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Excerpt

Excerpt

The Age of Light

The night Lee meets Man Ray begins in a half-empty bistro a few blocks from Lee’s hotel, where she sits alone, eating steak and scalloped potatoes and drinking half pitchers of dusky red wine. She is twenty-two, and beautiful. The steak tastes even better than she thought it would, swimming in a rich brown roux that pools on the plate and seeps into the layers of sliced potatoes and thick melted slabs of Gruyère.
 
Lee has passed the bistro many times since she arrived in Paris three months earlier, but — her finances being what they are — this is the first time she has ventured inside. Dining alone is noth- ing new: Lee has spent almost all her time alone since she got here, a hard adjustment after her busy life in New York City, where she modeled for Vogue and hit up the jazz clubs almost nightly, always with a different man on her arm. Back then, Lee took it for granted that everyone she met would be entranced by her: her father, Condé Nast, Edward Steichen, all the power- ful men she had charmed over the years. Those men. She may have captivated them, but they took things from her — raked her over with their eyes, barked commands at her from under camera hoods, reduced her to pieces of a girl: a neck to hold pearls, a slim waist to show off a belt, a hand to bring to her lips and blow them kisses. Their gaze made her into someone she didn’t want to be. Lee might miss the parties, but she does not miss modeling, and in fact she would rather go hungry than go back to her former line of work.
 
Here in Paris, where she has come to start over, to make art instead of being made into it, no one pays much attention to Lee’s beauty. When she walks through Montparnasse, her new neighborhood, no one catches her eye, no one turns around to watch her pass. Instead, Lee seems to be just another pretty detail in a city where almost everything is artfully arranged. A city built on the concept of form over function, where rows of jewel-toned petits fours gleam in a patisserie’s window, too flawless to eat. Where a milliner displays exquisitely elaborate hats, with no clear indication of how one would wear them. Even the Parisian women at the sidewalk cafés are like sculptures, effortlessly elegant, leaning back in their chairs as if their raison d’être is decoration. She tells herself she is glad not to be noticed, to blend in with her surroundings, but still, after three months in this city, Lee secretly thinks she has not seen anyone more beautiful than she is.
 
When Lee has finished the steak and sopped up the last of the gravy with her bread, she stretches and sits back in her chair. It is early. The restaurant is quiet, the only other diners elderly Parisians, their voices too low for eavesdropping. Empty wine pitchers are lined up neatly next to Lee’s plate, and on the far end of the table is her camera, which she has taken to carrying everywhere despite its heaviness and bulk. Just before she boarded the steamer to Le Havre, her father pushed the camera into her hands, an old Graflex he no longer used, and even though Lee told him she didn’t want it, he insisted. She still barely knows how to op- erate it — her training is in figure drawing, and when she moved to Paris she planned to become a painter, envisioned herself dabbing meditatively at a canvas en plein air, not mucking about with chemicals in a suffocating darkroom. Still, Lee has learned a bit about taking pictures from him and at Vogue, and there’s something comforting about the camera: both a connection to her past and something a real artist might carry around.
 
The waiter stops by and takes her empty plate, then asks if she’d like another pitcher of wine. Lee hesitates, picturing the dwindling francs in her little handbag, then says yes. Even though her savings are getting low, she wants a reason to stay a little longer, to be surrounded by people even if she is not with them, to not go back to her hotel room, where the windows are painted shut and the trapped air always smells oppressively of pot roast. Lately she’s been spending more and more time there, drawing in her sketchbook, writing letters, or taking long afternoon naps that leave her unreplenished — anything to pass the time and make her forget how lonely she feels. Lee has never been very good at being by herself: left to her own devices, she can easily sink into sadness and inactivity. As the weeks have passed, her loneliness has gained heft and power: it has contours now, almost a physical shape, and she imagines it sitting in the corner of her room, waiting for her, a sucking, spongy thing.
 
After he has picked up her plate, the waiter lingers. He is young, with a hint of mustache above his lip so faint it could have been penciled there, and Lee can tell he is intrigued by her.
 
“Are you a photographer?” he finally asks, the word almost the same in French as in English, photographe, but he mumbles, and Lee’s grasp of the language is still so rusty it takes her a moment to parse his question. When she doesn’t respond, he tips his head at the camera.
 
“Oh, no, not really,” Lee says. He looks disappointed, and she almost wishes she said yes. Since she’s been here, Lee has taken a few pictures, but they have been shots any tourist would attempt: baguettes in a bicycle basket, lovers pausing to kiss on the Pont des Arts. Her initial tries did not go well. The first time, when she got the prints back from the little camera shop around the corner, they were entirely black; Lee had somehow exposed the plates to light before they were developed. The second set — made with more care, the plates inserted into the camera gingerly, a  light sweat dotting her upper lip — came back as murky gray masses, so blurry they could have been clouds or cobblestones, but certainly not close-ups of the sculptures in the park she had been shooting. Her third set of prints, though, was actually in focus, and looking at those small black-and-white images, conjured not only from her mind but from a unique combination of light and time, Lee filled with an excitement she never felt when painting. She had released the shutter, and where nothing had existed, suddenly there was art.
 
Lee wants the waiter to ask her more questions — wants, so badly, to have an actual conversation, to make a friend — but just then the bell over the door chimes as a group of older men come in and the waiter goes over to show them to a table.
 
Lee sips her drink as slowly as she can to make it last. As the room gets more crowded, it occurs to her that the bistro is stodgy. All the patrons are years older than her. The men have thick gray mustaches like suit brushes above their lips; the women, while chic, have high buttoned collars and sensible shoes. But then a trio comes in: two men and a woman. At first Lee thinks they are actors because their outfits are so strange. The men wear gauchos and sashes tied at their waists, with white shirts and no jackets. They look almost like parodies of artists but they sit perfectly at ease and the waiter hardly glances at them when they order. The woman, too, is dressed strangely, in the Scheherazade style that was popular a few years back. Her hair is closely bobbed and gleams like polished walnut against her small head, and her lips are painted such a dark red they are almost the same shade as her hair.
 
Lee tries to listen to them without their noticing. They speak English with a hard northern bite to it, and though normally she wants nothing more than to put Poughkeepsie behind her, on this night the familiar tones of her hometown have the pleasure of sinking into a warm bath. They are talking about a man named Diaghilev, who is the head of the ballet and has diabetes and lives alone in a nearby hotel. The woman seems afraid of him, but Lee can’t discern why; she clearly isn’t a dancer — even seated it is obvious she is stocky, and her ankles look like saucisson stuffed into her T-strap shoes.
 
“If you’re going to listen, you should join us,” one of the men says, staring at the ceiling.
 
Lee sips her wine.
 
“Hey, Lorelei,” he says, swiveling in his chair and snapping his fingers at Lee. “If you’re going to listen to us, you better join us.” When she realizes he is addressing her, Lee is so surprised she
is almost tempted to decline their invitation, but this is the thing she has longed for — a way to be a part of a world just beyond her reach. For a moment she is scared to let it happen. But her waiter has overheard them, and comes over to carry her drink for her, so the choice is made and she moves over to their table.
 
Once she is settled, the man who invited her leans toward her. “I’m Jimmy,” he says, “and this is Antonio, and this is my sister, Poppy.”
He holds on to the word sister for a beat too long. Lee knows she is to understand that Poppy isn’t his sister, but she has no idea why he would say she is.
 
Poppy turns her shiny head and looks at Lee. “We were talking about Diaghilev, but I’m bored of that. I want to talk about a scandal. Do you know any scandals?” Poppy purses her lips and a line appears near her mouth like a delicate question mark.
Lee glances around, suddenly hot from all the wine and food. What does she have to say that would interest them? Her mind goes blank as paper, and the only things she can think of are the physical objects around them: the ceiling light swaying on its chain, the scuffed wood floor, the candle on the table with its small waterfall of wax.
 
“You’re a scandal,” Jimmy says to Poppy, reaching over and putting his hand on her knee. She ignores him, holding Lee’s gaze, the challenge of her question continuing until at last she looks away and it is over. She turns back to Jimmy and he begins talking again, and just like that the tension eases and Lee is folded into their group.
 
“We were at the Ballets Russes,” Jimmy offers.
 
“We had to leave,” Poppy says. Lee wonders if they were kicked out because of how they were dressed.
 
Jimmy balances on the back two legs of his chair. “Poppy here has a very refined sensibility. She can’t bear to see anyone suffer. The director has a reputation — a temper, let’s say — ”
 
Poppy cuts him off. “The dancer looked puffy. She’d been crying, I could tell. And Goncharova’s set was all wrong.”
 
“I liked it. I better have, all the time I spent helping her paint it.” These are the first words Antonio has spoken. He doesn’t take his cigarette out of his mouth.
 
Lee turns to him. “Oh, you paint!”
 
“No.” Antonio takes a huge drag and then crushes his cigarette in the ashtray and lights another in a unified and graceful motion.
 
“Antonio does automatic drawings,” Jimmy says, and Lee nods
as though she knows what he means. Antonio just sits there, so Jimmy continues. “Incredible work. He really gets to the dream state. Time like gears unhinged. Screwy stuff.”
 
“The opposite of you,” Poppy says, looking at Lee again, and for a moment Lee is shocked, until she realizes that Poppy is pointing to her camera, which she has set on the table and is surprised to find is doing what she hoped it would do: signal her new identity. Lee reaches out and runs her fingers across its case, still cold to the touch in the warm room.
 
“I’ve been doing illustration work for Vogue,” Lee says, eager to offer up something that might seem intriguing. “They hired me when I moved here to sketch copies of the fashions at the Louvre.”
It is true, or was: for weeks Lee sat on her little folding stool in the Louvre’s east wing, copying the Renaissance objects they had on display. A lace cuff with a rose point pattern, a belt with a giant silver buckle. She sent her sketches to the magazine, care of Condé Nast, but when she did he told her that they couldn’t use them after all. We have a man in Rome now taking pictures, he wrote. Much faster, and such a good way to see all the details. Lee hasn’t been back to the museum since, and she hasn’t found a new job either.
 
“Fashion at the Louvre,” Jimmy drawls. “How bourgeois.”
 
Lee flushes, but before she can say anything, Antonio says, “Good light. I work there now and then.”
 
Lee thinks of the slanting shadows cast down from a bank of the museum’s windows, the silhouettes the statues threw onto the ground. “Yes,” she says, and when she catches Antonio’s eye he gives her a smile, warm and genuine. Jimmy twirls a finger in the air to call for more drinks, and Poppy shifts in her seat so that she’s facing Lee and starts to tell her a long, convoluted story about her childhood in Ohio, and just like that, Lee feels she has lifted a chisel to the wall of Paris and tapped the first crack into its surface.

The Age of Light
by by Whitney Scharer

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316524085
  • ISBN-13: 9780316524087