“Fall On Your Knees”

We met at the public library across a scratched wooden table. He asked “What are you reading?” At thirteen, I was thrilled to be noticed by a boy who looked old enough to be in college. When I told him “Gentlemen’s Agreement” he said: “I loved that book.” He held up his own volume, which was called, innocently enough, “The Two Worlds of Somerset Maugham.” We discussed Maugham briefly, discovering that we were equally bookish. I had finished “Of Human Bondage” months before.

“I liked the part about the Oriental rug,” I said that first time we spoke. The boy nodded. I realized later he had no idea what I was talking about.

I remember that encounter – from 30 years ago — as I read the indictment this morning. “She’s yours,” Mo says, handing me a slim file. “Cassie Crane. A misdemeanor, but sexy.” He means “sexy” the way we use that term in the prosecutor’s office, a good meaty case. I wonder if I should tell Mo I don’t want this one. He could give it to Rudy, with his tattooed arms, who’s next in line. But I say nothing.

“What are the two worlds of Mr. Maugham?” I asked that first day in the library reading room. The boy blushed deep red. “Britain and Tahiti.” He looked down. “And Samoa.”

“That’s three worlds,” I said, trying to be clever. I was smart, but a fool. Either the librarian or someone else told us to shush, which ended the conversation.

When I returned to the library three days later, I was relieved the boy wasn’t there.

“It’s surprisingly popular,” the librarian said crisply, handing me the book after a short wait. I sat at the table, hoping to learn what secrets in the book made the boy blush.

Surely it was the back cover, a Gauguin painting. A golden-skinned bare-breasted girl, with pale puckered nipples, grasped a large green fruit. The painting was called “Tahitian Eve in the Garden of Eden” and the girl was Tahura, Gauguin’s “child mistress.” I learned from the book that Maugham found and rescued the painting from destruction in 1917.

Three weeks after our first meeting, the boy and I were alone on the second floor, in the stacks. It was the fifth time I’d seen him at the library since we met. Always before, there’d been others around, always – until now – we were in the reading room. This was different, but not completely unexpected.

“On your knees,” the boy commanded. I looked into his gray eyes, which I’d noticed the first time we spoke: the grayest eyes I’ve ever seen (even now, 30 years later), with thick dark lashes. “On your knees,” he said again, more softly than before. I was half-hoping he was kidding, half-not. In the three weeks since I met him I’d turned fourteen. He was three years older.

I still remember the smell, of wet paper and metal; the day outside, which was rainy, the streets black and slick, the trees shrouded in moisture; and the floor I knelt on, which was not carpeted, but harsh, unyielding concrete. Most of all I remember his book and the painting on the book jacket that brought me to that moment – a moment that would be repeated throughout my adolescence, not just with him.

After meeting with Mo, I go back to my office. The police report in United States v. Crane reads something like this: Crane entered the East Building, National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. She walked into Room 7 and stood before an oil painting by Paul Gauguin entitled “Two Tahitian Women” valued at an estimated 80 million dollars. Crane struck the painting with her right fist.

Eighty million dollars. Imagine.

Fact (discovered in the library when examining the boy’s book): Tahura not only looked my age, but looked rather like me, with scraggly black hair hanging past her shoulders, a soft chin, overlarge lower lip, and ears that were too small.

Fact: Tahura was thirteen, same as me – although I would turn fourteen the next week. The author of “The Two Worlds of Somerset Maugham” shared details about her. Gauguin “found” Tahura while riding horseback near Taravao. Her mother made her go with him and she ran away. He came for her again. When she misbehaved, he spanked her. When she fidgeted while he painted her, he slapped her.

Gauguin described her as “a large child, slender, strong, of wonderful proportions . . . she gave herself to me ever more loving and docile . . .”.

I hated that book, even then. Hated the author, hated Maugham and Gauguin, hated the grey-eyed boy for reading it, and for showing it to me. Hated the librarian for finding it on the shelf. Hated myself for how it made me feel, desire unfolding within me, an exotic, swollen bloom.

Thirty years later, I am bound to uphold the Constitution, to pursue and bring offenders to justice. I read on in the indictment:

“Subsequently, Crane was read her Miranda warning. Asked why she had tried to take the painting off the wall, Crane stated: ‘Gauguin is evil. He uses nudity. He is bad for children.’

Crane vents her homophobia. She is obsessed with the two women in Gauguin’s painting. The Washington Post references her in “A Short History of Crazy Art Attacks.” But I have to wonder just how crazy she was.

The painting she attacked wasn’t my portrait of Tahura. It was that picture that changed my life, not the same painting that roused Cassie Crane to fury. But still I understand her.

I wanted to slash a Gauguin once, too.

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Nancy Ludmerer

About Nancy Ludmerer

Nancy Ludmerer's fiction and essays appear in Kenyon Review, Cimarron Review, Masters Review's "New Voices" Series, Green Mountains Review, Sou'wester, River Styx, and elsewhere  Her essay "Kritios Boy" (Literal Latte) was cited in Best American Essays 2014 and her flash fiction appears in Best Small Fictions 2016. She lives in New York City with her husband Malcolm and cat Sandy, a rescue from Superstorm Sandy.