"What?" he asked.
She only hummed, and slid her elbows towards him until she almost lay on the table. She grinned harder. The restaurant was warm and dark. Jazz played softly. The tables were mahogany, and the velvet booths were the same color as the wine. Candles blinked around the room like lanterns bobbing in a river festival. Arthur picked up a lock of Madeline's hair. It was the same red as the velvet and the wine. He let it run though his fingers, liquid. She sighed.
He leaned down 'til his lips touched her ear. "What are we celebrating?"
She turned her head to look at him. He raised a single eyebrow, then frowned. Suddenly she sat straight up, picked up her red red wine and clinked Arthur's glass importantly. "To me!" she crowed. The gray woman at the next table turned and looked her over. Madeline didn't notice.
"To Mad," agreed Arthur.
"The greatest saleswoman in New York City."
Arthur laughed. "Ok."
She leaned back into velvet and let the wine slide down her throat, leaving traces of raspberries and smoke. She looked around the small restaurant, took in the gaudy, unlit chandeliers, the faux bookcases with their faux bookspines, the smirking maitre'd, the waiters floating about. She looked at Arthur. His black hair fell in his face. His fingernails were stained with black ink. He pressed his lips together, and his black eyes sparkled as he watched her.
"I sold the driftwood," she said softly.
"Ah." He understood now. "The new Erikssohn pastiche."
"No." She laughed. "The driftwood. That great hunk of driftwood." He tilted his head. "Didn't I tell you about this?"
"No." He laughed.
"It's been in the gallery for about two weeks. It's this great... hunk of driftwood." She giggled. "It's about twelve feet long, I think it's a railway tie. I don't know. Anyway, you know how driftwood gets all silvery and pale. Well, it looks like that, only it's enormous." She sipped her wine. "I sold it for ten thousand dollars." She took a deep breath.
Arthur clapped. Madeline smiled and drank more wine. Then Arthur adopted the far-away look that meant he was about to make a joke. Madeline leaned her chin on her hand and waited for the punch line. "Bet if I'd embalmed it, you could've gotten fifteen."
"Ha." She shook her head. The salads arrived. Arthur attacked his.
"Or," he said with his mouth full of mesculin, "I could carve an exact replica out of..." he hit the table, looking for the right medium, "soapstone or something. Painstaking work - you can't really tell if its stone or wood - bargain at twenty thousand!" He was on a roll now. She ate her salad and waited for him to finish. "Here. I take a mold of the driftwood, and cast it in clear resin. And inside the resin, I float..." He grinned at her. "rubber duckies... drifting... drifting in the driftwood." He laughed. "God, I'm a genius. Fifty thou, thank you very much." He sat back, chortling. The gray lady cleared her throat.
"No," Madeline said softly, "the driftwood is better as is."
"Yeah." She played with a piece of radicchio. "I got it this morning."
"Ooo." He was ready to drop his joke. "Tell me, tell me."
"Ok." She gestured with her fork. "I've been looking at this thing for two weeks, right? Driftwood, railway tie, I'm thinking..." Her hands danced, stirring the tale. "American Industrialism Adrift at the End of the Twentieth Century, period, easy." She swallowed. "Then I started thinking - how did a railway tie get in the ocean? I imagined an underground railroad, right? Crab conductors, lobsters in first class..." Arthur chuckled. Madeline loved him for it. "For a day, I thought this was the most subtle, lyrical piece of surrealism I had ever seen. Then I decided it was a piece of the cross. A cross without arms. I've got Jesus and the Venus de Milo somehow intersected in my head."
"How a hundred-thousand dollar education and a semester at the Sorbonne can ruin a mind."
Madeline closed her mouth and stared at him. He squirmed him mouth into a half grin.
Madeline continued to stare. This was a game they sometimes played, but this time she wasn't sure it was funny.
He dropped his head onto his chest, "I'm sorry."
She looked away. "Well, today I figured it out."
The waiter came to remove their plates. Madeline relinquished her fork. Her fingers drummed on the table.
"Are you going to tell me?"
She shrugged. "Never mind. It'll sound silly."
His jaw tensed. "Mad, please."
She rolled her head around on her neck and took a deep breath. "This morning I walked to work. Typical New York morning, nothing unusual. Every single piece of junk in the street had advertising on it. I passed a bunch of kids with metal sticking through every available surface. I paid three dollars for a cup of coffee. I unlocked a gallery that used to be a factory, I set my purse down on a desk that used to be an oil drum, and this electronic voice reminded me to turn off the alarm. Right?" She thought for a moment. "Then, I was headed back to the office. The gallery was dark. I tripped on the driftwood." She looked up at him. "I stubbed my toe. I stubbed my toe and nearly spilled my coffee on ten thousand dollars worth of driftwood." Arthur grinned. "That's when I got it."
He blinked. "Got what?"
Madeline stared through the table. "I go back to the office and turn on the lights. I come back out and I just look at it, for ten minutes, maybe. This thing, this hunk of wood, is real. It isn't trying to be anything else. It's a hunk of wood. It's real. Unlike these kids with their faces like pincushions, unlike my boss with her two inch long fingernails and her Pekinese in a raincoat. Or her customers, for god's sake, I mean, who pays ten thousand dollars for a very large toothpick?" Her voice rose. "Unlike all these people, who are from Iowa, actually, who come here and dress in black and pretend we like living in tiny shitbox apartments, and we like paying three dollars for a cup of coffee and we like breathing in filth and..." Her voice broke. The gray woman stared.
"Madeline, you're shouting."
Madeline shut her eyes tight. "I hate this fucking city."
Arthur slid into the booth beside her and nudged his shoulder behind her back. He combed ink-stained fingers through her hair and kissed the ridge of her ear. She allowed herself to lean into his chest. "Tell me about your hair," he whispered in her ear.
"What about it?"
"Tell me what you told me last week, about your hair." She stiffened, understanding where he was going. "Just tell me."
"My hair is fiction," she said dully.
"Life is a canvas."
"We create ourselves in every moment. Every action, every word is a creative decision."
She sounded as though she were reciting a painfully memorized history lesson. "New York is a work of art. Nothing is taken for granted. Every inch..." She turned to Arthur, pleading. "Don't you see? That's the problem."
He pressed his lips against her neck. "Mmmm-hmmm." She gave a petulant sigh.
The waiter arrived with large plates. She had ordered a celebratory steak, he had mussels and scallops over linguine. He slid back to his place and peppered his dinner liberally.
"I never claimed to be consistent."
"No," he smiled and laid a hand in her lap, "that's why I love you."
Madeline didn't move. "It's just..." she began. Her hands shook. "I feel lost. I can't think straight. I don't know what's real, I don't know which end is up. I feel like..." She shook her head.
"Driftwood" he said quietly.
She looked at him. He held her gaze.
They walked home through warm rain. The city crashed around them. They held hands but did not speak. Madeline sucked at the taste of wine that lingered in her mouth. Somewhere in the splash of taxis and anger she thought she could hear the tide.
Arthur heaved at the heavy door, half-hidden by posters for last week's rave. They were soaked. Stairs loomed behind the door. At the final landing, Madeline leaned her damp forehead against the wall while Arthur rattled keys in the lock.
Arthur grinned. "You always say that." He tried another key.
She rolled around so that her back was against the wall. "How could you possibly live in a ninth floor walk-up?" Arthur chuckled. "I thought they had to put elevators in buildings after six floors."
The third key Arthur tried opened the door. "Ah, but it's worth it." He grabbed her around the waist and swept her inside.
The studio was huge, cavernous. It was one huge room - the top floor of an old sweatshop on Canal. At the far end, an enormous, round window let in the city glow. In the half-light, Madeline could barely make out the shapes of the few pieces of furniture that were scattered across the floor, well away from the walls.
Arthur wrapped his arms around Madeline - kissed her - sweet. Floating on the wine, she breathed him in - pepper and ink and skin and soap. He reached behind her and flicked on the lights. Together they dripped on the floor. He worked at her buttons. "Let's get you out of these wet things, what do you say?"
Madeline stepped out of Arthur's arms. She stared at the walls, though nothing had changed. Every inch of wall space was covered with heavy paper, pinned and stretched and spattered; other pieces, stretched on frames, were stacked three or four deep. These were Arthur's paintings, ebbing tides of India ink, water-thin washes building the darkness of a false sea. Arthur caught her from behind just before she fell. "You ok?"
Madeline caught her breath. She turned to face him. "You're lost, too, aren't you? Adrift."
He patted her wet wine-red hair, looked into her eyes. "Of course." He frowned slightly and wandered off towards the bathroom. "If I found it," he hollered over his shoulder, "I would paint it."
The seas of ink began to move, heave and sway. Her stomach rolled. She tried to look away, but the sea enveloped her. The ink roared in her ears. She felt sick. She wove her way past a table covered with pots and saucers and brushes, past chairs piled high with books, careful not to step in the pans of ink that littered the floor. She circled the bed and sat on the far side, grabbed a handful of the black chenille that covered the bed. When you feel seasick, look at the horizon. She stared out the window, she searched, but could find no horizon in the sparkling ocean of New York. Madeline crumpled, laid her head on her knees, and swallowed.
Something crashed, and Arthur hollered. Madeline spun around on the bed. "I'm fine, I'm fine," he whimpered. She turned back and tried to remember where she had been. She looked ahead, and suddenly everything became quiet.
Arthur limped to the bed and tossed a towel over her head. She shoved it aside, stared ahead, transfixed. Arthur sat beside her, rubbing a towel over his hair. "What is it?" She only pointed. He shook his head - nothing was there. "What?"
"There, under the window."
He looked at her and frowned. "There's nothing there, darling."
She huffed impatiently. "That point - there - where the floor meets the wall."
He turned to look again. The floor was made of wide planks, the wall bare and dirty plaster. There was no baseboard. The floor was empty. The two planes met in a simple line. It was the only place in the studio where that line was visible; all the rest was covered with paintings. He forgot the towel and stared.
"Do you see?" she said. He nodded. "What is it?"
He swallowed. He could not take his eyes away. He tried to understand. "The, uh, intersection of horizontal and vertical, a, uh...negative space..."
She slid off the bed and kneeled in the space under the window. She ran her fingers along the crevice where floor met wall. She looked up at him, smiling. "A beach."