French girl with mother, p.4
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       French Girl with Mother, p.4

           Norman Ollestad
 
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  “It hit me hard,” I said with my eyes on the floor. “I couldn’t understand. He’d mentioned that his last two books went unpublished but I’d joked that compared to me, only selling a few drawings for next to nothing, at least he’d tasted success. He got up close like he always did when he wanted to make a point. You start over each time, he told me. The struggle is never ending. If it gets easy, then you know you’ve run out of things to say. Then he repeated something he’d told me a few weeks before. Too much college and not enough life.”

  Repeating his words made me smile now.

  “I wasn’t able to sleep for days,” I said, and I stirred the pasta. “I kept turning it over in my head: Wes standing on the edge of the roof, deciding to jump. I kept envisioning him hitting the pavement. It felt, well, soothing. And it stayed with me, that feeling of never being rejected again. And I knew I had to get away.”

  Perched on the counter, Anaïs made a deep sound that rumbled in her throat, and I looked up. Her cheeks had a scarlet sheen, eyes moist, roaming my face as if buzzing from the experience I’d shared. It was difficult to look at her for more than a second, she was so moved, but maybe I just couldn’t bear to see my pain reflected back at me. And it was all mixed up with the anguish I’d felt when my grandfather had died, my favorite person in the world.

  Anaïs rocked forward and pressed her lips against my forehead. The sensation spread down my body, joints and sinew plying open, her warmth burrowing in. She combed my hair with her fingertips. I closed my eyes and leaned into her.

  “Maybe I can help you,” she whispered, kissing the top of my head. “Tell me what you need.”

  “Just be you. It’s already working.”

  I caressed her long arms, wanted to taste the skin along her neck. But intuition told me to move slowly. The tension, the way we circled each other, probing, felt similar to making quick studies when building toward the fully realized image, and I wanted to take my time finding her. There was also the sneaking suspicion that she might be testing me to see if I would crumble like all the others had. Be careful. There’s so much more.

  “The pasta is ready,” I said.

  She ran her palm under my shirt along my shoulder.

  “Okay, that’s enough, huh?” she said playfully. “Let’s eat.”

  ten

  We said good night outside my bedroom and then she walked to her room at the end of the hall, leaving the door ajar. I got under the covers and turned off the lamp and tried to fall asleep.

  Her soft caress and the warmth and plumpness of her lips against my scalp were still alive. Naked by the river, she was a great subject whose mystique I just wanted to capture on paper. But alone in the dark now, I craved her touch and felt a shiver of wanting more. You’re a game to her. A distraction. Don’t forget that. You need to get under her skin but must be careful about how much she gets under yours.

  I dreamt of being in Grandfather’s boat in a storm, huddled to one side so that it wouldn’t capsize from the swells. When the storm clears, he said, the fish will come out, a real bonanza . . .

  I woke up late. Golden light drew me to the window. The autumn forest—oaks, beeches, pines, junipers, growing out of beds of tall grass—produced a mostly green leaf, with the moss-colored river wending through.

  I stepped into the hall. Through the open door at the far end, I saw Anaïs’s duffle bag. As I got closer, sunlight gently streamed through the windows on all three sides of the large room, washing over the low, empty bed. A good place to work.

  I passed through the kitchen, the same as we’d left it last night, down the stairs and out the entrance doorway. Ten paces across the clay drive and onto the small footbridge. It arched over the channel of water that split from the river and went under the château. The bridge delivered me onto a wooden deck that hovered inches above the river. There was a textbook off to the side, and in line with the deck was a submerged levee that ran the width of the river, fifty feet to the far bank. The water bent like a sheet of aluminum over the levee, cascaded for a few feet, and crashed with an incessant gravel-churning noise.

  The forest grew over the edges of the river and as I followed it upstream, it looked like a swamp or bayou in some stretches. Farther up, where the river bent sharply, the forest was like a curtain, closing off the water behind it.

  Floating on her back, Anaïs came around the curtain. I watched her body drift to within three feet of the levee before she flipped over.

  As though she expected me to be standing there, she called, “Bonjour. As-tu fait de beaux rêves?”

  “Can’t remember them but I’m sure they were good. You?”

  A look of ennui was her response.

  Water drained off her skin as she lifted herself onto the sun-warmed wood and sprawled, nude, next to my feet.

  “I’ll be right back,” I said.

  She was lying on her back, reading her textbook, when I returned with my pad and pencil. Her heels hung just over the edge, almost touching the water, and her black bush stood above her oval stomach, a glossy sheen of ebony amid the ubiquitous sunlight. She didn’t groom herself like any of the women I’d ever been with, and I wondered if it was some kind of statement or just a French thing.

  I started with the hip flexors, stretching from her lower abdomen, long and defined, emphasizing her undernourished thighs—flat, dull lines. Richer were the two dishes between her pelvic bones and black thicket, and her slender ankles giving way to large feet, and the space beneath her low back, swayed, and the girth of her small breasts held in their width not in their height, juxtaposed to the thick, square nipples.

  She looked over her forehead to find me, setting down her book. Her eyes were cinnamon hued in this light, playing off the caramel pigment of her skin. I wished I had some paint, envisioning a plane of syrup browns punctuated by black strands of hair over her cheeks and the black bush coming alive between her legs. Searching for a more extreme angle, I moved to the edge of the deck and lowered my legs into the river.

  Drawing her from this low, ground-level perspective accentuated the thriving bush with her torso like a sunken valley until her ripe mouth appeared, and within minutes they became a wonderful paradox to the melancholy I discovered in her face. Her eyelids sank and she rolled her head to one side. She reached that arm up and over her head, shoved her nose into her armpit, and inhaled.

  The pencil was down to a nub. My nails were scratching against the paper.

  Her other hand appeared, sliding over her thigh and down into the tangle of black hair. I prayed the lead would last. Her fingers curled into the hair, burrowing, and I took down the arm disappearing into the dark void. She inhaled vigorously, sucking up the scent of her armpit, and I sketched that essential image, while waiting for her sex to open up and reveal its color and design. The knees slowly widened. The hand between her legs untangled from the bush. The middle finger prominent.

  And then she flipped me off.

  Laughing, she rolled over, thighs shut, giggling into the crux of her elbow.

  I’d failed to get the hand flipping me off. Seduced by the moment. Yes, I could put the finger in later, but it wouldn’t be the same. Regardless, I’d pierced a layer and now I needed a sheltered space where I could further investigate, delve into that battle between what her hand or eye really looked like and what I would impose upon it, informed by our evolving relationship. If the first stages proved to be absorbing, I’d have to convince Anaïs to reenact this moment, perhaps for hours or days, in order to execute the piece.

  “Merci beaucoup,” I told her as I climbed out of the river. “You’re amazing. I’m blown away.”

  She stopped laughing and leveled her eyes at me.

  “Are you hungry?” I said. “I can make us something for lunch.”

  “Why don’t you try to touch me?”

  It took me by surprise and I stuttered for a moment. “Is that what you want?”

  “How can I know unless you try?”

  I k
neeled next to her. “This . . . what we’re doing . . . feels like an important part of the process. Do you know what I mean?”

  She scoffed, jumped to her feet, and walked away.

  eleven

  When the lunch was ready, I brought a bowl of pasta with large shavings of Parmesan to her room. She was lying across the bed, unclothed, head and shoulders hanging over the edge, two large textbooks and her iPad open on the floor. Setting the food just inside the doorway, I backed out.

  “Don’t worry,” she sniped, her eyes never leaving her books, “I’m not going to attack you.”

  “I was worried I might attack you.”

  Her head swung around and her eyes were mean and narrow, while her slightly open mouth seemed to dare me to come and get her. Stay disciplined, I warned myself. Touching her might change everything. Might even make you obsolete. Besides, the second you try to kiss her, she’ll probably spurn you.

  She shook her head derisively and returned to her books.

  “Any chance you would sit for me later?”

  “If I’m not too tired,” she said. “I’m working on a big school project.”

  “Okay,” I said, and I left.

  Before searching for a space in the house to work on the girl-flipping-me-off drawing, I went outside for fresh air. As a rearguard against rushing back upstairs and into her bed, I dove into the river and swam hard against the current.

  Anaïs had mentioned swimming to her uncle Bernard’s house, after the bridge and around the long bend. I saw the bridge ahead, a plain concrete structure, and the next time I looked up I was under it. Coming out of the curve, the undertow stronger here, I glimpsed a manicured lawn in my periphery.

  Abutting the river, the lawn was a rolling ocean of green stretching for a hundred yards, dotted with bronze and marble statues, until Bernard’s château rose up like a tidal wave, twice the size of Anaïs’s. She’d told me that the brothers had inherited the châteaus from their parents and I wondered if Bernard got the bigger pad because he was the oldest, or if there was another reason.

  The two bronze statues looked like Rodins, and they held me in awe. Their human forms, cutting bold shapes in the air, might be helpful, and I wanted to take a closer look. I pulled my body onto the bank. As I was getting to my feet, a guttural noise raked over the sound of the river.

  A black Doberman with a tan patch down its long chest was sprinting from the house. He galloped over the grass, muzzle frothing, chewing at the air. I jumped off the bank, paddling fast, and glanced back to see if the Doberman would follow me in. His fangs flashed and he pranced at the edge of the river. Moving along the bank, shadowing me, he sniffed up my scent, dark wet eyes fixed on me, until I went around the long bend.

  I let out a heavy sigh, along with the visions of the dog tearing me to pieces in front of the Rodins, and then turned my attention downriver.

  There was a car, an old boxy faded-navy Range Rover parked on the side of the bridge, and a man came out of the car and leaned over the railing, watching me. I went under the bridge. When I came out the other side, I heard someone call my name, and I looked up at the bridge. I saw the man again. He was waving down at me. He wore a straw hat and a high-end field shirt for serious trailblazers that seemed over the top. Instinctively I turned away, as he was too lean and fair to be Anaïs’s uncle, Bernard. When I peeked up again, he was turning and walking toward his car.

  The current was sweeping me downriver and I wanted to get out and confront the guy. Who the hell are you? But as I went around the sharp bend, I figured he’d probably just mistaken me for someone else, realized it, and left. Or he was speaking French and it only sounded like my name. I mean, no one in the world knew I was here.

  twelve

  The village market was surprisingly well-stocked, and I bought some arugula and romaine to make a salad, and eggs, cheese, and tomatoes for breakfast. It wasn’t easy to part with my dwindling euros but I felt like I had to contribute something.

  The butcher was closed between two and three o’clock, so I circled the village. The buildings, sidewalks, and roads were all made of beige- and sand-colored limestone, an Impressionist dream. I heard the purring croak of doves and found them circling a white-stone tower. It must have been from the twelfth or thirteenth century and the white doves disappeared against the white stone and reappeared when they intersected with the blue sky. I crossed to the middle of an arched, cobbled bridge and leaned against the parapet, watching the lazy river. The colors, the silence, the verdant forest slowed everything down, and I thought of the empty château and Anaïs, what potent, conducive ingredients for making art. That didn’t mean it was going to be easy. But I’d gotten lucky and I knew it.

  In the kitchen, I prepared the marinade for tonight’s steak and debated whether or not to go upstairs and see if she’d be willing to work now. No. She’s focused on her studies and I have to respect that.

  While mixing mustard into the dressing for the salad, I heard her come down the stairs. She appeared, sans bikini top, and when she saw the food on the counter she said, “I’m sorry but I’m eating with Bernard tonight. A business dinner.”

  “Bummer. Well, I can make steak sandwiches for lunch tomorrow.”

  “It smells delicious . . .”

  She approached me and stood on her toes, kissing one cheek and then the other, her nipples feathering across my chest. She put her hand on my shoulder for balance, fingers smelling faintly pungent, sea salty, and I wondered if she’d been masturbating upstairs on the bed. She pulled back from my cheek, almost nose to nose, her Egyptian eyes resting on me like a curled-up cat.

  “You’re really a great surprise,” she said, and she sauntered toward the entrance stairs.

  I pondered the two dimples at the top of her ass and tried to fight back with, “Can we work first thing in the morning?”

  “I think so,” she said, heading down the stairs, presumably for an afternoon dip.

  thirteen

  Tossing and turning, I spent most of the night thinking about her, skin toasted brick-brown in the sun, the smell of her sex, and tried to rein in my impulses. With early morning mists rising off the river, I got out of bed and walked down the hall and into her room.

  When I sat on the bed, she opened the sheet, as if anticipating my arrival. I slipped under, she turned onto her side and I spooned her, wrapping my arms around her, my hard cock smashed between our bodies.

  I kissed her neck, so supple my lips seemed to bleed through to her muscle, and she scooted away.

  “Let’s work,” she told me, “like you said we should.”

  Pulling the sheet with her, she got out of bed and stared at my body. She stood there, wrapped in that white sheet, and smiled at my desire for her. Was she letting me know what it felt like to be on the other side, the observed model, the one in waiting? Nevertheless, I ached for her and it razed every last thought down to flesh, her flesh. I sat up, slid off the bed, approaching her.

  “I better get your materials for you,” she quipped, and she strode out of the room.

  She wasn’t in the mood to pose on the deck where I’d planned to pick up the thread of yesterday’s promising image. As a compromise, I drew her in the window. Bed-headed hair, sleep-encrusted eyes, louche against the stone wall, sexy. But I could see now that was just her cover, banal and unoriginal—all she would give me this morning—and I prayed our alchemy hadn’t been tainted by my foray into her bed.

  Later, while I made omelets on the stove, she sat at the table in her bikini, absent, texting away, and I speculated whether I’d overreached or had simply given in too easily like the others. I flipped the omelets, watching how engrossed she was with whatever was on her phone. On the one hand she was an open book, I grappled, while on the other, even simultaneously, she remained unpredictable and elusive. How to catch that in a painting?

  “Bernard would like to see your work,” she said out of the blue, her thumbs punching the keys.

  “Well, I hav
e to make something first,” I said pointedly.

  She cast her eyes at me. “Oui.”

  “Then let’s get to work after breakfast.”

  “This morning wasn’t good?”

  “No, it wasn’t.”

  She smiled with recognition, it seemed, for my honesty.

  “Is he a collector?” I asked.

  “Oui.”

  I made our plates and brought them to the table. Two chive, chopped-tomato, mozzarella omelets. She tasted hers and made a pleasant noise.

  “Are those Rodins on his lawn?”

  “One,” she said, finally putting her phone down. “The other bronze is a Camille Claudel.”

  “That’s impressive.”

  “They come and go, depending on business. He’s had his ups and downs, but he always finds a way to survive.”

  “Is there stuff inside the house too?”

  “Paintings. Most he doesn’t own. It’s of course a great place to display the work he wishes to sell.”

  “Right. The kinds of people buying that stuff probably have châteaus too.”

  She’d already wolfed down the entire omelet and now she said, “Thank you,” and stood. “I’ll be lying out on the deck.”

  I finished eating and rinsed the dishes. When I walked over the footbridge, I saw her lying on her side, facing the river. Attempting to focus on the portrait, I glanced at the sketches in my hand as a wave of desire swept me onto the deck. I’d already been burned once this morning for making the wrong move, so I dropped my materials and jumped in the river.

  Gravitating to the bottom where it was colder, I clung to the silt until I was shivering, the desire sterilized, and then floated to the top. When I surfaced, the deck was empty, no sign of her. I pulled myself out of the water and was met by the sound of a loud engine, piercing the churning fall. A red Ferrari came to a stop by the entrance door.

  fourteen

  A young man slid out of the Ferrari. He wore a navy blazer over a white collared shirt, tapered wool pants, and Italian leather shoes—the classic bourgeois Parisian. He had longish wavy brown hair, parted neatly on one side, and I recognized him as the guy Anaïs had been arguing with in the narrow passageway in Paris.

 
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