I have discovered the worst of what I am capable of. It will come as a surprise to you, what I am about to say, because until now I have been guided by principals of integrity. In no area of my life has this been truer than in love. Those friends whose activities were less honorable were no strangers to my disapproving words. But now I discover the foundation from which I proclaimed those judgments crumbled beneath my feet. In the coming weeks you will hear many stories, some accurate, some fabrication. As you are the only friend I am sharing this with, you will be charged with telling others what I cannot. Do not lie to them for my benefit. But if you would, tell them that beyond this one obsession I was a decent man. Now, with these words I offer you the truth: I have taken a lover.

I will start from the beginning. Perhaps in its retelling, in the retracing of my path, you will suffer my missteps with me, and what led me to commit my offense will be understood. At the same time I will undertake a picture of my possession so lovingly painted that you too will find it difficult to resist her. But do not be fooled, these will be attempts to rouse your sympathy. It is possible that my motive is to confuse the crime with details, or to cloud my culpability with a hundred justifications. You would be wise to ignore them all. I am guilty. It is unfair of me to even write this letter; to put you in the uncomfortable position of judgment. Dare I ask for forgiveness when I would do it again?

It began as autumn announced itself in a quick watercolor of leaves. I slipped into the National Gallery, the day’s final stop on a seasonal tour of most favored places. I was alone as gardens and museums are solitary experiences; I prefer to walk through them with only objects and contemplations to entertain me. So the idea of encountering a complete stranger whom I would grant more than a nod was unthinkable. I hope you will recognize the vulnerability in my state of mind. I was utterly unguarded; all my defenses were down. And why wouldn’t they be? I do not go to contemplate art with barriers up. I do not wish to shield myself from its influences. I go, in a word— exposed.

When exploring a garden or a gallery I sacrifice myself to fate. I do not choose one path over another or this room over that, but allow an unknown force to pull me through until the extraordinary happens. That is how it began; how I found myself standing in that doorway. But you see, already I am transferring blame. No, I simply rounded a corner and in an alcove discovered the reason for my madness: a young woman.

Oh, what a vision of innocence! I could not move. My breath was suspended, held out of reach as if caught on the fingertips of her glance. Her pale cheeks flushed with an infant desire, her mouth parted and a sudden sip of air rushed in as if to hold back words she wished to say to me but could not. That tiny wind, silent to my ears, drew the pulse straight from my heart.

I stood momentarily transfixed by her spell. The movements around me, the paintings and the murmuring voices, melted into the walls behind her. Her skin was a soft warm cream enthused by nubile wonder. Her eyes expressed a tremlet of surprise and ambiguity. Her lips, tender and full, shown in the pink dewy florescence of the yet-to-be kissed. And as if to lure a pursuer’s eye from the fledgling bud below, she floated a fanciful hat over her shoulders in a feathery-red bloom. My only thought was to make love to her.

I stumbled back. To restore my integrity I averted my gaze and in the paintings across the room I sought a diversion. I found them unintelligible, feeble palliatives for my desire. As I moved from one to the other their images fell dark, each one eclipsed by the unblemished temptation glowing at my back. Glancing over my shoulder from various corners I caught her looking at me with that same inquiring surprise, her virtue yielding ever so slightly to the exquisite flush in her cheeks. Could I really do this? I asked myself. Could I sacrifice everything to a young woman and a moment in a gallery?

It was the warmth of her awe-shaped mouth that broke my will, its opening so innocently parted. I wanted to taste it on my tongue. I wanted to float inside of it. I waited until the room was empty then rushed before her. My vision was blurred and milky with anxious tears. I opened my mouth but failed to summon even a note. How embarrassing, I thought, a foolish man attempting the flower of youth. Suddenly I found words and just as I was to proclaim them, just as I was about to surrender completely, the voice of reason whispered my wife’s name. I turned and rushed from the room without looking back. I fled through wet streets, beneath trees no longer drawn in autumnal color but etched in a shiver of coal. Though I had committed no sin, deception smoldered in my heart.

The following weeks were spent in obsessive recollection. The details of the encounter and the qualities the moment contained were suffered with every thought. Images flashed relentlessly— the undiscovered color of her hair, an earring evoked as a smear of light, the budding lambency of her lips. Mostly, though, it was her glance that haunted me. It was a look in transition, an opaque riddle of tedium and curious surprise, hesitation and want.

In my waking hours her expression resisted attempts at full understanding; they were in movement, their passages incomplete. Where they began, what they anticipated, I could not fathom. In my dreams, however, they revealed themselves nightly— as I brought myself fully into the room she was turning from a conversation, but with whom remained a mystery. It seemed a tiresome palaver she patiently endured. In the sound of footsteps entering the room she hoped, as she slowly turned their way, to find a distraction. She found something more; elation loosened her slightly contracted brow and boredom slipped away leaving only its hue in the soft folds of her lids. Then, as my stranger’s steps came to rest before her, she revealed to me, foxed in the lovely bend where brow meets cheekbone, the pigment of aroused interest.

But dreams could not answer for the hat. Its redness haunted me— in a sense of snow I ran without concern. Then I stumbled. Looking back at my feet I discovered a crimson pastille, the only color in a breadth of white. I reached out to grasp it but the object vanished. I opened my mouth and coughed up a palm of snow. As the wind blew the crystals out of my hand the red hat was revealed. It spun around my body and through the night with a warm velocity all its own. The image woke me with a start. My wife asked what was wrong, but I could not say. Though I am sure she saw the marks of deception, I no longer cared. In my fantasies I had committed fervent adultery.

On the month anniversary of our encounter I decided to return to the room and wait for her to appear. It seemed futile, I know; infatuation is foolish. Under the pretense of returning books to the library I left for the city. As the train wound its way toward my station through a morning cloaked in fog I thought, how ridiculous I am to imagine she would appear. I must anticipate grief; I must preserve my heart. So I expected the following— as I walk through the gallery a dilatory pace will disguise my impatience. When approaching the room I will wait, measure the tautness of my tie, snap the lapels of my coat, and then proceed with a nonchalant gait around the corner. But she will be absent and my heart will stop. I will encourage its pulse with the promise— within minutes, no more than an hour, she will turn the corner. I will pace, surveying the perimeter of the room with my steps. She has forgotten the location of our meeting place, I will claim. Afraid she might come and go while I am in another chamber or down a long hall, I will hasten back to the room and my measured paces. The closing hour of the gallery will near. She will appear in the very last moments, I will insist. But then the guard will tap my shoulder with a repined touch. He too would have been waiting; he too hoped ebbing time would render the embodiment of my strange longing. I will leave in disappointment.

That scenario, practiced innumerable times, would crutch me should I fail to find her. I did not, however, prepare myself for what actually happened. Not even my dreams indulged the idea that she would be waiting for me! And it seemed I had never left the room. Or, more precisely, it was as if I had returned to the outermost boundary of our last shared moment to continue it without interruption.

As the moment lengthened and gave in to others I admired her more deeply. I began to notice, when comparing the image I held so tightly in my mind with the reality before me, slight variations: the tone of her skin now suggested fine meerschaum untouched by covetous hands; a cupreous light brushed her hair, imparting color to a nonexistent recollection; and the most pronounced change of all— the way she looked at me.

Just as before, she was sitting somewhat turned and hearing an approach glanced over in its direction. But if her previous look was cast through the drift of boredom only to encounter a stranger, this second look was swayed by a wish to find me. She had been waiting, marking time before I arrived. Her lips, licked mere seconds before my return, were pink from tender bites of anticipation. When she saw me an air of disbelief caught in the tiny slip of space between her lips. Oh, the agony if I could not pass there!

In an otherwise dim room she commanded all its brightest particles to caress her cheek and daub the tip of her nose. I nearly fainted. With one hand I engaged the loosening of my tie, while the other sought the equilibrium of a chair. She did not refuse my request as I brought it near her. We sat mostly in silence, awkward in the inaugural steps of togetherness. My praises, when I could restrain them no longer, mantled her cheeks with a virtuous and sustained glow. If my words were chosen wisely, say of a nature just beyond her experience, I could in the moment of her confusion lean in to inhale the chrismal perfume that scented her neck without her taking notice.  But when I chanced to catch upon my tongue the nectar of light swinging from her ear, I caught instead a condemning look from the guard who seemed to warn, “this is not a bar or a brothel… there will be none of that here.”

She held me captive for hours. Her secrets blossomed slowly the way a humble bud unfolds petal by petal to disclose in the end a complexity not previously suggested. She was indirect most of the time, preferring allusions and subtle implications. Her nature was not to be found on the surface of a pronouncement, but hidden in the seams of artful indirectness— and that maddened me with desire.

We began a monthly courtship, always meeting in the same room. Compared to the oft trod routes of the gallery we could think of no better trysting place. Visitors to our little alcove were few; most who came affected in the room’s sudden tranquility the accidental expression of a misguided route; they scanned the walls quickly for a celestial night or a pond of lilies, but found to their disappointment only prosaic scenes of country life. Once alone we returned to our enchanted lovemaking.

She is not an ordinary beauty, but a curious one. Her features have about them an antiquated charm which positions her just away from prevailing tastes: a peculiar nose which settles along her face in a languid and shallow curve; two broad and longsome cheeks attenuating into a minor chin; and almond-shaped eyes set high and snug in a gently sloping brow. Her red hat, which she refuses to remove, prevents me from distinguishing if her hair is fashionably short or worn long and wavy then neatly tucked in. She is forever draped in a velvet wrap, and though it is the lovely color of crushed foxgloves, I would much rather glimpse her shoulder or the silhouette of her breast. No matter how long our visit she has declined all my offers to relieve her of it. I am most disturbed by this as she looks ready to flee from me at any moment.

My first impression convinced me she was a young lady of the salon, yet her limited wardrobe and coarse hand implied that life outside the gallery was toilsome. She later confessed the hat and clothes were theater; a make-believe moment she enacted only the days I saw her.  Still, the choice of hat was not entirely whimsical. No doubt its vaunting color was as tempting as a platter of wild strawberries, but motive moved her hand to choose; beneath its sweeping brim her innocence could take cover, and from under a flare of crimson she believed her maiden’s blush would go unseen.

So wonderfully naïve she could be! Other women who entered the room were not fooled, rather they glared at her with an envy anchored in the ruins of their youth. The virginal light that once lit their own cheeks had long perished beneath impastos of rouge. Then, when they turned to me and saw a fervent disciple of the girl’s unbroken purity, they would leave in a flurry of rolled eyes.

As the months passed and faded so did the qualities in her expression evoking our initial moments. Whenever I approached the room, and at my suggestion, she gladly practiced meeting me for the first time, but each tryst pictured less what she did not know of me and more the feelings she wished to hide. Despite a well executed pose, our mutual attraction could be seen in the convex communiqué of her lower lid, and our intimacies divulged in her uncoupled lips. I perceived other more startling changes— like the transformation of her hat; it seemed to turn more luscious, more fragrant, and more amorously red with every encounter. I even imagined my hand drawn across its fringe might leave a tender bruise, or perhaps the stain of fraises des bois upon my fingers.

With our every encounter the security guard grew more insufferable. The gummy softness of his steps behind my back was a constant presence. An exquisite confession might narrow the tip of my beloved’s tongue, but before a sound could slip out his badge would flash an admonishing light.  Though her words fell silent beneath his surveillance, she refused to meet elsewhere. When I broached the subject of the garden just outside she seemed uneasy. Then, upon my arrival for our next date, as if she felt threatened by my proposal, I found her surrounded by several doting friends. I was forced to wait half an hour for their withdrawal. How could she be so cruel as to invite others to what had been ours alone? Love, I warned her, does not consent to sharing.

It was then that the notion I would round the corner and discover a handsome man occupying my place beside her began poisoning my thoughts. To allay my jealousy I insisted on seeing more of her. Yet even after several weekly visits the sense she was slipping from me continued. I was losing her. She appeared different, her nature ever more restless. I grew anxious as I witnessed her increasing appetite for impropriety. She wore cleverness in the canter of her hat, and beneath it prospecting eyes. Her countenance once unaffected would flaunt in an augmented brow or the sly lift of a lower lid my most private suggestion whispered into her ear. She had become, before my eyes, a daring coquette.

I was insanely suspicious. I could clearly see in her wet lips the brazen influence of another man. And those were not my honeyed words that impressed her eyes, but the preferred endearments of some other infatuate. I was tortured by her flirtations. When I sat with her she no longer looked at me, but through me. His presence deepened in her gaze daily, becoming so strong I often felt him sitting behind me. But when I turned to catch him, sometimes cunningly, sometimes in a sudden movement, I found nothing.

The more I probed, the more devastating my observations became. Under my study she had matured, but she was not so practiced in deception that she could hide its evidence from one who has himself betrayed— her meerschaum skin now had the yellow taint of her suitor’s unguent hand; the corner of her brow was sallow and her chin bruised from untold liaisons; and there was a smear at the edge of her mouth. Had I searched his handkerchief I’m certain I would have discovered a smirch of cosmetic upon it. And then, with utter indifference, and as if I no longer mattered, her fulgid mouth confessed my worst fear: he had impaled her chastity.

It was revealed in her lips! They were moist not from nervous waiting, but in preparation of his arrival. Her deliberate bites coaxed them into the color and shape of the desire he so freshly pillaged. Her unfastened lips called to be entered while her tongue, drawn back into shadow, pointed to a tiny glistening pearl of saliva. I could think only of his acescent abandon. The hat, nearly dripping with carnal knowledge, did nothing to hide the revelation of sin spilling over her cheeks. No matter how she tried, she could not conceal her defilement.

I frantically lunged at her with my hands raised to cover the traces of guilt before anyone saw. Then just as I reached her face, just before I could smother her mouth with my mad and intolerant fingers, I was pulled away. The guard furiously denounced our lover’s quarrel and commanded me to leave.

Now you understand; you see my desperation. But I am not writing for help. I have considered this a thousand times and found but one solution— I will steal her away. Outside the watchful eyes, the cameras, the footsteps, the misunderstandings, she will find me more persuasive. I know she has fallen, but the blame is entirely mine; I should have given myself to her completely. Most of all, I should have never let her out of my sight. In our secret place she will change her view, she will see things my way— she will love me instead.

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