CHAPTER TWENTY

Igor finishes a morning’s work at the piano with a flourish. The keyboard ripples under the backs of his hands like strips of film being fed into a projector. Leaving his room, he walks along the corridor until he arrives at Coco’s study. She has avoided him these past two days since their argument in Paris.

As he enters, she’s sitting at her desk, working; endlessly pinning and cutting. She has assembled material for a white tunic and sable hat. Watching the film the other night, she had been struck by the contrast of white shirt and dark mask; the chiaroscuro of white horse and black cape. The experience reinforces for her again how black tends to dominate other colors under the lights. She recalls her own years at convent school, forced to wear a black and white uniform like the nuns.

His face cuts into the side of her vision. Seeing him, she leans back into her chair.

He says, “Don’t you ever stop?” He’s not used to seeing women work; not society women, anyway. Like his wife, he’s always thought it somehow improper.

She picks it up, his resistance to her working. Yet, she re flects, it’s what fires her, what has always pushed her on: a determination to prove herself, to reconcile a new sense of feminine elegance with the everyday needs of her sex. “I never finish.” She wants him to know she’s still cross with him.

Igor hesitates in the doorway. She nods for him to come in. Then she leans across the desk to grab a length of wool. Her hands are quick in manipulating it.

“Here,” she says, improvising an intricate cat’s cradle. Expertly she transfers it onto his fingers. An olive branch. “Go on, then.”

In Igor’s hands, the threads soon tangle and the structure falls apart.

“You’re hopeless,” she says, teasing him. “Watch me again.” Coco again contrives the cradle about his hands. “There. Have another go.”

Once more he tries, and once more the whole thing yields feebly in his fingers.

“All right,” Coco says, with mock exasperation. “Let’s try something different.”

“Something easier,” he protests.

She strings the wool out like a necklace in front of his eyes. “Now, the trick is to pull one of the threads so that it untangles. Watch!” She tugs gently at one of the threads, and the whole net undoes simply. “See?”

Quickly Coco reworks the wool into its web. Then she holds it up for Igor. His tongue touches the top of his lip in concentration. After wavering a moment, his hand suspended in the air, he pulls at one of the depending threads. The wool clots hopelessly.

“It’s no use,” he says. Setting it aside, he reaches toward her. His fingers brush her lips, then trail backward across her cheek. “I’m sorry about the other night.”

“That’s all right,” she says, looking away.

“I was tired.”

Unwilling to forgive him yet, she wants more. “So was I.”

“I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“Clearly.”

“You know Catherine’s not well.”

At this new mention of his wife’s name, Coco lowers his hand from her face. She finds his apology gauche. “I don’t want to talk about that at the moment, thank you.”

“But you’re the one I want to be with,” he pleads.

Turning on him: “Then do something about it!”

“What do you suggest?”

Exasperated: “You don’t make things easy for me, Igor.”

“Easy things are not worth having.”

“And difficult things aren’t always worth pursuing.”

“But sometimes they are,” he insists. Reaching toward her this time, he’s more resolute. “And I am!”

He recognizes the need for a gesture, something brave but self-abasing. Abruptly he gets down on the floor and lies flat on his back. He lifts up his shirt to his chest. Then, tensing his muscles, he invites her to stand on his stomach. “Come on.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“It’s not silly. Come on.”

It’s his way of making up, she recognizes, his way of regaining her trust. But in seeming to belittle himself, she sees, he is actually showing off.

“All right,” she says, making it clear she’s humoring him.

Slipping off her shoes, she plants her stockinged feet squarely on his midriff, wobbling for a moment. He supports her weight for several seconds without flinching. His face goes taut with concentration. She can’t resist a smile. She steps off; but before he has a chance to roll down his shirt, she reaches for a knitting needle lanced in a ball of wool. He looks up, alarmed.

“You don’t get off that lightly,” she says.

“What are you going to do?”

“Give you the mark of Coco!”

In imitation of Douglas Fairbanks, she grazes his stomach below his shirt, incising nimbly a monogram of her initials: two big interlinking letter Cs.

“You’re mine,” she says, dragging the knitting needle upward and following the seam of his shirt until the point is at his throat. “Do you understand? All mine!” she continues in a singsong tone, but with a serious undercurrent to her words. “And I don’t want to share you with a-ny-bo-dy else.” Suddenly pulling the needle down, she ends with a remonstrative jab in Igor’s groin.

“Understood?”

He’s conscious that he’s under her control and feels a kind of panic at the fact. Yet it’s a panic that possesses a sweetness, too. In yielding to the regime she imposes, he feels the challenge of a slave to please a master; the thrill of willing submission; the humility of having to lick a woman’s shoes only to discover suddenly that they are smothered in honey.

“Understood.” He gulps.

005

The next few days, he accompanies Coco into Paris in the afternoons. While she goes to the shop, he walks around the capital. He enjoys the city’s trembling energy, its radial symmetries, its broad avenues, and its bridges spanning the river like the frets on a melting guitar. He loves the birch trees that are everywhere, with their blistered trunks and their leaves that catch the sunlight spottily. There’s a grandeur to the parks, too, that he likes, and a shameless love of spectacle. France may be a republic in name, he thinks, but everything about the capital seems to scream out royalty: its arches and spires, its monuments and tombs, its gardens and palaces. It reminds him of St. Petersburg.

Regularly he visits the Pleyel office, where he submits his transcriptions for mechanical piano and picks up orders for further work. It’s lucrative, he finds. And while not particularly stimulating, it’s easy enough to do. More importantly, it gives him an excuse to be there, in Paris with Coco, and for this he is grateful.

While she finishes work, he strolls in the Tuileries and takes coffee in one of the nearby cafés. Afterward he invariably retires to Coco’s apartment above the shop, where they make love.

One afternoon she surprises him with a present.

“Well—what do you think?” Igor allows the children into his study to show them his new toy.

“What is it?” Milène asks. Tilting her head, her ponytails dangle sideways, unevenly exposing two pink bows.

Soulima answers, “A pianola.”

“Watch!” Igor says. His eyes flash like a conjurer’s with the promise of spiriting music from the air. He winds the instrument up. Then as he releases the handle, the music starts. A little flat, perhaps, and the rhythm seems to drag at the end of one revolution then quicken at the beginning of another, but jaunty nonetheless. He recalls Coco’s remark that it sounds like something you might find in a brothel.

The pressure of invisible fingers depresses the keys. A perforated scroll revolves on a cylinder in the central panel of the piano. The children are thrilled. As if witnessing a miracle, they move closer, openmouthed.

“Careful—don’t touch!”

“How does it work?” Theodore asks, stirred out of his moroseness by the apparent magic of the machine.

“You see the scroll?” The children watch the perforated paper turn thickly at the front. “Well, the little holes give information to the keys about what notes need to be played. It’s clever stuff.”

Igor is delighted to see his children interested. He’s been stung by Catherine’s criticism that he doesn’t spend enough time with them. She says that Theodore isn’t sleeping, and this upsets him, and she tells him that the others are feeling insecure. He realizes he’s become distant recently, as a consequence probably of his wish to protect them from his secret life. This afternoon is an attempt to reestablish good relations, to reinforce the fact that he cares.

“So what do you think?” he repeats.

“I like it!” Milène says.

Ludmilla complains, “But there are too many keys going down at once.”

“That’s the beauty of it.”

He explains that you can code the pianola so it has the equivalent of four hands, eight, or even more.

“Four hands and no feelings,” Soulima mutters, less impressed than the rest of them. In recent weeks, a saddle of freckles has developed across his nose and cheeks. They seem in their sudden eruption to underscore his disapproval.

“It’s true you can’t vary the tempo or volume as much as you could if you were playing it yourself. But it’s very useful for working things out without having to rehearse lots of instruments. And it saves having to pay the musicians as well.”

Milène says, “Well, I think it’s great!”

“I do, too,” Igor says.

“Is it expensive?” Theodore is becoming more practical by the day. Physically he has grown fast, too, Igor notices. Though still in shorts and with the thin limbs of an adolescent, he is only an inch or so shorter than his father now. His lankiness serves to exaggerate his height.

“Yes.”

Theodore persists. “How can we afford it?”

“We have Coco to thank for that,” Igor says. The slight delay in his response reveals his discomfort. There is something forced about his smile.

Of the children, only Theodore seems troubled by this. Perhaps sensing something hostile in his mother’s attitude toward her, he has always been wary of Coco. Being the eldest, he is the most sensitive to the family’s dependency on their host. Instinctively he resents it. He finds it demeaning and undignified, an affront to his imminent manhood. His thick, almost Mongolian features grow tense. His mouth narrows a little. For a moment, the air between father and son seems a fabric that might tear.

“Did she get the gramophone records, too?” Ludmilla asks innocently.

Igor’s heart goes hollow. “Yes, she did.”

“Can we hear them again?”

“Later, later . . .”

Igor is determined that the unveiling of the pianola should remain a triumph. He won’t allow Theodore’s bad mood to spoil it. To amuse the children, he presses the palm of his right hand under his left armpit and squeezes in time to the rhythm. The rapid movement of his arm up and down makes a farting sound. They all laugh, except Theodore.

Igor stops. In an effort to appease his son, soon to be fourteen, he puts an arm around him. He notices for the first time the fuzz on his upper lip. “Just looking at you now, son, you know what I think?”

Theodore has retreated into his habitual surliness. “What?”

Igor smiles broadly. He has an idea. “I think it’s time you and I had our first beer together. What do you say?”

Theodore brightens. Soulima looks on in silent awe. The two girls beam at their big brother, who cannot resist a bashful smile.

“Come on, let’s share a drink. And for the rest of you, there’s a jug of lemonade.”

“Hooray!” cries Milène.

With the pianola still instructing itself blindly in his study, Igor leads his children to the kitchen to enact this new rite.

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