The Third (excerpt)

 

My friend and I agreed that there were two poles of ephemerality: the instant warmth of a new romance and the heartbreak of lost love. We were so young, so glib, so restless of foot on an uneasy bridge, but it was our way. He was born the Chef of Hearts; I was the Painter of the Path. He cooked with freedom and desire; I painted with telescopic focus. We lived as novae of young manhood.

It burns away, life, searing the soles of our feet as we follow a hazy path. I attacked it anyway, with my oils and graphite. Bending it sometimes to my will. I felt it could be defined; that the thing there could be captured. Being was not just an idleness of thought. Or, so it seemed.

The Chef, master of an intoxicating cafe, delighted in the subjugation of senses. Intentionally, he let experience pass through his grasp, creating with the purpose of obliteration. And he and I, and our friends and lovers, we consumed it.

The next day we were of two worlds. I, the Painter, wracked with existential pain, and he, ignoring his hangover, eager to do it again. The Chef believed life was like a zephyr over the road; the Painter thought it was the concrete. We both loved it, though, didn’t we?

The Painter and the Chef held on too long to the pleasure of a college town. Once more our girlfriends, with the end of summer, had matured and flown away. We were alone. Not without each other, however. Together we could pretend it was just la vie, that we didn’t ache from the cleaving of a somehow evanescent fusion.

A former Juliet, long tired of our shenanigans but in love with us still, presented a light into our world. She looked into the Painter’s eyes and told him he was what Asia sought, “God help her.”

Asia seemed too pretty, too gentle, too in touch with her feelings to be the paramour of the Painter. I saw this immediately. But oh, how I was smitten by this precious gift. I would not become lost in the trackless wilderness. This time.

That night the usual crowd collected, bantered, ate and drank. The Chef, also taken by the charms of the new girl, was miraculous. Unfortunately for him, he was merely the emcee to his friend’s act. After closing, the party moved to the Painter’s studio. The poets brought wine, herbs and improvised tales that segued into drums and song. Artists and scholars argued the bend of history. Joy like a downy duvet warmed us.

The night closed and the Painter bid his friends farewell. Locking the door to the studio, I realized a golden figure sat on the blanketed couch. Asia smiled. “I’m still here,” she said. Taking the first step down what he knew to be a winding road to a vague destination, the Painter sat beside her.

“You spoke of Blake and Kant,” she said. “Tell me again how they figure into your work.”

Ah.

Falling into passion, not really love, the Painter and I emerged from the studio into the light of Asia. Hereon, in the larval stage of a relationship, talk of art replaced action. Oils dried on the palette. Like the husk of a cicada flown away, the Painter began to feel betrayed. The I that is us remained male, of course, unable to admit that anything was amiss, destructive, or smothering. Asia had no such inclinations. She loved the abstract conversation, her bicycle on sunny days, and her friends the Painter was pained to meet. She loved to swim, to laugh, to make carefree love in a frosty clearing in late November. She loved that I wished to be near her always. She loved love.

She did not wonder why the Painter no longer painted.

The Chef was the Painter’s cosmic twin, so she embraced him as well. When the Painter grew heavy, they could confide and enjoy relaxed good cheer. She could be comforted by his hearty affability. She could laugh with no malice at his foolish dalliances.

Yet, while the Painter dimmed, I was a prism of delight. Asia was a movie I watched every day, always the same yet ever new and intriguing. I was happy. Happy to exist. Happy to be admired for my intellect. Happy to stoke each merging of profundities into sexual combustion night after night. Happy the way a boy is happy.

Beneath December’s fallen leaves, the trail persisted. The Painter needed to draw the reality nipping at my heels. Needed to become heady on linseed oil. Needed to be the self-creation that was me. The Painter needed, needed, yet I felt I had all the Painter could want.

Asia lived for the season. An icy nose. Carols in malls. Scattered relations in for the holidays. The welcome touch of her parent’s adoration. It could all be so simple if the Painter would just live to love, too.

An hour or so into the new year, the Painter’s studio began to fill with post-partiers, weary waiters, and musicians tired of the Auld Lang Syne. Through the streets, parks and alleys they came. From black box theaters and auditoriums hot with electronics. From dance halls and candlelit restaurants. From present and past. We greeted them as a pair, Asia and the Painter.

An old love kissed me on the cheek and spoke of her beauty. I glowed, maybe not a little from embers of the Painter’s unease.

The Chef, wrapped in colorful woolens, approached with crew and trays of sumptuous fare. He bade his people take the Painter’s direction and sent them into the warmth. Outside, he embraced Asia and kissed her with unpent ardor. Like a creation fresh from his oven, she was ready.

I think now of how we gushed praise at the delicious surprises from the Chef’s cafe. How we oohed and aahed its appearance and melted inside from its seductive aromas. He was the master, sure. But what about that which he created? The object of our desire, what does it want?

Does Mona Lisa, once thought of as a plain girl, glow ever richer from the increasing admiration day after day? Does David stand a little taller after centuries of adoring eyes? Does Othello rage with increasing vigor at each cacophony of appreciation following the final curtain? Made by the human ego. Imbued with the human ego. Most assuredly they would bask in glory like the human ego, and ache for more.

But what if the creations were not objects at all?

I could not say Asia was the product of perceptions of her grace, but she did not exist apart from them either. She became in ways a golden calf. Exalted. Apart. Eventually resented. On her own, she deserved none of this. How true it is for all of us. Even within us. I perceived the painter to be what he is, and he, I. It is we who led each other into such fantastic caricature. So, she became this styled being, expecting little more of herself. The Chef and the Painter, too, nothing more than shadow puppets playing our parts as if at the end of sticks wielded by an unseen master. The drums and gongs sound. We flop against the screen. The inevitable drama plays toward that which was willed.

I could laugh now if I only would.

It all comes out, of course. The Painter drove her away, she said. I could not help myself, the Chef said. I could not help myself, either, I said.

I let her go. I let them go. The Painter reemerged from the heart of an artist wounded deeply, stabbed by remorse. He bled throughout the studio. He bled onto canvas which in turn bled into the galleries. He bled through the open wallets of benefactors seeking to feel but not to feel so acutely. He bled and bled until I became content again.

Anemic from the satiety of success, the Painter sulked anew.

The Chef and his new love went to California because that is where you go before the sun sets. They played on warm diamond beaches, recreating, in my mind and his, the first few months she and I had together. But bawdier, undoubtedly, for that was his way. They sushied and soireed among the Chefs’ milieu. They walked along misty roads until fog nestled into the contorted valleys of bay area geology and his own pia mater. The Chef drank in the love she had to give as well as the fruit of fertile, well-drained Napa soils.

Asia was a hit, a jewel coddled by west coast party culture. She adored and was adored by the muscled amigos with bright teeth, by the tanned, wave-riding gods, by the Midas-gifted machinators of tech magic. The Chef brought it all to her and laid it at her feet, as was his way. To create with abandon. To create with the intent of decimation.

My poor Chef, ever more besotted, was alone before he knew it.

Thus another summer ended. The birds flew south. Yet, friendship, hopeful friendship, should have its way. Right?

One late fall evening the Chef and the Painter stood on either side of a familiar street. I, cold yet yearning; the Chef sheepish and of red pleading eyes. He held out his hand, that amazing hand that fed the dreams of so many. He offered the vacuum that filled his soul. He spoke to me like a tsunami, like a knife to his throat. “I am doom to my kitchen,” he said. “I cannot cook.”

I looked inside to the Painter, feeling a stone fall into a bottomless chasm. Into nothing.

There was a time when my friend and I agreed that there were two poles of ephemerality. To our unexpected dismay, we found a third.