Authors: Maureen Gibbon
“Elle est jolie,” I say. “Prettier than the other one. The other one looks bored.”
“You think that’s what it is? That she’s bored?”
“I don’t know,” I say. I do not want to say that the girl’s eyes look dead to me. That what I see in her goes far beyond bored. “It’s hard to tell from a picture.”
“I have others,” he says.
But instead of showing more, he puts the photos away. Only then do I realize that Nise has not been studying the photos as I have. That she has wandered across the studio to where a window looks out on a shabby courtyard. He does not want to lose her entirely so he puts his photographs away.
I would have gone on looking.
When the three
of us sit down on the divan I think it is good it does not have a lace throw. If it did I think I would start to laugh again, or Nise would—something. When we first sit down, he holds one of each of our hands but then he lets go. Lies back and crosses his arms behind his head so he can look at us.
“What was it like? To pose?”
“I got overheated,” I said.
“You don’t do things like that in real life,” I say. “We don’t sit around holding a string of pearls between us. Pillowing our heads on each other.”
“No, I imagine not,” he says. Then, because Nise has not said anything, he turns to her and asks, “What did you think of it?”
“I wouldn’t do it again.”
“Not ever?” he asks.
When she says that, she looks off at the light coming in the windows. He sits up again, there between us. I think he is going to say something else but he does not. He takes Nise’s hand in his again and moves his head close to her shoulder.
So I say, “You kissed her first last time. In our room.”
Which is selfish. I know she wishes I did not tell him anything about posing for Moulin, I know she is feeling whatever she feels. But I take the hand of his closest to me and move it up to my breast.
“Kiss me first this time,” I tell him.
So he does. He kisses me first. I feel both of his arms go round me and that is how I know he has let go of Nise’s hand.
I know she is sitting there beside us, but I do not let myself think about it. I do not think about anything but getting him to touch me.
When we are
done kissing—when everyone has had their turn—Nise says to him, “So that’s what you wanted that first day.”
“What did I want?”
She gestures around us. “To put us in your pictures.”
“I couldn’t paint the two of you,” he says.
“If I painted like Botticelli I couldn’t paint you.” And when he sees the name means nothing to us, he says, “He painted angels. Red-haired and brown-haired and blonde angels.”
“Why can’t you paint us like yourself?”
“I couldn’t paint you as you are. To paint you as you are, I’d have to paint this,” he says, and leans down and kisses my breast through my dress. When he goes to touch Nise, though, she stands up.
“Are you tired of it already?” he says.
She shakes her head no, but then she says, “Maybe. It’s all a game to you. The two of us.”
She is right. We are a game to him. But he is serious about the game, and what he wants is for none of us to tire of it. For all three of us to go on teasing and kissing and touching. All of us blending together. I think that is why he says the next thing.
“If I slept with just one of you, I would ruin your friendship,” he tells us.
I know he partly says it to see our reaction, to see the effect of his words. And for a moment there is an effect. I want to strike out at him for thinking he knows anything about us. But instead I watch him, just the way he watches me, and what I see is this: now that he has said the thing, he seems mournful. As if he were imagining the future he just foretold, or weighing the choice in front of him. Brunette or redhead. He looks sorrowful at the thought of losing either one of us. Just a little while ago he was touching our breasts through our dresses, and even now his arm is still around my back.
“Why would you say that?” Nise asks. “She and I are sisters.”
“Oh, I see that,” he says. “I see that clearly.”
“Sisters, not lovers.”
When she says that I think it must be what is really wrong. It is not the sharing that bothers her, at least not the taking turns. It is the idea of the three of us together. The same fantasy that Moulin had. With his silly poses and the string of fake pearls, Moulin wanted Nise and me to play at being lovers. But we were not lovers. Not even the night she had her hands in my hair, when I wanted her to touch me. When I wanted to touch her.
I could echo her words about being sisters right now, I could echo her impatience—but I do not. Because I would sleep with him and with her. With my frangine. I would share him, but I would share her, too.
And at that moment, in his studio, I know things are changing. I know each one of us is deciding something.
What I do not know is that his words are a kind of slow poison, and that they have already started to do their damage.
It begins that
night after he walks us home, when he says goodnight to us.
We have spent the day kissing, so when he says goodnight he kisses each of us quickly. We do not linger and he does not pull either of us into a doorway—none of that. He tells us he is going to walk over to La Maube to see if he can get a carriage, and we part.
Nise and I are almost to the door of our building when I tell her, “I can’t. I don’t want to go in. I want to go to him.”
We look at each other for just a second but then I turn away. I look away from Nise, back down Maître-Albert to see if I can still see him. I do not see her face when she says, “Go then.”
I do not see her face—all I hear are the two words. I do not take time to see the feeling in her face.
I run down the street, looking ahead, but I cannot see around the corner, and he must be moving quickly, much more quickly than he did when he had one of us on each arm.
For a second before I catch up to him, he is just a man, a stranger on the street, and then I am standing beside him, touching him on the arm.
“Trine,” he says.
He is surprised to see me, I can tell that, but I can tell from his voice he is also pleased. And in that moment I realize that I have been counting on his pleasure. That I would not have known what to do if he were not pleased.
But because he said my name and because he is glad to see me, I can say the next thing.
“That wasn’t a real kiss,” I say. “I don’t want to say goodnight without a real kiss.”
He looks at me then, and I do not read the expression on his face as much as I feel it. It is not the pleasant expression he sometimes puts on when he is with the two of us—it is something raw. But I do not get to look at his face for long because he pulls me toward him, and then he is wrapping about me.
The kiss is real. Not an exploration of my mouth, not a game on a divan. A man’s kiss, as if we were going to lie down together. And when the kiss is done, when we both pull back to look at each other, he still keeps his arms around me.
“Is that better?”
When I nod yes, he says, “You should go back. Denise will be worried about you.”
“She knows where I am.”
“Still, she’ll worry.”
He walks me back almost to the dogleg of the street. When I look to the entrance of our building, I think I might see Nise standing there, but of course she is not there. Of course she has gone inside.
He kisses me again, lightly, but this time I accept it. I accept it and walk up to 17 and go inside.
When I get to our room, Nise is there in her oldest chemise, the one she sleeps in. Scrubbing her face.
“I watched for you for a while. Until you turned the corner,” she says. “So you caught up to him?”
“He was on La Maube.”
“Did you kiss him?”
“Yes,” I say.
“I hoped you kissed him for me, too.”
I nod then but do not say anything. There is nothing to say. Nise could have come. Could have turned and run with me, back down the street. But she did not, and I know that, somewhere in my mind, I have already taken his words to heart.
He will sleep with one of us, and it will be me.
He chose me the night he ate cherries from my hand, he chose me the night he sat beside me in the restaurant, he chose me when he held my hand over him, so I could feel his cock.
He has said he wants us both. Yet each time he has a choice, he chooses me.
By the time I crawl into bed beside Nise, there is a tiny wall between us that was not there before.
But things can be like that. You can be so close with a person and still not tell them everything. You can choose not to say something, you can withhold something, you can lie to someone you love. I have known that since I was a child.
So maybe his words were not poison at all. Maybe it was in me all along.
t turns out to be
the easiest thing.
It is Sunday, and we sleep in a little. But when we do wake up, the words are ready in my mind to say. I do not have to think them—they are there, ready when I need them.
“I’m going to go see my mother,” I tell Nise. “I want her to help me with that dress.”
And as I am saying it, I am picturing myself walking over Canal Saint-Martin, going to my parents’ door. I imagine myself showing my mother my dress, the one whose skirt is salvageable but which needs a new bodice because the old fabric is so threadbare it has holes.
“If I remake it a little it will at least be good enough for work,” I say, taking it out of the dresser drawer where I have it shoved.
Nise comes over and looks at it with me. “There’s a lot of good wear in the skirt,” she says. “It would be pretty with a different fabric for the top.”
Then I picture my mother’s face. I take the trouble to see her in my mind’s eye before I say the next thing. Before I tell the next lie.
“She’ll know what to do with it,” I say. “For certain.”
So I am carrying my dress when I leave, when I walk up to the quai. And to be sure, I turn right on the quai, just the way I would if I were going to my parents’ in Popincourt. But instead of walking all the way down to Pont de la Tournelle, I take Pont de l’Archevêché to cut over to la Cité.