I’d ask this question once in a while to throw lovers off guard, to put our new relationship in perspective, to show them I was interested in them but not as seriously as that. I didn’t think his motives were the same. He might not understand. I could never tell him how much I loved Egypt. “I love art more than any man. Love is a luxury I’ve never been able to afford.”
“My, my! What does luxury mean to you?”
“Not a house in the suburbs! The luxury of time, the impossible luxury of total compatibility with another human being. Wholeness.”
“Wholeness.” He seemed to be thinking.
“Were you in love?”
“Bella and I were very close, very much in love. Unfortunately, we were often apart for business reasons. She was reserved, proper. We drifted apart, physically, after the first two years, yet we were best friends to the end.”
“The memory must be painful. We don’t have to talk about it.”
“I’ve never admitted that much. You are the first to ask.”
“Friendship is the cornerstone of any meaningful relationship.”
“Sometimes I think I’m in love, but friendship is missing.”
“Isn’t it amazing that birds and some animals show more loyalty toward each other and toward humans that we do toward each other? For my part, I have wonderful colleagues and friends, and I’m guessing that you do too. We wouldn’t have come half this far without close and dear connections. My dear, look at those golden eagles circling.”
“And going south to mate. I never thought about it before: maybe their whole long flight is a kind of foreplay.”
“They’re homing, going back to a familiar spot.”
Our minds were on different tracks but not that far apart.
“What is it, Kate, that you really enjoy—besides painting?”
“I try not to dwell in realms of trivia. I am tied to my canvases. Even though I was raised as a city girl, I prefer this high country, the star-filled nights, the layered cadences of crickets and birds, late Beethoven Sonatas, the gleam of pine needles in sunlight.”
Giving him a hard look: “In particular or in general?”
Caught off guard: “Well, you seem too independent…”
“I have close friends. You’ve met Justine and Charles. It’s a gift to have as many friends as I have. Friends are the keys to a good life.”
“Spoken like a true gentlewoman. I wasn’t prying. Well, maybe I was. Why don’t you let your guard down and let me get to know you?”
We were following a forest path and had come to a giant sequoia reputed to be one thousand years old. I put my arms around the base and hugged the tree and put my left cheek against the ridged bark and tried not to cry. My life seemed fragile, transparent, insignificant. I stared into the bent branches reaching toward the sun until my grim mood was slowly replaced by a dizzy exhilaration.
David was walking around the base like an inspector, admiring the gnarled girth and the towering height of the giant redwood. “An Indian told me a story about old stands of redwoods that make their own rain. The high tips attract moisture the way mountains do. I wonder why this is the only one left.”
“The opposite question also applies. This one made it, beat the odds, withstood the environmental and manmade assaults, battles, wars – it’s amazing what survives,” Kate smiled.
“Your optimism is so refreshing. Now I know what distinguishes you from other artists.”
“Instead of power and riches, you’re stalking immortality!”
“I’d put it another way: genius exists only when it is recognized, prized, preserved. Look at this sequoia!”
“That’s absurd! Historically, genius gets spurned: look at Mozart, Van Gogh, Kafka…”
“…Emily Dickinson, William Blake, Charles Ives – It is ridiculous how many artists have faded to black in the wake of Picasso and Matisse – even Matisse almost didn’t make it! That’s my point. It’s more than obvious that I’m far from my mark.”
“Look, you love being an artist, and I love the way you do that. I love art just as passionately as you do. Perhaps we shouldn’t try to satisfy anyone but ourselves.”
Somehow he smoothed over the grudge I usually carried against collectors. Not that they weren’t my dear friends. It was just that no matter how suave, intelligent, stylish, and witty they appeared to be, underneath, usually, they were admiring themselves – their taste, wit, and even their grace under pressure, and, above all, their collections. Narcissism has many disguises. It was also annoying to see the way collectors were starting to control museums -- from acquisitions committees to directors. David was free from these trivial pursuits. “Darling, that’s a start. I’m beginning to see who you are. I was only suggesting that this tree is a model for us humans. Immortality is not something one confers upon oneself. We can only be in the fullest sense of to be -- like this tree.”
“Sweetie, I really didn’t mean to sound hard. I misspoke. I meant it as a compliment but it came out wrong. Perhaps I should listen to the sounds of the forest instead of talking.”
I tossed back my head with a smile, bent over the knapsack, and mimed a libation to the tree. Then I knelt, pulled out the flat twist-up wine opener and a bottle of slightly chilled cabernet sauvignon blanc and two plastic glasses. David spread the beach towel we had brought as I unpacked tiny dollar roll sandwiches of salmon, crab, and shrimp. We touched glasses and toasted the tree silently. I relaxed as the wine’s woodsy aroma and tart grape flavor blended with forest sounds. I touched David’s hand gently as he lay stretched out against the base of the tree, looking up at the expanse of blue sky.
I broke the silence first, “Look!”
“That’s a Western tanager, male.”
“You mean the females don’t have those striking colors – red, yellow, black, and white?”
“Right. Nature is very protective toward females. They’re mostly yellow.”
“Can you see the mate?” We looked around but couldn’t spot the female.
“She’s probably home on the nest.”
“I can almost feel what I’m going to paint later.”
“Did you bring your supplies?”
“No, but how can I resist? I can wait ‘til I get home. The weekend seems to have flown.”
“We could stay on for a couple of days if you like. I’m sure I could cancel my appointments. Could you do the same?”
As we walked back along a mountain ridge, we discussed going horseback riding to Twin Lakes, a few miles up the mountain.
“That sounds great. Did you mention that there are caves up here, too?”
“I have a favorite spot; it’s a cave with a river running through a lovely spot hidden in a steep ravine. The local folklore says an old woman lives there, but those rumors have been around for the past hundred years.”
“How interesting! I love ghost stories!”