Henriette spied the American tourist coming from a long way off. Later she would remember it as the moment when she knew what she needed to do. In truth, at that moment, all she was aware of was the moment. She rested her head on Félix’s shoulder as they sat on the bench in the back of his pedicab, parked at the curb in front of her kiosk on the Quai Malaquais. His shirt was still damp with sweat and he smelled of mint chewing gum and tobacco and a day of pedaling. It wasn’t unpleasant. It was Félix, and that could never be unpleasant.
They had been laughing, but they were quiet now. It was her favorite part of the day, and she tried to stretch the moment out. Late on summer afternoons, just as she started to think she couldn’t take another insipid tourist, another moment listening to the cars and scooters, another breath of exhaust, Félix would arrive. When she couldn’t stand another hour under the watchful dead-eyed windows of the Louvre across the river that judged her as they separated her from everything she wished she was, he would come to her kiosk and park the bike at the curb and they would climb onto the passenger bench and rest awhile. There, in the shade beneath the pedicab roof, he invented funny stories about passersby and whispered them to her, and she laughed. Above them the canopy of the plane trees was a patchwork of green leaves and blue sky.
Henriette sold oil paintings from the kiosk. Some were her own. Most were not. She sold small canvases that could be rolled to fit in a briefcase or suitcase, convenient for tourists. But she hoped, also, that a few Parisians would prefer original handmade art by an unknown artist over yet another print of a Seurat or Monet or Van Gogh.
The shade of the trees was getting longer, and soon she would pack up, and her kiosk would become just another in the line of shuttered green bookseller boxes along the wall above the Seine. Then Félix would take her in the pedicab and drop her at the flat and go back out looking for evening fares. Later, maybe, he would DJ at a house party or go to Gael’s studio where they were working on their album. While he was out, she would paint until the light was gone. But now, they rested together.
Up the street, along the pavement to her left, the American tourist came closer. He walked toward them, stopping at each kiosk for a moment and then moving on. She recalled the man from a group of six Americans she had seen in the morning: two couples in their forties and two children — a girl of about ten and a boy some years younger. She didn’t know if they had been a family of four and a couple of friends, or two families of three, or some other combination. But the man and the girl were father and daughter. Of that she was sure.
The group had been so obviously American, talking loudly in English as they strolled slowly along. But the man, with his hawk nose and spreading mustache, seemed something from the nineteenth century — a Russian baron, or an opera singer maybe.
The daughter, in cut-off blue denim overalls and a pink tank top, had walked a bit ahead of the grownups, and carried an expensive digital SLR camera on a strap around her neck. She was as quiet as the adults were loud, and she looked around with large eyes, as if absorbing every detail of this strange new place. Now and then she stopped and took a picture.
Henriette had been leaning against the wall beside the kiosk when the group passed by, and when the girl’s panoptic gaze fell on her, Henriette looked back and smiled. Shy, the girl turned away. But in that brief instant of eye contact Henriette knew that the girl had assessed her with the eye of an artist.
The girl had stopped walking and the rest of the group passed her by, except the man, who stopped as well. He wanted to browse Henriette’s paintings in the kiosk, but the others kept walking. He called to them, but they continued on. He called again.
“They don’t want to stop,” said the girl.
“I guess not,” he replied. He smiled and leaned down and whispered something in her ear and she smiled back at him, and the look between them held the continuation of some long-running private joke. Then he took her hand and they went off to catch up with the others.
Remembering this in the pedicab that afternoon, Henriette took Félix’s hand between both her own. She loved his hands, smooth, thick and muscular, the color somewhere between mahogany and coal, but paler on his calloused palms. She ran her index finger over the callouses, like rocks, worn thick and hard from manhandling the bike. But it wasn’t his hands she had been thinking of. It was her father’s hands, so unlike Félix’s, so long and pale and bony, with deep furrows between the knuckles, and fringed with coarse dark hair. Her father’s hands had been calloused too, worn hard from the corners of the bricks he laid. She had learned so much from those hands and their craftsmanship, their attention to detail, the hands that would tear down a wall that they had spent all day building, if they discovered that it wasn’t straight.
The tourist approached. Alone, he walked so differently than he had with his family. He outpaced the strolling sightseers with long, swift strides — swift, but not rushed. The man’s body, lean and compactly built, eased into each step the same way a distance runner eases into his racing gait. She saw that the strolling pace of the morning had been an accommodation for the others. Now, alone, he was himself, moving as he wanted to move.
He stopped when he arrived at Henriette’s kiosk, as he had at the others along the street. But this time he didn’t move on. He stayed, leaning in and considering each painting in turn. He had come back, Henriette saw, to browse her booth. She marveled at the single-mindedness, to come back hours later, along a street lined with similar kiosks selling similar paintings, to the exact spot, to finish what he’d started.
The man worked his way from one end of the kiosk to the other, giving momentary attention to every painting, lingering on a few. When he reached the end of the kiosk, he returned to the painting where he had lingered longest, then turned and looked expectantly toward the pedicab. Until that moment, Henriette had had the illusion that she was observing the man from cover, unobserved herself, but his glance now said that he had been aware of her all along.
She stepped down and approached him.
“How much?” he asked in English.
“One for twenty or two for thirty-five.”
“Two… okay. This one.” He pointed to an impressionistic Parisian street scene in the rain, with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
Henriette concealed her disappointment behind the neutral shopkeeper’s face she maintained for customers. The Eiffel Tower in the rain. She supposed that for him, the painting could be the key to unlock the memories of a happy summer holiday, and so maybe its typicalness served a purpose. Still, she had expected better of this man, somehow.
“And this one,” he pointed to another, a scene of the French countryside. A foreground of red poppies on green stems framed a golden field of grain. The white walls and red tile roofs of a farmstead stood in the middle distance, backed by a round-topped blue mountain ridge in the hazy background.
And although she knew, in truth, that this painting was no less ordinary than the other. Henriette couldn’t help but smile.
The summer before, Henriette and Félix had traveled to Marseille to visit Félix’s mother. Henriette had genuinely enjoyed it. His mother was welcoming and kind. She was a bit overindulgent of her only son, but in a way that only endeared her more to Henriette. His friends were funny, and Henriette could see that they loved him, and because of that, loved her as well. But he lived in Paris now, while they remained in Marseille, leaving the past as the only common ground for conversation. As much as Henriette wanted to be a good sport, there was a limit to the number of old stories she could sit by and listen to.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come?” Félix asked, on Saturday, a week into their stay. One of the things he had most looked forward to was his friends’ Saturday afternoon football game, which had been running regularly since they were boys.
“No, you go on. I’ll text you tonight and see where you are.”
“You don’t have to sit and watch, you know. You could play.”
“Go have fun,” she smiled and kissed his cheek. They’d been through this already. One of the reasons she’d wanted to come south was to paint, to experience the famous light of Provence, the light that had brought Cézanne and Van Gogh and so many others. She’d had little opportunity so far.
“Okay. Paint something nice for me.”
She took Félix’s mother’s car and headed north with a notion of where she was going that was both precise and vague: the broad strip of countryside north of the Durance river and south of the Luberon mountains. She would drive there, and then once there, she’d find a likely spot, and paint.
When she left the A51 near Pertuis, she rolled the windows down and let the summer air wash over her, warm and crisp and dry. At the roundabouts she took turns at random, trying not to think, but to let the feeling of the place seep into her. It was a land of vineyards, and tree-lined lanes, of cypress trees, and pines, and tall platanes, of broad fields of grain and green rows of unrecognizable vegetables. Medieval villages punctuated the farmland. The air seemed transparent in a way she hadn’t understood before, and the entire time she felt as if she had just put on new glasses, and could see clearly at last.
On a narrow lane she was forced to stop behind a car turning left, at a house — a compound, an old chateau maybe — an aging three story structure built right against the road. A high stucco wall, broken only by a wide iron gate, extended from the house along the roadside. Behind it, though the gate, Henriette could see an open area shaded by huge, ancient plane trees. The car ahead waited for someone inside to open the gate. Within the walls, beneath the canopy of the grand trees, two long tables were set for a party. A small, laughing group, comprising at least three generations of family or friends, bustled about, making things ready.The gate opened, car ahead passed inside, the gate closed, and Henriette drove on.
She chose turns at whim, seeking the spot, the thing she wanted to paint, knowing only that she would know it when she saw it. Then she saw it: in the arms of the junction of two lanes between the fields, a patch of flowers, poppies and some purple wildflower, grew by the side of the road. Beyond the flowers were fields of yellow-gold grain. Beyond the fields, a farmstead rose white and red among some trees, and behind it all, fading bluish in the haze, the ridges of the Luberon range under the blue sky and a thin streak of clouds.
Since childhood, one of the things she had liked the most about pictures — paintings or photographs — was the space outside the frame. The null space. The excluded context, left to be filled in by the imagination of the viewer. The few times that she had gone to see the actual place where famous pictures had been made, she had been disappointed, because the context somehow never lived up to what she had imagined. As she had learned to paint, she had realized that this was the real power of what she was trying to do: to situate the picture in an invisible setting, so that it extended beyond the frame, right, left, up, down, ahead, behind, and forward and backward in time.
As she stood and painted then, she wasn’t standing in the gravel by the side of the road, next to her boyfriend’s mother’s old Ford C-MAX. She was… somewhere else. She closed her eyes and breathed and opened them again and looked. The unruly patch of flowers in front of her could be a garden, the kind of garden she’d like to have, the back garden of her house, a house in a farmstead not unlike the one she saw in the distance. She was looking out past her garden at her neighbor’s farm. Beside her, curly-headed children played barefoot nearby, their mocha skin darkening in the sunshine. Behind her, in the house was a studio in a corner room with good light. On Fridays, she had a booth at the market in Lourmarin where she sold her paintings. She painted in the mornings and then picked up merguez and vegetables and the afternoon bread and and then played with the kids while Félix cooked supper.
The train car was only half full, and Henriette and Félix had a four-seat booth to themselves. They faced each other by the window. Provence receded and Paris approached at three hundred twenty kilometers per hour. Henriette leaned her head against the window, one leg stretched across the space between them, her foot resting beside Félix on his seat. Félix read Les Cafards by Jo Nesbø. Henriette watched the countryside flit past. She rubbed the side of his thigh with her foot.
“We should move there,” she said.
“Where? Bankok?” His mind was still lost in the streets of the book.
“Hah.” She rubbed his thigh some more. “No, silly. South. Provence.”
“Yeah, right.” He laughed, his eyes still in his book.
“No, I’m serious. I’d love to paint there. It’s true what they say about the light.”
He looked up. “I went to Paris for a reason. I don’t want to go back.”
“I’m not talking about Marseille,” she replied. “Somewhere out of the city. Lourmarin. Cucuron. Maybe Pertuis.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You want to leave Paris?”
“I’ve been painting in Paris my whole life. I don’t see it anymore. Besides, not tomorrow but… I thought… you know… I want to have kids someday. Don’t you? Wouldn’t it be nice to raise them somewhere where there aren’t so many cars? Where they could play in the grass? In the dirt?”
He didn’t go back to reading his book, but looked out the window for a long time. “I feel like a ghost when I go back there,” he said at last.
She didn’t understand.
“I love my maman,” he continued, “and I love her house. But there was this moment coming downstairs one morning where it was so familiar, the smell, the texture of the wall under my fingers. And I thought, this is how a ghost must feel, rattling around, haunting the places where it used to belong, after it should be gone. You can’t go backwards. I went to Paris to do something. Going back now would be defeat.”
“It’s not defeat.”
“I can’t go back until I’ve made it, or I’m going back a failure. You think I don’t see how my friends laugh when I talk about my music? They humor me.”
“They love you.”
“Maybe, but they don’t believe.”
“We wouldn’t have to go back. What about just south? The Luberon, or Aix-en-Provence?”
“Aix is not Paris.”
“How would you know? We didn’t even see it. Richard and Laurence invited us to stay with them, but we barely saw them for lunch. You wanted to stay at your mother’s. We didn’t have to. Not the whole time.”
“I know Aix,” he said. “I don’t need to stay with your friends to learn about it.”
They shot into a tunnel and she felt the air pressure change in the carriage as the sudden darkness fell outside the window.
“Not everyone works out of Paris,” she said. “We could find an old farm, a place with room for us both to have studios. People could come there to record. Like Aretha Franklin did at Muscle Shoals.”
“Everyone went to Muscle Shoals to play with the house band,” he said. “I don’t have money to build my own studio. But even if we had the money, I don’t have a name that will draw people to come work with me. I need that first, and where am I going to make a name? Paris.”
She had no answer. They shot back out into daylight and she watched the abutment of the tunnel rise suddenly, recede, and disappear behind them.
“Besides,” he said. “How would we buy this farm, you and me? The girl selling paintings on the street and boy hauling tourists on his bike?”
The tourist pulled a hundred-euro note from a sheaf of bills in his wallet and handed it Henriette. She rolled the two canvases, and tied and bagged them. As she handed him the paintings and his change, he made eye contact for the first time, and she saw the same eyes she had seen on his daughter in the morning. Except, where the girl’s eyes had taken in all things around her, the father’s eyes focused on one thing with a penetrating beam of attention. He looked Henriette in the eye for a moment and then looked away, as if the intensity of seeing with those eyes was too much to bear. Or maybe, after years of practice with them, a brief glance had told him all needed, or wanted, to know.
He put the change into his wallet, checked a notification on his phone, nodded a quick merci beaucoup and strode off in the direction he had come from. Half a block down he crossed the street and in an instant disappeared into the Sixth Arondissement.
“I’m going to close up,” she said to Félix.
“Five minutes more, love,” he said, smiling, and patted the bench beside him. “Come, I’ll tell you that man’s story.”
But she had already learned what she needed to know about the man. She turned and started packing up.
It was after three o’clock when Félix returned home and the room was very dark. Henriette lay awake in bed. She had gone to bed at midnight, but she hadn’t slept at all. She pretended to sleep as Félix brushed his teeth and used the toilet. He came into the room and undressed quietly in the darkness. She tried to breathe deeply and evenly, although she couldn’t know what her own breathing was like when she was sleeping. But then, as he slipped naked into the bed beside her she reached for him. She reached without even knowing she was doing it, as one at the edge of a high cliff might reach for a branch or the trunk of a young tree. He put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her closer and she clung to him, head on his chest, and inhaled his scent. She clung to him, hoping, searching, to find something, the thing, that would convince her not to do what she knew she would have to do.
She ran her hand across his chest and down his stomach, feeling the leanness of his days on the bike. He made a deep, satisfied noise, between a purr and a growl, that cut off with a sharp intake of breath. When he rose above her, a great shadow in the darkness of the room, she wrapped her calves around his thighs, her arms around his neck and pulled him down to her and clung to him as if she was trying to take not just his body but his soul inside her, to keep and carry with her. As they rocked together she let the feeling of him spread up and outward through her.
He was a conscientious lover, and she knew that he would wait. He would slow down, hold back, and wait for her. She gave herself to him, and he took slowly, giving back to her and soon she caught the swell of the wave that she would ride in to shore. She kissed him and pulled his face down to her neck. In time she felt the crest of the wave forming and she arched and threw her head back and closed her eyes and waited for it to wash over her.
But in the darkness behind her eyelids, the man was there. Not Félix. The tourist. His eyes penetrated her, opened her up and saw her, and the wave that she was riding ebbed away. She would have to start over. But it was too late for Félix to start over. His wave was cresting. His growling purr had risen and become ragged, the sign, she knew, that there was no going back for him. She threw her head back and gripped him and cried out and hoped that she sounded and felt the way she did when it was real. Félix’s growl rose to a deep moan that suddenly clipped off in a kind of bark. He stiffened, and then collapsed on her. She clung to him as the aftershocks subsided.
She was still awake when the sky started to get light. She got up and dressed. She knew Félix would not wake. He slept like stone — he had warned her once that she should throw a glass of water on him if the fire alarm ever went off while he was sleeping. But she was quiet just the same.
She opened her phone. In the SNCF app there was a single second-class seat left on the 7:07 TGV to Aix.
She stood at the foot of the bed. The sheet had slipped off Félix above his knees. One arm was thrown over his head. The gray light, coming in from the side, highlighted his great quadriceps, the neat grid of his belly, the vee of muscle between his hipbones, his member, soft and thick, curled across his thigh. She took out her sketchbook, with the thought of leaving him a drawing, as a gift. But if she did, she would cry, and if she cried she might change her mind. And what good was a drawing soaked with tears anyway?
She put the sketchbook away again. Another time, she hoped. But every choice forecloses on the other things one might have chosen instead, so she tried not to hope too hard. In her phone, she reserved the seat on the train.
Clothes and toiletries, her pencils and sketchbook and paint box, she packed in a small bag. She looked at her easel in the corner, the stretched canvases stacked against the wall, the portfolio cases with the finished works that she sold at the stall. There was no way to choose what to take and what to leave behind.
If Félix followed her, then they would move and bring it all. And if not?
She didn’t have the answer to every question.
Copyright © 2019, JP Fosterson. All rights reserved.