The Beautiful American
by Jeanne Mackin
As recovery from World War II begins, expat American Nora Tours travels from her home in southern France to London in search of her missing sixteen-year-old daughter. There, she unexpectedly meets up with an old acquaintance, famous model-turned-photographer Lee Miller. Neither has emerged from the war unscathed.
Nora and Lee knew each other in the heady days of late 1920's Paris, when Nora was giddy with love for her childhood sweetheart, Lee became the celebrated mistress of the artist Man Ray, and Lee's magnetic beauty drew them all into the glamorous lives of famous artists and their wealthy patrons. But Lee fails to realize that her friendship with Nora is even older, that it goes back to their days as children in Poughkeepsie, New York, when a devastating trauma marked Lee forever. Will their reunion give them a chance to forgive past betrayals...and break years of silence to forge a meaningful connection as women who have shared the best and the worst that life can offer?
"I'm starving," I said. "Let's go eat."
"Go without me. I've got to think."
This was the first time I had ever seen Jamie in such a black mood, the first time he couldn't pack up his troubles in his old kit bag and smile, smile, smile. We were turning a corner and I didn't know what was at the end of this street. Oddly enough, I thought instead of Lucky Lindy, let my heart swell with his sorrow, the hellish pain of losing a child. I thought a lot about children those days, walking out of my way to pass schoolyards and playgrounds where they played, wondering when Jamie would, as my mother said, do right by me. He would be twenty-five, soon.
There was a cafe on our corner, a nameless little place with a sandy wooden floor and dented zinc bar and a calendar on the wall from 1928. Normally, I avoided this cafe. It smelled of cabbage and vinegary wine and the clientele seemed unwashed and uncaring.
One old woman in particular scared the hell out of me. She had a deeply lined face, and she painted her mouth as large and red as a clown's. Her frizzy hair had been hennaed to the color of a Christmas stocking and her ancient fur coat had patches of mange. She always sat at the same table, and no one ever sat with her. She seemed, to me, the epitome of the words "old and unloved."
That afternoon I ate alone at the cafe, trying on various futures the way Lee tried on different evening dresses. Jamie's black mood had infected me as well, and for the first time I considered the possibility that...I couldn't finish the sentence, not even to myself. Of course he loves me, I told myself.
The old woman and I eyed each other over our omelets and glasses of sour wine. When I put a fork of egg to my mouth, she did the same. When I lifted my wine glass, so did she. I fled the cafe without finishing my solitary meal. She cackled with delight.
Jeanne Mackin is the author of several novels: The Sweet By and By (St. Martin’s Press), Dreams of Empire (Kensington Books), The Queen’s War (St. Martin’s Press), and The Frenchwoman (St. Martin’s Press). She has published short fiction and creative nonfiction in several journals and periodicals including American Letters and Commentary and SNReview. She is also the author of the Cornell Book of Herbs and Edible Flowers (Cornell University publications) and co-editor of The Norton Book of Love (W.W. Norton), and wrote art columns for newspapers as well as feature articles for several arts magazines. She was the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society and her journalism has won awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, in Washington, D.C. She teaches creative writing at Goddard College in Vermont, has taught or conducted workshops in Pennsylvania, Hawaii and New York and has traveled extensively in Europe. She lives with her husband, Steve Poleskie, in upstate New York.
Jeanne will be awarding a photo/postcard collection from the 1920s (US/Canada only) to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.