French girl with mother, p.14
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       French Girl with Mother, p.14

           Norman Ollestad
 
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  I brought the phone back to my ear. “Yes, I’m alone.”

  “Jean Luc is gone. We might only have twenty-four hours. If you come on the one-o’clock, I can get you from the platform. Bernard’s coming now, must go . . .”

  The phone went dead.

  Before calling back, I needed to give her time to get free of Bernard. But I didn’t have her number so I tried star 69, figuring she’d let it go to voicemail and hoping the number would be on her greeting. It didn’t work, just dead air. Looking out the window, I tried to understand what she wanted. Was she going to help me finish a third piece for the L.A. show or did she still intend to seduce me, perhaps as a way to get back at her husband?

  It doesn’t matter, I argued, scrambling to find a piece of paper and a pencil. This is a lucky break that you won’t get again. Hastily, I wrote Anaïs a note, using the excuse of a bolt of inspiration and leaving my cell number so that she could call to let me know how her presentation went. Then I took the metro to Gare de Lyon where I boarded the one-o’clock to Grez.

  sixty

  Measuring how much daylight was left, maybe three hours, I stepped off the train onto the platform. Sophie was behind the wheel of the Citroën. She’d borrowed it on some pretense, I assumed.

  “Hi,” I said when I got in the car.

  “Ça va?” she said.

  “Oui, et toi?”

  She looked me up and down. “Oui,” she said, and she accelerated, bouncing us along the dirt road through the rolling fields. We didn’t talk. Driving with two hands on the wheel, she never even looked at me, weaving that circuitous route through the village. She dropped me at the gate and told me she’d be right back.

  I went straight to the first stall and pulled out the canvas and easel. Lugging them along the drive and up the disjointed flight to the kitchen, I took a long tug from a bottle of red on the countertop before hauling them up to her studio.

  Ten minutes later, I’d retrieved my materials and the crucial drawings and was setting up when she entered the room. She wore jeans, a sweater, and thick socks, and she sat on the floor with her back against the far wall. Her face was soft, arms lithe, an aura of submission—something that had always been missing in our sessions.

  I positioned the canvas on the easel faced away from her, cognizant of how she might react once she got a good look at the double portrait—it could go either way—and I hoped to delay her response for as long as possible.

  “Please take the spider pose,” I said.

  She slipped off her clothes, laced her ballet slippers, and gathered herself into the pose, arms dangling between her wide-set knees. From the very first line, much like when I’d made the Schieles, the light met her body and formed shapes of their own accord, burning the atmosphere, captured instantly as if I were merely snatching them out of the air. Sophie shifted, stretched, curled with each of my requests; otherwise the only sounds were her grunts and groans. Two bunches of sinew, flexing from each gluteus, turned out to be a vital new detail that made her strength more palpable without having to cheat reality.

  Within an hour, the interplay of lines formed a being half creature, half woman, part mother, part vixen, hovering over a faintly sketched-in Anaïs, whom the spider mother both loved and feared.

  “I need a break,” Sophie said, severing the flow.

  “Of course.”

  She lifted out of the pose and walked into the bathroom, shutting the door. A grainy blue light filled the windows. I laid the good Anaïs studies on the floor at the foot of the easel. Miraculously, two of them fit right in, only the slightest rescaling required, and I drew the lines easily. Anaïs’s expressions were so vibrant, coalescing in a flurry of deep slashes, that I might not need her to pose again.

  I opened the tin of paints, found my favorite brush, and applied the gouache. With each brushstroke a charge seemed to break free. From one dab to the next, the image bleeding through the stains appeared to step further and further beyond its two-dimensional confines and spoke to me, in Anaïs’s eyes, mouth, rested cheek, curled body. When I used a thicker brush over the spider, she began gathering the light, as if siphoning it from her daughter, and I wanted to take it right up to the edge. When something told me to stop, I pulled back and closed my eyes for a few seconds. Opening them, I saw the two women living and breathing on the canvas.

  I heard Sophie pad from the bathroom. The light was dissipating and I dragged the canvas under the westernmost window, where the last vestiges of dusk filtered in. I used a very thin brush to add a dash of pale orange in Sophie’s eyes then stepped back. The spider mother, with all her color and fully realized lines, overwhelmed the relatively unadorned girl cradling her foot.

  “What do you think?” I asked, swiveling the easel around so that she could view the painting—for the first time.

  Her eyes narrowed, scanning the image, body rising and falling with her increasingly rapid breathing. She turned away, searching the room as if for a familiar chair or photograph. Her eyelids closed, brows lifting against the skin, holding there with a deep breath, and then opened, a bewildered look directed at me.

  Could she really be so surprised?

  She seemed to read the question in my face. “I’ve always been tangled up inside my relationship with Anaïs . . .” Her eyes drifted onto the canvas. “I’ve never stood outside myself and seen what it looks like, between us . . .”

  Her head tilted away from the canvas, as if she’d been slapped by a scolding hand. She looked sorrowful, maybe even horrified.

  “That’s all you see?” I asked.

  She dared to glimpse it again, over her shoulder.

  “The mother is torn . . . afraid of being cast aside . . .” she said.

  “And the girl?”

  She closed her eyes. “A hint of admiration for the mother . . .”

  “Yes . . .”

  “It’s astonishing . . .” she said with her eyes closed.

  I stepped around to the front of the canvas, levitating from the knowledge that I’d really done it. Finally gone where I’d needed to go. It was tangible evidence that my dubious choices had been justified, were even necessary—simply the price of making art.

  In my periphery, Sophie took an unhurried step closer to me, strands of hair falling across her face. “Am I really so ruthless?” she said coyly, moving in until her nipples pressed against my arm.

  “Remember what you said about guilt?” I told her.

  It made her chuckle and she smiled at me, a peace between us, and I reached for the canvas; it needed to dry in the stall before I brought it to Paris and shipped it off with the others, after which I’d call Hal. At that moment, smooth, delicate fingers curled around my wrist and guided my hand behind me. I felt the dew of dried sweat as my fingertips traced her inner thigh.

  “Isn’t this what you want?” she said, directing my hand upward.

  A tiny balloon of heat grazed my fingers before I felt her sex. She was reclaiming the advantage and I told myself to get away.

  “He always asks if you tried to touch me,” she whispered at my nape. “Now I don’t have to lie.”

  My fingers slipped inside her. I was on the cusp of no return, hunger gathering, blood draining from my head. I searched for the door, found it, and walked out.

  At the river, I stripped down and dove off the barricade, and the cold water took all my breath away.

  sixty-one

  I floated on my back to the levee, energized by the belief that the double portrait was the best work I’d ever done. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted two beams in the night, then saw the Citroën parked in the drive, headlights still on, and I felt my ebullience waning.

  I got out of the water and collected my clothes from the lawn, wrapped myself in a towel, and went inside. Reaching the landing, I was met by Bernard, Jean Luc, and Anaïs standing in the kitchen. Sophie was pouring four cups of tea, cool as a cucumber, leaving me to face their scrutiny without any buffer.

  An
aïs touched two fingers to her neck, and her angry stare flinched toward her mother before settling back onto me. I hope Sophie hid the canvas, I thought, and I strode right up to Anaïs, kissing her unresponsive mouth.

  “Bolt of inspiration, huh?” she said.

  I nodded demonstratively. “It’s been going really well.”

  “I see,” she said, glancing toward her mother. “Let’s have a look.”

  “It’s not ready for criticism. I still need to feel alone with it. Give me another day or two.”

  Jean Luc’s eyes had been boring into me and I refused to look at him. Being nude beneath the towel wasn’t helping the situation, and I took Anaïs’s hand and led her toward the stairs.

  “Come with me,” I said.

  She resisted, tugging behind me. At the stairs I let go of her hand.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “How come you didn’t call to let me know Papa had left?”

  “Didn’t notice. I was busy working.”

  Jean Luc, Bernard, and Sophie were watching from the kitchen.

  “I don’t believe you,” Anaïs said.

  “How am I supposed to know where your parents are? What does it matter, anyway?”

  “Because you know that Maman is desperate for attention.”

  Sophie huffed. “Ooh la la. Don’t drag me into your lover’s quarrel.”

  Jean Luc turned and studied Sophie, quietly assessing her reaction. Was he prying for evidence that she’d taken the game too far, or was he getting off on the idea?

  “But your father’s here,” I said. “I don’t understand why you’re upset.”

  “Don’t play dumb.”

  “Honestly, Anaïs, I’m totally confused.”

  Bernard intervened. “He’s been working, not chasing after your mother, Anaïs. You’ve let your imagination run away.”

  Sophie pursed her lips and nodded. Jean Luc still had his eyes on his wife and he suddenly barked, “Enough. Let’s have a drink and start the dinner.”

  I grabbed Anaïs’s hand and led her to the bedroom.

  sixty-two

  I rubbed her shoulders and head and she had finally calmed down when Jean Luc called from the top of the stairs. He wanted her to help with the dinner. She slid off the bed and pecked me on the cheek. “I have to,” she said, tucking into tight jeans and a blouse before hastening out the door.

  I waited a few seconds and then went upstairs to check on the canvas and figure out where to hide it. Anaïs still didn’t know that her mother was part of the portrait and revealing that now would be quintessentially bad timing. I also needed to choose a few sketches to justify my bolt of inspiration in case she insisted on seeing something.

  The canvas wasn’t in the studio, only the easel, and it wasn’t anywhere I looked on the fourth floor. Had Sophie confiscated it, the shame too much to ever face again? Once more, I had to acknowledge that she could effectively destroy the double portrait with one word to Anaïs. I rushed, as quietly as possible, down to the second floor. When I reached the landing, I could hear Jean Luc and Anaïs in the kitchen. I tiptoed along the hall to Sophie’s bedroom. I knocked quietly and she opened the door.

  “Where’s the canvas?”

  “In the stall.”

  “Thank you . . .” I took her hand, held it, trying to convey everything with the gesture, even pleading for her to stay on my side. “Are you coming down?”

  “Why? They only want each other. Not us. I’m tired of always having to serve him,” she went on. “Look at how crazy it makes our lives.”

  Nodding sympathetically, I felt that ripple of anxiety again. The web ran wide and deep; all alliances were tenuous, easily swayed from one look or comment to the next. Who knew how long ours would hold?

  “I better go down there so she doesn’t get suspicious,” I said, forcing myself to kiss her cheek, before attending to Anaïs, my lover and primary concern.

  sixty-three

  Jean Luc was opening a second bottle of wine when I entered the kitchen. Anaïs was reporting on her presentation to him and Bernard, which I realized I’d forgotten to ask about. Listening, I learned that she’d received a high mark and that the professor was going to recommend her for the coveted internship at a respected engineering firm in Paris.

  “Bravo. This calls for champagne,” Jean Luc cheered. “But we have none so I’ll open a bottle of the best whiskey.”

  He rummaged in the pantry, the sound of another—perhaps hidden—compartment opening and then closing, and returned with a pint of whiskey. He poured four shots and handed them to us and we all clinked.

  Bernard gulped his down and said he had to go. He glanced at his brother and pointed at his wristwatch, and Jean Luc nodded. What was that about? I wondered. Then Bernard kissed Anaïs and congratulated her again. I walked with him to the landing and was about to mention the money when he said, “I’ve got good news. Come by in the morning and we’ll settle up.”

  “Parfait,” I said, and I thanked him, and as he went out the entrance door, Sophie descended into the kitchen.

  By the time dinner was served, we’d drunk the second bottle of wine and half the whiskey. Sophie and Jean Luc were quite drunk. The steak was overcooked and the sautéed vegetables were limp. Jean Luc asked the women if they liked the food and they gushed with compliments. When he criticized the steak, they argued that he was better than any chef in France. Jean Luc turned to Anaïs, said something about a new tennis racket he’d tried, and Sophie rolled her eyes, cheeks and mouth rigid, and I saw a shadow of hatred in her face that gave me the chills.

  “I’ll be gone tomorrow,” Jean Luc announced, “but when I get back I’m going to take my girls for a big fall shopping spree in Paris. No limits. Anything you want.”

  Sophie looked over at me and tilted her head toward Jean Luc, letting her face fall, eyelids droop—he’s such a blowhard—and in my periphery, I saw Jean Luc watching our exchange. Feigning that I hadn’t noticed Sophie’s look, I deftly cast my eyes at Anaïs. She was describing some shops she wanted to go to, and from the corner of my eye, I saw Jean Luc turn and stare bitterly at his plate of half-eaten meat.

  “It’s not enough to have my daughter,” he muttered, teeth gnashing.

  I pretended not to hear him, hoping he’d blown off some steam and, drunk, would move on to something else.

  “You want it all,” he said, eyes finding me across the table.

  Again I pretended not to hear him, forcing my attention on Anaïs, who was telling her mother about a shop called Chloé.

  “You want my wife and my daughter for your paintings,” he said loudly, and Anaïs stopped talking. “They would make you famous.”

  I gave him a look of confusion. “I think Anaïs has taken care of that. They love her portraits back home.”

  “Why don’t you show us what you’ve been working on?”

  “Like I said, it’s not quite ready.”

  He looked at Anaïs and said, “He’s doing a portrait of Maman.”

  Anaïs’s face turned to plaster. White and lifeless. The tangled web of deception was about to unravel. I had to put a spin on it.

  “Oh, you mean the portrait of Sophie you’ve been nagging me to do?”

  “Boof,” he groused. “You’ve been drawing her naked for weeks behind Anaïs’s back.”

  “And you’ve been offering me money to do it, threatening to throw me out if I didn’t.”

  “Don’t deny it, Jean Luc,” Sophie cut in. “You’ve been pressuring me too.”

  “Putain,” he barked at her, enraged by her corroboration, and he picked up his glass and sloshed his wine at her. It missed and landed on the table. “You lust after him right in front of me. You meet with him in secret. You call him to the château when I’m gone.”

  “No, Jean Luc,” she retaliated. “You ask me to do these things so you won’t be impotent.” She looked at Anaïs. “It stimulates him. I’m his wife so I’m obligated to make him feel like a man, no? But I’v
e only gone as far as flirting.”

  “Bullshit,” he said, standing, banging the table with his legs. “I’m going to find the drawings you flaunted at me.”

  Fearing he knew where they were and that he would bring down the nudes, I jumped in: “But that was the deal we made so you wouldn’t kick me out,” I said. “I would only do a few drawings for you, that was all.”

  “I want to see them,” Anaïs said, and we all turned and looked at her.

  Everything slowed down. I slipped inside a cocoon, where preserving the canvas was the only thing that mattered. I would do or say anything to protect it.

  “I’ll go get them,” I said.

  With a steady hand, I plucked five drawings of Sophie, no longer needed, from the old trunk and then gathered the remaining ones, the nudes, and hid them on a perch outside the bathroom window, to one side, out of view. I’d discard them later, throw them in the river, burn them.

  When I returned to the kitchen, Jean Luc was standing, unsteadily, with his hands on his hips, a severe expression on his face. Anaïs was chewing her fingernails. Sophie was sitting in her chair, her pointer finger sliding back and forth along the inside of her necklace.

  “Here they are,” I said, and I laid them on the table, stepping back to give her space.

  Apprehensively, Anaïs approached. The top one depicted Sophie in the second position, feet turned out, heels shoulder-distance apart. Anaïs pushed that one aside and studied the next sketch and then the next. They were innocent enough but her eyes slashed across the room, landing on me. She shook her head.

  “Anaïs,” I implored. “They . . .”

  I felt Sophie’s knifing gaze and glanced at her. She dipped her head toward Jean Luc: focus the blame on him; he deserves it.

  “They were for your father. You know there’s no denying him. I had to do it or he said he’d kick me out.”

  “It’s true,” Sophie said. “He threatened both of us. He’d take a lover if I didn’t turn him on.” She thrust her chin at the drawings. “This turns him on.”

 
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