"This can't go on. I can't keep seeing you like this, I'm sorry."
--me, talking to Chagall
My first love was a painter: Marc Chagall. I met him after college, when I was quite young and unsure of my future. I got a part-time job in a little independent bookstore in my hometown in Pennsylvania, and one afternoon, Chagall came in looking for some art books. He wore a baggy, paint-covered sweater and his hair was unwashed and a little wild. His dark eyes burned with intense fire, and I was immediately struck by his face, both humorous and handsome. He carried a bundle of canvases in one hand. That evening, he showed me his studio, and I watched him paint.
He showed me some of his paintings, and the blood in my veins caught fire! Things progressed very fast. It wasn’t long before I moved in with him. Those early days were imbued with a dreamy enchantment. When we were together, the ordinary world transformed into a fantasy of colors, without a sense of proportion, without gravity. Wherever we went, fiddlers followed us around. dancing on the rooftops. We wrote poems, we floated...
We painted together, and my paintings mimicked his. Our friends were angels, musicians, and animals. The sky spun dizzily with fish, cows, horses, and goats. We embraced above the clouds; we made love on a giant, floating chicken...
Once, when I was living with him in Paris, in a squalid little apartment, I remember waking up early to surprise him for his birthday. I hardly had any money; we lived a life of austere poverty, subsisting on love, wine, and oil paints. But I managed to save a little, and that morning, I walked to the market and spent all my money on a cake, a watermelon, and a bouquet of flowers. Such luxuries! As I concentrated on arranging the bouquet in a vase, Chagall floated up out of bed, into the air, spun around, and kissed me from above, like an angel. I was so surprised, I nearly dropped the flowers everywhere! But, that was the kind of thing he could do. He was magical!
I lived with him for twelve years. I painted with him, copying everything he did. I didn’t marry him, though. I had affairs with other artists: a summer when I modeled for Henri Matisse, a dinner party with Pierre Bonnard in the south of France, and, one time, on a train voyage across America, I lingered for three months in New Mexico with Georgia O’Keeffe. But I always came back to Chagall, who, as my first love, had imprinted himself upon my very soul.
Then, when I was 34, I met someone else.
His name was Rembrandt, and I met him at a party; it seemed we had a few mutual friends. I felt an immediate attraction, but I resisted. Slowly, however, as the months went on, and with a sinking feeling, I became aware of a deep change in my heart. I was really falling in love.
Rembrandt couldn't be more different than Chagall. For all his playful, gratuitous color, in many ways, Chagall remained shallow. He always wanted to float up into the sky. At parties, Chagall amused everyone and inspired laughter and song while Rembrandt would brood in a dark corner, alone and serious. And yet, I was fascinated.
For a year, I continued to live with Chagall in Paris, but I spent my days with Rembrandt, in Amsterdam, constantly commuting between two countries, and even two very different centuries. Rembrandt taught me things that Chagall never could: secrets about light, and depth, and deep emotion. I realized that I wanted to know everything that Rembrandt knew; I was obsessed. He was like a vein of gold, and I was a miner, pursuing him with relentless greed. I couldn't get enough.
I no longer wanted to float; I wanted to feel the solid ground. I wanted to create solidness. I wanted to create light. I spent hours trying to paint like Rembrandt. I wondered, feverishly, if I would ever stop copying other artists. Would I ever paint like myself? I also began to worry if Rembrandt really was Rembrandt at all, or some imposter, or, worse, a figment of my inflamed imagination. I began to bite my nails.
Some days I would forget to come home entirely, or when I did, I was too exhausted to give Chagall any attention. We were like strangers. Even when we were together, my mind was elsewhere...with Rembrandt...
The situation became intolerable. I had to end it. So finally, I met Chagall in a Parisian cafe just last week, to explain my feelings. He knew what was coming, and looked at me with such sad, hurt eyes that my heart broke. Of course, I still loved him. We drank our coffee silently for awhile.
"This can't go on," I said, finally. "I can't keep seeing you like this, I'm sorry."
He put his hand gently over mine, patting it. His eyes were filled with love.
"I know," he said. He knew all about my feelings for Rembrandt, and he understood, but there were tears in his eyes.
"Why can't we still be friends?" he asked, finally.
"We just can't," I said. "I thought we could, but it's too hard for me to divide myself this way. And I'm so hungry to learn..." I trailed off. I wasn't sure I could explain further. Chagall never had this fierce, myopic desire to acquire classical skills. His unique creativity sprung effortlessly from his spirit, like flowers out of a garden.
I would miss all of those flowers, those colors...
"I bet Rembrandt will never make love to you on a giant chicken," Chagall said, and we both laughed a little.
"No," I said, soberly. "He never will."
And I started to cry.