Last week, I recollected a conversation I had recently shared with a school chum, whose aspirations toward art thievery had become something of a social nuisance – particularly since he wanted to stow a Modigliani under my bed. Flattered as I was, I explained to Hal that my wife, the Contessa, would likely be uncomfortable with me sharing our bed with a nude that wasn’t her. He reiterated that it was a Modigliani, not another woman. I patiently explained that the mere specter of another woman would be problematic whether the she was a Modigliani, a Matisse or a Picasso. Especially Picasso – given the artist’s attempts to capture fourth-dimensional geometry – or, as it was vogue to say in the naughty aughties, the “astral plane.”
As it would happen Astral Plane was a woman I dated from West Marin in the early ‘90s, who “chanced upon” me on the Internet and now spams me swampy attempts at erotic poetry (and don’t it make the Contessa’s brown eyes green). It was likely Astral to whom Hal referred when he quipped that I’d made a habit of painted ladies in college. Astral was one pentagram short of joining a sideshow, which had its allure though ultimately the physical graffito so camouflaged her lithe bodkin that she could no longer appear naked. Against paisley sheets she was damn near invisible and thus began her steady fade from the vista of my affections. Though it’s rude to say, the sweet reek of her clove cigarette smoke took longer to grow faint from the collars of my coats than Astral from my memory.
Hal prodded me again – this is how old chums torture each other, by flicking their Bics on one another’s old flames. His game, surely, was to get me worked up and cloud my better judgment with backdated emotion, though I could no longer be sure if he was chatting about the girl, the painting, the girl in the painting or all the above.
“Think of it as an affaire de coeur gone affaire d’arts,” Hal angled, the conflation mounting mutually in our minds. “The sweet aroma of linseed oil wafting from her flaxen hair. Consider it.”
“Yes, but a dalliance with Sleeping Nude with Open Arms would result in handcuffs,” I began, but before he could jibe me with the inevitable Houdini gag, I said “And I don’t want to invite Interpol into my bedroom – it’s tough enough keeping the Feds out.”
“At least they give you married types a tax break,” he said. “So, you game?”
“She’s stolen, Hal.”
“Hot,” Hal liked to say, but when it came to depictions of women, his dual-purpose slang only confused the point.
A police siren wailed outside. Within a beat, I saw the squad car careen past my window through a split in the blinds. After a beat, I realized that I had heard the siren echoed in the telephone. Hal must be nearby, I reasoned. I flung the front door open to get the jump on him but was startled to find him on the stoop. There was a long pause. He snapped his cell phone shut.
“Is that her?” I asked, as my eyes drifted to the wide, flat parcel wrapped in brown paper leaned against his corduroy pant leg.
“Would you like to see her?”
I didn’t move.
Hal rooted through his coat pocket until he found a penknife. He opened the blade with his thumb and made a quick gash across the brown paper. The swift surgery made me wonder if he was agile or careless. The thought was dashed by the sight of a shadowed almond eye, lashes long like a Venus flytrap peeking from the slit. The eye was closed. Modigliani often painted women with their eyes closed. And now I knew why.