French girl with mother, p.2
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       French Girl with Mother, p.2

           Norman Ollestad
 
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  Leaning my skis against the railing, I hung my pack from the ski bindings and out of habit unearthed my sketchbook, and my graphite and charcoal pencils, and searched for interesting faces.

  There were mostly young lovers on the bridge. Some were attaching yet another lovers’ lock to the mesh, already littered to the brim. The routine of clicking closed the lock and the staged kissing and, worst of all, the compulsion to document it with their phones and immediately upload the photos onto various social websites left me numb. Time after time, I’d watched people stare into their phones instead of at the painting on a museum wall, instead of the tree-lined road, a cloudburst sky, that beggar singing opera on the banks of the Arno, or a tortured beauty alone in a café.

  Setting aside the pencil and sketchbook, I sat down on a bench, opened a jar of peanut butter, and pasted it on a half-rotten banana with my Swiss Army knife. Maybe it was time to go home and try to get my old job back, answering phones at my father’s law firm, so I could save enough money to go back to school. I jabbed the knife into the bench, wiggling it deeper and deeper, as if to kill the idea that I was really, finally, giving up on myself.

  Her hand was the first thing I noticed.

  four

  She was holding a diamond bracelet, tears scudding down her cheek. Instantly, I thought of the girl who’d snapped at me, the stray dog, in the narrow corridor. The guy wasn’t with her, so maybe I was wrong. The breeze off the river carried her scent, sandalwood and tobacco and something else—again, making me think it was the same girl.

  Hip against the railing, she was impervious to the people milling past her, kissing, posing for photos. She turned her head and looked down at the river. Her fingers were shaking, the bracelet quivering in her hand, the other hand gripping a small leather clutch, and suddenly my pencil was scratching over the paper. Capturing the hand, I moved to her neck, exposed as she craned over the railing. I sketched that detail as quickly as I could. My advantage was line.

  You have a natural gift for line, Ruscha had hailed at one of the CalArts exhibits.

  Concentrate on the way her head is turned away from the bracelet while her eyes study the diamonds, and the light on the water behind her, diamonds too, and the teardrop on her upper lip, another diamond.

  Her eye closest to me arched from the bridge of her nose, fanning wide, then tapered to a feather-tip point. I’d represent them like agave leaves. It happened that fast, suddenly I was lost in an idea, the rush of shapes and color, a puzzle unfolding, and I lived for the spell it put me under. But as my hand guided the pencil, it struck me that I was observing her from a fixed distance, no different from how I’d approached the Catja portraits or any of my work—employing the well-established theory of cool objectivity in order to peer through the subject’s mask.

  But won’t that lead to the same result? You need to try something different or you’re never going to break through. This can’t go on forever. Imagine spending the rest of your life looking in the rearview mirror at your lost calling.

  She folded her torso over the railing. The arm with the bracelet stretched toward the river, and through the mesh and locks I saw her fingers open and the bracelet drop out of sight.

  Shit, that looked expensive.

  Body still folded, her eyes appeared through an uncluttered patch in the mesh and set on me. We stared at each other. My hand moved involuntarily over the paper, recording her features, suspended upside-down, chopped and splintered by the mesh and locks.

  Somehow I needed to get closer, under her skin, comprehend what she was going through and touch the emotional streams, without scaring her away.

  She swung herself upright, rocked for a moment, and then came down on her low-heeled ankle-high boots. She looked back over her shoulder at something behind me. I swiveled round—it was my skis.

  The girl had put two and two together and now she remembered me, the dog from the alley. She smirked with clear disdain. Black eyelashes sunken halfway over latte-brown eyes. The nose was roman, masculine, handsome; the mouth small, round, with opulent lips, the proverbial tangled bud—all great fodder for a portrait.

  But it wasn’t enough, not anymore. I needed to mine her depths, not just her surfaces—like Grandfather’s sea.

  “Am I supposed to be flattered?” she said to me in French.

  I put the pencil in my pocket.

  “Pardon,” I said in French. “It was a good moment and I didn’t want to miss it. I’m Nathan.”

  She didn’t offer her name and glanced at the skis again.

  “You don’t care that someone is in pain?” she responded in English—the classic French slight.

  “Of course I do. I was just lost in the moment. I’m sorry.”

  “But you aren’t really sorry.”

  Her eyes were searing, burning right through me, and it tipped me off-balance.

  “No,” I said. “You’re right. I saw a great opportunity and I went for it.”

  She’ll chastise me and stride away.

  Instead she played with her hair, looping a wayward strand over one ear. It was raven black, woven into a French braid. She seemed to be sizing me up. One hand smoothed out her dress, sheer and elegant, falling to just above her knee, fitted yet never hugging any part of her body, and then her eyes roamed across the span of the bridge, impatient, as if I were taking too long to pick up the thread of our conversation. But every response I imagined seemed wrong.

  She stepped toward me, a long gait. You’ll succumb eventually, her strut implied. Alice, my twin sister, flashed through my mind, and I suspected that, like Alice, the French girl was rarely as confident as her beauty made her appear.

  “Can I see it?” She gestured to the sketchpad.

  “They’re just quick studies.”

  She came around and looked over my shoulder. Her eyes skimmed the image, she nodded, and I turned the page.

  “Do you make a living this way?” she said.

  “Not yet.”

  She nodded toward the pad and I flipped the page, and another.

  “You could do well making reproductions.”

  My eyes snapped up at her. Who was she? An artist? A girl who worked in a gallery?

  “It’s a great way to make money to support your own work,” she explained. “These kind of companies pay well.”

  I gathered she meant companies that churned out hand-painted replicas of famous works for people who can’t afford the real thing—in other words, she saw me as a highly skilled hack.

  “That’s not what I’m after,” I said, and I shut the sketchpad.

  She was watching me closely—this man she’d stung with one casual comment—and for a split second her face softened, as if drawn into my torment, and we just looked at each other. The exquisite balance of circles and angles that made up her face, exaggerated enough to have crisp, delineated forms without going overboard, were punctuated by an unruly blaze behind her eyes, an ever-brewing storm.

  “Can I take you for a coffee or a glass of wine?” I said. “It’s the least I can do.”

  My voice seemed to startle her, and I guessed she was still in the throes of her fight or breakup with her boyfriend. I almost reached out and took her hand—but reminded myself that I didn’t know this person and she didn’t know me. That’s not how it felt though.

  Her teeth scraped over her bottom lip, head moving to one side, the beginning of a shake, and then she glanced at the skis and her eyes lit up, as if transported, making me think the skis had accorded me some sort of novelty.

  “Not too far from here there’s a good place,” was all she said.

  I stored the pad and pencils and harnessed the pack. When I grabbed my skis and tilted them onto my shoulder, I gave them a kiss.

  five

  I finally got her name. Anaïs. She was nineteen. Eleven years my junior. We crossed onto the Left Bank side by side. The way she navigated the streets, flowed and blended with the ancient city, its winding paths, cryptic doorways, and
paned windows, blindly running her hand along an iron gate protecting a petit jardin with false chastity, I knew she was a genuine Parisienne. Accordingly, going for a stroll and a drink with a stranger, perhaps a little flirting, was de rigueur, nothing out of the ordinary.

  To her credit, she appeared sincerely curious about what I did all winter in the mountains. I explained in French, forcing myself to practice it as I’d done with German, that I mostly lived in huts scattered between St. Anton, Austria—a small ski village where I rented a room in a basement—and Switzerland, sometimes crossing over into Liechtenstein, a tiny country wedged between. I did drawings of whomever I came across and some landscape stuff and would leave my backcountry safe haven and return to the village only when I needed to earn money and restock supplies. I’d either work on the black—illegally teaching tourists how to ski or guiding them around the immediate backcountry—or make caricature sketches on the street.

  We were interrupted by a man with round wire-rim glasses and a goatee who began shouting at me about the skis. Anaïs shouted back at him and I noticed the veins in her neck as she rifled off some crude obscenities, making him stand on his toes with offense.

  Her message seemed to be: don’t fuck with the American, he’s with me, and I own this town. It was endearing and undeniably sexy.

  “Are we getting close to the café?” I asked after we’d been walking aimlessly for fifteen or twenty minutes.

  Her eyes slanted over at me and I felt her palm on the small of my back.

  “We don’t do things in a straight line,” she said as the tips of her fingers slipped under the waistline of my jeans and lingered at the top of my ass. “We like to take the long way.”

  She studied my face for signs of alarm. I acted indifferent and said, “What happened with that guy I saw you with?”

  She shrugged and her hand strayed inside my jeans. “It’s the same boys for my entire life. They know how to act the right way and say the right thing. It’s like a movie we play a part in. I was trying to shake things up, show him a little truth, you know. But he couldn’t bear it.”

  Moisture percolated in her eyes. She fixed her gaze onto me, something broken, wisps of melancholy, as if she were daring me to stare into it. I tried not to swallow a second time.

  “I was showing him a real part of me . . . in bed . . . but he rejected it. Didn’t want to see it.”

  She looked at me with those glassy eyes and I glimpsed the familiar oblivion of rejection, because no matter how big or small the circumstance, it bore its black hole, and my eyes closed for a brief moment, a show of unity.

  “Of course he deals with this by going to Cartier and doing the same little dance.”

  “That bracelet was Cartier?”

  “Of course. Part of the script.”

  “Still, it wasn’t cheap.”

  “Oui.” She gave my ass a little squeeze. “He has money so it doesn’t mean anything.”

  Clearly, I was the foil. The new distraction. One without money and far removed from her culture. And I warned myself that I was probably being used.

  We came to a street corner and I wasn’t sure which direction she wanted to go. Her nails dug into my ass, guiding me toward Boulevard Saint-Germain, and for a brief moment I wondered if she was somehow dangerous.

  But it didn’t matter. I just wanted to draw her. At least that’s what I told myself. Just pursue the repartee a little further and if it turned out to be a total fantasy, so be it. I had nothing left to lose.

  “Here we are,” she said, lifting her fingers out of my jeans and taking my hand. She led me around the outdoor tables and into the glassed-in part, le milieu, between the inside and the outside sections of Café de Flore.

  A waiter rushed across the interior of the café, shooing me away, pointing at the skis. Anaïs cut him off at the threshold, lashing back with two curt sentences, her palm clutching and twisting in my hand. All the men at the nearby tables grinned, while the women scowled.

  “Oui, mademoiselle,” the waiter said, and he turned on his heel to get the menus.

  One of the onlookers, a bird-faced woman sitting next to a handsome man, sighed with disgust and held Anaïs’s eye.

  “You’ll thank me later, madame,” Anaïs said without lowering her voice, “when he gives you the best sex you’ve had in years.”

  The woman’s eyebrows arched, mouth agape, while Anaïs stood her ground. The light coming through the large glass panels separating the sidewalk from le milieu bathed one side of Anaïs’s face, leaving the other half in grainy shadow, casting her in a half-moon halo—an angel with a sinful tongue. In the end, the woman lowered her eyes and nodded, and when I turned to sit down, the patrons at the nearby tables were beaming with amusement, as if they’d forgiven her vulgarity because she gave so much life.

  I leaned the skis in the corner, hung my pack from the bindings, and sat across from her. She pulled her braid over her shoulder and held it like a rope while she looked at my hands, studying them.

  “You seem a bit sad,” she said, and she looked up at me, as if she’d read it in my hands.

  “I do? I feel really good.” I shot her an appreciative look.

  “Ah, yes, American optimism. It’s even made its way to France.”

  She frowned and dug a cigarette and a lighter out of her clutch, put the lighter on the table and the cigarette between her lips, and looked at me.

  She laughed and handed me the lighter.

  “My bad . . .” I said, putting the flame to the tip. “So you’re not succumbing to American optimism?” I asked rhetorically.

  “Whatever I’m feeling, I’m feeling. I’m not afraid to let it show or to say it.” Then her face beamed with a wide grin. “And it makes the smile so much sweeter when it comes, no?”

  It was infectious and I was smiling too. She certainly caught your eye, made you wonder, and in concert with the geometry of her face, my gut told me she would explode off the paper.

  We drank a good Bordeaux and I sketched her while she told me about her studies. She was a math whiz, working toward a degree in engineering—the only girl in her class. She’d dated two of the boys and even one of her professors. They all turned out to be too weak. Caving in too easily to her. “I need a man,” she told me, “like the shepherd in the storm, you know? Who can withstand my violence.”

  In response, I focused on the structure of her face, transposing it to paper, because if I looked into her eyes instead of at the shape of her eyes, or listened too intently to the thrum of passion in her voice, the way it didn’t try to hide the grief while she talked about her father now—always away on business—I would fall like the others fell, and it would all end too quickly. I needed days with her, not hours.

  I could feel myself wanting to blurt things out, private fears and vulnerabilities, and I guessed that she provoked this reaction in a lot of people.

  As much as you needed to get close, you had to tread lightly. There was no clear line between befriending her for the purpose of the sketches and falling under her spell.

  “How long have you been traveling?” she asked me after ordering a second glass of wine, making me worry how much this little tryst was going to cost me.

  “Three years,” I said, finally putting the sketchpad down.

  “Why?”

  It was an unexpected question. She seemed to know there was a specific reason I’d left.

  “There’s only so much failure one can take. The mountains are much kinder.”

  “Ah, that’s the sadness I see in there. You’re ashamed of being rejected?”

  I nodded. “It’s not something I like to advertise.”

  “So your friends and family don’t accept failure as part of life?”

  “Not really. But it’s not really talked about. You just have to go make it; then you have something to talk about.”

  She put her hand on top of mine. “This is so different, so totally opposite than how we are.”

  I looke
d down at our hands. “I see that . . .”

  She slid the sketchbook off the table and began to leaf through it. I had shipped the other books home to Janet and now I wondered what she’d think of Anaïs. The way she touched me and looked into my eyes so freely, even gratuitously, doing and saying whatever came to her, ironic one moment, highly sensitive the next, she seemed to be many things rolled into one—bold and sweet and vicious.

  “You’re obviously talented,” Anaïs said, looking up from the book. “What’s the problem?”

  “I don’t know. Technically I’m sound. The copies I made of Degas, Wyeth, Van Gogh, to name a few, they blew a lot of minds.” My voice turned low and deep. “But with my own stuff apparently something’s always missing. I just try to get the lines and the mood. A couple simple things. That’s all I’m after.”

  “You want to be classic,” she said.

  “At least rooted there,” I responded.

  The second glass of wine came and I lit another cigarette for her. She narrowed her eyes, as if trying to find me through the fumes.

  “I have an idea, Nathan.”

  six

  I waited in the café for an hour and figured I’d never see Anaïs again. The stroll, the drink, a little connection, and then on to the next, très Parisienne. The waiter kept passing by, hoping I would leave, but she’d said something to him before departing and he wouldn’t dare kick me out. So close yet so far, I lamented. Maybe I could still make something worthwhile from the sketches.

  Sitting alone, waiting, was an open invitation for paranoia and self-doubt to join my table. Like any artist, I just needed a little luck. Even John Currin wallowed until he met his muse, an artist herself, whom he eventually married. She’d immediately awakened his desire to embrace the Old Master techniques that he’d been curious about since studying art at Yale, and duly inspired, he started teaching himself painting methods that had been out of fashion for more than a hundred and fifty years. The rest is history.

  What about Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel? I argued. Before it ended badly, she was his model and lover, equally talented, and he introduced her to the scene in Paris; she returned the favor in spades and helped change the course of his work. They fed off of each other. Challenged each other. They took each other to new heights.

 
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