a literary review
Were it not for the devastating flood of Cedar Rapids in 2008, I would never have seen Paul Gauguin without his pants. The artist, seated at a piano wearing a tweed jacket and no trousers, lounges decadently at the top right corner of my refrigerator. Every morning, after pouring myself a glass of orange juice, his corded, muscular gams intensify the acidity of my drink. I purchased the postcard of the post-Impressionist master, commodiously pantless inside Alphonse Mucha’s Parisian studio, at a gift store inside the Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The museum is the lodestar of the city’s New Bohemia, an arts enclave founded by the city’s many Czech immigrants out of the waters’ wreckage. If not for the flood, I would not have traveled to Cedar Rapids with my husband from Chicago one Friday evening in October, and the Alphonse Mucha Foundation in Prague might not have loaned nearly the whole of its collection to this Midwestern town, which had lost many of its Bohemian artifacts in the rising waters. That would have been a shame, because propped lasciviously on a 5 × 7 inch postcard across from the Mucha calendars, Gauguin was well poised for Cedar Rapids.
Known primarily for his luxuriant, curvilinear depictions of wide-eyed nymphs wearing diaphanous next-to-nothings, Alphonse Mucha has long been my husband’s beau ideal, as much for his tightly lithographed mise-en-scenes as his sleepy-eyed sirens’ scrolling tendrils of unfurling hair and skeins of unraveling silk. I find Mucha a surprisingly conventional man for an artist. He remained faithful to his church and his wife, growing progressively stouter as his reputation and bank account also expanded with the years. No small feat for a vessel of Orphic beauty. Meanwhile, Gauguin abandoned his Danish wife, five children, and a respectable tarpaulin sales business for French Polynesia, where he painted in the scorching sands without shoes, his toenails foundering from overlength, and made love to perennially topless women with only palm fronds for shade. He contracted syphilis before dying an early, penurious death, his work all but dismissed by the wider world during his largely profligate lifetime.
All in all, I think it’s safe to say Gauguin drew the longer straw. The missing pants speak for themselves.
But we were journeying to see Mucha the Respectable, not Gauguin the Louche. Our trip started off poorly, when I refused to leave the car and stand in front of a water tower near the city limits mimicking the Leaning Tower of Pisa. My husband wanted to take my picture in front of it, but my indifference was implacable. I had, as it happens, been to Pisa and found this a poor and too overtly functional substitute. I also estimated we had at least another four-and-a-half hours driving ahead. I was, without quite intending to, failing to treat this as the pleasure trip we had meant for it to be, Mucha’s orthodoxy notwithstanding.
When at last we pulled into the parking lot of the Cedar Rapids Hampton Inn, at approximately 11:30 in the evening, we were handed a key-card to a room all but visibly immured in cigarette smoke. I had thought that we would make love when we arrived, but the palpable toxicity of the air compelled me to immediately open the windows, this despite the din from the nearby highway and the thirty-degree temperature outside. So instead of slipping into my indigo chemise, I doffed my jacket and put on my flannel pajamas. Rolling myself into a fleshy ball underneath the cotton duvet, I ignored my husband’s plea to close the window a little further. I felt the ripe, cold air enter my lungs and steal into my bloodstream with an appetite that summer, in its indolence, had long abandoned. Austere winds spun themselves, time after time, against the nicotine enshrouding our bed like a sepulchral pall. We further entwined our legs, now pickled with cold under our pajamas.
In the morning, I awoke ravenous and half frozen. I closed the window to stare out onto luminous wild grasses flanking the highway like amber anemones. Behind the stormy susurration of cars pulsed a warm body of silence, one I hadn’t encountered in a long time. While my husband took a hot shower, I rode the elevator two floors down to the complimentary buffet. Beside a black cauldron of oatmeal, I rediscovered the stubborn instability of Styrofoam, which had molded itself into hunchbacked spines of bowls and cups. I scooped hard clumps of milkless oatmeal into my tawny Styrofoam urn, when its side splintered and began to leak out like a burst blood vessel.
When I sat down to eat, I noticed the high school basketball players, legs like sturdy denim weeds. They piled their plates high with pastries, eggs and bacon, toast, and macédoines of candy-colored jelly. Like the spruce autumnal winds still wheeling through the Iowan morning, their appetite brooked no discrimination. They devoured everything set before them. But to me the oatmeal tasted of salt and little else. I palmed the only piece of fruit on the counter, a freckled banana, and half-listened to two bearded men’s replay of last night’s Fargo-Cedar Rapids game as I stared into the sun-dappled parking lot the while, and waited for our day to begin.
Within ten minutes of leaving the parking lot, we had seated ourselves inside a meat market at the center of Cedar Rapid’s Czech Village, where I ordered a muffaletta and my husband the spicy breakfast burrito. A sortie of bikers shuffled into the room, their voices bounding raw and metallic, faces glowing a bright crimson from the wintry winds that were afoot. We moved to the next table to allow them to sit together in one oblong mass, while I bathed abstractedly in the ambient warmth of their stippled black leather. Famished, I swallowed my muffaletta in a few economic bites and we left.
The museum wouldn’t open for another half hour, however, and the only other place of business open, it seemed, was a bakery across the street. We paced leisurely inside, hands crossed behind our backs like old European men, ordering two pieces of baklava for later. To pass another fifteen minutes, we searched through the folderol of used mystery novels and dolls with skirts made to cover toilet paper rolls for sale in the basement. My husband uncovered a photo of Marilyn Monroe in a black turtleneck and asserted it was the best of her he’d seen. “They’re all the best of her,” I said, half ruefully, though I saw his point. In this photo, she wasn’t smiling simply to make men want her; her eyes bespoke a happiness freed from the consciousness of her sex appeal.
Padding my way upstairs, I couldn’t help but compliment the baker on the beauty of his 19th-century stove, which occupied almost the whole of the shop’s north wall. Closing his delicately veined eyelids, he whispered that it wasn’t the original; he had lost everything in the flood. But a few years later, he had been browsing an estate sale and saw this, an antique rivaling, in rarity and condition, the stove the rising waters had taken. He had inherited the first from his grandfather and thought it for many years irreplaceable, but then found and purchased this one for a miraculously low price. The bakery rose again like virgin yeast. His eyes were small, green, and planetary, a verdant world unto themselves, and his head looked disproportionately small in comparison to his baker’s girth, which was half-hidden by the counter. He recommended that we drive to a town a few hours west renowned for its clock makers; there was no end to yesteryear’s treasure in Iowa, he said. I smiled, thanked him for the baklava, and said I hoped we would meet again.
Inside the museum, we found ourselves the first and only patrons—Mucha out-of-town fanatics, we must have appeared. Before touring the exhibit, we sat side by side alone in a little theatre sheathed in brown acoustic paneling. We watched a twenty-minute biography of Mucha, seeing his once deeply sensual work turn darker over a matter of decades, becoming more densely allegorical, more insularly nationalistic, and climaxing in its attention to shadow, not curves, as Hitler came closer to breaching the Czech border. Mucha was romantic, maybe foolish, enough to believe that art could act as a palliative, could effectively parry the Nazis’ thirst for global imperium. He died just before Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, and I think it was just as well. Mucha had imbued his art with equally lofty ambition, and it wasn’t enough.
After touring the exhibit, I purchased the postcard of Gauguin without his trousers as well as a print of Mucha’s “Reverie,” an unfinished poster of a young woman with oceanic green eyes, lightly underlined with dark circles. On her lap rests a faceless book and her pinky finger is extended, almost provocatively, as if she is turning the page as much for us as for herself. Sensuous sylph that she is, she sits as alertly watchful as Vishnu.
That evening for dinner we settled on a corner tavern advertising homemade goulash. We sat at the back table, where I watched a heavily pregnant woman ferry trays of Michelob back and forth to customers in faded baseball caps. The woman who owned the meat market was sitting at the bar drinking beer out of the bottle. For a moment I considered sitting down next to her but simply smiled instead.
On her way out, she brushed past our table and, resting her hand on my shoulder, whispered almost tenderly into my ear, “Isn’t it romantic?” I stared into the folds of a fraying green lampshade and thought of the cloying cigarette vapors haunting our hotel room; I would wear flannel pajamas tonight and again we would not make love. Temperatures had dropped into the mid-twenties, but we would have to sleep with the window cracked. Then, nodding in agreement, I considered where in our apartment I would hang the “Reverie,” whether our nymph would endure our living room’s endless assault of ambulance sirens, the screechy panic of urban life. Would the glass skyscrapers encasing our apartment blind her tired aquatic eyes? Would her reveries be truly that, overlooking a landscape of stern priapic lines and little else? I smiled absently to the woman. She said she hoped she would see us again, and then closed the screen door of peeling vine leaves softly behind her.
In the morning, we set out to visit Amana, a seemingly utopian commune that, according to the catalog at the Hampton Inn, promised impeccable cleanliness and order. At first, Amana, smelling of anise and peppermint, acted as a cool breath on my lungs. The sidewalks gleamed from the abrasion of incessant sweeping, and the women who passed wore neat white caps. Not that I required the latter, but I could certainly indulge any preferences in dress if the tidiness continued. After finishing off a full breakfast, we walked across the street to a gift shop promising homemade fudge. It was all so delightfully twee. Not a cigarette butt or cracked Styrofoam bowl in sight; all the vigorously scrubbed china sported roses in full bloom.
Inside, the fudge shop was paneled in freshly varnished latticework. Nearby, an attendant with hair drawn into a spiraling raven bun distributed free samples. Aside framed and embroidered maxims exalting family and home was a poster of President Obama engulfed in orange and yellow flames. We quickly turned toward the exit, without so much as a taste, to my initial disappointment, of the chocolate walnut. We crossed the sparkling threshold, hoping to glean some German handiwork—perhaps a cuckoo clock, the half-hour tolled in a stiff pirouette by a boy in lederhosen—but walking a few doors down to a quilt shop, found only yard gnomes and clothespin Christmas tree ornaments.
“Amana,” I had read on the back of our breakfast menu, means “remain true.” But true to what? I couldn’t help but ask myself. Truth is found in art, perhaps art alone, and the nearest art as I saw it, art that luxuriated in the body’s lush curvature, lay in Cedar Rapids’ Czech and Slovak Museum. Amana’s laconic needlepoint virtue—its very charm, embodied in its straight brown barns and ceramic ducks with cotton bonnets—was so unlike Mucha’s gossamer muslin and Gauguin’s half-moon calves. Here, patchwork bedspreads lay as geometrical as the front yard allotments, in which the grass grew precisely perpendicular to the soil. The oatmeal—yes, alive here too—was rich with milk and flush with berries. The women’s white caps kept the most puckish strands of hair in place; their very selvage was imprinted with neat, identical tulips without so much as a limp petal. No Styrofoam, I felt sure, sullied a pristinely preserved pie safe. But there were no exposed thighs either.
So we sped out of Amana like the unrepentant sinners we were, past the steel mills’ regal, coruscating blast furnaces, the shameless barrage of fast food billboards, the corner tavern with its half-price goulash, back to the museum and through its transparent glass doors.
While my husband reveled once more in the lapidary lines of Alphonse Mucha, I availed myself of complimentary lemongrass tea from the gift shop, where I exchanged pleasantries with the clerk who remembered me from the day before. I sat at a single table in the foyer and read from Byron’s Don Juan. We were not the first visitors that day, and as other visitors came and left, they invariably turned to look at me, surprised, I supposed, at my arrant display of leisure. Beneath a knee-length pencil skirt, my naked legs were crossed at my calves’ deepest parabola and extended over a neighboring chair, and I was wearing my blue beret. With my elbow resting indolently on the table surface, I gave my body permission to unfurl itself, all but supine. In the midst of Cedar Rapids’ New Bohemia, I inhabited the dilettante’s impenetrable freedom. For a moment, I was Paul Gauguin, all but pantless, inside Mucha’s studio. But before my tea grew cool, my husband was again standing at my side, ready to return home. My little reverie had ended.
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Melissa Wiley is a freelance food and culture writer living in Chicago. Her creative nonfiction has been published in a number of literary magazines including Rougarou, Niche Literary Magazine and bioStories. Her writing often invokes the memory of her parents, the insanity of her marriage, her loneliness in this world, and the beauty that still remains.