Who imagined ever becoming Karen Stone, Mrs. Stone? I didn’t, though I knew (and even looked forward to) maturing like good wine during my very own golden Roman Spring. *** ‘Her body had flown like a powerful bird through and above the entangling branches of the past few years, but her face now exhibited the record of the flight.‘ Mine too. C’est la vie. No complaints. Unless, of course, a youthful Paolo clothed in a ‘dove-grey flannel suit‘ or even the solitary figure of a beautiful derelict in too-small black overcoat whose open collar shows a ‘triangle of bare ivory flesh‘ awakens inadequate defenses in me. Heaven help me then. Heaven protect me. Heaven’s-hand-rail please, within arms reach.
Claude Foot, the Parisian-born older woman-hero from The Woman Who Brought Matisse Back from the Dead, encounters her ‘Paolo’ in the guise of a young Japanese art student in New York, 1964, rather than in Rome in 1952. The result of their encounter – one older, roughed-up by life, one youthful, as yet unruffled – is vastly different. Following, an excerpt from The Woman Who Brought Matisse Back from the Dead, in which the steadying handrail is needed by the more youthful, tremulous hand while the older woman, whose youth has drained away, is left unscathed by the encounter:
New York, 1964
The girl’s bell-bottom trousers were peacock blue, the boy’s were mandarin orange. Peter Yakatori compared them – alike but different – through the glass storefront on East 10th Street that was melting in the hot morning sun. Leaning closer for a better look, he was able to reach right through it, since it was not glass at all, merely the sheen that had settled over everything now that the pill he had just taken – Placidyl – was taking effect. Inside the store was a hand-lettered sign – FREE STEW AND COFFEE DIGGERS FREE STORE. The boy and girl who had first caught his eye were serving coffee and bowls of beef stew to two customers. One was a small man wearing a black shirt with a Nehru collar whose head was shaved. He reminded Peter, whose real name was Junichiro, of his father in Tokyo. He could easily imagine this man or his hairless father as a hairless gorilla. Another was a sleepy woman wearing mismatched clothes – a silky shrimp-pink peasant blouse, tight toreador pants the color of candied violets cinched by a butter cream plastic belt – who was as juicy as an overripe peach. She was about 50, made his penis stiffen.
Peter went inside, sat across the table from where the woman was eating a second bowl of free stew. He accepted a bowl of his own and a glass of tap water in a mug from the waiter. When the sexy woman finished her second bowl, rust-red juice had dribbled onto her blouse. She picked up a brown shopping bag stuffed with magazines and balls of aluminum foil. He followed after her, watching her without her knowing. She stopped often to reach down into garbage cans to retrieve various objects. He kept ten feet away, his left hand inside his yellow raincoat pressing his genitals as she wandered across town to Second Avenue, turned up Second.
While walking, she filled her bag with various discards that caught her eye – two shoes and shoelaces from a wire trash basket, a handful of discarded magazines and newspapers bundled beside a second-hand bookshop on Second Avenue, held together with twine. She reached First and 11th, leaned over to sift through an almost empty trash basket while he stood with his back against a brick wall, rubbing and kneading his erection. When she went into a building, it became lax. He swallowed a green and pink capsule and took out a cigarette. His hand was shaking when he lit the match.
She came back out holding a buttered roll and his hard-on stiffened once more. He followed until she was about to enter a building, then politely went up to her and spoke in correct but accented English.
“Forgive the rudeness of speaking to you. I am an exchange student from Japan. I am here in New York studying art and have been searching for a subject. I think you could be that subject. Is there a chance you would allow me to use you as a model?”
“It happens to be the work I once did.”
“I would pay you by the hour.”
“I would say yes.”
“May I telephone you?”
“I have no telephone but if you tell me when and where, I will go. I need the work. My husband moved to Maine, stopped sending money. I’m stranded here.”
“I’m living with a fellow student from Tokyo in a tiny room at the Broadway Central Hotel. Perhaps you can suggest a place where we can work?”
She told him to come to her apartment, which happened to be on the third floor of the building in front of them. She told him when.
Since arriving in New York in October, Peter had been gluttonizing on the city. Neither he nor the city slept. He walked every day, all day, every night, all night, helped by various pills. He was partial to this Lower East Side neighborhood, admired the freshly baked breads through the window of Lanza’s and Veniero’s Italian bakery. At night he danced at the Dom on St. Mark’s Place. He read signs tacked to electric poles promoting free poetry readings, attended those on Monday nights at Le Metro on Second Avenue. He had visited every avant-garde art gallery on the Lower East Side, in the Village, every established gallery on the Upper East Side and on 57th Street.
On his way to the appointment with the object of his inspiration, he stopped at a bookshop and bought her a copy of a popular poetry book – A Coney Island of the Mind – as a gift. He took a shortcut across Tompkins Square Park that had the four-story-high mural of Isaac Hayes and a monument that depicted two children staring up at an ocean liner. The plaque explained that liner sank in 1904, took down more than a thousand, mostly German, people from the neighborhood. The monument made him cry, not because he cared about a tragedy so long ago but because the pill he had swallowed had kicked in.
Inside her apartment, he was upset by the unmade bed and dishes crusted with old food. He asked her to undress, watched her do so. When she was unclothed, he instructed her to stand at the small window, her back toward him. After two hours he said that the session was finished. She put on a caramel and beige robe and indigo slippers. He gave her a $20 bill. He had done more than 60 drawings. She said to him, “You’re fast as a rabbit.”
“This is New York. If I don’t hurry I’ll be stepped on.”
He promised to take her to the school at which he studied art because they employed live models, so he picked her up in the morning in a taxi. The school was the Art Students League on West 57th street, where he guided her to the administrator’s office, presented her with a flourish. She impressed the administrator with her credentials, was hired to pose for two life-drawing classes. After she left the building, Peter signed up for both.
In her first class, Peter relished the salmon-pink lipstick coating her inviting lips and the tomato-red nail polish on her fingers and toes. He gazed with appetite at her neck and inner arms. These were two of the places on a woman’s body that excited him. He could not see as much as he wanted because the instructor had seated her on a three-legged wooden stool and draped a plaid twill throw across her lap. He leaned toward Impero, the man who shared his hotel room.
“If I could rest my head against her, I would be happy to ejaculate into the palm of my own hand and could without doubt draw a masterpiece.”
Impero did not see what he saw, merely warned, “Don’t get deported.”
Peter’s glassy black hair was combed back, giving him the look of a swain from the 1920s. His throat and underarms were soaked with Paco Rabanne scent. After class he saw her eating scrambled eggs in the cafeteria.
“May I sit with you?”
“May I sketch you while you eat?”
“Yes. I need money.”
While she ate, he made a dozen quick sketches of her face. She had applied a new shade of lipstick, lobster red, exaggerating the outline of her lips. He chose red charcoal to use to make his sketches. When she stood up to empty her tray, he gave her $20. He did five more drawings as she walked away.
New York, 1965
He wanted to sketch her as she went about her life in her apartment, told her to pretend he was not there. He stood against the wall preparing himself mentally, studying her as she removed the slipper-shoes, saw dirty feet with puffy toes. She picked up a newly retrieved magazine and sank into the corner of the soiled sheet on the mattress of the convertible couch. She shut her eyes for a few minutes, then opened her eyes and glanced again at the magazine. He made a few lines on a page of his sketchbook and quickly turned to the next page. One of the magazines was fat and swollen, the pages curling at the corner. He saw tiny squirming white worms between the pages of the magazine.
She pushed the worms aside, took up a scissors that was beside her and cut out an article that told about a Matisse exhibition, a retrospective show that had opened in Washington. The article mentioned that Matisse had died on November 3rd, 1954, at age 85 and that the finale of Bach’s Passion of Saint John – In Paradisum by Gabriel Fauré – had been played at his funeral. Matisse had been buried at Cimiez.
She counted how many years it had been since he died. When had she stopped praying for his longevity? Why had she not known about his death? She tried to clear her mind. She must have been in Florida where Roy never took the newspapers. She read:
… Matisse was on his way to the last sacrifice when he built the chapel in Vence and dedicated it to Notre Dame du Rosaire. Its walled garden, the windows letting in the crystal light through the colors of his magic palette, and his Stations of the Cross. That is how he did end on an organ note.
Reading this gave her a sharp stab of regret. Why had she not returned to convent? She had always imagined she would walk in the walled garden in her older years and that Matisse or his spirit would look down and see her as she once was.
She took a half sandwich wrapped in silver foil from her bag, ate and slowly read:
… Russian emigrée Lydia Delectorkaya, born in Siberia in 1910, schooled in Harbin, Manchuria, married briefly to a Russian whose identity is unknown, was penniless when she left the U.S.S.R. and friendless when she arrived in Nice, speaking no French. Among various jobs, she worked part-time as a nurse caring for Madame Matisse in 1933. After six months she became a studio assistant to Monsieur Matisse, remaining with him as his companion until his death. One writer on Matisse has said of her – ‘Lydia arrived with nothing in 1933, walked out with nothing in November 1954. She gave everything that was given to her by Matisse to Russian museums. When Madame Matisse complained about Lydia Delectorkaya, Matisse wrote to his son Pierre – ‘Perhaps even your mother will admit that the wildly acclaimed high quality of my recent painting owes something to Lydia’s services. At my age, inspiration is fragile.’ Lydia Delectorkaya was not invited to the funeral of Monsieur Henri Matisse. Though she lives in obscurity, she recently published a book on her years with Matisse.
She was glad to know about Lydia’s past. All her impressions had been that Lydia had no life except serving Matisse. She had never heard Lydia speak about herself, had never indicated one way or other if she and Matisse shared intimacy of an erotic kind. Neither had he. Her suspicion, unlike almost everyone else that knew them, was that they had not. She glued the accompanying poem, “Luxe, calme et volupté” by Baudelaire to a sheet of black construction paper:
La tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté
Luxe, calme et volupté
(There all is order and beauty
Luxuriant, voluptuous and calm)
She glued the poem beside the clipping, cut two rectangles from a sheet of brown construction paper, and glued them together in the shape of a cross. She stood up and glued the assemblage to the front of the refrigerator door that no longer opened properly. Peter put down his sketch book and chalk. He had filled every page. He said he was hungry and invited her to go with him for a meal. She told him he could get good delicatessen sandwiches on Second Avenue, to bring one for her, told him what she wanted, then added, “Matisse died, you know.”
When he was gone, she sat with her hands in her lap. The door was cracked an inch so when he returned, she would see him before he saw her. Shortly, she saw him approach the door and reenter her apartment. Before he did anything else, he scrubbed some dishes with a new plastic bottle of liquid soap which he had picked up at a bodega on the corner. When there were clean plates, he unwrapped and laid out sandwiches – pastrami on rye, brisket on a roll, also sour pickles with black peppercorns clinging to their skin, and a cardboard carton containing warm kasha varnishkas. She asked, “Do you like strong mustard?”
“If you do.”
She mixed a few spoonfuls of Coleman’s dried mustard with water and lobbed mustard onto the meat. From a paper bag squeezed among rolls of yellowing newspaper under the bed, she took a bottle of red table wine a student at the League had given her. Peter uncorked it with a rusty corkscrew she gave him. He popped a pill into his mouth. Seeing him crumple up the pager bag in which the food came, she pulled it from his hand and smoothed it out.
She greedily ate while he turned the sketchpad upside down and, using pieces of pastel chalk, made a few quick close-up studies of the fat sandwich, the hand, the mouth full of yellow mustard and brown meat. He drew her tongue licking the knife blade. When she finished eating, smears of mustard were left on either side of her mouth. Soon the pill took effect, and the slovenly aspects of her room and her person no longer bothered him. He went down onto his knees and kissed the tips of her thick toenails. He cradled her crusted heals in the palms of his hands, kissed his way up her legs. When he got to her mouth, the pill had burst open even more and her passive lips became, fat, dancing, living things.
On his next visit, he took a pill on arrival and gave one to Claude to swallow with a glass of red wine. As soon as she fell into a coma-like sleep, he got on his knees and put his head in her lap and wrapped his arms around her legs. He stroked himself for a while, undid her clothes, then made love to her. Afterwards, while she continued sleeping, he covered her with a piece of fine red silk, cleaned up the apartment as much as he could. He swept the dirt-encrusted rug, poured strong blue fluid into the toilet. When she opened her eyes, he was naked, standing against the window, making a drawing of her in a large sketchbook. A pinching pain in her neck had traveled down to the right side of her buttocks and she smelled ammonia.
While he drew with red chalk, she took the mirror from her shopping bag and put on fresh makeup – cat eyes outlined in green, red lipstick on her puckered lips. She fluffed up her hair, searched for vertical lip lines and eye crinkles. After putting the mirror back into the bag she curled up on the bed-couch. He continued working while she cut things from magazines, glued cut-outs onto colored paper. She cut out a photo of a giraffe and glued it onto a photograph of the New York skyline. She glued both against a Moroccan design. She wrote with black sharpie:
A giraffe visits New York.
“Roy took the sketchbook Matisse gave me as a gift for my marriage.”
She had become a limp rag, clutching his wrist.
“Please find it for me, chéri. I’ll let you do any intimate thing to me you want if you do.”
[short extracts from Part III – The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone
a novella by Tennessee Williams]