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 a Painter of the path. He cooked with freedom and desire; I painted with telescopic focus. We lived as novae of young manhood.
But the time had come where I began to see that life burns away, searing the soles of feet following a hazy path. I continued to attack it anyway, with my oils and graphite, bending it sometimes to my will. I felt that eventually it could be defined; that the thing there could be captured. A perfect perception was not just 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 to excess.
The next day we were of two worlds. I, the Painter, wracked with existential pain, and the Chef, ignoring his hangover, eager to do it again. He believed life was like a zephyr over the road; the Painter thought it was the black and white of asphalt and concrete. Yet, we both loved our journey, didn’t we?
In truth, the Painter and the Chef suspected what everyone else knew; we had held on too long to the pleasures of a college town. Once more our girlfriends, with the end of summer, matured and flew 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 my eyes and said the Painter was what Astrid sought, “God help her.”
Astrid seemed too pretty, too gentle, too in touch with her feelings to be the paramour of the Painter. I knew that part of me and saw this immediately. But oh, how I was smitten by this precious gift. I promised the Painter that I would not become lost in a 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 my studio. The bards brought wine, herbs and improvised tales that segued into drums and song. Artists and scholars argued the bend of history. Like a downy duvet, joy warmed us.
The night closed and I bid my comrades farewell. Locking the door to the studio, I realized a golden figure sat on the blanketed couch. Astrid smiled. “I’m still here,” she said.
Taking the first step down what I knew to be a winding road to a vague destination, I sat beside her.
“You spoke of Blake and Kant,” she said. “Tell me again how they figure into your work.”
Falling into passion, I merged into the radiance of Astrid. Hereon, in the larval stage of our relationship, talk of art replaced action. Oils dried on the palette. Like the husk of a cicada flown away, the Painter inside began to feel betrayed.
I remained male, of course, unable to admit that anything was amiss, destructive, or smothering. Astrid 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 I no longer painted.
The Chef was my 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 stewed, I was in a bubble of delight. Astrid 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.
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 I could want.
Astrid lived for each season, but the holidays more than the others. An icy nose. Carols in malls. Scattered relations in for the holidays. The welcome touch of her parent’s adoration. She enjoyed a bliss that could so simply be mine if the Painter would just play along.
An hour or so into the new year, my 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 on the landing as a pair, Astrid and I.
An old friend kissed me on the cheek and spoke of my companion’s beauty. I glowed, maybe not a little from the charred 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 I led them into the warmth. Remaining on the landing, he embraced Astrid and kissed her with unpent ardor. Like a creation 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, lusted to consume at its seductive aromas, and melted inside from its rapturous flavors. He was the master, yes. 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 more desirable from the increasing admiration day after day? Does Florentine David stand more Adonis 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.
I could not say Astrid 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. So, she became this styled being, expecting little more of herself.
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, becoming 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.
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 in me reemerged, but with a heart stabbed by remorse. It bled throughout the studio. It bled onto canvas which in turn bled into the galleries. It bled through the open wallets of benefactors seeking to feel but not to feel so acutely. It bled and bled until I became content again. Until again, the Painter sulked.
The Chef and his new love went to California because that’s where you go before the sun sets. They played on warm diamond beaches, recreating, in my mind and I think his, the first few months she and I had together. But bawdier, undoubtedly.
They sushied and soireed among the Chefs’ milieu. They walked along misty roads until fog settled into the contorted valleys of bay area geology and his own neocortex. The Chef drank in the love she had to give as well as the fruit of fertile, well-drained Napa soils.
Astrid was a hit; a jewel coddled by west coast party culture. She adored and was adored by the suntanned amigos with bright teeth, by the muscled 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.
In the gelid texture of a winter rain many months later, 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 bellowed. “I cannot cook.”
I would have thought my broken heart could beat again with the warm comfort of concord, but I felt the diminishing echoes of my devotion fading to nothing. His words did not budge the steely mountain of the Painter’s imperative.
As the rain became sleet, I turned away from the Chef and walked into the looming night.