Kate and I moved to Amsterdam just in time for the season of wind, empty trees, dead leaves the color of pawnshop jewelry. By November her career had blossomed, spread everywhere there was to spread, like storm clouds over the port. She spent her evenings at awards nights, dinners, or the gym. I spent mine on the couch behind a television and soon there was no Kate and I anymore. One entity became two. There’s Kate. Here am I.

I stuffed everything I owned into a suitcase to her song of “I’m so sorry, Carl,” and walked out to a heartbreak blur. The real estate scene drove me far from town’s horseshoe center (tourists crawling like ants over the filthy bits), and I ended up a sardine in an apartment block deep in the suburbs, complete with narrow stairs and a non-functioning lift. It was almost Christmas.

I could have left and gone back to Cincinnati, but there was nothing for me there either, so I took a job at a nearby office and decided to last out the year. My walk to work wound across identical streets: cobblestones, concrete, construction sites. The houses were the same red-brown brick and their windows were always shut.

Halfway through the commute, just when the entire world seemed graceless and bleak, I’d pass a courtyard. It didn’t look like much from the outside–grey stone arch, some pigeon shit–but beyond lay a polite garden, tidy and green, and behind it, a studio sat admiring the ferns.

It had wide glass windows, bordered by some ivy, topped by more. Curtains wide open, always, baring a storm of color: easels, paint cans, an ashtray. There were paintings, too–fruit bowls and flowers, a ship, a farmhouse. A watercolor of a young woman stood front and center. She was reclining in the swirls of a leather chair, her dress was smart and her red lips were parted in a half-smile, like she knew something I didn’t, but that something was pleasant and I would discover it soon enough.

Each morning I would walk into the courtyard and gaze into those windows. I never saw any people inside, but there was ample evidence of life. One day there would be a fresh pot of paint spilled on the ground, the next an extra pear for the fruit bowl or an extra butt in the ashtray. I’d stand and stare at the lady in her chair, and I’d wonder if she stared back.

I still called Kate sometimes, but our conversations felt like a duty she had to perform as penance. After a particularly awkward talk, I hung up and deleted her number. The next day I picked up the morning newspaper. When I got home and threw it on the table, Kate slid out.

Her smile shone glossy on the weekend magazine cover. She’d cut her hair (made her look older), and those earrings weren’t any I’d ever bought her. I read the article twice, mused on how far a media career could take you. I went back to the store and bought cigarettes and a bottle of Jack.

When night fell and the latter was almost gone, I figured she still lived at the same place so I wrapped myself in a pair of scarves and hopped on the metro ready to make poor decisions. The train arrived at our station–no, her station. Memories of us together waltzed through my head and perched on my tongue, like ghosts of a meal recently eaten. I tripped on my way out of the carriage, though, and the nostalgia made way for frustration. By the time I stood outside her house my hands had made fists and my teeth were sore from grinding.

The lights inside were on, curtains drawn. I stood by the window and couldn’t quite make out any conversation, but the music coming from inside sounded like my Portishead record. It was past midnight.

I paced along street and worked on my cigarettes until he came out.

I was away in the shadows when he did, so I had a good view of their awkward hug goodnight in the doorway – two bodies leaning in but only arms and shoulders engaging, torsos afraid to join in. Kate, dressed in something red and unfamiliar, retreated inside. The man walked in my direction. Clean-shaven like a college kid, nice suit, skinny, my exact opposite. His face was glum.

I placed a cigarette in my mouth, walked up real close and asked for a light. He reached into his jacket with a nod and I realized he could smell whiskey on my breath. His eyes went down, and I drew back my arm and made a fist.

My mobile rang.

He produced the lighter. I lit the cigarette and let him walk away. I answered on the last ring before voicemail.

“Hey Carl,” Kate said. “You haven’t called in a while.”

I said “I know,” but I couldn’t continue, so I hung up and turned the phone off.

The last train home was gone and I didn’t want to spend money on a cab. The walk home took two hours, but it also took me past the courtyard and the studio, so I paid a visit.

The world behind the windows lay quiet and dark. Through the gloom, I peered at the watercolor of the woman in the chair, rubbing my eyes. I’d seen it often enough to know her pose: one arm dangling down over the armrest, the other against her cheek. I’d never seen her with both hands on her chin and head cocked.

Exactly the same easel, exactly the same place. I didn’t like this version as much, though. I looked around–the street was deserted–and when I gazed back, the woman’s head was cast down to the ground.

I took a step back. How drunk was I? Not enough. I got right up against the glass and rapped my knuckles on the window, but nothing happened. I began to sweat and something inside me suggested it was best to leave. I stole a glance back as I broke into a jog, and she was looking back up.

I came to the courtyard the next morning, hungover. The watercolor woman stood in front of the chair upright, hands behind her back. It was the same painting, I was certain–the canvas, its position, the little tears at the bottom, the way it sat on the easel. I paced up and down, banged on the glass and on the door, but she was the only company around, and she didn’t change her pose at all.

I was an hour late for work, and getting anything done was impossible. I tried to sketch her on some printer paper, hoping that once the drawing was done she’d move. She didn’t, of course‑I’d always been a rubbish artist. What was her name? Are painted women named after their paintings?

So, I got a written warning that day but didn’t care, and when evening came she was sitting again, wearing an easy smile. She’d tied her long hair back in a bun. I sat alone with her and no one came to disturb us.

The next day, I decided this was really happening. What’s more, I figured the painted woman must be bored and lonely. Was her painter (owner? No, that’s sick) good company? Was she sick of staring at the courtyard, out of the same window? I decided to pick articles from the newspaper and tape them to the glass in front of her each morning. A small voice inside me began to question my sanity, but I quickly silenced it.

It became a nice ritual. Each day, I’d put up fresh articles and try to spot where her eyes were pointing. Was she into the football scores? Celebrities? Foreign affairs? Her pose was different each day, but she’d always look curious and lean forward. In the evening I would sit and watch her before going home. My sleep was troubled.

This filled a work week. Kate called on Friday night. We tried to talk but it was mostly long silences, and then she asked:

“Have you met anybody?”

“Yes,” I replied. Didn’t want to lie.

“That’s good, Carl. I’m happy for you.”

“Don’t be,” I said, and hung up so I wouldn’t crack and tell her anything.

The next morning, I woke to a squeaky-blue sky and the most sunlight I’d seen in a while. Despite this, I walked around with my head down and fists clenched tight, and thoughts swirled hurricanes in my head. I’d spent the week taping newspapers in front of a painting. What was wrong with me? Was this for real?

I bought a fresh paper and a marker, went to the studio, taped up the spread about the Belgian parliamentary crisis, and underneath I scrawled: “Can we talk?” She didn’t move so I went to get some breakfast, and when I came back her smile seemed a little wider.

“What’s your name?” I wrote.

I didn’t know how she could reply, so I felt stupid and shuffled off and spent the day alone watching bad TV. When I came back to check on her in the evening, her pose still hadn’t changed and the front door still didn’t respond to my knocks. Discouraged, I stood there and looked her in the eyes and tried not to move, but she won our staring contest.

I had to do something. I took out the marker. “Can we meet? I’m going to come in.”

I spent the next morning behind the laptop searching “how to break into house”. I gathered all my dark clothes and then I went out and bought a crowbar, though I’d never held one before, and cased the block. There were small windows on the first floor above the studio, and a drainpipe going up to the roof. I decided to wait for darkness, then scale the pipe and go in through there. It was hard to pick the right amount to drink beforehand–I needed enough whiskey for courage, but not so much to wreck motor skills and judgement. As usual, I overdid it.

Night came, and brought rain with it. The clouds had been sullen all day and decided they’d had enough, so water poured and poured and thunder boomed encouragement.

I came to the studio and stood at the window. The lights inside were off and not a soul was around, except there she was in the darkness, looking at me with eyebrows furrowed and lips pursed. Yesterday’s newspaper struggled to hold onto the window with a lone remaining corner.

I got real close to the glass and said, “Hello,” and “I’m coming.”

The drainpipe haemorrhaged rainwater. I shook it and it felt sturdy enough, so I began to climb, but my boots couldn’t keep hold and I slipped down with each attempt. A year or two ago, I could have hoisted myself up to the window without breaking a sweat, but I wasn’t big and strong anymore–just big. I struggled and struggled, got halfway up, and then the drainpipe peeled off the wall with a creak and I went with it. I tumbled into filthy water, and lay there feeling like a soaked dishrag ready to be thrown out.

This was going nowhere. I composed myself, decided to try the front door, and gave it a hard shove with my shoulder. It shook, flimsy and thin, so I chose to forgo subtlety and got the crowbar.

It took ten minutes and I was drenched in sweat as well as rain by the end. Wood splinters lay everywhere and the door stood in tatters, but I had a hole big enough to climb through. I went in.

The entrance hallway was plain and smelled of mildew. A jacket and hat hung on a plain coat rack, and muddy boots sat underneath. I scraped them with my finger. The mud was still wet.

I tiptoed through, floorboards creaking. There were stairs going up and next to them was a door into the main studio, half-open. I crept in, groped for a light switch and found one. The place sputtered to life for a split second, a light bulb flashed too bright, and everything went dark again. This wasn’t going well.

In the gloom, I walked between easels, paint cans, canvases. There were still-life fruit bowls and flowers, a farmhouse by a forest, a ship on a stormy sea. I stared at the latter, and the dark-blue swirls of the waves began to move–or was it a trick of the eyes?–and I smelled salt. I didn’t come here for a ship, though, so I tore away and continued on.

I came to her painting but she wasn’t there. The chair sat in the frame, but the woman was gone.

“Hello?” I called out. My voice rang high-pitched and weak. “Are you there? It’s me! The newspaper guy!”

Silence. Where could she have gone? I went from painting to painting. She wasn’t in the fruit bowls and she wasn’t on the ship. I leaned in close to the farmhouse painting – night in a dark wood, stars, a light on inside and smoke rising from the chimney.

There! In the left window! Frozen still, looking out, mouth half-open, eyes wide.

I searched around and found paints and a brush. “Hey,” I whispered. “I’m not going to hurt you.” I only knew how to paint one thing, really, but it seemed like a reasonable option, so I went red first and made short squiggly lines for the petals. My hands shook and the beginnings were wonky but passable. The woman didn’t move at all, although the smoke from the chimney shifted each time I blinked.

I worked in silence and the rose I was painting was half-done when footsteps came from upstairs. Startled, my hand slipped and a red slash cut through the house. It passed right past her, a dab of red barely touching the woman’s hair.

“Oh, no.” I said. “No, no. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry!”

The footsteps got louder, on this floor now.

I had to get out. I grabbed the painting, still muttering apologies, turned to go, and saw a man’s shape in the doorway. In the darkness it seemed immense, seven foot tall, and stood blocking my escape.

I took the crowbar in one hand, held the painting in the other, ran to the window and struck it as hard as I could. Spiderweb cracks blossomed where I’d struck–strange thing, safety glass. Another few hits, and it buckled, so I drove my shoulder forward and barrelled through into the street and the storm.

The red-and-white of sirens flooded the courtyard–somebody must’ve called the cops. A patrol car crouched by the courtyard entrance, two policemen inside. I sprinted to try and to get past, but my foot stuck something and I was on the ground and a cop was on top of me, pressing my face into wet concrete. I’d dropped the painting face-up. I struggled and shifted my head to see if the woman was alright.

The rain mixed with the red brush-strokes, and the paint ran, covering the entire house–and the woman inside–in bright, watery red.

I screamed as the handcuffs went “click.”

I didn’t spent long in lock-up. I managed to avoid a jail sentence but got a breaking and entering record for my troubles. Kate paid my bail but wouldn’t talk to me outside the jailhouse. She just stood there and looked so sad and cried when I tried to talk, so I said sorry and you’ll never hear from me again and that was that. I lost my job but got another one pretty quick, and I moved house and stayed indoors and didn’t go out looking for any painted women–or any women at all, for that matter.

Christmas came and went. I bought some paints and spent evenings hunched over a canvas while learn-to-draw tutorials blared in the background. It never came out right, though, so after a while I took a class at a local university. I met Rita there, and I began to get better, too. We liked each other’s work and soon we were a thing and eight months later–so quick!–I was dragging a suitcase across town to her apartment.

Things moved fast. We kept on painting. Rita was pulling in good money from her side job, so we rented out a little studio. It was shabby and didn’t stand in any courtyards but it was everything we needed. Her career really took off after that: crowded exhibitions, high-profile sales, even a spot in the newspaper. My work wasn’t going as well, though. I kept struggling on the same painting. I had the leather chair down pat, and the dress and the hair, too. But I just couldn’t get the smile right.

Andrei Seleznev

Andrei Seleznev is a Russian-born writer based in Melbourne, Australia. When not writing short stories, he plays bass guitar in a psychedelic rock band and works in cancer research as a computational biologist. He is accustomed to cramped kitchens and emboldened by clear liquors. His fiction has been previously published inside Christmas crackers.

Odelia Toder

Artwork by Odelia Toder.