By sending you this letter, I know that I am revealing my own lie. It would be better for you, I know, if I burned this instead of sending it to you. You are young and full of life, and you deserved better than tying yourself down trying to take care of a sick old woman. I have seen the toll that takes on the men and women who get caught up doing so, forced to abandon their own art, their own dreams, for the sake of another. Your art and your dreams are too valuable for me to ever allow you to do so.
I saw the pain in your face as I lost consciousness that night on stage. You thought I was dying, and you were not prepared for the loss. I could not bear to watch that pain on your face every time I went faint, neither of us knowing if I would wake again. I wanted to leave this world knowing that you were moving on with your life, if I could.
It was perhaps selfish and cowardly to lie to you, instead of owning up to this, but I am a dying woman. If there was ever a time a bit of well intentioned cowardice and selfishness should be forgiven, it would be then, wouldn’t it? I would like to believe that I have earned the right. But I may have always been a coward, and I know I have always been selfish. It was always so important to me to make my life, my work, mean something material for myself. You chose poverty, and I pray that you will never understand what it means to those of us who were born to it, nor will you understand the fear of it that pervades people like me.
I have consumption. I was already on the verge of death the night we met. You may even remember the small falter in my act that night that was the first sign of the end I could not hide. I have always depended on my body above all being the one thing in life that would not let me down. My looks might fade, my charms might fail to impress, but my body was an instrument I used to earn my place in the world.
After knowing Toulouse so long, I should have known better, of course. We do not control when or how our bodies fail us. I likely should have seen a doctor far sooner than I did, but there is no cure for consumption, so it might have never made a difference at all. All I wanted was to use the time I had left to help my family at the Moulin Rouge. Zidler was on the verge of bankruptcy, the whole club would have been lost, my family out on the streets. My dreams didn’t seem to matter anymore, but I wanted to do at least that much for them.
But then you showed up. Beautiful, earnest, so confident in yourself and yet so shy. When I thought you were the Duke, you gave me hope that my last months on earth might actually be wonderful. When I found out who you actually were, I felt betrayed. But there was something about you, from that first moment. You thought on your feet, you listened to me when I told you what to do, you let me do my work, and then… you came back.
There have been more men than you could imagine who have claimed to be madly in love with me, who wanted to ‘save me’ from the club and whisk me away somewhere. It was always laughable. They knew nothing about me, they had no interest in letting me into their real lives, they just wanted the glamour and passion of their time with me to become their lives. It was about the fantasy of the courtesan, not the reality of the woman. But you…. You came back for me .
You looked at me and saw a fantasy, but for once it was a fantasy of a woman. You took me as myself, never pushed me to abandon my work, you offered yourself to me on whatever terms I was willing to take.
It was irresistible. You were irresistible. I could tell you had no idea what a pull you could have, and I had to assume that you’d never approached a woman in your element. You wouldn’t have done much, I imagine, for a sensible farming woman in Ohio, but for a woman of Monmartre, steeped in the art and music and magic… You belong there. Just over that first night, you grew into your own in front of my eyes.
You never stopped growing. It was strangely intoxicating, being with you while you wrote and sang and acted, continuing your transformation into a Parisian bohemian, living and breathing your art. Suddenly, I understood why so many others I had known had done so many damned foolish things for the artists who had made them their muse.
And none of them had done anything more foolish than I did with you. We risked everything. I risked everything. Nini warned me that she knew someone who had betrayed the Duke, and she and her lover met horrible ends. I knew we were playing with fire, but I think that was part of the problem. You were young and felt invincible, and I… it had been so long since I had taken a risk at all, I felt alive. It was something I needed to keep myself together while I knew I was dying.
I had so many things I hadn’t realized I’d wanted to do until I thought it was too late. Having that kind of passionate affair, having someone dedicate their everything to me, was an impossible gift for someone who never thought I’d be loved at all.
Thank you, for giving me something so precious and wonderful. I hope you get all the wonderful things you deserve. Never doubt that you are an amazing writer and musician, and that you achieve great things.
With all my love,