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At sixteen, Renata May graced every Vogue magazine cover in the world. Still young enough for puberty to linger a softness in her features, rounding her collarbone and polishing pout into her lips. “Effortless Beauty”, the magazine’s read just over Renata’s gaze. For us, discovering that gaze in grocers, bodegas, and every newsstand in Newark summoned no surprises. No, not from any of us. Her recognition was expected. Inevitable. Renata was the sole daughter of an Italian painter and a jazz singer from Louisiana. Passion and cursing and art and love boiling in a pot. The exotic couple stirred Renata right out of that brew. Pure magic. Shimmering in her sand-colored skin. Curling mountainous silhouettes of her black hair. Turning us reverent in her range like Sunday mornings ahead of church.To us, beautiful was too small a word for Renata. Lovely, equally inept. She was above us; a different substance from a different place. Renata was never born, so we figured, but conjured.
Most described her as beautiful or brilliant or kind in the most genuine way, but none could say to know her. Not really. Her critiques came scripted, as though everything she’d ever done was a matter of course and her graceful affectations performed for our spectacle. No one could say they knew what made her laugh. No one could say they knew what turned her on. No one knew Renata May. Not really. Rico, back when we were high school juniors, told me that she once asked to borrow his pencil, then smiled astonishingly perfect teeth at him. “It was like she smiled with her eyes too,” he said, “and her nose, and chin…and, well, all of herself at once. Like a sun deciding to shine. That right there tells you all you need to know ‘bout her.” Nearly ten years had passed since he told me that story, and if I had his number I would call him. He should know, from a sure source, his a near perfect assessment.
Renata sleeps quietly next to me.
A sunflower nipple noons over ruffled linens. A bare leg unfolds atop a pillow between her thighs. Her breathing is melodic. She does not turn or stir. She sleeps as though her dreams are aboard a simple boat drifting still waters. I’ve read about people who sleep soundly. They have nothing to hide and few waking needs dreams might twist into longing. Staring at her sleeping, I try not to blink. I try not to close my eyes for fear my life’s latest hours were imagined. Light in a dream. But there she is. Renata May. A singular beauty in all the world. If I still had Rico’s number, I would call him. Or anyone. Just to tell them that of all Manhattan’s people, tonight Renata recognized me. To tell someone how she laughed at my jokes and drank her old-fashioned without sugar. To divulge to someone–anyone that her insides are cashmere.
I slide out of bed. Rummage around until I locate my underwear. Her bedroom is on the fourth floor of a brownstone in the upper West Side and it looks an artist’s canvas. White everywhere. I’ve seen similar lovely but unlivable aesthetics in magazines. Minimal, is what I’ve read. Her platform bed sits inches above the floor and a lamp hangs above it. At its edge, a hard-looking chaise lounge coils toward the window. Enormous abstract paintings decorate the walls from nearly floor to ceiling. Each painting, four in all, beam white canvases bearing one slash of black paint. Each black slash is different in length and stroke. Like the start of a mistake. I’ve read that the art to which people are most attracted flaunts sexual preferences. A person who discovers pleasure in Contemporary Realism prefers sex in the dark. Missionary. And their orgasms are relieved through squeezes. Abstract lovers find pleasure in sweating. Flesh on flesh. The mad flurry of every thing becoming one thing. I search for Renata in her painted slashes. Her sex offered a bit of everything in the way the slash delivered a lot of nothing. Decisive, but knowing. Renata liked it from behind and came in quakes; three at least. Screaming, squeezing, kissing and clawing her way through them. It was great sex. Truly. But, subtly performed; as the greatest actors seem to not act at all. There was no awkwardness in her body nor inconsistency in timing and rhythm. A dance, finely recapitulated. Together, we shifted from one position to the next as parts in a machine. Not mechanical. But, in the manner a trumpet is a machine—an instrument constructed to amplify a talent.
I glance back at her sleeping. Her black hair cascades over the white pillows. The perfect woman no one knows. Her only flaw is in choosing me.
I sneak quietly into her closet and close the door. Lilac fragrants the dark. Light reveals a large space, more than half the size of her bedroom. Exquisitely organized. In front, dresses hang by color and gradient with equal space between each garment. Shelves of shoes line one wall and a chest of drawers the other. In the back rests a white vanity, a full mirror, and small chairs for sitting. I’ve read that a clean closet suggests a life unfulfilled. I run my fingers along the dresses and feel the smooth, silky fabrics. Such quality. Color organizes her shoes and heel heights sort them. Each pair more expensive than the next. Delicate glass perfume bottles line the top of the vanity. I smell each one until I recognize what she wore tonight. Pomegranate Noir. I open the first drawer in the chest. A treasure of panties lie spread one atop the other. Lace ones, cotton ones, white, pink, black, silver. I lift the black pair to my nose and sniff. It smells of flowers wilted. Faintly of fire. I wish I could call Rico. No one wants to discover a treasure alone. No one one wants to know secrets he cannot tell. “Why did you chose me?” I return the panties in the chest. Behind the closet door hangs a black lace lingerie set with hosiery up to the thigh. The breast cups swirl filigree; a pattern eventually narrowing into a thong. Tags suggest she has never worn the piece. She purchased the garment fantasizing a lover worth seducing. I imagine her in the lingerie set. Slow dancing. Seduction vibrant in her eyes. Her hips pendulate back and forth to jazz unwinding from the shadows. I imagine whisky low in glasses. I imagine candlelight and a moment anticipation purples like a sore. In all my imaginings, the man for whom her fantasy beckons is someone else. Not me. Always someone else. Someone worthy. Someone qualified to savor magic.
I cut the light and open the door. Renata sleeps on as I tiptoe across the room. Night glows off the white tile in her bathroom. I check the medicine cabinet and the shelves below the sink. I find tampons and soaps that smell sweet. I find random curls of black hair that remind me of galaxies. Next to the toilet, her shower doubles as a jacuzzi bathtub. I wonder if she sings in that shower. I wonder if she reads when she shits. I wonder if her legs spread over the basin when she shaves her parts bald. I have always imagined Renata as above all of us—human by ceremony only. Eating, smiling, and laughing by design. She learned the crude ways of being like tools used outside her nature. For most people, I’ve read, identity lives in ceremony. Our ceremonies shine a light on who we aim to be. We grip onto them like flashlights in the night. To release them is to let loose that light and learn to emit our own. Radiate who we really are. In the end, that is all we have to illuminate the dark. Renata shines. That is all anyone needs to know about her.
Her sleep continues as I toe the stairs down to the lower floor. Framed photos stagger down the wall. Each photo is a different place. London, Tokyo, Bali, Sao Paolo, and many others I do not recognize. Landscapes; Dubai skyline, a beach swaddled in mountains, a ruffled desert alone with the sun. People, in any of the photos, are hardly more than props. Accents. I imagine her standing on a beach. Her toes in the sand. The hem of her white dress sways at her ankles. She is alone. Loneliness, I’ve read, is a quality brilliant people share.
Her living room is a wide space that extends into an open kitchen. She does not own a television. Her couches make a semicircle around a square coffee table. Near the window is a polished baby grand piano. I imagine her playing Arabeske in the daylight. She owns a record player and several vinyls hung like clothes on a line. Marvin Gaye. Coltrane. Beyonce. There is no dining table. Two bottles of unopened wine stand upright on the kitchen bar. Near them ripe avocados sit in a basket with a baguette that looks fresh from Paris. The fridge is mostly empty. Vegetables hold in a lower tray. Sparkling water and brie take the middle space. There is a bucket of vanilla ice cream in the freezer. Her cupboard is all ingredients. Flour, starch, uncooked noodles, cumin, red pepper flakes, condensed milk, all things requiring something else to be anything. I imagine Renata in her kitchen, stirring stock into a perfect risotto. A Love Supreme unravels. I imagine her pouring cabernet and thoughtfully plating a meal for one.
The stairs continue down to a lower floor equal to the living room in size. A home dance studio. Brass-colored wood panels the floor and full wall mirrors reflect the entire length of the studio. I step by bare feet onto the floor and turn the light. This is her secret. This is where she comes to be herself. The woman no one knows. I imagine her dancing from one end of the room to the other unjudged. A blur of steam and grace. Tombe. Pas de Bourre. Jete. I imagine her movements as miraculous as they are shameless; decisive. Her rhythm is born of the same place as heartbeats. She spins and twirls and leaps. The woman no one knows. Sumptuous. Beautiful. Travelled. Kind in the most genuine way. Her only flaw is in choosing me.
I can see myself in the full mirror. Underwear alone cover my parts. Standing upright in Renata’s basement, it is as though I am seeing myself for the first time. My skin still glistens from the thrill of sex and discovery. I am fit looking, though not muscular. Soft flesh bulges over my underwear like froth on a cup too full. I know one day metabolism will tire and run that cup over. I am well-groomed because I have to be. I read a lot. I am able, on command, to recite the opening monologue from Richard III. Staring at myself, I cannot imagine why she chose me. She is a collection of places I have never been, art I do not understand, and a wholeness of being I can vaguely recognize. I take off my underwear and stand naked in her private studio. The mirror reflects my full self in the low light. Who is anyone, really, but the narrow space between what we show and what we secret? “She chose me.” I say. Where I am not beautiful, I am honest. Where I am not travelled, I am curious. Where I am not kind in the most genuine way, sadness does not corrupt. That she chose me, I believe, says a great deal more about me than her; in the same way we marvel at a tree lightning struck, forgetting in the blackened dismemberment of branches, the perfect bolt to blame.
Something stirs below me. I hear it shuffling beneath the floor. At the furthest end of the dance floor, a slice of carpet covers a small door with a handle folded inside making it nearly undetectable. This is meant to be hidden. I stare at it a while and get back into my underwear. I cannot imagine where the hidden door leads.
I turn the handle and lift the door. Horrible smells plume from the opening. Rotting smells. Death smells. A ladder descends into the dark space below. It creaks in my grip as I creep down into the narrow depth. It is dark. Rot fills the air. All around me, I hear shifting and moving. I am more nervous than afraid. I pull the light to illuminate the space. I do not understand what I am seeing. Cages line the wall. Inside them, little creatures flash frightened eyes at me. Raccoons, possums, rats all stirring at once. I do not understand what I am seeing. A mannequin stands against the far wall. It is nude, I believe, but as I near it I see something coats its human shape. The walls are quilted in fabric. Rancid stench. Smell intense enough to burn away any memory of wilting flowers and Pomegranate Noir. Horrific smells. I cover my mouth and nose and try not to breath. Close to the wall, I see the fabric. I touch it. It is not fabric. Not at all. It is something disturbing in a way I cannot reconcile. I do not understand what I am seeing. Patches human of skin, cut into perfect squares, are stitched together to make the most gruesome wallpaper. A quilt of flesh. Pink, yellow, brown, black, all colors of different skin. I touch them. The skins feel of softened leather. The mannequin is taller than me. He is of the ideal build and proportion. He stares back at me, eyeless, mindless, he too ornamented in patches of human skin.
The animals stir.
I ascend the ladder back to the dance floor. Up from the living room and back into the bedroom. Renata breaths quietly. One of her sunflower nipples noons over ruffled linens. A bare leg unfolds atop a pillow between her thighs. She is so beautiful. The perfect woman no one knows. I curl into the bed next to her. It is morning, but the night still reigns. Her leg wraps around mine and she stirs, sighing sweet smelling breath at me. My heart beats in the same rhythm as hers. I’ve read that truth is not the opposite of lies, but of shame. I close my eyes and allow the dark to wash over my thoughts. It takes only a moment for sleep to rise on me. I imagine the morning. I imagine the sun shining. An imaginary sun, shining in the dark.