• Guillotine

    Michelle Hart

    Fall 2023

    When Elle was twelve, her father purchased a private guided tour of the Musée d’Orsay for the two of them. He had just gotten divorced from Elle’s mother, who had announced she would use the settlement to travel around Europe. Elle’s father, however, wanted to win and whisked Elle away to France first. Elle was accustomed by then to seeing herself as an asset her parents could barter, and she was glad to at least be considered their prized possession.

    Elle had always gravitated toward her father, and still continued to do so, although the divorce was his fault; he was the one who had cheated. Women flirted with him often. He was handsome and mysterious. His family was Dutch, still living somewhere in the Netherlands, presumably, but in over a decade of marriage and parenthood he had never introduced them to his wife or daughter. All Elle and her mother really knew about his past was that he used to be poor. He was a black hole of a man. Growing up, Elle watched with envy how willingly the men and women he met got sucked in.

    They were in Paris for three days. Her father was there on business, and while he had meetings in the Défense district, Elle looked at the Eiffel Tower from their hotel balcony. She had a framed photograph of it, taken by her mother, in her bedroom back home, and it was both surreal and pleasing to have it now within reach. She felt then that she was correct in choosing her father.

    It was on the evening of their last full day in Paris that they toured the Orsay. Their guide was a woman named Julie, who looked like a younger version of Elle’s mother, with the same toothy smile and tawny hair. She looked so much like Elle’s mother that at first Elle worried her father would be put off and spend the evening in a fit. But upon greeting the guide, he smiled and calmly produced from the pocket of his suit jacket a printed-out voucher. “Hello,” he said, and gave the paper to the guide. He was most at ease when he received what he believed he was owed.

    He offered his name to Julie. As he did this, Julie took his hand in both of hers. It was a gesture that Elle found more affectionate than necessary. Still, an electric thrill coursed through her. Standing next to her father while a woman fawned over him was like watching a professional athlete live, or like viewing a lauded work of art in person. People said Elle and her father looked alike; she couldn’t wait to get older and collect the same attention.

    “I’m Elle,” she said.

    “My daughter,” he said.

    “How lovely,” said Julie. “She must be special.”

    “She’s everything. She’s all I have.”

    Elle couldn’t recall hearing her father speak that way about her before. He was a cool man; the only time he radiated heat was in flashes of fury. This indifference was, Elle came to understand, a large part of his appeal; she’d grown up watching her mother try to spark scintillas of his interest. Elle’s apparent importance in his life elated her. But as he put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, she sensed he was probably just using her as a prop.

    “She is lucky,” Julie said. “And you,” she told Elle’s father, “are in trouble. She is quite beautiful and will have whatever she wants.”

    The Orsay was large, a former train station that had, not that long ago, been converted into a museum. It officially opened as an art gallery in 1986, the year Elle was born. This fact, and the museum’s after-hours openness, made Elle feel as if she really was special, as if she really could have whatever she wanted in life. The world is your Orsay, she thought.

    It was a two-hour tour that took them half that long. They walked through a long aisleway of statues as Julie talked about the perfection of the figures. Their refined forms and features had a pleasing, symmetrical sweetness, but when Elle looked at them she felt a little bored. Instead of the statues, she stared at Julie. She trailed a bit behind Julie and her father so she could look at Julie’s ass. She wanted to grab it. She’d done this to a classmate of hers and was surprised when the girl slapped her hand away. Elle had rolled her eyes at the girl and called her a prude.

    The three of them entered a room off to the right of the main aisleway. Once inside, Julie brought them in front of a painting of a naked woman pouring water out of a pitcher. “Is this all right?” Julie asked Elle’s father. It sounded as if she was asking whether he found the woman to his liking.

    He looked at his daughter and then back at the painting. “It’s fine,” he said. “It’s art.”

    “It is,” said Julie. “This is Venus.”

    Like the water from the pitcher, Elle’s eyes fell from the top of the woman’s head down to her toes. She turned to watch her father. She looked at him looking at Venus. She copied the cold, curious way he scanned the woman, though her own insides were hot as wax. Men, her mother had said, were led through life by their cocks, as if no other part of them had any say. But Elle, too, felt a pressing desire to rub herself against every person and surface she came across. She humped pillows and doorknobs and the armrest of her father’s desk chair; at school, she sat in class with a pencil wedged between her legs. The need was like having one of those trick birthday candles that somehow stayed lit even when you blew on it.

    The painting was called The Source. Elle asked, “What is she the source of?”

    Her father said, “Life.”

    They continued to peruse the gallery’s goods. There were other images of Venus, or women like her. In one, she was outlandishly large and laid on an ocean wave as if the whole sea was hers. Later, they came upon Olympia, a nude prostitute whose nonchalance Elle admired. “That she does not seem to care,” said Julie, “makes men want her more.”

    Michelle Hart is the author of the novel We Do What We Do in the Dark. Her writing has appeared in Electric Literature, Joyland, the New York Times, and the New Yorker online. Previously, she was the assistant books editor at O, the Oprah Magazine.

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