Read an Excerpt
From Part One
I must tell you, it was always about money.
The first important thing he said to me was this: "You work too hard."
Of course, it was also about sex.
And since I'm a painter and it affected my life and my work, you'd have to say it was about art.
Let's begin here. I used to be a moderately successful painter. Not anymore. Now I'm a very successful painter. He certainly had a lot to do with that.
It goes to show that sometimes doing someone else a good turn brings good results.
This is how it started.
I have a friend, an old friend from art school, who opened a gallery in Provincetown. In my opinion the last thing Provincetown needs is another art gallery. The idea of it made me feel I was going to drown.
My friend's husband has a software company, they live in Cos Cob, Connecticut, which is at least one too many C's for me. She gave up painting (well, she was never very good anyway) and he wants her to have a project of her own. Which he's perfectly willing to fund because he's a decent guy, and after all those years running PTA bake sales and giving dinner parties, she deserves it. I guess I shouldn't talk, I took money from a man. But at least it had nothing to do with cooking.
The idea of Louisa opening a gallery bored me to the point of vengeance. At times like this, my mind races. It must be that I'm so furious at the person boring me that I want to punish them. Which must be why I said to her, "Louisa, I have a much better idea. Why don't you open a restaurant in Provincetown instead of a gallery? You could call it the Inferno. You could have waiters and waitresses dressed as devils, and everything you served could be very high in fat and refined sugars. You could have a sign, 'No natural ingredients.' Just think how happy you'd make people. The air would be full of smoke! Whipped cream on every plate: mayonnaise in every bowl...."
Then I looked at her. She's a very nice woman. She's a terrible painter, but I admire a kind of energetic patience that you could say is her approach to life. She's good to me; she's bought a lot of my work; she keeps trying to set me up with guys who are doing something really new with or on or maybe to the Internet. I could see in her eyes that I'd hurt her, and I was feeling so wretched I had to do something extravagant to make up for it. Just to avoid the accusation that people are always hurling at me: "You don't take me seriously. You don't think my work is as important as yours."
Which, of course, I usually don't, and what I want to say is, "No, I don't take your work as seriously as mine, but I think you're a much better person than I, which is why you don't work like I do. I mean, look how I live! It's crazy. You wouldn't want to live the way I do. Not everybody has to be an artist."
But I'm usually saying this to someone who does want to be an artist, so I'm hurting them, if I do say it, and if I don't it's just one of those wedges of silence that grows until something happens like my outburst to Louisa about her restaurant, which I still think was a good idea.
I really envy brain surgeons. People aren't always coming up to them on beaches, in coffee shops and saying, "You know I do a little brain surgery myself. Maybe you could come over you have a lot of spare time, brain surgeons are able to make their own schedules and look at a brain I just operated on. I really think it's going somewhere."
Lucky, lucky, brain surgeons.
When I realized I'd hurt Louisa, I felt I had to make it up to her and I told her that I really thought a gallery was a great idea and when she asked, I said of course I'd show some paintings with her. And when she said, "This is my idea. This is what will make it really unique [please, Louisa, put the knife just an inch or two higher, just below the breastbone on the right, thanks]. I thought we could have the artists give slide talks about their work." I was feeling so wretched about what I'd said that I told her it was a superb idea and I'd be delighted to do it.
And you know, it happened, as it always does. When you say you'll do something in a year, you always think either there'll be a natural disaster, or a bankruptcy, or someone will forget. And then the time comes, and there you are: with something else required of you.
There I was in the Louisa Ryan Gallery in the middle of August, giving a slide talk. People did come. She was right to count on the critical mass of guilt that certain high-minded people feel on vacation. Having to sit through a slide talk made them feel a little bit punished.
I was with my work, in my work, but also with people, which is very unusual. Usually I'm in my studio, painting, and being quiet, so when I get a chance to talk publicly sometimes I get a little carried away. I was talking about a painting of mine called The Artist's Muse. In the background there's a lot of emptiness. De Chirico emptiness, that kind of spacy gray green. And a shadow of a table. In the foreground, a man wearing only his underwear, a very beautiful pair of green and white striped silk boxer shorts. I had a wonderful time doing those shorts, the pearliness of the white, absorbing that dim light, and the green stripes, the green of an Anjou pear, but waxier, relating to the empty green of the background. In the middle of that pearly white/pear green field of the boxer shorts, there's a lot of brush work, a swelling and then just the tenderest hint of pink.
In one hand, the guy's holding a black cast-iron frying pan. I enjoyed painting that very much the blackness its own distinct black, with a touch of green, the circular shape, the hard edges of the handle. In his other hand, he's holding a white egg.
That night when I was giving the slide talk, I spoke a little bit about the composition of the painting, but I could tell no one was really interested, what they wanted to hear about was painting an erection. Did I have a model, and who was he, and what did I do to give him one, was it just one, or a lot of them, and how did they last? Except, of course, they were too decorous to ask those questions right out they did ask the one about the live model, though, which implied all the rest. But I wasn't going to dwell on that. In fact I didn't have a live model, which accounts for all the brush work. I did say that, and it got a big laugh. Also I said, "I was painting from memory. In the great tradition of Romantic landscape painting. The remembrance of things past." Another big laugh.
I'm sure there's an eternal punishment designed for people who are fed by "the big laugh," who'll say anything, almost anything to get it. Or maybe not. Maybe it's not worthy of damnation at all. Maybe it's a very pure act, a very generous act, you give yourself up to your audience, you're all together, carried up on a wave, and you really do lose yourself.
Sometimes, when I'm in the middle of going for the big laugh, or the next big laugh, the wave crashes and I look around me and see only flotsam and jetsam: old condoms, Tampax holders, empty bags saying Cheetos or Made in Taiwan. But that wasn't happening. The wave wasn't even beginning to crash. So I said, "You know, folks, there's a tradition that male painters get to take advantage of: the woman who's a combination model, housekeeper, cook, secretary. And of course she earns money. And provides inspiration. All over the world, girls are growing up dreaming of being the Muse for some kind of artist. Looking at their bodies in mirrors thinking, 'Maybe some man would like to paint that.' Reading French cookbooks that tell them how to make really succulent little dishes out of horsemeat with a lot of bay leaves and wine. Preparing physically and spiritually to carry his canvases to a hard-hearted gallery owner, their muscles straining, their eyes brimming with shed or unshed tears. Now I ask you, mothers and fathers of America, are your boys dreaming of these things? Where, I ask you, lovers of the arts, where are the male Muses?"
And he stood up, just there, in front of everyone, and said, "Right here."
I flipped on the light. That was the first time I saw him.
A few people stayed around to talk to me, but he was standing near the projector, and everyone seemed to feel they ought to leave us alone. When they did, he said to me, "Let me take you to dinner. We'll go to the most expensive place in town."
I said, "What's the most expensive place in town? I have no idea."
He said, "That's the kind of thing you'll get to know."
I suppose you want me to tell you what he looks like.
It's hard for me to remember looking at him as a person whose body I didn't know, a person I'd never seen without his clothes on. Thinking about his hair right now, what I'm focusing on is what his hair is like as I'm looking down on it when his head's between my legs.
How did I get to know what he looks like? How can anyone answer that question, as if that someone always appeared the same way, an image without a context. How did the knowledge of his body come to me? It wasn't all at once, it must have been gradual, in fragments. But in what way?
That first night, he was wearing jeans and a blue oxford cloth shirt. I remember because later that night I had my face against the shirt for a long time. He was a little less than six feet tall. I thought he must be around fifty. He was wearing white sneakers, but they weren't too clean. Not filthy, but not new in that way that makes you wonder if the guy's gay, or at least bi. Which in this day and age, the plague years, must give a person pause.
As we walked out the door, I said to him, "What's the difference what the most expensive place is? Don't you want to go to the place that has the best food?"
He said, "I'm trying to make a point. About myself and you. I want you to know that I'm a man who has quite a lot of money."
I've told you what he looks like, which is more than I wanted to do. I wanted to get on with the story. Now that's out of the way. But I'm not going to tell you his name right now. I'll just call him B.
We were walking up Commercial Street in Provincetown. Whatever my chic friends say, I love Commercial Street on a summer night. One of the reasons I love it is that it so relentlessly lowers the tone. All those tee shirt shops and saltwater taffy shops and fudge shops. All those places selling plastic whales. Irish families from Western Massachusetts buying sweatshirts and eating ice cream. Secretaries spending their two weeks' vacation at a guest house, sitting under umbrellas, eating their guacamole burgers, looking a little disappointed; it's dawned on them they got it wrong, there isn't a chance they're going to meet men here. Because, of course, Provincetown is a gay town, which saves this part of the Cape from being unbearably wholesome and full of family values even left-wing family values like the Vineyard, and it's a little dangerous, a little over the edge a drag show on every block, a pair of sequined shoes (size twelve) for every hundred full-time residents, so it's not quite decorous enough to make it like the Hamptons.
I'd been walking up Commercial Street for years, but this was new. Now I was walking with a man with a lot of money. He had his arm around me. No, not his arm, he had his hand on the small of my back, a little spot of warmth, delicious.
There's something about walking down a street with a man who's selected you, making his preference public and obvious. You don't have to indicate anything, because he's the one who's sure he wants you, you're not sure yet if you're going to take him up on it. You're walking as a chosen woman. You watch yourself being watched, you're being watched by him, yet already chosen, so you don't need to watch him at all. You can't possibly lose. He's watching you and you're watching yourself. And you know there's nothing you can do that he won't like. Your body weighs nothing. It would be quite easy to fly up, and float away. He would watch you, flying up, floating away, not at all surprised because the whole time he'd thought you were miraculous.
What an odd thing it is, this business of looking and being looked at. Being looked at is a bit like being tasted. It doesn't have to feel like being eaten up, so that there's nothing left of you. How can it be, though, that something is being taken from you your manifestation yet the consumption adds something? I have been added to by being looked at by men. Also subtracted from.
But he was taking nothing from me, I felt, as I walked by, that every time he looked at me I was getting wonderfully larger. But at the same time, my bones were being emptied of their fatigue, their heaviness. I was tall, but light, like a bird, without a bird's unsubstantialness. What kind of creature was I? Perhaps I wasn't a creature at all. Perhaps I was a great ship. Instead of two breasts, I had a prow. I was at sail. No obstacles. And in between my legs, occasionally, just a thrum, a little thrill, a little rolling joist from navel to knees.
A man planning to spend money on me was an experience rare enough to feel odd. I came of age in the sixties, when it was considered unliberated to have dinner bought for you. I've been earning my own living since I was fifteen, and I always thought it was ridiculous, even oppressive, to expect a man to pay for me when he had the same amount of money, or when I had more. And I've always been involved with artists, or intellectuals, so we always had the same financial woes.
But he had announced himself to me as a wealthy man. He had said that what he wanted to do was spend money on me. It would have been absurd for me to say something like "dutch treat." Besides, I didn't want to.
As we were walking, I was thinking about his hand on the small of my back, and the rolling between my legs, but I was also thinking about his money. At the same time that I was thinking of myself as a ship in full sail, I was thinking of the two of us being followed by a horse-drawn cart, full of bags and bags of gold. He had only to turn around, dip his hands (which I was beginning to notice were rather small for his body, with unusually short thumbs) into those bags and drip gold onto us. We could have everything we wanted. Or at least I could, for a little while.
I knew that he was looking at me but I didn't know what he was looking for.
He said, "Do you know that I own four of your paintings?"
"That's not possible," I said. "I know who buys all my paintings and I've never seen your name."
"I've bought them as a corporation. I had a woman who works for me buy them in the corporate name for financial reasons but also, when I started to be interested in you, I wanted to wait till just the right time to make myself known."
"Known as what?"
"You know," he said, "it's strange, walking with you, talking to you, looking at you from this close range. I've looked at you a lot."
"What do you mean?"
"First I looked at your work. Then I wanted to know what you looked like, so I put myself in places where I knew you'd be. Your openings. I've been to all your openings. And sometimes I've watched you coming out of Watson School, where you teach. I've stood in the lobby at dismissal time. Except that Irish lady that runs the switchboard was beginning to think I was a pervert. I'm convinced I saw her about to dial 911."
"There's a kind of man who hangs out at girls' schools."
"Not my thing. And I didn't ever want to look at you when you weren't with other people."
"How did you know I wouldn't eventually be abandoned by a crowd? Left alone?"
"I always took off before there was a chance of that happening. And I know how you look when you enter or leave a group."
"You have a panicked look when you enter a group, and a desperate one when you leave it. I think you're afraid you won't be recognized at first, then you're afraid someone will follow you, and you won't be able to be alone."
"How do you know that?"
"I used to be with Interpol."
"No, Do you have any idea what Interpol really is?"
"No, only that I always wanted to be in it. Or to know someone who was in it. That kind of thing happened to me a lot in the fifties. Like I never knew whether I wanted to have a mermaid or be one."
"Why were people obsessed with mermaids in the fifties?"
"I think it was the tails."
"Yeah, the tails. They were cute, but they kept the girl in her place."
He moved his hand from the small of my back to my right shoulder. I wasn't quite as blissful as I'd been when I was thinking of myself as a ship or followed by horse-drawn carts. I was starting to feel uneasy. He knew about me and I didn't know about him. He could very well have been in Interpol. He could have kept a woman locked in a room dressed as a mermaid, locked in a room with a sensory deprivation tank. Why had he spent all that time looking at me? It seemed like a kind of theft. And yet I didn't feel stolen from.
Being stolen from. The worst thing about it is being taken by surprise. Being shocked. Then outraged. Then bereft.
I knew I wasn't feeling outraged or bereft. But I didn't know how I felt.
"I think you're a very, very good painter," he said. "I think one day you might be great."
"Oh, fuck that," I said, taking his hand off my shoulder. "I can't stand that kind of thinking. I do what I do. It's my job, it's what I do with my life, and what I do for a living. All this cult of the Master which is just another game of who's got the biggest dick it's all so beside the point. It's worse than that. It's destructive. It takes up a lot of energy. It makes people insane. I just do what I want to do, and I enjoy it very much. So don't talk like that."
I could feel myself building up a real head of steam. "Jesus," I said. "It reminds me of one of my openings. I was walking around listening to what people say, which I should never do. I heard this guy saying to another guy, 'Well, it's OK, but it's not Matisse.' And I tapped him on the shoulder and I said, 'No, it's not Matisse. It's Monica Szabo.' And the guy wanted to die. Which I wish he had. It was the least he could do."
"I like a woman with a moderate disposition," he said. "Why don't you tell me what you want? Just so I don't have to fear for my life."
"I think I need to know what you want."
"I'll let you know," he said, and kissed me, sticking his tongue between my lips, cool, like a slice of peach, or mango.
We went into a restaurant with a view of the water. We were given the best table. I don't know what he did to get it.
That was when he said to me, "You work too hard."
"How do you know?"
He said I didn't sleep enough, that the lights were on in my apartment very late, and I was out of the house quite early.
"I teach early," I said, "but of course you know that."
"Interpol knows many things. But not how much domestic help you have. How much domestic help do you have?"
"How much what?" I said, and started laughing.
"A woman named Marta comes in once a week for three hours."
"That's not enough. And another thing, your studio is in a very bad neighborhood. I could change all that."
"And what do I have to do?" I said.
"Whatever you want."
It was the second time he said that, and I was getting scared, so I said, "I'm starved, let's order quickly." Which wasn't true at all. I was too scared to eat, and too elated.
But drinking seemed like a good idea. I rarely drink, particularly on the Cape, when I like to wake up early and go for a run with my dog. Did I tell you I had a dog, a mutt I found in the subway, named Mikey? He's physically undistinguished, that must be said. When I'm at home in the city and we're in the park and I let him off his lead, if he's in a pack of other black dogs I can't pick him out. Intellectually, though, he's very distinguished, and morally a hero. He can be still for hours when I paint and then in a second be ready for a run or a play. I've never found that kind of flexibility in a man.
As I was saying, in the summers what I love best is going for a run with Mikey and then the two of us jumping into the ocean to cool off. So I usually don't drink because I like to run and paint early in the morning. I like my body's lightness, or perhaps the loss of the sense of heaviness, the air and the light and the water taking all the heaviness away from having a body, leaving you only the best parts, the vital parts, the parts that love to move, that are with you in your desire to move, and do nothing to resist movement.
But that night wasn't one of those healthy nights. "A vodka tonic," I said, when the waiter came over. I started chattering about how I liked the clear look of the vodka, and the ice, and the green of the lime, how it always reminded me of summer. But he could see that I was chattering, and it seemed wrong to chatter that way when he already knew so much about me.
He said, "Do you like to dance?"
I said, "I love to. But I thought you knew everything about me."
He said, "After dinner, we could go dancing."
This is what we had for our first meal.
Blanc de blancs to go with the oysters, local. We each had half a dozen. Bouillabaisse, the tender shells, apologetic, knowing they're there for nothing, gray and black, swimming in the orange red broth, the taste of saffron, nonnutritive and granular, suggesting yeast or beer, the garlic, only amicable now, tomatoes and soft flesh of once-shelled creatures, melting, reminding me of what I know will come later in the evening. A salad of arugula and shaved Parmesan cheese. Eating each other's dessert: white chocolate mousse for me, pecan pie for him. Putting his fork in my mouth. All women want their mother. Coffee? Yes, thanks, I need it. For the dancing. Brandy? No, thanks, remember the dancing. Take my arm. Well, I could use it on the street, a haze around the edges of my body. Why is the street so crowded this late? What is the point of all those cars?
On the street, in the summer breeze, with the smell of the sea, or maybe it's the harbor, I am not myself, I am simpler than anybody I know well, and I am singing. Not out loud. I am thinking of him, and not thinking of him, what I am really thinking of is an old song. "I'm a sentimental sap, that's all...what's the use of trying not to fall?"
Hearing those words and at the same time going over what he said, "I own four of your paintings...You are a good, a very good painter...I have money...You appeal to my imagination."
Copyright © 1998 by Mary Gordon