April in Paris.
The Musée d’Orsay sweeps up and up. Inside you can feel the ghostly space of the old train terminus, but now it’s high-tech, and I’m disappointed to learn that the exhibit is way up on the top level, because I’ve been known to cry over heights.
But that’s where the Impressionists are, so up we go, skipping past the Manets, Degases, and Matisses. My legs are wobbling, and I do not look down. Heights always remind me of my mother.
“Just because I’m afraid of heights, I don’t want you to be,” she used to say. This as I watched the sweat beads pop out on her ashen face whenever we crossed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
“I’m okay as long as I don’t look down,” she’d say, keeping a distance from the windows when we visited Daddy at his sixteenth-floor office on Broad Street. Through osmosis, I grew up leery of floor to ceiling windows, balconies, cliffs, tall buildings, fire escapes, and climbing to the tops of places like the Statue of Liberty or the lookout tower in Valley Forge Park. My mother, also claustrophobic and agoraphobic, refused to set foot on an airplane, never traveling farther than Florida, a three-day drive in the Cadillac.
When I was fifteen, my father cheerfully and determinedly booked me a plane ticket for the short hop from Philadelphia to Washington, DC. His wife’s fears may have cheated her out of a full life, but he was damned if it was going to happen to his daughter. He wanted me to experience the thrill and adventure of flying. That first plane trip inspired me to travel the world, even if it meant risking the inevitable high place.
So here I am, climbing the steps of the Musée d’Orsay, rubber-legged and sweating, but determined to get to the top.
Initially I hadn’t wanted to come. Hadn’t felt like getting out of bed, really. And it wasn’t jet lag. It was more like life lag.
After Kate and I had cut a deal that I would get up and get showered while she went out for pains au chocolat, I’d pulled the scratchy wool blanket up over my shoulders, trying to deep-breathe bad thoughts away. It’s funny, because that reminded me of my mother, too. Here you are in Paris, I said to myself, and you don’t even want to get out of bed. My mother never got out of bed before one in the afternoon. She’d stay up late every night drinking highballs and then Schmidt’s beer until Jack Paar ended, then the late movie ended, then they played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the TV screen went to snow.
In the mornings, my dad woke me up before he left for work. Mom never got out of bed to make me breakfast. I’d go into her room to bring her a glass of milk and kiss her good-bye. Her breath was sour-sweet, and she’d look at me through half-opened lids, say she loved me, and tell me I looked nice. Later, sometimes at school, I’d realize my slip showed or my socks didn’t match.
But mostly it was a growling stomach I had to deal with. By ten o’clock I was famished, and even if we had early lunch, it was still an hour and a half away.
I told my first lie in fifth grade, when my stomach was growling. We were studying nutrition, and everyone in the room was supposed to tell what they had eaten for breakfast. One by one, kids stood at their desks and said, “Oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar!” or “Pancakes and sausages.” As the teacher got closer to me, my heart thudded, and my brain raced. What would I say? I hadn’t eaten breakfast, I never ate breakfast, my stomach was painfully, roilingly empty, and I was about to be humiliated in front of the whole fifth grade!
I decided to lie. For me, this was an original concept. When Miss Bury said, “What about you, Morgan?” I said, “Two pieces of French toast with maple syrup, and four slices of bacon, and a glass of orange juice.” It was the best breakfast I could think of. French toast.
Now here I was in France and so depressed I didn’t want to get out of bed. Maybe I should go on an antidepressant. I thought about my mother again. Back in the fifties, shock treatments were the antidepressants of the day. She endured them, dozens of them. One day, home from school with a cold, I rode in the backseat of our neighbor’s Plymouth, while she drove Mom to the hospital for her shock treatment. I waited in the car for about an hour. When my mother reappeared, walking slowly toward the car in her gray gabardine coat, she looked bleached. White skin, white hair, even her coat looked white to me as I pressed my face against the window, willing her to feel better, to be happy, to be like other mothers.
Earlier this morning, gazing up through the casement window, I could just make out a slice of pale lemon Parisian sky. I heard the swish-swish of the street cleaners and pictured them sweeping the pavement across the square of Rue Vavin, the grass green of their overalls like thick flower stems bending this way and that. It occurred to me that in Paris even the street cleaners are chicly attired.
Then the downstairs double door rattled and slammed shut; Kate’s feet thumped up the steps. I threw back the covers, and headed into the shower as her key turned in the latch.
Within a half an hour, we were on the Metro and heading to the Museé d’Orsay to see an art exhibition called The Angel Collection.
And now I’ve made it up to the top floor, where dozens of other ticket holders are slowly making their way into the gallery.
My mouth feels dry as I scan the artists’ biographies carefully mounted on the wall at the main entrance to the exhibit. I’m thinking it’s the vertigo that’s caused the cotton tongue and scratchy throat. I wish I’d thought to bring a bottle of water.
As I focus on the biographies, my heart inexplicably begins to race.
Daniel Duvall, born Paterson, New Jersey 1859. Died, Giverny, 1936.
Angel, born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1872. Died, Giverny, 1952.
Daniel Duvall was a painter and teacher, whose style has been described as “American Impressionism.” Inspired by the French Impressionists, Duvall developed his own naturalistic technique, building a reputation in both Europe and in America, where he taught in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and at his Pennsylvania studio. Duvall soon became known as one of the finest of the New Hope Impressionists, dividing his time between Paris and his Bucks County farm, “Aquatong,” where he worked and taught six months out of the year, focusing on the lush river landscapes and colorful portraits of his neighboring villagers.
Kate had ultimately lured me out from under my cocoon of self-pitying bedcovers by cheerfully announcing that this exhibition had its roots in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where I’d recently, impulsively, decided to settle after the second marriage that left me with a bruised heart and a depleted bank account.
The erstwhile husband had been a well-known chef around town, even had his own local cooking show. We met when I was a television reporter assigned to do a feature story on him for the early news. His name was Pete Antraeus. He was charming, successful, sexy as all get out, and he and my son, Chad, became great pals. Chad started busing tables at Pete’s restaurant while he was in film school at Temple and later, when he turned twenty-one, became a waiter. When Pete and I married, Chad took Pete’s name, becoming Chad Antraeus. My son finally, gratefully believed that he was part of a real family.
Pete’s restaurant, Antraeus, had been the place to wine and dine for most of the eighties, but then came the Philadelphia Restaurant Renaissance, as it was called. Dozens of trendy new spots with hot young chefs began to draw clientele away from Antraeus.
We’d only been married for a few months when Pete asked me for thirty thousand dollars to invest in some renovations, plus hiring a new chef and a publicist.
He said he was burned out from the years of being on his feet in the kitchen and wanted to us to finally be able to spend our evenings together, snuggling in front of the fireplace in our recently purchased farmhouse in the suburbs. That sounded great to me. I had long ago grown disenchanted with hanging out at the bar at Antraeus after work, waiting for my husband to finish up in the kitchen. I was only half joking when I told him that I was afraid I’d turn into an alcoholic like my mother.
In addition to my substantial salary as a reporter, I had a moderate inheritance from my father, so money wasn’t an issue. I handed over a check for thirty thousand dollars.
The search for a new chef and a new publicist didn’t take long. Still, Pete continued spending long hours at the restaurant training his replacement, overseeing the construction, and meeting with the publicist.
Several weeks elapsed. When I asked Pete when the transition phase would be over, he was vague, said the renovations weren’t going as well as he’d hoped and that some contractors had screwed him over. Then he asked for ten thousand dollars more. I balked, and he flew into a rage, shouting that all he wanted to do was ensure our financial security so that we could grow old together comfortably. A new image for Antraeus would guarantee that. How could I deny him this commitment to our future?
I relented, gave him the money, and continued spending my after work hours watching reruns of Seinfeld with a tray of takeout Chinese or Italian on my lap.
It was a Thursday night when Pete phoned from his cell to say he’d be later than usual. He claimed he had evidence that his bartender was stealing from the register and needed to go through piles of receipts. Don’t wait up, he said.
Around four in the morning, the call came from the Atlantic City police. My husband, Peter Antraeus, had been involved in an automobile accident near the Aladdin Casino. He and his (female) companion had been taken to Sibley Memorial Hospital where he was being treated for a dislocated shoulder and broken ribs. The lady had been discharged earlier, but Mr. Antraeus needed a ride home. I told the officer to tell Mr. Antraeus to go fuck himself.
“I can’t do that, Ma’am,” he said.
Pete had gambled away my forty thousand dollars in the high-roller back rooms of Atlantic City. His “female companion” had been the new publicist that I’d paid for.
After the embarrassment and recriminations, my contract at the television station wasn’t renewed. “Budget cutbacks,” they told me. But I maintain to this day that the scandal of my embezzling husband cost me my career as a reporter. It was delectable fodder for gossip columns in all the Philadelphia papers. It was even picked up by the infamous Page Six in New York. My son was mortified. My own humiliation was complete.
So, after endless legalities, when the divorce was finally final, I’d followed the foggy whim of a broken heart and meandered to a place nobody ever heard of at what seemed like the end of the world. I, who had always sought the spotlight, now only wanted anonymity. Especially after that rag, Center City Philly, had published a serialized article about Pete and me. People whose loyalty I had never questioned offered up the most mundane and mortifying details of my relationship with my husband. As Judy Holliday said, “With fronds like these, who needs anemones?” I didn’t know who my friends were anymore.
Some inner compass led me down a sloping country road into a sleepy little country village in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The first house I looked at was a registered historic landmark. It had been the rectory for the Milltown Christian Church. For two hundred years it had housed the ministers of the church and their families. As I stepped across the threshold, the house just spoke to me, and it was as if I had no choice. I was pulled through the front door as if an invisible hand reached out and grabbed me. And then, wandering through those rooms, it was like my blood turned carbonated. I felt fizzy and light-headed. It didn’t matter that there was only one full bathroom upstairs, with little more than a WC next to the little room off the kitchen. It didn’t matter that there was no dishwasher, no pool for swimming my laps, or that there was a cemetery just on the other side of the church next door. It didn’t matter that the barn was practically falling down or that the asking price was fifty thousand more than I’d planned on spending. I offered full price on the spot, and six weeks later, my mother’s Seth Thomas clock was on the mantel over the fireplace, my books were on the shelves, my Villeroy & Boch china was in the cabinets, and I had my own post office box at the quaint General Store.
Within days of unpacking, I was struck by a crippling case of buyer’s remorse, wondering what the hell I was going to do with myself: out in the country, miles from nowhere, clanking around in a creaky old house next door to a creepy cemetery.
I booked a flight, packed a suitcase, and bolted. Leaving town has always been my antidote to crisis. This time it was to Paris and my old TV cohort, Kate, an expat now living on the Left Bank.
But these post-divorce blues have been hard to shake. I’m scared to go home to a place that doesn’t really feel that homey. And I’m still caught between heartbreak and humiliation, which is a kind of homelessness in itself. At least here in Paris nobody knows my pathetic story.
With a sigh, I return to reading the artists’ biographies:
The painter known only as “Angel” was brought to Paris from Ireland in 1897 by the French art patron and manager, Paul Durand-Ruel. Introduced to her early work by Daniel Duvall, Durand-Ruel ultimately arranged Angel’s first exhibition. That series of paintings, “Irish Country life,” established Angel as an artist in her own right.
Suddenly, inexplicably, something lifts in me, and I feel a glimmer of hope, a kind of artistic communion. I make a silent pledge: I will recover. I will return to the house in Bucks County and really settle in. I’ll write a novel, maybe, or buy some oils and canvases and paint the mysterious images that swirl and dive behind my eyes—maybe even get funding for a documentary! I’ll take long walks along the Delaware River, and poke around in flea markets, and maybe even meet the real love of my life instead of another poseur.
I look up to see that Kate has hooked her purse over her shoulder and is heading into the gallery.
I hesitate, momentarily feeling a slight loss of balance and a sudden urge to go to the ladies’ room. Too much thinking, I tell myself. Or maybe I’m still clammy from the dizzying climb. But there’s no way I’m retracing my steps and subjecting myself so soon again to the heart-stopping heights. My thighs still feel as if they could faint on their own.
I breathe deeply and move toward the gallery. But as I pass under the arched entrance and into the room, my feet feel weighted, like I’m slogging through mud. Once more, I hesitate, momentarily surrounded by a group of boisterous students. They disperse, and suddenly I’m in a pulsing kaleidoscope of color: vibrant, lush, living. I pause, taking in the sweep of paintings by “Angel.” There must be thirty of them, many life-size. The first grouping depicts various scenes from rural Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century. Robust men and black-eyed women, tousle-haired laughing children, rolling in the lush green grass, coaxing a cow into the barn, splashing one another with water from the pump. There’s one painting of a gentle-looking woman hanging the wash, while a baby sleeps in a basket at her feet. Looking at them, a clot forms in my throat. I am stirred by some unspecified yearning, a kind of home-sickness. Then suddenly it’s as if twin bees sting my eyes. Tears spring out, hot and fresh.
I circle the room slowly, dabbing my eyes, feeling silly. I force myself to pause for a long time in front of each painting, measuring my response and realizing that I have an odd, intense desire to climb into each frame, to touch the people. To say, “I’m here! I’m here!”
After some time, and with a kind of confused reluctance, I move into the next room and am galvanized by the paintings of Daniel Duvall that he called “The Angel Collection.”
The light and radiance of the first paintings that I see create a new burning in my eyes. At the same time, I have the sinking sensation that I am crossing a threshold into a scary place. And then, yes, out of my peripheral vision, I sense paintings that are dark, very dark. Warily, and with a drumbeat in my chest, I begin to circle the room, daring to raise my eyes to the paintings. As I connect with the images, small explosions of emotion ricochet from my throat to my groin.
A luminescent portrait of the woman called Angel, painted by Duvall. Her long arms are outstretched, as if in benediction. There is a dazzling radiance about her, an aura. He painted her as if she truly were an angel.
Gazing at her, something warm and viscous floods my insides, pooling and thickening between my legs. I feel the blood rise to my cheeks and am somehow vulnerable, exposed. I squeeze my thighs together, self-consciously reworking the knot of my scarf. I cast a surreptitious look around to see if anyone is looking askance at me.
The next painting is of a mother and child resting in a meadow near a manger where lambs nuzzle and play. At first I am charmed by the idyllic scene, then a shadow, like some lowering, fast-moving cloud settles over me. My fists clench involuntarily, and oddly, so do my teeth. It’s as if I am girding myself. And then my heart picks up its racing, and the clot in my throat thickens, blocking the oxygen. The scarf is strangling me, and I yank it off.
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