French girl with mother, p.6
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       French Girl with Mother, p.6

           Norman Ollestad
 
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  The following afternoon, I finished the drawing—the vulnerable eyes contradicted by her flipping me off—and it was the most compelling work I’d ever done.

  Before the paint was dry I took a photograph of it with Anaïs’s phone. I still hadn’t gotten a new card. I sent the photo to Janet, with a message explaining who it was.

  eighteen

  I contemplated a second drawing, inspired by images of Anaïs floating down the river. While I let the idea marinate, Anaïs doodled away on her iPad, mapping out her school project. It was a small structure, “a love nest,” she called it, which would theoretically stand in the middle of the river. Her class wouldn’t meet until the end of the fall term when they’d each make their presentation. Every year, her professor chose three students as candidates to be considered for a summer internship at one of the biggest firms in Paris. “It’s something I want,” she said firmly.

  Soon she had worked through the basic mechanics, pages upon pages of formulas, scratched out on graph paper and sometimes on her iPad. I enjoyed watching her lose herself in that abstract realm, so far out of my reach.

  The next morning, I started on the second drawing. Rendering her in water was difficult and I pushed her hard. In the drawing, her black pubic hair was again prominent, a kind of symbol of her vitality and femininity and her kinship to the forest, with her body bleeding into the water. Something about the way she clutched her hand over her eyes, though, the elbow bent toward the sky, fending something off, was what made the picture resonate. I realized that in the past, before she was in my life, I would have minimized the hand over the face, the taut, bent elbow, perhaps even dismissed it altogether.

  I brought her into the room and showed her the new piece. She studied the portrait for no more than ten seconds and said, “It’s time to show Bernard.”

  “You think it’s good enough?”

  She nodded emphatically.

  “I owe it to you, Anaïs. Everything you’ve helped me see.”

  She took my hand. “I love this about you,” she said with a slight smirk. “Not too greedy.”

  But, still, I was greedy. Greedy for her affection and validation, and concurrently for anything she could give me to make my work ascend; and this was how she was telling me that it was okay.

  nineteen

  Standing with her back to us, Anaïs turned around, the corners of the drawing hanging from her fingers. With the ceiling shades open, ambient sunlight wafted down through glass panels, canted toward the north, Bernard had explained, so that it only caught indirect light, which now illuminated the portrait I’d made of her floating down the river. The viewing room, a sort of atrium, used to be part of the living room. Bernard had built a rock-and-mortar wall, opened and lofted the ceiling, and painted everything but the sandstone floor white, turning the back third of the space into a gallery. It was embarrassing to see my work next to a Bartoli, Dequene, and Genis—the Small Masters.

  Bernard pressed his calloused fingers over his eyelids, pulling at them, before blinking and approaching the portrait. The Doberman was at his side and hadn’t paid any attention to me when I’d arrived with Anaïs, licking her and squealing for her affection.

  Now Bernard edged up within millimeters of the drawing. He turned his head so that his ear was parallel with his shoulder, following the line where her body met and sometimes melted into the water. He took three deliberate steps backward and studied the portrait from there.

  “Who represents you?” he said, taking another step back, squinting at the drawing as if uncertain.

  “No one at the moment,” I said.

  He looked back at me in surprise.

  I shook my head. He returned to the portrait and his shoulders slumped.

  Here comes the bad news, I braced.

  “Wine or tea?” he said, moving toward the kitchen, the Doberman trailing him.

  Anaïs and I followed him under an archway, crossing into a fully loaded commercial kitchen. Large stoves and ovens and heavy-duty cupboards with dozens of pots and pans ranging every size. As if to mock all the pyrotechnics, he flipped on a small electric kettle for the tea.

  “I’m going to open a bottle of wine,” he said, moving toward the back of the kitchen. He stopped in front of a cast-iron gate and the Doberman circled around him while he rummaged a key from his pocket. He unlocked the gate, vanishing down a stairwell that I assumed led to the cellar, but the Doberman didn’t follow; instead he sat on his haunches in the middle of the doorway, blocking entrance.

  “He’s more serious about his wine than his paintings,” I said to Anaïs.

  “It’s a statement.”

  She pulled a tea bag from a drawer, a mug from a hook, poured in the hot water, and steeped the bag in it.

  “He was a very good painter like you,” she said, “but never recognized.”

  I groaned with empathy.

  “Yes, it drove him mad. Now he has tremors so he can’t really paint, which I believe is a kind of relief for him.”

  “What are tremors?”

  “In the hands. They shake if he tries to hold something steady.”

  “I didn’t notice.”

  The iron gate clanged and Bernard appeared, held up a bottle. “Let’s celebrate your fine work.”

  After he poured two glasses, during which I took notice of his trembling fingers, Anaïs lifted her tea mug and we all clinked.

  “Unfortunately,” he said, “I only sell old stuff; otherwise I would makes some calls about your work. They won’t listen to me if it isn’t from the dead.”

  “I’m just grateful that you like it.”

  “This is a good attitude.” He took a long swill. “It’s quite risky for an American to draw like Schiele, no?”

  I nodded. “Been called lewd, sexist, even misogynistic.”

  “Ces connards,” he called out like a bear roused from his cave. “But if I sign it Hockney or Saville then they would swoon with accolades.”

  “Of course,” I said, wanting to wrap an arm around his shoulder.

  “Yes, the artist must be good,” he told me. “But at the top, who gets in and who’s left out, well, that’s up to the devil.” Bernard brushed away the grey hair above his forehead. “See the horn growing?” he said, laughing. “It’s from doing business with him for too many years.”

  “At least you’re doing business,” I said.

  He lifted his wine glass. “I’ll drink to that . . .” He took a healthy sip. “You’ve been at this for how long?” he asked.

  “Since I was a kid, really . . .”

  “Who got you into it?”

  “My grandparents. They took me to an Andrew Wyeth retrospective when I was eight or nine, probably because I was always doodling, and my parents wouldn’t really notice or appreciate something like that. So I blame my grandparents for leading me down this road.” I smiled to belie any lack of gratitude.

  “Wyeth was severely out of fashion back then,” Bernard said. “I remember the critics lambasting him for doing those paintings of some woman in secret . . .”

  “The Helga paintings,” I chimed in. “He met her when she was the nurse for a dying friend who lived on a farm close by.”

  “I recall that even Wyeth’s wife didn’t know about their secret sessions that lasted twenty years . . .”

  “Twenty years?” Anaïs exclaimed.

  “Unbelievable . . .” I said, “His wife, who ran the business end of things, seemed remarkably understanding though. She said that his work with Helga was ‘the well’ to which he repeatedly went for the visual and emotional power he needed for his other, public work. Wyeth never let anyone watch him paint. I don’t want to be conscious of myself, he said in some interview.”

  “Did you try to imitate Wyeth after you saw the show?” Bernard asked rhetorically, one artist to another.

  I flashed him a knowing look. “Then I moved on to the usual suspects. The only one that threw everyone off was my Schiele phase. Still, it got me int
o CalArts.”

  Bernard rested his big bear paw on the top of my head, his fingertips flinching before he lifted it off. “Our paths are not so different. But,” he raised his pointer finger, “you’re young and you’ve struck on some very good fortune.” He steered his eyes across his nose over to Anaïs.

  She made a face, playing what I guessed was the French gangster, leaning back with her elbows on the countertop, mugging it up, more anachronistic and therefore farcical than it needed to be, a facet of French humor that I never fully connected with. It was nevertheless endearing and I laughed.

  “What are you working on now?” Bernard said.

  “Well, my gut tells me there’s another level or two to what I’m doing. What that means I’m not sure. I’m searching. But I feel that it’s just around the bend, you know.”

  “This is exactly what I felt when I was in the cellar getting the wine, thinking about the portrait. There’s something waiting to happen. One more step and voilà.”

  A quick gaze like a parent to his prodigal son and then he poured the last of the wine. Anaïs snuggled closer, the two of them sandwiching me, the man of the moment, and we talked about the history of Grez-sur-Loing where many of the well-known Impressionists had come to paint. It led to stories of his brother and him hunting in the surrounding forest and fishing the once-trout-filled river.

  “It’s a little paradise,” I said.

  “Yes, that’s why I’ve never left.”

  twenty

  The next day, boosted by Bernard’s vote of confidence, I worked hard, making dozens of sketches, harboring the secret hope that he might eventually show my work to some of his clients.

  Anaïs posed for me, relaxed and easy in her body language; even her skin appeared smoother, expressions more supplicant. We held hands at every opportunity, moving from the willow tree to the stables, from the stables to one of the big windows in the house, and then curled up together for a nap in a hammock slung between two trees at the river’s edge.

  Clouds moved in and the evening descended with drops of rain, a hint of fall. We ambled hand in hand across the lower lawns and up the back stairs entering through the back patio. In the kitchen, Anaïs closed the window against “the fucking grey,” but I loved the change. “It was fresh,” I argued. Just like the change in me, now that I was beginning to believe in myself again.

  She didn’t eat anything at dinner and I asked her what was wrong. She rested her eyes on me, as if that was enough of an answer.

  “Tell me,” I said.

  “When it’s grey like this, and I have something to lose, it makes me crazy.”

  “What do you have to lose?”

  Ever so faintly I discerned a sour taste in her mouth as she stared at me with an implied superiority that I didn’t like. I sighed, letting her know that there was an easier, more direct way to get to the bottom of whatever was wrong. But that wasn’t how she worked.

  She stood, her face pulled into a grimace, and marched up the stairs.

  Am I supposed to go after her, or does she want to be alone? I wasn’t sure. Even if I chased her down, what would I say when I got there? Her sudden mood swing, followed by her abrupt departure, was an unsustainable way to communicate, much less resolve our differences, and I didn’t want to yield to it.

  Taking my time, I hand-washed the pots and pans, the dishes and utensils, and I towel-dried them and put them away. Rain beat on the stone windowsill and I saw the dark outline of the willow tree swinging in the wind. I’d light a candle for her and we’d talk and then make love sheltered from the storm.

  The third-floor-hallway lightbulb was out. I fumbled between the walls until I found the bathroom and switched on that light. A white rectangle fell into the hallway and I made my way toward the dark room on the end. Easing onto the bed, I felt her body, curled into a ball. Folding around her, I whispered in her ear. “Talk to me. I want to know what’s bothering you.”

  She didn’t respond. I didn’t let go. After a while, her skin turned cold and her body had become no less rigid. I faulted myself for not leaving her alone, for pestering her. I stepped out of the room and into the hall, looking for another bed.

  A hard object struck the back of my head. An acute throbbing in my skull. I turned, glimpsing the cell phone Anaïs had hurled at me on the floor.

  “Where is this violence you promised?” she yelled, standing naked in the hallway. “I thought you would kill for me.”

  “You want violence?” I said, dizzy, feeling the tight knot swelling on my head.

  She spun away as I charged. Grabbing her by the armpit and hair, I lifted her off her feet and dropped her down on the wooden floor. The thud, meat and bone against the wood, startled me for a moment. I’d never grabbed a woman, much less thrown her to the ground.

  “You only want me for your work,” she snarled.

  “That’s not true,” I said, my head aching, her snarl sending a disorienting signal.

  “Why did you leave me?” She thrust her chin at me.

  “I thought you wanted to be alone.”

  “No . . .” You idiot.

  Her body was limp, sprawled across the floor, with one knee jammed against the stone wall, eyes wide and alive. She wanted to be taken. No matter what, she seemed to implore, no matter my mood or mixed signals, you need to cut through all the noise and ground me.

  That easy smile, rare for her to give, washed over her face.

  “Show me that you want me,” she taunted.

  I lowered on top of her and went as deep as I could. She glared at me, vexed, insulted.

  “Make me yours, Nathan.”

  I thrust harder, kissed her ravenously.

  “No,” she said. “Prends-moi le cul . . .” Her Gallic timbre gave it an eloquent ring, but the translation left no doubt about where she wished to be claimed.

  twenty-one

  Afterward, we lay in silence and I craved a hint of gravity, any sort of boundary, something to define us, this new territory.

  “It’s because of spending time in Brittany with my father’s mother,” she offered. “It was always grey and he would leave after a few days. Maman refused to come because Grand-Mère was a real bitch to her. I would be stuck there, alone in her dreary house, with that ugly sky, for weeks.” Her hand tightened into a fist. “That’s why I hate the grey.”

  Piecing together her train of thought, I asked, “It reminds you of being abandoned?”

  “Worse. I can remember what it was like to be unloved.”

  Grey skies and old houses brought back the dark feelings for her. Like those times when I was hit with a wave of sadness just from watching an older man walk across the street or sitting at a bench—Grandfather—but it didn’t make me erupt like it did her.

  Rolling onto my side, I faced her. “Why not just tell me this before it gets out of control between us?”

  “Maybe I need you to see it, to go through it with me a little bit.”

  I recognized how a violent argument with your lover ending in sex could bring you closer together, but here there was something else at work. I felt myself crossing a threshold, where my intimacy with how abandonment must feel for her—the disorientation and loneliness—allowed me to converge with her experience of it. She’d had the courage to take me there, and now I had an empirical understanding of an important part of her. From the outside, we must look crazy, I pondered, but from the inside it felt authentic and vital.

  She rested her palm on my forehead.

  “Thank you for giving me both,” she said. “I know it must be difficult to possess me and to let me be. It’s a rare gift you seem to have.”

  Then she wound herself around me.

  twenty-two

  I lost track of the time. We made love seemingly all night and all day. Had only a few days or more than a week gone by? Somewhere in between, I guessed. We made love in the kitchen, on the wooden deck, the lawn, in the river, the horse stables, and we were both raw, but unable to stop, un
able to resist each other.

  I attempted to work again, culling through the recent sketches in pursuit of stripping down the barrier between the artist and the model, two lovers melding, scraping bones. Unable to grasp it, I revisited the overhead sketches of her on the deck, eyes tracking me, a sweep of caramel and cinnamon and the two islands of black hair. But none of the forms revealed anything original or undiscovered, and I knew something was lost. My faith was kept alive by the sprawl of her attention and uncharted terrain, and the new world I found in its wake—the antithesis of rejection, of failure. No doubt a good drawing would soon materialize.

  Nothing came, and by the end of the week, I was beginning to worry, preoccupied by the fact that Janet hadn’t responded to the photos I’d sent of the two portraits. I tried to keep the anxiety to myself and drank an entire bottle of wine with dinner. Then Anaïs presented a chocolate mousse for dessert.

  “What’s the occasion?”

  “It’s our last night alone. Maman and Papa arrive tomorrow.”

  I forced a smile. She slid the dessert under my nose.

  “Are you upset?” she said.

  “I just wish we had a little more time to ourselves.”

  “That’s why I need you to be strong,” she said, and clutched my wrist. “Like the shepherd in the storm, okay?”

  I didn’t understand what that had to do with her parents’ arrival, but I nodded.

  twenty-three

  After I finished the chocolate mousse, we drank another bottle on the back patio. Loosened up, I let out my frustration about not being able to come up with a new portrait and about not hearing back from Janet.

  “Maybe you need to diversify,” Anaïs said. “So all your eggs aren’t in one basket.”

  Diversify? As in start finding a new career? I gave her a harsh look.

  She was undeterred. “I’ve always wanted to have my own business, something that I could control. And now you have inspired an idea. Bernard is going to help me create a business selling high-quality reproductions of famous paintings.” She reached across and filled my glass. “There’s huge demand for this from major hotel chains, luxury cruise liners, interior-design firms, even the royal family buys this stuff. And I plan to open a shop in Paris.”

 
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