I stuck my hand up, not wanting him to think he could railroad me.
“Yes, you. What’s your name?” he sneered at me, and I felt my blood boiling over. What was his problem? Did he want everyone to know that we had a history?
“Lola. My name is Lola.”
“Were your parents fans of Nabokov?” he asked lightly.
“I’m not sure who that is.”
“Come now. You do not know who Vladimir Nabokov is?”
“No, Professor, I do not.”
“I said you can call me Xavier.” He bowed slightly. “In this class, there is no distinction between student and teacher. We shall all learn from one another. We are all adults, yes?”
“Can I answer the question now?” I spat out, knowing that I was sounding bitchy.
I could see some of the other students looking at me, wondering why I was being so rude. Especially to him. It hadn’t escaped my notice that several of the female students had brushed their fingers through their hair and even reapplied lipstick. Xavier looked handsomer than I remembered, with his dazzlingly sharp green eyes and jet-black hair. He stood tall and confident in his manhood and sexiness. I knew that several of the girls were swallowing hard and trying to ignore the buzz of lust that emanated when they stared at him. I knew that because I was one of them.
“You have not asked me the question yet.”
“What question?” I breathed, hoping he wasn’t going to turn out to be some crazy professor and publicly shame me.
“But, Lola, how quickly we forget?” He stared at me and licked his lips slowly. I watched the tip of his tongue and shifted in my seat uncomfortably.
“Who is Vladimir Nabokov then, Xavier?” Sebastian’s voice rang out next to me, and my heart sank as I realized that Xavier had been talking about the question he had asked me and not about our night of passion.
“You do not know, Sebastian?” Xavier tilted his head. “And before people ask questions—yes, Sebastian Van Romerius is my brother.”
“Unfortunately,” Sebastian spoke up and the class laughed—me included.
Xavier stared at me with narrowed eyes as I laughed, and I made sure to laugh loudly as I defiantly looked back at him.
“Lolita, seducer, nymph, whisperer of men’s fantasies, forbidden love, dark love, taboo.” Xavier’s voice boomed as he spoke, and I felt my skin going cold as I avoided his glance. “That is what Vladimir Nabokov wrote about when he wrote Lolita. But this is not a literature class.” He smiled widely as he laughed gently. “I do suggest to everyone to read the book, though. It’s a great piece of literature. But let us continue with the class. Lolita, you may answer the question now.” He grinned at me, and my face flushed.
“It’s Lola, not Lolita.”
“Ah, my dear, my apologies. I got caught up in the moment. Something I’m sure you know about?”
“Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro. They are all Impressionist painters.” I ignored his earlier comment. “I can tell you some more if you want.”
“No, no.” His eyes flashed with something akin to respect. “I see you know your Impressionist painters. Good, good.” He turned away and turned on the projector at the front of the class, and all I could think about was what a patronizing jerk he was. He walked over to the wall and turned the lights off.
“Spooky,” someone called out when as the room went extremely dark right before the projector lights came on. An image of a painting was now on the front wall.
“Does anyone know the name of this painting or its significance to our conversation?”
“The lady in the painting is a ho,” a voice called out.
“Why do you say that?” Xavier responded back.
“She’s sitting there na**d with two men.”
“If there had been one man, would she still be a whore?”
“Yes. She’s na**d.”
“So then we equate na**dness with whores?”
“She’s na**d in public.”
“So a woman who is na**d in public is a whore? How many people agree with that?”
Several hands shot up, but I kept my arms at my side, not sure why we were talking about whores in an art history class.
“I see. What if she had been na**d inside a hotel room?” He looked around the room. “With one man. But she didn’t know him. What would you think?”
“I’d want to know if she was hot and how much she costs” Jason called out, and a gaggle of girls around him laughed.
I shook my head and rolled my eyes, I wasn’t sure why Anna always seemed to be interested in the worst guys. Not that I had a better track record. Shit, the last guy I had slept with was in the front of the class about to publicly out me for something that wasn’t even true.
“Would you pay?” Xavier’s tone grew serious. “What would that make you if you were paying for sex?”
“A man who doesn’t want to be bothered with a girlfriend but still wants to get laid,” the kid retorted, and Xavier laughed.
“Touché.” He sat on the desk, stretched his long legs out, and looked out at all of us students.
Everyone in the room was staring at him in amazement. He certainly knew how to draw attention to himself. The only two people who didn’t seem completely captivated by him were Sebastian and myself.
“Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, originally titled Le Bain, is considered one of Manet’s most shocking pieces of art or, I should say, it was considered a shocking piece of art when he exhibited it in 1863.” He pointed towards the screen at the back. “Can you imagine living in the 1800s and seeing this? The shock value of a nude woman sitting casually and lunching with two men was too much for many at the time, and it was rejected by the Salon jury, a rejection that Manet used to his advantage.”
I leaned forward, mesmerized by Xavier’s voice and obvious intellect when it came to art. When he spoke, the painting behind him seemed to come alive. I felt my body humming with excitement. This was why I had come to London—this feeling of really learning and being around others who loved art as much as I did. Even if the professor was someone I had never wanted to see again.
“‘Le dejeuner sur l’herbe’ means ‘the luncheon on the grass,’ so you can see that the title of the painting is quite literal.”
“So she’s not a ho?” the guy at the back of the class called out again, and everyone, including Xavier, laughed.
“But what is a whore?” Xavier smiled. “Many believe the park depicted in the painting is the Bois de Boulogne, a large park in the western outskirts of g*y Paris. A park that is well known for illicit sex and prostitution.” His tongue darted out of his mouth again and he looked at me. “So what is to be believed? Is she a whore or is she not?”
“Why do we think she’s a whore?” I shouted out. “Why are we judging her when we don’t even know her?”
“She’s na**d,” someone cried out. “She wants to get some.”
“Maybe she is just comfortable with her body, with her femininity. Why should she be ashamed of that? Even if she wanted to have sex with one or both of the guys, why would that make her a whore? Don’t guys do that all the time? If it were a na**d guy with two girls, no one would be calling him a gigolo.” I huffed out.
“Such a visceral reaction, Lola.” Xavier’s expression changed to one of humor. “You talk as if you know the lady in the painting. You defend her as if she were family.”
“Maybe Lola just wants to have a threesome,” Justin called out and laughed.
I stared at him with disgust. “I don’t want to have a threesome, not that it’s any of your business. But look at the painting carefully. Her pose isn’t provocative. The men don’t look aroused or in lust. They all look as if they are they’re just enjoying a picnic and she just happens to be na**d. She is beautiful and unashamed.”
Xavier nodded and then started talking. “She is so unashamed that she stares at the viewer as if to say, ‘And? And so what of my na**dness?’ But for many, it was not just the subject matter that turned them off of the painting. It was also the technique that Manet used. A technique that differed from the customary Neoclassicist lines. A technique that other artists admired. And Manet became their leader and carried them through the Impressionist revolution.”
“So Impressionism means that whores are no longer whores in paintings?” the boy at the back of the class called out again, and I could feel myself growing annoyed with him.
“Impressionism means that not only did we see a shift in the art that was created, we also saw a shift in the way we saw the world. Art is not just something to admire. It is something to breathe and learn from. It is our history and our future. It is our very essence captured and contained for the world and our ancestors to see.” Xavier’s eyes closed as his words flowed easily like a fine wine down the throat.
“As you can tell, he’s really into art,” Sebastian whispered to me.
“Yeah, he seems to be really into art.” I smiled back at him, noticing now that they did have the same green eyes, though Sebastian’s were open and happy while Xavier’s were closed off and full of distrust.
“Class, today I want you to think about what art means to you, what it has taught you. I want you all to present and talk about your favorite piece of art tomorrow. It doesn’t have to be Impressionist. Tomorrow, I want us all to get to know each other.” He smiled. “And now, you may go. This is the only day you will get to leave early.”
Students jumped up eagerly, and I saw one boy leaving the room before Xavier had even finished talking.
Sebastian packed up his things and looked down at me. “What are you up to now, Lola?”
“I’m probably going to go to the library.” I shrugged. “I’m meeting Anna for lunch so I need to stay around the building.”
“Perhaps we can go and get a coffee?”
“That sounds like it would be very nice.” I nodded at him.
“What would be very nice?” Xavier’s voice was right next to my ear, and I shivered.
“Lola and I are going to go for a coffee,” Sebastian said, answering his brother. “And how are you today, Xavier?”
“Fine.” His tone was clipped. “I’m afraid coffee is out. I need to talk to Lola.”
“About what?” I looked up at him finally, and his green eyes were full of mystery, revealing nothing to me about what he was feeling.
“You inquired about an assistant position?”
“I did?” I shook my head at him in denial. “I think you have the wrong person.”
“The admissions department forwarded me a list of names of students who were interested in becoming assistants to help save on tuition.”
“Oh, yeah.” I bit my lower lip as I remembered. “What about it?”
“I want to talk to you about becoming my assistant. See if you are suitable.”
“Suitable?” I made a face at him, and I saw Sebastian rolling his eyes.
“Do you want to interview me or something?”
“Yes.” He stepped back. “I will be waiting.” He walked back to the front of the class, and Sebastian laughed.
“Sorry. He doesn’t really have a way with people.”
“You can say that again.”
“It’s what comes of having everything handed to you.”
“Yeah,” he laughed. “Though I can’t really talk.”
“I guess you are brothers.” I stood up and grabbed my bag. “I guess I better go before he threatens to fail me already or something.”
“Don’t worry too much. He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. His bark is worse than his bite.”
“If you say so.”
“Trust me. He is very smooth. He wouldn’t get half the women he does if he didn’t know when to pour on the charm.”
“Oh, he has a lot of women?” A surge of disappointment ran through me and I wanted to slap myself.
“It depends what you call a lot.” He laughed heartily. “Let’s just say that our mother is very worried that he will never get married and produce an heir to carry on the family name.”
“Oh.” That’s weird, I wanted to say, but I kept my mouth shut. Who was I to talk about crazy families? Maybe they were from a family or country where it was important to have people carry on their names. Maybe they were still stuck in the olden days? It did seem like they were rich if Sebastian had grown up with masterpieces in his home.
“But I will see you tomorrow, yes? I will save you a seat.”
“You’re not English or French, are you?” I blurted out.
“How did you guess?” His eyes twinkled at me as we walked to the front of the class.
“I think I kind of knew when we met the other night. Your mannerisms and your speech ... There’s just something a bit different.”
“You’re correct, of course. I did go to school here, but I still carry the tint of accent from my country.” I wondered if he remembered telling me that the other night and I cringed at how obvious I was being.
“What is the name of your country?”
“Sebastian, don’t you have things to be getting on with?” Xavier walked up to us and gave his brother a look. “Mother would be disappointed to know that you aren’t concentrating one hundred percent on your studies.”