THE MASK OF NIGHT

JoAnn Baca

 

 

“Oh, come on, Cathy!” Jenny urged. “Tell me! It won’t go any further, I promise. Besides, I told you mine. We need mutual blackmail to keep us honest!” Jenny collapsed into giggles.

 

They’d had a girls’ night in to end all. They’d rented a couple of R-rated movies, then unwisely watched them with only popcorn and wine as accompaniments...and the popcorn had run out long before the wine. Now it was very late, the two friends were just a bit more intoxicated than caution called for, and the talk was turning from bad boyfriends to...much more intimate territory.

 

Jenny stared into the glass she was holding, then lifted it and dribbled the dregs onto her tongue. “Need more wine,” she informed her friend as she set the fine crystal on the coffee table with exaggerated care. Reaching past two empties, she grabbed a full bottle of Pinot Grigio. The cork pulled out with a satisfying pop, the sudden give of it upsetting her precarious balance. She fell backwards on Catherine’s couch, only just managing to keep the bottle upright. “Oopsie!”

 

Catherine tried for a sober, chiding look...which failed miserably, ending up looking like a little-girl pout. “You almost spilled it. You’re drunk,” she announced.

 

“Oh, yeah? And you’re not?” Jenny challenged, laughing, her bright brown eyes sparkling merrily. “And don’t change the subject. Tell me your fantasy...now!”

 

Catherine shook her head to emphasize each word. “No...no...no!  It’s too private.”

 

But Jenny wasn’t having any. “As they say in the South: that dog won’t hunt.” She began to wheedle, her words the tiniest bit slurred. “What’s the secret fantasy that always gets you hot, Cathy? We’ve all got ‘em. Now you know mine - c’mon, I wanna know yours.”

 

Catherine rolled her eyes dramatically. “Oh, like yours is so wild. Sex on a firetruck with a hunky fireman wearing nothing but his boots and hat! Jeez, Jen, I figured you to be more inventive than that!”

 

“It’s not nice to mock,” Jenny informed her, shaking her head in disdainful disapproval. “Besides, how do I know yours isn’t just as mundane if you don’t tell me?”

 

Catherine couldn’t help the secret smile that curved onto her lips. “Trust me, it’s not,” she responded, her eyes getting a dreamy, faraway look in them. In a low, compelling voice, she added, “Mine’s...magical...incredible....”

 

“I’ll be the judge of that!” Jenny crowed, sensing victory was in reach.  Craftily, she topped off Catherine’s glass of wine, then tipped it towards Catherine’s mouth, urging her to gulp down a mouthful. “I’ll get you drunk enough to talk yet!”

 

The glass was half empty before Catherine could extricate it from her lips and Jenny’s fingers from around the stem of her glass. Flushing a deep crimson, she admitted, “I’m drunk enough now. Stop it!”

 

Jenny smiled in triumph and leaned back into the cushions, clutching a throw pillow in a bear hug. “OK, I’m ready. Spill it, Chandler!” she instructed her blushing friend.

 

Catherine sat very still on the opposite couch, as if gathering her thoughts...or her courage. She spared a brief glance at Jenny’s attentive face, then turned away to gaze at the balcony doors just feet away. The night was deep and unusually quiet for New York, only the barest city sounds reached their ears through the curtained doors. She took a deep breath and began, her voice husky and low.

 

“I’m in bed. I can’t sleep. It’s late - two, three a.m. Too late to call anyone. There’s nothing on TV...music might bother the neighbors...I can’t get interested in the book I just bought. I’m restless, like I’m waiting for something to happen, but I don’t know what. And I’m warm...too warm. So I toss the covers off.

 

“Then I see him.

 

“He’s standing between the open French doors; the curtains are billowing around him in a light summer breeze. They seem to caress him as he stands gazing at me.  He’s naked...but not bare, because he’s got the softest covering of reddish-gold fur over his chest, his arms, his legs. My fingers itch to stroke through it...my body aches to rub against it. His body is...incredible.  He’s tall...massively built, with work-hardened muscles everywhere - his shoulders, his chest, his arms, his thighs - everywhere. He’s hard...everywhere.”   

 

Jenny abandoned her pillow and her relaxed position to lean forward on the couch, mesmerized by the fantastic vision Catherine was describing, straining to catch every word. Whatever she’d imagined Cathy might say - it was nothing like this.

 

Lost in her imagination, Catherine continued.  “He’s primal. And his need for me is obvious...urgent.  I sit up in bed, anticipating his first touch, knowing what it will do to me. I’m already melting...so hot...and I know his touch will burn me, sear me.  He moves toward me, his stride sure, purposeful. The muscles in his thighs ripple sinuously as he walks, and as he leans down to lift me into his arms, his biceps bunch and strain with the effort to hold back, not to crush me hard against him. But I want him to. And not just because he looks so wonderful, but because I know him, know his heart - which is even more wonderful than his physical form. He has a poet’s heart...a compassionate, loving, selfless heart. But it’s also strong - like a warrior’s, like a god’s.”

 

Jenny’s mouth had gone dry, but she’d forgotten her wine...and her fireman.  “His face,” she urged. “What does he look like?”

 

Catherine smiled. “Beautiful. Eyes of such incredible blueness. High, slanted cheekbones, an unusual mouth - compelling, arousing. And his hair is golden, but like flame - wild, a mane of thick, long hair...glorious. It cascades across his deeply muscled shoulders, then brushes against my hungry, sensitized skin as he leans over me, and now he’s holding me tightly, and I’m clinging to him helplessly. His voice is haunting - a gravelly whisper. It thrills me when he says my name, making it sound like the deepest of intimacies.” Her voice changed as she imitated the sound, growling huskily, “Cath-er-ine.”

 

Jenny sighed and murmured, “And then what?”

 

The sound of Jenny’s voice finally penetrated her dreaminess, and Catherine came back to herself with a start.  “What?  Oh...the usual...you know,” she stammered, embarrassed to have revealed so much, even to her best friend.

 

Jenny picked up the narrative, still caught in the web of her fantasy. “He sinks onto the bed and your bodies intertwine, his long golden hair forming a curtain which blocks everything from view but his beautiful, unusual face. Your gazes lock, and then he’s kissing you with a passion, and you respond as you never have before with any man...for this man...this golden god...fulfills you in ways you never dreamed, and his lovemaking is perfection...a revelation...a benediction.”

 

Catherine stared at her friend in wide-eyed wonder. “Yes,” she managed to whisper. “Yes.” Then, perceiving she needed to break the mood or her prescient friend would start making leaps of logic and come to some discomfiting conclusions, she shook her head. “God, you’re good, Jen! You missed your calling. You should write romance novels!”

 

Jenny shook herself as if just realizing where she was, then blushed. “Your description inspired me!” She laughed self-consciously, then added in a more serious tone, “He sounds incredible, Cath. Does he....” Suddenly shy, she glanced down, then quickly back up at Catherine, her face hopeful, awed. “Does he really exist?”

 

Catherine rose suddenly and strode to the French doors. With her back to her friend she stood in front of them, one hand on the curtained glass, one hand absently caressing the doorknob, staring at nothing as she replied, “In my heart...in my soul....” Then, flustered, she snatched her hands back, realizing she had been about to open the balcony door and run out into the night to call for Vincent, to beg him to come to her.  She knew she’d had more wine than she should have - and spoken in too much detail for something that was supposed to be a fantasy...even though, in important ways, it still was fantasy. But what was worse was that she’d gotten herself into a mood which almost ensured she’d remain sleepless for the rest of the night.

 

Turning to face Jenny, she walked back toward her, smiling apologetically. “I’ve had way too much to drink. I think I’d better call it a night, if you don’t mind.”

 

Jenny glanced at her wristwatch. “Oh, gosh! Just look at the time - I hadn’t intended to stay this late!” She bent to retrieve her purse, but her balance was off, and she almost toppled against the cushions. As she righted herself, she added, “Think I’ll take a cab home instead of the subway. I’m apparently a bit tipsy myself!”

 

Catherine engulfed her friend in a tight embrace. Hugging her hostess hard in return, Jenny declared, “I’ve really needed a night like this, Cathy. Thanks.”

 

“Me, too,” Catherine admitted. She was surprised at how vehemently she meant those words. “Thanks for talking me into it. I love you, Jen.”

 

Jenny gave her one more quick squeeze before letting her go. “I love you, too. And thanks for sharing. I have a feeling...well, let’s just say, I know you hadn’t intended to tell me all that. But your secret’s safe with me.” Looking into Catherine’s eyes with a frank gaze, she added, “For your sake, I hope that fantasy comes true.  It sounds...he sounds... wondrous. And you deserve someone wonderful in your life.” She kissed Catherine’s cheek, then turned to go, but stopped at the door with her hand on the knob. “Call me.  Soon.”

 

At Catherine’s nod, Jenny opened the door and breezed out, shutting it firmly behind her. Catherine followed, snapping the locks into place. Then she surveyed the living room - empty popcorn bowls, wine bottles and glasses, video tapes stacked in a haphazard pile.  Sighing, she decided that a cursory cleaning would have to do until tomorrow. When she finished, she lit a small candle and carried it with her while she turned off the lights and entered her bedroom.

 

Vincent stood on the balcony, stunned and immobile. He’d arrived an hour before, knowing he couldn’t spend time with Catherine tonight because she had company, yet needing to be close to her all the same. He’d arrived stealthily and had stood with his back to the French doors, taking in the magnificent view of the city and the park, letting the gentle murmur of her voice inside the apartment soothe his spirit.

 

He sensed she was in a playful mood, relaxing with her friend. He was glad for her.  Catherine so seldom had the opportunity to leave the cares of her work and her life behind; this night was a moment out of time for her.

 

The sounds that washed over him occasionally resolved themselves into words. And while he wasn’t eavesdropping, he couldn’t avoid hearing the odd phrase or sentence. When he heard Jenny’s voice raise sharply to say, “Tell me your fantasy...now!” he’d tried so hard not to listen further. But his good intentions had fallen by the wayside, overcome by his curiosity. He wanted to hear more, even though he was ashamed of himself for listening. And he found to his chagrin that his shame did not extend to the point of forcing him to leave. So, with noiseless footfalls, he’d approached the glass-paneled door which separated him from the disembodied voices inside.

 

Then, even as Jenny sat within engrossed by Catherine’s disclosure, so Vincent stood spellbound, astonished, listening to Catherine describe her dream lover - the description of a man, even he had to admit, was...like him.  Her words filtered through their Bond as her emotions heightened with each word, as her sexual excitement grew with the exposure of her once-secret thoughts. He was amazed that the mere revelation of her fantasy could incite such profound changes in Catherine’s emotional equilibrium - even as her words profoundly affected his. 

 

At one point he nearly forgot himself, forgot Jenny, forgot everything - and his hand  descended to grip the handle of the French door. He sensed Catherine’s presence mere inches away, and all he wanted was to tear away the flimsy barrier between them and enfold her within his arms. Only a sudden, wrenching change in Catherine’s mood had shaken him back to reality...just in time.  He trembled uncontrollably as he considered what he’d been about to do, coming back to himself only when he heard the door within close and locks snapped into place.

 

Still he stood rooted, the night’s revelations having shaken him to the core.

 

He heard Catherine moving inside, stacking crockery and glasses onto a tray, heard her footsteps as she entered and then left her kitchen. A match flared - he could smell a hint of sulphur wafting in the air. The lights within were extinguished, the room now illuminated only by the faint flickering light of a candle. The scent of it carried to him: vanilla, one of Rebecca’s special candles. He inhaled deeply, enjoying the fragrance, remembering a time when he, too, had been gifted with such a candle - as he lay recovering from the dark visions which had clouded his mind and made him fear the loss of Catherine. His joy when he’d at last awoken to find her gazing down at him had dashed the pain of her phantom death from his mind - but it had also reminded him of time lost, of opportunities not taken, of regrets he now had a second chance to banish. 

 

Catherine was leaving the living room, candle in hand, and he moved silently across the flagstones of her terrace until he faced the other set of French doors, the ones leading to her bedroom. He could hear her singing softly to herself now as she undressed, a haunting melody, made of equal parts sadness and wanting. Some of the words made their way to him as they escaped into the night.

  

I can hardly wait to hold you,   Feel my arms around you.   How long I have waited,          

Waited just to love you.   Now that I have found you,     Don't ever go.

 

The song ended, and he saw that she had wandered to the balcony doors, her nightgown softly delineating her slender form. He clearly heard her murmuring sigh as she spoke.

 

One word.

 

His name.

 

Vincent froze.

 

But her introspection was deep, and she failed to see the outline of darker shadow so close. She had only spoken to herself.

 

Vincent didn’t move, didn’t breathe, straining to catch her words as she continued to speak in a low murmur.

 

“Oh, Vincent.” She sighed deeply, emotion coloring the sound. “Oh, my love.”

 

Vincent savagely suppressed a sharp intake of breath at her words. Why was he eavesdropping like this? It wasn’t like him. But he couldn’t stop - not now, not yet.

 

The rustle of fabric told him she was again at her bedside, pulling back the covers. The sound of a light body settling into bed followed.

 

He allowed himself a breath. She would sleep now. He should leave.

 

But she was stirring inside, the bedclothes shifting with each turn. Instead of falling into slumber, she was restless. She’d settle, then turn...settle, then turn. After long minutes, he heard a low groan of aggravation. Then her voice - this time aloud.

 

“Why did I think I could sleep?!” she demanded of the darkness.  “God!” Another deep sigh followed this declaration. “Oh, Vincent...” This time his name was spoken with such longing that his heart lurched in his chest. There was the sound of covers being thrown off as she let out a frustrated. “Damn!”

 

Vincent thought back to what Catherine had told her friend: her fantasy...of him.  How she imagined him coming to her...how much she desired that fantasy to come true.  He thought again of his joy at seeing her safe and unharmed when he’d awoken from his nightmarish visions...of how he’d grasped at the possibility of a second chance to love her, and of how he’d done nothing since then to take that chance.

 

His hands strayed to the door handles, clenched them...held them so tightly he thought they might snap. Instead, the door handles turned in his palms, and the French doors strayed open in the warm summer breeze, curtains billowing.

 

The balcony was quiet. Empty. No one to hear soft sighs.

 

 

Thou know’st the mask of night is on my face,

Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek

For that which thou has heard me speak tonight.

 

Romeo and Juliet - William Shakespeare