French girl with mother, p.11
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       French Girl with Mother, p.11

           Norman Ollestad
 
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  It was strange to watch them together—cooking, talking, laughing—when I was so cognizant of his most intimate needs, the path they’d sent us all down. But, of course, I’d readily taken the bait, so I, too, was culpable. At that precise moment, he glanced at me, a silky, self-satisfied wrinkle on his lips, as if to declare, I’m the head cock. Then he broke into laughter at something Anaïs said and turned away.

  I took a pencil from the mug, slid a sheet of scratch paper closer, and began drawing them. I sketched heavy leg irons around their ankles, draping the chain across the floor to the bottom foreground of the paper, where the artist’s foot was then shackled too.

  She stayed up late with her father and when she finally got into our bed, she lay down at the far edge.

  I reached over and ran my palm over her ass. Kissed her nape. No reaction.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “You fall apart so easily,” she said with quiet scorn. “I mean, you were so high about the new portrait and then I come home and suddenly you’ve become sick with worry over it, and full of all this paranoia about me, us. It shuts me down.”

  If you only knew what was going on behind your back, I retaliated. The shit I have to navigate. But considering my involvement, I knew I didn’t deserve any compassion. I rolled over.

  “I’m sure I’ll be fine in the morning,” I said coolly.

  Anaïs left with Jean Luc earlier than usual, not even a kiss goodbye. I heard the car on the clay as I walked into the kitchen. Out the window, I watched Anaïs open and then close the gate. The thinning willow tree swung in the wind. I was losing her. A hole was opening in my center. Another demonstration of how Anaïs and my work had melded into one—she could drive me to ruin the same way failing to produce the great double portrait for the show would. I slammed my hand on the chopping board.

  forty-three

  Sophie was sweeping the floor, prepping the room for her workout. “So how does it work?” I said.

  She looked at me blankly. “You flirt with Anaïs’s boyfriends and that excites him?”

  Sophie showed no emotion, leaned the broom in the corner, and started to warm up. “It doesn’t have to be a boyfriend of Anaïs.”

  “Okay,” I scoffed. “Did the game start with his demand that I do your portrait?”

  “Yes.”

  “But then he needed more?”

  “Yes.”

  “Why do you go along with it?”

  “For love,” she said.

  “Give me a break.”

  “No?” she stopped moving and put her hands on her hips, addressing me. “He wants to feel like a man and I want to feel like a woman. The alternative is he has mistresses and I take lovers or just turn into an old maid. But that’s not for us. Sex is a kind of glue that has kept us connected through all our years.”

  “Wouldn’t Viagra be easier?” I said.

  Sophie stretched her arms to the ceiling.

  “It’s not the same,” she said. “Taking a pill compared to being driven by jealousy and possessiveness.” She looked me squarely in the eye. “They are completely different experiences for both of us. The pill we leave as a last resort.”

  “But Anaïs can feel that something is going on behind her back. It drives her crazy.”

  “How do I tell her something like this? Nothing would be gained. Even though she acts so sophisticated and bold, don’t forget, she is only nineteen.”

  She had a point. The game in itself was their own private matter, and disclosing it was unlikely to bring Anaïs and Sophie closer or help smooth the seas, and would probably make things worse.

  “If she learns of this,” Sophie said, her eyes a sheen of blue ice, “I’ll never pose for you again, you realize, and besides, Jean Luc will kick you out.”

  “I’m not going to say anything,” I shot back. “But I don’t want to be a part of it anymore.”

  Lifting her eyebrows and pursing her lips, she gave me a challenging stare. “Bon.”

  “You’re screwing her up.”

  “Wouldn’t it be worse if her mother and father had lovers or got divorced?” she retorted.

  “I don’t know.”

  Sophie went to the window and looked out. She appeared to be wishing I’d go away.

  “Okay, can we get to work?”

  “But I thought you didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.”

  “I have a show coming up and I need a third piece.”

  She rolled her eyes, turning her head, a show of ambivalence.

  “Can’t we just work together without it being for Jean Luc?” I argued.

  That got her attention. She lifted her chin. “Mais oui . . .”

  forty-four

  I led Sophie to the tall grass, carrying the studies of Anaïs and Valerie with me. I would’ve preferred to conceal them from her, but time was of the essence and I needed to use them to position the spider around her prey.

  What struck hardest was having Sophie hanging over Anaïs with her four spider legs, while I envisioned Anaïs resting on her side, head at the pointed base of one of the spider legs, cradling it.

  I worked from higher and higher points of view until I found the right angle, depicting the sinewy insect ready to smother her daughter.

  “You’re putting both of us in it now, huh?” Sophie said, glancing at the Anaïs studies.

  I hesitated. Accessing my raw, unfiltered impulses and letting them live in the drawings was much easier when neither woman knew what the image was going to be in the end. It was like having sex in private as opposed to a public place where you could be seen and therefore come under scrutiny, losing your freedom to be true to nature.

  “Can we not talk about it?” I said, drawing her mouth.

  “Superstitious?” she laughed.

  I nodded and turned to the Anaïs studies, her mouth like her mother’s, and began to sketch her in, cradling the spider’s pointed foot—a substitute for the affection she really wanted. When I got her outline in place, I saw how important her particular expression would be. The final battle between the real and the ideal would take place over the play of emotions in Anaïs’s face.

  “You’ve got your hands full now,” Sophie said, “juggling all your secrets.”

  That killed it and I told her we were finished for the day. She left right away and I was relieved that she didn’t try to scrutinize what I was working on; her reaction might make me self-conscious and protective, even for her sake.

  forty-five

  Stowing the drawings in the trunk on the fourth floor, I heard Anaïs and Jean Luc return from tennis. Anaïs remained aloof for the entire lunch, and after the meal she stole away to the porch, napping on the cushions across from her father.

  How could I blame her? I’d become perpetually distracted, ducking and weaving to keep my work hidden, all my attention directed toward the third piece for the show; and it was compounded by the fact that she was the only one in the château left to guess at some deception she could feel going on behind her back.

  When Anaïs woke up from her nap, I asked her to sit for me.

  “At this point, it’s become obvious that you just want me for your work,” she said. “That’s all you talk about. That’s all you worry about.”

  “Yes and no,” I told her, taking her hands in mine. “Making pictures of you and having a relationship with you is really one thing. I need your passion, your ideas, your unique perspective. There is no one like you. No one.”

  “How long can that last?”

  “Is that what you want, Anaïs? You want us to last?”

  She gave me a feisty look. Studying me.

  “Then we need to make paintings together,” I said.

  Her eyes closed for a moment, a rebuke; then she got up and walked down the steps toward the riverbank. But I’d glimpsed a curl at the corner of her mouth, a blush in her cheek, as though she’d been reassured that I still had it in me, a whiff of the shepherd she so wanted me to be.

  S
he was less guarded yet still somber throughout the entire session in the tall grass, which was perfect for the play of emotions in her face. I couldn’t bring the Sophie drawings, but they were fresh in my head, and by late afternoon I’d finally nailed down Anaïs’s far-off gaze.

  I stepped back to view the drawing. Her eyes teemed with a longing to be nurtured while a repellent flicker hinted at some underlying aggression; complex, deeply conflicted, and accessible all at once. The next step would be to draw her in over the sketch-lines at the feet of the spider, hidden now in the trunk, and marry the two figures. I was only days away from executing the double portrait.

  “It’s good, Anaïs,” I told her, and I kneeled down. “Thank you for sticking it out with me.”

  I opened my arms, wanting to kiss and hug her, wrap her up with my love and appreciation for all she’d given me, all she’d sacrificed. But she rolled out of reach, got up, and walked back to the château.

  forty-six

  Dinner. Rain tapped the windows. Air musky. Sophie was describing a cheese monger at the open market, the way he spoke like a gangster from Marseille, and Jean Luc teased her for doing such an accurate impersonation. Apparently, when Sophie’s father was a young man, he’d dabbled at being a gangster in Marseille. This revelation seemed to lift Anaïs’s spirits and she perked up, asking questions about her grand-père. Perhaps hearing stories of her mother’s childhood adventures touched a nostalgic nerve in Anaïs, and after dinner, without any warning, she asked me to walk with her in the rain.

  We bundled up and strolled arm in arm along the riverbank. We went under the bridge and stopped at the edge of Bernard’s sprawling lawn. She held my face in her hands and the warm glint returned to her eyes.

  “I’m falling for you,” she said. “And it freaks me out. Makes me crazy . . .”

  “It’s okay. I’m falling too.”

  “Then why don’t you say it?”

  “Because you’re convinced I just want you for the portraits. Which is true but also the same thing as falling for you. I know that sounds . . .”

  With both hands she cupped the back of my head and kissed me.

  “Je t’aime,” she whispered.

  “Je t’aime,” I said, and I wrapped her in my arms.

  Just like that, by some invisible force, we were back on track. She took my hand and guided me onto Bernard’s lawn. We passed the Rodin, misted with rain, and then the Claudel, and I thought we were going to consummate our affirmation by making love at their feet.

  But she told me we had to wait and pulled me toward the château. The house looked asleep, only a single stain of color in one of the windows.

  “Where are we going?”

  “To see Bernard.”

  As we climbed the last pitch of grass, the door opened. Bernard raised his hand, a solemn wave, with the Doberman at his side. Anaïs picked up the pace and we walked inside, dripping water on the floor.

  “I’m glad you came,” Bernard said, closing the door and kissing Anaïs on both cheeks.

  He flipped on a bank of lights and the living room appeared through an archway. Soft leather couches and old smoking chairs and chandeliers hanging from steel chains; a big hearth like Anaïs’s with the same kind of moulding around it and silver candleholders and silver drinking cups and scattered cozy atolls of low-slung chairs in circles, some with silk pillows, all oriented toward the ten-foot-high French doors facing the lawn and river.

  I glanced at Anaïs, who was admiring the room too—it was something you never overcame. Bernard lifted a bottle of port from atop an antique escritoire and poured three glasses. The gun case behind him displayed old rifles and some pistols that looked ancient.

  He handed us the port and studied me for an extra beat. “I see that you don’t know why you’re here,” he said.

  I shook my head, thinking it probably had to do with Anaïs’s business venture.

  “Viens.” He led us around to the front of a massive leather couch, and although we were wet, he motioned for us to sit, and he opened a cigar box, offering me a Cuban.

  “No, merci.”

  “A shrewd businessman,” he said. “Never celebrate too early.”

  “What are we celebrating?” I asked.

  He lit a cigar, cheek-ballooning pulls off the end to get it going. He let the smoke trail out and pointed the ember tip toward a large marble coffee table. Resting on the white slab were four drawings made with pencil or crayon, accented with watercolor, that I instantly recognized as Egon Schieles.

  “Nude Girl with Folded Arms,” Bernard said, pointing at the one on the far left. Motioning at the labia-splayed girl in the drawing beside it, he said, “And Observed in a Dream.”

  I was standing, stepping toward the table. My shins hit the marble. The next portrait was of a seated woman, seminude, in a green blouse and green underwear, fingers touching her chin, pale almost-yellow eyes, big almonds, staring at you and simultaneously past you—confident, witty. And beside it was Reclining Nude, Left Leg Raised. Her refined, classic beauty—doe-eyed with something pleading in her brow, lips pursed, the upright position of her head—in counterpoint to her raised leg, exposing her sex. The lines were true without sacrificing the idea he was after. The spare graphite against the paper enriched the emotion in a way that a thousand thick brushstrokes could never do. It was everything I aspired toward but never came close to.

  “Amazing,” I whispered.

  Bernard’s beefy fingers clamped onto my shoulder and eased me back.

  “I know, mon ami,” he consoled. “I know. But they’re worth too much to drool on.”

  “I’m sorry.” I stepped back and sat down. “They’re just so damn good.”

  “But you can do this too,” Bernard hailed, handing me another glass of port. “No doubt.”

  His bulbous nose, bear head, and watery blue eyes all seemed to smile on me with genuine compassion and affection.

  “You’re already doing it,” Anaïs chimed in.

  “Doing what?” I asked, realizing they had something specific in mind.

  “Making pictures like this,” Bernard said. “You’re that good.”

  “Watch out. His head is going to really swell.” Anaïs chummed it up, shooting me a coy look.

  He scoffed. “But you can’t deny what he’s done with those portraits of you.”

  “So you want me to do reproductions of these?” I interrupted their ego-stroking.

  “Essentially,” he mumbled behind a veil of smoke.

  Dropping my head back against the couch, I let out a sigh.

  Anaïs put her hand on my thigh. “I know you’re not comfortable doing copies, but I thought maybe for Schiele you’d reconsider.”

  I felt myself gravitating back toward the Schieles on the marble slab. The power of his lines seemed to reach down into my soul. Keep your eyes off those drawings. Don’t lose control. Don’t give anything away.

  “In 1912,” Bernard suddenly intoned, “Schiele went to a small town outside of Vienna called Neulengbach, where he hoped to use the peace and quiet to concentrate on his work.”

  Where is this going?

  “Unfortunately he ended up in jail for the public display of pornographic images,” Bernard continued. “He’d showed some nudes he was working on, one of which was of a local girl, to some of the townspeople and they’d reported him. After the ordeal, he cleared out his studio and went back to Vienna. However, by his own account, he made a number of erotic drawings that disappeared in the move. These four pieces here”—Bernard nodded at the marble slab—“were drawn around the same time, giving us a good idea of the sort of stuff he was doing in Neulengbach.”

  “So you want me to make . . .”—reproductions wasn’t the right word and I searched for it—“drawings like those?” I said, pointing at the Schieles.

  “Yes!” He opened his arms, gesturing toward the drawings. “You can use them as a reference, with Anaïs as your model.”

  “Are you offering me a
show?”

  His body straightened and his eyes, teared up from lack of sleep and alcohol and smoke, wouldn’t meet mine. He shook his head.

  “No, I’m offering you a chance to make twenty thousand euros, which will allow you to keep working on your own stuff and finally bring you the recognition you deserve,” he said. “You have your big show coming up. It will be expensive to ship the three pieces, no?”

  I glanced at Anaïs. She must have told him—could have even shown him the email on her phone—and now I thought about her asking me to walk with her after dinner and her sudden reconciliation, her declaration of love. Was it any less genuine now? Or just part of her puzzle?

  In the moment it was impossible to delineate the various pieces, but some part of it was connected to the long con I’d suspected when she’d first brought up her business idea.

  Still, I needed to make money to ship the portraits for the show, and buy a ticket to L.A., and there was no denying that having all that cash would give me the freedom to just work without the weight of survival hanging over me, a privilege I’d never indulged. I couldn’t rely on Jean Luc paying me, I had nothing to give him, and his portrait proposition had turned out to be only a front for his erotic amusement.

  “Why not just do reproductions, like you two originally talked about?” I suggested.

  “Because we can make real money this way,” he said.

  I turned to Anaïs. Her hands rested on her knees. She peered up at me without cunning or ambivalence, eyes round and wide like when she’d shown me her childhood woodpile. In spite of her wiles, it was hard to pour cold water on what looked like unadulterated enthusiasm.

  “What exactly are you going to do with them?” I asked Bernard.

  He sat down, reclining in the plush leather. “No, no,” he said. “You do the drawings. You take it or leave it. That’s all.”

 
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