Saturday, August 14, 2021

Bérénice, part 2

It was another two days before Bérénice went to work again with Jean-Claude. This time, not only he but his mother smiled at her when she arrived. She had to pause before entering the studio, taken aback by the sense that she had been suddenly enveloped by a space that before had been resisting her. She wondered what the artist might have said to his mother about her.

Today, he wanted to progress to a more refined drawing than the sketches he had produced on the first day. He must already have been drawing before she arrived, because as she undressed this time, she watched from behind the screen as he carefully wiped off charcoal residue from each of his feet onto a rag, then rested one foot against his drawing board as he waited for her. From how he moved, she had the sense that he was enjoying the texture of the blank paper. Again, this was strangely touching to her.

She resumed her pose for him. This time, she found herself more occupied in examining the drawings and paintings arranged around the edge of the room. She had seen that his process was orderly and classical, unlike the plentiful artists she knew who made a point of breaking with the traditions of the Académie, but his style still had a modern boldness to it. His figures had a strength and liveliness that was more than life-like, as if their expression was being distilled out, purified.

Most of the drawings were studies—figures, architecture, or still-lifes—but the paintings seemed to be from a series, all of men and women in overcoats. They lived in a perpetual autumn, it seemed. The paintings fell into two types: in the first, a man or woman stood alone on a train platform, on a street corner, some other public place, their heads bowed or turned away into darkness. These isolated figures seemed to radiate an urgent signal, but Bérénice could not quite tell what it was—need? Pleasure in loneliness? Holiness?

In the second type of painting, the figures came together: the men and women clasped each other urgently, their figures filled the frame of the picture, their limbs were entwined, even if they had not shed their long coats and gloves. Here, too, there was that sense of obscure radiance, from each of the figures. This radiance was not different in kind; it had not been transformed in embrace: simply doubled.

Sitting still, breathing deeply, the warmth long since fled from her hands and feet, Bérénice marveled over these paintings, their mysterious ardor. And she recognized for the first time the evolution that her image would represent in this series: for she sat alone on her chair, wearing only a man’s belted overcoat, sitting with her head turned, as if looking away in regret—or as if someone had just called her name.

When she guessed her place in the series, she must have moved slightly, or done something else that communicated her surprise, for she found that Jean-Claude had set down his charcoal and was watching her face. When he smiled at her, then, it was if he had been following all of her thoughts for the past minutes, the way that she had fallen into the world of his paintings, and he was now thanking her for it.

Her smile in return was hesitant; the moment felt fragile, somehow. Quickly she recomposed herself, breaking his gaze. She took refuge in professionalism.

But to her surprise, as he picked up his charcoal again, he said, “You are from Belgium?”

He must have been asking around about her, she realized, because they had spoken nothing of this on the first day.

“Yes,” she said, “from the north…”

And to her immense surprise, they proceeded to have a perfectly pleasant and free-flowing conversation. His deep, blurred voice was shy yet inviting, his posture in his reclined chair increasingly relaxed. She began to realize that on the first day, he had been painfully conscious of his own physicality, and had been laboring to limit his motions to only the absolutely necessary. Today, he seemed to be fighting his body less, and consequently seemed less stiff and unhappy. When she took her breaks, this time he, too, carefully stretched his legs one at a time, rolled out his ankles, slowly rocked the balls of his feet against the floor to flex and stretch his toes. She became conscious again of how much of his vitality and expressiveness was concentrated in the lower half of his body, while his arms stayed tightly folded against his chest. She became conscious, too, of how tiring drawing was for him, how much more control and concentration it demanded from him compared to other artists.

Before she left this time, she offered again to share a cigarette and felt a surge of happiness when he accepted. She finished it with him slowly, talking about how she had made her way to Paris. When she passed the cigarette to him for the last time, she watched the way his lips closed around it gently. She resisted the desire to touch his cheek.

 “Next time,” she said as she readied herself to leave, “you will tell me about yourself.” And she smiled conspiratorially, as if they had already agreed that this would be so.

The look that Jean-Claude gave her in return was so genuinely blank that she laughed. At that, he pulled his mouth to one side and gave the little jerk of his head that served him for a shrug, since it seemed he did not like to move his shoulders.

Nonetheless, she thought she could tell that he was not really displeased. After all, he even addressed her by her name when he said good-bye. For the rest of the day, she savored the memory of his slow, careful voice enunciating the syllables of her name.






At a dark, low-ceilinged bar later that week, Bérénice received a pleasant surprise: one of the musicians performing was a black-haired guitarist with a rough, boyish handsomeness. This was her old friend, Vincent, who was blind, and yet had traveled to half the countries in Europe, playing in streets, bars, and theaters. She had least seen him two years ago, in Bruxelles.

When he reached a break, she ran up to the little platform from which he and his friends were performing. “Vincent! It’s me—Bérénice la belge!” When he registered her, he grinned and reached out a hand in her direction. She clasped it happily, and he let himself be pulled off the stage and over to her table.

“Sweet Bérénice,” he said, as she pressed a drink into his hands. “I’ve found you again; and have you charmed all the daubers in Paris by now?”

With his rough, curly black hair, ready grin, and compact form, Vincent reminded Bérénice of a clever sheepdog. He had been blind from an early age; his eyes were a clear light brown, but unfocused, and the left one sometimes drifted to one side. Nonetheless, he had his vanities: he knew that women, and men, liked his well-shaped hands and muscular forearms, and nearly always left his shirtsleeves rolled up in consequence.

He slipped a finger inside the rim of his glass to test the height of the wine before putting it to his lips and taking a grateful swallow.

Bérénice laughed. “Give me another few months; I’m still getting my footing. But yes, I’ve met people, wonderful people. In fact I think I am on the brink of making a new friend this week.”

“Oh?” Vincent’s head lifted a little, and his softly wandering gaze came to rest on her—on her mouth, she knew, more specifically than on her face. “A special friend?” he inquired, smiling.

Bérénice wriggled in her seat, with both pleased anticipation and a bit of embarrassment. “Maybe. I’m not sure yet. But he intrigues me.”

“Who is it?” He was leaning forward eagerly.

“Maybe you know him. Have you heard of the artist who paints with his feet?”

“Huh! I have. I wouldn’t have thought you’d be interested.” He stroked his chin with two fingers, speculatively; a gold ring glinted on his index finger.

“Oh? What have you heard of him?” Bérénice tried not to sound defensive.

“Bérénice, you like fun,” Vincent said.

“Well, so?”

“I’ve heard he’s a fine artist, but I’ve also heard that he’s, well, a bit sour.”

“Sour!” Bérénice frowned with indignation and clicked a fingernail against her wineglass.

Vincent was working to gauge her mood, now; he had tilted one ear in her direction. “Maybe not sour. But… a bit stiff. He holds himself apart. There are even rumors that he’s… religious.” He said this with a tone of exaggerated scandal.

Bérénice made a rude noise at him.

“Well, you must really like him; it’s not like you to pout like this,” Vincent observed.

Bérénice sighed. “Oh, I don’t really know what I want.” As she said it, she realized what she had, on some level, been hoping for from Vincent: a sign of approval, of understanding. She had been naïvely thinking of Vincent and Jean-Claude as belonging to a sort of brotherhood. But, she reflected now, they were two very different men. Picturing a conversation between the two of them, she could imagine Vincent coaxing Jean-Claude out of his diffidence—but it was just as easy to imagine him losing patience and drifting away, dismissing Jean-Claude as drab, sheltered.

Quickly she turned her attention back to Vincent. “I don’t mean to be sulky. You said what you’ve heard, which is what I asked you for.” She reached out to rest her hand on one of his. “But I think he’s just shy. And he does fascinate me.”

Vincent smiled and shrugged. “You’ll have to keep me apprised of your findings.” He leaned to place an affectionate kiss on the back of her hand.

“Vincent, you really do know everyone,” someone said. Behind Vincent had appeared a slender, brown-skinned woman with refined features and black hair down to the small of her back.

“Who is that?” Vincent said, and then, happily, “Isidore!” He had recognized her voice.

This was one of the two model sisters with whom Bérénice lived. They were Algerian, and had taken men’s names—Isidore and Simon. They were droll and languid, yet disciplined about their affairs; Bérénice found them congenial and amusing. Frequently they brought girls back to the apartment, but made surprisingly little noise when they did so.

Isidore exchanged brisk kisses in greeting with Bérénice and Vincent, then dropped down into a seat next to Vincent. She was wearing an overlarge white shirt and a pair of grey slacks, and held a wineglass and a lit cigarette in the same hand. “What are we talking about?”

“The saint,” Vincent said. “The foot-painter.”

“Oh?” Isidore blew out a stream of smoke and looked at Bérénice. “You took a job with him, didn’t you?”

“And what do you think?” Vincent pursued, before Bérénice could say anything. He was leaning forward, his ear turned to them, his blank gaze turned downwards.

“Well, I already told Bé that I think his paintings are good; but maybe she’s a better judge of that than me, now, if she’s been in his studio.”

“They are,” Bérénice put in, and Vincent gave her a smile. “Not just technique, but expression, too.” She thought of the painted men and women, embracing in mute ecstasy.

Isidore tipped her head from side to side. “But he’s tied to his mother’s apron strings,” she went on. At this, Bérénice frowned. “Well, I suppose that’s to his credit,” Isidore amended. “I’ve heard she’s been at death’s door more than once. But it makes him strange. He used to have more friends, people who were happy to help him go out. But he’s afraid to leave her, now.”

“So he used to go out?” Bérénice said. She found it hard to picture; it was as if he and his mother lived in a separate realm, a Dutch painting filled with ghostly light.

“When he wasn’t working. He works a lot,” Isidore said, gesturing with her cigarette for emphasis. “Again, to his credit.” Suddenly she turned to Vincent. “Vincent, what do you think of this? I think he worries for his mother—but I also think he is afraid he won’t be taken seriously because he’s a cripple.” Again, she emphasized each phrase with her cigarette. “So he stays away from parties, and drink, and he works himself to the bone to be taken seriously.”

Vincent blew out a puff of air. “Don’t ask me to speak for him. But yes, I think there might be truth in that. I—” and here he grinned self-deprecatingly “—I am a recognized type: the blind troubadour. People know what to do with me. But he’s at risk, you see, of being treated merely as a curiosity, a freak.”

He went on: “Here is my guess. I’ve never met the man, and I’ll never see his paintings. But I’ve met men who were like him, in some ways. So my guess is that he is a man who wishes he could disappear into his paintings. He would be happier, he thinks, if the world could see only his paintings and not him.”

Isidore was nodding seriously and pouring herself another glass of wine. Bérénice let out a sudden sigh and collapsed against her roommate, draping her arms around Isidore’s shoulders. The other woman gave her an ironical look. “Maybe it’s as you say,” Bérénice said through Isidore’s hair. But I’ll follow him in, as far as he’ll let me, she said only to herself.

By then, Vincent’s friends were calling for him to rejoin them on stage. He stood and felt his way around the table until he could find Bérénice and kiss her good-bye. He slid his hands down her shoulders until he held her fingertips and said, “If you’re not wholly bent on your holy man, won’t you favor me with your company later tonight, my Bérénice?”

As always, she found his candid smile and uncertain gaze piercingly sweet. With regret, she replied, “Maybe next week—if you’re still here, Vincent.”

He cuffed her arm. “You really are set on him! Well, good hunting. Come and find me next Thursday—if I’m still here, and if you haven’t yet joined him in swearing off worldly pleasures.”

She laughed, and he saluted her as a friend began to guide him back to the stage.


  1. Thank you! A great chapter again!

  2. OMG Sorry I'm so late to comment! This new story is fantastic, I love it! The setting, the details, two super devvy guys, it's all so good! More please! And I hope we get to see more of Vincent than just this once scene haha.
    Thanks so much for posting, it's good to see more activity here.

    1. I guessed you would say that about Vincent, DG. ;D Yes, he'll be back in this story, albeit briefly. Of course I have ideas for a bunch of his ridiculous picaresque adventures traveling around Europe, but I gotta focus on finishing other projects first!

  3. Another great chapter! I am intrigued. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Love them gossiping :) And the setting is really great, I enjoy it so much!