In the far corner of the gallery, she watches him lurch forward, and then back, like a boxer, as if each new pass brings him closer to revelation. He reads the small placard with the title of her sculpture. Tufts of grey hair protrude above his ears, crowning a bald spot marred with eczema. Professor Lautrec is an old, unkempt man, and still, she is flattered by his attention.
The space is quiet except for the stamping of his boots, chalky half-moons left behind on the wood. She shouldn’t be there. Her dealer discouraged it, said it countered the image of the artist as recluse. But she has always been her own best salesman. Instead of picking up her daughter from school, she has been lurking in the gallery on weekday afternoons under the pretext of signing some papers. And now, there’s Professor Lautrec.
“Jan-ette,” he says, turning to face her. “That one.” He gestures towards the piece before him, an ice blue acrylic trumpet, submerged in a nest of frayed twine. “That’s the one.”
She had sliced her fingers up during its assembly, nearly burned down her studio in aggravation.
“It’s sold,” she says.
He takes her hand in his and squeezes. “A shame.”
She walks with him to a café on 10th Avenue, a small French place where he knows the owner. He orders a bottle of Chenin Blanc. Despite the March chill, they sit at a table outside so he can smoke. When he offers her a drag, she waves her hand, and then accepts it anyway. He talks about the scene, who is on the up, who has gone insane and fled to an organic farm in Michigan.
“I never thought you had the temperament for sculpture,” he says. “But here you still are.”
The pleasant scent of sautéing garlic wafts from inside the cafe. A woman in a boiled wool coat pushes a stroller down the sidewalk. Janet smoothes her hair and pulls it over one shoulder. Marc Lautrec. What if she had chosen a man like that. Someone worldly, without illusions. She and Rick have built an enviable life, but he thinks he won a prize in marrying her. To live up to that ideal, even to think about it now, exhausts her, makes her feel like she’s given up some deep part of herself to please him.
“Here I am,” she says, and takes her own cigarette from the pack.
A decade earlier, at a more prestigious gallery, Professor Lautrec invited her to the opening of a Czech sculptor’s first New York show. While they drank Chardonnay from plastic cups, Professor Lautrec introduced her to his friends, dealers with embossed business cards representing artists who did their MFAs at Columbia and Yale, and not the second-tier school Janet was attending.
You’re the whole package, he whispered to her, his palm on her ass. She’s the whole package, he told the dealers, patting her.
He led her towards a strange, electrode caterpillar at the center of the gallery.
I’ve been dying to show you this piece, he said. What do you think? Wait, don’t answer yet. Take a lap first. Think about scale.
She laughed, but he looked at her intently, and so she walked the perimeter. Around her, the other people mingled, women wearing large earrings and bright lipstick, men with angular haircuts.
Now, he said, smiling, tell me.
She felt the world open up.
While collecting their coats, they ran into Carole Whipps, a visiting artist Janet had been studying with. Carole kissed Janet on both cheeks and then guided her away by the elbow. She had the most beautiful white hair, thick and luminous, two columns of light. Janet asked her what she thought of the show. Carole put her hand on Janet’s arm and told her to be mindful with Professor Lautrec.
This surprised her. Carole was not the first older woman to warn her off, but Janet had simply assumed they were jealous. What could be greater proof of Janet’s own genius than an affair with an ugly, brilliant man?
Janet nodded, but it felt too late. She had already made her plans.
When she mentioned the exchange to him in bed that night, he looked thoughtful. Women her age don’t have an easy time, he said.
Some weeks later, just before her twenty-second birthday, Professor Lautrec summoned her to his apartment. He had the flu. “Bring some Campbell’s,” he instructed.
But Janet was a woman who created things, and although she had never followed a recipe in her life, that morning she drew from the same well of care and precision she would a new piece rendered in copper, paraffin, or plaster: two medium-sized carrots, the most symmetrical and vibrant of the bunch. Three celery stalks scrubbed clean. Sweet, blinding Vidalia onion. She diced them all and swept them from the cutting board into her mother’s red Le Creuset. She added dark meat and left the pot to simmer.
Hours later, while it cooled, she smudged her eyes with black pencil and pinched her cheeks, and then stepped into a pair of good underwear.
On the subway from Queens to Brooklyn, the heavy pot warmed her arm like a newborn.
“Sorry about that,” she said, clutching the Le Creuset in his living room. Cold liquid dribbled now down the sides, and as she lifted the cast iron lid, a gamey, sulfuric odor escaped. She stared at the bloated stars of chicken fat.
“Not everything must be aesthetic,” he said.
He untied his bathrobe and pulled her into his lap. His skin was a damp sheet.
“You’re sick,” she protested.
“You’re making me better,” he said, and with a quick motion hooked his thumbs under the waistband of her wool tights. They bunched at her knees and her bare ass bumped against the tops of his thighs. She clutched the arms of the chair for balance. Over his shoulder she noticed a canvas propped against the wall, a still life.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“I’m holding on to it for a Danish friend of mine. He’s in a group show next month.”
“It’s evocative,” she said.
He collected her hair in his hands and kissed her neck. “Beautiful girl,” he said. His face burned with fever. His beard felt oily. This had always been her problem: she was a girl who ignored instinct.
She was wet before he told her so. As he carried her to his bedroom, she looked back at the painting and wondered what Carole would think about the way the light hit the fruits in the clay bowl.
His bedroom was windowless, separated from the living room by a mauve curtain. The sheets were soft, a high thread count. She’d never touched sheets like those before. As he moved over her, his form blocked the glow from the ceiling fan.
Wanting to please him, she pressed her lips against his ear and whispered the dirtiest thing she could think of.
Abruptly, he cried out, and collapsed into her neck. He dug his nails into the sharp concave of her hip bones. “Darling,” he said.
She had one rule in all this. A rule he had always followed since she was not on the pill, and he said he found condoms degrading.
“I am only a man,” he said, and then rolled off her and began to snore.
The bathroom smelled like amber and pine. She waddled to the toilet with a tissue between her legs, sat down, and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she was looking at his prized sculpture, the piece he’d lectured about. The one piece he would never sell. How easily we give up our best work to make a buck, he often said. It was a worn-out sneaker rendered in creamy marble, the size of a loaf of supermarket bread. It sat mounted on a pedestal beside the mosaic shower.
Janet imagined a parade of women sitting in her place, a hundred manicured feet plying the soft bath mat, staring at his masterpiece. Carole, with her callused hands, her singular vision, would never dirty herself in this way. But Janet didn’t flee contamination. She barreled towards it.
Abruptly, she leapt forward and whacked her right hand against the marble sneaker with her full strength. The pain was instant, numbing, spiraling deep into her bone. She gasped and pressed her hand to her stomach.
Her legs trembled as she ransacked the medicine cabinet for some kind of weapon. A men’s razor. She inhaled sharply, and then dragged the blade across the marble. It barely marred the surface.
Her bladder pinched.
Cold and naked, she put one foot on the side of the tub and the other against the wall, perched over the sculpture. Eyes closed, she bore down. Piss fell and collected in the crevices of the marble.
She found her clothes in the living room and put her tights back on.
He stirred and called her to him.
“I’m practically cured,” he said. He propped himself up on his elbows. “Do I tell you enough how stunning you are?” He took a lock of her hair between his fingers. “You’re the kind of girl men will line up to marry.”
She put on her shoes.
Professor Lautrec flags the waiter to bring them the food menu and then rests his hand on Janet’s wrist. “Tell me, how is Françoise? I haven’t spoken to her in forever.”
In the end, desperate for a leg up, she had called one of the agents with the embossed cards, Françoise Smart, who took her out to lunch and then stuck with her, for eight years now, through the birth of her child and those first tortuous months where Janet never made it to her studio, when she was waking up every hour in the night, convinced her daughter had stopped breathing, pressing her compact mirror beneath her rosebud nose.
“Françoise is Françoise,” Janet says vaguely.
“I was so glad I could make the connection,” he says.
“What happened to the shoe?”
“The sneaker,” she says. “The marble sneaker.”
He leans back in the chair, and squints at her. “Oh, that thing.” He laughs. “I sold it.”
She hasn’t smoked in years, and now her throat is burning. Still, she inhales.
He shrugs. “Someone offered a good price.”
Isabella Moschen Storey is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Joyland, The New York Times, and City Limits Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two plants.