He and I were lovers long before he began painting. Before today, I hadn’t even known that there was an artsy bone in his body. Regardless, this would be his first and last exhibit, and seeing as it was dedicated to me, I knew that I had to attend. I hadn’t seen him in 12 years. Not that I would see him today, but I still felt the occasion was worthy of my most elegant gown.
He was a professor then, I remembered. I went to one of his lectures once. I sat in the back so as not to make him nervous. I realize now that he wouldn’t have been nervous at all.
It wasn’t just what he said that drew me in. It was everything about him that he probably didn’t even know about himself. It was the purposeful stride before beginning a new train of thought. It was the slight crease in his nose when, mid-speech, he would begin to doubt his own words.
“Morality,” he once began, “has only two frameworks. The first supposes that the world exists in black and white. That there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong.” It was the way he used his hands to emphasize his speech. “This framework doesn’t believe in the underlying reasons preceding action, it cares only about the action itself. Intention, here, is an irrelevant term.” It was the way he spotted a hand go up, only seconds after the question must have popped into a student’s mind.
“But what if we commit an immoral act to protect someone we love?” His eyes narrowed when he was taken aback by a question.
“The first model doesn’t account for love.”
“But I mean,” the girl stammered, “how do you separate your love for someone from the situation? How can morality exist without emotion?”
“Emotion is for the second model. The second framework insists that morality lies entirely in shades of grey. There is no right, and there is no wrong. Actions are predicated on their intentions and cannot be dissociated from these intentions. The concepts of good and evil do exist, but there is no line we can draw to differentiate the two in every conceivable situation.” The girl’s hand went up again.
“Is the first model even practical considering that humans are, well, human?”
“That is exactly why the first model is practical in the literal sense of the word. But your point is noted, and will be discussed in our next class.”
Even then, he struck me as a man almost too conscious of humanity. He wore regret and purpose on his face, and if nothing else, I knew that a man of his nature must be either brilliant or broken. I never gave him the chance to tell me which.
He used to like it when I curled my hair. That wasn’t an excuse to do it again tonight, but it seemed important to me. I remembered how he’d first examined them. He had told me once that few things in nature could be so beautiful as a curl, unique enough from the ones around it, but similar enough to give the illusion of true cohesion. I had smiled when he told me this, and he had returned the favour.
“You should smile more.” He smiled again, as he had before. “Not like that.” His head tilted to the right.
“Like what, then?”
“I mean, don’t smile because I tell you to. Smile because you want to. Because you’re happy.” It was the first time that I remember seeing his blank stare.
“What are you doing?” He gave me an inquisitive look, studying me as he always did.
“Organizing.” He’d done this before. He was sitting in the middle of his library, stacks of books all around him.
“I thought they were already organized by publication date.”
“Yes, but they’ll be much easier to sort for the layperson if they’re sorted by last name.” I narrowed my eyes.
“I thought you sorted them by publication date because you didn’t care about it being easy for the layperson.”
“This is true.” He completed his stack of Sartre and went on to Kierkegaard. “But times are changing. The world is becoming one that aims to please.” He turned to me now, seriously. “And when the world changes, we must change with it.”
“Don’t you think there’s something else that you could be doing with your time?” An understated smile.
“I can’t imagine what else I would be doing with my time.”
“Well, we could go out. We could walk the streets and do some sightseeing.” I sat down beside him, hoping that my delivery was better this time than the last. He turned to me, confused.
“We live here. We know all the sights to see. Why see them again?”
“Right.” Cue my downward glance, the slow ascent, and deliberate walk out of the room. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”
The exhibit was walking distance from my house. I wondered if he had known that. I wondered if he knew how many times in the last 12 years I had longed to run into him in the street. To ask him why we had been lovers but never in love.
The letter told me that when I saw the exhibit I would understand. And since the letter was his word, I knew it would be right.
The exhibit was named ‘He(art)less’. But at first glance, this seemed furthest from the truth. I could have never imagined that he would even be conscious of all of the colours that appeared on his canvases. I didn’t know that his mind could process shapes, lines, and edges that hadn’t already been laid out before him. I couldn’t remember the word ‘abstract’ ever being part of his vocabulary. Yet here I stood.
His paintings, to me, represented revelations. And each step revealed a novel discovery. He used the most vibrant hues of every possible colour. He weaved them in and out of each other, giving them enough structure to tell a story, but not enough to spin the tale of solely one person. And each painting was a new chapter, with the same loose structure, but a coherent, indistinguishable thread. And as far as stories go, this one had it all: Peace, anger, terror, happiness… Love.
I had once imagined that he was incapable of love. But I’d never considered that he simply didn’t know what love was. How could I have expected a blind man to know what he couldn’t see? And worse, to feel it? To act on it?
And now I wondered how many hours of observation it must have taken him to come to this conclusion. How many happy couples had he watched on their way home? On a stroll in the park? Sitting across from each other at a restaurant? How long did it take the man without a heart to realize that he couldn’t love? And how much longer did it take to accept it?
I was the only one in his will. He had an estranged family. No friends. No other romance. Sharing himself with another was the closest he could come to love. I only wish I had seen it sooner.
“Do you know how hard it is to be with someone who looks at you the same way he looks at everyone else?” He gave me his perplexed look.
“I’m with you, though. I care about you – not everyone else.”
“You’re so good at saying the right things, but you say them to me like I’m some stranger on the street.” I picked up my suitcase. “I can’t do it anymore. I need more. I deserve more.” He stopped me at the door.
“But, I love you.” I shook my head and wiped my tears.
“I don’t think you do.”
I stopped before the only piece without colour. It appeared to me as a tower, cycling between black and white. The texture seemed to be a mixture between liquid paint and a satin sheet. The shades rose on the canvas, as though battling for their place in the picture, for their place in the world. The piece was called ‘Morality’.
A woman appeared beside me, fur scarf slung around her arms, earrings dangling from the sides of her head. “He was brilliant, wasn’t he?” I gave her a thin smile. No, I wanted to tell her. He was broken.