“Hold out your hand.”
“Why?” She asked.
“Do you trust me?” He asked.
She hesitated. “Yes?”
“Seems like a half-hearted yes to me.” He smiled a half-smile. It wasn’t really a smile; a corner of his lips simply curled up when he was seriously contemplating something.
They were standing in front of the easel holding the white 8 x 10 canvas in his small basement studio. The walls and shelves were lined with completed and near-completed paintings of different sizes. Some were commissioned paintings for clients, others were inspired works he hoped to eventually sell or gift out or keep. The air from the vents in the ceiling was cool but the smell of oil paint and acrylic hung heavy. There were several humming sounds from the refrigerator, the dehumidifier and the air vents that combined to fill the studio with a low, comfortable drone. The studio had no windows, but it was well lit with bright white lights. Nate had his palette in one hand, brush in the other.
“It is a half-hearted yes.” She replied.
He nodded. “I’ll never hurt you. You know that, right?”
Silence. She held out her hand. Her fingers trembled as her arm hung in the air, palm open. She looked away, fighting back the tears.
She felt something cold on her palm. Nate had placed a paint brush in her hand. He closed her fingers over the handle of the brush.
“What?” She gasped and turned to face him. “No. Nate, you know I can’t.”
“I know you can do anything you set your mind to.” He let her hand go. “I’ll go grab us some coffee. How does that sound?”
“I don’t want to do this.”
“I won’t hurt you Cécile.” He whispered. “Just try. Take the palette.”
“I haven’t done this since….”
“You are an artist Cécile.”
She took the palette from him and struggled to wrap her fingers around it. Nate watched. As soon as she had the palette well positioned, he gave her shoulder a soft squeeze and left.
Nate returned with two cups of steaming coffee and placed them on the small table that served as a dining table located in a corner of the studio. He had been gone for a long time, about an hour. She knew his prolonged absence was deliberate because the coffee shop was only a block away from the studio. He walked up to the canvas.
“Well done Cécile.” He smiled. This time, the sides of his eyes crinkled, revealing soft lines. He was thrilled.
She smiled too. “It’s a branch.” She said. On the canvas was a long, bent, brown line.
“Yes, I can see that.” He replied, still staring at the painting. “Would you like to continue?”
“I think I’m done for now. The coffee smells so good.”
“Very well.” They walked to the dining table and sat.
The heat from the coffee cup felt good against her fingers. Her spirit was lifted. “Thank you for letting me do this.”
“You have to promise me something.” He said, as his eyes danced in mischief.
He sipped his coffee. “You have to finish it.”
“What?” She almost dropped the Styrofoam coffee cup.
“Hey, Cécile,” He whispered. “You can take as long as you want. No pressure. OK?” He sipped again, “It’s just that you had an idea, some inspiration when you started. I want to see what it was. My studio is your studio.”
She nodded. Painting for the first time since the diagnosis felt good. Painting that bent line, even though it took an hour, made her feel better than she had felt in a long time. She’d try to finish the painting.
His phone rang while he was having cold cereal for breakfast in his studio. “Hello?”
“Nate? James here.”
“Mr. Oliver? How can I help you?”
“Yes.” A pause, “Cécile won’t be coming to the studio today.”
Nate’s heart skipped a beat, but he responded coolly. “Is she alright? She was doing much better yesterday.”
“Yes. She is just fine. My wife and I need to attend an important function today. I’m sorry she didn’t let you know earlier. You know how she forgets things these days. It’s…it’s the disease.”
“Err, I’ll drop her off tomorrow,” James continued.
“That’s alright. Have a good—”
“Yes, Mr. Oliver?”
“I want to thank you for helping my wife. Her mood has improved since she started painting at your studio. She never uses her studio here at the house anymore, but I know how much she loved to paint before the disease.”
“Cécile is an artist.” His jaw was clenched and his eyes were slits, but his voice gave nothing away.
“Yes, yes. Well, till tomorrow.” James hung up.
Nate hated the way James said the word ‘disease,’ as if his wife was dirty and could contaminate anything she touched. He knew James stopped appreciating Cécile’s artistry and berated her feeble attempts at painting soon after the diagnosis. There wasn’t any money to be made from her work since she could no longer brandish a brush with the dexterity she once had. The constant criticism from her husband led her to vow never to paint again. He also knew James only took Cécile out to events when he knew he could use his wife’s illness to garner favor from potential clients. James was scum. He was using his wife’s illness to his advantage, and he dumped her at the studio the rest of the time so that he wouldn’t have to deal with her.
Nate had lost his appetite. He left the unfinished bowl of cereal on the table and walked to the tall stool which stood in front of a painting he was yet to finish. Picking up his palette and brush, he continued where he had left off.
Cécile continuously wept for what seemed like an eternity. She lay on the hardwood floor of Nate’s studio, her short yellow gown stained with the paint she had accidentally brushed on herself several times while trying to finish her artwork. Her tremors had worsened and she was frustrated. Nate sat on the floor next to her, a box of tissue in his hands. He didn’t say a word. Somehow, he knew there was something else causing her to cry this hard for this long besides an inability to paint. She took another tissue, blew her nose and dumped it on the pile that had accumulated on the floor next to her. When she sat up, her eyes were bloodshot. She breathed in deeply and shakily exhaled.
“I’m so sorry, Nate. I feel embarrassed.”
“Nonsense.” His hand reached for her face. He cupped her chin, then gently brushed away a tear from her right cheek with his thumb. “Tell me about yesterday.”
Her eyes filled with tears again. “It was awful. I didn’t want to go. He threatened to stop bringing me here if I didn’t go with him. I need him to bring me here. I can’t drive anymore.”
“I couldn’t hold the wine glass. I couldn’t handle a spoon! It’s worsening Nate, and yesterday, he seemed to really enjoy my embarrassment. Everyone was staring at me like I was a freak.” The tears flowed down her face. Nate wiped them away with a tissue. “And now, I can’t seem to handle a paint brush.” She continued. “I thought doing this would give me a sense of hope. Now it fills me with dread. I’m afraid to do anything with my hands.”
He moved closer and embraced her. She fell on his shoulders and sobbed. “Shhhhh. It’s alright Cécile.” He whispered as he patted her back. “There are good days and bad days. You’ve been having a couple of bad days. It’ll be OK.”
“I can’t paint.”
“Of course, you can.” He replied. “Look at this!” He released her from his embrace and they both gazed at the 8 x 10 canvas where she had painted an Oak tree with reddish-brown leaves. Above the tree was a clear blue sky and below were fallen branches and leaves on a carpet of green grass. “You did that in under 2 weeks. You can paint. It is beautiful.”
“It’s not even finished.” She whispered.
“Then you’ll finish it. No pressure, remember?”
She nodded. “Thank you, Nate.”
“Feeling better?” He asked. “Does coffee sound good?”
“Yes, please.” She replied. He helped her to her feet. “Look at my dress! What a mess.”
“It’s the dress of an artist.” He responded as he helped her sit at the dining table. “Although it looks like we may have to get you to finally wear an apron.” He smiled. “You think you’ll be ok by yourself while I go and get coffee?”
“Good.” He replied. “No more attempts at painting today.” He said before walking out.
“What is THAT on your wrist Cécile?” Nate asked. He was furious; she could tell from the tone of his voice. She turned away from her painting to look at him. His eyes brimmed with tears. His jaw was clenched. His breathing was labored. He looked like he was in actual physical pain. She knew he knew what was on her wrist.
“It’s nothing.” She replied and returned her gaze to the canvas.
He made a guttural sound, turned around and stormed out of the studio, banging the door shut behind him.
He had not seen Cécile in 4 days, and with each day that passed without a word from James, he grew increasingly irate. Was she alright? Was she very ill? Should he call James? James had insisted on Nate having both the house phone number and his cell phone number in case something happened to Cécile while she was in the studio. Nate had come close to hitting the call button several times in the past few days but always decided against it. It was now four days and he couldn’t bear the silence anymore. Her painting was still up on the easel, complete except for a few small details. He had not been able to take it down since the last time she was here, the day he saw the red scar across her wrist. The day she had refused to tell him what happened to her. He was almost certain James had hurt her. He didn’t think Cécile’s condition had progressed to the point where she would hurt herself trying to do something.
He picked up his cell phone and dialed James’ mobile number. After gazing at the number for four days, he knew it from memory. This time, he hit the call button. It rang five times and as he was about to give up and hang up someone picked up.
“Nate?” James sounded cold.
“If you’re calling to ask about my wife, I’m surprised you haven’t gotten the message after all this time. She won’t be visiting your studio anymore.” He spat.
James had emphasized the words ‘my wife.’ Nate immediately knew something wasn’t right. “She isn’t done with her painting, Mr. Oliver.” Nate’s voice matched James’ in coldness.
“She is now.”
“Don’t keep her away from something that gives her so much joy. She doesn’t deserve that. You know this.”
“I can do whatever the hell I want!”
Nate paused. His heart was racing. He was hoping James hadn’t done anything stupid. “How is she?” He asked.
“Now, why would that concern you Nate?”
“She’s my friend. I have a right to know.”
“Right?” He scoffed. “You have the right? Let me warn you, never call this number or my home phone again. Henceforth, you do not know my wife. You understand me?”
“I saw the scar on her wrist, Mr. Oliver. If you try to hurt her—”
James had hung up.
Nate was livid. He let out a loud growl that rose from the pit of his stomach. In anger, he threw his phone across the room. It fell on the hardwood floor but remained intact. He stood from the dining chair and paced his studio. What happened? Did Cécile tell James something to upset him? He groaned. He had to see Cécile. He missed her scent. Ever since she began visiting his studio, he couldn’t get enough of her scent. It smelled of jasmine and wild orange and it filled his studio. He missed her smile and the soft skin of her cheeks. He missed holding her hand and guiding them over the canvas as he painted, his steady fingers over her quivering ones. He missed sharing coffee with her, and their many conversations. He missed staring into the deep brown circles that were her eyes or stroking her curly hair when she was tired. He missed seeing the longing in her eyes when she had to leave or hearing her say the words I don’t want to go. He knew what his feelings for Cécile were. He wanted to protect her, to care for her, to love on her. She didn’t deserve to be with James. He was a selfish, deceitful piece of filth. He never loved her, only her art. Before they were married, and while he worked as her manager, he fell in love with the money she made from her paintings, so he charmed his way into her heart. With her present condition, he had no use for her except as a puppet for his egocentric needs. She deserved care, not heartbreak or disdain. Nate shook his head. The more he thought about what might have transpired between James and Cécile, the more he couldn’t shake the ominous feeling that James was responsible for that scar and worse, he may have hurt her again. He needed to see Cécile. He had to.
Nate knew where James and Cécile lived. She had described it in detail severally, including how to get there. As he sat in the back of the taxi on its way to the Oliver home, he had a knot in his stomach. He knew James wouldn’t be home at this time. James now worked at an insurance firm owned by a friend who took pity on him after he had to quit his job as Cécile’s agent following her diagnosis. Nate also knew that James and Cécile lived alone. The thought of Cécile alone in the house with her tremors sent an angry shiver down Nate’s spine. He would get her out of that house, then call the police and have James arrested for neglect and abuse.
As the taxi neared the house, Nate knew it had to be the right one. He recognized the remains of the tulip patch Cécile had planted and tended before her diagnosis prevented her from gardening. He noticed the classic French window on the side of the building. Drapes covered the glass, but he knew behind the glass was Cecile’s studio. The front yard had a picket fence around it, and he remembered Cécile mentioning that theirs was the only fenced house in the neighborhood. He ordered the taxi to stop and paid the driver. The fence had a small gate that opened to a red brick path towards the front door. He knocked twice on the front door and waited. Soon, he heard the shuffling of feet as they slowly approached. He heard the knob turn very slowly and his anticipation rose as the door began to swing inward.
As soon as he saw her, he bit his lower lip and resisted the urge to curse. He almost couldn’t recognize the woman standing before him. She had large bags under her eyes, a cut on her forehead, her curls were unkempt and she looked like she had been starved for days. Cécile let out a soft moan and fell on Nate. As he wrapped his arms around her he noticed how cold she was. She couldn’t lift her arms and he could feel the persistent quivering of her right hand. Without thinking, he lifted her and walked into the house. He gently placed her on the couch in the living room and stroked her curls. His face twisted in anguish as he held her shaking hand.
“Cécile,” his voice broke, “What can I do? Tell me what I can do. How could he leave you like this?”
“My medicine,” she whispered
“Where are they? Tell me and I’ll get them!”
“James took them. I can’t find them. I’ve been searching for four days.”
“Shit! Shit! He hid your drugs? Is he crazy?”
She tried to sit up on the couch but Nate was not going to allow it. “No, Cécile. Please lay down.” He sniffed and blinked back tears. “What do we do? I have to get you to a hospital. Have you eaten?” He could already guess the answer to that question.
Cécile shook her head. “He emptied the fridge and pantry.” She sighed, “He’s punishing me.”
“FOR WHAT?” Nate shouted. He was finding it increasingly harder to control his rage.
“I asked for a divorce, Nate. I…think I want to be with you.”
Nate froze as her words echoed in his head. When he finally spoke, his voice was soft, and the tears he had been fighting back were falling down his face. “Cécile,” He whispered, wrapping her trembling fingers with his, “I love you. I’ve loved you since that fine evening you walked into my studio asking if you could watch me paint. I’ve watched you gain confidence in your ability to paint again. I know you are strong despite this illness. I know you deserve better. I won’t hurt you. I promise.” As he spoke he felt her hand go limp in his. The trembling stopped and her eyes rolled shut. “Cécile? Cécile?” He shook her. She didn’t respond. “No, no!” He retrieved his cell phone from his pocket and dialed emergency services. As he waited for someone to pick up he prayed she would be OK, that she only fainted, that the worst had not happened. An operator picked and he quickly described the situation and their location. As he waited for an ambulance to arrive, he lay on the couch next to her, held her as tightly as he could and wept.
“She’s my goddamn wife! Let me see my wife!” James could be heard arguing with the police outside Cécile’s hospital room. He was finally ushered into the room, hands in cuffs and two officers on either side of him. “You will regret this Cécile,” He shouted at her, “You know I didn’t mean no harm. It was just to teach you a little lesson is all. You’re still my wife!” His gaze turned to Nate who was sitting next to Cecile’s bed and his face burned with anger as he watched Nate place his hand over Cécile’s and gently caress her arm.
“She’s sedated, Mr. Oliver. She can’t hear your yelling.” Nate said calmly. “Count yourself lucky she’s still alive. You would have had more trouble on your hands otherwise.”
“Arrest this man too! He broke into my home!” James shouted. A doctor rushed into the room and asked the officers to escort James out as he was disturbing the hospital with his yelling. He followed reluctantly as the officers led him out of the premises into the waiting police car.
“I’m finished!” Cécile giggled. She let the paint brush fall to the floor. “You can turn around now.”
Nate turned to face the canvas. He smiled as he beheld the finished painting of the Oak tree. “it’s beautiful, Cécile,” He whispered.
“How much do you think it will sell for?”
“Sell? We’re keeping this one sweetheart. It’s too special to sell. We’ll mount it up on the wall over the fireplace.” He walked over and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I’m so proud of you.”
“I can’t believe I did this. I never thought I would do this again.”
“I told you to trust me.”
“And I did.”
He smiled, “And you did.”
“I don’t regret it.”
“You have made me one happy man.” He turned her stool around to face him, then slowly leaned forward and planted a soft kiss on her lips.
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