Tess walks from the Met through Central Park. It is Saturday morning and the park is crowded with a fun run. The ground rumbles with thousands of running feet. Supporters hoot and cheer. Woohoo! You go girl!
She sits on a bench and watches people run past, some heavy and tired, while others are effortless. A man further down the bench reads Milan Kundera’s The unbearable lightness of being. Tess doesn’t know whether he is in fact reading or looking beyond the book at the lycra bodies. In any case, she doesn’t trust anyone reading Kundera in public. She stands and walks away.
At the Met, Tess saw “A maid asleep” by Johannes Vermeer, dated 1656-57. She studied it for her thesis and knew everything about it and nothing at all. In the 1696 sales catalogue, the woman was a “drunken maid asleep at a table” and, in exhibitions since, “The cook asleep” and “Girl sleeping”.
The woman’s head rests against her fist, her elbow on the table. She may not be a maid. She wears a black peaked cap—a til, and a bronze, silk jacket and pearl earrings, suggesting an elevated social class. She could be Catharina Bolnes, Vermeer’s wife, or an overdressed maid. She may not be sleeping, but thinking.
A radiograph showed Vermeer painted a man in the doorway behind the woman, but later painted over him. The man is no longer arriving, but has been and gone. On the table are two glasses, a pitcher and a jug. One glass lies on its side. Vermeer tried two different hats on the man.
Behind the woman there is a painting of Cupid, suggesting the woman is dreaming about love. Tess wondered if the woman felt it too, the unbearable need for pressure, for another human being to be pressed against her.
Tess thinks of herself in one room and life happening in another room behind her. If she turns, she can see it through the doorway. There is a Dutch word for it—doorkijkje—a vista opening into another room. It is there in “A maid asleep”—Vermeer painted over the man in the doorway and now the door opens onto another room where a dark mirror hangs on the wall.
Tess emerges from the park onto 59th Street. She sees James standing in a cafe window, drinking his usual long black. He reads the paper and she knows it is The Wall Street Journal. His birthday is next month, June 13. He will turn forty-one.
He glances up and their eyes catch. She remains on the sidewalk, close to the road, pedestrians moving between them. He raises a hand in a wave and smiles. She raises a hand too and keeps walking.
James stands in the cafe doorway, his hands palm up. “Where are you going?” he says. “Come in. Have a coffee?”
She smiles like it means nothing. “Sure”.
He holds the door open for her and she steps inside. He bends and drops a kiss on her cheek—it is warm, natural, and almost stops her on the threshold.
“What will you have?” James says to Tess. He is half turned towards the cashier.
He stares at her.
“It’s an espresso with—”
“I know what a macchiato is,” he says and smiles.
Tess takes a bar stool and he returns and sits beside her. They face the street where she was walking moments before. James closes the newspaper. He clears his throat and she feels an announcement coming. I’m getting married. I have cancer. I’m moving back to Chicago.
“You look different,” he says. “I haven’t seen you wear makeup before.”
“I didn’t used to. I do now.”
She feels it on her face, smells it, the foundation. Her eyes coated with silvery shadow, mascara and eyeliner.
“You walked away,” he says. “Just now.”
“I figured you were busy.”
She shrugs. “That never made any difference.”
“I’m not busy now.”
She tries to recall that line in Kundera, the one about shared sleep. If she asks James he will say it, just like that. She remembers the gist—love for a woman makes itself felt in the desire for shared sleep, a desire limited to one woman. It is here in her mind, a memory—their bodies welded and soldered together, both of them asleep.
They catch the subway back to her tiny apartment on the Lower East Side, standing close, swaying with the train, but not speaking or touching. It is the same apartment James has been to a hundred times before until a year ago.
She lets them in and moves to the kitchen. He follows. Tess realizes she has not thought this through. She pours them each a glass of water and has one long drink. It tastes of chlorine.
Tess knows there needs to be at least ten minutes before they can lie down together. He is two feet away. She hears him swallow. She feels her body opening for him and it keeps on opening. He would only see her drinking water. She imagines waking at the end of the day, at dusk, and doesn’t know whether he will be there, the length of him warm and pressed against her, or already gone.
Suspended from the ceiling, near the sink, is a hanging plant in a cream, crochet holder—a strange, bluish succulent. It was here when Tess moved in and somehow flourished on the very occasional glass of water she gave it.
When James first saw the plant holder in her apartment, a couple of years ago, he laughed. “Jesus, you’ll want to get rid of that.”
Now, James reaches over and pulls on the tassel hanging from its base. He moves it from side to side as if he is gently ringing a bell. Tess feels the movement in the center of her chest, solid and weighted, tolling side to side, banging against her ribs.