and what bathroom decor is hot for fall. I have found that artists like this kind of attention. They labor away in obscurity and when someone with a tape recorder starts asking sincere, interested questions, they blossom like crocuses in spring.
This guy, however, was being coy. "I've gotten so much publicity over the years," he sighed, "and it's all been, well, so trite. Why don't you send me some samples of your work, and I'll decide if I want to do a story." His arrogance was irritating, but I was intrigued enough by the challenge to send him some clips before I went on vacation. Sometimes, in the midst of mountain vistas and fast food, I wondered how this little game would play out. I was beginning to suspect this encounter might be nettlesome because I had recently decided to give up men.
In one of those pensive moments of taking stock I had finally admitted to myself that I was cresting life's hill and that things would roll a lot faster down the far slope. I wanted to stop wasting time fretting over sags and wrinkles; mourning the beautiful, accomplished woman I had just missed becoming a few years earlier.
Somehow, these worries were childishly intertwined with being considered attractive to men. If I gave up men, I thought, the petty distractions would trot out the door like little puppies at their owner's heels. Then, I could grow old graciously and in peace.
It wasn't a major renunciation. I was giving up men in general, since I already have a particular man. I was giving up the pursuit, the game, the fantasy, the flirtation. I was giving up the instinctive chatter between the sexes; the white noise that began sometime in adolescence and has been humming away ever since. I was renouncing the ritual dance we perform by habit long after our mates are chosen, our children grown and our evolutionary mandate is fulfilled -- long after time and gravity have done their dirty work. Doesn't everyone scan a room for an interesting face and tingle from a glance of frank admiration? And who doesn't feel a pang of despair or maybe jealousy when another woman is undeniably more attractive?
No matter how mature we become, how complacent and orderly our lives, some orphaned Cinderella in our souls still hopes that we may someday stumble over true effortless love, not the kind we work so hard to sustain. That some prince -- and by now he will have those endearing little wrinkles about the eyes -- may touch us in places spiritual and otherwise where we have never been touched before. We all know our particular prince began leaving his socks on the floor the morning after we pledged our troth. But somewhere, over the rainbow or in Madison County, there may be someone who will look at us with smoldering desire, who will care enough to fill the longing in our souls (and maybe pick up his socks). It's this fairy tale that keeps the pages of romance novels churning under the book lights late at night.
Not for me. My cards are off the table. The time is right -- half the men in the world are too young, and the other half are sucking up to the hopeful fountain of the over 30s. So, I tried to stop those furtive glances to see if the attractive guy was glancing back. I tried not to care if he wasn't. I tried to accept the fact that I am charging into middle age and to look forward with enthusiasm rather than back with regret.
It was kind of a relief, really. I had less self-esteem on the line; less energy invested in chasing down a bus that had already passed my stop. I didn't have to re-inflate my ego when he didn't glance back or when someone beautiful and accomplished inhaled all the admiration in the room (OK, that still pricked a little). The clock had struck midnight, and I was leaving the dance floor, frayed, but with what I hoped was dignity.
The artist eventually agreed to the interview, and I arrived at his house, wary and curious, at the appointed time. He seemed nervous and animated. "I'm really uncomfortable talking about myself," he said in confessional tones before launching into a detailed life story. His house was recognizably bachelor -- roomy, spare, a little grimy. It should have smelled of cats. We looked at his cutting garden, his homing pigeons. We went to his studio, which was set up for serious work, cluttered with brushes and tubes of paint. His paintings were hung carelessly on the walls and piled on the floor.
They were good. Really good. Some pieces were abstracts; some were landscapes; some were odd and disturbing symbolic arrangements he called allegories. His work was compelling even when it was odd. Critics wrote fawning things about his use of color and light. He talked a lot about his art and why he did it. Among confusing spurts of words would come poetic insights. He was disarmingly forthright and alluringly intense. We talked about art, his divorce, his children. We talked about his reluctance to be interviewed and about my discomfort doing a story under his anxious scrutiny.
Then, something unnerving crept into the room: He was looking at me with a flirtatious smile. For the first time in a hundred interviews, my clean, professional boundaries were crumbling. At that moment, with that man in his studio, anything was possible. It was exhilarating and scary. I felt my face burning and my heart pounding, just like in the romance novels. I stumbled back. I began asking questions. A tape, I needed another blank tape. The moment passed on little cat feet.
He talked on about the creative process. Does he ever get tired of painting? "Does one tire of the rain, or thunder? Or the sun?" he asked. He talked about his sense of personal fulfillment and the rightness of things. My second tape was full. Four hours had gone by. The words were spent, and we sat silent for a moment. From within that quiet space with the dangerous moment now passed, he said, "When you came, I thought you were gorgeous. If you were single, I'd be camping on your doorstep."
I was stunned. Wasn't this the fantasy? An interesting, attractive man looking at me with smoldering desire? I stumbled into the afternoon sunlight. There could be no graceful recovery, no light closure: "Thank you for the interview and the complete upheaval of my midlife resolutions." As I drove away, he stood in the yard like Huckleberry Finn, all boyish eagerness and silly hope.
Whenever you make a decision, I say the universe tests it: Did I really want to give up the
game, the chance for that momentous meeting of the earth and sky, laced with danger and laden with possibility?
From the safety of my midlife cynicism, I knew that this artist was not the prince. By now, I'm old enough to recognize a hungry, lonely man. Jaded enough to know that there would be many beautiful, accomplished women sucking up admiration at his fancy museum opening, glancing at him hoping he was glancing back. Besides, he hadn't seen me in my glasses.
He called, businesslike, a few times. The last time he asked if I was coming to his opening. I said no. "Well, then, goodbye forever," he said.
I knew he would not pine for me.