Algebra

Tramway

Issue 1

Because I was Scorched Earth, and Dreamed of Fireweed

by Ellis Avery

The Last Nude

This story is an outtake from a novel inspired by the life and work of the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, who was active in Paris in the ‘20s and ‘30s. In July of 1927, while in the throes of a bitter divorce, Tamara met a girl named Rafaela on a walk in the Bois du Boulogne and asked her to model for a painting. The two women became lovers, and the short months they spent together yielded six canvases, including a 1927 piece called Beautiful Rafaela, lauded by The New York Times as “one of the most important nudes of the 20th century.” The very last painting de Lempicka was working on when she died in 1980 was a copy of Beautiful Rafaela. My novel, The Last Nude (Riverhead Books, 2011), imagines the story of Tamara and Rafaela’s 1927 affair from the model’s point of view, and Tamara’s last day, spent working on the copy of Beautiful Rafaela, from the painter’s own point of view.

On New Year’s Day, 1939, six months after Anson’s death, Tamara came to ask if I would pose again. This time when she called to me from the bridge, I didn’t pretend not to hear: I opened my stern door and stood on the small railed deck of my houseboat. I could see Tamara’s heavy eyelids from across the water, and beneath them, the old flash of chrome. The pale hair wisping out from under her fur hat. That same uncompromising nose and jaw. She asked, and this time, I looked up at her in the wide white bell of her fur coat, and I said yes. I went to her house the next morning, and when Tamara offered me two bisous at the door, I did not pull away. I closed my eyes and granted my knees a liquid wobble of hope.

On New Year’s Day, 1939, six months after Anson’s death, Tamara came to ask if I would pose again. This time when she called to me from the bridge, I didn’t pretend not to hear: I opened my stern door and stood on the small railed deck of my houseboat. I could see Tamara’s heavy eyelids from across the water, and beneath them, the old flash of chrome. The pale hair wisping out from under her fur hat. That same uncompromising nose and jaw. She asked, and this time, I looked up at her in the wide white bell of her fur coat, and I said yes. I went to her house the next morning, and when Tamara offered me two bisous at the door, I did not pull away. I closed my eyes and granted my knees a liquid wobble of hope.

“Have you thought about it?” Tamara asked, before we started work.

“About what?”

“The trip to America?”

“Oh. No. Not really,” I said.

“I wish you would.”

“But—“

“You just lost your husband,” she said, before I could. “All the more reason to get away for a while.”

“And besides, we’re about to open our new store.”

“Those girls can spare you,” she said. “They would probably be glad to. You cannot have been much fun to work with all this time.”

I sighed, hurt—she was probably right—but also exasperated. Why had I come? “If someone assumed you were available to just drop everything for three months, wouldn’t you feel a little insulted?”

“I know. I am sorry,” she said. Then paused. “Rafaela, if I were not the one to ask. If it were someone else, would you go to America with them?”

“But it is you asking,” I said. “And I don’t want to go to America. I mean, if you’d asked me that summer we met—”

“Can I never make that up to you?”

I shrugged. “I’m not saying it to be mean, I just don’t know.”

“Even though you were born there, you never want to go back?”

“I wasn’t born there,” I insisted. “I was just raised there.”

“But—“

“Could you just stop, please? Stop. Do you want me to sit for this painting or what?”

I was surprised again by Tamara’s pleading, kicked look. “I am sorry,” she said, handing me the white ribbon for my hair. I accepted it warily.

As Tamara worked, the flat painter’s gaze edging out the wounded beggar’s one, I could feel my own eyes swinging up and to the right, the way they did when the past stole in to claim me. During the peace that followed the Munich Pact one could afford to remember what I remembered about America: my stepfather setting down his newspaper. My mother’s eyes on me turning cold. My own hands pounding on a locked door. “Look down,” Tamara said.

When we reached the first break, I thought she’d start in again, but she surprised me. “Someone once did me a favor, Rafaela, when I was nineteen years old,” she said awkwardly.

“What are you talking about?”

“I never told you that when I lived in Saint Petersburg, the Bolsheviks arrested my husband.”

“What? Why?”

“He joined a group that stayed loyal to the Tsar. And he was punished. They came to our house at night, and they took him away.”

“Oh, god,” I said. “How did he get away from them?”

“I got him out,” she said. I did not understand why she was suddenly telling me a story from twenty years before, but she spoke as hesitantly and passionately as if it had happened the day before. “My aunt and uncle fled to Copenhagen, but I stayed to find him. The city was full of new jails for all the prisoners, and I went to each one. No one could tell me where my husband was. I always feared the worst. There were executions every day. I went to all our friends who were still there, and none of them could help us. I went to all the foreign consuls, and again, not one of them would lift a finger. We had met them at parties and balls, we had eaten and laughed together, and now there was no more meat in the city. There was no more wine, and all our so-called friends could say was So sorry, Madam. I wish I could help, but I cannot. They were too afraid of the new government.

“Finally, I go to the Swedish consul. He is eating a big, heavy Russian meal at his desk, and while I tell him my story, he keeps eating. The blinis smell so good, and the roasted duck. Potatoes cooked in goose fat. I have not seen food like this in weeks. Surely you would like some? he says.

“I do not want to give him the satisfaction of feeding me before he tells me No. So I tell him, No, thank you. I just ate. Of course, I am starving.”

I could see her, nineteen and proud and afraid, taking pleasure in refusing him. “He says, Please, stay. I am concerned for your family and I am concerned for you. Oh, he is so concerned,” Tamara said, her lip curling. “He told me that I could make a trade with him, for my husband’s safety, and for mine. And when I left his office that night, I threw up in the gutter, from eating so much rich food all of a sudden.”

I gasped. “I fulfilled my side of the bargain,” she said. “He fulfilled his. He took on my case, and he convinced me that I needed to get out of Russia as soon as possible. He got me out right away, and though it took longer, he got my husband out too.

“I was so afraid,” she said. “I made him come with me. The morning we left, he told me, Speak nothing but French on the train, and try to look natural when you give the guards your Swedish passport. I did not speak on that train at all.”

“Wait, how did you have a Swedish passport?”

Tamara’s brief smile was all the explanation I needed. “It was four months from the night the Checka took him away to the day he came to find me in Denmark,” she said simply.

I pressed my stinging eyes with my forefingers: she had gotten her husband back. “Four months is a long time,” I repeated, trying to imagine what it was like for her. “I’m sure most of their prisoners were never released.”

“But one person helped me. For a price, but he helped me.” She began, it seemed, to ask me something. Then she stopped herself. She stood then, as if to shake off the story that haunted her. Her long-wristed arms had been clenched around her legs the whole time she’d been speaking. She shook them out for a moment before turning back to me. “I should paint,” she said. “I should just paint.”

For much of the day that followed, that’s what she did. We took breaks to stretch and eat, but spoke little. She told me how her daughter was faring at boarding school. She did not mention America again. As she painted, I thought about her escape from Russia. She had made her bargain with the Swedish consul when she was nineteen, almost the same age I was when we met. I thought she had always been pampered and spoiled, but she had once been alone in the ugly world, too. We were more similar than I had thought. Perhaps the reason I had cried so hard all those years ago—when Anson told me that Tamara’s husband still supported her, even after their divorce—was because I had been hoping so much for a different story, for a different way to make a life as a woman. A life where even if you weren’t born rich, you didn’t need a father or a husband or a daddy. I’d been angry that, despite appearances, she couldn’t have showed me a way to walk out of that hotel room when I was sixteen, when the fat man waited for me on the neatly-made bed. But to learn that she had once been trapped in that room, too, made me forgive her a little.

At the end of the day, Tamara turned her work around to show me. She had begun a painting of me as a child.

The girl in the painting was definitely me—the same full lips, the same wide solid peasant cheeks. She was sitting just as I had sat, her eyes lowered just as mine had been, her hair against her white ribbon the same blue-black mine went in the light. But she was also definitely a child. It was hard to believe I had ever been so young. That there had ever been a time when I was precious to my mother. A time before my father even died. There was something hard in my throat. I remembered the first time Tamara had made love to me, how she had restored to me my childhood body’s first greedy pleasures. My face clotted up with tears. I did not cry them. I treasured my tiny adult accomplishments so much. I treasured each of my dresses the way Tamara treasured the shining, finished surfaces of her paintings: we had each made little kingdoms where what we did—instead of what happened to us—mattered. I had been living under the pall of what had happened to me for months on end. What if I did something instead?

When I kissed Tamara, her heavy eyes opened wide. I watched her steadily as I unbuttoned my dress: she reached behind her back to do the same. “Let me,” I said.

I watched Tamara give herself over to me, naked under my hands. Her vague limbs assembled into clear need: the pale uncertain legs began to flicker with muscle, the blonde-downed arms tightened against the gray velvet couch. When she turned, her hips flared white in the growing dusk. Blue-white, the struts of her torso fanned with breath. Her buoyed breasts floated up like peonies, their tips darkening as she pressed into my hands. When I rode her, she sighed and clutched, and when I pushed my fingers in, she thrashed, wet inside and hot, her harsh breath climbing higher and higher, rising to a grunt that rent the air.

When she woke from a brief light sleep, eyes wide, and took off her rings, I knew I wasn’t doing it to make money, to keep a roof over my head, to make her feel like she could trust me, to console her for what her body couldn’t do, to ritually pledge my loyalty, to forestall a fight, or even to see what would happen. I knew exactly what would happen: when she gripped my waist, a single hungry sound escaped me. I wanted exactly what happened: my body singing against her mouth in long gasps until I fell into a thousand dazzling motes.

“Come to America with me,” she whispered, soft as ashes, just before I fell asleep.

Just for three months? To have what I’d lacked with Anson? Maybe the others could spare me. “All right,” I said. “I will.”

I woke briefly to the sound of her sketching. She was deep asleep beside me when I woke again: it was night.

I sat up on the couch and looked at her in the weak glow that seeped in from the apartments across the courtyard. It lit the pale floss of hair, the peerless raptor nose. Wasn’t this what I’d wanted all the months we’d spent together, a whole night in my lover’s bed? Now that I had it, years later, I couldn’t sleep. I listened to the steam heat clank and thought about my cold wood stove. What had she been sketching? I took her notebook upstairs to her bedroom, where I wrapped myself in her gray satin robe, sat on her narrow bed, and groped for the electric light. Suddenly I was surrounded by Tamara’s deep gray-green walls, by the glowing, painfully precise paintings of flowers she had shown me the last time I came to her house.

Tamara had sketched my thighs, I saw, and the long crease that smiled its way across my torso from hip to hip, dipping below the round of my belly. She loved drawing a woman from the perspective that you’d have just before putting your face between her legs: my knees were larger, more solid, more complexly globed than anything else in that sketch. I shook my head indulgently. So she didn’t paint nudes anymore, did she?

Ellis Avery

Ellis Avery is the author of three books: The Last Nude, a novel inspired by the life and work of Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, forthcoming from Riverhead Books (September 1, 2011), The Smoke Week, a personal account of life in lower Manhattan after 9/11, and The Teahouse Fire, a novel set in the tea ceremony world of 19th century Japan. Now available in paperback from Vintage (U.K.) and Riverhead (U.S.), The Teahouse Fire has been translated into five languages and has won three awards, including the American Library Association Stonewall Award for 2008. Avery teaches creative writing at Columbia University in New York City. ellisavery.com