Every evening as the sun was about to set, a young painter named Marc would clean his brushes, grab his hat and jacket, and leave his garret for supper at a bistro called Les 4 Coins. He sat always at the bar and ordered Pernod.
For months he watched through the half lace curtains as a couple came down the street, turned the corner and went into a yellow brick hotel facing the bistro. The man was tall and wore a large brimmed black felt hat and a leather jacket. The woman had long, thick auburn hair, a heart shaped face and large dark eyes. She was not dressed in the Parisian style of the nineteen twenties. Her skirt was long and swung low over laced red boots. She wore a small brown velvet hat with an elegant feather on the side. Her long-fingered hands were gloved. She used them to articulate her thoughts. She took quick, dainty steps, keeping stride with her tall companion. She was tall for a woman. He hardly had to bend to catch her words.
One day as the couple rounded the corner, a black Daimler pulled up in front of the yellow brick hotel. Two men in black leather coats jumped out, grabbed the tall man and forced him into the car. The woman was left standing in shock as the vehicle sped away.
Marc watched all this in confusion. What happened next astonished him. The beautiful foreigner came into the bar, ordered a Cinzano, and surveyed the bistro full of dining families. As her eyes met his, she said, “Would you like to fall in love with me?”
His heart beat wildly. He couldn’t speak. She smiled and said, “I see that you must be a painter, there are spots on your clothes. You may paint me then, but only as I allow it.” As they made their way to the garret up the hill, she told him he could paint just one tiny part of her at each sitting.
She went behind his screen and, wrapping herself in a dark blue velvet curtain he kept for models, left exposed only her right elbow. As he sketched, drew and then painted the elbow, a current of heat entered through his eyes. He was sure her skin must burn from the intensity of his gaze. The elbow acquired erotic value, a sensuality he had never guessed possible. The crease was a mystery to be entered with grace and passion. The ivory skin aroused such unremitting desire, he was sure she must feel it from across the paint-spattered floor.
So it went for months. She would show up at the bistro and they would make their way up the hill to his studio. He would draw, sketch and paint - a nostril, the left cheek of her buttock, the right breast, left hand. He was deliriously happy throughout this time, though she said little and certainly never spoke about herself, or the tall man who had been so brutally excised from her life.
One evening, she did not turn up. He drank his Cinzano, ate his meal, and finally, when the waiters started putting up the chairs, headed home. She didn’t come the next night, or the next. He stopped eating and soon could barely stand drinking a simple Cinzano. His friends became concerned when he turned down a commission to paint the son of a wealthy patron.
He began to frequent the rundown cafeterias, bars and libraries favoured by immigrants and refugees. He almost got into fights with his questions and his unremitting search. He stopped sleeping. He re-drew and re-painted the bits of her he had seen, but could never quite get the whole woman to come together. Canvas after canvas was rejected.
He sometimes wandered down to Les 4 Coins. One evening, while he stood at the zinc bar, she walked in. After looking over her shoulder furtively, she turned to him, and with a heart-wrenching smile, whispered, “Tonight you will paint all of me.”
His knees were weak as they walked up the hill. He was shaking as they climbed the stairs to his studio. She threw off her forest green velvet cape and said, “Before you begin, you must remove all of your clothes. Fold everything on this chair carefully, in this order.”
She started with his jacket and shoes, then vest, shirt, pants and so on. Each item was carefully folded just so, and on top of it all was his large woollen Irish peaked cap. When he was naked, she went behind the screen and came out with all of her own clothes in her arms. These she laid carefully on the table.
He held his breath. She smiled and said, “I want you to hold me.”
His heart was crashing through his ribs, his mouth suddenly wet. He carried her to his low bed, and all that night discovered with his lips, tongue and fingertips those parts of her that he had only glimpsed. He licked the inside of her left elbow, kissed the crease of her right eye. His lips found the dent at the base of her spine and plunged into the roundness and divinity of her high behind. His fingers gently caressed her long, elegant thighs, finally entering the moist, contracting lips below. Where his fingers had wandered, he sent his lips and tongue to explore. They were rocked in a magic vessel of desire and passion. She wooed him with her mouth and hands, finally thrusting her hips at him in urgent desire. Depleted and breathing deeply, she fell back on the large linen pillows into a still sleep. He rested his head on his elbow, tracing with his finger tips and eyes those parts of her that finally became whole that night.
He stayed awake until dawn, gazing at her auburn hair spread fan-like on his linen pillow. As the objects in the studio began to re-emerge from the grey hours of night, he heard sounds from the street below. Leaping to the window, he saw the black Daimler had pulled up and stopped. Two men in black leather coats were headed into the building across the street. He rushed to her side, and touching her urgently, whispered: “It’s them.”
She opened her eyes, sprang to her feet, and began putting on his clothes, undergarments, pants, wool sweater, finally tucking her hair into his broad Irish hat. Her velvet things remained artfully folded, with a cow skull lying on the velvet skirt. He could have drawn the pile as a still life. After moving a canvas in front of her creation, she leapt out the far window, and without looking back, scrambled over the rooftops.
The knock on the door was violent. The men entered, found him in his robe, demanded he give her up. He stood aside, told them they were welcome to search the tiny studio.
One of the men approached a large canvas leaning against the wall, and tore the sheet off, revealing the painting of an elbow, a nose, a left buttock, a hand. The men left in disgust.
After they were gone, the painter stood still, saddened. He understood. The first day she had seen him at Les 4 Coins, she had chosen him, not out of attraction, but because they were exactly the same size.
♦ ♦ ♦
Many years ago, an agent asked me to write some stories in the style of Anaïs Nin’s collection, The Delta of Venus. She had tossed off these erotic sketches for a dollar a page in Paris, during a time of financial necessity. I said yes, without remembering where I’d left my copy of the book, which in those days was part of every young aspiring writer’s library.
Finally, I remembered my father had it. He would have to mail it to me in Toronto. I had just started the first draft of a story when a call came from Montreal that he had been hospitalized again. I took the next train, and as the miles passed, scribbled my story longhand.
His room at the cardiac unit of the Jewish General hospital was dark and had two other occupants: a beautiful elderly gentleman from Ethiopia, and Dr. Rosenzweig, a spry nonagenarian who spoke Hungarian with his much younger, blonde bombshell of a wife. Her tight fitting satin dress and long vermilion nails seemed out of place, but the doctor looked happy.
As I entered the room, Mama was sitting next to the window, reading out loud in Yiddish from The Forward, a left-wing rag with the masthead motto “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.” Papa sat cross-legged on the bed in his pale blue cotton pyjamas, looking old and frail and unconcerned with workers of the world.
We easily convinced Mama to visit the fifty or so other patients she knew personally at this hospital. The Hungarian wife followed her out the door. When they were gone, Papa asked, as he always did, about the stories I was working on. He was thrilled by the subject matter. At my age, he said, “Stories are as good as it gets.” I was acutely embarrassed to read these frankly sensual tales within hearing of the two gentlemen, who were after all, complete strangers with heart problems. Papa assured me neither of them spoke Yiddish. I had only to translate my writing into our very own dialect.
That’s how I came to tell my father about Marc the painter and the strange lady with the velvet coat. The two of us giggled, joked and generally acted silly all afternoon. Papa was a truly gifted editor. His creative questions did improve my writing. We discussed whether exhibitionism or voyeurism was in fact practiced by most people to some degree, and what was most sensual for women.
The next day, I came back to Papa’s room with flowers, magazines and a bag of bagels and fruit.
As I greeted everyone, Dr. Rozenzweig motioned to me to come nearer to his bed. He was so terribly old I didn’t want to refuse him. I could see Papa looking curiously from across the room. Finally Dr. Rosenzweig took hold of my hand, squeezed it feebly and muttered, “Beautiful, so beautiful.”
Still puzzled, I asked what was so beautiful. He closed his eyes and held my hand. “You are so very young and lovely. So, whatever happened to the painter?”
The truth dawned on me.
“Dr. Rosenzweig, aren’t you Hungarian?”
He grinned, his eyes still shut. Stroking my hand with his own gnarled and spotted one, he murmured, “My dear Miss, my wife is Hungarian. I am Romanian and my Yiddish is perfect.”
Papa, Dr. Rosenzweig and I laughed so hard that the beautiful gentleman from Ethiopia joined in out of sheer companionship. Those last few days in hospital were a perfect example of my relationship with my father. That day, he asked my permission to go. Two weeks later, he decided it was time.
♦ ♦ ♦
I met Anaïs Nin when I was a graduate student in Denver. She’d been invited as a guest of the department, and as the only student who spoke French, I was appointed to act as her chauffeur for a few days. She was a dreadful diva who thought about nothing and no one but herself. Soon I was ready to push her off the nearest mountain. Still, she represented the very idea of Paris in the twenties. Romantic, irreverent, sensual and definitely erotic.
Photo by Nate Gray, Creative Commons.