Excerpt from Book 1: Meeting Justine

            We ended up in Louis’s small, squalid apartment somewhere on the rue Blomet in a seedy little quarter far from the fashionable districts. Louis gave Roger no money but shared with us bread, cheese, and wine, and allowed us to play with his canvas and paints. While stuffing ourselves and passing around the wine bottle we collaborated on a painting, each of us taking his turn to add a dab of color to what was supposed to be a collective landscape. Louis and I finally collapsed with laughter as Roger staggered drunkenly up to the canvas and swiped at it with a brush, missing it entirely. “Now, wait a minute, wait,” he protested, turning to us with outstretched hands and Louis and I quieted, only to collapse again when Roger prodded the canvas with his brush and sent it crashing to the floor. 

Louis set the painting back on its easel and impulsively I pressed a piece of cheese into the oils. It stuck. Roaring with laughter, we broke off hunks of bread and found pins and bits of cloth and tried to stick them on as well, falling into suspenseful silence as each new piece was added, then bursting in to guffaws if it fell and applause if it stayed. Louis managed, after slathering on more of his expensive oils, to get a piece of a broken saucer to stay. I threw a glassful of wine at the canvas and we stood back to admire our dripping masterpiece. “The Last Supper!” Roger christened it, digging me in the ribs with his elbow. Falling into our chairs, we laughed until it was painful.

            There was a knock at the door. Wiping his face, Louis rose to answer it and was startled to see a strange young woman, very attractive, very fashionably dressed, at the door. “Why—hello,” Louis stammered.

            “Hello!” Roger chimed, climbing to his feet.

            The woman stood and looked at us for a moment without saying anything, her gloved hands clasping a white beaded purse in front of her. Her dark eyes took in our dishevelment, the food on the table, Louis’s finished paintings that were stacked against the walls, and finally came to rest on the dripping canvas with pieces of food splattered on and around it. Her lips parted in amazement; then she, cool and regal in her long white dress, studied us. Under her inquisitive gaze we shifted sheepishly. Finally she turned back to Louis.

“Must you,” she asked in a clear, soft voice, “scream like a bunch of savages? I could hear you outside as I was coming home.”

            “Oh, God. We’re sorry,” Louis said.

            “Yes, we’re barbarians,” Roger added, leaping forward to pull out a chair. “Do come in!”

            Louis ran a hand through his crimped hair, gazing at the woman in shy admiration. “We lost track of the time, I guess.”

            Roger, indicating the chair, asked, “Would you like some wine?”

            She stared at us another moment, then casually walked in, passing Louis, then passing Roger and the chair and me, and going right up to our creation. She stopped just outside the circle of refuse on the floor to examine the canvas carefully. We grinned as she again turned to address Louis. “Your work?”

            “Sort of a collaborative effort,” he returned haltingly. Roger gave him a look of encouragement.

            At that, she finally smiled. She had a beautiful smile, framed by her wavy short hair. “And—ah—” she asked, pointing with her toe at a big piece of paint-spattered cheese on the floor, “what exactly is the work? Just what is on the canvas or does it extend to the floor as well? Will you painstakingly catalogue each piece of soggy bread so you can recreate the effect exactly when it’s displayed in a gallery?”

            Louis was having a hard time finding his tongue. “Well, it’s not so much a work of art—”

            “More of a theatre piece, a one-act play,” I said, and that made everyone laugh. Over the woman’s shoulder Roger saluted me.

            Holding her skirt up from the puddled wine on the floor, the woman walked up to me. “Believe it or not, I was coming home from the Comedie Française when I heard you. Your performance appears to have been more…avant-garde.” She set her purse on the table.

            “Had I known we were neighbors, I would have invited you,” Louis said. He glanced at me. “I suppose we could repeat—”

            The woman shook her head, making her bobbed hair bounce. “No, thank you! But I would love some wine. My name’s Justine. Only Justine,” she added. We introduced ourselves, and Roger brightened as she sat in the chair he still held out for her.

            “Give us a chance, mademoiselle; we can be gentlemen,” he beamed.

            Justine smiled ruefully at him. She was extremely striking; a woman had to have perfect features to wear her hair in straight bangs and a simple bob as she did. As she slipped off her gloves her gaze settled on me and I smiled uncertainly, feeling suddenly timid. “I was rather attracted to the idea of savages,” she replied. “I’ve just spent a very tedious evening with these friends of the family that my mother sends to ambush me every month, and take me to dinner and the theatre—in other words, to keep an eye on me. God, I am so sick of the Comedie Française!” Louis filled some glasses from a new bottle, and Justine continued, “I’m sick of the opera, of Racine, of ballet, literature, polite chatter, good taste—and most of all, I’m sick of gentlemen.”

            “To savagery, then!” Roger shouted, and we raised our glasses. “To idiots, barbarians, thieves—”

            “Freeloaders,” Louis put in, nodding at Roger.

            Roger raised his glass to Louis. “To gluttons and libertines and illegal immigrants—”

            “Whores and concubines,” Justine added in her flawless French.

            “To false prophets, hypocrites, and tax collectors,” I offered, mangling the language.

            “To the untalented!” Roger offered.

            “To the stupid!” riposted Justine.

            “To ugliness and imbecility, everywhere!” Louis yelled, and we drank. Then Justine giggled as the three of us ran to splatter the remaining wine on our canvas. More food fell off, and when the piece of crockery hit the floor and broke, she clapped her hands. “Bacchus lives!” she shrieked, applauding. “Down with the Comedie Française, and up with paganism and decadence!” We burst into cheers that were suddenly cut short by a loud thumping on the floor from below.

            “Shit. Let’s get out of here,” Louis said in a low voice, and grabbed his coat from the floor. A man’s angry growl, unintelligible, jabbered something at us between the thuds, of which I only made out: “Third time this week! And if you don’t—” We ran out of the apartment and down three spiraling flights to the front door. On the sidewalk outside we paused to catch our breaths, and that man was still yelling at us from somewhere inside. He sounded like a caged beast. When Louis cautiously opened the front door again, we heard the man’s choice of words very clearly along with the sound of shoes ringing down the iron stairs. Louis swore, then caught himself and let the door swing shut, glancing apologetically at Justine.

            In disgust, Justine was struggling to yank her gloves back on while trying to hold both her purse and her cloak mashed against her waist with one elbow. “He’s making more goddamn noise than we did!” she cursed. I took her cloak from her before she could drop it. “And now I can’t go up to my apartment.”

            “Do you live near that tenant?” Louis asked her.

            Her gloves finally on, Justine took her cloak from me and whipped it around her shoulders. “Indeed I do! Believe me, I maintain a wide berth. He’s in the wrong neighborhood if he wants pastoral quiet.” Hearing this, Roger grinned at me over her shoulder.

            We retreated into the shadows of the street just in time to avoid being hit by the empty metal pan that was thrown out the door. It hit the sidewalk with a hollow clang. “You could kill somebody with that!” Louis yelled back, and received another string of oaths from the man before the door shut.

Roger said to Louis, “I hope we haven’t gotten you into trouble.”

Louis shook his head. “Forget it. Tomorrow he’ll drink himself into a stupor and mispronounce his own name.” Justine was nodding vigorously. “I do wish he wouldn’t be sober at midnight, though,” Louis added, giving me a wicked stare. I lifted my palms innocently. “Let’s go someplace else to make idiots of ourselves. I know where!” He led us down the sidewalk and in the growing darkness I offered Justine my arm.

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