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by Ron Shannon
Nothing had prepared me for that night, but everything else had been meticulously planned. The gallery’s tile floors had been waxed and repeatedly buffed. Temporary walls had been arranged in complicated patterns to produce odd angles and the most extreme corners. Paintings had been hung under small brass lamps. Shadows had been carefully crafted to land in just the right places.
The clientele consisted of some of the town’s richest and most influential people. They had been served expensive champagne in the finest crystal and supplied with programs that gave each painting a name and a suggested bid price. I stood by the punchbowl and listened to the low chatter blend with the rustle of designer gowns and felt the thick tension of wealthy snobbery. I wanted to run and hide, but that’s when she walked into the room.
At first I managed to ignore her beauty. I nearly convinced myself the fluorescent lights and her fair complexion made her look pale and weak. Yet, it wasn’t difficult for me to see the porcelain quality of her skin. I easily imagined my lips gently pressed against her cheek. I wanted her face to be too long and narrow. Instead it had the shape of a magnificent oval like a thirteenth century queen forever captured on an artist’s canvas.
By now I realized I couldn’t hide, so I kept my place by the punchbowl and faced another lonely night and another tedious party. I took a sip of the punch. It tasted good, but the flavor escaped me. No matter how hard I tried to recall, give it a name, its memory remained just out of reach, but the drink was cold, the alcohol was strong, so I nursed it and watched her as she made her way across the room.
She moved with authority, stopped just long enough to let a man whisper in her ear. She listened intently to his secrets while another man handed her a glass of champagne. She wrapped her long fingers around the glass, smiled and kissed each man on the cheek before joining another circle of friends.
Her black dress drew tight against her thin upper body. An elastic waistband gathered it before the skirt flared out into pleats away from her legs. It was close to being too short and tended to twirl mischievously as she walked through the crowd. Another man stopped her, held her hand. They talked and smiled and looked at each other with intimate expressions.I turned around to get more punch and tried to dismiss the twang of jealousy that made my heart race. The ladle felt awkward in my hand, but I filled my glass until it overflowed. Liquor drenched the fine linen tablecloth.
My lady’s voice, stern, sincere, and God help me, so recognizable.
“I thought that was you,” she said. “But it’s not like you to be at one of these things.”
She held her glass between us, a paper napkin under her fingertips.
“No, but it’s my art they’re showing. I have to be here.”
“I was hoping you would be. Do you still live in the beach house?”
For the first time, she looked at her drink and began to unravel the napkin. She frayed it, tore it, and dropped small shreds of it on the glossy floor. I wanted to reach for her hand, but I didn’t.
“Yeah,” I said. “I made the back room a studio. I’m doing oil on canvas now.”
She lifted her head. I knew she wanted to say something.
“I’m sorry,” she said, after a long pause. “I was wrong.”
“No, you were right, I was wrong. I was wrong for you. He’s a better man.”
“You loved me, that wasn’t wrong. He never did.”
More than ever I could see her beauty. She put her glass down and started to leave.
She stopped, but didn’t say anything.
“I still live in the beach house.”
Her tears reflected the harsh light. “I still have a key.”
I watched her walk away and leave the party before I took another sip of my drink.
Blackberries. That’s the flavor I’d forgotten. Blackberries.
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