Authors: Maureen Gibbon
walk down Rue Jacinthe the
The street is one building long, connecting Rue Galande and Rue des Trois-Portes. If you stand in the middle of it, you can almost touch the buildings on either side.
I go to the door where he and I stood and touched. And wonder if the wood remembers me.
en see us and the
idea comes to them. A brunette and a redhead, the two of us together, the novelty of it.
And they all think it is original.
It is why Moulin wanted us, it is why he paid us to come to his studio for photographs. Silver gelatins, he called them. And it is why we took the money. Because we could do it together. I was still apprenticing at Baudon for nothing, and I did not want to run home to my parents. I thought,
If we go there together it will not be so bad. If I go with Nise it will not be hard
The place is at Rue Richer 23. That is the address Moulin gives. But the studio itself is on Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, up in the attic. Parts of the roof have been replaced with glass, but then he changes the light coming through the panes by sliding strips of fabric across them. He tilts a big cheval mirror to focus that cloth-filtered light.
Depending on the pose, we could see ourselves in that mirror.
He told us he wanted pictures of us together. That was what he paid for, and that was what he really wanted. But those poses were hardest. Nise on the divan and me standing beside, brushing her hair. A stupid stance with my head on Nise’s breast and a string of fake pearls around us. Both of us on the lace-covered divan, her with her back to Moulin, looking over her shoulder, and me with my head on her shoulder, facing straight on, legs parted.
All of it made me sweat in my armpits and at the nape of my neck, even though I was not really doing anything.
It was not just hard to be naked, but the poses felt fake. If he had been able to show Nise and me the way we are sometimes—one of us standing at the basin in our room, soaping herself, and the other lying on the bed. One of us playing with herself, stroking the hair between her legs, while the other talks aimlessly. The lazy, idle touching we do when we are waiting for the other to come to bed or to wake up. Even me standing and plucking the one red hair from my nipple while Nise gets dressed. Those things would have felt normal. Natural. What Moulin asked did not feel like that, but how could it in a studio where the light is shining and everything has to take place on a divan? How could it be normal in front of a stranger?
At the end he took pictures of each of us alone. That went better. I could see what he was after. Could see the beauty in it.
My favorite pose of Nise was her just standing there, her head tilted, holding her chemise loose in her hand, her arm down by her side. Not that I saw the picture itself, but from what I saw of the pose. Her face looked so sweet and shy. Her head was tilted to the side, and she looked as if she really might just be standing there in our room, talking to me about something that happened at work or something we saw on the street. Talking about anything. She did not look her age—she looked about fourteen. Moulin saw it, too. I know he did. He did not say anything but I could feel it in the way he looked at her.
Moulin said she looked
. I thought only an animal could be that way, but that is how he thought Nise looked. Savagely shy. I could see it once he said it. To me she just looked like Nise.
It was hard to say which of my poses were best because I could not see them all in the cheval glass. I think maybe one where I was lying on my side, up on one elbow, my back to Moulin and his camera. The indentation at my waist, the cleft my bottom knee made under the other—even I could see it was pretty when I glanced back in the mirror. Hair smoothed back from my warm face but down on my shoulders.
The thing about redheads is we do not really have eyebrows. That is how my face looked in the cheval glass, at least to me.
When we got out of Moulin’s studio, the first thing Nise said was, “The bottoms of your feet were filthy.”
We laughed about it. Maybe out of embarrassment, maybe out of relief. Maybe out of happiness over the money. Twenty francs for each of us.
“Would you go back?” I say.
“If we needed money?”
“You’re almost done apprenticing,” Nise said. “You’ll get paid a real wage soon.”
“But don’t you think it got easier the longer we were there?”
“It just seemed that way,” she said.
And I understood then that the whole thing had been different for her somehow. Because at some point when I was lying there on Moulin’s throw, I began to pretend. I know I did. I began to pretend that the thing he was asking me to do was no different from a thing I wanted to do myself. The thing Moulin wanted from me became a thing I wanted, and the way he wanted to see me—with the cheval mirror reflecting the filmy light from the roof and my hair spilling down over my shoulders—became a new way I wanted to see myself.
It became a bit like the way I feel each time I put on my green boots. They are just boots but they change the whole way I see myself. Because of their color, because they were a gift from a whore, because they signify something entirely different from shoes my mother and father gave me. Something.
Moulin wrote our names down. The made-up names we told him at first, as well as our real ones.
Mlles Louise Meurent 16 ans (dite l’Arc-en-ciel) et son amie Pâquerette (Denise Desroziers) 18 ans.
That is who we were for Moulin, Rainbow and Daisy. Somewhere in his studio it is written down.
ot the next day but
the day after he shows up outside Baudon.
This time I half expect it. But I should not say it like that, because while it does not surprise me to see him standing there, waiting for us, the sight of him is still a surprise to me. The waving hair, the loose way he stands, smoking in the street. The mustache that I now know hides crooked front teeth—I know because I felt them with my tongue.
His details surprise me.
Or maybe I am just happy to see him standing there.
Today I do not feel embarrassed by my filthy dress, I just take his arm and so does Nise. It is easier than it was the other day. He could be other places but instead he is there, waiting for us.
“What way do you take home from work?” he asks.
“It’s nothing special,” Nise says.
“All the same,” he says. “Montrez-moi.”
So we fall into walking in our style, three abreast, and we show him what we can: the clock place and the porcelain workshop around the corner from Baudon; all the clothing hanging under the sign of Le Goût du Jour (with dresses in every color from garish to drab); Pincemail Tourneur sur Boix et Métaux, where the workers wear caps and blouses; F. Descamps, with its three rows of men’s boots hanging on rods to the left of the door and three rows of women’s boots hanging on rods to the right of the door; the place on Rue des Marmousets where you almost always see carts but sometimes a horse waiting patiently, too, with checkered sacks in his cart; the orange and white cat at the beurre et oeuf shop on the quai; and lastly the place where we buy apple fritters to eat when we get near home. He buys six, two for each of us.
“Now the room,” he says. “Let’s see where the tour ends.”
“Why are you so interested?” Nise asks him, and I know she is thinking of whatever mess we left that day: dirty wash water from the morning, our night things. Though in truth the place is never really in disarray because we do not own enough to leave in disarray.
“I thought you were the one who invited me the other night,” he says.
“That was before.”
And I see the corner she has backed herself into. She invited him the other night knowing he would say no, as I did. We invited him to tease him only.
“Before she knew we’d be friends,” I tell him, and then I turn to her. “Let him see it, Nise,” I say. “Since he wants to.”
So we go up. He trails us up the five flights and then steps into our hole. But he does not pause on the doorstep, does not peer around carefully, examining or judging. Instead he follows us right in, takes the single seat on the spidery chair we offer him while we sit on the bed, so that the three of us can eat the apple fritters, still warm, from their papers.
Still, I look around the room to try to see it as he does. There are the smudged walls and the broken sconce beside the door. My green boots stand by my side of the bed, and our two better dresses hang on nails on the back of the door. The basin on the old dresser whose one leg is broken and propped up on a tin. Our washrags. A tiny china bird Nise brought from Toucy that she keeps on the table, along with the cheap carnets and pencils we cart around. Not much to see.
So we eat. And do not talk. Nise and I do not even pretend to be polite about the fritters. We just fall on them, eating them as quickly as we can, as quickly as we want for once, not trying to parcel out a single one to make it last.
“Really,” Nise says when we are done, when she is wiping her greasy fingers and mouth on her washrag. “Why did you want to come here?”
“I wanted to see where you live. Where you wash your faces,” he says, and nods once at the rag in her hand.
He is sitting at the deal table, where he has been going through my sketchbook. There is nothing new in it since the day we met him and I drew the glob of a cat asleep behind the window with
Repassage Tous les Jours
, so he looks at the old drawings. The horse that pulls the cart loaded with checkered sacks. Different buildings. More cats in windows. Flowers from the day I went to Toucy with Nise. Her mother had morning glories growing up some strings outside her kitchen window, and I drew them while Nise talked to her mother and played with Aimée.
“Does that mean you’re going to show us where you live?” Nise asks him.
“I see you like animals,” he tells me. “Animals and flowers.” Then he turns to Nise and says, “I’ll show you by and by.”
She makes a sound in her throat but does not say anything. I do not know if she feels caught out again, the way she felt the first time he showed up at our work, or if she feels he is trying to trick us. Maybe it is my pictures of her mother’s flowers and thoughts of Toucy that upset her.
“Can I sit there with both of you?”
He asks us both but I know he mostly means the question for Nise. He does not want her to be upset so he directs his attention to her, and when he comes to sit between us on the bed, she is the one he holds first.
I do not look away. I want to watch him kiss her. And in a moment or two I see he is not the same with her as he is with me. It is a different kiss he gives her and takes from her.
I know I cannot feel the kiss, but there is something quieter about the way he explores her mouth. I sense the same deliberateness, the same hunger that I feel with him, but still the kiss is different.
Or maybe he is not different at all, maybe this is just what it is to kiss Nise. And maybe she is conscious of me watching, and maybe I am the one changing the kiss.
It is all so close I cannot tell.
When I think that I get up. I stand up—so I can walk away, so she can kiss him the way she wants. But when I start to step away, he catches at my hand and pulls me back. Toward him and her and our bed and that careful, thoughtful kiss. And he keeps my hand in his as he kisses her, as he touches her hair and throat and jaw with his other hand.
Whatever it means to him, whatever it makes him feel to keep my hand in his as he kisses her, I do not know because I stop watching. I stand there but I close my eyes, and in that way I give her privacy. I give her what privacy I can as he keeps me close to their kiss. I do not have to give him privacy—he does not want it.
With my eyes closed I cannot see my green boots or Nise’s china bird or our sketchpads on the table or the basin or the blue box of candles with
Éviter les contrefaçons
. Can only hear.
When it is my turn—when the sound of the kiss stops and he gently shakes me by my hand and pulls me toward him—my mind feels blank. Erased. But then I feel something else. Foolish about being kept beside him so long, annoyed by keeping my eyes closed in my own room. So I stand between his legs and I pull his hair back from his face. I keep my fingers tight in his hair and when I kiss him, I run my tongue as hard as I can over his teeth. I do not want him to confuse my kiss or my mouth or my taste with hers.