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1For ten days or so there had been Carnival parades along St. Charles Avenue almost every weekday evening and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and we were still in the pre-Mardi Gras weekend, to be followed by Lundi Gras, with its two elaborate parades, and then Carnival Day itself, given over entirely to revelry, from the marching clubs waking us up at dawn, through Zulu, Rex, and the truck parades. Sounds of the street activity, both organized and spontaneous, had risen to my windows again and again. Some of the principal parades had jazz bands on floats, playing traditional but amplified tunes such as “Mardi Gras Mambo,” and there were always marching bands, which stepped to the beat of bass and snare drums and occasional notes of brass, usually the same few musical measures repeated over and over—a fact suggesting that the young musicians were thought to be incapable of learning an entire Sousa march, for instance.
2Surrounding like murmuring water the music and beat and the hum produced by the tractors pulling the behemoth floats, from which krewe members tossed out trinkets, was the noise of the crowd, competing with the blaring bands, rising and falling in rapid tidal movements according to the ebb and flow of the spectacle. Shouts and howls punctuated the basso continuo of the human swell. A superfluity of sounds rose from the side streets, as parade-goers walked to the avenue, then back, or simply camped out for a few hours near the intersection, and there were parties too at houses on or near the parade route, with barbecue pits set up in the front gardens and their own amplified music competing with the parade sounds. Often, well into the night after the organized activity had passed by, I still heard voices, some joyous, others angry, from the street or the neutral ground between the lanes of St. Charles. The sounds floated in my consciousness, sometimes in my sleep, the way bits of blue and red float on a canvas by Miró or Chagall.
3Indeed, the whole spectacle of the days leading up to Mardi Gras and then the great celebration itself could have been seen as a materialization of modern painting. It was not just that the clowns, harlequins, and jugglers seemed to step out of Cézanne, Picasso, and Rouault, or that other scenes appeared to have been anticipated by Ensorand Dufy; in an eclectic mélange of forms and colors and late winter light in New Orleans, one could experience in three dimensions the visions of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, the Pointillists, Fauves, Futurists, and above all the Cubists, whose overlays, collages, distortions, and bent planes were suggested by the strange perspectives from my balcony and the juxtaposition of disparate visual elements half-glimpsed through the budding trees and the crowds.
4On Sunday before Lundi Gras, after an early supper, I went down to the avenue well before the Bacchus parade—the evening extravaganza. In a plastic cup tossed by some krewe the previous year, I carried my dinner wine, which I hadn’t finished. Work had become impossible; my ability to block out the sounds and the images they evoked had been strained in the previous days and finally exhausted by the Iris and Thoth parades earlier Sunday. In the interval between those parades and Bacchus, there had been a continuous milling around, producing swirls not unlike those made by the slow stirring of paint. The crowds either hadn’t gone home or had gathered again, bringing back their ice chests and lawn chairs and stepladders, to which were attached seats for children or baskets for collecting trinkets or both. For some while, the lanes of St. Charles heading downtown had been closed to all but mounted patrolmen and a few police cars and sheriff’s vehicles, moving slowly, so I wandered up and down and loitered in the intersection, listening to the random activity and watching twilight seep fog-like through the heavy canopy of live oaks. A blimp bearing the logo of a sportswear manufacturer was still visible in the pale sky over the river, and helicopters buzzed above like hornets.
5Here and there appeared faces familiar to me, including those of a few neighbors from my condo building, but I saw no one with whom I wished to converse particularly until Laura and Charles Trevelyan appeared in the crowd. Years before, Laura had been an intern at the museum; since she was assigned chiefly to me, she and I had worked closely together and she’d become a good friend. After her marriage, she ceased full-time museum work; she now does mostly free-lance writing in art history and also teaches an occasional course. Charles takes her to France frequently so that she can keep up with the latest on the art scene there. They live farther uptown but like to come to my neighborhood for the parades. Charles, who manages his properties, is witty and personable. So I went over where they had stopped, leaning on the iron fence that surrounds the condo garden.
6“Harriett, how good to see you!” Charles exclaimed, bending down from his considerable height to kiss me on the cheek, just as Laura, wrapping her arm around my shoulder, said, “Harry! How are you?”
7“Oh, very well, thanks. It’s good to see you also. Happy Carnival!”
8“And to you too,” she answered. “Harry, we’ve got a guest with us whom I want you to meet; in fact, we came here in hopes of running into you so that you two could get acquainted.” Turning to her left, she gestured toward a figure I could barely glimpse. Then I moved, the figure moved, and I saw that it was a child—no, an adult, a cripple, with the upper body of a man, normal in shape and size, and broad-shouldered, but with twisted and abnormally short legs. Laura turned back to me. “Harry, Jacques Lemarignac, un ami parisien. Jacques, je vous présente mon amie Harriett d’Aquin.”
9I put out my hand. “Enchantée de faire votre connaissance.”
10The grip of this Frenchman was solid—the kind I like—and bespoke, I thought, sincerity and strong character. His face was handsome—square-jawed and masculine. We said a few more words in French; then he added, “But we’d better speak English because of Charles, shouldn’t we? Anyhow, I need the practice.” And he smiled in a winsome manner.
11Jacques Lemarignac, it turned out, was a painter whom Laura and Charles had met in Paris some years before at a show of his own work; later, at the home of mutual friends, they had encountered each other again. I remembered having heard of him from Laura and reading about his work in art magazines. The acquaintance had developed enough in the course of several visits to Paris, Laura explained, for them to invite him to New Orleans; they had lured him with reports of gastronomical and visual delights, especially the spectacle of Carnival. That year, finally, he was able to accept the invitation. He had brought slides of his canvases and hoped to find a gallery to represent him. But that would be later: he had just arrived, and Bacchus was his first parade.
12It seemed strangely appropriate that he should turn up for Mardi Gras—the pre-Lenten season being a time for Saturnalia, for the extraordinary and exorbitant, whether in behavior or physique. Jacques’s deformed body was itself somehow carnivalesque—the sort of figure Breughel might have put into one of his kermess canvases, or Rouault might have added to a tragic clown’s face. Jacques struck me as being even somewhat Cubist, his legs bent at odd angles. As I stole glances at him, I thought also of Toulouse-Lautrec; I could almost imagine Jacques wearing a vast, sloping Lautrecian beret. (I trusted that my face did not betray my thoughts, as the painter’s silhouette superimposed itself on Jacques’s image in my mind; he must have been aware for too long of the obvious resemblance to wish to see it mirrored in another’s glance.)
13“Look, wouldn’t you three like drinks? I’ve got lots of wine and plastic cups and can just pop upstairs and get you something before the parade arrives.”
14“Oh, thanks, but we’ve got our cooler, right here.” Laura gestured to an ice chest they had placed at the foot of the nearest oak tree. As ifthat were the signal to serve, Charles went over and pulled out a magnum of wine from the cooler, filled three cups, and then offered me some. The four of us exchanged bits and pieces of talk—whether Jacques was a born Parisian (no, he was originally from the Gers), how long he was staying, what medium he was currently using, what my special interests in painting and art history were, and so on. Laura praised his style for its strength and originality and assured me of his high standing in Paris. I liked his manner—youthful for a man well into middle age, enthusiastic, almost passionate when he spoke of others’ painting, but modest about his own. I told him about the Orleanian Institute, invited him to visit our collections, and assured him that I could arrange to show him our library and workrooms as well as some holdings that would interest him especially but were not then on public display. His eyes were bright with sympathetic understanding and interest, and I found his smile—soft and generous in his rugged face—utterly delightful.
15At that moment a squad car passed in the street, followed by the cherry picker from the electric company, a sign that the first floats were not far up the avenue, and we could hear the beat of the first band. Voices started to swell in anticipation; it was time to get our places for watching. The crowd was already surging in waves. I picked a level spot by a signpost, right at the curb, with Laura, Charles, and Jacques to my right by the nearest oak. It would be a long evening, with thirty floats and who knew how many bands, military units, flambeaux bearers, dancing girls, baton twirlers, and second liners—and thus I was happy to have some firm ground, my own island in the crush of bodies. Jacques would need it also; the spectators, particularly children, could get rowdy and I supposed that his balance was not perfect.
16The Krewe of Bacchus puts on an impressive show each year, with oversized floats that just barely clear the oak branches above them and carry dozens of riders. Thousands of colored lights blinking through the trees and growing brighter in the deepening dusk give a cinematographic impression, and the bands are sometimes professionals. Without ties to old New Orleans money and traditions, the organization does not eschew the garish, nor the common; on this occasion, a Belushi brother was king. Shortly, the royal float arrived, followed by others, all spectacular, and bands thumping out what they thought of as music. As each float approached, voices around us roared in excitement; once, when floats were stopped right in front of us and couldn’t proceed, the bellowing did not diminish for ten minutes or so.
17Like nearly all other newcomers to Carnival, Jacques was almost silent for some minutes, just watching, wondering at the insanity, I suppose; he held back, making no attempt to catch some of the doubloons, beads, and plastic cups being tossed out abundantly and fought over by seasoned parade-goers. Finally, though, he overcame hisreserve and started yelling and waving with the rest of us, being careful, however, not to leave his place by the oak tree, which afforded some protection. He smiled at me several times and exclaimed, “Magnifique! Magnifique! Ah, Madame d’Aquin, Arrhee, si je peux me permettre… Ah, c’est splendide.” Like those of a child, his expressive features revealed his delight at the spectacle, almost his passion, and I recalled how, at first, I had believed he was a child.
18During a long pause between floats and bands, Charles refilled our drinks and passed around some cheese tidbits on a paper plate. Jacques was beside himself with enthusiasm. “Que c’est beau! Toutes ces lumières… toutes ces couleurs.” He saw the spectacle, as I tried to do, in painterly more than social terms, but his gaze was fresher than mine and he was not disturbed by the sort of reflections I could not help making on how Hollywood was taking over Carnival. “How dynamique,” he observed to Charles, as a mounted sheriff’s posse approached, the men and women, in Western dress, sitting high and proudly on their horses. For a moment, the whole parade was held up again, and the posse stood at arm’s length from us. “Quels beaux chevaux,” observed Jacques; “j’adore les bêtes—chiens, chats, oiseaux, et surtout les chevaux.” I knew then that, like me, he liked horses for themselves and for their beauty.
19Then the procession resumed and new floats arrived in a seemingly endless flow. Suddenly, above the general yelling and calling, there was a scream, close by, followed by eddies of movement. It was impossible to tell what had happened. Perhaps a child had been kicked by a horse— though I had seen no one running through the posse—or had gotten too close to a tractor or float and fallen under the wheels; or someone had been stabbed—once in a long while there is an incident of that sort along a parade route. A second scream and a sort of groan struck out at the night. All at once there was a thud, nearly beside me, and I found myself looking down at a neighbor, Régine Dupuy, a woman of some years whom I barely knew. She was lying supine, her hair disheveled and eyes glazed, among the tree roots and several pairs of feet, including mine. The ensuing confusion was considerable, with gestures and shouts and orders coming from all directions; but I could distinguish nonetheless her startling words: “I hear them, I hear them, the voices, they are coming, they are in me…”
20She was obviously deranged or having hallucinations. She wasn’t of the generation that indulged in oxycontin or ecstasy, but she could have taken a prescription medication that had misfired, or taken too much of it; or perhaps she’d been hit on the head or had some sort of seizure. Charles, followed by Laura and then Jacques, had come up at my right, and I could feel Charles elbowing a few onlookers out of the way. Because he’s tall and very strong and also has an air of authority, he’s the sort who steps in when an incident takes place and sees what needs to bedone. Soon he had opened a little space for himself and was bending over the woman. Jacques stood then right beside me, about a foot shorter than I, his face below my shoulder. In the light of some float or another that was passing—we had ceased paying attention to what its theme might be—I saw his face transformed, showing no longer his delight at the parade but instead a concern, a sympathy that were overpowering.
21“Jacques!” I said, “What is the matter? You don’t know that woman, do you? You can’t possibly know her.”
22“Non, non, bien sûr que non, mais…”
23In fact, he was simply moved by the incident—the woman’s cry, her sudden fall and apparent inability to rise, her hallucinations. Such a reaction on a stranger’s part could have struck me as foolish; instead, it touched me, revealing still another angle of his character and leading me to wonder whether it was his own physical vulnerability that made him so easily affected by another’s. He stood by watching as Charles, seeing that Régine did not appear to be injured, got her to sit up and lean against a tree trunk, while paramedics were summoned and I explained to him who she was.
24Meanwhile the floats and bands continued to file by. After an ambulance pulled up at the intersection via the side street and Régine was carried off to Touro Infirmary, we turned again to the parade and started catching worthless trinkets, but we could not recapture our mood: the drama of Régine’s collapse had broken the spectacular illusion and dampened the spirit of participation. Finally, I said, “Wouldn’t you like to come upstairs and let me prepare you real drinks in glasses?”
25“That’s a good idea,” Laura said, “if Jacques won’t mind missing the rest of this show tonight.”
26So we spent the rest of the evening in my apartment on the seventh floor, conversing, admiring the city panorama, and catching phrases of the sporadic parade music, somewhat muted by the height. More, doubtless, than Charles and Laura had anticipated—for they had not thought of being matchmakers in the circumstances—Jacques and I found ourselves enjoying each other’s company: two artists, one slightly older than the other (but what difference did that make?), having made painting our lives, reacting to sights and sounds in the same ways, the one with a deformed body, the other with—well, something like internal mutilations…
27At the end of the evening, it was agreed that I would look for them all in the street around twilight time the following day, Lundi Gras, before the Orpheus parade, which would reach my neighborhood about 8 or later. But I didn’t see them—perhaps they’d not been able to get through the traffic. On Shrove Tuesday, I knew, they were all to be at a party on Napoleon Avenue, given by some acquaintance of Charles. So we had no more Carnival celebrations together. But, as planned, Lauradrove Jacques to the museum on Thursday and left him in my care. I showed him our offices, library, and workrooms, gave him a few numbers of the Bulletin, introduced him to my closest colleagues, and persuaded him to show them the slides he’d brought at my urging. Then I took him through some of the exhibit areas, leaving him alone to wander through others by himself. After lunch in the café, we went into the storerooms so that he could study several portfolios of French drawings not usually out for view and some huge canvases for which there simply isn’t space on the display walls. As at the parade, he evinced great appreciation for what he saw: my work, our holdings and public exhibits, and the arrangements for research. He made incisive and keen observations on the paintings and drawings, and again I felt that his comments were sincere, not perfunctory.
28Rather than let him call Laura, or walk several blocks and then take the streetcar, I offered to drive him back to Laura and Charles’s house; I’d worked late so many days in January that the museum owed me a lot of time. I put down the convertible top—it was a splendid day of bright blue sky and tender leaves—and chose a long and circuitous route, through the far end of the French Quarter, then along Esplanade Avenue, where Degas had lived, along Bayou St. John, and into parts of Mid-City. He was full of admiration. “Oh, Arrhee, comme tout cela me plaît—la ville, le bayou, les avenues, le beau temps… “ He said he would like to come back to New Orleans to paint—not like Degas, who had feared the bright sun and stayed indoors, but in the streets and along the bayou. “Et peindre surtout le Carnaval…” The prospect of his rendering Mardi Gras in paint was appealing; having seen his slides, I could imagine the colors, the shimmering quality he would succeed in putting on canvas. Again, I reflected how well his whole person seemed to fit the celebration of life and disorder and desire that precedes Lent.
29He turned to me then. “Et vous, vous êtes adorable, adorable…” That’s a Frenchman for you: not many days into an acquaintance, he is already telling a woman he barely knows that she’s adorable. In this case, moreover, it was a man who, you’d think, might have reason to be sensitive about women and keep them at arm’s length, in the knowledge that his deformity made rejection likely. Perhaps the words were just offhand, a Gallic conditioned reflex; but I didn’t think so. “Voulez-vous bien dîner avec moi ce soir?” And he explained that, Charles and Laura having some real estate banquet they had to attend, he was to be left on his own for the evening, and had supposed he would fix himself a sandwich from cold cuts in their refrigerator, but now had a vision of our dining out somewhere, maybe at a “grand restaurant” that I would choose.
30Proust says that when a man shows desire for a woman who has no interest in him, it usually puts her off or even offends her; but sometimes the effect is the opposite—a sort of contagion that alerts her to her appealand, through it, to his. Maybe she must feel a latent attraction already in order for his desire to operate and her interest to crystallize. Sensed obscurely, that may be what leads the man initially to venture glances, compliments, invitations. I had already enjoyed Jacques’s company and seen the quality of his tastes and his mind; I suppose I was vaguely drawn to him, without quite being aware of it, and his charm may have magnetized me more than I realized. Desire is all around us and is often diffuse, I think—and not just sexual desire. But usually we don’t act on brief flickers of attraction and little tropistic movements toward objects. The beauty of an emerald ring or a bracelet that I vaguely covet in Adler’s windows, for instance, or a handsome man, just glimpsed—I’m drawn to them, like most other women; but for all sorts of practical reasons one usually lets these wisps of attraction just blow away. A word, a glance, a gesture may capture them.
31Anyhow, I said yes. We dined at Arnaud’s in the Quarter, still reliable and easier to get into than Galatoire’s and Commander’s. It was a lovely time, with undercurrents of flirtation in our conversation, the selection of wines, and the toasts (“A mon retour à la Nouvelle-Orléans… à nous deux,” Jacques finally said), and the long, leisurely meal. He did not feel ill at ease, I’m sure; nor did I—why should I? Anyhow, I never feel compromised. An appealing, boyish kind of self-confidence beamed from him—that of his achievement as an artist, that (perhaps) of a man who is dining with a woman whom he finds attractive and whose choice by him is ratified by other men’s glances. So much the worse for them if a few diners made reflections on his “handicap” or supposed it was pity that had brought me there. Whatever it was, it wasn’t pity, surely. They would not have seen how all the strength that would have been distributed evenly in the body of a whole man was condensed in him—his searching eyes, his masculine chin, his large, sensitive hands.
32Amitié amoureuse—that’s what Stendhal called the sort of “affair” that we were, possibly, embarked on—“love-friendship,” maybe “erotic friendship.” Even now I don’t know how well or how long such relationships can work, or whether they inevitably turn into something else. An ocean between the partners wouldn’t be of much help, one would think, if it were to be amour. I could not forget that Jacques was to return to Paris in two weeks or so, and that my visits there, even if yearly, or his to New Orleans (he did shortly sign a contract with a gallery on Magazine Street) were not enough to nourish a love affair. The love part was, I reflected as we drove back to Charles and Laura’s house, a bit of a nuisance, anyhow, if not simply a fantasy of mine, a delusion that sprang from having been single too long. Perhaps he was merely being polite. On that score, at least, Jacques soon set me right. “Arrhee,” he said, as we reached the house, “voulez-vous sortir avec moi encore une fois—tous les soirsmême tant que je serai là?” Go out every evening! An invitation of that sort could not be entirely casual.
33“Volontiers, Jacques,” I answered, but then corrected myself to explain that I wasn’t free for two or three of those evenings, though he might like to accompany me to one engagement—a reception on Saturday at a rival museum. Scrupules made me add, in English for some reason, “But you are not being fair to yourself—you will surely want to go out more with Charles and Laura, meet other friends of theirs, especially people who might like to acquire some of your work; or maybe you want to travel over to Lafayette to visit the Cajun country… And you said you needed to work on your English.”
34“No, no,” he answered, tit for tat, as if to show that he could really handle the language. “I mean, I certainly enjoy their company, and am so grateful to them for inviting me here—especially since I met you” (and his hand brushed my arm, briefly); “but—well, maybe except when you are otherwise occupied anyway, I should like so much to… to spend the evenings with you—if you will drive me around, that is, suggest bars, restaurants, spots where we could listen to good jazz, if you would like, or go to a play, a concert…”
35How might one paint a love affair, I wonder. It would be harder still to depict a non-love affair, an unrealized possibility. We had almost a dozen outings together, dining, I remember, at Café Degas, Mr. B’s, and Bayona’s (I managed to get a reservation there, mentioning the museum and identifying Jacques as a visiting artist), hearing the symphony play on Thursday, driving to the lakeshore, attending that reception I’d mentioned and afterwards going to the Bombay Club to hear live jazz. On Sunday, I took him to lunch in Ascension Parish and we drove back by way of Madewood and Oak Alley plantations, which he admired from the exterior but declined to visit, all those stairs being a bit of a bother for him. He seemed to enjoy every minute, listening attentively to the orchestra, taking time over the menu in the restaurants and proclaiming his delight at New Orleans gastronomy, exclaiming with glee when we roared along the road with the convertible top down, marveling how the ocean-going ships on the Mississippi River, as we saw them from the Sunshine Bridge, looked like toys. What good times we had, what good conversations. I felt a bit like a girl again, as if the spirit of that child I’d taken him for were infectious.
36Yet, between the amitié part of the pair I’d identified and the amour part—right at the space that joins, yet separates them—there was, I discovered, a gap that I could not quite abolish; my feelings were, I suppose, more on the friendship side. Was I wrong to venture as far as I had? To mislead others, or oneself, is never fitting. But without the current of romance, the very tasteful flirtation Jacques had initiated and I had allowed to develop, no pairing at all would have come into being forus; there would have been just a superficial professional acquaintance, friendly enough and conceivably useful to one or the other in the future but otherwise insignificant and unmemorable. As it was… well, did I know how it was, know at all?
37As the date approached for Jacques to leave, it occurred to me that at the end of our time together he might say nothing at all beyond expressing his thanks, with an urbane touch of realism: the interlude in our lives would be over, like Carnival. Or, if he were more serious, he might only throw me a look that would invite me to divine more, so that any further gesture would be up to me. French though he was, emboldened culturally, he was a cripple… For him to say nothing would be more discreet, and easier for me to handle, than saying—just what, I wasn’t sure. But do women really like discretion and reserve? Do they not prefer declarations, which are undeniable homages? In any event, Jacques did not leave things unsaid. Since, very tactfully, Charles and Laura had held their official farewell dinner for him two days before his departure, inviting me also, of course, he was able take me to dinner the last night. He had asked my advice on restaurants; I had managed to get us an early table at Commander’s Palace. Beforehand, we had cocktails in my apartment, then walked over (he wanted to go on foot). On the way we passed by Lafayette Cemetery, and went in, on an impulse—his impulse. Twilight was about to settle, but the gates were, unaccountably, still open, and we took a few moments to walk among the raised monuments, some as large as gardener’s huts, with their stone angels and saints, their little iron-work fences, and their inscriptions for all eternity. I told him that Régine, whose collapse and hallucinations had been caused, it turned out, by interactions of four or five drugs, had died that very day.
38Death—that is, the thought of death—is an aphrodisiac; the tombs doubtless put Jacques in mind of time’s passage, the needs of the heart and the body, while it is here. With his departure merely hours away, if he was to speak he had to speak soon. He waited until we had ordered and the server had brought a bottle of champagne, opened it with a flourish, filled our flûtes, then retreated to the opposite wall. There was a discreet clinkling of glass, with Jacques’s eyes, dark and searching, finding and holding my own. Then he took my hand in his.
39“Arrhee, n’y a-t-il personne dans votre vie?”
40No, there was no one in my life—in the romantic sense of that phrase, at least.
41“Alors, pourriez-vous un jour m’aimer?”
42To be asked whether one could love someone some day is to be asked whether one loves at the moment. Although I did not have the illusion of being unique for him—there are thousands of women in Paris who can talk about art—it seemed to me that a great deal was riding on the question—not the outcome of a vulgar attempt at seduction, certainly,
43but rather a man’s sense of himself, as man, not artist. I thought of Schubert and other gifted, passionate creators, geniuses at the palette or piano keyboard but miserable in life, who would have given all their art in exchange for the wholehearted and lasting surrender of a woman they loved.
44My immediate reply was cowardly. “Jacques… Ce n’est pas le moment…”
45But he retorted that then was the moment if ever; wasn’t he about to leave to return to Paris, perhaps never to see me again, or instead, conceivably, to see me often, to be closer to me in the future, to…
46Just then the waiter acted on the compulsion to come refill my champagne glass, from which I had taken another sip or so, nervously, as Jacques was speaking. The interruption was gauche but briefly useful; we both paused for a minute. Jacques resumed though, more intensely than before, as if the pause and the passing minutes had added to his desperation.
47“Pourriez-vous m’aimer comme je suis, même… infirme comme je le suis, estropié…” And he glanced down at his body and his twisted legs, hidden by the tablecloth but always present to him, doubtless, as he knew others registered them always. For the first time a touch of sardonic bitterness played on his lips. “Parce que je sais, voyez-vous… je sais que je ne suis pas joli à voir.”
48“Oh Jacques!” And I could scarcely get the words out fast enough to tell him that he was, on the contrary, handsome, “très beau, Jacques, très beau, vous devez le savoir, tout de même,” and I ventured to tease him on a light tone, asking whether many women hadn’t told him so.
49“Arrhee, soyez sérieuse, je vous prie.” He asked again whether I could love him, a cripple.
50“Il ne s’agit pas de ça,” I replied—a way of saying, “Don’t put the question in those terms.”
51“Pourquoi non? Il s’agit de moi, comme je suis, comme vous me voyez… il s’agit de moi et de vous.”
52A question of him as he was, of us… There was no mystery, but I did not know what to answer. Silently, I took a sip of champagne, then nibbled like a rabbit at a piece of garlic toast in a basket.
53“Bien. Je vais poser la question d’une façon différente.” And he proceeded, indeed, to frame his question differently, asking, since I hadn’t said yes to loving him someday, whether I could love him—could have loved him—if he weren’t crippled.
54Again there was an interruption, the waiter appearing with our starters, shrimp rémoulade.
55Suddenly I recalled that the philosopher Pascal had inquired how ancient history would have changed had Cleopatra’s nose been longer, orshorter. We weren’t dealing with world events, Jacques and I, but the “What if…?” question still receded into infinity.
56All this time Jacques had held my hand in his, pressing it once or twice, although I was almost unaware of it. I suddenly put my other hand over both of ours, as if in acknowledgment, but perhaps judgment also, of their joining.
57“C’est une question insensée,” I ventured. Certainly it was nonsensical, with no possibility of answer or meaning: I could not love a hypothesis. Since I had retreated from his earlier questions, it appeared also that, when confronted with the need to decide, I could not, or did not, love Jacques as he was, with everything that implied. Yet I wasn’t sure I could not imagine it… So many angles—so many ways of seeing and being oneself…
58I had to continue. “Mais, finalement, non, Jacques, puisque vous me le demandez de cette façon. Finalement, que vous soyez infirme ou non n’a rien à voir avec la chose. Je ne peux, je pense, aimer personne.” Wasn’t that the most tactful way of saying no—to tell him that his infirmity had nothing to do with it, that I really could love no one? I hadn’t known it myself, but supposed, as I said it, that there must be some truth in the statement for it to have come out. It was as if, pressed by a friend, I had drawn a likeness of myself, and some feature, some inner shadow I had not suspected had appeared in the portrait.
59All this discussion had not been much of an appetizer. I had removed my hands, both of them. I thought again of the cemetery and the nothingness that filled the tombs. Something of a sense of failure and futility hung over the table for a few minutes, while we ate our shrimp in silence. But we were both too resourceful to let the evening end quite that way, and soon we were talking again, sipping champagne, chatting about painting, commenting on the main dishes when they arrived. Jacques’s sensitivity to others, evidenced so clearly at the Bacchus parade, was again displayed as he asked more about my future painting projects, the way a very close friend might inquire, a mentor, an angel…
60We walked back to my building and got into the car, for me to drive him to Laura and Charles’s. Laura would take him to the airport the next day. From the back seat I got a little gift I’d chosen for him—a book on New Orleans architecture. He unwrapped it silently. “Oh, Arrhee… Merci” was all he said. At Laura’s, I stepped out of the car, walked around to the passenger side, and met him as he was climbing out. “Au revoir, cher Jacques, au revoir.” He held me briefly in an embrace of disequilibrium, then turned and limped to the steps, his twisted legs made even more angular and grotesque in shadows cast by lights on the veranda. At the door, he turned and gave a brief wave. My heart felt as shattered as his body, contorted with emotion, all angles and broken planes, beating violently, and as if the blood were gushing out.
61I got back in the car and started the engine. Tears had already overflowed my eyelids and were turning cold as they hit my face, chilled by the evening air. “I suppose that I do love you a little bit anyhow,” I murmured to myself as I looked in the rearview mirror, then pulled away.
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Catharine Savage Brosman, « Cubist angles », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Écrivains, écritures, Catharine Savage Brosman, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2008, consulté le 23 avril 2017. URL : http://lisa.revues.org/483Haut de page
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