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Francine Prose

LIVING LEGENDS

At the end of the long list of specials, the waiter grinned and took a deep breath as if he had just walked a tightrope between two very tall buildings. The three people at the table had long since given up pretending to follow the recital of complex and unlikely ingredients, though they had stayed dimly focused on the waiter's cherubic face, or just past it, on the diamond in his ear, a tiny pinpoint of light that was proving as hard to fix on as one star in the glittering heavens. All over the peach-colored restaurant, light was fractured in droplets, beading up on the crystal and silver, on the glass vases of fleshy tulips and in the mirror over the bar.

There was an awkward hesitation: who would order first?

"I love your tie," said Irene. The waiter's shiny oversized tie insisted on being noticed: orange and green amoebae mating behind a thick swirl of piano keys.

"Genuine fifties," the waiter said. "Wanna buy it? Thirty bucks." He was serious. "I collect and resell them."

It was enough to make Irene go almost faint with paranoia. Was this the waiter's hostile little joke about their economic inequality, about their bill for dinner for three coming to more than he'd make all night? Well, he had a right to be mad, it was terribly unfair, but he was young and handsome and had a lifetime to progress from waiter to restaurant-goer. Even so, Irene wished she could somehow make it clear that she was an artist and not a rich person at all. She wasn't even paying tonight; Donald, her dealer, was taking her out to meet a young painter, Roxana Something-or-Other, the latest addition to Donald's gallery; she had specifically asked to have dinner with Irene. An evening with Donald and this girl was almost a public service: something Irene was doing for the new generation of women painters.

But why did the waiter imagine Irene might want to buy his tie? Did he assume she and Donald were married-and that she did his shopping, buying his ties off waiters? In fact, she and Donald had each been married three times, but never to each other; even when they were single, there was never a spark . . . they were so far from each other's type. Since his last divorce Donald's type ran mainly to twits like this little painter. How predictably he was heading towards becoming one of those sixtyish men with children the age of his brand-new wife and a shoulderbag full of diapers.

Irene no longer had a type. Instead she had a third husband, Victor, a virologist presently doing research in Paris; she'd last seen him six months ago when she went over for a show. Victor, too, had been married several times, the arrangement suited them both; they joked that at this distance the marriage might last forever.

Or was the waiter implying that Irene should be wearing the tie? She knew what people used to say about her: that when she walked, you could hear her balls clank. Well, that was what it had taken in those days to be a woman artist; just to be heard, your balls had to clank ten times louder than anyone else's . . . It wasn't like her, wasn't like her at all, to dwell on stupid remarks from waiters, nor to suddenly see her table as the waiter must see it: a well-dressed, slightly Boho older woman and man, and an arty Downtown babe.

"No thank you," said Irene, frostily. "You can keep the tie." The waiter's smile evaporated. He had been cheerful, thinking these people weren't the sort to do something unpleasant, to send back the wine or correct the French he was mostly faking, by mumbling. But now as he met Irene's level stare, he was no longer so certain.

Donald said, "Could you repeat the specials?" And now the waiter was being required to walk the tightrope backwards. He looked incredulously at the two women, as if asking, Does this guy mean it? But ultimately he seemed relieved to have to face this professional duty that would release him from the stand-off with Irene about his tie.

Irene sighed impatiently and said, "Oh, forget it. I'll have the salmon with sorrel. Blue-quivering-in the middle."

"Careful, toots," said Donald, who was happy tonight: two good-looking women, the promise of excellent food and wine. A sly, Mephistophelean grin played on his plump, bearded face. "You might want that salmon cooked through. If you get a brain parasite, it's bad news for the gallery."

Irene laughed. It pleased her to think that the gallery's health was connected with her own. "Oh, Donald, come off it," she said. "I was the one who used to eat the worm at the bottom of the mezcal bottle."

Donald put his hand over Irene's and turned to Roxana. "Irene used to eat the worm they put in the mezcal supposedly to suck up all the hallucinogenic toxins."

"Ugh," said Roxana good-humoredly and flashed a grin at Irene. Her expression was an unreadable mix: calculated and adoring. "How did it taste?"

"Vile," Irene said.

The waiter was still standing there.

"Roxana?" Donald prompted.

Roxana tilted her neat cap of iodine-colored hair, puckered her red lips and leaned forward with a twitch that managed to be both beseeching and dismissive. Her stretchy black Band-Aid of a dress showed an expanse of bare shoulder. Beside their milky whiteness, Irene felt like the Marlboro man, just as Roxana's syrupy chirp made Irene feel gravel-throated and hoarse.

Roxana asked, "What are you having, Donald?" Irene thought: I can't stand this. I can't bear it another minute.

"The loin lamb chops," Donald said. "Meat's the strong suit here."

"The salmon's excellent," said the waiter in the cafe's defense-and Irene's.

"What a drag," said Roxana. "Considering I don't eat meat."

"Spare me." Donald winked at her. "You're not one of those?" Roxana nodded and rolled her eyes.

"It is bullshit, you know," said Donald amiably. "I'd worry more about the people who worked in the factory making your dress than about the poor sheep-"

Roxana turned to the waiter with a crisp snap of attention. "Do you think it would be possible," she said, "for the chef to make me a grilled vegetable plate with some kind of wonderful olive oil? And a mesclun, dandelion green, forest mushroom and shaved Parmesan salad to start?"

"Sure," said the waiter, dubiously.

"Bravo," Donald said. "Make that three mesclun salads."

"I love grilled vegetables," Irene said. "I should have ordered that. There's an amazing little trattoria in Rome that grills eggplant with olive oil they press on the family farm-"

"Irene just had a big show in Rome," Donald said.

How well he knew her, Irene thought. He had felt her recoil from the exchange about the lamb chops and was trying to make it up to her by bragging about her career.

"I've never been to Italy." Roxana's pout seemed freighted with some secret meaning that Donald, smiling ruefully, decoded for Irene: "Roxana's work was being considered for the Venice Biennale, but her former dealer blew it and sent the completely wrong slides."

"The art world's full of flakes," murmured Irene. Her work had not, as far as she knew, been considered for the Biennale. She had to fight the urge to stop and make Donald tell her why not. He would have said: Two museums bought Irene's paintings this year, that was what really counted, no one even remembered what showed last year in Venice. He would say: you can't have it both ways. But that was what she wanted-her unappeasable hunger for everything had made her the artist she was. What had capped her reputation was her giant Venus Fly Trap series, her play on flower painters from Georgia O'Keefe, back through art history-her mammoth, voracious blossoms that looked ready to eat you alive. This was the work the feminists "rediscovered" in the seventies, though they eventually fell out of love with Irene when, as she explained it, she preferred being in her studio to traveling long distances to complain about why women never got anything done.

"To future trips to Italy," Donald said, and they all clinked glasses.

"And Berlin," added Roxana. "That's where I want to go next."

They toasted Berlin, and then Irene said, confidently, "It will never mean the same thing for people your age. You will never feel the shudder we feel when we think about Germany. It was very different when we used to go to the movies and in the newsreels before the feature watch the Nuremberg rallies-"

Roxana said, "At least your generation thought you'd still have a planet to paint on."

"You're right!" Irene said. "You're absolutely right!" She liked it that the girl thought about the planet, though she hoped that it wouldn't lead to another discussion of vegetarianism. It occurred to her that, in some circles, expressing concern for the planet was ritual politeness, like some Japanese custom in which status was expressed through bowing. She also hoped this wouldn't segue into some awful competition about whether living at the time of Nazism and Hiroshima was worse than watching the death of the planet.

"Apples and oranges," Irene said. "But things were always pretty tough . . . " Before she could continue, the waiter brought their salad plates. Irene impaled a sheet of cheese as thin as the skin you might peel off a sunburn. Its pleasant sandpapery roughness melted in jets of oil and salt. It was impossible to explain to this girl that food like this, restaurants like this, were never part of an artist's life. How naive and fantastic the past seemed now: black turtlenecks, rent parties, vats of chili for a hundred.

"Some things haven't changed at all," Roxana told Irene.

"You wouldn't believe how many guys still believe you need a penis to paint with. Not that I'm a feminist-there's so much bad women's art. But that's why I was so eager to meet you. The fact that you've hung in there and kept at it all these years, you're like an icon for us. A piece of history, a living legend . . . "

A living legend! Irene thought. Priceless! Really, priceless! She noticed that Roxana hadn't said one word about wanting to meet Irene because she admired Irene's paintings.

"I'm afraid I'm not familiar with your work," Irene said. "I never have time to keep up with what's new."

"They're appropriations mostly . . . " Roxana said. "Quotations from other artists . . . highly theoretical."

"Theory will be the death of art," Irene said, yawning lightly.

Donald said, "Roxana's work is very witty and smart and technically elegant. Most of the sources she quotes from are sentimental eighteenth-century painters." Why was Donald stepping in to explicate Roxana's work? Wasn't the purpose of this dinner to bring the two women together? Donald loved having to mediate and resolve some vague friction between them-like a Sultan making peace between wives, or King Lear between daughters.

Now Roxana faced Irene and bestowed on her that fierce attention she'd given the waiter when she'd ordered her vegetable plate. "The point," she said, "is that the eighteenth century was light years ahead of our own age in terms of sexual anxiety and gender-role stereotyping. Just look at those nymphs and satyrs, those fleshpot woodland orgies, everyone groping everyone else, pure pre-Victorian, pre-AIDS polymorphic sexual pleasure. But the act of appropriation gives it a postmodern self-consciousness that alters the terms of the dialogue between the viewer and the object. . . ."

On instinct, Irene checked to see what effect this talk of groping and orgies was having upon Donald. His delight seemed so private, so naked; Irene was embarrassed to have seen it.

Donald cried, "Oh, those were the days!" and both women looked at him, startled.

There was a silence. Then Irene said, dully, "Sounds interesting. But I thought sex was no longer chic. I mean, I didn't know the young still had sex. Or thought about it much."

The instant she'd said it, Irene was sorry and longed to take it back. This poor girl had been trying to talk about her work, and Irene had turned it into a vulgar discussion of her personal life. That was something men did to keep from having to take women seriously. It was what you'd expect-what Irene had come to expect-from certain teachers in art school: how quickly discussions of the nude could degenerate into compliments on your breasts.

It was insulting to the girl and to Irene, as well. Most likely, the girl and her friends had plenty of sex. It was Irene who didn't. She had tried living with Victor in Paris, and Victor had tried New York, but ultimately it hadn't worked out-this way was much better. She wondered about Donald. Once, at an opening, Irene had stood with a group of young women artists. It seemed that the joke about Donald was that when he wanted to sleep with you, he'd ask you out to dinner; specifically, he'd ask you out for some "fancy French eats." One woman said, "Isn't that just the grossest thing you've ever heard in your life?" She crooked her finger into her mouth and gagged, and the others laughed.

This silence at the table went on till Irene thought it might never end. How far would Roxana take it?

"Who knows what anyone does between the sheets," Roxana said, opting for mercy and social grace.

"Who wants to know?" asked Donald, with a conspiratorial grin, excepting himself and Roxana from the mass of people with unappealing sex lives one would rather leave unimagined.

Inside Irene's mouth the salad greens were changing into wads of string that took great surges of courage to swallow. Restaurants like this one hid their Heimlich maneuver signs. Suppose she choked and didn't die, but sustained some damage from oxygen deprivation, and had to depend on Donald and Roxana to get her to a hospital. Someone would have to call Victor. How long would it take him to get here? How absurd it had been of Irene to come tonight, to have succumbed to this pitiful flattery: a fledgling artist wanted to meet her. Irene, who herself knew just how much flattery could accomplish!

"Roxana," she said, "I don't know if you realize how incredibly lucky we are to have snagged the very best dealer in New York City. Donald was showing women when no other gallery would touch them."

"I'll drink to that," said Donald, and once more they touched glasses.

"I must say," Roxana confessed to Irene, "that your association with the gallery was one of the things that helped convince me to go with Donald."

"Why, thank you," said Irene, unsteadily. It struck her that she and Donald were drinking way more than Roxana. Nowadays artists went to gyms and didn't drink and stuck to low-fat diets.

"I've always loved women," Donald said.

Irene said, "Truly, he has."

Donald said, "Irene and I have a history that goes back thirty-five years, back before she was a famous painter and I'd sold a single painting. Back when I was a starving artist and she was a not-so-starving artist's girlfriend."

"Were you two ever . . . ? You know," said Roxana.

Donald laughed. "Not hardly! We've always had a sibling thing. The very first time I met Irene I thought: Why, she looks just like my sister! Years later I met Irene's brother, and I was knocked out by how much he resembled me."

"What does your brother do?" asked Roxana.

"He's dead," said Irene.

"Coronary," said Donald. "Brrr."

"I'm sorry," said Roxana. She was watching Irene carefully; even in this she was learning. "How did you two meet?" She kept the conversation alive, politely but without much interest, as if she were their child, steeling herself to hear some tired anecdote from their courtship . . .

"Actually," said Donald, "we met through. . . ." And he mentioned the name of a famous painter, recently deceased.

"You're kidding!" Roxana's interest perked up. "Talk about living legends!"

"Oh, not that again, Donald," Irene said. "Please."

"He and Irene were an item," said Donald.

"You're kidding!" Roxana repeated.

"The first time any of us met Irene, she was just this head of long dark hair necking with him at the Cedar Bar. And then they left the bar and he just vanished from the scene for, like, two or three weeks, and he wouldn't answer his phone or go out or talk to his dealer or teach his classes. It became a kind of joke. We'd hang out on the street near his studio, placing bets on when they'd finally get out of bed and venture into the light of day."

"Amazing!" Roxana gazed at Irene more raptly than before, as if to fathom what she'd had to keep the great man in thrall for weeks.

"Yes, sir," Donald said proudly.

Irene was also amazed; this was the first time she'd ever seen sexual boasting on someone else's behalf. Of course, it struck her that Donald was really boasting about himself, about having lived through a time when people were taken by sudden, wild passions. Perhaps he had felt called out by the girl's speech on eighteenth century art, or perhaps this was his version of woodland nymph-and-satyr orgies.

"What was that like?" Roxana asked Irene. Irene smiled, charmingly. "I really can't remember." The others laughed, but it was the true: she really couldn't remember. She recalled the artist's whiskers scratching her face as they stopped and kissed in doorways all the way home from the bar. She remembered that being in bed with him seemed so much simpler than being in public: one person instead of many, no jokes to worry about not getting, feeling welcome and not having to wonder if it was time to leave.

Roxana said, "That must have been a little weird for you, when you knew they'd been in bed for weeks and then you saw she looked like your sister."

Donald gazed at her, uncomprehendingly. "How strange he's dead," he said at last. "You thought that guy would live forever."

"It must be strange," Roxana said to Irene.

"It is strange," Irene said. She'd lost count of the people who died this year-no close friends, thank heaven, but people she'd known since art school and not all of them from AIDS. It had left her a bit rocky-oddly enough, in a social way; the mood that occasionally came over her was at once strange and familiar: adolescent self-consciousness, like being thirteen again, at a party. She heard every conversation through a hum of possible meanings, and sometimes at the end of an evening-for the first time in her adult life-she feared that she'd said the wrong thing or that she'd been misunderstood. That was why it had bothered her so, that little exchange with the waiter. Who had said that the best thing about turning sixty was that you no longer cared? Whoever it was had lied to her-and how eagerly she'd believed it!

Irene sighed. "I always wished I was in a profession where you could sleep your way to the top. It was just my luck, that in our field, sex seemed to make it harder. I had guys actually coming around to buy my work . . . until I slept with them, and then their sole interest in me was in my having their babies and making gourmet dinners for their dealers."

"I'll bet that hasn't changed," said Roxana. "Has it?" she asked Donald. "Aren't guys, except gay guys, still more eager to help your career when they want to fuck you?"

Now Irene felt Donald cringe, and she remembered her suspicion that this meal was one stage in Donald's dismal and highly unprofessional attempt at seduction. And what did that make Irene's role in all this-part living icon, part pimp. Was this some seedy, art-world version of Dangerous Liaisons? She and Donald once knew a sculptor who had employed young women to lure young guys and break their hearts, and then the sculptor would move in, the comforting older male buddy. For years he had been the most evil man they knew; now evil meant actual killing someone or knowingly giving them a disease. This girl, Irene thought, could take care of herself. It was Donald who had to watch out.

Donald's head whiplashed back slightly. "I hate this shit," he said. "What's wrong with sex, anyway? I hate men having to feel guilty because we have desires."

"Oh, you shouldn't!" Roxana said quickly. "No one's saying that at all."

"Men desiring women isn't the problem," said Irene. "Men hating women is the problem. Remember, a lot of men responded to my work with a very particular disgust that made us think they were confusing my poor flowers with giant female genitalia-"

Roxana cleared her throat, prettily. The waiter had returned.

He took the plates flecked with unsightly green shreds and replaced them with larger plates and decorative food. Irene's salmon had fins-and a smile!-of yellow and red pepper striplets.

"How are your vegetables?" Donald said.

"Primo," Roxana said.

Irene said, "My second husband was a cowboy painter, broncos and roundups and stuff-"

"A serious painter," Donald put in. "He still sells pretty
well-"

"A real guy-guy," Irene said. "So I thought, mistakenly as it turned out, that he wouldn't be threatened by my career. I really liked him for a while before it all went down in flames. I remember he used to say that he hated to be alone at night in a room with my flower paintings. He said there were two things you didn't want to do around my paintings. You didn't want to stop moving. And you didn't want to buzz."

Roxana laughed. "Mmm. Rough trade," she said.

"Exactly," Irene said.

Donald said, "Where was I during that husband? I don't remember him very well."

"We'd fallen out of touch," Irene said. "You weren't my dealer yet. But I do remember having dinner with you around that time, you were just about to get married-"

"Which marriage was that?" asked Donald.

"Don't expect me to keep up," said Irene. "Anyway, the wedding was a month away and you said you were going to invite me and my cowboy husband. So I was a little surprised when the invitation never came. Now listen." She leaned towards Roxana. "Later I heard from a friend that Donald was going around saying that he didn't invite me to his wedding because when he'd mentioned it, my cowboy asked if there were going to be good eats there."

"Good eats!" Donald's laugh was constricted. "Why don't I remember that?"

Another silence fell, a tense one. Irene hadn't forgotten the opening at which she'd heard the young woman laughing at Donald for asking them out for some fancy French eats. But she'd honestly never, until now, thought of the two stories as being connected. Had Donald asked Roxana out for French eats? There was no way of finding out, nor of ever knowing at what point he had changed from the snobbish petit bourgeois enforcing proper standards of English to the ironic, casual roue mocking his own dinner plans.

Donald swallowed a mouthful of food. "Everybody makes mistakes," he said. "Everybody grows-if they're lucky. What a middle-class little creep I was. But my big mistake was that wedding. If I'd been smart, I would have invited Irene and her cowboy and canceled the rest of the marriage."

"What happened?" said Roxana.

"To the marriage?" Donald said. "Damned if I know. I think it's built into the institution to self-destruct on contact. What I always hated most about marriage was how it tripled your chances for failure. You could fail, she could fail, you could both fail as a couple."

"I've finally got it figured out," Irene said. "The answer is: transatlantic. Married love a seven-hour jet flight away, you're spared the lonely single life-and the daily squabbles and irritations. If you ever get married, Roxana-"

"I am married," Roxana said.

Irene counted: One. Two. Three.

"You're what?" Donald said.

"Married," said Roxana. "You knew that. I told you."

"I did not," said Donald. "You didn't."

"I did," Roxana said. "You must not have heard. Besides, what difference does it make?"

Irene looked from one to the other. Both could have been telling the truth. Roxana might have told him, and Donald might not have heard. The main thing was, Roxana was right. What difference did it make?

"Who are you married to?" Donald said. "It's impossible I didn't know-"

"A doctor," Roxana said cheerily. "We've been married almost a year. I went to the emergency room with the flu. He was the doctor who examined me." She had given that word, examined, an ironic lascivious slur. She giggled, then caught herself and bugged out her eyes for a moment, and when she pulled her eyes back in, it was as if they just kept going further inward. She seemed to be drifting away from them even as she sat there.

"Oh help! I think I'm drunk," she said. Then she murmured, "Excuse me, please," and floated off toward the restrooms.

Donald and Irene watched her go.

"Well, I'll be damned," said Donald. Underneath his bemusement was a suppressed howl of disappointment, and the undertone of raw loss in his voice made Irene not want to look at his face.

"She doesn't dress like a married person," Irene said.

"A mixed-message queen," said Donald.

An uneasy hush fell over them as the peach light fogged in around them. Somewhere voices bounced off the walls, the watery echoes of swimmers. The tulips twisted like fat pink fists and their wrinkled leaves writhed on their stems, curling in the gathering cloud of perfume and wine and garlic. Irene told herself she should view all this as a positive sign: the fact that Donald's heart could still be broken long after he should have known better was the spirit of life, the spirit of hope, demanding to be acknowledged. But Irene was only human, human and therefore frail; it was asking far too much of herself to see this dreary scene so brightly.

Swaddled in pink cotton-candy light, she and Donald sat without speaking. Irene thought, with a plummeting heart: we might as well be married. But they had passed beyond that, merged closer than married people. They might have been a single creature, one of the tulips in the vase: a pale smooth goblet, a perfect flower with both male and female parts.

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