Thursday, April 5, 2012

Ellis Avery gives an outtake from her luminous novel, THE LAST NUDE

I loved Ellis Avery's novel The Last Nude. Recently, I met her at a reading and we started to talk, and she mentioned having an outtake from her novel, which is inspired by the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, and which received glowing reviews from  The Boston GlobeThe San Francisco ChronicleThe Washington PostSF WeeklyVogue, O: The Oprah Magazineand NPRIn addition to The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012), Ellis Avery is the author of a first novel, The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead 2006). Set in the tea ceremony world of 19th century Japan, The Teahouse Fire won Lambda, Ohioana, and American Library Association awards and was translated into five languages. Avery is also the author of The Smoke Week (Gival 2003), an award-winning 9/11 memoir. She teaches fiction writing at Columbia University and lives in New York City.  Website:  And one-time rights are available to this piece.

And here it is, an outtake--thank you so much, Ellis!
 As for me, I'm off to Istanbul for a week! 

Kissed: 1928
by Ellis Avery

After the affair ended badly, I had my hair freshly marcelled, packed up my valise with everything I’d made, put on a new coat over the zipper dress I’d designed, and walked to rue Cambon.  Carved into the limestone above the front door of no. 31, I saw the face of a beautiful young woman: was she smiling at me, or laughing?
            At the far end of the townhouse lobby, I spotted the mirrored staircase that spiraled up to the couture floor.  At the near end, behind a long, shining desk, I found a human copy of the laughing stone maiden I’d just encountered, a blue-eyed girl already polished to so high a gloss, it would have been redundant for my painter to paint her.  “May I please speak with Mademoiselle Chanel?”  I asked in my best French.
            “What is this regarding?” she asked, derision tugging at her penciled brows.
I swallowed.  “I wanted to show her my work.”  She looked at my suitcase as if it might contain a bomb.  “I mean, the dresses I made,” I explained.  Understanding registered in her eyes, and with it, contempt.  The mirrored staircase at the far end of the lobby winked mockingly.  My confidence unraveling, I flailed.  “Do you need an apprentice?”
The receptionist laughed outright.  “Mademoiselle is not hiring at this time,” she said. 
My throat closed up.  My little valise banged against my legs in defeat, but I was so angry that I looked up to face her.  “I can understand if you’re not hiring,” I said, the French words welling up like an underground stream.   “But why laugh at me?”
The receptionist gave an indignant little cough-snort.  “Because you have no idea how many girls just walk in looking for work.  This is a couture house, not a factory.  The arpettes here are students at the best technical college in Paris.”
“Oh,” I said, deflated.
She gave another little cough.  “Désolée,” she chirped, in no way desolate at the prospect of ejecting me from Chanel.  I turned away, smarting, but I stopped myself.  Her cruelty was nothing, mere professionalism, compared to what I’d recently endured.  I set down the valise and took out my notebook.  “What is the name of that college?” I asked, stainless-steel pencil poised.  “And the address?”
I could hear the condescension in her voice as she politely enunciated a name that had Filles des Bonnes Familles stamped all over it, but I refused to let myself slink away.
And then Fate kissed me on the forehead.  A woman with a wide red mobile mouth and a hat as small and perfectly-formed as a quail’s egg floated in through the front door on a wave of perfume, followed by a harried flunky with an armload of packages.  “Des messages?” the woman asked the receptionist. 
In the five seconds the blue-eyed mannequin spent stacking up slips of paper by the telephone, the woman in the cloche noted the tab of the zipper at my neckline with a brief widening of the eyes, then sized up the situation immediately with a glance at my notebook and my earnest little valise.  She did not meet my eye: it was obvious that the company kept a receptionist to save the higher-ups the time and trouble of keeping out people like me.  But as the girl handed over her slips of paper, the woman surprised me.  “Yours?” she asked, looking again at my dress. 
“Yes,” I managed to say.  “It’s my design.”
            “Eh bien,” she grunted, in a manner that balanced mockery with grudging interest, and took a second look over my shoulder at the name of the school I had written in my notebook.  “You should know that the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture is starting a school this fall as well,” she said, and with a blink of a smile, she sailed down the hall, shrugging off her coat and passing it to her assistant with the parcels.
                             I stared at the receptionist, stunned.  Her blue eyes narrowed at me with newfound envy.  “Was that—?” I whispered.
            “You mean you don’t know?”