The next day, after several gulps of Jack Daniels, I called her up at Malaprops, where she worked, and asked her out. I went down in flames.
A few months later, I quit Malaprops and went to work at Asheville's alternative weekly, Mountain Express. The poet was working there as an editor. After some awkwardness, we got on pretty well. I also discovered that she was seriously involved with a painter.
The last, best time I ever spent with the poet, she invited me to accompany her to the opening of her boyfriend's show at Zone One Gallery. We left work and walked across Pack Square. We rounded a corner, straight into a russet October sunset. I turned to look at her: knee-high boots, miniskirt and a white cotton blouse with the tails flying out, which made her appear as if she were drifting in the breeze. She looked smashing, and she was smiling at me.
At the gallery, the painter was busy making anxious chitchat with potential patrons, so I entertained his girlfriend. I played the bon vivant, keeping her giggling with lines half-remembered from Woody Allen films and maybe even a witticism or two of my own. But after catching a couple of sour glances from the painter, I bade the poet farewell. Soon afterward, I moved to New York City and never saw her again.
Last weekend, I was back in Asheville. During a Saturday afternoon drizzle, a friend and I were walking down Biltmore Avenue when I spotted Zone One Gallery. Something stirred in the cold storage of my memories, and I insisted that we go in.
We were confronted by a room full of self-portraits of an artist in varying degrees of figurative clarity. I thought he looked familiar. When I looked at his resume, I found that it was the painter.
The room of portraits in the front served as the public face of this man's art. In the back room, however, the artist decided to reveal the drama that generated the paintings. Three walls were covered with journal entries, letters and poems. It was the story of two artists who had married and moved to a house on top of a remote mountain somewhere in Western North Carolina. He was painting and teaching, she was writing poetry and they were deeply in love for two years. Then came the separation, the flight of the painter to New York, the self-loathing, and the divorce.
Page by page, I read this unexpected, bitter epilogue to my harmless memory. It was as naked and agonizing as Michelangelo's rendering of himself as a piece of flayed skin in the Sistine Chapel. This painter's journal entries are not deathless art, but still I gazed with pity and sadness at the pain hanging from the walls at Zone One Gallery.