tagRomanceWhat You Can Do with Your Fingers

What You Can Do with Your Fingers


From the front deck of the party ship, Donna looks across the East River toward the Pepsi Cola sign, imagining Ian's hands. The last time he had held her as he should was in a club with no name where the DJ always dressed in shades of red. Her face had been buried in Ian's chest, the point of his chin on the top of her head and his thick fingers kneading her buttocks through her leather coat. The music was fifties doo-wop.

"I don't belong here," she says out loud, wishing she had a cigarette to throw into the river. But she has no cigarette and nothing to do with her hands.

DeVry has a cigarette. She can see the ruby tip of it draw circles on the darkness. He came with her but has been talking to other people all night. She knew that he would, of course. This is a working party, putting the artists, or rather their 'pieces' together with the gallery owners, the agents, the regional museums, even some critics.

She can see the folds of his trousers in the light cast by the captain's washroom. She can imagine the flesh underneath because she knows he does not like underwear. She wonders if something stirs there because the young woman in the spandex tube is pressing against his leg. She can't see his face but she knows that his mouth is hard at the corners.

Leaning against the bulkhead and looking at the lights of Greenpoint, Donna hums to herself, something bluesy, not quite familiar. She is almost crying. She is also angry at herself, angry at the plump thighs that are a bit too full for the skirt. It hobbles her and pinches at the waist. She has a fantasy of casually unzipping it and dropping it over the side. But it is expensive and the navy tights she wears underneath are not opaque.

A steward passes just as a foghorn sounds out in the harbor. He sees her blot a sheen of sweat off her forehead and he smiles. At first he says nothing, merely presenting the tray of canapes with a little grin, frankly looking her over from head to heel as though running down a check list.

"Hiding out, are we?"

From his careful pronunciation she assumes he is gay or at least an actor. He is also catty in the old fashioned way.

"One of these professional bitches walk off with your fella? More's the pity. I can see you're a woman, not like these poodles. A weenie? They're really very good. And don't tell me you are watching your weight. I won't hear of it. I'm hired to tempt you. I am the devil of diet. I get one hundred flaming escudos for every inch I can add to a woman's ass. Turn around. Oh, turn around, dear. I won't touch it unless you ask, no, unless you beg. I just want to look."

Another man she might have slugged. But he has disarmed her with humor. She is also slightly drunk. So she slowly turns in a circle.

"Mmmm Hmmm. Can't see a damn thing in this dark corner when you are wearing that tight, dark sheath. A woman with your lines would do well with soft, romantic stuff, rayons and silks. If there was time and I had my inheritance back I would pamper you with my original designs. But I must fly. Take one of the chicken and endive things. They are like a French kiss by Cupid himself. But I overextend...ta!"

He didn't flounce away, but almost, and she stood staring after the last spot he had occupied wondering if she had made him up. Had he called her fat, or not?

She hadn't figured out why she couldn't stand mingling tonight, not even on Dominic DeVry's arm. She could cruise alone and all she need do was mention the great critic's name and all eyes would be on her.

But she was dreaming of the loft, the sound of the freight elevator keening as it rose from the bare, stony courtyard, the bleak view of the courtyard from the one clear window, the sound of the pigeons making love on the windowsill. Ian had hurt her the last time he had touched her.


Ian felt like jumping out the window into the night. The money wasn't the main thing. He pulled at his beard. He wasn't used to the face hair, so it felt like something nasty attached to his face sometimes. Donna said it made him look 'devilish'.

"I'm beginning to think crazy," he mused. Maybe it's the cheap brandy. He looked at the silhouette of his hands in front of the big windows that faced the courtyard. A blind man looking into a dark sea.

It was as though his heart had just jumped out the window, but he was still standing here, stuck here, sensibly and even comfortably here, his stomach warm from the last mouthful of brandy. The heat of it was just beginning to move up into his face.

Outside, the sound of the traffic was light, and for once, not threatening. His dream of a studio in an old barn on the edge of a meadow where black-eyed susans bobbed was not so real now. The fans were noisy with hot air from the ineffectual air conditioning.

He was broke, having paid every penny he owned to show his collection. Fat lot of good. Now, he had no prospects, not a chance. DeVry had effectively scotched his reputation. Now he would have to do something entirely different and get a good review by someone else entirely.

He felt his hands in the dark, the old chisel scar inside his left thumb, the broad, coarse spatulas at the tip of each finger. He thought of pushing paint, soft and creamy paint with his fingertips. He thought of Donna.

He had hurt her the last time. He had probably hurt her before, but she had never complained, maybe a small squeak from deep in her throat, but she never accused him of being brutal, never before this.

This had started with his work. She didn't like the last few pieces. She didn't even have to say she didn't like them. He could tell. From the way she walked around them with her elbows in, looking at them but not touching them.

"Why," she finally said, her mouth barely open, "Why do you have the, sort of, head thing down here, and this,..." and she pointed to a raised hollow, all orange and crimson. "...up here, all sort of exposed? What are you trying to tell me...us...people?"

She walked around that largest figure warily, peering at it as though in a bad light, as though trying to find something. Once she stopped, looked up with a little, "Oh no!" and then went on through the loft, her eyes widening a bit with each piece.

Finally, she stood at the other end of the room, her face caving in, darkening. He didn't understand until she started asking questions again.

"They're a sequence, right?" Her voice echoed. The loft was now empty of party guests but full of the styrofoam spoor and the smells of evaporating liquor that follow the swarming of an opening.

He had to think about her question. He had done them one after the other. How else? But as he looked he began to see. There was something. Why had he never noticed the pattern?

"That...that is the first one, right? That upright one."

He looked at it. It was the first one he had finished, not the first he had done. And when he had finished it he immediately felt it was incomplete. It was playful, appendages a bit like arms thrust into the air, floral patterns like a free-floating paisley covering the curves. It was very light.

He nodded. "Call it the first."

"That was right after we met, right?" she said. He nodded again.

"Then this," she said, her fingers wavering as she pointed, the other hand touching her mouth.

It was like the first figure, only the appendages had been folded in. There was a small, astonished hollow in the head part. It was smeared with crimson. The paisley was darker, more disorderly. The figure seemed to tip, off balance, as though pushed.

"I think I remember seeing it the next day after we had that that awful, stupid fight on the ferry. It wasn't painted then."

"Yes, I did that one next," he agreed. But he saw where she was going.

"Then this," she said, biting her lip. "I remember this. This happened. After that time at the lake when we were wrestling. The dock was wet and I slipped." She rubbed her hip.

The figure was toppling, permanently, one lower appendage clumsily out in space; one huge haunch flattened. The head-like globe gaped. The pattern was blue like reflected water. There were small red scratches.

"That's enough," he said under his breath. He knew it wasn't and that she would go on.

The next piece she attended was actually two pieces, one large and one small. The large one was almost horizontal, surrounding the smaller one. Red lapped from the smaller to the larger. The pattern was barely visible lavender on maroon.

"You kicked Sandy when he bit you. The day you barged in so early."

He defended himself instinctively. "I told you that I wanted to surprise you. It was our six month anniversary. He's just a dog. I told you I was sorry."

"You wanted him out of the way. You desperately wanted him out of the way. I almost could see him flying out the window if I had just..."

"Never!" he protested, but he couldn't prove it.

"She peered at the next-to-last one for quite a while, glancing up at him almost with amusement, but also with the look of an animal which has just been inoculated.

"When I told you I might be pregnant and you went charging around the place...I swear you were practically pacing on the walls. You pulled some of your beard out. You kept grabbing me so tight by both my hands and staring so hard into my face. I kept thinking you were going to pick me up and shake that baby out of me.

"And then, four days later, when the test came back negative, you were so fiercely joyous. You almost crowed. I remember your fists, those big hands hurtling toward the ceiling, and that, "Yes!" I remember we made love then, or something. You just leaped into me, and my period came.

The figure was all angles and thrusting prominences. One large area bulged outward conspicuously, but seemed to be punched in on the other side. A current of red flowed from one end of the figure to the other. Frantic patterns alternated with purple blotches.

She turned away from the last piece, wincing, as though she could not bear looking at it again.

"I don't think this has happened yet," she said, shrugging a shoulder toward the object. "It makes me very afraid. Look at it. I'm inside out. My head's down there, and my 'you know what' is all up here, split open. The rest just hangs down on both sides. Why did you do this? What did I do?"

He could not answer her because until that moment he had not seen what she saw. He did not tell himself what a piece meant when he was making it. Maybe she had invented the whole thing, the violence, the sequence. Maybe it was something she saw in his work which he just did spontaneously. Yes, anger. Yes, lust. But.

No, that didn't add up. She was right. It was there. He thought about how at that moment he had wanted to take her face in his hands and he thought about how he had wanted to kiss her, kiss her until she was water, until she disappeared and he could bathe in the liquid fire of her mouth, fall weightless through her breasts and her legs.

Then he saw. That she was the raw material. It was not the cellulose and the acrylics, but her, her skin and her sweat, the way her elbow pointed over her head when she was angry, moisture on her thigh, her passion, her fear.

He took a slow drink of the brandy.

He had made these things out of her volatile stuff, but he wasn't done yet. He didn't know where the center was, where the place was he could stop being hungry. All he knew was that he had to reach in deep and bring it out into the light.

She had walked the length of the big room and had taken his face in her hands and had kissed him then, a long time, his arms like pendulums at his sides, and she had left the loft by herself with her turquoise linen coat over her shoulder. She did not look back at him.

She had called Dominic, The Great Art Critic DeVry on impulse the next afternoon and they had met for Thai shrimp in the Village. She had watched his tongue while he ate and knew she would go home with him.

Now, with the knowledge of his practiced hands still on her body, she felt, at once, cleansed and prostituted. She knew he would begin to notice Ian's work more favorably in the coming months. She knew she was already tired of his careful touch.

A vision of giant hands. They were pulling apart something like an orange with a small hiss. She made a little sound. It was not fear that she felt but rather hunger for the fruit.

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