I woke up in the middle of the night, eyes half-closed, groggy from the break in my sleep.
I turned abruptly and reached out to the other side of the bed, empty but still warm from the heat of my husband. The bedroom door was slightly ajar, the light in our small dining room was switched on. I sat up sleepily and pushed the duvet off me, stumbling towards the open door and into the passage.
“Rumi?” I mumbled quietly, passing through the darkness towards the light at the end. I heard the click clacking of keys, and, sure enough, when I turned the corner, my husband was hunched over his laptop: glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, hair ruffled like the plumes of a winded bird.
“Rumi,” I repeated sleepily, rubbing my eyes. “What're you doing up?”
His head snapped up suddenly. "Oh Frieda! I'm so sorry, did I wake you?" he asked standing up hastily, the chair sliding noisily on the floor. He rushed round the table as I stood there rolling my eyes.
“I'm out of bed, aren't I?” I asked irritably.
He smiled sheepishly and hugged me to his chest.
“I'm sorry, I really am. I just had an idea - all of a sudden - and I had to write it down before, you know-” he pushed me away from him and waved his hand in the air.
“Yeah yeah, I get it,” I replied tiredly, yawning. “I'm going back to bed, don't stay up too late,” I warned, poking him in the chest.
“I won't, I won't. And I'm sorry again, love,” he said taking my fingers in his hands and kissing them softly.
I gave him a sleepy smile and headed back towards the darkness.
“Frieda,” Rumi said quietly.
“Mmm?” I turned. He was illuminated by the dim yellow bulb but seemed to glow in spite of it.
“I think- I think I've got it this time. This is gonna be the one,” he said whispering excitedly, like a child telling me a secret.
“That's great, love,” I replied yawning and waving. “I'm ha-happy for you.”
He smiled. Then he blew me a kiss and hurried back to his laptop. I heard the chair scrape loudly against the wood again as he sat down.
"Sorry!" he called out.
I sighed in the dark, stumbling back to bed. Pulling the covers over my head, I smiled a little as I dozed off.
I couldn't possibly hold it against him: it had been so very long since Rumi had written. Real words, from his own mind.
It had been a long time since either of us had created anything to be honest. At first we chalked it up to being in love, distracted by that first delicious year of married life. Then we told ourselves that our real jobs - work for other people - would pay our bills, promising that we’d dedicate some time to side projects.
Three years later and we were still attached to the comfort of that routine: work, eat, repeat. Now, for the first time in a long time, Rumi was up in the middle of the night again. Hearing the call and responding.
I, meanwhile, stared at the blank canvas on the floor of my “studio” for several weeks, pacing around it as if inspiration might open like a portal from beneath. I wish I were like Rumi, whose head buzzed with imagination, whose mind turned thoughts into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into chapters.
He was meeting with publishers this week, trying to sell his pages, and he was nervous. We both were. So I paced around the white canvas, trying to think more about how appetising approvals and less about stinging rejections.
I stopped pacing and grabbed the red paint bucket, spilling it over the edges of the square, making a bloody border. Thoughts of Rumi and I swirled around in my mind like a blender, as I allowed my hands to move on their own, shifting the paint and my body freely.
I must have been at it for hours because I only looked up when I heard the front door slam. Regaining consciousness, I glanced at the clock. It was 18:30.
“Frieda?” Rumi called out.
“In here!” I called back, stepping over the canvas and grabbing some rags. I wiped down my hands, face and clothes, all covered in an ombre of red, yellow and orange. Hearing his step in the passage, I hurried towards the door.
We were both so hasty that we smacked into one another under its frame and burst out laughing.
“Hi,” he smiled kissing me gently. I kissed him back, encircling his neck with my paint covered arms.
“Hi! And?” I asked eagerly.
“Wow, that looks really cool,” he said looking over my shoulder at the canvas, raising his voice and eyebrows dramatically.
“Rumi! Focus please!” I said putting my hands on his face and turning his head back to me. “How'd the meetings go? Anyone interested?”
He smiled slowly and shook his head. My heart slipped and slid down into my stomach.
“Oh, love! I'm sorry,” I replied automatically, trying to tone down the disappointment.
“It's alright,” he said shrugging. “It wasn't all bad, I mean,” he inhaled wearily. “Obviously it hurt when they saw me and I wasn't what they expected,” he ran his hand over his cheek. “But I got some great feedback from the last publisher.”
He stepped back from me, pulled his backpack around and produced a crease of pages. He handed them to me, and I looked through it. His untidy scrawl ran across all the pages, complete with exclamations and emojis.
“They told me to work on these changes and maybe come back to them in about a month,” Rumi said hopefully. I looked at the notes and smiled back up at him supportively.
"That's… good news I guess," I replied hugging him. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that our bills were piling up on the counter. He had the calling after all. And in true Rumi fashion, his second stroke of inspiration found him a few weeks later.
We were at my parents’ house for their anniversary dinner. My brothers were sneaking a smoke around the back, Rumi was with them laughing, arguing and messing around. I stood a little way away within earshot of their conversation.
“You got anything in the works?” I heard my older brother ask, not at random, I suspected.
Rumi must have nodded because I heard them murmur in response.
“What is it then?” my younger brother demanded rudely. He always was a little jerk.
“Oh you know,” Rumi replied awkwardly. “I haven't decided on a genre yet. It’s sort of historical but also a bit of sci-fi, maybe a little romance. The main characters are artists.”
I heard my brothers chuckle.
“Soo, what, like, semi-autobiographical then?” My older brother asked sarcastically.
“Writing about you and my sister? Isn't that a bit lazy, eh Ru?” my younger brother jeered mockingly.
I heard Rumi laugh without amusement and I stood up. Anger boiled under me as I marched towards them.
Rumi, sensing me approaching, quickly changed the subject, forcing my brothers to talk about what they loved the most: themselves. He placed his arm around my shoulder as I came to him, squeezing me to calm me down. I felt my bubble reduce to an irritated simmer.
Before we left, my mother asked me to take some of my old things from the garage. Rumi and I stood rummaging around, looking through boxes of my youth.
Suddenly, he let out a gasp of delight and I spun around.
“What?” I asked stepping towards him.
His eyes were pure excitement as he held open an unfurled poster, turned it around and revealed a painting of…himself. It was one that I had done years ago when we first met at uni.
We both fell into hysterics.
“Oh my goodness, I completely forgot about this!” I cried grabbing the edges.
“You never told me about it!” he exclaimed beaming. “I didn't know you painted me while we were at school.”
“That's because I liked you, idiot,” I replied clicking my tongue irritably. “And I knew nothing about art, as you can see. God, look how awful these brush strokes are! I should just throw this thing out.”
“What! No way!” Rumi cried grabbing the paper. “I love it! I want to keep it! Please, Fri?”
I rolled my eyes. “Alright, but we can never hang it up anywhere.”
He chuckled and looked at it again, smiling harder. Suddenly his face lit up.
“Hey, you mind driving home tonight?” he asked quickly.
“Yeah okay. What's up?”
He grinned, tapping his head. “Just got an idea.”
I could practically hear the axons firing in Rumi’s brain as we sat in the car in silence. He was hunched over his phone, typing away furiously. I smiled to myself.
His novel really was based on us, two artists. It didn’t sit in a particular genre – a cross between sci-fi, romance, historical just as he’d described to my brothers. He rewrote everything and went back to present it to the publishers.
“They're giving me an advance,” he said smiling and squeezing my hands.
“Oh thank goodness!” I exclaimed, grabbing his face and kissing him.
He laughed with a little too much understanding.
“I'm sorry, it's not that I doubted you,” I said quickly. “It's just that, you know, both of us were in a bit of a rut creatively, for a while now. I mean my muse is just…quiet," I finished sadly.
“I know…I mean I could tell, Fri,” he said stroking my hands. “Do you want to talk about it?”
"Not tonight, no," I said shaking my head firmly. “Tonight we talk about your news baby, tonight we talk about that advance!” He laughed and reached into his pocket, pulling out the cheque and opening it up dramatically.
“It's not as much as I'd hoped for obviously,” he said quickly as he passed it to me.
“It’s enough for us and that's all that matters,” I replied firmly. He beamed and I reached down to squeeze his hands again.
There were late nights, lack of bathing and long weeks of being at home after that. Rumi’s aura was pulsing, his muse was present. I could see the spirit of her around him, whispering seductively in his ears, lying next to him on the couch, wedging herself between us in bed.
I saw his soul leave his body for her while we were out at dinners and dates. He followed her siren call in the middle of chores, leaving the tap running to type on his phone or laptop with damp hands.
And I was jealous.
Jealous because she took my husband from me. Jealous because my muse appeared to have left me. Now I wasn't the kind of artist, wife or woman who wanted to see her husband fail but it challenged me watching him soar, while my wings and heart had forgotten how to unfurl.
I tossed and turned one night in bed, while next to me, Rumi slept peacefully: his mouth open, drool collecting on his pillow. He'd been writing all day, a deadline was looming. I sighed.
I pushed the covers off me and climbed out of bed quietly. I walked out of our bedroom and into our spare room - my “studio” – though it hardly felt like it these days.
The canvas I started working on months ago leaned against the wall in the corner, unfinished. I'd done a few commissioned pieces for the money, which kept me busy and helped pay the bills but didn't quite fill the deep emptiness I felt shrouding me like a shadow.
I walked around the room touching my brushes, sponges and jars. I brushed my fingers over old paintings. I don't know when I started crying but when I touched my face it was wet.
I looked around for some tissues, holding back a sob. That's when I saw the portrait of Rumi, the one we'd taken from my parents’ garage that night. He'd framed it for some reason and put it on my table, as a joke, I thought. The childish painting felt like a mockery now, the uneven eyes taunted me, the barely defined mouth laughed.
I picked up the frame and frowned. I remembered how I felt when I painted Rumi for the first time, I could see desperation, effort, love and beauty behind those faded colours. And all of a sudden, I started moving, picking up a blank canvas, setting it on the easel. Opening up paint lids and mixing. I began sketching Rumi’s face, redoing the thing I first created.
Our dynamic shifted: Rumi would write by day, and I would paint by night. Both our muses moved in with us then, filling up our small apartment. We communicated with gestures and smiles, caresses and sex, but hardly ever had the energy for long conversation.
Rumi completed his novel, came home one night and watched me paint for a while. We sat in contented silence.
At length he said my name softly.
“Mmm?” I asked without looking up.
“Can I ask you something?” he said slowly.
“Ah ha?” I kept working.
“Do you realise that uhm, you’ve been painting scenes from my novel?”
I paused mid stroke and turned around. He looked bemused. I gazed around my studio.
He was right. I balked with realisation: silhouettes of couples sprang up around me, likenesses of us, in surreal settings, futuristic landmarks and blended realities.
I burst out laughing and he chuckled. Putting down my brush, I walked to where he was sitting and threw myself into his lap.
“I have another question,” he said softly, looking down at me.
“Ask,” I replied smiling.
“I want you to do the artwork,” he said stroking my hair.
“What for?” I asked confused.
He paused and smiled. I drew in my breath and raised my head, catching his eyes in mine.
“They're going to print?”
“They're going to print,” he replied nodding firmly, grinning. “And I'd really love if you did the cover. Maybe something like that,” he pointed to the orange, yellow, red painting, which looked rather fantastical now.
I squealed with happiness, smattering him with kisses. “Of course! Nothing would make me happier Ru!”
Rumi paused for a moment. “What do you think about illustrating the whole novel?”
I stared at him. “The whole thing?”
He smiled shyly. “Well, yeah but,” he raised his hands. “This is only if they decide to print more obviously!”
“Oh Rumi,” I said tearing up. “Did you ever think our work would come together like this? That we’d make sweet music together?”
“I always knew we’d be together,” he replied laughing. “But this is…this is like-” he paused.
We both gazed at the work around us, feeling the presence of our muses, revelling in the warmth of creativity and joy.
“Art,” we both murmured quietly.