Every morning and night I walked through that city, to and from the museum, fall turning into winter. Each doorway, even mine, its own theatre of something, with its own suggestion or promise.
I allowed myself to go into clothing shops, and when I found a delicate black blouse I thought would go well with a simple skirt, and when I had saved enough money, I allowed myself to buy it. Trying it on in the dressing room, I became different. I left the shop, the small bag tucked under my arm. I don’t think I looked different to anyone else, but I carried the bag proudly with me.
After work, if Antoinette came too, we would find ourselves walking next to the cold black river, following it to the black lake, sometimes stopping to throw crumbs for the birds. Two figures on a canvas. I saw us that way.
‘I want a bathing suit,’ she said one evening. I don’t like to hear a person’s voice during this kind of moment.
Then we walked again. At a market we bought hot chocolate and drank it while sitting on a bench in front of the lake. Other people sat on other benches and the air was chilly. We were anything but alone. This time I didn’t mind listening to the things she wanted: a one-piece, backless bathing suit, a silk dress, a gold necklace with stars on it, a turquoise blouse. A portrait of her desires, there at the lake with the waves rising gently up in the darkness. I wanted her to have all of it.
‘Can you imagine,’ she said dreamily, ‘a party in which you receive all the things you’ve wanted all year, and then you put them on one by one?’
‘To be honest, I can only imagine receiving one of them.’
‘Why only one?’
‘I try to imagine things that might actually happen. It’s more pleasurable that way.’
‘None of it will come true, so what does it matter.’
‘You’re right, and yet . . .’
I would get her the blouse. After all, I had just saved enough for my own, why shouldn’t I get one for Antoinette? A few more skipped meals and I would be able to afford it.
For a while, then, my breaks at the museum were spent in the galleries. If I couldn’t eat, at least I would see something nice. I would write about it. One of the drawings I liked most was Three Virtues, and I went to it often. I would sit on the bench facing the drawing and forget where I was. Three different figures of a man fading into a red background while I faded into the room. It was certainly a strange drawing, though I don’t think it was meant to be. Sometimes I looked at pages from the Quran, studying its lettering. But I knew I was different from the other museumgoers; I had my work to do. Only when I was walking or at home could I be myself.
I wrote down my descriptions of the paintings, my notes, but I wasn’t sure what I would do with them. The Trojan Women Setting Fire to Their Fleet, The Annunciation, Margaretha van Haexbergen.
Then I would see Antoinette, looking at herself in the mirror in the bathroom, careless, her sponge on the floor. In the courtyard in her – it was true – ugly coat. I started to write descriptions of her, the things she did when she was supposed to be cleaning, the way she looked when she spoke or was silent. I liked doing this as much as I liked describing the paintings, but I didn’t tell her I was going it. I didn’t talk about writing at all. She continued to tell me the things she wanted, that she had seen in the shops. Sometimes I wrote these things down in my notebook too. In my mind I began to picture her in the clothes she wanted, as if the intensity of her desire had made them appear. Very clearly, I saw her in a maroon dress.
Today as Antoinette and I were leaving the museum, we stopped to look at a painting of Mary. Or maybe it was me who looked; Antoinette was restless. In this painting, Mary is lying down but she’s awake to something. She’s looking up, her eyes open just enough to see what’s in front of her, or perhaps what she’s seeing is inside her own mind. Her white robe is slipping from her shoulders, her hands clasped, her arms resting on her pregnant belly. A red blanket. A dark room. It must be cold outside. Inside too. She is lit not radiantly, but with a half radiance and shadows all around. They touch her. And the red blanket gives off warmth, but Mary’s skin also looks warm. She appears as if she’s in ecstasy. I wonder what it feels like.
Antoinette visited me at my apartment only once. She came over and I made us mint tea. We each ate an orange. A biscuit.
‘You have hardly any furniture,’ she said in surprise.
‘I have enough.’
She looked around. ‘Hardly anything at all.’
It was true, but the things I liked were around me. Lying on my bed and waiting for me to return to it was a novel about a poet. An autumn leaf sat on the table between us, Antoinette in one chair and me in the other. We drank our tea.
‘Someday I hope to have a parlour with very beautiful furniture in it,’ she said. ‘I would spend all of my time there. A place to relax when I am not out visiting and a place to entertain my own guests. Wouldn’t you like that?’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘The parlour or the visiting?’
‘Both, but especially the visiting.’ Antoinette appeared hurt. ‘I don’t mean you. This is different. I consider you to be my friend and so it’s my pleasure to have you here.’
‘Do you really think of me as a friend?’
‘Of course. And me? Do you see me as a friend?’
‘Yes,’ she said shyly.
‘Go on. What would the parlour look like?’
‘The wallpaper would be navy blue with orange flowers on it.’ She stopped and thought awhile. ‘A magenta-and-black Turkish rug in the shape of an oval would sit in front of the sofa. I don’t know what colour the sofa would be.’
‘Something neutral,’ I offered.
Though we have only dirtied a few dishes, and she always tried to clean as little as possible at work, Antoinette insisted on washing them before she went. It was sweet and I began to love her then.
Image, Detail from Three Virtues, Lorenzo Monaco, c. 1420
Indelicacy is published on 11th February 2020 by FSG and on 21st May 2020 by Daunt Books.