Part 1: Must Pour
She woke to the smell of coffee brewing. It lifted her head from a crisp white cloud-pillow, her leonine hair tousled, eyes blinking peevishly against this aromatic interruption of some bizarre, perhaps violent, dream she had only just been enjoying, the details of which were already scrubbed from her conscious memory by whatever Orwellian mechanism that performed such elisions, imbued nonetheless, as she lifted her head, with the desires her dream had conjured, desires which made her wish she was still asleep and dreaming.
The bed was enormous, ivory-white, the bed of a cruel princess, or of someone afraid of disorder. Tightly stitched pillows puffy with down were piled against a brutalist headboard. They had placed vases of obsidian around atop the many flat planes in her room, the white furnishings with nothing on top of them, all hard angles and modernity, and within these severe black vases sanguine roses tilted, freshly clipped and dying, bristling with curling thorns, per her instruction. She glanced at one and smiled privately. The tableau was simple, but it worked upon her with an almost uncanny potency. The pageant of bright white and darkest black broken open by a red rude and violent, an intrusion that created a new pageant.
And across the room from the bow of the great barge of her bed, extending nearly end-to-end along the opposite wall, was hung an austere portrait of herself, a photograph, from when her career had exploded, which had initiated the period of greatest productivity, when she had become a national avatar, a symbol on which the privately wounded and the secretly vindictive and the surreptitiously neurotic could hang their greatest hopes, and identify with in their most cherished and intimate inner moments. During that brief, brief, polar growing season that is peak fame in her industry, the abbreviated summer when one does three big shoots and ten lesser shoots a week, when one is never not working, the five-year period when images of her cold eyes, her cruel lips, the extraordinary, almost alien, angularity of her bones, the cream of her flesh, the broken-glass brilliance of her eyes, she had printed money to the tune of nearly two million a week, after taxes.
The portrait had been done by Frangiapani, the gold-star gay who antagonized his subjects, made them livid, then refused to shoot until they calm. And it was not the calm he wanted, but the struggle to calm. A nuclear-option for mining the black gold buried in the soul of a subject ignorant of it. He had worked on her cruelly, she nineteen years old and as green as the screening jungles of El Dorado. He was the greatest, and for years afterward she had been afraid of him, and had covered her fear by hating him, mortally. Not so much anymore: as she got older, her hatreds had diminished. Rather, they had lost their scope; they had become general. She no longer hated Frangiapani, this is true. But what he had said to her to make her look the way she had in the portrait that was hung opposite her now, before her waking eyes, with coffee in the air, them, they, whoever they were, down there clearing out of the house lest she come down and stare at them until they left, what he had said to her to make her look that way had left her after the shoot shorn naked, shaved of her hair, disemboweled, and, his shutter snapping closed, meekly she had wrapped her guts in the ripped strips of her wardrobe and had excused herself from his company as he, maybe, she couldn’t remember precisely, had opened his monogrammed cigarette case and stepped away from the tripod. Or something like that.
And yet. She pressed a sharp elbow against a pillow warm from the heat of her violently dreaming body and lifted herself recumbent to better look at the portrait. She began a breath through her nose and in the middle of taking in this breath she closed her eyes. What was there, across the room from her. The impossibly beautiful eyes of a nineteen year old orphaned wolf. Her moist hair voluminous, living streams of curling water, piled with edenic naivete atop her asiatic skull, a rudely healthy pile of hair. Mouth open as if to draw breath, or to utter a command to a firing squad. Subtle freckles. An enormous nose, the nose of an antipope. Clean lips rubbery in the morning, pastel and unreal when made up, her upper lip a cupid’s cap, her lower lip veal-lean, to where it looked as if she might be tucking it in. A creamy dome protruding from under the natural part of her excessive hair, a dome that had by now furrowed somewhat with age. She opened her eyes and saw the actual portrait and the confirmation of what she had seen behind her closed eyelids, and one detail she had forgotten, and was pleased to be reminded of: that of her leaning toward the camera, her naked shoulders out of focus. Stalking the viewer.
“Ah, Frangi, you old pervert,” she said, chuckling softly in her bed. That shoot had made her. As close to tears as she had been to killing him, or to killing herself, when he had shot it, this portrait had so stirred her profession that critics carapaced in cynicism by years of boredom had declared the shoot a sort of Rubicon, crossed by a daring Caesar in the form of a chubby auteur-photographer finally come to his due, who was a cross between Stanley Kubrick and Drew Carey, and by his subject, some unknown hayseed probably molested by her uncles who was not only astonishingly beautiful but who possessed a fierceness of soul so pronounced that the glass of her eyes had shattered before the ennobling lens of her photographer. And for close to seven years she had posed for luminaries, for Fredro Antonio, for Douglass, Cher Maitre, Bakalau, Kitnikov, Amy and Ari Conrad, “Elvis” Ming Ho, the whole constellation of artists in her profession, who had felt emboldened by that original gambit with Frangiapani, energized by the chimerical ugliness of her mug, the enthralling viciousness of her lips, the beguiling innocence of her freckles. “If they scrubbed the freckles, she wouldn’t look like she could eat you,” she had once heard a critic mutter, at a gallery, to another critic - not knowing the model had been standing close enough to hear. Not caring, maybe.
The coffee continued to stir her awake. The roses in their vases. The curtains closed against the brazen sun, muting its glare to milk. This giant portrait hanging like a glass that allowed a peek into the past, back to when she had suffered through an awakening of a different kind. Well. Night was over. It was time to step into her slippers and get to it. She threw off the impossibly soft comforter, slung her slender glossy legs over the side of the bed, fully nude, her body taut and warm, triumphantly coiffed in the bedhead of gods, eyes hard and cruel and inquisitive. Her fortieth birthday. She had seen Sofia Loren in that movie recently. Good Lord, is time cruel. And Sofia Loren had been altitudes higher than she had ever been. What would Valeria look like at 86?
She crossed her bedroom with easy steps, straightening her posture as she did so, resembling, by the time she reached the black doors of her immense closet, a ballet dancer warming up. She opened them. Her closet was a room in its own right, but her black robe, her white slippers, were at the front. She unhooked the robe and drew her lithely muscled arms into each sleeve and tied it around her waist. She then stepped into her slippers, stepped back and closed each door softly until they clicked shut. The central air blew quietly. Other than that, there was no sound.
Neither was there a door to her bedroom, only an open portal, and Valeria crossed the threshold talking to herself, not entirely aware of what she was saying. She followed the trail of coffee, Just Pour coffee delivered to her door, the preparation of which was handled by her team of people she never saw if she could help it. She glided down a corridor of black marble, white walls interrupted in their frigid perfection every now and then by the loathsomeness of her portraits back when she had attained full grandeur, twenty-three, twenty-four, as seductive as Crawford, as androgyne as Bowie, as remote as Callas, as confusing as Spasek. Down the stairs, a linear stairwell, for she mistrusted turns. To the kitchen at the western end of the house, situated away from the spreading morning sun. Her closed mouth shaped as if she was turning something over with her tongue.
Max stood there, having just finished pouring hot water over the fresh grounds. The coffee had dripped into a scarlet mug, monogrammed in a baroque and sable script with the letter “V”. Valeria stopped short as soon as she saw him. He turned around to face her, apologetic, determined. He smiled crookedly at her. He proffered the cup. She made no further move into the kitchen. Holding him with her arctic eyes.
“Hey there, kiddo. Happy birthday,” he pronounced.
She watched him.
He waited for her to respond, one moment, then two, returning her gaze. Then, he shrugged, and set the mug down on a great island in the middle of the kitchen, on which her evacuated staff usually made her meals; he set it down with the handle forward. It steamed in the still and cool air. He stood up straight. Wiped two huge hands together. His palms rasped dryly.
“They’ve waited long enough, Val,” he said. “Time’s up.”
Who is Max? To whom is Valeria indebted? And will she allow a perfectly good cup of Just Pour to go to waste? These questions will be answered, as more will be posed, in our next installment!