Magnum Opus

magnum

I met Halsted on a summer backpacking trip through Europe in 1965. We saw each other across a crowded bar in Dublin. I was nursing a drink in a quiet corner and idly playing cards by myself while my friends danced. I looked up to find them and that’s when I saw him, leaning against the opposite wall. He smiled at me and raised his drink. I did the same and then shyly looked back down at my table. A moment later he appeared beside me and sat down, offering me another tonic.

We exchanged names and then talked about where we were from –  I was American while he was Australian. We talked about where we were headed next and where we’d already been. We talked about our families, and politics and how neither of us were really into the bar scene. I told him I was from Rhode Island and his face lit up. He said he was an art student and attending the Rhode Island School of Design was his dream. We had a few more beers and then we left together and spent the night talking and making love. In the morning we both abandoned our friends and left Dublin to finish Europe together.

He proposed to me a week before I was to head home, under the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. We were married at Martha’s Vineyard the following year and Halsted was accepted to the Rhode Island School of Design. In those first few years we had a perfect marriage and a perfect life.

Halsted excelled in Ceramics and Sculpture but his greatest talent was in Painting. And Halsted loved to create. For our first anniversary he presented me with an oil of the Bridge of Sighs. For our second, a full size baby giraffe sculpture that barely fit in our small backyard. He was truly gifted and people paid well to commission him. In the summer of our sixth year of marriage Halsted received a contract to sculpt a famous scholar for the capital building. He had an almost supernatural ability to find the beauty in all things and emphasize it in his work without affecting the integrity of the subject. He was exceptional.

After eight years of marriage I finally convinced him to move back to my hometown of Fairlawn. My husband was now known as the “Pride of Providence” and he had the moody distemper of a celebrated, obsessive artist. He was not particularly good with our children and it was starting to show in their personalities and behavior. Our passion for each other has faded like daylight in the evening and we were more roommates than lovers. I wanted to move home so that I would have the support of my family, if no one else.

The first year after the move, Halsted did not attempt to hide his depression. He spent his days parading around, slamming doors and leaving half finished sketches around the house. He said there was nothing beautiful in Fairlawn to draw. Nothing to paint, nothing to sculpt. I will admit Fairlawn is an average town with average buildings and parks. But surely there was a bird or a tree that he could draw? He told me there wasn’t. He told me everything in Fairlawn was as drab and average as the people who lived here.

I knew he was growing to resent me and our children. I cried myself to sleep at night and he just rolled over, not caring enough to comfort me. In those days I thought of taking a lover, but I never had the guts to consummate my affairs. Things were bad for a time. A long, long time.

But then one day it all just changed. It was the tenth March we’d spent in Fairlawn and the weather was as cold and aloof as Halsted himself. I came home from work to find he wasn’t there. This was long before cell phones so I had no choice but to wait for him. I fixed the children dinner, restocked the wine cupboard and paced my living room. Finally, just as I was putting the children to bed, I heard my husband’s car in the driveway. I rushed downstairs to meet him and I could hear him singly loudly as he pulled the car into the garage. He threw open the door which such ferocity that I stumbled back in surprise.

Halsted was smiling ear to ear and swept me up into an impromptu dance that did not at all match the cadence of his song. I giggled which encouraged him further and by the time his song ended with were both laughing and gasping for air.

“What’s gotten into you?” I squealed as he picked me up and dumped me on the sofa.

“I have found a new subject. It is the most beautiful thing on this great Earth and I never would have found her if you hadn’t begged me to move to this piece of shit town.” He said, and then kissed the tip of my nose.

“Her?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Yes. She is absolutely uncommon, her aesthetics unparalleled. Bred with beauty and grace. Every minute move she makes inspires me in some new way. I must paint her. I must do it before the weariness of the world impresses on her features and her eyes grow dull.”

I hadn’t heard Halsted speak with such ridiculous romanticism in many years. I wanted to be happy for him but his superfluous flattery of this other woman cut deep and I found myself trying to hold back tears. I hadn’t had sex with my husband since before our last child was born and Graham was now five.

“And how old is your new muse?” I asked, trying to keep the poison from my voice.

“She is 19. The perfect age to babysit Graham, don’t you think?”

I nodded. 19 years old. Traitorous tears spilled down my cheeks.

“Dianna!” Halsted said, alarmed. “Why are you crying, my love? This will be wonderful for us.”

“You’re an asshole,” I said, letting go of the last of my restraint. “You can barely stand to look at me for all these years and then you come in here telling me about how enamored you are of some teenage girl?”

“Dianna, no, no,” he chided softly and pulled me against his chest. “She is just a subject to me, no different from a beautiful flower or a flawless stallion. My heart belongs to you.”

I could always tell when Halsted was lying and I cried harder in relief when I realized he was telling the truth.

“Besides, my love, if we get this girl to babysit Graham, you and I can go out to dinner. Or social events. This is good for everyone. And when she sees that we are normal, trustworthy people I will ask her to sit for me.”

I wiped the tears off of my face and looked up at him. This struck me as odd. Halsted has never had a problem with walking up to anyone and asking to sketch them. “It’s a lovely idea, Hal, but why not just ask her now if it means so much to you?”

“I did, but I think it will go better after she gets to know us.” I wondered what on earth he has said to her. Had he been too eager? It was possible. This was the first thing my husband had been excited about in years.

We put Graham to bed early that night and to my delight we had passionate sex; Halsted’s enthusiasm at a level I hadn’t felt since we were newlyweds. I didn’t care to examine why.

Over the next few days I learned that the potential subject’s name was Marissa and that my husband had met her in line at a department store. She had given him her number when he’d mentioned he was looking for a babysitter. He hadn’t been, he told me, but Halsted was desperate to learn something about her before she walked out of his life. He’d insisted I call her to set up the date and time, which I did. She came over the following Friday night to watch Graham.

Marissa Harland was beautiful, there was no doubt. But she wasn’t the jaw-dropping stunning beauty I’d been expecting. She had messy, curly brown hair and green eyes. She was tall and voluptuous for her age, even a little on the curvy side. The girl was the exact opposite of me, as I was petite, short, and small chested. She was shy but lovely and I found myself annoyed that Halsted was finding every last hesitation to delay our leave. After 45 minutes I finally got him out the door.

We returned home around nine, earlier than I’d been expecting but Halsted said he was tired and wanted to get back. We paid Marissa very well and my husband asked her if she could babysit again next weekend. He received an enthusiastic yes.

Marissa babysat for us every weekend for the next two months. Every night out Halsted would take me to an expensive restaurant or winery and every night when we got home we would make love. It was hot and intimate and experimental. I felt like we were in Europe again.

One night, after Halsted rolled off of me he put his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling fan. “I think I’m going to ask her next weekend.”

“Ask who?” I said dreamily.

“Marissa,” he laughed, as if it should have been obvious who he was thinking about.

“Oh yes, you should.” I said. I hoped Marissa would continue to babysit for us after my husband painted her. We desperately needed these nights out. Halsted has taken over the basement and was down there day and night working on his projects. The only time I felt that I ever saw him anymore was during our date nights. I was thankful to Marissa for that, and also for inspiring my husband in his craft again. I was glad she had come into our lives.

The following Friday when we returned home from our date night Halsted handed Marissa a generous tip and finally asked her if she would sit for him. I heard her excitedly accept while I climbed the stairs to get ready for my husband. I smiled. I was happy for him.

She agreed to come over the following day so that he could get the lighting set up properly in the basement. I heard them down there talking and laughing, Halsted using his usual tricks to put his subject at ease. Barely 15 minutes had gone by when I heard someone coming up the stairs from the basement. Marissa opened the door, looking skittish and bewildered.

“Marissa, is something-“

“Bye, Mrs. K.” she said quickly and then walked hurriedly to the door and left. Confused I headed downstairs where I could hear Halsted slamming drawers. When I reached the bottom step I saw a tarp covered floor and a desk covered with sketches of Marissa. Was this what had upset her? I had to admit, looking around an argument could be made that Halsted was obsessed. This wasn’t unusual for him, however, as my husband was often briefly and intensely focused on his subject, be it man or mountain.

“Did she see those?” I asked Halsted as he stood fuming in the corner.

“No,” he spat. “She saw these.” He threw a dozen loose drawings on the ground at my feet and I saw that they were more sketches of Marissa, except in these drawings she was nude. The sketches were all very different from each other. She was in a few different poses and wasn’t always looking in the same direction. In some drawings her breasts were perky with large areolas, in others her breasts hung lower and he’d drawn a tuft of hair over her pubic region. In other drawings she had no hair; these were the most graphic.

I was absolutely horrified. “Why would you show her these? Why are you even drawing them, Halsted!” I screamed at him.

“Because this is the way I want to paint her! She is flawless, her features, her shape, and I know her naked body will rival David! I asked her to disrobe and she became very upset.”

“Well no shit, you idiot! You asked a young teenage girl to get naked in some 40 year old guy’s basement!”

“Don’t put it so crassly, Dianna, this is art. I can’t expect you of all people to understand.”

“What the fuck does that mean!”

And the fight went on. And on. And on. And on – for days. Finally, when we had had enough of each other we just stopped talking. Halsted moved an air mattress to the basement and slept down there. I don’t know if he went out during the day when I was at work but I assumed so since he never came upstairs to even eat while I was home. I heard him banging around down there at night, angry and loudly cursing. It was an even more miserable existence than before, if that were possible.

A few months of this misery passed until I came home early one day and his car wasn’t there. I decided to venture into the basement to see what was frustrating him so torturously.

Among the countless empty bottles of wine, I found dozens of paintings scattered all over the floors and walls, most had angry slashes through them or were ripped in half. They were, of course, all of Marissa, and were as different from each other as the sketches had been. Only they had gotten much more graphic and some were downright lewd. Most of the poses were sexual in nature. In some she naked and splayed and in others she was standing with her hands on her head and her dress ripped down the front exposing one or both of her breasts. It was confusing and bizarre. But the painting that sat still wet on Halsted’s easel was by far the worst. In this one Marissa sat in a velvet chair, leaning back with her legs spread and pleasuring herself with a paint brush. Her eyes were rolled back and she was smiling.

I ran upstairs and slammed the door, too shocked to do much else. I sat there stunned, my mind going a mile a minute until Halsted got home and stomped into the basement. I went upstairs to call my mother. I was finally considering divorce.

A few weeks later, as I was quietly separating finances and shopping apartments, Halsted came upstairs while I was home. He looked tired and drained but he was happy. He apologized to me right then and asked me to help him find a doctor to help him with his alcoholism. He begged me to enter marriage counselling with him. He told me he was sorry he had gotten so obsessed with his project but insisted that Marissa really was just a subject to him. I burst into tears and my legs gave out. Halsted caught me and held me as I beat against his chest in anger. When I was finally cried out, I agreed to go to counselling. I still loved my husband and decided to forget about what I’d seen in the basement.

Things slowly got better between Halsted and I. It was an average Sunday in July when I first heard about Marissa. A friend called to tell me about a newspaper article she’d read about her. Apparently Marissa had never returned home from a trip to Nantucket two weeks prior and the police were beginning to look into it. Didn’t she used to babysit for you guys? she asked. I told her yes, and that it was so sad, a girl that young. I told her I was sure Marissa was just taking an extended vacation with friends as girls that age were known to do. My friend agreed.

I was sad for Marissa but, shamefully, a little relieved that my husband would never see her again. Things were going so well. Halsted had developed a new routine over the summer: every night, just before bed, he would go down to the basement and work on his projects for an hour or so. The ritual worked for him and every night he would come to me inspired and creative. It showed in his love making.

That summer, we were all so happy. Halsted abruptly announced one day that he was putting in a pool. The children were thrilled, and so was I, though for different reasons. Eventually the investigation into Marissa’s disappearance showed up at our doorstep. Halsted was very helpful and accommodating  and told the detective everything we knew. Everything, of course, except what Marissa had seen in the basement that day. It wasn’t relevant and we didn’t want the police to get hung up on it instead of searching for the real suspect. But we let them look around the house and Halsted even unlocked the basement for them.

The investigators came back a few days later with a warrant for our backyard. They said that they had found something in our house that made husband a person of interest. I rolled my eyes: they were paintings and nothing more. I sent my children to my mother’s  while they excavated our pool. Halsted and I stayed inside the house, lamenting  how wasteful and unnecessary this all was as reporters rung our doorbell all day.

I knew there was nothing in the backyard before the police gave us the report. My husband was a passionate, obsessive man but he was no murderer. But rumors spread anyway and with no regard for the truth. We decided to move to Denver.

The day before the movers came my husband went out to say goodbye to some friends in the neighborhood. I walked around my house counting the boxes and realized we were one short from the inventory list. I spent an hour looking for it before I remember the basement. I crept my way down there as if I were trespassing on someone else’s property. But that was ridiculous. I helped pay the mortgage on this house and the basement was as much mine as Halsted’s.

I was surprised when I got to the bottom of the step and found an empty room. There was only a single sheet in the basement, and it was covering a tall, misshapen object. A sculpture, no doubt, and at least a half a foot taller than me. I walked to the middle of the room and held my breath as I pulled down the sheet. The fabric pooled at my feet as it revealed a life-size Marissa Harland staring back at me.

Her eyes were half closed, and her lips parted as if she were drunk with lust. Her hair flowed down her chest and ended right above her breasts, which were very large and round, the nipples perky and hard. I walked around the statue admiring the work. I was both impressed and repulsed.

One of Marissa’s hands was on her swollen hip with four of her fingers pointing down between her legs, her other hand hung down limply at her side. Her thighs were thick and her calves were toned.  I swallowed hard. She was absolutely stunning.

I stayed down in the basement admiring the sculpture for almost an hour. It was Halsted’s best work, truly his magnum opus. The piece was both obviously sexual and tastefully dignified. I know that is hard to imagine, but Halsted could do things no one else could. It was a tragedy that no one else would ever seen this piece. There was a mourning in my heart because of it.

After far too long, though not nearly long enough, I billowed the sheet back over the statue and went upstairs, shutting the basement door behind me. As the days passed I couldn’t keep my mind off of the piece in the basement. Even though we were in the process of an interstate move and spent most of the next week driving, I felt myself aching to see it again, to touch it this time. It almost became painful to be away from it.

We finally arrived in Denver almost a week later and a day or two behind the moving truck. As the movers unloaded boxes at the new house, and Halsted stood in the grand foyer directing them, I went room to room looking for Marissa. When the last box had been unloaded and I saw the movers packing up, my heart dropped into my stomach. Marissa wasn’t there.

I wanted to ask Halsted about it but I didn’t know how to ask. I spent the next few days gloomily unpacking boxes and sharing quiet, lonely take-out with my husband since by then all of our children were in college. We didn’t speak much to each other but I guess it was a comfortable silence. We slept in the same bed but neither of us were interested getting physical.

And then, 8 days later, a delivery arrived and it was Marissa. Halsted had contracted a special company who dealt only with the shipping of delicate or priceless items. Halsted had them set the box in the middle of the grand foyer and as soon as the door shut behind them, we unboxed Marissa.

She was even more beautiful than I remembered. Halsted and I gleefully spent the afternoon going over every inch of her to make sure she was unmarked and then when we were done we had loud, animalistic sex on the floor beside her. We spent many nights this way over the years. Eventually I suggested moving her to the bedroom but Halsted wanted her right where she was, in the grand foyer, worshipped and adored.

Marissa is still there to this day, I can see her now from where I sit at my desk. And even though my children are grown, and I am old and my husband is long dead, I still feel my blood race when I look at her. She is a masterpiece of beauty and innocence and naked lust. I have decreed in my will that the piece be buried in the ground between my husband and I.

Do I ever wonder what happened to Marissa Harland? No. Was I surprised when the movers told me that the sculpture was significantly lighter than they expected? Yes. Can I see what is underneath when the clay crumbles or when parts of the sculpture collapse? Of course. But I always repair, rebuild, restore. Nothing can be done about it now anyway, Marissa is ours. She is my husband’s magnum opus.

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