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Newly liberated from her suffocating marriage, Claire takes a room above a Greenwich Village bistro and begins the novel that has been unfolding in her mind, starring Nevada, her unconventional artist heroine. As Nevada takes on a life of her own, Claire soon realizes that a dark secret binds them together--one that must be overcome before either can realize her full potential, and truly come to life. 272 pp. National print publicity.
When my husband left me, suddenly there was enough air. For three years, no matter where I went, the walls pressed in on me. Even jogging around the Reservoir, the sky folded down around me and made walls. My brain screamed for open spaces, but no space was open enough. If we were in an East Village restaurant with pressed tin ceilings, the ceiling lowered itself crazily and pressed the air out of my chest. It only made me cling to him more tightly. I was convinced that without Aaron I couldn't breathe. I never realized he was the one stealing my air. I like to think it was an innocent theft, but he stole a lot more than air from me in our thirteen years together. He had my sex encased in plastic and tucked away in his battered wallet. My sex, which had flowered like a Riverside Drive windowsill full of plants, now smelled like spilled beer, stale smoke, and rancid french fry oil in an old man's bar. If that salty-sweet part of me had to smell like a public house, at least it could have been a bistro where stock simmered all day, and a cat slept in a window full of geraniums.
The very day he left, in the middle of the shock and panic, I could feel myself coming back to life. I could feel this stream of lost me trickling through what had become a blighted country, through what I had come to believe would always be a blighted country. Quickening, real energy, not the hour or two of false hope that coffee brings. It was my breath coming back?a silver living stream. Suddenly there was enough air in the room, the silver living thread that was my soul, and I thanked God for its return even though the price of getting myself back was losing my husband. Ithanked God, and we agreed that it was a good bargain and I could afford the price.
The price was high, the price was very high, but I could afford it. Economics of the soul?I hadn't had the freedom to make my own decisions for thirteen years. Now a decision had been made for me, a decision I was ashamed I hadn't had the courage to make, and suddenly I had the opportunity to heal the sick empty place in my life that was born out of lack of courage. Lack of heart if you take it literally from the French. Obviously I needed to visit the bistro on West Tenth Street where the fat orange cat slept under geraniums and order beef heart, coeur de boeuf, dripping with heartening blood?eat it raw, accompanied by a glass of house red, and stain my heart red with courage. Take courage from Madame, perched behind the cash register, stout in widow black, warm, imperious, an empress, her son-in-law in charge of the kitchen but under her. She eats men like french fries and buys a bigger girdle each year. I should be ashamed of my lack of courage in front of her, but I breathe her in?her faint aroma of soap and sweat and mothballs?and take heart from her enormous presence. I skip the beef heart and order cassoulet.
I arrive at the bistro at three-fifteen every day, after teaching at the cozy overheated private school on Bank Street and settle myself at my corner table with a pile of papers to grade. Madame's granddaughter brings me café au lait and brioche. Drops spatter the marble table as I dip the cake into the milky coffee, but I manage to keep the essays clean because I'm a professional again. I'm surprised to find myself a virgin again, too, delighted to no longer be obliged to open my body. I'm as self-contained as Madame, my back straight and solitary and strong against the iron bistro chair, the back of a virgin warrior. I feel my back solitary each night against sheets that are unstained and crisp as a fresh sheaf of typing paper. My bed is as narrow and virginal as if I were a daughter in Madame's house, under her protection, under the protection of my own virginity. I'm under the protection of my straight shoulders, my breath, my white cotton panties hung out to dry in the yard where lavender grows. The cotton smells sweet from the sun and wind, and the wild onion growing tall in the unmown grass gives it a virgin tang.
It's a good thing to have the protection of Madame's beef heart, her red wine, my sweet-smelling cotton panties, because these are not easy times. Splintering off from my husband made me feel like one of those broken hearts in an old illustration. The wind blew through the crack, howling at night, but I was tired of being afraid, tired of letting fear be my master, tired of caving in, tired of making my fear a cave in which I would hide, smelling its scent?fresh sweat over stale sweat, the chemical perfume of my deodorant giving out, a chalky feeling in my armpits.
I've heard there are people so agoraphobic that their bed is their only island of safety. Even stepping out into the kitchen makes them reel. Imagine being so dependent on your husband, you have to wait for him to come home to take you to the bathroom! I never got that bad, but my bed became a cave, the mussed sheets full of crumbs, collapsed piles of books in my husband's place.
How it stank in the labyrinth. And how fresh the air was at Madame's. In my room above the bistro with its white iron bedstead, I sat at the mahogany desk drinking coffee as powerful as God, proud to be upright and not huddled in the cave of the bed, proud of the normal relationship I was developing with air. I typed away at Madame's prehistoric Underwood, giving all my pain and fear to my heroine, Nevada. I made her strong as Madame's coffee and as vulnerable as I had been. Though she was my creation, I hoped she would serve as my guide. Torch flaring, she'd lead me into the labyrinth and show me the sacred paintings on the walls. Maybe if we could find the intersection of sacred and scared, I would no longer be afraid of that old stink reattaching itself to my clothing. I didn't understand how I, the true spiritual heir to Madame's peasant health, had ever let herself get this crazy. With Nevada I was going back into the labyrinth to find out.