She’d seen the image when she’d woken up and gone to the window to raise the blinds. A seagull, escaped from the ocean to the concrete of Manhattan, feathers a pristine white in the smoky city air, great wings outstretched, riding a thermal up the side of the nineteenth-century brick building across the street.
The building across the street from her apartment was worn, old, used up. It was slated for demolition soon and looked it—boarded-up windows, broken front door, the shell of a building no one lived in and no one loved anymore. A dying artifact.
In contrast, the bird had epitomized newness, freedom, lightness—the ability to simply pick up and leave troubles on the ground. She’d watched, entranced, for a few minutes as the bird reveled in its flight, wheeling in the sky above the street, lightness and grace. Utterly inhuman yet symbolizing the best of the human spirit.
How hard she’d worked to capture that magic moment of utter freedom.
Harold lay the pastel reverently on the big glass table in the center of the gallery, next to the watercolors she’d brought, lining her work up like brightly colored soldiers. It was a ritual they’d been following for well over a year now, ever since she’d walked into his gallery with a portfolio under her arm and 150 dollars left in the bank.
Harold touched the edge of the paper with his index finger, then moved on to touch a watercolor of a drake in last week’s snow in Central Park.
“He’s going to love these,” Harold murmured. “And I’m going to love selling them to him.” His eyes gleamed behind his thick glasses. “I’m raising your prices again. He’s not going to complain. Not when he sees this.”
Grace tried not to smile. “Harold, you don’t know it’s a he and neither do I. The man who buys my work on this other person’s behalf is a lawyer, for heaven’s sake. His client could be anyone. Man, woman. Could be a Martian, for all we know.”
What did she care? Whoever the lawyer’s client was, s/he was buying Grace’s entire output and didn’t so much as blink when Harold kept upping her prices. After years of struggling, trying to make it as an artist, she was finally supporting herself and more—socking money away. Real money, to her astonishment. After a lifetime of living like a student, she got a huge thrill every time she checked her bank statements.
Whoever was buying up her work had turned her life around. She didn’t even really mind that whoever was scooping up her work wasn’t showing it anywhere. Harold had told her that anyone who spent that much money and who had that amount of work of a single artist was usually planning a major show and in any case would want to publicize the collection, for investment purposes. But her unknown client was keeping her work tightly under wraps. Abroad, apparently.
Grace didn’t care. She wasn’t in the business to become famous. She was an artist because she couldn’t be anything else, not and remain sane. She had a lousy record of being fired from temp jobs, waitressing, teaching, trying to entice women she didn’t care about to buy things she found absurd and useless in her very very brief stint as a shop assistant at Macy’s.
“Ah. Him again.” Harold stopped and picked up a portrait. A small full frontal portrait in oil of a strong-featured man with dark eyes and short dark hair. Unsmiling and powerful, with a jagged white scar along the side of his face. “Different but the same.” Harold’s eyes were shrewd as he slanted a glance at her. “Nightmares back?”
Grace looked away, ashamed that once, when she’d been exhausted because she hadn’t slept, she’d confessed to Harold that she had nightmares, often.
Not nightmares, not really, not always. Just…very vivid dreams—full of color and sound. Often steeped in danger and heartache. So utterly unlike the calm progression of her days, her nights were etched in blood and turmoil.
She often dreamed of a man. The same man, every time, though each time his features were different. She never clearly saw his face anyway, just rough glimpses, as if through a thick fog.
A strong jawline, narrow nose, hooded eyes. By day, when she tried to capture the man on paper, his features would melt. Each portrait she did of him was different. The only things common to all the men were harsh features, dark eyes, short dark hair and a white scar like a lightning bolt on the left side of his face.
She saw him often from behind, walking away. And every time he walked away, there was a keen sense of aching loss in the air. She could never run after him, though she wanted to. She was always somehow mired in the horrible paralysis of the dream world.
The nightmares were due to stress, she knew that. She’d read every book there was on the subject because going to an analyst was out of the question. She didn’t have the time or even, really, the inclination.
What was a shrink going to tell her she didn’t already know? That she came from a highly dysfunctional family? Check, no secrets there. That her father’s abandonment when she was nine years old and her mother’s decline and indifference to her had colored her early years? That she immersed herself in her art because she didn’t function well in the world? What else was new?
No, analysis would be a huge waste of her time and money. Grace thought she had a pretty good handle on herself. On what she could do and couldn’t do.
Oh God, she’d done it again. Zoned out while someone was talking. And that someone was Harold, no less. He cared for her, it was true. He was estranged from his only son, and treated her like a beloved child. They’d grown to be great friends. In fact, Grace probably talked more to Harold in the couple of hours a month she spent in his gallery than she did with any other human being.
But Grace was also very very aware of the fact that every cent she earned came through him. Not listening while he spoke to her was incredibly rude and—worse—stupid.
“Sorry, Harold. I didn’t quite—”
He gave his characteristic bark of laughter, placing a light hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry, my dear. Wherever it is you go when you do that, it must be a much more interesting place than my blathering on about the matting and framing.”
Grace smiled, ashamed. The matting and framing in question was of her work. Harold worked really hard to make sure each painting, watercolor and drawing was presented in the best possible way.
Though it was also true that her mysterious buyer was snapping up everything she produced, no matter the matting, no matter the framing.