You are not alive unless
You know you are living.Amedeo Modigliani
The bed is empty beside her—she feels the emptiness. He’s been with her less lately. She knows he’s back to drinking. He was with her last night, but then he left. What time was that? She scours her memory—did he even return? When she was out with her mother yesterday, she thought she saw Cocteau slipping into a café, the tail of his charcoal-black long coat clinging to his heels. She wondered if her mother had noticed. The baby had kicked right then, as if it had known its father sat inside drinking red wine.
She has been writing him letters, keeps them in a red-colored box underneath the bed. She doesn’t know why she writes them. Once she thought about mailing one. She pictured him opening it, and she imagined a bright smile making his face happy with surprise. But she knows she won’t mail them. Or at least she thinks she won’t. Nevertheless, to pass the time—her pregnancy having laid her up for now—she continues writing. When he is painting her, she told him in her last letter, “I’m like a lost vessel treading water.” Then she crossed out the line, feeling it inadequate, trite.
Now, she pulls out the letter, reads what she has already written.
2 February, 1918
From the beginning I have been yours. Please, always remember this. Do you remember our first meeting, in Paris, along the Boulevard Pasteur? It burns in my memory like yesterday. I believe you sat on the lap of a harlot. Or was the harlot nested in your lap? Some details do escape me. She wore a blue-checkered dress, torn near the waist. That I do remember. It surrounded her breasts—they were quite small—like a tight-fitting mitten. Her nipples were very erect. The pale skin of her face, caked with a thick layer of makeup, and an even thicker layer of white powder, gave it a ghostlike affect. Her eyes, thinly lashed, were heavily lined, ash-black colored. The lips were childlike, extremely narrow, and vibrantly red. She was diminutive in stature, almost like a Kewpie doll. Did you not take her home with you that night?
That night I had escaped my mother and father and sat in the corner watching you and the others. I sipped a glass of absinthe. You had become raucous later in the evening—I doubt you remember—and accidentally jostled my table. “Mademoiselle,” you said. “I’m sorry, Mademoiselle.” And then with a twist of your head, continued your oratory.
Dearest Modi, when you’re not with me, I’m like that glass, teetering, unsteady—I’m like a lost vessel…
She comes in, hardly knocking—her mother—like a whisper, an admonishing whisper. She smiles at her, but Jeanne doesn’t smile in return. Instead, she feels a curious mixture of anger and contempt. She unhurriedly folds the letter, keeping her finger ensconced in the middle. “You’re awake,” her mother says, glancing at the letter. “And how do you feel this morning, my dear?”
“Oui?” Her mother pulls on the edge of the covers to make a flat place to sit. “Are you writing a letter?” she asks.
“Yes. To Papa.”
“Oh. Good. I can mail it later when I go to the market.”
“I can mail it. I may go with you today.”
Her mother frowns. “Do you think that wise, Jeanne?” The doctor—“
“The doctor,” Jean interrupts, “said when I’m ready I may do a little walking. I’m ready.” “Well.” Her mother glances over to the other side of the bed.
Jean pauses, then says, “I would like to get dressed now, Mother.” She feels her mother’s hand move toward her, though it doesn’t move at all. And a moment passes, maybe more, before her mother gets up and leaves.
She thinks about going back to the letter. But she feels drowsy again, and she lies back,drifts off to sleep, and begins dreaming. She sees Amedeo lying on a bed, dead, or nearly dead. He—they—are back in Paris, in an unkempt room, his studio perhaps. There is a strong odor of turpentine and oil paints. Others have just left: Picasso, Cocteau, Soutine, and she is alone with him now. The sun is coming up—a ribbon of light, looking like a large crystal juts over her lover’s face, angles up the wall behind the soiled bed. She thinks about calling a doctor. But he has steadfastly refused to see a doctor. She kneels down beside him, holds his hand warmly and firmly.
Outside, on the street, she hears a cart, and a vendor barking out names of fruits and vegetables. Before going out to ask the vendor for an apple, she grabs the letter he has written. It lies on the table beside the door. Outside, she sees the old man with the cart has already reached the top of the hill, the noise of one of the cart’s wheels going clump, clump. She opens the letter, reads:
Maybe I didn’t see the clear signals coming my way, but it seems only yesterday that I arrived in Paris. You were only a child then—I hesitate to say you still are. But that would be unfair. I’ve never second-guessed my life. So I’m not going to start now. And except for that one time, I have no doubt you were as true to me as any woman was to a man. Any other misdeeds by either of us, as far as I’m concerned, belong in that heap of forgiving pile, which accumulates honestly in any relationship. I guess what I’ll miss the most, besides not seeing my poor mother, Eugenia, again—God, I was a miserable son—is not painting you one more time, Jeanne. I…
She wakes, shudders at the vividness of her dream and lies still, cool, and afraid, long after her mother has knocked and left a tray of croissants and coffee. She stands, steps into her underpants, walks over to the mirror and views her swollen belly. Though she is not one to pray, she does so now, naming every person she loves, her father included. She says a special prayer for the French soldiers fighting in the countryside. Then she washes her face, dresses warmly, and goes out in the streets to look for him.
16 May, 1918
You have just left, sweeping out the door, jauntily heading down the Rue de Anglais. I want to follow, but you tell me to stay put, take care of myself. Taking care of me is all I do now. Drying on the easel, the painting of me looms otherworldly. Your colors are changing, becoming bolder, and starkly contrasting one another. This ocher-colored sweater you have me wearing surprises me, set against the red-orange of the ladder-back chair and the rich red of the chiffonier. My hair protrudes above my head in beehive fashion, like an emboldened carrot. My face, only slightly angled this time, looks straight at you, though the pupils are clouded over. Why these colors, Modi? Is it Nice that has brought them out in you? Please tell me. Most of all, tell me what you think when you paint me. Please.
Just then the baby kicks, and Jeanne feels for it, rubbing her stomach. She moves to sit down on the only piece of furniture in the studio—a decrepit-looking divan with one arm missing. On the floor, next to the divan, she pours a glass of water from a pitcher, drinks thirstily. She takes in the painting again. She is not sure of the dark-blue blouse. It contrasts too starkly against the bright red fichu. Should she tell him when he returns? This morning everything had seemed so wrong. Amedeo and her mother had quarreled, picking up from where they had left off only the night before. She would like to tell her mother to go back to Paris; she has in fact, but her mother doesn’t listen. And Jeanne knows, what with the baby due in several months, she needs her here.
Still, Amedeo has moved to his own place now, farther up the hill. Sometimes she can hear the noise drifting down as he and the other artists stay up late into the night. If it weren’t for the baby, she would be there with him, though she knows he wouldn’t allow it. If she could be anywhere, she would be with him.
Before he left, wiping his paint-stained hands on a soiled rag, she had wanted to ask him how he saw her. Reluctantly, she held her tongue.
14 June, 1918
I have had another phantasm; I wonder if I should ever share them with you? Sometimes you seem so distant to me. You paint me, and then you’re gone. Later you bring in a painting of a peasant boy or girl. I see their faces. They’re confused. Tell me, do you frighten them? This last one, sitting in the corner, still wet; the girl with the blue eyes looks red-faced, as if she had just been reproached about something trifling. Remember, Amedeo, you’re to become a father.
I have taken to drawing you, even as you paint me. Sometimes I doodle all day your figure one after another. Tiny drawings that I stare at for hours at a time. I miss my days at the Academi Colarossi. It was there that we were introduced. A friend pointed you out. There was a nude model at the front of the class. You kept your eyes on her—I know I watched you—for fifteen minutes, then you sketched her in a matter of seconds. Afterward, you asked me if I’d ever read Baudelaire. Or Pound? Joyce? I confessed I hadn’t. And from memory you recited “Beauty” by Baudelaire, keeping your eyes closed. Some hair had fallen over your forehead, and I felt a pull to brush it aside with the tips of my fingers. I imagined the texture of your hair to be thick as oil.
“Mademoiselle, may I draw you sometime?” you asked.
I nodded, and you handed me the sketch of the nude, signed “Dedo.”
“A family nickname,” you said.
I still have the sketch. I keep it in my red box. The model’s head is turned as if in contemplation, inwardly searching, yet aloof. All your work seems this way to me, Amedeo, your figures, including me, are both connected and disconnected. The fevers have reached Nice. I’m afraid to go out, but I do. I can’t stay in this oppressive apartment, cooped up with Mother. I wish you would take me back to Paris.
She regards the sketch of Modigliani doubtfully. She knows she has inadequately captured her lover. She begins another, but then stops suddenly. She leaves her letter unsigned.
In the morning he is gone. She rolls over to the part of the bed where he has slept. Any warmth has long left. She had spent most of the night staring at him as he slept. Now, she rubs a fluid-filled foot over his side of the bed. Her entire body feels bloated. And, though she has not admitted this to anyone, not her mother and, least of all, to Modigliani, she feels no connection to the life growing inside her. She longs to be free of it.
Last night, awakened by a loud clap of thunder, she removed herself from bed and tugged a chair near him. She studied the sleeping Modigliani ruefully. She knew he longed to be back in Paris, strolling the streets of Montparnasse. Nevertheless, the warm weather in Nice had improved his coloring. His face was less pale, fuller somehow, marked by an almost clairvoyant twist of the mouth. He had seemed happier the last few days, dabbling (that’s what he called it) in some landscapes. But yesterday he had come back from visiting Renoir’s estate, which overlooked the sea, in a huff. “He’s an imbecile,” he had said. “Buttocks my ass,” and then laughed at his own harsh curse.
Suddenly, while watching him sleep, there was a flash of lightening and Modigliani awakened, opening one eye toward her. There was no startling response. He sat up; instinctively reached for a half-drunk glass of wine he had left on the floor beside the bed. He hesitated, waited for another flash, and then grabbed for the glass, knocking it over when his hand shook. The glass didn’t shatter; it made a clink sound then rolled across the wood floor. Jeanne felt a stream of wine touch her bare foot.
“What are you doing?” Modigliani asked.
“I’ve been dreaming of Livorno.”
“The canals of Venice. I miss them.”
He got out of bed, searched for the fallen glass. Suddenly there was another flash, and Jeanne observed Modigliani standing by the window, his stark-naked frame, unlike his face, looking tired and emaciated. He located the glass in a corner and poured from a bottle of wine retrieved from on top of the chiffonier. He raised his glass.
“A votre saniti!” he said, coughing. “To the baby.”
“Come back to bed,” she said.
12 September, 1918
This is the poem I wrote about you yesterday.
The smooth wetness of your
ankle at dawn.
The brush of hair upon
my face in the morning.
My image on a blank
canvas looking back at me.
The baby kicking—
the baby moving—
the baby crying—
In a twirl of paint
my love swells
like the fret of time
lost in contemplation.
After the birth—a difficult one—which sapped her energy for months, Jeanne comes out of it feeling hazy and lost. During that time, she imagined the baby was someone else’s and she, driven by a sense of come-to-rescue, was a close sister or young aunt. Instead, she ended up hiring a wet-nurse. At times she watched her daughter, named Giovanna by Modigliani, suckling at the woman’s breast, eager in her hunger, while she, Jeanne, regarded her namesake dispassionately, indeed pityingly, as if struck by a veil of numb-inducing ether. Now, months later, she regards the infant and her new pregnancy not as a reason for joy but more shove and tug between her and Modigliani, who has returned to Paris.
While her mother is at the market, Jeanne searches through her mother’s chest of drawers, discovers a drawing of Modigliani tucked under her lingerie. She takes the drawing, a self portrait, to her bedroom. She can’t recall how her mother came to have the drawing. The picture is of Modigliani as a child. The background is his father’s library. There is an outline of a desk, Amedeo’s small hand upon it. Amedeo had told her once that he was the only one in the family allowed into the library. Not even his mother was allowed to enter.
In the morning when she feels the cold settle like something in a swamp, teeming with things unseen but alive, Jeanne ponders her next letter. The lid on the red-colored box is no longer collapsible. The tarnished clasp broke months ago and now the letters protrude out like the vestiges of a history forever lost. Once, when her mother was looking for a baby toy, she found the letter-stuffed box and asked Jeanne, “What is this?”
“That’s private,” Jeanne said.
“J’en ai plein le dos!” her mother said, dumbfounded.
2 February, 1919
There are days that I’m convinced I will never see you again. If you’d only write. How hard can it be, Modi, for you to take a little time to jot down a few words and tell me how you spend your days? I long to be in Paris. Nice has become insufferable. And Mother…
Jeanne stops and puts down her pen. Giovanna is crying in the other room. She fights the urge to yell out. But soon the baby is picked up by the wet-nurse. “Shh,” she hears the wet nurse say. “S’il vous plait.” If it wasn’t for the baby, the war, and now the flu, but she quickly dismisses the thought. She picks up her pen and resumes writing the letter.
Giovanna is crying for you, Amedeo. Sonja, the wet-nurse, goes to her while I sit in my room, unable to move. Sometimes I feel like walking out and not returning, leaving Mother and Giovanna, and walking all the way to Paris. I picture your face as I walk in Rosalie’s Café, your face tight with concentration, and the surprise in it when you look up from your sketch. Would you be happy to see me?
Yesterday I sat on a bench and closed my eyes and rested a bit. I had escaped the house while Mother was at the market, leaving Giovanna with Sonja. There were children playing in the park, some with masks around their little faces, and I listened to their muffled, animated voices and exhortations. How happy they were in their simple game of feeding and chasing the pigeons! The adults would chastise them. “Leave the pigeons alone,” they would say. “They’re nasty.” But the children would laugh, watching as the birds fluttered and flew away. I recall the happy moments I spent on the grassy fields at Jardin du Luxemborg. Father used to chortle—he had such a high-pitched laugh—“Catch the white ones.” Once, I surprised a lovely snow-white bird. I grabbed it and pulled it out of the mass of flying feathers. Giggling, I said, “Look, Father, I caught him, I caught him.” I ran up to Father, holding the lifeless bird out in front of me. “See,” I said.
Father had been laughing, but he suddenly stopped. “Put the bird down, Jeanne,” he said. “But I caught him,” I said.
“Yes. Put him down.”
Gently he took the bird from my hand. “Because it’s dead,” Father said.
The baby has stopped crying, and Jeanne hears her cooing. The wet-nurse talks baby-talk, and Jeanne listens a moment, but she can’t make out what is being said. Then she hears a suckling sound, and she knows Giovanna is nursing.
Yesterday, while in the park she remembered smelling narcissus. She had picked a few flowers and rubbed the pistil on her nose, streaking it with yellow. When the time comes, and she knows it will come, though she doesn’t let her mind think about it, she will plant flowers upon his grave, perhaps some fleur de lys, Modigliani’s favorite. She thinks about how the turf cutter will split the earth above Modigliani’s grave cleanly and sharply, how the soil will feel moist and heavy, how it will stick to her hands when she tries to brush it off. Her own grave, she thinks, will have grass growing, tall grass, uncut grass sprouting tassels and blowing in the wind, sending seeds in the currents. She thinks about telling Modigliani that she wants to visit his mother in Italy; that she needed to see her granddaughter. She thinks about telling him about her latest dream, how she feared for her and Giovanna, how she hated lying down at night. It felt so real she wants to tell him, unthinkably real. It is this fear that musters her to write.
Modi, in my latest dream—I fear it is my last—I felt the wind rushing by me. I felt winged, like a bird. The experience was captivating and frightening at the same time, and I wondered if I hadn’t shouted out. But surely Mother would have awakened me?
I felt heaviness in this dream, too, as if something was weighing me down. This feeling of being air-born and weighted down, simultaneously—I can’t explain it. In the morning upon awakening, I actually felt where our first baby had come out, wondering if the second wasn’t already pushing to be free. But nothing was amiss, only my loneliness from missing you.
The other day it came to me to go down to the sea. I rented a carriage. The day was so beautiful. The driver passed by the park where I had seen the children playing only the other day. He stopped momentarily so I could buy a bag of peanuts from a vendor. The pigeons were gathered in the empty pool. I tossed them the peanuts, one at a time, and they’d peck at them with their sharp beaks. One was accidentally hit in the head by a peanut, and the driver laughed. “Good shot, Mlle., Hébuterne,” he said. “Oh,” I said, and then laughed as well.
It wasn’t long before I wished you were there with me. I asked the driver to turn around, to take me back to town. But just as he had the carriage heading in the direction from which we came, a man tried to stop the carriage. He fought to control the horses, and the driver yelled at him to get away, but he wouldn’t listen. He looked feverish. He was begging for money and kept yelling about the end of the world. Suddenly I noticed the stacks of coffins in the streets—how had I missed them before?—and I began immediately to regret my decision to come out. By then I could smell the salt in the air. We were near the Paillon River. The river was swollen from recent rains.
“Did you hear that?” the man yelled.
“What?” the coachman asked.
“A wingbeat. A splash.”
“Get away,” the coachman said. “Are you crazy?”
Breathing heavily, a boy came running. Breathlessly he said, “Down there. Just now. Someone jumped into the river. The river took them under.”
P.S. I’m afraid end-of-the-world fever has begun to set-in.
14 February, 1919
You see, Modi, I am full of indecision. As in my last letter when I told you of my trip to the sea and before I got there I wanted to turn around. Without you near me I am unsure of myself. The dead in Nice keep piling up. I’ve seen bodies outside of buildings, just lying there, inert like frozen sides of beef or fish. How can people do that to their loved ones? I can imagine Soutine being here and painting them. What do you see in him anyway?
At least the war is over.
When I was nine, I think I first saw your work. Some drawings of yours hung in the window of The Art Gallery, along the Rue du Delta. I do not recall what brought me to that area of town because it was a run-down place with grubby, smeared windows. Nor do I remember with who I was with. There were three pictures in the window; they hung from rope with wooden pins. I could see a man in the background; he was busy at a table. I remember thumping the panes of the window, and him looking up from his work. He smiled, showing a mouth with several teeth missing.
I’m convinced the drawings were yours. How do I know this? Each of the drawings was signed, but I do not remember noticing the signatures. What I do remember was that they were pictures of female heads. The heads were large with elongated noses and narrow, closed eyes. These figures were looking inward, as if they did not know they were being drawn. Or, if they knew, it did not matter. I wanted to touch them, feeling a strong desire to trace their lines. At one point this feeling overwhelmed me, and I pounded on the window. The owner, startled, came to the door. But he was speechless. He wore a green-and-white jacket that had a dark-brown stain near the lapel. He wasn’t an old man. In fact, there was a sparkle to his eyes—they were quite blue. He shooed me along again with the brushing of his arm. But I stood my ground and pointed to one of the drawings, holding out five francs. He rushed in and snapped up the drawings and, to my surprise handed all three of them to me, taking the money out of my outstretched hand.
Unlike now, I was sure of myself then. From the beginning, I’ve known I can’t live without you. Should you die before me, I will surely die as if I have been struck with fever and shoved out a window to be collected by some poor city servant.
Dearest Modigliani, I still have those drawings. Years later, after we had met, I pulled them out and saw your tiny handwritten signatures. You failed to dot your eyes.
Robert Wallace has published fiction in The Bryant Literary Review, The NC Literary Review, and The A3 Review, amongst others. He is the author of the short-story collection “As Breaks the Wave Upon the Sea,” which was published by Main Street Publishing Company in 2021. His novel, “A Hold on Time,” was published by Paper Journey Press in 2011.