French girl with mother, p.9
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       French Girl with Mother, p.9

           Norman Ollestad
 
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  What the hell was he planning on doing with a portrait of his wife? He couldn’t let Anaïs see it; she’d know it was mine.

  Picturing Anaïs discovering the portrait, stabbing it with a chair leg or a knife, gave way to that image of mother and daughter in the upstairs room. This time, they turned and looked at me, jockeying for attention, willing to go to any lengths to outshine the other, and the shapes presented themselves more lucidly—a visceral, perhaps decisive painting that had been looming at my fingertips, but always out of reach.

  This could be a blessing in disguise. How else would I ever get an opportunity to work with Sophie and explore the validity of that image? I stepped toward the first flight, then stopped. You’re letting yourself get lured into a highly volatile situation, I warned. You need to pause and think this endeavor through.

  But a soft thud followed by a pitter-patter trickled down from somewhere above, and I felt a spike of adrenaline as more lines appeared in my head.

  Go swimming, I told myself, while climbing to the second floor. Go swimming, I repeated, as I climbed to the third and fourth.

  I peered down the hallway at the room on the end, and a foot rose to the center of the doorway, covered in a ballet slipper. Seconds later, I was knocking on the wooden doorframe.

  “Oui?” I heard Sophie’s voice.

  “It’s Nathan.”

  “Entrez.”

  I stepped inside. She was on the floor, stretched over one leg, holding the toes. She looked at me, waiting for me to declare why I was there.

  “Your husband mentioned doing your portrait.”

  “Ah,” she sighed. “Yes.”

  I waited. She seemed to be thinking it over. “Well,” she said, “let’s get it over with.”

  “I’ll get my stuff.”

  When I returned, Sophie was looking out one of the windows, watching something outside. She turned, waiting for instructions.

  “Would you mind just dancing or whatever you normally do?” I said.

  She shaped herself into what she told me was the classic first position: heels together, legs straight, back perfectly erect, arms hanging, slightly bowed, and hands facing each other with tensed fingers in front of her thighs.

  I took down the lines. Asked her to turn so that the light fell on her a different way. I did some shading and thought about Anaïs. Not particularly intrigued by Sophie, I asked her to try another position.

  By the third position, I worried that she was all style and form. Detecting none of Anaïs’s undercurrents or contradictions, she seemed too polished. Probably good enough for Jean Luc’s portrait, though. Just knock it out and collect your money.

  “What’s wrong?” I heard Sophie’s voice.

  I looked up. “Nothing,” I said, feigning nonchalance.

  I went through the motions of drawing her, while the tedium and disappointment of witnessing a promising idea as it crumbled, literally in my hands, grated on me, and soon I was counting out the days, the weeks now, that I’d gone without discovering anything good.

  “Shall we take a break?” I said, expecting that a swim or a bite of food would rejuvenate me and help me finish off Jean Luc’s assignment.

  In one fluid motion Sophie stepped out of her pose and walked across the room and out the door. I glanced at the sketches, hoping I’d find something previously unseen, but they remained flat. Just pretty pictures.

  When I returned from my swim, she was in the kitchen making lunch, sipping a glass of white wine. I offered to help with the lunch but she shook her head.

  “I’m curious,” I said, “did you really stop dancing because you got pregnant?”

  “Oui. I’d spent my life going after this goal of prima ballerina, and then in five minutes, as long as it took to do the take-home test, I gave it all up.”

  I noticed Sophie’s hand around the wine glass, the tendons along the top like piano strings lifting the skin, thickening to cables along the forearm—slightly grotesque juxtaposed to the small classic features of her face.

  “Please don’t move,” I told her.

  Next to the telephone there was a cup full of pencils and some scratch paper and I used them to get it down. The sketch was a first crack, a blip of hope that she might reveal something deeper.

  “When do you think we’ll get another chance to work?” I asked when I was done.

  “Oh, you’ll see. She’ll be off with Jean Luc every day now. When she gets to have him she uses up every second,” she said. “By the way, I stored your work in a trunk upstairs under blankets.”

  I nodded. “Thank you for sitting for me.”

  With a tart smile she said, “Not for you. For Jean Luc.”

  thirty-one

  Again, I had to rest before facing the lunch.

  When Anaïs came into the room to change, she immediately asked if Maman had tried to flirt with me.

  Looking into her eyes, my neck muscles tightened and my jaw strained to open, releasing a choppy laugh.

  “I heard her cooking down there, that’s all.”

  “I’m surprised,” she said, as if dumbfounded that her sense of the situation could be so off.

  It made my lie seem bigger and now I felt even crappier.

  “I miss working with you,” I said with affection. “You’re my lucky charm.”

  “Not lately . . .”

  “That’s not your fault.”

  She’d taken off her tennis clothes and was stepping into her shorts. “Do you have something you need to say?”

  My hands were clammy all of a sudden. Had Sophie made some sort of suggestive remark to her?

  “No,” I glanced around with incomprehension. “Why?”

  “You seem . . . different . . . preoccupied . . .”

  I shrugged. “I’m in a funk. That’s all.”

  The lunch was dominated by a discussion of the new bakery in the village and whether or not the croissants were as good as the old bakery’s. The instant I caught sight of Sophie, prickles of discomfort went up my chest and I stopped looking in her direction. Then I noticed Jean Luc scrutinizing me and worried that Anaïs would pick up on the underlying vibrations and become suspicious. Although the session with Sophie was a dud, it was already nagging at me, and I took a long pull of wine to calm my nerves.

  Anaïs pushed back her chair and the screech startled me. She got up and went to get the cheese from the fridge. With her back turned, Jean Luc glanced at me, perking his eyebrows, and then at Sophie. Well? he seemed to ask.

  I remained stone-faced and waited for Sophie to respond. She nodded and one of his cheeks dimpled with satisfaction. What the hell was going on? It still didn’t make sense.

  After lunch, I couldn’t wait to go outside and be alone with Anaïs, away from her parents, as if drawing her would help cleanse me of my deception and the dreamlike strangeness of whatever it was that I’d allowed myself to get mixed up in. Drawing her lounging on the deck, I kept dropping my pencil and screwing up her contours. Back and forth, I debated whether I was betraying her trust or simply doing what Jean Luc was forcing me to do. My pangs of conscience wouldn’t shut up and I cut the session short.

  “I’ve got too many ideas racing through my head right now,” I told her. “I should probably just spend a few days figuring it out.”

  “So I have lost my charm,” she said as I gathered the materials.

  “No, no. It’s going to be over in a few days.”

  “What’s going to be over?” she asked with suspicion.

  “My block.”

  That night, for the first time since we’d consummated our relationship, we failed to make love.

  thirty-two

  When she left in the morning with her father, I decided that I’d do only one more session with Sophie, finish up quickly, and hand over the portrait to Jean Luc by the following day. If he didn’t like it, he wouldn’t have to pay me—better than living in duplicity. I didn’t have the nerve for it, or so I thought.

  When I
entered the studio Sophie was warming up, wearing a black leotard and pale rose tights. Without a word to each other, I set up and started taking down her lines. She moved in a mesmerizing flow and I captured her in pieces, working fast, and after about twenty minutes, I had enough to make a portrait for Jean Luc.

  “Are you getting what you need?” I heard her ask.

  I looked up. Her head was dipped toward me, a mien of genuine interest.

  “He’ll like them,” I said.

  Her mouth puckered, eyebrows flinching, as if mildly offended.

  “I’ll have something by tomorrow,” I added, gathering up my materials and moving them closer to the back window where the light was better now. I’d pick out a couple suitable sketches and get right to work on the portrait. As I set my stuff down, a noise, fabric ruffling and snapping, got my attention. I turned around.

  She was peeling off her leotard and tights. Her skin was almost ivory and it caught the light well, standing out against the backdrop of stones. She set her feet wider than her shoulders, squatting until her thighs were parallel with the floor. She bent forward, letting her arms hang down from her shoulders, propped on fingertips. She lifted her heels so that she was balanced on the points of her ballet shoes. She looked like a spider, elegant but deadly.

  Each ligament and strand of her sinew flexed and strained, stripping her of those refined social pretenses that seem to stifle the flesh, her predatory nature unchained. I was drawing furiously, breaking pencils, flipping pages, and everything else in the world had melted away. I was alone with the peculiar white spider.

  At some point I’d stopped working and was just watching her. Propped on four legs, she embodied her animus, some kind of shamanistic transformation. Where did this come from?

  Face puffy and red with gathering blood, breathing out of her flared nostrils, her hamstrings and buttocks began trembling.

  “Have you got it?” she grunted.

  “Yes.”

  Slowly she lowered her heels to the floor and sat down, torso dripping with sweat. Her ribs expanded and contracted while she caught her breath. Pulling out her hair-tie, she shook free her braid and I wanted to run my fingers through the wet strands, taste her warm ivory skin—No, it was just the thrill of the moment, the image, don’t confuse the two.

  The room was quiet but for her breathing and she seemed to be waiting for me, sitting there, having just revealed some deep-seated, primitive identity, as if she’d turned herself inside out.

  “That was amazing,” I said, still feeling turned on. “Thank you.”

  “It’s for Jean Luc, remember . . .” She rocked to her feet. “If you want me to hide the drawings, please put them with my things.”

  Leaving her leotard on the floor, she rolled her neck, crossed the room, and strode out the door. I was already filling out and piecing together the sketches in my head, wanting to somehow evoke her feral power through the pores of her skin, and her damp leotard drew me across the room.

  Lifting it off the floor, I brought its crotch to my nose and inhaled. Inebriated by her scent, a flood of images—hunched on four legs, ivory skin encasing threads of muscle, the pale blue eyes, a miasma of shapes and colors—triggered an unsettling bloodthirsty vision of she and I eating each other like cannibals, until I heard the wooden gate scrape open.

  thirty-three

  Anaï’s arrived with her father and a young woman, her friend Valerie. Valerie looked younger than Anaïs but was in fact a year older. She was shy, the shrinking violet to Anaïs’s blooming sunflower. She had short blonde hair, a small button nose, and round, naive eyes. Since I didn’t need her for a few days, Anaïs explained, and was preoccupied with coming up with a new idea, she’d invited Valerie to keep her company.

  Uncle Bernard also joined us for lunch, fresh sardines in lettuce cups and a risotto that I made. The risotto wasn’t as al dente as I’d hoped but no one complained.

  It was another unseasonably warm day. Bernard opened the windows and laughed ironically when he told me it had snowed a meter in Chamonix, where he had a chalet.

  “It’s the first early winter we’ve had in the Alps in a decade,” he cheered.

  Hiding behind the notion that visions of powder snow were lulling me away, I let myself dip in and out of the drawing I was conjuring of Sophie—a spiderlike figure, the elegant predator, and then a horrible thought intruded.

  Jean Luc had, effectively, commissioned me to make the portrait. And if it turned out to be as good as anticipated, I would never be able to hand it over. Never.

  “Where are you?” Anaïs said.

  “Thinking of all that beautiful snow.”

  “Ah, you had that look like you’d found a juicy idea.”

  “I wish . . .”

  After lunch, the girls hung around the house, making it precarious for me to look over the spider sketches, and I took a walk in the forest. The sky was a pastel blue, streaked with a few inert clouds, and a breeze rustled the treetops. Sophie might be my Helga, I reflected, marveling how Wyeth’s secret muse had not only produced great portraits but also informed so many of his other paintings. Working in secret with Sophie was like living in a world where boundaries had no eyes, making it easier to trespass thresholds. The thrill of exploring the darker edges of myself through Sophie, something I would’ve never even considered indulging before I’d arrived at the château, had me in its grip and was all I wanted to do.

  But how would I deal with Jean Luc? He’d expect his merchandise.

  Then I wandered into a meadow and the answer came to me. Make a second portrait from the ballet poses—I could do it in a day or two—and then when Anaïs leaves with her father in the mornings you can work on the spider idea.

  thirty-four

  Breakfast. Anaïs told her father she wouldn’t be joining him for tennis. I thought I’d lost another day to work on my secret drawing, but after our morning swim, the girls went to the village to pick up sausages for lunch.

  Sophie was gone too, perhaps with Jean Luc, and I trotted into our bedroom to grab my materials and take them upstairs where the secret work was hidden. Anaïs had left her phone on our bed and I decided to write Janet, let her know I was closing in on another piece. Opening the email icon, I saw a new message from her, dated yesterday. From the first line it was good news.

  She had a show starting the last week of November, about three weeks from now, running through December, and wanted to include me with the other two artists—well-known and hot at the moment—but I needed a third piece, something that takes the Anaïs portraits to the extreme, and I’d have to ship them to L.A., which would take a week.

  “Hell yes!” I raised my arms and jumped around the room.

  Then I deflated: That means I have only a little over two weeks to find and execute a drawing. And it sounds like she wants it to fit with the other two portraits of Anaïs, meaning the spider mother won’t work.

  I read the rest of Janet’s email. There was a gallery in Paris that she would arrange to professionally crate the drawings. Don’t roll them up because it’ll take a week to ship. Unfortunately I’d have to pay for it because the show was already way over budget. It could cost as much as a thousand euros.

  No problem, I wrote back, so there’d be no doubt that I had something for her. I’m working on a piece that fits right in with what you want. Thank you for considering me. Please send the Paris gallery info.

  Best,

  Nathan

  I dropped the phone on the bed, gathered all the Anaïs studies from the pile in the corner, and rushed upstairs. Unearthing the drawing pad hidden under blankets in an old trunk, I tore out and spread the Sophie sketches across her studio. Then I shuffled through the Anaïs studies, looking for ones that might fit with the spider. I stalked around the studio, arranging and rearranging mother and daughter beside each other, hunting for a powerful coupling. In my mind there existed a sort of magnetic confrontation, what I’d seen broiling between them on more than one o
ccasion, something that takes the Anaïs portraits to the extreme, but right now it wasn’t there on the paper. You have to be patient, I told myself, and also be willing to accept that your vision for a double portrait might be a pipe dream.

  “Les saucisses girls sont de retour à la maison,” Anaïs’s playful voice echoed up the stairway, and I shut all the drawings away in the trunk.

  thirty-five

  Finally Jean Luc stood, ending the lunch, and I gestured for Anaïs to follow me. Out of everyone else’s earshot, I told her the news.

  “And I’ve got a great idea for your next portrait, which I need to get started on right away.”

  “Super . . .” she pronounced it sue-pear, seemingly delighted that I needed her again.

  While she explained to Valerie that we were going to work alone for a few hours, I retrieved my materials and then met her on the back patio. Taking her downriver, we crossed the partially submerged beaver dam to the far side. Searching out the tallest grass, I found a patch directly across from the château. The tips were turning a mustard color and a few oak and beech leaves were shedding in the wind. Her hair was pulled off her face, leaving it nicely exposed, and I asked her to lie on her back.

  “Now turn and look at me.”

  The grass bent around her body, outlining her form in bladed spheres, and I imagined the spider mother at Anaïs’s feet, then on each side of her, but without Sophie there, the correct orientation proved elusive.

  “I might need someone to be a sort of prop,” I suggested while I worked, easing toward breaching the unmentionable.

  “Valerie will do it.”

  “I need someone taller. Hey, what about your mother?”

  Her arm fell across her breasts and she snorted, shaking her head. “You can’t wait to get her naked, can you?”

  “No. I’m searching for something intense, like Janet asked for.”

  “So I’m not enough?”

  She got to her feet. Reached for her shirt.

  “You’re more than enough, Anaïs . . .”

 
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