During her session with the balding sculptor, she was patient, even generous, with his ill-concealed wheedling after praise and reassurance. Even after she had to fend off several attempts to fondle her bottom, she emerged feeling virtuous and ebullient, and brought home mussels and a bouquet of rust-colored chrysanthemums for Isidore and Simon.
Isidore raised an eyebrow when she saw Bérénice bustle into the
apartment with her booty. “What are we celebrating?” Isidore was scrubbing at a
stain on her shirt by the sink, while Simon was sitting at their rickety table,
one leg drawn up onto her chair, eating a slice of sausage off of a knife. She
followed her sister in raising an eyebrow. She was younger than Isidore, and
wore her hair short. She had the same refined features, but was less slender,
with a rounded, muscular figure. In addition to gypsy girls, Greek sorceresses,
and so on, she was asked sometimes to pose as an Arab or Italian boy.
In answer to Isidore’s question, Bérénice declared, “Friendship!
Friendship, and beauty. And whatever wine Simon is drinking.” She stole a swig,
then began searching for a pot to boil the mussels.
“Have matters progressed, then?” Isidore inquired.
“With the saint of the studio?” Simon put in. Isidore must have
reported their conversation with Vincent to her.
“Mm…. yes.” Bérénice smiled down into the pot as she filled it
with water in the cracked enamel sink.
“Strange taste, for your first conquest in Paris—but who are we
to speak,” Simon said. “Is it that you like toppling idols? Or do you simply prefer
“That Vincent is no idol, and it struck me that you must have
toppled him plenty of times,” Isidore put in.
Bérénice snorted. “It’s true, Vincent is an easy catch—but a
sweet one. You know he never lacks for bedmates. I don’t know—don’t you ever
feel that the world is simply full of wonderful people, and all so different,
and love is the best way to taste that difference?” She swung the pot onto a
gas burner with an excess of enthusiasm; water splashed out one side. “Tch…”
Isidore exchanged an amused glance with her sister. “I can’t
disagree, but isn’t that another way of saying you prefer the unusual?”
“Usual, unusual… I don’t know. Don’t you also think that once
you love a person, they become, at the same time, the most unusual and the most
usual person you can imagine? Everything is new—but everything is also safe,
and close, and natural.”
“Bérénice, I can’t match your philosophizing, at least not
before dinner,” Isidore said. “But I’m happy for you, and I hope he gives you
the sweetness you deserve. You’ll have to keep us apprised as to how clever he
is… with his feet. Maybe we could learn some things. Simon, pour her a toast—to
love in new configurations.”
Bérénice was blushing, but laughingly joined the other women in
intoning, “To love in new configurations!” Each took her turn drinking from the
same hastily filled wineglass.
Then Simon pleaded, “Bérénice, light the stove! We need dinner!”
The next morning, Jean-Claude sent her a message by way of the young
boy whose family lived upstairs from his studio. “He says that after your
session, he can have lunch with you—as late as three o’clock,” the boy said,
looking Bérénice up and down with undisguised fascination. He must have been
about twelve years old.
Bérénice beamed. “Thank you! Here—buy yourself something that
will impress your school-friends.” And she pressed a coin on the boy, who
bobbed his head in thanks before hurrying away.
As for work that day, Bérénice had a treat: two sessions with
women artists, one a painter and one a print-maker. No pinches on the bottom or
lewd comments, today. Posing as they sketched, she felt a happy sense of
companionship, even complicity. The painter, a stout Russian with a vast knot
of frizzy blonde hair on top of her head, was voluble, and Bérénice cheerfully
entered into the flow of her stories and gossip as the artist made great
slashing marks on her paper with a red conté crayon. Several times Bérénice was
tempted to share that she was, herself, on the brink of a new adventure. But in
the end, she didn’t speak of it. She imagined that she was already communicating
that knowledge through how she held her body for the artist’s regard: with a
renewed sense of physical purposefulness and contentment. At the end of the
session, the Russian heartily clasped her hand and praised Bérénice’s vigor and
With the print-maker, who was silent almost the whole session,
Bérénice simply posed and thought of Jean-Claude. She remembered the long lines
of his face, the crease that formed in one cheek when he smiled, the pale
translucence of his eyes when she had looked into them for the first time—like
a cool grey crystal of agate. She thought of the stillness of his arms and
hands, their angular shapes half-hidden by his draping shirtsleeves; she
wondered again if they gave him pain. She thought of the strange elegance and
strength of his gestures when he painted; she wondered if he ever wore shoes… She
wondered if his mother had slept better, yet, and if there was anything that
might help her regain her strength.
She thought of the melancholy and respect, even awe, in
Jean-Claude’s voice when he had spoken about the mad Austrian painter with whom
he had had his erratic apprenticeship. She wondered how much his mother had
known of the painter’s rages. Somehow, she doubted that Jean-Claude would have
told Else the whole truth, for she could not imagine his mother permitting him
to return if there were any chance of physical threat. She wondered how much
Else might have given up to afford that apprenticeship; she wondered how much
Else might have suffered in her life, as a woman alone with a crippled child.
She wondered where she was from—her name, at least, was German—where her
relations lived, what had happened to Jean-Claude’s father.
And she wondered what Jean-Claude was painting today—and whether
he was thinking of her.
That night, she went out with Isidore, Simon, and several others
to a café where the musicians played tango music at night. While Simon danced
with her new girl-friend, a plump black dancer named Aïcha, Bérénice danced
with Isidore, laughing when she flashed her green eyes about the room
dramatically. Then they traded partners, and Bérénice let Simon whirl her about
the room. Then Isidore was back at her shoulder: “He wants to dance with you,”
she shouted over the hubbub of the café, pointing at a tall man with curly brown
hair, “but wants to know if you are a lesbian.” The man raised his cigarette to
them in an ironic salute.
Bérénice laughed. “Well, what did you tell him?” She was
sweating; she fumbled for a glass of water.
“I told him he could find out for himself.”
Bérénice swallowed her mouthful of water and rolled her eyes.
“Well, I’ll let Aïcha have you back,” she said to Simon, and went to the
He drew her back into the dance as the violin trilled. He was a
skillful dancer, and she liked the confident touch of his hand on her back, the
speed of his gliding steps across the room, even the sheen of sweat on his
brow. But when he tried to hold her eyes with his, she felt only a reflexive flicker
of emotion. For the remainder of the dance, she had to repress laughter at the
urgency with which he was trying to bore into her with his gaze.
In the end, they exchanged a few kisses: pleasant enough, but
uninspired. When he shrugged and exasperatedly gestured her back to her
friends, she gave an apologetic laugh.
She had already begun thinking about Jean-Claude again: plenty
of men were good dancers, she thought, but there was only one man exactly like