My Toulouse

When I was eleven, I began to study French. I was a mediocre student of the subject, intimidated by the challenge of speaking with a vocabulary as immediate and reflective of a popular, busy, bubbleheady life as "we are going to the swimming pool," and "Allo? Let's go to the library with Jacques," when what I was thinking about in those days was distinctly in the subjunctive mood: "if I were more beautiful, who would love me?"

While my teacher turned out to be something of an embezzler-- overcharging for the annual Paris trip so that she could bring her daughters, a practice which was discovered and shut down the year before I would have gone, so I never went-- I will always love her for one thing. She quizzed us on the impressionists regularly. Since I could not master the language, I boosted my grades by hanging out in the library memorizing Cezannes and figuring the differences between Monet and Manet. To this day I can spot a Renoir or a Cassat from halfway across a gallery, on style alone, and as I approach the plaque that will confirm my rightness and the worth of my New Jersey public school education, I always feel a rising sense of gratitude towards this teacher. I feel that those colors and blurry interpretations are somehow mine, thanks to her.

In my middle school and high school, there were four language options. You had to choose one. The practical kids-- the overwhelming majority-- chose Spanish. The dreamy ones with cliched romantic notions chose French. The kind of kids who, at eleven years old, were thinking about SATs chose Latin. And the future punk kids chose German. My parents and all four of my grandparents were all the kind of people who would choose French without a thought. So did I.

Greg, the paramour with whom I share an apartment, studied Spanish for all those years I was studying French. As I sunk into an ever-more difficult notion of the romantic life, Greg learned a language I'd later hear him speak in with ease and for practical uses. Grown up, I have tried many times to interest him in French, but my efforts to explain my delight in completely impractical French things fall oddly on his ears, I think.

So it was with great delight that I received the news that he had been recruited by a professional arthouse theater to portray Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, the great post-impressionist painter and poster artist. Tonight I saw him pull a ribbon out of a bottle and paint a piece of glass. I watched women in nearly-horizontal tulle skirts do the can-can unironically, and after the show I pulled on Greg's overgrown whiskers. They've never been that long, but in order to portray this grotesque and wild man he grew his beard way out. Toulouse-Lautrec, though, was practical in his own way: he made millions during his lifetime and had no problem commercializing his work by selling it as poster art. The whole performance was done in a marble stairwell of a museum. It was quick and had a big audience and every voice was distorted by the echo of the place. Greg as Toulouse lifted the girls and sold off the paintings, and as I watched I thought "when I was eleven, could I have known I would be here? Could he?"

He came out afterwards and we tried to sneak a look at the actual painting the play was based on, but it was closed off so I had to rely on my memory of it. I couldn't remember exactly. "Let's go home," I said, and we put on our pea coats and walked there.