The Black Coat
One black, wintry night, Piccolo -Xavier bumped into someone while crossing the boulevard Peripherique. Once he was across, the person he hit was not visible anymore. It seemed as though, in this Parisian dark alley, this someone simply dissolved into thin air. When he peered further into darkness, his gaze shifted towards a shiny object that appeared on an uneven, asphalt footpath. He picked it up and realised that he held a locket with a broken clasp in his palm. In the insufficient street lamp, he saw that it contained a picture of a girl.
Back in his apartment looking at the girl’s picture in the locket-frame, the thought of the elusive, dark figure provoked all kinds of questions. His mind drifted away, thinking about this stranger. Flashes back to the encounter encouraged his fantasy. It seemed that this mystery person had a woman’s gait rather than a man’s. She was elegant, slender, and tall. The face he envisioned was framed in dark, short hair with curls falling over her smooth, white, narrow forehead. Her tilted nose rested just above full, red lips, and an oval-shaped chin. Her tiny, dimpled cheeks came alive every time she grinned. A ravishing set of white, even teeth flashed across the rounding corners of her lips. When she looked up at him with a shy gaze of indifference, her luminous large, greenish-blue eyes peeped through the long curly lashes of partly opened lids. She acted almost like a poet’s inspiration.
Looping, Piccolo-Xavier felt dizzy and could not go on with thoughts any longer. He went into slumber, shallow and peculiar, somewhere between real and surreal. A woman of this description existed perhaps, but was it only as a figment of his imagination?
At breakfast the next morning, his girlfriend Lorna bought two croissants from the bakery downstairs from the other side of the alley. She made fresh coffee, poured him a cup, bit into her croissant, and watched him help himself to milk.
The thought of the deadline and the woman in the black coat merged seamlessly. He could not separate the two thoughts.
It had always been like that. Lorna was able to see the end product only, the art itself, but never partnered his stream of consciousness. She loved him regardless, of the person he was and for the artist that he had aspired to become one day. Critics always found the portrayal of his women was not life-like, eyes too dull, bodies too wooden and flat. Through it all, he persevered.
As time passed, Piccolo-Xavier began to see himself painting isolated images. On the canvas, he furiously painted eyes, nose, and mouth, then hands and legs, until a slender shape began to take form. It didn’t look quite real, but a bit like Picasso’s cubism perhaps. Eventually, a full-bodied figure took shape, which he now covered with a black coat.
He did not intend the portrait to look surrealistic, but it did. All the more, because the model was but a delusion. Every detail, as far as his imagination stretched, was done to perfection, compensating for the lack of the living individual down to the unclasped locket dangling from her tapering fingers. The life-like portrait of the little girl peeking through the locket frame had not gone amiss either. He called it, Le Habit Noir. He cloaked the painting and deemed it ready for the exhibit.
On his way home, it had started to drizzle; rain followed soon after, skewing down the street lamp under the dark, starless sky. Soaking wet, he got up and walked back home hoping that one day, maybe he would meet her in person. The exhibit being only seven days away, his obsession for this unknown, unseen human creature continued to grow. This pent-up emotion made him mad at times that needed a let-up.
On the day of the exhibit, Le Habit Noir hung on one of the walls of the Taiss gallery. It was well-received, more than what Piccolo-Xavier thought; surrealism sat well with art lovers. Then, in the most serendipitous manner, there was a cry. A girl cried out in the midst of this urbane, arty crowd. Piccolo-Xavier turned towards the direction from where the cry had come. He stood frozen in the middle of the room. Time had suspended momentarily.
All those compliments people paid, the well-deserved attention, the autographs that fans desired, or even the potential buyers, who flocked towards him, dissolved into listless oblivion. At that moment, what had mattered was this resounding cry cutting through the space of that room. This was not a dream. The lady in the black coat and the child no less, from the picture in the locket, stood in the room.
He mustered enough courage to walk towards them. The girl had an expression of sheer surprise on her face, while her adult companion stood staring at the picture in utter amazement.
Disappointed? No, he was not. He proceeded towards her with the same passion, he had cherished all these days. As he walked closer, she had almost left.
Piccolo-Xavier quickly extended a friendly hand.
The lady turned around, taking his hand into hers.
For one unbelievable moment, he had her skin against his.
“I am Piccolo-Xavier. You must be wondering where I got all this.”
“Actually I was, and this picture, it’s not me.”
She blurted out in a shrill, angst-ridden voice with her index finger in the air that pointed towards the portrait inadvertently.
“I know,” he replied.
His chest heaved with excitement, but his speech was measured.
“Would you care to join me for a coffee? I fear I have a lot to explain.”
“Sure, where would you like to go?”
“There’s a cafe downstairs.”
Piccolo-Xavier led her. They went to the Jewish café, the Boulanger Patissier, right across the road from the gallery. They sat down, at a corner table inside the café.
“You know my name, but I don’t know yours?” he asked as they sat down.
“It’s Julia,” she said, slightly embarrassed for not introducing herself earlier. “And this is Chevon, my own.”
“Hi Chevon,” he smiled.
They ordered two short black and a milkshake for the girl. Piccolo-Xavier noticed her curious, wide eyes. He handed her the drink. An odd feeling came over him. He had the most unusual emotional transformation as he described the events of that night to her. Strangely, he felt more connected to the faceless black coat than this woman, this young, attractive woman sitting before him. The affections he had been harbouring hitherto were then for whom?
“What do you do?” Piccolo-Xavier asked her.
“Oh, I’m a student of visual art at the Academy of Fine Arts. Did you try to look for me?”
“Yes,” he answered.
They sipped their coffee silently. Neither of them knew what to say. Then to break this, Julia looked up and said in all sincerity.
“I feel like sharing something with you.”
“What might that be?”
“We broke up.”
“How do you mean?”
“My partner and I, of course.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Well? Aren’t you going to ask why?”
“It’s not my place, I guess,” he said quietly.
“Why don’t we have dinner together one evening?”
“How about next Sunday? My place,” Julia asked.
There was an element of almost juvenile candidness in her behaviour. Julia was taking him for granted. He felt rushed, pressured. The conversation was not going anywhere, really. This left him disenchanted.
“Look, can we talk about this later?”
“Sure, if that’s what you want.”
She opened her bag and groped for a pen. When she found it, she wrote him her phone number and her name on one of the serviettes that she pulled from the silver holder. Handing him her details, she smiled like a friendly teenager. His thoughts roamed elsewhere, back to the dark lady of his dreams. He realised that the magic, as far as Julia was concerned, was lost. It was far too mundane, far too sullied, for his artistic taste to carry on this affair. He had Lorna in his life too.
“Call me,” she said as he nodded.
Julia was taken quite by his charms. His non-committal responses made no difference. She was not dissuaded when they said goodbye.
Piccolo-Xavier was in love he knew, not with this woman of flesh and blood, but with the phantom. Committed to unrequited love and a dual life, he would perhaps share her with Lorna, the phantom that was, whose shy, luminous looks would haunt him forever, and forever he would woo her. In the early hours of the morning as they lay entwined, like a pair of Siamese twins, Lorna had Piccolo-Xavier all to herself. He was a celebrity at last as she had imagined him to be. In a way, she was famous too. Her exultant pictures splashed across the newspapers on this momentous occasion; yet, the muses smiled at her predicament.
Julia, however, never gave up. She went to the Taiss gallery, a few days later, and looked for Piccolo-Xavier. He was not there of course. But, she was able to get some information by showing them her Student ID card. Now that she knew where he lived, she decided to pay him a visit at his apartment on 57 Grand Avenue. Piccolo-Xavier made no attempt to contact her; he did not even know that she was seeking him.
One day when he left for the studio, steeped in drunken enchantment and still under the spell of the dark lady, in body and in spirit, Julia decided to go to his flat. He grew paler by the day and gradually lost his appetite. Had Lorna not noticed, it would have been different. But since Piccolo-Xavier’s malady was starting to show, she could not but become aware of it. Nevertheless, she could not give him a remedy either. His constant distractions were impinging on their relationship. Every attempt she made to ask him about it, failed, simply because he brushed her aside and gave her a broad smile, telling her that it was nothing too serious. Lorna did not believe him. She thought that the malaise, if anything, was not physical, but mental. In her wildest imagination, however, she never thought of the existence of a phantom.
That morning, soon after Piccolo-Xavier left, the bell rang. Lorna heard it from the shower. She quickly came out and wrapped her wet nudity with a towel. She expected him to be coming back. She thought that perhaps, heedlessly, he had left something behind, for he had been increasingly unmindful lately. She walked through the scantily decorated lounge-room and looked through the peephole in the door, but had not recognised the lady standing outside. She unbolted the lock by twisting the doorknob and opened it.
Julia eyed her up and down, and after a quick bo’jou she asked if she could speak to Piccolo-Xavier. Lorna told her that she missed him by just a couple of hours.
“Would you like to come in?” Lorna asked.
“I don’t want to be a bother.”
“No, of course not, it’s my day off.”
Lorna was curious. She wanted to find out who this woman was. What deal did she do with Piccolo-Xavier?
“I’m Lorna, Piccolo-Xavier’s girlfriend.”
Julia’s expression suddenly waned as her smile transformed into a mere grimace, sizing her up. It was noted by Lorna, who asked with interest. “How do you know Piccolo-Xavier?”
“It’s a long story. I’m an art student. And, after that smashing exhibit, who wouldn’t know him?”
“So true. Did you want me to give him a message though?”
Lorna could have easily given her address to the studio. However, she suppressed her desire. She did not feel that this person could be trusted. She saw how that friendly grin turned into a malicious sneer.
“Yes, that would be great actually. If you could get him to call me?”
“May I have your number?”
“He has it.”
“Yes, I gave it to him at the café where we had coffee.”
“You had coffee together?”
“Oh yes, didn’t he tell you?”
“No. What’s there to tell?”
“Why? The story of course.”
Lorna was finding it hard to contain herself. She made an effort to stop fidgeting and Julia noticed how this was affecting her.
“Oh look, I shouldn’t tell you anymore.”
She rose from her chair unhurriedly as she dragged it out and looked at her obliquely. She gave her a somnolent smile saying she would be back soon to have a chat with Piccolo-Xavier. Then, she turned towards the door.
“But, what was your name?”
“Julia. Just tell monsieur Piccolo-Xavier that Julia dropped by, he’ll understand.”
“Really? How does he know you, again?”
Noting her naked curiosity, she told her mildly.
“Yeah, really,” and the penny dropped for Lorna. “Ask him. Au revoir.”
Lorna pursued the conversation no more, she saw her out. Behind the bolted door, she felt faint and hot, in spite of the shower that she had just taken. The lilting murmur of the serpentine brook flowed nearby, but it gave her no solace. She wiped off the perspiration springing on her upper lip. Now that the seeds of evil had been planted, Lorna’s suspicion was raised, ‘what was this woman doing, meddling in their life?’
Julia stepped outside. Devious as it was, she entertained the sadistic thought that Lorna was perturbed. Pressing her lips together, she felt she had done enough damage for one day and she deserved praises. This was a brilliant plan. Once Lorna moved out, she could move straight in with Chevon. She almost started to visualise her life with Piccolo-Xavier.
In the studio that morning, Piccolo-Xavier tried to clear his head, getting the phantom out. He painted one picture after another. They were images of the faces only and sometimes with the body, singular portraits at times, and other times dual. The couple on the canvas was no other, but him with the lady, whom he now named, Eve. And for all intents and purposes, Eve was painted not just with him, but with the serpent as well, which tried to devour her and whom he endeavoured to save from this impending danger. The artist now tried to paint stories about her in imitation of Michaelangelo’s Creation of Man in the Sistine Chapel. He was enamoured by her chastity. No evil ever touched her.
Crazy as it was that he became the mad artiste. But then, he was crazy about her too. The studio gradually became their rendezvous, the playground of the lovers, in which he had Edith Piaf‘s records singing Les Amants De Paris. Besotted by the melodic passionate crescendos, he did everything with Eve and painted her as he wished, nude lying on the sofa, seated, or standing up. He painted her fully dressed and dressed her up and down, sometimes in short skirts, sometimes in frocks, pink, purple, and brown. With or without an umbrella on morning’s afterglow, here she was with the sun streaming in through the picture window. On wintry evenings, she was pillowed within the black coat, alongside the fire mellowed. It was quite mesmerising. But, she was his lover, the model, and his life. There was no other life apart from her.
In the thick of it, there was a sudden faint knock on the door of the studio, which startled Piccolo-Xavier. There was someone at the door disrupting his lovemaking. First, he thought he would ignore it. But, the knocks became insistent, louder as if the knocker was going to rip the door apart. Reluctantly, he rose from his stool and disengaged himself from Eve’s red, pouty lips.
He put the brush down on the table. Wiping his hands on a cloth as though they were covered in milk and honey, he walked up to the door with droopy eyes, parted lips, while his other hand covered the bulge, in the crotch of the pants. He opened the door. He looked and there she was just outside, his Eve. She stood, as pure as the daylight, and as true as Aphrodite was to the Greeks. Eve smiled and walked right through him while he looked at her in a trance. She took his hands in hers and poured sheer endearments into his ears.
“You don’t know how long I’ve waited for this moment?” she asked.
“You came. You finally came!” Piccolo-Xavier whispered.
“Yes, I have.”
“But, for how long?”
“For as long as you wish. I’m all yours, Piccolo-Xavier, and no one can take me away now. You created me. You have brought me to life.”
“No, no one can have you, not even God. I cannot let you go, Eve, for you are mine. You are mine and always will be. I, I waited long, way too long in anticipation, but now we can finally be together.”
Eve sat down on a stool. Her long gown fell to the floor where Piccolo-Xavier also sat on the ground right next to her. He looked up at her quivering red lips and her swelling breasts. It was her, Eve, the phantom in the flesh. She bent down and kissed him with her full, sweet lips. Once that prolonged kiss was over, she held his face between her palms, and put it on her lap, caressing it. She stroked through his hair gently, with her long tapering fingers. He felt her breathing soft on his face. His fantasy and reality were fused. Piccolo-Xavier was beyond anguish. He was one with his dream.
“Sleep, my love, for as long as you like,” said Eve evenly. “I am as real as you want me to be.”
When the phantom’s charm withered away, she stole, taking away with her his very heart beyond the sinking stars, leaving none for Lorna. For Piccolo-Xavier was never, quite himself again.