They are drawn to each other like two stars, each circling around the other, blazing brightly and trying to call out of the other all that is radiant and good – even as they turn a blind eye to the dangers of falling in love.
Their unrestrained desire arouses the opposition of Lo’s high-strung daughter, Cordelia, and Cordelia’s pursuer, Joe Testo, a war-hero and ex-marine turned evangelist. His insistence on traditional courtship and marriage challenges Nick’s and Lo’s dream of discovering a new way on earth for man and woman. As they set out on a journey deep into the sacred and sexual that they call the Eros Project, they will live through great, burning passion, stunning betrayals, sacrifice and soul-changing ecstasies. Even as they dare to try to end the ancient Battle Between the Sexes, it seems their fate to fight things out to the bitter end. At last Nick will find, looking into Lo’s eyes, an image of a beautiful new being struggling to be born and the infinite possibilities of humanity. And he will be faced with a life-and-death choice that will bring into sharp focus the dark and the destructive side of the romantic ideal and all the miraculous healing power of true love.
A man should believe in love. Love sets the stars to shining and breathes the fire of life into all things. Love is the lightning that illuminates the soul and connects it to the brilliant sky even as it burns people into ashes. Love claws and caresses and compels. Love heals all wounds – even those it tears like hot knives straight through the heart.
Nick Scarlett needed to believe in love. He would admit that to a certain part of himself, however, only when he thought that certain other parts weren’t listening. Late one afternoon in April, the cruelest month – in a year of war and strife like so many others – he felt in no mood for such honesty. As he made his way across Central Park to finish the shoot of a fading television actress, he thought of love as a deadly serious game upon which people staked nearly everything. Who could ever be free from its sweetly irresistible seductions? Who could refuse to play? For sometimes, if a man got lucky, he might find in the light of a woman’s eyes a sort of numinous magic that transported him into the realm of the angels. Once or twice in his life, if he got even luckier, a secret smile or a deep whispering inside a woman might speak to him and call him home.
He knew little of love. Even after years of supposing that he knew almost everything, he had little sense of love’s real miracle or how it would soon transform his life. With the weather turned drizzly and gray, with the blare of car horns and other noise bouncing off hard, dripping surfaces, he wanted only to concentrate on the job at hand. He pushed through a gusting wind that drove particles of water stinging against his face. Layers of cloud and smog pressed down over the heart of New York, and, it seemed, all the earth. The weak sun had yet to breed lilacs out of the dead land.
People, however, had taken to the streets in all their thousands and millions. Up and down Fifth Avenue, the bobbing faces in the crowds seemed pasty or ill or marred with lines of worry and fear. Men and women with hooded looks hurried past, walled off from each other, and perhaps from even themselves. To Nick they seemed more lifeless than last year’s trampled leaves. Could love, like a magic elixir, revitalize a single one of them? Did anyone in New York feel himself to be truly alive?
Perhaps only the fortunate did. One old woman he passed flashed him a brilliant smile for no apparent reason, and he would have photographed her in a heartbeat if only he had brought along a camera. And so with a mother and daughter holding hands, and a maid in her crisp, white uniform, and a stout mezzo-soprano he recognized, who had such shining sable skin and luminous eyes. And the babies. Spring had brought forth so many of them, jounced along in jogging strollers and laughing just because they felt good. How did they remain so utterly transparent to that sparkling fountain within them that made their faces so bright? Photographing babies, he thought, had always been a joy.
Photographing beautiful women, of course, was hard. It was harder still to capture with a camera’s click the very best of a famous actress. Nick’s lived at the top of a glass, steel and concrete tower rising up from the concrete canyons and walls surrounding the park. Jessica Jordan met him inside the opened door of her penthouse. Sprays of gleaming blonde hair spilled out over the ruff of a blue fox coat, with chevron panels and a white fox trim running down its center. Earlier, she had modeled the coat for him, wearing it open over a blue evening gown that perfectly matched her eyes and set off her tawny skin. Now, though, she kept the coat loosely fastened, and the golden tones glinting between the trim suggested that she had on nothing beneath it.
“What took you so long?” she said. Her voice, musical and expressive, hinted that she could sing as well as act. “You’re soaked, Nick! Well, come in.”
She stood with her eyes playing over his handsome face and form. The leather of his jacket had darkened with moisture, and his jeans were plastered to his long, hard-looking legs. He was only a few years older than she was: a well-seasoned man just coming into his prime. He entered the room almost before she had completed her invitation, water squeegeeing from his running shoes onto the white carpet that lined the marble floor. Something in the way he moved reminded her of large wolf staking out territory. He seemed intensely aware of his surroundings, and of her. There was an innocence about him, she thought, a wildness out of place in a city like New York. She worried that he could be hurt by a careless word, act or even a look – almost as easily as he could lash out and hurt.
“Do you have enough energy,” she asked him, “to do the bathtub thing tonight?”
“Do I have enough energy? Do you?”
He gazed at her with his quick, keen eyes. He seemed shy by nature but in his manner almost too bold.
“I think I do. I sent everyone home.”
She said this almost too casually. During the shoot, they’d had to work around her retinue: her agent, make-up person, wardrobe person, gofer, publicist, even a chef. And, to their annoyance, the photography editor for Cherish. Jessica had gotten to be queen for two days. But now everyone else had left, leaving them alone to shoot the bathtub scene in their own way.
“I heard from Sam,” she told him. “He won’t be back until tomorrow.”
She led the way into a huge room as white, expansive and nearly barren as the Sahara desert. Panes of glass, giving a panoramic view of the city’s other buildings, formed its outer walls. An interior designer had placed there pieces of stark furniture: a couple of couches and chairs rested upon steel legs or bases, as did the low central table, made of highly polished marble. The effect of all these smooth surfaces was to refract light and send it bouncing madly about in all angles and directions. It had been difficult shooting Jessica in such a space of industrial-like desolation and hellish glare.
The penthouse did not technically belong to her, but to her boyfriend, an investment banker named Sam Goldberger. After Jessica’s television career had fallen apart, she had determined to take an apartment in New York and make her return to the theater. She and Sam had worked for months to renovate the apartment. Just before they were to move in, however, a week before the scheduled shoot, Jessica and Sam had quarreled. Sam had gone off to do business in Bangalore financing a new munitions industry, while Jessica had sublet a friend’s walkup in SoHo. But since Jessica’s agent and publicist adored the penthouse, they had persuaded Sam to allow Jessica to pretend as if it was really hers. For two days these meddlesome women had spouted their ideas as to how to create for Jessica a new and kinder image.
“Would you like some coffee before we get started?” she asked Nick. “I can at least make that.”
She stood within her furs, regarding him as the room’s harsh lights played off the smooth planes of her cheeks. Earlier, he had shot her in the kitchen as she stood over the stainless steel stove tending to the elaborate meal that her chef had actually prepared.
“No, thank you,” he said to her. “If I drink any more coffee, I’ll be up all night.”
“We might be up all night anyway.” She paused to take a breath and look at him more intently. “Like you said, getting it right.”
“It shouldn’t take that long.”
“You seem pretty sure of yourself.”
“Shouldn’t I be?”
“Maybe you should. I’m sure we’ll get what you want.”
Her eyes fixed on him, and it seemed to him that she tried a little too hard to project her confident, irresistible image. It was not exactly a friendly image. At times she seemed less like a sex goddess than a female preying mantis – cold, hard and hungry – drawing her mate to his doom.
“I’m sure I will,” he told her.
And then she smiled at him. It was a beautiful smile: warm, soft, natural, real – and it called to something deep inside him. Only the rarest of women could open their hearts enough to smile like that. He didn’t want to see Maria in that lovely, lovely smile, but how could he help it that he did?
Jessica moved over toward a giant plasma TV set into a recess in the interior wall. Like many of the room’s objects and furnishings, the TV gave off a distracting sheen.
“I got a good shot of you,” she said to him. “Do you want to see?”
“Sure,” he said.
As Jessica turned on the TV, he looked around the room at all the hard, dazzling surfaces. What he really wanted was for Jessica to smile at him again.
“What are you doing?” he asked as the TV’s screen filled with a blinding glow.
“You said you couldn’t imagine what it was like to be on television and have tens of millions of people staring at you.”
Earlier, almost as a joke, Jessica had used her new Pentax to snap some shots of him. It turned out that while he had been out walking in the rain, she had loaded the images into her computer, edited them, and then set up a sort of slide show on her TV.
“I said,” Nick reminded her, “that I hated to think what it was like.”
“Have you ever been on TV before then?”
He glanced down at the marble floor, and shook his head. “No, never.”
“Are you sure?” She studied the big screen. “I’m getting a strong sense of déjà vu here. I know I’ve seen you on TV before . . . somewhere. I just can’t remember where, or when.”
Again he shook his head. “Turn it off!” he told her. A shot of him staring out the window toward the park filled the screen.
“Why? You take great pictures – on either end of a camera.”
“Thanks, but turn it off, please.”
Jessica, however, had a playful side to her, and a stubborn streak as well. She pointed at a shot of him moving a heavy table so that he could set up his main light. She had caught him straining, with muscles bunching and flowing all along his body.
“Look at those arms!” she said, smiling at the TV. “He looks so sexy, in that tight tee shirt! And what a tight, hot butt, in those jeans! And his face . . . .”
She could also be vengeful. The day before, when Nick had complimented her on remaining so trim and toned at her age, she had become irritated at what she termed his “objectification” of women – as if she hadn’t made a very successful career precisely by being objectified. But she had wanted to remind him that he was supposed to focus upon her inner beauty and not the outer, which had already been captured so dazzlingly hundreds of times by other photographers.
“He’s so handsome – tall, dark and handsome.”
He managed to smile at this. “It’s great to be a cliché.”
Jessica had gotten one shot of him, nearly straight on, which compelled his attention. It wasn’t a perfect shot: the smile had fallen away just past its peak, and the high cheekbones and forehead on the right side were a little blown-out and eaten with patches of white. The other features, however, had come out clearly enough. He studied them with a photographer’s eye: the aquiline nose, once broken and now a little crooked; the strong chin; the white teeth and the dark ivory skin tones of the man he knew as Nicholas Scarlett. Jessica had called him handsome. Striking, he thought, would have been a better description – though the word “marked” fit him perhaps best of all. The eyes, as black as his hair, seemed too bright, too torrid with a restless burning. Looking into them was something like trying to stare straight into the sun, in all its fire and fury.
“Nick?” she said to him as if from far away.
He could hardly hear her. Although he wanted to give her all his attention, his glowing image seemed to speak to him in a much louder voice: “What are you doing? What’s wrong with you?”
“Nick, what’s the matter?” Jessica asked as he finally turned back toward her. “Am I that bad a photographer?”
“No,” he said, drawing in a quick breath. “It’s just the opposite: you’re too good.”
“But you couldn’t even look at yourself!”
“I’d rather look at you. And photograph you.” He took another breath of the room’s cloying air. “Why don’t I do that before it gets too late?”
She considered this as she pulled at the trim of her coat, fluffing out the fur. “All right. It’s hot in here, isn’t it? I wish I’d remembered to bring my bathrobe.”
“Do you want some help with the candles?” he asked her.
“No, thanks. Why don’t I call you when I’m ready?”
She turned to step past the umbrellas, scrims, stands, cases and other equipment that he had left strewn about, and she went into the main bathroom, which gave out onto the living room’s southernmost section. After a few minutes, there came the rush of water running. And then, to Nick’s delight, the sound of Jessica singing. After some more minutes, she finally shouted out, “All right – you can come in now!”
He grabbed his ancient Hasselblad, his Nikon, too, and he walked around the corner of the living area into the bathroom. Like the rest of the apartment, it gleamed with steel, glass and marble. At the moment, however, the gleam could only have been described as soft and sensual, for Jessica had lit the room with candles placed on the tiles around the rim of a sunken marble tub. It looked big enough to accommodate three people. Jessica reclined back into it with only her face, hair and bare shoulders showing above a sea of glistening bubbles.
Cherish’s photography editor, a stern woman named Brenda, had expressed scathing doubts as to Nick’s ability to get the kind of shot here that she would be willing to put in her magazine. Doing commercial work, as he had for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Esquire, always required bitter compromises. The unusual or the too “artful” photograph easily offended people’s sensibilities. Or worse, remained opaque to their inner eye. What was wrong with them, he wondered? Why must actresses, publicists, magazine editors and the like always turn away from their finer instincts to embrace the mass consensus of true beauty?
“What are you waiting for?” Jessica asked him. She puffed out her cheeks, and blew at a mound of bubbles in her hand. He smelled lavender and lilac and the zest of naked, soapy skin. “Come on, before I get too cold!”
He went to work then. He retrieved his old Gitzo from the living room, and set it up in front of the tub. He didn’t really like using a tripod here, in such an intimate place where he might want to get in very close to Jessica. But the low light of the candles demanded longer exposures, and for that he wasn’t sure if he could trust the steadiness of his hand. He would have to play with cameras, film and lenses, just as Jessica played with poses and attitudes, and even in the very nature of these series of shots. She would have been content if he got something that portrayed her as both sensual and playful, even girly: something that Brenda could use to show the softer (and youthful) side of Jessica Jordan. But Nick wanted to thrill her with just one great photograph, no matter how strange or artful or even lascivious, which brought out her deepest self.
“I’ve never taken a damn bubble bath in all my life,” she said to him.
“Be quiet,” he told her, angling in from her left side. “And hold still.”
“All right – but look at all these bubbles!”
“I’d rather look at you.”
He had to concentrate on achieving a delicate balance: trying to capture something of the bubbles’ varicolored sheen in a light low enough to soften Jessica’s rather spectacular features. And to hide her defects, as few as they were.
“But, Nick – you’ve seen hundreds of naked women.”
“Never one like you.”
“How many woman have you told that to?”
He smiled, then fired off a shot of her smiling back. For a while, he worked with his Hasselblad, taking dozens of shots. The ka-chunk, ka-chunk of its mirror snapping up and the baffle closing seemed too loud; the only other sounds in the room were Jessica’s deep breathing and his own.
“How is the light?” she asked, with candles flickering all around her.
“The light is good – it will open up your irises, make your eyes seem larger.”
“Do you think my eyes are too small?”
“No – they’re perfect. Now, please . . . shhh.”
He ran out of film, and snapped in a new back; he changed lenses, too, working with an 80 for a while and then a 150; he shot her in color and then considered switching to black and white. He couldn’t decide if the candles were casting too much shadow, so he set up a fill light and bounced its radiance off the ceiling to open the shadows up. He changed cameras. He focused his Nikon on the front row of candles, with Jessica a few feet back, slightly out of focus and rising up out of the bubbles goddess-like, with a sort of misty effect.
“But I can’t see any color,” she said. She squeezed some bubbles between her hands. “And what about me?”
He paused to look out over the top of his Nikon at her face, her long, fine neck and the soft swell of her breasts. Her golden skin now seemed silver-gray, and he wondered for the hundredth time if he should just shoot her in black and white, and be done with it.
“The human eye can’t make out much color at low light levels,” he told her. “But film can.”
“I’d like to see what you’ve got now. Haven’t you ever considered going to digital?”
“Have you ever considered stumbling about the world with web cams in place of eyes?”
“Oh, come on – it’s not that bad!”
He shook his head sadly. “I’ll use digital if I have to. But with digital, you only get a middle range of tones. It’s sort of like fast food: convenient, but it doesn’t feed the eye.”
“And you want a feast? And haute cuisine, at that, I think.”
He smiled as he snapped a new back into his Hasselblad. “With film, you can get such a wonderful range of tones. And such succulent detail.”
“Succulent – I like that word,” she said. She traced her finger across her lower lip, wiping off a bit of bubble. “Especially if you relate it to me.”
For a while he went back to work, clicking off a long series of shots. The water got cold, and Jessica had to let some out and then run some fresh hot water. From a frosted bottle, she added some soap to make more bubbles. She grew tired, and her enthusiasm for posing flagged – as did her willingness to follow his prompts:
“Let’s get one with your head all the way back, as if you’ve melted into the heat of the water.”
“I am melting,” she complained, wiping a bead of sweat from her forehead. “Now it’s too damn hot in here.”
He listened to his camera’s ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, and said, “Now lift your chin a little, and turn your head toward me.”
“You sound like a goddamned dentist.”
He smiled again. “Good – and now, like no one is watching you, not even yourself. Just feeling yourself, knowing. In your heart, Jessica. There is a woman there who doesn’t care what everyone else thinks she should be.”
Andreas Feininger once said that the great portraits are not taken but given. Nick suddenly wanted, with a pressure in his blood and every nerve and muscle that trembled to fire off another shot, for Jessica to give.
“Yes, good,” he said as she turned and let her cheek rest against her arm. “Really good.”
It was his job to relax her and encourage this giving. To see her in a certain light so that she could perceive herself in this way. He had words and his voice, and he had a camera, but most of all he had himself: his eyes and his hands and the invitation that came pounding up from deep within him.
“You’re beautiful,” he said to her.
“Tell me something,” she said almost dreamily, throwing her arms back behind her head, “that I haven’t been told a thousand times.”
“I do want to tell you things,” he said.
“What kind of things?”
“You know,” he said softly.
“So – tell me.”
He smiled, then quoted: “’You’re lips are like a scarlet thread, and your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate. With a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your--”
“The Bible, Nick?” she said, laughing. “Well, at least no one has told me that before.”
“Have they told you that we need a new word to describe how truly glorious you are?”
He wanted to believe that; he knew that he needed to believe. As she smiled back at him, he looked for that bright and lovely thing that would warm his insides like a glass of rare wine. He looked and looked and looked: past the beauty of her lips and her breasts and her deep blue eyes.
There is an essence that makes a woman a woman. Nick felt as sure of that as he did the taste of ripe strawberries or the sweet burn of the sun on a perfect summer day. Perhaps, he thought, it remained always the same in each of them, equally beautiful, equally enchanting, equally strong. But not all women brought forth this essence in equal measure, and perhaps none completely. Somewhere in the world, however, he believed there must exist one woman who did. She would fairly glow with a pure and total femininity, in the same way that an Angel’s Dream embodied not only the essence of roses but of flowers themselves – indeed, of all life.
“Do you really,” she asked him, smoothing back her wet hair, “think I’m beautiful?”
In answer, he could only fire off a dozen shots and then gaze at her. He felt himself in almost perfect harmony with his camera, utterly absorbing life in the moment as it did light.
He couldn’t help thinking of the lines from the Shelley poem:
I am the eye with which the Universe
Beholds itself and knows itself divine.
And he asked her, “Do you think you are?”
“Sometimes I do,” she said. “When I’m not being a complete bitch.”
Her face tightened with what seemed both frustration and yearning. It occurred to Nick that people made idols of “beautiful” people such as movie stars and heiresses because they so poignantly reminded lesser lights of the potential that they were born to realize, but remained always beyond their reach. Jessica, he feared, looking at her, the Queen, the Goddess whom people revered, seemed to remain beyond her own reach.
“It’s been at least an hour, hasn’t it?” she said. “Now I really am too damn hot.”
She pushed herself up out of the bubbles, and sat between two white candles on the side of the tub. Water laved off her skin and splashed onto marble. She appeared not to care if Nick saw her completely naked. She stretched out her arms above her, pushing out her large, round breasts. She pursed out her lips, then said, “Why don’t you get a few shots like this?”
He forced himself to look at her through glass and steam, while he listened to his camera’s mechanical ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk.
She opened her legs for a moment, pulling one tanned, smoothly-muscled thigh up over the other as she rolled over onto her hip. He caught a glimpse of the smoothness below her belly, glistening with water and dripping bubbles.
“God – I really am a bitch, aren’t I?”
She used one of the candles to light a cigarette. She sucked in some smoke, then let it out in a little gray cloud that poisoned the air.
Nick set down his camera on the sink’s marble top. He looked at her for a long time as she sat smoking and looking back at him.
“I’m sure you’ve got some great shots,” she said. “You’re such a great photographer.”
She smiled at him, a truly warmhearted and radiant smile. It made him wish that he hadn’t put down his camera.
“I think I’ve been too upset by what happened with Sam,” she said. “Perhaps you can shoot me outside sometime, in the park.”
He could almost feel her disappointment in herself. Beneath a beauty he might have described as otherworldly, she seemed to long for something better in this world, and he couldn’t help wanting to love her for that.
“I know it’s late,” she said to him, “but would you like to have a glass of wine?”
“Sure, that would be great,” he said.
How could he say “no” to a woman who seemed so sad and alone?