Read Alena: A Novel Online

Authors: Rachel Pastan

Alena: A Novel (5 page)

BOOK: Alena: A Novel
12.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“I’m sorry.”

“Please, just
to me. I’m asking you to help me. Just listen, all right?”

I nodded.

“I can’t make the party on San Giorgio tonight. Obviously. I need you to call and tell them we won’t be there. All right? Can you do that? Make sure you explain that I’m ill, I don’t want Alonso to think I just didn’t . . . I need you to make sure he gets the message. Make sure you speak to Wendy. That’s his assistant. And make sure she
him, how’s that? Say Louise said she sends a thousand apologies—
mille scusi
—how’s that?”

“Yes,” I said, but she held up her hand again.

“Don’t. Just, please, help me.” Her eyes glowed angrily in the dim room, and her voice was full of pain. “The ice has all melted, and the tea is cold. Could you please just see if they can send up some soup? I don’t want them to knock. Have them send it up to you, and then you bring it in. Don’t knock, just bring it in. Can you do that?”

I nodded.


“Yes,” I said, keeping my voice low.

“My God, I should think so.” She rose from the bed and shuffled across to the connecting door, stopping suddenly with a hand on the knob.

“Where were you, anyway?” she asked. “You look damp.”

“I just thought I’d get a breath of fresh air.”

“In the

“It’s such a beautiful city,” I said, “even in the rain. It’s just a wonderful opportunity for me, being here in Venice.”


Louise was still ill. Or rather, she was differently ill—sitting up against her pillows, makeup gleaming, wearing a bed jacket. I had never seen a bed jacket in real life, and I looked at it with interest. It was robin’s-egg blue and trimmed with lace, tied loosely over a pearly nightie through which Louise’s heavy breasts were just visible, like the shadowy shapes of fish in a murky pool. “There you are,” she said when I came in, summoned by the bright blare of the telephone. “My head—I can’t go out! The sun would flay me. The best thing is rest, my doctor says, and even in Venice one must obey the doctor’s orders.”

“You’re looking better,” I said. Her face was animated, her glance sharp, her voice no longer tense and shrill.

“No, no,” she said irritably. “I feel terrible.”

What did she want from me? “Should I send down for coffee?”

“Cappuccino and rolls. No, not rolls, a
. They can send it right up.”

I picked up her phone to place the order:
“Due cappuccino, e due cornetto.”
Should I have said
? I was glad she hadn’t wanted rolls, I didn’t know the word.

“Some people will be stopping by,” she said, rearranging herself on the balustrade of pillows.


“In a little while. Of all the terrible luck—to not be able even to set
in the Arsenale!”

The coffee arrived. I took the tray from the young woman and carried it to the bed, where Louise settled the plate of
onto her lap. “Nothing for you?” she said.

I had expected April and Sarabeth, maybe another middle-aged woman or two, but somehow Louise had organized, from her sickbed, a party. Around noon fists began rapping on the door, bottles emerged from purses and plastic bags—prosecco, gin, Campari, sparkling rosé—and Louise sent me down to the hotel breakfast room for glasses, for ice, for bottles of San Pellegrino and slices of lemon. A bald man in a beige suit sat on the bed and took Louise’s freckled hand in his, calling her
A plump man in a fedora had brought a secret ingredient in an unmarked bottle and was mixing drinks he called “Biennales.” Sarabeth took out her cell phone and started dialing: “I know it’s early for a party,” she said to everyone she reached. “That’s the beauty of it!” With the heavy blinds shut and the soft lamps draped with scarves, it was possible to imagine that it was night rather than early afternoon. I stood by a window with a glass of San Pellegrino as the room filled up, trying not to look miserable. Although the blinds were drawn, a few dim wavelets of watery light slipped in around the edges, poignant emissaries from the world outside.

“Open the door,” Louise said.

I thought she meant that someone needed to be let in, but when I checked, there was no one in the hall.

.” She had a way of pronouncing perfectly innocent words as though they were aspersions. “The connecting door. Please!”

“But that’s my room,” I said stupidly.

“Yes. And we need the

I stood still, squeezed between a woman in green speaking German and a man holding a full glass in one hand and an empty one in the other, waiting for my mind to work out what to do.

Louise groaned, a groan of exasperation rather than of illness. She seemed to have made a full recovery there on the bed, leaning like a sultaness against her berm of pillows, a drink sweating on the bedside table, the rim of the glass smeared with that purplish red. “Please,” she said. “Please just do it, how about that?”

I moved blindly toward the connecting door, glad the crowd would make it hard for her to see my face. I turned the knob and the party surged through, though the narrow space of my little room couldn’t hold many of them. A man with a cowlick sat on my bed and lit a cigarette. “I’m Miguel,” he said. “I came with Meredith. Great Biennale, isn’t it?”

“It’s my first, actually. I don’t have anything to compare it to.”

“Did you see that field of umbrellas made of snakeskins?” he asked. “That was something.”

“No. Which pavilion was that?”

“Portugal. Portugal is always wonderful! Countries emerging from fascism always produce great art.”

Someone had brought a small CD player and a burst of music rose over the din. The admirer of postfascist art stood up and began swiveling his hips, his cigarette between his lips, ash floating to the rug. He grabbed my hands and pulled me toward him in an energetic two-step.

Louise was calling. Her voice snaked its way through the laughter and the marimbas. I pulled myself free of my dance partner and pushed back into the other room. Half a dozen people were lounged across Louise’s bed, one couple kissing, their hands in each other’s hair. Louise’s eyes were bright. “Ice,” she said. “Would you please?” She held the metal ice bucket aloft, causing the loose bed jacket to fall open. Her hair brushed her shoulders, and she sat up very straight, looking vaguely like the Statue of Liberty with an ice bucket instead of a torch. Her flushed face glowed in the veiled light, and her gaze was hotly imperious. The man lounging next to her stared through his black-rimmed glasses at her breasts, quite visible through the skimpy nightie, his drink tilting, and Louise twitched her shoulders like a fisherman twitching a line, making the twin lures bounce.

I took the ice bucket and fled.

In the lobby, I dropped the bucket on the concierge desk. “More ice for the
in room 402,” I said, and then I pushed out the front door and onto the street.

The sun was out. The sky was a searing poignant blue overhead as I walked quickly toward the vaporetto stop, then rode the boat down the green canal. It was wonderful to be out in the open air. I began to wonder whether I could have dreamed the wild carnival that was Louise’s party. What did it mean that a woman like her—stout, solid, staid, old—could become, in a Venetian hotel room, a wild sylph? Did everyone have that in them—that naked pagan under the clothes of their civilized persona? Even people, I wondered, like my upright, steadfast Wisconsin parents? Even me?

At the Arsenale, I wandered through the rooms in a daze not unlike the daze in which I’d wandered the streets of New York when I first arrived in that city. How long the handful of intervening years seemed to me, and how different I felt I was from that girl from LaFreniere, Wisconsin, who got off the bus knowing nothing and no one. But of course, I was hardly different at all.

I wandered from room to room, past giant photographs on walls and spills of objects on floors and large sculptural things set on plinths. At first I couldn’t focus, the art was an undifferentiated river of color and form rushing past me. But slowly my feet and my heart and my racing brain slowed down, and then it was more like being on a raft, or in a canoe, paddling slowly through vivid shifting landscapes. In one room, Polaroid snapshots, each of a single flower, were arranged in circles on the walls, making bright, intricate patterns that looked like flowers themselves. In another room, a small tree grew out of the floor, its graceful branches hung with feathers, a white tutu around its trunk like a ballerina. In a third, an antique writing desk lay sprawled on its side on a faded Oriental rug, a video projection of a fire in its open belly, the sound of crackling wood playing over speakers. Each of these installations, performing patiently, seemed as though it had been waiting for me. Each made my heart ache joyfully, made that slow flame thrill up the golden fuse of my body. The world—people—might be beyond understanding, but others too had wrestled with that searing, opaque mystery, had spun it into this. I knelt down before the faux fire, warming myself at its flames. I stayed there a long while, faintly aware of time passing—the earth spinning through space like a skater—people crossing back and forth behind me like shades. My nostrils caught a faint scent: oranges and brine. A large shape settled on the carpet beside me, and a voice said, “People are starting to think you’re part of the work.”

I shivered, dragging myself back from one world to the other like a swimmer hoisting herself out of a pool. Bernard Augustin crouched on the floor beside me in a mist-gray suit with a pale orange pocket square and a cravat. His pant legs were hiked up, and I could see his socks—oyster-gray silk, calf length. I’d never seen such beautiful socks in my life. I blushed and started to stand up, but he stopped me with a hand on my arm. His hand was big and rough-textured and powerful, like the paw of a well-bred lion. “Don’t,” he said. “I was just teasing.” I could feel myself blushing harder—blushing because I couldn’t stop myself from blushing. “Didn’t you have brothers?” he asked.

I had two brothers, in fact, one now a successful agribusinessman, the other in real estate. They had teased me, yes, but with a stinging indifference as far from Bernard’s tone as their heavy woolen socks were from his silk ones.

“They were older,” I said.



“Ah, you’re the baby.” He released my arm and sat heavily on the rug. Before us, the fire flickered and crackled, cradled by rather than consuming its wooden hearth. I began to be aware of people slowing as they wandered past, staring—not at the fireplace piece, but at us. “Who is that girl with Bernard Augustin?” they would be asking. I wondered if somehow Louise would hear.

“How about you?” I asked. “Brothers or sisters?” Then, as he paused before answering, I remembered what Louise had said and wanted to sink through the floor:
They were like brother and sister
he and Alena

“One,” he said at last. The glowing shadows under his eyes seemed darker, like coals burning down. The ease he’d made for us had disappeared, unmade by my thoughtlessness.

“I should let you go,” I said.

“Are you holding me here by force?”

I didn’t know what to say. He sounded tired, as though his own responses wearied him beyond bearing. “I think you can do anything you want,” I said. “You’re Bernard Augustin.”

He laughed shortly. “It’s funny,” he said, “because I never used to be.”

“Who did you used to be?”

“Oh, nobody. I didn’t much like it at the time, though. So, you like the fireplace? Or did you just happen to fall to your knees here?”

“I think it’s wonderful.”

“Why?” He spoke so casually, glancing around the room with that slow, sleepy gaze he had, as though his attention were elsewhere, that I didn’t understand he was testing me.

I rattled on, confabulating: the evocation of the elemental, the paradoxical tension of the flame that could never consume, the antiquated cultural artifact of the wooden desk overturned but not destroyed, the sensual pleasure balanced with the intellectual statement, God knows what. My words seemed to gather momentum, spinning themselves into skeins, organizing themselves into sentences that fell shrilly on the air. This was the knack, the disembodied voice that lived like a twin inside me, that had helped me sail through school all my life, and at the same time isolated me, the subtle sentences a kind of sticky silk, cocooning me in a chrysalis of my own making. As I spoke, I felt myself grow cooler, as though the warmth of the faux fire were leaving me—the fizz of the burning fuse doused with the cold water of my own improvised erudition. I stopped in the middle of the sentence I was addressing to the middle distance and looked up at Bernard. “I felt something when I saw it. It’s hard to describe. Sometimes, when I look at art, it just—does something to me.”

He nodded, looking into the fire. “I’ve collected Gianna for a long time. She used to make these spiky flowers that were also lamps out of blown glass, white ones and pink ones. And burning bush sculptures from steel and LEDs. She just keeps keeping better.”

I didn’t know what to say. Hadn’t I known he was a collector?

“Did you see anything else today that did something to you?” he asked.

I knew he was teasing me, but I thought I might as well say. I told him about the Jauss ballerina tree and the Kikumura Polaroids. “It sounds ridiculous,” I said.
“I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”

“You seem to know quite a lot about art, actually.”

“No, I don’t,” I blurted. “Not really.” Usually I was guarded, but something about Bernard disarmed me: his bruised eyes and his pocket square and his semi-ironic formality.

“I won’t tell anyone,” he said. “Certainly not that woman you work for. The fainting one. How is she, anyway?”

The thought of Louise made me itch and squirm. “She’s made a stunning recovery.”

“You like working for her?”

“I like working in contemporary art. I like getting to come to the Biennale.”

“And in ten or twenty years? What do you see yourself doing then?”

“I’d like to be a real curator at a real contemporary art museum!” I didn’t dare name one. It seemed too presumptuous to say MOCA or MCA Chicago or the Menil.

“Even though you don’t know anything about art?” Teasing again.

“I think I have a mind for it,” I said shyly.

Like a flash of lightning, the smile Bernard gave me made him look different, like a different person—bright and sly and boyish, almost happy. “I’ll tell you a secret,” he said. “I think I do too.” He hoisted himself to his feet and held out his hand to help me up, and we walked together into the next room.

It was a small room, and dark, and it felt crowded although there were only a handful of people here. Against the wall, rows of glass shelves displayed a tightly organized collection of seashells—or rather, extremely realistic sculptures of seashells, also made of glass, clear and acid green and fuchsia and electric blue. We stood together in front of the installation. The more I looked at it, the less I liked it, it seemed so flashy and pleased with itself, self-consciously foregrounding its own contradictions. It made me think of another artist who also worked with shell forms, but in ceramic rather than glass, and in a different mood and color palette. Celia Cowry’s sculptures, which I loved, were glazed in shades of beige and brown, ivory and brick. She used skin tones, human colors, and her shells made me think of people turned to clay by an eccentric sea witch.

BOOK: Alena: A Novel
12.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes
Ebb Tide by Richard Woodman
Blood Challenge by Kit Tunstall
Black Monastery by Stacey, William
Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming by James Hoggan, Richard Littlemore
Creeping Ivy by Natasha Cooper
The Hum by D.W. Brown
Falcon in the Glass by Susan Fletcher
Urban Myth by James Raven