Excerpt: 'The Last Nude' by Ellis Avery


Beautiful Rafaela, Tamara de Lempicka, 1927

In this excerpt, Tamara de Lempicka’s model Rafaela has just told her flatmate, Gin, about discovering Tamara in bed with another woman.

Bal des Quatz’Arts, 1927

As the Seine lights swung past us, my flatmate Gin and I took little sips of brandy from her silver flask. “You do know a student ball is a costume party, don’t you?”

“Why didn’t you tell me at the theater? We could have borrowed something from the dressing room.”

Gin giggled. “I forgot. But all right. My costume is . . .” She mused gravely, “I’m a girl who lives on rue Laffitte.”

“Really?” I laughed with her. “Then that’s my costume, too.”

Half an hour later we were deep in a throng of bedsheet-clad Roman senators and bare-chested Swiss dairymaids. An Eve with an apple-printed bandeau wore a live snake on her shoulders. A Sacco and a Vanzetti carried an electric chair between them, while an Isadora Duncan, their comrade in poor taste, wore a noose made out of a filmy scarf. The drums and the horn section blasted us through the fast dance numbers, while the bass and piano teased us through the smokey slow tunes. Gin smiled at me, her arms on my shoulders, and drew in close to tease the boys who watched us.

I had to admit, Gin’s idea was a good one. I liked being out. I liked being able to afford my own taxicab, my own admission ticket, my own drinks. I could turn anybody down tonight, no matter how rich he might be, or I could smile at that boy across the room with ivy in his hair, even if he didn’t have a sou. For the first time, dancing felt like the first few seconds of posing for Tamara. My body became mine. It wasn’t just something I carried around. Ever since my sixteenth birthday, my body had felt like a coin in an unfamiliar currency: small, shiny, and heavy, obviously of value to somebody, but not to me. I had never understood what my boyfriends saw when they looked at me. I’d watch them greedily respond and think, why this? Why me? My body felt coincidental to me—I could just as easily be a tree, a stone, a gust of wind. For so long, I still felt like the ten-year-old me, skinny as a last wafer of soap, needling through Washington Square on her way to Baxter Street. But my months with Tamara had worn away the lonely old questions and replaced them with a greed of my own: my body was just a fact, this night, a kind of euphoria. I coincided with it, and with the dancing crowd. Throbbing with the horns and drums, we formed a waterfall passing over a light, each of us a drop, a spark, bright, gone. The music danced us, and I knew it wouldn’t last, this body I’d learnt to love. I’d turn eighteen one day, and then twenty, thirty, as my friend Sylvia promised, invisible. Gravity would have her pitiless way with me. My buoyant curves would sag into ordinary fat, and I’d have to dress as shrewdly as Sylvia’s girlfriend Adrienne. The weird fuckable radiance that clung to me would drift off to gild and baffle younger girls than I. So enjoy it now, I told myself, smiling back at Gin. It gives a lovely light.

Gin peeled away to dance with Sacco and Vanzetti, and I found myself in the lap of the curly-headed boy with ivy in his hair, an engineering student. He said he was twenty years old, so I said I was, too He was wearing a cape made from a torn-open pillowcase over his regular clothes; he was shouting in French over the music; he was calling me tu. “Are you a student, too?”

The old question. My stomach sank, but I looked into his liquid eyes and tried to summon, not my anger at Tamara, but the pleasure I’d felt that earlier that afternoon, imagining the dress shop I’d run someday. “I’m a fashion designer,” I shouted back, testing the word couturière in my mouth for the first time, trying to purr those two French Rs out harsh and throaty.

“Ah, oui?” He believed me, simple as that, or he didn’t care.

Exultant, I held up the fine he’d brought me. “If you can keep your hand still, then I’ll drink,” I bellowed in French, leaning in to reapply the lipstick I was making him hold in his stubby-fingered hand. He grinned. I could feel him through his clothes and I knew, giddily, that he didn’t give a goddamn if my lipstick went on straight or not. “But if you move, then you drink,” I warned. “D’accord?” I wished Tamara could see us; I felt vengefully beautiful. But then I saw Gin across the room through the
glaring music, the noisy lights, on her hands and knees. Was she sick? “Ma copine,” I said, pointing her out. The boy made a moue of distress on her behalf. I gave him a wistful kiss, quick but full, and tasted cognac and cigarettes: an eager, salty rasp. Then I reclaimed my lipstick and slid away to help my friend.

When I pulled Gin up she fell against me, sloppy, laughing. “Ring Daniel!” she shouted over the blaring horns. “Tell him I don’t feel too good!”

I stood her up like a rag doll and walked her toward a chair. “We’re going home, sweetie. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.” I was going to need money after all, I thought sadly, as she stumbled against me. A lot of it. Suddenly the dancers all looked so young. What was Gin going to do with a baby?

Excerpt republished with the permission of the Author. © Ellis Avery 2012.

Listen to Ellis Avery read from The Last Nude here

About the Author:

Ellis Avery is the author of The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012), a new novel inspired by the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka and by the young woman who modeled for her most famous painting, Beautiful Rafaela. The Last Nude has received starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal, as well as glowing reviews from The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, SF Weekly, Vogue, O: The Oprah Magazine, and NPR.

In addition to The Last Nude, 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.