Her sensuality had nothing to do with her looks, which were unremarkable. She had a long torso and narrow waist, small breasts, straggly blonde hair. I suppose there was an earthiness about her stocky legs, as if she were planted in the ground. You wouldn’t call her attractive, or at least not strikingly attractive. She was young, only 22. Her blue eyes were guileless, but she was full of guile.
She arrived in our lives during the summer of our fourth year of marriage. Colin was having trouble with his book, and I was tired of his black moods and constant hunger for reassurance. My painting was going badly, and I thought it was because of his neediness.
“You’re Colin and Darya O’Donagh?” she exclaimed, her eyes wide. We were at a party in a loft in Soho. The room was crowded and hot. She emerged out of a loud crush of people, offering her youth and adulation like gifts.
“I don’t know how you do it. Both so creative and so well known. How do you manage two careers like yours in one marriage?”
I didn’t say anything. I don’t think Colin answered her question either. There was no answer. Both of us wanted a wife to cater to our needs, instead of the demanding partner we had. She chattered on, undeterred. She wanted to know what Colin was working on and he bloomed under her attention. Laughed, postured, preened, pretended modesty.
“Well, I’m not sure yet if it’s a novella or a novel. Or maybe something else.” He held his hands up in mock confusion. He’d said the same thing about the last book. Next he was going to say that he didn’t believe in labels.
“I don’t believe in labels.” He paused and ran his hands through his mane of sandy-colored hair, shook his head like he was shaking off expectations and paused, as if he needed time to consider his words.
“They can be so stultifying. The writer needs absolute freedom if he’s going to create. That is, if he’s going to create something that lasts.”
“I agree completely.” The girl nodded. “Don’t you?” she said to me, still nodding, and I smiled politely. I didn’t really. When I paint, I call a painting a painting.
“My agent says it’s ground-breaking,” Colin said. “I don’t know if my readers are ready for it.” He’d said that about the last novel too.
“What’s it about?” The girl pushed her hair back. Her face was flushed, with a faint sheen of sweat. She leaned toward Colin to catch his words.
“I don’t want to give too much away.”
“Oh!” She laughed. “I can’t wait to read it!”
It was twenty minutes before Colin thought to ask her name. She set her wine glass on a table, took our hands in hers, and clasped them tightly.
“Evvie. Evvie Cartwright. I just moved here from Lincoln, Nebraska. I am so happy to meet you both.”
“Are you an actress, Evvie?” Colin asked. “You look like an actress.”
“Why thank you,” she said. “I’m flattered. But I’m a writer, sort of. At least I’m hoping to be. I haven’t published anything yet, but I’ve heard that New York is the place to start. I just hope I can find a job to support my art.”
“I’ve been looking for an assistant,” Colin said, avoiding my gaze. If he’d been looking for an assistant, he hadn’t told me. “How’s your typing?”
“Wow. That would be such an honor.” She looked at me, and for a brief moment her eyes were calculating.
“I hope you don’t have anything against pets, Evvie.” I gave her a cool smile. I wondered what kind of assistant she’d be, with her nonstop chatter, but she seemed to buoy Colin’s spirits. I was relieved, really. “Dogs, birds, fish. We have everything but a cat.”
“I love animals,” Evvie said.
“Well, welcome to our ménage, then.”
* * *
The commute to our house in Connecticut is a good forty-five minutes from Grand Central Station, and it turned out that Evvie was sleeping on a friend’s couch in Park Slope while she looked for an apartment in Manhattan, making it even more of a trek. A couple of nights, when Colin worked through dinner, she stayed over. Three weeks later she moved in with us, stepping off the train with a bulging plaid suitcase and a student’s backpack.
“Are you sure this is okay?”
“Of course,” Colin said. “We’ve got plenty of space.”
“We’ve got bedrooms to spare,” I said. “We don’t use half of them.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt about Evvie moving in. I liked privacy and solitude for my work. Both of us did. Colin and I hardly ever invited anyone to the house, preferring to meet friends in the city. But our house was old and rambling with lots of room. I worked in a renovated barn-studio out back and I was looking forward to spending all of my time out there. Evvie would keep Colin occupied.
The novel was going well. Colin paced back and forth in the living room each morning, talking out loud to Evvie, recording it all on tape. She typed it all up each afternoon in his study, while he slouched on the sofa with a scotch, rereading the transcript from the day before. “I just think this is so wonderful,” Evvie exclaimed over and over as she typed. “I can’t wait to see what happens next!”
She made herself unobtrusive, retiring to her room on the third floor in the evenings. Sometimes I could hear the drone of the TV upstairs, or her excited laughter as she talked on the phone. I was aware of life in the house, but she was never underfoot. She was a help with dinner, which had always been catch-as-catch-can with us. “You’re busy, Darya. I can just dash out to the grocery store if you want.” “Let me cook tonight. Just something simple.” “I know you’re both tired. Let me wash up, Colin.”
Sometimes she lingered in the kitchen after dinner, coaxing the parakeets to learn how to talk. “By golly, it’s a masterpiece!” she repeated, feeding them sunflower seeds when they jabbered and trilled. “Terrific!” she repeated, sounding out each syllable.
We took her with us when we went out. It was startling when a waitress at the Forest Diner mistook Evvie for our daughter. I had just turned 38 that fall, and Colin was 46. We were both on our second marriages, and had both agreed that children would get in the way of our art. Colin was old enough for a 22-year-old daughter—I certainly wasn’t. It was something like having a child, though, without the trouble of rearing one. Evvie was devoted to Colin. If she’d been more attractive, I might have felt threatened, but I didn’t. She was almost a daughter, in those early months.
* * *
I was absorbed in a series of self-portraits, working in front of a full-length mirror as I painted on 5′ x 5′ canvases. I used photographs of myself at different ages, adjusting the painted versions so that the poses were identical. Bare shoulders and face, my stare enigmatic, my long black hair down in some, coiled in braids on top of my head or pulled back in others. In my portrait at age 29, the year of my divorce, slashes of mauve, lavender, and maroon created an effect of violent melancholy. At 33, my face glowed, warm yellow and ocher with touches of silver. I wasn’t sure how to end the sequence. I was feeling restless and unsettled, unready to inhabit an emotion on the canvas.
Evvie asked to see my work, and while I don’t usually show works-in-progress, it seemed inhospitable not to. She lingered shyly in the doorway, taking in the high ceiling and skylights, the acrid smell of turpentine, the canvases leaning on the wall in the corners, the sequence of paintings on easels.
“They’re so beautiful,” she breathed. “You’re so beautiful.”
“They’re not representational,” I said. “They’re not meant to be realistic.”
“I know, I know. The colors are so expressive. It’s like that Matisse portrait of his wife with the green line down the center. There’s a different feeling in each of them.”
I was pleased by Evvie’s perceptiveness.
“I don’t suppose you’d ever paint me, would you? I’d model for free. I don’t mind taking off my clothes.”
“I don’t usually work from models,” I said.
But that night in bed I started thinking about it. Evvie naked in the late afternoon light in the barn, reclining like Matisse’s six-toed nude. Maybe I could do some sketches, if Colin could spare her. Or oil pastels, her pale skin, cornsilk hair, glowing against a dark background. I wondered whether her pubic hair was blonde too. My own is thick and black and curly. Men have always found it sexy. But I felt erotically stirred at the thought of her pale blonde bush, what she might look like with her legs spread, her pink sex exposed.
* * *
The first time she posed for me it was below freezing outside. I kept feeding the pellet stove and asking if she was comfortable. The temperature in the studio tended to be uneven. It wasn’t well insulated, and heat rose to the high ceiling. I stoked the fire higher than usual and stripped down to a sleeveless t-shirt in the heat.
“Warm enough, Evvie?”
“I’m fine, Darya. I love being naked. I’ve always thought I’d love a nudist camp.”
She looked comfortable, sprawled on a chaise I’d dragged into the middle of the room, her back arched slightly so that her small breasts jutted out, nipples pink. Her head leaned back on the headrest with her eyes closed. She’d assumed the pose herself, and looked, I thought, like she might after sex.
She opened her blue eyes and stared at me as if she knew what I was thinking. “How’s this?”
“Great, Evvie. You’re a natural. Let me start with some sketches of this pose and maybe we’ll try some others.”
I sketched feverishly with charcoal, smoothing the lines of her body, the outlines of her breasts, the triangle between her legs, with my fingers, which became black and sooty. I tore off each page and tossed it on the floor as I started a new drawing.
After an hour I stopped. “Do you want a break?”
“Okay.” She stood and stretched languorously, arms raised, running her hands down her sides as she walked over to the easel where I stood.
“Wow. Is that what I look like?”
We were both sweating slightly. I was aware of the faint musk of our bodies, her nearness.
“Do you want to knock off?” I edged away from her.
“Not yet. I’m ready for more, if you are.”
Colin was in New York for the day, seeing his publisher and friends. I wasn’t sure I’d get another chance, so I kept at it. Four more poses. Evvie reclining on her side, leaning on an elbow. Evvie on her stomach, head down on crossed arms. Evvie sitting up, knees primly together. Evvie leaning back on her hands, legs parted.
She was silent as I worked. Her pubic hair was as pale as I’d pictured it. I was aware of the moisture between my thighs as I sketched her in her last pose, the tautness of my nipples. I thought I was imagining how Evvie would look to a male lover. I’d never been bisexual, never done any experimenting with girls in art school the way some of my friends had. But I was more aroused than I’d been for months with Colin.
It was almost a relief when I heard his SUV in the driveway.
“I guess you’d better get dressed,” I said to Evvie, even though I knew he wouldn’t come to the studio.
“I hope we can do this again,” she said. I was sure she couldn’t have detected my shortened breath, but as she pulled on her jeans, her glance over her shoulder was knowing.
* * *
When Colin told me that he and Evvie were in love, I felt as if I’d known it all along.
“She feels just terrible,” he said. We were in the kitchen alone. Evvie was out walking the dogs. Colin’s hands were wrapped around a mug of coffee and they were shaking. He didn’t make eye contact with me.
“She doesn’t want it to affect my relationship with you.”
I snorted in disbelief. Evvie, that washed-out wisp of a thing, talking about our relationship? What did she know about Colin’s previous affairs, or mine? “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“I mean we’re still married. I still love you. This thing with Evvie just happened. It doesn’t have to change what we have.” He set the cup down and turned imploring eyes to me. The damn parakeets were chattering, pecking at seeds on the bottom of the cage.
“I’m so sick of those fucking birds.”
“Nothing needs to change,” Colin repeated.
“This doesn’t seem like a change to you?”
“Well yeah, it’s a change. But she’s young. We don’t know if this is going to last. She doesn’t know. She says we can all live here, same as we have been.”
“That little bitch. Is she moving into the master bedroom with you?”
“Of course not. Darya, it’s just a thing. A thing that’s happened. We can all just go on.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have told me then.” Would I have even noticed? I’d been working long hours in the studio, with new spotlights from the hardware store rigged up at night. The last portrait was emerging but I wasn’t sure how to define the mood. Lurid chartreuse, greens so dark they were almost black.
The front door opened, letting in a stream of cold air before the storm door banged shut. “Atta boy,” Evvie said to one of the dogs, laughing as they bounded into the kitchen.
When she walked into the room, I threw my coffee cup against the wall, turned around, and walked out. I strode across the back yard to the studio without my coat. They both were asleep when I slipped into the house late that night. Colin in our room. Evvie in hers.
* * *
Our sex life had waned even before Evvie came on the scene, so it wasn’t much of a change. Colin and I were no longer intimate, but we slept in the same bed. I don’t know when he and Evvie were fucking, probably during my days in the studio. I never caught them when I came back to the house for lunch or errands. He was working on his novel, the first draft near completion. I’d stopped work on my last self-portrait and was doing dreary winter landscapes. White snow shading into gray skies.
I ate my meals in the studio, or out, and barely spoke to Colin and Evvie beyond clipped pleasantries. Evvie was tense and white-faced, Colin sheepish.
She came to me one night, breaking our rule that no one knocked on the studio door when I was working there. Her face was puffy with tears.
“I know you probably can’t forgive me. It was never my idea. I told him not to tell you. I mean, I respect you so much.”
“Evvie, I don’t want to hear this. Keep the histrionics for Colin. He probably appreciates them.”
“My happiest day here was the day I posed for you. I was really happy. I think you were too. I could pose for you again. You said you wanted to do a painting.”
“Come back tomorrow. Just leave me alone now.” I don’t know what I wanted.
The painting I started the next day was harsh and vulgar. I posed her straddling a wooden chair back, her legs wide, like a Parisian putain. She looked pathetic against the red background, her expression furtive and forlorn.
Every afternoon she came back. I don’t know what she told Colin, who never mentioned it to me. We didn’t talk about Evvie at all. The afternoon light grew brighter, the studio warmer. Buds appeared on the forsythia bush outside the studio door, and I gathered pussy willows for a vase on the table. On the first really warm day of spring, I suggested that we do some sketching outside.
We walked through the sun-dappled woods until we reached a large tree with two trunks. I had her recline in the V between the trunks and unbutton her shirt. She wasn’t wearing a bra. Her breasts were very white against the plaid flannel and mossy bark. When I went over to adjust the pose, she took my hand and pressed it to her breast, pulling my head down for a kiss. Her open mouth was moist and warm. I breathed in the scent of her, put my hands inside her shirt.
“This is what I’ve wanted all along,” she said. “Tell me you wanted it too.”
She unzipped and unbuttoned with experienced fingers, sucking on my breasts, sliding down to pull off my jeans.
All spring I painted pictures of Evvie. Sly, seductive, triumphant in her sexual ascendancy. My erotic fixation was like a fever coursing through my blood. I punished her for her power, biting her so Colin would see the marks of our passion, binding her wrists with silk scarves, twisting her body. I humiliated her, forced her to pleasure me, sucked her dry. I couldn’t get enough of her.
* * *
It was summer when she left. Colin was at the Volvo dealer’s getting an oil change, I was at the vet’s with the dogs, and we both pulled up in the driveway at the same time. I could tell the house was empty the minute we opened the door. I didn’t know why at first. It just felt different. Quiet. Still. The birds were gone. Her clothes and suitcase were gone. The bed in her room was made neatly, the white coverlet smooth. There was no note.
At first I was furious at her betrayal. Colin wanted to look for her, but had no idea how to find her. He was sure she’d grown up in a trailer park outside Cleveland with a drunken father who’d abused her. Her mother had abandoned them when Evvie was five. I thought she was from a middle-class suburb in Indiana. Or was it South Dakota? “Dullsville,” she said to me once with a laugh. “Profoundly normal.” Either way, she was more likely to be in the city than back home.
“What if she ends up on the streets?” Colin asked, his face drawn and haggard. “She has nowhere to go.”
“There’s that friend somewhere in Park Slope,” I said. Colin worried too much about her. She’d saved the salary we paid her. She was the type that landed on her feet. I imagined her insinuating herself into another couple’s life, seducing them with her false innocence.
After a while we didn’t talk about her. I finished the self-portrait sequence. The Manhattan gallery show was a success. I exhibited all but the very last canvas, which hangs high on the wall in my studio.
It’s different than the others. Maybe not even a self-portrait, but something else. It shows my full body, and not just my shoulders and head. I’m posed like an ancient fertility deity, squatting with my knees wide apart, my lower legs firmly planted in the earth. My breasts are large and pendulous. My long black hair streams about me, tangled in lush green vines and spring vegetation. At the bottom center, overshadowed by the dark monstrous figure of the woman, a pallid blonde figure is either emerging in a breech birth, or returning to the birth canal, or performing cunnilingus. You can only see the back of her head. The deity’s expression is impassive. She stares out at the viewer, and seems unaware of the girl.
I haven’t shown that canvas, or the drawings and paintings of Evvie. Colin hasn’t finished revisions of his novel. He writes less and less, but has become handier around the house, making dinner, walking the dogs, building a deck, puttering. He’s approaching fifty, slowing down, and our age difference is showing. I have never felt more vital.
“She worshipped you,” Colin said one day. “She wanted to be just like you.”
“She was a predatory little bitch. A monster, an interloper.”
“She was a sad young girl who wanted to be loved.”
I think he was duped. I think both of us were duped. But if Colin is right about her and I am wrong, then what am I? I only know that I’ve tapped into reserves of power, cruelty if you will, that I didn’t know I had. My studio vibrates with dark energy. My paintings have become larger than life. I feel like I could swallow the world.