It’s midnight…or something like it. A breeze whistles up and around the balcony high above laser streaks of headlights all herding through intersections. Stop and go, ushered anonymously past stop lights and sidewalks; a crawling luminescence. If you stood here long enough and squinted, you could probably figure out the algorithms…or at least the timing.
From this height, angry horns sound muted and trifling. The trash problem has been reduced to dust. Even graffiti looks neat and unthreatening.
The balcony is a good place, a bastion of perspective over productivity’s lime-encrusted drain. From here architecture seems simple and subdued. Concrete is smooth and toned. From here headlines are illegible and advertisements are aimed elsewhere. The atherosclerotic core of the American Dream still appears charming and xenophilic from this height. I stretch my shoulders, flex my back. Horatio Alger never dug ditches.
Venetian blinds rustle behind me.
“Do you want like…a robe or something?”
The breeze tousles my hair as I turn. Goosebumps ripple across my bare skin. A delightful shiver snakes my spine.
She glances down, and I cross my hands like a fig leaf. “Hey,” I scold, “I’m on break here.”
“But you’re still naked. It’s cold.”
“Cold, please. I grew up in the Midwest.”
“It’s time to come back in anyway: break’s up.”
Inside on a low end-table, an ambitious stack of blank sketch paper, a box full of soft-vine charcoal sticks in various states of shatter and crumble. A vigorous Miles Davis warbles from the turntable, and she gestures that I should lift the needle to silence the record; her fingertips are smudged black.
For an artist, she keeps her studio surprisingly neat. Where you’d expect to see piles of easels and drawing boards, there are flowers and potted plants. Where you’d shove aside dogeared and gray-fingerprinted volumes of Anatomy for Artists, there are tables and chairs wiped clean. The book itself sprawls on an old oak dictionary stand against the wall. Its pages are dogeared and gray-fingerprinted. But there’s no film of pastel dust or shavings of heavy metals and linseed oil coating every surface—instead a vacuum crouches in the corner, almost invisible like a good Victorian butler in his alcove.
The walls are festooned with portraits and profiles—but none her own. Her Study of Influence. Her own work either gets sold for five figures or mulched into her next batch of homemade paper. Except for the sketchbooks—but no one sees those. No, the work on the walls is strictly amateur—though some of it is very good. One, a three-quarter profile of the artist herself, is mine. Somewhere, pulped, blended, and pressed into several of her other pieces, is its opposite; a tense, hunched-over figure of me sketching her. Posing for her Study of Study.
When I find myself distracted or straining to keep a pose, I often focus on that microcosmic rectangle of wall, stepping outside myself to critique it objectively. The figure is relaxed but energetic. Not too literal. Nice, even line work. Strong shading and lush curves.
It’s pretty decent.
She’s an oddball, this artist, with her high-rise spartan studio standing in mad contrast to her sprawling California contemporary in the hills. She’s a daughter of dot-com money, though her daddy would be the first to assert she eschewed the trappings of wealth whenever she could, except when it came to her artsy education. But she did allow him to lavish her with the house for her first marriage. The studio, of course, pays for itself.
Two wine-stained tumblers and a charred opium pipe watch from the table as she settles onto her bench and stabs a few perspective lines before I’ve even settled myself into a pose.
“No,” she says, shaking her head. “Nah, that pose is too lax. Give me something more heroic.”
And here I am trying not to make it obvious that I’m flexing my glutes for her benefit. I lift my chin and chest, shoulders back and one foot forward, staring at a point vaguely heavenward.
“Better,” she nods, tongue poking from the corner of her mouth in concentration. Her hand and arm dart across the page with enthusiasm. She’s probably going for irony. I would say she usually does, but it’s difficult to tell…
It’s funny how twenty minutes turns out to be an eternity, absent the dynamic of movement—even within the first sixty seconds of standing still. The only sounds are the whick-whock of an antique timepiece and the whisper of charcoal on rough paper.
There are sixty seconds in a minute. Six hundred in ten. One thousand, two hundred seconds in this pose. One at a time, each, with space in between. Whick-whock. Count to one hundred. Count to one hundred. Again. Again.
The room temperature is exactly neutral. Skin loses touch. The mind wanders, finding itself far afield without a body as anchor. Who lived in this studio before it became hers? What bustle and stress? How much laughter? Shades of history, ghosts of domestic timelines, a whisper of households past…
Muscles start shaking, informing the model he’s chosen too ambitious a pose for twenty minutes. But it’s too late to shift. The shadows are cast. It’s a mental game now—against whick-whock and pulse; blood screaming for release, lactic acid preparing for a flood. The noisy clock, she says, is to keep her movements brief and pointed, to guide her rhythm away from careful deliberation, and into the effective realm of jazzy motion.
The careful artist, she says, teaches elementary school.
Wrapped in a blanket of opium like a silk scarf while dancing, she sweeps and thumbs, rubs and hums, talking to herself and contributing her own out-loud critique as if she were alone. She is alone. I am no longer here. I’ve been reduced to shapes, to deltoid ovals and scapula sweeps, to rib ridges and patella shadows. I’ve become the slow vibration of life itself, unfettered by identity or soul or outline; consciousness replaced by pure form.
The effect is diminishing and exhilarating, distracting from the ache of immobility and transcending the tremor of muscle fatigue. I’ve lost count of the pendulum swings.
A light pulse flicks at her throat as she looks up. “Hold this pose for another while,” she says. I nod imperceptibly, breathing deep through flared nostrils and masking the effort. Her robe has fallen slightly open, drawing shadows toward her belly. The upside-down ∆ tattooed under her collarbone points the way. A wave of sensation passes over me, prickling skin and thumping chest, sending blood southward. I squeeze my eyes shut to block out the image—but then all I can picture are the tiny barbells through her nipples, the smooth skin arcing downward, the unholy triangle below. I open my eyes and focus on a prickly cactus in the corner, but try as I might, there is no stopping the course of nature.
Only a slight arch of an eyebrow indicates her notice. “This isn’t intended as erotic portraiture,” she says.
“Though I suppose it could be. Nothing gets an old collector wetter than suggestive imagery.” She brushes a strand of hair back from her forehead, leaving a sooty streak in its place.
“Keep talking like that.”
“Feigned uninterest. It’s exciting.”
“Feigned, huh?” She stands and swings a smooth leg over the bench, gliding toward the table. The hem of her robe flirts with her gluteal sulcus, and the sheer material hugs her shadows as if afraid to let go, as she leans over the pipe and thumbs a smudged butane lighter.
A pale curl of smoke drifts from a gem-studded nostril as she straightens and smiles, holding her breath without strain. Most of my clients are not this dazzling.
She crooks a finger, and I break the pose.
The clock’s beat punctuates the hush at the end of the record, and the pipe is cold once again. Half my body is asleep, propped up by the rest. The scratch of charcoal indicates she’s taken advantage of my nodding off to work on her Study of Repose, and I feel vaguely used. Her previous sketch lies crumpled on the floor, heroically stained and stiff now. A smear of charcoal dried to a film spreads across my lower belly. I imagine there are little oval smudges on my back. I wonder if that shade will make it onto her new sketch.
“Don’t move,” she hisses, and then sighs. “Gah, that’s it. The natural state is shattered. You’re awake.”
“Sorry.” I seem to apologize a lot to this one.
“That’s okay,” she says. “You can get dressed. I’m not drawing well today anyway. It’s not you; it’s me.” She smiles.
She hands me a check as I pull on my jeans, and escorts me to the door. “See you next week.”