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I. Woman Before an Open Window
She's in one of those photo albums that I rarely open anymore. Plain blue vinyl cover; stick-on pages going yellow at the corners. Why would I think to open it? It's full of photographs of a foreign place, of a woman I lost contact with long ago.
But if I opened it, I would find her on an island off the coast of Sweden. The wind is blowing her fine brown-gold hair as she sits on a bench at the harbor. Our bikes are parked nearby, my old straw hat dangling off my handlebars. We're waiting for the ferry to the mainland or perhaps another island where we plan to take a ride. There are several photos like that in this album, of us waiting for a ferry; I must have taken them to pass the time and gotten passers-by to snap a shot or two of both of us. I'm smaller than she is, wearing glasses, my short blond hair ruffling in the breeze. We both look brown, cheerful, very young, though we were in our early 30s. Other photos show her in her garden, all rocks and files and ceramic pots, the pink roses and red and purple hollyhocks climbing up the side of her wooden yellow house. There are a few of her on the rocks where we used to sunbathe by the two pools at the edge of the island. She's never fully clothed in the garden or by the sea. She didn't like my taking pictures, I remember now. Perhaps that's why she's frowning, just slightly, but impatiently.
Most of the photos are from the first time I visited her, one week in June, more than ten years ago. A few are from thefollowing summer, when I stayed on the island much of the month of August. I hardly dared take any then. I didn't want her to think I was looking at her too intently.
None of my friends ever knew her, and few of them would remember if I said her name now. Monika Diechmann. "One of those straight women you were always fantasizing about?" Beth might tease, amused and sure in our love that those days are long behind me. Or Evie might say vaguely, "Wasn't she German or something?"
The photo album isn't where I would look if I wanted to remember her. I would probably pull out the packet of thin square blue envelopes, 12 in all, with a postcard of a whitewashed Greek village tucked on top. I might trace the lines of her script to try to recall what was important to her to tell me. I suppose I would find a lot of words about solitude and loneliness, about her longing for a full-time, absorbing creative life. Fingering the letters might give me back that sense of possibility and joy I had every time I found one in my letterbox; it might bring back her precise and considered speech. I might hear her say again, "Oh, Anne, how can I make you understand?"
If I really wanted to see her again, though, I would dig through the many boxes in the studio and find my sketchbooks from those two Swedish summers, when I first began life drawing. She would not be posing—she had her own work to do—but standing before an open window, the curtains white, diaphanous, blowing into the room, the sea beyond, roaring silently on the page. I think I would not be ashamed of the drawings, even though they were often rough and crude (the foreshortening a struggle then, the angle of her thin neck and narrow shoulders always a problem. I never captured her exactly.)
If I could find that box of sketches underneath everything that has piled up since, I would probably also find the watercolors that I did, single sheets placed carefully in a portfolio. I once planned to have them framed, for I thought them fresh and lovely. I wonder if I still would, or if I would be indifferent, would shrug them off the way we do so many things we loved once, as faulty and imperfect.
It seems longer ago than ten years that I first met Monika. At the time I was finishing up a six months' stay in Norway, where a Fulbright had given me the chance to take a semester off from my position teaching art history at a small college in Minnesota. A few years before, I'd finished my dissertation on a circle of Norwegian women painters active in the second half of the 19th century. Now I was narrowing my research to study two of the most prominent of the circle, Harriet Backer and Kitty Kielland. In the large galleries of Oslo and Bergen and Stavanger, and in smaller provincial museums and private collections, I had looked long and hard at all the paintings of theirs I could find, and had read what I could about them and about the feminist movement in Norway at the turn of the century. I was preparing to write a monograph when I returned home, and perhaps some less academic articles.
I was an ambitious but not driven 32-year-old, full of great enthusiasm for my subject. I'd been teaching for about five years at my college and was hoping to get tenure soon, though most of my work had been on women's art, and the school was rather conservative. I was closeted of course, but not particularly miserable about it. I lived alone, and though nothing lasting had yet worked out for me, I was sure it would. In general things had worked out for me. Without thinking much about it, I would probably have considered myself happy and, except for not being able to talk about my personal life with most of my colleagues or family, quite well-adjusted and socially at ease. I was still pleased about having a Ph.D. and having some connection to the world of ideas and culture. I had come from a small town in Minnesota where people did not get above themselves, at least not very far, without being punished, either by God or gossip, so I was used to being modest about my accomplishments, which did not prevent me from being secretly proud.
Oslo, then, in early June, a cool bright summer evening full of delicacy and possibility. An acquaintance called Astrid, another art professor, had picked me up and was taking me to the opening of a show of contemporary Swedish women artists. Imposing as usual in a handwoven tunic and heavy wooden beads, Astrid lectured me until we got there on women's liberation and the female artist, a subject she had recently discovered. The gallery was packed with tall Scandinavians imbibing freely. The art was the usual mix, for that time, the early '80s, and place, of styles and subjects. A few sentimental figurative paintings of mothers and children, some nudes of men, meant to shock, a great, number of murky and jarring abstracts, and plenty of wall hangings and sculpture constructions making use of Swedish craft techniques. A few pieces had an obvious, even mythological female sensibility, such as the painting of a woman giving birth to the planet earth. Most, however, were reflections of current preoccupations with medium as opposed to subject matter. There was something huge and paint-slathered and industrial and thick and rope-twined and plastered about almost everything there.
There was only one artist, one set of paintings that drew me. Each of the six canvases was small compared to the rest of the exhibit, and each had the dominating image of a rock or a rocky island in the center of a stained color field that suggested the unsettling pale blue of sky or water, but that had no horizon. Around the rock, at the edges of the canvases, marched and spun meticulously rendered seashells and pebbles. The effect was one of lightness but not playfulness, a little vertiginous and very solitary.
I asked Astrid about the painter, whose name I could see was Monika Diechmann.
"She's not really Swedish, you know," Astrid whispered. "Some of the others seem to think she shouldn't be in the show. Her mother's Swedish, and she spends her summers in Sweden, on some island off the coast near Göteborg, but she's really German, and most of the year she lives in Cologne."
I went over to the woman Astrid pointed out. She had a perfectly oval face with a broad brow, on a fragile, even spindly neck. Her brown-gold hair was pulled back into a knot, and she was wearing thin gold hoops. Her eyes were large and light green, slightly protuberant with thin bluish lids. She had on some lipstick and was wearing a cream knit pullover that showed a naked brown shoulder. If it had not been for her tan, which was quite dark, she might have looked like a Madonna from a Northern Renaissance painting.
I'd learned Norwegian to pursue my research, but was still better at reading than speaking, for almost everyone I worked with in Norway spoke perfect English. I stumbled even saying something simple to her, namely that I found her work interesting, and she answered me, in a clear, steady voice, in English. Her accent was German.
"And what interests you?"
"The translucency. Everything around the island shimmers with light. The seashells look as if they have tiny bulbs inside them."
Afterward, when Astrid asked me what we'd talked about, I told her that Monika had said, "Thank you for not asking what it all means."
We had talked instead about technique and had quickly come to an agreement that we did not care much for anyone else's art here but hers. "And are you an artist yourself?" she asked me.
"No, an art historian. A professor." I told her about Harriet Backer and Kitty Kielland and the research I had done and was doing on the circle of women painters in Norway a hundred years ago.
I was explaining to her how thrilling it had been for me to discover the existence of this group and to see the ways in which women had helped each other in the earlier wave of the feminist movement, when Monika interrupted, "And weren't there any women who were not part of this circle?" She had a quizzical, not unfriendly look.
"Yes, there was one. At least one. Oda Krohg. She doesn't fit into my research very well. She was not a spinster who saw art as the only alternative to being a governess. She was not quite respectable. She married young and had two children, then began to study painting with Christian Krohg, the bohemian painter and novelist. She divorced her first husband and married Krohg, and had two more children. She was the girl in the bad-boy gang of the 1880s."
"Why don't you write about her?"
"Because I'm interested in the larger picture, not the anomaly."
Monika's broad brow knitted, as if she were trying to understand. "But the important thing is, do you like her paintings?"
"I like her paintings almost more than anyone's," I admitted.
"That's very strange then, that you only write about Harriet Backer and Kitty Kielland."
"I like their paintings too," I said, but Monika turned away. She surveyed the room, which had gotten even more stuffy and crowded, and she waved her hand at the walls. "I wonder," she said, "in a hundred years, if this will be called a circle? If I will be mentioned as part of a circle of Swedish women painters?"
"It's easier for art historians to see painters in groups" I said. "Those outside the groups sometimes don't get seen."
"I want to be seen. And yet I feel I have nothing in common with them," she said, fixing those large light eyes on me. They were the color of just-peeled green grapes, and that shape too, underneath the thin eyelids. She was so delicate that it seemed she might break, but when I looked at her hands I saw they were long-fingered and strong. I found myself wanting to take hold of one of them. "Not as a woman, not as a painter," Monika said, almost wistfully, looking around.
"Oh, I hate that kind of opportunistic person," Astrid said afterwards, dropping me off at my rented room. "Doesn't want to call herself a feminist, hardly even a woman, yet is perfectly happy to be asked to exhibit in a show called Swedish Women Painters. I mean, she's not even really Swedish!"
"She lives there three months of every year," I protested. "On that island. She said I could come visit her next week. Before I leave for home."
"She asked you to come stay?" Astrid stared. "Are you sure you didn't misunderstand? You only talked a few minutes. And all the Swedes have been complaining how unfriendly she is."
Silently I held out my hand. In it was a tiny slip of paper, and it said, in tiny letters: "Monika Diechmann. Take the train to Göteborg. Walk to the bus station and take the bus to the ferry dock at R. Take the ferry to A. Anyone can tell you my address."
The island of A. was the last stop of a ferry that traveled through an archipelago of small stony islands. A. seemed, as we approached it, to rise straight out of the sea, a pyramid of rock with pastel houses scattered up and down its slopes and red boat sheds clustered around the natural harbor. It was midafternoon, all sparkle and light, the scent of diesel oil, fish, and the ocean mixed together in the sunshine. I stepped over fishing nets on the dock and avoided children and dogs. As a stranger I found it all looked festive and yet unwelcoming, the way a new place can seem to be. I had been traveling, by train, bus, and ferry, since 6 this morning.
I had written a card to Monika to tell her the day and approximate time I'd be arriving, but she wasn't there to greet me at the dock. I asked a fisherman working on his boat where I might find her. He jerked his head up the hill, without saying anything, and I began to walk along the dock, past a small store and a line of red-painted boat sheds, and then up the only street I could see, a narrow winding path paved with large stones and occasional steps. From this path other smaller paths led off, to painted wooden cottages, some rather shabby, some bowered by climbing roses and clematis, with cats in the windows and weather vanes on the roofs. I asked the few people I met on the path about Monika's house and they always pointed up, and higher.
What if she hadn't been serious about the visit? What if she'd forgotten all about my coming? What if the postcard I'd sent hadn't gotten here? What if she wasn't expecting me, didn't want me? What if she didn't live alone or had a lover here?
I had told my landlady in Oslo so gaily that I was going off to Sweden for a week. I had told everyone I knew. It had made me feel happy and special and as if something amazing were about to happen. I had held in my mind the picture of the dancing seashells around the mysterious rock and the picture of those light green eyes in the brown face.
There was one last house, high up on the hill, with an unhampered view of the sea. It was yellow and had been newly painted. There were small-paned windows, red shutters, a garden in back, protected by a dry stone wall with plants growing over it and in the crevices. I walked the last steps up the path, and up the stairs of the red porch with its potted geraniums. Knocked on the door. I could smell the ocean,' the salt of it, in every breath I took. There was no answer, and unsure of what else to do, I sat down on the porch and after a moment, fell into a doze.
"Oh, there you are," she said, waking me up, coming around the side of the house, pulling on a shirt over her bikini bottom. "I was working in the garden."
She pressed her body quickly close to mine and kissed my cheek. She smelled of nut oil and dirt. I felt her breasts, careless, under the open shirt.
"Did you get my card?" I said.
"Oh, yes. How amazing that you actually came!" A sudden shyness seemed to come over her. "I don't have many visitors. None, in fact."
I still dream sometimes about the house that Monika lived in, and when I dream, it's always summer, always June. I still wake wishing I lived there, in that house that managed to be large and light and high on a stone hill, and yet secretive and hidden too, surrounded by flowers and dry stone walls, wound through with cubbyholes and crannies. Downstairs it was old-fashioned, with heavy furniture and objects left from earlier generations. There was a sunporch with a writing secretary piled with bills and letters, two pantries, one of which had been remodeled into a bathroom, and a dark, rather dingy kitchen, which had only a two-burner stove and a small refrigerator. There was a dining room, its carved table also piled with papers and boxes and laundry to be sorted and, through etched glass doors, a large parlor, with crumbling leather chairs and horsehair settee, a tall clock with a painted, unmoving face, a piano that was out of tune, worn thick red carpets, and shelves of leather-bound books and old music scores and literary journals. There was a large tile stove, its tiles decorated in bright folk fashion, like something you might see in a painting by Carl Larsson, but sadly stained with smoke. It had been years since the house had been in frequent use. Most of the journals, brown-edged, were from the '50s, when Monika's uncle had lived here for a time, she explained. "He was running from the world" she said. "He was a book critic who wanted to write a novel and never did."
Upstairs, however, all was light and bare. In the small room Monika showed me to, there was only a single wooden bed painted French blue, with a yellow-striped comforter. A painted table and a brass lamp. A straight-backed chair. No closet or dresser, but an old-fashioned washbasin and pitcher, set under a window that faced the sea. When Monika opened the shutters, I had a view of other islands of the archipelago and could hear the waves crashing below on the rocks. There were two other small rooms like it upstairs, one of which Monika slept in, but they were above the garden and faced the harbor from which I'd climbed. Red and purple hollyhocks had climbed up nearly to the second floor. When I looked down I saw a white wrought iron table and chairs in the midst of roses, geraniums, and stock. The largest room, once a bedroom, had been turned into a studio, which Monika called her atelier. Like my room, it fronted the sea, and its windows, tall and narrow, small-paned, in a row, took up most of one wall. The windows were slightly open, and the strong fresh ocean breeze came in and blew the long curtains, of some thin ivory material, perhaps chiffon, in streamers toward us.
"I work here every morning," said Monika. "Sometimes all day."
The smell of oils and turpentine mixed with the warm ocean breeze; there were two old walnut tables covered with paints and sketches and shells and stones. A chair or two, and a bookcase haphazardly filled with battered and interesting art books in several languages. Large canvases everywhere, too much to take in all at once.
Monika stood before the open window, looking out to sea, breathing deep, and her darkly tanned body, still unself-consciously half-nude, made a shape, cut out of shadow, in front of the light.
Then she turned and smiled at me. "Do you think you could be happy here?"
The island did not have beaches, sandy or otherwise. The edges ran for the most part straight down to the sea, except at the natural harbor, which was protected by a breakwater. This harbor was the focal point of the small community; it had the store and post office and one café; it was where the foot ferry arrived and departed, and where the small fishing boats jostled uneasily with the sailboats and cruisers of the summer people and visitors.
No one swam at the harbor. In fact you couldn't swim off the island at all; the rocks were too steep and sharp and the currents too unreliable. Parents took their children to one end of the island, where the rocks sloped in into a shallow inner pool and where someone had constructed a slide. The other place to take a dip wasn't far from Monika's house, though it was a bit of a scramble down over the hill and over a series of vertically angled slabs of smooth dark rock. Because it was hard to get to, it was not much frequented, and certainly not by many of the summer visitors or children. However, it was one of the nearest places on the island to the sea, and the area had flat dark rocks all around it, perfect for sunbathing. As I've said, you couldn't actually swim in the sea. There were, instead, two pools. One was shaped like a bottle or a vase. It had a channel carved by the waves which led to a pool, filled with green cold water, that was about shoulder high. Even though it wasn't terribly deep it would have been impossible to get in or out of without the help of a ladder, which had been bolted to the side of one of the smooth rock slabs. The other pool was much shallower and lay even closer to the water and was more subject to its movements. For the larger pool was protected by its channel from the roughest of the waves.
This was not true of the shallower pool, although at first I found it the quieter, warmer, more restful place to be. I had, the first day I went to the ocean with Monika, lowered myself down by the ladder into the vase-shaped pool and had been shocked by its coldness, its tartness. I hesitated and then plunged: Immediately there was a fresh stinging at my eyes and nose and when I surfaced I had the taste of salt adhering to the corners of my mouth.
I had never swum in salt water before.
I did not find it refreshing. I felt as if my heart had stopped from the cold plunge and from the harsh briny taste of the sea. I had nothing to compare it to, for I had only swum in lakes and ponds before, and they were freshwater, though often muddy and full of bugs.
I got out immediately, gasping. Although the air was warm, my body had goose bumps and even looked slightly bluish. As my skin dried, a faint white powder remained on the surface, and when I tasted it, it was salty. Of course the sea is salt, you learn that as a child, but a book fact is different than a physical one.
Monika had plunged in after me and was still there, splashing and standing up and and swimming small strokes around the rim of the pool. Her brown head poked out, seal-like, and she kept her face upturned and laughed at me. "Too cold? No, it's just right. It's perfect." She had taken off all her clothes, which only meant her bikini bottom and short T-shirt, before she went in. I had only my conservative one-piece tank suit, which I now rolled off wetly into a lump, and a towel which I wrapped tightly around me until I was warmer.
After a few minutes however, having gotten my breath back, I thought that I would try the shallower pool. I edged down to it and put in a foot. There was only about four inches of water, and it was warm. I sat at the edge of the pool and put my feet in. I looked at the small animal life that was flourishing there; found a crab and several snails. I had not put my wet suit back on, and now the sun beat down on my back. In a minute I would have to smear on sunscreen, for I was fair and burned easily, but for just this minute the warmth was seductive. Behind me I could hear the strength and movement of the sea, slapping lightly and then harder at the rocks, a rhythm that went on unceasingly and yet always with new variations, softer, softer, now harder, harder, harder.
"Anne," called Monika.
She was standing on a rock directly above me, still wet from her swim, the water dripping off her brown-and-gold triangle and down her legs. Her hair was streaked back from her forehead and she was drying her ears with the towel.
"Anne," she said again, more forcefully, and pointed behind me.
But I didn't turn for an instant, didn't understand. I simply sat and stared up at her, at her dripping body, brown all over, at her triangle almost above me, at her finger pointing.
Only at the last second did I turn and face the sudden large wave, which roared up the side of the rocks and hit me full in the face with a cold sweet hand. I had my mouth open somehow, perhaps in surprise, and so I swallowed some of it, and it got in my eyes and my nose. And yet, this time, it was not such a shock. In a strange way, it was exhilarating, this smack, this drenching, this sudden flare of cold in a hot world. It was like waking up, like being kicked into being more alive.
"Oh," I said, when I could speak, and then "Oh" several times as I could see another large wave forming. I jumped up and scrambled to where Monika stood, laughing at me, and watched the next wave hit where I had been.
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Posted November 4, 2009
No text was provided for this review.