From A Love Apart, a novel
C H A P T E R 1
We wake from one dream into another dream.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
The young nun lay curled on a cot inside the cold, stale air of the convent walls, weeping. Coarse linen pricked her tender skin, skin that had once known the softest silk. Around her neck a crucifix reminded her of both responsibility and impiety, of a passion she could not put to rest. Always, he haunted her visions and heart. The beautiful man turned monk. Lover. Husband. How he’d made her feel alive in ways she couldn’t have imagined, ways she would never know again. Over and over she reached toward him. Always he remained on the other side of an invisible yet impenetrable barrier that condemned her to restless, inconsolable nights.
Lily awoke sobbing. Her body trembled with a frightening desire. She reached for a tissue, then lay back waiting for the feelings, which were not her own, to subside. Through the partially opened blinds, a bright moon lit the pre-dawn sky. In the distance, Lily could hear the crunch of tires on gravel. Someone is out early, she thought. Or home late. Maybe there were other dream-stalked insomniacs wandering the wee hours. Maybe they should form a therapy group, arrange to meet at some all night diner to dissect their plaguing visions. Lily traced the sound of the car until it disappeared somewhere along the quarter mile curve of forest below, then closed her eyes.
For weeks she’d been dreaming this nun and monk from what seemed to be another time, centuries before. At first, the dream was remote, surreal. She hovered above it, viewed it like a film. But then, as the vision repeated itself with growing intensity, the emotional distance between Lily and the young nun narrowed until there was hardly any separation. Often, a feeling of disorientation lingered through Lily’s waking day, disrupting the balance she’d managed to sustain within her own heart.
In her real life, Lily was finished with all-consuming passion. The one time, fourteen years before, when she’d allowed herself to feel that deeply for someone, it had led to heartbreak and disappointment. She’d met Alex when she was twenty-eight, working as a copy editor in New York City. Intelligent and sensitive, Alex spoke to her of high ideals in relationship. Compassion, communication, honesty. They fell deeply in love, made plans for a life together.
But despite his fancy talk, when it came the most important time for it, Alex couldn’t tell Lily the truth. She had to find out from a friend that he’d been seeing other women. When Lily confronted him, all Alex could say was he was sorry, he’d done his best, he wasn’t ready to settle down…which, to Lily, meant the love he’d professed to have for her had been nothing but a lie.
Devastated, Lily had vowed never again to open herself to that kind of emotional pain. Soon afterwards, pretending she was beyond passion, Lily settled for less and married Michael. Nine years later, that too ended and she moved forward on her own. Now, she had her bookstore, InWord Bound, to run, poems to write, flowers to grow. What more did she need?
Unable to fall back to sleep, Lily slipped on a robe and meandered toward the kitchen to make a cup of tea. She was tired, and every cell of her felt unsettled. She wondered if she might be heading for some kind of breakdown. In the dream, Lily was the young nun. Lily saw the vision of her monk, his black curls and blue eyes, felt the nun’s overwhelming grief, and anger, and longing. And yet she had no context in which to understand any of it.
What was she doing dreaming about nuns and crucifixes anyway? Lily wasn’t even Catholic. She came from a family she, as a teenager, had called “pseudo-Jews,” practitioners of tradition devoid of spirituality. And only if it didn’t interfere with contemporary indulgences. When the World Series happened to coincide with Yom Kippur, the highest holy day of the year, religion took a back seat to the New York Yankees.
Although Lily’s parents hadn’t exactly worshipped the God of the Old Testament, neither had they questioned Him. On occasion, they sited biblical transgressions in an attempt to deter their daughter from behavior that might cause gossip among the neighbors. “I don’t want you in Herby’s apartment when his parents aren’t home!” her father would shout. “Do you want all the yentas on the second floor to think you’re some kind of Jezebel?”
To Lily, however, it had seemed more reasonable to believe in nothing, than in a vengeful deity who sat in judgment of those who were in any way enjoying themselves. She grew into adulthood feeling isolated and lonely, a mere mortal on a finite journey whose course was set by circumstances beyond individual control. A journey she supposed ultimately led to the annihilation of the physical body and the snuffing out of consciousness. Yet, a faint echo from the caverns of her deepest self often whispered this might not be the case.
Craving something sweet, Lily uncovered a plate of chocolate chunk cookies she’d baked the day before. She didn’t count calories. Small boned and slender, she sometimes worried about becoming too skinny, a look she thought unattractive. Lily carried the tea and cookies onto the patio. She stretched out in a lounge chair. To the west, the almost full moon was still visible through the lacy shadow of new leaves. To the east, the Blue Ridge mountains would soon take shape against a blush of North Carolina morning. It was the time of year when everything hummed with the latent promise of summer. But Lily gave little of her usual attention to the imposing insect chorus that swelled the air, or the sweet waft of night-blooming jasmine that rode in on a thin breeze. She was still preoccupied with an inner landscape.
Like she’d done as a child, Lily hooked her finger around a tuft of short, now copper-streaked hair, twirling it over and over. Celeste. She hadn’t thought that name in eons. Suddenly, she re-visioned her five-year-old self alone in bed at that dark hour right before sleep when apartment windows creaked, and the radiator sputtered, and that one bulge in the old plaster wall shaped itself into the shoulder of a giant who could slip into her dreams. She recalled how, when she awoke frightened, Celeste, her own angel, had come to comfort her. She’d materialized in an iridescent flutter of butterflies that came to rest, like a living bonnet, in Celeste’s golden hair.
Lily smiled at the memory of her childhood companion. She reached for another cookie. Although coffee and black tea made her jittery, chocolate, for some reason, calmed her. Where are you now, Celeste? Can you light the shadows of my grown-up dreams? Lily sent her questions silently into the night, half-heartedly, almost mockingly, her forty-two-year-old self no longer believing they would be answered. She reached for the soft woolen throw nestled near her feet, drew it around her to protect against the chill of mystery. She gazed across the gentle slope of hill before her. The softening shadows of trees and meadow soothed her.
For weeks, Lily had recorded the dreams in her journal, but spoke of them to no one. Now, in the last hours of yet another sleepless night, the presence of the young nun still so immediate, Lily wondered just what was real and what wasn’t. Too comfortable in her cushy lounge chair, she caught herself about to doze off. If she fell back to sleep, she’d never get up in time for work. She gulped the last of her cold ginger tea. It made her shiver. Some philosophies proclaimed everything to be illusion. Was reality that insubstantial? Lily hoped not.
As if to reassure her, the song of a Carolina wren accompanied the first pale ray of daybreak. It seemed to be calling Steeyoueee Steeyouee. It made her smile. Lily couldn’t imagine a world without beauty. She turned toward the graceful shadows of daffodils and tulips in bloom beside the patio, their daytime colors soon to awaken with the sun. She gazed across the cloudless expanse of violet sky. Points of light still shimmered, mostly a ghostly graveyard of stars, yet to the eye wondrous and real.
There are some illusions, Lily thought, I’m not yet ready to dispel.
C H A P T E R 2
The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from
all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper,
from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.
Julian shifted restlessly in his bed poking angles of himself up through the covers. He was not yet used to the nightly haunting of owls and roar of cicadas, which disturbed him more than the New York City traffic had below his upper west side apartment. When Sam was alive, New York had seemed the ideal place to live. Museums, theater, ballet, great restaurants, good friends—together they’d shared these things for seven years. “He was remarkable,” Julian heard himself say so often in the last ten months. “Even when the cancer had gotten the best of Sam’s body,” Julian would explain, “he never let it destroy his spirit.”
Julian had loved no one more than Sam, and the emptiness became too heavy to hold. Everywhere he turned, Sam was missing. He was missing from the breakfast table with his dark, tousled hair and soulful eyes, attempting to smile through the remnants of a late evening of champagne and museum fundraising. He was missing from Julian’s bed when he reached for him in the slant of night. He was missing in a vacant toothbrush slot, the glaring order of a desk, the ten thousand things that wore his imprint in a home and in a life.
For weeks after Sam’s cremation, Julian had eaten meals out, and more often than not, had let himself fall asleep on the living room sofa, where he’d remained until morning. The memory of Sam’s frail and unconscious body, the same body that had once navigated the slopes of Aspen, filled Julian with impossible grief. Over and over, he re-lived those last hours by his lover’s side, his hand wrapped around Sam’s bony fingers, struggling to let him go. Three months later, he carried his ashes all the way to Paris.
Little by little, Julian came to see he did not know himself apart from their relationship. Even his art, he admitted, wasn’t pure, but had often been calculated to please his lover. Not that it had to. But Sam was a curator for the Museum of Modern Art and himself a fine painter, and what Sam thought of Julian’s work mattered to Julian. Perhaps too much, and the feeling of being estranged from his own authenticity tugged at him.
Why am I so afraid to look inside my own skin? Julian had caught himself thinking in a courageous moment. But too distraught to search further, he’d drowned his questions in the cacophony of a busy life. Hiding his pain beneath a spurious façade, he appeared solid as Da Vinci, when, slippery as Dali, he was dripping over his own edges. With Sam gone, there was no longer anyone to anchor him, nor anything to root him to a surreal city filled with ghostly memories. He needed something primal, something with presence and permanence, and the ancient hills and peaks of the North Carolina Blue Ridge called to him. As a child he’d spent happy summers in Asheville. In an inexplicable way, he was sure it was there he would be able to find himself again. Or maybe for the first time.
Julian’s move, however, had taken some adjustment. There were only limited museums and gourmet shops and department stores to provide distraction. And no shoulder-to-shoulder people on the streets among which to lose himself. He was not used to those microcosmic proportions. He was not used to so much solitude, so much time alone with only his thoughts. He was used to keeping in a crowd, on the move, out-maneuvering his own shadow. But day by day, the mountains worked their magic, and he began to find a certain solace and peace.
The clock on the night table glowed 12:47. Julian turned on the lamp. Next to it, in a matte black frame, he kept a photograph of him and Sam taken three years before. In it, their heads were slanted toward each other. They were laughing. They were happy. Julian picked up the photo, examined his own image. How could he still look so deceptively the same on the outside—tall, lean, slightly aquiline nose, stubborn locks of gold-brown hair falling onto his brow—when on the inside, grief and loneliness ached in every thirty-nine year old bone?
Julian caressed the glass with his fingertips. To the eye, it was merely a photograph, flat and motionless, a frozen slice of ordinary Sunday afternoon, a unique but unspectacular moment pressed in two dimensions. But looked at through the heart, it was round and warm and moving, an image Julian could fall into, a cloud of living memory floating him back to a time before death had dared to show its face. He pressed his lips to the vibrant, beautiful Sam who had once been. “I love you forever,” he whispered.
Carefully setting the photo down, Julian slipped out of bed. Something distant yet familiar pulsed within him begging for attention. Maybe he was hungry. He felt his way along the dark hallway into the kitchen. Recessed overhead lighting lent a soft glow to the white refrigerator and range top and renovated oak cabinets with their white porcelain knobs. Julian leaned against the pantry door munching on a cluster of grapes. The French coffee press he’d recently bought winked silver from the slate blue countertop. He liked his new home, had enjoyed arranging furniture, hanging paintings, reading in the small enclosed porch off of its south side.
Julian was about to make a peanut butter sandwich, when a sense of creative urgency overtook him. Something larger than himself seemed to be directing him to the laundry room where he had stored a stack of unpacked boxes. A painting was straining for life. That’s what it was. He hardly remembered what that felt like. Everything, he thought, had died with Sam, and not painting had become Julian’s self-inflicted punishment for still drawing breath. The Muses gave up trying to cajole him out of endless mourning. Inspiration dried to dust. Now, despite himself, he was slipping through the season of endings and a spring of imagination was stirring again, welling from its center, luring him with its prism of possibility.
Numb to the chill of midnight or the fact he was barefooted and wore only briefs, Julian ripped the packing tape off several cartons marked “art materials” and fished in the crumpled newsprint with his hands. Locating what he was looking for, he lifted two boxes and followed the unfamiliar path to the easel propped in a corner of the spare bedroom. His last stretched canvas leaned beside it. From the carton filled with tubes of acrylic, he chose several and squeezed large ribbons of somber color onto a palette—umber, olive, crimson, ebony, ash. With broad strokes he began sweeping pigment across the canvas. He moved freely, wildly, as if this kind of urgent, uncensored inspiration had been lying dormant, waiting to resound when he had gotten quiet enough to hear it. But also as if some part of him knew where he was heading.
By the time Julian put down his brushes, the first light of day had pierced through a thin layer of cloud. He stepped back from his canvas to see what was birthing itself. Over transparent sweeps of color, a cathedral spire was taking shape. Crucifixes were evident in places. And slightly left of center, Julian saw the form of a man, a robed monk. How odd, he thought. He had never painted anything like that before. And he had never been so unaware of what translated itself onto his canvas. It was as if it had not even been his own hand that painted. For a while he contemplated the strange images before him, but soon realized he was very tired. “I’ll figure you out later,” he said to the monk, then headed down the hallway to his bedroom, crawled into bed, and fell instantly asleep.