In this excerpt from Ellis Avery's new novel, The Last Nude, (Riverhead 2012), the narrator, Rafaela Fano, the model for art deco painter Tamara de Lempicka's most famous works, takes a first — and rather brazen — walk of shame home from the painter's Paris studio.
I wafted home on a gust of warm July air, in an evening that lasted and lasted. I remembered my first glimpse of Paris by daylight, on a short walk with the ugly man from the ship. We had just eaten lunch in our room in the Grand Hotel, and we were heading out for a matinee: I hadn't known the opera house would be just across the street. The terrasse of the Grand Hotel was a miniature opera all on its own, with its coffees and wrapped squares of chocolate, its cubes of sugar and jewel-colored drinks, its speakers of many languages, each one smoking expressively.
Leaving behind the leafy arch of Rue de la Paix, I had never seen anything so magnificent: the great buildings opening on to the wide bright plaza (place, in French, the ugly man told me) with its spare elegant Métro entrance, the crowds streaming both across the place and up out of the ground. I felt humbled by the massive scale and stirred by the beauty of the architecture, by the white-golden apartment buildings ranged around the traffic star in ordered harmony, rising as solemn as cliffs. "It's so beautiful," I murmured.
"What are you looking at?" the ugly man asked. "The Opéra's over there." That's when I looked left and saw the opera house itself, so grand I'd missed it, shimmering like wet fondant, like a great domed cake.
I remembered it now, my first sight of Paris: then as now, the city buffeted me with beauty from all sides. Then as now, the warm light beguiled. Then as now, I had just gone to bed with a near-stranger, but this time I hadn't done it to work off a debt. I'd done it for pleasure's sake. I felt as if I were seeing Paris for the first time, a city of bridges and shining water — I detoured south, along the Seine — a city of lindens and sycamores, of cobbled islands, of bird markets and flower markets, of buttresses and gargoyles, a rose-windowed river city banked with glittering cafés. Paris wheeled with pigeons. Paris sang with bells.
I crossed another bridge and bought a purple glace aux myrtilles at an ice cream shop with a magnificent view of the back of Notre-Dame. I ate it slowly on the Pont Saint-Louis. This, I thought to myself, watching the moving water, remembering the sound of Tamara setting her rings on the table. This always. Just this.
I felt like a gardenia blossom as I drifted home, fragrant and bruiseable. All the familiar things in my neighborhood seemed new again: the glass-domed arcades. The odor of honey cakes stealing toward me from Pâtisserie Fouquet. The sharp chemical scent prickling out of Galerie Vollard: huile de lin, Tamara had said. Térébenthine. I noticed as if for the first time the way the white dome of Sacre Coeur rose behind the heavy columns of Notre Dame de Lorette at the end of my street, as if they were a single mismatched edifice. What would I do with myself until I saw her again?
FOR YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE
Don't stop here. Read the whole thing.
The Last Nude, by Ellis Avery (Amazon)
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