The sun streaming through my windows woke me up Sunday morning. It looked like it was going to be another warm day. That would be good for the party. I spent the morning doing some housework, and then Lady and I headed out for our morning constitutional. When we got back, it was time for me to get ready for the party. I looked up the address on the internet. Mike lived pretty close to Forest Park. I was known for getting lost when attempting to find new places, but I figured that I should be able to find his house without too much difficulty. I showered and threw on a pair of jeans and a sweater. I pulled my hair back into a ponytail and put on some earrings and makeup.
“What do you think, Lady?” I asked the only observer in the room. She cocked her head to the side and looked at me with her big brown eyes. “Yeah,” I sighed, “That’s what I thought, too.” I patted her soft head. “Oh, well, it is better than the sweats I had on yesterday. It will have to do.” I gave Lady some chewy treats. “I’ll be home later. You be good.” I grabbed my keys and headed out, wondering where this day would take me. It wasn’t that I necessarily found a group of six and seven year old boys intimidating. After all, I worked with children every day. Still, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of my role in this day. What was I supposed to do? I would have to just wait and see.
I turned off the main street and into a residential neighborhood. Mike lived in the historic district – a section of beautiful old Victorian homes. I had only seen the ones that were on the main road. I never realized how many more homes were set back on side streets. It was like entering a whole different world, taking a step back in time. Springfield was the first big city I had ever lived in. Coming from a small town, I suffered from culture shock when I first moved here. I was struck by the contradictions. Abject poverty and relative affluence lived nearly side by side. You could be driving through a fancy section and then find yourself someplace you wouldn’t want to be alone at night within a matter of minutes. It was just a matter of knowing where to go and where not to, and that took some time to figure out. Mike’s area was definitely one of the more privileged ones.
When I pulled up to his house, he was attaching balloons to the mailbox. His house was huge! It was three floors, with huge columns framing the entranceway. There was a fountain right in the middle of the street, surrounded by a garden! While I imagined it would be even prettier in spring, it was still breathtaking. Mike waved to me as I got out of the car.
“Hi, Lucy, I’m so glad that you came! A few of the guests have begun to arrive.”
I nodded, smiling. “This is some place you have here.”
“I told you!” he said. “I grew up here. The house has been in my family for almost a hundred years. My parents moved to South Carolina a few years ago and they left the house to me. When my sister’s ex-husband left her, she and the kids needed some place to stay so they moved in as well. I like it better that way. It was really way too big a house for just one person. Come on inside. I’ll introduce you to everyone and show you around the place.”
“Here. This is for Tommy,” I said, handing him the present I was carrying. “I hope he likes it.”
“I told you that you didn’t need to bring anything!”
“That’s OK. I wanted to.”
“Thanks. It was very thoughtful of you.”
We walked up the stairs and through the stately front door. There was a huge entryway complete with hanging chandelier and massive staircase with a gorgeous stained glass window at the landing. “This is amazing!” I said.
“You haven’t seen anything yet!” he responded. He led me to the right where there was a large living room with mahogany paneling. Our next stop was the dining room, followed by the den and the library. “I think the library is my favorite room so far,” I remarked.
“Yeah, mine, too, at least on this floor. My grandfather loved collecting books. All the classics are here. He had a number of first editions as well.”
I sank into a comfortable armchair and looked around at the bookcases full of books just begging to be read. “I could spend all day here,” I sighed.
“I know what you mean,” he agreed, “but right now we need to go find my sister and see what we can do to help. Come on,” he extended his hand to help me out of the chair. His hand was warm in mine – too warm. I let go quickly. “We’ll go to the kitchen,” he said nonchalantly, apparently oblivious to the sudden case of nerves I was now experiencing. “I’m sure we’ll find Sara there.” We headed out of the library and around the corner to where the kitchen was set in the back of the house.
“Mike, there you are!” a clearly frazzled woman greeted us. “I wondered where you disappeared to. All the kids are outside. Can you please go keep them entertained?” she pleaded.
“Sara, this is Lucy. Lucy, Sara.” Mike said as he headed out the back door.
“Hi!” Sara said.
“You look really busy. Can I help you with something?”
“Yes, thank you,” she pushed some stray hairs from her face. “Could you please open up the chips and pretzel bags and put them in the bowls.”
“Sure.” I went to work. “Do you want me to bring them outside?”
“Yeah, that would be great. It turned out to be such a nice day; we decided to have the party outside. We’re usually not that lucky in November.”
I brought the chips and pretzels out to the picnic table. I stopped for a moment to watch Mike. He was running around the large backyard playing football with a whole gaggle of little kids. I think that it was all of the kids against him. At least it looked that way. They were all trying to tackle him. He appeared to be enjoying it.
I headed back in to help Sara. She had me bring out sodas and plates and cups and all the other party fixings. “Thanks for your help,” Sara said as she joined me outside. “These parties are a lot of work, but the boys enjoy them so much. I think we are all set, though, at least for the moment.” She noticed me watching Mike, “He’s great with the kids, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is,” I agreed. “They all seem to be having a great time.”
“I’m really lucky to have him as a brother. I don’t know if he told you or not, but I would be lost without him. I don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t taken me in after my husband left. He’s been so good with the boys.”
“Yes, Mike had mentioned that your husband had left you. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, it’s OK. It’s been a while now. I have the kids to take care of so I can’t really wallow in self-pity. I’m getting over it – trying to move on.”
“I know how that is,” I acknowledged.
“Mike told me you had recently moved here. From Vermont, was it?”
“Yes, northern Vermont.”
“Well, welcome to Western Massachusetts. I hope you like it here.”
“I do,” I nodded. “It’s really starting to feel like home.”
“Mike must like you a lot. He almost never brings a girl home.”
“Oh, we’re just friends. I hope you don’t mind that I’m here. Mike said that you could use another adult to help out.” I suddenly felt very self-conscious.
“No, no, not at all. I didn’t mean it that way. I’m glad that you’re here. I appreciate the help, believe me!” she smiled at me. I noticed that she had the same striking blue eyes as her brother. “Oh, look, there’s the pizza delivery truck coming up the driveway. Will you help me carry the pizzas over?”
“Sure. I’m right behind you.” The smell of pizza caused all the little boys (and the one big boy) to come running over. “Lucy, let me introduce you to the birthday boy. This is Tommy.” Mike rested his hands on the shoulders of a little blonde haired boy. “Tommy, this is my friend Lucy.”
“Hi, Tommy! Happy Birthday!” Tommy buried his head into Mike’s leg.
“He’s a little shy around strangers,” Mike said. “This is my other nephew Johnny,” he said. acknowledging another slightly bigger boy with brown hair and glasses. “Johnny, say hello.” Johnny waved as he starting eating his slice of pizza.
After pizza, it was time for presents. Tommy was clearly in his glory. He and his brother worked as a tag team, opening cards and taking the presents out of gift bags. Tommy was so excited! “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” he said to everyone there. “I can’t wait to start looking through my cards to see which ones I got!”
Mike had moved over near me. “Wow, he really does love those cards, doesn’t he?” I said.
“I told you! That haul should keep him busy for quite a while.”
“He’s a cute kid. They both are.”
“They get that from me!”
“You have quite a high opinion of yourself,” I teased.
“Ouch!” he said, smirking. “I think I’ll go help Sara get the cake ready.” He turned and headed into the house, only to return a few seconds later with a cake with a lighted number six candle on it. He began singing “Happy Birthday!” and the rest of us all joined in.
“This cake is delicious, Sara, thank you!”
“You’re welcome. I didn’t make it, though. I took the easy way out and got it from the grocery store.”
“Well, it’s very yummy. I love cake and ice cream.”
“Me, too!” Sara said. “I fully intend to eat another piece tonight after the boys go to bed! You hear that, Mike? I’m claiming the leftovers.”
“Not if I get to them first!” Mike retorted.
“You guys sound like my brother and I, at least when we were younger!” I laughed.
“I didn’t know you had a brother,” Mike said.
“Yes, I do. His name is Bill. He’s older than me by a few years. He and his wife moved out to Arizona a couple years ago. I don’t get to see them much.”
“Well, Mike is my younger brother,” Sara retorted, “and as much as he hates to admit it, I can still boss him around!”
“I just let her think that!” Mike responded with a twinkle in his eye.
Parents started arriving to pick up the party guests, and soon the party was over. Johnny and Tommy retreated to the den to check out all the new presents while Mike, Sara, and I handled cleanup. After everything was picked up, Mike invited me to check out the rest of the house.
“Come on, I’ll show you the part of the house I live in,” he said. “We can take the back staircase.”
“You mean you don’t live down here?” I asked as we climbed the narrow stairs.
“Well, I do, but I mostly leave it to Sara and the boys. I have an apartment upstairs. I converted what would have been the servants’ quarters into a space I can relax and work in.”
“Did your family ever actually have servants?”
“To tell you the truth, I’m not sure. I think my great-grandparents might have, but none that I remembered. We had free reign of the whole house when I was growing up. It was a house you could have adventures in! The boys have a good time exploring it now. They just know to stay out of my studio if I’m working.”
We stopped on the second floor. “This is where Sara and the boys sleep. There is also a second kitchen on this floor. I sometimes sneak down here in the middle of the night for a snack, especially if I’m working on a project and need some fuel,” he paused. “One more flight of stairs to go.”
“Welcome to my attic paradise!” he exclaimed as we got to the third floor.
“This is beautiful! Look at those windows!” There were three huge arched windows that allowed the attic to be bathed with light. It was a mostly wide open space with one corner used as a bedroom. The bed had not been made and was covered with clothes. Another corner was used as an office, and the rest of the room set up as an artist’s studio with works in progress all over the place. Up against the wall were some blank canvasses and shelves lined with paints and cans full of brushes.
“May I look at your paintings?” I asked.
“Sure. I’m just going to tidy up a bit,” he said as he moved in the direction of his bed. “I’m sorry – my room is a mess. You’ve probably noticed by now, I’m not a very neat person! I’m more of a clean-up-for-company sort of guy. I didn’t think I would be bringing you up here today. I thought for sure that Sara and the kids would scare you off!”
“Are you serious? They’re great. I like your sister a lot, and the boys are so cute. They couldn’t possibly scare me away!” I moved over toward the paintings. Mike’s art was full of vibrant colors. There were portraits and still-lifes and even a painting of a dog. The painting on the easel was of an old-fashioned city street. He had small photographs taped all around the easel.
“What are you working on here?” I asked.
“It is a painting of downtown Springfield about 100 years ago.” He finished making his bed and then joined me by the easel. “Look at these photographs. I made copies of them down at the history museum. Aren’t they amazing?”
“Yes, they are,” I agreed.
“It’s incredible to see how much life has changed in a century. Those people walking down the street in these pictures are just busy going about their daily lives. They couldn’t possibly have imagined the world we live in today. I can’t help but wonder how different the world will be in another 100 years.”
“It’s true. Life changes so quickly.” I pointed at the work of art. ” I love what you are doing with the painting. I like the bright colors you use. It makes all your paintings seem so warm and happy. All your work is great,” I added, looking around the room.
“Thanks!” He responded. “I hoped that you would like them.” Mike looked at me intently. Our eyes met. I walked away to go look out the window.
“This is quite a view you have here,” I said. From the window I could see all of their yard and most of the street. Some kids were riding their bikes.
“Yes, sometimes when I’m at a loss for inspiration, I just come here and stare out until something comes to me. It usually does. The natural light is great for painting by, as well,” he added.
I could feel his presence behind me. I had the sudden urge to turn around and kiss him. Where was this coming from? I’m not looking for romance. I’m not looking for romance. I kept repeating it over and over in my head. I forced myself to keep staring out the window. This whole male / female friendship thing was going to be much harder than I imagined.
“I was wondering if you would let me paint you?” he asked, breaking into my thoughts.
“Seriously?” I asked, shocked. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather paint my dog? I’d be happy to bring her over for you. I’m sure that she would make a great model,” I suggested, trying to keep the conversation light.
“I’m sure that she would, but, no, I’d much rather paint you. Standing by the window like that with the light hitting you just so – you have a very interesting face.” Hmm. Interesting face. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “Would you let me?”
“Oh sure, why not?” I responded, not at all sure. “What girl wouldn’t want to have her portrait painted?” What on earth was I doing?
“Great!” he smiled. Stay right there – right where you are. I just need to get a blank canvas.” I just kept looking out the window, not knowing what to make of the whole situation. The afternoon had just taken a very unexpected turn. Time felt like it was moving in slow motion. I could hear Mike moving things around the room. He returned to the easel a couple minutes later and removed the street scene he had been working on. He placed the blank canvas on the easel, grabbed some tubes of paint and a couple of brushes, and then turned to me.
“Are you OK? You don’t look so good.” He looked worried.
“I’m fine,” I replied, not quite truthfully. “I’ve just never been in this situation before. I feel very self-conscious.”
“Do you want me to not do the painting? I don’t have to. I admit I get a bit carried away sometimes. I see something that I think would make a good painting and I feel compelled to get it down on canvas before it disappears.”
“I guess I understand that. It’s like with writing – when you have to get the idea out on paper.”
“Yes, exactly,” he nodded in agreement.
“Alright,” I smiled. “Go ahead.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“I’d like to take a couple photos if I could.” He held up a camera. The light will change quickly. I’m going to try to get a quick study done, but I’d like something to work from later.
“Sure, go ahead.”
He looked at me and the window, studying us both. It was strange how he looked at me. It was like he wasn’t even looking at me – he was looking through me – as if I wasn’t even there. “Here, try this.” He pulled over a chair. “Sit down. You’ll be more comfortable.” He walked over to his bookshelf and pulled down a book. “You can look at this if you’d like. It’ll make it easier to sit still.” It was a book about Van Gogh. “Do you like Van Gogh?” he asked as he sat back down at the easel.
“Honestly, I don’t know much about him, other than that he cut his ear off. I took an art history class in college, but it was mostly focused on Renaissance art.”
He took a couple photos and then he began to work on the painting. “I love Van Gogh’s paintings, especially his later works that are so bright and full of color. I try to use color like him.” I flipped through the pages as Mike worked. It did help make the time go by. I recognized some of the paintings, but many were new to me. Every now and then, I would look up a bit to see Mike working. It was as if he were in a trance, working with such passion to get the colors on the canvas. I had never seen anyone be in a zone like that. It was as if the whole world had vanished around him and it was just him and the canvas and his subject. I realized that was what I was. When he did look at me, it was as if I were an object, no different than the bowl of fruit that was sitting there on the table or the street scene in the photograph. I had the distinct feeling that I could be sitting there with my clothes off and he wouldn’t even notice, not that I was going to take that step, of course. It was an odd feeling, being there in the silence. Mike hadn’t spoken since he started working. I wasn’t sure if I should speak, or not. I was afraid to break the spell he was under.
The light in the room began to grow dim. I could see the last rays of the sun as I looked out the window. I wondered when Mike would notice. He kept working for a few more minutes, and then he looked up at me. The spell was broken. “It’s getting dark. I should stop working,” he acknowledged. “How did you like the book?”
“It was interesting. I see what you mean about the colors. It’s incredible how much his art changed from the beginning to the end. I had never realized how young he was when he died.” I stood up and stretched. “I also never realized before how hard it is to try to stay still.”
“Yeah, when I was in art school, we had to take turns being the models. I never enjoyed it that much. I always preferred being behind the canvas.”
“Can I see the painting?” I asked, pointing to the easel.
“Sure, come on over. I’ll turn the light on so you can see it better. It’s not much to look at yet,” he admitted, “It’s just the underpainting.” Nevertheless, I could see the beginnings of what the painting would become. Mike had captured the light coming through the window and the basics of my face. “What do you think?” he asked.
“I’m not sure what to think – it’s definitely a work in progress.”
“You’re very diplomatic,” he laughed. “I told you it didn’t look like much, yet. I’ll work from the photographs I took. It will get better. I promise.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. I don’t know much about art. I’m just used to seeing the finished products – not the work that goes into them.”
“That’s OK – there’s no need to apologize. It’s kind of like writing. You start out with a first draft, but then you keep working and working and eventually you end up with something that’s pretty good.”
“That might be true for you. If I was making a painting, I could keep working on it forever and it would never turn into anything but a mess. I have no artistic ability, at least not in that area.”
“See, so many people think that about themselves, but it’s just not true. I’m a firm believer that everyone can draw and paint if they want to. You should come to one of my classes sometime. Try it out. I’ll prove to you that you’re wrong.”
“Maybe I’ll take you up on that offer. Right now, though, I think I should be going home.”
“Oh, OK. Just let me clean up a bit and I will walk you out.” I watched him as he washed his brushes and his hands. “I have to get the paint out of the brushes right away or else it will dry in them and then it is such a pain to try to get it out.”
We headed back downstairs. I could hear the boys playing. Sara was in the kitchen, drinking a cup of tea, looking at a magazine. “Hey, I wondered what had happened to you two. I thought that you had left,” she said.
“Mike was showing me his studio upstairs,” I answered. I didn’t mention the painting.
“Oh, that’s nice! I don’t go up there too much. I can remember how messy Mike kept his room when we were kids. I’m scared of what I might find up there.”
“It’s not bad at all. There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I reassured her.
“Would you like to stay for supper? We’re just going to be having leftover pizza, but you are welcome to join us,” Sara said.
“Thanks. That’s very kind, but I think I’m going to go home.”
“OK, well, thanks again for your help with the party. I hope that we’ll get to see you again.”
“Thanks. It was nice to meet you, too.” I turned to head out the front door. Mike followed behind me.
“I’ll get the door for you,” he said as he reached to open the door. “Thanks for letting me paint you. I had a nice afternoon.”
“I did, too. – I guess I’ll see you at the library?”
“Yes, I’ll be there,” he answered. “Have a good night!”
The door closed behind me as I stepped into the cool late afternoon air. I took a deep breath and let it flow through me, right down to my toes, and then walked slowly to my car. What in the heck had just happened? I honestly didn’t have a clue. Mike was one of the most inscrutable people I had ever met. He was kind and honest and obviously totally in love with life and his work. He had passion, a quality I had rarely seen up close. Most people I knew, myself included, just kind of meandered through life. He soaked it up, drinking it in. I liked being near him. His zeal for life was infectious. As much as I hated to admit it, and as much as I swore to myself that I wouldn’t, I was starting to have feelings for him that went way beyond friendship. Yet as I fervently attempted to remind myself, to him, I was just a friend.
I drove home. The radio in the car was playing way too many love gone wrong songs. I had had enough of those to last a lifetime. I turned off the music and listened to my own thoughts. Life was getting complicated. I hadn’t wanted that to happen. I wanted simple. I had moved here to get away from complicated. Why on earth couldn’t life be simple?
Up in my room, I pulled out the small box in the center drawer of my bureau and opened it. There it was. My wedding ring – the reason life couldn’t be simple. I hadn’t been able to bring myself to get rid of it. I held it in my hand for a while, sat on my bed and cried. Lady curled up next to me. “Hey, pretty girl.” I petted her. “What am I going to do?” She didn’t have any answers but she did lick away the tears on my face. It was good to have a friend.