The water from the tub splashed onto the hardwood floor surrounding it, as Johnsy soaked herself gleefully. Humming the latest song that Benita had taught her, she slowly stepped out of the bath. She realized she'd forgotten her towel, so she walked across her room nude, leaving dainty tip-toe prints, stopping when she heard an admiring whistle above her.
"Now that's what I call a bride," George's ogling voice came through one of the many re-opened holes in the ceiling of her room.
"George, what are you doing? It's bad luck to see the bride before the wedding," Johnsy exclaimed to the swiss cheese-looking ceiling.
"Well then maybe you shouldn't have been in my bed this morning," he responded smoothly.
Johnsy looked up toward the direction of his voice and smiled. She felt that she could see his grin and pictured him stretched out on the floor of the garret bedroom, eye pressed to one of the holes, looking down on her.
"You're going to get your new suit dirty," she lightly chided him.
"It's worth it," he answered in a very happy tone. "I just came to get the ring and heard you...couldn't resist." More huskily he added, "Ahh, I wish I could draw like you...or even him."
Johnsy lowered her eyes. George always referred to Behrman just as "him".
George continued, "I'd love to be able to capture the way you look right now, to remember in fifty years, when you're all chubby and wrinkled and...squishy."
"Hah," she said with mock offense, putting a hand on her hip, "and you'll be stooped and toothless."
"...and probably impotent," he added good-naturedly.
"Turn for me slowly," he requested.
She complied, like a statue of a water nymph on a pivot.
"Alright, I've committed it to memory for life now," he said with a sigh. She smiled seductively.
"I love you, Johnsy," he said in the voice from her best dreams. "I'll love every change you go through in our life together."
"Oh and I love you, Georgie. Just don't get fat like Charles," she said with another giggle.
"Geooorgie, Granna Mae's here," announced Benita from the door on her side of the house.
George rose from the floor. "I'm going downstairs to welcome everyone. I'll see you in front of the tree."
Johnsy nodded then moved to her wardrobe screen. Her room was more a studio than boudoir now, as she slept with George in the upstairs room. She maintained her room, replete with canvasses, shelves of paints and supplies, as her apartment for appearances' sake.
She heard George run down the stairs and, in a booming voice, say "Mae, how's my favorite girl?"
Mae responded to George's flirting as she always did—with a slight blush and laugh. He hugged her and asked, "Are you prepared to marry me if Johnsy backs out?"
She slapped him playfully and, as Martha handed her a squirming Marco, quipped, "I'd insist on a bigger ring."
George laughed and led her outside to help him welcome guests.
Johnsy chuckled, as she began her dressing. She expected Martha to come and help her in just a few minutes with her corset and the long row of buttons on her wedding dress.
While waiting for her, she walked over in her first layer of undergarments to the window. The shutter on the bottom kept the guests gathering in the yard from seeing her but she could look out on the assemblage.
This second wedding in the L-shaped house was similar to the first, bringing the divergent groups of the neighborhood together-intelligentsia and laborers, rich and poor, bohemian and establishment-and now George's friends from the literati.
The day was bright and warm, the beloved maple tree resplendent in green.
Johnsy's joy came out in more humming, as she responded to the knock on her door. "Come in, Martha," she sang out, still looking through the glass. "It's been so long since I've worn a corset. Please be careful; I have sensitive skin."
"I know you do and I've always been careful," said the woman's voice with the northeastern accent.
Johnsy turned in surprise and gripped her best friend. "Sue, I'm so glad you made it. I've missed you. Tell me all about your trip. What all did you do? Is Tilda with you?" she ran on in her excitement.
Sue laughed at Johnsy's rambling, returning the sisterly embrace. "No, Tilda went back to her house but she'll be here for the ceremony. Now turn around so I can take care of your laces."
Johnsy spun so that Sue could tighten the corset. "I saw the..unh...painting of Behrman by your door," she said, stretching the long strings of the girdle, "it's wonderful, Johnsy."
"Thank you," Johnsy said with a dip of her head and a little hesitation. Sue didn't know about their voyeuristic connection to Behrman and Johnsy didn't feel it was appropriate to tell her and drag up their past-especially today.
"I guess it's important that he's here for this too," she with a quick intake of breath, as Sue tugged the crisscross laces one last time before tying them.
"Of course," Sue said, as Johnsy moved back to her screen where her white lace dress hung, "since you wouldn't be here if it weren't for him."
Johnsy stepped into the tight, high-necked gown, covered with seed pearls, and chuckled. "Well, realistically, I wasn't going to die as soon as I saw that there were no leaves on the tree."
Sue looked slightly surprised, as Johnsy turned for her to loop all of the tiny, satin-covered buttons, from the top of her neck to the small of her back. "Nooo," she said, fumbling with the lowest buttons, "but the difference in you from when you went to sleep that night and woke up the next morning...it was like seeing you come back to life. I'll never forget that, Johnsy. I'll always be grateful to him."
She knows too much, Johnsy said to herself, feeling the roll of Sue's fingers along her back. She's the only person who saw me at my worst. She stayed through all of it.
For a fleeting moment she wondered if George would have, or did he want her as only his ideal. She brushed aside the thought and gave a nervous little laugh, as Sue looped the last buttons. "Well, this isn't the day to think of me near death."
Sue snickered in agreement, as she stood on tiptoe to lift the heavy skein of Johnsy's hair and pile it on top of her head. Johnsy caught the blonde mass there, brushing her hands against Sue's.
Sue felt a tingle at that touch and couldn't help but notice the curve of the taller woman's neck and the enticing pad of her ear lobes. She concluded the top loops then turned quickly to Johnsy's jewelry drawer.
"You seem to have added quite a few baubles lately," Sue said, noticing that the drawer was decidedly fuller than it had been before. She got out Johnsy's favorite teardrop pearl earrings.
"Thank you, dear," Johnsy said, accepting the earrings from her. "Yes, George is very generous. He says he likes to see me enhanced."
She could feel her former lover's eyes on her and her hands shook a little, as she screwed in the pearls. "So tell me about your trip," she said in a slightly higher than usual voice.
"It was wonderful," Sue enthused, her hazel eyes dancing behind her glasses. "Tilda knows everyone, where to go...I feel quite seasoned as a traveler now."
Johnsy smiled at her. "That's what you've always wanted."
Sue nodded. "Are you and George going on a honeymoon?"
"Yes," Johnsy said, dusting some powder on her face, "we're going home. People pay a lot of money to vacation where we grew up. We're just going to enjoy it like tourists, spend time with friends. I've learned that quite a few were always hoping that we'd get together."
"So you were fated," Sue said with a shaky grin.
Johnsy laughed in response. It had been months since Sue had seen that glow on that face, and it would be with the sun from the window behind her, like a halo. She instinctively swallowed, as her hand crossed her body to grasp the top of her right arm, in place of putting it over her heart.
Then she realized her action was extreme. The devastating smile hadn't had the same effect on her that it had in the past. I can do this, she said to herself.
She leaned forward with her hands on Johnsy's shoulders and gave her a polite society kiss against her cheek. "Well, I've done my part," she said casually, "you're expectedly beautiful." Moving to the door, she added, "I'll see you out there."
Sue closed the door and, standing in the hall, leaned against it for a moment, breathing deeply. She recalled the first day in the hall, as she and Johnsy were led by that wonderful man to the apartment. She suddenly realized that the ceiling in there was now full of holes. "Probably some perversion on George's part," she said under her breath with the slight derision she reserved for him. She laid a tender hand on the painting of Behrman. With a sigh of finality, she walked out of the old apartment house and into the crowded yard of the home of George and Joanna Martin.
Mae called to her. She went to join her in her affectionate wrestling with Marco.
Johnsy went back to watching the activity outside. The bench where she and George had sat so many times was pushed under the kitchen window. Some of Nicholas's friends from the neighborhood, dressed in scratchy, uncomfortable suits, were climbing on it to look into the kitchen at the food.
She grinned tolerantly and her gaze shifted to George, greeting guests. While a number of the men there, including her father, were taller than he, none were as dashing. She unconsciously licked her lips and leaned closer against the window sill.
Whether he'd been looking toward the window frequently or it was just a coincidence, at that moment their eyes met. George winked then made a show of pulling out his pocket watch and glancing at her again.
She smiled and turned back to her room. It had served so many purposes in less than a year...a love nest, a sick room, her bed and bath combination when Sue had moved out, now her studio and, occasionally, a love nest again, when George would check what was under her smock.
She finished dressing and put her hair in a sweeping updo then topped it with her lace veil. "Come in," she said at the next knock on the door.
A beaming Benita entered, carrying Johnsy's bouquet of red and yellow roses and her own basket of mixed flower petals, provided from Mrs. Garrity's gardens. "You look so pretty, Johnsy."
Johnsy smiled in answer. "Thank you, so do you."
The story-book flower girl was covered in white lace, with a yellow sash around her waist and her wealth of black curls caught in a daisy-chain crown. She threw her arms around Johnsy. "Someday I want to marry a man just like Georgie."
Johnsy gave her a faux-wise expression. "And you know what to look for, don't you?"
Benita nodded vigorously, "a gentleman."
"That's right," Johnsy clarified with an arching eyebrow, "a gentleman with a sly smile and wink."
Giggling, the two girls left the room together. Johnsy looked back, as she always did, at the painting of Behrman.
As an artist herself, she hadn't been so horrified to learn that she'd been the subject of his last works, and her admiration of him had increased when George brought them home for her. The painting had only been a part of her homage to him.
About a month earlier George had come home on a sunny afternoon, hands jauntily in pockets and whistling, to hear excited chattering in the yard.
"Be careful, Johnsy. You don't want to have a broken leg for your wedding," Nicholas had said drily.
George had stopped on the bottom step and hurried to the yard to see Benita and Nicholas standing under the tree, looking up at his fiance sitting among its budding branches.
"Johnsy, what are you doing up there?" he'd asked with exasperation and amusement.
She'd smiled down at him through the lattice of branches and twigs, triggering the familiar lift in his heart.
"Come up and find out," she'd teased.
He had shaken his head. "I'm not climbing up there; you're coming down."
"No, come on, Georgie," she'd challenged. "If I can climb better than you, what else can I do better?"
He'd responded to her old dare from their childhood by taking off his suit coat and shinnying up the tree. His strong arms gripping the branches had compensated for the slipping caused by the slick bottoms of his dressy shoes. He'd leaned against the bough across from the one where Johnsy was perched. "Now, what are you doing?" he'd asked with a smirk.
"Finishing the masterpiece," she'd said simply. She had practiced for weeks—first copying Behrman's tag from his artwork then reproducing it exactly without looking at it. Before the tree covered with leaves, she wanted to add F Behrman to the painted leaf on the side of the building.
"That's his masterpiece?" asked George with a little confusion.
With a small rag Johnsy carefully wiped the bottom of her work and nodded. "It's his 'contribution to the human experience,' don't you agree?"
George's grudging acceptance of Behrman's memory was based solely on his recognition of the man's contribution to his human experience, in the form of the woman sitting in the tree with him. He'd placed his hand on the side of her face. "Yes," he'd said leaning closer to her, "It's his greatest work ever." They had kissed as ardently as their position allowed.
After climbing down, he had carried her over his shoulder into the house and to their love nest. It had been the last time he'd carried that way, since they'd learned soon after that she was slightly with child.
They grinned at each other with their secret now, as she stood at one end of the yard with her parents, while he waited under the tree.
Benita skipped and flitted through the small aisle that Charles had muscled through for her, strewing flower petals and imagining herself to be a fairy princess, as Mr. Graham had instructed her. He glowed with pride at his protege. George watched her with fatherly attention. He frowned at a teenaged cousin who grinned at her after she flicked an extra-large handful of petals in his face then danced away from him.
Because of the significance of the tree, Johnsy wanted the wedding to be more like a druid rite, rather than a conventional ceremony. Standing next to George and Charles, Nicholas began beating a small drum that hung from a strap around his neck and the attendees clapped in rhythm.
"I never though I'd be at a wedding in a yard in Greenwich Village like this...wearing a morning suit," a young associate whispered to George's secretary Robert.
He answered in a low tone, "The boss is marrying a bohemian. And you know what a clotheshorse he is."
Mae, standing in front of them, and overhearing the exchange, smiled. Sue and Tilda stood next to her, their arms lightly touching, taking advantage of the press of the other guests around them.
Mae loved the uniqueness of the day; she loved George and Johnsy, Martha and the children. She looked up to where the leaf was painted.
Johnsy had explained to Mae her efforts to honor the late landlord and artist . She'd told Mae the story about her art professor and the leaf being Behrman's contribution to the human experience.
Mae had nodded and smiled, thinking sardonically, A leaf? She had her own ideas about his greatest contribution. Marco, bouncing on her hip, impulsively gave her a gummy kiss on her cheek. She had been alone for most of her life. Now, thanks to everything that had happened in this house in the last year, she had sweet children calling her Granna, an affectionate relationship with a young, charming couple, fun antagonism with the old man of the theater standing on her other side...she had a family.
If he could paint it, this would be Behrman's masterpiece, withstanding the elements better than a leaf on a building and giving her comfort, no matter what the world show throw their way. After everything she'd ever accused him of taking from her, this was his gift to her. Squeezing the little boy tightly, she looked again into the tree. "Thank you, Frank."
Thank you to everyone who offered their comments and suggestions on this story. The later readers have read a better tale, I think, because of input from the first reviewers.