I hobble along rue du Président Wilson, my skull a walnut shell of fleshy coils and confusions, taking it in, in, in, the Paris scene, the gusting wind and rain, firing synapses, maneuvering the running gutters, dodging the knobs of canes and dog paws, feet in running shoes or boots, sticky gum, spit. Can’t go straight, so I go crooked, go dyke, down the curbs, over the cobblestones, under the limestone palaces. Every place in me hurts—the gimp hips, the left knee, the two torn rotator cuffs, the narrowings in my heart, the turned ankle, the osteo-knuckles, the hot swollen feet. All the car tires, the horns, the shouting, the lampposts, the metro signs gothic or deco, the Eiffel Tower there across the Seine under which my wife and I once renewed our vows.
C’est tout ce que j’ai, shouts a woman into her phone. C’est tout ce que j’ai.
My wife. I gave her all that I had and then, after that, I gave her all that I had again, and afterwards I gave her all that I had again and again, and still she came at me, and after that I was a lover flattened.
I loved her ruinously.
I pass The Palais de Chaillot and its art deco exhibit, where I will go later with the Meet-up queers.
The Musée de Toyko: fermé.
But the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris is open. And here, after Derain, Picasso, Matisse, Fautrier, de Chirico, DeLauney, Dufy, Bonnard, Vlaminck and Rouault, after Dadoism and expressionism, and surrealism and fauvism, I come to a halt in front of one painting, La femme avec les yeux bleu. Modigliani, Dedo, and I go so sad, I go so happy. Come and heat the feckless wind, I think to him. This straining, uncomfortable mix of adoring whom, perhaps, I should not adore, a behaviour well known from marriage. Modigliani and I, we both know what it is to touch a woman. We know the hand and how it can move like eyes across lips, nipple, mons, soft as glove leather.
Closer, he whispers.
Relative to this painting, he once stood where I am standing, 96 years ago, his daughter Jeanne an infant, so I tell him that his arm is my arm and my arm moves in blues and greens and peaches, my arm pushes paint onto linen.
Phantom in Parisian oxygen, his brushes clack wood on wood handle, Prussian blue, Rose Madder, Aureolin, Viridian, Cobalt Violet, Emerald Green.
No one apprehends us. The guards, do they even notice?
Lesbians notice. Their nipples erect and between their thighs they dew. They wrench cries from me as they penetrate.
Fucking, Dedo breathes.
The inside of women, I tell him.
There is only inside, he says.
Ce tout ce que j’ai, I say. But is it? Is it all I have, now, and then for the dead time?
After a scoundrel life, Modigliani died painfully, from TB at 36. His wife, artist Jeanne Hebuturne, 21 and 9 months pregnant, was so distraught she jumped from a window leaving Jeanne, their older child, an orphan at 3.
No arms with which to paint. No lips with which to speak. No feet with which to walk. No hands with which to write.
The situation histrionic, obsessive, mentally fragile, unstable. Just like a woman, Dedo says. These women of the paintings of the Musée d’Art Moderne, these unknowable models who led their fragile penurious fraught and I hope precious lives after the painter’s last stroke fell.
Who cares for them? They might as well all be abstractions, unrecognizable cubes, used and then discarded, except that we have their likenesses, crude or realistic or just shapely. And don’t imagine that I’m above it: I ride that knife edge as an artist myself, hungering always to place the story above friendship, love, loyalty, resisting or giving in.
Am I disgusting? Should I be ashamed to love the art of these rogues and roués, these knaves, these mysogynists who betrayed and battered and knifed and molested and shot their women folk? TS Eliot who had his inconvenient wife institutionalized. Hemingway, Maugham, Updike, Mailer, blackguards all. Burroughs shot his wife in the head. Picasso was a batterer. Gauguin, a sadist. Louis Carroll, ee cummings and Gore Vidal all said to be pedophiles.
And anyway, where are the women? In all these salles, no Lucy Bason, Henrietta Shore, Emily Carr, Marie Bashkirtseff, Anna Boch, Rosa Bonheur, Olga Boznaska, Marie Bracquemond, Mary Cassatt, Camille Claudel, Marie Ellenrieder, Kate Greenaway, Georgia O’Keefe, Kitty Lange Kielland, Edmonia Lewis, Constance Mayer, Victorine Meurent, Berthe Morisot, Suzanne Valadon, Enid Yandell, Wilhelmina Weber Furlong, or Marie-Denise Villers, Frieda Kahlo.
No Romaine Brooks.
How is a radical dyke feminist writer to articulate a swirl of half-formed thoughts? All my thoughts are strangled vowels and nipped consonants. How am I to see, to touch, to feel, to absorb this terrible beautiful cruel situation where I love the art and hate the artist, where the women have been discarded like dirty tissues? Even here, in the city where the women worked. And why haven’t curators worked to change this?
I look out my Paris window and see, in these old buildings, an endless repetition of staircases and balconies. Birds sing at night. Why do birds sing at night? The world order must be flipped.
If we have extra-textual knowledge, and we do in this age of information, what are we to do with it? Can the man and his mistakes come together? Do we, should we, de-bifurcate?
We can’t, is the answer. He is one thing. They are one thing. He is the other. They are the other. Perniciously.
There are still no women.
And my body still hurts as if every thought I’ve had was on the attack: every punctuation mark acid, every word poison, every sentence a mallet, every paragraph a fist.
I drown in Parisian wind, going down in a glug of hopeless love for Hemingway, in adoration of Dedo. I choke on my love for Picasso, my head in the noose of his elbow. I bruise after Gauguin pummels me to the linoleum, after TS Eliot locks me away. Here I am dead after Burroughs puts a bullet through my skull.
It is not as simple in this world to be a woman as it is a man. It is not as straightforward in this world to be a lesbian, a feminist. It is nothing like elementary to be a woman artist, a woman filmmaker, a woman musician, a woman writer.
The streets of Paris are still the streets of Paris, still the streets where these men walked with determination and sorrow and backache and sore feet carrying the tools of their trade without understanding women. They are still full of potholes and filth and direction that plays tricks on you.
C’est tout ce que j’ai, indecision and worry, as I plaster myself up against these bastards of beauty who always, always whisper their clean and dirty seductions. And as with my wife, after they damage, I get pie-eyes, flowers, apologies, promises to do better, to be better. I still get joy.
Jane Eaton Hamilton
Jane Eaton Hamilton is the author of seven books nominated for a wide variety of awards. Her short fiction has won the CBC Literary Award, the Prism International Fiction Prize (twice), the 2014 Canada Writes Short Fiction Contest, and has been included in Best Canadian Short Stories and the Journey Prize. She is also a visual artist and photographer. She lives in Vancouver. She blogs at: janeeatonhamilton.wordpress.
My books are:
Going Santa Fe, poetry chapbook
Jessica’s Elevator, children’s
Body Rain, poetry
Steam-Cleaning Love, poetry
July Nights, short fiction
Hunger, short fiction
a pseudonymous memoir