I don’t always find her. And the where of her is unpredictable. On those occasions when I don’t find her, I never know whether it’s her choice to remain hidden or whether she has simply abandoned certain places, finding them unsuitable in some way. The first time I found her always comes to mind with the kind of clarity attaching to events that reshape our lives in some fundamental way, as if the experience is permanently housed in its own moment of brilliant light where every little detail is illuminated. It was like that.
I had been visiting a number of antique malls on my own. Checking out the framed paintings and prints on the wall in one of the booths, chuckling over the abundance of badly rendered children and dogs. And then I saw her. She was posed in an old fashion illustration, wearing what I always think of as Katherine Hepburn slacks – black, fitted around a high waist with flowing wide legs from the hip down. Her pose was alluring. I could that say her hair was blond, curled and crimped. That she used a sleek, black cigarette holder. That she wore a turquoise bangle on her left wrist. None of that mattered. It was her eyes that held me, those blue eyes that suddenly, inexplicably, saw me. She was as startled as I was. I could feel her overwhelming desire for something. Life. Freedom. My own desire to give her anything she wanted was immense. She was gone before I could breathe, my reality unalterably shifted. I had to find her again.
Though I took the illustration home with me, it didn’t take me long to realize she would never return there. It was lifeless, her essence gone. But I soon stumbled across her in a small antique store in the city, her head nodding lazily, almost imperceptibly, from within a ’60s concert poster. Another time she was smiling up at me from an old porcelain plate where she lived in a pastel world and wore a powdered wig. And once she was hiding inside a Life magazine from the 1940s, exuding that strong female vibe so desirable during World War II. So my search began.
Our encounters have become more physical each time we meet. At first it was only eye contact. Then one day as I caressed her image on a porcelain plate, I could feel the softness of her skin. The last time I found her, I was able to grasp her by the hand, a tantalizing connection that left me both frustrated and exhilarated for days.
Today, wandering through the first floor of the new antique mall out on Route 30, I scan plates, magazines, and old photos for any sign of her. I climb up a narrow wooden staircase to the second floor, threading my way through a crowded section of Christmas decorations and maneuvering around some very shabby furniture. With no trace of her yet found, I arrive at the bottom of another narrow staircase. I release a small sigh and clamber up.
The ceiling on this level is sloped with some natural light filtering through dormers at either end. A bit of artificial light glows starkly from a few bare bulbs overhead. The floor is filled with books, old paintings and frames. Nothing shelved or stacked neatly but everything piled loosely and carelessly as if randomly dropped through some now hidden portals. Many books lay open with torn pages. Though I can navigate through the clutter, it is clear that the pathways are accidental. The clutter is overwhelming. Frustrated by her absence, I think perhaps I should return another time to complete my search.
As I turn to make my way back down the stairs, I feel her. I close my eyes, catch mental hold of her beckoning strand of consciousness. She leads me to a small stack of paintings in a dark corner of the attic. I hurry through the stack, tossing each aside as I view and reject. Not the dog. Not the landscape. Not the seascape. Not the damned still life with nodding blooms in a vase. Until finally, there she is. I carry her over by one of the dormers and lean her against some books where she can catch the light. She is posed in front of a printed curtain, one hand on her hip, gazing off to her left at something unseen. Her dress is simple, shift-style, sleeveless with a deep vee neckline. On her head she wears a brown cloche. She takes my breath away.
I touch her face, stroke her painted arm. “Are you ready?” I ask.
I reach for her painted hand, tremble as it grasps mine in return. I pull, hard, willing her to come to me. She comes out of the frame suddenly, like a cork popping from a wine bottle. And then she is in my arms. We stand in the dingy attic space. Me in my jeans and sandals. She in her portrait finery. We are about the same height. She leans her head against mine. I touch the back of her neck and slowly trace the shape of her spine with my fingers. I move my hand from the small of her back to the curve of her hip and hold her close, her breasts softly pressing against mine. I can feel her breathe. I can.
“I love you,” I say. I have said those words before, never knowing if she could hear me.
Her embrace tightens. In that moment, too late, I understand her intent – not to join but to possess. I panic and try to pull away. She is strong, too strong. I can feel her slip into every nerve, every muscle, every tissue as she gains control. Sexy and terrifying, her voice fills my head. The light begins to fade.
“Did you really think this was all about love?” She whispers. “Did you?”
© Karen Kleis – All Rights Reserved
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