There was something illogical, if not decadent, about the man in front of her. Initially it felt like a slight pain in the chest whose exact whereabouts she could not determine. What was it about this man that did not feel right? His pale complexion? His short black hair, ruffled with such great care? Several times Norah had to close her eyes to make sure.
No clothes. Naked.
“What you have to realise”, said the man, getting more and more carried away, “is that regret should never come into it. Or bitterness. The fact that one human being prefers another human being to you – that’s natural. End of. That is to say, it doesn’t mean that you are in any way worse. It doesn’t mean you failed. It doesn’t mean you can’t be loved. Hell, it doesn’t mean anything. It only means that one human being prefers another human being to you. That’s chemistry. That’s love, if you want”.
If you want. Indeed, it was very hard to say what she wanted. A glass of water? A cigarette? A lie-down? A better pencil sharpener?
“Love,” the man continued. “Do I believe in it? I can’t say I do but let’s just say I hate people who don’t. But we need to get back to my previous point. For reasons why someone is preferred to you can be simple. Hopelessly, pathologically simple. Social background, common interests, bad habits, favourite coffee in Starbucks. Not your fault. The question is – how do you accept it? Because like I said – the key is not to be bitter. After all, coffee in Starbucks can’t be your fault”.
Well, she did not mind the coffee but generally she tried to avoid the place. Hipsters with laptops, tramps hiding from the cold and the staff that was just one tiny inch above Subway and Burger King.
It was all happening against the busy background of pencils gently scratching the surface of a dozen canvases. And the man, speaking, looking around the room and sometimes (oh the horror) catching her furtive stare. Fifteen minutes in, and Norah had only managed a few rough outlines. And now that she examined them with a more critical eye – ‘hopeless’ would not begin to cover it. What she got was a wolf standing upright and trying to appear human, every possible proportion doodled out of existence.
The man was her first, too. Once there was a taciturn Spanish girl with sad black eyes, but that was different. Awkward at first, but gradually Norah grew into it and felt no more than what she felt looking at ancient sculptures in art galleries. And throughout the whole process the girl did not utter so much as a whisper. In fact, if there was anything wrong about that memory (apart from the fact that her own breasts and legs seemed so inferior), it was the concept of paying her money to do this. As a form of apology, Norah offered her the drawing. The girl declined.
“But I know what you are thinking. Easier said than done. Well, yes. Emotionally, you feel cheated…”.
Why did he talk? No, really, why did he talk so much? It could not be embarrassment, could it? After all, he was experienced. “Oh, many times”, he laughed, sliding his long grey scarf off his neck (Norah watching his every move, still wishing she could do him fully clothed and in watercolours). No, it was Norah who was supposed to blush her way through this afternoon that was perhaps never going to end. It was Norah who felt her red hair soaked with heavy drops of sweat.
“Your friends and your family – they will of course try to calm you down. But that is like telling a person suffering from a panic attack to stop worrying”.
If anything, a panic attack was looking more and more of an option, her heart palpitations increasing with every second gone or wasted. Maybe it could help if the man’s voice came in imaginary speech bubbles and not this soft, intense cooing – lashing down the ceiling and off the walls.
And crucially – what was he supposed to do with his hands? His left arm was propped against his thigh and his right arm was stretched along his body. Which made Norah see too much and ask herself, again and again, about whether or not he was supposed to do something with his hands. Norah thought of the famed statue of David she saw in Florence several months ago. Not a legitimate comparison by any means, but then she had nothing else to go on. Not even if she remembered that night under a thatched roof and Mark drawing blood from six broken strings of his acoustic guitar.
In the meantime, her drawing was doing the impossible: it was actually getting worse. Too inept to be offensive, it looked like something a small child with no imagination could do on a bad day. At school they sometimes asked you to draw aliens and you came up with a collage of your nightmares and your broken dreams…
“In fact, you should never stop worrying about love. The moment you stop, that’s it, you are done. From now on, Paris won’t give you a hard-on and a green bottle of absinthe will not get you drunk. Worrying about love is one of the most immense and, yes, perverse pleasures in life. Those things you never did…”.
But then Mark put away his guitar and said he had to go (Sandy? Anna?) and the night was over. There was nothing sentimental about that particular memory. It was cruel, bitter, uncomfortable. Like a bad roof hit by the rain. Which is what happened that night as she tried to fall asleep to the background of streaming water and her own tears.
Norah turned around. Incredibly, they all looked bored and busy. Only once in a while did they raise their eyes and looked at the man. Intent, workmanlike eyes, as if he were a statue or some lifeless artefact made of marble or stone. Unlike her, they neither heard nor saw anything. While Norah – well, she could see a ghost footprint, she could hear a poppy seed drop in the field.
Last time Norah felt something remotely similar to this was during a class of English literature, back at the University. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a book that took her less than a day of strong tea and heavy breathing. Mrs. Hawkins (a young teacher who liked to wear short skirts and sit jauntily on classroom desks) did something that day, before the class even began. She asked them to stand up, one by one, and pronounce the word 'penis'. And when somebody said it quietly, or not as loudly as she wanted, she asked this person to repeat. Which led to further embarrassment and a few of the girls (none of them virgins, as Norah knew) bursting into tears and running out of the room. And then, when her turn came, she…
“But where can we see it, this chemistry thing? Beautiful girls date beautiful boys. Less beautiful girls date less beautiful boys. Ugly girls date ugly boys”, the man shook his head violently, as if this concept disturbed him too much. “Well, of course, once in a while you see a slight difference. A disparity, if you want. You see a handsome slim athlete walking hand in hand with this fat, pimpled monstrosity who has no face and no manners. Then you think it might be chemistry. Hell, it might even be love. Unless it’s money, of course, but let us not go there. My question is: how often do you see that?”
Was he beautiful, she asked herself, still trying to do something about her drawing. Maybe somebody’s steady hand, maybe a few charismatic touches could bring it into focus, sprinkle it with resemblance? Norah felt lost and gave in to the first signs of suffocation. Like a giant aquarium, the room was floating in front of her eyes. Her dress was all wet.
And then she thought: could it happen? After all, there was always a chance that he would imagine something or his very words would make him so excited that the nature would do the trick. Would she laugh or would she feel sick? First was not polite and second was perhaps even worse.
“The answer being – not too often. Because your choice is corrupted even before you make it. You are predisposed. We are hypocrites, all of us. What do we care about love, this magical blast in the heart that may or may not exist? We go for what is attractive on the outside, we go for what is essentially physical and sometimes indecent. So deep down – it may not even be consensual”.
Norah’s whole body was shaking now, violently, as she was putting the final touches on her canvas. Almost over now. Almost.
“But it has to be consensual”, he said, a happy grin on his face. Was he improvising? Did he even realise there were other people in this room? “Unless you are a hopeless romantic, like me. Because as a clever man once put it, ‘it’s the girls you never had that have the biggest impact on you’. Hang on to that thought”.
Well, she tried, for a few more seconds, before she took a step back and the session was over.
Outside, Norah pressed the black leather case with her drawing closer to her side and inhaled what was left of the afternoon air. Early spring wasn’t all bad. As long as it came without rain.
Inside, they had all praised her drawing. Norah expected the man to come and look, but he only put his clothes on, took the money and left the room. Well, he didn’t have to – apparently, some things came with the trade. The Spanish girl had declined, too.
The praise was flattering, but as she passed the crowded cafes stretching along her way (one day they would make a great picture) – that early feeling of uncertainty returned. The insides of her chest were yet again disturbed by some phantom pain she could not determine. Norah lit a cigarette. It was all quiet, despite the people. In fact, quietness was gathering around her like a blanket of sneaky clouds about to cover her in the night. And in her defiance Norah screamed. Like she did that day in her literature class as they were about to discuss DH Lawrence. When Mrs. Hawkins asked her to say the word and she did. No, not even said it – she screamed. So that a few people turned their heads towards her, and the boys blushed.