No matter how hard he tried, William couldn’t sleep. Memories of better times flooded his thoughts. He remembered the mornings when Serena leaned over him to press the snooze button, then fell back to sleep with her head on his chest. The curve of her knees fit perfectly against his when they lay side by side. She was always the first to rise and shower, whispering softly that he needn’t get up. Sometimes he surprised her in the shower, and sometimes he just lay there, holding the pillow she had slept against, breathing in the scent of her perfume.
He recalled one evening when he came home to find her cooking in nothing but an apron, and he took her in his arms and made love to her on the kitchen floor until the fire alarm went off from the smoke billowing out of the oven. He suddenly realized that Serena had infiltrated every part of his life. She had met his friends. She had met his remaining family. She had lived in his home. She knew everything about him; she knew him. There was nothing that belonged solely to William.
Except, maybe, his art.
That was something she had never understood. Her sensibility was the complete opposite of his sensitivity. She watched him as he labored over his pottery wheel or stood over his sculpting table for hours.
“What’s wrong?” she had asked once when he angrily crushed an unfinished vase in his hands.
“It’s just not right,” he had said.
“It’s beautiful. Come on, William. You’ve been working on this all night.”
But she didn’t see the finished product in her head like he did. And she wasn’t able to understand that what was complete and beautiful in his mind was far better than anything he was able to mold or create.
Throwing back the blankets, William got out of bed. In the light of his studio, he stared at his materials. He walked to the packed clay and began to knead it, glancing at his wheel. No, he thought, he didn’t want to use anything tonight but his bare hands.
He carried the clay to the table, sitting on the high stool and throwing the clay against the wood, then rolling it against his palms. There was something sensual in the way he handled the cool substance, something intimate in the way he closed his eyes and began to shape the material. He saw the image again behind his closed eyelids. It was always the same. The image of a woman, the woman.
William didn’t know how much time had passed when he heard a small noise from the doorway. He opened his eyes. Serena was standing there staring at him, her arms folded across her chest. He had the notion that it was very late, but he didn’t care. There was a look in Serena’s eyes that he didn’t like.
“What is it?” he asked brusquely, his hands never once stopping their work. She was staring at the clay. He glanced down to see what she saw. Without knowing it, he had formed the profile of a woman’s face and slender neck and chest. Her hair spilled over one shoulder, and there was a small indent in the clay that resembled a diamond. He was surprised at how much progress he had made and at how nearly perfect this present project was to his own eyes. The past hour or two had slipped away like minutes.
Serena must have seen the satisfaction in his expression because she said with a touch of jealousy, “It’s her.”
“Who?” he asked softly.
“The woman I’m always competing with.”
This comment abruptly brought William’s work to an end. “What do you mean?” he asked slowly. Serena sighed, leaning against the wall. “Oh, William,” she said, “For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve loved someone else. It’s this woman you are always trying to bring to life.”
Her voice trembled, on the verge of tears. She walked to the wall where his finished pottery sat on shelves and his paintings hung from hooks. As she pointed to each statue and canvas, he realized she was right. He was trying again and again to create the same woman.
“Just look!” she said, pointing angrily at a canvas where a woman stood beside a tree, gazing at a distant lake, her profile the only visible part of her face. Serena pointed to the bust of a woman with a similar profile—petite upturned nose, high cheekbones, fine jaw, all surrounded by hair that seemed to move even in stillness. “She’s more beautiful than any human being I’ve ever seen!” Serena shouted. “There’s no way you could ever be satisfied with me, William, a mere mortal woman . . . because I’ll never be her!”
“No,” William whispered, shaking his head.
Serena’s anger was building. “Yes!” she insisted. “And I’m so fed up! I’m so fed up of being used and manipulated! I thought your passion was because you loved me for who I was, but now I realize it’s because you want to change me into someone else! I’ll tell you something else . . . I don’t want any part of your madness!”
She had walked right up to his work table.
“The only time I ever see life in you is when you’re working!” she accused. “You never give me the time of day. Well, I won’t put up with it any longer!”
She pressed her fist into the wet clay he had been molding, turning the nearly-perfect piece into nothing but gray dough. He couldn’t move for a second. He felt all the pleasure at what he had accomplished drain from him. “How dare you?” he said in a voice so soft and menacing, she took a step backwards. “How dare you?” He growled again, his hand flying out to strike her. She flinched as he turned and punched the wall instead. “Will,” she gasped, tears in her eyes. She was shaking her head fiercely. He could tell she was sorry, but it didn’t matter to him anymore.
“You’re right!” He yelled, moving away from her in his fury. “You’re nothing compared to her!” He spoke angrily, hoping to hurt her with his words. He walked to one of his statues and lifted it, holding it out to her. “Is this what you want?” He asked, and he turned and threw the ceramic figure against the wall. It shattered in a dozen solid pieces.
Serena’s hands flew to her mouth. She was crying openly now. “Don’t,” he heard her whisper, but he paid her no mind.
“What about this?” he asked, lifting a painting from its hook and smashing it over his knee, throwing the wooden frame aside. “And this?” He lifted the figure of a man and woman entwined (the man, he briefly realized, resembled himself) and threw it at his feet. At this, Serena turned and ran.
William stood there, listening to the soft noises coming from the adjacent room as she dressed and threw her stuff in her bag. He heard her choke on a sob as she tripped out of the bedroom, stumbled past him with averted eyes, and slammed the front door behind her.
Melissa Hunter is an author and blogger from Cincinnati, Ohio. Her articles have been published on Kveller.com and LiteraryMama.com. She is a contributing blogger to the Today Show parenting community, and her short stories have been published in the Jewish Literary Journal. She is currently writing a novel based on her grandmother’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor and the psychological impact this had on her life. When not writing, Melissa loves spending family time with her husband and two beautiful daughters. Connect with Melissa via her website, Facebook, and on Twitter as @cleancopywriter.