A Dream Come to Life
"Oh!" James said, surprised. Then he added seductively, "you wee jade!"
The hard thud of her landing jarred Magda's senses back to her. She was kneeling astride a man in bed. His chest was warm beneath her flattened palms, a light dusting of hair bristled softly through the thin flannel of his nightshirt. Shadows flickered in the dim candlelight, exaggerating the intensity of his black-eyed gaze.
"You?" Shock choked her voice into a squeak.
"Aye," his voice was groggy with sleep, but the rest of his body seemed to be rousing to wakefulness beneath the covers. "Me indeed."
James shook the bed-mussed hair out of his face and broke into a devilish smile as his eyes devoured the length of her. "But do tell, love, who are you?"
His hands glided up Magda's legs, disappearing easily under the folds of her dress, thumbs roving to stroke the insides of her thighs.
Clearly this was a dream. She had been so obsessed with that portrait, it was no wonder her unconscious mind would summon this particular man.
"Still here, love?" James prompted, giving her thighs a quick squeeze. Jerking her hands from his chest, Magda sat bolt upright and stared down at him. Eyes bright, the man was studying her, and the tremble of his lips betrayed his puzzled amusement. Despite continuing to stroke her legs with his thumbs, he seemed to be waiting for Magda to make the next move.
"I know who you are," she blurted out.
His smile flared to life. "But of course, love," he winked. "All the lasses do, don't they?"
The image of Magda's brother stared back at her from the bathroom mirror. Gripping the counter, she leaned in closer. Though it had been only one year since his death, she had a hard time picturing his face in her mind. But, staring at her reflection, she could summon Peter to memory, layering features one by one into focus. They'd always been a pair, with the same broad forehead and full mouth. She could just picture his hair, red, but many shades lighter than her own, smooth like dark copper. Magda pushed away from the sink and stood straight. That was also like Pete, an erect posture to match the patrician nose.
The ringing phone startled her back into the present. Moments like this, feeling the grief claim her suddenly, came less frequently now, and so when they did she always let herself experience the full force of her pain. Bring it out. study it fresh, see how it might have changed.
"Hey, Magda." Walter's tinny voice warbled on her ancient answering machine. "Ya there? I know you're there."
The disembodied voice paused and Magda heard herself murmur testily, "Coming," even though there was no way her boss could hear. Having lived alone for so long, she increasingly caught herself mumbling around the apartment. She supposed it was how people ended up with cats.
"Hi Walter." Phone tucked at her shoulder, she reached back into the bathroom for her hairbrush, the powder blue phone cord strained tight. "I'm here."
The old-fashioned telephone never posed much of a problem in her Manhattan studio, because she was able to reach three of the four walls while tethered to its base in the kitchenette. That Magda lived in such a tiny apartment aggravated her parents to no end. She told herself it was because she liked to live humbly, but somewhere in the back of her mind Magda also knew she stayed in the place to goad them.
"I need you in here." Walter was typically curt, his thick Long Island accent, ragged from decades of cigarettes, at odds with his lofty position as one of the principal curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"That's what you always say, Walter. Please. It's Saturday." She tugged the brush through the length of her hair. "I pulled a twelve-hour day yesterday, in case you don't remember. Contrary to popular opinion, I do have a life, you know." Her eyes roved the room, scanning the morning's paper, the tepid remains of a cup of coffee, the stack of overdue library books, and a pile of dry cleaning. She winced. "Kind of."
"Yeah, so you insist on telling me. Now we got an anonymous bequest, and it's got a couple of plums that'll be perfect for the new pastoral exhibit. I just need you to come in and clean these bad boys up for me, so be a honey, okay, and get your butt in here."
"But Walter…" Magda protested weakly. She looked around the apartment again. Peter was suddenly everywhere. Tossing the brush aside, she plopped down on the loveseat and nestled down, trying to push her brother from her mind. But she could just picture him, flopping back on that very sofa, making one of his cracks about its hideous pink and green flowers. She would've swatted his red
Converse high-tops off the upholstery.
She grabbed a silk throw pillow close to her chest. "Walter, the pastoral exhibit is ready to go. There's not an inch more space. Besides, it takes weeks to properly restore a painting, I mean, I assume you're talking about oils, right?" "Don't sweat it. They're all oils, recently restored too. It won't be much work at all."
She almost caved, but then thought how she was always the last one out at night. The only one in on the weekends. Since Peter's death, she'd immersed herself in work. It was why Walter called on her alone for just this sort of emergency. Because Magda alone responded.
But the stabbing grief and disbelief that paralyzed her after the accident had begun to dull. It was as if some crucial part of her had grown numb, like a deadened limb she knew was a part of her yet was unable to rouse. She'd begun to question what all that work meant. Why she should even bother. "No way, Walter." Magda surprised herself with the vehement reply.
"Aw, come on kiddo," he persisted. "They're in bang-up shape already. Just get your tools, and I'll meet you here." She looked around again. She'd learned how to tuck away her brother's memory, but it had surged to the surface that morning with raw force. There he was again: She could almost see him rummaging through her freezer. Or making his too- strong coffee and leaving the grounds scattered on the counter for her to clean up. His freckled face would've broken into an apologetic grin.
The prospect of another weekend alone yawned long and grim before her. Another weekend where Magda would tick away the minutes until Monday when she could dive back into her job.
"Fine." She didn't even try to conceal the defeat in her voice. "I'll do it."
"There's a honey!" Walter's patronizing be - a-doll this and you're -a-peach that would feel more condescending if he hadn't been so sensitive just after Peter's death. He'd treated Magda like the kindly uncle she'd never had. It was a fine line, though, between pleasantly familiar and flat-out presumptuous.
He added, "I'll see you in… how's thirty minutes?"
"Thirty?!" Magda aggressively plumped the pillow in her lap.
Her boss let the silence hang.
"Okay, Walter." She silently cursed him. It wasn't the first time he'd used dead air to get her to do something she didn't want to. "See you in thirty."
Grumbling to herself, Magda shuffled to the kitchenette. "We finalized that exhibit weeks ago. What does he expect? I mean, he can't just give me forty-eight hours to make something museum-ready."
She stood and stewed for a moment, then banged the phone into its cradle. Anger seeped into her voice as she continued, "Is there mold, discoloration, varnish, dirt, peeling? Are the paintings on canvas or board? And he'd better just need them cleaned, not restored." Her eyes widened at that prospect. Even the slightest bit of inpainting could take days.
It used to be that she worked hard because of her ambition. She'd once been hungry to claim a life as grand as her parents'. But she had vowed that her glory would be gained from hard work alone. Not because of her last name, or her trust fund.
If only she'd gone with Peter the weekend he died. Maybe she could've prevented the accident, saved him somehow. But she'd worked instead, and it was her work she clung to now, to stave off the despair. Filling her days with rote activity was the one thing that managed to push her brother back into the recesses of her mind.
Taking a few breaths to gather herself, Magda stood straight, flipped her long red hair over her shoulders, and smoothed her hands along her simple cotton dress. She crammed all that hurt back down deep, and applied her work-self as she would the shellac on one of her paintings. She slipped on some sandals and was halfway out the door when the ghost of a smile touched her face. She strode back into the kitchen and then was on her way out again, a loaf of bread tucked firmly at her elbow.
* * *
The immense sign mocked her. Even though Magda's taxi was still a couple of blocks from the Met, she could see the advertisement fluttering high above the museum's entrance. Finding Arcadia: Pastoral Paintings of the Seventeenth Century.
"You can stop here." She grabbed a crumpled ten out of her purse and thrust it at the cabbie. "I'll walk the rest." Clutching her toolbox and the now mashed bread, she marched down Fifth Avenue, her irritation with Walter dissolving as she began to anticipate what treasures might be waiting at the museum to suck her in for the weekend. Her wealthy childhood had afforded her the luxury of studying fine art, but she'd bristled at the cliche. Magda had resolved to be more than the little rich girl who knew her way around pricey antiques, and made sure she gave no one the excuse to think her any less than a rigorous academic.
When she was first hired as assistant curator of European Art, a few of her coworkers had looked down their noses at the girl who'd been chosen for her last name. What museum in their right mind would turn down a member of one of Manhattan's more philanthropic society families? And so Magdalen Deacon had made it her mission to be the best of the best when it came to identifying, cleaning, and restoring old paintings.
She entered a side door to avoid the typical throng of Saturday morning tourists. The heat of the Manhattan summer was claustrophobic enough; given a choice, Magda would avoid a crowded, enclosed space every time. Savoring the sweet blast of air- conditioning, she flicked on a single light switch and walked down a flight of stairs to an antiseptic hallway. Door after door of restoration offices lined a hall that, during the week, had the feel of a busy hive, its workers buzzing around independently and with intense focus. Empty, though, it was like a tunnel; the tiles that glared white during work hours now shimmering gray under the single row of buzzing fluorescent tubes.