In response to the painting “Lips”, by Harry Holland.
His lips on her mouth, her breast, her stomach, her neck, her fingers – still after all these years she could feel them, tasting, probing, could recall them as if he had kissed her yesterday, uttering words that she could no longer recollect but hear only the sound of, their timbre, their rhythm, the sensation they caused within her – a reconfiguration of who she was.
Five months and five days they knew each other, lunching, coffeeing, wine-ing during all those hours Dominic was busy, dinner-ing when Dominic was artifying – this was Will’s word for it – artifying in Italy or Spain or, for a month of their five months, the Dominican Republic. For the first time she had been invited but not welcome. “What if you get bored?” he’d said, as if she’d ever gotten bored. And so she made a point of not getting bored in London, out at night, out during the day, stabs at art when half-drunk at midnight, the only time she dared to use the small room she didn’t call her studio. Half-drunk at midnight was an excuse, too. Will told her that. Not that it prompted any sober mornings. And so she foreign film-ed and charity-shopped and café-ed more and more with Will. What had they talked about, what words had he said? Finally she kissed him. Found his lips in the half-dark of her kitchen late one night after cooking him dinner, licking crumbs of chocolate off his chin. Later, they recollected, a whole week later, they talked about their ancient history, their before and after: how he hadn’t known what to do. Every time he looked at her she was staring at him. She blushed when he told her, hadn’t realised. And yet he’d known that she wasn’t free. He corrected himself. “That you aren’t free.” Why did those words stay with her when all the others wisped away? The ‘that,’ even.
And yet how insubstantial it had all seemed at the time compared with Dominic. He hadn’t even noticed Will, hadn’t really seen him, the latest twenty-something assistant in the gallery, though he tended to see the twenty-something women, including her, five years before, when she was just an art student and Dominic the latest artist provocateur. Fifteen years isn’t that much older, she’d told her father, but in truth it was one of the pleasures of it, his stature; he’d given her weight, substance, a place in the world. Even Will’s body was slighter, his shape like a girl’s, long and willowy, his voice like wind chimes under Dominic’s thunder. So she couldn’t imagine him once Dominic arrived home, couldn’t conjure Will up in her head even if she had just fucked him the night before. He, they, weren’t a ghost of a thought.
And then there was that moment in the gallery when she promised herself she would tell him – just tell Dominic. She was in love with someone else. She was in love with herself in love with someone else. Tell him while Will was in the room, his hand on her arm, his lips under her fingers. She didn’t reveal her plan; wanted him without any expectation or hope to hear the words escape her lips, clear, definite. She was free. That she was free. Will was showing her a new exhibition the day before the private view, the only perk of a gallery assistant, showing off his knowledge of the paintings, the artist – Will at his worst, in a way. She was sick of the art world, and still she was enamoured with his words, blue-black, brushstrokes, his low mutter in her ear. Intimate, as if he was saying he loved her.
Then Dominic phoned. She sees it now as if she is another person in the room, watching from the door, sees herself raise the phone to her ear, her fingers to his lips. But not to touch them. To quiet them. Still she can feel Will’s unforgiving lips under her fingers. “Sssssh,” she says. “It’s him.”
Carole Burns’ book of short stories, The Missing Woman (Parthian Books), has just won the prestigious Ploughshares John C. Zacharis Award. She is a reviewer for the Washington Post and editor of Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between, a book based on interviews with 43 writers including Andrea Levy, Colm Tóibín, Richard Ford, and A.S. Byatt. She is Head of Creative Writing at the University of Southampton.
Copyright © Carole Burns. ‘Lips’ painting – copyright © Harry Holland.