Naked. She’d gotten used to it, almost. It was almost normal to arrive at work, strip off her flared pants and T-shirt in a restroom, and tie on a robe, which she’d discard, minutes later on the dais. Her skin would prickle with gooseflesh but it was not easy to stay perfectly still and the goose bumps were soon replaced by a sheen of sweat. She’d look out over the sea of easels, out and down at them, the skinny boys – there were few girls — in their black jeans and long shirts, tracing charcoal on sheets of manila in great sweeps and arcs. The way they moved was like a dance: shifting from foot to foot, stepping back, stepping forward to attack the paper once more. When they glanced up they were careful not to meet her eyes. Their gaze would roam over her body as if it were a building instead of a woman, an impersonal edifice of rosy flesh, and then they’d return to their easels with ferocious intent, and she’d envy them. She longed to feel that alchemy again, to rekindle the desire that had driven her before the accident.
The professor had requested a couple instead of a single model today. She’d worked with Dru twice before, knew his compact, well-fleshed body; not plump but healthy, covered in curly blond hairs that turned him golden. He was like a ripe apple with his generous lips and red cheeks. But off the dais he had a nervous, jumpy energy, and his blue eyes looked worn and faded, older than the eyes of a boy in his early twenties should look.
The professor was saying something. She could hardly hear the man he mumbled so. His forehead crinkled with frustration at what she knew he thought was her lack of intelligence.
“He wants you sitting in front of me,” Dru said to her in a low voice, “with your legs this way.” He gestured and she scrambled forward.
The professor sighed.
“Not like that.” With clunky footsteps he ascended the steps to the dais. “Lean back,” he told Dru, “and you…you look stiff. Can’t you…?”
This is how they spoke here, in unfinished sentences, curt words, half-formed thoughts. In the world she’d come from, dancing, everyone spoke this way too. Words were contemptible. She understood what the professor was saying from watching his body.
He cocked his head.
“All right.” He turned to the class, “Forty minutes.”
Forty would be hell on her ankle. She glanced at Dru, hoping he’d protest with her, but his head was down and she couldn’t catch his eye. His long lashes were tipped with gold where the cold morning sunlight struck them. Sweat was beading his forehead already, and she could feel his chest moving where she was leaning back against him, quick shallow breaths. She slowed hers, calming her body. They must be still, still, still and quiet as the dead. She shuddered involuntarily.
“Hey! You moved!”
“No I didn’t.”
What was different? She made minute shifts until the student stopped glaring at her and went back to work. She mustn’t fuck up. Cooper Union was a plum gig.
It not only paid more than the other art schools, but the occasional off-the-cuff lecture was brilliant. She felt like she was auditing the class then, not working.
How strange it was to sit here so outwardly still, while inside all was pulsation and explosion! That was what she liked best: they had her body, but not her mind. And as for the body, well, they could only look. The two of them were as untouchable as distant gods and goddesses, so removed on their high pedestal they might as well be up in the clouds.
Of course, it wasn’t dancing. It had been eight months now, and still she couldn’t jump. She wondered if she’d ever leave the ground again.
She caught the sweet-and-sour scent of Dru’s sweat. It disturbed her at first. and then, mysteriously, didn’t. She inhaled deeply, identifying wood and oil paint, the pleasing smells of the studio, but there was something different today, acrid and sharp like battery acid. She breathed through her mouth, avoiding it.
Rumor had it that Dru had been in Vietnam. She wondered if it was true. There was a look in his eyes sometimes, panic or terror or something like it. The last time they’d worked together a student had dropped a book on the floor and Dru had literally jumped. She hadn’t known what the expression really meant until she saw his whole body actually leave the ground and hang in the air for a brief moment that seemed suspended in time. She used to stand in the air too; by choice. On a good day, that’s what it felt like, as if she was choosing the moment she wished to come down.
Whatever Dru’s problem was, as long as he was professional on the dais, it didn’t matter. Maybe he needed a woman to look after him, or a man, or whatever. Maybe he already had a partner. He looked too healthy to be living on his own.
His arm trembled against hers. A muscle spasm. It happened, sometimes. He’d deal with it. Mind over matter. They were halfway through the pose already. How strange it was to be sitting here, smelling the sweat of a man she barely knew, seeing his naked penis so close to her thigh. How odd, not wanting to make love to him. She didn’t desire him at all. She wondered idly, hypothetically, if she could. If they lay here long enough…were still here, say, long after everyone went home…she imagined reaching out and touching him, not like a model who coolly lays her hand here and there on his body as instructed, but out of desire.
His whole body was trembling now. She glanced at the clock. Thirty minutes. He needed to get ahold of himself. She could feel his breath coming faster, his chest rising and falling with rhythmic jerks. Maybe it wasn’t a muscle spasm? She wished she could take the thought back but it was too late. She felt angry and threatened and – deep down – turned on. If only she could see his face. God, the sweat was dripping off him! She smelled the bitter, acrid odor and suddenly recognized it for what it was: not lust, but fear. She’d smelt it on herself after the accident, at the hospital.
Surely someone would notice? She glanced at the professor, but he was talking to a student, gesturing at his drawing, altogether oblivious.
“Dru, what’s happening?”
There was no answer. But the pinkish hue of his skin had faded, turned white like pale marble, tinged with olive and lavender. He’s turning into a statue, her mind said nonsensically, but it was true, like a statue in the Greek collection in the Met, cool marble, eternal and foreign and unknowable.
“Are you okay?”
Clearly he wasn’t. How could they not notice? His teeth were chattering, he was shaking so hard. She must signal the professor. But if she moved she’d ruin the pose.
He could hardly get the words out, his teeth were chattering so hard.
“I’m, ugh, I’m having a flashback. I just need you to…just hold my hand.”
“Are you serious?”
“Please!” The word burst out of him, desperate, ashamed, and she wondered what they’d done to him over there. She wondered at the terror, made manifest in his body, at the damaged interior, when outside all was firm beauty and sculpture and health. She felt something soften and warm inside her. It was so little he was asking, such a small movement. All she had to do was inch her hand closer. She unfolded her fingers and he grasped them.
“Not so hard!”
But he didn’t loosen his grip, or stop shaking. and she felt a great calm and strength descend upon her.
At last. Everyone looked. All eyes stared, disbelief and lust and fury, all this reflected in their single-minded gaze.
“Professor? The models…”
“They’re holding hands!”
Their bodies tensed like cats ready to spring, and she saw how their emotion made their muscles tighten, defined thighs and arms and torsos, saw their young, able bodies, so energized and free.
“Stop holding hands!” the professor ordered.
But they didn’t. She wouldn’t. It didn’t matter if she lost her job, didn’t matter at all. She understood something about freedom she never had before. In her mind she was running through the lower Eastside with her long hair streaming out behind her. She could feel the wind lifting her hair, floating it, and she thought she was going to leave the ground, and she stretched her arms out as she ran, as if she could touch the water on either side of the island.