I held the restaurant door open for a young couple. “Thank you, sir,” the young man said. I followed, walking in late.

It was more than twenty minutes past noon. Twenty minutes past the time I was supposed to be there. At the service I’d lingered, said goodbye to a couple of pastors.

There were crowds of people in the restaurant. A bottleneck at the hostess station.

She already had a table so I slipped through. “Just walk straight in,” she’d texted.

I was looking down at a pair of shoes in front of me when I looked up and spotted her across the room. Dark hair. Skin like the half-hidden woman sitting among other women in Paul Gauguin’s painting, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Her head was tilted too. Had she just stepped from the rolling edge of a paintbrush soaked in lovely brown tones? She leaned a little to the left. Not talking. Maybe she just did. Or was about to. Her hair was as black as island darkness. Her lips were a splash of red-brown even from so far away.

Making my way past booths and tables I sat down next to her daughter. The girl wore a fabric pink flower in her just braided brown hair. She hugged me, gave me a kiss. “It’s been a long time since you gave me one of those,” I smiled.

She gave me a drawing. On it there were squirrels, trees, a beaver, a river, beetles. She’d colored it. I pictured her imaginirium surrounded by crayons and stuffed animals.

Across the table her mother’s lips looked as soft as I remembered. I looked at them and thought of a drink from a fountain, grapes, the moment thirst is broken by wetness. Flashes of dew drop kisses. Sprinklers wetting summer grass. Lips warm and soft rubbing across dry fingertips.

The girl’s mother pushed a small white plate of fried zucchini toward me. “You need to eat your vegetables,” she said.

A few days ago she knew I went on a twenty-mile bike ride. “I hope you stayed hydrated,” she’d written.

I spoke to her daughter and ate the zucchini. The girl nuzzled. “Will you make me a picture of the ocean like you did of the desert?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, soon having a stare-off with her mother across the table.

“Where did you learn that?” her mother said, returning the glare and then smiling.

“From you,” the girl whispered.

“I’ll draw you pictures of ocean life,” I soon said to the girl. I imagined sitting on a beach with a pad of paper, holding a sand crab flipped onto its back. My pen strokes would capture every detail.

Later we left the restaurant. I glanced at her mother’s dark shoulder. A ridge of delight. Taut muscles. Sweet curves so soft you couldn’t find a cloud more heavenly. In the Gauguin painting the very same island woman shows just a hint of shoulder.

And there she was, head cocked to the side, thinking—just like in the painting.

Just like in the painting where there are plants and animals and a wash of exotic uncertainty.

Just like in the painting where a mysterious blue island statue casts an eerie glow opposite from the woman.

When I got dropped off I hugged the girl and tried not to cry like I did in church.

I always do that.

Cry in church.

I looked over at the girl’s mother, said goodbye, closed the car door and turned away.

The lawn was wet. There were drops everywhere. Just moments before there must have been rainbows. I imagined them in the clouds, floating above an island of uncertainty and beauty.

As I found my keys I caught a glimpse of their car driving away.

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NICK BELARDES is illustrator of NYT Best-Selling Novel by Jonathan Evison West of Here (2011), author of Random Obsessions (2009), Lords (2005), and the first literary Twitter novel: Small Places (2010). An author, poet, and screenwriter for Hectic Films, Belardes turned TV/online journalist overnight after blogging his way to success. His articles and essays have appeared on the homepage of CNN.com and other news sites across America. You can find Nick on Facebook and Twitter.

16 responses to “Gauguin’s Girls”

  1. Beautiful post, Nick. I was right there with you the whole way. And such an interesting line to straddle. This piece had such a wonderful balance of the masculine and feminine. Not an easy one to pull off, brother. Keep up the great work.

  2. Zara Potts says:

    You know, Nick, I’ve never been a fan of Gaugin.

    Until now.

    You have transported his beauty to your words and made me see the loveliness between the lines. The lines of his brush and the lines of your pen.

    What a lovely piece.
    Lovely.

  3. Gloria says:

    Your ability to paint little snapshots of life in the most amazing detail never ceases to amaze and impress.

    I have never heard of that painting. I’m actually fairly unfamiliar with Gauguin’s work. Interesting.

    This is just really beautiful, Nick.

  4. Greg Olear says:

    Nice piece, Nick.

    I love Gauguin. We went to the Louvre on our honeymoon, and pretty much every panting there left us cold, mostly because it seemed like every single painting there was a crucifixion scene. Then we came upon a Gauguin self-portrait. It’s a close shot of his face…in the background is a crucifixion scene! We found it brilliant, like he knew, like he was feeling how we felt. Plus he has a cool ‘stash.

  5. Absolutely beautiful Nick.

    It’s one of those pieces where, if I was still trying to be a ‘serious’ writer, I’d get incredibly angry, crash my laptop and not write for a few weeks.

    Thankfully I only ever write lame jokes now, so I can simply enjoy this for the fine piece it is without incurring any jealousy.

    That’s bullshit. I’m still jealous I can’t write like this.

    Truly brilliant my friend.

  6. chingpea says:

    very sweet and beautiful.

  7. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    This is beautiful work! I love the correlation with the painting. It gives the small moment so many more layers, so much gravity.

  8. dwoz says:

    great study. The yellow of interaction with a child, against the blue ground of existential gravitas and implied past lives.

  9. Simon Smithson says:

    I was at an exhibition on the weekend – European Masters. I’ve never been exposed to a great deal of art before, and the one that gave me the shivers was a Picasso. I could have stared at it for hours; I wonder if you felt the same way about the Gauguin?

    It’s clear you felt that way about being in that moment.

    A fitting tribute, then, to the scene.

    Peace, brother.

    • Never seen a Gauguin in person. At least, I don’t think so. I was an art major part of the time in college. Then, while working on MA in history I studied that painting when exploring epiphanies among historians, including David Hackett Fischer, who saw that painting, and was inspired to write his seminal work, “Albion’s Seed.”

  10. Matt says:

    What a gorgeous, graceful piece of work, Nick. There isn’t a wasted word to be found.

    This paragraph, in particular, really jumped out at me: “Her head was tilted too. Had she just stepped from the rolling edge of a paintbrush soaked in lovely brown tones? She leaned a little to the left. Not talking. Maybe she just did. Or was about to. Her hair was as black as island darkness. Her lips were a splash of red-brown even from so far away.”

  11. Jude says:

    “Had she just stepped from the rolling edge of a paintbrush soaked in lovely brown tones?”
    What a beautiful description of this woman…You paint her with such lovely words. Gauguin would approve I’m sure.

    I do.

  12. Judy Prince says:

    Super-sexy, this, Nick.

    Loved this: ” . . . her mother’s lips looked as soft as I remembered. I looked at them and thought of a drink from a fountain, grapes, the moment thirst is broken by wetness. Flashes of dew drop kisses. Sprinklers wetting summer grass. Lips warm and soft rubbing across dry fingertips.”

    And this: “I glanced at her mother’s dark shoulder. A ridge of delight.”

    Very sexy and sensual. You’re being very Impressionist here.

    He was no draughtsman, Gaugin, but he had an emotional calling for colour. An adventurer tired of his wife and making money and conforming, he tried to get shot of them by taking off for the kind of native, natural, simple place we all long for. It was a paradise of women, nude women. What’s not to like? He, like his fighting buddy van Gogh, was not afraid of colour, was willing to go OTT saturating his canvas with mood and sensuality of an unconventional kind. You’d think the Parisian art academy members would’ve appreciated that whole colour/mood/sensuality mix, but they insisted upon proper draughtsmanship and Proper Naked Subjects in awkward poses and Appropriate Settings (in France, of course).

    Do you still do artworks?

    • I illustrated Jonathan Evison’s new novel West of Here that is coming out this October. Some pen and inks. I haven’t painted in some time.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Wow. Glad you told me about your illustrating Jonathon Evison’s new novel _West of Here_, Nick. I’ll keep an eye out for its debut in October.

        I’m a total collector of works by illustrators of books, magazines, newspapers, broadside ballads, you name it. Love the really old ones as well as really modern ones, the comic and “serious”.

        Can you give a link to some of your pen and ink drawings?

  13. Erika Rae says:

    I love the tension in this – between the daughter and mother, between you and the mother…. Clearly you had a beautiful past together. This may be one of my favorite things I’ve ever read from you. Pure art.

    I also love that you cry in church. I do, too, sometimes. It’s how I know I found a place where I belong.

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