French girl with mother, p.1
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       French Girl with Mother, p.1

           Norman Ollestad
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French Girl with Mother

  ebook ISBN 9781619028630

  Copyright © 2016 by Norman Ollestad

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is Available

  Cover design by Kelly Winton

  Interior design by Tabitha Lahr


  2560 Ninth Street, Suite 318

  Berkeley, CA 94710

  Distributed by Publishers Group West


  For Jenny Ollestad,

  my eternal muse



























































































  I stood on the bank of the Loing River in the French countryside, shivering in my damp jeans, eyes sweeping over the water, my heart thudding. On the far bank, stripped winter trees opened their limbs like refugees waiting to be rescued, giving me hope that it had only been my imagination, a bad dream. A heap of debris broke the surface. I watched it move, circulating in a tributary of current. It rolled and now I saw that it was a body, hunched out of the water, legs dangling behind. I stopped breathing, went stiff and ice-cold. My legs were rooted in place and only my mind churned: the four of us trapped in the château, under the spell of desire, impelled to act dangerously. If only I’d walked away from her that first day in Paris or had left the château before her mother arrived, no one would be dead. What had compelled me to join in her parents’ erotic secret and betray her trust? Why hadn’t I been able to resist her uncle’s illicit offer? It seemed to boil down to one basic impulse that we all shared: we were hell-bent, even destined, to avenge our underlying need to be loved.


  It all started two months ago. I’d been hanging around Paris for a couple days, waiting to hear from the curator of the prestigious Louver Gallery in Los Angeles. She’d included three of my drawings in a show that opened last week. The portraits were of a Danish woman, Catja, whom I’d met in the Austrian Alps where we were both spending the winter. Catja had made it clear from the get-go that she had a boyfriend back home and intended to return to him at the end of the season. I interpreted her declaration as a warning, as there was always the risk of falling in love when doing portraiture.

  The first drawing I made of her captured something pensive and angry in her downcast eyes, a crack in her sheen of milky skin and round face. The crack was my way of expressing something beyond what my eyes saw, allowing me to talk about what I felt stirring in her. Despite her abundantly sunny demeanor, I glimpsed flints of aggression and a darkness she seemed afraid of. I finished the portrait while she stood in the window of a remote hut that we’d hiked up to with our skis. When I showed it to her, her eyes leapt at the image with great anticipation, before she spoke in a quiet, cold voice.

  “It’s not very pretty . . .”

  I’d seen Catja charge down steep couloirs and drink with the best of them at the bars and nightclubs, one of the boys so to speak, and her reaction caught me off guard.

  “Do you think it’s untrue?” I gestured to the drawing.

  She shook her head. Clearly I’d touched something in her that she didn’t like, and I quickly rolled up the portrait and poured us a schnapps. As the seconds passed, she grew more and more restless and wouldn’t meet my eye. She started packing up her gear and I felt bad for making her uncomfortable. I crossed the hut and gave her a hug.

  “It’s just a stupid drawing,” I told her.

  She went limp in my arms but no tears. Will I ever find someone who can take it? Take seeing themselves unmasked? A real partner in crime?

  Days later, I tried to draw her again but she would give me only the facade. Nonetheless, I had one strong portrait of her and believed that the other two subsequent drawings would serve as an effective juxtaposition to the gem, really make it shine. I sent them off to the curator and she accepted them for a group show in the fall. With the rejections piling up on me—nine years’ worth, nine years of slamming my head against the art world wall—the portraits of Catja had a lot riding on them.

  Now it was late September and I was walking along Quai des Tuileries on the Right Bank, the Seine lapping onto the flagstones and the morning sun flitting in and out of the trees above on the boulevard. I’d been scraping by all summer by doing caricature sketches in the streets of whatever town or city I’d wandered into. When I got really desperate for money I’d do replicas of a famous Van Gogh or Picasso, which paid well but which I hated doing because one of the major criticisms against me was that I had no distinct vision. Having to resort to making copies reinforced the indictment.

  I’d spent my first two nights in Paris at a hostel in the seedier part of La République, where I’d been drawing the North African immigrants against the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century architecture of that arrondissement’s neglected masonry and occasional broken windows. My favorite portrait was of a stately old Tunisian man dressed in a fine suit, which, after a while, revealed itself to be vaguely soiled and threadbare, like the me
tro sign next to him. Drawing his sorrowful eyes so that they also emanated strength was inspired by memories of my grandfather, who fished the northwest seas off the Oregon coast until the day he died. Grandfather seemed to always know when I needed special attention as a boy, inviting me out to Tillamook to spend a weekend or in the summer a full week with him and Grandma. He would take me fishing, his cure-all, and once, after my pet rabbit died and I was wrecked, he talked about how the sea held all the truth and beauty of life, inescapable emptiness with the very core of sustenance in its depths. The concept was lost on me but its sentiment came through—the enigmatic ocean, like blues music, put things into a certain perspective and soothed the pain.

  My phone buzzed. I stopped walking. Cautiously took it out of my pocket. There was an email from the curator, Janet, a Japanese woman whom I’d met at my first show many years ago and who had sadly become my one and only remaining advocate.

  Suddenly I was afraid to open the email, paralyzed by a vivid memory from my last show three years ago, which seemed to rush at me with the flow of the river, an arm’s length away. Everyone who’d come to the Soho gallery—the collectors, the art enthusiasts, even my mother and father—noticed the New York Times art critic entering the gallery. He approached my six pieces, Venice Beach Homeless Portraits, and sighed with tedium, letting his head drop slightly to one side, before stepping away to view the other artists’ work in the group show.

  The entire room was embarrassed for me and no one would look at me. I refused to slink off and mingled for another hour. The next day, I found out that I was the only artist in the show who didn’t sell at least one piece.

  Nathan Woods, read the Times’s review, makes pictures for people who want to hang something nice over their designer couches . . .

  My father had come all the way from Portland, Oregon, but only because he’d already scheduled a meeting with one of his New York clients, and he’d brought my mother. At the end of breakfast, before I left for the airport to fly back to Venice Beach where I lived and painted in a small studio apartment, my father put his hand on my shoulder and looked into my eyes.

  “Have you had enough?” he said.

  I leaned back in the chair, his arm hovered for a moment before lowering, and I glared at him.

  “The message seems pretty clear, Nathan,” he added.

  I nodded and glanced at my mother.

  She grimaced, lips folded, eyes unblinking, similar to the look my twin sister Alice had given me when I left the University of Washington to pursue art.

  I stood, dropped a twenty on the table, and walked out of the restaurant.

  For the entire cab ride to JFK I posed the same question over and over: am I lying to myself? During the flight, every time I shut out my father’s condescension and stopped trying to defend myself, grasping a moment of peace, the question would boomerang back in a new form. How do you keep doing it when everyone seems to be telling you to stop? Do you know more than everyone else, is that it? At one point, I noticed other passengers looking at me and I wondered if I was thinking out loud.

  In grade school I’d copied Andrew Wyeth paintings and then moved on to Degas and some of the other big boys in high school. That’s how I got into CalArts; my technique was as good as the masters.

  “But no one seems to want to buy your original work,” my father had once pointed out.

  I have to keep grinding away, giving it everything I have, living on pasta and peanut butter, until I find my niche, I told myself on the plane. Lucian Freud, a mediocre draftsman who imitated whatever style was in vogue for years, finally found his niche by focusing on painting flesh, cultivating this particular gift to expose the privileged class unhappy in their skin.

  The night I got home from New York, I went to visit my neighbor, Wes, an older gentleman who was a writer. He had bad knees and I would take out his trash and water his treasured window box plants, which extended far past each side of the window, too difficult for him to reach. We hung out a lot and showed each other our work and talked about what we were trying to do. He was a very sensitive, gentle man and he seemed to know about everything, which reminded me of my grandfather, whom I couldn’t get enough of when I was a boy.

  Wes moved up very close to me when I explained how small and insignificant I felt, how downright sad and depressed the whole endeavor of drawing and painting now made me. His glasses magnified his eyes and he peered up at me, searching my face.

  “Too much college and not enough life,” he told me.

  He just blurted it out and I laughed, but he was serious.

  Not long after that, he passed away, and I decided to follow his wisdom, buying a one-way ticket to Zurich, thinking the wide-open Alps would somehow help me find my way. Three years later, I was still looking.

  A small boat drifted down the Seine into my periphery, ushering me back into the present. A Frenchman with a cane pole fished off the stern while a woman I assumed to be his wife stood at the helm smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. He stared down into the riprap of current. A sculpture of a queen on a rooftop and a big clock hovered above him on the far bank. Paris. The timeless enchanter. Irresistibly romantic. I opened the email.

  Hi Nathan,

  Many of the collectors had a lot of praise for the Catja Portraits, so I’m so sorry to have to tell you that no one was willing to pull the trigger. If there was one overriding theme to their hesitation it was something we’ve discussed before: “No distinct vision. Too inaccessible.” (We’ve talked about infusing more emotion and finding something in the work that is all yours.) Anyway, I’m sure you’re disappointed but I still believe in you and I urge you not to give up.

  With love,


  I was at the edge of the quai, water splashing onto my Vans, fantasizing about dumping every last one of the drawings and paintings I’d done since graduating CalArts into the river, and tearing up the Catja sketches, all evidence of my fruitless trudge along a misguided path. Senior year, I’d been praised by renowned alumnus Ed Ruscha, who’d attended when it was the Chouinard Art Institute, seemingly ordained to make a name for myself. But now I had to face the reality that I was yet another talent that hadn’t panned out.


  In a haze of confusion I walked back to La République and checked out of the hostel. I wandered through Le Marais with my skis propped on my shoulder and carbon fiber all-terrain ski boots velcroed to a loop on my backpack. Where should I go? Returning to Venice Beach didn’t hold much appeal. In other towns and cities, people had been disarmed by the skis and smiled at me as if I were carrying a puppy. Today, the younger Parisians looked right through me, earbuds fueling their strides, reminding me of those times I’d watched buyers step up to one of my drawings or paintings and, unmoved, dart away as if there was nothing there, much like that New York Times critic, I realized. That’s probably why I didn’t mind it now when the older folks barked at me about the skis brushing too close to them, sometimes twisting up their mouths in disgust because they thought I was showing off the good life—it was better than being invisible.

  A drop of rain splatted on my forehead. I glanced up. The sun, aglow behind one dark cloud, cast warm hues beyond the isolated shower overhead. As with each failed exhibition in the past, hope began to chirp and pipe. What I really needed was something wild and rampant, I tried to assure myself, something that would jump off the paper and grab the buyers by the throat. But the recycled trill sounded muted now, dissonant, like a broken belfry.

  Before giving up on Paris, and perhaps drawing and painting altogether, I ducked into the Musée d’Orsay to study Duran and Cézanne. The doors hadn’t even shut behind me when the concierge approached. He pointed at my skis, glanced down at my wet, tattered Vans, and then moved his finger like a metronome, summarily exiling me.

  A message from the universe, I joked to myself.

  Minutes later, having to pee badly and not in the mood to be turned away by another Frenchman, I ducked into what
I thought was an alley but was just a space between two old buildings that leaned to one side.

  In the midst of relieving myself, I heard heels clacking on the cobblestones, echoing from somewhere deep in the corridor, interspersed with the sound of a woman crying. Two figures appeared from what must have been another narrow passageway—a kind of local’s shortcut—and turned toward me. Dancing from foot to foot to make haste, I skewed my stream away from them and hoped no one peeked in from the avenue.

  “You didn’t even come after me,” the young woman said in French to the young man beside her.

  “But I did. I couldn’t find you anywhere.”

  “It seems that you didn’t look hard enough. You were too ashamed of what I wanted to do,” she said, and then they noticed me and, thankfully, I was already zipping up my pants.

  I faced the sooty stone wall and busied myself with my backpack as they went by.

  “Putain,” the young woman snapped at me in French. “Are you a fucking dog?”

  “Oui. And off leash . . .” I responded in French, my eyes on the young man, not the young woman, all my frustration channeled into the aggressive look I gave him. With my unshaven face and tangled shoulder-length hair, I must’ve appeared fairly derelict, and as she turned to fire back, he took her by the hand and tugged her onto the avenue.

  You’re ridiculous, I admonished myself. There’s no one to blame, no one to take it out on but yourself. You’re peeing in alleyways and have only a few hundred euros to your name because of the choices you’ve made. Live with it.


  The raincloud was gone, pushed away by an unseasonably mild wind, when I turned off the quai and crossed onto the Pont des Arts. The bridge’s smooth wood planks ran in the same direction as the Seine passing below, and beyond the black mesh railing, I saw the grey tones of the city sprouting from the banks of the river, with the sharp-tipped Île de la Cité dead center, splitting the river in half. The island widened from the pointed end facing me and looked like a big heart with two arteries wrapping around it, feeding the city. An undeniably fine backdrop for portraiture.

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