87. Rumours of Bella

FOR A TIME WE became obsessed with Bella. She became our sole preoccupation, our only topic of conversation. No one had seen her for ages. Her telephone number was disconnected. When we dropped by the little bookstore where she’d worked since before we knew her, we were told she’d quit months earlier. We tracked down people who’d known her. We knew she’d gone out on a couple of dates with a guy called Daniel who worked at her favourite coffee shop. He had courted her for months. We dropped by the coffee shop and he was still there. He told us she was now living in a little shack by the sea somewhere, although he couldn’t say where exactly. We thought he was hiding something from us, that he knew exactly where Bella was living, but didn’t want to tell us. Perhaps he knew that, when Bella had told us about him, we’d concluded he wasn’t right for her and told her to ignore him, change coffee shop if she had to. You deserve better than someone who has been working in retail all his goddam life, we told her. She seemed reluctant to let him go at first, but eventually she came around to our ay of thinking. So she had escaped our clutches - friendly as they were - and was living, apparently, in a shack by the sea, although we didn’t know where. Another friend of hers, a girl who’d worked with her at the store, told us she still visited the city from time to time, but mostly she lived on the coast somewhere. She also told us Bella was no longer painting. This is what pained us the most, as we had been Bella’s benefactors for years. Everything Bella had achieved, in a way, was somehow due to our support of her, especially in the early years, when she had no style of her own. Over time, under our patient tutelage, she developed one. And another thing - again, little more than a rumour, than spurious scuttlebutt – the janitor in her former building told us he was under the impression Bella had taken up with someone - a man, or a woman, there were conflicting reports - someone who may have been a gardener or a park ranger, someone outdoorsy, at any rate, and that Bella herself was working part-time in a nursery. This dismayed us, as Bella had always been alone in the time we’d known and supported her, and we have always believed solitude is necessary for an artist. So the matter wasn't so much that we knew nothing of her fate, but rather that rumours were swirling, like clouds, like dust clouds, all around us, and, like dust clouds, they seemed to have no point of origin, no verifiable source to consult, other than Bella herself, of course. This led to the unfortunate situation where Bella and her mysterious fate - her mysterious shack, her mysterious beach, her mysterious lover - became something of an obsession. We talked constantly about Bella, we checked to see if someone had discovered anything new about her, we practically frisked each other for news of Bella. We dissected what little information we had and came up with wildly different interpretations: that she was happy, that her life was simple but nourishing (we dismissed this possibility early on); that she was still painting, after all, working on a series that would finally establish a reputation for her and vindicate the faith we had invested in her; that she was planning a comeback, at which time she would be transfigured, she would be radiant, she would have tapped into a groundswell of beauty that none of us had ever imagined her capable of. Finally we settled on what we considered to be the likeliest scenario, that Bella had exiled herself, that she had thrown herself away - Bella had always seemed capable of doing such a thing - and that she was now stuck in a cul-de-sac, too proud to leave it, resigned to her fate, and that she needed rescuing. We concluded that we owed it to Bella to rescue her, that Bella needed us to rescue her, and, thus decided, we set in motion the course of events that would, we hoped, eventually lead us to Bella and her mysterious shack and mysterious lover, and bring her back to be here, among us, where she belonged.