The Old Masters

Alexander Maksik

Summer 2017

I’d been sleeping with another Argentine, Luis Perón (no relation, or so he claimed), a narrow, meatless man surviving on a fat trust fund who spoke in a self-conscious combination of languages. He found me the job, not that it was any grand gesture on his part. Someone called Luis, Luis called me, y voilà, as he would say.

“Ciao, Céline, you wanna speak English con un vieux Argentin?”

Despite my name and its pretty little accent aigu, I have no direct connection to this country. Our line goes straight and neat from Sweden to Iowa. In this regard, I’m a real torchbearer, the first of our American clan to escape the Midwestern flatlands, never to return. Though, having named and raised me on her own, my mother, Karina Bonggren, née Klasson, liberated from a bad marriage by my father’s timely cardiac arrest, was our family’s first iconoclast.

On the telephone, señor Cortázar spoke French better than I did, and with an accent vastly more charming. From the instant he cut the call I was sorry that we’d be forever strapped to the English language.

Señor Cortazar lived on the second floor of a hôtel particulier just around the corner from the Picasso Museum. To see him, I first had to enter a code into a blue-lit keypad and then lean with all my weight against the leaden outer door before stumbling into the courtyard, which, after the two-tone thunk and submarine-seal, went quiet.

This silence was at its finest after some snow had fallen, and I’d have traded all the brimming flower boxes in the world for that flawless square of white.

I was living then in a charmless apartment on the eleventh floor of a deathly building in the fifteenth, constructed in the seventies when Parisians, apparently lonely for the days when others were destroying their city, took a shot at doing it themselves. It was late October when Luis called me, and late November when I first heard my footsteps echoing in señor Cortázar’s secret courtyard.

Back then I was always glad to be somewhere else, and tried never to spend a night at home. Which is, in large part, why I was sleeping with Luis in the first place. I liked his clean sheets, his crackling fire, his bathtub, its golden claws balancing on sparkling yellow tile, but I’d never been in bed with anyone so meager and pretty and, beyond his apartment’s comforts, he provided me very little pleasure.

I preferred then, as I do now, a man with a bit of heft. I want someone with stature, both physical and psychic. Someone slightly rough. I don’t mean cruel, nor do I mean the costumes men wear—tattoos, chains, leather, beards, or any of their other easy vanities. I mean something impossible to fabricate, something just beneath the skin, a thing slightly forbidding in the eye, a sturdy and unpredictable heart. A man not necessarily tall, though that’s always nice, but someone with thickness. A man dramatically less feminine than me. In Paris, that can be difficult to find. It wasn’t as if, crossing his courtyard, passing the concierge’s glass door with its drawn lace curtains, walking those polished stairs, I imagined señor Cortázar a prospective paramour, but I was coming then to see just how many forms of love existed, and how many forms of lover.
At his door I turned a small butterfly, which was bolted to a tooled brass breast. The bell rang and then there were footsteps. I am five foot ten in my highest heels, which were then and are still two inches tall. On that first day in November I wore those, a loose cream-colored muslin skirt, and a thick black cashmere sweater my mother had sent me for my twenty-eighth birthday. I left my hair down. Essentially, I was dressed as Anouk Aimée in that photograph where she’s walking her dog along the Seine. Like a schoolgirl, I had it on my wall in a frame. In the alchemy of her expression there was a charisma, a wildness, an ease, which eluded me, but which I was certain I was on the precipice of possessing. I’d spent a long time wandering Paris trying to find a bag like the one in the photograph, and eventually came close with an Algerian man at the Porte d’Orléans. It was masterfully made, not very expensive, and I treasured it because it was mannish and rough.

When señor Cortázar opened the door, his eyes were directly on level with mine, which were blue, as they remain, while his were gray, to match a trimmed beard and a head of hair surprisingly rich and plentiful given his more than sixty years of life. He was dressed that day pretty much as he would always be, in wide-wale corduroy pants the color of either green olives or chestnut shells, a well-made shirt, white or French blue, and a cardigan sweater, dove gray or navy. All of his clothes were excellent but, against fashion, cut loose and large for comfort. The pants and shirts were baggy, the sweaters long. Someone else might describe him as rumpled, in the style of a television professor, but someone else is an idiot. Really, there was nothing rumpled about him. He was as elegantly dressed as any man I’d ever known. I never saw him wear shoes. His socks were brightly colored, frequently in shades of fire, but occasionally in some variant of green. That first day, I remember very well, they were a dazzling feline orange against brown cuffs.

He said, “Hello. You are Ms.”, then hesitated and winced—the way everyone in this country does before pronouncing Bonggren, changing the shape of his mouth in search of some graceful way to begin. He did his best, shook my hand, turned, and showed me in.

Alexander Maksik is a 2017 Guggenheim Fellow and the author of three novels: "You Deserve Nothing", "A Marker to Measure Drift" and "Shelter in Place". He’s the co-director of the Can Cab Literary Residence in Catalonia, Spain.

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