Chapter 1: Dinner with Bronzino
The windows of Provence were too high for her to peek inside. This was the best restaurant in Old Newport, where Jane saw elegant couples walk in and out on Friday and Saturday night on her way back from the Film Society. She would have liked to eat there tonight. She had almost suggested the place to Bronzino when he phoned her this morning, but it would have been too fancy for a dinner between colleagues, and she couldn't afford it anyway. As she passed the Romulus Café, a short black guy with a beard, whom she had already seen panhandling around campus, turned toward her. "Got a dime?"
She stopped, glad that she didn't have the reflex to say no, and took her wallet out of her bag.
"Actually," the small man said, "we don't need a dime but a dollar. We have ninety cents in coins," he added quickly, "could you change them against a dollar?"
A fat guy hidden in the shadow of a door moved forward, smiling, and handed her the coins in his large open palm. Some of his front teeth were missing. Jane took a bill from her wallet.
"That's fine. I can spare a dollar."
They didn't sound very surprised. They walked away. Jane laughed, guessing this was neither the first nor the last bill they got this way tonight. Maybe the first time they really needed a dime.
You should never despair: life was a constant movement of ups and downs, balancing each other in the end. For six years in Chicago she had eaten pasta and lived in dumps shared with other students, places with so little heat during the winter -- six months of the year -- that she had to sleep in socks and a wool stocking cap. Then came the light at the end of the tunnel, the dazzling offer from Devayne University, even though she wasn't any more intelligent than anyone else and she hadn't even completed her dissertation: a real job, with a real salary, in the best French department in the whole country, on the East Coast, one and a half hours from New York -- a dream, the beginning of a glorious life, happiness. She broke up with Josh, the boyfriend she had never really loved, moved to Old Newport, Connecticut, found an elegant and well-heated apartment with high ceilings, moldings, a working fireplace and a splendid hardwood floor made of large oak boards, bought a magnificent rug, a real bed and her first sofa, and started teaching at Devayne, where she had just now spent the worst nine months of her entire life, growing lonelier and more depressed from day to day.
Until three days ago. It seemed that there was no absolute negative: the lower you fell, the higher your spirits could go when pushed by just a tiny little thing. Therefore, the dinner invitation of an older colleague had filled Jane with joy. But it wasn't just any colleague: Norman Bronzino was a very famous critic, the star of their department as well as the director of the important Kramer Center for European Studies, which he had founded. All her fellow students at Northwestern (and Josh particularly) would have been astonished to hear that she was having dinner alone with him.
She arrived in front of the Pearl of Bombay and saw her reflection in the glass door: with the mascara that made her eyes bigger, the brownish lipstick and her styled dark hair falling well on her shoulders, her triangular face had something soft and pleasant in it. An Indian waiter welcomed her with a bow.
"I'm meeting someone."
"A tall gentleman? He is here already."
In the still-empty room, Bronzino had chosen a table as far away as possible from the bay window. He stood up as she walked toward him. He was as tall and thin as her father, and she decided he must be about her father's age, but he looked younger with his thin mustache and short brown hair, which perhaps he dyed. As usual, he was wearing a perfectly ironed shirt, a bow tie, and a classic beige New England tweed jacket, as well as leather shoes with rubber soles -- the only thing she didn't find elegant. His hand was warm and he held hers one second longer than necessary. She blushed and asked quickly: "Have you been waiting for long?"
"Not at all. I just got here."
He helped her take off her raincoat and gave it to the waiter, who handed them the menus. They sat down. He suggested they look at the menu first and he took out of his inner jacket pocket a pair of small rectangular glasses that made him look even more dignified.
Jane's stomach gurgled. She had eaten nothing since morning and had spent the whole afternoon cleaning her apartment. The waiter approached their table and poured water into their glasses from a crystal carafe. Jane drank a few sips of icy water and felt her empty stomach react with sharp pain. She put her glass back onto the table and stared at the menu without reading it. A sudden cramp almost made her gasp. This wasn't a hunger pang. She changed position and crossed her legs in the other direction, suddenly feeling pale and horribly tense.
Bronzino, absorbed in his reading, hadn't noticed anything. He closed the menu, took off his glasses and smiled at her. The waiter came to take the order. Jane took the first entrée on the page. It was also the cheapest, barely $7. She had $40 in her wallet but would rather spend only $10.
"Don't you want an appetizer?"
"No, thanks. I'm not very hungry."
He ordered an assortment of appetizers and an entrée of jumbo shrimps tandoori that was the most expensive dish. A man like him, of course, didn't pay attention to prices -- the privilege of fame and age. Hopefully one day she too would be able to live without counting pennies. At first, her $30,000 yearly salary (after living on $700 a month for six years, and nothing in the summer) had seemed huge to her. But after taxes, her monthly expenses and the students loans that she had to continue to repay for the next ten years, there wasn't much left.
"Red or white wine? With the seafood I'd prefer white if you don't mind."
"I don't drink, thanks."
Wine on her empty stomach would make her drunk immediately. Bronzino ordered a glass of Chardonnay.
"Thank you. It's from Israel."
"Have you traveled there?"
"No. It's a gift."
She blushed. He smiled. "So, how is your first year among us so far?"
"Wonderful. It's a pleasure to teach such intelligent students. And the library is amazing: I found an original edition of Madame Bovary which I could check out for the entire year!"
He nodded modestly, as if she were praising his property. "We're spoiled, that's true."
There was another noisy gurgling that couldn't have escaped Bronzino's hearing. By now Jane's stomach ached terribly.
She examined her fingers. "I should wash my hands. I was at the library, and there is so much dust on the books in the stacks...."
"I think it's near the entrance."
She got up and walked at a normal pace. The door of the women's room was barely closed before she ran to a toilet and fell on the seat. Her liquefied bowels dropped noisily. She tensed, terrified that someone could hear her. She flushed the toilet. The crisis wasn't over yet. Someone else walked in. 6:15. He was probably beginning to look at his watch. This was a marvelous start for a dinner she had been looking forward to for three days -- no, for nine months: her first real social outing since she arrived in Old Newport.
What had surprised her most was the absence of social life at Devayne. Professors had fifteen-minute lunches together at Bruno's Pizza, but there were no dinner parties. She expected to become friends with the two other assistant professors hired at the same time she was -- Xavier Duportoy and Carrie Martins. The Parisian Duportoy sounded fun and intelligent. Twice she had asked him for coffee and twice he was too busy. In November, at a time when she felt particularly fragile, she remembered that the only way to get rid of that oppressive feeling of loneliness was to go toward other people. She had invited Carrie for dinner. Carrie, a blond and serious young woman who also complained of the lonely and cold atmosphere at Devayne -- her husband was finishing a Ph.D. in California -- had accepted with such enthusiasm that things had started looking up again. But by canceling at the last minute, with a profusion of apologies but no suggestion for another date, Carrie had left Jane in an even deeper abyss of despair with a veal roast and a tiramisu that could feed ten people.
It was better to spend all evenings at home, working, without any risk of a last-minute change of plans. She couldn't even call her friends in Chicago. None of them had a job yet, so complaining about her lack of social life would have been indecent. Even with Allison it wasn't easy: Allison and John, at age thirty, were starting law school after finishing Ph.D.'s in literature, so they would be able to find jobs in the same city and earn a decent living. In fact, all of her friends were depressed: could it be a generational phenomenon? Or Flaubert's fault? Maybe her father, who couldn't see the point of doing research in literature, was right: literature professors were doomed to sink with the ship. Even Bronzino was a dinosaur. This thought made her smile.
The other woman finally washed her hands and left the restroom. Jane suddenly felt such pain that she thought she was going to faint. There was sweat on her hands, as well as her forehead and above her upper lip. She started moaning and bit her right hand. A second release followed. She felt better. She put her hand inside the metal toilet paper container. It was empty.
She searched her pocket; her elegant pants were just out of the dry cleaners. Not the smallest tissue inside her bag either, and she always usually had a pack with her; just the stupid bottle of whiskey she had bought on the way in case Bronzino came in for a last drink tonight. Since the other woman had dried her hands at the automatic air dryer, the situation seemed hopeless. Tears rose to Jane's eyes; she held them back because of the mascara.
She cautiously opened the stall door and peered outside. She exclaimed with relief when she saw a metal container above the sink, with paper towels inside. It was enough to make her bless the managers of Indian restaurants.
When she returned to the dining room, people were seated at tables near the window. She had been away twenty minutes. Bronzino had been served the appetizers. She was grateful he didn't ask her if she was all right.
"It's delicious. Would you like to taste?"
"Thanks. I'm really not very hungry."
His way of looking at her made her feel ill at ease.
"How old are you?"
"Twenty-eight. Almost twenty-nine."
"So young! All your students must be in love with you."
She laughed, embarrassed, and congratulated herself for choosing the suit with pants rather than the tight black dress.
"I have always thought," Bronzino resumed, "that there is no pedagogy without eroticism. This is not something you can say nowadays in this country, but it seems to me that one learns well only from professors with whom one is in love."
Jane thought of the blond boy who stared at her three hours a week in class with adoring Bambi eyes. During spring break he had sent her a postcard from his hometown. Indeed, he was her best student. But this wasn't something she could tell Bronzino. An older memory came back to her.
"When I was fifteen I fell in love with my French teacher, and in college I took French as my major."
"You see. Did something happen?"
"With your teacher."
"No! She was a married woman and the mother of two children."
"Not a Simone de Beauvoir."
He smiled. She had always seen Bronzino as so cold, reserved and dignified that she had never credited the rumor about a graduate student accusing him of sexual harassment a few years earlier. She wasn't so sure anymore.
"How are you getting along with everyone in the department?" he asked in a more serious tone, while bringing to his lips a piece of vegetable somosa that he had cut delicately. He was chewing discreetly, swallowing elegantly, and never speaking with a full mouth.
"Very well, thank you. Everyone has been really nice. Of course, they are also quite busy. At Devayne it's normal."
"I know. I wanted to have lunch with you for months and it's already April. Time flies by, especially in the spring semester."
He swallowed another bite and there was a silence. Jane silently reviewed the topics she had prepared to discuss just in case. Was it the moment to let him know that she had read all his books and particularly loved Beauty and Justice? Such an abrupt compliment might sound artificial.
"What about your new colleagues, Carrie and Xavier?" he asked. "Are you friends with them?"
"We are friendly, but I don't know them well yet."
"Carrie was my student as an undergraduate. She's an extremely bright and sweet young woman. I hope you get to know her better."
"I hope so too. Her schedule is quite hectic right now. Her husband lives in Palo Alto and she commutes there as often as she can."
Bronzino nodded. "That's right. It would be easier if her husband lived here or at least in New York, like Xavier's girlfriend."
"Xavier has a girlfriend in New York? I didn't know that."
"That's how we got him. He had another offer from Harvard. But we're closer to New York."
It went without saying that the Devayne French department was better. Jane smiled.
par"Does his girlfriend teach at New York University?"
"No. She's an actress."
Jane didn't add anything. Bronzino would think she was easily impressed -- or interested in Duportoy. She was actually relieved to learn that Xavier's reluctance to socialize with her was nothing personal: he just didn't have the time since he was commuting to New York. A waiter finally took Bronzino's plate away and brought the entrées. Jane was dizzy with hunger. Bronzino ordered a second glass of wine and started on his shrimp. She took a big bite of chicken curry and made a face. The sauce was much too spicy. She could only eat the rice.
"Did you find a nice apartment?" he asked.
"Oh yes. I was really lucky. The first place I saw in July. A first floor, but surprisingly bright. I signed the lease five minutes after entering the place: love at first sight."
She started describing her European-style apartment with enthusiasm, and then stopped abruptly, wondering whether she sounded like she wanted to attract Bronzino there. But he was listening with the same benevolent smile.
"Sounds like a nice place. Is it in a safe neighborhood?"
"On Linden Street, three blocks from campus."
"Good. Did you hear about what happened last Thursday?"
"I know; it's crazy."
A student's mother, visiting for only three days, had taken a bullet in the thigh as she was crossing Central Square, the small park at the center of Old Newport. At four in the afternoon she had accidentally found herself in the middle of a shooting.
"I hope you're careful, Jane."
"I lived for six years in downtown Chicago and nothing ever happened to me. I wasn't even mugged once. I never saw any weapons except at the movies."
"This is no joke, though. Last year a student was murdered on campus, right next to the president's house. Don't go out alone at night. Do you have a car?"
"No. I don't like to drive. It's a shame mostly because I love the sea and you need a car to get to the seaside."
"Yes. The coast is quite picturesque around here. Have you ever been to the national park half an hour away?"
"Someone should take you there some day."
Was this an invitation? She blushed and took her glass of water. Bronzino's hand reached for his glass at the same moment and brushed hers. His skin was so white and hairless that it was almost obscene. He had long fingers and a large golden ring on the middle finger of the right hand. She thought of asking him what the ring stood for, but the question would be much too personal. He ordered a third glass of wine. A bottle would have been cheaper, she reflected.
"You still don't want anything to drink?"
"No, thank you."
He was looking at her. Her lips and cheeks felt hot and as alive as if he were touching them. She lowered her eyes again.
"So tell me: why Flaubert?"
She looked up with relief. "Because of my father."
"Is he a literature professor too?"
"No! A dentist. He wanted me to go to law school and was furious when I started working on a Ph.D. in French."
"I always disappointed him. He wanted a boy so he could teach him how to play baseball on Sundays. He tried with me. I could never catch the ball. He yelled at me because I closed my eyes when the ball got near. The louder he yelled, the more tightly I closed my eyes."
Bronzino smiled. Majoring in French, Jane continued, had been her way to rebel against her father, even though he didn't realize that until it was too late. He had been so strongly against her doing the Ph.D. in French -- a mere waste of time and money -- that they had a terrible argument and he didn't give her a penny for six years. When she read Madame Bovary, she was struck by Flaubert's irony toward the hypocritical, boring and bourgeois French provinces, which reminded her of the green, conformist suburbs where she grew up and was bored to death. The pragmatic pharmacist Monsieur Homais in Madame Bovary, who could never have understood what Emma Bovary was longing for, and who was only trying to achieve some social success, sounded just like her father.
Norman laughed. "It's hard to be a father: children are pitiless. What are you working on exactly?"
"On Flaubert's 'muscled sentences,' on his 'virile'" -- she drew quotes -- "conception of style as a repression of the soft, the sentimental -- of the feminine, one might say."
"Interesting. I actually don't like Madame Bovary much. In every sentence you can feel that Flaubert repressed himself, don't you think? Maybe the trouble with him was that he was scared of the woman inside him."
Jane, who loved Madame Bovary and was hearing this judgment for the first time, struggled for something to say that wouldn't sound too stupid. Bronzino relieved the pressure as he glanced at his watch.
"We can discuss it more next time; I have to go."
"Sure! I'm done."
The two hours had passed by like two minutes. Her stomach didn't hurt anymore. He had put her very much at ease.
He turned around and waved to the waiter. The room was now full.
Jane anticipated what might follow. "Just five minutes," he would say after parking in front of her house. She should have bought a better Scotch, Chivas Regal or Glenlivet. Careful: he was her hierarchical superior, and he was not married. Fortunately she had never been attracted to older men.
He was looking at something on the other side of the room. Jane turned her head and saw a woman with long, Titian-blond hair and a perfect profile.
"Nice piece," Bronzino said in a connoisseur's voice.
Jane nodded yes, a bit shocked.
"At least a century old."
Jane looked again. Behind the woman a large rug with dark red colors hung on the wall. It gave the room a warm intimacy.
"Do you like rugs?" she asked excitedly.
"In September I bought a nineteenth-century Caucasian shirvan with an amazing combination of warm colors, all natural dyes. The purchase was totally unreasonable because I was penniless, but I couldn't resist. It has an amazing effect on me: just looking at it relaxes me."
"As you know, Freud hung Persian rugs all around the room where he listened to his patients."
The short, plump waiter put a black folder in front of Bronzino, who opened it and got hold of the receipt before Jane could say or do anything. He looked for his glasses in his inside jacket pocket and resumed: "I have a Canadian colleague who has such a passion for Persian rugs that he lives, sleeps, eats and works on rugs. So of course he is still single."
"As soon as a woman moves in to his place, she wants to introduce a table or a bed."
Jane laughed. He put on his glasses and started mumbling numbers. "Forty dollars and ten cents, add fifteen percent, that's about six dollars fifty, let's say seven..."
His way of reading numbers aloud embarrassed Jane, who wondered whether she should protest and insist on paying her own tiny part of the bill. Or was it more appropriate and more discreet to let him treat her and just to thank him? This was a professional dinner -- the department would probably reimburse the bill.
Bronzino looked up and said: "Forty-eight. That's easy: twenty-four each."
Jane's cheeks turned purple. She bent to the left, picked up her handbag, took the two $20 bills out of her wallet and handed them over without looking at him.
"Give me twenty, that's enough. Are you OK?"
"Yes, why?" She forced herself to smile.
"You're red. The meal was good, but heavy. Fresh air will do us good."
The waiter put two small plates in front of them. Bronzino frowned. "We didn't order any dessert."
"On the house. Just to try. Very good."
Jane looked at the sweet milky balls swimming in honey.
"It's nice of them," Bronzino said, "but I'm not hungry anymore either."
She put on her raincoat by herself while Bronzino was counting the change. Outside, he put out his hand for her to shake. "That was very nice, Jane. Let's do it again sometime. Do you want me to drop you somewhere? I have to warn you, my car is parked pretty far."
"Thank you, but it's not necessary. I'm going back to the library."
He didn't insist. She shivered as she watched him quickly walk away. It was cooler now. 8:15: a whole evening ahead and as much desire to prepare her class as to swallow a dozen of those sweet white balls swimming in honey. She would be even lonelier among the students dozing in the library's leather armchairs, or among the truly lonely ones trying to escape their depression at the Romulus Café. She walked slowly along Central Square, on the campus side, better lit than the park side.
"Got a quarter?"
The raucous voice right next to her ear startled her. The beggar was barely visible in the dark, his face half-hidden under his black sweatshirt hood.
"I don't have any change."
She stepped off the sidewalk.
"God bless you anyway! Have a good night!"
A long, loud honk made her jump. The car was zigzagging down the street, already far away. The driver had shouted an insult at her through his open window. With her gray raincoat, she was as invisible as the beggar in the dark. Her legs were trembling when she reached the other side of the street. Suspicious shadows appeared among the trees in the park. She started running. A drop fell onto her nose. Soon another, and then many. She had forgotten her umbrella at the restaurant. Too late to turn around. And it was, of course, a new umbrella.
Copyright © 2001 by Catherine Cusset