“I didn’t know you could do that,” he says.
“Draw like that. When did you do it?”
I check the date.
“I was 15,” I say.
He’s looking at me with genuine surprise. I’m holding a sketchbook from the 1970s, dug out of a box overflowing with photographs and papers I’m trying to sort out. Somewhere there is another sketchbook, larger. I can’t seem to locate it.
“So who is this?”
“Jenny Lind,” I say. “She was a nineteenth century Swedish singer. Opera. My mother was crazy about her. There was a color lithograph that hung in the kitchen when I was growing up. That’s what I used as a model.”
I glance at the drawing. To me it’s unfinished, an exercise, a reflection of adolescent impatience. I took time with the hair, struggled with the nose, suggested the flowers and left it at that.
He’s still looking at me quizzically.
“I told you I could draw. My mother drew. My grandmother drew.”
Ah, the things we know, or think we know. The discoveries, always to be made about one another.
He passes out by 10:30 so I shut off the light, move the laptop off the bed, and set it on an artfully arranged tower of Vogues, ELLEs, marketing texts, The Times Magazine and a thick book of essays. Somewhere in the middle of the stack is Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.
I zero in on a chick flick, turn the volume way down, then settle on my side to watch and listen. Sometime around midnight I nod off, awakened a few hours later by a violent storm rumbling through the neighborhood. I listen to the rain, then doze. I awaken at 4:30 and wait for his alarm to sound at five. Then I get out of bed and make coffee.
Most of the time I sleep through his departure. This morning I’m worried about flooding on the roads.
“You slept through it all,” I say.
“It was loud.”
“Thor is the god of thunder. We’re old friends.”
“But the storm was so fierce the house was shaking. Seriously.”
I am enchanted by Breck girls, each and every one of them, with their lustrous hair and flawless complexions. They are exquisite. Perfection. I am more drawn to these ads than the fashions and the columns.
Naturally, I use Breck to shampoo my own long dark hair, which always shines in the sun.
I can hardly wait to grab my Academie sketch pad, the largest I’ve ever had, my number 2 pencil, my small pink eraser. I am nine, maybe ten. I am eleven, maybe twelve.
Twiggy isn’t a Breck girl, but her lashes are amazing so I make an exception for her and get to work. She’s all eyes, and skinny legs.
A few years later I draw movie stars, historical figures, Jenny Lind. With her I take liberties. I thin her cheeks, I arch her brows, I refashion her into a 19th century Breck girl.
I travel to France for the first time at 15. I carry a small sketchbook, a blue pocket dictionary, and within a day of being in the city I buy a red bound “Plan de Paris” that opens into a huge map. I am never without these items in a purse – the guide so I will not be lost, the dictionary so I may better understand, and the sketchbook to document the people I meet.
There is the widow who houses me, whose name I forget. There are her four children and the boy on the Mobylette, whose names I forget. There is the three-year-old she babysits with the face of a cherub. Her name is Aurélie.
Somewhere in the attic are yellowed pages and more smudgy drawings, perhaps the missing Breck girls, an image of Twiggy, and women with gleaming hair and skin. Somewhere in the closet is a color lithograph of a Swedish nightingale, circa 1848.
We decide on Rain Man after dinner, appropriate considering these past days.
He will pass out at 10:30. I will search for a chick flick. Maybe I can locate a film from the sixties.
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