(Produced ca. 1983, revised 2013, all rights reserved)
Eric returned to the Civic Museum Sunday afternoon: maybe, unlike Friday night, he’d actually be able to concentrate on the paintings.
Passing into a gallery hung with 17th century Dutch works, he came upon Sandy Beichten contemplating a Rembrandt. She was dressed in a dark plum-colored velvet jacket over a soft sprigged navy wool skirt that swirled gracefully around her calves in their black stockings. He had never considered his assistant beautiful or even pretty in the conventional sense of the term. Her features were too irregular and her petite figure did not satisfy either classical or modern ideas of beauty. To him she was nice enough to look at, but in a pleasant, comfortable sort of way. But today she struck him as surprisingly attractive. Was it the outfit? She turned at his greeting and he marked how the ivory blouse with its ruff of lace enhanced the line of her slender throat and how the wine-colored felt hat gave her brown eyes a luminosity he’d never thought to notice before.
“Enjoying the Old Masters?” he asked her gravely.
“Yes, immensely. I feel rather guilty about it. I feel I’m supposed to like the Moderns better.”
“You look like an Old Master yourself,” he commented.
She laughed awkwardly and glanced down at her attire. “Oh!” she said. “You mean the spattered smock, the paint in the hair and under the fingernails, the general odor of the garret?”
“No,” persisted Eric, “like one of their paintings.”
“Oh,” she rejoined, still refusing to take the compliment. “Like that?” And she pointed towards a genre study of a madwoman begging in an Amsterdam street.
“I swear, you’re impossible!” His unsuppressed laughter caused several other museum-goers to turn their heads in shocked admonishment. “Oh, you know. You look very nice.”
She flashed him an indecipherable smile, sketched the semblance of a curtsy, then turned back towards the painting she’d been examining when he walked in. Watching her, Eric was both astonished and intrigued. He’d meant nothing by his initial compliment, he was sure: nothing more, at least, than he’d mean by commending a fellow-architect on a well-designed building. So why had she found it so difficult to accept simple praise on having put together a becoming outfit? The moment the subject was herself, her defenses had gone up. In someone ordinarily so very open and enthusiastic, it was strange.
It occurred to him that though over the course of their friendship they had talked literally for hours on various topics, never had she revealed to him much about her personal life and history. He knew a great deal about the firms she had worked for, the trips she had taken, and the books she had read; he knew she was a Christian and could be relied upon to act on Christian principles, but hardly ever had she volunteered anything of what it all meant to her deepest soul and heart.
And Sandy Beichten’s deepest soul and heart were none of his business. He knew that. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help wondering what depths lay concealed behind that velvet-jacketed façade. And he couldn’t help thinking it might be worth his while someday to find out.