Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright
It was the hour of the affair.
I looked down from the roof of our attic apartment to the narrow stone alleys of Barcelona. The sky was darkening on the ancient quarter. On the ledge beside me two pigeons, one grey, one amber-buff, waddled along the parapet, stopping to nuzzle, then held their beaks up to the deepening blue. A dog on the roof across the way ran crazy circles barking at them. The world was coming alive again, after the siesta. I got into our tiny elevator to the street. It was 6:45 p.m.
I counted 256 steps, a heart-pounding three minutes along Carrer Montcada. Montcada was the width of one small car, with high medieval stone walls. I followed the walls to an archway into the courtyard of an elegant mansion. I ran up the staircase, the October breeze blowing through my summer blouse.
Love starts with the desire to see the beloved. Then to see the beloved again and again, in the same place, in the same frame, the same light, to love as a habit at the same time of day. I moved into the amber light of one room.
I stopped two feet away from a painting dated September 6, 1957. My heartbeat slowed. My breath became more even. At the bottom of the canvas was a white triangle. It looked like a teapot with a tail, a snub-nosed teapot with a tiny black eye and three notional feathers stuck on its rear. My shoulders lowered. I was once again with Picasso’s Les Pigeons. Los Pichones. I was in the room of pigeon paintings.
Spain is about ritual. Every day after our siesta, I told my husband I was going for a walk. Instead, in the earliest murmurations of nightfall, I went to the Museu Picasso. A ritual lie inside a ritual line. I was looking for something. I didn’t know what it was. I took out a Moleskine notebook and a pen from my purse. I began sketching the teapot pigeon; this was my courtship routine. Each time, I got the same result: My attempt looked like geometry class. Picasso’s had heart. How did he do that? How did he make a triangle so tender?
What kind of connection had Picasso formed with a paintbrush? What broadband width had he created in his brain to throw off paint like simple emotion? How did he make pink-white blobs of paint suggest newborns squeezed from a tube?
Through the summer and fall of 1957, Pablo Picasso was painting in total seclusion at his home, “La Californie,” in the south of France. He produced 44 paintings, called “Las Meninas,” his personal take on the Spanish painter Velazquez’s legendary single canvas, “Las Meninas,” (The Ladies-in-Waiting, 1615). In early September, surrounded by his Ladies-in-Waiting canvasses of the interior court life, Picasso stepped to the side for a week to the fresh Mediterranean air of his balcony, where he could look out to the dazzle of the sea, the sun. In that brief time away from “Las Meninas,” the 75-year-old painter gave birth to nine pigeon canvasses, threw off another magnificent series as a break.
I was in my 27th year of marriage. Even though we had escaped to Barcelona, an ocean away, I felt trapped. Can you feel trapped even after you make your dreams come true? Trapped inside happiness? At first, my husband and I sat around in the open air on our roof, nibbling, sipping, content to stare at clouds changing shapes in the Catalan humidity. We might peck a kiss or two, read a book, doze off with a local newspaper covering our eyes.
Then, our heads buzzed around with the idea that we had to do things. We had to do things—together. ‘Togetherness’ like a virus in the breeze invaded our relaxing. It, too, had its ritual. My husband said, “Maybe later we should think about setting a time to talk about going to the Picasso Museum.” And I said, “We could go now.” And he said, “I wasn’t thinking about now.” And I said, “I’m not up for another major discussion about doing anything anymore, at the moment.”
He said, “You know, we don’t have to go.”
I said, “Fine. I don’t care, anyway.” We were paralyzed in paradise. It was a three-minute walk to Picasso. The master was just past my morning bakery. Why couldn’t we drop into a museum on our daily rounds, the way we dropped into the bakery for our daily bread?
One day, I just went, alone.
That first time, the sky was changing from pale bright day blue to a deep Spanish cyan. I was a dream embryo floating down a darkening passageway. It was 6:45 p.m.
Fast down Montcada, sheltered by stone walls and overhanging balconies, then right into a secret patio with a palm tree two stories high set in a pot by a staircase. At the wicket, I asked for a ticket. The woman told me I was at the wrong entryway; no single entries here; here you bought a year-long ID pass, a carnet.
“Cuanto cuesta un carnet de un ano?” I said in Spanish, the second language of Catalonia Barcelona. “10 Euros,” she said.
“And the one-time entry is nine Euros?” I said. “Vale, sí,” she said. For one extra Euro I could come and go, as I desired.
“Entonces,” I said, “Un carnet.”
The plasticized card she gave me had on it a Picasso painting of a woman in a red sweater, dark hair, a red feathered hat, bold defiant eyes, big red lips. Perfect.
A woman in plain view hurrying to a secret tryst, the sharp right turn at the special pass archway, the nod to the soon-familiar attendants as I waved the card with the image of the defiant woman, the love aerobics up the wide stairway, the warm autumn air; the first eye contact every day with the precious pigeons, blank and open-hearted.
Rituals inside rituals. I traced the pigeons’ shapes inside me as I hurried to lay eyes on them. I took out the Moleskine with the cardboard cover, drew as a way to connect my heart to my eye to the object of my goofy thrall. My teapot, tiny on top, wide on the bottom, like a bird in a gown. Was it even a tail stuck on her triangle? It was three quick lines. Maybe two fast arrows. Yet it was a tail. I tried again—drew three lines. They were lines. Picasso’s lines had a story: Once when the tides told us the time of day as we waddled and cooed in our verandah enclosures…once, in our world of twigs and shadows….
The pigeons were Picasso’s notations of a late-life crush. He was the suitor leaving humble tracings, gestures, suggestions, a diary inside frames. I drew squiggles, nutty lumps, whereas Picasso’s blobs were the origin of eider. My heart must have been that simple once.
The pigeons had no agenda but existence. They were species in a keep, moulting in season, flying in their moments into the blue dimensions of water.
You could read the Spanish streets like a clock. Empty—it was nine in the morning; filling up—it was near noon; smelling of lunch—it was three; the sounding of percussive hard soles on stone again as bodies appeared above and below, in and out of doorways—it was nearing seven when the blue hour began and the late day blue sat in slits above the public stone tunnels. This was my time, when I went to see how a master kept it simple.
In sharp shadows or pouring wet I came down the ancient way. Usually there was one security person sitting down, and me, walking my restless eye from painting to painting, my lungs inhaling the basics. Rarely did any of the museum-goers coming and going from the pigeon room even stop to look at the paintings. Museums had become places where the half-asleep and the jet-lagged paraded past art in holiday busyness as if the works were blank walls. The thing we yearn for might be right at the edge of our elbows.
We get ideas of who we would like to be, constructs, based on other peoples’ dreams. We drift in a nervous stasis towards someone else’s goal or habit. We keep talking about time, making time the goat, but it wasn’t time we needed. One day I woke up from our siesta at 7:20 p.m. The museum closed at 7:50 p.m. I was in the pigeon room at 7:38. I had a full 12 minutes until they shooed us out. Some days, 12 minutes with your lover is sufficient. Immersed, I became fluent in pigeon. Pigeon had a thousand words for blue-sea. Pigeon had ten thousand words for solo-going-duet. Pigeon conjugated the millennia of ochres. Pigeon collided the heart into nova dust, eternal contrails. Pigeon told me I was a neutrino among neutrinos, I was an element of the universe. Once we were green shoots, we basked in daylight, then moonlight; once, outside of words, we let intuition guide us back to echo that first enchantment.
Pigeons as notions, nesting; beaks uplifted, a duo in trill debate; solitaries in spread covert tail splendour; a pigeon having a bad feather day squatting beside a hungover-looking pal; there were mean ones, loopy ones, ones who were so rapidly applied you could feel the umbilical cord from the brush, a fragile string of white paint still awaiting the snip. Picasso made me fall in love with these wonky tyros, like wing blossoms on the ends of latticing. In their company, I felt like a newbie myself, in a secret rendezvous. Is that why long-married women begin affairs? Just to feel new, for a while?
Deep in his creative tryst, from September 6 to September 12, Picasso created five pigeon paintings in two days, producing bird shapes like casually constructed hope in a coop, as if he himself were a kept avian, scratching on the canvas. He once said There is nothing more difficult than a line.
On September 11th, 1957, Picasso by means of a pigeon painting sent us a message in his carrier paint: Once, I was age 15 going to La Llotja art school down the Barcelona harbour passageways, through a world of pigeons, perches, paint. And then, age 75 in Cannes, looking out to the same sea, I came back to my early love sources, the young bone and feather.
Picasso made the turquoise of the Mediterranean an event. The liquid muscles of his eye connected to his homing heartbeat. The Barcelona barrio. Scorched tiles, laundry accordions hanging in the alley air, lineups of seven story buildings in a higgledy-piggledy conjunction, facades bleached mauve, gravestone grey, double doors in wood opening to Juliet balconies, and everywhere the outlook avian niches. Picasso grew up in this barrio, a teenager learning to paint rooftops and café lovers.
As he labored on the symphonic-scale “Las Meninas,” the pigeons might have been a way to rephrase his youthful soundtrack, and fold it into the larger composed work. These emotional autumns.
In fact, Picasso’s “Ladies-in-Waiting” paintings were displayed in the museum across the hall from “The Pigeons.” I went to take a look. In green, red, yellow, the painted ladies-in-waiting were presented as triangles, cubes, exaggerations full of vigor, fun, examination. The ladies in waiting attended to the little royal princess, the Infanta Margarita Maria. The ladies bowed, in serving. Picasso recast their dresses into volumes, sateen tables. The five-year-old Infanta wore a dress constructed like a yellow skyscraper with her tiny head a decoration on top. Picasso was obsessed with Velázquez’s original “Las Meninas”; the placement of figures, their faces, their reflections, refractions, mirrors, doorways, the feelings they evoked in him, the artist in his studio, a medical examiner doing an autopsy on a 400-year-old painting, only to create 44 new bodies out the original chemical organs.
One of the ladies had a hand painted as a rough jagged appendage. Had Picasso improvised a love gesture of a stubby tail for the teapot pigeon and then used that move later, as the hand of a lady? Why not? Had he, in turn, swept a court crinoline shape onto a pigeon? Why not? Why couldn’t a pigeon attend to a princess?
I returned to the pigeon room. Spindle legs so familiar, stroked bodies so close to my heart after hours passed near the contours of their plumes, my darlings until I flew away from them.
Picasso was telling a story, perhaps, of a man enclosed looking out. Not done yet. A man remembering, too, his own early adult days when he lived humbly, low, in shabby surrounds, yet with energy to burn, a man who burned through life, politics, marriage, war, kilns, to find himself back with the early feathers.
Picasso’s pigeons were not asking me to process them as information; they were asking me to commune with their mystery. How life squeezed from tubes, made embryonic pecking hopes with bristles from a paintbrush, met pigeon wings the way soft brushes met sky: what if it was as easy as pigeons? In thin bones of oil paint, in numinous filaments of turps, in brushstrokes rendered offhand, familiar; in memories….
Once upon a September 7th, a pink-white avian had had a bad night. I got up nose-close to the canvas. Ah, the thick line that made her beak had an ever so slight curve in it. The slight downward gesture came just, but just, below her eye. She’d flown a distance; she was grumpy and stunned. I knew that feeling, its internal rhythm…
I sketched that downward beak looking only at the bird. My forearm inhaled the beak’s music. I looked at my notebook. Yes. I nailed the grumpy line.
I could figure things out with my brain; I could indeed repeat cognitive acts to reset bad habits. But I was night feathers on the Mediterranean.
And if I was, wasn’t my husband?
I’d been picking at him as if he were something that needed to be fixed. As if I were the deductive wife, in charge of solving my husband. Make him dance to my plan for his improvement. But what about the heart’s stutter-stepping?
My eyes filled with color and shape. I wanted to be airborne, but what if I my wings were accordion wings, made up of junkyard bits? What if I was made up of shiny oddments and unfinished adventures...and if my feathers were ragged, even torn…if I was never going to be perfect…I could still be airborne in the ochre. Maybe our love empire was a patchwork empyrean….
You marry the man you marry. I nest in you, you are my nest. Yet I want to fly from you to circulate again. I see your tiny beak seeking me out from our aerie of twigs. It is our nest that lets me fly away.
The master’s own brief encounter suggested: what if you showed your husband this same quiet mindfulness you show the pigeons, even for this same kind of half-hour a day? What if you were a goof among goofs, just nestling close as the sea rose to the sky, every evening?
Picasso was a flirt! He flirted with the future, with those of us who did not yet exist. He danced with the fledglings, confident that I would dance with them, too. Could I improvise my own gestures, borrowing from this dance with arrows and feathers? Could I let myself feel my fragile neck, my downy covering?
I came down the museum stairs, doubled back into the tunneled stone. A hardly visible café door, like another secret, led to an open garden surrounded by high barrio buildings. I got a cortadito, a tiny espresso kissed by milk whispers. I sat down outside at a square blue table. The old ivy up the buildings looking down on me grew darker, more matte. Terra cotta pots tall as men held tree-size palms. I sipped my tiny coffee, subdividing it into minutes and seconds.
A silver metal chair, a deep blue table. There was nobody there but me. I owned an acre of dusk.
I missed my husband. He was not even 300 steps away.
The old night sent its wet cerulean blue down into the receiver streets.
It was our last night in Barcelona. Adiós, fair companions, I may never see you again.
I walked home. The street was filled with the evening people. In ritual, faces emerged from walls. It was 7:43 p.m. The lamps lit. Lovers were meeting in sidewalk alcoves. The humidity of the seaside city moistened every face. The last shine of blue went black as the stone, iron, glass, cloth, melted into one zigzag shadow.
On the roof as I put the key in the door, a pigeon landed on our stone ledge. Fat, content, cooing, a buff pink, alone. Picasso had sent me a message through the paint of time:
Remember when you were new and you saw yourself flying over the rooftops into the clouds with another? Remember when you said, “Yes, I will marry you,” and you saw a far blue hope? You leapt into the weightless empathy…..
I folded my wings ever so slightly and re-entered our dovecote above the city.
My husband was back in bed, covered in a white creased sheet.
The church bells rang out eight bells.
I got in the bed. I put my nose and mouth to his neck.
He turned in deep sleep and I turned in deep sleep and we fell back into the geometry of feathers.