Full Deck by Barbara Shulgasser-Parker

October 1, 2007

madame

Filed under: 1 — bshulg @ 7:35 pm

Esteem should be awarded only on evidence. I think Thorstein Veblen said that. Thorstein and I agree one hundred percent, but we comprise an increasingly shrinking minority. I mean, for the last thirty-five years or so every form of pop therapy – in complete misinterpretation of the works of J.D. Salinger, of Hermann Hesse, of all those popularizers of the thoughts of Buddha – has relentlessly instructed us that you can’t love anyone until you love yourself, that you’re not worthy of the love of others until you love yourself. People plop themselves into therapy, bury themselves in self-help books and blandly chant the jargon of the moment, all of it in proud announcement of a desire to forgive themselves, to embrace who they are, to love themselves. It is my experience that people who proclaim self-love not only don’t love themselves, but often have very good reason not to. Why embrace who you are if you are awful? Thus good old Thorstein. When you decide to love yourself based on no good reason, without having earned it, without having gone out into the world and accomplished something that merits one’s own admiration of oneself, then what the hell good is it? One of human nature’s greatest coping mechanisms is the ability to lie to oneself, which reminds me that my favorite New York Times front page headline of the decade is the one proclaiming that incompetent people don’t know they are incompetent. I extrapolate from this the obvious: that stupid people don’t know that they are stupid, talentless people think they are talented and monsters believe they are saints.

     The battle against self-love is what every decent philosophy, every effort to socialize man’s unruly nature – from the Ten Commandments to table manners – is all about. You don’t have to work at self-love. You’re born with it. Frankly the last person on earth I’d want to spend any time with is someone who loves himself. Loving yourself is not something that can be practiced at spare moments; it is a whole-time job. Unceasing vigilance is required. And what could be more horrifying, or boring, than that smug self-satisfaction of the self-loving?

 

On the other hand, the inevitable reward of behaving well is a flood of the esteem of those touched by good behavior. After years of bathing in the earned esteem of others, self-esteem naturally follows, but it follows, as Thorstein says, only on evidence.

     This is the story of a woman who spent many years longing for love. Her name is Ariane Viertel. Friends saw her unhappiness and advised her to get herself into therapy. But she would always laugh and say, “If you know a therapist who can introduce me to a great guy, I’ll go.” She knew what her problem was and it was simple. As a woman of thirty-eight, she’d accepted the statistic that she was, at that age, more likely to be hit by a truck than meet the love of her life, and so she had more or less given up on love. When the occasional wrong man presented himself she thought, why not? I’m not busy. Nothing else is coming along.

Mathematical logic dictates that in our lives we will encounter the wrong person many times more frequently than we will the right. Women in their early twenties know this. But, with the bravado of youth, a young woman will still date a good-looking lout, thinking she can turn him into a pillar of refinement. Or an amusing deceiver thinking she can convert him to monogamy. She accepts the challenge of a dense but handsome rich man, thinking she can explain Kant to him. By her thirties, of course, she learns to say no to anyone even remotely resembling such men. Still that doesn’t rule out all relationships. She figures Mr. Right has hooked up with someone else. Sex with Mr. Wrong is still sex, isn’t it?

     Ariane was an attractive woman. Well past her dewy youth, she was nevertheless endowed through genetic good luck with skin through which a youthful glow radiated. It’s not that she seemed so much younger than her actual age but that whatever her age, that age still looked luminously appealing. She had long dark wavy hair that bounced around her jaw line. She had a smile that, once seen, encouraged those around her to please her in the hope of seeing it again. Her friends always thought she’d be the first in the crowd to be scooped up by some dashing romantic. Yet now, here she was, alone and feeling certain she’d never find love. “Children? Ha!” she’d say. “I’m resigned to childlessness and to relationships that while stupid are at least mercifully short.” And most sadly: “I expected nothing.” Her friends, most of them married or in relationships of varying degrees of happiness, tried to persuade her from her gloom. One day she responded tearfully to her best friend’s suggestion that she not give up hope. “Maybe I’m just out of luck, maybe no one could love me,” she said. Her friend suggested jokingly that perhaps Ariane ought to take the anti-Veblein approach and declare her self-love.

     But it was a silly suggestion. Ariane was at a low point, having just squirmed out of an affair with a married man. To cure her blues, she decided to throw new stupidity after old, so she took a trip to Cannes that she couldn’t afford. She hoped to write about the film festival and thereby retroactively earn her airfare.

     To sae money, she stayed with an elderly, untalented painter who informed her within moments of crossing the threshold that there were “political” reasons her work had never been celebrated.

     “They were against me, those Frenchmen,” she cried the day Ariane met her. “I was a foreigner, and too well educated for those idiots.”

     Madame’s grudge had the freshness of a recent wound, although no critic of importance had bothered to seriously dismiss her work in years. As far as Ariane could tell, it hadn’t been since the nineteen-forties that anyone in the art world had even been aware she was still painting her melancholy florals. Her specialty was the clinical depiction of moribund blossoms fading dramatically in their vases, a Georgia O’Keefe in reverse. With the indignation of the wronged, Madame nurtured her grievance to the point that it greeted a stranger at the door of the two-bedroom apartment. Ariane was appropriately discomforted by her outrage.

     Madame prepared tea when Ariane arrived and as it steeped they toured the living room-studio, an oblong space with ceiling-high book cases across one wall, and another wall of windows that would have opened onto a view of the sea had they not been shuttered. Every flat surface supported one of her paintings. Canvases were stacked on the floor and hung edge to edge on the walls. She had placed several sturdy easels around the room with two or three dingy works balanced on each. Still others lay on a large, round dining table in the corner. The table had to be cleared before Madame could set down the tea tray.

  The flat was dingy, too. Not that Madame wasn’t a dutiful housekeeper. Yet somehow nothing seemed clean. A gloomy brown haze filtered in through cracks in the shutters. The thrilling Mediterranean light never spread its splendor in that room. In the semi-darkness a ochre cast seemed to waft up off the heavy mahogany furniture. Even the dust was yellowish and dim, and Madame’s skin must have absorbed the tint as well. She was small, round-shouldered and frail-looking, and she smoked unfiltered Gauloises one after the other, no doubt the reason she spoke in a sandy, grating buzz. Bent and tiny as she was, Madame could still grip Ariane by the wrist with surprising force and haul her across the room face an “historically” significant painting of hers – something from one of her important periods. And she could still pound on a table while excoriating the apelike intelligence of an art critic who had written unfavorably of her work many decades earlier.

     “Un imbecile,” she spat. The parallel vertical  grooves above her brow would deepen in contempt as she named the boorish critic who had the nerve to pronounce on the work of his better. As she spoke, her anger translated into facial spasms. Her long, bony nose bobbed in rhythm with her denunciations. Her mouth contorted into an exhibition of spleen.

     Mostly she spoke English to Ariane, an educated English delivered proudly between inhalations of cigarette smoke. Her accent reminded Ariane a little of her parents’ Russian friends, part of a circle of Eastern European Jews who had survived the war. Madame had learned English and French in childhood from a tutor, and had spoken both with her mother. She was Russian-born, of noble blood, she said, chased from her country by the Bolsheviks.

     Ariane was a freelancer who specialized in what newspapers and magazines generously refer to as “culture” – film, popular music, books. She’d written a couple of books on design and architecture and had published two novels to no particular critical acclaim or attention. The festival came at a good moment for her. She hadn’t been able to persuade any reputable magazine to finance the trip, but in the end did manage to sell a few pieces – the usual interviews with actors and directors. She had to bear the costs herself, and renting Madame’s room kept the expenses low. She had no special yen for further exposure to the excesses of world cinema than she’d already experienced in many previous interviews with actors and directors. The reason for the trip was solely to escape the cliché-ridden affair she’d been having with the married man.

     Ariane paid Madame for her entire stay the first day and they never spoke of money again. With early payment Ariane hoped to allay the possibility of Madame’s natural anxiety about a stranger’s reliability. Ariane already viewed herself as an interloper in the woman’s home and wanted to be as little bother as possible. Madame was a noblewoman, self-described, down on her luck it was clear, and although pride had not prevented her from letting a room, her position seemed to obviate dwelling on the mercenary nature of the relationship. They just pretended that Ariane was a friend in for a visit. Ariane was sympathetic. Madame reminded Ariane of her mother, Franka. Ariane’s mother was much prettier, but Madame’s regal bearing and adamance were reminiscent of her mother’s strength and emotional power. Ariane had found Madame’s apartment through one of her mother’s friends. After surviving the concentration camp, her parents made their way to France and lived in Paris for two years. Their ties to the Russian, Lithuanian and Polish communities remained strong well after they settled in New York in 1947. Ariane heard stories of the war regularly throughout her childhood and the story of her parents’ wartime escape, buying off concentration camp guards with hidden gold pieces was family legend. Once they were out, an anti-Nazi German gave Ariane’s father a gun for protection, but it was also part of the legend that her father would have been far less capable of shooting anyone, even someone threatening their lives, than her mother. They joked about it, but Ariane always thought the joke masked a truth she already understood – that her mother was the strong one. Whenever Ariane faced a wrenching decision, one in which a clear-cut easy way out was one alternative, she always asked herself what her mother would do and, inevitably, her strength would guide Ariane to making the more difficult choice. Franka never cared what other people thought. She followed the dictates of her own well-developed sense of morality and if you disagreed, the hell with you. And the amazing thing was that she managed to do this with the utmost charm. Even when she condemned her friends for their laziness or selfishness, they didn’t seem to mind. She was still the center of her social circle. Franka’s approval meant everything to her friends. Her friends relished her attention and even if it came in the form of disapproving scrutiny, it was attention nevertheless and that was good enough for them.

Franka’s dearest friend, Manya, still lived in Paris and a friend of a friend knew Madame and so the match was made. The connection was distant enough so that Ariane thought she could enforce a polite boundary between herself and Madame. She did not want their face-saving game to harness her into social slavery. She wasn’t there to hold a lonely old woman’s hand. She was paying for the room and owed Madame only routine courtesy. She didn’t make noise when she came in late at night. She cleaned the tub after bathing. She never left crumbs in the kitchen. She was the model guest.

     But Madame was of a different mind and she fastened on to Ariane whenever she was around. So early every morning there was a knock at the door. “Are you ready for tea?” Madame would ask from the other side of the barrier.

     Every morning tea and a croissant. No matter what Ariane did, tea and a croissant. She didn’t want tea and she didn’t want a croissant.

     “Thank you very much,” Ariane would say through the closed door, “but I’m rushing out.” Ariane didn’t want Madame waking up early just to serve her breakfast. And she didn’t want to chat, which was exactly what the delivery of tea and a croissant presaged. Madame would knock again that special way that well-trained employees of good hotels knock; a sound brimming with discretion and the acceptance of strangers’ idiosyncrasies. Just in the way she tapped patiently at the door, Ariane sensed a worldly tolerance for the assumed perversity of strangers. Madame was willing to wait while Ariane stashed her heroin needles and pornographic literature under the mattress.

     But after the second knock, Madame would wait no more. She’d open the door as if she’d been invited and set the tray on the table. “May I get you anything else?” she would ask, hovering, waiting for an invitation to join in for a morning conclave. Ariane was usually at this point wearing only underwear, rushing to make the first critics’ screening of the day. The first time, she grabbed a towel on the bed and held it to her breasts, hoping the delivery would be swift and Madame’s departure immediate. But there was Madame, unflappable and unmoving, almost continually taking a deep breath, chronically winded from the cigarettes, ready to erupt with anecdote. And so it went day after day.

     At eight a.m., half-dressed and hurrying, Ariane was unprepared to nod at Madame’s litany of misfortunes. But once every few days she would relent and let her talk, and sometimes even went on to relate tales of her own adventures: an excursion with a vulgar producer to Cap D’Antibes, drinks with an egomaniacal actor at the crowded Majestic bar, a ride to the Nice airport to settle airline ticket mix-ups accompanied by a married director who confided guiltily about his Cannes affair with an aspiring actress.

     “That’s nothing,” Madame’s gesture would announce. And she would proceed to tell of the actors she knew when the Majestic was still the Majestic and Cap D’Antibes was still Cap D’Antibes.

     “Ach! Elegance? What does anyone know of elegance anymore?” Her nose would flatten and bend itself over her sneering upper lip. She would glance theatrically toward the ceiling, her exasperation deepening the grooves above her nose. Once, with hands on her bumpy hips, she nodded to a black-and-white photograph of three men in tuxedoes. On the left was Cary Grant, a suggestion of mischief in his face. In the middle stood Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., tanned and gleaming, and on the other side, also brilliantined and handsome, a man Ariane didn’t recognize.

     “My husband,” Madame said, tapping the figure’s torso familiarly. “That was elegance.” She coughed in her smoky rasp as if settling a long court case with the inarguable simplicity of truth.

     “What did your husband do?” Ariane asked her.

     “We came here during the war,” she said, ignoring the question. They had left Paris to get away from the Nazis.

     “That must have been a frightening time,” Ariane ventured.

     “Frightening? Why? Why should I be frightened of those pigs? Barbarians. Filthy barbarians they were.” She frowned and then smiled, at a memory, it seemed. Her long, Gauloises-stained teeth were bared for a moment. “Barbarians.” Leaving Paris had evidently been more of an aesthetic than a moral issue.

     “He was a painter,” she said of her husband. She seemed to drift away from the conservation, as if talking to herself. “I think he was good,” she continued, “but the war…” More than that Ariane was unable to pry from her confidence and because prying elicited only information she didn’t much want to hear – lectures on elegance and its present-day paucity, screeds on the blindness and complacency of the art establishment and tirades on the relative meaninglessness of today’s institutions and practices as compared to those of Madame’s heyday – Ariane decided to forgo the effort. Steering Madame toward any area in which her speechifying did not fall into a recitation of old material was impossible. To have a real talk with her – to draw out some spontaneous tidbit, some response that was not just a portion of rehearsed anger – would have required an investment of time and patience that Ariane lacked.

     To avoid these awkward breakfasts in the semi-nude, Ariane began leaving the apartment earlier each morning. Madame tried to keep up at first, appearing with a tray as early as seven-thirty. Finally, Ariane found that if she left the house at seven-fifteen, she could beat Madame. She would walk the ten minutes to town in the misty morning. Often it was raining. That May was Cannes’ wettest and coldest in fifteen years. Ariane would arrive at a cafe on the Croisette as the proprietor was unrolling the awning and pulling chairs off the table tops to set them on the ground. When it wasn’t raining she would sit outside with a café au lait and the Herald Tribune until meeting some other festival-goer on his way to the eight-thirty screening. They’d walk to the Palais together. Unless she had to change into something formal for a party at night, Ariane wouldn’t return to the apartment until after one in the morning. Unfortunately, she also found herself engaging in a meaningless dalliance with an English screenwriter, a married one, just to prove that she hadn’t lost her capacity for stupid relationships. With all the screenings, meals, looking for gossip at the Majestic and attending parties thrown by the studios, she could have stayed out much later, but she was trying to reserve her strength.

     In the end she collapsed anyway. The weather and the long hours and losing an umbrella all did her in. The morning after she’d been soaked in a rainstorm, she woke up to the sound of the alarm clock and discovered that she was unable to slide her legs out of the bed and make for the café. Her throat ached. Her head pulsed as if every artery were beating time to a ghastly polka. Her ears burned. For all the heat at her head, she was shaking with chills. As the fever overtook her it became increasingly clear that she would not negotiate her way out of the apartment that day, or even the bed.

     “Are you there, my dear?” Ariane heard Madame ask later that morning through the closed door. Ariane replied hoarsely. Madame pushed the door open far enough to lean her head through and see Ariane shivering in the bed, the covers pulled to her chin.

     Pauvre petite,” she murmured as she laid her flat, dry palm over Ariane’s forehead. Ariane could smell the turpentine on her fingers.

     “You are heated,” she said and abruptly left the room. In five minutes she returned with aspirins and water and an ice pack. Madame supported Ariane while she swallowed the pills and then arranged the ice on her brow. Madame straightened the blankets and lifted herself onto the high bed – a tiny leap was required – and her short legs dangled. She took Ariane’s hand between hers, which were cool and smooth, and began to talk.

     “Influenza.” She shook her small head, the forehead grooves pressed in sympathy. “When I was your age people died of it regularly. But you’ll be fine, my dear.” She patted Ariane’s hand and looked into her worried eyes. “She has me at last,” Ariane thought to herself.

     Yet once Ariane resigned herself to the symptoms – headache and chills and high fever – she experienced a child’s comfort of the sickbed, at least the late twentieth century child, to whom influenza wasn’t a death warrant. Except for the fact that Ariane was spending her long-dreamed-of trip to Cannes confined to a small bedroom, and that she would not be able to pay for the trip if she couldn’t write about it, and that she couldn’t write about it if she didn’t get out and see movies and interview filmmakers, Ariane felt inexplicably serene.

     Madame had a doctor in and he ordered bed rest, fluids and some French remedies that tasted awful and made Ariane groggier than she already was. Madame stayed with her all day for each of the six days it took for the fever to break. She fed her aspirins and soup she’d cooked herself and read aloud from Zola. She moved an easel into the room so she could work and watch Ariane at the same time. Ariane was too weak to sit up and see the painting she was dabbing at.  Ariane imagined it was another variation on her gloomy floral obsession but she liked the sound of the bristles crushing oil paint into the rough cotton. As a courtesy, Madame opened the window to dilute the Gauloises fumes. During the day Ariane had been leaving the shutters wide open so the room, unlike Madame’s living room-studio, was always glowing with the light from outdoors. Ariane worried that the painting might be ruined by the unfamiliar suffusion.

     But Madame seemed undisturbed. In fact, she seemed uncharacteristically happy. The most apparent symptom of her happiness was a relentless flow of chatter, even more hearty than usual. Whatever came to mind, she was ready to hold forth on it. Ariane was too tired to offer even the “uh-huh” of polite encouragement. Without interruption, Madame managed a stunning display of verbal stamina throughout Ariane’s convalescence.

     One afternoon, when the light in the room was dimming, Madame seemed to become more comfortable as the atmosphere took on her studio’s shadowy tinge. Ariane thought Madame might say something unrehearsed now, if asked the right question.

     “You loved your husband?”

     “Which one?”

     “How many were there?” Ariane asked, startled at the reply.

     “Two.”

     “The one in the picture. With Cary Grant.”

     “Ah, the first,” she said and nodded. She lighted a cigarette and blew the smoke out through her nose. “A snob. But a perfect snob. Like everything else he did, he was good at that, too. Francois was dashing. He looked well in a dinner jacket. And he liked my fancy background. But he wished that I would keep my opinions to myself. He came from a family with titles, too. French. It meant nothing to me but he thought it his most fascinating characteristic. I preferred his humor. He could be very amusing. And he was at ease among society. The parties he dragged us to, the people, they reminded me of my mother’s set in Russia. Not that I missed the ostentation of the aristocracy, but it was familiar. I had pleasant memories of my parents, and Francois’ friends brought me back to a time when I felt secure. My parents gave me a sense that we had a place in the world, that there were obligations and rules, but that there was also dignity and privilege and other rewards. I suppose you could say I married my mother.”

     Madame sighed. “Of course, Francois knew that I was a painter before we married, and that I would continue to paint whether we married or not. He would have preferred being married to a woman with money but no vocation. But he made his compromise when he asked me to marry him anyway. He knew my friends were bohemian and poor and that I spent most of the time I wasn’t painting sitting in cafes smoking and telling everyone what I thought, on whatever subject.” She looked at Ariane and laughed. “Some things don’t change, eh?” she said with a winking self-awareness Ariane hadn’t suspected. Before she could digest this Madame continued.

     “I was the only woman in a circle of male painters. Now I see that they looked at me as an amusement. I think if I hadn’t been attractive, they would never have put up with my ravings.” The news that Madame had been attractive stopped Ariane for a moment. She lost track of the narrative as she tried to construct in her imagination the youthful and sexually alluring version of the old woman before her.  Madame was describing her failing marriage.

     “Francois thought my openness unbecoming and soon after we married he stopped coming along to the café. He had women. I buried my resentment in my work. I pretended it didn’t matter. He was French. C’est normal. Then the Germans came. I couldn’t stand seeing the Nazis in Paris. It poisoned the city for me. I couldn’t enjoy myself there anymore. Friends told me they were relocating to the south. I told Francois that I was going whether he joined me or not. He came along.

     “Cannes was not so fashionable then. Like everything else, it goes in cycles. We felt we’d be back in Paris soon. The war would be over and life would return to normal. So we made ourselves comfortable. I found the painters’ café quickly. Francois was busy establishing himself with the ‘important’ people. I was working and meeting other artists. We led our own lives. Then I met Kolya.”

     Madame got up to put out her cigarette, then lighted another. She brought the ashtray to the bed with her and climbed up again. She straightened her dress and sucked in a deep draught of smoke.

     “He was Russian-born, but he’d been living in Poland and had run away in thirty-nine. When the Nazis invaded. I think he might have been a significant painter. But, really, how is one to know such a thing, whether someone is a great painter?” She shrugged. “All the ones I knew of were dead. Monet. Renoir. Kolya was alive, very alive.” Ariane would have expected envy, but there was awe in Madame’s voice. Then she shook her head. “It’s probably just my bias. Perhaps he wasn’t talented at all. Perhaps all he had was energy. And life.

     “I do know that once I saw his work I lost all illusions about my own.” Madame was looking off into an imaginary horizon in the darkened room. Then she looked at Ariane. “I’m no painter,” she said tapping the cigarette over the ashtray. “When I saw Kolya’s dedication I realized I had just been – what’s that great American word? – doodling, filling up space, wasting paint. Compared to him, all of us were. Which didn’t endear him to the others at the café. It was as if his colors came directly through his fingers. No brush, no paints – it was something biological. As if the colors were his bodily fluids emptying straight onto the canvas. I posed for him sometimes and he would capture me I don’t know how. It wasn’t that he created a photographic likeness. It was that he measured the intensity of the flame that burned inside every subject and then reproduced that exact level of energy with paint. I could sit there smiling my best smile, wearing my most dishonestly cheerful face and he would paint me woeful and fretting, all my anxiety and nightmares about the Gestapo coming in the middle of the night written on my face. My inner frenzy was there, like in Munch’s ‘Scream,’ like in Schiele’s watercolors. Paranoia.

     “The paintings had an integrity, a loyalty to the subject’s true appearance that no society painter, no paid painter, could ever afford. These portraits were unmistakably me, me in a panic, me unable to hide my worries from him. Aubrey Beardsley with his finger in a live outlet. That was Kolya.”

     “Why were you worried?”

     “Why?” She was surprised at the question. “Kolya was Jewish, of course.”

     Neither Ariane nor Madame spoke for a minute.

     Ariane hesitated but she was too curious to stop herself. “And what happened to Francois?”

     “Francois never lost his temper, a gentleman to the last. Like most gentlemen, he was well behaved and correct, but only at the surface. He denounced me. He called me a traitor to my class. ‘I cannot protect you if you insist upon putting us in jeopardy this way,’ he warned me. ‘You’ll have to face this alone.’ I learned that he was at least a man of his word. He took most of our money and disappeared. I heard later that he’d returned to Paris. The Nazis didn’t bother him. They were, after all, the new aristocracy. They considered themselves brethren.

     “I did see Francois again. He came to Cannes. One day I walked into my café and the place was filled with German officers. I wanted to leave but friends saw me and waved me over. I sat down with them and heard a familiar voice.

     “ ‘You’re looking very well.’” It was Francois. He was dressed beautifully, as usual.

     “ ‘What are you doing here?’” I asked him. I was surprised he would show his face.

     “ ‘I’m here with friends,’” he told me.

     “ ‘You look well yourself,’” I said. “ ‘I see our money has treated you well.’”

     “ ‘I can’t complain. Do you need a little?’”

     “ ‘And subtract from the lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed?’”

     “He laughed. ‘Cherie, you don’t mind, do you? I needed something to set up in Paris again. I knew you wouldn’t want me living on the street.’”

     “ ‘Inconceivable.’”

     “ ‘What happened to that painter of yours?’”

     “I hesitated, wondering about his motives, but then maybe out of defiance, or maybe it was trust, I said, ‘We’re married.’

     “ ‘Really? How marvelous.’ I remember he arched his eyebrow. ‘Happy, I hope.’

     “ ‘Quite.’

     “This silenced Francois. Then he brightened and said, ‘Why don’t you join us for a drink?’ He indicated the table of Nazis in the corner. ‘Let’s have a toast for old time’s sake.’

     “ ‘No, thank you.’

     “ ‘Please.’

     “ ‘Francois you really don’t want to have a drink with me. I might inadvertently say the wrong thing in the wrong company. You know how I talk when I drink. It’s a war, you know. I don’t have to remind you, of all people, that one has to think of oneself.’

     “ ‘True.’

     “ ‘Go back to your friends.’

     “Francois nodded. He took my hand as if he were going to kiss it. Then he realized, I think, that I wouldn’t be impressed with his superficial chivalry and he just shook it rather high in the air.

     “I watched him move through the crowd. He sat with the German officers and immediately began to talk and laugh.

     “A few minutes later Kolya walked in. I took him rather violently by the arm and led him out before he could take off his coat.

     “I didn’t tell Francois that I’d had a child. But he must have heard about it somehow because after the war, when he was in Cannes again visiting, he asked me about my daughter.

     “ ‘I just want to help,’ he said. ‘You must need money now. I did well during the war. Anything you need. Please. I’d like to help.’

     “ ‘You want to help Kolya’s daughter with the money the Nazis helped you earn?’ I threw him out of the house.”

     “But didn’t you need the money?” Ariane asked. Madame ignored her again.

     “Kolya had figured it all out. He thought I’d be all right but Sylvie, our child, was in danger, being half-Jewish. He arranged for a couple living on a farm to take her. Brave little Sylvie. After the war ended I couldn’t find them. The farm had been abandoned. They must have moved somewhere better, safer…” Madame looked away and shook her head. “I never found her.”

     “I’m sorry,” Ariane said.

     “Kolya once told me that the bad times would pass and everyone who remembered how to laugh would be fine again, whole again. ‘Think how lucky we are,’ he said. ‘I have you forever. Even if we’re separated tomorrow, we’d still have each other forever, the way we have Sylvie.’ He did many paintings of Sylvie from memory after we placed her with the farmer. I have them somewhere.”

     Ariane still wanted to hear about Kolya, and to lift Madame from her mood.

     “Francois sounded as if he were at least trying to do the right thing by you,” Ariane offered.

     “Francois was always polite, always correct. But correct isn’t necessarily right. He simply did his duty by explaining the facts. Then he was gone. Kolya wasn’t so smooth. He loved to argue. The way he shouted may have been what drew me to him. That’s how he knew he was alive, I think. He had to hear himself. He had to make noise. He was never nasty or mean. He just liked to get people’s blood boiling.”

     “Play devil’s advocate,” Ariane said.

     “Yes, exactly. It took me years to see that he just enjoyed the art of argument. He’d say anything to get a disagreement going, to get people to take sides. He was an instigator.”

     “And you liked a good argument yourself.”

     Madame laughed. “Yes, we got on well. We had a tiny place facing the water. He’d paint as long as the light was good, with shutters thrown open. The air smelled of the paint and linseed oil and the sea.” Her voice was barely audible. She took a deep breath, as if the aromas she described were filling her lungs at that moment. The room had gone completely dark. She turned to Ariane and smiled. “Pauvre petite, you must be exhausted.” She reached over to straighten the pillows and push the hair off Ariane’s perspiring forehead.

     Madame slipped off the bed. “Time for more aspirin, I think. Maybe some soup and then sleep for you.” She left on her errand. The talk had distracted Ariane and she hadn’t noticed that the fever had risen. The headache, ever present, was now clanging in her skull. She was feeling dull-witted but conscious enough to realize that she’d lost her chance to ask what happened to Kolya. She feared the worst.

     Another few days passed before Ariane could get out of bed on her own. She had missed most of the festival. Her temperature dropped to normal finally, but she was still weak. Madame left her alone more often as her strength returned. Occasionally Ariane got up to wander around the apartment while Madame was on a marketing trip, and she’d summon the energy to make a cup of tea and trudge back to bed overcome with fatigue. As her head cleared it occurred to her that Madame’s absence from Ariane’s side might have had less to do with her returning health than with where in Madame’s story they’d left off. Madame, it seemed to Ariane, had deliberately avoided articulating his fate. The woman from whose chatter Ariane plotted to escape day after day now had Ariane entwined in the story of passion for a peculiarly wonderful man. A woman who seemed at first lost in a distant and irrelevant history had now forced Ariane to compare that vivid past with her own dead and silly present and Ariane longed to have lived Madame’s life rather than her own. She wanted to know about Kolya. She wanted to have known Kolya. “I want to have loved him and for him to have loved me,” she thought. “I want to have had his children, to have hidden him from the Nazis, maybe even to have lost him. I want to have loved him completely and to have known that even though we were separated, we would always have each other forever.”

     One afternoon while Madame was out shopping, Ariane shuffled into the living room to look for diversion. Her headache had gone and she thought she might be able to read one of the English books on Madame’s shelves. She was stopped by the photograph of Francois and Cary Grant and picked it up for closer examination. Ariane discovered that it had been resting against a large art book. Behind that was a cabinet and she opened the door. Inside were several small canvases, nudes. Ariane pulled one out carefully. The painting was dusty but she could make out that it was Madame. Madame as a slender young woman. She must have been in her thirties when it was painted, but she looked a girl, with small, high breasts and thin, forlorn arms. She sat in a chair, her legs crossed unself-consciously rather than seductively, as if she were wearing a blouse and skirt, sitting in a café and listening to a boring companion, rather than naked and posing for her lover. She held a cigarette and that hand rested on her thigh. The other was slung over the back of the chair. Her face was olive – suntanned and handsome. She gave the viewer only three-quarters of her face. In fact, she was looking away. But Kolya seemed to be able to see even the part of her face that she held back and took it into account. He added everything he knew about her to the painting; he had painted her inside-out. He had certainly caught what was ornery and contrary about her, what might have seemed irritating to the overly sensitive, to misunderstanders, to Francois perhaps. But to Kolya, she was obviously also fragile and dear. The years of dust couldn’t cover that. Even in the shuttered, darkened room just off the Mediterranean Sea, as a wave of exhaustion came over Ariane, she could see the colors and how true they were.

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1 Comment »

  1. Wow. You are really good. I’m forwarding you on to friends.

    Comment by Alicia Ruvinsky — January 21, 2008 @ 12:02 am


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