MY NEW LIFE will start right here on a pebbly beach of the Mediterranean Sea, birthing pool of humanity, surrounded by gentle strangers murmuring in foreign rhythms, as they lie bronzing on candy-striped chaises. I turn my back on the row of onlooking hotels, whose voluptuous forms give me permission. I take a deep breath and, with a few discreet motions, I drop my native prudery and bare my breasts to the sea and the sky. It comes as a surprise to feel–not the sexy thrill I’d anticipated, but a sharp poignancy, a flashback of innocent, childish pleasure.
I’m born again, half-naked, into a new world. The last time these breasts saw the light of day people were still talking about Jane Russell’s.
It’s true that something in this place loves you for being female. You don’t have to hunch your shoulders in apology for sagging or bulging. You don’t have to scuttle like a crab to get out of the way. You feel light and free, like you were when you were little and you took admiration for granted. Just being in your skin was grounds for approval.
This was a good place to be, after having retrieved what was left of myself from the tangled undergrowth of serial marriage and divorce.
Not that dropping my top on a French beach changed my life. There was plenty more to let go of before I could feel good in my skin. More, in fact, than I even suspected.
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In the third year of my new life I found myself again on the Riviera, this time in the company of a new girlfriend. We were there to meet up with a third friend, her fellow art student. While she and I were grown-ups with teenaged children, the third was a guy in his late 20s. We were all from Washington, but I’d met them in Greece on a painting trip the summer before.
What had been an academic course to them was a thrilling adventure for me, a businesswoman rediscovering her creative self. Drawn into the easy camaraderie of the artists–and suppressing certain frightening feelings–I’d instigated this week of plein air painting in the mountains above Nice. I’d researched the area for an inexpensive rental, found one with two bedrooms–one with a double bed and one with two singles—and we’d divided it three ways.
My girlfriend and I picked up a car at the airport and drove up to locate the village. We found the little house right on the main street–really the only street–and the place was pretty much as described, except that the “single beds” were narrow camp-style bunk beds, wedged into a space not much bigger than a walk-in closet.
“I guess the little people should take the kids’ room,” she said.
We resigned ourselves, but before we went back down to meet the big guy, we took rolls of pink toilet paper and festooned his quarters from corner to corner.
He was to meet us at one of the restaurant beaches that line the Croisette in Cannes, a short cab ride from the station. I was getting apprehensive. At the beach desk, I told the proprietress, “On cherche un jeune homme”. She looked us over and gave a conspiratorial smirk. I realized I should have said we were waiting for a young man, not looking for one, so I recovered by tacking on a practical description . . . “he is tall, he’ll be coming from the train station, with luggage. We will be on the beach.” I finished with a prim nod, but she wasn’t fooled.
“So, are we going topless?” asked my friend, when the beach boy had set up our parasol and taken our drink order. We both wore bikinis. She could have modeled them.
“Okay. But let’s take turns on lookout for him.”
“Yeah . . . I guess we should . . . ” It didn’t seem to be the big deal to her that it was to me. Had she . . . nah. They were pals. And there was her husband, of course . . . so, no. She was just a worldly lady, and I was a dumpy, fearful mom.
Get a grip, I told myself. You’ve had your little fantasy, it will go poof as soon as the kid shows up, and you will settle down and act your age. Yes, you will!
A couple of hours later, on my watch, a figure with a bulky backpack and a red Orioles cap came ambling around a corner, things hanging off him like an itinerant tinker. He held an easel out front with one arm as he negotiated around the tables and, with the other, pulled a clumsy old hard-sided suitcase, which clattered like a stagecoach coming to town. The long neck, the faded shorts, the tall gray socks, the big feet . . . this was the kid I remembered.
What was it that gave me such a pang? My friend’s reaction was just a chuckle.
The painting group in Corfu had brought together people like us, different ages, different walks of life. The little Greek who led it was teacher, friend or both to us all. I came on the scene from a different angle, an advertising freelancer who took private lessons from him. I had bought my way into the trip (by doing the brochure) but not into the artistic circle. I hid my longing to be a part of them by playing the tough guy—business with a cigar in its mouth.
A colleague and I had come for the last two weeks of the course and, feeling intimidated, went to look at what the students had already done.
That’s when I fell in love. Someone had made a holy light fall across ancient steps, given the horizon a musical rhythm with spikes of cypresses, and populated dark doorways and windows with sentient presence.
“Whoever did this I think I love,” I remarked to the instructor.
“Oh, that is an Andrew,” he said. What was an Andrew?
He turned out to be a great gangly innocent who wandered off by himself to brood, holding his arms out as if carrying buckets, revolving his head on his long neck like a periscope looking over rooftops, rocking back and forth in sneakers like canoes.
Andrew was the genial clown who bantered with everyone, knew their birth sign, took on their problems. He made people laugh with his impersonations, and practically weep at the beauty of his paintings. He spun plates on his finger. He sang. He cooked. He had crystal-blue eyes and rosy lips.
Andrew was also a pothead who had sudden mood swings when he was deprived of the substance, as on this trip. He could be sullen and petulant, and would talk about his large and troubled family until everyone else left the table.
But I heard him somewhere deep inside, where a stew of leftover hopes and fears bubbled untended.
We gravitated toward each other. He sat next to me at meals and ate whatever was left on my plate. He gave meaningful looks and made suggestive whispers and then played dumb. I was going from chills to fever hourly, and had to pull myself back from following him over a cliff.
You are delusional. He is a dog running after a car. Stop this game right now.
But I wanted the painting I’d loved at first sight, and I had a price in mind. On the flight back to Washington, I asked him how much he’d take for it. He scrunched up his face with the labor of deciding, and came out with a ridiculously low number. After closing the deal, I told him that from then on I would be his agent and get him more money for his paintings. And if he agreed, I would be his student and pay to learn his techniques.
That was how I would buy my way into his life.
By establishing an agent-artist, student-instructor kind of painting-buddyship, we created a socially acceptable cover for whatever was going on between us. In my official role, I attended his family graduation party. To my teenaged son, he was a harmless addition to Mom’s crew of breakaway pals. Younger, maybe, but just as clueless as any adult.
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NOW HERE WE WERE a year later, the two of us with an unwitting chaperone, climbing into the rocky heights of Alpine country, where Riviera glamour gives way to natural splendor and life becomes simple and organic.
The village was a collection of stone buildings built on a gentle slope, snow-capped mountains rising over it, green valleys curving below. There were more sheep than people, and we joked that our daily bread consumption must be an economic boom to the boulangerie.
The three of us settled into an easy routine, taking our easels out into the countryside and painting all day, then taking the wet canvases back to the gîte and eat and drink and talk about everything that occurred to us. I appointed myself chef because I liked cooking, but also because in some way I felt I had to make up for being less an artist than the other two. I was contented to be cooking and sipping wine at the stove while they hung out at the table debating styles and techniques and quirks of other painters, and gossiping about the vivid personalities in their campus circle.
If there was tension, I had it muffled. My girlfriend was aware of my attraction to Andrew, and it only amused her. He was unfathomable.
An old farmer from the village made the rounds of our positions every day to check the progress and make comments. He would come across me in the street, struggling with perspective, and report on the others. “The beautiful lady with black hair is over that way, painting my brother-in-law’s barn.”
She’d put a husband through school, just as I had. But she’d stuck with hers and now he was a doctor and an enthusiastic supporter of her artistic ambitions. What was that like, I wondered.
“The young man who corrects you is on the road above the village, painting a scene of the valley. It is not bad.”
He had often seen Andrew standing over my canvas pointing out something I’d done or overdone, telling me how to fix it.
Aware of the interest we attracted in the village, we arranged our canvases for a little street show at the end of the week, and we were rewarded with serious attention from the villagers. We watched and listened from the stoop as people gave each painting a thorough study, identifying places they knew, critiquing how their shapes and colors were handled. Very French, as I learned.
The next day the Young Man and I drove the Beautiful Lady to the airport. We had one more night in the gîte, and then he and I would be off on a second leg of the trip.
Somehow, over the course of the past year he had persuaded me to go on with him to Prague, where he was to rendezvous with his sister and some Czech friends. The sister, one of five, was an academic living in Paris. Her Czech friend was a professor of gender studies who played bass in a girl band, and she reportedly had a place for me to “crash .”
I wasn’t in the habit of crashing, nor did I know anyone else who was. But in my new life, I was determined to be more open-minded. There’d be art, music, interesting people, hash clubs and cheap beer. It sounded so bohemian.
I wavered between elation and dread.
We came back to the gîte that evening and, maybe feeling a little awkward, we got into the vodka. Shopping for provisions, we’d tested how cheap a wine could be and still taste good. Somehow, for a few francs, a bottle of Vlakoff had found its way into our stock.
By 10 o’clock we were smashed. When the walls couldn’t contain our wickedness we spilled out into the sleeping village swinging the bottle. We were the only things moving, the only noise in miles of thick black night.
We roamed around swigging vodka, giggling and saying shhhhhh! We entered the communal playground and crawled on our hands and knees through miniature tunnels. We felt our way to a grassy slope and lay down to look up at the stars. He pointed out constellations and spun astrological yarns until the sky appeared to me as a great portal through which one could pass to cruise around otherworldly neighborhoods.
We stumbled back to the gîte with sheep-dung on our clothes, not realizing it until the next morning, when we retrieved the garments from the various places they’d landed on the way up the stairs.
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I WOKE UP to thundering church bells. I was not in my pajamas. I was not even in my bunk. Slowly, carefully, I turned my head and squinted at a white-sheeted mound that rose up from the bed along my right side. I didn’t dare touch it. Slowly and carefully I turned my head back and shut my eyes tight, trying to control my breathing and level my heartbeat. Erotic images appeared on the dark screen of my eyelids. Fizzing sensations spread under my skin and I started shivering all over.
I slid out of bed like a lizard and darted out of the room without a glance at the long white mound. I grabbed my cotton robe from a knob on my bunk and slithered into the bathroom, closing the door tight and then sitting down on the toilet in the position I’d found to be most effective in peeing without noise.
There was no doubt about it. Five years of celibacy went out the window overnight.
I looked at my face in the mirror. Puffy, blotched, bloodshot.
Great. Just great. Got any more smart moves?
I heard him moving around.
You can’t hide in here all day.
I tiptoed to the “kids’ room” and shut myself in. I huddled on the lower bunk and wrung my hands. I heard him pad to the bathroom and relieve himself with the crashing downpour common to young men and racehorses.
I closed my eyes and wished myself away, miraculously ejected through the roof and into the driver’s seat of the car, properly dressed and groomed, cruising down to the coast in rewind mode, until I reached the Corniche, where I believed this adventure had originated in one of my previous lives.
But when I opened my eyes I was still sitting there on a bunk bed in the dark little room, listening to the morning-after hacking of an intimate stranger.
There was no way to avoid dealing with this situation—now, for the rest of the day, and—oh my god—the next five days.
Now I was supposed to go to Nice with him and catch a train to Prague. I would stay in the home of a foreign woman. What was his relationship with her? Where would my bed be? My bathroom? Would I be able to go off on my own, to be understood in English, to get around the city? These were the questions of any well-heeled, well-traveled mature woman, nothing to be ashamed of. Had I asked them? Of course not. I was too cool.
When I heard him go downstairs, I took my clothes and toiletries into the bathroom to transition back into the responsible adult I was supposed to be. Then I would go down for coffee and take a reading of the socio-emotional temperature. In the shower I rehearsed opening remarks, alternative plans and options, polite excuses, exit lines.
But as the warm water played on my body, it brought back the joyful rush of sensual excitement, the teasing tension, the spontaneous release I thought I’d never in my life experience again.
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THAT MORNING we did a clumsy dance around each other. There were rueful apologies, shy questions and tentative suggestions, but in the end we reaffirmed the plan to visit Prague, without making any adjustments or provisions for our newly intimate status. We both had horrible hangovers, and that was enough of a bond to get us to the train. From then on, I would have to take it hour by hour. My way was No Budget, Tight Agenda; his was Tight Budget, No Agenda. That’s how it works when your traveling companion belongs to another generation. And if he’s an artist and a stoner to boot, you’ll want to pack a parachute in case you have to bail out.
We barely made the train in Nice. At the last minute, we found the right track and he yanked me and my luggage aboard with his free hand. We slept sitting up through the Italian countryside and woke up as we pulled into the station at Venice, where we were to change trains.
But guess what? The train to Prague didn’t leave Venice until the next day.
“I guess we’ll have to spend the night,” he said, with a grin. “Venice, huh? Could be worse.”
I agreed. But then as I moved toward the information desk, he was buttonholed by an Italian guy in an open shirt and seconds later they were both motioning to me.
“Hey, this guy’s gonna take us to a hotel that’s only 60 a night!”
The guy was grinning and beckoning. “Si, Signora, come this way. Let me take your suitcase . . . ”
And before I could even form a word of protest, I was following my lanky backpacker and this cheesy train-station barker–the two of them chatting like brothers–toward what I had no doubt was a filthy flophouse.
Okay, so it was a great little place, full of young world travelers and Elder Hostel adventurers swapping tales of the road. We had dinner on a terrace under colored lights that reflected in the dark water of the canal running by our feet. We went back and made love and then sat up late in bed with sheets pulled up to our chins watching the World Cup on TV, cheering the Czech team, who played brilliantly but lost to Germany.
Next morning we checked out of the hotel early and dragged our rolling bags back across the cobblestones to the train station.
But guess what? The train to Prague didn’t leave from that station. It left from another station, and not until the next day.
“That’s Shitaly,” said Andrew.
We turned around and dragged our bags back over the same cobblestones to the same nice little hotel, were greeted with wide grins and got another room. This wasn’t so bad. We were in Venice with a whole beautiful day to fill.
“As long as we’re here, let’s paint!” said Andrew. “I know a bridge with a good view.”
There was a gondolier soliciting on the bridge, and before we set up we had to ask him if we’d be in his way. Andrew suggested that I go forward and ask him. It worked. When Andrew stepped up, the man grunted and turned his attention back to passing tourists, resuming his desultory pitch
“Gondola, gondola, gondola!”
“Listen to Rodney Dangerfield,” Andrew said.
The view was a gantlet of seductive colors. Renaissance facades on either side of the narrow canal flaunted shades of pomegranate, saffron, geranium, cinnabar and paprika, and their rippling images mimicked them in the sea-green water. I was dying to use the expensive pigments I’d splurged on for this trip, never even dreaming I’d get to Venice. Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Turquoise, Rose Doré, Cadmium Yellow—the color samples in the art supply store had sung out to me (to the tune of $20 apiece). But Andrew was back to being my instructor, and decided I should try a limited palette. I could use only black, red earth and yellow ochre. I thought my palette looked like scrapings from someone’s shoe.
“Gondola, gondola, gondola,” droned the gondolier. One after another of the charming boats passed under the bridge carrying midlife couples in crisp khaki and linen. Prosperous Americans . . . like me, like my friends.
“Gondola, gondola, gondola,” sang Andrew under his breath in Dangerfield’s voice.
Some passengers squinted up at us, charmed and curious. Walkers stopped on the bridge to get a look at our canvases and ask if we spoke English.
I was suspended between what I had been and what I was becoming.
All day I cursed and fussed over my painting, but in the end a certain brooding beauty emerged. It is still the best I’ve ever done.
The next day, after another frantic chase and juggling act, we finally got on the overnight train to Prague. Andrew had called his sister after each missed connection, and now she was expecting to meet us at Hlavni Nadrazi Station. Leading me from car to car, Andrew suddenly stopped and pushed open the doors to a compartment.
“Hey, let’s duck in here!”
“Is this a sleeper? We didn’t pay for a sleeper.”
“Look, the bunks are empty, train’s pulling away. Nobody’s coming now.”
“But what if somebody . . . ”
“We just go crash on a couple of seats.”
Another bunk, but that was better than a seat, and soon enough I was feeling the exhilaration of a pirate on this joyride. A purloined train compartment sets the stage for all kinds of naughtiness. We pulled the curtains and cavorted like monkeys swinging from the overhead straps.
Sometime in the blackness of early morning, the train rattled to a stop at the Austrian border. Two booted and helmeted guards burst into our compartment shouting for passports. I huddled under the blanket, horrified. This was not right.
I was not supposed to be here. Not in a skimpy T-shirt, with a young man just out of grad school. I was supposed to be on a plane, reclining in Business Class, wearing the airline’s complimentary nightshade and color-coordinated jammies, with a gray-haired husband at my side, money belt secured around his girth. A couple of privileged paying customers . . . like the people in the gondolas.
As that person, I sputtered at the guards while Andrew obligingly showed them our documents.
“I will not be treated like this! Outrageous! Unacceptable!”
“I’m an American, goddammit!”
“This is their country.”
“I’m not some . . . scruffy . . . backpacker!”
“No,” he said with a flat calm, “but you’re with one.”
Was I? Really?
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MATIÇKO PRAHA they call her. Little mother Prague. Having broken free of authoritarian repression, her children were enjoying a burst of intellectual and artistic growth. It was, as I’d imagined, so bohemian. And as I realized—in Bohemia.
At the station Andrew’s sister Anne was plopped on top of a pile of bags, wearing his face and his hair, exuding his loopy charm. She took us to the cramped apartment of her friend Pavla, the single mom/gender studies professor/bass player. Since nobody, including us, knew exactly what was going on between us, Pavla placed me in her son’s room, where I could have privacy in his absence. Andrew-the-kid-brother got the cot in Pavla’s room. Anne had vague arrangements with a boyfriend, and left after awhile to sort it out.
Alone in the kid’s bunk at midnight I struggled with myself, while the sounds of catching-up went on in the next room. How had I been explained? Had someone asked the question I myself was wondering? Who the hell is she and what is she doing here?
At least we were all on the same page with that one.
The Andrew who had stepped off the train was a stranger. Gone was any sense of affection or intimacy, or even the easy painting-buddy familiarity. It was as if he’d put on a suit of armor, and now he would lift his visor only to his sister and her friend. Was this what it was going to be like for the rest of the visit? Would I be the tag-along nobody wants but everybody has to be nice to?
The kid’s room had two doors. One opened to his mother’s bedroom/office and the cot where Andrew was. The other opened to the kitchen, where we’d had drinks earlier. I wondered if there was anything left in the bottle.
On the wild fun-house ride that was to come, there was no we. Andrew and I engaged in the kind of parallel play that babies are observed doing. Watching Pavla’s punky girl band playing in a garage, lying in the grass by the 1,100-year-old castle, consuming foot-long street sausages and gallon-sized beers, placing respectful pebbles on headstones in the Jewish cemetery. There was an inspiring evening with the foremost Czech feminist and his wife, a prominent artist. He wore harlequin tights, she wore a squaw’s dress, and the conversation was like genius pinball. There was a late night at an underground club, mingling with various characters, smoking hashish, drinking whiskey and plum brandy, and then staggering and puking and weeping out emotions that are dangerous when mixed.
One night we came together for a few hours in a beer garden, where everybody sits on benches at long wooden tables and it’s self-service for the cheapest beer in town. The high from marijuana smoke in the air is free. We drank a lot, and we talked a little, and then we went for a walk on the Charles Bridge, the 14th-century stone structure that holds two sides of Prague together. In the daytime it had been thronged with tourists and street entertainers, but that night it felt still and private, as if it were a drawbridge let down for me alone.
I moved off to stand somewhere toward the middle where I could look out over the wide black river to the famous skyline, embellished with lights that glittered like jewels. Buildings evoking every artistic period since the Middle Ages, rococo to cubist, arranged themselves like scores of colorful individuals in one great choir, crowned with domes, campaniles and spires that reached into the midnight blue. The vision began to pulsate in my eyes, the colors intensified, forms pronounced themselves, became animated presences—the ghost-artisans from centuries past, appearing in the work that was their life. And the great choir began to evoke something like a song. The song was about art, and how it originates, deep in a human heart when it is called upon to make something true and good.
I hear you, said something in me. I hear you. I understand.
And then tears washed over my vision, streamed down my cheeks, dropped off my chin into the water. Andrew must have seen my shoulders shaking because he came and led me off the bridge to a bench, where I sat and wept for longer than I can ever remember.
“They gave their best,” was all I could say, gesturing toward the skyline.
“Yes, they did,” he said. “They certainly did.”
–Marcia Muir Mitchell
Chapter 2 will be next Friday’s Weekend Reading.