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The Painted Kiss

Chapter One

Kammer am Attersee
October 21, 1944

When I left Vienna, I took one thing: a thick leather portfolio with a silver buckle. I departed quickly and had to leave many things behind. A rosewood cabinet Koloman Moser made for me. Twelve place settings of Wiener Werkst?tte silver, designed by Hoffmann. My costume collection. One of Fortuny's famous Delphos gowns. A pale yellow bias-cut satin gown by Madame Vionnet. Paul Poiret's sapphire blue harem pants and jeweled slippers. And the paintings. The most precious of all, they were too large and unwieldy to be taken on the train. And once I realized that the paintings could not travel, bringing yards of fabric, or a hatpin, or newspaper clippings and fashion magazines seemed ridiculous. What was I going to do, make a shrine of the remnants of my old life while the bolts of it sat in the closet of an abandoned apartment?

My niece Helene made the lists of things we'd need and packed up suitcases and went shopping for twine and woolen stockings and camphor liniment. I told myself that she needed to keep busy, that I was doing her a favor by letting her get everything ready, but that was just a lie I invented, an excuse for my empty-eyed catatonia. I couldn't have helped her because if I did I would have had to admit that we were actually going.

I stepped on the train as if I were going across town to deliver the portfolio to a gallery, and this second lie was the only thing that kept me from throwing myself onto the tracks. I was afraid I would die without seeing the city again.

"Since when are you so histrionic?" my niece said. She's my sister Helene's child, and her namesake, but sometimes she reminds me more of my other sister, the practical one, Pauline. "You're getting to be like Grandmama," she said. "We're not going far, and for all we know the war will be over in six months." She handed me a hard roll with a thick slab of butter in the middle.

The train was packed with sweaty children wearing coats on top of jackets on top of sweaters and women carrying lumpy bundles of teakettles and soup pots and knives wrapped in linens. The women were thin and grim, their faces gray. Though their outer layer of clothing was presumably their best, nearly all of the skirts were stained and frayed, and the children's jackets were patched with scraps that did not match and coarse dark thread that only accentuated their pitiable condition.

We rolled slowly through the city, past the suburbs and the outlying towns, stopping frequently to load more and more of these families onto the train. Each time I thought the train could hold no more, but then at each station I saw the crowd and knew that we would make room for them. They piled onto the luggage racks; they stacked like bowls on each other's laps.

We passed barren hills where grapes once grew. We passed muddy fields where hundreds of people camped, cobbling together whatever shelter they could from pieces of tin and newspaper. We passed the Army barracks. Trucks full of soldiers crowded the roads.

I gave my roll to a chap-cheeked child on the floor next to me. She put the whole thing in her mouth and seemed to swallow it without chewing. Her mother's fervent gratitude shamed me.

Five hours later our train arrived at our station, two stops east of Salzburg, and deposited us in our exile. I can't pretend that we are here for the summer: the clouds are gunmetal gray and the lake is icy cold. The birches are naked and shivering. Up in the mountains it is snowing.

I have been lonely for my things. I have so much time on my hands.

I keep the leather case inside a Biedermeier cabinet in my bedroom. My father loved Biedermeier the way he loved a well-made pipe. It stands there, so crafted and finished and correct, a reproach for all that I'm not.

Sometimes in the afternoons, when the path to the lake is too muddy even for me and the thunder rolls through the valley like mortar shells, or perhaps it's the mortar shells rolling through the valley like thunder, I can't really tell them apart, I take the portfolio out of the cabinet and lay it on the bed. The thick hide is scuffed and scraped and smells of the fiacres that used to line up beside St. Stephen's. It looks out of place on the lacy eiderdown that's been mine since I was a little girl. I look at it for a minute, run my hand over it as if it were a doe I've killed, then I undo the buckle and upend the case so that all of the drawings inside fall onto the bed. One hundred and twelve of them, to be precise. I sit there on the bed next to the pile and pick them up sheet by sheet. I make smaller piles, subsets, arranging them according to pose, model, date. I grade them on how much I like them and put my favorites on top.

All of them are different: some of them are drawn with charcoal and some with graphite pencil and some with colorful oil crayons. Some are the size of my palm and others are folded many times to fit inside the leather case. Some are on thick heavy paper with a nubby finish, while others are on thin slick paper that slides through my fingers and onto the floor. Some of the drawings are already dull and brittle and break in my hands like rotted lace.

Yet they are all the same, too, because they are all of women in various stages of undress. They are quick, casual, a few lines, without contour or shading, tossed off in a minute or two. Weightless women, empty, like figures in a child's coloring book. Here is a woman astride the arm of a divan, twisting her torso in a languorous stretch. Here is a woman wearing a high-collared dress and boots, reaching underneath layers of petticoats to touch herself through a gaping hole in her knickers. Here is another, a woman with a direct gaze wearing garters and stockings and a blouse. Here is a drawing of a woman lying on her back with her legs thrown to the side, her buttocks dominating the page as her foreshortened shoulders and head barely register as a mark.

I know all of their names, these women. There is Alma, and Maria, and Mizzi, and Adele. Some of them I knew well and some of them I passed coming in and out of the studio and some of them I never saw, but I have thought of them and heard of them so much through the years that I feel intimate with each one of them. I know their lives.

When I said the drawings were all the same, I wasn't being strictly accurate. One is different. This one is of a man embracing a woman, who turns her face toward the viewer with an expression of simple bliss. I keep that one at the bottom because it hurts too much to look at it.

This was all I could bring from Vienna, Gustav's drawings. He never thought much of them or took them seriously as art, they were preparatory, exploratory, they were plans, blueprints, mistakes. But now they may be the only things of his to survive, and I must curate them for lack of something more important or finished. I must scrutinize them and draw parallels between them and place them in a historical context for someone, someone in the future who might be interested. In the meantime they are mine, and I am alone with them, and I look at them to keep them alive.

I find my way to the bureau by touch and I light the oil lamp. I walk over to the dressing table and sit before the mirror. My hair is white but still thick and wavy. My features are not as sharp as they once were. An artist would overlook some folds in my chin and neck so as not to hurt my feelings. But my eyes are as piercing as they were when I was twelve. I pull the combs out of my hair, ivory combs that were once my mother's, that my father bought her in Venice, and let it fall to my shoulders. Crone hair, Helene calls it. She thinks that women of a certain age should crop their hair very close, like Gertrude Stein. She tells me this as she plays with her dark fat braid, touched with the faintest frost. I think when she is seventy she will feel differently, but I just tell her that when I am dead she can do with me what she likes.

The bristles of my silver-backed brush are yellowed and soft with age and their shallow nudging has no effect whatsoever on my hair and its tangles. I reach into the drawer and pull out a pair of scissors.

I could gouge my thigh cutting a hole in my modest underthings. The skin of my thigh is tissue-thin. It wouldn't take much to finish me off, a little puncture wound that gets infected, a little blood poisoning. Or I could slice the cotton fabric like I was opening a box. The cutout would fall to the floor like a paper snowflake. I could move back to the bed and open my legs, pulling the skirt of my dress over my hips. I could put my hand in the hole I've cut and rub my fingers up and down. I could arrange myself into the poses in the portfolio. If I did, perhaps Gustav would appear, in the red caftan I made for him, looking like John the Baptist. I would model for him in a way I never did in life, and he would draw me the way he drew the others.

But I don't do any of those things and Gustav doesn't appear. Instead I put the scissors back in the drawer, blow out the lamp, and crawl into bed. Perhaps in sleep I can return to Vienna, to the studio. Perhaps in dreams the drawings next to the bed will become more than dull scraps of paper.

Reclining Nude, 1888

It is a very cold afternoon in the studio, but the transoms must be cranked open to keep the turpentine and other chemicals from poisoning the air. Gerta, with bones as light as straw and pale flesh like paraffin, stands with her wrists crossed in front of her breasts, waiting for instructions.

Gustav doesn't see her nakedness. She hardly registers as a woman to him. He sees a taxing problem of light and dark, of geometry, of volume.

"Could you cup your breast? The left, not the right. Good. Now could you lie down on the pallet? Open your legs. Turn that knee inward. All right."

Gerta does these things without comment, with the patient boredom of women who make money from their bodies. He draws her over and over, knuckles and knees, elbows and stomach. She does two-minute poses and thirty-minute poses. Gustav turns the pages on his drawing pad again and again.

It is early afternoon but it is already twilight and he works feverishly to beat the encroaching darkness. When he can work no more he tells her enough. Her flesh is goose-pimpled and sickly pale, he notices. The flesh under her toenails is purple. She has become a woman again, more than a visual exercise and also somehow less. He climbs the ladder and closes the transoms. She pulls on her chemise, her stockings. She buttons her dress and ties her boots. It all seems like such a wasted effort to him.

Would you like to stay? he asks. She nods.

There is a bed in the corner and he leads her over to it. While he undresses she waits, her head propped on one narrow hand. He sits on the bed next to her and unbuttons and unfastens and unties until she is naked again. Then he draws his palm across her skin as if his hand were a brush.

Excerpted from The Painted Kiss © Copyright 2012 by Elizabeth Hickey. Reprinted with permission by Washington Square Press. All rights reserved.

The Painted Kiss
by by Elizabeth Hickey

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • ISBN-10: 0743492617
  • ISBN-13: 9780743492614