He didn’t actually KNOW he was going to die pretty soon, though he had a pretty good idea. No doc had said, half sombrely and half sort of joking, “Well, you’ve probably got about six more weeks.” They both knew that docs always say “you’ve got six more weeks” even if the truth was somewhere between day after tomorrow and maybe a year or so. It’s a timespan a person can get their mind around. He and his doc were on the same page. In fact, he had once wanted to be a doc just like this one.
His girl friend, inevitably a couple of decades younger but keeping company with him — because at least he was “het” — was quite different. Neither tomorrow nor a year meant anything to her. There was right now and there was eternity. The rest was up for discussion, or rather, argument. She fought with time, but both of them knew that was nonsense, a waste of energy.
“I’ll die long before you do,” he said.
“You don’t KNOW that! I might get run over by a truck tomorrow!”
“No truck would dare.” She hit him with a pillow.
Behind her back he began quarrelling with all his friends to get rid of them because he had the deranged idea that it would be easier for them to bear his death if they were angry with him. It had always worked that way for him. If he wasn’t already mad at them beforehand, he got doubly enraged when they died without warning him, without asking him. It was surprising — almost, but not quite worrying — that it was so easy to run them off. But cynicism had always helped him cope and it did not fail him now.
No, that’s not the way it was at all. That’s not honest. The truth was that he needed help and she was just enough compliant with the gender role stereotype to provide it. He was a painter and the paintings didn’t sell all that well, so in the end — if she could stick it out — she would end up with the paintings. His agent was very aware of this dynamic and watched her carefully. But no one could get the artist to draw up proper documents to make a guide for justice, fairness, contingency. He said, “Whatever happens, just happens.”
She painted her own works and there was a possibility that because of her closeness to him, her work would pick up value, like something sticky acquiring lint. She hated that thought. She hated all thoughts, but she lived by thinking.
Sometimes she hated him as well; certainly his agent. That older woman had a fetish for very high heels until she had broken her ankles so many times that she began to wear boots, high boots — not high heels, but high leather uppers, to hide steel braces inside them. Then she discovered cowboy boots and wore them with long denim skirts. This became the agent’s trademark. A mockery of something that was once real work done in the dust. At least that’s what he said, to be cynical.
Suddenly he fired that agent and the companion was both relieved and a bit worried. As she had feared, then he turned on her. What did it mean? Late stage dementia? A desire to spare her grief (though, of course, it only compounded sorrow, gave it a sharp poisoned tip).
Then she noticed shadowy figures slipping into the studio. They seemed to be male and rather young, but she didn’t recognize either customers or fellow artists. Casually dressed, faceless. When she asked, he denied they even existed. And when she objected to the way he was treating her, he wept and said he needed her. Couldn’t make it without her. But if he was going to die anyway, what did “make it” mean?
Was he covertly gay? She wouldn’t have cared except that she didn’t know that language, those social rules. When she consulted a gay friend, he said it didn’t seem likely.
Was there some kind of criminal connection? Dangerous people? She slipped into fantasy and thought maybe the figures were his past selves, his young selves. She knew a lot about them from his stories, so maybe it was HER fantasy, not his at all.
Some artists keep a secret body of work, like Wyeth painting and painting that neighborhood woman, trying to do something inscrutable, which society assumed was about sex because they always assume that, but which may have been something else, like mortality which the woman was sturdy enough to embody. The companion looked, but did not find, a secret body of work. Was she herself embodying mortality? Is that why the subject of their arguments was often who would die first?
She sometimes said that she had the power to keep him alive forever simply by remembering his life and by “curating” his work, pointing out the best and explaining how and when it was created, the incidents that led up to the paintings, their embodiment, so to speak.
He said this would destroy him. That one who looked at his works should only respond with the whole self, that it was dishonest to prompt viewers and lead them to expect certain things. In fact, that could destroy his whole career by limiting the framing of it to the opinion of experts since experts shift, argue against the just-previous expertise, and discredit whole categories of work. Most people are afraid or even unable to react in a thoroughly genuine and unique way. Every time his work was confronted by an honest person with real reactions, it was renewed.
She said this was cynical. He shrugged. She said he was still interpreting everything in terms of his youth, that revolutionary period of the Sixties and Seventies. He pointed out that he wasn’t even a painter then. Not even BORN. She screamed.
In the end it was all very prosaic. He died in his sleep. She went home with one of his best friends and in their hurt and loss, they forged a new intimacy that included the painter. It turned out that the shadowy figures were his sons by a very early wife he’d never told her about. She never could find a painting of that woman and neither of his sons painted or would talk to her. One night she went by the studio and found everything gone. She assumed it was the sons.
Without their assistance or permission, the companion and her new partner wrote a book about the painter that was highly influential, much respected because of its “Truth.” It sold moderately well.