I was taken by surprise. Or at least, I wanted to be. I’d heard a lot about her life — where she came from, how long she’d spent in such-and-such school, the meeting of her strange and quiet fiancé. The kind of man she’d mistaken at first to be the strong, silent type with thick mahogany hair and eyes like a cool forest, she’d said. “Ah, such eyes,” she’d sighed, then cried in her pool of midnight tears as she did on nights like this.
“I can’t feel him anymore,” she’d explain to me with her wide, blue strangle of a stare in the moonlit glare of the open window near where she sat.
It was my job to sit next to her on nights like these. I was her paid companion but insomnia was her real friend. I was just the one with ears to hear her laments and the sporadic glimpses of her earlier joys. But I really wanted to hear about the room.
She wasn’t old as she appeared to be, her pale hair lay in unbrushed rumples where it perpetually fell free of her school-girl braid. But she’d have it no other way. She’d start a tantrum if a brush was held up to her head to disentangle her flaxen strands. Not old, but older still than me.
“Do you know where he is now?” she’d say.
At the shaking of my head, she’d laugh, a harsh, guttural type of laugh with a tin timbre. “No, of course you wouldn’t,” she’d go on. When her tears flowed into the tangles of her hair, I’d urge her back into her bed.
“It’s a cold night, Vivienne. Your hands are like ice.”
Surprisingly she’d let me pull the covers around her then, grasp my fingers in her cold vice-grip. “Tell him nothing if you see him,” through her tears. And as she slipped down to a prone position, prepared at last to sleep, she’d murmur inaudible things in the dark room.
When next I’d see her, she’d be all aglow, her pale blue eyes glittering with some just-remembered memory. “Did I ever tell you of the room?”
I’d shake my head and look down at the folds in my skirt. On nights like this, she’d reach out a hand, still icy, but she’d brush my cheek in a disturbingly maternal manner. “Sometimes I wonder if I had a daughter, she might look like you.” I’d pull at my lank, chin-length hair, look up then into her marbled eyes and watch her expression deepen as if she were creating herself again. She’d breathe deep and sigh. “I’d have been a good mother, you know.”
I’d sit quietly while the rain outside tapped a steady cadence to her sentiments.
“Once I almost had the chance. But he saw to it that they took her back.”
I knew that. That was why I was here. But I held my peace. It was clear she didn’t know me. Not now. Not anymore.
“I used to paint,” she said. “Murals mostly.” And she’d launch into a dissection of titanium white, cadmium yellows and vermilions with a sheen of pebbled green over the paintings giving them an ancient patina.
I knew those paintings, had watched her cock her head, “listening,” she’d used to say, “to the colors’ whispers. And then they’d taken it all away, the colors of my heart,” she said. Alone, she’d bled amaranthine tears, alizarin streaks thinned to a watery state. “No good,” she shook her head. “No good painting after that.”
“What about the room?” I’d ask.
“The room?” She looked at me as if only just now realizing I was actually there, seated beside her as the rain tap-tapped the roof high above our heads.
“You asked me if I knew about the room,” I urged.
“Did I?” Her eyes were vacant again, distant. Her pupils grew large and black against the rivers of rain streaking the window, looking as if they were running down her pale, dry cheeks. I almost reached out to brush them away when she turned her head back toward the floor lamp and, from where she sat, switched it on. Then off just as quickly.
“The dark is so much nicer, is it not?” Her voice was deep and husky.
“You always did prefer the dark,” I said, hoping.
“I did, didn’t I. You like the light then?”
I nodded, hope flattened into resignation.
“Your eyes adjust,” she’d continue. “Things take shape when they adjust.”
Her darkness wasn’t so bad. I wanted her to speak like she did once, fill in the dark with green and gold worlds—leafy things and scented butterflies.
“O yes,” she’d once said to the child I’d been, “the butterflies flit with a scent peculiar to the wind that drives them up. The wind with its tasty breath and wheat-like arms that pull up the blades of grass into a froth….”
Alive with mystery, her darkness. Serene. Not like mine.
On nights like this I wanted to stay by her side, listen to anything she might like to say, or nothing. She was lucid, even if that didn’t mean she understood things anymore. She made sense on nights like this, now. But I wasn’t to question. Questions, they said, set her off. Questions she couldn’t find words to answer.
But it was she who’d brought up the room. I was just trying to ease her back to it. See if she would tell me.
“His eyes could never really adjust,” she’d say. “I tried to wrap my night-visions around him but he would flick on some light or other just to keep the dark, he’d say, ‘at bay’.” She turned back to me again. “Did you ever meet him, my Luke?”
“No,” I’d pretend.
“He was a quiet one, he was.” And I knew the moment for answers was gone.
Some nights she was soundless, staring out at the dark, dark night, pin-prick stars winking down at her, at me sitting just as quiet next to her. Sometimes she’d request me to read from her copy of Black Spring, dog-eared to a wilderness of fanned out pages. My voice on these nights would string out Henry Miller’s loose words and Vivienne would nod off to the baron choking on his coffee.
I’d go home with visions of Henry Miller’s fourteenth ward in my mind, or Paris, even though I’d never been to either place, resigned again to never finding answers about the room.
One night I showed up with a sprig of wildflowers in my hand and was surprised, or, at least I wanted to be, that she wasn’t there. They told me she’d been moved to the west wing. Just for a few nights. A change of medication, and they wanted to observe her. Some shiny new neuroleptic drug I didn’t want to try to commit to memory.
She slept for the next three nights in her new, sterile surroundings. At least in her old room—the one in the east wing—she was able to have a few homey things. Throw pillows, the floor lamp, an heirloom quilt with which she’d like to cover her knees.
I brought the quilt to her new room for her, covered her with it while she slept. I sat with her even though she had no idea I was sitting there, reading my own books, hoping she might wake up and find a moment, any moment of reminisce. But sleep cocooned her, and in turn, entombed my hope.
When she returned to her room four nights later, she was agitated. Sleep once again eluded her and I entered to a wide-eyed, ancient girl wringing her hands and murmuring.
“Hello, Vivienne.” A new bunch of wildflowers clutched in my hand. “I brought these—”
“No, no!” She was shaking her head, violently. “No flowers!”
I laid them aside. “No, no!” she continued in a flail of great distress. I took them to the restroom, out of sight.
“Sh, sh,” I returned, flowerless, to where she lay. “All gone, see?” I held up my hands. “No more flowers.”
“But they’re still here. He said I shouldn’t have flowers. ‘Never again,’ he said!”
“Who?” I asked before the word could stop itself from tumbling out.
“Him—when he made them take you away,” she wailed. “And now he’ll take you away again!” Her hands were covering her weeping face; a nurse was knocking on the door asking if everything was okay. I tried shutting the nurse out with my assurances, but she insisted on entering, bringing with her a syringe filled with clear liquid that she flicked a couple of times before inserting into Vivienne’s IV.
Vivienne succumbed but her eyes were bright blue and wide. The nurse left as quickly as she came, motioning me to follow her into the hall.
“What happened?” Her sharp words cut through me like venom.
“I just brought her some flowers,” I shrugged.
“She can’t have flowers. They set her off. Haven’t you been warned?” The nurse’s breath was hot in the close space between us. I leaned back on the wooden rail for support.
“If you do something like this again, no matter how adamant she is that you stay, you will no longer be welcome here.”
“Of course.” She opened the door slowly, looked inside. Vivienne was nearing sleep. “You may sit with her if you like.” Her voice had lost its edge. “She’s calmer when she knows you’re here. But not with those flowers.” She looked back at me. “I’ll take care of them.”
The next night Vivienne was sitting up in bed brushing her long flaxen hair to a smooth gloss. Unhurried, she set the brush aside. “You’ve returned.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Ivy, may I call you that?” I nodded, even though it wasn’t my name. For a time, an all-too-brief time, it had been. “Ivy,” she patted the bed next to her. I sat close. “I’m dying.”
“Yes.” I swallowed down the rising lump of sorrow in my throat, the tug of emptiness already swelling in me. She’d been with me my whole life — at least, since the five months I’d spent with her in that room — her studio — when I was seven. And I just wanted to hear her speak of it again. That room was the eye in the stormy years of my life both before and after Vivienne. Only after, I always knew she was somewhere out in the world, imagined she was missing me as much as I was missing her, no matter how awful they said she was for taking me. For those five months, Vivienne was my savior.
“I’m glad I did it,” she said. She was holding my hand now in her boney ones, icy still, unlike the warm spring night outside her window. “You were mine then. Even if just for an instant. You were mine.” She breathed. I breathed. She laid the backs of her fingers on my cheek. “I was a good mother to you. I wish you were mine. Always.”