When I walked in, nothing was ready. The painters were still stretching the canvas: several twig limbs grasping at the white sheet, pouring old paint water in buckets to help the material over the edges. No one asks me for help. All eyes stay glued on the frame.
My body went to the stage slowly dropping each article of clothing to my feet. Sometimes it is a dress that I unzip like a showgirl and let it fall to the floor. Today I am tired and moving my body through the motions. My hair is short. My pants hang around my ankles. I left my bra on a chair at home. It didn’t matter. No one is watching. They never look at me.
There are three painters: one round, one thin, and one bald, all staring at the sun through the dusty window. I put on my pinkish skin and smooth my hair. I don’t mind being nude, it pays enough. Muse isn’t a job title. I won’t have this face and body forever. I learned to undress quickly. The ball of clothing rolls between the stacks of art books at the edge of the stage.
The painters leave art books sprawled across the studio floors. I know how to avoid stepping on most of them, but some old masters are harder to dodge. Goya tends to be the most aggressive, reaching from his pages and bruising my legs with his deep red paints. The painters told me that mess is for inspiration. How else would they get ideas if not for other’s art?
The books of Caravaggio and El Greco grab at my thighs. They tell me they like me in unison. Their fingers feel like cold, hard facts and old ink. I am not their model, I could never be their model.
“Do you mind?” I ask. The pages of their books curling from embarrassment. I want to kick their books over. They hide my clothes and fold them, taking great care of my underwear.
My feet balance on the stage of uneven plywood. Velázquez slips out of a page and motions me to lay prostrate. A proper Rokeby. His hands try to guide mine across my waist. I’m not his model either, so I ask him to go as politely as I can.
The position is taped out like a clean crime scene. I am to pose knees curled and arms hung like a star. The directions ask me to be a piece of art. I oblige, folding my body into what I think is art for the painters who are still not ready. They mix their paints, sloshing color after color onto an endless sleeve of thin plastic. I lack the courage to ask for time or what art is.
Surrounding me are girls made of paint. They are nameless, unacknowledged portraits faded with age. Some sit soft and glow with a candlelight technique, while others hide their beauty at their portrait’s edge once I enter the room. They were once me and one day I’ll join them on the wall. Maybe they know what art is.
One painter turns on music. Some days it is Bossa Nova, other days it is operas and classical pieces. Once, they played me their favorite radio station from Mexico and spat Patti Smith. I hung onto the sonic speed voice of the disc jockey as he threw record upon record through the speaker. They changed it before things got too hectic. Today it is La Bohème.
My face is still and full of roses as the music washes over my skin. A painter comes up to my body and holds his paint like an antique gun. He takes a brush and dips it into a freshly mixed pink, twisting and mashing the bristles until saturated, and brushing it across my nipples to see if the color matches. For several minutes he continues to mix and wipe without so much as a word. Appeased, he moves onto my cheeks and repeats the process. Artists are so serious sometimes.
I lost track of the clock while waiting to start. So much dust had settled in the room since we started. I reach to clean the girls’ portraits with my fingers. Soon I changed into something new. My hair grew long and dark, covering my body like a safety blanket. I broke my pose to move the hair from my mouth.
“I am the warmest I’ve ever been!” I announce to the trio of men hunched over their oils. They do not notice my words or the way my mouth shapes each vowel. The round painter comes to capture the color of the hair between my legs. My eyes try to follow his but they never meet.
The trio begins without notice. No one asks me to tie back my hair, but I assume it would help. Their brushstrokes act erratically. I knot my hair into a manageable shape to show all of my beauty marks and moles. Their brushstrokes slow to a reasonable pace. I wonder if they will connect the dots on my beauty-marked body. They ignore my marks. They do not include moles in their art.
When the painters speak, flags unfurl from their mouths. Everything is Spanish. Their foreign language makes up my naked body. It adds a new layer and traces the edges of the definition I’ve grown into over the years. Even my shadow has a new word. If I am brave enough to ask, they will explain, but I learned to settle with what is mine. It’s exhausting to watch the words float around my face, tiny dark clouds that made me sneeze and squint. So, I swallow them and save the words underneath my tongue. I am my own new word. It tastes like cold copper and tar coating my throat. If spoken, it would sound like a gravel road.
They are talking about me now.
It is their usual comments: small eyes and big lips. No one can paint my eyes. They are chameleons that change colors too quick to capture. It is not my fault I came like this. I remind myself that flowers never have to explain anything. Neither does basil or rosemary. My face does not move until I see a new word slip out of a painter’s lips. Respingada.
“Respingada,” notes the round painter, glancing at the other two for approval. The portrait he is painting of me is quite ugly. The body on the canvas is twisted. Parts of her are bone, and others are ripping at the seams. How can art look well-fed and malnourished at the same time? Her face is sick and full of terrible ideas. The skin is pale and purple like an early corpse. I remember when the round painter told me that most realistic paintings are the most abstract ones.
I check my arms for color. They are still pink and bright.
Do I look like this? I want to take off each of my limbs and reshape them like clay. The painters never notice my horror from peeking at their canvas. I struggle to recognize the image on the canvas. Her mouth is non-existent. I want to wash her far away from this canvas. A mercy killing. I wish the best for their creation of an ideal woman. She’s not for sale, but for viewing pleasure. They plan to hang her above a fireplace.
I do not think I am their model anymore. They do not ask me for my opinion, only for the idea of my outline.
He wants to paint me like a Rubens, showing me examples from his book. I try to explain that I am nothing like a Rubens: I lack his model’s grace and structure; I hold no curve except in my spine and chest. Even Rubens agrees, he specifically told the painters not to use me. Braver than ever, the round painter argues with Rubens. While they fight, the girls on the wall whisper that I moved out of my pose and help me back into it. The girls tell me to consider lengthening my body to look better. I trust them, they are art after all. The painter snaps the Rubens book shut in defeat.
“Respingada,” the thin and bald painters grunt in agreement. The word makes me sneeze. The painters crawl onto the stage and crowd around me, leaning on my chest and legs for comfort. The bald painter takes out a steel caliper and rests it on my nose. He paints the results on my jawline in gray. The round painter traces his dirty pointer finger along my nose’s shadow. I say nothing and try to hold in my sneezes. Is it the word, or is it the dust that’s making me sneeze? The painters mount their easels like drunk men on donkeys.
Early on, I learned that the painters are made of money. On Saturday mornings they dress up in rags and stains for their art. Their pockets are full of tiny green leaves sticking through the holes. I pretend not to notice my payment like any good model does. I am here for art. For three hours I am paid to be art, once I leave everyone uses me for free.
The painters grow older each session and I must speak with color to get their attention. My words are hued with the brightest red I know.
“Untangle that word,” I say “if you don’t mind.” I am weak when it comes to color. The red is bright enough to catch the attention of the thin painter. He does not look up but points and props up his nose with his finger. Upturned. I swallow my new word with my pride. It tastes of slate and navy.
Reaching out from another open book, Giorgione is tapping my foot. He wants to know if I am free after this session. Watteau and Fragonard are eagerly peering out of the pages for their turn. I explain that I am not their model. I am not these painters’ model either. I do not know who I am sitting for. They do not accept my answer and continue to wait. The painters continue to butcher my image on the canvas. I consider learning what art really is.
My skin turns vague as the time passes. The painters are adamant about their skill and boast to each other their visions of my body. I dream of my nakedness elsewhere and look up to the portraits of girls-past on the walls. They shine in gilded frames: soft and fair, the girls stare back down at me. I want to take each face off the wall and kiss it. Tender and slow. I want to help them out of their frames. I want to ask them their names and favorite colors. I want to braid their hair. I want to know how much they were paid. I want to taste the salt on their necks. I want to dance around the room with their bodies close to mine. Our nakedness drifting across the suburban streets and highways into the fields, free amongst the flowers and the wind on our bare skin.
The painters interrupt my dream. They are packing up and putting their suits back on. The rags go into the corner of the studio to collect dust. My portrait is unfinished. I see no end point for my pose. The painters still cannot recreate my face. Sometimes I think they do not want to finish this painting.
I don’t enjoy how they handle today’s work. They are shuffling the blotchy canvases behind a dusty velvet curtain. The round one slashed my torso with a razorblade. The purple paint is still wet and seeps into the tears. I check my chest for cuts and search for my clothes. Goya has kept my underwear and I am too tired from posing to wrestle them back.
They leave the money on the edge of the stage. Today’s payments are folded into a rigid origami crane.
“It is honest work.” I tell myself as I place my crane in my wallet. I tell myself that cranes are good luck. I tell myself that these dollars can be unfolded if I believe hard enough. It wants to fly away, but I need to pay my bills. The bird does not understand. It never will.
I look for the painters to say goodbye but they have already left. I owe the old masters nothing and close their books before leaving. Appeasement is tiring. I take one of the paintings off of the wall and walk out into the streets. The painters never note their disappearances. I save a girl a week. I promise to cut her out of her frame and repaint where the painters have wronged her.
We recite love poems to each other in the crosswalk.
I unlock my car and drive us home.
Alexandra Davies is a writer from New Jersey. She graduated from Ramapo College in 2019 with a degree in Literature and Creative Writing. At the moment, Alexandra works a variety of odd jobs which include: zoom tutor, fine arts model, and coffee roaster. She writes essays, poems, and short stories. Alexandra enjoys her dog, surrealism, music from around the world, art history, and any book she can get her hands on.