Chapter 2 cont'd

Then we go to the living room where Val is opening his portfolios. I am shocked by the darkness which covers all his recent works. The faces are anonymous and terrifying, their eyes obliterated by the horizontal metal bars of the Paris subway. People climbing stairs in tunnels like zombies. The atmosphere is confined, suffocating, whether the setting is the subway or the bedroom. No positive feeling seems to emanate from these paintings. Neither love of humanity, nor hope nor beauty. Even the paintings of Agnes about to give birth are devoid of humanity. On the contrary, the cold bloodedness that it takes to capture in painting such a momentous event makes pornography out of motherhood. The old man expresses dismay at all this and asks why so much darkness. Val says that's the way he sees it.

However I cannot deny there is beauty, but an ominous, horrible beauty, in this show of soul-stripped humanity, and I express enthusiasm and my willingness to help if can be of service.

Two landscapes Val painted some years back bring a breath of fresh air but Val dismisses them. It's like nature and love are only kid's stuff and he's a long way beyond that.

Then Agnes and Val wanted to go out and I suggested the Green House on Columbus at 93rd where we could have a drink at the terrace. She speaks with contempt of a woman who used to share a squatted house with us in Paris, back in 1975. She travels to Bali and other countries to buy jewelry that she sells in France. She was the mistress of a married man whose wife was slowly dying of multiple sclerosis. She had a two year old daughter at the time, whose father was estranged. I remebered that this woman knew what she wanted and unlike me, didn't shy from disapproving when she had to. I said that I liked this woman and I didn't see what there was to blame in the way she made a living. "It's better than selling drugs" I added. Then Val said he needed to convert his paintings measurements from centimeters to inches, and since I wasn't working the following day, I offered that they come to my place where I had a two-systems tape measure. "So, at what time do we meet?" I asked. "You decide" Val said forcefully, so I said 10:30am.

On the way home and during most of the night, I was bothered by a sentence that had almost leapt out of my mouth but that I had caught at the last split second. It said: "In any case, if I'm the victim of an armed robbery, you'll be the prime suspects." Why was I going to say that?

I played back our conversation in my memory. They had asked me if there were many burglaries in the neighbourhood and if there had been any in my building. I had answered that the buildings were well guarded, with doormen, intercoms and closed circuit cameras. Without realizing, I had provided them with a wealth of information, some of which must have made them shiver secretly. I had told them the anecdote of my first night in New York. A musician friend had given me the address of his music studio and a bunch of maybe thirty unmarked keys. When I had returned around 7:00am from my first night out in the wake of the indefatigable Patato, it had taken me one hour to open three doors. The building door had a warped keyhole and you needed a special touch to open it up. That was asking a lot from a woman high on coke and booze who hadn't slept in 36 hours. The studio door had five different locks. Some of the locks closed to the right, others to the left and I never knew which was open and which closed.

Yes I had told this story in the tone of a funny misadventure (omitting the detail about cocaine). Agnes had listened in rapture. Like in the old days, she could never get enough of my retelling my miseries. Her eyes gleaming and wide opened, her smile suppressed. And as a child I was so eager to please her, I wanted so much that she should like me, if that was the only way to her heart, then I would engineer my own defeat and tell her about it in minute details and then maybe she would be nice to me.

Well, with my first-night-in-New-York story, plus all the truthful answers I gave to her pointed questions, she could almost get into the locksmith business. That's why I had ended up saying that no, burglaries were improbable in this neighborhood, but that if one really wanted to, there must be a way, although in my opinion, the only possibility seemed to be armed robbery. And that's when I had almost blurted out that they would be the prime suspects if I were the victim of an armed robbery.

Now it was 2:30am and I remembered that earlier, at the old man's apartment, she had made me speak about windows. Of course she had not come out in the open, asking for instance "Supposing I should want to enter your apartment through the window, how should I proceed?" One doesn't teach "telephone communication" without mastering a few techniques of painless vampirism. She had merely said, in a detached, casual tone "It must be convenient to be able to put things on the window sills" (unlike the windows in France which open like double doors and forbid the placement of any objects in front of them). And I had plunged head first and told her everything I knew about american windows. That the old windows, like in the old man's apartment, were very heavy but could be lifted with the pinky, thanks to a hidden system of counterweights and pulleys, that the modern windows were light but hard to lift, that what the Americans call French windows, the French call "door- window". Yes I had said everything I knew about windows. She had exploited this weakness of mine, to show off my knowledge, in the hope to gain the respect which was denied me, as if to prove that I knew things, you see, I'm not so stupid.

Now I understood why there was disappointment in her voice when she had told me the day before that she didn't expect me to live in such a posh neighbourhood. She would have preferred for me to live in a rattier building like the one our father owned at Porte de Choisy in Paris, with doors that oppose little resistance, as the Friday the 13th burglary there had demonstrated.


My sleep was short and troubled. I woke up around 8 on this Friday, June 2nd, 1989. I had planned to go jogging in the park but tired and depressed I stayed in bed until a quarter to ten. I had hardly set my foot on the floor when the buzz of the intercom yanked me out of my thoughts. I let them in, dressed in haste without washing. I had not even had my coffee, the water was not even boiling in my 2 demi-tasse Italian coffee maker. I felt ashamed to be caught just upon arising. I felt guilty for having stayed in bed so late, and confounded before them who, despite jet lag were fresh and alert, and all smile when I opened the door. I burst out in anger and asked them why they had asked me to decide the time of our meeting if they would arrive 45mn early anyway. They both insisted that I had said 10 o'clock, not 10:30. But still, it was a quarter to ten. I maintained that I knew what time I had scheduled the night before. "Oh, if you take it like this, we can leave" she said. I calmed down. I was sure that she was going to say, back in France, that I had uncontrollable bursts of anger, so bad that they had had to leave. I told them they could stay but that I hated such situations, and would they please forgive me if I was just a tad "emmerdee". Agnes said, magnanimously " Anyway, we're not taking you anywhere so you have all the time you need to get ready." So kind.

I offered them some coffee, which they accepted, and the coffee- maker being so small, I had to make two batches. Agnes rose from her chair and without asking opened a cupboard above the counter. She took out a cup, looked inside and with an expression of disgust replaced it. True there was a ring of coffee inside and I had to admit, shamefacedly, that this cup was not clean. But it was a cup I never used. I took out two black cups which we never used either, smiling inside because she would not be able to tell whether or not there was a ring inside. But she had had her little victory. She had actually found some dirt and had rubbed my nose in it.

I went to my bedroom and brought back a tape measure that showed inches on one side and centimeters on the other, a calculator and a conversion table. Agnes asked "Don't you have an art book?" Yes I had an art book, at the end of which the standard canvas sizes were shown in both systems. Val had only to copy. Meantime, Agnes had washed her cup and Val's but not mine.

They asked me to call up an art teacher and make an appointment with him. Val had the mission to give him a poster which a former student of his, Eric Seydoux, who was a frien of Val, had printed. I asked Val about his schedule and he said it was open. Mr Stacy proposed to meet him at his studio at noon. I accepted and when I told Val the time of the appointment, he said he had an appointment at the same time. Would I ever do anything right? Val seemed to be thinking for a moment, then he declared that he would call to re- schedule with the other person, then he left to get his portfolio from the old man's apartment.

I told Agnes that I was going to take a shower and would be in the bathroom for about twenty minutes. Then I bit my tongue for having said this. She would have twenty minutes with the apartment all to herself. I could have left the bathroom door and the shower curtain open but this show of obvious distrust offended my delicacy. Of course when I came out she was sitting at the living room table, apparently absorbed in some writing, "sage comme une image", but while I was taking a shower she had had ample time to snoop into my drawers. Now if they had come 45mn before the appointed time, it was certainly to create this opportunity, and see if I had any company during the night.

Agnes asked me to teach her a few expressions like "You're welcome" and "Let me do this" I asked in what context she intended to use this phrase. She said for instance, when the old man was doing something and she wanted to help, she would ask him to give up what he was doing and let her do it for him. I recognized that she and mother have this annoying trait in common. Under pretense of being helpful and showing good will, they would prevent you from completing a task and this is frustrating, even if all you're doing is to prepare a bunch of radishes. Instead of doing something else, they would take the job away from you. But how could you refuse your own mother or big sister when they seemed so eager to help? They would make you feel like a fool for insisting in trimming the radishes, to the last little one.

Stop me in my tracks, create problems, weaken my nervous resistance with countless vexations, disdaining no pettiness to irritate me, pushing me to the edge and make me lose sight of my goals and then make me give up my projects, to attend to the emergency repairs that she made necessary.

She asked what was this telephone in the hallway. I said it was my room-mate's phone. I explained we had our own line. "Ah, no wonder then that it's always you who picks up the phone when I call. I hoped that your room-mate would have picked up at least once so I could have talked to her." I was so confused I didn't reply anything. On the one hand she asked me simple phrases and on the other hand she wanted to talk to my room-mate. She was indicating simultaneously that she could not speak English, but that she could. And what anyway would she want to say to my room- mate?

I showed her three silk screen prints by an Inuit. I loved them and always wondered how someone speaking a language where there are one hundred different words for "ice" could come up with these vibrant colors. I had had them framed in birch wood and they were the only objets d'art in my possession. I put one of the prints in her hands. "But it is neither dated nor signed" she said and gave it back to me without even looking at the picture.

Finally Val returned and we walked to the subway. I observed, using her own words, that after all, they were taking me somewhere today. In the subway she opened up her Michelin guide and I showed her our itinerary. I showed her Times Square where we were going to transfer but she interrupted me saying "But it's not Times Square we're going to, it's Union Square". At Times Square, a duet was playing the Tango. I remarked that she was luckier than Elisabeth, big sister #2, with whom we had taken the subway for the sole purpose of seeing some break dancers, which were not to be found, when she came to New York just a few months earlier. Furthermore, Agnes loves the Tango.

In the train, there was a really monstrous woman. The part of her face from the upper lip down was disproportionately large an completely purple. She was hiding her face behind her long hair and was reading with her head down. I could not stop looking at her. It was like an omen of bad tidings, as if Val's vision was met by reality.

[At Union Square I wasn't sure which exit would lead us to the right side of the square and I had a moment of mild panic. Agnes waited it out with a smile.] The painter was giving a class. Most of his students were white women with white hair. The model was a beautiful black woman with the pendulous breasts one sees on African wood sculptures. She reminded me of my own days as an artist's model and I remarked to Agnes about the stultifying boredom of the job, the throbbing discomfort to the body, the imperceptible boost to the ego and the meager pay of the job. She, who is her husband's only female model didn't say anything. Maybe she had chosen Val, a painter, in order to get some positive reassurance about her body, as if to say that she can't be ugly, since her husband is a painter, and maybe also to outdo me. After all I hadn't married any of the painters for whom I had posed. And now I was putting her down indirectly by saying that an artist's model had a shit of a job, no matter who the painter was. I did not intend to offend her but I realized too late that I might have done just that.

After we arrived, the students gave up their painting and crowded around us and asked questions on top of questions. I was translating back and forth for everybody. Val was showing a smaller portfolio of prints, explaining the process of printing from a glass screen. The students didn't understand the purpose of the process. I didn't either. After about 1 1/2 hour of intense concentration, I was eager to terminate the meeting. Finally Agnes pulled out a business card, gave it to Mr Stacy and then gave me one. It read: Val at such address in Paris with a telephone number, and below "Contact in New York" with my name and telephone number. I felt the blood drain from my face, I was about to faint. Never once, with all the fuss she had made about the american format, had she mentioned, let alone asked permission for the use of my name on these business cards. Besides, the thing was so ugly that it was insulting just to have my name printed on it. She had made them herself on her word processor. She had used a thick stock that was too thin for a business card. The typeface was in bad taste, the layout unesthetic, and it seemed that a clumsy child had cut the little rectangle for the edges were crooked on all four sides. I was so utterly disgusted that I was speechless.

Once in the street, I acted as if nothing happened and offered to show them the Flatiron building but they preferred to see art galleries, so I said that I would leave them and go home. Val said that he wouldn't like it if he had to stoop to teaching painting to old ladies and looked sorry for poor Mr. Stacy. I thought he didn't have it so bad, with his loft in the heart of Manhattan.

I took the subway and for no reason got off at 34th street. I went into Macy's, which I never do, and walked in the empty aisles without looking at the merchandise, in a state of shock. How could they treat me that way when I had gone out of my way to make them feel as comfortable as possible?

Back home, I found a letter from Pat, my guitar teacher, dated June 1st. He was telling me about his life back in Chicago, talked about his guitar projects, buttered me up about my talent and determination. Towards the end of the letter he said "I hope your immigration problems are resolved." I had never spoken to him about them.

I called the chief dispatcher at the Carey bus company and asked about the delay which had caused me to wait 1 1/2 hours. He turned back to May the 31st. He said there had been one breakdown around 2pm and a slight delay around 3:30pm, but that no delay had been reported around 5:30. I said that the person I had been waiting for told me that the bus had remained at the airport for more than one hour. "Impossible" he answered. "At this time of the day, the buses fill in 15mn. "I think that's all I wanted to know" I said. Then I thanked him and hung up. That was the answer I expected. I pulled out the two letters Agnes had written me prior to coming here. My apartment number was written on both. Was it possible that she had forgotten it when she came to see me? I decided that I had to take security measures and that I should talk to Jessie about my concern.

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