(Continued from Chapter 3, Ambition; to start book, scroll to “Chapters” in right side bar.) So many rules to keep track of in a kosher kitchen, Veronica thinks, elbow deep in last night’s dishes after dropping off Luc and Céleste. Meat has to come from certified animals, raised and butchered in a certain way. It can’t be eaten in the same meal as any of the creamy, satiating dairy products like cheese and butter that she still longs to melt onto burgers or slather onto every slice of bread. Since meat and dairy products must never touch, they require separate sets of dishes, washed in separate sinks. This complicates the simple chore of scraping Shake ’n Bake crumbs off plates crammed into the narrow “meat” side of the divided sink—a prospect that Veronica laughed off as trivial back when she and Didier were dating.
“To keep kosher, you must make sacrifices,” Didier said during one of his many trips to see her in New Jersey after they met. “Just like with any commitment.” They were standing on line for a table at the Cheesecake Factory, where Veronica had insisted on taking him for real American cuisine—forget the snooty, overpriced restaurants in Manhattan. He had just reminded her that he couldn’t share her all-time favorite appetizer: popcorn shrimp.
“No popcorn shreemp?” she laughed, poking him in the ribs. “How cruel. But it could be worse. At least chocolate’s not out.”
Months later, when they got engaged, Didier told her that marrying him would mean not only moving to France, but also keeping kosher. “Sultan, I will indulge your crazy whims,” she giggled, bending into a curtsy so deep that she almost fell over. What did a few minor dietary restrictions—or even a move to France—mean compared with the promise of a husband, a family, a future? Who knows, she might even lose a little weight. Besides, Didier’s commitment to keeping kosher didn’t stem from an impulse to go blindly through the motions of a habit he’d picked up from his parents. Au contraire. He’d given it careful thought over time. He’d even rebelled for a while in his twenties, dating a Catholic woman from Madrid who taught him to cook and savor garlicky langoustine and calamari tapas. He’d gorged on everything from prosciutto to mussels and enjoyed the crisp, greasy skin of a wild boar roasted whole over an open pit fire at a party on a farm near Lyons. When he told this to Veronica, he’d curled his lips downward and said, “Looking back, that was a very empty time. It was all about ourselves. Our desires and our pleasure. But without sacrifice, it is hard to sustain devotion and love.”
During the period of mourning following his mother’s death a few years later, he ate kosher meals out of respect for her memory and solidarity with his father and sisters. He also prayed daily. It helped assuage the pain. Like the fibers of an ancient tapestry, the simple, soothing repetition of these familiar customs wove Didier and his family together, connecting them with one another, with countless others sharing the same customs, and with something far greater, Didier sensed, than the sum total of history and humanity’s parts. He realized how lonesome he’d felt in his rebellion and vowed not to let this loneliness return. “Who knows,” he said the night he gave Veronica her ring. “If I had not started observing the holy days, praying and keeping kosher again, my life might have taken quite a different direction, and I might have never met you.”
He was right, Veronica thought. Of course he was; he was smart—a doctor. Not just any doctor, but the doctor—the soul mate—she’d always figured abstractly into her future. And he wanted to marry her! She’d be a fool to look such a gift horse in the mouth. So what if he happened to keep kosher and live in France? In France, she had learned, the vast majority of Jewish families kept kosher, especially among the hundreds of thousands from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia who had immigrated as recently as the 1960s and 1970s. These pieds noirs, or “black feet”—nicknamed in loose reference, some say, to the black-booted French colonists in Algeria—had never faced pogroms or deportations or concentration camps. They’d kept kosher right through the twentieth century, unlike the surviving European Jews, forced to abandon their traditions as a matter of life and death, and unlike their American counterparts, who’d let tradition slide because it was too easy to resist. Didier was a Moroccan Jew in France, a pied noir. Fate—or God?—had brought him and Veronica together. Keeping kosher came with the package, sacrifice or not.
Next chore this morning before Veronica can start painting: the layette mess she’s been promising for ages to clean up from the office floor. But when she steps into the office, her heart plunks to the bottom of her stomach. The doll-sized onesies and footsy pajamas she’s left strewn across the floor for months have been sorted, folded, and stacked in a hamper. Beside the computer on the desk sits a stack, just as neat, of medical journals and thick textbooks. From the multicolor Post-its earmarking their pages, it’s clear that Didier not only organized the layette after Veronica went to bed but also did a good deal of reading.
It amazes Veronica how Didier always manages to accomplish so many things in so little time. Simply cleaning up the layette mess might have taken her an entire day. Her sluggish pace irritates Didier, who whizzes around the house picking up the dirty pull-ups and empty juice boxes that she and the kids leave scattered in their wake. As he does, he mutters, “Mais comment peut-on être si bordelique?” meaning, “How on earth can a person be so sloppy?” This leaves Veronica painfully aware of her flaws, which suddenly seem like mountains that cannot be moved.
The mountains double in size when she unlocks the studio door. A pool of sunshine pouring through the skylight illuminates every object in stark detail: the spanking new drafting table without so much as an erasure clinging to its surface; a set of crude wooden shelves lining the back wall, stocked with a dozen canvases of varying sizes, all perfectly blank; and two easels, one empty, the other sporting an old sketch pad half-filled with drawings Veronica started years ago. She’s kept it there, open to a sketch in progress, in case Didier should come snooping, even though he’s promised to respect her need for privacy and stay out.
How careless of her, she fumes silently—how disgraceful—to have neglected this precious space. Since her days in art school, she’s dreamed of having a studio just like it. So what if it’s not in the sunny SoHo loft she once imagined? Like marrying Didier, it was a gift horse. In fact, the studio and Didier came hand in hand. After they got engaged, he told her, “Do not worry, Meess Popcorn Shreemp. If you move to France you will have the possibility to leave your job and paint. We will buy a house with space for a studio. You can paint every day. I will be proud to support you and see you succeed.”
Yet all this time, Veronica has been staring this gift horse right in the mouth. Even worse: she’s been kicking it in the foot. She’s let her studio go to waste, and with it, her talent—the very thing her mother always warned her not to do. After a while, waste disintegrates. Like the sound of a tree falling in a deserted forest, it makes you wonder: did it ever exist at all?
Maybe if she’d had a chance to clean up the layette mess, to ease slowly into a productive frame of mind, the studio wouldn’t look so daunting. But now she has to dive in cold. And she has no idea what to paint. Her incomplete sketches propped on an easel don’t inspire her at all. Flipping through them, Veronica gawks at how immature and awkward the lines appear. The sketch she started of the famous Fountain of Four Dolphins in the heart of Aix during her painting vacation five years ago looks more like an upside-down merry-go-round than a stone obelisk rising from a shallow basin supported by four ornately sculpted dolphins spouting water. She remembers abandoning it for a pastis at the café Les Deux Garçons with a couple of the other students from her class. Her depiction of potted geraniums spilling over the ledge of a window framed with wrought iron railings bears an embarrassing resemblance to a stenciled mailbox, and the study she began the day she met Didier, of a lionesque gargoyle spurting water into a fountain carpeted with centuries of moss, looks cartoonish. Distracted by romance from that day forward, she never got around to finishing it.
I’m going to have to do better than that now, she thinks, turning to a blank page and warming up by doodling a couple of unicorns pawing anxiously at the ground. And I’m going to have to paint a scene that Stella will love, something colorful, something fanciful and floral.
Wandering outside, she surveys the panoply of choices in her yard. A rustic composite of uneven, ash-colored stones forms the studio’s exterior walls. On one side, an old rose trellis left over from previous owners is covered with vines that neither Veronica nor Didier has ever tended, yet whose deep green leaves are beginning, today, to unfurl. Tight buds an astonishing, edible shade of tangerine poke out from the leaves. With the sun radiating a glorious amber aura and the sky a perfect shade of sapphire, even this simple scene would make a stunning canvas. It could be titled, Artist’s Atelier, Aix-en-Provence, Veronica thinks, wiping her hand on the leg of her coveralls. And when she’s famous, the plaque beside it on the museum wall can read, “Veronica Berg Benhamou, circa 2003.”
Her stomach lurches. She’ll never be able to get so much as an abstraction of this scene right. It’s too complex. Same goes for the view of the paved walkway in the front yard leading to an iron gate flanked by ceramic tubs of lavender in an early stage of bloom: too busy, too multidimensional for a first day back at the easel. Jasmine tendrils curl their way around the bars on the gate’s upper half, adding a tricky element of detail. Better stick with something simple, like a still life, which she can do indoors.
Dapper red poppies, the first of the season, speckle the narrow band of grass between the studio and the walkway. They look surprisingly cheerful for a bunch of weeds. Hastily, before she can change her mind, she plucks a few and arranges them into a sparse bouquet. Then, returning to the comfort of the contained space indoors, she lays the bouquet on the sill of the studio’s single, original window. Square and stout and wedged right beneath the ceiling, the window looks out onto a section of the peach stucco wall of the house, a few yards away. The edge of an apple-green shutter is visible against the wall. She steps back to inspect the scene. Poppies and Provençal Windows. Not the greatest, but under the circumstances it’ll have to do.
Feeling mildly nauseous, she pulls her stool up to the easel, lifts a pencil from its shelf, and strokes it across a blank page. The line she produces looks more like a squiggle than the outline of a windowsill. She turns the page and begins again, thinking of her old boss Brenda, who spent two years drafting and redrafting twelve simple illustrations and a five-hundred-word story. Producing art requires trial and error and time. After stroking her pencil just so, she steps back to examine her second line. No better. She turns the page once more and tries it from a different angle. Still no better. How many trials will it take? She wonders, tracing lines across page after page, over and over, frowning. How many errors? How much time? Almost an hour has passed, and she’s still taking stabs at this damn windowsill. She hasn’t even drawn a single poppy, and they’re starting to wilt. There are seven altogether. At the rate she’s going, it would take a miracle for her to get them all down on paper by the end of the week. Once the initial sketch is done, there’s no telling how long it’ll take to complete the final canvas.
After about a dozen more botched attempts to draw the windowsill, she wants to scream. She’s rusty and out of practice—a fact she didn’t consider when she decided to whip together a painting for Stella. The windowsill is grimy, the bouquet of poppies is meaningless and ugly. It was a bad idea. On top of it all, her stomach is growling, making it impossible for her to concentrate. It’s a little early for lunch, but maybe a break and some food will settle her nerves so she can begin again calmly.
In the kitchen, she slices open a baguette and fills it with a few thick slabs of brie. Taking her sandwich to the sofa, she sinks into its inviting cushions and flicks on the TV. The midday news shows France’s president, Jacques Chirac, behind a podium. His dripping, jowly cheeks, punctuated by the brown bump of a mole beside his nose, barely move as he speaks. From what Veronica can make out, it sounds like Chirac is saying something about using a veto to block UN approval of military action in Iraq. It wouldn’t have surprised her. Everyone in France opposes a war. A few days ago, on February 15, 2003, nearly fifteen million demonstrators marched through six hundred French cities, including Aix and Marseille, to protest military action. Veronica was glad that day that she didn’t have to go into town.
Her eyelids grow heavy. Most days, she’s got a good hour or so of energy after lunch before her body downshifts into neutral like a car and groans with fatigue. But the roiling emotion of attempting to paint, on top of a difficult morning with Luc and Céleste, has sapped her. The comforter on her bed upstairs, its duvet crisply ironed by Maria, beckons like the linens in a luxury hotel where room service has just turned down the covers and placed a mint on the pillow. Chirac’s face blurs into a sleepy smudge. His words blur, too, until they’re unintelligible, soft as the intonations of a lullaby.