She had always hated surprises and this was why. The statue was ugly, made of a bad piece of wood for sculpting, full of cracks and notches breaking the otherwise smooth surface. It was a gift from her friend, the artist, meant as a congratulatory gesture on her new apartment in the city. The artist said that he would miss her and that she should write if she could. She replied, with little confidence, that she would send a letter as soon as she was settled. Three weeks had now elapsed since her move and she was finally unpacked. Her apartment was filled with cold, muted colors and the statue was like an abhorrent splotch of warmth, jumping out at her.
It was a large chunk of mahogany cut into the shape of a woman. The artist had intended it, perhaps, to inspire hope, or a sort of daydreamy wonder. The figure sat cross-legged and angled forward slightly. Its small chin rested gently on a delicate hand and its elbow was crooked at just the right height to prop up on her windowsill. Overall it was a simple image: a young woman placidly regarding the view from her window, but for some reason the woman could not see anything but a powerful facsimile of longing. Her eyes were big and faraway, almost surprised, and her mouth was slightly agape as though she were about to utter the words ‘Damn this abysmal sight.’
The woman didn’t know what to do with it, for it was a gift from a loving friend and it was art—ugly or not. She gritted her teeth and set it by a window in her bedroom, thinking to sell or donate it if she could. Her new job was at a well renowned gallery and she figured that the artist would rather she sell it to someone who would love it rather than have her keep it and hate it.
And she found, as she sat near it at the window, that she truly did hate the thing. She had grown up very used to the absence of people in her life: her father, who had raised her himself after her mother split, had done more working than staying home and she had always been too cold to make many friends or find love, wherever it was. This ugly, lifelike thing seemed to almost breathe. It sat there with far too much presence for the woman to be comfortable. She regarded it with mild disdain and said, as if to a living person “Don’t look that way, don’t look so tragic and comfortable in my window. I hate you and I’ll have you gone before the week is out.” She paused as if waiting for a rebuttal, but the statue merely looked on as if she hadn’t said anything important at all.
The woman went to sleep that night feeling like she had lost an argument and she dreamed of sleeping in cold, empty hallways and calling out her own name for lack of another.
That very next morning she woke, startled momentarily by the sensation that another person was in the room. Then she caught sight of the statue and groaned in annoyance. More than once during her adolescence, the artist had climbed in through her window before she fell asleep to climb into her bed above the covers and stay the night. He would talk softly to her, never sure if she was awake or asleep and she had listened, never letting him know that she was always awake. At some unknown point she would suddenly be waking up to the feeling that someone was in the room, but he was always gone.
Ignoring the uncomfortable feeling in the bottom of her stomach, the woman walked past it as nonchalantly as she could manage to get to her bathroom and take a scalding hot shower. She dressed smartly in her usual black suit and before she left took several pictures of the statue, hoping to spark her boss’s interest. The statue ignored her clicking about and seemed to sigh long-sufferingly.
The woman paused, thinking of the artist. For a moment, looking at his work, she felt a shadow of his smiling presence and didn’t like it one bit.
“Yes.” She said aloud “You most certainly have to go.” And she left, refusing to look the statue in the eye.
It seemed as if her entire day passed in a whirlwind of noise, cars and neck aches. The only highlight had been that her boss was thrilled at her initiative and had agreed to buy the statue to sell at auction. He would sell it as rural woodworking, he’d said quaintly. She was glad to be so soon rid of the thing and felt only a brief pang of guilt when she thought of the artist. She had known him for ten years before moving into the city. She held no particular love for him that she knew of, but instead a deep comfort born of years of conversation. She knew without a doubt that he was besotted with her. He would pause sometimes and smile at her, and seem to have stars in his eyes. She knew what it was, but didn’t know what to do with it and had long since decided that solitude best suited her.
The artist had been crestfallen to find that she would be moving, and had stalked away angry. For an entire week he answered no calls, he was not seen outside his house and she believed that he was through with her. That had been a strange week for her. She had felt ill and would putter around her house unable to focus on anything.
Soon it was time for her to move. She had greatly slowed her packing as the week wore on and she was standing at her window, folding and unfolding a flannel shirt when the artist had finally reappeared. In the back of his cherry red pickup was a person sized thing all wrapped up in canvas and tied down. She had dreaded this. He would want to embrace her, perhaps kiss her and say the tender words he always forced on her. This time would be goodbye. Sometimes she felt as if he were so warm that he burned her.
This time, though, he kept his distance and when their eyes met, his were cold with loss. He told her that he didn’t understand her and that he wished they had never fucked that time because now his head was a mess and he hated her for leaving. He’d said he wished to god he knew that this wasn’t the end, but he didn’t fucking understand her so he didn’t know. He said this all in a rush and then said that the sculpture in back was a surprise and that she’d get it when she got to her new place.
He had driven off without another single word or glance, or embrace and she had felt an unpleasant shiver in her chest to watch him go. She was glad to be selling the carving. Maybe once it was gone she could stop feeling guilty, stop thinking about the artist and move on.
After kicking off the sharp, shiny heels she wore for work the woman tossed a designer cushion from her couch onto the floor next to the window and stared at the figure. This time when she looked, the eyes seemed to hold a little hurt as if to say ‘Why are you sending me away?’ The woman scoffed, but found herself responding as easily as answering a friend.
“I came up here for a reason.” She said “And you’ve got too much of home in you for me.” The statue simply maintained her bland smile and continued her melancholy observation of the cityscape. In the dark, the city looked like someone had casually tossed a thousand diamonds onto a rough cut of velvet. There was so much light that stars could be easily forgotten. It was as if some big hand had reached up and brushed them away, saying “Go on, now, you’re blocking my view of the dark.”
The woman rotated each ankle twice to rid them of the ache then cautiously placed a hand on the forearm of the wooden figure. It was warm.
That night she slept with trouble, waking up every now and then to make sure that the statue wasn’t watching her and feeling a twinge of disappointment every time it wasn’t.
On her lunch break the next day the woman went shopping. She needed a new scarf as the weather had begun to cool and December was nearly upon her. She ran her fingers over several of the store’s black scarves, but they all felt like they would not keep her warm enough. The clerk watched her with some degree of amusement and then concern as she tried on each of the black scarves then hurriedly took them off again. She had reached the end of the black scarves and was standing face to face with the red. There was one that had tiny gold and pale green threads running through it. It made her think of late summer, early fall, the color of her artist’s hair. She hurriedly corrected herself “The. The artist’s hair.”
She tried it on and warmth spread through her like wildfire. She could feel blood pumping to her cheeks and was glad for her dark skin covering the flush. The clerk regarded her suspiciously as she bought the scarf without a word.
When she arrived home she immediately snapped at the statue. “Don’t you dare say a word.” She took off all her cold weather attire and carefully rubbed the scarf between her fingers before putting it away. There was already an interested buyer for the statue, her boss had told her. She sat near it smugly and said “You know, you remind me of someone.” the figure showed no indication as to whether this interested it or not. The woman went on anyway. “I knew an artist who would sit and stare out the window like that.
“One winter I had to physically pull him away because he was shirtless and had been there for an hour. He told me that a cold would be a fine price for what he’d just seen. I looked out the window and all I saw was the snow and the street lights, and I said ‘Well is pneumonia too steep?’ He stopped smiling and put his shirt back on.”
She stopped the story, suddenly remembering it with guilt. What had he seen that had been so important? The statue seemed to give her a satisfied smile as if to say ‘Now you’re on the right track.’
The woman scoffed. “Oh shut up.”
She finally decided to write a letter to the artist. She sat at the window with pen and paper, waiting for words to come. The woman had never been much for keeping in touch. When she was young, her father once sent her to a summer camp. He had noted her lack of friends and social life and this was his way of fixing things. She had gone for a month and not written a single letter. When her father had come to pick her up, he’d asked the head councilor how she’d done. The councilor had taken him aside with the look of pity many of her teachers had given him and informed him that she hadn’t said a word since she’d arrived. After that, her father had just let her stay home and read during the summers.
She’d met the artist in high school. Her father had long since given up on the idea of her being a social creature and seemed relieved that his child had grown to be much like himself. Or like his wife’s death had created him. When the artist had come around, her father had looked him in the eye for a long minute, nodded and retreated to his study. He seemed to understand something vital in that short moment that the woman had never really grasped. From then on, though, her father had treated the artist like one of the family. He was there for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthdays—even his own—because his own family was cruel to him.
When they turned twenty, the artist asked if she was a virgin and she said yes.
“Are you?” She’d countered casually, not meeting his eyes. He’d laughed uncomfortably and said no. They’d fallen silent for a long time, watching I Love Lucy in the dark. Then, long enough later that she’d thought the conversation was over, he asked.
“Would you…do you want to try it?”
“You mean now?”
He’d blushed. “Yes. Now. With me.”
She’d hesitated, wondering briefly if things would be okay if she did it. She felt in danger of unlocking the gates to a dam. She was afraid of the idea that this simple act between them would call forward every feeling she had never learned to have.
“Sure, why not?” She shrugged.
After, she had lain on her back with her eyes open and the artist’s head resting on her shoulder. She forced herself to remain silent because feelings and ideas were rioting around in her head and beginning to form into words that she did not want to say. ‘Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go.’
“Was that okay?” The artist’s voice had rushed over her chest and neck.
After a moment she took a breath, exhaled and then tried again. “Yes. It was okay.”
If she’d thought things between them would get strange, they didn’t. Four more years passed and their friendship only grew. The woman did not quite see him as a brother, but something else, something close and warm and everything she wasn’t that she didn’t like being away from. The two of them had never spoken of that day again until their recent parting where he wished fervently that it had never happened.
The woman stared at the sculpture across from her. All of its muscles looked tense now, and the face was pinched with worry. It was a complete visual representation of the words ‘It’s almost too late.’
The woman put down the pen without writing a thing. She looked at the statue. “Tomorrow you’ll be gone.” She said with a fierceness undue the situation. With that she seemed to dispel the emotional miasma that surrounded the figure and it finally looked like what it was supposed to: a piece of lifeless wood.
The woman slept that night and dreamed of nothing. Nothing at all.
She had given her landlady the spare key to her apartment and told her that art handlers would be there at midday to pack the statue and ship it to the auction site. The old woman wagged a finger and said something urgently in Russian. The only two English words were “that boy”. The woman didn’t bother to try and comprehend it.
Now she was at work explaining the concept of metaphor in painting to a couple of tourists. The two of them reminded her so much of her home town where all people knew was farming and baking the right kind of pies for the right kind of meals. She had detested it; no one knew anything about the expansive, vast, varied elements of the world. When she had expressed this view to the artist, he had thought for a minute and said “Well I don’t know about that. Any little bit of the world can be vast and varied.” She hadn’t known what he meant.
She had to work late that night and on her way home, the long-predicted snow began to fall. She hurried back to her apartment and rushed into the warm, shaking off what looked like a hundred little feathers. They all dissolved before they hit the floor.
“You’re lucky you can’t feel that.” She said aloud before realizing that the statue was gone and she was talking to empty air. She poured herself two fingers of scotch and drank it all at once, then sat at the window, looking at the empty spot and trying to suppress the feeling that was welling up in her stomach.
It was the same as the moments after she had made love to the artist and the week that he’d disappeared and refused to speak to her. “It’s gone.” She reminded herself. “And so is he. And it was just a piece of wood.” but she couldn’t shake the feeling.
She switched over to the side of the window that the figure had sat in and looked out. It was a strangely different view. She was able to see the dark, shining water of the bay next to the city and the empty sky above. As if on a string the moon dangled above the water, small, hard and bright. It was cold in the window, but the sight she saw was worth it.
Suddenly she understood everything and she knew that she absolutely had to get her statue back. For the rest of the night she couldn’t sleep for worry that it had already gone too far for her to retrieve.
At work she asked her boss where it had been sent. With a raised eyebrow he wrote the address down on a post-it and said “This isn’t a retail store, you can’t just get them to return the item.” She nodded absently, but on her lunch break she figured out a route that would get her there quick and ran. She didn’t feel the cold, even though she had left her coat in her office. In fact she was overcome with a fierce heat. She had to get it back.
She arrived, panting at the desk of the concierge and managed to squeeze out a half formed question about any recent or upcoming auctions. He informed her that her gallery’s contribution was well received. It had been bought by the city’s wealthiest real-estate tycoon. The woman smoothed her dress, straightened her gallery-approved name tag and asked “for their records” what the man’s name had been.
As soon as she was able, the woman called the buyer and asked about her statue’s whereabouts. He said he’d given it as a gift to his daughter. A few emails later, she found that the daughter—ever resentful of her father’s money—had donated it to a charity.
The charity hadn’t had a use for it, and thus had sold it off for far less than it was worth. It had been bought by a community center that used it as a landmark for their “story time circle”
It went on like this for weeks, and those weeks became months as the woman made call after call, email after email, always just a week or so behind the statue as it moved all over the country. The longer it took, the more panic squeezed at her heart and woke her up at night in a cold sweat until she was an unfocused mess. She was sorry she had let it go and now all she wanted was to have it back. So when the novelty store owner said she had just got it in and would hold it for her if she wanted, the woman almost cried.
“Yes, yes please.” she said “I’ll be there by tomorrow”
Relief so profound spread through her that she didn’t even care that the address of the store was very close to her hometown. The next morning she called in sick and packed her car for a long journey south. She drove for hours and didn’t stop; she had filled the tank before she left. As she was finally leaving the city, she felt her chest open up with gratitude. The sky got bigger and bigger and the road stretched on forever in front of her Trees began to appear on either side of her and the air tasted of poplars and pines. She drove for six hours straight, in the humming, whooshing silence of her car. It seemed to pass in only minutes.
The novelty store was only ten minutes outside if her home town. In the distance she could see the bright red water tower, hovering like a space craft over the town. She had climbed all the way to the top with the artist. He had warned her not to be afraid and she hadn’t been. The woman was struck by the idea that if she were to try it now, she would be terrified.
As she pulled up to the store, she realized that it had been recently opened. Before she’d left it had been a bait and tackle shop. The owner inside was not as old as she’d sounded on the phone; in fact , the woman estimated them to be the same age. The owner smiled and explained how she’d opened the place so that she could get a break from the city. “No matter where you went,” she said, “You were always cold.” She laughed and looked blissfully out of the front window. “All you have to do is look at a house here, with its chimney going and all the lights on. It warms you up right from your belly.”
The woman didn’t know what to say to this except that she had come for her statue and she’d pay whatever was necessary. The owner raised an eyebrow, then quickly rifled through a book that appeared to be her records.
“I hope I haven’t made a big mistake.” she fretted. “But this gentleman came and picked it up for you not an hour ago.” She showed the woman the scrawled bit of name and address. The woman only stared at it for a full minute, not knowing whether to laugh or scream or cry, so she remained silent.
“Thank you very kindly, ma’am.”
Her drive to the artist’s house was much slower, hesitant and uncertain. It had been nearly half a year now since she had seen or spoken to him and she honestly didn’t know how things stood between them. The fact that he knew she’d sold his gift didn’t help her feeling of dread. When she pulled up he was sitting on his front steps, his fingers interlocked and his head bowed as if he had been waiting there since she left six months ago. She could only look at him from the driver’s seat, rooted there as he raised his eyes to look back at her. She got out of her car and from the lawn she could see her statue at the window, a tiny smirk saying ‘Fancy meeting you here.’
The artist opened his mouth, closed it, took a breath and then let it out slowly. The woman walked up to him, close, and looked and looked and looked at his face.
He said “Please tell me you didn’t come back just to leave me again.”
She thought for a minute. She remembered once, looking at the statue and thinking that it was a strong facsimile of longing. The artist’s eyes right now were the real thing, the source of all wanting and hurt and loneliness and it was all for her. Night had finally fallen and she could smell the woodsmoke from the chimney. The windows were dark, though and she couldn’t dispel that cold feeling.
She looked at his face, unable to find the words for the feeling in her chest. The same as when she’d thought that he’d never speak to her again. The same as had been building up in the months without him.
Instead she said “Let’s go inside and turn on some lights.”
He smiled. “Alright.”