After the suicide of his dear friend Carlos Casagemas, Pablo was feeling blue. He banished all color from his palette save for chilling shades of blue and slate gray which he used to paint gaunt women, bony men and children whose faces were etched with fear and hunger.
He was now living in Paris, the city of light, of color, the city of the future. His future. He had expected the move to be tough but joyous. Instead, he walked the streets mute, taking inventory of all that he saw. Unable to say much beyond a few useless French phrases like “The postman brings the letters” or “That whore has beautiful breasts”, Pablo’s depression consumed him.
While he had an uncanny facility with line, foreign language did not come easily to him. It’s been said that Max Jacob taught Pablo French in that tough winter of 1900 when the two shared a cramped apartment. The truth is that Max had intended to teach Pablo French, but their schedules rarely overlapped. Max, like the rest of us, slept at night, whereas, Pablo painted furiously at night and spent most days sleeping. Gregarious by nature, Pablo felt like a starving man seated at a feast with both arms tied. He had dreamt of moving to Paris since age fourteen when, bored by his strict classic arts education (Michelangelo, Botticelli, the Greeks blah, blah, blah), he roamed the streets and haunted the museums of Madrid. But now, surrounded by artistic might, he remained an outsider.
It was five in the morning. Max, Pablo’s designated French language teacher and roommate, slept soundly on the couch. The room was frigid. Pablo’s latest painting curled to ash in the fireplace. Reluctant to burn yet more work to heat up the room, Pablo went for a walk.
He heard the familiar sounds of the Milkman making his rounds, the clink of glass hitting metal and the clump of horse hooves. Following behind the cart at a comfortable pace, Pablo stole sips of still warm milk to quell his raging hunger. A harsh voice rang out, saying what he imagined was some variation on “Stop thief” as he ran away. The next night, at around five a.m. the memory of the warm milk drew him to the street. But this time, the Milkman spotted him mid-sip and hauled him up by his collar. Pablo dropped the bottle of milk. It shattered. The Milkman, face beet red, waved his beefy fist in the air. Pablo tried to explain how he was hungry, lonely and most of all, haunted by the death of his friend. The Milkman didn’t understand him. Instead, the Milkman pointed to the broken bottle and held out his palm, demanding in that universal language, that he be paid. Pablo showed him his empty pockets and shrugged.
The Milkman hauled him to the cart and put him to work. In this way, from the hours of three to five thirty every morning, young Pablo learned French and discovered the hard way that he was lactose intolerant.