At age nine, I entered A Bar at the Folies-Bergères
during a painting reproduction sale in the bargain basement
of a Worcester department store. Love at first look:
I wanted to be the bar-girl.
I saw romance in her round breasts and the peony in her bodice,
the margin of lace circling it and the sleeves of her black velvet jacket,
her pearl gray satin skirt and buttons shaped like flowers.
Later, I bought a gold bangle because it resembled hers.
With a cut glass bowl full of oranges by my side,
I, crowned by a coruscating chandelier, would pour wine
for a woman whose gloves matched the foil of the champagne bottles
on the marble slab, held ready for spontaneous celebration.
At first, I didn’t see the mirror. I thought the woman from the back
was her sister. One with long hair, one with bangs. I perceived the bar
as an island in a crowded room. When I saw double moons,
I realized I was facing her, and the real bar was half its size.
My sister claimed she was sad. I said she was daydreaming,
the way I did in school, waiting for the next order. Her customer
was dull, like all the other men whose mustaches hid their lips.
Top hats, replicated to infinity, turned into bottles in the distance.
My sister told me about burlesque and banana skirts, but this
was not in Manet’s painting. This bar-girl was more shepherdess
than stripper. A working girl with private fantasies.
Perhaps an artist’s model, but no one’s whore.
I could hear the chatter of flirting, feel the foggy Paris night,
and smell the fragrance of the peony over the wine and sweat.
My eyes, the clearest in the room, saw no one, lost in my own thoughts.
And I vowed to stand strong always with my back to the mirror.
First published in COLLECT