Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Jen George revisits Balthus’s painting Thérèse Dreaming.
In Balthus’s painting Thérèse Dreaming, a young girl sits, face turned to profile, arms up, elbows out, hands rested on her head, legs a little open, underwear visible—a sort of clothed, daydreaming, preteen odalisque. She is at home in her youth. She has the countenance of someone who knows other things are coming, eventually. Maybe she knows what, though she probably doesn’t. Not like she needs to—experience comes from being alone in the world, and with time. When asked about the provocative poses of preadolescent girls in his work, Balthus said, “It is how they (young girls) sit.”
When I first saw Thérèse Dreaming, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I stopped to sit. Maybe I’d been tired. I had been traveling cross-country with a counterfeit sixty-day Greyhound Ameripass—it allowed for unlimited bus travel within the U.S—and I had been smoking heavily and maybe not sleeping at all. I couldn’t stay all day in the Brooklyn apartment where I’d been sleeping, so most days I went to the Met, looking at art, spacing out, reading, sometimes staring at blank walls. It was inviting, the room and the painting. Thérèse’s skirt was like mine. My hair was longer. I liked her shoes. I liked that she was both in this room and not; she was dreaming, but I couldn’t see where she’d gone.
I spent my days at the Met mostly trying to forget that I was hungry and without money. I wasn’t dressed properly for late fall in New York. I wrote letters I didn’t send to an older man, an artist back in California. He’d tried to draw me once, late at night, but I couldn’t sit still because I didn’t know how. In the drawing, he’d rendered my face too young, somewhat elfish. He’d titled the drawing The Model Who Kept Moving. “I don’t look like that,” I’d said. “You don’t know what you look like,” he told me.
A week into my visit, walking south along Fifth Avenue after the museum had closed, I met an older man who was also walking. He asked me why I walked so fast.
“Where is your coat?”
He told me about New York, what the best places were, why the city itself was superior. “It is different and better if you have money. I can show you the other side.”
The letters to the artist in California were brief, hopeful notes, written with a vague intention that if sent, the artist would think of me. Maybe we could see each other in the daytime, I’d written.
“You should learn how to wear makeup,” the man on Fifth Avenue said as we neared Fifty-Ninth Street. He took me to get my makeup done at Bergdorf Goodman. We didn’t look at coats. At the beauty counters, wealthy women asked for creams, serums, masks, and lipsticks by name. I was made up heavily with blush.
At the rooftop bar at the Peninsula Hotel later, there were heat lamps. I asked for whiskey, but he ordered us martinis.
“You could be anybody,” he said. “The hotel owner’s daughter, for instance.”
I was young enough, or feeling the alcohol enough, to believe that I could be anybody, that a way to get through life was to believe that you’re a certain type of anybody whom things belong to, are for. I ate all the free nuts. People looked at us, probably because I was looking at them. Or maybe they were looking at my heavy blush. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to eat the nuts.
Later in the hotel elevator, he put his hand on my neck.
“Do you always go where strange men tell you to go?”
“No,” I shrugged.
“They might want to harm you. Maybe I want to harm you.”
“Well, do you?”
I told him a friend was waiting for me. He wrote his number in the journal with the letters.
A few days before I left New York, I took a friend to the museum to look at the painting.
“Does she remind you of anyone?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. His failure to recognize a similarity between the painting’s subject and myself created a sudden distance between Thérèse and me. I’d spent so much time with her, more than with any one person in the last month, that I had almost considered her the type of close friend that girls have in youth, when they want to look the same and dress the same and think the same, and often do.
I went back to the museum alone the day I was to leave from the Forty-Second Street bus terminal, trying to convince myself that I did look like Thérèse, that we had some quality in common. The gallery was empty. I sat looking at her, studying her face, trying to remember the ways we were the same. Thérèse didn’t reassure me, she didn’t acknowledge anything. She sat still in her pose, eyes closed, face turned away, her profile and underwear catching the light.
I was about six years older than Thérèse is said to be, but Thérèse Dreaming would be the image, the place, that stayed with me when I traveled west across frozen highways, on a series of busses, stopping at Greyhound terminals and gas-station food courts, sleeping next to older women and accidentally resting my head against their shoulders as they farted all night and played scratchers and talked to me about their families. I remember they all told me how young I was, asked me what in the hell I was doing. “I wanted to be alone,” I said. “I wanted to be left alone for a little while.”
Jen George lives and works in New York City. Her fiction has appeared in Harper’s, n+1, The White Review, BOMB, and The Brooklyn Rail. The Babysitter at Rest, published this month by the Dorothy Project, is her first book.