“What the hell is that, Jana?” asked Claude as he stared at the framed print I’d hung on our dining room wall.
“It’s a painting,” I said. “A Renoir. The Luncheon of the Boating Party.”
“Why’s it on our wall?”
“I thought it might brighten up the place.”
Claude lit a cigarette and sat down at the table, the painting on the wall behind him. “You bought a painting? We can’t afford that.”
“It was free. Mrs. Jenkins was throwing it out.”
“I don’t like it.”
Claude turned around and regarded the painting. “Bunch a fancy, high society people putting on airs.”
“Oh, but they’re not. Look at the painting. These are common, everyday people. Look, two men are lounging in their undershirts. And that lady there, she’s got a little dog with her on the table. Right on the table, Claude.”
“I still don’t like it.”
“Oh Claude, we’ve got nothing but drab white walls around here. Can’t we have a little color for a change?”
“Fine, fine. I’ll just sit on this end of the table so I don’t have to look at it. Now if you don’t mind, how about a little dinner?”
I went back to the kitchen and finished the Hamburger Helper that I’d started before Claude came in. He would never eat any of the French food I tried to make on occasion, so I stuck to the simple things to keep the peace around the apartment. We dined in silence and then Claude went into the living room and turned on a basketball game.
I sat at the table and stared at the painting. My eyes watered a little and the room grew as blurry as Renoir’s brushstrokes, but the vibrant color of the painting held me, called to me, and invited me in. I blinked, tried to focus, and stared at each figure one by one. They were living a life that I longed for. I gazed at the face of the woman in the center of the picture, the one glancing out of the frame, and imagined myself in her place.
A few days later I was back at Mrs. Jenkins’ house, a stately colonial on Cob Hill that I cleaned every three days. When I finished, Mrs. Jenkins caught me before I left.
“Jana, I was wondering if I could run something by you?”
“We’re going to France for a few months soon. Would you be interested in coming along?”
“Yes. We’ll be needing someone to clean the chateau that we’re renting, and also look after the children. I was thinking you told me you spoke French.”
“I do. I mean, a little. I took three years in high school.”
“Well, what do you think? James thinks we can hire someone locally, but I’d prefer an American for the children.”
“I… I don’t know. I mean, I would love to, but… I’ve got other houses I clean.”
“We would pay you quite well; it would more than make up for your loss.”
“Wow, I’ve always dreamed of going to France. Never could afford it.”
“It’s a great opportunity. Talk it over with your husband. That’ll help.”
“Yeah. My husband.”
“Absolutely not,” said Claude when I told him the news. He lit a cigarette as we stood in the dining room.
“Three months away from home? That’s outrageous, Jana. Who’s going to cook my dinner?”
“Well, I’m sure you could manage. You seemed to do okay before we got married.”
“I got married because I didn’t want to have to do that shit anymore. Look, I work long, hard days in construction so we can have a place to live and food on the table. So forget about this crazy France business and drop it. Who’d want to go to France, anyway? I hear they’re all assholes.”
You’re an asshole, I thought to myself, and my eyes began to water. Through the bleariness, the indistinct figure of Claude and his burning cigarette took on a demonic visage. I looked to the painting, and it calmed me. I walked up and gently touched its frame.
“I still hate that damn thing,” said Claude. “We gotta get rid of it.”
I felt a little something snap in the back of my mind. I said nothing else to Claude the rest of the night.
Six weeks later, I stood on a balcony overlooking the Seine at the Maison Fournaise restaurant, just outside of Paris. It was my first day off after a week of working for the Jenkins, and I’d come here because this was the spot where Renoir had painted The Luncheon of the Boating Party.
Claude had erupted when I told him I was leaving. He cursed, shouted and accused me of seeing someone else. I laughed at the latter statement. “There’s no one else,” I said as I carried the Renoir painting out to my car.
I’d figured it all out that I’d work for the Jenkins for the three months, then stay another three months — or longer — on my own with the money I’d earned. After that, well, after that, I’d figure something else out. I’d make it up as I went along. I was in France, and nothing else mattered.
I ordered a glass of red wine and leaned on the railing, taking in the beauty of the splendid June day at the restaurant. My eyes began to water a bit, and as I squinted, the world went soft like the painting, and each figure from it seemed to wink into existence. I smiled at them, each and every one — the men in undershirts, the lady with the dog, the man in the stove pipe hat, everyone.
I then looked to my hands. The line from where my wedding ring had once sat on my ring finger was slowly fading to nothingness. By summer’s end, I imagined, it would be gone.
Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, Fried Fiction, Mystic Signals and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop.