Authors: Maureen Gibbon
My impatience comes through in the kiss, and I want to be sure he feels it. There are things I want, too.
We know his
age now—thirty—and though he is not as old as we thought when we first met him, it is still true that he is closer in age to my father than me. Still, in his fawn-colored pants and special vests, even in today’s worn coat, he is nothing like my father. As people say, he is from a different rung of the ladder.
I think what it must be like for him to be there with us, two girls on a narrow bed, two girls in their work dresses, two girls who are not from his world.
But because we are not from his world, he can be anything he wants here with us. And however exotic he is to us, that is exactly how exotic we are to him. It is why he is stretched out on our quilt, talking as idly with us as Nise and I talk to each other. It is why he can say anything he wants to us.
“Just the thought of the two of you sleeping in this bed,” he says now, and shakes his head. “Now I’ll have the right place to picture it.”
“So that’s why you wanted to come here,” Nise says.
I do not say anything. It all makes sense now that he has said it. It is not the particulars of the room or even our poorness that he came to see. He just wanted to spy on us a little. Except it is not spying because he is right there with us. Picturing us and telling us about it.
Now he points to me with his chin. “The redhead can take it,” he says.
The comment is not tied to anything, and I think he will follow it with something about Nise because that is what he always does. I am the silent wife and she is the talkative one, I would exhaust him and she would renew him. But he does not say anything else. He just lies there on the bed with us.
What can I take, I want to ask. A joke? A cock? Or maybe just the idea of him wanting to sleep with the two of us.
Whatever it is he means, the words sound lewd to me. I know I am lying there on my bed with him and Nise, but his words still surprise me. Still shock me.
The redhead can take it
Nise does not say anything and does not meet my eyes. And because I cannot see her eyes, I cannot know what she is thinking. But something in the way she lies there, silently, makes me wonder if she is not somehow pleased that he said the crude thing to me. Not to her. Never to her.
I do know that whatever it is he has decided about me, it is something he has not decided about Nise. With her gentleness and her ability to renew.
That is what I see in the plum shadows beneath his eyes.
hat night after he leaves
, before we go to sleep, I see Nise has gotten her period. When she undresses, I can see her fiddling with the rag, even though she turns away.
Which means I’ll get mine soon. First her, then me, or the other way around—we bleed at the same time.
“Are you ready for the light?” she says when she is done.
So she blows out the candle. We had to start a new box tonight. We are out of La Favorite and on to a red box of Rat de Cave.
We do not talk about him.
Before she crawls into bed, when she is pulling on her oldest chemise, I see her backbone. The bones look like pebbles. Like a line of pebbles.
here was a time when
I was getting to know Nise that things were different between us. At least they were for me.
I had just moved into the room with her on Maître-Albert. I left my parents so I could do as I pleased, but things had ended with the man I liked and I was heartsick.
Nise knew it. She tried to be kind to me. I was sitting at the table with my head down on my arms and she came over and hugged my shoulders.
“I’ll braid your hair for you,” she said. “Didn’t you always like it when your mother did that for you?”
So she brushed my hair and played with it and finally made a crown of braids in it. At first when she was brushing my hair, I was still talking about the man. But then I stopped. It made my head feel so drowsy and good to have her fingers in my hair. Her hands felt like little birds at my temples, at my nape.
If she had leaned over and kissed my neck or reached forward and touched my breasts, I would have understood. That is how loving it all felt. And in a little while I wished she would touch me that way.
I tried to tell her. I did not say the words but I tried to tell her through my skin. Which probably just sounds stupid. But I tried to let her know how I felt. I tried to tell her through my skin that she could touch me more. That I wanted her to touch me. Like a lover.
But she did not touch me except to finish the braids and hug me again.
“You’ll feel better soon,” she said. “You’ll see.”
I did feel better soon. New things happened and I forgot about the man who caused so much heartache.
Men touching your sex, your breasts, wanting to bend you backwards with their embraces—it is easy to get those things. But someone’s hands in your hair so softly they feel like small birds—that confused me.
For a little while I thought I was in love with her, but then I understood. It was the touching I wanted. I did not really want her, I just wanted it done.
sign on the corner of
Rue Descartes and Rue Clovis:
MAISON D’ÉDUCATION DE DEMOISELLES
RUE DU POT DE FER 7
GRAND JARDIN POUR LA RÉCRÉATION
I wonder, where did I get my education?
From my parents. From the whores my mother sewed for. At Baudon.
And the streets can be a garden, in a manner of speaking.
hat he is not what
he said he was goes without saying. That he was more than what he claimed—we understood that. Not a tax collector, which he already admitted, and also not Eugène and not from Gennevilliers, which we guessed. Still, we do not know the whole colossal extent of it until he takes us there to Rue Guyot. The studio itself is nothing—a shabby building, surrounded by depots. But it is filled with paintings, some framed, some not. Some hang but most just lean against the walls.
What does not make sense is why someone like him would want to lie. I know why Nise and I lie. But why lie if you already are something in the world?
We look and look. Of course I like the small, funny sketches of cats—he showed them to us first.
“Why didn’t you just laugh at me the day you saw me drawing?” I say when I see one watercolor of a calico. “What a joke it must have been.”
“Why would I laugh? You saw something and wanted to draw it.”
But it must have been a joke to him. Part of the game.
As we look around we cannot help but notice the area he has set up by the windows. It is its own little room within the room, and it could just be a place to sit or rest but it isn’t. For one thing the blue divan is out away from the wall, on display in the room, and a big cheval glass is positioned so it reflects the light from the windows onto the divan. When I see it I smile and shake my head a little.
“What does that remind you of?” I say to Nise.
When he looks at us, I know I should not say anything, but I do. “Another studio,” I tell him.
“A place on Rue Richer.”
“You mean Félix’s? Do you know him then?”
“We don’t know him,” Nise says. “We went there once.”
“Did he take pictures of you?”
“The two of us,” I say.
He goes to a cabinet then and pulls out some cards. Brings them to a table by the window to show us.
“These came from Félix Moulin.”
One card shows a sullen young girl. She is looking off away from the camera, but even so I can see her expression, her flat eyes. You can just make out the side of her breast.
The second photo is as different from the first as it can be.
It shows a bare-breasted young woman seated sideways on a chair, her arm bent, resting her head against her hand. Her skirts are pulled up and you can see the sides of her legs, the top crossed over the bottom, the bottom knee pointing forward a little. She still has her white stockings on, and her garters buckle just above her knees. There is a dark shadow between her legs where her sex is, the smallest of spaces peeking out from beneath her top thigh, but because of the way she is sitting, her sex is hidden.
Nothing shows between her legs, but you look—you have to look because that is what the picture is about.
That small shadow of her sex.
In spite of the shadow, it is the woman’s face I cannot stop looking at. Someone has made her cheeks red, along with her lips and necklace and a stripe in her skirt. They put the red toward the front of her cheeks, as if she were blushing. But when I look at her face—the face underneath the painted-on blush—I can see the real her. Instead of rosy and merry, the way someone wanted to show her, she looks serious. Tired. Maybe a little sad. It is hard to say because she is looking off to the left and people always look a little sad when you see their glance fall somewhere else. When you catch them thinking, being quiet in themselves.
He sees me studying the photo and tells me, “She was popular a few years ago. Augustine.”