There’d been good times. No, that was what she used to think: a habit she hadn’t yet completely broken. She thought they’d had good times. Since then, her vision had improved, and now she could look backwards with much greater clarity.
Chapter 1: Constance
Chapter 1: Constance
Even though her father would have reached out his latex-gloved influence and gotten them a nice place, he out of pride and she … well, it could have been spite, to be the pretty daughter of the rich, refined doctor living in a tiny, dirty, apartment, but she told herself it was more to show that she could make it on her own in the real world. It was noisy, near the highway where the trucks drove – day and night – to Barcelona. It was dirty, no matter how many bottles, sponges, brooms and mops she used. It was hot, even when the sky was overcast and rain streaked the darkly clouded windows.
As she’d done before they met, before they’d married, she worked in her father’s practice during the day, leading stooped and wrinkled citizens with chubby bellies -- and fat wallets -- from waiting to examination. All as before, except now her father seemed older, slower, his eyes heavier with age, or maybe just the weighty disappointment that his jewel had married a poor painter rather a man with a more pride-worthy occupation.
As he’d done before they met, he worked – or said he did. Some days she’d come home to canvases stacked against the walls, each one adding wet paint -- unwanted color -- to the forever grimy plaster, her husband stripped to the chest, gleaming with sweat, heaving with exhaustion as he attacked his work with brush or charcoal. Other times, though, he’d be sitting in front of the cheap little TV, remote in one hand, beer in the other.
Then there were the nights. Virginity having lost its value long before her adolescence in the 70s, she’d not come to their bed inexperienced. Igualada may not have been a big city, but the world still came to it through slick magazines, American movies, and television shows out of Madrid. Boys had always been available to practice with.
It was … no, she thought, believed, lied to herself, that it’d been good. But sitting in the lounge of the Pont Royal, she had a much better view of it all. His hands had been strong, yes, but also coarse. His body had been tight with muscle, yes, but also rough. His eyes had been hungry for her, yes, but no matter what she did, it was never enough.
A memory of a morning: sleeping in while the bells rang the rest of the city to church, another thing she’d discarded with her virginity. The night before, she’d been cooking, a skill she never believed she’d ever really perfect, when he’d come up, wrapped his arms around her, pulling her away from the rushing water, the rising mountain of foam in the sink. He’d worked that day, canvases drying on his easel, on the sofa, leaning on dining room chairs. When he worked, he had a broad grin on his face. When he smiled, his hands always came to her.
Cupping her breasts, fingers knowing intuitively where her nipples were hidden, he pulled her back still more, the insistence of his erection clear to her through his pants, the fabric of her skirt. “No,” was all she’d said, shaking her head. Women, her mother had said, should never argue.
“Dishes can wait -- everything in the whole wide world can wait. I have something to show you. Come on –“ A tug on her arm pulled her away from cleaning up. Drying her hands on her skirt, she allowed herself to be led from one room to another. The bedroom, she immediately noticed, was a mess: clothes on the floor, blanket wadded up, pillows slipping out of their covers. But he didn’t see any of it. Pulling her through the sleep-shuffled chaos, he put her in front of her mirror.
“Here,” he’d said, posing her like one of the little wooden models he studied. “Yeah, like that. Hand right here. Perfect. Okay? Now just relax.”
Shoes, first: slipping one off then the other. Then her stockings, his hands reaching up under her skirt, deftly sliding fingers between elastic and her waist, before steadily, teasingly down.
Buttons followed, only a few on the dress she’d worn that day. A few until they were all undone and he was slipping her shoulders free, dropping the weight of the dress to the floor in a hush of falling fabric. Reaching hehind her back, he found the hooks to her bra, pulled away the straps and the silken cups away with steady patience. Last were her panties, also removed with almost glacial drama, the spell only broken when she had to lift one foot to allow him to take them away.
Behind her, erection felt even though he was fully dressed and she wasn’t at all, he moved her again until she was perfectly in front of the mirror. “I want to show you something really beautiful,” he said.
Pretty – she’d been called that my her mother, her father, some aunts, some uncles. Attractive – she’d been called that by other girls, usually grudgingly. Good-looking – she’d been called that by a few boys, usually not wanting to flatter her out of reach.
Beautiful – of course she’d been called that, probably by more than a few relatives, maybe a girlfriend or two, or even by a few boys. But after that day, whenever she heard the word she would think about standing naked in front of a mirror. At first with a hidden, secret joy, but later – when she had been pulled out of the shade of her ignorance – with bitter tension.
But this was before, back in the days where she didn’t know anything except that she was standing naked in front of a mirror. Back when she and he were a poor, happy, couple in a dirty, cold, and noisy apartment.
Back when he’d stood behind her and said one word. “Look.”
And she had. What she saw had made her face sag into a weighty frown: a young woman dropping toward mid-twenties, early thirties, once high and firm breasts – petite but always well shaped -- now starting to suffer under gravity, tight belly now beginning to balloon outwards, and elegantly tapered legs approaching chubbiness. A woman once perhaps worth looking at, maybe even following, possibly even the recipient of a high then low whistle but now … now in the past tense, all of that tightness, that buoyancy, that life behind, not in front of her.
The dropping of her face must have been clear to her husband, as his own sagged as well. “Not what I mean,” he’d said, kissing her shoulder. “Not what I meant at all.” She tried to pull away from the contact of his lips, but his hand had become firm, keeping her facing the cold, hard, silver of the mirror. “Try to see the way I do, look at my eyes.”
And she had. What she did, at first, kept her face leaden with disappointment and her cheeks burning with hate. Why would he force her to face the harshness of her own image? But then she’d looked up and away from her reflection to see him peering over her shoulder. Peering over her shoulder with bright, heated eyes. Bright, heated eyes that bounced back into the mirror, echoing a reflection of herself in his vision. Imagination wasn’t a quality she’d ever really tried to develop in herself -- the world being previously all she’d ever wanted, never hungering for anything that wasn’t in front of her eyes. But that afternoon she really did try to imagine herself as the woman her husband touched whenever he could, kissed so often, watched getting dressed or undressed, and pressed a determined erection against while they slept in their too-small bed.
Beautiful … yes, she was. Spry and lean, body straight and tall, deep red nipples at the tips of gently rising breasts, shoulders shapely, skin with the glow of energy and passion, belly plush and warm, legs long and tight with girlish spring, thighs robust but not too muscular –and at the base of her tummy, between those vigorous thighs and legs, a thin feather of hair that led into her now moistening depths.
“You are too beautiful for words,” Escobar had said to her, his voice a bit of basso music in her ears. “Too beautiful,” that last falling away, she unsure if he’d added anything to the two words.
The burgundy tips at the ends of her breasts had wrinkled into firmness as she’d looked at herself, seeing herself the way he saw her. Her skin had begun to shine, the air in their bedroom starting to ring of salt from her sweat – and in the deeps of her, where there had just been moisture between her thighs, below her belly, there was now an urgent pulse and definitely, positive wetness. Listening to him, trying to pick out the exact words of his low tones, wasn’t important. Having him inside her was.
Turning, she’d embraced her husband, arms snaking around his waist, pulling him tight. Clothes. They were in the way, they had to come off. Buttons first, fingers popping them away one by one, doing to him with much more urgency and less divine ritual that he’d done to her.
Off, his shirt. Off, his undershirt. Hands on his belt, but then his words through her urgency. “I want to paint you, Constance. I want to really paint you. To get it right.”
It was not a new request -- after all, a flavor of it had been one of the first things he’d said to her -- but it wasn’t a common one. Instead, it was one that he asked only at certain moments. Like her birthday, claiming that no gift he could give her would measure up to finally being able to create a perfect portrait of her. Same for Christmas: with the same explanation. It would be a complete execution, not just a simple sketch. Color and not just pencil lines on paper.
Birthday, Christmas, she’d always shaken her head, another simple word -- because even about this women did not argue -- and then a refusal to discuss it further. She told herself that it was good to keep him waiting for some things, a sizzling spice to keep him interested – especially after that first initial taste of capturing her on that green grass hill those years ago -- but there was also pleasure in denying him.
Too hot, she almost agreed to his request, but then came to enough of her senses to shake her head. “Maybe,” came out as a throaty whisper.
It had been enough for him, and he’d dropped the rest of his clothes in a franticly clumsy strip. To the bed, messy or not: she throwing herself back, wantonly spread wide, brazenly exposed.
Again, restrained and patient despite his clearly determined erection, he carefully approached her, taking two minutes when she wanted two seconds, kneeling down on the ruffled covers to peer, intently and attentively, between her legs. For a man with hands that normally appeared rough and tough, he moved with a painters precision and admiration for detail: labia parted, he ran a slow, steady finger from opening to the tight bead of her clit, the direct contact at the end making her legs and thighs tighten and air get drawn into her lungs with a long, low whistle.
A kiss then, to her other lips, and to the hot button at their top. A kiss then, that turned into a lick, a butterfly flutter that made her whistle into a moan, approaching with each flick of his tongue, a rippling scream.
Then she wasn’t approaching; she’d come, arrived to her destination with a primal sound and involuntary trapping of his head between her thighs. The world went away, lost to a blushing flush and a body surge of pleasure.
And he was inside her, sliding himself deep into her with no resistance – either from her mind or her body. It was good. Lord, it was good. Filling her, he drove himself rhythmically and powerfully, making her breasts bounce and shake with each push, each thrust.
How long? Unsure. Time left her, retreating against the waves and surges and ripples and bursts that came with him inside her. Without her will, her arms again were snakes coiling around his back, and her legs lifted, giving him better entry and more traction from the soles of her feet leveraged against the sliding sheets.
Then it was his turn, and with his orgasm, a new form of it for herself. Again a reflection: the pleasure he took in her returned to her as an unexpected and blaze of delight.
They’d slept afterwards: he in her, she wrapped around him. Two people become one, joined by sweat and semen and slippery fluids.
Good times, yes, but only because she hadn’t opened her eyes, had slept through all of those years. Not that there hadn’t been signs, clues to what had been going on.
Like the next day, a Saturday, when he’d been out – dragging his canvases and sketches around town again, begging for patronage, trying to sell his work to galleries, setting up stands and easels to tempt the few off-season tourists who’d come to town – and she’d been cleaning. A smile on her face, yes, she remembered that: grinning like a young fool as she’d snapped sheets, bundled clothes into hampers, making their home a place worthy of living in.
Leaning against a wall in their tiny living room was a tilted stack of fresh paintings, just like many she’d seen – and moved – in the time they’d lived there. Didn’t know why, but this time she’d actually looked at them, flipping one after another, seeing images of the city, their neighborhood, bits of faces, pieces of their life, and then … and then … and then … a new one, a fresh one, a work just created.
On the bed, she lay, sublime and lovely, relaxed and illuminated from within. Around her covers twisted and bunched. It was obvious, unquestionably evident, that this young woman had just experienced a powerful bodily joy.
Obvious, too, unquestionably evident, as well, that this was herself: naked and spent. Here was a portrait taken -- not given. She’d never given him the permission he sought. She vaguely recalled whispering “maybe,” not “yes.” By painting her regardless, he’d shown how little her wishes mattered. She trembled, feeling violated and wronged. She’d pushed his insistence out of her mind, trying to focus instead on his passion, his possible talent, his kindness – and, of course, the way he saw her, the way he’d allowed her to see herself through his eyes.
Now, though, what it was: a betrayal of trust. Just one of many.
Another sip in the lounge of the Pont Royal hotel, but this time her tea wasn’t hot, wasn’t warm, wasn’t even tepid.
It was cold.