Monday, December 5, 2011

The Other Woman

     Rick said it best in Casablanca: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world, she walks into mine.” Like Ilsa, my femme fatale had no idea I was here when she flew into town. 
     I read about her arrival in the newspaper. Titian’s La Bella had arrived in Portland; her smiling face filled an entire page. I hadn’t seen her in years, but she’d fluttered through my thoughts too many times to count. She’d aged well over the years, not that it mattered; I’d always had a thing for older women. Still, no expense had been spared keeping her preternaturally in her prime, no easy task since she was over four hundred years old.

     I’d met her years earlier, back when I was a boy. I’d fallen in love with her immediately. She wasn’t capable of seeing me as I was back then, a dreamy kid with ridiculous dreams, but it didn’t matter because I was invisible to her. She was accustomed to being adored, worshipped by hordes of enchanted young men queuing up for hours just to catch a glimpse of her. I was no different from other red-blooded males who felt something stir inside them while gazing at her perfect features. For me, La Bella was the clapper striking the bell of my burgeoning sexuality. 
     Art historians have never been able to discover her identity. Titian, nicknamed The Prince of Painters, was Venice’s most celebrated artist and La Bella resembled other women in his oeuvre. It’s possible she was an ideal, a female composite, yet there was something ineffably real about the quality of her skin. Her creator was a master at creating the illusion of palpitating flesh, and certain depictions of her still make me blush. She first came to me hidden in a copy of Reader’s Digest when I was twelve, like Cleopatra in her rug. She was posed as Venus—Venus of Urbino to be precise—and she took my young breath away. She was the first naked woman I ever saw. In my imagination she was immortal.

     Years ago I went to visit her in her mansion in Italy, to pay homage to her charm, sophistication and beauty, but I was like a mote of dust dancing in the air. She paid me no heed. I stood before her at the Pitti Palace in Florence and studied her sumptuous dress, imagined it slipping from her pale shoulders to expose the ivory and rosy pinkness that, over the years, had seared itself into my memory. 
     “I still love you,” I mumbled at her picture in the newspaper. 
     Mrs. Chatterbox, her nose buried in another section of the paper, was seated on the far end of the couch. She must’ve thought I was talking to her. “I love you, too,” she said. 
     But my wife’s next sentence was proof she’d been reading my mind more closely than the newspaper. “When are you going to see her?” 
     “What are you talking about?” I asked. 
     “The painting by Titian that’s on loan to the Portland Art Museum, La Bella—it’s one of your favorites, isn’t it?” 
     So she’d already read the article about Titian’s visiting La Bella, seen the photograph in the paper. “It’s true that I’m an admirer of Titian’s work.” 
     “Quite the understatement, if you ask me. You’ve flown to Britain, Italy and Spain to see Titian’s work.” 
     No point denying it. 
     She refolded her section of the paper, rose from the couch and left the room. A few minutes later she returned and pressed something into my hand. A ticket. “Titian’s La Bella goes on exhibit this Monday. I was going to put this ticket in your Christmas stocking but I doubt you can wait that long.” 
     “I think you’re being a bit melodramatic.” 
     “Am I?” 
     I changed the subject. “Only one ticket? Aren’t you going with me?” 
     “No. I think you two should be alone.” 
     I fondled the ticket long after Mrs. Chatterbox had gone. La Bella’s face was on the ticket, her four hundred year old gaze beckoning me like a siren to the rocks. I told myself I wasn’t going to the exhibit, I could resist seeing her, but I was lying to myself. Of course I’d go. 
     Mrs. Chatterbox had made it possible, not by providing a ticket but by removing the danger I’d confronted so long ago. La Bella was dangerous, as were most mythological monsters. She could promise love but could never deliver on that promise. To be locked in her imaginary embrace could be an eternal straight-jacket.
     Now I had a siren of my own, a woman adept at delivering more than promises. I would reflect one last time at the altar of my faded youth before turning forever to the flesh and bone lover capable of beckoning me home to safety.


  1. What a lovely, thoughtful wife you've got Stephen. She's a keeper!


  2. Very well done. Your wife is a treasure, but you already know that.

    In today's culture this gal would be way overweight. Sad isn't it? Yes it is.

    Have a terrific day. :)

  3. Sandee;;
    You're probably right; she'd have a hard time buying Levis off the rack. Still....

  4. Yep, we know our men. (And The Proposal ... wonderful and funny and poignant.)

  5. Stephen you are such a good writer!! seriously! Plus you have a great lady... who gets what its about. Cheers buddy!

  6. Whoa, you've got it bad ... AND you've got it good!

  7. Stephen, that was an absolute joy to read :) Kuddos to you for sharing this story the way that you did- and hugs to your wife :)

  8. You're gonna steal that painting, aren't you?