Peg Alford Pursell
Your Spree in Paris
Paris in the springtime: who hasn't heard the words? Unavoidable. Going to Paris in the springtime is a kind of cliché to transcend, many understand that—and they transcend it. Some of us understand that it's bound not to be all that it's cracked up to be. Decades of dirt and rubbish and tourism and the global economy since the heyday of the ex-pats, Gertrude Stein and her salons. Riots and car-burnings in the streets. But some of us must see it for ourselves nonetheless, it turns out. You never mentioned the City of Lights when we met—Life Painting Seminar I—nor ever talk about it the years since. Yet, evidently, the urge was there.
Today, practically anyone can arrange a way to go to Paris, if one wants to.
One might be an artist who is not paid nearly well enough for his drudgery-laying out quarterly publications for a nonprofit organization using Photoshop and all the latest programs-and still-secretly-put together the money for going, as the trip is such a necessary validation of his artistic vision and ability. Or one might be an artist like me, who is perhaps less talented, perhaps not in possession of any natural genius, who does not find her graphic design work so utterly useless and unappealing, doesn't once consider a trip to Paris, and certainly doesn't stealthily squirrel away her earnings.
Why not Vienna? I would see Klimt at the Belvedere Palace; I'd pilgrimage to the Attersee to view the villa Klimt rented on a hill close to the lake in Seewalchen. There I'd walk the hills to find some of the views he painted. He used a telescope to create those cropped looks, the foreshortened depth in his landscapes painted on a square format, the square being the perfect proportion to his Secessionist mind. I would like to be in the presence of the dazzling poplars paintings, the natural palettes of masterful grays, the blockish tree-sky-pocket hat trick in Tall Poplars I. Don't disbelieve that Klimt calls to me, the philanderer who fathered at least fourteen illegitimate children, who said that all art is erotic-who said, "Whoever wants to know something about me, as an artist, which alone is significant, they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognize what I am and what I want." There is, at least, an honesty in his words.
You are probably at the Place des Vosges today, this Wednesday here (Thursday there) being the first day of your spree. Like every visitor does, you would begin here-I now see you for who you are-at the oldest and most beautiful square. In my office I scour photos on the Internet. This image shows arcades, arch after arch lining the sidewalk that runs the length of the four connected buildings that form the square. Place des Vosges-what is "Vosges"? I search to learn what the term means: apparently nothing more or less than the name of mountains in the background.
Clicking back to the photo, in the center of the square the very green rolling lawn contains fountains and statuary, but the main surprise is the people spread over the grass—so many people. Not your ideal. You've always made a point of how you are a loner, that's your preference. Klimt lived a simple, cloistered life, in which he avoided other artists and café society. And yet. Many, many children. His subject the female body.
In the hall down from my office Brenda pauses at Daniel's office, replies to something he's said. She's enroute to ask how the watershed poster is coming; it needs to go to the printers Friday and as yet I've given her nothing to approve. I click out of the Internet browser and pull the program back up on my screen even though it's my lunch break and there's certainly nothing wrong with my looking at images of Paris on my own time. Though I can't hear Brenda's words to my office mate, her tone sounds strained.
I zoom in on the last frame of the poster, where the trouble is. The text is poorly executed—you have to strain to read the labels. But this is because of the muddy brown color of the creek in the background, which really can't be changed now this late in the game. "Change it," Brenda says.
I jump, and that makes me angry. "That will mean changing the tone"—I begin.
"Which means, yes, altering the contrast up there in frame one, the trees, the rest." She points out the edits. Her voice trails off reflectively, and I'm pretty sure what's she's going to say next. "Too busy. There's too much"-
"I know," I interrupt her. "I know, I know, I know." As if repeating the words will do anything.
"How can I help?" she asks simply, to her credit.
The screen blurs as tears well up from somewhere. I tilt my head down, hair falling forward each side of my face, and struggle for control. "It will be ready by end of business today," I manage. Brenda goes on her way, carrying the wrong idea with her. I don't feel sorry for myself for having to do the work. I feel sorry for myself that I'm grateful for having something I have to do.
"Aleita." I think I hear you saying my name but there's no one in the bed but me. Yet on that subliminal precipice between sleep and wakefulness, the empty space doesn't first convince me: if I listen hard, you might speak again. Nothing in the hot August night but a far off troupe of restless insects. Ambient light filters through the open windows, sieved through the craggy tree limbs, still and unmoving. It takes a long time for my heart to stop thumping in my chest. In the morning when I wake, nightgown soaked, propped up against the headboard, my neck stiff and aching, I'm amazed to have fallen back to sleep.
"Aleita Bombita." You said that to me a hundred years ago.
"Bert Flirt," I returned.
"Me?" you said. "I'm no flirt." You shook your head, smiling a crooked grin. "I can't flirt," you said. "But for you"—you hooked my arm through yours and I thought what an odd, old-fashioned thing to do, but I was charmed, it looked good on you—"maybe I could learn."
Arm in arm we left the coffee shop where we liked to go after class, and we walked up King Street, up Marion, up Charles, up Buren. All those timeworn buildings, bracketed cornices, cupolas, tower-of-the-winds columns, pedimented pavilions on gabled rooftops. Two hours later we were still walking the Savannah streets. We made what we wanted ours- claiming what we wanted in our newly appreciative gaze. Falling in love. Cracks in the sidewalks gathered the city's debris in microcosmic patterns. If one could only become small enough to see. Magnificence could be revealed. We agreed on that then, that it was all about revealing what already existed, seeing in a new say.
A bus came along and we took it back to campus, and we must have been that couple, so sickeningly involved with one another to the exclusion of anything or anyone else. Framed in the bus windows, our faces yellowed in the light were unlikely to have been beacons to pedestrians we passed, though we may have had a sense of ourselves as such, of that being who we were.
"It's one thing to take a sudden trip when you've saved up all the money; it's quite another when you max out a credit card to do it. Without word one. A sneak." We were fighting and I hated the words that came out of my mouth. But I couldn't go back on them either. Not that you were asking me to. Not that you were acting like I'd said anything surprising at all. It was as if you'd made up your mind that I was a certain way and you were another, and whatever I would say, whatever I did say, proved you right.
You looked out the open living room window. A girl walked by with her fat dog on a leash. She looked over, perhaps she had heard me; I saw her catch your eye and you didn't exactly smile—your mouth did not move but it softened, your whole face softened, and I was jealous. I wanted the softening for me. Not the hardened face that, until the second when your face changed for her, I had not realized was inured. To me. I had the credit card bill in my hand, and I threw it at you. I left the room, ashamed. I didn't want to be the kind of woman who threw things. But evidently I was her. I cried, pushing my face into the pillow on the bed. You didn't come into the room. I was glad of that: I didn't want to be the kind of woman who ran off crying into her pillow.
And I was also sad and wounded—you had been saving money for this-how long! That revelation, and the fact that you couldn't wait to save anymore but had charged the rest of it, your ticket, made me understand not only that you were going, but also how desperate you were to go. Without me. That was what most upset and frightened me: that you did not want me to go with you.
I don't have to go to Paris to get some creative work done, you see, and I am determined to paint while you are gone. The days pass, and who can tell how long will be this spree of yours and no word from you. I've gone into the studio two different nights after work, and how dusty, how disordered! I've seen that I will have to spend most of the weekend cleaning in order to even begin.
I plan to tell you when we talk that I rather resent having to be the one left with this mess that will take up all my creative time to right. By saying so, you will know that I'm serious again about my painting.
I will not be one of those women who, when you call, refuses to give voice to my complaints out of some misguided fear of pushing you further away. You are away. You were not pushed. You took yourself there.
Tonight I get some rags and the dustpan and start on my side of the studio. Stacks of old newsprint. Abandoned sketches. Pencils with teeth marks notching their bodies. All gets tossed. Really, I don't think I'll do anything with your side; why should I? If I did, obviously I would have to tell you that I've cleaned your side—it's not I who withholds information-and I'm not going to be that woman, having cleaned up your dirty studio, telling you on the phone from the other side of the world as if to entice you back. As if I should like a pat on the head, give the good dog a bone.
Perhaps I'll say nothing at all about the studio or about my creative work that will surely be underway by the time that you call. By the time you are finished with your spree. How much you disliked me calling it that, your jaw tightening at the word. But that's not why you don't phone me. That's not why you stay away.
The dustpan clatters to the floor, letting loose the collected debris. It's quite beautiful, this pattern of grit and grime scattered to rest over the old floorboards. I see that, clear-eyed, and I begin to photograph it.
Peg Alford Pursell's stories have been published in Eleven Eleven, Tupelo Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, and others. Her work has been a short-list finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award, and she is a graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where and curates the reading series, Why There Are Words, in Sausalito."