By Mary Rechner
A mason had cemented stones together to make a wall for the spring. The wall lent grandeur to what was essentially water coming out of a metal pipe. Three men were already at the spring getting water. They looked approximately Lisa’s age, one she was beginning, if it ever came up in conversation, to keep approximate. Each of the men held a container. As far as waiting went, three people with one container each was not a big deal, but it had been over a month since she had spoken to anyone at length. If she didn’t get in line, however, and waited in her truck for the men to go away, another person believing in the marvelous powers of the spring (or like her, with no access to drinking water) could drive up with any number of empty containers, and she’d have to wait.
She lifted the first of the water tanks out of the truck bed and brought it to where the men were standing.
“Hey,” said the shortest of the trio. He wore a paint-spattered baseball cap. Now that she was closer, she could see the men were young, probably in their late twenties.
“Hey,” she responded, aware that her uncombed hair, old sneakers, holey jeans, knitted cardigan sweater, and fur-trimmed parka sent possibly intriguing signals. She could be a yoga instructor, flexible and willing. She could be a locavore, a jam maker and bread baker, the perfect complement for a hungry man. She could be vaguely creative and independently wealthy: her assessment of them.
The guy filling his container had long blond hair. The guy wearing a puffy red vest drank the last of the milk from a plastic gallon. Lisa noted his vulnerable throat, and placed her water tank behind the man in the ball cap, securing her place in line.
“Need a hand with the rest?” The man in the cap gestured toward the truck.
“No thanks.” She walked back to the truck, retrieved another tank, and placed it behind the first. The guy in the red vest looked hungry as well as thirsty, but perhaps he was just tall and thin.
The man in the cap filled his container. “We’re sculptors. A collective,” he said. “We’re doing a residency at the arts center.” He gestured across the street.
The man in the red vest scowled, and began filling Lisa’s tank. Her eyes met his, and she felt a jolt.
The man in the cap hooked his thumb toward the truck. “Let me help. My good deed for the day,” he explained. “I used to be a Boy Scout.”
“The Dalai Lama asks for good deeds all day long.” Lisa thought she’d forgotten how to flirt, but her parka was helpfully unzipped, and the blouse beneath her sweater only partially buttoned.
“Then I’d better start now,” said the man in the cap.
The man in the red vest muttered something unintelligible, and gave Lisa’s water tank a slight kick. It was a childish, attention-getting gesture. He began filling her second tank. The blond man, sitting on a bench near the spring, finished rolling a cigarette and lit a match. “I’m Paul. That’s Sean.” He used his cigarette to point to the man in the red vest.
“I’m Mateo,” said the man in the ball cap, returning with Lisa’s last two containers.
“Matthew is from New Jersey. He went to Santa Fe a few months ago, and came back with a new name,” said Paul.
“I grew up on Long Island,” said Lisa, attempting solidarity.
“Well,” said Paul, exhaling dramatically. “We must be off.”
“You asshole.” Mateo flipped his cap backwards, and turned his attention to Lisa. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Lisa.” She looked across the street at the arts center, which consisted of several small white houses surrounding a central large white house. Everything in Vermont was old, but genteel and picturesque. It wasn’t easy to maintain this beauty. She had never seen so many carpenters, stonemasons, and house painters in her life.
“Lisa from Long Island. Listen.” Paul stashed the tobacco in his pocket. At some level he must at all times have been aware of his glorious hair. “Tonight is what we call Open Studio. Wine, cheese. Eight o’clock. Come look at our etchings.”
“Yeah,” said Mateo. “Join us. Save us from the artists and writers.” Once again he removed and resettled his cap. “Be a real person.”
Sean looked at Lisa through his long eyelashes.
“I can’t.” Lisa pulled one tank away from the mouth of the pipe, and slid another in its place. “I write plays.”
Mateo grinned. “Come anyway.”
Paul and Sean crossed the street back to the arts center. Mateo ran to catch up. Lisa tried not to be annoyed that none of them stayed to help her lift the water-filled tanks into the truck.
hat afternoon, Lisa worked on her play. She had completed a two-month residency at the arts center herself before moving to an A-frame in the nearby woods. Her friend Joy, though, was still at the arts center. Joy had been granted a six-month residency, in recognition and encouragement of her exceptional promise in two art forms. Joy painted and wrote poetry.
Lisa had also worked on two projects during her residency: writing a play and not drinking. The play wasn’t finished when her residency ended, and rather than returning to New York, Lisa rented the A-frame in order to experience spring in Vermont.
She was experienced enough to know that to successfully develop a new play she needed to workshop it with actors, but something other than wisdom compelled her to isolate herself. After she moved to the A-frame, she stopped reading email or checking her P.O. box. When her cell phone died, she did not recharge it. Her play was set on a Long Island beach in the summer. It featured three characters, a husband and wife arguing furiously about something they’d lost, and an adolescent boy who had risen from the dead. In each scene the boy was shirtless, his emerging sexuality shining from his narrow hips, exposed navel, and bare chest. She tried having the boy be the son of the husband and wife, and then just made him a kid the couple met at the beach. She tried writing a scene where the woman kissed the boy, the man watching, and then tried having the man kiss the boy, the woman watching. None of it worked. She began to actually feel the characters’ impatience.
That evening she made a fire in the fireplace, and ate a bowl of brown rice. Lisa hadn’t returned to the center to visit Joy. A year ago, Joy had been a surrogate mother for friends. The friends had intended to include Joy in their family, but over time they had grown possessive of the baby, and began to exclude her. Lisa was jealous of Joy’s artistic achievements, but also feared Joy’s sadness.
The fire made Lisa’s skin dry and tight. Spring in Vermont had turned out to be essentially the same as winter. Clearly she was atoning for some sin, but which one? She poured fresh water from the spring into a glass and drank it, then drank another full glass and looked out the window, seeing nothing but her own reflection. A vertical wrinkle cut the center of her forehead. She no longer qualified as fresh and pretty and full of potential.
Still, she had to live. She changed into a silk shirt, tight jeans, stylish boots, and a man’s tweed overcoat. Never mind the actual man, she told herself, whose cologne she imagined she could still smell on the coat. Thomas. Never mind if Thomas was still in the city, or if he had returned to the Midwest town of his birth (as he had said he was going to do) to find a woman with whom he could build a life that didn’t revolve around anxiety, artistic ambition, and alcohol. It was tempting to wear a scarf for warmth, but Lisa knew the arts center would be full of women in scarves. She pulled her hair up, decided against antique earrings, and left her neck bare and cold.
he parked her truck in the same spot she had used that morning to get water. The white clouds in the black sky appeared fixed. The painters should be out here painting, she thought, but instead they’re inside the arts center, getting toasted on free wine. She wondered if she would see Joy, or if Joy would be hiding in her room.
The first studio she entered contained an installation of creepy fabric children. The children were bigger and less babyish than Cabbage Patch kids, but the effect was similar. They stood or sat in groupings, the way kids might on a playground, but each tableau had the feeling of a bad dream, perhaps because real kids never remained still. Some were missing an arm or leg. Others were crying. The books thrown at their feet were torn. The lighting was dim. Several women in their early twenties wearing short stretchy black skirts lingered, examining the dolls. Of course they could tell she was older. Most likely they weren’t even seeing her.
Being back in the arts center reminded Lisa of the creative, super-charged energy she’d felt when she’d lived here. It had felt as though everyone was constantly investigating everyone else, considering the possibility of cheating on their boyfriends or girlfriends, husbands or wives, of leaving their real lives temporarily behind. The question Will I have sex with you tonight? rumbled beneath every interaction. The answer for her was always no.
After Thomas left she had grown used to being alone. It felt like she was storing things up, not to talk about, like she used to do, but to think about, or maybe write about. Was she in fact writing a play? Maybe she was merely having a deep and confusing conversation with herself.
The studio contained a window with a view into the still-dead garden, where a gigantic rough wood sculpture lit by spotlights sat in the snow. The sculpture’s shape was reminiscent of a roller coaster. It also reminded Lisa of the Matchbox racetracks she had built and destroyed as a child. Two of the guys she’d met at the spring, Paul and Mateo, were throwing a glow-in-the-dark football between the curving pieces of wood. The men were taking their game seriously, one or the other frequently diving to the ground to complete a difficult catch. Mateo chucked the ball, and instead of carving its way through various empty spaces, it bounced off one of the humungous bolts holding the wood together and disappeared into some bushes. Paul jumped through the sculpture and tackled Mateo. They rolled over and over through the snow.
Lisa left the installation and entered the central reception area, where the young men had hipster matted hair and the older men ponytails and gray beards. The women were, many of them, wearing scarves. Two fifty-ish women with stylishly short hair and geometric earrings were engaged in an animated conversation punctuated with laughter.
“That’s so funny!”
“That’s so true!”
A long, narrow table was covered with white cloth, bottles of wine, and a platter of artisanal cheeses. Lisa was happy to find a real glass among the plastic ones. She was constantly shopping, searching, choosing, hoping that whatever it was she found would fit, would be satisfying, would reflect well upon her. This was the way she thought about men, too, and if she was always unconsciously shopping (except when she was conscious of it) wasn’t she always also hoping to be chosen? Bought? Was she a bargain or overpriced? In the city there were too many great straight women for very few half-decent straight men.
She cut a creamy hunk of cheese, spread it on a cracker, and ate it. She poured herself a glass of cold white wine, held the stem, and did not take a sip, leaving the reception area to enter another studio, where a series of black and white photographs hung on the walls. The subject of each photograph was identical: the hindquarters of horses. She tried to think of the subject in a different way, but the same words, the hindquarters of horses, kept repeating in her brain. She felt bad for the photographer, but not too bad, because there were small red stickers on several of the labels near the photographs, indicating they had been sold.
In another studio people were gathered at the edges of the room, looking at a man standing in the center of it. An upside down lit candle was rigged to the ceiling above him, and wax dripped onto his hair. Bicycle wheels were scattered across the floor. Lisa recalled the complex games she’d played as a child. Escape from the Nazis. Pioneers in a Snowstorm. She and her little sister had made rafts and forts, schools and offices. Adults who made art were simply people who continued playing. The hot wax? The pain? She and her sister had ritually tested limits, sometimes punching each other, once even burning one another with matches.
The man in the red vest stood at Lisa’s elbow, holding a bottle of beer. Sean. She wondered if he thought his grim smile was sexy. “What do you think of this guy?” he asked quietly, tilting his head toward the man with the waxy hair.
Lisa looked at the golden wine in her glass instead of answering. “Tell me about your work.”
“I hammer wood with two other morons. Our assemblages shoot for mysterious complexity and always just miss.”
Lisa could smell beer when he spoke, the odor having for her an extremely male, extremely attractive connotation. She moved closer, so their shoulders touched.
“You write plays?” he asked. “Why not books? Or movies?”
“That’s like asking why you aren’t a photographer.”
“What would I photograph?”
“The hindquarters of horses?”
He grinned, and she felt both mean and successful making this joke.
“I’m writing a play about a teenage boy who drowns in the ocean one day and is on the beach the next.”
Sean was watching her face as she spoke, either listening or waiting for her to stop talking. “Come see these paintings,” he said. “This work is truly great.”
She followed him into an expansive gallery of large and small paintings she recognized immediately. They were Joy’s.
he was standing in the center of the gallery in a yellow dress meant for summer. On her feet were architectural sandals. Late in Joy’s pregnancy, her feet had swelled. During that time Lisa and Joy had gone upstate to see two dancers perform in a river. Insects swirled in the floodlights. Lisa stood with the rest of the audience on the muddy riverbank. Joy commandeered a giant rock, reaching around her belly to scratch the itchy tops of her feet. The dancers wore white robes, their black hair streaming behind them. The piece was so slow, so still, that when the male dancer lost his footing and floated back a foot or two in the current, the audience gasped. Tonight was not the first time Lisa wondered whether the performance in the river had been a bad omen, a lesson she as yet did not understand, or simply a modern dance.
“Lisa!” Joy said, opening her arms. “It’s so good to see you!”
Lisa handed her wine to Sean. Joy held tightly to Lisa’s elbows, pulled her close, spoke into her ear. “What are you doing with booze and a boy?”
“These are wonderful paintings,” Lisa said, kissing Joy firmly on the cheek before breaking free. “You’ve been through so much. I expected your new work to be unrecognizable.”
“Ha,” said Joy. “I’m the same.”
Only better, thought Lisa, and tried to recast the stab she felt in her chest as something more generous than jealousy. “Joy, this is Sean,” she said. “Sean, this is Joy.”
“I didn’t know you’d know each other,” Sean said. “Wow. What a great show.”
“I’ve seen you around,” Joy said. “With a couple other guys?”
“Yeah,” Sean said, and began to explain the philosophy of his collective.
Lisa drifted to a corner of the gallery where on a pedestal a book had been placed. The book contained sentence after sentence—whole paragraphs—of praise and admiration for the nuance, energy, intelligence, lush explosive color, technique, emotional complexity—including surprise—and many other wonderful aspects of Joy’s work. Lisa turned to a blank page, wrote herself a note about the drowning boy, ripped the page out of the book, and stashed it in the pocket of her jeans. In the center of the gallery, other people had pushed past Sean, insulating Joy with compliments and congratulations. Lisa retrieved her wine.
Sean placed his hand on Lisa’s back. His fingers felt strong, perhaps from hammering. “Want to hang out in my room?”
“And do what?”
“What are you afraid of?”
After a moment of silent staring, he took her elbow and led her outside to a narrow, well-trodden channel through the snow.
The night felt colder. Lisa looked up to see the clouds replaced by the moon and stars. Sean kept his eyes on the path. The way he walked struck Lisa as dogged, determined. Not a drop of wine spilled when she wedged her glass into a pile of snow near the door Sean held open. She followed him up a flight of stairs, down a hallway, and through a door he pushed open with his elbow, as if afraid of germs on the knob. Three unmade beds lined the wall. Along the other wall were tall windows.
“They make you sleep here together?”
“We requested it, from the point of view of the collective. Did I mention we’re a bunch of idiots?” Now his grin was almost gentle.
From the window, the sculpture, Paul, Mateo, and their glowing football were still visible. Lisa was sure that the game of catch was part of their art, and wondered if the collective had had to reach consensus on Sean not participating. She wondered if they knew where he was and what he was doing. He didn’t light a candle or offer her some pot. He locked the door. The light from the window—the snow reflecting the moon—made the room bright. He was so young. Sometimes Lisa wished she wasn’t as smart as she was, or at least could be better at denial. After this was over, she would retrieve her glass from the snow. If the wine hadn’t frozen, she would drink it.
He moved toward her, his hands on her neck just warm enough.