A great number of us never thought in ourselves why we went, but a certaine tickling humour
to do as other men had done.
A woman must continually watch herself.
He’ll talk to the girl in the orange knit cap, standing by the Veronese. He won’t look at her at first. He’ll flip to a fresh page in his sketchbook, he’ll glide across the room—his eyes fixed on the painting, drifting close to her, but not too close—and after a moment, he’ll begin to draw.
He’ll pick a small detail from the tableau: Titian’s hand on the neck of a bass viol, the toothpick pinched in the plump fingers of the Marchesa di Pescara, or maybe the glum little dog perched atop the banquet table. The girl will be standing nearby, watching his sketch take shape. After a minute or so—long enough to get the rough outlines down, so she’ll be able to see what he’s doing—he’ll look up at her, and he’ll smile with his eyes.
At that point, if he has to, he’ll say something. Nothing clever; probably nothing more than hello. Something to break the ice—and to let her know that he’s an American too, if she hasn’t already figured that out. She’ll talk to him then. In fact, this time he doubts it’ll be necessary for him to say anything at all.
She’s been watching him already. He didn’t notice her walk into the Salle des Etats; he’d been absorbed in Correggio’s Antiope, a sketch he’s been doing on and off now for three months, when he felt eyes on him. He turned around, and there she was, still flushed from the cold outside, staring into the expanse of the Veronese, her head cocked, her lips slightly parted, her expression vaguely stunned, like she’s just fallen out of the painting, like The Wedding Feast at Cana was suddenly short one doe-eyed twenty-year-old in an orange knit cap.
He’ll ask her where she’s from. New England, he guesses. Connecticut. She’ll be a student, from NYU or Smith or Sarah Lawrence, here on spring break. Or, more likely, she’s studying abroad, in the UK or Italy or Germany, and she’s traveling between terms. Or maybe this trip is her graduation gift, her first and last chance to put her art history degree to use before she heads off to law school, or to a job at a Barnes & Noble. Maybe not art history, he thinks. Maybe literature. Renaissance poetry. She looks the type.
The specifics aren’t important. What’s important is that she’s traveling alone, and that she won’t be staying in Paris very long.
She’s not unattractive, although not gorgeous, either, by any conventional standard. Her face is wide, her mouth large and slightly crooked. She’s still too bundled up to tell anything about the shape of her body. There’s something about her, though, something in the way she’s standing. An appealing awkwardness. A jumbled quality, like she’s assembled from parts that don’t quite match. Something in her face, too. Not anxiety or fear, exactly. Anticipation. Excitement about what’s going to happen next.
He’ll tell her a little about himself as he works on the sketch, sticking to the official story, the simplest available version of the truth. He’s from Fort Lauderdale; he graduated not long ago from art school in Savannah, and now he’s spending a year as a special student at the École des Beaux-Arts before he returns to the States for his MFA. That’s really all she’ll want to know. It won’t do either of them any good, for instance, if he mentions that he hasn’t shown his face in the École for nearly six weeks, or that he’d be unwelcome if he did. Negative space is the key to any successful composition: you have to know what to leave out.
They’ll chat for awhile, long enough for her to get comfortable. She’ll tell him about where she’s been, where she’s planning to go, what she thinks of Paris so far. He’ll make some easy gibes at the Parisians’ fussiness and self-importance, and also at the bleating crowd of tourists behind them, elbowing each other for a glimpse of La Joconde. If he’s lucky, she’ll be smart; she’ll know things. She’ll have a sense of humor and appreciate irony. This will make things much better. I’m on my Grand Tour, she might say. I’ve come to Europe to complete my education.
Yes, he’ll say. Me too.
Eventually, the moment of crisis. She’ll exhaust her scripted small talk. Then she’ll notice that he’s stopped sketching. Her eyes will drop to the floor, flit across the herringbone parquet. Maybe she’ll even bite her lip. He can picture it.
He’ll make it easy for her. The museum’s too big to tour in an afternoon, he’ll tell her. What did you most want to see?
She’ll shift her weight, take a moment to come up with a good answer. The Vermeers, probably. Maybe the Reubenses. The Winged Victory. The Napoléon III apartments. The Rembrandts. The Venus de Milo.
I can show you where that is, he’ll say.
He’s not bad looking, really, and he can be reasonably charming—but he doesn’t flatter himself by thinking that his capacity to attract these girls comes from any quality that he himself possesses. It’s a function of circumstances, and during the months he’s lived here, he’s learned how to turn circumstance to his advantage.
It didn’t take him long to figure out how to spot American tourists in the crowds, and that’s where he focuses his attentions. He and Paris have worked out a kind of Scylla-and-Charybdis routine: the Parisians are reliably brusque to and disdainful of their American visitors, and the Americans wander the city lost and hungry, afraid to ask directions or to enter a restaurant for fear of offending someone, not quite understanding that their offense consists in their being here in the first place. It’s confusion and frustration more than any genuine interest in art and antiquities that brings them here. As he himself discovered soon after his arrival, the Louvre is one of the few places in Paris where one can reliably seek refuge from Parisians.
Therefore the girls he approaches in the halls of the museum can’t help but be positively disposed toward him. Here is a fellow American who speaks some French and who knows the city, who can recommend safe and friendly hotels, who can show them around the métro, who can pilot them through the treacherous straits of restaurant dining. At the Smithsonian or the Met or the Art Institute of Chicago, these girls would take great pains to ignore him; in Paris, he is a kind of hero, a savior.
Their relief is admittedly a fair remove from erotic interest, but it’s a foot in the door, and under the circumstances he’ll take what he can get.
Of course there’s always that bad moment a few minutes into the conversation, when their eyes drop to the floor, and they weigh their reluctance to trust him against their reluctance to face the city alone—but as often as not, with a little careful handling on his part, they’ll wind up placing themselves in his care. And if it gets past that point, they’ll generally wind up sleeping with him.
After all, isn’t it already there, in the backs of their minds, reinforced by who knows how many films and novels and shampoo advertisements? Whether she wants to admit it or not, no American woman visits Paris without fantasizing at least momentarily about some sort of impromptu dalliance. Even if she dismisses the thought as ridiculous, silly, a manufactured fantasy, it’s still in there somewhere; it hasn’t gone away. How could he help but take advantage of this predisposition? This, for him, is the real beauty of Paris: it’s simultaneously the carrot and the stick.
From time to time he’s tried to broaden his scope beyond his own countrywomen, but it’s never worked out as he intended. German and British girls will hardly talk to him. Canadians and Italians and Israelis never take him seriously. Japanese girls make him nervous. He’s met a couple of Australians who were receptive, and a Dutch girl who actually went back to his apartment, but he could never shake the suspicion that these girls’ motives were even more corrupt than his own, and the encounters left him depressed and unsatisfied.
He’s never once considered approaching a Parisian girl. He watches them in small groups on the métro, often no older than fifteen or sixteen, headed out to the clubs just as he’s going home for the night. He hides behind his sketchpad and peeks out at them: beautiful, bored, terrifying.
The more time he spends in Paris, the better he comes to know the city, the less he likes to leave the museums. Anyway, it’s not like there’s any shortage of American girls at the Louvre.
By this point in the afternoon, she’ll probably be starving. Most of the restaurants in the First Arrondissement are either cafés to which she’d have to budget a couple of hours or American fast-food chains she wouldn’t be caught dead walking into; consequently she probably hasn’t eaten since this morning. He’ll take her to Café Marly in the Richelieu Wing, where they’ll buy coffee and sandwiches, and she’ll tell him a little more about herself.
She’ll be enchanted with Paris, now that she has a reliable guide. Her visit has been the fulfillment of a childhood dream—and also a chance to explore her longstanding academic interest in art history, or possibly Renaissance poetry. After all, she’ll say, it was Sir Philip Sidney, wasn’t it, who first popularized the idea of the Grand Tour?
Yes, he’ll say. I believe it was.
She’s on her own now, but she probably isn’t traveling alone. She’ll be here because she got a cheap flight into De Gaulle, and she’ll be off to meet friends in Venice or Vienna or Prague in another day or so. Or maybe her friends will be meeting her here—or maybe she’s already visited them, and now she’s on her way back to wherever she came from. In any event, as long as she’s going to be alone in Paris tonight, he’ll be happy. If she’s leaving town tomorrow, he’ll be even happier.
After his first few clumsy attempts in the museum, it occurred to him that he might improve his chances by approaching American girls traveling in pairs. After all, he reasoned, they’ll feel more secure in responding to his advances when they’re not alone and vulnerable. His insight, he discovered, was essentially correct, but too simplistic: these girls were happy to be shown around town, comfortable with being openly flirtatious, even willing to accept his hospitality by spending a night in his apartment. But when it came down to the act itself, the presence of the other girl always spoiled everything. Sometimes it was due to jealousy: neither girl was willing to risk angering her companion by abandoning her for a fling with some expat artist. Or it was concern for what the other girl would think, and for what she’d tell mutual friends back in the States later, when her back was turned. Either way, these encounters always ended in frustration. The few instances when he did achieve some measure of success were highly unsatisfactory, prompted by humiliating desperation, and ultimately not worth the trouble. He recalls them now with discomfort: hurried couplings on his chirping mattress, accomplished while the girls’ companions were showering down the hall, or curled on his apartment floor, clenching their teeth, pretending to be asleep.
At one particularly low point, he approached a girl from Birmingham who was touring the Louvre with her boyfriend. He did it by accident, of course. The girl and the boyfriend had been quarreling, and the boyfriend had stalked off somewhere to cool his head, leaving her alone in the Marly Courtyard. Her immediate receptivity should have tipped him off that something was wrong, but she was unusually attractive, so he persisted, and by the time the boyfriend returned from his sulk, he’d already agreed to lead them to Notre Dame, to guide them through the métro, and to help them find a good restaurant in Montmarte near Sacré Coeur.
He spent the next five hours maneuvering them through streets and tunnels and ancient basilicas while they whined and sniped at each another about the stupidest things imaginable. On any number of occasions, he easily could have excused himself, could have blended into the crowd and lost them, but he didn’t, and at the conclusion of his travails, the girl from Birmingham wound up fellating him on a wooden bench in the Square du Vert Galant below the Pont Neuf as the lights winked on along the Seine and the boyfriend stomped about somewhere high above, looking for a Thomas Cook.
When it was done, he took the métro back to the Place Monge and walked to his apartment and tore off his clothes and sat naked on the floor in the cold. In the soft blue light bleeding through the open window, he stared shivering at the pile of used-up sketchbooks in one corner, and at the stretched, primed, blank canvases leaning against the wall by the window, and at his abused and sagging bed in the middle of the room. He sat for a long time, thinking about what his life had become, until he found himself unable to think of anything at all. Then he sat and stared and thought of nothing, until eventually he grew tired and went to sleep.
But those were unusual circumstances. In the morning, he rose and dressed and returned to the museum.
There’s an inexpensive brasserie on the Rue des Écoles where the staff knows him, where they’ll let him speak French, and he’ll take her there. The waiters will seat them near the back, they’ll smile conspiratorially from across the room, and they’ll murmur amongst themselves between courses. Non, ce n’est pas la même fille. Ce n’est jamais la même fille.
If she’s a vegetarian, he knows a decent Indian place on the Avenue des Gobelins. But he hopes she’s not a vegetarian.
By now, making conversation won’t be any problem. She’ll be so starved for the sounds of spoken English, for the feel of it on her tongue, that he won’t have to do much aside from listen as she holds forth about her hometown, her career plans, her passion for art history or Renaissance poetry. He’ll pour more Beaujolais and nod as she talks about the travels of young Philip Sidney, about how he fled from Paris during the massacre on St. Bartholomew’s Day, escaping to be fêted in Vienna and Venice and Prague, while back in France Henri de Navarre made his conversion at the tip of a sword, and the corridors of the Louvre were splashed with blood.
Paris is not always hospitable, he’ll say.
But in Venice, she’ll remind him with a sly smile, Sidney sat for his portrait by Veronese.
She’ll say this in order to recall the moment they met. They were both looking at the painting: it is what they have in common. Perhaps, while she speaks, she’ll allow her leg to brush lightly against his own. He will not discourage this.
It is in fact unlikely that she will say any of these things.
If she’s checked into a hotel, he’ll walk her back there and invite himself up. If she’s in a hostel, or if she hasn’t yet gotten around to finding a room, he’ll take her back to his place, a little apartment on the Rue des Patriarches, a block east of the Rue Monge. He’ll guide her to the squealing iron gate, the dim vestibule, the cramped and rattling elevator. It’ll be cold, the sun will be down, she’ll be tired and a little drunk, and things will progress rapidly. No assurances will be necessary at this point. No convincing. The artist affirms nothing, Sir Philip Sidney wrote, and therefore never lies.
It’s not the sex itself that interests him so much as the revelatory aspect of the encounter, the gradual unfurling, the sense of exploration and discovery. This tipsy American girl, about whom he knows nothing, who knows nothing about him, displaying herself for him in a tiny room: it’s a kind of magic, somehow strangely pure.
Be that as it may, they will certainly have sex. It will be awkward or effortless, rushed or slow, inventive or rote, frantic or desperate or transcendent or sordid. His expectations in this area are mundane and easily gratified.
Afterward, he’ll want to talk. He’ll tell her about other cities he’s visited, other museums he’s seen: the Tate in London, the Prado in Madrid, the Uffizi in Florence, the Accademia in Venice. Maybe he’ll look back to this moment in the Salle des Etats, imagine her standing here in front of The Wedding Feast at Cana, and talk about another Veronese painting, his Last Supper: how it was deemed vulgar and unacceptable by the Inquisition, and how, rather than altering a single detail, Veronese simply circumvented these objections by changing the title to The Feast in the House of Levi. As he gets older, he appreciates this trick more and more. When something doesn’t meet expectations, just call it something else.
Maybe she’ll already know this story. Maybe, by the time he’s told it, she’ll already be asleep.
He’ll probably sketch her—before, as a kind of foreplay, or afterward, or the next morning, or even while she sleeps. Maybe he’ll do a quick sketch of her whole body; more likely, he’ll focus on something specific: her feet, her neck and collarbones, the muscles in her shoulders and between her scapulae, her fingers at rest in the hollow below her ribs. The sketch will be on the same page as the detail from The Wedding Feast at Cana that he used to attract her attention in the first place. There is a pleasing symmetry in this, he’ll think.
The next morning, he’ll take her to a pâtisserie on the Rue Lacépède and feed her breakfast, and he’ll show her how to get where she’s going, or where to meet the people she’s supposed to meet. She’ll be somewhat withdrawn; things won’t be going quite as she’d anticipated. She’ll blame herself for this—her own stupid expectations. Stupid, she’ll think. So so stupid.
She’ll ask him for his address here, or for his address in the States. This isn’t something I do casually, she’ll say. He’ll give her a defunct Hotmail address, he’ll take her hand, and he’ll wish her well. It has been a great pleasure, he’ll say. I hope we meet again.
Some months from now, back here in the museum, he’ll flip open his sketchbook, and his eyes will come to rest on the drawing of her. He’ll sit on a bench and linger over it, trying to remember whom it depicts, and the circumstances under which it was drawn.
He’ll try to place it in temporal context—to infer something from its placement next to the pinched fingers of the Marchesa di Pescara, a few pages down from the parted lips and elevated chin of Correggio’s wanton Antiope—but these familiar images will betray nothing, silently closing ranks with the stranger in their midst. Recalling the motion of his hand across the paper, he’ll shift his attention from the images themselves to the charcoal marks that constitute them, and then to the mute white regions between those marks, interrupted here and there by his own sooty fingerprints.
After a few minutes, he’ll look up at the gilt frames that crowd the walls, he’ll scan the steady lifeless eyes there, and he’ll feel the soft vertiginous plunge of his own vanishing. He’ll close the book, he’ll rise from the bench, and he’ll rejoin the procession of tourists. He’ll drift ghostlike down the wide warm corridors, his hungry eyes sifting the crowd.
Martin Seay holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and was a 2005–06 fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Gargoyle, Other Magazine, Pindeldyboz, and the anthologies Alice Redux and Kiss the Sky, both from Paycock Press. Originally from Texas, he lives in Tacoma, Washington.