© 2019 Paula Robinson Rossouw
The painting makes me want to go back to Paris.
I can see myself on that deserted bridge. Standing under that lamppost, watching the moonlight on the Seine. Leaning over that iron balustrade—
Someone walks in front of me, obscuring my view. I blink, aware of dissonant sounds around me. Voices, competing. Laughter, forced. I was one of the first guests to arrive, but now half of Manhattan seems to be at this exhibition’s opening.
I focus on the painting again. On the darkness surrounding Pont des Arts. The buildings on the riverbanks are silhouettes against the night sky. Upstream, Notre Dame looms on its patch of an island. The river is flowing fast. Promising something. A way to forget. To drift—
“Brunico has such amazing talent,” a man’s voice says close beside me. “Who else would paint the City of Light without lights?” The accent is English, the words clipped.
I’m not in the mood for small talk. I go over to the painting’s wall label. Squint at it.
“It’s called L’Invitation au Voyage.” He’s standing behind me. Not too close, at least. “You’re Inkie Black, aren’t you?”
I flinch. I haven’t used that name in five years. It sounds ridiculous, something chosen in a drunken stupor. Which, of course, it was.
“Your show in Amsterdam was intriguing.”
I turn and look at a stranger in a charcoal, tailored suit. He is monochromatic like the painting: his shirt is black, his hair streaked with grey. I wish suddenly that I owned a pair of heels. That I hadn’t stopped wearing makeup. His eyes are on my paint-spattered jeans; the washed-out t-shirt that’s one size too big; my short hair that could probably use a brush, if not a wash. I always cut it myself these days.
“I purchased one of your glass photos in Amsterdam. On behalf of a client.”
“Glass photo sculptures. I used multiple layers of glass.”
“I stand corrected.” He takes a card from his jacket pocket, hands it to me. “I’m keen to see what you’re working on these days.”
“Nothing. I stopped after that exhibition.”
“What a great pity.”
I finger a lime green splotch on my ripped denim. The wall I painted earlier might be the start of a new mixed-media—
“Brunico would have been delighted to see your reaction to her canvas. You were mesmerised for a good forty minutes.”
I hate the thought of being watched almost as much as being recognised.
“She named it after Baudelaire’s famous poem, L’Invitation au Voyage. Are you familiar with it?”
It’s my favourite poem. The only one I can still recite by heart. But I’m not about to tell him that.
“Brunico can’t abide these events—even in Paris. She’s such a private person.”
“You know her?”
“You could say that—Excuse me,” he calls to a waitress carrying a tray. “Thank you so much,” he takes two flutes of Champagne, offers me one.
I shake my head.
He raises his chin, his attention drawn to something over my shoulder. He nods, glances back at me and says quickly, “Well, it’s been a pleasure, Miss Black. Do give me a ring sometime.” Before I can answer, he disappears into the crowd.
I wonder for a moment if I’ve imagined the entire conversation. I’ve been known to do that. Then I feel the thick, white card in my palm. I run my thumb over the engraved script but I can’t make out the tiny letters without my reading glasses. I dig through my rucksack and find their case. It’s empty, as usual. I shake the bag hard in frustration. My fingers grope around inside until they close over one of the lenses. When I put my glasses on, there’s a cloudy imprint that I don’t wipe off. The front of the business card has two lines:
+33 06 79 55 28 16
Thirty-three: the country code for France. I turn the card over, expecting a website and email. It’s blank.
✧ ✧ ✧
I don’t want to go home. Not yet.
I need caffeine. And Marion’s advice.
The day has been hot for mid-April and the air smells of smog, the way it does in summer. I stroll through Madison Square Park, heading north towards the lights of the Empire State. Over my left shoulder, the prow of the Flatiron Building looks set to overtake me in the growing dusk. The French call this time of day l’heure bleue. The blue hour. I used to love taking pictures in its magical light.
“Your show in Amsterdam was intriguing,” the Englishman’s voice says over and over in my head. I’m still standing in front of Brunico’s bridge with him. There was something so familiar about those brushstrokes. They made me want to—
You can’t, I remind myself.
On my way to Birch Coffee, I pass the South Fountain and watch a teenager in a purple anorak toss a coin in.
Birch Coffee on Twenty-seventh Street is one of our favourite haunts. Nicole and I both love its bare brick walls and vintage ceiling tiles painted black. The crystal chandelier that lights the lending-library’s floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in one corner.
Nicole orders a double espresso, chooses a hardback at random and finds a stool by the window. She sits with her chin in her hands, watching New Yorkers rushing past. A kid in a stroller stares back at her with intense eyes. She looks away. Nicole’s not good with kids.
She polishes her lenses on her t-shirt and reads the first page of the novel, but it doesn’t seem to hold her attention.
She jumps as my hands cover her eyes. “Boo!”
“Marion!” she scolds softly.
“Are you blind? I’ve been sitting over there for ages, watching you.”
She doesn’t answer.
I sit beside her and run my fingers through curls that look like wave ripples in wet sand. I have my Irish mother’s red hair, light green eyes and pale, freckled skin. “What’s up, Nicole? Something’s bothering you, I can tell.”
She shrugs and opens her rucksack. Her camera is at the bottom. It’s always with her—even though she doesn’t take pictures anymore.
“Go on, get it out. I dare you! Remember the day you bought it?”
She smiles. Eight years ago, she read that her favourite photographer, Raghu Rai, had switched to a Nikon digital D100. Rai’s black and white motion-shot of a tea vendor hanging out of the Delhi-Mumbai train inspired Nicole to become a professional photographer. That and his quote, taped to her mirror: “A photograph has picked up a fact of life, and that fact will live forever.”
The Nikon slips easily from its case, its weight familiar in her hands—Nicole once likened it to stepping into sheepskin slippers on a winter’s day. She takes off the lens cap. Replaces it almost immediately.
“Oh, come on! You can do it!”
She puts the camera down, its lens pointing at the window. Goes back to the novel still open in front of her.
“You’re giving me the silent treatment now? Really? I’ll read your mind, if you’re not careful. Fair warning!”
Nicole turns in my direction, but her eyes are distant. She glances down at my hand covering hers. Mind reading was a game we played as kids—even though she wasn’t any good at it. “I’m thinking of a number. Tell me what it is,” she’d say. She always got so upset when I guessed correctly. As we got older and my psychic abilities grew even stronger, Nicole accused me of being a witch. Secretly, she envied me. She still does.
My grip tightens as Nicole tries to move her hand away.
“Why on earth are you thinking about your Living in Light show? How many times do I have to tell you to forget that night? To move on? That was half a decade ago!”
She rolls her eyes at the term, but she’s not dissuaded. She’s back in that obscure gallery in Amsterdam’s De Wallen district. Remembering the smell of urine in the alleyway outside. The prostitutes smoking on the doorstep. Most of all, she remembers Maxence’s voice when he saw her photo sculptures: “C’est monstrueux! How could you do this to her?”
Nicole’s body sways as I shake her and whisper in her ear, “What am I going to do with you? How long are you going to let that Cease and Desist Order rule your life? You balled it up and threw it in the trash, remember? Scrapped leftover pesto penne on top of it. We watched as the oil began to seep into the white paper, turning it a speckled green. Then we argued because you said that letter was a good thing. You insisted it was your cue to go out and find yourself a new leitmotif. Explore another artistic angle. That you were finally free from the past. I was hurt. Insulted. And where did all this lead? To wedding and family occasion photographs!”
Nicole sighs. She doesn’t like my disparaging tone, but what kind of best friend would I be if I didn’t call her on her mistakes?
“Those jobs paid your bills, Nicole. But they didn’t hold your interest. Or enhance your talent. You’ve kept looking around for inspiration, but nothing’s come, has it? It’s time to go back to what you know and love!”
She looks at me, a frown on her face.
“Let’s meet tomorrow in Riverside Park before you go to work. We can make a start then. He’ll never know, I’ll make sure of that.”
“Who?” She knows exactly who I’m referring to, but she loves the way I say my half-brother’s name, drawing the word out, inflecting it with hidden meaning, a whisper of longing on the final syllable.
His name still makes her smile—even though it shouldn’t. He killed Nicole’s promising career as a photographer. As an artist. Took the life out of her.
And Maxence won’t listen to me—despite numerous entreaties on Nicole’s behalf. It’s as if he doesn’t even hear me. He’s such a stubborn bastard. Always has been.
I still get that sinking feeling, walking into the foyer of the building on West One-hundred and sixth street; riding the manual elevator with its scissor gate to the third floor; stepping into the rent-controlled apartment that overlooks four lanes of traffic.
“Hi, Mom. I’m home,” I call, out of habit.
There’s no answer.
In the living room, only one of the yellow table lamps is on. Either the bulb’s gone in the other lamp, or Mom didn’t switch it on. Symmetry isn’t her thing these days. The apartment always feels dingy to me, even after I’ve cleaned it. The furniture here is in exactly the same positions I remember growing up. The blue leather sofa has scratches from Miles, her fourteen-year-old cat, and the rug is frayed along its edges. But Mom doesn’t notice these things.
I tried rearranging the furniture when I moved back eighteen months ago. “What are you doing?” Mom dropped the paper grocery bags she was carrying and rushed towards me, red apples rolling in her wake. “Why would you move my stuff?” I explained that change would be good for her. For us. That the Feng Shui of the place was all wrong. She started to cry, so I put everything back. I set to work on the dusty rubber tree I’d bought for a dollar at Walmart when I was a teenager. Back then it was less than six inches tall but, over the years, it outgrew me. I’d read that mixing milk with water and applying it to plants’ leaves makes them shiny again. As I wiped the layers of city grime from its broad leaves, I made plans for my future. Two hours later, the tree’s leaves shone in the sunlight and the solution in the bucket at my feet was grey and scummy.
Days became weeks, then months. That afternoon’s resolution to move myself and the tree out of Mom’s and into my own apartment faded. I can’t say why exactly. I watched the dust begin to coat the rubber leaves again, but it didn’t get another milk bath.
Mom’s bedroom door is ajar, the soundtrack of an old movie turned up too loud.
“Hey, Nic,” she says without looking away from the screen. Black and white images dance on the lenses of her oversized glasses. The smooth, styled bob of two days ago has succumbed to its usual frizz that looks like fine steel wool. Her face is small and was once beautiful—before unhappiness left its lines and shadows.
“I went to an exhibition.”
“That’s nice.” Mom pushes a mixing bowl half-full of popcorn towards me. She pats the side of the double bed where Dad used to sleep. His alarm clock is still on the nightstand and she always plumps his feather pillow last thing at night.
“I love this movie,” she almost sounds happy. “Come watch with me.”
“I’m gonna get a slice of cake. Want one?”
She shakes her head, puts her hand on her chest. “I’ve got a bit of heartburn.”
“Can I get you anything?”
“No, just come back and sit with me.” She hasn’t looked away from the screen once since I came in.
I take my rucksack to my room, switch on the overhead light. It hasn’t changed since I left for college—except for the lime green wall, garish in this light. In my rush to paint it this morning, I didn’t bother to mask the edges so the colour has lapped onto the two adjacent walls and the cornice. I tell myself that it’s artistic—a poor imitation of the watercolours on the decks of challenge cards in my dresser drawer. They were gifts from a mysterious godmother. One deck came sometime after I was born. Another arrived on my tenth birthday, and the last for my twentieth. My godmother hasn’t sent any gifts since. Maybe she died. I asked Mom after my thirtieth birthday, but she didn’t answer.
When I was little, Mom taught me how to use my first deck of challenge cards: “We’ll mix them up really well, like this,” she’d overhand shuffle. “We’re going to spread them all out,” she’d fan the cards on the green plastic tablecloth. “Close your eyes real tight. Now, pick one…Okay, you can open your eyes. Look at this pretty picture!” We’d study the watercolour together. “Turn it over and let’s see what your adventure’s going to be today!” On the reverse of each card was a challenge written in calligraphy—English round hand style, I later learnt.
I open my dresser, look at the three elaborate boxes lined up in sequential order. The first is padded and covered in a patchwork of fairytale scenes, hand-painted on cotton. The box is stained and worn. I open it and inhale the smell I loved as a child: a perfume, I think. It’s faded over the years, but it’s still there. The thirty cards inside are the size of Tarot cards. They have watercolours of mermaids, castles and mystical creatures. I turn one over: Be brave as a lion, it reads. I flip another: Be a princess today. Whenever I felt sad as a kid, I’d fetch the box and take a card out. They always made me feel better, like a hug from someone who loved me. The first time my school friend Marion came for a sleepover when we were six, I showed her my box and announced proudly that it was a gift from my Fairy Godmother. There was a look of wonder on her face for a moment before she declared: “Fairy Godmothers aren’t real, silly!”
“Mine is! I saw her! She stroked my hair when I was little.”
“She isn’t a fairy godmother if you saw her.”
“Yes she is!”
We argued until Mom called us to the kitchen for tinned ravioli and my favourite cherry Kool-Aid. When her back was turned, I stuck my tongue out at Marion and flicked a pasta square into her hair. She threw one back, hitting my nose.
The box I received for my tenth birthday is made from maplewood with a white unicorn painted on the lid. The cards inside are watercolours of Nature with more complex challenges. Find a character (even an object or animal) to inhabit. Assume its voice in writing a small love story. I smile, remembering how I chose to be a pebble on a beach and wrote an ode to the warmth of the sun; the coolness of the incoming tide lapping over me; the serenity of a full moon making me sparkly. It was all very melodramatic. Marion read it and said it wasn’t a real love story.
My twentieth birthday box is milk glass encrusted with semi-precious stones in shades of soft aqua and sea-foam green. The cards inside have abstract watercolours but the same calligraphy with adult challenges. Kill something about yourself that you are ready to give up. Make sure you are not just focusing on the behaviour, but the underlying motivation. Did exploring the world of strip joints through the lens of a camera using black and white film count as killing my shyness? Probably not.
I’m about to shut my dresser drawer when I have an idea: What if I picked a card at random, and painted its challenge on my green wall? Maybe that would keep me on—
I head into the cramped kitchen, ignore the dishes in the sink and take the chocolate cake out of the fridge. Ten candles are still standing defiantly on the half-moon that remains. “Don’t forget to make a wish!” Mom said on my birthday as I cut into—no, hacked into—“Happy 33rd” written in blue icing. What I really wanted wasn’t possible, so there wasn’t any point in wishing. But I didn’t tell Mom that.
I slice into “Nicola” with a bread knife, put the piece of cake onto a chipped plate and lick the overly sweet icing from my fingers. None of my friends call me Nicola. It’s always Nic or Nicky. Growing up, Mom only called me Nicola when I was in trouble. Or when she wrote me cards and decorated my birthday cakes.
I get two forks out of the drawer and head back to Mom’s room with the cake. The soundtrack to The Big Combo fills the darkened corridor. I lie down next to Mom on the bed.
She turns to look at me. “How is he?”
“Good. He wanted to wish me a happy birthday. Thought it was today.”
“He’s not good with dates.”
“Not ideal when you’re a detective.”
“It’s only family things he forgets. What did you two talk about?”
“Stuff.” I take a large bite of cake. Chew it slowly. I never tell Mom about Dad’s second wife or their teenage boys.
“He was on at me again about wasting my BFA. He reckons I should be a museum curator by now. Or an exhibition designer.”
“There’s nothing wrong with working in a bookstore. It’s a good, steady job.”
I haven’t mentioned my photographs to either of them. My kind of photography isn’t something easily explained to conventional parents.
“Did he ask anything else?”
Mom sighs and turns her attention back to the screen.
I let Turner Classic Movies take over yet another Friday night. I drift off, my plate on my chest, the cake half-eaten. I wake with a start when the music gets dramatic, slip away again into dreams punctuated by the movie’s storyline. I’ve spent too many nights like this, sleeping in my clothes by my mother’s side, waking when daylight starts to filter through the shades and the traffic sounds get louder.
I slide off the bed and tiptoe to the door, avoiding the floorboard that creaks. I turn and look back at Mom, curled on her side. She’s facing the open closet so I can’t see her face. Dad’s fedora is still on the top shelf. I hesitate for a second, I’m not sure why. I close the door quietly behind me.
© 2019 Paula Robinson Rossouw