I went back up to Montparnasse on the 91 bus the other day, to meet friends. We were going to see a movie at the cinema called the Sept Parnassiens on the opposite side of the boulevard from the café Sélect. It was about five o’clock and the traffic was heavy, going both ways. I stepped out on to the traffic island. I was early for the movie, my friends were not yet there outside the cinema, and I thought of going back to the Sélect and asking, just idly, if anyone had seen an elderly man sitting there recently, a famous painter; in fact, Nahum Rostov.
I went in. It had hardly changed at all. Same brown shiny seats, same brown tables, same mirrored walls. I hadn’t been in here in – what – fifty years? As soon as I thought that, I knew of course that it was ridiculous. If he were still alive, he’d be over ninety, at least. But some people do live to be over ninety; it wasn’t impossible that he still tottered over here for his evening drinks, surrounded by cronies as ancient as himself, or even by a new crop of tempting younger women. The young man behind the bar was polishing glasses. He gave me a questioning look, as I wasn’t doing what people do, just sit at a table and wait to be asked what they want.
“I just wondered if an old friend of mine still comes in here. The painter Nahum Rostov? He’d be an old man by now. Probably, white hair. Do you know him, by any chance?”
The young man frowned. Of course, hundreds of tourists came in here now all the time; people probably weren’t known by name any more; the same people might not come in every evening to drink, the way they used to. “I don’t know him. But I’m fairly new here. You’d have to ask the boss. He’ll be in later.”
“Thank you. I’ll come back later.”
“Can I get you anything, Madame?”
“No thanks. I’m going to the cinema. Till later.”
I looked down to the back of the café, to where we always used to sit, Jenny and I in our short cotton dresses with our legs sticking to the plastic, up against the wall mirrors with our backs to them, and the men opposite. Men always seem to like to sit where they can escape. I remembered those evenings: excitement and discomfort, both. Cheap red wine — well, I suppose it was cheap, Nahum always paid, to give him his due — and far too many Gauloises. Jenny and I used to lean on the table with our chins in our hands and pay attention to every word we could understand, and occasionally glance at each other as if to say, “Wow.” Except in those days, nobody said wow. We were not Americans, and English still had its own rules.
We had met Nahum Rostov outside a patisserie on boulevard Montparnasse, where we were ogling cakes through the glass. We had run out of money, I think. Or perhaps we were pretending to have run out of money, because it was more interesting. We had been staying at the bookshop on the rue de la Bûcherie called Le Mistral, that later became Shakespeare and Company. For a couple of weeks, we’d been sleeping there and working, if you could call it that, in the shop. We did sell a few books, in between examining erotic engravings and the works of Pierre Loüys. The owner, George Whitman, bought us ham sandwiches in the evenings, and there was always wine. But we’d wanted to move on – to where, to what, we had no real idea. Moving on was the thing. Besides, you could never get a night’s sleep in the bookstore, as people marched in and out all night and woke you up to read their poems aloud at two in the morning. So, we were looking at croissants, pains au chocolat, baba au rhum, feuillettes of this and crème de that, and a voice behind us said, “Can I buy you each a cake?”
Nahum was tall and thin and rather ugly, with a shock of dark curly hair and a nose like a boxer’s. His whole face looked as if it had been rearranged in a fight. He smiled at us, and we stood there like little girls and said, well, yes, he could buy us a cake. He had the cakes put in a cardboard box tied with a ribbon, and he carried it for us back to his apartment, which was just around the corner. No, we didn’t worry much about men’s intentions in those days; we were simply interested in adventure, and risk. Besides, he was at least forty. We could stay in his apartment, he told us, for as long as we liked, as long as we would cook for him. His wife had left him – she was a painter too, we gathered, and had perhaps got sick of all the cooking – and he was tired of having to cook and eat alone. Could we cook? We nodded, lying. Of course.
“Good. Well, I’ll give you the money, and you can go shopping, I’ll show you where the markets are, and then we’ll eat together in the evening. I’ll be in my studio all day. Right?”
Right. Well, we had watched our mothers; we were sure we could manage something. We moved in. I was to sleep in a sort of alcove in the sitting room and Jenny would have the couch. There was a toilet but no bathroom. If we wanted baths, we would have to visit the White Russian down the hall. We imagined the White Russian like the white knight, but she was in fact a kind woman who spoke little French and no English, but loaded us up with bath salts and let us wash our hair as often as we liked. While we were in her echoing bathroom with its enormous taps and bath-tub with lion’s feet, we heard her humming gloomy tunes as she walked back and forth in her kitchen, stirring a vast pot of Russian-looking soup. Nahum told us that she had escaped from Russia with her life, but little else; that she had once been a great aristocrat.
Jenny and I took Nahum’s money each morning and wandered out with our baskets to the markets on boulevard Raspail and down at Port Royal. We bought large pieces of steak at butchers’ stalls, and potatoes, and green beans, because at least we knew what these things were. And eggs, of course. If all else failed, we would fall back on omelettes. We bought a large naked yellow hen. We bought some smaller birds with their feet tied together like victims of torture. We bought a lot of cakes, for dessert. When we got home — home! — to the apartment, we began cooking. We started with great slabs of butter, we poured in wine, we played “La Bohème” at top volume on Nahum’s record player. If we forgot what was in a pan, and it burned, we poured in wine and gasped with pleasure and relief as it fizzed up and steamed and whatever was in the pan blackened and spat. French cooking! Neither of us had heard of Julia Child, and Elizabeth David had only just got started. We’d watched our mothers’ careful post-war savings and simmerings of various cuts of meat, with two boiled veg, and we were going to do it differently, because this was France, and we were free to experiment. In the evenings, Nahum came out looking weary, the lines on his forehead deepened with the day’s work, it seemed, and paint on his hands. He tried to eat what we cooked, and rolled his eyes. “I thought you said you could cook!”
“Well, it’s sort of different in England.”
“Yes, I imagine it is. Well, better luck next time, I suppose. Come on, clear up the dishes, and we’ll go out to the Sélect.”
We scampered off to do our eye make-up, having piled the dishes in the sink. I had a bee-hive hairdo at that time, that stayed put with enough hairspray and pins, and Jenny had her long blonde hair hanging about her shoulders or up in a shining coronet that made her a good few inches taller than her five foot two. We sprayed on “Miss Dior” and ran downstairs after our host, in his shabby black corduroy jacket, his own hair permanently on end.
The Sélect! Far less socially snobbish than the Dôme, far less intellectually snobbish than either the Deux Magots, or the Flore, and what’s more, much nearer. We were Montparnasse, not St. Germain des Près. We were artists, he said, not intellectuals. We were people who did some actual work. We slid into seats alongside our usual table, and sometimes there were people waiting, Maggy who was someone’s girlfriend and worked as a model, Pierre who painted her, a man called Funambule who had just got out of prison for fraud, and Jimmy, an American who claimed to know Henry Miller and whom we privately thought a greater fraud. Then, later in the evening, the people who had come from other cafés, to drop by and say hello. We stayed in our seats for about five hours each night, and at the end of the evening tumbled home drunk and stinking of Gauloises but happily conscious that we were getting the education of our lives.
I can’t remember now what we talked about – not one thing. But it’s all a very long time ago. What I do remember, what one always remembers, is how it felt. To be young, pretty — well fairly pretty — and drinking in everything that happened to us like thirsty young birds, to be in Paris in the sixties, to be alive. “Isn’t life exciting?” was our mantra, and we whispered it to each other more than once during those evenings, cooking forgotten, scraped blackened pans to wait till morning, and men, real men, looking at us the way we’d looked at those cakes in the shop window. “Bonsoir, chère amie,” we would murmur to each other as we fell into our rumpled sheets at one or two in the morning, into our deep sleeps, with no thought of anything but going on the same way the next night.
The night that Nahum showed me his paintings we had had a particularly nasty dinner, as it was the night of the hen. We had tried to roast her without taking out her insides, which included several unlaid eggs. Nahum pushed his chair back from the table. “You two are costing me a fortune, and I don’t even get a decent meal out of it! Did nobody ever teach you to gut a chicken? And this bird’s been walking this earth as long as I have. God, what do they teach women in your country?”
I said, “I’m going to be a writer, anyway.”
Jenny said, “In our country, nobody eats old hens. Or even sells them.”
“You’re going to be a starving writer if you don’t learn how to cook. Don’t writers eat? Don’t you brilliant conversationalists have a practical thought in your heads? It’s no good just being a pretty face in this life, my dears.”
We were silent. Neither of our mothers had allowed us into their kitchens to do more than watch, and maybe lick the cake bowl. We felt exiled, all at once, from our Parisian life. Nahum glared at us. “Tomorrow, I’m going out to eat. Now, I’m going to my studio. You can do what you like.”
What, no Café Sélect? I said, to try to soothe him, “Nahum, would you show me your paintings?”
“What? You want to see some work of mine? I hope you know more about art than you do about cooking. All right. Jenny, you stay here and clear up this mess, will you? Miss Great Writer can come and see what real people do, that’s more than just talk.”
Jenny shook her head at me – to tell me what, I couldn’t guess. Don’t go? Watch out? Thanks for leaving me all this? I followed Nissan downstairs and across the courtyard to where he had his studio. It was summer, so it was still light. Outside, in Paris, people were celebrating the end of the Algerian war, de Gaulle was parading around in his black Citroën flanked by outriders, real writers were writing masterpieces, discussing Existentialism, creating the future; but all I could think about as I followed Nahum that evening was that I had said I was a writer, and I’d hardly written a thing. I’d dared to put “writer” after my name for the first time in George Whitman’s guest book – but I was one of dozens of his young visitors who had done the same. Now I thought, I am really committed. I’ve said I’m going to be a writer, so I don’t have to learn to cook, or do dishes, or buy the right food, or any of it. Jenny, who had made no such claim, had been left behind. And now I was being marched away to look at modern art, Nahum’s art, and I would be required to say something intelligent, and I would not be able to.
I was as scared by abstract art as I was by modern poetry and music: there’s nothing so scary as what you don’t understand but fervently believe you should. I stood dumbly as Nahum turned one canvas after another around to show me, as I stared at what was already on his studio walls. On the easel itself was a large white canvas with what looked like a bloodstain on it, as if some bird or animal had dashed itself to pieces there. Similar large stains, in different colors, marked the other canvases. I stood for too long, looking, searching for something to say. He showed me another, and another. What could I say, a girl straight from college in this year of change, who had never come across such painting or even believed it was art?
“It’s all right, you don’t have to say anything. I don’t expect it.”
“Nahum, it’s very interesting, it’s fascinating. In fact..”
“In fact I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“I know you haven’t. I know you are completely uneducated. But, you say you want to be a writer. To be a writer, you have to understand everything. You have to be open to the world.”
“Can I ask you? What is it?”
“What is what?”
“I mean — is it anything? The mark. The one you make over and over again?”
“It’s a mark!”
“The point is about abstraction, it doesn’t represent anything. It is paint, on canvas. Just as if you write, it is ink on paper. It doesn’t represent the world. It’s not” — and here he allowed a little more sarcasm into his voice — “Representative.”
“So tell me, what do you write?”
“Oh, poetry.” I thought of adding “stories” but that might sound too representational.
“Poetry! The ultimate abstraction of language. But how can you, as a young woman, write poetry?”
“I just do. I don’t know.”
He leaned against a white wall in his dusty black jacket, his arms crossed. He stared at me. “Well, you will have to change your life.” Was he quoting Rilke? “You are just out of college, right, you and Jenny? What will you do now?”
“Well, I’m engaged. I’m going to marry my boyfriend. And write, of course.”
Nahum glared at me from under his thick eyebrows. “Marry? But why would you marry, at your age?”
“Because I want to.” I wasn’t sure that I did, now, but Nahum was not the kind of person to whom you could confess doubts.
“Are you in love?”
“Yes, of course.”
He snorted from the back of his nose, like a horse. “Of course!” then he said, “Forgive me.”
“It’s none of my business. Well, I don’t know, perhaps it is my business. Jenny, you see, could quite well go home and marry her boyfriend. But you!”
“What about me?”
“Well, you’re different. Aren’t you?”
“Am I?” I was used to people being more interested in Jenny than in myself; Jenny with her blond curtain of hair, her intensity of gaze, her small curvaceous body and her way of blowing smoke rings and looking enigmatic. People fell in love with Jenny, not me. But Nahum was looking at me intently, under the single bare light-bulb of his studio, that made everything very black and white, very sharp-edged. He was looking at me in a way nobody had looked in my life before: challenging, that was it. My parents looked at me approvingly or disapprovingly, my teachers vaguely, Andrew, my boyfriend, with slight interest in what I said, tinged with lust at how I looked. Nahum’s stare asked, who are you? Who are you really? What will you do?
“You know that you can’t possibly both marry and have a career as a writer, don’t you?”
“No, I don’t. Lots of people do both.”
“Ah, but do they write well? Or are they mediocre?”
I said, “Well, there was Virginia Woolf.”
I don’t know if it was the mention of Virginia Woolf or something entirely different that made him reach out a hand to me then and pull me towards him. I stood an inch away from him, beside that white wall with the paintings like blood-stains. Bluebeard’s chamber, or what? He leaned over and kissed me then, for a long time. I had never felt anything like it, from anybody — least of all from Andrew, who tended to kiss tentatively still, and was squeamish about tongues.
When he had finished, he said, “Please. We are not talking about Virginia Woolf.”
“We are talking about you.” His hand began to feel my breast and he began kissing me again, and I simply could not move away. I was thinking, but you are old, you are over forty, what is this about, if it is about me and not Virginia Woolf? I remembered how crooked and stained his teeth looked in the light of day, and how creased his forehead and cheeks after a night of drinking at the Sélect; but these memories were feeble against the pressures, now, here, this minute, of his lips and hand.
What, I was supposed to see what? I breathed out as if I’d been running, and took a step back from him.
“Promise me you will not tell Jenny. I know you girls.”
What, I will not tell Jenny what? That you kissed me, and I kissed you back? That all this happened? Of course I won’t tell Jenny, she would only laugh, I could hear her already, “God, the old satyr. So that was why he was so keen to show you his paintings.”
He let me set a few more inches of distance between us, and I pushed back strands of my escaping hair and knew, I did know, that whether I liked it or not, my life had been changed, I was no longer the girl I had been.
He said then, “Rose. I will only say this once, and never again. If you will stay in Paris with me, you will become a great writer. I will help you. If you go back to England and marry your boyfriend, you will only be mediocre.”
Mediocre! It sounded even worse in French than in English.
“You want me to stay in Paris with you? You mean, without Jenny?”
“Yes, that is what I mean. I have been watching you. You are so much more mature than she is. You are far more interesting.”
I, more interesting, more mature than Jenny, who had been to night-clubs where Juliette Greco sang, before I had even set foot in Paris? If I thought he was being unfair to Jenny, it was swallowed up in my pride and astonishment that he could actually prefer me. I could stand hearing some more of this, even if it did feel traitorous.
“How can I stay with you?” I didn’t say, you haven’t even got a bathroom, and I hate cooking.
“Easy. You change your life. You tell your parents, I am going to study in Paris. They will be delighted. Then you go home, fetch your things – and, voilà. I will introduce you to the best writers in Paris, you will have a great start.”
I didn’t say, either, but we’ve been here several weeks, and you haven’t introduced me to a single great writer so far, only Jimmy, who was always hauling a large battered manuscript about with him that nobody wanted to read. I didn’t say it, because I wasn’t even thinking it. I was thinking, this could be it. The place at which the tracks of my life switch, at which I make the move, take the risk, head into the life of a writer in Paris. I followed him back into the apartment, mumbling that I’d think about it, knowing that with this feeble response I had already backed off, lost the moment — the moment! How we venerated it at that time – and let something slip away. Jenny had washed her hair at the White Russian’s and gone to bed with it wrapped in a towel, to read “Tropic of Cancer.”
“Had a good time?”
“What were his paintings like?”
“So-so.” Nahum had gone out for a late drink, so was not in earshot.
“He didn’t try anything on with you, Rosie?”
“You sound a bit down.”
“Just tired. God, that hen was awful, Jenny, we can’t do that again.”
“I was thinking, actually, it might be time for moving on.”
“Moving on? Where to?”
“Hmm, maybe down south? We could hitch, get some sunshine before we have to go home.”
“I don’t know. Talk about it in the morning?”
“Hey, something happened, did he upset you?”
“No, not really. Oh, well, if you must know, we were talking about Life and he said, I shouldn’t get married at my age.”
“Well, the point is surely, are you in love?”
“With Andrew? Well, yes, of course.”
“Well, then,” she said, going back to her page, “It’s none of his business, is it? Hey, have you read this? It’s really weird what they do, you’d never dream it up in a hundred years.”
We told Nahum the next morning that we were going south to get some sun, before having to return home to England. He was scathing. “Sun? I suppose you are going to Saint-Tropez, to become starlets now.”
“No, we thought, the Camargue, les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, actually.”
“So, you will be trailing after processions of gypsies, mooning over the Black Madonna?”
“What’s the matter, don’t you want us to leave? You’ll get your peace and quiet back, and no more horrid dinners.” Jenny said, sweeping up her hair into a one-handed grip, fastening her pony-tail high with a rubber band.
I said, “Really, after all this time, you’ll be glad to see us go.” I hoped he would. I wanted to say goodbye, but to avoid further mentions of my inevitable mediocrity.
He seemed to have forgotten that he had ever promised me the world, and a Parisian life. I did not forget it. I never forgot it. It was as if he had cursed me, that night. When I eventually told Jenny, she said, “Oh, he only wanted to get you into his bed. Knowing you, the only way to do it was to tell you it’d make you into a great writer.” She rolled her r’s, grrreat wrrrriter. “It’s the oldest trick in the book. I’m sure Henry Miller did it to girls all the time.”
Decades later, and here I was back on boulevard Montparnasse; I had made it back to Paris on my own terms, after a very long detour. I was in the Café Sélect, asking idly if anyone had ever heard of a painter called Nahum Rostov, and no one had. I had friends with whom I was going to see an Argentinian movie at the cinema with seven screens, just down the street. I had come up on the 91 bus from where I was staying, down in the 5th arrondissement, where the cafés are full neither of intellectuals nor artists, as far as I know, just people hunched over laptops and newspapers, or talking on their cell phones, and the traffic is just as bad as it is up here.
I left the café, walked back down the boulevard, slightly regretful that I had not been able to find Nahum. Life only gives you so long. Other people, and then you in your turn, go out of sight. I’d imagined an old man with his white hair standing on end, at the table in the corner, sitting with his glass of wine of an evening, even though generations have been and gone already, Paris has changed once again, as it always has and will. And I have changed. I have grown old. I can hardly remember the young woman I was at twenty. But I remember Nahum’s words, and the way he kissed that taught me something about myself that I did not confess to Jenny, or anyone else.
My friends were waiting for me outside the cinema, and we went in, bought our tickets, saw the film that was about memory, and time. Only afterwards did I tell them this story. What do you do, when someone wants to change the course of your life? Walk away?
Paris photo ©Richard Beban
Rosalind Brackenbury lives in Key West and Paris, writes both poetry and fiction, and has two novels out recently, Paris Still Life and The Lost Love Letters of Henri Fournier, as well as a non-fiction book, Miss Stephen’s Apprenticeship, about how Virginia Woolf taught herself to write.