Frank Low told me this one Friday night in Times Square. He said he’d been transfixed by “Lavoisier and His Wife” at the Metropolitan Museum that past Wednesday afternoon, and in telling me about it, he had the hesitant manner of someone trying to remember the precise wording of a poem. When his words came, they came complete. He had read the wall label next to the painting and noted that 222 years had passed since it was made. The text read: “Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) and His Wife (Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze, 1758-1836)”. The picture was, historically speaking, an intake of breath, a preparation for what was to come. Within a year after David painted it the Bastille was stormed. When it came to revolutions Low himself would rather there were none. He preferred order, lived as he liked, in a world of well-kept invoices and precise appointments, a world in which he never spent beyond his means. The Jean-Georges dinner on Tuesday night had been an unusual extravagance that he hadn’t mentioned to his wife. She might have thought it odd, rightly so, given that he hadn’t worked in three months.
Low’s father had lived through the Chinese revolution and it was a horror which the man had hardly talked about with his American wife or his half-American children. Those were the sixties and seventies in Pennsylvania when Low was growing up. The old man, whose Luo Low had changed to Low in high school – you didn’t know that, Low said, but that is a story for another day – the old man had carried a great deal to the grave with him. But that, in any case, was where Low’s own distaste for revolutions had come from.
That evening he had another expensive dinner, at the Leopard, on 67th Street. A fennel and orange salad, a filet of branzino, a mixed berry tart with vanilla ice cream. No wine. Without quite intending to he had left the restaurant without paying. As a man grows older his memory goes, not all at once, but like lace, a hole here, another there. While Low was eating the tart he thought he’d settled the bill already. He was in the subway before he realised he hadn’t. He told himself he would return the next day and make it right. On the way home that night, before he went to the PATH train, he stopped by a bookshop. As he told the story – Low was untangling this predicament for me amidst the lights and disquiet and cheer of 42nd Street – he was like a politician at a podium saying what politicians say. A tone of voice like someone peering into something but standing back from it.
When he got home that Wednesday night his wife was still at the hospital where she was head nurse. He waited up and read about Lavoisier. When she did not arrive he fell asleep. Thursday morning came with a sky washed clean after heavy overnight rains. On the late morning train from Hoboken he looked like an ordinary commuter in his dark brown suit and striped tie. He wore clean shoes as proud men do but he wasn’t looking for work, not yet. His wife knew that. She had begun to take some double shifts. Beyond this nothing had been discussed. When he got to the museum that morning he made his usual $5 donation at the ticket booth and stood in front of “Lavoisier and His Wife” with a clean conscience.
David and Lavoisier. They were men of the world involved in law and science and politics and the making of money. Lavoisier grew rich from tax collection as a member of the Ferme générale. That wealth made his scientific investigations possible. He discovered oxygen and hydrogen. What Low liked in a portrait was its ability to arrest time, the story it told of what passed between the artist and his sitters at a particular moment. In his college days Low had been impressed by a line he read in an art history book: A painting is the deposit of a social relationship. Low thought it rang true. A patron paid money. An artist painted a scene. The resulting image was both the goods delivered and the invoice for those goods.
Low’s feeling for art came in part from his long years of working with schools and museums, when he had been employed by a company that sold and repaired slide-projectors, work that had often brought him to the Met. This was the life he had lived: 24 years of lamps and lantern slides and solving little technical problems for people. And then one fine day he had woken up to find his line of work obsolete.
In 1794, six years after the portrait and five years after the publication of his Traité Elémentaire de Chimie, Lavoisier was brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal and, shortly afterward: guillotined. David did not sign the death warrant, but he was on the Revolutionary Tribunal, and had signed many others. The presiding judge at the Tribunal that condemned Lavoisier said: The Republic needs neither scientists nor chemists; the course of justice cannot be delayed. The mathematician Lagrange said: It took them only an instant to cut off his head, but France may not produce another such head in a century, and when he read this Low wondered when exactly it was that Louis Pasteur had begun his work, and when Marie Curie had begun hers. “Lavoisier and His Wife” is a scene of domestic theatre, Antoine in black and all diagonals, Marie-Anne vertical, white. She assists him in the preparation of the Traité which will become his immortality. She stands with him for the portrait which will become hers.
A guard came to remind Low that it was five and the museum was closing, and so he walked across the park to the West Side and took the C train down to Columbus Circle. He ascended the elevators and at Per Se he was met by a girl with nice legs who seated him at a window table. The hour was early enough that he needed no reservation. The city had taken on a deeper evening blue and from that height everything looked good. There were voices. Glasses clinked and from somewhere came the satisfied tinkle of a woman’s laugh, the most beautiful of all sounds. There were only a few people in the restaurant, each a monarch on whom the waiters attended. Low ordered the prix-fixe nine-course tasting menu and as he put in the order he knew he would not pay for this meal, and would never return to this restaurant, or to any of these restaurants. The small majestic dishes arrived and each was as perfect as a print. He ate senselessly, without pausing, each dish giving way to the next, oysters, caviar, grilled asparagus, roasted cobia, poached lobster, chocolate torte, coconut parfait. The sky became deeper still but not yet black. He finished a second glass of the 1998 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave. And then he got up and walked serenely out of the restaurant, the clink-clink of other diners fading behind him. He entered a taxi, and only when it merged into traffic and was held at a red did his heart begin to thud. For almost an hour afterward he could hear the blood in his ears.
Before he left the house on Friday, he made another reservation. This time it was at Le Bernardin, under the name Francis Luo. His wife had had another late shift and was still asleep when he left the house. I assume she assumes I’m having an affair, he thought. He wore a charcoal-grey Paul Smith suit, single-button jacket, slim trousers, silver-grey tie. With his close-cropped salt and pepper hair, with his St Sebastian’s physique and lined-face, Frank Low – Francis Luo – looked good.
Gesturing with his hands, Low described “Lavoisier and His Wife”. A man and a woman. A red tablecloth and a large bell jar placed carefully on the floor. The colour red dominates. Marie-Anne was a scientist in her own right and she translated her husband’s work into English. At the time of the David portrait she was in the eighth year of her affair with the economist Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours. But Antoine Lavoisier was the man she loved and, after his death, after the death of Robespierre, after the apology from the government, after the restitution of her husband’s property, she never let the David portrait out of her sight. She refused Du Pont’s persistent offers of marriage. She did briefly marry an American adventurer named Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford. Why had she bothered? They detested each other and within four years it was over. She returned to her solitude.
Lavoisier looks at Marie-Anne. Marie-Anne looks at David and at us. Decades later, Marie-Anne lived in a Paris apartment with just one old servant and the David portrait. Low moved closer to the painting and moved farther away. He sat and he stood. The tourists swarmed endlessly in and out of the room. The guards watched him sceptically. A painting is the deposit of a social relationship.
A nephew of Marie-Anne’s, a young banker, wrote an unkind account in his journal of visiting his elderly aunt. This old Turk, he wrote, was all that remained of the beautiful young woman depicted by David. Her aged masculine face amused this otherwise forgotten nephew, as did the way she would suddenly get up and go and stand with her back to the fireplace just like a man and pull up her skirts from behind as high as her garters and warm her enormous calves.
When did we last meet?
In college, I suppose.
Not exactly, he said. It was two years afterward, at Sam McCann’s wedding. But I remember well our last meeting in college, the last time we actually had a real conversation. Do you remember?
It was in a darkroom, he said. It was an unusual day. We talked for a long time.
I gave no indication of recollecting the day, and Low went on.
I had taken some photographs of a Drama Department rehearsal. The big end-of-term production, and they’d asked for help with the publicity stills. Who was it? Wasn’t it Pinter? It was definitely Pinter. And the play was, well, I can’t remember now. I do know that Lucia was in it, and those twins from Zimbabwe. Maybe it was for her sake that I agreed to take the photos.
I wonder where she is now. How she’s doing.
She was my girlfriend for the first six or seven months after graduation. Did you know? Then she moved to Houston for grad school.
I knew only too well. But that day, in the darkroom, we stood side by side in the gloom. I think of it still. At first we were silent, me working the trays, you on the enlarger, the soft blank room enveloping us. This was in our last term, when we both took that photography class. And as we worked, as Lucia’s face emerged from the wet paper like a history rushing to the surface, I suddenly imagined that she was my dad’s sister, the one he’d left behind when he fled Hangzhou. I began to tell you about this, about this absent family of my father’s, these people I had never met or spoken to, or even seen pictures of. For long moments, as I remember it, I would fall silent, and then I would continue again, the safelight coming on and going off, and me telling you what little my father had told me about these people whose names I barely knew. I remember how my words came in small almost inaudible phrases, as though the image in the tray were a candle that kept going out and that one had to keep relighting. You listened and said little. There was a story about eating together the afternoon before my father stole away at night, on foot and then by train, a last simple meal with his sister and mother before he left them behind for good. I liked that so much, how vivid that second-hand memory seemed as we stood there shoulder to shoulder, my gloved hands plunged into developing solution, finding ourselves at certain moments in an impenetrable darkness, you handing me the paper, and the way we had to keep an eye on the ticking clock on the shelf because of how a darkroom draws one out of ordinary time, and this story that came out of me in fits and starts, a story I’d never even thought to recite out loud to myself. Imagine: two people driving out on a country road as evening approaches, not face to face but side by side. The intermittent conversation between them as they look out on the dark road. A fullness comes into the world at such moments, a glimpse of what it would be like to be understood. That was us that afternoon in the Fine Arts Building. Do you remember?
No, I said. But even as I said this, echoing in my head was her name. Lucia. Lucia.
Low wandered around the museum. He went to the American wing where until recently he had carried his projectors and lamps. The people looked to him like a mob and he was suddenly sad as he stood there in his hand-stitched English shoes. He drifted among the vases in the Department of Asian Art, all the delicate work of years and hands. Then he had one last look at “Lavoisier and His Wife”, hurried down the Grand Staircase and out on to Fifth Avenue, and entered a cab. The road was dark. The asphalt looked blacker than usual. It had rained. Le Bernardin, he said. The driver did not know it. West 51st, Low said.
An hour and a half later, Low and I stood under the cold blazing lights of Times Square, smoking, and I asked him what he had eaten. Oysters, he said, the pleasure coming back into his voice, in a row on a ridge of ice, eager to be eaten. Fluke, caviar, octopus, some champagne but not a lot. The guiltless Friday crowd under the coffered ceiling had troubled him. An evergreen arrangement from the ceiling was the only nod to the season. He’d been nervous. I’ve never been through anything like it, he said. How does that even happen to someone?
For the first time, I heard a tone of shame.
What will you do? I asked.
I’ll take the A down to 14th, he said. I’ll take the PATH to Hoboken, I’ll get into bed with my wife if she’s home, I’ll go to bed alone if she isn’t.
I said nothing. You go through life expecting never to do something mad, expecting never to arrive at some pointless shame through your own fault. You hope never to rely on the people you used to know. Or, worse, to rely on a lucky break.
I’m sorry, Low said. I’ll get the money back to you right away. Let’s call it $250 even. The money and the six cigarettes.
Then he said: When the fellow grabbed me by the arm as I stepped into the cab and dragged me back into the restaurant, my head went blank. They must have been watching me and they must have watched me leave. It was like coming to the end of a slide carousel, when the last image flicks past and there’s a lit screen and the white noise of the projector and someone flips a switch. You’ve been in this other world and then the light comes roaring into your eyes. There was such a violence in their manner, don’t you think? A quiet violence, which is worse than the other kind. There, at least, you know what you’ve got. But these civilised men, don’t think you’re with them or that they’re with you. But now I have to believe in luck because I was saved from myself at the last possible moment. By you. What are the chances? Not many people would have paid up so quickly for someone else.
I inclined my head to say it was nothing.
The Birthday Party.
The Birthday Party, Low said. That’s the name of the Pinter play. But do you think they would have called the police? They would have. It’s not the kind of thing I do. They would have called the police, these civilised men.
He seemed to be considering the possibility for the first time.
But I’m awake now, he said, more to himself than to me.
© Teju Cole 2012
This article has been changed since publication to reflect the fact that the C train down to Columbus would depart from the West Side.
About the author
Teju Cole is the author of Open City, a widely-praised novel that tells the story of a young Nigerian-German psychiatrist in New York City five years after 9/11. Published in 2011, it has won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New York City Book Award for Fiction, and the Rosenthal Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Cole has also written a novella published in Nigeria, Every Day is for the Thief (2007), and is working on a nonfiction narrative of contemporary Lagos. Born in the US to Nigerian parents in 1975, he was raised in Nigeria and lives in Brooklyn. He is Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.