Saturday, December 15, 2012


Many thanks to Meg, Ken and the crew at Connotation-Press for repeatedly publishing my work.

Ellis watched from a cushioned window seat across the room, as yet another grad student managed to push his way into the crowd surrounding her husband.  Amusing, she thought, the way he drew people to him like metal filings to a magnet.  Zzzzzzzzt!  They became attached to him for the evening.  Yes, he remained erudite and charming.  Yes, he was still handsome for a man of advancing years and yes, he continued to radiate an aura of scholarly gravitas that managed to intimidate them.
She was elderly, the oldest woman in the room and the only one carrying a handbag.  She kept touching it as if to make sure it hadn’t vanished from the pillow next to her.  She massaged her temples for a moment - academic social gatherings still tended to give her migraines.  
Her friend, Max Richter, head of the Anthropology department, had been one of the few people able to resist becoming ensnared in the net of charisma cast by her husband, the Pulitzer Prize winning author.  That was the single reason Ellis had slept with Max off and on over the years, until his death ten summers ago.
The rest of them knew her husband, Charles Brinkman, as the shape-shifting persona he summoned for them.  And, they adored him.  Of course, they didn’t have to share a house with him, bear his children, put up with his bullying anger -- his “creative angst” as he referred to it --and nurture his monstrous ego for all these many years.

 She smiled as she observed him lean in close to the Dean’s young wife, as if to encourage an intimate tête-à-tête, when in fact, he was both having trouble hearing her, and hoping for a glimpse of her breasts.
He wore his thinning, white hair long, and pulled back into a short ponytail.  A style he had first adopted in the sixties and never abandoned.  His carefully trimmed, full, white beard and mustache, burly physique and apple-hued cheeks often led children to mistake him for Santa.  Ha!  She thought, Santa indeed.
Ellis Barrett had already been discovered when they met at one of her openings.  Charles resembled a prizefighter in those early years.  Big, barrel-chested, legs most often positioned in a combative stance.  He was working on his PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing.  MFA’s had not yet been invented.
She was a painter of growing consequence, nine years older than he, known for her sophisticated, mind-searing abstracts.  Ellis, just out of her first marriage, was tall, a slender, dark-haired, blue-eyed beauty with opalescent skin.  The sexual and intellectual attraction between them was intense, immediate, and all encompassing.  They married within the month.
 Once more, she rubbed at the expensive, supple leather of her handbag.  Charles moved around the room with his admirers hanging on his every word.  Jockeying to be the one closest to the award-winning writer, some came too close, and he waved them back with a graceful gesture and a playful grin.
There was a time when Ellis was the only one he wanted clinging to his arm.  He wore her like a striking spray of long-stemmed, calla lilies.  Charlie, as he was known then, was just beginning to ascend the steep staircase of his ambition.  He needed her by his side to validate him in some obscure way, like a stamped parking ticket or a gold star on a school paper.
Within a year of their marriage she was pregnant.  Ellis painted less and less as his need for her constant adoration subsumed her.
 After their twin sons were born, she was much too tired and irritable for daily worship at the altar of his successes.  That’s when he began sleeping with a student here or another professor’s wife there.  The public knowledge of these first few infidelities humiliated her.  They raked at her heart.  She soon got over the hurt and began her friendship with Max.  Max Richter, her husband’s best friend.  The irony of their relationship was not lost on either of them.
The two male children she and Charles produced were certainly not shining examples of anybody’s parenting skills.  Ellis sometimes thought it was harder for creative people to parent successfully.  Difficult to scour through the overlay of profound intellect to access the tenderness, patience and self-sacrificing love required to raise children.  She didn’t much care for hers.  They were spoiled egotists and often quite cruel.
When her husband began to travel each summer, to pacify his publisher and woo his readers, Ellis started to paint again.  She was exhilarated by the extravagance of the Kolinsky sable brushes, and the brilliance and luminosity of the sumptuous oils.  Pilbara Red, Flinders Blue-Violet, Viridian and Italian Pink.  She spewed her feelings of anxiety, inadequacy and impatience onto each prepared canvas.
She hired nannies for her toddlers and locked herself in the carriage house at the back of their property.  She made it clear that any interruption, except for that of a death, would result in immediate termination.  Even Max was barred from her studio when she was working.  Ellis painted with a swiftness and determination that both terrified her and emboldened her.  
A New York gallery solicited  a showing of her larger pieces through her agent.  Sales were quite brisk.  Other exhibits were arranged, and Ellis found herself fêted by the international art intelligencia.  She became a woman of substantial means.  Independent and famous all over again.
After a time her children were sent off to boarding schools and then moved on to universities in London.  She knew she had not been a good mother.  At this point she was not sure she would recognize the boys if she saw them passing on the street.  She’d been uncaring and selfish in her efforts to save herself.  Somehow, in the throes of creativity, the shame this might have engendered soared above her like a cloud of starlings, briefly darkening the sky.
Charles had met someone he deemed important to him while teaching abroad for a semester.  He petitioned for a divorce.  She startled him by agreeing at once.  He mumbled and hovered for a month, then asked if they might continue on together.  He said he couldn't go on without her.  Ellis laughed and tried to discern when she had last thought of herself as part of a couple.  They remained legally married still.  Once in awhile she cataloged the reasons for staying.  They were scant, but she did not leave.  
Charles wrote rarely now.  He had been made Chair of some department or other at the college where he’d taught for nearly forty years, and assumed responsibility for two or three seminars a month.  He still needed her, but she no longer cared.
Ellis stood, picked up her bag and walked toward her husband.  He smiled at her slow-paced approach and put his arm around her, kissing the top of her head.  Claiming her for effect in front of the others.  She told him she was tired and wanting her bed.  Charles said she should take the car, as he was going to stay on for a bit.  One of the boys, in the crush of those encircling him, offered to drive him home.
She murmured her farewells as she walked to the hallway.  Once on the sidewalk, she fingered the airline ticket to France and the passport in her handbag.  Their driver gently took her arm to help her into the car.  Ellis saw, in her mind’s eye, the house she’d purchased in the tiny, seaside village of Cabourg, and the brief note she’d left on the nightstand in her husband’s bedroom.
Ellis breathed a sigh of relief.  Breaking the constraints of so many years left her feeling light-headed.  Her innate selfishness had been her salvation after all.  
She knew that to study the Impressionists who had painted on the Côte Fleurie, and linger in solitude by the sea, would suit her perfectly during these last few years of her life.

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