The Light of Paris - Eleanor Brown

one

MADELEINE

1999

I didn’t set out to lose myself. No one does, really. No one purposely swims away from the solid, forgiving anchor of their heart. We simply make the tiniest of compromises, the smallest of decisions, not realizing the way those small changes add up to something larger until we are forced, for better or worse, to face the people we have become.

I had the best of intentions, always: to make my mother happy, to keep the peace, to smooth my rough edges and ease my own way. But in the end, the life I had crafted was like the porcelain figurines that resided in my mother’s china cabinets: smooth, ornate, but delicate and hollow. For display only. Do not touch.

Long ago, I might have called myself an artist. As a child, I drew on every blank surface I encountered—including, to my mother’s dismay, the walls, deliciously empty front pages of library books, and more than a few freshly ironed tablecloths. In high school, I spent hours in the art room after school, painting until the sun coming through the skylights grew thin and the art teacher would gently put her hand on my shoulder and tell me it was time to go home. Lingering under my Anaïs Anaïs perfume was the smell of paint, and the edges of every textbook I owned were covered with doodles and drawings. On the weekends, I hid from my mother’s bottomless disapproval in the basement of our house, where I had set up an easel, painting until my fingers were stiff and the light had disappeared, rendering the colors I blended on the palette an indiscriminate black.

But I hadn’t painted since I had gotten married. Now, I spent hours leading tour groups through the Stabler Art Museum’s galleries, pointing out the beautiful blur of the Impressionists, the lush clarity of the Romantics, the lawless color of Abstract Expressionism. As we moved between the rooms, I showed them the progression of the paintings, movement washing into movement like the confluence of rivers, the same medium, the same tools, yet so completely different in appearance, in intent, in heart. No matter how many times I explained it, it seemed beautifully impossible that Monet had been creating his gentle pastorals less than a hundred years before the delicious chaos of Jackson Pollock’s murals.

It was almost enough.

Usually Tanis took the older kids; she had four teenage sons and wasn’t afraid of anything. But she was out, and the other docents were booked, so the coordinator asked if I would take the group. I had hesitated for a moment—teenagers seemed scary and uncontrolled, all loose limbs and incomprehensible fashion decisions and bad attitudes—and then told him I would. Their teacher would be with us, after all, and she had requested one of my favorite tours, on artists and their influences.

When I met them in the lobby, I asked the kids their names and who their favorite artists were, to which they, predictably, reacted as though I were trying to get them to divulge state secrets. Their teacher, Miss Pine, was young and slender, with hair that fell loose around her shoulders, more knot than curl, as though she wound her fingers in it all the time. I—and most of the women I knew—wore slim sheath dresses with elegant scarves, an acceptably polite pop of color, but Miss Pine was wrapped in a pile of boysenberry-colored fabric that looked less like a dress and more like a collection of handkerchiefs that had been safety-pinned together. She must have been wearing bracelets or bells, because she jingled as she moved. Either that,