Bocca Baciata or Outrageous Certainty

By Keith Keller

(Reprinted from "La Jerga"
with permission of the author)

I had not seen Angel since sharing a bottle of wine with him on the roof terrace of his house on Salida Querétero the afternoon before he left for the States. It was this enormous house, inherited from his father, which provided Angel with the means to travel and study. This he did with a passion.

For the last year, he had been studying art restoration at the Sorbonne in Paris. Tired of the French and their illusions of superiority, he had decided to study painting for a year in New York. We finished the last of the wine watching the sun set behind the Parroquia. Then we said our goodbyes, Angel hugging and slapping me on the back in true Mexican fashion and me hugging and slapping back in typically awkward gringo fashion.

Angel was already a good painter and I suspected the real motivation for his move was to experience life as an art student living in the capital of the art world. Angel was 27 years old, spoke fluent French, Spanish, and English, and was bright, articulate, incredibly handsome and charming. I was sure he would kick ass in New York.

* * *

I had finished my huachinango and ordered a cold Victoria. I shifted my chair on the rough wood of the palapa floor to get a better view of the sea. I was in Puerto Vallarta for a show and in solitary celebration, having sold four paintings only one week into the exhibition. Enjoying the gentle sound of waves washing onto the beach and full of fish and beer, I was thinking siesta when Angel appeared at my table and with a gesture asked to join me. He too turned his chair toward the sea. A half-empty beer in his hand, he had probably been watching me, waiting until I finished eating. He would be too polite to interrupt my comida. Already slender, Angel had lost a lot of weight. His usual uniform; dark suit, white shirt, and loosely knotted dark tie—sort of a bohemian Italian plainclothes detective look—was not serving him well in Puerto Vallarta. He looked hot.

"You look like shit," I told him.

"Thank you," he said softly with no discernable expression.

He sat without speaking, watching clouds gather on the horizon above the sea and sipping his beer. I asked him what he was doing in Puerto Vallarta.

"Nothing," he answered, "I needed to get away; it was the first plane to Mexico."

"So what's the story?" I asked him.

He looked at me for a while, and then turned his attention back to the clouds. "If I tell you what happened you will think me ludicrous and my story absurd."

"I've never even used the word ludicrous much less thought of someone as ludicrous," I answered.

The clouds on the horizon had moved a little towards land when he spoke again. "All right," he said, "but promise you will not ridicule me."

"You've lost twenty pounds and look like you live under a bridge. Who would ridicule someone like that?" I asked. "Pity you, maybe."

I thought I saw a little light come back to Angel's eyes.

* * *

Angel had been disappointed by his fellow students. Although he was in a fine arts program, there was little practical instruction in painting and drawing, except for endless hours of gesture drawing. All the art being produced in the school was cold and intellectual, usually conceptual. Angel just wanted to paint. He also found that in discussions students seemed to be competing, or looking for an opportunity to put down the other participants in the discussion rather than reach an understanding. He was beginning to miss Paris and the intense café exchanges about politics and art. After having seen most disagreements degenerate into name calling, Angel decided to say nothing that day at the Museum of Modern Art.

* * *

One warm October afternoon Angel joined a group of students for an impromptu visit to the MoMA. He felt good riding the uptown subway with his fellow students and walking the few blocks from the subway stop to the museum. However things were to take an unpleasant turn. Two of Diego Rivera's easel paintings were on exhibit. One of the students dismissed Rivera as a painter of little merit and went on to say that this was true of the entire American continent south of the border. He was more frustrated than angry with the students who nodded in agreement with the pompous self-appointed expert on Latin American art who went on parroting the New York art scenes' assertion that the only art worth looking at resided in New York galleries. The French were beginning to look self-effacing. Angel slipped quietly away from the group to explore the museum's current exhibitions alone.

Rosetti's Bocca Baciata, illustrating a Keith Keller short storyAngel discovered a small exhibit of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's work. He had never seen a Pre-Raphaelite painting in person. The Pre-Raphaelites from their initial exhibits to the present had been dismissed as being of no consequence. What better day to look at Rossetti's paintings?

Angel moved slowly from one painting to the next. They reflected the Pre-Raphaelite's yearning for a lost age of romance and chivalry. The glowing colors and blatant sentimentality made him think of Mexico. At the far end of the gallery, mounted on a separate wall panel, hung two of Rossetti's masterworks; Fazio's Mistress and Bocca Baciata.

Angel lingered at Fazio's Mistress, admiring the voluptuous painting of the red-haired model. The same model had posed for Bocca Baciata, and Rossetti had chosen to paint her this time wearing a deep green robe that vibrated nicely in juxtaposition with the model's red hair. Angel sat in front of this painting until a guard told him the museum was closing.

The next day, Angel returned to the museum after school and sat in front of Bocca Baciata again until the museum closed. The guards started keeping an eye on him. The third and fourth days were also spent with the Bocca Baciata and the nervous museum guards. On the fifth day, Angel began to make drawings from all the paintings that Fanny Cornforth, the model for Bocca Baciata and Fazio's Mistress, had posed for. Once the guards knew that Angel was an artist and not plotting to do harm to a painting, they lightened up. Odd behavior on the part of an artist, they reasoned, was to be expected.

Angel started collecting objects similar to those found in Rossetti's paintings: combs, brushes, an antique vase, jewelry, candlesticks, a mirror, perfume bottles, embroidered material, and a green silk robe. His apartment was a virtual treasure trove of Victoriana. Also squeezed into his tiny living room was an easel and painting table. Scattered around were the drawings he was using in an attempt to paint his own Bocca Baciata, with poor results.

Angel had been visiting the museum daily for almost two weeks and trying to paint at night, contrary to what he was taught, that one paints only in natural light. One night he sat staring at his latest attempt at capturing the likeness if not the essence of Rossetti's favorite model.

He had been sitting motionless for more than an hour when he stood, walked to the painting, picked up a brush and drove it handle first through the canvas, then slashed down, tearing the painting from stretcher to stretcher. Then he sat back down. He was in a deep state of melancholy and had no idea why. It was not the paintings, of that he was sure. He had, as many times as not, failed to realize on canvas what he had set out to paint. It was just part of the process; you had to fail in order to succeed. Something else was wrong. Angel decided he needed to get out.

Barnabus Rex was a small bar in Tribeca about the size of an average bedroom. In addition to a bar, there was a small pool table and a jukebox, leaving little room for the customers. Weather permitting most of the clientele chose to sit on the wooden cable spools tipped on their sides that lined the sidewalk in front of the bar. Angel was sitting on his spool staring at the empty Tribeca street lined with warehouses, when he heard the unmistakable sound of high heels on pavement. The source of the sound was hidden in the shadows between the street lamps. Angel saw flickering reflections of green from a long garment, as the figure reached the next street lamp's island of light, a brilliant mop of red hair blazed in stark contrast to the grimy warehouse wall across the street from the bar.

His casual male interest in a beautiful woman walking across the street turned to shock as he realized he was witnessing a living, breathing Bocca Baciata. Just before reaching the corner, the figure turned her head, and seemed for a moment to be staring directly at him. Even from a distance, he could recognize the full red mouth made so famous by Rosetti. Then she disappeared.

He thought about following her, but what would he say? She was probably in a play, maybe about the Pre-Raphaelites. That would be interesting. Or perhaps she was just an eccentric New Yorker who enjoyed dressing up like historic figures. He realized that he was sweating and his heart was pounding. He sat on his spool, feeling his heartbeat begin to slow down. He thought about her hair in the light of the street lamp, the flowing green robe, and his intense response, emotional and physical, to this vision of her. Then an odd thought came to him that evolved into possibility and finally grew into outrageous certainty. Angel was in love with Fanny Cornforth, born Sarah Cox, prostitute, inn keeper, life-long friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and dead for over a hundred years.

"So this must be the absurd and ridiculous part," I ventured.

Angel shook his finger and his head simultaneously left to right several times which was a serious "No," and said, "Wait."

Angel saw Fanny three more times, once in a laundramat on Ave. B, again in McSorley's Bar, then in Washington Square Park. Each time she was wearing the same green silk robe and each time she disappeared before he could talk to her. After failing to find her in the park, he decided he was imagining things, maybe having some sort of nervous breakdown.

* * *

Angel had just cleaned up after his supper when the door buzzer buzzed. He ran down the three flights and opened the door. It was Fanny Cornforth, in the flesh, standing as silent and still as the paintings of her that hung in the MoMA. Angel was afraid to speak. The two stood in silence staring at one another, and Angel realized that she would neither speak nor leave. He stepped back and allowed her to enter the foyer and climb the stairs to his apartment, while Angel followed closely behind. When they reached the landing, he opened his apartment door for her. She seemed hot from the climb and he offered her a glass of water which she drank with great pleasure, rolling a bit of the water in her mouth as if tasting it. She then sat at a small writing desk covered by a piece of embroidered material and started to braid her hair. Angel placed a brush and a Chinese fan on the table in front of her and then began to paint in a frenzy. He painted late into the night, to the point of exhaustion, while she sat in complete calm and repose. Angel would take periodic breaks which would lead each night to a final rest that would seduce him into a deep slumber. He would awake at dawn, only to find himself once again alone in his studio.

The following day she would return, again posing late into the night, remaining in her position even while Angel rested. During this period, Angel rarely left his apartment or slept, afraid he would miss one of her visits. He never knew when she would appear. Worse, he never knew if she would appear. Every moment spent with her was precious to him and he could not contemplate losing any time she might give him.

One late afternoon, she finally spoke and told him why she was there. She said that when she had died she had been so enamored of the immortality Rossetti had gifted her, that after death she had not passed on to where she belonged. Instead she had fallen asleep somewhere between life and the place she was meant to be. Angel's love had awakened her, and now she must die once again, accepting her death, free of the yearning for the mortal life she had left behind.

Angel spent the night pleading with her. She listened patiently, once touching him on the face, smoothing his hair back and wiping the tears from his eyes with her fingers. In the morning he awoke to find her once again gone. As was his habit, he reviewed the work of the night before and realized the painting was finished. Seven days had passed since she had first appeared at his door He spent the following month waiting for her to return, eventually coming to the conclusion that it had all been an illusion, a dream. Then he would remember the touch of her hand on his face. After too many sorrowful days and sleepless nights, he gave up waiting and bought his ticket to Mexico.

* * *

I tried to think of some clever light-hearted remark to make about Angel's story with no success. The clouds had rolled in and turned the sky gray. While I was still trying to think of something to say, Angel sat up straight and looked past me down the beach. I turned to see what had caught his attention. A woman walked along the water's edge. She wore a long green robe. A break in the clouds lit up her bright red hair. She stopped at the shoreline opposite where we sat and turned toward the sea. The sun retreated back into the clouds. Mist rose from the sea and moved toward shore. A black dog ran full-speed and leapt high into the air for a ball thrown by its master. When our attention returned to the shore, she was gone.

Angel turned to me, his eyes wide. I reached out, touched his arm and said, "I saw her too."

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