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Girl in the Moonlight


The dirt road to the house had been paved and shortened. What was once in my childhood dense woods had been over the years sold to developers. Large, modern houses now sprawled over the lots until there was only a thin barrier of trees separating one from the next. I had camped out in these woods. Built forts, startled deer. That was before the area became fashionable and the land alone worth millions.

Our house was one of the oldest on the pond, built when the area was a separate summer colony and a round-trip by horse or wagon to the village of East Hampton would consume a whole morning or afternoon. That was long before my parents bought, in the early 1960s, back when my father was just starting out. A weekend house was more than he could afford on his lawyer’s salary, but they had fallen in love with it, with its charm, its seclusion, and its views, and economized in other ways to make the mortgage. For the first few years there was almost no furniture. The house would echo with emptiness. It was a giant playground for me. I could ride my tricycle from room to room without worrying about hitting anything. Fortunately, the previous owners had left behind a few things, including a butcher-block dining table and bright yellow straight-back chairs, so my parents could at least have the occasional dinner party.

It was a beautiful old house. A traditional saltbox built on a massive scale, its shingles brown with age. In the back was a wide, screened porch that faced west toward the sunset over the pond, the scene of many pleasant evenings. Old wicker furniture. My father, clutching a glassful of bourbon, at his mellowest.

Now my father is dead, and the house is being sold. There were taxes. Also, it needed a new roof, central heating, a proper foundation. The costs would have been prohibitive. In the end it was easier to sell. The buyer had promised he wouldn’t tear it down. The house had architectural significance, after all. This would be my last chance to see it.

I stopped the car by the brick path to the front door and stepped out. It was a cold November morning, and the drive out from Manhattan had taken only two hours. The grass was covered with damp leaves. No one was around to rake them up anymore. In the past we would have been getting ready for another Thanksgiving here. Fully extended, the dining room table could seat twenty, and most years it did. But that table was gone now, sold at auction, like so much of the other furniture.

This was not the first house that had vanished from my life. There had been an old family place in Maine, my parents’ apartment in New York that went after the divorce, my grandparents’ horse farm in Virginia—now all gone—but this house had been the one constant. It had been my home. I had spent every summer of my life here. Thanksgivings, Christmases. Had grown up within its walls, made the passage from boy to man. Had played touch football on the lawn, gotten drunk for the first time, made love, slammed doors in anger, slept uncountable nights.

A large, empty metal Dumpster sat ominously in the front yard. I walked past it down the slight decline to the rear of the house, crossing the wide back lawn and out to the large, brackish pond that stretched all the way to the ocean. At night, when everyone was in bed and the house was quiet, it was possible to hear the faint roar of the waves. I stepped carefully onto the old dock that extended over the bulrushes, the planks creaking beneath my feet. In certain spots the wood had already rotted away.

I always came here first. To the pond. The beauty of the view. The purity of it. The familiarity. Even now, years later, I can conjure it effortlessly. It would stay with me forever. The seamless melding of water to trees to sky.

In the distance a family of swans bobbed ornamentally on the slate gray water. The wind was raw. We sailed here from May to September, or even later, but the little boat, like so much else, had been sold.

I walked back up the hill around the other side of the house to where, under the rhododendron, I fished for the hidden key that was always hung on a nail. Unlocking the heavy oak front door, I pushed it open and stepped into the barren and dark front hall. The house was cold, the air slightly musty. There were a few last things left for me to sort through, to keep—or not. The rest would be thrown out. It was up to me. The kitchen counter had a cold cardboard coffee cup that must have been left by one of the contractors. It was next to an old, unplugged toaster and a final heating bill. The refrigerator stood open and dark, its shelves barren. The water had been turned off. There is nothing emptier than an empty house.

I wandered through the wainscoted dining room, the sitting room, and the downstairs bedrooms, opening closets and finding nothing except scattered mouse droppings. The second and third floors were just as barren. The books from the shelves that once lined the hallway had all been boxed up and dispersed. In my old room, a metal bed frame leaned against the wall. In the closet, there was a box of old tiles and several bare wire hangers on the rod. Nothing remained in my parents’ former room. I could see in the worn carpet the indentations of where my father’s chair had sat for decades. Disconnected phone jacks. A broken window shade.

My ultimate destination was the attic, where deeply recessed closets had been built under the roof for storage. I had been given one of these as a place to store my old belongings, things of sentimental value that could not fit in my New York apartment. Boxes from school and college. A few pieces of furniture. Suitcases of old clothes. A battered camp trunk full of letters and photographs. Bank statements from accounts long closed. An old paint box full of crumpled tubes of cadmium yellow, cobalt blue, and burnt sienna. A small bundle of brushes, held together by a rubber band, their handles smudged with long-dried color but their bristles still soft.

I carried the boxes and bags to the middle of the floor, creating two piles: what I would keep and what I would throw out. In one box, old comic books that would have been worth some money if I had taken care of them. In another, books of military history, which had been my prepubescent passion—along with painting model soldiers—and for which I saved up my allowance to buy in a tiny shop, long since closed, on Madison Avenue near the Seventy-Ninth Street bus stop. I flipped through one of them, recognizing the colorful plates of Napoleonic soldiers, the bearskins, the braids, that I once spent hours poring over. Still other boxes contained old cassettes, photographs, memories from schools and summer camps. Most of it would go in the Dumpster.

I had saved the rolls of canvases until last. At one time, I had been fond of some of them, even proud. Now, as I unrolled them, they struck me as obvious and unoriginal. There were some embarrassing Rose Period imitations. A few with intimations of Corot and even Hopper. Others aimed for Velázquez but failed. These I quickly moved to the discard pile.

In another roll were several portraits. These were better, less pretentious and more straightforward. There was nothing wrong exactly with my work. I had always been able to draw well. I could deftly capture the shape of an eye, the curve of a lip. But there was something lacking too. The special animation that turns lines on a page or brushstrokes on canvas into something magical. I had the skill but not the talent. That distinction is everything.

On top there were a few self-portraits revealing my younger self. It was a face I was still surprised not to see in the mirror every morning. The thick hair, the lean cheeks. It is the other way around now. There was one of my father, looking impatient at having to sit still for so long. A few nudes from class. Then came the ones that I wanted most to see. The first, Aurelio, with his long poet’s face and dark eyes. I couldn’t stop myself from noticing the imperfections in my brushwork, the faults in perspective, wishing I had the chance to do it again, to make it better. Not only had it been too long since I had held a brush but that golden moment in time had passed, never to be recaptured or reclaimed.

I looked at the portrait for several minutes, remembering when I had painted it. How old would he have been? Nineteen? Twenty? I had been even younger. The years slipped by. Whole lifetimes had been lived since then. The hum of summer outside his studio. The strong sunshine and the salt smell of Long Island Sound. I had taken my time while he, the better painter, struggled to relax, unaccustomed to being on the other side of the brush. “Let me draw you next,” he had said, laughing. His teeth white with health and youth. A cigarette burning on the table next to where he sat.

I placed Aurelio’s portrait to the other side, sure that I would keep it. There was only one painting left, the most important. I unrolled it, feeling the warmth of recognition. It was a full-length portrait of a recumbent woman, naked, beautiful, lit as if by moonlight.


Like her younger brother, she was dark, but where he was angular, almost ascetic, she was soft, sensual. Her eyes simultaneously playful and carnal. Both siblings possessed an otherworldly beauty, as though they were composed of a rare element, one not found on earth, something that usually burned up as it hit the atmosphere, and that, because of its rarity, made it even more precious.

The painting stirred many emotions in me, not the least envy. Because, unlike the other portraits, I hadn’t painted this one. Aurelio had, a long time ago. But now it was mine. It was my most treasured, and dangerous, possession. Cesca had given it to me.

It had been years since I had last seen it. And now I was no less struck than when I had first beheld it. The perfect brushstrokes, the play of color and light. The quizzical smile that was both an invitation and a warning. It should have been hanging in a museum instead of hidden away in an attic.

Some women might have been embarrassed to see themselves depicted so lushly naked, but not Cesca. Her gaze was bold, unashamed. She was an artist’s daughter, after all; had been posing since she was a baby. There had been depictions of her in her father’s hand at various stages of life all over their house. Cesca as an infant in her mother’s arms. Cesca as a skinny child. An oil of her on the verge of womanhood. Charcoals of her laughing, serious. The penumbra of her hair framing her face. Always her beauty staggering. For an artist to have such a daughter would have been a miracle of fortune.

“These are only the ones that Mare chooses to display,” she told me once, referring to her mother. She pronounced it “MAH-ruh.” It was the Catalan word for “mother.” Her father was Pare. “There are hundreds more somewhere.”

But I didn’t have hundreds more. These canvases in the attic, like the last coins of a once-rich man, were all that remained. After them, there would be nothing. Nothing that tied me to a time and a place when I was a different person—younger, more idealistic, hungrier for love.

Life is filled with what-ifs, the roads not taken, the doors left unopened, the lovers left behind. Like Borges’s forking paths, the choices are infinite. There is no map, no instruction manual. When we are very young the choices are made for us. This school, those friends. The world then is small, limited, and comparatively safe. That is how it should be. As we age, the opportunities multiply, but so do the dangers. Early stars burn out. Fortunes reverse. Many young men and women I had known, full of promise, fell by the wayside, victim to drugs, but also to indulgence, idleness, lack of direction, greed, arrogance. Not all though. Some went on to great success. Became CEOs, heads of foundations, Oscar winners, professors, even painters. Some merely rich. An old college friend of mine is now foreign minister of his country.

The tragedies are what stay with me. Did I have a knack for attracting the melancholy, the unfulfilled? The suicides, the defectives, the weak of will? One of the smartest, most talented youths I ever knew was a particular idol of mine when I was a teenager. I remember his speed on the football field, laughing as his powerful legs increased the distance between himself and his pursuers. Also, his brilliance. His eloquence. His blond good looks. He could have been anything. Unknown to me at the time his parents were undergoing a bitter divorce, the reverberations of which were shattering. He was kicked out of one school and then another. All his promise crashing to earth. There were drugs too. Cocaine. We lost touch. Today he is a yoga instructor on an ashram in Oregon.

I had made many choices, some good, most not, that had led me to this attic, weighing my past and bidding farewell to a house I loved but could not save. The years peeled away, and in my mind I was once again a teenager. Tall and slender. But even then nothing was simple. What if I had chosen differently? Would I be here at this moment? There are the dreams our parents have for us, and then there is the life we create for ourselves. It is impossible to know. The secret, they say, is not to regret—but that, I have found, is impossible. The most one can hope for is to forget. Memory, though, is a poor servant; it bursts in on you when you least expect it.

I didn’t need anything physical to remind me of Cesca though. I find myself thinking about her every day, passing by a certain street corner where we once walked, hearing a song on the radio, imagining her face in the crowd, the figure that had just turned the corner. At night she is often in my dreams, always just out of reach, across a table, laughing, climbing a stair, disappearing into the next room, or on the verge of love, until something causes me to wake up unconsummated, aware of her continued absence in my life even if her memory was still with me every day.

I remember when I first met her. It changed my life.



It had been in summer. I was a child of ten. We had driven over in our old Ford station wagon. This was when my father was young, just starting out. Before the money, but he had the confidence that one day he would be rich. He would have been one of Bonaparte’s lucky generals. Nothing had ever stopped him. My mother and I were going along with him when he went to play tennis with his old friend Roger Baum, whose family owned a large compound in Amagansett, complete with a clay court.

There I met four children, brothers and sisters. Their looks were dark, exotic. The eldest was Francesca, who was called Cesca, followed by Aurelio. They were both older than I; she by two years, he by one. Then the twins, Cosmo and Carmen, who were about my age.

At first I shyly stayed with my mother. She would have been in her early thirties then. Her long dark hair tied back by a bright kerchief, wearing the large oval sunglasses in fashion at that time. She was a great beauty, a daughter of the aristocracy. Her fingers long and elegant. In her voice a whisper of honeysuckle. She was christened Barbara but everyone called her Babes. Her maiden name was Wylie, which carried great weight in certain parts of Virginia, and which she had insisted on making my first name. My last name is Rose, which was shortened from something else when my father’s parents emigrated from Russia. Against all odds—class, income, temperament—my father had won her. She was his great prize.

Who else would have been there? Roger’s girl of the moment probably. His sister Kitty, who was the mother of the four siblings. Her married name was Bonet. A few others, but I can’t remember. On the table bottles of Miller High Life. Gin and tonics. Everyone smoked. The rest of us watched Roger and my father, both in white. They were in the prime of life, competitive as only old friends can be. When they served there were loud grunts of effort, and mild oaths when a point was lost. The racquets were wooden, carried in presses. Roger had been playing his whole life, but my father was the more aggressive.

“Wylie, darling. Go and play with the other children,” my mother said to me. They had already disappeared. I did as I was told, my steps slowing the farther I got from her, my courage ebbing. I did not make friends easily. My life had been a protected one. One spent reading. The majority of my adventures were fantasies dreamed up from the comfort of a couch. My mother was a great reader too. Nothing made her happier than curling up with a book. I had just started wearing glasses. When I played baseball, I was invariably sent to the outfield, where I could do the least harm.

I could hear the laughter of the Bonet children. They moved like a unit, a wolf pack. I was of no interest to them. With four, they had no need of other playmates. They lived in what they called the Playhouse, but it was a real house, one of several on the property. Their grandfather, Roger’s father, I had been told, was enormously rich.

When I went inside I saw a kitchen. Stairs to a second floor. On the shelves unfamiliar toys and puzzles. Cartoon books in a foreign language. There was no television. I dared not touch anything. Outside, Aurelio, the taller of the boys, tried to be friendly. He explained the game to me.

“You have to climb up that rope, see? Then jump from the branch onto the roof. The trick is not to fall.”

Nothing like it would have been invented now; the risks are too great. Parents were more accepting of fate in those days, less fearful and litigious. The children less coddled. Already I had heard about the son of one of my father’s friends, only a year older than I, who had drowned in a sailing accident because he wasn’t wearing a life jacket. Such calamities were accepted. One pushed on. These were people of the generation that remembered the war, knew fathers and brothers and husbands who never came home.

I watched as one of the girls, skinny as an acrobat, swarmed up the rope. She used only her hands, like a pirate. Then the leap and a smile. It was obviously dangerous. That was the thrill.

“Want to try?” she asked.

I nodded. There was no alternative but shame. I was a goose among swans, the unwelcome guest. I clutched the thick, knotted rope. Pushed up my glasses. I was never good at climbing. Four pairs of dark eyes watched me, suddenly aware. Waiting. It was an initiation of sorts. If I passed this test, there would be another, and another. It was a club I would never be allowed to join, but that had not yet been made clear to me, and I was too young and trusting to know otherwise. I tried to hoist myself up. It was impossible. I lacked the upper-body strength. I had no brothers or sisters, no one to compete against. One of the children laughed, but I pretended not to notice.

I tried again, and this time actually got a purchase on one of the thick knots and was able to reach up quickly with my other hand for the next knot. Jumping up, I closed my feet around the base of the rope. And then I hauled. The branch was barely ten feet off the ground, but it seemed as high as heaven, and as unattainable. Slowly, difficultly, I inched up the rope, nearly falling once or twice, my heart pounding, on the verge of tears, my soft palms burning, the insides of my knees raw. I dared not look down.

“Good, now grab the branch with one hand,” said Aurelio. He had thick, longish black hair. The lean build of a soccer player. Kindly eyes. He was already my hero. I did as he instructed, feeling the rough bark under my hand. “Now the other,” he said. “And swing yourself up.” I did that too, badly scraping my arms and inner thighs, hugging the branch with my bare pink legs and hands. “Now stand up and walk toward the roof.”

But I couldn’t. I froze, unable to advance or retreat. I would never get down unless I fell.

“It’s easy,” called one of the girls. It was Cesca, the eldest. Like her siblings, she was dark-haired and barefoot. Fearless. Tanned, coltish legs, her knees covered in scabs. Dried calamine lotion on her ankle. It was easy to see they spent the summer outdoors. Like cats, they only came inside when it rained.

I stared at her. Even at that age everything about her seemed authentic. She was almost a teenager. On her slender frame her breasts just beginning to bud. It was clear she would be a great beauty. Already her parents’ friends noticed it.

That was not how I saw her. To me, at that moment, she was already perfect, blinding. “Just grab one of the branches above you,” she said. I looked up and saw a slender one above me in the canopy of green leaves. I reached for it. It was surprisingly resilient. Tentatively, I slid my feet down the limb toward the roof, the limb unsteady under my weight. I was doing it for her. I wanted to impress her with my bravery. Nothing else was important. But what seemed like a negligible distance from the ground now yawned before me. “You can do it!” she yelled. One of the children whistled. More laughter. I leapt.

Except, of course, I couldn’t do it. I had misjudged the distance. Or did I have second thoughts at the last minute? I can’t remember. It is all a blur. In any event, I fell to the earth, luckily missing the paving stones and only breaking my left arm. My howls of pain were unmanly, but I was no longer trying to show off for anyone. My mother appeared first, hysterical, which made me cry even louder. The men, who had finished playing tennis and were now sitting on the deck drinking beer, came next. My father picked me up, his shirt wet with perspiration, his forearms slick. “It’s okay, champ,” he said, as he placed me in the backseat of our station wagon next to my mother for the long drive to Southampton Hospital.



Years passed before I saw Cesca or any of the Bonet children again. But that didn’t mean I didn’t think about them—and that my attention wasn’t drawn to hearing about them.

Throughout my early adolescence, I dreamed of seeing Cesca again, eager to redeem myself. It was not Aurelio, Cosmo, or Carmen I wanted to impress. It was only Cesca. As I grew, I carried her image before me. I had no idea what she was really like, so I made her up in my head. She was not only the most beautiful girl in the world but the kindest, bravest, and smartest too. Everything I did, I did in the hope that she would find me worthy. When I did well on a test, when I scored a touchdown, I told myself it was for her. One day I hoped to make her love me. I don’t know why I fixated on her, but I did. No one else had ever inspired these feelings in me. It was the purest kind of love, of course. That of a knight for his lady. It was the kind of love I read about. That was all I knew.

On the sporadic occasions when I heard my father mentioning that he had dined with Roger or had been at a cocktail party where he had seen Cesca or one of the other children, I squirmed a little with remembered embarrassment. It wasn’t just that I had fallen from the tree. It was more than that. That afternoon was my first inkling that there was more to the world than it appeared. Like the glimpse of a secret garden through a crack in the door, I discovered something I hadn’t known was missing. Where colors were brighter, tastes stronger, feelings deeper. And once I recognized it, I wanted it, missed it—and was unsure I would ever find my way back to it. It was a land of Cockaigne, the hidden kingdom.

Such a moment is unequal, though. Like passing a beautiful woman in the street who doesn’t register you: It is of no importance to her but might have changed your life forever. I was sure that Cesca and the others had forgotten me, or, if they did remember me, it was only as the kid who fell and broke his arm. Though I had met and already discarded details about numerous playmates and children of my parents’ friends over my short life, I recalled all four of the Bonet children vividly. And in my dreams and youthful fantasizing, it was always Cesca’s face that returned to me.

I admit that I invented scenarios, some absurd, that put us together. She would be drowning, and I would save her. Or maybe it was a fire. It didn’t matter. In all my fantasies, I played the romantic lead, she the grateful maiden. But I was to be frustrated in my hopes of showing my bravery. I envied Tom Sawyer the chance to rescue Becky Thatcher, Perseus’s winning of Andromeda.

Whenever my father casually suggested I accompany him to the Bonet house when he went to play tennis with Roger—by now I had learned to play—I eagerly grasped the opportunity, hoping each time that I would enter their world and Cesca would see me. But no matter what, I always seemed to be one or two steps behind.

Invariably Cesca was never there when I was. She and her siblings had already left by the time I arrived; gone to the beach, a party, or somewhere else that, I felt sure, was much more glamorous and fun. Even so, I was convinced that, in her wake, there were little bits of light, like the disappearing tail of a comet. Wherever she went was brightest, everywhere else dull by comparison.

Sometimes she hadn’t been there at all. Every summer the Bonet children would spend a month in Spain with their father. They were a family to whom passports, other languages, knowledge of the world—all of which was unimaginable to me—were commonplace.

Disappointed, I would stay at the tennis court and play a few sets of doubles if a fourth was needed. Or I would sit there with a Coke or an iced tea, feeling like a passenger who had missed a connecting flight.

When no one was watching I would wander through the house, looking at photographs, piecing together my own version of history. Cesca aged five on a pony. Another one of her a few years later in a bathing suit, laughing in a translucent Caribbean surf. Aurelio on skis. The whole family with the Eiffel Tower in the background. On a sailboat, slightly older. I looked at all the photographs, but it was over Cesca’s image that I lingered longest.

I couldn’t bring myself to go upstairs where their rooms were, however. That would have been a violation, I knew. And what if I were caught? It would have been unpardonable. So, like a zoologist in the field, I contented myself with studying my subjects’ natural habitat, inspecting empty nests and broken grass, while I waited for them to show up. I began to feel that I knew them even if they didn’t know anything about me. And, of course, most of what I thought I knew turned out to be wrong.

What I did know was that they, like me, lived in the city and came out to Long Island on weekends and the summer. I had heard of their school, but it was not where I went. It was a school where, unlike mine, the boys didn’t have to wear jackets and ties. They could wear pretty much anything they wanted. The girls too. This was an undreamed-of freedom. They lived in Greenwich Village. At that time, I had never been south of Fifty-Seventh Street. Downtown in those days was a different continent, exotic as Africa.

The New York of my childhood was almost feudal in character; neighborhoods were like fiefdoms, duchies. There was little exchange between them and often open hostilities. Even the language changed. When people ask me today where I am from, they often don’t believe me, expecting all true New Yorkers to speak like the Dead End Kids. They aren’t aware that my part of town also has a distinctive accent. The Upper East Side, where I lived, was the castle on the hill. For those defectors like Kitty, the Village was a rejection, a thumbing of the nose. A way to épater le bourgeois.

As with many bohemians, family money was funding the rebellion. Roger and Kitty’s father, a self-made millionaire, had, in the time-honored fashion, fought his way from a tenement apartment on Eldridge Street to a town house off Park Avenue. Like many rich men who had been born poor, he spoiled his children, determined to give them everything that had been denied him. Servants, cars, piano lessons, and private schools. Trips abroad in the years before and after World War II. The Queen Mary. Claridge’s, the Ritz. During the war it was Palm Beach, Yellowstone, and the Super Chief to Los Angeles. Roger, the only son, had gone to Harvard, where he met my father. Generous trust funds allowed Roger and Kitty to live as they liked and to marry whom they liked.

Roger, a ladies’ man, married several times but never had a family of his own. Kitty married the painter Ugo Bonet. There was a younger sister, Dot, who never married.

Ugo was Spanish—or, to be more precise, Catalan. He and Kitty met at a party in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, when the Village was the center of the art world. Much more I learned later, when I no longer had to snoop. When it was all offered to me.

I didn’t know Ugo then, of course, but I was told that, when he was young, he was very handsome. His children, who all greatly resembled him, adored him. He was effortlessly masculine in the way of Latin men. Tall and dark, coarse black hair. Rugged hands like a fisherman’s. Cesca had the same hands; strong, capable. He was older than Kitty. After the war, he had lived in Paris. It was said that Peggy Guggenheim had fallen in love with him, offering to pay his way to New York. When Kitty met him, he had no money, which had never been a concern for him. He had always been able to find a woman who could give him a place to stay, something to eat. For a few days or a few months. It didn’t matter to him.

When Kitty became pregnant, she insisted he marry her. His response was to disappear, only to be found several weeks later in Brooklyn by detectives hired by Kitty’s father. They presented him with an ultimatum and he accepted the less unpleasant option. There were advantages to having a rich wife, after all. They were married in City Hall and then went to India on honeymoon. Several months after they returned, laden with Benares brass, Mughal miniatures, and rugs from the Kashmir, Cesca was born. She once said to me that the reason she found it so hard to settle down was that her mother traveled so much while she was pregnant with her.

Kitty’s father bought them a town house on Perry Street and installed a studio for Ugo on the top floor. The other three children followed in rapid succession. But Ugo was not a man to be tied down. A brief trip he took home to Spain extended into nearly a year, the money Kitty kept sending him for his return passage inevitably being used to prolong his stay. When he returned, his children barely knew him. The first thing he did was paint them. The painting still hangs over their mantel. I have seen it many times. Kitty, a resentful Madonna with the twins in her arms, surrounded by the other two children, beautiful as angels.

His wanderings became a pattern. Ugo would disappear and reappear without warning, leaving an unfinished canvas on the easel. A cigarette burning by the sink where he washed his brushes. The phone would ring, and people—gallery owners, surprised women—would complain that they had an appointment with him, and he never showed. Europe, South America, New Mexico. Kitty knew it would do no good to hide his passport. Deny him money. He would find a way. Once, he worked his way to Morocco on a tramp steamer.

She endured his absences, daubed at the paintings she tried to make, opened her home to artists and writers, critics and choreographers. There were parties, lectures, buffet suppers. The rooms blue with smoke. Sometimes the sweet smell of marijuana. It was a time when everyone drank to excess. Bins full of empty bottles were hauled out to the curb the next morning by the maid. A critic for the Voice once fell down a flight of stairs, and to everyone’s amazement got right up and staggered away into the night. It was obvious to most people that Kitty was not a great painter, but everyone agreed on her charm. She was sexy, long-legged, and busty. Her laugh was irresistible. As was her hospitality. She took lovers. Some of them Ugo’s friends. Her children helped pour the drinks and clean the ashtrays. It was a better education than anything they could learn in school.

To the children their father was a wizard, a djinn who could fly over mountains. He would send them letters, lavishly illustrated, from his journeys. Poems in many languages. Packages wrapped in brown paper and clustered with exotic stamps would arrive from time to time, filled with strange candy, costumes, enormous seashells, or, once, the complete skeleton of a fruit bat. He could perform magic tricks, pulling cards or coins out of ears. He tore dollar bills into pieces and made them whole again. Read the children’s futures in coffee stains, promising them all long, happy lives and prophesying fame and fortune. When he was home, they knew to leave him alone while he worked. The door to his studio was closed. But when he emerged, he took them for long, rambling walks down to the docks, where he would converse with sailors and stevedores in one of the languages he spoke. They were never sure how many. Was it four or five? Did dialects count?

They would sit quietly by his side while he drank with friends in bars or visited other painters’ ateliers. The afternoon sunlight slanting through the window. The children doodling on napkins, talking quietly among themselves. Their bond unbreakable. Everywhere they went it was obvious that people were happy to see him. And because they were his children, people were happy to see them too.

Occasionally, he would take Kitty’s car and drive them out of the city even though he didn’t possess a license. To the beach, to the markets along Arthur Avenue, to find baby goat to roast in the backyard, to fish for striped bass along the Hudson. Some days it would get too late, and they wound up spending the night, sleeping in the car if they didn’t have enough money for a hotel. He was a terrible driver. The kind who gesticulated with his hands and looked at his passengers to make a point or tell a story. Everyone agreed it was a miracle he never killed himself or anyone else. Once he forgot to put gas in the car, and they all had to return to the city in the back of a milk truck.

Ugo was also a cook. Kitty, like many rich girls, was not good in the kitchen, nor did she care about food. An old black woman named Mamie came in every day to clean and cook for the children. Fried chicken, stew, spaghetti, lamb chops. When Mamie wasn’t there, Kitty would burn TV dinners for the children. But their father created marvelous meals. Traditional fish stew, of course, but also whole cod with raisins and pine nuts, fricandó, a kind of pizza called coques, loin of pork that melted in the mouth, tuna escabèche. Telling them the names for the food first in English, then in Spanish, and last in Catalan, so it would stay with them. “This is esqueixada de bacallà, this is escudella.” While drinking wine, he would sing and tell jokes. He taught the children how to chop garlic, how to tell when snails were cooked, how to look at a fish’s eye to know if it was fresh. He had deals with the butcher, the fishmonger, the grocer, the liquor store owner. He would trade drawings for food and drink, flirt with the waitresses and the shopkeepers’ wives. Kitty would press money on him, but he would only pocket it, preferring to barter. So many fish for a drawing of such a size, so many bottles of wine for a painting. It was an inexact but virtuous math.

Unsurprisingly, the marriage didn’t last. Kitty and Ugo were divorced in the early 1970s, although life carried on much as it had before given Ugo’s long absences. They remained friends. He would still return to his wife’s houses, still cook for his children, even occasionally still make love to his now ex-wife, assuming her latest boyfriend didn’t object too strenuously, and he would still depart without warning.


Before the divorce, every summer for five or six years when the children were very young they would all accompany Ugo back home to Catalonia, to the village on the Ebro where he had been born and where he still had much family. There he would be welcomed like a returning celebrity, bringing presents of duty-free whisky and American cigarettes bought with Kitty’s money. Donkeys and chickens wandered in the yard, where lunch was eaten outside underneath an arbor, the scent of lemon trees perfumed the air. The tables were rough, wooden. Cesca and Carmen, as girls, helped to cook and serve while the men sat and joked and played botifarra, Kitty insisting on sitting with them.

There were always picnics, expeditions to the ruins of a nearby castle sacked during the Peninsular War, and fishing trips for mackerel and bonito. Later, they would spend a few days in Barcelona. A visit to a favorite restaurant, where one of Ugo’s paintings hung on the wall. A tour of the galleries. Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. Drinks along the Ramblas. Once, a bullfight, but never again because it made Aurelio throw up, and Kitty forbade it. Late nights with the children in tow, Carmen asleep on Cesca’s lap in a nightclub while their parents danced.

Ugo knew people everywhere. Once he led them up in the hills above Nice to visit friends who owned a restaurant in Saint Paul-de- Vence where another of his paintings hung next to a Léger. Trips to Paris, where they would stay with other friends of his who lived in the Marais. Another time they visited London, where he took them to the Tate to look at the Turners. Many trips to the Prado, the Louvre, the Uffizi. They all agreed Spanish painters were the best, followed by the Italians. Miró, also a Catalan, was the greatest of them all.

Every winter Kitty took the children skiing in Gstaad while Ugo, who did not ski and had no interest in learning, remained in the house on Perry Street to paint. He continued to use the studio even after the marriage was over. It was a relationship that may have puzzled other people in a similar situation, but there was very little that was conventional about any of their lives. They enjoyed the kind of freedom that only the very rich, very creative, or very selfish can ever know.

Girl in the Moonlight
by by Charles Dubow

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062358332
  • ISBN-13: 9780062358332